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A Review of Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshipers, and Other Pagans in America Today

-Michael J Dangler

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Penguin, New York, NY. 1986.

This book was probably the most daunting on my list for the ADF Dedicant program. Not only is it the largest book on my reading list, but it is also the only one that gives a purely feminist slant for at least one chapter. On top of that, I didn’t know what to expect from her chapter on the radical faerie movement. I was pleasantly surprised upon reading this book, however. Not only is it well researched, but the research is also fully footnoted, cited, and relatively unbiased.

Throughout the book, Adler’s style is easy to read, promising simple and straightforward explanations of several Neo-Pagan phenomenons. As an historian myself, I find the copious footnotes to be a grand and wonderful change from books presenting a “history” of the Craft, often alleging that Wicca itself is descended in whole from the witch cult of western Europe. Adler breaks away from such Murrayite biases, though she still manages to convince me, a hard-core skeptic of Murray’s thesis, that Murray has some redeeming value, mostly due to her critical examination of the work and other works that attack it scathingly. I’ll be picking up The Witch-Cult in Western Europe sometime soon, most likely.

After completing this book, I think that are few better introductions to Paganism. After reading this book, you know enough about the religion to carry on a coherent conversation with a real historian (or your parents), and you can actually make an educated decision on whether to become a Pagan. This is not to say that this book will teach you the ins and outs of Paganism, but it will allow a Pagan to make educated choices, form arguments, and show that their religious path is a valid one, rather than just taking the word of someone who knows only what they were told, or who follows some “tradition” passed down to them without any substantiation from an historical source.

One of the important points made in the work is the perception of Paganism among scholars. Adler makes the point that “were [Paganism] presented as an intellectual and artistic movement. . . academics would flock to study it.” (p. 5) As it stands, Paganism is not fully accepted by the academic community. Pagans are seen as people living with their heads in the clouds, following a new age religion with no historical basis. Adler does her best to counteract this image, giving the academic community a valuable tool to study Paganism with.

Adler delves into the history of Witchcraft, and also the word “witch,” with a flurry of footnotes that I find exceptionally refreshing. Ultimately, Adler decides that the word Witch is of uncertain origin, and does not speculate on the origin of the term. (p. 11) As for the history of Witchcraft, Adler takes an interesting and informative view of the Murrayite view of Wicca.

Adler presents the popular history of Wicca as the “Myth of Wicca.” Pages 45-46 detail the myth in depth, and I agree with her interpretation. Basically, Adler says that Wiccans have held tightly to the Murrayite myth that there was once a universal organized white witchcraft movement, and that this movement is as old as time, and modern Wiccans are descended from this movement. Personally, I used to poke fun at the scholarship surrounding this myth. Now, after seeing it explained as a myth, rather than as unquestioned fact, I see that the idea has value. But if anyone tells me that this myth is absolutely true and historically accurate, we’re still going to have a serious, explosive argument. While I agree that myths do not have to be true, nor is there any point in proving them false, I believe that history is something that you should not tamper with or degrade by creating it from someone’s poor scholarship.

Adler’s discussion of the earliest Wiccans, Gardner, Valiente, and Sanders is also worth looking into, due to her use of primary sources and her interviews with many of the persons involved. She also delves into the “creation” of Wicca by these people, and it is a terribly educational journey.

As chapter 5 progresses, some interesting things pop up in Craft history. Apparently, “esbats” were a creation of Murray, Wiccans can’t agree on issues long enough to form cohesive groups (though this really doesn’t affect the health of the movement, though some might say that it improves that health), and there is a movement to get away from the current Sabbats of Wicca, which don’t make sense in modern life (which I disagree with somewhat, as do many other Pagans). Also, Adler makes her first real appearance in her work, describing a ritual she was asked to perform, and her subsequent refusal due to her lack of experience in the tradition. Even though she is writing in the 70’s, she does not fall victim to the “invisible scholar” complex that so many ethnographers and students of religion fell into at that time. This particular point makes her work that much more valuable.

Adler includes in chapter 6 an interview with a modern witch. The interview was recorded in the 70’s, and at the time the particular view expressed was not at all shared by many pagans. Despite Adler’s note of this fact, I find that the inclusion of this particular interview may have been a poor judgment on her part. Taken out of context, this single chapter could destroy the credibility of the entire book. I must admit, though, that the interview was a good read, despite the fact that the opinions expressed would still be in the minority today. I’m sure that Adler had at least one interview that was better suited to the work, though.

Chapter 7 has some interesting definitions of Magic, including Wilson’s definition, which is as Erisian as possible, of course. Adian Kelly’s note that visions of Goddess are directly influenced by Christianity, not vice versa, is terribly interesting. (p. 174) Her focus on NROOGD is sometimes grating, but I’m not sure enough about the practices of that particular group to ascertain if it is a good cross-section or not.

I’m not sure how qualified I am to comment on chapter 8, however. I’m not a woman, I’m not a feminist, and I’m not Wiccan. It’s possible that I don’t understand Women’s spirituality or the chapter. I was, however, made uncomfortable by the insistence by Z Budapest that the craft is a “’Wimmins Religion’ not open to men.” (p. 178) Personally, I find the exclusion of either sex on a permanent basis to be a horrible, oppressive thing. While women need their space, particularly in our society, I feel that it is unbalancing and dangerous to work without the other gender at all times. I was also put out by the desire to form an oppressive system at the other end of the spectrum from patriarchy (i.e. matriarchy), even though no one said matriarchy was oppressive. I just don’t see any system where one gender is in control as being either balanced or non-oppressive.

The size of this chapter was also daunting, for reasons I will explain later. Adler does make one point that I agree with, however: “The claim that a universal Mother Goddess was worshiped widely throughout the ancient world may be a kind of monotheism that only differs in gender from the religions modern Pagans have rejected.” (p. 229) Something important for Women’s Spirituality practitioners should keep in mind is that a belief in a single Goddess is monotheism, which many feminists in the Craft describe as a patriarchal and undesirable form of religion. I feel that this must be borne in mind when worshiping a power that is unbalanced. Monotheism, after all, leads to holy warfare, as Adler pointed out early in her book. (p. viii)

The section on Pagan reconstructionists focuses on the Church of Aphrodite, Feraferia, the Sabaean Religious Order, the Church of the Eternal Source, and Norse Paganism. I had never heard of any of these orders before I read the book, with the exception of Norse Paganism. ADF is not mentioned as a reconstructionist group, due to their founding in 1984, the year of this book’s second printing. Some of the organizations mentioned no longer exist, but many of them formed the basis for current Neo-Pagan thought, and thus are worth studying. The chapter following this on the Church of All Worlds seems to stem from Adler’s admiration of the periodical Green Egg. I don’t think that they would have warranted such attention had they not published that particular newsletter, nor would they have an entire chapter if it were not for the Zells’ close friendship with Adler. While I agree that the networking advantage that Green Egg and CAW were able to give the Neo-Pagan movement, I do not think that CAW itself requires an entire chapter, though an entire chapter on periodicals would have been useful.

Chapter 11 introduces an extremely important point: play and paradox are part of the Pagan movement today, and they always will be. One of the important things about this is that it keeps Pagans from taking themselves seriously enough to become fundamentalists. Adler’s attention to these religions, which most Pagans don’t take seriously (possibly for good reason) or don’t even know exist (also possibly for a good reason), is remarkable, to say the least. Discordianism is frightening to most Pagans, because they don’t understand the fundamental nature of the religion. This chapter is a step in the right direction for Discordians, and is packed with delightful excerpts from The Principia Discordia, Or How I Found the Goddess and What I Did to Her When I Found Her. It is a rousing read for anyone involved in Paganism, and I highly suggest it (both the Principia and the chapter).

One problem that I have with this chapter is the inclusion of Ar nDraiocht Fein. The ADF is anything but a religion of Paradox or Play. As a member, I see far too little play and far too much scholarship to include the ADF with RDNA and Discordianism. The ADF is a serious religious and scholarly organization, and would have been better suited to two chapters previous (reconstructionist). RDNA is partially based on play, though, and since ADF grew out of this particular group, there is some reason to include the ADF here.

The following chapter daunted me. Perhaps it was my good, conservative upbringing, but a chapter titled “Radical Faeries and the Growth of Men’s Spirituality” made me think twice about finishing the book. As I read on, though, I was happy I did. The chapter had such high points as addressing how men can become connected with the feminine, and it wasn’t an attack on being straight. In fact, the entire chapter was open and easy to read, even if I did originally have some reservations. I’m not sure about the argument that patriarchy oppresses men; I’d have to look deeper into the issue before I could decide on that.

The only problem I had with this chapter was its 10-page length. Compared with the 53 pages about feminism in the Craft that I had to read, I don’t think I received as much out of this chapter as a woman might have received from the chapter on feminism. On top of that, this chapter was about the men in Paganism in general, not in just one branch (i.e. Wicca) of it. I find myself wondering if Adler just didn’t care as much about the men’s spirituality movement, or if she didn’t understand it. Somehow, even after my initial reaction to the chapter title, I felt somewhat cheated with only 10 pages of information.

The last three chapters and appendices are excellent resources for people either starting out in Paganism or in law enforcement. Mainly, I found them somewhat dry in their redefinition of terms, their outdated information about how people in the Neo-Pagan movement felt about issues, and in depth analysis of writers who have had little impact on the book until now, and who are pretty dry writers anyway. The focus on the “five stories” which were so widely reprinted in the papers at the end does little to advance Adler’s arguments. While the statistics from the ’85 questionnaire are terribly interesting, they’re out of date in 2001, the year of this particular writing. Also, the sample is statistically biased, which Adler admits to her credit.

The rituals in appendix 2 help to give readers an accurate view of what goes on at a Pagan ritual, and the resources in appendix 3 are certainly worth noting, though again they are all outdated, and most of the organizations have probably moved of become defunct by now.

In all, however, the book is an excellent study in Paganism, and a very refreshing one as well, given that over the past 6 years of practicing I’ve heard all the garbage in the Wiccan myth repeated as historical fact countless times. I was also given a different view of Murray, as well as the men’s spirituality movement. My main wish is that the book were more updated. In the 15 years since the book was published in its present edition, much has changed, and some of the trends Adler speaks of are no longer occurring, and many have started recently.

I would recommend the book to anyone starting out, and would actually insist that a person read this book before starting down Paganism’s paths. For a Pagan to be taken seriously as an initiate and for the movement to be taken seriously as a whole, serious scholarship must be involved. Drawing Down the Moon is a step in the right direction, instead of a step backward like so many other Pagan books on the market.

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