Category Archives: Research projects

John Ogden (1941-2021) 

I went to the funeral of some friends’ father a few months ago. John Ogden was a good person. He was a giant of a man in humaneness, intelligence, and capacity; loved by his family and friends; and a lover of Manchester City (everyone has their blind spots…). He had a unique sense of humour which would easily have held its own with stand-up comics. If you spent time with John, you laughed, almost cathartically. His absence is going to be felt deeply, and by many, amongst his family and in the Christian congregation he helped lead over decades.  

John had been a leader in a church in Salford, northern England. The congregation was a Brethren assembly when John and his wife Gwyn joined in 1973. However, the church, like various other Brethren assemblies in places such as the UK, New Zealand (see Peter Lineham’s scholarly work) and Australia, became increasingly “charismatic” – as in emphasising the reality and power of the Holy Spirit – from the 1980s. There appears to be something about Brethren spirituality which seems to predispose a desire to seek the presence and embodied experience of God. John, with others, steered the congregation in a charismatic direction. In the 1990s, he and other leaders from Salford, and tens of thousands of others worldwide, visited a new global node for charismatic Christianity: the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church. It was said that here was a new ‘move’ or ‘blessing’ of the Spirit, a distinctive experience of God’s love.   

The funeral included something I had never seen before. In 1960, John started to keep a reading diary. Every book he read, of whatever genre, was recorded. The long list of all these texts was placed on the wall of the chapel, for our interest.  

His reading tastes – over 1,700 books – were eclectic. Indeed, even the first two books on the list offer quite the juxtaposition: Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) and A. J. P. Taylor’s The Hapsburg Monarchy: 1980-1918 (1941).  The list revealed interests as wide-ranging as Christian theology and testimony, country music, military history, local Manchester and Salford history, the National Football League (NFL), Russian travel, and cricket. He covered impressive ground in modern novels. After retirement, in particular, he was a voracious reader. To see the list on display at the funeral was an insight into the interior life of a man – his intellectual and emotional formation – over many decades.  

For a historian of Christianity, the list is a unique, rare source. For nearly a decade, I have been researching charismatic, or ‘Spirit-filled’, media and networks. What does the list tell us? 

Certainly, it underlines it is all too easy to make straightforward assumptions about charismatic spirituality. John read, of course, classic charismatic and pentecostal texts. Indeed, from around 1987, like many other British Christians, he was devouring them: Dennis Bennett, Arthur Wallis, Derek Prince, Jamie Buckingham etc., all the luminaries of the charismatic renewal. But the list indicates also how textual influences on John’s spirituality varied and changed over time. From the 1990s, one of the most consistent spiritual influences in John’s reading life became the Puritan divines: Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin, John Flavell, John Owen, and others. Indeed, outside of an academic theology department, you would struggle to find a Christian as well read in Puritan spirituality. (In the final months of John’s Life, he read the Puritans deeply, including, and movingly, Richard Sibbes Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled, Joseph Alleine’s A Sure Guide to Heaven and William Perkins’ A Salve for a Sick Man). In the 1990s, also, John was turning to the medieval mystics, Teresa of Avilla, Julian of Norwich, and others. At the end of the decade, numerous works by contemporary Catholic twentieth century contemplative and devotional writers, such as the American Trappist Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, appear. Spiritual influences were broadening and deepening.  

As a young undergraduate student in the late 1990s, I remember hearing John preach on the Old Testament book of Song of Songs. He read the text allegorically. The sermon was an articulate and heartfelt case for ‘spiritual union with Christ’. The congregation was at this stage impacted by the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church phenomenon, and I observed around me a collective eagerness to ‘soak’ in the love of God. John had visited Toronto: but who was John reading at this stage? The list reveals he was drawing on historic works on Song of Songs: the works of Madame Guyon and Bernard of Clairvoux and others. The jet-age meets medieval mysticism. 

What might John’s reading list tell a historian of Christianity? First, it hints at the diverse and complex lineages – for example, contemplative, mystic, Reformed and pentecostal – which have contributed to charismatic spirituality. These influences, of course, have varied markedly across church traditions and between individuals. The story of these individual Christians – the ‘thick detail’ of ordinary leaders and laity, rather than the ‘big names’ of the charismatic world – are a rich mine of information for understanding ‘Spirit-filled’ movements in their everyday context.  Second, to merely suggest that charismatics such as John were ‘revival-chasers’ (e.g. to Toronto), would be to overlook the significant, text-constructed, intellectual and experiential thought-world which could provide a spiritual framework, and which in John’s case was both consistent and extendable. Third, John’s patterns of devotion in reading point towards a much larger charismatic theme: of resourcement. While charismatic Christians will often emphasise the ‘new wine’ that God is offering – they are ‘presentist’ in this sense – they have, as John did in the 1990s, often referred to historic writings, the resources of the Christian tradition, the words of the Christian dead, to situate their experiences.  

A meta-theme of John Ogden’s spirituality was the idea of the Christian as ‘beloved’ (indeed, he would, tongue-in-cheek, refer to himself as ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’). I suspect that through his reading, he became convinced that the ‘new thing’ of Toronto was an ‘old thing’ – a mystical experience of divine love within Christian spirituality. 

Dr John Maiden is the author of Age of the Spirit: Charismatic Renewal, the Anglo-world and Global Christianity, 1945-1980 (forthcoming from Oxford University Press). 

Pride in our past, Faith in our future: Fulneck and Fairfield

By James Rollo, PhD Candidate

The origins of the Moravians date back to the foundation of the Unity of Brethren in 1457 by Gregory, the Patriarch of the Moravian city of Kunwald. After years of persecution, the church re-emerged in 1722 with the establishment of the settlement (a planned community) at Herrnhut in Saxony on the estate of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. Moravians from the Herrnhut community visited England in 1734, seeking permission to settle in the American colonies. There was, however, great interest in the Moravian Church in England, and the first English congregation was established at Fetter Lane London in 1742. The settlement at Fulneck was the first in England – the land was acquired in 1743 and the foundation stone for the church was laid in 1746 – while Fairfield was the last with the foundation stone laid in 1784.

These two sites are integral to my fieldwork for my PhD thesis on Contemporary Moravian identity in historical perspective. Combining archival research and contemporary fieldwork at these two Moravian settlements in England, my thesis examines contemporary notions of Moravian identity and tradition from a historical perspective. I investigate how members of these settlements view the history of their church and its relevance to them now. Open Days were cancelled during the pandemic in 2020, but they are now back on track, and I have finally been able to visit the settlements again. They are of a similar size: Fulneck has ninety-eight residents and Fairfield one hundred and six. Fulneck is built on a hill, its orientation is linear. It consists of a single one-way road running parallel to the buildings and a lower-level cobbled walkway. Rather than a single road, the settlement at Fairfield contains three in the form of a capital F, rotated ninety degrees.

Fulneck – The Terrace South Side (Jim Rollo 18/09/2021)

Fulneck Church and The Terrace North Side (Jim Rollo 31/07/2021)

Heritage Days were held in Fairfield on 12th September (though more toned-down than pre-Covid) and in Fulneck on the 18th of September 2021. These Open Days gave the residents of the two settlements the chance to present to the public the importance of their history and heritage, the things that matter to them, their public facing identity. Both settlements offered similar programs with guided tours of the settlements, and opened their doors to both their museums and churches. Fulneck church had an exhibition on the theme of food and the self-sufficiency of the settlement, while at Fairfield, there were presentations about the history of the Moravian Church and the development of the settlement.

Plan of Fairfield (Historic England, 1966)

Fairfield Square East Side (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

What then do these Open Days tell the visitor about the way contemporary Moravians present themselves to the public? Common themes of the settlement tours and of the exhibits included the importance placed on a sense of community and heritage, and residents’ pride in and identification with the settlements and their history. However, the onsite museums also reflect differences between the two settlements in their approach to history. The museum at Fulneck is the older of the two. Opened in July 1969, it is titled a ‘museum of local history’ and is very much focused on the history of life in the settlement. Fairfield, on the other hand, juxtaposes 18th century Moravian practices of worship with 21st Century worship, showing continuity and development, rather than dwelling on past traditions.  The comparison between ‘then and now’ is a theme that runs throughout all of the Fairfield museums’ exhibits. The ‘now’ stands out most with the display of how Fairfield is used in television and film the most recent being the TV series Peaky Blinders and the film Mrs Lowry and Her Son.

Stills from Mrs Lowry and her son (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

Of course, the desire to use Fairfield in period film is also due to the settlement being unspoilt and grade two listed, without satellite dishes and other modern-day clutter. However, it also says something about the community’s pride in the picturesque location of their settlement that they want to share. Furthermore, this represents an interesting contrast: on the one hand, the fact that the Fairfield community allows TV / film crews to use their settlement as a backdrop reflects a willingness to embrace modern technology, while on the other, it maintains the old-world image of the settlement itself.

While their history and heritage form a part of their identity, it is important to remember that these are active living religious communities today. As both the guides to the tours pointed out, there is so much happening in the settlements, both secular and religious, it is very difficult for the residents to not become actively involved in community life.

What We Do and How We Write About It: researching a South Indian martial art

By Lucy May Constantini

In 2002, back in the days when it was the hand-to-mouth existence of an independent dance artist and not global pandemics that curtailed my ability to travel, I fulfilled a childhood ambition and got myself to India. I went to take part in Facets, an international choreography laboratory, organised by Attakkalari Dance Company in Bangalore, where for three intense weeks, sixty or so dancers hothoused traditional Indian movement practices, Western contemporary dance, and digital arts. The first class every morning of my second week was taught by G. Sathyanarayanan Nair of CVN Kalari Sangham in Trivandrum, where he introduced us to the principles of the South Indian martial art kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘. I was bewitched.

In those three weeks we only had two days off and our dancing days generally ran from around 9:00 am to a similar time at night, so it’s no surprise I got ill. Thanks to an unhappy history with allopathic medicine, I determined to find an āyurvedic alternative, āyurveda being one of India’s traditional medicines. One of my new-found colleagues popped me on the back of his motorbike and took me to the local clinic, where my pulse was read and I was given a potion to brew for the immediate illness, and huge quantities of medicated ghee to prevent it recurring. Unwittingly, here began my exploration of physical practice melded to a healing modality. It’s perhaps no coincidence that my colleague guiding me to the clinic had himself grown up in Kerala, the southwestern state of India which is home to kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘, as a teenager winning various state competitions before transitioning to dance. I brewed my strange-tasting tea and got better (I had less success with the ghee).

In 2010, I was able to rekindle my flame for kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ by going to Trivandrum to train at CVN Kalari, by which time G. Sathyanarayanan Nair had inherited the role of gurukkaḷ. Gurukkaḷ is the Malayalam plural for the Sanskrit word for teacher, guru. This plural is a general honorific in Kerala culture, while also conjuring up the image of a gurukkaḷ standing with all the tradition’s teachers behind him, both supporting him and reminding him of his obligations as the lineage-holder. In kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ these involve caretaking the martial art and ensuring its medical practice endures in a manner that serves its community, as well as fulfilling various ritual functions.

In the years that followed, I spent several extended periods at the kaḷari (the temple-building in which we practise, and which also houses the kaḷari clinic). I was puzzled that the little I could find to read about kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ seemed to be describing something quite other than what I was experiencing. The gurukkaḷ had similar concerns, albeit from a different perspective, and in 2012 he suggested we start a documentation project together to fill this lacuna between written discourse and lived practice. Our initial discussions evolved into an exchange which is at the heart of my PhD in the Open University’s Religious Studies department, where I’m looking at how the embodied practice at CVN Kalari relates to its manuscript tradition. In particular, I’m hoping to see if I can find a way of writing about kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ that is useful to people reading it who know nothing of the tradition, while also remaining recognisable to the experience of practitioners.

In May, I was supposed to present on kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘’s medical tradition at the closing conference of the AyurYog Project (http://ayuryog.org/) a five-year European Research Council funded project based at the University of Vienna that my supervisor, Suzanne Newcombe, was part of. Here’s my contribution to the online series the AyurYog project released in its COVID-cancelled stead.

In the hope that travel restrictions ease, I’m looking forward to spending time at the EFEO (Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient) in Pondicherry getting to grips with some kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ manuscripts at some point in the second year of my doctoral research, before continuing my fieldwork at the kaḷari in Kerala.

Lucy May Constantini is in the first year of her PhD in the Religious Studies department of the Open University. Her doctoral research is funded by the AHRC Open-Oxford-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership. Two of her previous visits to the kaḷari were funded by the Arts Council of Wales and Wales Arts International.

Photo: Sathyanarayanan Nair, Lucy May Constantini and the CVN Kalari community at the vidyārambham ceremony, 2016

An Economy of Gnosticism in Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California, is the only place in the world today that all four gnostic religions are active. I recently had the chance to do some fieldwork there. Contemporary gnostic religions have had little attention from scholars. By “gnostic religions”, I mean, quite simply, groups who describe themselves as both “gnostic” and a “religion”. I’m sure many scholars will disagree with both of these designations, but it’s a complicated question and so I’ll address this in a future post. For now, the four groups I am talking about are the Ecclesia Gnostica, the Apostolic Johannite Church, the Ordo Templi Orientis and the Gnostic Movement of Samael Aun Weor.

If I were a certain kind of scholar, I might speculate that there is so much gnosticism in LA because Hollywood is the symbolic centre of the archonic media matrix where the illusory world of the demiurge is created. More prosaically, LA has long been a centre for religious innovation due to being multicultural, liberal and relatively cheap. People were going West in search of new ways of life long before the Hippies emerged from Haight-Ashbury to catalyse the spiritual revolution of the New Age movement. Moreover, contemporary gnostics mix esoteric ideas with Christianity, and so appeal much more to American Baby Boomers than to their relatively secularised European counterparts.

For example, the Ecclesia Gnostica performs a Gnostic Mass weekly in the Besant Lodge of the Theosophical Society, a converted silent movie theatre underneath the Hollywood sign. If you didn’t look closely at the portraits of Theosophical founders on the wall, or recognise the Jungian additions to the liturgy, you might not realise this wasn’t a regular Anglican ceremony. Services have been performed weekly by Bishop Stephan Hoeller, now aged 87, since 1977. Hoeller’s gnosticism is a formalisation of the ideas of depth psychologist Carl Jung, a process of reuniting with the divine aspect of the self.

While they have some associated groups, the Ecclesia Gnostica is largely confined to Los Angeles. This isn’t the case with the other groups. The Apostolic Johannite Church, for example, have a number of branches around North America, though they are currently strongest in Canada. They also focus on a liturgical mixture of Christian and esoteric traditions, though here the focus is more on a Rosicrucian rather than Jungian tradition. Interestingly, their presence in LA is not as strong as in other major US cities, probably because the Ecclesia Gnostica has been so successful there. The Apostolic Johannites are keen to stress their appreciation for and connection with the Ecclesia Gnostica, but this is not reciprocated.

The high degree of competition in the gnostic marketplace also affects the Gnostic Movement, a loosely connected constellation of groups stemming from the teachings of Columbian teacher Samael Aun Weor in the 1960s and early 1970s. Although relatively recent in comparison, and originating in Spanish-speaking areas, the Aun Weor groups have been the most successful in spreading internationally, with small but constant presence in many European countries. Last year, I undertook their First Chamber (a series of 33 introductory lectures) with a group in Edinburgh, which also deserves its own post. But in LA, these groups cater in the main to a Hispanic clientele, which is a large proportion of the population of this bilingual city. In Europe, most Gnostic Movement groups present the material in a form more appealing to a New Age or individualised spirituality discourse, though there is always a clear Christian aspect, and indeed there are some groups which perform the Gnostic Mass and dress in vestments just like the Ecclesia Gnostica (notably the Igreja Gnostica do Brazil). So perhaps the adaptive framing of the Gnostic Movement is the reason it has spread in the Americas and Europe, unlike the other contemporary gnostic religions.

The fourth and final example is least likely to be accepted as a gnostic religion, by scholars and the other groups, in large part as a result of its infamous founder, Aleister Crowley. Yet the Ordo Templi Orientis, or rather its ecclesiastical wing, the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, has many features in common with them: performance of the Gnostic Mass, roots in late Victorian occultism and claims of apostolic succession – that is, a direct lineage of bishops back to St Peter. The Pasadena branch, the Star Sapphire Lodge, put on public performances of Crowley’s version of the Gnostic Mass weekly. Yet, as with the Gnostic Movement, the modern OTO is more concerned with legitimising themselves among competing Thelemic groups through connections to their founder, rather than apostolic succession, as with the Ecclesia Gnostics and the Apostolic Johannites. However, it is clear that their use of sexual magic is as much of a problem, however, and there is open hostility towards the OTO and the Gnostic Movement from the apostolic gnostic religions.

Los Angeles, then, is a microcosm of contemporary gnostic religion. More, it is a microcosm of the complex genealogy of the term gnosticism with its Christian and esoteric usages, the influence of Jung and other perennialist scholars, and its selective but enduring charm.

Sarah Thomas in the News

One of our PhD students, Sarah Thomas, has been all over the news media this week, following the New York Times story revealing the existence of secret Vatican rules regarding priests who break their celibacy and father children, this Monday.

Sarah is working on the children of Roman Catholic priests, focusing on their transition from isolated individuals to group members via the medium of social media, with semi-structured interviews providing the main data source. Initial data analysis suggests that the process of priests’ children forming a critical mass and challenging their ‘silencing’ through media outlets not only offers new knowledge about themselves and issues of secrecy, power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, but taps into and advances research on other contemporary challenging of institutional authority from groups including the #MeToo campaign and victims of clerical sexual abuse. So to see her appearing in the media is apropos indeed!

First, the CBS News video and article that was published yesterday can be found here.

She also took part in a live radio interview yesterday on BBC World Service, at about 27 minutes in.

And while it pains me to give them publicity, here’s Fox News using her work too.

Rastafari in Motion | Jewish Rastas?

By Hilde Capparella, PhD student in Religious Studies

My doctoral research focuses on diasporic and transnational contexts of Rastafari. I am interested in de-essentialising Rastafari, and over the next year or so I will be conducting fieldwork in Rome and London with different Rasta communities and groups. I see my approach as one that focuses on religion in motion, and it is an approach I began to develop when I decided to investigate Rastafari in Israel for my Master’s Thesis. In March 2014, I conducted two weeks of fieldwork in Israel, where I was hosted by a Rastafari family living in Ashdod.

Upon my arrival, I was surprised to see that their house was completely covered with Rastafari symbols and colours (see picture below). My senses were also submerged in the sounds of Reggae and Dub music playing in the background 24 hours a day. It is important to note that Rastafarianism appeared in Israel through books, radio, and  television, promoting reggae music and culture. During my short stay, what amazed me was to hear how the Rastafari language (the Dread talk) was used and mixed with Hebrew in everyday life, creating a new form of language.

Through my fieldwork, the main question I wanted to answer was why they embraced Rastafari so passionately. Despite identifying as Jews, they felt Rastafari to be more flexible than Judaism. In addition, because Rastafari relies on the Levitical code of conduct, for them it is easier to embrace Rastafari practices and symbolism, as it is already, in a certain way, part of their culture.

The most significant and emotional event during my stay was my participation in the Sabbath.  During this ritual, the whole family wore items with Rastafari symbols and colours. Whilst the parents were wearing the Tam (Rasta hat), their son was wearing a Kippa (Jewish hat) with Rastafari colours. During the prayer, they explained that because they embrace Rastafari they replace the Sabbath wine with grape juice, as Rastafarians cannot drink alcohol. They emphasised that, for them, Sabbath is a time to pray and stay with family and friends more than a time to go to the temple. In fact, after the Sabbath celebration, their friends came to visit them.

The picture at the top of the post was taken during that day. Just before to take the picture they all naturally united their fingers together doing the Rastafari gesture. This sign was first adopted by King Selassie, and symbolises Solomon’s Seal (or Star of David) to emphasise the King’s geneological link to King Solomon. King Selassie was the king of the Falasha, the Jewish of Ethiopia, despite growing up as an Orthodox Christian. Therefore, the symbol was adopted by Rastafari worldwide is used to signify their bond with Selassie. However, for Christian (generally Orthodox) or Jewish Rastafari, it symbolises also the link with the Selassie dynasty from David, to Jesus, to Selassie.

Through this short piece of fieldwork, I discovered a new blend of Rastafarianism and Judaism. As my doctoral research proceeds, I expect to expand on these findings.

Photos by the author.

The Rag-Tree

By Kate Smith, University of Hull

The water we meet in the landscape carves out many meanings: it is sustenance, beauty, leisure, boundary, edge, life, death, rebirth. In my own landscape, it is a thing of contradictions. In my landscape there is only one river, yet we are surrounded by water; the valleys are dry, yet green and abundant; stubborn, marshy carr is locked in perpetual battle with just as stubborn, drain-building men; great chunks of old land fall away and new land emerges from the silt. It is a place where the difficulty of watering cattle and crops is given painful counterpoint by the frequency of flooding. All of this, these meanings, battles and paradoxes are ruled by the complex relationship between rocks, soil, water and people.

The meaning I am most drawn to, that resonates the most as the seasons around me change and the soil hardens with frost, is ‘rebirth’.

I spent a painful decade after getting my PhD, wandering around looking for something else to do: my doctoral research was intimately linked to the landscapes of my childhood, but after seven years of research, a major relocation and two babies, that connection had been lost. I hadn’t realised the extent to which the landscapes of my imagination fed my research until I was in a landscape with which I had no connection at all. My folklorist-research brain hibernated: I tried and tried to find a way to engage with the hills and plains that I was now living in but the spark would not reignite. And so I carried on with the rest of life, busy with small people and all that they demand. I almost forgot that once I had imagined, created and thought so intensely that it felt as though my head was full of dancing fireflies.

And then one day, a New Year’s day, we went for a walk. Just a couple of hours, but I wanted to go somewhere away from our usual paths so we headed off a few miles away to explore a circular route which included a bit of the old railway that once connected York and Beverley. And there, alongside the trackbed, looking somewhat out of place among the wintry trees and dark mud was a large, heavily decorated Rag Tree.

My folklorist-researcher brain woke up.

Next to the tree was a noticeboard, explaining the history of the site. Behind the noticeboard, off to the right were a series of steps and terraces, and a large, coffin-shaped tank into which flowed the clear, bright water of St Helen’s Well.

My folklorist-researcher brain *really* woke up.

Although it was cold, and although my dear, patient husband was somewhat bemused by my sudden excitement, we stayed by that well and its rag tree for nearly an hour as I wandered about, trying to photograph everything, trying to count and categorise all the rags in the tree, trying to photograph all the panels in the noticeboard, trying to swallow all of the context in one giant gulp.

I had found my way in. I had found meaning in a landscape that had, until now, been alien and disinterested.

My work in this place had to be about the water. This landscape is all about the water, and the way that people live with it. The folklorist-researcher brain that had slept and slept for so long finally had something to stay awake for. That walk was the start of an exploration that continues: I now have a visiting research position within the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull, working alongside geographers and geologists who are concerned with the physical effects of water and flooding. They know an awful lot about how water has affected the physical landscape of this area, but they know very little about how water has affected the emotional, cultural, and spiritual landscape of this area.

I think now that perhaps the prolonged hibernation of my thinking brain was a way of coping with the mundane relentlessness that parenting brings us. Getting back into academic work hasn’t been without its challenges, and I’m at the very start of my formal research into water in this landscape. But I have already learnt this much: it is never too late to have another go, and that sometimes a period of intellectual stillness can be a good thing. And I am grateful that my thinking, imagining, creating brain was reborn by an encounter with water in my landscape.

Blowing the Spirit: the tradition of brass band performances at funerals in Poland.

Maciej Kierzkowski, PhD Candidate, Music

My initial interest in brass bands was sparked randomly while collecting materials to research the past of my family. I learned that my grandfather’s brother was buried without a priest, and that during his secular funeral a glassworks brass band from a nearby village performed the ceremonial functions. As well as throwing light upon my family’s history, this information made me realize the importance of the brass band in contemporary Polish culture. The main question that appeared in my mind was, how did the funeral of my ancestor look (and sound), and what particular role did the brass band play in it? The opportunity to address this question appeared soon (in 2003) while conducting research for my Masters’ thesis on the brass bands of the Mazovia region in central Poland.

This blog entry presents the original field recording of the funeral that was made in situ in Godzianów village in Mazovia region in Central Poland. It was performed by Orkiestra Dęta OSP Godzianów (the Godzianow Voluntary Fireman Brigade Brass Band), and the deceased was one of its former bandsmen. The following is translated from my original field-work notes as an outsider [click the player below to follow along with the recording – numbers in brackets refer to timings in the recording]:

[00’00] ‘Before starting the funeral ceremony, members of the band and other participants of the ritual gather in the yard in front of the house of the deceased. Musicians dressed in fireman uniforms come to the site in fire trucks. Another truck brings in other firemen that are not musicians. The instrumental configuration of the band includes: 1 clarinet in Bb, 3 alto saxophones in Eb, 2 tenor saxophones in Bb, 1 trumpet in Bb, 1 bass saxhorn in Eb, 1 baritone saxhorn in Bb,1 tenor saxhorn in Bb,1 bass drum.

[00’50] The first musical piece performed by the band is a funeral march that is played during the elevation of the coffin from the house of the deceased. At that time, alarm sirens and emergency lights of fire trucks are activated.

Continue reading

Eynhallow (Land of the Finn Man) by Leila Thomson. Tapestry at the Orkney Library, Kirkwall.

Just out of reach: magic, opacity, and unknowability

Theodoros Kyriakides and Richard Irvine. 

Eynhallow (Land of the Finn Man) by Leila Thomson (above). Tapestry at the Orkney Library, Kirkwall.

Eynhallow frank, Eynhallow free
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the sea
A roaring roost on every side
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the tide

– traditional Orkney rhyme

“But what do you mean by magic?” There’s a long pause in the conversation; the anthropologist wonders whether they’ve asked the wrong question. “Well I suppose I mean… well, magic… like Eynhallow.” To those familiar with Orkney, this small ‘holy island’ is rich in stories: once upon a time a coming-and-going island, rising from the sea only to disappear, until it was won over from the shape-shifting finfolk by the use of holy salt. Still the island retains an uncanny quality: in 1990 two people were said to have disappeared into thin air after 88 were counted off an excursion ferry to the uninhabited island and only 86 were counted back on.

But it is not only the stories surrounding Eynhallow that make it a figure of magic. It is also the sense of it being simultaneously proximate, yet remote. It looms near, just between Rousay and the Orkney Mainland; and yet, surrounded by the elemental forces of the “roaring roost” – the riptides rushing past, the meeting point of the great energies of the Atlantic and the North Sea – it seems inaccessible. It fits perfectly with another explanation of the qualities of magic offered during conversation in Orkney: “a sense of wonder… but just out of reach”.

The question “What do you mean by magic?” is not a straightforward one. In fact, it is a question which can easily be turned back onto the anthropologist working on the topic. If you are someone just going about your daily routine, this is of course a very valid response to someone trying to research your beliefs and practices. Curiously enough, the fact that magic is such an open category makes this a rich question for our research in Nicosia and Orkney. Magic means different things for different people: magic for some might denote spells. For others, it is a quality of the landscape. For others, psychic readings. For others, Harry Potter movies. In other words, the question “what do you mean by magic”, far from suggesting that ‘magic’ is an irrelevance, indicates the polysemy – the rich and varied range of meaning – this word has acquired in modernity.

At the same time, this question reveals the enigmatic stance people adopt in the presence of the suggestion of magic: it is, in this sense, a topic “just out of reach”, surrounded by opacity and uncertainty. In The Empty Seashell, an ethnography of witchcraft in Indonesia, Nils Bubandt writes that “the fundamental unknowability of the other” often acts as a prerequisite to the manifestation or suspicion of witchcraft. Witchcraft is hence emergent from the fact that we cannot ‘see through’ the intentions of others. On the one hand, such witchcraft is indented in the workings of a society: it proceeds through specific instances, practices, rituals and social structures. On the other hand, the forms of magic which emerge within our fieldwork showcase how magic in contemporary societies takes multiple forms, reflecting the pluralism of beliefs and habits.

Here, we encounter a different kind of “unknowability” to once again use Bubandt’s term of choice. To return to Orkney, on the island of Rousay ideas of ‘magic’ in the landscape are attested to by the many stories which surround the Neolithic chambered cairns and standing stones. The folklore attached to these places is rich and well recorded. Yet, importantly, many layers of unknowing intervene in any given ‘encounter’ with the storied landscape: Protestant Christian attempts to rid the populace of superstition; population displacement due to clearance and emigration; population change due to incomers from beyond Orkney; secularisation. None of these strips the landscape of its potency, but each contributes to its sense of being ‘out of reach’.

Working back through these layers to understand the occluded landscape seems to generate new forms of interaction: for example, given the closure of the island’s kirks and the decline of island churchgoing, it is not altogether surprising that an archaeological site should become the setting for an island wedding rather than the kirk. Meanwhile, in recent decades modern standing stones have joined their ancient counterparts. The work involved in quarrying and erecting such stones makes this by no means a flippant undertaking, though neither is it a phenomenon that in all cases can be taken too seriously. Modern stones might be said to be “watching over us, helping us as they’ve always done”, but in another case might be said to have been erected more playfully, a landmark to direct tourists to what was built as a holiday home.

So, expanding on Bubandt’s idea of unknowability, the opacity of magic in modernity does not only mean that one is not sure of others’ intentions – it can also imply that people are never too sure of what magic might mean for them, or even if they ‘believe’ in it. Take the example of the Cypriot non-believer who still puts faith in his or her lucky pendant under situations of play. Or, the example of someone who does not attend church but finds herself reciting a trio of prayers under a certain situation of distress (one for each member of the Holy Trinity). On such occasions, pendant and prayer are both granted a semblance of automatic efficacy which Marcel Mauss identified as a central tenet of magical belief.

Why do people entertain such halfhearted beliefs if they don’t really believe in the efficacy of magic? When we ask this question, we notice that the people we talk to approach the suggestion of magic, much like their belief in it, in indirect manner. In Cyprus, many do not explicitly believe in magic, but nevertheless find that magic often occupies part of daily stories and rumours they hear, and also of childhood memories. We hence often find that we are conducting a kind of archaeology of magical beliefs, working through strata of unknowing. Magic is, nowadays, concealed under several temporal layers of personal and collective amnesia, but also recollection. We also find, however, that such social conditions don’t necessarily dilute the notion of magic amid increasing narratives and processes of unbelief and secularism, but rather grant it a vague semblance of autonomy and unpredictability. In such sense, conditions of social, political and financial uncertainty – characteristic of contemporary societies – can be understood as not erasing but rather as producing (or maybe reproducing) particular forms of modern magic. It is a world where something is left partially ungrasped and out of reach, just enough for it to keep returning.

Sacrifices | A new film about tattoos, religion and pain

Theo Wildcroft and Alison Robertson are current and former PhD candidates in the Religious Studies Department. In 2017 they had their first co-written article published for the new ‘Body and Religion’ journal. The article is titled “Sacrifices at the Altar of Transformation”, and it discusses the many and varied reasons why people might choose to include painful practices as part of their religious activity.

A first peer-reviewed publication is an important milestone in any academic career, and given the subject matter, their choice of celebration was always going to be unusual. In this short film, they reveal their journey, from first conversations, to Lillyink Tattoo studio in Reading, and back to the BASR conference where it all began. Along the way, they speculate on what the study of such practices can tell us about how human beings understand suffering.

Film by David Robertson and Theo Wildcroft. Featuring Steve from Lillyink Reading and Professor Graham Harvey as doctoral supervisor.