Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves is a detailed ethnography of the American Neo-Pagan movement. Pike delves into the Neo-Pagan community, attending numerous festivals, rituals, and forming personal relationships with many Neo-Pagan, Native Americans, and New Age Seekers. Pike explore the Neo-Pagan movement from the perspective of an outsider, something uncommon in Neo-Pagan literature. This perspective allows Pike to perform her job as an academic in a fair and unbiased manner. With solid research Pike explores the Neo-Pagan community and the internal and external forces shaping the development of a truly post modern faith.
Pike begins Earthly Bodies by introducing the reader to Neo-Pagan festivals. These festivals are the setting for the entire work. Pike argues that festivals are an important aspect of the Neo-Pagan community. At festivals Neo-Pagans are allowed to exit the mundane world and adopt a persona they keep hidden from their daily interactions. Festivals serve as another world, where Neo-Pagans may interact with the natural and supernatural worlds. Pike focuses a great deal on the importance of space in festivals. As an earth based religion the land where festivals are hold sacredness unto themselves. Here the real world is rejected in favor of the sacred. Colored ribbons, altars, and various decorations mark the entry points into the sacred world. Here in the sacred spaces Pagan are able to find the transformative experiences denied them in the outside world. In this sacred space Neo-Pagans find healing, friendship, and communication with the supernatural.
These sacred spaces that Pike explores challenge the standard American idea of sacred. The shrines, altars, and sacred areas that filled festivals are often community built projects that appear spontaneously. Pike argues that there are two types of sacred spaces; permanent and temporary. Permanent sites are those that have been on festival grounds for years, accumulating objects and meaning over time. These spaces become sacred as festival goers return year after year adding more meaning space. Many return to check on offerings left at previous festivals. Pike mentions the joy and reverence one festival attendee experienced after finding his grandmother’s college pins still there after a year. Other permanent cites include ritual fires and drumming areas. Temporary spaces are those altars and areas created by festival goers during a festival that usually leaves with them. Shop owners and campers set up small shrines that have a great deal of personal meaning, yet leave no lasting impact on the festival community at large. Again Pike explores the conflict surrounding sacred spaces. She calls Neo-Pagans a contentious group, who constantly debate over the meanings of sacred spaces. Pikes interviews show that festival goers are divided on issues of what is sacred. Some believe that the entire festival area is sacred while others find sacred space in specific areas. Again Pike explores the internal conflicts that help define this varied and unique faith.
Despite the magical aspects of festival space there are still conflicts and boundaries found there. These festivals are organized events that cater to a myriad of individuals. As such festival space, while sacred, is conflicted and tense. Here Pike sets a general theme for Earthly Bodies, how do Neo-Pagans address the conflicts between themselves in sacred spaces and between sacred spaces and the mundane world?
After exploring many of the internal forces that shape the formation of a Neo-Pagan community Pike then explore the outside forces. Chapter three explores the relationship between Neo-Pagans and Christians, as well as the relationship between festival spaces and the local communities. Here Pike details the many ways Christians have misinterpreted and persecuted Neo-Pagans. According to Pike Americans have a fear of Satanist, in many ways Satan and his followers have become boogey men. Shadowy figures that hide in the woods and tempt Christian children away from Christ and into a world of drugs, sexual abuse, and darkness. According to Pike American Christians, seeking reasons for the shifting morality of America have created satanic scapegoats out of Neo-Pagans. Angry at poverty, divorce, and lack of control many American Christina link Neo-Pagans with media images of satanic rights. While this may sounds like hysteria, it is a real issue to the Neo-Pagan community. Pike fills this chapter with examples of systemic abuse by local authorities. Neo-Pagans of face physical, economic, and emotional harm at the hands of neighbors and local police. Pike’s example of the Zalenski’s trial shows to what extent some local authorities are willing to go to fight supposed satanic influences in their communities. According to Pike Neo-Pagans respond to these outside threats with a mixture of fear, anger, and irreverence. “Christian bashing” is a common defense mechanism. Eager to defend themselves Pike argues, many Neo-Pagans become militant and fundamental. Visiting upon Christians the same level of hate, fear, and ignorance that Christians have visited upon them. Others dismiss their attackers as simple minded “fundies” who become targets of jokes. Pike considers both forms of “Christina bashing” methods Neo-Pagan use to distance themselves from Christian pasts, identifying themselves as members of a new religion.
Pike also explores the calmer relationship between festivals and local citizens. While festivals are a world unto themselves, the real world surrounds them. Small towns and rural communities often come into conflict with festival goers. The chief complaint many locals have is late night drumming. Drum circles area common sight at Neo-Pagan festivals. At times the drumming goes on long into the night with several participants. Pike explores the conflict that surrounds drumming, focusing on the conflicts the practice raises in the festival community. Many Neo-Pagans consider drumming a form of prayer, a rhythmic trance to call out to Deity/Deities. Those who drum late into the evenings generate noise the bothers neighbors and festival goers. Pike explores the delicate nature of freedom of expression with the ability to get a good night’s sleep. The practice of drumming shows the limitations of ritual space. The sounds of drumming move past the boundaries of sacred areas and can be an annoyance to those not caught in the rhythm.
In chapter four Pike explores cultural borrowing, common in the New Age Movement, and how Neo-Pagans approach the practice. Borrowing is the act of becoming a member of a culture other than the one of your birth. This is a complicated issue for Neo-Pagans, many of who balance authenticity, cultural sensitivity, and their own group identity. By remaking themselves in the image of others Neo-Pagans shed their former mundane identities and claim their mystical identity. While many view all beliefs and cultures open for exploration and experimentation, those of the cultures being explored consider the act of borrowing to be exploitation. Pike focuses on the resentment of the Native American community towards borrowing by “white shamans” This section is controversial; many critics have accused Pike of slandering those Pagans she interviewed. More than one reviewer called her a traitor. What makes Neo-Pagans look bad here is the practice of borrowing itself, Pike is simply exploring an aspect of Neo-Paganism.
The following chapters detail a fact of Neo-Pagan life that many other academics have ignored. In Neo-Paganism childhood is a sacred space. Children are more open to the spiritual world and their innocence in mundane matters allows them a unique perspective on such situations. This childhood view of the world is what many Neo-Pagans are trying to reclaim at festivals. Pike constructs a typical Neo-Pagan childhood. In this template Neo-Pagans were raised Christian and usually report having negative experiences with the faith. These individuals look at their childhood as a sacred time that was stolen from them. Paganism is a story of loss and reclamation. While Pike sees this as identity building many Neo-Pagans view these activities as reconnecting with their inner children.
Looking at childhood as a sacred space, Pike then details how Neo-Pagans utilize this space to perform serious acts of play. While this play does include dancing and singing, the form of play Pike really examines is role playing. Building upon the previous chapter discussion of sacred childhood explains how Neo-Pagans utilize festival space to explore parts of themselves that they keep hidden outside the festival space. Gender play, costumes, ritual performances, and nudity allow Neo-Pagans express their magical selves in a safe public environment. Here the hidden self/inner child is allowed to roam free. While festival space allows for these expressions of self, there are conflicts. What is sacred play to one Pagan is abhorrent to another. As with drumming, there still linger traces of the mundane world.
Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves an excellent work that approaches Neo-Paganism as a valid faith. Her study seeks to explore the internal and external conflicts that define Neo-Paganism. Pike’s Neo-Pagans are fiercely individual people who have rejected their birth culture. They are their own cultural architects, a religion of priests and priestesses. Neo-Pagans operate in two distinct worlds. In the mundane life they work, live, pay bills and operate as most members of post industrial America. This sphere is seen as necessary only for survival. The second sphere is the sacred. Here Neo-Pagans shed the limitation of the mundane world. In the sacred Neo-Pagans are whoever they want to be. Operating as one with the natural and the supernatural, although many Neo-Pagans see this as one and the same, they reclaim the sense of wonder and imagination that the mundane world represses. Conflict occurs when Neo-Pagans differ over behavior in sacred space. When these conflicts occur there is no way to please everyone, let alone the hundreds that festivals gather. In a religion of leaders, there are many directions. Pike navigates the sacred with ease providing a fair and accurate view of American Neo-Pagan life, presenting the conflicts that define Neo-Pagans and the beliefs that unify them.
Take away: This is a must read book for those interested in the American Neo-Pagan community. Written from an outsider’s perspective it allows for a different and often critical view of the movement and the culture. While there are many book generated by the movement, those written by external observers are often plagued with bias. This is a refreshing work.