Amy Hale on the Third Position, Radical Traditionalism, Surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun, the Golden Dawn, reenchantment, and the evolving fauna of the contemporary occult and pagan communities. She is the author of a new book on the English Surrealist painter and occultist Ithell Colquhoun, Ithell Colquhoun: Genius of the Fern Loved Gully, soon to be published by Strange Attractor Press and distributed by MIT Press. She holds a Ph.D. in Folklore and Mythology from UCLA and writes frequently about myth and magic, and its co-option by the Far Right.
In 2019, as the 21st century overtakes the 20th, we see accelerating changes and transformations in sexual morality, drug policy, politics, and culture. Apocalyptic foreshadowing used to be the exclusive province of punk rockers in the 70s. Now, as we face a pandemic, as well as climate change, and as Right Wing authoritarians surge in popularity, it’s the world we all live in, even those most in denial. In the 21st century weed is legal in many U.S. states; psychedelics, once the definition of self indulgent hedonistic criminality, are revolutionizing the field of psychology, and have become a hot area for investors. Behavior that was the definition of “Alpha Male” masculinity twenty years ago will get you in serious trouble today.
Among these many trends and counter-trends, magic and the occult are growing in popularity. Neo-paganism and occultism tend to be associated with counterculture Leftists and hippies. Remember the Yippies who tried to elevate the Pentagon and exorcise its evil spirits in the 1960s? It turns out these are, increasingly, areas of fascination for many on the Right Wing.
Do some research on known writers currently active in the field and you’ll find a surprising number of political reactionaries. In his youth Trump himself was groomed by Norman Vincent Peale, who promoted the power of positive thinking to overcome all obstacles, a dangerous ingredient when added to a recipe that includes the tactics of Roy Cohn. The “traditionalist” occult thinkers Julius Evola and Rene Guenon from the early 20th Century are undergoing a revival, enabling purveyors of recycled prejudices to masquerade as protectors of authentic values. The term “Radical Traditionalism” has been with us at least since the 1970s. Recently, the so-called “Third Position” has gained cachet.
“The Third Position isn’t really new,” Amy explains, “it’s just reasserting itself as a more palatable ideology that brings lefties into a hard right framework by using the rhetoric of “neither right nor left”. It’s an intellectually dishonest strategy opportunistically emerging to capture a segment of the anti-globalist, anti-corporatist zeitgeist. In my view that appeal in itself attracts people who want to be seen as independent and not bound by traditional political labels.”
The Third Position is a more sophisticated restatement of racist ideology. A new generation of white supremacists dedicated to “blood and soil” have revived Hitler’s ethos, here described by psychologist Erich Fromm: ”–the power that impressed Hitler more than history, god, or fate was nature. Contrary to the tendency of the last four hundred years to dominate nature, Hitler insisted that one can and should dominate man but never nature.”
In defense of planetary ecology, and an anti-modernist, pre-Christian cultural heritage, the Third Position subverts the entire hippie/punk concept of THE MAN as an anti-ecology, anti-freedom, racist, misogynist, guardian of the status quo. The flag of cool, in the possession of progressives since the 1950s, has been captured by the Far Right. A growing number of people – the inexperienced and the fed up – reject the beat-hippie-punk-grunge-raver-burner Progressive rebel ethos as a corrupt 20th century hangover. They find ideologies like the Third Position to be rebellious and cool.
The good news is that pagan and occult communities on the Left are also evolving. The population explosion of feminist witches, and of millennial astrologers and tarot readers. The surprising inclusion in nationally televised debates of a presidential candidate overt about her beliefs regarding dark energy. New movements of resistance rooted in occult ideas and practices such as Horse Hospital’s “The Night of Magical Resistance,” Extinction Rebellion,. The increasing popularity of synchromysticism among Progressives.
Amy is co-chair of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Section of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the largest professional association of Religious Studies scholars and theologians in the world. She sits on the editorial board of the Black Mirror Research Network, (Arts University Bournemouth), a transatlantic research project focusing on the occult, art and modernity. She also sits on the editorial board of Correspondences Journal (Western Esoteric Studies), and is a past editor of The Journal of the Academic Study of Magic. Her areas of interest include “modern Druidry, Cornish ethnonationalism, Pagan religious tourism, color theory, the occult, and extremist politics in modern Paganism.”
Tamra: What things excite you and/or concern you about new developments in Paganism and Witchcraft?
Amy: There are a couple of things that are concerning me about recent developments in Paganism. A lot of what we consider “religion” is influenced by Protestant conceptions of religiosity. This is certainly true in the field of Religious Studies and that field is trying to change, working to find ways of looking at indigenous and non-Christian religions that do not rely on Protestant language and frameworks. In other words, many people instinctively believe that “legitimate” religions must look a certain way, have certain institutions and foundational concepts, many of which are actually based on models established by Protestantism. I believe that American Paganism has been influenced by the rise of evangelical culture and media from the 1980s onward and in the past few decades there is more emphasis on cultivating a higher public profile for Paganism and to have it seen as “legitimate”. As a result, I feel in the US that we are seeing a bit more conformity to other religious norms. For instance, I have heard people referring to Wicca as a “faith” which would have been a very odd thing to say 30 years ago, and still would be in the UK. Within Paganism I have also been seeing an increase in orthodoxy emerging from some sectors which is worrying. There is an expectation in some quarters that you will understand deity in a very specific way, and that if you don’t, you are not really Pagan. Within Paganism there has always been a variety of ways one can have a relationship with deities ranging from hard polytheism to animism and atheism and it never mattered. It was no one else’s business. To some now, it matters a lot and any sort of prescriptive view of faith can be quite divisive.
But the flipside, and what I find exciting, is that there is a wider cultural interest in the occult and in Witchcraft that is moving away from the formalized and legitimizing tendencies that have pervaded Paganism and Wicca over the past three decades. We are seeing an interest in folk magic, and a witchcraft that is culturally diverse, creative and perhaps a bit more wild than we have seen previously. While mainstream occult publishers like Weiser and Llewellyn are still doing well, I have seen a resurgence in punk tinged DIY witchy and occult zines focusing on spell work, herbalism and creative ritual. Apothecaries are popping up in New York and Oakland, and people are learning how to work with herbs and tinctures. There is in increase in interest in astrology and even lesser known divination systems like geomancy. We are seeing more focus on magic and less focus on religiosity and religious identity. Now, there are arguments that this magical resurgence is driven by commodity and capitalism, and is more about image than substance. And while everyone might not make this a spiritual focus for life, I don’t think it’s shallow. While I reject the idea that the occult only emerges during times of crisis, I think people are definitely looking right now for ways to be empowered and to bring joy, color and enchantment into their lives. This is mirrored by the massive upsurge in film and television about witches and magic. People want to see stories that suggest that the universe has much more to it than we see, and that maybe we can be a part of something bigger too.
Finally, this is a really ugly time to be slogging through this world. We seem to be continually inundated with shocking images and stories of abuse and corruption. The climate crisis is a staggering problem, and I suspect most of us just don’t know how to contribute materially to meaningful change. The magical turn we are experiencing at the moment has the potential to empower us and add beauty and a sense of connection that we are hungry for. I keep returning to the tagline of David Southwell’s amazing fictional online creation Hookland. Southwell has created a fictional British village which he reveals bit by bit on Twitter. He uses the tropes of magical British landscapes, hauntology and folklore to bring to life an eerily enchanted place from another reality. Definitely worth checking out! Anyway…the tagline for the Hookland Twitter feed is “Reenchantment is resistance”, and I embrace that every single day. Don’t submit to alienation or the grey forces that are served when our spirits are crushed. We need to grab magic and beauty with both hands and refuse to surrender it.
What is the Third Position? And how do Progressives respond when confronted with a 21st century right that preaches environmentalism, and which justifies racism as preserving diversity?
Third Positionists define themselves as being both anti-Capitalist and anti-Communist; and although they present themselves as being neither right nor left, they normally float around the ultra-nationalist and fascist end of the political spectrum. Movements which could technically be described as Third Positionist have been around since the 1930s serving as a critique of both state-run communism and capitalism. In the late 1970s the Italian Terza Posizione (Italian for “third position”) and later the International Third Position, emerged in both Europe and the US as an alternative right wing voice that was both populist and ultra-nationalist in addition to being anti corporate. These organizations were strongly influenced by the European New Right, which started in 1968 in France as a response to the leftist protests of that year, and the writings of Julius Evola. Third Positionists are against imperialism and globalization. They advocate small racially homogeneous ethnopolities, which they sometimes couch in terms of bioregionalism. You can see why their position could confuse some anti-capitalists on the Left who also advocate for bioregionalist policies and a reduced used of technology.
I think a lot of Progressives are genuinely unaware of this ideological complex which is promoted by segments of the radical right. In America, Progressives tend to view the Far Right as mostly made up of Confederate flag waving thugs, or more recently polo wearing Alt Right thugs. The areas of ideological crossover between the far left and the radical right are just not well known by many people, and this lack of awareness provides opportunities for the radical right to infiltrate left wing spaces with a shared interest in environmentalism, bioregionalism, or anti corporate activism. I am certain most Progressives have no idea how the concept of “diversity” is being spun as “separatist”, but we need to do a better job of understanding the underlying structures of thought and rhetoric these folks are using so we can dismantle this dangerous ideology before it grows too powerful.
What is the origin of the Radical Traditionalism political movement in the pagan and occult worlds? How does it relate to the rising popularity among right wing occultists of writers like Evola?
“Radical Traditionalism” may refer to two distinct movements, and this causes some confusion. One usage refers to a movement within conservative Catholicism. But more relevant to this discussion is the more distinctly Pagan-friendly radical right-wing movement. The term was coined by British earth mysteries pioneer John Michell in the 1970s. It has since been appropriated by activists to promote the agenda of the European New Right within a Pagan milieu.
Radical Traditionalists characterize themselves as anti-modernist, anti-materialist, anti- corporate and desiring to return to ethnically homogeneous tribes found in Europe prior to the spread of Christianity. That last bit is code for anti-multicultural and generally white nationalist. The movement is associated with an interest in the works of 20th century Italian occultist Julius Evola, who was considered even too right wing for Mussolini’s Italian fascism in the 1930s. Evola believed in a spiritual caste system and longed for a race of perfected male warriors. He had no time for populism. Evola was both a mystic and very politically active, he created a body of esoteric work including books on Tantra, hermeticism, sex magic and yoga which have been of interest to some occultists for decades when there was little being published about Tantra or sex magic, but not far under the surface of these texts were other views promoting authoritarian rule, serious misogyny, hypermasculinity, and cultural hierarchies. Like many on the right-wing spectrum of the early 20th century, Evola believed that the West was in a state of decline and rallied for a return to spiritually driven, anti-materialist, pre-modern societies where everyone knew their place. Although his books have been around for decades, his occult works are gaining in popularity now because they provide a convenient gateway for politically oriented publishers in the past decade to present a wider range of his thought in a more radical right context. Despite Evola’s anti-populist stance, his views are attractive to anti-modernists who feel as though modern life is spiritually bankrupt and that traditional social orders have broken down.
To an outside observer it seems like much of the political fervor in the world of occultists and metaphysical authors is on the right. Is there a similar intensity on the left?
It may look that way because the fight is loud, organized and really strategic in terms of institution building. But there is a whole bunch of vibrant leftist activity emerging in occult and Pagan communities. In a June 10th article, the New York Times outlined some of the more high profile progressive magical responses to the right. People are taking action in a variety of ways, big and small. We see organized magical projects such as the Bind Trump efforts, and the anti-capitalist, polytheism driven project of the blogging and activism website Gods and Radicals. But I think the most exciting leftist forms of magical resistance are not coming from within the established Pagan and polytheist cultures. The emerging “New Witchcraft” is explicitly intersectional, diverse, and feminist, and I think it is really hitting something in the popular imagination about the role of agency on the margins, where witchcraft has always lived. The explicit political tactics of the New Witchcraft are varied and I wouldn’t say that they use a single approach. Some, inspired by W.I.T.C.H., the late 1960s protest theater group Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, become involved in street protests. Others quietly hex. Primarily, however, I believe that New Witches are more concerned with social justice, diversity and inclusion.
You’ve written about how Wicca, formerly understood as part of the 19th c. Occult Revival, is being reframed as distinct indigenous religious traditions. How is this coming about?
First, I want to be clear that I generally think that trying to label any Pagan or magical tradition as “inauthentic” is problematic and probably says more about the agenda of the accuser than the tradition under scrutiny. I personally believe that there are a lot of ways in which we can talk about the development of a spiritual tradition, mythic origin stories, and most importantly what conveys authenticity to the people practicing it. There are no pure pedigrees, anywhere. Besides, we only know that the force of “tradition” is working when it’s being passed on, and it changes every time.
Paganism and Wicca have always had a tricky relationship with nativism, especially British nativism, so these discourses of indigeneity are not exactly new. There have been efforts to try to frame Wicca, Gardnerian Wicca in particular, as “inauthentic” because the origin myth has been shown to be fairly spurious in that we know that Gardnerian Wicca does not represent an underground tradition that has been been practiced continuously since the Paleolithic. Let’s face it, though, pretty much any origin story of any religious tradition is full of holes. There is a current cultural tendency within Paganism to try to prove “authenticity” and demonstrate a connection with “tradition,” coming from a particular cultural inheritance (whether Cornwall or Norway),because some practitioners believe that legitimizes their practice. They want to feel they are part of a cultural transmission tied to place, ancestors and history. This is the root of Pagan Reconstruction practices. Heathenry, or Germanic Paganism, has a rather high profile, but there are Hellenic Reconstructionists working with ancient Greek traditions, Celtic Reconstructionists, Slavic Reconstructionists and many other flavors. Reconstructionist practitioners rely heavily on academic research to help inform the reconstruction of “authentic” practice, but this is difficult because we live in a completely different context than ancient peoples. Divination with the entrails of prisoners or large scale animal sacrifices in the public square just aren’t ok in 2019. This will not be a popular view, but I’m not really a fan of most Reconstruction efforts in a modern Pagan context, because a lot of the ideologies driving this need are problematic to me and end up having a “blood and soil” flavor that I’m not sure some practitioners are even spotting. And I am absolutely against any attempts to claim indigenous status for modern Paganisms, which some American Pagans are trying to do by lobbying the Parliament of World Religions and making alliances with indigenous religious groups under the premise that Pagan religions are indigenous European religions. They are not. That position disadvantages indigenous people’s uses of those strategies for visibility and support. That, to me, is dangerous appropriation.
Please tell us about the “Night of Magical Resistance.”
“The Night of Magical Resistance” happened May 30, 2019 at the Horse Hospital in London, and was the brainchild of Mark Pilkington, one of the founders of Strange Attractor Press. It grew out of some online discussions several of us were having about our growing concerns with radical right entryism into Pagan and occult communities, although it does need to be acknowledged that there have been right-wing elements in these communities for decades. We had all noted that many of the deep structures of occult and Pagan thought and practice, such as anti-modernism, a love of sacred landscapes and a valorization of tradition, are unfortunately very compatible with right-wing thought. These tendencies have created multiple entry points and opportunities for the radical right to exploit these ideological compatibilities and create products and whole markets aimed at Pagan and occult communities. Many people know about the concerns with various White supremacist music scenes surrounding metal and neofolk, but the markets for radical right flavored Paganism extend into fashion and even the diet and fitness industry, which sounds nuts, but it’s out there! This stuff is really happening! So Mark, myself, Phil Legard and Layla Legard, who are not only writers and scholars but also perform as the band Hawthonn, decided to have an event where we explicitly discuss how the radical right is appealing to these communities, and then start to collectively imagine what sorts of models of practice might emerge which are less likely to connect with any of the ideological frameworks of the radical right. It was standing room only! I was amazed to see how many people are deeply concerned about this issue. I want to see the conversation keep going.
You have argued that Ithell Colquhoun was one of the most active and engaged occultists of the 20th century. Even though many Surrealists had an interest in the occult, Colquhoun seems a bit different. How did the “establishment” surrealist painters view Ithell Colquhoun and how did she view them?
I’m not an art historian, I take an historical or ethnohistorical approach to Colquhoun’s life, but I think Surrealist scholars pay a lot of attention to the Surrealist milieu when looking at Surrealistartists, and Colquhoun broke that mold in many ways. Colquhoun was only officially attached the British Surrealists for about 4 years, and for a brief period in 1939 she was one of the emerging gems of the scene, with a feature in the London Bulletin (effectively the journal of the British Surrealists), and a significant exhibition at the Mayor Gallery. She separated from the British Surrealists in 1940 when their ringleader Edouard Mesens tried to impose some coherence on the group which was struggling to survive in wartime conditions, including boycotting any other groups, and supporting the proletarian revolution. Colquhoun was a fiercely independent spirit, and wanted to remain free to pursue her occult interests and publishing. However, she had always believed herself to be an orthodox Bretonian Surrealist and, frankly, felt that a lot of the British Surrealists didn’t remain true to that mission. During her marriage to the renegade Surrealist Toni del Renzio, which lasted from 1943-1947, the couple tried to promote a renewed Bretonian spirit among the British Surrealists through organizing poetry readings and other events. Sadly, she found herself ultimately ostracized from the rest of the community, even after she split with del Renzio. Their treatment of them was pretty horrible and traumatic to read about. Other Surrealists would attend their poetry readings and would insult them and pelt them with vegetables so hard that they needed to take cover! Later in life she wrote a rather bitter little poem about the entire group. I have always suspected that her estrangement from that community caused her deep and abiding pain, but I also believe that Colquhoun’s own Surrealism didn’t really completely flourish until after she split from the movement and found her own feet and voice.
What was Ithell’s relationship to the Golden Dawn? How deeply did she engage the occult and how varied were her influences?
From her late teens until her death, Ithell Colquhoun’s very bones were saturated with her occult passions. She was hungry for enlightenment and every other thing she did in her life, including her art and her writing, was in service to this quest. In the early 1930s, Colquhoun sought membership in the Alpha et Omega Golden Dawn lodge that her cousin Edward Garstin was a member of, but she was refused admission. Yet, the Golden Dawn system became a guiding force in her life and art, possibly because so much of it is based in color theory and Kabbalistic correspondences. She truly felt that she had been etherically touched by the Secret Chiefs of the Golden Dawn, and in the early 1950s she set about joining orders that she believed contained the thread of the Golden Dawn current, including the OTO (which likely didn’t last long), Druidry, Co-Masonry, Martinism, and ultimately Tamara Bourkhoun’s Order of the Pyramid and Sphynx, focusing on Enochian magic. However, she identified primarily as an animist and the movements of vital energies through people and landscapes were preoccupations that can be seen throughout her entire corpus of work. In terms of the influences on her visual art alchemy, animism, Tantra, and Kabballah were central. In terms of her writing and poetry, however, we also see an emphasis on “Celtic” mysticism and her interest in Witchcraft and emerging mid-century Paganism and earth mysteries. Although I have always had an interest in the ways in which British nativism intersects with religion, Colquhoun’s life and work ended up being a case study in this topic. Compared to many Surrealists I argue that Colquhoun was quite conservatively oriented. She was a self identified Traditionalist and anti-modernist, and believed in the spiritual renewal of Britain and especially the Celtic regions.
You studied at the esteemed Folklore and Mythology department at UCLA . What was that like and what happened to the department?
The Folklore and Mythology program at UCLA was both astounding and utterly tragic. My graduate school colleagues there were by far some of the brightest, most talented and creative scholars around culture and tradition that I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. Unfortunately, it was also my first introduction to how ugly academic culture and politics can get. The program was interdisciplinary and the faculty held their positions in other departments in addition to their Folklore positions. Funding was dwindling quickly in the early 1990s. We were losing affiliated faculty, and the few who were left and running the program couldn’t stand to be in the same room together. As resources dwindled, fewer and fewer students got any financial support. Students became divided against each other and the faculty even sabotaged each other’s students. Ultimately when the faculty couldn’t agree on a direction for the program, it was disbanded and the remaining faculty split to the English department and the World Arts and Cultures program at UCLA. Despite that sad story, the teaching and the theory were tremendous! I took courses on food, ritual, festival, tradition and cultural invention. How great is that! It was where I needed to be, and I am so grateful to still be in touch with so many of the brilliant scholars I knew from that program.
You wrote about an experience you had during a course in graduate school where you were documenting a marriage involving OTO and Golden Dawn members doing a ritual with kabbalistic and other occult elements. You described how your fellow students and professor laughed throughout the screening of a video you were using as part of your ethnography. The validity of documenting the subject was questioned. Have things changed?
Western Esotericism (as deeply problematic as that term is) and the occult are being taken more seriously as topics worthy of academic study. The intensive academic focus on history and the particular recent emphasis on occult art and literature has helped provide an intellectual barrier that will prepare people to talk about the more provocative aspects of belief and practice, which is where people start getting a bit more freaked out. The occult is fascinating, but no sane person actually does ritual or believes it, right?
Many scholars in the past have treated the occult as an interesting symbolic base from which artists and writers have drawn inspiration, but they have been challenged by the degree to which these artists were dedicated to occult practice. W.B. Yeats is the perfect example of this. He was into it! His occultism was not merely an intellectual exercise, and early Yeats scholars just couldn’t deal with this. I think presenting people with artifacts and then exploring the systems and practices that drove their creation is perhaps a more comfortable introduction for people. There is still no doubt, however, that academic research into esoteric and occult topics and Paganism is stigmatized. Scholars still report institutional concerns about the position of the researcher and fears that they might be practitioners (which many researchers are). Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann famously gives an account of this sort of departmental prejudice in her 1989 ethnography of British witches Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft. I think more methodologically rigorous studies and objective research will help shift perspectives in the academy. Esoteric Studies is developing into a respected field, but Pagan Studies still has problems with rigor. Religious people study their own religions all the time, but doing that well and appropriately requires that you state your own positions and biases with relationship to your subject matter. Pagan Studies in the past has been a bit too heavily concerned with making Paganism a legitimate topic in the academy. If scholars focus on the material rather than trying to be advocates it will strengthen the field.
You’ve done some wonderful research on Cornwall, how did you get started there, and what does it mean to you?
This is such a huge question. From the time I was a teenager I was obsessed with the emotional and spiritual pull of all things Celtic. I made it my educational mission, even as an undergraduate, to research Contemporary Celtic identities, how they are marketed and what makes them connect with people in various contexts. I became interested in Cornwall because to me they were the most interesting of the Celtic peoples (I love them all, of course!), but I was genuinely compelled by the struggles that the modern Cornish have faced, and this brought home to me the social justice context that underlies the whole notion of Celtic identities. I think a lot of Americans in particular use “Celticity” as an escape and a shorthand for Otherworldly access, yet Celtic peoples have experienced systematic discrimination and suffer from the continuing impacts of colonialism and economic marginality. Cornish ethnicity is very real, yet Cornish history, culture, and identity have genuinely been subjugated, and people still openly mock the lived realities and cultural difference of this population. It’s really quite shocking sitting on a bus in Cornwall and hearing people say the most terrible, degrading things about Cornish people as though it’s completely acceptable. Yet those who are there for the cream teas and stone circles know little of this situation or the poverty and the drug problems. Cornwall is shocking beautiful, and it is still a playground for the rich and for spiritual tourists who have no idea how to engage with the history, culture and economy of the indigenous population. Cornwall has and continues to teach me a lot about how we “other” people and also how this othering contributes to the creation and consumption of liminal and magical spaces. There will always be a huge part of my heart in Cornwall and I remain fully dedicated to supporting Cornish culture and seeing the Cornish thrive. My work there isn’t done, so watch this space.