Saturday, October 8, 2011

Language is culture

Recently I had the great pleasure to make the acquaintance of a Navajo fellow named Bernard. We spent about an hour and a half chatting together about a wide variety of topics. He ended up asking me more questions than the other way around, which I can tell you is quite a relief for an ethnographer!

We traded stories about our upbringing, our ex-spouses, and about our faith in the divinity of Earth. In particular, we talked about the five elements, four directions, their associated colors and magicks. It was shortly after this that he said the most insightful and interesting thing I had heard in a while: “Language is culture”. I hadn’t really thought about it like that before. Of the five partitions of the field of anthropology: Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, Physical Anthropology, Linguistics and Applied Anthropology, Linguistics is my weakest link.

I had discussed the idea with colleagues, usually at a bar during a conference, that if we all spoke the same language, perhaps many of our deeper issues about religion could be resolved. It is a minority position to be sure, but one that, for all its obvious flaws, is useful when studying ancient patterns of belief.

The Romans were perhaps the most adept at this practice. When they encountered the Deities of a new culture, rather than snuff them out and install their own, simply appended the corresponding Deity from their system onto the local Deities. As a result, there are a dizzying array of ‘Jupiter’s, all with slightly different twists on the idea of “King of the Gods”. Once this bit of information is internalized, much of the confusion surrounding the plethora of God-forms dissolves into a group of ubiquitous, and frankly, logical archetypes.

Encoded in language are cultural assumptions. Take for example, something so simple as the days of the week. In the US, we Capitalize them. The Italians do not. We begin on Sunday. Italians (and much of Europe for that matter) do not. Therefore, one can rather safely surmise that where Americans psychologically begin the week from a period of rest, the Italians end the week with rest. Rather than split the weekend into two distinct bits, it bifurcates the entire week. Look at the visual difference this makes:
I don’t know about you, but going to Las Vegas for the weekend looks A LOT better when it’s grouped together like that. The American calendar makes it feel to me like I don’t really have time to go gallivanting off to Partyville with work so closely bracketing my two days. Grouped together the Italian way, it makes me wonder why I don’t travel MORE on the weekends – look at all the TIME I have! And yes, it is difficult to find an American calendar that starts on Monday but, it has definitely been worth it as I am much more likely to relax over the weekend instead of indulging my work-a-holic side.

So what does this have to do with language? The American way of dealing with the weeks is rather schizophrenic, since it is technically both the weekend AND week beginning. In Italian, weekend preserves it’s literal meaning.

An even simpler example is that of the words “woman” and “man”. I have always been a terrible speller, having been ruined by the Virginia public education system’s experiment with phonetic reading books in the 70s. The most striking examples of this are the deeply entrenched and damned near impossible to root out of my brain spellings of the words shugar and wemon. “Wemon rhymes with Lemon”, my 1st grade teacher taught me, so I spelled it the same too! It wasn’t until my dad pointed out to me in high school what was really going on. He said, “That’s dumb. Don’t you know that women come from men? You’re just an addition, like the prefix on the word!”

It hit me like a ton of brick-feathers. Again, this seemingly inescapable patriarchal bible based bullshit. Here it was, staring me in the face; the Christian creation myth manifesting itself in my day-to-day language, in a manner so devastatingly simple as to be impossible to ignore. To my great relief, in Italian, woman is la donna. Man is l’uomo. They are completely different, as I tried to make them in my youth.

I use these examples to elucidate what my new friend Bernard had already internalized through experiencing English as a second language, and Navajo as his first. Because language represents the brick and mortar of how we construct the working paradigm of our existence, the language itself forces us into little boxes of limitation, much like the water a fish breathes.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Answer to Ronald Hutton, by Sybil de Laria (An Academic Witch Ungagged)

Introduction & Blog Inauguration

Sybil de Laria
In academia, what I hate most is how anthropological and archeological evidence is so frequently subordinated to political correctness. At university, I experienced this first hand when forced to amend my doctoral dissertation to get it approved, merely because the anthropological evidence I presented contradicted politically correct belief held about my field of inquiry. In field work, time after time I was likewise forced by one government after the other to suppress inconvenient archeological findings. 
These experiences have underscored for me the rampant deceit and hypocrisy that has thoroughly corrupted the academy in the 21st century. Although this is never discussed in print, academic scholars survive only through compromise, severely restricted in presenting of our point of view by the boundaries of politically correct academic opinion. 
Sybil de Laria, imprisoned, tortured, and tried twice by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1384 and 1390, knows no such restrictions. Sybil de Laria is a voice of uncompromising truth and a breath of fresh air, free of the stench of the political correctness that has poisoned much of Pagan academic research. 
Sybil de Laria paid for freedom of expression through the bale fire of blood and burning flesh. Thus I am blessed with the same freedom of expression on this blog, granted me by the anonymity bestowed upon me by Sybil de Laria, thanks to whom, at long last I have become "An Academic Witch Ungagged."

Answer to Ronald Hutton 

Dr. Ronald "Smithers" Hutton
"How to Succeed through Sucking Up"
Perhaps the finest contemporary example of the sycophantic approach to Pagan and Neo-Pagan historical research is Dr. Ronald Hutton, who by sucking up to the academy has managed to become Head of Subject in History at the University in Bristol. Dr. Hutton's conclusions and pronouncements in his 1999 tome, Triumph of the Moon, are politically correct through and through, debunking the historical claims of Wicca in the UK. Sadly, however, in his zeal for academic approval, Dr. Hutton abandoned the rigors of historical research to make wild pronouncements on the history of other European Pagan traditions as well. This has led, on the one hand, to Dr. Hutton being embraced with acclaim by the academy in the UK, but on the other hand unfortunately also to a pervasive and tenacious myth that all contemporary Paganism is but Neo-Pagan revival.
Dr. Ronald Hutton
winner of the Waylon Smithers Jr. Award
for Triumph of the Moon, 1999
The recent book by independent Pagan researcher, Ben Whitmore, Trials of the Moon, has gone far to reveal the holes in the scholarly tapestry presented by Hutton in his monumental tome, Triumph of the Moon. What Whitmore does not analyze or expose, however, is the role played by the academic cancer responsible for Hutton's politically correct, yet abysmally inaccurate, pronouncements. Thankfully, Whitmore's book has signalled the start gun of a lively discussion reexamining the factual accuracy of many of Hutton's pronouncements that have remained unchallenged for over a decade. 

On the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn blog, in response to an article by Pagan and Golden Dawn author, David Griffin, I recently read a defense of Dr. Hutton so biased as to appear written by Hutton himself. The factual inaccuracies presented by "Hutton Anon" are so glaring as to motivate me to finally take anonymous pen in hand myself, and speak out unfettered as Sybil de Laria.

"Brightshadow" (Hutton Anon) wrote:
"Dr. Hutton is only Anglocentric because his books are defined as examining English traditions, which are the ones he knows best."
Then certainly the good doctor should limit his pronouncements to those things occurring on the Island itself. My complaint with Hutton is that for all his stated reluctance to make pronouncements on the history of witchcraft in other countries, he clearly makes statements leading the reader down a primrose path:
“The most important single argument of this book, however, is that this witchcraft was the result of a particular combination of major cultural trends which had developed in that society since 1800; and that during the twentieth century most of these trends were still in force.” (Hutton 1999:272)
It has been asserted that "He has never put down or attacked or attempted to undermine the traditions of any other country".  Let me provide you with at least one quote to the contrary:
“…I am going to reverse this sequence, and suggest the liabilities of the impact first. The most important of these was that the American feminist view of the history of witchcraft was in large part wrong, in the straightforward factual sense that it is wrong to say that Manchester is the capital of the United Kingdom. “ (Hutton 1999:336)
My goodness. Is this not a pronouncement on American Paganism?
"He has refused offers to write a history of Neo-Paganism in the United States."
This has, however, not prevented Hutton from devoting an entire chapter in his book to discussing and commenting on the Wiccan phenomenon in the USA: Ch. 18, Uncle Sam and the Goddess. While I understand that it is necessary to make mention of what occurs in other countries as it effects one’s region of study, I take great issue to the fact that Hutton relied so heavily on the research and commentary of others rather than on his own.  Ben Whitmore's study clearly demonstrates that for large portions of Hutton's arguement, he relies on opinion and commentary from other scholars, writing as if these represented not only his own research and understanding, but his own opinion as well.

I find this disingeneous.  Hutton does not credit these other scholars and, in fact, I think his book would have been far more compelling had he left these portions to be written by the schoars who were REALLY familiar with the information.  At least we would have been spared such pedantic regurgitation.  Surly you must recognize that in providing The Wider Context (the title of the 14th chapter of the book, Dr. Hutton was at leisure to either include or reject various authors and lines of research that either supported or refuted his central thesis.
“The subtitle of this book should really be ‘a history of modern pagan witchcraft in South Britain (England Wales, Cornwall, and Man), with some reference to it in the rest of the British Isles, Continental Europe and North America." (Hutton 1999:vii)
Regarding Dr. Hutton's unreasonable attack on the ethos of Charles Godfrey Leland, Ben Whitmore saliently rebuts Hutton in his “Trials of the Moon":
“There is no single criticism of weight that Hutton can lay against Leland, but through a series of pedantic attacks on his [Leland’s] scholarship he [Hutton] manages to paint him as a crank, a dilettante, a polemical anti-Catholic and a likely forger!” (Whitmore 2010:36).
On page 276, Hutton states, in reference to the Italian Witchcraft historian, Carlo Ginsburg that:
“hence its [his book I Benandanti] impact in the United States was initially filtered through William Monter, who in the process created a wide-spread impression that Ginzburg had revealed the existence of a ‘genuine’ surviving pagan (sic) witch religion in early modern Italy.”
This is an insult to Dr. Ginsburg, whose theories are most certainly NOT filtered ONLY through William Monter.  Recently, more and more American scholars are reading new translations of Ginzburg's work, as well the research of his Ginzburg's heir apparent, Paolo Portone.

Anthropologist have known, and shown, time and time again, that cultural survivals are tenacious, and if carefully followed, can lead one to important discoveries.  The rediscovery of unbroken Pagan lineages in various parts of the world outside England, do much to undermine the arguments of the limited perspective Hutton exalts in Triumph.
"He [Hutton] has been initiated into many Wiccan and Druidic groups there and has led many."
Good for Hutton. That he thinks there are no survivals, in spite of so many memberships and initiations indicates to me that the anti-initiatic stream of consciousness has found fertile ground. It also indicates that REAL practitioners, in an effort to keep their tradition from being co-opted and secrets published, have chosen to refuse Hutton membership, thus preserving their secrecy and the illusion of no Pagan survivals.

Members of the surviving Pagan tradition of which I am an initiate are saddened by the way Hutton has attempted to deprive them of their roots in Pagan antiquity. There exists a pervasive tendency these days to regard everything as a modern invention, albeit this is simply not so. Willy-nilly borrowing from various tribal cultures absolutely infuriates first world peoples. As an anthropologist, I have a sworn duty to represent my informants with as near to an insider’s perspective as it is possible for me to give. I find it insulting that a historian would be so arrogant as to think that he may simply interview a few self-identified “witches”, get himself initiated, lead a few groups, and consider this good enough to be on a par with professional anthropological research. The truth of the matter is, that at the end of his book, Hutton uses personal anecdotes as though they held the credibility of genuine anthropological fieldwork. I know of no single anthropologist who would foolishly attempt to make historical pronouncements of such a caliber.
"Any inferiority is clearly felt by you, and I'm sure he'd advise you to get over it."
The arrogance of this reference is peculiar;  my informants actually find the "mix-and match" approach to Neo-Pagan and Wiccan religious tenets droll and amusing.
"His devotion to paganism, as it happened, began with devotion to Venus while doing Latin translations in school and, later, when an adolescent in Malta at the time the great neolithic temples were being unearthed there, filling him with awe."
Fascinating. I thought Hutton's inspiration came from his Russian mother, who was a practicing witch herself. So, then, are we to believe that NONE of this inspiration came from his mother? Why did Hutton then not follow this HEREDITARY tradition and practice the faith of his family? Why instead, should he choose to look to the ancient world for inspiration? And in light of being confronted with THREE sources of authentic Pagan faith (his mother, Greco-Roman mythology, and Maltese archaeology), why then did Hutton turn away from it, to join with what he himself judges to be conjurers and hedge witches? How is it that someone in search of the authentic should reject his birthright in favor of pursuing a Masonic mish-mash that he knows from the beginning is but modern creation? Might Hutton's invective against Pagan survival not be rooted in nothing more than unresolved issues with his Mother?
"But he has attended conferences and taken part in site studies in dozens of other countries, examined the work of scholars in twenty countries when doing his research into the Witch Trials, and has made friends in the Pagan communities of all these lands."
I take offense at your use of the word Pagan when referring to communities self-identified as Neo-Pagan. So much of the faith I have witnessed in the USA remains saturated through and through with accidental Christian apologetics.
"England happens to be where Wicca was invented."
I agree. Wicca was invented in England. But just because Wicca was invented there, certainly does not mean that ALL Witchcraft/Pagan traditions were. Hutton is quite disingenuous in the way he leads the reader to certain conclusions without clearly stating and supporting his own positions.
"That is why Hutton, an Englishman of the English Wiccan traditions, puts it first in his very English books."
This perhaps explains why, with typical English arrogance, Hutton totally misses the single most interesting consequence of his research -- Wicca clearly arose built upon myths fabricated by the Inquisition, but the truely ancient faith is not held by ‘conning-folk’ or ‘hedge-witches’ or any of the flavors of Neo-Paganism currently splattered across the planet. The ancient, authentic Pagan faith , rather remains concealed in pockets, both in urban and rural areas, of people in the rest of the vast world  beyond the British isles, practicing something Hutton wouldn’t even consider – Shamanism.

Dr. Ronald "Smithers" Hutton