Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community (review)
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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 491-492



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Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community. By Sarah M. Pike. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Pp. xxvi + 288, bibliography, index.)

Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves is a fascinating study of the Neopagan movement in America, with particular reference to how contemporary pagans fashion their self-identity and form a sense of community through festivals, ritual observances, and shared symbols and history. Sarah M. Pike situates her ethnographic study within the analytical frameworks of several different disciplines, including folkloristics, religious studies, literary criticism, and gender analysis. The result is an impressive, far-ranging book that should be of interest to scholars in all of these areas.

As folklorists have long recognized, festivals occupy an important role in the development of individual and group identities, and much of Pike's material is drawn from her experiences attending a variety of Neopagan festivals over a five-year period. By closely examining these festivals through observation, personal participation, and interviews with festival attendees, she paints a vivid picture of how rituals, sounds, images, sacred spaces, and narratives help define a liminal zone in which Neopagan identity can be explored and created.

Pike's first chapter situates the Neopagan festivals within the broader context of "topoanalysis," or the exploration of self-identity through place. She argues that the festivals create sacred space that helps define both the participants and the movement. In the festivals, people who often see themselves as outcasts can find affirmation and experience a close sense of renewable community identity. Pike suggests that these group meetings are similar in spirit to the camp meetings and Chautauquas that helped forge nineteenth-century religiosity.

In chapter 2, Pike takes up a more detailed study of festival sites. Including maps of such Neopagan sanctuaries as Lothlorien in southern Indiana, she vividly describes how space is used to create different spiritual environments. During the time of the festival, the physical location becomes a place set apart, with a boundary demarcating its separateness from the outside "mundane" world. Inside that boundary, other spaces are set aside as different kinds of spiritual environments, ranging from those intended for large-scale community celebrations (the area defined for the festival fire), to semiprivate communities (campsites set apart for the use of "festival families" who live together during the time of the festival), to intensely private spaces (e.g., personal shrines) that are considered inviolable.

In chapter 3, Pike explores the Neopagan relationship with Christianity, revealing negative and inaccurate stereotypes of Neopagans often held by mainstream Christians, as well as the perhaps more surprising bigotry of some Neopagans in lumping together all Christians as ignorant "fundies" (fundamentalists). In this chapter, as well as in chapter 4, "Blood That Matters: Neopagan Borrowing," Pike shows how extensively Neopaganism is intertwined with other spiritual traditions. Herein lies at least part of the identity problem of many Neopagans. It is easier for them to say what they are not (they are not Satanists and not New Agers), than to determine exactly what they are. Because Neopagans run the gamut from Wiccans to Druids to "Radical Faeries" (a group concerned with gay men's spirituality) and beyond, there are no set dogmas or specific beliefs common to all of them. With no set doctrines or other means of defining a group of individuals [End Page 491] as a community, Neopagans tend to define themselves against the "Other" (mainstream Christianity) and to borrow from Native American, Asian, African, Celtic, and other traditions to provide themselves with a history and shared cultural milieu—a process that Pike dubs "cultural strip-mining" (p. 134).

Building on these issues of the ambivalence of Neopagan identity formation, Pike elaborates on the shifting definitions of the Neopagan "self" as revealed through memory and narrative (chapter 5) and gender and eroticism (chapter 6). In these chapters, Pike shows her familiarity with current scholarship in postmodernism, deconstructionism, gender analysis, and narrative studies, though she maintains her focus on group dynamics and religious identity. Her analysis...


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