Inspite of the promising title, this “Handbook Of Contemporary Paganism” is not a really interesting book. First the title might just as well have been “Handbook of Wicca” since in 90% of the places where terms like “paganism” or “neo-paganism” is named, it refers to Wicca. Hence paganism is predominantly a women-thing (feminist even), politically progressive, eclectic, focus lays on “the Goddess”, etc. Furthermore, a large part of the book is about magic. It starts with “The Modern Magical Revival” and continues with the influence of Aleister Crowley on Gerard Gardner, sexual magic in paganism and similar subjects. When the approach goes from historical to sociological, the focus becomes ‘other-scholarly’ when charisma, numbers of heathens and certain pagan ideas are investigated. It is this (to me) unusual approach that does give the book some merit.
Interesting are the editor’s essay about two (or three) generation pagans. How do pagan parents see their role? What place in the pagan society do children have? Also “Neo-pagan’s evolving relationship with popular media” (by Peg Aloi) has a few nice angles. There is even an article on the commerce of teen-pagan media (by Hannah E. Johnston). Rather irritating to think about, but very true.
Like I said, the book is mostly about Wicca (in various forms) and hardly touches upon other forms of contemporary paganism. When they are mentioned it comes in terms such as: “Among the former are a few sects of Norse Heathenry” (Sabina Magliocco on p. 236). Right… “Asatru” is usually only mentioned to say that there are different forms of paganism and then of course towards the end when we learn about “Racial-Ethnic Issues”. Ah yes, I had not missed the subject before I ran into it. Of course a subject not to be forgotten!
There is one article about “heathenry”, which is mostly about the Northern-European kind of paganism. In a nice article Jenny Blain and Robert J. Wallis speak about reconstructionism versus contemporary paganism, historical correctness versus applicability, and similar subjects that are indeed recognisable. There is a lot of focus on “Blót” and “Sumbel” which shows that the authors have mainly looked about American Asatru. Then there is again a whole part about magic (mostly “Seiðr”, but of course also runic divination) and it seems that they are not aware that this is not so common as they think.
Two essays worth mentioning are Dawne Sanson’s text about neo-Shamanism. Not so much because this subject interests me or even fits well within the book, but it deals well with ancient versus neo approaches, the view of the original practisioners, etc. Also a nice read is Robert J. Wallis and Jenny Blain’s article about “Pagan Engagements with Archaeology in Britain”.
To close off, an objection to the book is that all (or almost) of the writers are both scholar and practioner. Themselves they refer to their inside look, others see them as not independent. Personally I am not completely sure if I object or not, but I lean towards not. The very personal account of Susan Greenwood’s “Wild Hunt” experience was actually a nice read, however I find the ritual itself pretty silly.
All in all by and far not the ultimate book about contemporary paganism and definately not a “handbook”. Most essays are boring, some make nice reads. I do not know if the book is more interesting if you are interested in Wicca, but in that case you will have some 650 pages with history and interpretations.
2009 Brill, isbn 18746691