Transcript of Radio ProgramBillboard:
I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Pagans Ancient and Modern.” I’ll speak with Adrian Ivakhiv, an environmentalist at the University of Vermont and a scholar of Paganism. He was first drawn to Pagan literature because of its strong emphasis on ecology, the natural world, and a sense of place. He’s studied how ancient Pagan ideas are woven together in Western culture and even mainstream religion. He describes a fascinating connection between magic and meaning, and between sacred landscapes and what he calls “our global condition of homesickness.”
Within Christianity itself, you have various traditions that are very oriented around the agricultural cycle, around various kind of peasant-based everyday activities for people hundreds of years ago. And that’s what I felt a kind of desire to explore.
This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
I’m Krista Tippett. In the Christian West of the last millennium, the word “Pagan” became a pejorative label for non-Christians. In the modern United States, Paganism is loosely associated with New Age spirituality. My guest today, Adrian Ivakhiv, is an environmentalist who pursued the ecology of Paganism from its ancient roots to its modern revival in Europe and North America. We hear his observations this hour about the spirit of Paganism and its influence on everyday Western culture, including old-time religion.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Pagans Ancient and Modern.”
The word “Pagan” is derived from a Latin word for country dweller or peasant. As Christianity spread rapidly in the urban areas of the Roman Empire, Pagan became a negative term for those too backward to embrace monotheistic faith. In our day, Paganism and Neopaganism are umbrella terms for an array of new religious movements that revive ancient polytheistic ideas of Europe and the Middle East. Scholars and sociologists commonly perceive that Paganism and Neopaganism are on the rise globally, numbering perhaps from 1 to 3 million adherents. But many people who identify as Pagans privately are reluctant to do so in public. Others embrace Pagan ideas and rituals on a selective basis. And there is some overlap between Pagan faith and New Age spirituality, which touches as many as 20 percent of the U.S. population.
My guest today, Adrian Ivakhiv, is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont and the author of a scholarly study, Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Politics at Glastonbury and Sedona. As a young man, he was drawn to a defining impulse of Pagan traditions, their strong emphasis on ecology, the natural world, and a sense of place. This ecological emphasis runs across the vast spectrum of Pagan beliefs, which often revive practices from agrarian times and places, notably witchcraft or Wicca, the Celtic priestly order of Druids, and the Norse tradition of Asatru.
And Adrian Ivakhiv has also traced the pre-Christian roots and modern revival of Pagan ideas in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. His parents were World War II Ukrainian refugees to Canada. They raised him in churches and schools of their Eastern Rite Catholic tradition, a hybrid of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Adrian Ivakhiv’s cultural identity, as he tells it, was also a hybrid dislocating experience.
I was growing up in a place of strangeness or tension between this Ukrainian life. I was trying to reconcile that side of my life with being a regular Canadian North American, and I got interested in that part of the world, all the while feeling a kind of sense of, you know, maybe that’s my real place, my real home over there. So it was a mixture of motivations, I guess, that got to me to question things, to become interested in religion, because here I was being brought up in a tradition that was, you know, it had everything you wanted except that it just didn’t jibe with my everyday life in normal North American culture.
Adrian Ivakhiv became interested in religion as a factor that both bound him to his national identity and might help him transcend it. He also discovered a love for nature and trained as an environmentalist. And he began to travel as a pilgrim and a scholar to parts of the world revered as sacred places. These included Sedona in Arizona, which is marked by elaborate rock formations in the desert, and Glastonbury in England, where the legends and myths about Camelot swirl amid lush countryside and mysterious ruins. But until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Adrian Ivakhiv was not able to visit the sacred place of his ancestry.
So there was a kind of gap that I felt I had to bridge somehow, and I did that by reading about other religions, by starting to think about how, well, maybe the kind of religious traditions that I was brought up with are just, in a sense, fossilized versions of other sorts of things that were very different, and that’s where I came upon the idea that, yeah, in fact, within Christianity itself, you have various traditions that are very oriented around the agricultural cycle, around various kind of peasant-based everyday activities for people hundreds of years ago. And that’s what I felt a kind of desire to explore, and that’s what set me off, in a sense, on a journey which ended up becoming an actual set of travels as well as a kind of intellectual one.
So you were originally drawn to the land where your family had its origins, and then, through that focus, I mean, you ended up actually also looking for those impulses in religious traditions and in the native traditions there?
And it wasn’t just the lands where my family came from, but also I started getting interested in other things that seemed to have that sort of connection. So I traveled in the British Isles, and I wanted to go to the west coast of Ireland where people still spoke Irish, or to these places that weren’t urban and weren’t colonized by the kind of urban modern society.
But those places are wildly beautiful and also just kind of organically mystical.
And very easily romanticized by people like me who are searching for those kinds of things.
Yeah. And yet, I mean, there is something in those places that’s almost palpable, that you can give all kinds of different words to it.
Absolutely. It’s not a one-way thing, although, in a sense, what a lot of my writing and my thinking has been about is a kind of state of global homesickness that certain people, generally what I would call the unsatisfied privileged, people who are privileged enough to have the time and the energy to think about what they’re missing in their everyday life, but they’re not satisfied with the usual answers to that question. So this kind of sense of pervasive homesickness that one finds, probably, I think, growing up in a modern city where you don’t necessarily feel connected, feel a tangible emotionally satisfying connection to the material world around you. And so you feel that you need that and you project your desires onto places that represent that. And those are the kinds of people that I have been exploring in my research, but I also see myself as, in a sense, one of them.
Right. I mean, let’s go there. Let’s go to what you discovered in Ukraine. I was quite interested to read you wrote that in the East Slavic world, Neopagan and Native Faith never completely disappeared until the 19th or 20th century.
Well, it’s true partially in the sense that certain things that people did, certain traditions related to the agricultural calendar and other activities did continue, but they were Christianized, in a sense. They were incorporated into different ways of thinking about them. And there are practices that ethnographers were finding in kind of more isolated, remote parts of Ukraine or Russia or most of those countries that seem to have, clearly, very Pagan sorts of pre-Christian elements to them.
So kind of a fusion of Paganism and Christianity.
So give me an example. What do you think of when you think of that?
Well, I guess some of the sort of faith healers or just healers that you find in villages in the Carpathian Mountains are doing things that are really a fusion of everything that they’ve ever come across and that seems to make sense or work for them. It’s kind of like a bricoleur uses whatever tools are available, so you use prayers that are obviously Christian, but you’re doing things that could have been done 2,000 years ago, and you’re also using bits and pieces of something that you read about astrology or whatever else. It’s a very “anything goes” kind of practice, as long as it works.
I’m still curious. I’d like to know more about how these Pagan traditions have been preserved. I mean, were you aware of anything that you now recognize as Pagan or native, in the way your parents approached their kind of Eastern Rite Christianity?
Well, I think in the same sense that North American Pagans, instead of celebrating Christmas, they celebrate the winter solstice or…
Winter solstice, mm-hmm.
…Yule, basically, is the term that both sides can use, I think. And most of the Christian calendar has been, in a sense, grafted onto what had previously been around in Europe, which was a largely agriculturally based calendar in which the winter is about things dying and about kind of carrying through the light, lighting candles through this dark period with the hope that life will resurrect in the spring. And then, of course, Easter is sort of when it does resurrect in the Christian calendar and in the pre-Christian calendar. And that goes on through the whole year, to harvest time; the summer solstice being sort of the peak of solar energy, the peak of life energy, of all that green stuff just flowering in its full force. So on the summer solstice and Midsummer’s night, there would have been all kinds of things going on, bonfires and rituals and whatnot. And that gets preserved to some extent in what’s now St. John’s Day, which is celebrated two weeks or 13 days later because the calendars have shifted apart.
Eastern and Western calendars, you mean.
So what’s St. John’s Day? I don’t know St. John’s Day.
In Ukraine, it’s called Ivana Kupala, and Kupala is an ancient name for what some scholars, at least, consider to have been a god or possibly a goddess. And some of the things that would have occurred on that day is the creation of these straw effigies and then burning these effigies and either sending them down the hill into the river or something like that. So fire and water being the two elements. And that would still have been done up until the 20th century, in fact.
If you then call it St. John’s Day, it just sounds Christian. I mean, I think most people would assume that it was after, I don’t know, perhaps the writer of the fourth Gospel or…
Well, and the answer to that conundrum is not “either or” but “and and.” It’s one and it’s the other. It’s whatever you want it to be, which is, I guess, the beauty of that double faith or what in Ukrainian is dvoeverie. It’s actually a term that historians of religion use. It’s that kind of fusion of faiths that allows you to continue things within a new context.
Environmentalist and scholar of Paganism Adrian Ivakhiv.
I don’t think we have any memory of, as you say, how we mark the passage of time, and even religious holidays was grafted onto Pagan ways of marking time, with Pagan holidays. And I think when you do talk about that, it can be very disturbing to people. It seems to call into question, in fact, the authenticity or the validity of the current faith. I mean, how do you think about that or how would you respond to that? Has that happened to you, that somebody’s reacted that way to your ideas?
I would say that religion itself, as we understand it, has undergone a real series of changes, particularly with the Protestant Reformation. And now over the last couple of hundred years, it’s become a matter of belief and assent to a set of doctrines. ‘We believe that this and this happened historically, and therefore, this is what we’re supposed to do’ or ‘We’ll be saved by believing in Christ as our Savior’ or something like that. Whereas in the past, it was more rooted in a set of really, you know, cultural practices that were based in everyday life, that were full of images and symbols and meanings. And that’s the side of Christianity that appealed to me when I was growing up. It was that, you know, the icons and candles and incense and the chants, and that stayed with me. And that’s why, in fact, I did find myself attracted to new religions or to new sorts of things that had that, that allowed you to get into a different state of mind. And Paganism does that, and Pagan festivals in North America, very much so. But also some of these other things, these attempts to revive pre-Christian religions, at least the ones that I find more interesting, are the ones that do that.
You mean, attempt to revive some kind of ancient traditions in addition to creating these new forms?
Well, not just traditions but, very much in the full sense of the word, traditions involving activities that have music and sound and image and involving the body, bodily practices and all of that, rather than thinking of themselves as about just a set of ideas or doctrines.
Tell me about some discovery you made early on where all of this was clear to you and was exciting to you.
Well, I suppose one of the things that has always been part of my life has been the arts and music and theater, in particular. And the kinds of forms of theater that I’ve found most appealing have been, in fact, East European theater such as the work of Jerzy Grotowski, and there’s a group called Gardzienice, which is a Polish theater group, that lives in a — they have a little base in a small village in southeast Poland, and from there they travel around and just hang out with people in out of the way, rural places. They soak in their traditions and then they put on these theaters which are very much, in a sense, bare bones, not much technology at all, but just using their bodies, just using candlelight or torchlight, and still managing to create this kind of intense, almost religious experience in the process. And they deal with the elements of religion, in a sense. They sort of distill them into their theater productions.
When I was traveling around Eastern Europe, I actually hung out with some of these people and went on a few of their expeditions to a Gypsy village in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland, for instance. And it’s that kind of richness of something that’s very tangible and very tactile in religion or in anything that has affected me the most. And that’s why, I mean, even though we’re talking about religion, a large part of my life has been about environmental stuff. I teach environmental studies.
And I don’t think that you can convince people to change their environmental practices without something that has an emotional impact and that’s directly involving and that’s kind of — that gets ritualized, in a sense, into people’s lives.
As I have been reading you and reading into New Age literature, it’s very striking that nature — it seems to me it’s an absolutely central theme across this very broad spectrum of practices and beliefs and experiences that people have. I actually don’t think that message is communicated very well or the culture at large hasn’t heard that, or they wouldn’t think, you know, that a scholar writing about Pagan traditions would be a professor of environmental studies.
Well, I guess we do need to make a distinction between Pagan and New Age, particularly because the term New Age, you know, in a sense, it’s become a kind of catchall term for this sort of faddish commercialized version of spirituality where you go out and buy some crystals and whatever. But I think that some of that, still, even the crystal stuff, at particular places such as Sedona in Arizona where I did do some research, I guess it’s that kind of underlying sensibility that there’s something about the geographic formation of the Earth in these huge, looming rock monuments that surround you on all sides, that represents a sort of power or a sense of, you know, something that we don’t feel in our everyday lives in big cities.
Environmentalist and scholar of Paganism Adrian Ivakhiv.
Modern Western arts and theater also freely mingle religious and Pagan ideas with their complementary pull on the human imagination. The wildly popular Lord of the Rings saga of J.R.R. Tolkien, a 20th-century British Catholic writer, combines Christian symbols of good and evil with supernatural images straight from Pagan mythology. Here is the voice of J.R.R. Tolkien reading from his work in Elvish.
(Reading Elvish) A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
silivren penna miriel
o menel aglar elenath,
na-chaered palan diriel
o galadhremmin ennorath
nef aear, sí aearon,
Fanluilos, le linnathon
Nef aear, sí aearon!
[O Elbereth Star-kindler,
white glittering slants down, sparkling like jewels
from firmament glory of the star-host,
to remote distance after having gazed
from tree-tangled middle-lands,
on this side of the ocean, here on this side of the Great Ocean,
Fanuilos, to thee I will chant
on this side of the ocean, here on this side of the Great Ocean!]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Pagans Ancient and Modern.”
As we’ve been discussing, Pagan traditions now on the rise often revive pre-modern attachments to landscape and place. My guest, Adrian Ivakhiv, has given special attention to the resurgence of pre-Christian beliefs in his parents’ native Ukraine. There, the Neopagan, Native Faith movement had strong nationalist and xenophobic tendencies. But Ivakhiv says that even this movement found its feet by way of environmentalism. It emerged as a force in Ukrainian life in the wake of the environmental catastrophe of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown of 1986.
There was definitely a real feeling that we’ve gotten so disconnected from the land, we’ve polluted the earth on which we depend, and there was a kind of blame or sense of rage at the Soviet authorities for allowing that to happen. And certainly some of these new movements, they were quite small at the time, but they grew from that point. Native Faith was really fueled by that sense that we have to reconnect with the land and become responsible for it in a way that we haven’t been, at least for these people, for over a thousand years, but for other people, at least since well before the Soviet Union.
You know, I looked up on the Internet, I found a Web site for the Society of the Ukrainian Native Faith, and it says it was founded in Kiev in 1993, registered in 1997, and it says that “Ukrainian heathenism is a generic term referring to the national religion of our Ukrainian ancestors 1,000 years ago, prior to Christianity, which is now enjoying a revival in Ukraine.” Is “heathen” a Ukrainian term?
It’s a term that has been picked up. It’s obviously an English word. And they…
Well, that’s what I thought, yeah.
And they don’t like the word “Paganism” because the Ukrainian translation of that has a derogatory kind of association. So they prefer the word “heathen” or just “Native Faith” is their preference, which has a more positive spin to it.
I think “heathen,” in its original English use, referred to people who lived on the heath. It was a derogatory term. It meant hicks, is that right?
Well, it would have been used that way, just as Pagan had been used that way for a while. The Pagans were the ones living out in the country, although there’s a lot of debate over the etymology of those words. But heathen groups have been growing throughout Europe, in Northern Europe especially, and they call themselves heathens, so they’ve taken the word.
It’s so interesting. Tell me about that phenomenon of this revival of heathenism in Northern Europe, this revival of Native Faith in Ukraine. What is it that is captivating for people and what is it speaking to that these 21st-century Europeans are embracing?
Well, I don’t think there’s a single answer to that. I think on some level it’s speaking to the desire to reconnect with the traditions of the land, but, on another level, it is a kind of defensive reaction in the face of a world that appears to be hostile, both from both East and West, in a sense. They don’t want to go back to the arms of Mother Russia, the Soviet Union.
Right, in Eastern Europe, right.
Yeah. But they also don’t like the kind of economic globalization, free market policies, and all this other stuff that they feel will leave Ukraine very disenfranchised and kind of floating in this market economy that undercuts all values. So they want to find a middle ground or a place of their own. And you find that not just among the Pagans and Native Faith people, but among a lot of Ukrainians, I think, but — although it didn’t play much of a role in the Orange Revolution, but it’s there.
We haven’t been explicit about it. But also what you’re describing, some of what you didn’t like about what you found in Ukraine had to do with the fact that there, I mean, that nationalism is also woven into and some bigotry and even anti-Semitism is woven into, also, some of these groups that are espousing Native Faith. It’s kind of a contrast to this country, where I think if you mentioned Paganism, people would think left-wing.
And fairly consistently, Paganism in Eastern Europe tends to be on the right end of the spectrum. But yeah, I mean, there’s nationalism and there’s nationalism. There’s a kind of civic nationalism that is inclusive and just wants to get things moving in the right direction in a given country. And then there’s the kind that really claims that one group of people, one ethnic group, or one nationality has the rightful claim to a particular piece of land and others don’t. And you do find some of that among people of this religious persuasion. You find it among others as well, but it’s definitely a fairly strong tendency.
Environmentalist and scholar of Paganism Adrian Ivakhiv. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, his travels to sacred Pagan sites like Stonehenge, and why they appeal to modern people. Also, what the idea of magic says about religion and the human spirit.
This exploration continues at speakingoffaith.org. This week find a slide show of Pagan sacred sites. Use the Particulars section as a guide and download this show to your desktop. Or subscribe to our free weekly podcast and listen on demand at any time and any place. While you’re exploring, read my journal on this week’s topic and sign up for our free e-mail newsletter. All this and more at speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today we’re exploring ancient Pagan traditions that are on the rise in many loosely affiliated forms in Europe and North America.
I did do quite a lot of research before I committed myself to being a Pagan. I had to be quite careful because, on the market, there are some books that just talk total rubbish.
I realize people have a stigma about witch, and there’s like this negative bias against it. But that didn’t bother me at all because it’s what I believe.
My mum didn’t like me being Pagan that much at first. She was just convinced I was going to sacrifice my cat and my sister, and it was all evil. And then I gave her a book to look at, and it explained things, and introduced her to some Pagan friends of mine. And she really doesn’t mind now. She’s absolutely fine with it.
We thank you, God, for coming here today and for blessing us with your presence at the ritual, for giving your energies to us and for giving your warmth and heat from the sun. Blessed be and thank you again.
My guest, Adrian Ivakhiv, is a Canadian-born environmentalist and a scholar of Earth-centered Pagan traditions. He believes that these traditions address a sense of dislocation in modern urban people. He also points out that Pagan impulses are woven organically into mainstream cultural and Christian practices. His academic work includes a study of the contemporary appeal of ancient sacred landscapes such as Glastonbury in the British Isles. Glastonbury is revered at once as a cradle of British Christianity and as a possible site of the burial of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. The Camelot legend in which they are central characters is also peopled by fairies and wizards. In addition, the Glastonbury legend has Jesus as a child and the biblical figure Joseph of Arimathea building a church there. After the crucifixion, this legend has it that Joseph traveled back to Britain with the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. This lore is the backdrop for a popular British hymn, “Jerusalem,” which is widely sung today at British religious and civic gatherings. Its lyrics are based on a poem by William Blake.
(Audio clip of choir performing “Jerusalem”)
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
IIn southern England, Stonehenge is the most famous and also the most controversial of Britain’s stone circles. Many believe that the Pagan priestly order of Druids was responsible for Stonehenge. In the 1970s, Neopagan Druids founded an annual summer solstice festival, which eventually attracted so many participants and onlookers that Stonehenge was cordoned off from the public.
Again, environmentalist and scholar of Paganism Adrian Ivakhiv.
And one particular summer, there was a lot of violence with police with batons just chasing people around and beating them up and whatever, and a lot of the people ended up gravitating towards Glastonbury because they thought of it as a kind of safe haven.
And when I got there, I felt that way, too, because it’s got this kind of old Christian tradition which died out for a while, and yet which now, for Roman Catholics and for Anglicans, it’s a pilgrimage center again. But it also has these other traditions attached to it, and somehow they manage to coexist. And I think it’s that very coexistence around a particular landscape that I find really interesting and that I think other people might find attractive. And, I mean, you’ll find people who’ve read, women who’ve read Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book Crossing to Avalon, or The Mists of Avalon, which is about — a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley…
Oh, Marion Zimmer Bradley, yes.
…about the women in King Arthur’s entourage, and they’ve read these books and they feel that, wow, Avalon, sacred place, Glastonbury — even though, you know, we’re not really sure that Avalon was Glastonbury but it’s the place that has the claim to it. And so it attracts this multitude of very different sorts of people on pilgrimages basically, and that is something that I found fascinating.
And the Druid tradition and those stories about Glastonbury and Avalon, they have fairies in them and spirits which, in that part of the world, don’t seem as outlandish, you know, even to talk about as they do here, which is something I was quite intrigued by when I’ve been in that part of the world. I mean, and you’re a scholar of this. Is it hard to be…
Well, it’s a challenge because, you’re right, it’s hard to be taken seriously if you’re talking about fairies and whatnot, and things that are invisible or not known by science. But if you’re trying to be taken seriously by intellectuals or scientists or whatever, then you can’t really use that language. And yet, in parts of England, people use that language, and they talk about energies in the landscape and…
And the little people, yeah.
…whatever else, and the little people, sure. For me, the way to reconcile one level of reality where people talk about that and maybe experience that, and the other level, which is sort of the material world that we can measure and know what’s going on in, is just to acknowledge that, as human beings, we have this fabulous capacity to imagine things, but it’s not just a one-way kind of imagination from scratch. It’s a way of putting order or putting a face to our experiences. There are all kinds of things that science doesn’t explain very well, what happens when we die and so on.
Right. That’s a big one.
Yeah. And as long as there are going to be mysteries, you know, everybody’s going to make an effort to put a face to those mysteries, to kind of draw on whatever stories and tales and narratives and images that have been circulating in order to make sense of those gaps. And that’s where it becomes useful, in fact, to acknowledge that these other languages might help people make sense of things.
I mean, I’ve wanted to get into Paganism and Wicca and, you know, then you start growing the list of, somehow, traditions or movements that seem to be somehow connected to that, because I know that many people are interested in them or following them and I think it’s important to understand and take seriously. The one thing I have noticed, just getting into the literature of the movement, is that people in these movements themselves tend to — it’s just become such a mixed bag, you know. In the same sentence, you’ll have someone mention Paganism, which has this long and rich history that you and I have been talking about, or — and extraterrestrials and liberal Christians and occultists. And it’s hard to know what “it” is.
I think there is a kind of slippery slope where once you’ve stopped believing that the mainstream discourse, whether that be that of science or whatever else, you’ve stopped going along with that discourse, then you become open to everything else. And if you’re not careful and if you’re not judicious, then you’ll just kind of start believing that all those other things must therefore be true. So there’s that tendency, which you find with social movements that are on the fringes. And I’ve been fascinated by all of it because I think that even the extraterrestrial thing, how many millions of people claim to have been abducted by aliens in American society?
What do you do with that fact? Do you just say that they’re all deluded or do you start getting interested in why it is that, you know, there’s some kind of gap that people are filling with using that imagery of aliens. Why aliens? Well, because there aren’t any fairies left so they got to come from off planet. Why are there no fairies left? Because we know…
Right. That’s one explanation.
…we know what happens in the natural world. It’s all managed forests and whatever else, is almost the best we get. So it becomes a kind of mystery to solve. And rather than rejecting the things that people say, I think, as an ethnographer of religion, one of the first principles is that you don’t treat people as idiots for what they believe and that, in fact, by treating them seriously, you might get some insights that you wouldn’t get to otherwise. And I think, for me, it’s led to insights about myself as well.
Well, tell me about some of those, would you?
Well, you know, we all have our quirks, I suppose, and, in my case, I’ve discovered that I really do feel a strong attraction to particular kinds of landscapes, you know, geographical places. And I can’t quite explain it. There’s something that’s very physical about it or very kind of sensory, and there’s something that’s even not quite that tangible. And so I’m drawn to particular places and I want to feel connected to them. So why is that? That’s sort of my question. And what does it mean? And are there other people who feel that? And if so — I mean, take a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I think…
Yeah, I was just going to mention that, yeah.
…is a terrible, in some ways, movie. But it’s got this very weird thing going on where all these people are imagining a certain rock formation that ends up being Devil’s Tower.
And they start — these various kinds of people start making these shapes out of mud in their yard or…
They’re — yeah, out of potatoes.
Yeah, whatever they have going in their kitchen.
Mashed potatoes or mud, yeah.
And it turns out to be the shape of this mountain that they all go to where the ship comes down.
That’s right, exactly. And, I mean, you could look at that and you could say, well, it’s, you know, Hollywood stupefying us all, trying to make us think that intuition is going to solve all our problems and make us all happy. And you could do various kinds of analyses of how that film is not very good in terms of making people rational, but, at the same time, just the very idea that there’s this particular place that looks that way and that people have some sort of tactile response to.
Environmentalist Adrian Ivakhiv.
(Excerpt from Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
From Steven Spielberg’s classic movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Pagans Ancient and Modern.”
Pagan and New Age literature is full of anecdotes of people being drawn to particular landscapes as if by a force beyond oneself. For my guest, Adrian Ivakhiv, the lure of Paganism includes a strong regard for the mystery and beauty of geography, especially raw, dramatic landscapes such as coastal areas, hills, and mountains. But I asked him, haven’t most people had some experience of awe at natural beauty that they can’t explain? Is part of the power of Pagan spiritual traditions that they validate this elemental human experience?
I think they do, and I think they can validate them in different ways, and we have to be careful where we take that validation. But I definitely think they do that, because, you know, to the extent that they’re responding to the feeling that we lack a connection with the world around us, with that material world around us, I think these traditions are attempting to validate that experience by telling us that, well, there are places that should be considered sacred and that should be treated respectfully and shouldn’t be — there shouldn’t be some sort of commercial developments everywhere. So how do we decide which places we want to keep aside? I think the national parks serve that function for a lot of people in this country.
Right. Preserving sacred spaces.
Even though, you know, they’re being managed for the tourism, and they’re not what a lot of people think they are. But, nevertheless, they represent something that’s very important.
Let’s say, in the New Age literature, then, though there seems to be a very fine line between talking about experiences that many of us would call spiritual, even just this sense of wonder before nature, and then veering off into language of, you know, magic and spells, and I wonder, how do you think about that as a scholar?
Well, oddly enough, I try to. I’m not sure about the spells so much, but, certainly, about the–insofar as magic is about making connections or believing that there are connections between things, some of which science tells us aren’t connected. So a piece of hair from someone has some sort of strange connection to that person even long after they’re gone. Well, we do want to believe those sorts of things. Why do we hang stuff up on our walls and we — when we move into a new apartment or a new house, we completely fill that place with our own images and symbols, and they represent certain associations, certain memories. They make them our own, those places. And we’re cultural creatures. We live in image and story. That’s what we swim in. And I think, in a sense, magic is just another way of saying that that’s what we’re always doing. We’re making connections between those things, and those connections are meaningful and they’re embodied in particular objects, in particular images, in particular sounds. Music has a kind of magical effect on people…
Yes, it does, yeah.
…because the first time when you heard a certain piece of music affects you because of the context, and then every time you hear it afterwards, it brings all that back.
It’s almost like a spell, isn’t it? And now we can find out it works something in the brain that, in fact, brings those memories back physically.
Absolutely. So the brain is a magical object in which connections are being forged by all sorts of activities, and we may as well admit that. Now, that doesn’t mean that everything that everybody says, if you read some popular book on magic, is, you know, should be taken as literal truth. But there’s something that is being said underneath it all that I think is worth thinking about.
You know, when we began to speak, you talked about how you have an idea that there’s and how you’ve experienced a sense of kind of global homesickness. I wonder how you think about how Paganism and these ideas and traditions we’ve been discussing, how they meet that, how they fill that longing in people.
Well, you know, there are different variations on that longing. I think a lot of people feel displaced because, in fact, some are. Some have been refugees and have had to move from their homeland, and they have a fairly concrete idea of what they’re homesick for. It’s that land that they were displaced from. In my case, it was a land that was a kind of figment of my imagination. I had never been there; I only learned about it in school and was taught about it and told about it. So it wasn’t quite a reality of my own memory, and it allowed me to ask questions about, well, what is that homesickness that I’m feeling?
In terms of some different Pagan traditions and how they might meet that, I think, you know, there’s a lot of people wanting to connect themselves to a particular place. I think the whole Roots Alex Haley phenomenon in the ’70s, in a sense, maybe launched that. But it made it fairly widespread and gave it a certain credibility that, you know, if we can trace our roots to a particular place, that makes us more than what we otherwise are. And I’m not sure how that was in the U.S., but growing up in Canada, after a while it became almost normal that, you know, a lot of Canadians were hyphenated Canadians. You were either Anglo- or French-Canadian or Ukrainian-Canadian or something else, Greek-Canadian, and that was pretty par for the course.
We’re still doing that.
Yeah. So that kind of grafting something on to one’s identity in order to feel more whole is part of it. And that sounds like a kind of superficial thing, but if it allows you to explore something that makes your life more satisfying and that also allows you to feel somehow, you know, if it’s not just an imagined thing, that if you actually go back to that Ireland of your ancestors and you’re not treated as this, you know, great, long-lost relative and given this great homecoming, what do you do with that? Well, maybe that’s what people like that need to do in order to finally realize that, well, it’s not about that place necessarily, it’s about a place in our hearts that’s feeling a kind of emptiness. And what does that say about our everyday lives?
You made this connection, I just wrote it down this way, between ecology and identity. I think we’ve talked around that and about it, but is there anything else you would say about how you see the connection between those two words?
Well, I guess I see that connection as one way that we can get around some of the sorts of issues that the world faces. And you find this very much in Europe and in the places that we were talking about, where there are ethnic groups that stake different claims to the same territory. And if we get to know that place — I’m working on a project right now that’s looking at the Carpathian Mountain region in Eastern and Central Europe, and that’s a region that spans eight different nations, eight different countries. And potentially the relationships between those countries are — they might not always be very good. You know, you’ve got the boundary of the European Union running through there. And in other parts of the world, boundaries like that actually have ethnic hostilities. But if we learn to see ourselves more in terms of the place where we live rather than these kind of national or ethnic narratives, if we learn to incorporate those narratives into the narrative of the place, all of that can, in a sense, refocus what we do living in that place.
Adrian Ivakhiv is an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont. He’s also the author of an academic study, Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Politics at Glastonbury and Sedona.
Continue this conversation at speakingoffaith.org. Contact us with your thoughts. This week, view a narrative slide show of the sacred sites mentioned in this program, from Glastonbury to Sedona. Listen on demand for no charge to this and previous programs in our Archives section, or subscribe to our free weekly podcast. Now you can listen whenever and wherever you want. You can also register for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each topic and a transcript of each previous week’s show. That’s speakingoffaith.org.
In an upcoming program, we’ll be exploring the 13th-century Islamic mystic and poet Rumi. He’s one of the best-selling poets today and we’d like to hear your stories about reading him. Look for “Share Your Story” at speakingoffaith.org and tell us more.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Bill Buzenberg is consulting editor, Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.