Margot Adler: NPR Reporter & Pagan Author, 1946-2014   Leave a comment

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Margot Adler in 2004. Picture: Wikipedia OTRS, by Kyle Cassidy

Quietly, steadily, Margot Adler helped Paganism gain wider understanding and respectability. Her passing at 68 from cancer this last Monday, 28 July ’14, also leaves a gap on the airwaves.  Often people seem to know her either for her work as a veteran reporter and correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), or for her seminal book on Paganism and her involvement in Wicca, but less often for both.  Yet the combination is a key to her life and significance, and helped to give her and what she had to say particular impact, harder to ignore because of her reasoned and thoughtful public voice over the decades.

The NPR website provides a couple of short audio segments acknowledging her work and her passing.  This one includes brief mention of her involvement in Paganism toward the end, around the 3:40 mark, and includes a link to the other segment.  Both segments include written transcripts as well.

Adler’s signature book, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, to give its full title, was first published in 1979 by Viking Press. The Amazon page for the 4th revised 2006 edition enthuses:

Almost thirty years since its original publication, Drawing Down the Moon continues to be the only detailed history of the burgeoning but still widely misunderstood Neo-Pagan subculture. Margot Adler attended ritual gatherings and interviewed a diverse, colorful gallery of people across the United States, people who find inspiration in ancient deities, nature, myth, even science fiction. In this new edition featuring an updated resource guide of newsletters, journals, books, groups, and festivals, Margot Adler takes a fascinating and honest look at the religious experiences, beliefs, and lifestyles of modern America’s Pagan groups.

ddtm1sted2005 article in the Religion Journal of the New York Times, “Witches, Druids and Other Pagans Make Merry Again in the Magical Month of May,” observed that “the book is credited with both documenting new religious impulses and being a catalyst for the panoply of practices now in existence.”

My 1981 Beacon Press* paperback edition has begun to yellow with age.  Paging through it as I write this post, I remember how I read and re-read it, fascinated by practices, perspectives and beliefs that variously called to that 20-something me from a place both familiar and strange, echoed my own experience, or surprised me with their outright oddness.

If modern Druids and Pagans more generally have relied heavily on books to launch and sustain them, that’s because it’s often principally or solely through literacy, books, and reading that many Pagans learn they aren’t alone after all, that others like them really do exist, and that the spiritual energies they finally must acknowledge are at work in them deserve expression rather than repression — that the way opening before them is possibly even worth the risks and hardships that may come with it. The brave Solitaries in their personal practices, and the Pagan groups that have formed and continue to form, resemble those of many other new religious and spiritual movements that coalesce and arise, and have arisen historically, within cultures typically oblivious, resistant or actively hostile to the opportunities, perspectives and critiques such movements offer. Where else, after all, would you expect Pagans to begin?!  Where and how else do any new spiritual and religious movements begin, but by those with a shared experience or vision recognizing each other, and drawing nourishment from the common ground between them?

That original book cover of Drawing Down the Moon looks tame today, but it made me want to hide it from casual view, even from my parents who were very accepting of whatever their bookish son was currently reading.  So what happened next with me?  Very little, outwardly.  But the book and its many voices, together with its author’s reflections on the Pagan movement, fell onto fallow ground.  I can trace its impact directly to my involvement in Druidry now.  And from what I’ve heard, I surmise this proved true for many others as well.  Roots and branches of many lives.

So all this is to say thank you to Adler for her book and also for the questions she raises in it, most of which remain valid.   While various streams and strands in Paganism have grown and strengthened since the time of the first edition of Adler’s book, the challenges she perceives for Paganism persist.  I’ll close with an example:

Neo-Pagans, Adler asserts (pp. 385-386*)

have so many different visions that together they seem broad enough to sustain the human need for beauty, freedom, and growth.  They contain a vision of the earth that is a noble one, a reverent one.  I am still inspired by it.  These ideas seem capable of stirring great ferment; they seem capable of ending human alienation from the planet.  But will they?

… It also seems clear that those who choose to be Pagans do so to nourish and sustain a Pagan vision already inside.  This vision exists as a painting exists, or a piece of artwork.  And Neo-Pagans are the artists.  But the relationship of artists to living on the earth has always been uncertain.  Perhaps it is important to emphasize the visions of Pagans rather than the realities of their lives, the poems they write rather than the jobs many are forced to keep, the questions the movement asks rather than the goals already attained.  The goals sometimes fall short of transcendence, and Pagans are often imprisoned by the very civilization they criticize.

Of course, that’s partly WHY they criticize it.  Plant a dream, and it may well take time to germinate, if conditions are less than welcoming.

“You’re much too journalistic,” Michael told me again and again as we walked around Craftcast Farm in the winter of 1976.  “I want to know what people feel like in the circle.  That’s what I want your book to tell me.  That’s what I want to know.”

Along with her good thinking, and the words of many who have become our Pagan elders, Adler’s book definitely conveys both that atmosphere and the challenges Paganism continues to grapple with.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images:  Margot Adler; book cover of Drawing Down the Moon, first edition.

*Adler, Margot.  Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1981.

Edited 4 Aug 2014

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