New Antiquities – conference review at Albion Calling

New AntiquitiesThere was a conference in Berlin last month that I would have loved to visit: New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond. This event conceived by Dr. Dylan Burns and Dr. Almut-Barbara Renger is on a topic that I think deserves a lot more attention than it’s being awarded: the diverse uses of the historical past to construct new forms of practice, tradition, aesthetic and worldviews.

Well, we know a great deal already about the invention of tradition, of course. What would be really cool is to get archaeologists, classicists, historians, philologists and other experts of “what really happened” (or the best current approximations, anyway) to talk with those who study the imagined past (what’s sometimes called “mnemohistory” – the history of how the past is remembered). Something along those lines is what this conference aimed to do. One of the reasons why the task is crucial is that, unavoidably, the access that those who construct the past have to the past, goes eventually through scholarship – often, to be sure, outdated scholarship, and often, too, scholarship that has been filtered through other channels such as popular culture – or the less than reliable akashic records. Getting experts of the contemporary and the ancient to talk together thus seems a mutually enriching opportunity, especially for theorizing the role of scholars in the discursive production of the past and of invented traditions.

For those of us who missed that opportunity this time, there is a nice little review of the conference over at Albion Calling. Ethan Doyle White gives a good summary of the speakers and the topics they treated, with a specific focus on issues relating to contemporary paganism. Go read it.

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New Antiquities (extended deadline for CfP)

Akhenaten futuristicBack in September the call for papers for a very interesting workshop was released at the Ancient Esotericism blog (and elsewhere). “New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond”, put together by Almut-Barbara Renger (Freie Universität Berlin) and my good colleague Dylan Burns (Universität Leipzig), calls attention to the myriad uses and imaginings of antiquity in contemporary religious discourses.  A fascinating field that has received quite some attention from religious studies scholars interested in such things as the construction of tradition or mnemohistory. What’s particularly interesting about this workshop is that it aims to mobilize the antiquity specialists as well, who, a bit too often perhaps, have tended to avoid dealing with questions related to such modern “reception history”. It’s also an excellent platform for bridging the studies of ancient and contemporary esotericism.

The deadline for submitting paper proposals has now been extended to January 31. Below follows the description of the workshop, pasted from the extension notice:

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What’s the deal with Glastonbury?

Glastonbury Tor; or the island of Avalon emerging from a sea of mist?

Glastonbury in Somerset is known as a pilgrimage site for neopagans and adherents of various “alternative spiritualities” world wide. The mythology of the place is full of stories about Arthurian knights, primeval British Christians, druids, the lost tribes of Israel, healing wells, and the Holy Grail. Theories about secret connections between ancient monuments, and hidden correspondences or “lay lines” connecting features in the landscape of Glastonbury are easy to find.

What is the history of all this local myth? How did this small village become such a major centre of heterodox pilgrimage? What does the phenomenon of Glastonbury tell us about religion generally, and its British history specifically? These are among the questions that Hereward Tilton explores in an ongoing research project. He spoke about it at the Contemporary Esotericism conference in Stockholm this August, and the paper has now been made available online at the ContERN website.

Tilton explores the development of a lively folklore around Glastonbury, and explains its origins in the sociocultural and economic contexts of the middle ages, the impact of the reformation, and much later the rediscovery of Glastonbury by a generation of occultists at the end of the 19th century. In addition to many intriguing historical details, about which one can read more in the published paper, Tilton seeks to explore some concerns that are of broader interest. One of these is the intriguing confluence of British Israelism (the notion that the British people is in fact one of the lost tribes of Israel, and the British monarchs descend from king David) with esoterically oriented notions of prisca theologia (i.e. the notion of “primitive revelation” and ancient wisdom), and local myths at Glastonbury:

“While the origins of British Israelism proper can be traced to the early nineteenth century and writers such as John Wilson and Edward Hine, the relationship of their work to earlier post-Reformation narratives concerning the lost Semitic tribe of the British and the Druidic prisca theologia is clearly of central import to an understanding of the history of esotericism at Glastonbury. Of particular interest is the legend of Christ’s visit to Glastonbury, and his building of the first British church there, which as we may recall descended from on high like the New Jerusalem.”

Another intriguing aspect Tilton mentions, but unfortunately did not get to explore in any detail in the present paper, concerns the place of psychological factors in accounting for “esoteric” motifs. In particular, Tilton is interested in schizotypy and apophenia – both of which come to mind when one considers the associative, pattern-seeking, sometimes paranoid reading of signs and symbols in buildings, text, nature, and culture, so characteristic of esoteric material. Tilton connects them to Faivre’s old characteristics:

“The esoteric mindset as defined by Faivre corresponds in many particulars with what may be termed an ‘esoteric schizotypy’, in accordance with a contemporary psychiatric category encompassing a broad spectrum of personalities exhibiting schizotypal traits (e.g. visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoid or conspiratorial ideation, a tendency to distant associations); of particular significance in this regard is the phenomenon of ‘apophenia’, the discovery of meaningful patterns in apparently random data that we find exemplified in the creative interpretations of Glastonbury’s sacred landscape … . My purpose in this regard is not to psychopathologize esotericism, but rather to understand the interaction of dominant and deviant psychologies within those processes of marginalization that currently constitute a central historiographical concern of our field.”

It is interesting work, even if it is no doubt going to be controversial in certain circles. But there is already a lot of related research in the cognitive study of religion that might serve as a basis for further research along these lines. It was, for example, only a month ago that the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology published a study that found “religious” and “believers in the paranormal” to be more prone to apophenia (illusory face perception in this case) than “sceptics” and “non-believers”. Tom Rees recently blogged about this research at Epiphenom  (which, by the way, is an excellent resource for staying up to date on research that explores the relations between psychological,  sociological and cultural factors in accounting for the disparate phenomena we call “religion”). Studies exploring the relation of conspiracy belief and schizotypy are also not hard to come by (see e.g. this recent paper from Personality and Individual Differences). One should not exclude the possibility that research along similar lines might have a role to play in future theorising about esotericism as well. I for one certainly look forward to see what Tilton will do with these connections in the future.
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This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.