On Paganism, Fakelore, and Tired Conversations about Authenticity

Paul Bunyan and Babe: This was Dorson’s “Fakelore”

I am currently attending the American Academy of Religion conference, which is the largest conference of scholars of religion in the world. I’m a pretty active member of the organization, but primarily I serve as the Co-Chair of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit. Right now there is a lot of conversation among Religious Studies scholars about the staggeringly huge problem of sexual abuse and trauma in religious communities. Scandals are exploding in sects and churches all over the world, and deep and entrenched histories of abuse are being uncovered. Some receive more press than others, but it appears to be a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon. We are all desperately and keenly aware of the impact of trauma at grand scale that is being wrought.

I recently had a read of Sarah Anne Lawless’ provocative essay “For Sale: Neopaganism ‘As Is’”. The first thing I want to say, without equivocation, is that many of her central concerns about sexual abuse and abuses of power within Pagan culture are right on the money and they need to be addressed. There is a deep and unsettling history of sexual abuse and generally uncomfortable sexual conduct in Pagan religious communities and in Pagan culture generally. It needs to stop. I would even venture to say that despite the fact that this sort of abuse does appear to happen in all sorts of religious communities across the globe, the history of alternative sexual mores within Contemporary Paganism has perhaps brought a greater percentage of bad actors and predators into the Pagan community than we find elsewhere. Pagans need to generate zero tolerance around this. Additionally, Paganism has a terrible history of ego driven leadership and cult like behavior which also needs to end. This pattern of leadership drives dynamics that are genuinely unhealthy and which encourage financial, emotional, and sexual dependencies. I have been involved in the Pagan community for over 30 years and I have witnessed and even been a victim of these behaviors and have seen the destructive impact these sorts of behaviors have on individuals and groups. I think many of us are in total agreement that there needs to be reform on a large scale regarding these issues. This may result in cultural changes that some people will resist. There are and have been arguments that any push toward reforming Pagan approaches to sex and sexuality will result in the degradation of uniquely Pagan values and identities. Yet if people are being harmed, and they are, things need to change. On a lighter aside, I am also 100% with Lawless on the cult of the medieval in Pagan culture, which I think is problematic, alienating and just needs to go the way of the dinosaurs. But neither of these points are the response to her essay that I want to make.

The problem with Lawless’ essay, despite the valuable arguments at the heart of it, is that it is undercut with historical and analytical inaccuracies. Lawless has a tendency to paint with an overly broad brush, and her unsubstantiated claims do not help her overall arguments. There are a number of problematic assertions in this piece which I will not address. For instance, Llewellyn Worldwide Publishing can defend themselves regarding how and what they publish, and the history of their company. I want to focus very specifically on how Lawless uses ideas about culture, folklore, and religious studies to try to delegitimize Paganism as a religion, even going so far as to adopt conventions of academic “authority” to frame her argument. Lawless makes claims about what she believes are the defining criteria of religion designed to undermine the validity of modern Paganism, but her arguments are simply not correct from an academic perspective, and they do not reflect how people who actually study religion understand religion. Also, she uses a term, “fakelore” that has its roots in the field of folkloristics where it has inspired a lot of critique and discussion as a concept since it was coined nearly 70 years ago. Given that these topics form a central plank of Lawless’ arguments about the legitimacy of Paganism as a religion, they should be addressed so as to not detract from her other important critiques. I want to address my concerns point by point.

1. The term “fakelore” was initially coined by American Folklorist Richard Dorson in 1950 to distinguish “real” folklore from “fake” folklore. Dorson characterized fakelore as a cultural artifact which cannot be collected and which has no grass roots cultural context. Fakelore is folklore manipulated to provide the authority and aesthetic of tradition, most often found in a political or commercial context. For instance, an example of fakelore might be making up a legendary character to sell your brand of particularly homey tomato soup, or manufacturing a cultural festival around a legendary character which never existed to boost tourism. Folklore in general has a history of being used to legitimize political movements, especially nationalist ones, and Dorson wanted to distinguish this sort of use of “tradition” from other contexts and forms of transmission. A later example of this line of thought about the manipulation of tradition is the much more famous and seminal text from 1983 The Invention of Tradition by British historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terrance Ranger.

Yet over time, folklorists started asking questions about their own professional yardsticks for evaluating tradition and authenticity. And they have changed. Fact is, everything is made up by someone at some point, and the most resilient traditions change all the time when they are transmitted between people, groups and cultures. We know that things don’t have to be old or “ethnic” to be traditional. Your monthly night out with the girls is tradition, so is your office Christmas party. So maybe, just maybe, the rhetoric that forms around traditions that make them seem as though they need to be preserved in amber is itself slightly problematic.

In her essay Lawless uses the term fakelore to distinguish between what she considers to be “authentic” and “inauthentic” elements of Pagan religion. Folklorists and anthropologists today use very different criteria for what we consider to be “authentic”, and it generally rests in experience. Now, of course, we do research use of sources, influences, creativity, and the length of time something has been around, and we may make evaluations about the claims made about the traditional roots of a practice and its relationship to cultural transmission. I have seen some very creative and compelling Pagan practice that was generated from and inspired by folk traditions that are developing well outside any line of continual transmission and cultural context. That does not make the practices illegitimate or inauthentic. It may not be “as billed”, and yes, cultural appropriation is an issue that needs to be carefully and situationally addressed. Cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural borrowing. Appropriation involves exploitation and differentials in power relations. Cultural artifacts survive and thrive through transmission and contact, and it perfectly acceptable for individuals and groups to negotiate and support this sort of exchange in respectful and healthy circumstances.

Perfect unbroken transmission is nearly impossible to find with any cultural expression. I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that a little digging into the history of any longstanding and beloved tradition will reveal a beautiful, complicated, vibrant, hot mess. Focusing on cultural purity and origins leads to disappointment at best and Nazis at worst. Yeah, I just went there. Understanding the rhetoric of tradition and authenticity is vital for contemporary Pagans to gain command of, and I think society in general needs to understand how it works. People are very easily manipulated by things we believe are traditional. The idea of tradition speaks to a deep emotional core within us, which is why it is important that we can look at it critically. Maybe this was Dorson’s point all along. And on Lawless’ claim about there not being any Estonian Wiccans, if there are Wiccans in Estonia, and they are doing things they feel are Estonian, there is Estonian Wicca. You don’t get to tell them they are wrong.

2. Contemporary Paganism is a religion, or more accurately a loosely grouped set of religions. It doesn’t matter, frankly, how old most contemporary Paganisms are, or what their practices are, or whether or not sex is involved. And from an academic standpoint it doesn’t matter if this push toward “religiosity” has some roots in the attempt for some Pagans to gain mainstream legitimacy. I actually believe that there is a great discussion to be had around that assertion, because it has some merit. The fact is, though, by any academic metric, Pagans engage in religious behavior and religious practice. Scientology is also a religion, and so is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And so are UFO cults. If you don’t want to call your practices “a religion”, that’s fine. Many witches don’t, and I understand their rationale, but most anthropologists will look at what they are doing within a framework of religious practice and behavior.

3. Yes, some indigenous religions are being used by Pagans to try to legitimize and even foster institutional support for contemporary Paganism. This is deeply problematic. Indigenous allies are useful, conflation not as much so, and Pagans should not appropriate discourses of indigeneity. However, Lawless may want to look at how she characterizes the “Pagan umbrella” as something historically unique or problematic. The history of Hinduism as a modern unifying concept may be of interest here.

4. Anthropologists and Folklorists do not interpret cultural diffusion as the dilution of an original pure text. Don’t do that, it’s not what the term means. We are interested in variation and change over time and across a variety of contexts. We are not trying to determine or preserve the cultural purity of a text or artifact. Origins can be interesting, purity not so much. Things change, this does not make changes or variations aberrations. See also millions (literally) of different sects of Christianity, many of which use the rhetoric of orthodoxy to justify their schisms. This is how you get variation! For the record, there is nothing at all weird or untraditional about a Solomonic wand in a Georgian Wiccan context. That’s pretty much how the history of Western Esotericism has worked. Solomonic artifacts are everywhere because they work well in so many magical contexts. This practice does actually have a history. And Wicca is part of that history.

5. Please stop with the whole “white people have lost contact with the traditions of their ancestors” rhetoric. This, again, is a stab at perpetuating the ideology of pure cultural transmission, and frankly when white people start trying to practice the “religion of their ancestors” it just goes wrong. And Reconstructionism is not a blanket solution to the ills of Paganism, not by a long shot. The fact is, even with their best intentions, Reconstructionists are relying on texts that do not necessarily reflect historically unified sets of beliefs and practices among the people who they identify with. These texts are translated in a variety of contexts by people with their own political and academic axes to grind. And ultimately, as many Reconstructionists know all too well, these beliefs and practices were transmitted in very different cultural contexts to our own. Reconstructionists have to make choices every day about how to adapt. That is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing and the best Reconstructionists are creative and thoughtful about how they adapt and develop practice. In other words, there is no real “reconstruction”, just inspired stabs at it.

6. This whole discourse of “stick to your own kind” is dangerous and separatist. If we are going to deal with the very real issues of cultural appropriation it needs to be addressed sensitively and accurately. Lawless gets very close to “blood and soil” arguments toward the end of this piece, and I assure you that a bunch of “Irish Americans” going back to Ireland and proclaiming it the holy land pisses off both the Pagans and the Christians who live there. Irish Americans are not Irish. They don’t live that reality, and that is not fair to the people who do.

Lawless is trying to make some very important points about dangerous and deeply problematic aspects of contemporary Pagan culture that must be confronted. A number of those are, in fact, entrenched in the ways in which Paganism has developed, and the ways in which Paganism intersected with certain aspects of the American counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s important to remember, though, that there are branches of modern Paganism that are pre-counterculture and which do not reflect the values and ideologies of that cultural movement in the same way. That is another essay for another time, but it is important to point out, because all Paganisms tend to get tarred with that same brush regarding the legacy of countercultural origins. This leads to some very faulty reasoning and conclusions because that history simply is not correct. However, some of the more edgy and challenging mores of Paganism have not aged well, and I am very encouraging of attempts to clean house. Yet I am deeply concerned with any proposed solutions to these issues being couched in the rhetoric of “authenticity” or “cultural purity” because they simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. Before Lawless puts on her “Professor of Pagan Studies” hat, she might want to be more conversant with the contemporary debates around these topics in actual academic circles. She is right that there are problems, but the best solutions will be hard, they will require difficult and careful conversations about values and practices, and it will mean that things need to change, and people will have to abandon many things they hold dear. I genuinely hope people are up to this challenge.

As a Pagan Studies scholar, I find it most satisfying when we can see that Contemporary Paganism shares many of the same debates, concerns and issues that most religious traditions around the world face, big and small. Pagans frequently believe that Paganism is unique, weird and marginal, but it isn’t so in so many respects. It is so deeply awful that Paganism shares this terrible legacy of sexual abuse with so many other communities around the world, but there is an opportunity here to engage in dialogue and solidarity with others, looking outward for solutions as well as inward critiques.