Monday, October 4, 2010

Merry Meet Monday - Margot Adler Interview

Margot Adler form her Facebook profile
Merry Meet again everyone. Today’s Merry Meet Monday post is very special for me. Let me explain; I had been thinking over the last week about how to make the Merry Meet feature better and about what would make it more exciting to read, when a thought occurs to me. While many of the people I will profile on Merry Meet Monday have passed to the Summerland, a great deal of them are still very much with us and active in the Pagan community. One of the folks I had always planed on profiling happened to be Margot Adler. For those of you that do not know who Margot Adler is, she wrote one of the most respected books in the Pagan Community, and is also a correspondent for NPR. Her book Drawing Down the Moon was published Samhain of 1979 and for many people became their first glimpse into the larger world of Paganism. Since its publication it has gone on to sell thousands of copies, been updated by the author and become one of the classic books in Pagan literature. Knowing all this and the fact I had planned on profiling her on the blog at some point, I sent her an e-mail via Facebook and explained the Merry Meet Monday feature to her. I asked her if she would be open to letting me interview her for the blog rather than me just spouting a few random bits of information about her and Drawing Down the Moon. Much to my surprise I got an e-mail back from her almost at once saying that she would be happy to do the interview. The following interview took place via e-mail over a couple of days, and I am proud to share it with you my readers.

M.A.P. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for Merry Meet Monday. I know that Drawing Down the Moon first came out Samhain of 1979, when I was all of 10 years old. I did not read it for the first time until 1988 when I was 19 years old. Like so many people of my generation of Pagans and Wiccans your book was one of the first introductions I had to the larger world of Paganism. What was your original inspiration for writing Drawing Down the Moon? 

M.A. I had become interested in Paganism around 1971. That’s not completely correct, I danced around the May pole and realized I loved ritual by the time I was ten, at school. I spent 7th grade in my school totally immersed in the Greek gods, and they were my first and still always most intense Pagan love. But right after the first Earth day, when I was reading the environmental writers: Thoreau, Loren Eisley, Rene Dubos, the Smokey the Bear Sutra and the like, I began looking for what I could only describe as an ecological religion. Through a long search here and in England I found Wicca and became part of Pagan Way study group, an outer court coven, and finally was initiated first into a Welsh tradition and then into Gardnerian Wicca. But at the same time that I was experiencing the covens here in New York I was reading all this very interesting Pagan literature. At the time there were few books, but there were two Pagan magazines of note. One was Nemeton, edited by Alison Harlow and Gwydion Pendderwen, and the other was The Green Egg. And they had all these interesting people writing, a lot of the Pagan Elders we think about, Isaac Bonewits, Tim (later Otter, later Oberon) Zell, Harold Moss and many others. And they were so much more interesting than the nice, but not particularly interesting or deep people in my coven. So I was looking for a richer, deeper, more intellectual Paganism. The book contract came almost by fluke. I was introduced to an agent, she was branching out on her own, and actually in that one moment when she was looking for clients, was intrigued when I told her that I was involved in witchcraft, and eventually I got a contract. Then I wrote all the people who had interesting letters and articles in the Green Egg and went to visit them, and created this huge questionnaire, and that was sort of how the book came to be written

M.A.P. I have always found it a fun bit of trivia that Starhawk's book The Spiral Dance came out on the exact same date as Drawing Down the Moon. Did the two of you know each other while you were working on your respective books? If so did you help each other in any way? Was it planed that your books would be published on the same date in 1979?

M.A. We met each other during the time that we were writing, but we didn’t help each other, or plan to publish on the same date. I joke now that we both wrote, to some degree, about the Pagan Movement we wanted to exist, not the Pagan Movement that actually did exist, and now the Pagan Movement we wanted does exist.

M.A.P. How do you feel Paganism or the craft has changed since you wrote Drawing Down the Moon?

M.A. The changes are huge, and I devote a lot of the 2006 edition of Drawing Down the Moon to consider them.

We are a World Religion, with Pagan studies courses in several places, a peer reviewed academic journal (Pomegranate), seminaries, gravestones with pentacles at Arlington, charity events like Pagan Pride, interfaith connections (Parliament of the Worlds Religions among others). We are described as a million strong, the 19th largest religion on, we have hundreds of festivals, some of them with anywhere from 1000-2300 people (Pantheacon is the largest I think). Of course you could count Michigan Women’s Music Festival in which Goddess religion is clearly dominant as the largest (more than 6 thousand). We are now a religion that deals with multi generations… a very big difference. There are workshops on aging, Pagan assisted living, funery rites. There are Pagan funeral home owners. When I started, pretty much everyone was fairly young and no one talked about end of life issues. Festivals now have kid tracks, tween tracks, and teen tracks. But more than this, the movement has changed in the way people come into it. This may be the single most significant change.

When I came into Wicca, it was very secretive, and control was in the coven. You often had no idea of other covens and traditions. You joined the coven in your neighbourhood. There wasn’t much choice. Now it’s completely different. And some people mourn the loss of power of the coven. But the truth is there were many abuses in the old days and some of the rituals were piss poor, and some of the leaders authoritarian. If I think back to my original coven, there was no music, no chanting, healing was very hit or miss, there was no real ritual technology. People put Carmina Burana on the record player and sort of stomped around. There was no drumming, no fire circles, and very little music altogether. The festival phenomenon in the late 70s, 80s and beyond changed all that. People could go to a festival and see five rituals in five days from five different traditions. They learned a national body of chants. They danced around bon fires and actually had ecstatic experiences. And often their home coven didn’t seem as rich as it was before. So people changed things. The authors of books became more powerful than the leaders of covens, a mixed blessing, not all to the good. But it also meant that there couldn’t be the kind of abuses that happen when there is secrecy. Things became much more open.

Now there is so much music that there can no longer be a single body of shared experiences. It is one thing to have a chant sheet of 50 chants, but that is now just the tip of the iceberg, with hundreds of music groups. Now people join Paganism, often without a coven, or grove or kindred. They go on the internet, read books, attend a festival and sometimes join a national organization like Circle or Earth Spirit, or Lady Liberty League, and only later when they want to go deeper do they join some small mystical or ritual group. Festivals can be so large that there are several loci of power. The drumming circle has its adherents, the community circle has its, so something like Pagan Spirit gathering is not as cohesive as it once was. But in general we are being taken more seriously and we aren’t just something people talk about at Halloween. That’s all to the good.

M.A.P. You say no one talked about end of life issues back when you started in the movement, and with the recent passing of Isaac Bonewits it got me to thinking about those issues myself. I also felt a bit of pride that you were able to cover the story of his passing on NPR, and felt it spoke volumes to the changes in the Pagan community that a major news outlet did a story on his passing. Did you meet any resistance from NPR in wanting to do your segment on his passing, or were they open and willing to air the story?

M.A. Actually, I was convinced they would never air it, and I didn’t even propose it. I was sure, from my previous experience, that it was just not something they would let me do, considering it a conflict of interest, since he was a friend and fellow religionist etc. Then my immediate boss on the National Desk saw what I had written on Facebook about Isaac and saw the official family obit and said, “Hey this is an interesting guy, would you like to write up a couple of minutes for All Things Considered”? And so he asked me, not the other way around. But I do think it is interesting how things have changed. I wonder if it would have happened five years ago. I think not.

M.A.P. What kind of influence do you think the recent influx of Magickal themed shows like Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and even Hercules and Zena have had on the pagan youth of today? Do you feel these shows give a positive outlook on Paganism or give youth an unrealistic view of a path that is actually much more grounded in reality?

M.A. Well… I have just watched all 144 episodes of Buffy, which I missed the first time round. I am watching now the 4th season of Angel, and loving it. I missed Hercules and Charmed. Loved Zena. I think anything that talks of mythology and the gods is to the good, like Zena. The important thing about Buffy and Angel is the moral issues and the issues around the use and abuse of power that the shows emphasize. I am not sure how Pagan they are, but they definitely talk about magic. Willow in Buffy is of course unrealistic as far as Wicca goes, but she does provide a fabulous lesson in the use and abuse of magic.

M.A.P. I happen to live in Indianapolis, which I like to think of as the modern day home of the Pagan Pride Day movement since my friend Cecylyna lived here (and still continues to live in Indy) when her and her then husband Dagonet were working hard to make that vision a reality. We have now had over ten years of Pagan Pride Day events in the U.S. This year in Indianapolis alone we had more than 1,000 attendees and were able to donate $4,000 worth of caned food in the name of the Indianapolis Pagan Community to the Damien Center’s food pantry. Do you feel the Pagan Pride Day events are doing enough to raise awareness in our various communities about who we are and what we do?
M.A. I think that Pagan Pride is absolutely wonderful and essential. Here in New York Pagan pride takes place in Battery Park, right in the pathway of all the tourists who go to see the statue of Liberty, it’s a great event. But more important, think about how much change this represents. When I joined the Craft, there were no Pagan AA groups, no Pagan charities, etc. What is really significant is that Pagans are beginning to do all the good things that religions tend to do, like charities and good works. And it’s just another sign of our coming of age.

M.A.P. I have a good friend who has done a couple of guest posts for me on the blog that likes to say Wicca and Paganism started in Briton as a form of radical conservatism. It crossed the Atlantic to America and became a form of radical liberalism. This statement always gives me a little chuckle but I do not think it is very far from the truth. In your years involved with the Pagan movement do you think we have become politically liberal as a group or is it really not all that important?

M.A. This view of Paganism starting in England as conservative and becoming radical in the states is very much the view in Ron Hutton’s extraordinary book, “Triumph of the Moon.” And it’s probably got a lot of truth to it. This gets back to what I said about Starhawk and me. That, sort of like the society for creative anachronism which recreates the Middle Ages, not as it was but as we would like it to be, we both had a vision of Paganism not as it was, but as we would like it to be and some of that has actually come about. Now let me be a little more honest. There are all kinds of political views in Paganism: libertarian conservatives, socialists, liberals, etc. And that has always been true. When I first started writing the book, I met Pagans who were pro nuclear power and didn’t give a fig for environmental activism. That is less true today. I think most Pagans are libertarian on social issues, and divided on economic issues, with some people being to the left (me) and others being more moderate or conservative. And let’s go further. There are many Norse religionists, and people who are Asatru who are social conservatives. You would find a real division among Pagans on issues like “is Islam dangerous?”. There are some people who would take a view that all Islam is dangerous and others who are active in interfaith that would say that is a totally crazy, dangerous and biased view. But I know these differences exist below the surface because I talked on my Facebook page about covering the story about the controversy over the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, and even on my Facebook page I got some really heated and almost crazy responses. So while I do think the Pagan movement has gotten more progressive over the years mainly because of environmental concerns, I by no means think there is a homogeneous politics within the movement. I also believe there is a certain tendency Americans have to look at themselves in a certain way, and that affects everyone here, no matter what they call themselves on the surface. There is a certain American individualism, both good and bad, that affects all our views and it affects the way we have created Paganism and Wicca, that makes it different from Paganism and Craft in Europe for example.

M.A.P. In what direction do you think the Pagan movement is currently headed?

M.A. I think mainstreaming is continuing. There is more interfaith work. But the main trend I hope will be to bring together many different forms of earth based spirituality, and some of the forms that have gotten the most press, like Wicca may get less notice as a broader Earth based spirituality movement takes form.

M.A.P. What milestones would you like to see happen within Paganism in the next 5 to 10 years?

M.A. Well, here is probably my most heretical statement. Way down deep, although I was trained in Wicca, I think the broader Pagan movement, the Earth-based spirituality movement, is more important than Wicca, and that movement connects many people who don’t even call themselves Pagan. Take a book like Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion, in which he shows how everyone from Jane Goodall to James Lovelock is expressing views of Gaian naturalism and forms of animism. I think that in order to save the planet there has to be a very broad based notion of earth spirituality that encompasses many people, not only those that now call themselves Pagan. 


  1. Good interview! The comments on covering Isaac's passing are interesting; I wondered how much NPR's willingness to do it affected our local affiliate's agreement to finally allow a Pagan dialogue on their morning talk show. Trickle Down does work in some mediums, neh? ;0)

  2. Thanks for the comment. You know I almost didn't ask the question about her piece on Issac, but I am glad I did a lot of friends have told me they were glad I did as well. I thought her answer a bit interesting as well. I think it shows how far we have come as a movement. Like she said and I agree I don't think it would have aired 5 years ago.