Book Review – Drawing Down the Moon

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America.  Penguin Books. New York: 2006.

 

Summary

In the preface to the 2006 revised edition of Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler observes that “the dominant spiritual trend of our time is militant fundamentalism” (x). From this point of departure, Adler begins a survey of Neopaganism in the 21st century that explores not only the history of this spiritual movement but also the political forces from which it arose and which continue to shape it.

Adler considers the political implications of a polytheist system of belief in a world in which monotheism prevails, explores the relationship between the Neopagan movement, the earth, and environmentalism, and provides a thorough historical overview of the relationship between witchcraft and feminism. In the new edition, Adler covers additional topics such as Heathenism and the intersection of the LGBT movement and Neopaganism.

Adler’s warm style, her inclusion of firsthand interviews as well as personal stories, and the scope of her research make Drawing Down the Moon a delight to read and a critical starting point for anyone who wants to understand Neopaganism. Adler sorts through the current state of academic research in order to distinguish fact from fantasy, and she does so without ever diminishing the importance of the imaginative aspect of Neopaganism. Many of the most well-known leaders and figures from across the Neopagan spectrum are interviewed here, and most of the major Neopagan organizations are described in detail. Adler also captures the remarkable diversity of the Neopagan movement: she considers a range of philosophies, approaches to ritual, and life experiences.

What I enjoyed most about Adler’s book is the emphasis she places on the relationship between Neopaganism and the political forces that continue to shape it. Her consideration of the works of Arnold Toynbee and Lynn White provided a crucial introduction to (or reminder of) the stakes for Neopaganism in the debate over environmentalism. Adler uses the question of earth-centered spirituality as an entry point to another illuminating topic: the differing political repercussions of polytheistic and monotheistic systems of belief.

Adler focuses on the political elsewhere as well. Chapters 4 – 8 explore the history of witchcraft and the related questions of women’s oppression and feminism. This section of the book covers a great deal of historical ground and sets aside many of the popular misconceptions about witchcraft, Wicca, and witches. I found the section on Heathenism in Chapter 9 to be extremely helpful when it comes to understanding the different branches of Heathenism as well as the variety of Heathen perspectives on the topics of race, family, and conservative values.

Finally, one real gem of the book is that it is filled with insights from Isaac Bonewits. It is clear from the beginning that Adler held his opinions in high regard, but she also notes his sometimes turbulent relationships with other personalities in the Neopagan movement. Adler even provides a brief overview of Druidry in North America and summarizes the founding of ADF (pp 336-343).

Neopagans and the Environment

The value of Adler’s first chapter lies in her ability to clearly identify and define the concepts and terms crucial to an understanding of Neopaganism. In addition to examining terms such as “pagan,” “Neo-Paganism,” and “witch,” Adler begins by setting forth a few ideas that are shared across the Neopagan spectrum. She observes that “most Neo-Pagans sense an aliveness and ‘presence'” in nature…they share the goal of living in harmony with nature and they tend to view humanity’s ‘advancement’ and separation from nature as the prime source of alienation” (3-4).

The Neopagan relationship to nature is given a more thorough analysis in Chapters 2 and 13. First, Adler points to Toynbee’s 1972 article “The Religious Background of the Present Environmental Crisis,” in which he argues that the monotheistic worldview and value system have encouraged the exploitation and abuse of the environment and our natural resources. Adler also cites Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” and identifies similarities with Toynbee’s article. She quotes White’s assertion that “by destroying Pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feeling of natural objects” (17).

As a bookend or complement to the question of Neopaganism’s relationship to the natural world, Adler closes her book with a chapter titled “Living on the Earth.” At this point, Adler argues that while most Neopagans do share an interest in environmental causes, there is no consensus on how to approach the issue. She notes a “deep split between Pagans whose commitment to ecological principles was strong and practical and those whose commitment was limited to a religious view” (396). In other words, there are Neopagans whose spiritual and political values are so indistinguishable that political action on behalf of the environment is an integral part of their religion. On the other hand, there are also Neopagans whose connection to the environment is of a purely spiritual nature: political activity is an entirely separate matter.

The Pagan Worldview

In Chapter 3, Adler sketches out what distinguishes a Neopagan philosophy from those of other religions and traditions. She writes that “at some level, Neopaganism is an attempt to reanimate the world of nature; or, perhaps more accurately, Neo-Pagan religions allow their participants to reenter the primeval world view, to participate in nature in a way that is not possible for most Westerners after childhood” (23). This is a passage with which I can readily identify. I too was drawn to Neopaganism because it offered an opportunity to experience the world in a mystical sense, as opposed to an inanimate landscape to be used for the benefit of myself and other humans.

Another benefit of Neopagan philosophy which is particular relevant during times of conflict is its openness to multiple worldviews and value systems. Adler writes that “polytheism has allowed a multitude of distinct groups to exist more or less in harmony, despite great divergences in beliefs and practices” (23). She also notes that the decentralized nature of Neopaganism and its flattened hierarchy of leadership may have “prevented these groups from being preyed upon by gurus and profiteers” (23). In other words, the Neopagan openness to new ideas, its rejection of fundamentalism, and relative lack of structure allow for an environment in which individuals are free to adopt ideas that work for them while discarding those which do not.

Finally, Adler uses part of her third chapter to consider theories of anthropology which claim that systems of belief evolve in “linear fashion” (24) and that monotheism is therefore superior to polytheism. Throughout this chapter, Adler gives voice to those who see the benefits of polytheistic religion and who are critical of the influence of monotheism, including Theodore Roszak, David Miller, and Isac Bonewits. Adler quotes Bonewits’ assertion that monotheism is “particularly useful in history when small groups of people wanted to control large numbers of people” (Adler, 32).  Further, Adler quotes Bonewits’ elaboration on monotheism that appeared in The Druid Chronicles (1976):

“far from being the crown of human thought and religion as its supporters have claimed for several bloody millennia, it is in fact a monstrous step backwards–a step that has been responsible for more human misery than any other idea in known history.” (Bonewits in Adler, 32)

Another salient point that arises in this chapter is the possibility that some traditions, including Wicca, could be perceived as monotheistic. This is especially true of Neopagan groups which focus exclusively on the worship of a great mother goddess. According to Adler, “one truly serious criticism of feminist Witchcraft has emerged…the fear that exclusive goddess worship can lead to a transcendent monotheism” (213). Put another way, a Neopagan system of belief that does not accommodate multiple points of view and which denies the validity of polytheism is no different than other forms of monotheism. Such a system of belief risks incorporating the very fundamentalism it denounces.

Witches

Adler devotes more than a third of Drawing Down the Moon to the history and theories of Witchcraft. Her survey of academic and historical accounts of witches and the craft offers a unique glimpse into a religion (or practice, depending upon your point of view) that has been plagued by misconceptions, poor scholarship, false narratives, and controversial figures. Adler relies on interviews with leaders in various witchcraft traditions as well as her own research and personal experiences. The result is a gentle but through account of the origins of Witchcraft and an overview of the diversity among those who consider themselves to be witches.

Of all the information Adler presents in this section, Bonewits’ attempt to classify witches into three categories is some of the most useful. In doing so, Adler helps break open the spectrum of witchcraft and the various traditions/sources/histories that accompany it. Bonewits identifies three primary witchcraft traditions: Classical, Gothic, and Neopagan. According to him, Classical witches were those for whom the craft was a practice rather than a religion, a way of dealing with the world that called upon wisdom, insight, and cleverness. These were the wise women of the village: resourceful, shrewd, and knowledgeable. Gothic witches were those whose practice was an inversion of Christianity, a popular notion of witchcraft but one with few actual practitioners. Neopagan witchcraft is another term for Wicca.

Other insights in this section include Adler’s overview of the “family traditions” of witchcraft, feminist witches, and the politics of the larger witchcraft movement. She argues that “most revivalist witches in North America accept the universal Old Religion more as a metaphor than a literal reality, a spiritual truth rather than a geographic one”(82). She also points out that for many witches, belonging to a particular tradition such as Alexandrian or Gardnerian is of no import; newer traditions are just as valid as those with lineages.

Finally, Adler repeatedly uses the term “bending” when referring to the craft, For her, witchcraft is adaptable, creative, and resourceful. As a result, it is a practice/religion that naturally mutates and proliferates.

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