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Article ID: 14112
Age Group: Adult
Posted: August 12th. 2010
Isaac Bonewits (1949 - 2010) : A Tribute
by Peg Aloi
The pagan community has lost one of its brightest lights this day, when Philip Emmons Isaac Bonewits passed over to the Summerlands. Isaac fought a brave battle against cancer for the last few months: so brave and optimistic that it's hard to believe he finally lost that battle.
Remember when you were just discovering that a pagan movement existed? When you first realized there were people out there who felt as you did, thought what you thought, shared your views on nature and the universe and history and religion and love and sex and music and poetry? You started reading The Golden Bough and The White Goddess, and bought your first athame, and performed your first prosperity spell. You went to an occult shop in Manhattan, hoping for a glimpse of Herman Slater or Leo Martello or Sybil Leek. Your apartment started to reek of frankincense, attar of roses and giddy curiosity. You went to your first pagan gathering and it felt like coming home. All those firsts, those feelings of belonging, those sensations borne of reaching back through aeons of human existence to touch the numinous, the exhilaration of new knowledge and experiences, all these things were made possible by people who lived in a very potent and turbulent time in our history. And Isaac Bonewits was there, and he set a social movement in motion.
Some folks have commented on how fitting it is that his death coincides with a particularly shining meteor shower (the Perseids, brighter than usual with a new moon just past) . But for me, Isaac is not one I see shimmering among the stars: he was all earth to me. Oak, ash, thorn, silver, apple, oats and barley, iron and wood, cakes and ale. A true Pagan with a capital P: a formality he insisted we observe for our burgeoning spiritual tradition. I believe we will feel and see and hear him in the trees his Druid soul loved: in the dappled sunlight through green leaves, in the windsong and birds' carols, in the nourishing fruits and nuts that bless our harvests every autumn.
Isaac's life was so rich, his legacy so vast, that I will leave it to better journalists than I am to catalog and summarize his many achievements (both Margot Adler and Jason Pitzl-Waters have written wonderful obituaries to be found online) . This will be a tribute to a man I have known and admired for many years.
In my hands is a hardcover version of the book Real Magic (An Introductory Treatise on the Basic Principles of Yellow Magic) by P. E. I. Bonewits, published in 1971 by Coward, Mc Cann & Geoghegan, Inc. of New York (I believe this is a first edition, for those interested in such things) . On the back cover is a reproduction of Isaac's degree from the University of California, the first ever Bachelor of Arts in Magic ever awarded by an accredited university. It was the first of its kind because it was created by Isaac, who had the will and vision to approach his academic advisors and suggest a degree all his own. This daring act of originality, which, in 1970, had enormous implications for the growing Neo-Pagan movement, was followed by many others, including the founding of the first pagan religious rights organization (the Aquarian Anti-Defamation League) , and the Druid grove Ar nDraiocht Fein in 1983, which was incorporated as a non-profit organization. Isaac also had the forward vision to try and make his books available for online downloading, at a time when the rest of the pagan community was dragging its heels on this option. Isaac was a prolific writer (with several books and countless articles) , an engaging speaker, a respected leader, a well-loved teacher, a musician, an artist, a husband and father. Certainly his many accomplishments and the many lives he touched might tempt us to remember him as larger than life, almost god-like. But he was not a god, he was a man, and it's far more fitting to remember him with his flaws as well as his virtues.
For, like many movers and shakers, mavericks, rabble-rousers, visionaries, artists, prophets, and icons (yes, Isaac was all of these) , the man was also, for much of his life, an arrogant and headstrong jerk at times. No surprise there, and with so many accomplishments to show for his efforts, we tended to forgive him for it. However, unlike many other people with high-powered personalities, Isaac evolved enormously in his life. I noted a dramatic transformation in him not long after he became ill with Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome, after a bout of tryptophan poisoning in 1990. Tryptophan is a harmless food supplement, but a contaminated batch of it poisoned a number of people, including Isaac, resulting in a range of effects from muscle pain and nerve damage to partial paralysis and death. Isaac was lucky, and he knew it.
I recall seeing Isaac at an indoor pagan gathering of some sort (can't quite recall which one now) and thinking, gosh, what a pompous ass. But I had a grudging respect for him nevertheless, because, oh my gosh, he was ISAAC BONEWITS. We didn't really meet or interact much at the time. Several years later, I saw him at another event, this one outdoors, and he was changed. He could be seen riding on a golf cart, walking with a cane, his once-vigorous gait faltering, his once-booming voice fainter. I had heard about what had happened, and felt badly for him. But as that week progressed, and I saw Isaac here and there and heard him speak to others, I noticed something odd: he was NICE. He was being funny, not to draw attention to himself but to put others at ease. He was humble and self-deprecating. I was actually blown away. This man's misfortune and brush with death had not left him embittered or self-pitying: it had made him a better human being.
Over the years I got to socialize with Isaac at a number of gatherings. I recall the first time we actually made a connection wherein he learned my name. We were at a small festival in Florida (AutumnMeet, I believe) , and there was a small group of people sitting around a campfire sharing songs. I wandered by and sat down, Isaac being the only person I recognized. It got to be my turn and I sang a song, something of Celtic origin, I don't recall what. After I finished Isaac leaned over in his chair, offered me a can of Guinness, and said “Would you like to run away with me to Albuquerque?” I laughed, I thought this was so goofy and charming. Music was a language Isaac understood only too well, and a sure way to form a bond with him.
Some years later at Starwood one year, Isaac and Oberon Zell were among another small group of people seated around yet another campfire, sharing songs. At one point Isaac and Oberon decided they would sing something together. After conversing for a moment on which version of the lyrics they would use, they both started to sing. Now, Oberon is a man of many gifts, but let's just say, on that occasion his musical gifts were not quite up to Isaac's standards. After a few moments, Isaac turned to him in mock exasperation and said “Pick a key…ANY KEY!” Everyone laughed, including Oberon.
A more recent musical memory I shared with Isaac was at Wellspring in 2009, just a few months before his cancer diagnosis. I was not really participating in the event, but I was at Brushwood that weekend anyway. When I ran into Isaac, I asked if they were doing another bardic competition, which I had enjoyed the year before. He said yes, they were and excitedly described the different categories. I expressed a wish that I was part of their organization so I could participate. Isaac did not even hesitate to ask if I wanted to sing during their break when they were judging the winners. He said he'd arrange it with the other organizers. I thought that was pretty classy. Later that same day, before the bardic event, I saw Isaac a number of yards away, walking own the road toward the bridge I was crossing. He was singing, as was I: turns out we were both practicing songs we thought we might sing later on. We were singing completely different kinds of songs: different keys, different melodies, different rhythms, different tempos, different moods. But as we walked towards one another, we both kept singing out loud. As we got closer to each other, and could hear each other more clearly, it became an amusing contest to see if we could both continue and not get thrown off or distracted by what the other person was singing. I don't know about Isaac but I found it very challenging! We were still singing when we had finally stopped at the edge of the bridge, and finished our songs at the exact same time. He asked what I was singing, and I asked what he was singing, and neither of us was familiar with the other person's song. We didn't comment on the fact that we had both silently agreed to keep singing until the other person had finished. It was a very exhilarating but funny moment.
I wish for more such memories of Isaac's warm humor, his boundless love of music, his clever wit and kind respect for his fellow artists. I am deeply saddened that such a brilliant man's life has been cut short by a cruel disease, and like many, I wonder what might have been accomplished with more time. But I am also grateful, not only to have known him, but to have received the benefits of his work for our movement. Perhaps no one person has done so much for the visibility and viability of Neo-Paganism, nor done so with such charm, grace and dogged individuality.
Isaac, you were one of a kind, and I thank you for your innumerable gifts, and I celebrate your life and legacy today and for many days to come. May all who read this raise a glass in your honor, and feel moved to works of daring and originality in their lifetimes.
August 12, 2010
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