CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


In the Mists of Avalon: How Contemporary Paganism Dodges the ‘Crisis of History’

by Chas S. Clifton (Colorado State University-Pueblo)
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

Outside this room,[1] the Signature Press exhibit includes several books on the Latter-day Saints and their crisis of history—what happens when archaeology, DNA analysis, and other disciplines fail to confirm, or indeed refute, the religion’s sacred narrative, the Book of Mormon. But although I am not here to discuss the Book of Mormon and how it became “another gospel,” I wish to reference it as an example of “fictive power.”   “Fictive” is a favorite word of some post-Jungian psychologists of religion, such as the late Dan Noel, author of The Soul of Shamanism.[2] It should be distinguished from “fictional,” for it refers not to veracity but to the creative and imaginative power of a novel, movie, and so forth. Fictive power need bear no relationship to historical truth—or only a loose relationship—but fictive power can be life-changing. While I do wish to discuss one literary roots of contemporary Paganism, part of what I am asking for is more consideration of literature—and other creative arts, such as film—in the study of new religious movements.

My own encounter with NRMs began around 1980 when I was a young newspaper reporter in Colorado Springs, which at that time was the headquarters of Elizabeth Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant, not to mention local groups of the Way International and other new religious bodies. I was contacted by Prophet’s former personal secretary, who wanted to tell her story of joining, serving, and ultimately abandoning the church. Quickly enough I encountered the world of “cults and counter-cults,”[3] of anti-cult groups that were based on perceived harm to members or else on theological objections to their teachings, of deprogrammers and consultants trying to make a buck (and a book)  in the space between law enforcement, psychiatric medicine, academia, and the NRMs themselves.  My first encounter with social scientific study of contemporary Paganism occurred about the same time, in the persons of a graduate student in anthropology making an ethnographic study of a local Wiccan coven and of a California sociologist and his graduate students who produced statements such as, “We hypothesized that Wiccans would score high on scales measuring normlessness because many of the ‘revivalist’ witches may have joined or formed covens or taken up the study of the Craft to give their life the conceptual order and meaning offered by the simplifying ideology of a religious movement.”[4] I will leave it to the reader to unpack the prejudices built into that statement. Suffice it to say that if he had written “complicating ideology,” I might have been more sympathetic. These two approaches, ethnography and quantitative studies based on the secularization hypothesis, characterized much of the academic work on new religions movements that I encountered as a graduate student in the 1980s.  In the 1990s, however, approaches to Paganism in particular broadened considerably. Marion Bowman and Steven Sutcliffe noted pragmatically that “Some traditional means of information-gathering, such as counting numbers in churches or on membership lists, for example, are simply inappropriate for many of the looser, more personal, uninstitutionalised forms of contemporary spirituality.”[5]

Fictive Power and Paganism: Some Testimonials

In May 2007, Les Seabolt, moderator of the ColoWiccan (i.e., Colorado Wiccan) email list, asked its roughly 300 members, “What was the first Wiccan/Pagan/Magick book(s) you read? What did you think of them then? What do you think of them now?” His own first book, he continued, was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s [The] Mists of Avalon,[6] “sent to me by mistake by the SF [science fiction] book club.” The book’s effect on him was immediate:

Her handling of the “Old Religion” vs. the Christians created a very sympathetic vibration with me. Something about the descriptions of the pagan gods and goddesses made we want to know more. I went to Castle Rising [an occult book and supply shop in downtown Denver] the next day after finishing [work] and bought the only Wiccan book they had in stock at that time, Raymond Buckland’s Book of Seax Wicca.[7] . . . . [Mists of Avalon] is still a good read. Not a “history” book by any means, but a fascinating exploration of the Arthurian legend from a female perspective. Made especially interesting [sic] was how many folks were drawn to Wicca by this book when [Bradley] herself (in an interview I read) said she was not a practitioner![8]

Seabolt’s questions drew dozens of responses such as this:

The Mists of Avalon was also the book that brought me to Wicca. As I read it, I felt that I had experienced this before and that it was more real than the world I lived in. I was staying with a friend of my sister’s at the time and talked to her about how I felt. She told me she was a witch and took me to the bookstore she worked for. I bought Spiral Dance[9] and Drawing Down the Moon.[10] I still feel all three are valuable and recommend them.         

Rowan Moonstone of Colorado Springs mentioned two other popular fantasy authors of the 1960s-1970s:

 I was also heavily influenced by Andre Norton and her Witch World writings, especially the worship of Gunnora.[11] Zenna Henderson’s books on “the People” were a great influence on my psychic development.[12] If figured that if they could do the things they could do, there was no reason I couldn’t do stuff as well, and [I] started trying it, and it worked.

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in A Strange Land, often cited as the inspiration for a seminal Pagan group, the Church of All Worlds, was mentioned by several respondents, together with Madeline Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and Gaul Baudion’s Gossamer Axe.  As Graham Harvey wrote after examining the bookshelves of a British feminist Witchcraft group, “The books provide resources for imagining and re-imaging, inventing or re-inventing oneself and one’s place and time.”[13] Yvonne Aburrow, another Pagan writer notes, “From the earlier stirrings of science fiction and fantasy in the Romantic movement, when writers looked to ancient myths and despaired of the Industrial Revolution, we see reflected the ecological and social concerns of Pagan thinking.”[14] When we return to The Mists of Avalon, the idea of “reflection” will gain significance.

Coming Home to the Sacred Past

Contemporary Paganism may be characterized as a set of excursus religions, whose followers depart the city of monotheism. As Robert Ellwood wrote in the late 1970s,  “Excursus religion is a spiritual movement away from ordinary social and psychic structures alike, for a quest will steadily reassemble both as they impinge upon consciousness to mirror each other.”[15]  Central to the re-assembly process that Ellwood identifies is the quest for a center, a spiritual home. The central trop of so many Pagan “conversion stories” is that there was in fact no conversion but a recognition of belonging. “Like most Neo-Pagans,” journalist Margot Adler wrote at about the same time as Ellwood, “I never converted in the accepted sense. I simply accepted, reaffirmed, and extended a very old experience. I allowed certain kinds of feelings and ways of being back into my life.”[16] In thirty-some years, I have heard countless variations of Adler’s statement, often in the form of “I felt that I had come home.”

A spiritual home, however, requires furnishings, and fiction provides them. One builds one’s temple in the spare bedroom, but inwardly one thinks of “a low building of grey stone . . . low, slanting light . . . women, robed in dark-dyed dresses with overtunics of deerskin, some of them with a crescent moon tattooed in blue between their brows …”[17]

Contemporary Pagan traditions for the most part face an unusual task. They are rooted neither in a long-standing religious tradition nor in a relationship with the land. Even in European countries, this relationship must be renegotiated and dramatized by, for example, going out from the city and dressing in folkloric costumes, in other words, cleaned-up and formalized versions of earlier peasant dress.  There is no revered founder whose life forms a clean break between Then and Now in the manner of Jesus or Muhammed.  Yet the Pagans share, as Mircea Eliade wrote fifty years ago, “religious man’s desire to live in the sacred…to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion.”[18]  They need to make a world—and as Eliade notes elsewhere, “If the world is to be lived in, it must be founded.”[19] In other words, actions must be taken that in effect “repeat the paradigmatic work of the gods”—or, we might add, repeat the actions of the paradigmatic ancestors, be these ancestrals literal or fictive.  But where are the models for these actions to be found? Possibly The Mists of Avalon and its reception offer some ideas, so I will refer to it sporadically.

The contemporary Pagan relationship with literature (and with archaeology and history) could then be regarded it as a series of essays at world-making. As many scholars have pointed out, one root of Paganism was the Romantic cultural movement against modernism, emphasizing the individual, the local, the ancient, and the lyrical elements of national or ethnic culture. In addition, the literary small-p pagans of the late nineteenth century celebrated the ancient Greek (and to a lesser extent, Roman) culture as “a time of joy, liberation, simplicity, and nature,” employing these ideals “to invoke fantasy pagan worlds, which they often called to be ‘restored’ to the modern world.”[20] It was one critic of this literary movement, W.F. Barry, who first employed the term “Neo-Paganism” in an 1891 critical article, although he viewed its emergence as a sign of cultural exhaustion and imminent decline.[21] Among the best-known might be Kenneth Grahame, author of the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows with its evocation of Pan and also of a lesser-known essay collection, The Pagan Papers.[22] In that era of the 1890s through the 1920s, notes literary scholar Nick Freeman, the “’paganism’ in these texts is less a coherent religious practice than a promise of freedom from the repressive strictures of Christian conformity, something seductive if occasionally fearful which resists naming and formal analysis yet has a powerful visceral charge that allows the past to fuse with the present.”[23]

Although a wide collection of writers and artists[24] drew on Mediterranean cultural materials for their vision of a liberating paganism, the new religions’ Anglophone followers are more likely to chose the British Isles as the location of the sacred past.  Nick Freeman, quoted above, notes that sacred qualities of the British landscape were evoked in the new medium of film during World War II in such frankly propagandistic works as A Canterbury Tale.[25]While the Great Depression and the subsequent world war left the old, sunlight, Hellenic paganism out of favor, Freeman notes, “The propaganda surrounding the English countryside encourage a belief in the sacredness of the land itself … At the same time, the reprinting of pagan-inflected literature [e.g., Arthur Machen, some of Rudyard Kipling’s later work] and art helped to establish a context for limited spiritual experiment that would resurface in the 1960s when many of those who had been exposed to it in childhood grew to maturity.”[26]

Literature, history, and archaeology figure in contemporary Anglophone Paganism’s attempt to construct a version of illud tempus, nonhistorical time or sacred time. As Helen Cornish described in a paper at a recent INFORM conference, contemporary Pagans face an ongoing historical crisis. On the one hand, many of today’s Pagans fear that “perpetuating out-dated explanations makes contemporary Paganism appear irrational and untenable to outsiders.” A case in point would be the “Old Religion” thesis advanced by the archaeologist Margaret Murray in the 1920s and broadly accepted for several decades. Murray argued that the witches executed during the Renaissance and early modern periods had practiced an underground Pagan religion, an idea that appealed greatly to Wicca’s mid-twentieth-century founders. Yet by the 1960s, new scholarship had knocked the supports out from under Murray’s argument.[27]  One scholar in particular, historian Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, author of five historical studies of Paganism, Witchcraft, and Druidism in the British Isles, has seen his name become a noun: Huttonization. “Hutton’s analyses are often perceived to promote a sense of absolute rupture and discontinuity for today’s practitioners,” Cornish continues, adding that she has heard British Witches claim that “our history has been Huttonized.”  In this and other instances, attempts to create a sacred narrative are disrupted by new scholarly work, leaving contemporary Pagans torn between “verifiable histories or mythic pasts.”

Eliade himself, however was both a fiction-writer and a scholar. “Like many others,” he wrote in a 1978 essay, “I live alternately in a diurnal mode of the sprit and in a nocturnal one. I know, of course, that these two categories of spiritual activity are interdependent and express a profound unity ...”[28] Contemporary Pagan Witches too speak often of honoring “the light” and “the dark,” and many would follow Eliade’s suggestion that the “nocturnal mode,” which for him involved his literary imagination, could, as he said, “contribute to a more profound understanding of religious structures.”

The Mists of Avalon Mists of Avalon tells the “matter of Britain,” Arthur’s rise, his knightly companions’ adventures, and his eventual tragedy, from the viewpoint of the stories’ chief female characters, with the addition of Viviane, the powerful priestess who attempts to stage-manage his kingship over a partly Christian, partly Pagan populace.  The novel appears to be set early in the sixth century CE, primarily in  the west of England, a sort of interregnum between the departure of the last Roman legions about 410 and the bubonic plague of the 540s, which may have spelled the end of the Romano-Celtic Britain as an independent polity. King Arthur himself—if he existed and if he was a king—may have reigned in the 520s or 530s.  Because the historical record is largely blank or speculative, this era can function as a sacred time in which “the ancestors,” using the term loosely, performed actions that may be replicable today. In addition, the land in question includes Stonehenge, upon which so many theories and stories have been projected, and Glastonbury, a locale celebrated by Anglican Christians as the site of Joseph of Arimathea’s first-century hermitage—thus a shrine older than Rome—and also, according to medieval legend, the burial place of Arthur, and also favored by twentieth-century mystics such as the ceremonial magician Dion Fortune and the novelist John Cooper Powys, who spoke of “the immemorial mystery of Glastonbury” whose power was “older than Christianity, older than the Druids, older than the gods of the Norsemen or the Romans, older than the gods of the Neolithic men.”[29] Thus Glastonbury furnishes the fiction writer with a sacred place of power, while the Arthurian stories are set in a sacred time-that-is-out-of-time.

Bradley’s Avalon is out-of-time too, for its college of Goddess-worshiping priestesses literally occupies the same place as Glastonbury Abbey, yet only its priestesses and some local Pagan tribespeople know how to cross from one reality into the other. Its central character, Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine, remarks as well that time seems to pass more slowly in Avalon than in the outside world—and yet more slowly in a “fairy world” that forms a third superimposed reality on the monastery and the college of priestesses.           

            I suggest that the fictive power of The Mists of Avalon comes not just from its engrossing and complicated plot, but from readers’ ability to read it as a mirror of present-day concerns. Even as a mirror reverses right and left, the novel reverses now and then. Mists’ plot revolves around loss: a loss of women’s religious and sexual rights, a loss of “druidic” religious tolerance, a loss of tribal religion in favor of Romanized Christianity, a loss of mystical Avalon in favor of the Christian monastery, a loss of matriarchal power, and a devaluation of non-human nature by the Christian patriarchy. On the last topic, Morgaine thinks to herself,

The difference [between the Christians and the Goddess-worshippers] is deeper than O thought. Even those who till the earth, when they are Christians, come to a way of life which is far from the earth; they say that their God has given them dominion over all living things and every beast of the field. Whereas we dwellers in hillside and swamp, forest and far field, we know that it is not we who have the dominion over nature, but she who has dominion over us, from the moment lust stirs in the loins of our fathers and desire in the womb of our mothers to bring us forth, under her dominion, to when we quicken in the womb and are brought forth in her time, to the lives of plant and animal which must be sacrificed to feed and swaddle and clothes us and give us strength to live … all, all of these things are under the domain of the Goddess and without her beneficent mercy none of us could draw a living breath, but all things would be barren and die. (398)

Like all the Arthurian stories, Mists is ultimately a story of loss: Arthur must die, his hard-won peace must fall apart, whether from internal strife or renewed conflict with the Anglo-Saxons, and—in the later medieval versions—even his marriage is marred by his wife’s stronger love for his dear friend Lancelot. In this telling of the story, Avalon of the priestesses recedes to a point beyond recall, leaving only the monks to occupy the site of Glastonbury.

To borrow a phrase, Bradley’s fifth century is a very distant mirror of today’s concerns of ecological awareness and gender issues. Thus Mists can reflect back to the receptive reader the possibility of increasing women’s rights, increasing Goddess religion, an increase in religious tolerance and a re-valuing of non-human nature. And although King Henry VIII dissolved the powerful abbey of Glastonbury, it was in the twentieth century that the town became a center of “spiritual power as great as that which it occupied in the middle ages, but with a significant difference.”[30]

Set fifteen hundred years in the past, The Mists of Avalon portrays a sacred place and a sacred time while avoiding a collision between historical narrative and religious narrative. If there is a collision, it is mild scraping of bumpers rather than a head-on smash, given the misty nature of Arthurian legend, and there is no need to call the History Police.

            Contemplating the crisis—or crises—of history as they affect contemporary Paganism, the Wiccan journalist Margot Alder comments,  “Traditionally, religions with indefensible histories and dogmas cling to them tenaciously. The Craft avoided this through the realization, often unconscious, that its real sources lie in the mind, in art, in creative work.”[31] By relying on the fictive power of books and other creative products to provide a sort of sacred story, the contemporary Pagans described thus step out of history while retaining a modern respect for the historian’s scholarship and thus postponing a collision between historical narrative and mythic past.


[1] The 2009 CESNUR conference was held in the City and County Building, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[2] Daniel Noel, The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities (New York: Continuum, 1997).

[3] A reference to Gini Graham Scott, Cult and Countercult: A Study of a Spiritual Growth Group and a Witchcraft Order (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980).

[4] R. George Kirkpatrick, Rich Rainey, and Kathryn Rubi, "Pagan Renaissance and Wiccan Witchcraft in Industrial Society: A Study in Parasociology and the Sociology of Enchantment," in Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (Nashville, Tenn.: 1983).

[5] Steven Sutcliffe and Marion Bowman, Beyond New Age: Exploring Alternative Spirituality (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

[6] Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon (New York: Random House, 1982).

[7] His reference is to Raymond Buckland, The Tree: The Book of Saxon Witchcraft (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1974), in which Buckland developed “Seax-Wicca” or Saxon Witchcraft.

[8] Les Seabolt, “Book Talk,” ColoWiccan, colowiccan@yahoogroups.com, 27 May 2007.

[9] Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Godess (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979).

[10] Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979).

[11] Pen name of Alice Mary Norton (1912-2005), active from the mid-1930s until the 1990s. She In her twenties she changed her name legally to Andre Norton to appeal to young male readers.

[12] Zenna Henderson (1917-1983). “The People” are a group of telepathic aliens cast away on Earth, attempting to survive in a world that does not accept them.

[13] Graham Harvey, "Boggarts and Books: Towards an Appreciation of Pagan Spirituality," in Beyond New Age: Exploring Alternative Spirituality, ed. Steven Sutcliffe and Marion Bowman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

[14] Yvonne Aburrow, “News from Nowhere: The Connections between SF and Pagan Thought,” http://www.handstones.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/yewtree/articles/sfpag.htm.”

[15] Robert S. Ellwood, Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press

, 1979).

[16] Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America (New York: Penguin, 2006).

[17] Bradley, The Mists of Avalon. After the publication of Bradley’s novel, a handful of Pagan women actually got such tattoos to mark themselves as priestesses.

[18] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959). Italics in the original.

[19] Ibid., 22. Italics in the original.

[20] Jennifer Hallett, "Wandering Dreams and Social Marches: Varieties of Paganism in Late Victorian and Edwardian England," The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 8, no. 2 (2006).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Kenneth Grahame, Pagan Papers (London: The Bodley Head, 1893).

[23] Nick Freeman, "A Country for the Savant: Paganism, Popular Fiction, and the Invention of Greece, 1914-1966," The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 10, no. 1 (2008).

[24] One such artist is the Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), whose works have been chosen as cover designs for several recent works on Paganism.

[25] Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, "A Canterbury Tale,"  (UK: 1944).

[26] Nick Freeman, "The Shrineless God: Paganism, Literature and Art in Forties' Britain," The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 6, no. 2 (2004). 172-73.

[27] For example, Elliot Rose, A Razor for a Goat; A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

[28] David Carrasco and Jane Marie Swanberg, eds., Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Boulder: Westview Press, 1985).

[29] Ronald Hutton, Witches, Druids and King Arthur (London: Hambledon and London, 2003).

[30] Ibid., 85

[31] Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America (New York: Penguin, 2006 [1979]), 85