Book Review: Drawing Down the Moon

In an effort to get back on track, I’m going to post some of my work up here for the world to see! Yipes. I sat down today and realized just how far behind I am on the DP work… it’s time to start fixing that.

Book Review: Modern Paganism — Drawing Down the Moon

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

I absolutely could not put this book down. It was a revelation, the first book about modern Paganism I read that approached the subject from a journalistic, even academic viewpoint, and it absolutely captivated me. Margot Adler’s seminal volume Drawing Down the Moon is unquestionably the high-water mark of Neopagan practices in twentieth-century America. Adler covers the development of the many Neopagans practiced today from their roots in Wicca without falling prey to the romantic trap of describing religions descended from a mythical, peaceful society of Goddess- and nature-worshipers.

Adler opens the book with a general description of Neopaganism and some basic definitions necessary for understanding the assorted religions and engaging in a dialog with their beliefs, including those definition-resistant, ‘hot-button’ terms like “magic” and “pagan.” Because this book was my first taste of this world, I devoured these definitions, and one of her descriptions of how paganism looks at the world struck a chord with me:

…Neo Paganism returns to the ancient idea that there is no distinction between spiritual and material, sacred and secular. We generally think of spiritual concerns as apart from mundane concerns. This idea is entirely opposed to the Pagan perception. A group of women in a feminist Witchcraft coven once told me that, to them, spiritual meant, “the power within oneself to create artistically and change one’s life.” These women saw no contradiction between their concern for political and social change and their concern for “things of the spirit,” which they equated with a need for beauty or with that spark that creates a poem or dance. Mirth and reverence coexist as they do in many indigenous cultures (11).

To me, this quote sums up both the most beautiful aspect of Paganism (the integration of the spiritual into the mundane) and the troublesome blending of politics and social issues with an individual’s spirituality. The book—now more than thirty years old—remains descriptive of the twentieth century. Despite Adler’s revisions of the book in 1986 and most recently in 2006, the interviews included and the sentiments portrayed in the book continue to reflect a 1970s, reactionary Neopagan movement, without tempering that portrayal with a modern, more balanced and varied portrait of contemporary nature-based religions. Many of the descriptions of religions and interviews with figures such as Z Budapest create a focus on feminism and sexuality that many “new guard” pagan religions—including, arguably, ADF—do not center upon.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself, though. From Adler’s “Background” in Part I, she moves on to a history of Neopaganism told through the development of the various “sects,” from contemporary Paganism’s origins in Gardnerian Witchcraft into the newer religions, including several forms of Druidry. I particularly appreciated Adler’s thorough debunking of “the myth of Wicca”, the idea of a prehistoric, universal religion that worshipped “the god of the hunt and the goddess of fertility” (43). Adler tracks not only the development of the myth itself, but also the subsequent controversy over its dismissal (64-65). Adler manages to walk the journalistic line of neutrality perfectly, giving equal weight to the debunkers as she does to those who believe in an historical, hereditary witchcraft, and, by doing so, I think she gives one of the most thorough histories of modern Paganism available today.

After establishing a history of Wiccan/Witchcraft religions, Adler discusses the rise of other, varied Neopagan religions, offering a “survey” course in Neo-Paganism. While the scope of the work makes this book a perfect introduction to modern Paganism, I believe Adler’s treatment of the various religions is not as balanced as her earlier discussion of Wicca. She covers in one short 20-page breath, “Religions of Paradox and Play,” including RDNA, ADF—which she does describe as part of a “stunning renewal” of “contemporary Druidism (341)—and Erisians, and does not seem to give enough weight to the latest incarnations of those groups, who take their religions with (almost) complete seriousness. Many of her distinctions seem far too subjective, including the designation of ADF as a religion of play and observations that Pagan Way or New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn rituals are among the most poetic and beautiful performed.

That said, the subjective tone of the book is part of what makes it special. Adler shares her own introduction to Paganism and actually attended many of the rituals she describes: she is not just a neutral observer, but an active participant in Neopagan practices. Her analysis is more subtle, thoughtful, and nuanced because she is aware of what matters to actual practicing Neopagans. To that end, Adler discusses in the section called, “Living on the Earth,” the practices of the groups she discusses and provides some topical analysis of how Neopagans live in the world, such as how they regard technology, politics, persecution, and how they approach clergy, gatherings, and education in their own tradition.

In spite of my complaints, I think this is a great book, and one perfectly suited to serve as an introduction to modern Paganism. It surveys many traditions, discusses practical issues like politics as well as nebulous ones like magic, and provides a detailed snapshot of life as Neopagan.

Wow, that looks a lot longer here in WordPress, but it’s within the recommended word counts, I swear.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Drawing Down the Moon

  1. Looks good, Grey Wren! I think this is ready. 🙂 Funny you posted this today – I was literally planning to email you this afternoon to invite you to send me more essays!

  2. BTW, I totally get that you’re still catching up after the wonderful and busy time of wedding planning, but I wanted you to know that I’m here for you when you need me. 🙂

    • Thanks! Believe me, an email to you is on my to-do list (in a good way). I’m thinking of implementing some deadlines… it’s time to stop letting my desire for perfection in essays slow me down. This book review took an absurd amount of time!

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