Set in the South Devon countryside on the Dartington Hall Estate (famed as place of radical socialist ideas) stands Schumacher College. The College takes it name from the environmentalist, educator and ecomomist Ernst Schumacher, author of the ground breaking book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. This May I was invited by Andy Letcher (author of the seminal Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom) to teach a module on the MA in Spirituality and Ecology; my area of expertise being the history, theory and practice of British Paganism and occulture.
The academic study of what is usually called ‘Western Esotericism’ has been growing apace over recent years. For instance, the vital role of magic in the work of many artists is today being recovered and celebrated in the academy (whereas mention of occultism was strictly forbidden within the prevailing materialist vocabulary of late 20th century artistic criticism). Meanwhile the relationship between esotericism and many other domains of culture are now seen as legitimate territory for scholarly engagement.
In teaching at Schumacher I was joining an august list of former lecturers including Fritjof Capra, Stanislav Grof, James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Arne Naess, Rupert Sheldrake, Starhawk, Vandana Shiva, etc etc. This was a great honour especially since my qualifications are primarily those of esoteric practitioner and writer rather than those of academia. It was a residential week, so I was invited to stay in the beautiful college building and eat wonderful food, much of it grown and prepared by the students. Each day I would come into work, walking past a quote from Goethe, writ large at the college entrance: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
The week’s teaching began with a brief overview of British history, focusing on the previous 200 or so years. It’s hard to understand the emergence of British paganisms (such as Wicca, Thelema, Druidry, Chaos Magic et al) unless one appreciates something of the history of the British Empire and the social impact of the Industrial Revolution.
Thereafter we plunged into the story of various forms of pagan spirituality; the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Thelema, Wicca and witchcraft, Druidry and, towards the end of the week, chaos magic, Discordianism and neo-shamanism.
Each day started with a seminar to provide context, explore origins, key concepts, characters and events.
As you can see from the (incomplete) diagram above, the general history of modern British paganism is deeply indebted to the Romantic movement. The Romantics initiated a reappraisal of all those groups of people considered inimicable to the then dominant (religious) discourse. The Romantics looked to the witches, the druids, the heathens and the magicians, re-imagining these groups in powerful ways; seen by some as standing against (repressive) Christian culture. They (witches, druids et al) were more authentic, more spiritual, more in touch with the land, more magical, more matrifocal etc etc than people are today (‘today’ being the 18th and 19th centuries). Thus the devils of the dominant religion become the heroes of the new. And this process has a powerful magic in it. Druidry, for instance, is successfully re-imagined by the Romantics and antiquarians into inhabited reality. That is, there are people who start to call themselves ‘Druids’ and claim some form of lineage, spiritual or cultural connection with the Druids that Tacitus writes about. As this re-imagination unfolds polymorphously through time, making all kinds of twists and turns. Druidry becomes both a form of LARPing for Anglican ministers and an identity for protest (at Seahenge and Stonehenge) and for a sporting nation (at the Olympics and Paralympics).
Magical history is full of such wyrd transformations: one of my favorites being the way that Margaret Murray sacrifices her academic standing on the altar of Gerald Gardner’s (supposedly ancient) Wicca (by writing the Introduction to Gardner’s Witchcraft Today) and, in doing so, helps to give rise to an actual religion of pagan witchcraft. (A curious historical artefact observed by Wiccan practitioner and scholar Melissa Harrington.)
The afternoons at Schumacher were given over to practical exercises (from Hermetic pathworking through to eclectic-shamanic-style ritual). Through embodied practice I aimed to demonstrate that the techniques of imagination, of ceremony and of attention, that get grouped together as ‘magic’ actually underpin many (apparently non-magical). things. Identity, marketing, economics, religion, all pivot, not on the material stuff of the world, but primarily on our ideas about the world and ourselves. Therefore the fact that we can use these ‘magical’ approaches to stir up and change our awareness is deeply relevant to how culture happens, especially when we consider how our beliefs (our spirituality) relates to the communities and planet we inhabit (ecology). Magic also rests on the axiom ‘As Above, So Below’, or more generally that ‘everything is interconnected’. Such a world view is natural to the ecologist. With that in mind it is important to equip those studying ecology and related disciplines not only with ideas, but with embodied practices by which they can modify awareness so that this ‘holistic’ world-view becomes a deeply felt experience.
Naturally I learnt lots as a teacher at Schumacher. One insight was a renewed appreciation of how the history of British occultism can initially appear like a tiny (irrelevant) scene, a cul-de-sac of culture. But dig a little deeper and it is soon becomes apparent that, not only does magic respond to and reflect wider culture, but it also acts to change it; often in far reaching ways. Another lesson was something I’m often reminded of when I teach magical techniques and that is this; the process of doing ritual, of creating ceremony, is a deeply human need. It’s a process which, for many people, is linked to experiences of orthodox religion and its associated oppressions, and so they (understandably) distrust it. But ritual need not be like this; empowering ourselves to understand and use this approach for purposes such as spiritual exploration, group bonding and social transformation, on our own terms, is essential.
My heartfelt thanks to Andy Letcher and the staff at Schumacher, and to the students for being up for everything from constructing the Qabalah from tarot cards through to rune singing and the gnostic pentagram rite! I look forward to my next visit 😀
Use this link find out more about the MA in Spiritual and Ecology.