Barefeet on an Earth Path

September, 2013

Dismissing Paganism

     A woman I was talking to the other day was telling me about how she’d been involved in a Wiccan women’s group back in her college days.  She went on enthusiastically about how Goddess spirituality is very affirmative for women.  That’s cool, I thought.  Remarkably positive, compared to the sort of vague, confused nod a lot of people give me when they find out I’m pagan.

“Paganism is really good for you right now,” she said.

Right now? I wondered.  Well, okay, I guess so.

“It gives you a lot of room to grow and is a great thing for now.”

Wait a minute.  She didn’t say it just once, so it wasn’t some thoughtless phrase added on to the end of a sentence.  It meant something.  What she seemed to be saying was that paganism is great, affirmative, freeing.  The perfect religion for your college days, while you’re still learning who you are.  But once you figure it out?  Well, then it’s time for, you know, a real religion. Time to stop screwing around with your pentacle necklace, trying to rebel against your parents.  I mean, come on, how could the religion of black-clad teenagers offer any sort of lifetime fulfillment for grown-ups?

If you think about it, it’s not too hard to imagine the genesis of this sentiment. A majority of neopagans are Wiccan, and Wicca does have its fair share of rebellious teenagers.  Maybe they thought their parents were stupid, or didn’t want anything more to do with church.  Just saying the word “Goddess” felt rebellious, so they googled the forbidden and ended up in our fold. Many didn’t stay long.  They read some books, maybe went to a group or two, and felt nice inside for a while.  But then they moved on, possibly giving the impression that that’s what we do.

But not all do.  I’ve heard of a lot of people who initially looked into paganism or witchcraft because of something like The Craft.  While it sounded odd to me at first, I really don’t think it matters all that much how we got here, whether because of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or because we were running from our faith of origin.  If our reasons remain shallow, we’ll likely drift away.  But if we learn what real paganism and witchcraft are and decide to stay, then the initial spark is inconsequential.  We’re here now because something within paganism speaks to us.

The bottomline is that we’ve got a lot of dabblers, and that makes sense.  Most of us had to dabble a little to figure out if this set of religions we’d barely even heard of was right for us.  But what is it that makes people take us less seriously than other religions?  I think it’s, quite simply, lack of knowledge. As I talked further with this woman about my religion, I discovered that she wasn’t at all familiar with the eight sabbats and seemed pleasantly surprised by the symbolism I work with at each sabbat toward personal growth.  Paganism holds so much depth that the softcore dabblers have never even touched and probably never heard of.  I know it certainly holds much depth that I have yet to touch and, I’m sure, even hear of.  We’ve got traditions, theology(or thealogy), spontaneity, wisdom.  I believe swift judgments on the supposed lack of depth of paganism, of an entire set of rich religious and spiritual traditions, is likely based on a shallow, elementary overview.  Add to that our remarkable diversity, the fact that I can stand next to an atheist in circle and they can stand next to me and neither of us be bothered one bit that the other sees paganism in a vastly different way, and the situation is ripe for confusion for outsiders.

Really, I can’t be the poster girl for long-term commitment to paganism.  I can’t say “Look at me. Clearly I’ve found fulfillment because I’ve been here for fifteen years.”  But I can say that paganism doesn’t have to be just a way station for me.  That if I find what I need here and want to stick around, I don’t need to move on to a more “serious” religion.  There is as much room for growth here as anywhere else.  As much wisdom, as many beautiful traditions.  And I might be a little biased when I say, perhaps a little more magic.

Pagan Theology

June, 2010

Pagan theology: What good is it?

Given that I’ve written 27 of these columns I thought I’d stop and think a little bit about Pagan theology and the role it does, or should, play in our faith.

One of the things that makes Pagan theology complicated is that different people focus on different aspects of the theological question.  When you talk theology you can be referring to what we believe; for example, why do we cast the clockwise circle and what does it mean.  Or you can be referring to why the things we do work, what I would refer to as relating our faith to our existence in the world.  Our discussions about theology can focus on either “out there” or “in here” or some combination of both.  As I’ve said before, Pagan theology is different from book theologies in that it encompasses topics that deal with this world as well as abstract issues of deity and our relation to it.  This multiplicity of topics can lead to a lot of different theologies and theological approaches.  In order to understand where we fit in we can divide the different approaches up into broad categories.

The most relevant and perhaps inspiring approach to theology in the neo-Pagan movement so far has been what I would call the pragmatic.   In this line of thinking the poetry we make with our actions and words is the real work, the underlying reason or logical structure that upholds those actions is less important and typically glossed over without a lot of discussion.  That’s not to say those constructing the theology don’t have a deep underlying understanding of what it is they are doing, they just don’t see that as the primary question worth answering.  This very Pagan approach to things is to be found in much of the mainstream literature including Starhawk and many of the older writings.   Even the Penczak books, which include a lot of direct discussion on more esoteric matters, tend to be brief and somewhat vague [1] when it comes to the more complex theological questions.

Another approach is the Neo-Platonic, religionist, approach that attempts to build a logical structure upon which the clothing of faith can be worn.  Here we try and draw connections between different aspects of Pagan life, from magic to ethics to ontology.  We do this through a logical, analytical, structure that develops lists and definitions and categories [2].  We are essentially applying philosophical techniques to Paganism, asking questions about how current or past philosophical questions relate to what we are doing.  This is the line I try to travel in, and it seems to be dominated by folks like myself: amateur bombasts seeking to fill in a gap that for some reason we think is missing.  You find very little of this approach in mainstream Pagan literature [3], probably because many Pagans find this path to be alien to what they believe Paganism is about.  This is too much of a churchy, Christian, approach toward our religion, and puts many off.  The individuals who are most put off  by this approach tend to fall into the next category.

Earth-based theologies encompass a wide swath of the neo-Pagan movement, and can be boiled down to the idea that the Earth is our scripture, and the place that reveals all we need to know of the divine.  We don’t need no fancy thinking, we should just go out and experience it for ourselves.  This path leads to the “all paths” approach toward Paganism, and tends to encourage a great degree of skepticism about unifying creeds or principles for us as a movement.   There are those who experience the world in different ways, and the ones who focus on feelings and relationships rather than objects and ideas tend to be a major component of Paganism, and seem to embrace this theological path more than others.

We can easily extend this to make the “real world” our scriptures, not just the natural world.  An interconnected web of relation encompasses everything.  That interconnected we means we need to honor all things, including each other as well as the earth, because they are all a part of us, part of the nature that we inhabit.  This places relationships, between both nature and us and between each other, and us at the center of what it means to be Pagan.

Tribal and revival arguments make up another whole line of our thought.  Here individuals seek to reclaim specific practices and beliefs that were held by our ancestors.  Because much of Paganism was and is tribal [4], or at least a revival [5], there are elements of tribalism everywhere within Paganism.  The rituals of wiccaning and initiation are essentially tribal, creating two groups:  those who are of the kin (brethren) and those who are not.  Secrecy of some Wiccan sects also represents a form a tribalism: if you know the secrets you are of the tribe.

Many in Paganism got there through a strong desire to reconnect with their tribal or ancestral roots.  I know my very strong draw to the Celtic region’s Gods and Goddesses represents my connection with my ancestors’ lands.  This sort of tribalism, easy for Europeans or people who still reside on or near their native lands, is really tough for Americans.  If we try and reclaim ancestral roots in Europe, we are accused of shallow carpet bagging.  But where do we go if we don’t?  Appropriating Native American or other indigenous beliefs, while very attractive to some, can easily be called cultural imperialism by others [6].

Even if we stick to our knitting and focus on our actual, ancestral, tribes we have the serious problem the Reconstructionists face.   Despite a lot of ink being spilled on Druid and Celtic revivalism, very little is really know about beliefs and theologies beyond what was reported by others.  Even many of the Roman and Greek concepts of religion were either Bowdlerized by Christians, or so distorted that they are difficult to untangle from what the Christian authors’ viewpoints.

Finally, and I only mean “finally” in the sense we have to end this somewhere, there are the “magical” philosophies (which can encompass traditional philosophy as well as divinity-centered theology)  that make up a broad and tangential part of modern neo-Paganism.  The relationship between the occult movement of the last couple of centuries and neo-Paganism is complicated, but neo-Paganism has borrowed extensively from occult magical practices.  These practices, as we have discussed in other columns, have many different approaches to what is true, and how they work.  These represent philosophies of magic, or at minimum theories of how the world works at an occult level.  Many of these theories (e.g. “as above, so below,” the law of contagion, etc.) have all found their ways into various Pagan and Witch beliefs [7].   These philosophies are anything but clear, and they are often couched in symbology that is deliberately designed to confuse and require a lot of study in order to understand it.  Whether that is a good thing or not, it makes developing a comprehensive, philosophical or theological, concept of magic very difficult.

Stopping here gives us six different approaches to Pagan theology:  pragmatic, Neo-Platonic, Earth-based, tribal, revivalist, and magical.   That alone should say something about the diversity of experience that can be had in the modern neo-Pagan community.  We are a very complicated mixture of individuals; all striving to create a religion that embodies our calling [8].  Most of the six theologies will be woven into any one text or belief system, none of them are mutually exclusive or contradictory [9].   However each one addresses the problem of explaining Paganism differently.  They can be intermingled, but they are not the same, and they really do represent quite different ways to approach the task.

Now that we have got our catalog lets first specify up front that, because we are Pagans, there is no one, “right” way to approach the problem of understanding the Gods and Goddesses.  Paganism is fundamentally accepting of variety, and variety in the way we organize the world is certainly consistent with that deep feeling of acceptance.  However acceptance does not necessarily mean that we cannot be critical or intellectual.  Nor does it mean we should be limited in our ability to articulate who and what we are, and how we relate to divinity.

I believe the fundamental distinction within all of these approaches is the difference between feeling and thinking.  Neither one is worse than the other, and certainly they are not exclusive, but how you orient toward these two approaches is an important way in which you understand the world [10].   The people who orient toward feeling, and based on my experience that is a whole lot of people who end up in the liberal religions, tend to see no particular need for deep explanations of Paganism.  Rather they see it as experiential and not intellectual, that faith is something to know, not understand.  They embody the Eros of the Pagan faith, the sensual love of the Gods and Goddesses that is understood through emotion and relationships.

The Agape [11] of the Pagan movement, the paternalistic, intellectual, understanding of the Gods and Goddesses is not as common in our works and in our lives.  It represents the desire for understanding, for taking apart the world and examining it piece by piece.  My division of the Pagan intellectual tradition into Eros/feeling and Agape/thinking is exactly what someone in the Agape category would do.   If I instead understood the world through the lens of feeling this cataloging and dividing might never have occurred to me, or have much meaning.

I contend that we do lose something by eschewing the thinking aspect of the theological arts in favor of feeling our way through our religion.  I believe it limits how and who we communicate with, and it also leads to a lot of sloppiness intellectually as well as in term of faith.  If you don’t have a clear articulation of a theology it is much easier to fall for the latest New Age fad that comes along.  If you have to feel your way though faith with only a few slogans at your disposal, it becomes much harder to explain yourself to others, or to have a deep conversation with other Pagans.

I believe that we need that balance, between people who assemble and people who take things apart, between those who put people first and those who put ideas first.  That balance seems somewhat lacking, for many, many reasons (but especially because we have little or nothing from our ancestors to start with, for that we can thank our buddies the Christians).   In this column I am trying to push a little in the other direction, as are many others.  Sure, we’re amateurs, but try to make a living as a Pagan theologian.  (Or any other sort of Pagan faith-based profession).  We’re all amateurs.

But what I have found is that, in trying to articulate a theory of faith within Pagan Pages, I have become much better at both talking about faith as well as understanding what others are saying about their beliefs.  I can organize information about the faith; I can make connections between ideas and feelings and add those ideas to my ever-expanding understanding of what it means to be Pagan.  To me that suggests any work on theology, whether amateur or not, can be of benefit at least to the person who is forced to articulate what they believe.  But, ultimately, such actions by many, many Pagans will work to build a broader body of work upon which our faith can grow and cement its place as a modern faith movement.  One that will outlast us and become the beginning of a bigger movement towards acceptance, tolerance, and reverence for all of nature.

[1] This is not necessarily a criticism; instead I mean to distinguish those who attempt to construct an analytic theology from those who are more experiential or emotional in their theology.  Both hold truth, but they are different.

[2] I am not alone in this desire for definitions, lists, and catalogs; Isaac Bonewits also has a lot of material in his books where he attempts to do the same.

[3] Except perhaps Bonewits and the more academic approaches of Michael York (Pagan Theology) and Ronald Hutton.

[4] I’d claim that whether a religion is tribal or universal is one of the main features that can be used to distinguish “Pagan” religions from “book” religions.  The claims of universality by Christianity and Islam are very different from almost every other religious belief, and their willingness to include those from outside of the group in their religious beliefs and practices (conversion) is also relatively unique.  I’d contend that even those Pagan groups that don’t have strong ethnic or tribal ties can be “tribal” in the sense that individuals must be called, and somehow work, to join the group.  This calling effectively makes almost any Pagan group a “tribe” of like-minded spiritual people.  This is different from book religions where your calling doesn’t matter; they claim that you should change your calling to theirs and join them, and not those you are called to.   So where would that place Judaism which is often characterized as one of the “book” religions?  Perhaps reading the scriptures (“Have no other gods before me…”) and asking Sophia (one of the early Goddesses of Judaism) might clarify the situation.  Or, perhaps just asking if the Jewish religion is universal, or hereditary (mostly hereditary) answers the question in favor of it being tribal and not universal.

[5] After all the whole thing got started by a revival of the Old Religion under Gardner.

[6] Which I actually believe is somewhat true.  If Paganism is tribal, and it is, then appropriating other tribe’s rituals and beliefs is just plain strange (or New Age).  However, at the same time, Pagan beliefs have always been willing to welcome new Gods and Goddesses, and to incorporate them into their worship (just look up Sulis Minerva or any number of hybrid Celtic/Roman deities).  But I have yet to see this sort of hybridization and cross-cultural melding, rather rituals and concepts tend to be appropriated whole, something that I just find to be puzzling.  Notice that I say its strange and puzzling, not wrong.  It might be wrong; I just have not fully understood all the arguments for it.

[7] In all of my columns I tend to use the term “Pagan” to encompass the whole schemer of neo-Pagan, Wiccan, and traditional Witch beliefs and practices.   Witchcraft hews more toward the magical tradition, while neo-Paganism hews more toward the traditionalist tradition.  It’s all a big spectrum, or rainbow.

[8] While this is a Christian term I wish it was used more in the Pagan community.  We all have callings, some to be Priests or Priestesses, some to be academics, some to put on festivals, and some to just show up and worship.  Finding our callings, and doing what we are called to do very well, should be something that is discussed more, and done more, within the community.

[9] That gives us about 5040 different possible theological approaches to consider if you start combining.

[10] This is very much taken from the Myers-Briggs type classification, which includes a measure that distinguishes “Feeling” from “Thinking.”  While the Myers-Briggs classification is not 100% in line with the normal definition of these words, I do believe they capture the difference between people who orient toward relationships, and people who orient more toward ideas.   Note that these word do not imply a values question, “thinking” is not somehow better or worse than “feeling”.  Though our culture tends to reward thinking behaviors and punish feeling behaviors.

[11] I’m stretching it a bit here.  Agape in the Christian sense is somewhat equivalent to charity, it involves unconditional, voluntary, self sacrifice for another.  However Agape is often contrasted with Eros, Agape being the affection of a parent for the child while Eros is the all-consuming passion one has for another.  In that sense I am using Agape as something that is committed through thought, while Eros is committed through feelings.  At least that’s my story.

Pagan Theology

March, 2010

A Major Distraction

I’ve always known that the blog The Wild Hunt [1] was full of interesting and provocative stuff, but lately I’ve been reading it a bit more and realize just how good it is.  One of the entries caught my eye and I thought it would be worth discussing it [2].

The background is that Colorado State Senator Dave Schultheis apparently has a pretty fuzzy idea of what religious tolerance is [3].  He came out on twitter deploring the religious intolerance of Egyptian Muslims toward Egyptian Christians.  Then, not 20 minutes later he tweeted:  “Wicca and Druidism to be given chapel space in Air Force Academy Chapel…Where will this end?” [4].  In addition to making him look like he doesn’t remember what he wrote 10 minutes ago, this also caused a bit of a kerfuffle as it sounded like he was disrespecting Pagans [5].

Now I’d not normally be one to rise to bait that some random conservative whack job dips into the river, but in this case I think his comments raise a couple of interesting questions.  First, to get kind of Buddhist on the issue, is the question of right thought.  What should we think about people who don’t think our religion is worth as much as the “real” religions? Next is the question of right speech, what should we say and when we’re confronted with religious intolerance? Finally, there is the question of right action.  What should we do in response to comments like these?

When someone attacks you the first reaction is often defensive.  They are invading your real or intellectual space, and you immediately react to protect it.  You say they are a whack job (oops) and immediately serve the poop ball back into their court for the next round of escalation.  Historically speaking you might get away with saying that this is the Pagan way, as Celtic and Northern tribes certainly did not have any trouble getting into fights, either with each other or with other tribes.

However if we ignore the basic tribal instinct to defend our own and consider what is really going on you come to the question of charity and forgiveness.  In the Christian tradition there is the whole concept of charity as an alternative to hatred and malice.  It requires that you give others a more or less unconditional benefit of the doubt and you recognize that others are as worthy of love as you are.

Interestingly enough we don’t have much talk about a similar concept of “agape” or self-sacrificing love in the Pagan community.  This is probably because it is an essential Christian concept, and forms pretty much the heart of Jesus teachings about how to live.  And, acknowledging people who might disagree, Jesus’ teachings are not our teachings.  On the other hand I would argue that we do have a pretty effective substitute for charity in our concept of the divine:  the combination of the reified divinity of the Gods and Goddesses (thou art God/Goddess) and the understanding of imperfection in that divinity (the God/Goddess can make mistakes).

If we believe that Sen. Schultheis has the same essential nature as the Gods and the Goddesses do, then we also understand that he, just like the Gods and Goddesses, can have complex motivations and beliefs.  He is not perfect, neither are we, and neither are the Gods and Goddesses.   This is not charity in the Christian meaning of the term, instead it is a radical call for acceptance of all types of actions and behaviors as part of the world.  Just as we accept the darker aspects of the Morrigan, so too we accept the darker aspects of those who would do us harm.  Of course this does not mean we don’t resist such actions, even while knowing that the resistance itself may be seen as hostile.  But what it does mean is that we see the divine in the actions, all actions, not just the ones we approve of.  Ultimately this means accepting that some are on a dark path, whether it’s a path of certainty, hostility, or ego.

Our faith gives us the ability to see this path they are on, and avoid it.  It does not require “turning the other cheek” [6].   But it does give us the option of not walking the same dark path that our opponents are on.  Instead we can hold up to them their reflection in the Gods and Goddesses.  If they see themselves there, they may also see that of the many paths that are open to them the hostile ones are perhaps not the best way to travel.

Charity, forgiveness, love of others.  Our equivalent of this idea is knowing that the Gods and Goddesses exist and set us on a path of acceptance and respect.  For Pagans acceptance is our equivalent of charity.  It is what calls us to not return hate with hate.  We cannot hate what we accept, even as we disagree with it.  Respect for the divinity within requires us to treat others with love and a magical, light, heart [7].  We accept the behavior is part of the world.  We respect the divinity within.  Even still we defend our faith and must hold up the honor of the Gods and Goddesses.

Ok, so we should not shit all over this guy and piss him off.  Got it.  Don’t like it, but I got it.  So what should we say in response when people challenge Paganism [8] as not being a “real” religion.  How do we “hold up the honor of the Gods and Goddesses”?

First the basics.  Theologically neo-Paganism is both a religion and a faith system, in fact Paganism encompasses many different religions and faith systems.   We can pretty much prove we are a religion, and that we have faith [9].

But of course that is not what the people who are criticizing us are interested in.  Rather they are interested in making it more difficult for us to add new members to our religion, by marginalizing it and making it more difficult for us to be public in the celebration of our faith.  They see us as a competitor.  And we are.

I believe this notion of competition is more important than the idea that their inherent discomfort with us is a reflection of their own insecurities.  They are fearful because they know something that we tend to ignore: we are a powerful and dramatic faith.  If more people understood what it meant to be Pagan, then many more would realize that they are actually Pagan and not of another faith or no faith at all.  This is decidedly not the direction that the book religions would like to see things go in.

While I won’t go into why our appeal is broader than we think it is, I will suggest that if we are being challenged because the others recognize our appeal and we don’t, maybe we should start realizing it too!  We can answer our critics by making our faith more available for entry.  There are many ways to do this.  Bookstores are one venue where people are welcome to participate, as are CUUPs [10] groups.  Being welcoming, being inclusive, and being willing to speak up about our faith is a positive answer to our critics.

Being welcoming is not necessarily the same thing as proselytization.  There has been a general taboo against proselytization amongst Pagans. I will point out that if the other guys proselytize aggressively and we don’t we will loose by the pressure from simple diffusion [11].  However we don’t really need to proselytize, because we have the default option: many Gods and Goddesses instead of one.  All we have to do is be more welcoming, to honor those who come and seek to join, and to stand up and be examples of our faith for those who do not know us.  We continue to grow at great rates, being more open and welcoming will only accelerate that growth.

But there is the question of what action we should take.  What should we do?   I don’t think we actually need to “do” anything.  If we speak up, if we use the attention given by those who attack us to give more people a view of our religion, we will continue to grow.  That is the action I believe the ones who attack us really don’t want.  While they often heartily endorse economic competition, they don’t really want competition in religious ideas.  That seems to always end badly for them.

So someone criticizes us.  We can use the opportunity to get better known.  We can welcome those who end up being curious about us.  And we can do so without any confrontation or hostility.  Perhaps we should thank the Senator.  And all those who want to make us more visible, more accepted, and more mainstream.  Of course that is pretty scary all by itself!

[1] The Wild Hunt is an example of a thoughtful, academically focused, and mature contribution to neo-Pagan literature.  It gives me hope for our religion.



[4] but its strange that his tweets are now protected.  On his page he also has the interesting statement “Tolerance is the virtue of man without convictions” – Gilbert K. Chesterton.  However you can find them at the Colorado Independent article.

[5]  He was.  He’s also a bit of a nut.  More evidence here:

[6] About the last recourse for an old school Witch.

[7]  More on this concept of wonder, magic, and lightness of heart in a future column.  But I will say the way we see magic in the world really affects the way Pagans relate to everything, including other people.

[8] Of course I’m really talking about Western neo-Paganism here, these guys usually don’t take on Hindus or Buddhists.  (Because they know they’ll be taking a bath in a can of whoopass).

[9] As much as anyone else can.

[10]  Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (

[11] An we did once before.

Pagan Theology

December, 2009

Pagan theology:  roots and influences

So I’m teaching a class “Paganism as a Religious Tradition” and the other night I wanted to cover the progression of modern Paganism from its inception with Gardner to the present.  While that’s a big task, its’ not as big as it seems; I find that many of the Pagans I encounter are not well informed about the roots of our faith, despite a very large number of books on the subject [1].  So a lot of detail and fippery was just as likely to overwhelm as inform, and the class was geared toward a more general religious seeker audience anyway.   I didn’t want to do the same old boring chronological who begat whom begat what.  And so I was searching for a different way to organize our history.

But before getting into organizing principles, I first want to talk about why history is important.  I’ve talked about this a little before, but want to mention it again in a more general context.  There are many different ways to use history.   You can use it to justify the legitimacy of whatever it is you are doing now.  Nation-states are great examples of historical precedence, and our legal system is based on the idea that what has been decided in the past should be given weight when considering the present.  Religions also use the historical record as a way to buttress legitimacy directly and indirectly.   The religions of the book have an innate basis in history, without certain historical events these religions would lose a lot of their theological underpinnings.   Likewise, all religions rely on tradition, ritual, and inter-generational common practice to establish their authority over various aspects of social life, marriage, for example.  Changing those traditions can be fraught with implied threats to the underpinnings of religions place in society, as may be the case with the current resistance to providing marriage as a civil right.

Given that the modern Pagan movement has that “modern” appellation it can seem less worthy or somehow “just made up.”  Of course people make up almost everything except the fossil record (and sometimes even that gets fabricated).   I believe that our counter-argument is that Pagans do have a history, it just wasn’t written down as clearly as some others, and there were many institutions in the West that actively attempted to suppress or eliminate the memory of whatever was preserved [2].

You can also use history to understand why some things are done or believed today.  For example, the reason we celebrate Christmas is because historically many different tribes celebrated some sort of holiday around the winter solstice.  In particular the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, and some argue that Saturnalia is a direct predecessor to the modern Christmas.  Certainly the need to celebrate the end of increasing darkness and the beginning of the return of light is cemented in our, and other, cultures [3].   Understanding the origin of various things that you are doing can deepen their meaning, and allow you to build on the past to create new practices.

With the latter idea in mind, I wanted to organize modern Pagan history in a way that both made sense and was interesting.  Looking across all of the various people and ideas that contributed to what has become modern Paganism I believe you can see several deep channels running amongst all of the tributaries, streams, and swamps that make up everything that we are doing now.  Those main channels can all be traced back to the origins of modern Paganism in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Even though all these elements can be found in our modern practices, to keep the historical origins of them clear I choose to label them from their source, as opposed to what they eventually became.  They are:

  • Spiritualism.  This movement, which originated in the 18th century in America,  was monotheistic but had a strong belief in spirits.  It, along with Theosophy and New Thought, was an influence on the New Age movement, and comes down to us in the form of the human potential movement, New Age beliefs including various forms of psychic and healing practices, and the current fascination with ghosts and their hunters.   While the tradition begins with Spiritualism and Theosophy [4], the general influence has been one of individualism and active access to “the other side”.  This uniquely American tendency has influenced not only the modern Pagan movement, but it has also influenced the broader concept of religion and spirituality.  Recently the idea of spirituality and self-fulfillment through religion has been taken up by many other religions, and has generated the whole “spiritual but not religious” trend that is seen amongst all forms of religion in the United States [5].   The individualist tradition, which is perhaps a better name for it, has also drawn and incorporated beliefs from Asia, including Buddhism (meditation) and Hinduism (chakras).  While Asian influences also came into the Western Occult Tradition (for example through Crowley’s study of Yoga [6]), the most theologically influential have been those that addressed the individual and their potential.
  • Romanticism.  The romantic tradition begins in the 18th century with the Romantic Movement in England, and the Transcendentalists in the United States.  This movement is characterized by a veneration of the natural world, which is seen as somehow more authentic, wild, or compelling than the human.  As part of the romantic tradition, there was a revival of interest in ancient, and particularly Celtic/Druidic, religious traditions in the middle 18th century [7].  This leads directly to our current interest in revivalist traditions, Druidic, Northern, Egyptian, and Roman/Greek.  For modern Pagans this tradition of seeing value in “wild nature” is also related to the 1960’s interest in ecology and the natural world.  A focus on the natural world in the 1960’s and 1970’s brought the Gaia movement and earth-centered, sacred earth beliefs, into the modern Pagan movement.
  • Goddess cult.  In the early years of the 20th century there are a number of individuals who were speculating about ancient Pagan practices, and their meaning in the modern world.  Robert Graves with his book The White Goddess, created a speculative tradition of Goddess/God worship across Europe.  He created the idea of the triple Goddess, of the sacred moon/sun duality, and other ideas that were taken up by modern Paganism.  Margaret Murray in her books Witch-cult in Western Europe and God of the Witches developed an anthropological argument for a European-wide Goddess cult that, she speculated, had survived into modern times.  She argued this cult was what the Church was trying to destroy when it began burning witches in the 13th through 17th centuries.  While much of Graves’ and Murray’s (and others [8]) work was later discredited as inaccurate and unsubstantiated, the feminist movement in America picked it up and incorporated it into a sacred theaology of Goddess worship.
  • Western Occult Tradition.  By far one of the greatest influences on modern Paganism has been the Western Occult Tradition.  This loose amalgam of ritual magic,  Occultic practices, and secret societies has been a unique feature of the West since Pagan times.  Working alongside the established religious traditions the practices and beliefs of the Occult tradition have influence both mainstream and alternative religions.  The primary influencers for modern Paganism have been the high ritual magical traditions, derived from Crowley and the Golden Dawn by Gardner, the folk traditions which drew from the Medieval Grimoires, and the practices and rituals of the Masons (again through Gardner).   All of these various high magical traditions have intertwined and interacted in complex ways over the centuries, but they have influenced almost everything else we are talking about here.
  • Traditional witchcraft.  While Gardner is said to have derived his influences from a traditional New Forest coven [9], most of his direct ritual and theological influences appear to have been from the Occult and Goddess traditions (Crowley and Murray).  Instead, the folk traditions have seen their practices incorporated into the modern Pagan movement more through diversity, networking, and publications, as things have gone along.  Examples of traditions that have influenced modern Paganism include Cochrane, Pickingill, and Sybil Leek [10].  Its difficult to determine what influence has come from a traditional practice, and what has come from other influences, because of the use by traditional Cunning Men and Witches of the same medieval sources that many of the Hermetic traditions also drew from.

These threads came together in different ways.  First Gardner in a brilliant combination of Witchcraft, religion, and magic brought together the Goddess tradition, the Western Occult tradition, and traditional into his new idea of a religiously framed Witchcraft.  He was associated with Crowley, and it is generally believed he knew a lot about “high” magical practices.  Gardner was also a Mason, and he was formulating his theories about Witchcraft in the years (1940-1950) after the publication of Murray’s books (1921 and 1933).  His incorporation of all of these forces, along with a healthy dose of Romanticism (which, in his case, was incorporated as nudity), resulted in a mix that was both adaptable, and inspirational for what would later happen in England and America in the 1960’s.

British traditional Witchcraft had a seriousness and formality that was brought to the United States by Raymond Buckland and others in the 1950s.  Here it encountered a strong naturalist and conservationist tradition, and the growing feminist movement.  The ideas originated by Gardner were sufficiently rich, and adaptable, to incorporate these new ideas into the existing framework of Witchcraft and occult tradition.  The mix exploded in the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s into a wide range of traditions that mixed and matched these key elements in different ways.   In the 1960’s people like Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, Starhawk, and Z Budapest took the basic ideas of Gardnerian Witchcraft and mixed in an emphasis on the Goddess, nature, and New Age concepts.

Each of these major threads in Pagan history has led us to what we have today.  In fact I’d claim that our traditions and actions could be traced back to these early influences and how they have been combined and melded into modern practices.  From Spiritualism we have ultimately drawn a lot of the Eastern, New Age, related influences in our work, from healing to crystals to the manipulation of energy within our bodies (Chakras).  From the Romantics we have incorporated the reverence and awe for the natural world, and a strong movement toward Reconstructionist religious traditions.  The Goddess Cult has given rise to feminist Witchcraft and all of the Dianic and feminist traditions.  It has also given us a powerful mythology of persecution.  While the myth of the Witch trials that Murray created has been discredited, the idea that our religion was essentially wiped out in Europe by modern Christianity is not a fiction.  It reminds us that Witchcraft and Paganism have existed in the shadows for a reason, and given us a reason to come out of the shadows.

From the Western Occult Tradition we take most of our formalisms, our rituals, circle castings, quarter callings, and other actions.  We also have all of the details we’ve inherited from that tradition, from correspondences to astrology to magical practices.    Witchcraft, and modern Paganism, are both direct products of that occult tradition, and its influences can be seen and felt everywhere within the traditions.  Likewise traditional Witchcraft has heavily influenced both the practices, and diversity, of the Craft movement.  What, exactly, was derived from traditional practices, and what was derived from the occult traditions, is very hard to distinguish.  Certainly the idea of covens, of solitaires, and charms and curses are things that derive directly from traditional practices.

But we come back to the underlying question of “why does all this matter?”  It matters for many reasons, not the least of which is that we are honoring our ancestors (a good thing at this time of year).   But for me the most important has to do with understanding where modern Paganism is going, not where it has been.   A key question is “is there another influence that is ready to claim a part of modern Paganism?”   One example might be the eclectic movement (of which I am a part) that participates and accepts practices inspired by a wide range of Pagan or indigenous traditions in addition to the Northern European ones.  (You have not been to a Yule celebration until you’ve been to a Shinto inspired Yule celebration [11]).   Or perhaps it is the incorporation of warrior protector traditions by those who serve our country in the Armed Forces.  Or hunters and low impact farmers who seek to live out our relationship to the seasons and food in ways that are different from how we do now.

While I don’t know where modern Paganism is going, what I do know is that Paganism is fundamentally an adaptive and open religion.  In that way its like open systems hardware or software.  The “code” or “DNA” of Paganism is not a fixed, closed, system that cannot be changed or undone.  It is constantly taking in things that fundamentally change it, and its followers, relationship with the world and each other.  Book religions, while they have sects and schisms, are never as adaptable to fundamental theological changes as is Paganism.   The merging of Witchcraft and Paganism, of earth-centered values and Paganism, and of feminism and Paganism all represent deep shifts in the very ideas behind Pagan religion.

Perhaps that is what an exploration of our history can really teach us.  To be open to change, to participate in the dance of ideas, and to be ready for when a new one comes and sweeps everything else away.

It is up to us, all of us, to work to build our religion on the pillars our ancestors gave us, and to thoughtfully incorporate into it the next, and the next, and the next big idea that comes.  Because that is the spiral dance of the Goddess, ever changing, never the same.  Just as in the world, so in theology “She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes, we are changers, everything we touch can change” – Starhawk

[1] The best and perhaps the most canonical one for the British Pagan revival is Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon.  For a less scholarly but one closer to the action you could look at Valiente’s Rebirth of Witchcraft.  For the United States Margo Adler’s inspiring Drawing Down the Moon is essential, but more recently Chas Clifton in Her Hidden Children:  The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America has done a great job of detailing the connections between the various threads that I discuss here.  I’d recommend them all.   At the same time I do not claim any credentials as knowing anything about the history of anything, I’m just trying to put things together in ways that make sense to me.

[2] What we can’t claim, which is both interesting and frustrating at the same time is that we are indigenous practitioners of what was essentially a religious practiced based on both place and tribe.  We are not at that place, and, while some of us may be related to the “tribe” about the only thing we tend to share is the same last name or great-great-great grandparents.  On the other hand this is a completely specious argument when you open up the filters and include the book religions.  Christianity, for example, was essentially a Jewish sect that rearranged itself to allow Gentiles to enter into the religion.  Much of the legacy and Bible ties to Judaism, which is a very tribal religion.  Of course the counter-argument is that Christianity and Islam, because they are deliberately designed to break the tribal paradigm, are something completely different than the tribal religions of their origins.

[3] The whole question of holidays is a complex one, like asking who invented the light bulb you are looking at (Edison, right?  But what about Sir Humphrey inventor of the carbon arc lamp? Or, if you are looking at a CFL, Ed Hammer).  It depends on exactly what you mean by “holiday” and “invented.”   For example, Christmas as we know it is a Victorian (trimmings, customs, etc.) and a commercial (stores, wrapped gifts, etc.) invention of the 19th and 20th centuries [see, for example, Stephen Nissenbaum.  The Battle for Christmas, New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1997 or, if you don’t want to buy it you can read a review/summary here:;col1].   In ancient times the feast of the Nativity replaced both the celebration of the unconquered sun (Sol Invictus), itself a relatively recently created Roman celebration, the Saturnalia, and the Kalendae of Janus.  But for much of its history, including Roman Pagan history, the midwinter celebration looked more like our Halloween (pranks and misrule) rather than our Christmas [for the best commentary on all this see Ronald Hutton.  Stations of the Sun, Oxford, 1996 which you can also read the review of here:;col1].   The adoption of Christmas = nativity was a late one in the Church, coming in the 300 (first association) to 500 (council of ?X) CE period.

[4]  Theosophy is a blend of Western Occult traditions and eastern thought constructed by HP Blavatsky in the late 1800’s [see, for example HP Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled or The Secret Doctrine].  It is of the “ascended master” tradition where beings of greater wisdom and influence communicate and assist people on this plane of existence.  It continues to exist in the form of the Theosophical Society.  There are a lot of books out recently on the whole spiritualism movement, for example Todd Leonard’s Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship: A Study of the Religion, Science, Philosophy and Mediums that Encompass this American-Made Religion, IUniverse Inc., 2005 was critically acclaimed.

[5]  This trend toward being “spiritual” but not participating in the social construct of “religion” has been given a lot of attention in the religious studies literature.  It has also come in for a lot of criticism as being Narcissistic and detached from the idea of compassion, charity, and good works (a general and common criticism of “New Age” religions as well as Paganism).  See, for example, Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution, why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality, Blackwell 2005; and Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual but not Religious:  Understanding Unchruched America, Oxford 2001.

[6]  See, for example, Lawrence Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt:  A Life of Alistair Crowley, St. Martins 2002.

[7] In the first chapter of The Triumph of the Moon,  “Finding a Language,”  Hutton gives a detailed treatment to the evolution of Pagan ideas through the 19th century.

[8]  In addition to Graves and Murray, George McDonald Fraser with his Golden Bough was also critically influential in establishing an underlying concept of what ancient European Paganism looked like.

[9]  For surveys of the origins of modern Witchcraft in England see Hutton, Valiente, or for another view Michael Howard (ed.), The Roebuck in the Thicket:  An Anthology of the Robert Cochrane Witchcraft Tradition, Capall Bann 2001.  For a survey of what happened in the United States see Adler or Clifton.  I am assuming a basic familiarity with the story of Gardner, and some of the other traditional British traditions that arose at roughly that same time.

[10]  W.E. Liddell and Michael Howard, The Pickingill Papers:  The Origin of the Gardnerian Craft, Capall Bann, 1994.  Sybil Leek, Diary of a Witch, Prentice-Hall 1968.

[11]  Before everyone I actually agree with gets upset I’ll point out that I believe that Paganism is inherently tribal, and that my “tribe” is Irish/Welsh/Celtic and we have enough to do to understand and claim our traditions without bothering anyone else.  However as an eclectic I don’t mind participating in and understanding what others do, even though I may not be drawn to that myself.

Pagan Theology

September, 2009

Pagan theology short:  graven images

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God – Exodus 20 3-5.

Recently a member of our group got very upset over the loss of one of her owls.  It was a small, black owl that she had used in ritual several times, and now it was missing.  She was inconsolable.  It was as if she had lost a pet or a loved one.

What was going on?  Was she fetishizing an object, loving too much the things of the world and not the spirit?  Or had, through use in ritual, the owl taken on properties of the Owl?  Of Minerva, of the Lady.  Had it become the Goddess?

In the United States we often treat our stuff as an important member of our families.  We’d be lost without all our gear, and Pagans in particular seem to be given over to accumulating a large amalgam of ritual implements and other toys associated with the craft.  Some of that we can blame on the ritual magicians, with their wands and censers and swords, but we can also look back in time and find many examples of images of the Gods and Goddesses being used in worship.  Those toys we keep, particularly those that we connect with the Gods and Goddesses through may, in fact, be more than mere objects.  They may embody the deities themselves.

Idols are the fetishized [1] image or object, and represent an embodiment of deity, magical power, or magical spirit.  There are many different ways to approach a discussion of idols. We can discuss the question of incarnation, of the God or Goddess occupying an object in the natural world.  We can also discuss the creation and construction of magical or blessed fetish objects, such as wands or alchemistical materials.   We can also discuss what happens when we venerate the idol, both to the object and ourselves.    Obviously the book religions have a clear answer about what happens to you when you venerate idols, but those answers are meaningless to us [2].

This multitude of ways to approach the theological question of idols can be reduced to a set of basic questions [3]:

1) What property of the fetish makes it inherently special?

2) How does consecration or creation of the fetish make it different from other objects?

3) What happens differently in the viewer or reverent when they are viewing or interacting with a consecrated fetish, as opposed to a normal object?

This division breaks fetishes up into three components, the object itself, what is done with the object, and how the object affects the viewer or user.

The fetish itself

Is the God or Goddess inherent in their image or sacred object?

The ancient Greeks saw the temple as the place where the deity lived, or naos [4].  During Homeric times it was seen as the dwelling place of a particular God or Goddess, and was often used by the Gods and Goddesses as part of their worldly escapades.  Magical workings often use images such as poppets or dolls as stand-ins for the object of the magical working.  In the Roman lectisternia celebrations the God or Goddess was brought into the house to join in the celebrations [5].  The idea that the Gods and Goddesses join us through their fetish representation is neither new nor particularly radical.  It’s only strange in the context of the religious traditions of the books.

Casually, it is easy to say: “sure, since deity is immanent and exists everywhere, it is naturally in the statue of Aphrodite on my altar as much as it’s in the chairs on my patio.”  That is not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about specific immanence.  Is the God immanent in the image of the Green Man?  Is Cernunnos himself immanent in the stag on the altar?  Are they there?  Are they present?  And does that mean they are not somewhere else?

This is a far more difficult question to deal with than the one that arises from the immanence/transcendence argument.  Instead we have to ask a couple of background questions, the first being whether we believe in the Gods and Goddesses as individual entities at all [6], and whether they represent manifold spirits of a pantheon or are just a form of gendered monotheism [7]?  Because, if we believe in the general idea of the God and Goddess, and they are seen as in the larger world, then of course they are contained within the fetish object, and the function of the fetish object is to simply remind us of this fact.

If, however, the Gods and Goddesses represent a unique group of individual deities, with names and actions associated with them, then the fetish object can be more easily understood as associating with a unique, individual, deity.  This uniqueness provides for idols that become the deity when we consider them, that the deity is “there” and “not over there” when we view the fetish.  I argue this differentiation of the deity in the world, kind of a GPS for deities, is a key function of the fetish object.

The fetish idol or object says to the reverent:  the God or Goddess you seek is here, in here, and not anywhere else right now.  Here is where you focus.

This is of course anathema for book religions where the god is universal, omnipresent, and separated from the world.  Our deities [8], by appearing in idols and fetish objects, transcend the immaterial and the unnatural, and become one with the world.  They also allow us to visualize and work with them not only in the spiritual realms, but the physical as well.

This is the property of the fetish that makes it special, the “here, not there” that it brings to the immaterial.

Creation of the idol

The act of creation of an idol is what separates its function from that of the everyday object.   It is easy to list a series of sacred motions, inscriptions, and formula that are necessary for the consecration of a sacred object.  But fundamentally what all those formula are doing is telling you, and in some cases everyone else, that the deity or magic is “in here” and not somewhere else.  The action of consecration is to dedicate the object to a purpose that has no purpose in the world; instead it is inscribing the object with a purpose in the spiritual.

In this sense consecration of objects moves them, and their purpose, from the “real” world to the world of the super-natural.  And that means it really doesn’t matter what you “do” to consecrate the object, as long as that consecration affects how you view and feel about the object.  This separates consecration from blessing.  Consecrations focus on you and your intent for the object.

The consecration tells you the object is sacred.  Blessings seek to invoke the power of the Gods or Goddesses to establish the object as favored in their eyes.  To remove the negative that exists in the object, or the negative from the viewpoint of the Gods and the Goddesses, and to make the object into something that is positive.  A blessing may precede consecration of an idol, but its effect and nature are different.  Blessings empty, consecrations fill.  Blessings are static and have potential, while consecrations are active and have purpose.  Blessings are, consecrations do.

In the case of blessing the object becomes pure, in the case of consecration it becomes the pure.

Thus objects can become sacred through use, through ritual, or simply through the loving thoughts that we surround them with.  This gives us wide latitude in figuring out how and why we consecrate objects, and which objects we will treat as idols.  As long as we perceive the God or Goddess to dwell in the idol, they do.

The reverent

So what happens to us when we use consecrated idols in our worship?

It can be difficult to visualize the Gods and Goddesses everywhere in their immanent state.  They are spread out like radio waves [9], interpenetrating everything, but separate from everything.   It can be hard to grasp onto something that is everywhere, something that you cannot grab hold of, hold in your hand, feel but at the same time you know is real, is in the world.

Unlike those who wrote the books, we should be able to hold our Gods and Goddesses.  To smell, feel, hear, and taste them.  They are in the world as much as we are.  Idols become for us the houses, the naos, of the Gods and Goddesses.  When we say, “this is our God” we mean that this, this thing, is where our God resides more than any other thing.

By creating a separate place for the Gods and Goddesses we also change.  The material for us has become sacred, deity has manifested itself in front of us, and it dwells on our altar.  We are remained by the sacredness of our objects of the sacredness of all objects.  Because, ultimately, the Gods and Goddesses are everywhere.  Like many things associated with Pagan worship, there is a circle that comes back around for us.  We begin with the unfathomable connectedness of everything through the presences of multiple Gods and Goddesses.  We then bring that infinite macrocosm down to a microcosm of one God or Goddess in one consecrated place.  But what dwells in the microcosm is also everywhere and for all time.   “That which is above, so it is below.”

Idols and other fetishes allow us to relate to the Gods and Goddesses on our own terms, as we would relate to them as friends or colleagues.  We can make offerings to them, we can ask them questions, we can pledge to them, and we can hold them in our hands.  But at the same time the act of consecration, the act of knowing that the God or Goddess dwells in the fetish, reminds us of the sacredness of all things.  That anything we hold in our hands, whether it is person, an idol, or a stone, are the divine.  They are consecrated and they are holy.   And they deserve just as much care and love as if they were the Gods and Goddesses themselves.  Because they are.

[1] We’re not talking about pervy behavior here.  Rather we’re talking about the religious and theological use of the term “fetish” to mean a man made object that is somehow given magical powers or connected to the supernatural and given some form of reverence of deference.

[2] With the image of Christ on the cross, the black stone of Mecca, and the Torah there are any number of objects that sure look like fetishes in the book religions.  We’ll leave it to them to work those problems out for themselves.

[3]  This division roughly corresponds to the “Imago and Spiritus” “Iconoclasm” and “Generatio” divisions outlined in Daniel A. Schulke.  “Idolatry Restor’d:  Witchcraft and the Imaging of the Divine,”  The Cauldron, 133, Aug 2009.  This article literally arrived in the mail at the same time as I wrote my first paragraph.  I took it as a sign that I was at least relevant.

[4]  Walter Burkert.  Greek Religion, Basil Blackwell, 1985

[5] Ramsay MacMullen.  Paganism in the Roman Empire, Yale 1981.

[6] Remember my point of view on this:  the answer is: yes, they are discrete entities with individual, if somewhat complex, personalities, intentions, and existence.

[7] For a good discussion of the issues surrounding neo-Paganism and its relationship to indigenous Pagan belief, and the question of polytheism and idols, see Michael York.  Pagan Theology:  Paganism as a World Religion, New York University Press, 2003, pp. 63-64.  While I disagree with some of his assumptions, the argument is similar to the one I’m making here, and far more closely associated with facts and research.

[8] While I reference deity here it is also just as easy to talk about magical power, the sacred, or alchemistical understanding.  In all cases the object reifies the immaterial, causing it to manifest for us in a physical place.

[9] But for Hera’s sake they are not actually waves, quanta, or energy.  See my previous columns.

Pagan Theology

August, 2009

Pagan Theology Short:  Pagan Finances

Past surveys of Pagans say that we work mostly in the computer, education, and “helping” professions.  Thus the economy may not be impacting us as much as it is others.  However the question of how our religion relates to the economy, and economic difficulties, is an interesting one.  The Christian religion has it relatively easy, the manual they were given from the Jewish tribe has a lot of passages that repute to tell them how to build wealth, and go about asking their god for wealth.  We are in a slightly different situation, with little or no guidance about practical matters in any historical document, unless cattle raids count.  We have to rely on our own ability to think things through.

So what role does the Pagan religion have to say about our personal finances [1]?

Based on my past ramblings I’d say that we should look to three elements of our religion for inspiration and assistance in matters of money:  community, the Gods and Goddesses, and magical practices.

It is important to realize that I’m talking about only a religious perspective on finances.  There are serious, concrete, things you can do to affect your financial situation, and you should be doing those first [2].  All the magic in the world will not get you a job if you don’t look, and feeling better about your relationship with the Gods and Goddesses won’t stop a foreclosure.  In fact if you find yourself in trouble, or don’t want to get in trouble in the first place, I’d suggest checking out the financial advice of someone who has a practical, no nonsense, approach to personal money management.  A guy who says stuff that makes sense to me is Dave Ramsey [3].

Using the three concepts of community, deity, and magic, we can construct some things to do as Pagans if we find ourselves without a job, or facing financial hardship.

Stay in your circle.  One of the most important things religion provides is the support and spiritual nourishment that comes from community.  Note that I said “spiritual” nourishment: the best way to lose friends and alienate people just when you need them most is to exploit your circle relationships for money or financial support.  Instead look to your circle for the emotional and spiritual support that you need, that you would need in any time of trouble.  Ritual gives you a chance to bring your troubles into the sacred space and speak them to the community.  The collective support of the community, and the Gods and Goddesses, in circle can give you spiritual hope and strength.  Use that as a way to refresh the well of your spirit that is most certainly being drained by the worries and needs of everyday life.    Circle is a refuge, a refuge you need now more than ever.

Remember the circle.  As Pagans we celebrate the eternal cycle of seasons, creation and death, warmth and cold, abundance and depravation.  We know that the Goddess gives and takes depending on the season of the year, as well as the season of our lives.  If you are in trouble, it is the time of winter and the Lady has taken what is hers.  But you also know that life is a wheel, and it will turn eventually.  What seems bleakest now will be the source of rebirth in the future.  Of course this does not mean that you should sit back and wait, on the contrary, it means you should work hard tilling the ground and planting the seeds, with the confidence that eventually the spring will arrive and reward your hard work.

Read the stories.  We have few texts that provide us with direct guidance, we wouldn’t really be Pagans if we did.  What we do have are stories that have come down to us about the Gods and Goddesses, their challenges, and how they overcame them.  Whether through bravery, or trickery (if you’re Irish), the stories describe how the ancients thought about things like initiative, honor, and taking care of business.   In addition to providing inspiration, they are free [4], and in reading them you are learning more about your religion (and taking your mind off of your troubles).

Go to the well.  Wells connect the world of the living with the world of the Gods and Goddesses.  The Lady of the well provides water, water that nourishes, soothes, and refreshes.   Leaving small offerings at holy wells is a way of giving our attention and love back to the Lady.  Drawing waters from the Lord and Lady, through ritual, meditation, or merely being out and about in the natural world, are a way of drawing their love back into us.  The power of the Lord and Lady to sooth, calm, and center us should not be underestimated. When we are worried, upset, or concerned their power is a tool that can be used to remind ourselves of our place in the world, and the beauty of that place.  The Lord and Lady are greater that what we are now, as we too are greater than what we are now.  Knowing that you are more than your circumstances can help when you are only worried about what is going on right now.

Do the right magic.  Ah, I suspect that most people’s first inclination when confronted with financial difficulties is to do some sort of wealth or money spell.  Silly rabbit.   Direct wealth spells are like playing the lottery, maybe something random will happen and deposit a large sum in your lap, but maybe not.  More like maybe not.  Instead of playing the lottery another way of getting wealth is to work for it.  Do things to improve yourself, reposition yourself in the market, and work to create something that others might want to have (like your labor).  In those cases spells can be much more effective in framing the problem, and in helping your change yourself in ways that might attract wealth.

Creating a spell that will have a practical effect on your current situation is, in itself, a useful exercise.  First you have to understand exactly what “your current situation” is.  Are you unemployed?  Are you simply unhappy in your job?  Don’t have enough income coming in to meet the bills?  Are you over extended on credit?  Specifying exactly what is wrong, what you want to focus on, is a first start at actually thinking through your problems. The second step is to think through your objectives, assets, and options with respect to the problem.

If you need a job, what is the best way to find one?  Not what you are doing now, but the absolute best way?  What do you need to start down that path?  Perhaps increasing your network would be the best way to find that job, so how might you do that?  Find other people with similar skills?  Where do they hang out?  How might you approach them?  Do you need courage and some social skills to help you when you do meet them?

As you go through the process of thinking about your problem, what your objectives for that problem are, and how you might break down the process of achieving those objectives, you will discover things that you need, opportunities that have to happen, or traits that you lack or require reinforcing.   At that point you have found the focus for your magical working.  The courage to meet and befriend new people?  That is something that a magical working can help with.  Need a new skill or to refine existing skills?  A magical working to clarify how you do that, or to give you confidence to start working on your skills, would be very likely to work.

Of course following up on the problem, working as hard to make your task happen in the real world as you expect the spell to be working in the spiritual world, is essential.  Spells only help on the margins, they only make it easier for you, they don’t do it for you.

Even if the magic fails, as it often does, thinking through the problem, and working hard to make it happen, most likely will make whatever you are doing work out anyway.

If you find yourself in financial trouble nothing magical or religious can fix the simple equation of what you take in must exceed what you spend.  Nor can it make money out of nothing.  But what our religion can do is give you comfort, help you become stronger, and provide you with a community of caring fellow Pagans so you don’t have to face trouble alone.  And, maybe, with the right magic, some careful thought, and some hard work, the circle will turn sooner rather than later and your spring will be as joyous as the winter has been hard.

[1]  I am not a financial adviser, I am not giving you specific financial advice here, if you do something I suggest and it does not work out you have only yourself to blame for not finding someone who knows what they’re talking about and doing what they say instead of what I say.  Again, I am not a financial advisor or giving financial advice so if you are really in trouble seek help from a trained, licensed, financial advisor.

[2] Things like getting your income up, paying off debts, behaving responsibly in your personal relationships and saving money are simple things that will do a heck of a lot more for your bottom line than anything I’m going to say about religion.

[3] He comes at it from a Christian perspective. But if you ignore that you will find his basic advice about getting rid of debt and behaving responsibly is about the best path to building wealth there is for regular schlubs.

[4]  There are lots of translations available on the Internets, just look around.

Pagan Theology

March, 2009


A really, really, long time ago the idea of Gods and Goddesses influencing how you ran your country was pretty popular.  Particularly amongst the Roman emperors whom had themselves declared living Gods, or at least declared that they were descended from Gods.  Then there is Aristotle’s Republic, which is another Pagan attempt at thinking through political concepts from first principles.  So why is there so little direct discussion of “political” issues amongst the Pagan literature [1]?  Is it because we all agree?  If so, why, exactly, do we agree?  Is there something we should agree on?

Or is it that we simply don’t want to exclude anyone who might feel differently?  After all Paganism is a wide, big tent, one that includes everything from the more “conservative [2]” elements of some traditions to the relatively “liberal” gay, women’s, and faery traditions.   It may be that in order to be Pagan we simply cannot identify a clear set of political principles and keep the tent as big as it should be.

What an interesting thought.

Or it could be we have little direct guidance on such things.  After all we don’t have a rulebook or encyclopedia of behaviors to choose from the way the book religions do.   Historically Pagan writings have been rather thin on the “social justice” issues surrounding how we treat each other.   Other than issues of religious freedom, women’s justice, and environmental stewardship only Starhawk and Reclaiming seem to have made a major push on the problem of social and political justice.  On the other hand it could also be because we actually do agree on many of the “moral” issues of our time, in the sense that we believe pretty much the opposite from what the “religious right” believes.

Before we start to think about political philosophy in the context of Pagan theology, we need to make some important distinctions.  Just like an onion or an ogre the question of the role of Paganism in politics has different layers.  At the innermost layer, the one closest to the actual worship of the Gods and Goddesses lies the question of the role of polis, or the organization of people and power structures, in and on the Pagan religion.  Can we even speak of “politics” in the context of our religious beliefs, given how disorganized and anarchistic we are?   At the next layer lies the question of how Pagan ethics and worldview inform practical actions in the world.  What is the underlying linkage between our understanding of the world and the way we behave in the world?  Finally, there is the question of whether any specific issues relate to those views.  How do we relate to the various “moral” issues that come up in things like elections?

Obviously none of this will answer what we’re supposed to believe, only what is consistent with some of the underlying principles.   We’re not running any empires here (that was Bush’s job), instead we’re thinking about where our faith might take us when we live it in the world.

The Inner Work

Does it make sense to have a Pagan polis?  In one sense it does, because it did at one time.  For most of the pre-Christian era Paganism filled the role of the “traditional religion.”  After 2000 years of book religions it may seem like we never had much say in anything, living underground and in small covens, if that [3].   However in the past we were “the man.”  We were the organized religion of the time, and in most cases we were intimately entwined with politics, the state, and political power structures.   Think about it, at one time Paganism was the Catholic Church, Jerry Falwell, and George Bush all rolled into one religion.   If it sounds just as bad as what we have in some places today, it probably was.

What’s more, this tells us nothing about how our underlying beliefs entwine with the world of politics.  Just as is the case with modern religions, when religion and politics mix the outcome is not usually a reflection of the underlying values and theology of the religion.  Instead, what happens is that political and practical considerations often use religion as a cover-up for what they really want to do?  Truthfully, if we looked into it, a lot of what went on during ancient times between religion and politics probably would not look very good in a modern context.

Book religions, on the other hand, have it pretty easy when considering what to think about the world.  They have explicit instructions, written down in manuals, about what they are supposed to do.  These manuals describe a polis, a community of “brethren” or like believers.  It defines a hierarchy, and relationships between the communities.  They also describe how to treat everyone, including outsiders.  In particular the Christian gospels provide a compelling, and perhaps unique, tutorial on justice, caring, and how to behave in a radically good way toward other people.    Do we have such a compelling challenge?  If so, what is it?

Wait, what?  The guy who holds forth that “Christian Pagans” is an oxymoron (“Christian Witches” is another thing entirely) is referring to Christianity as a standard for how to behave in the world.  Well, yes, in terms of social justice, their underlying theology is pretty compelling.  It just doesn’t compel very many of them…

At the same time I contend that, if you ignore all the trivial charges Christians can bring against Pagans, it is the lack of the clear and forceful articulation of a standard for justice, caring, and love found in the gospels that is the most effective criticism they can use against Paganism.  They have the teachings of Jesus and we don’t.  It doesn’t matter for our thinking whether that they tend not to listen to them much.  Social justice and our theology is a huge challenge from an ethical and “how you live your life in the world” standpoint.   Something we will need to address if we are going to have a thoughtful and mature theology.

It is completely possible that there is no inherent tie between a Pagan belief system and the need to treat others with justice, fairness, and compassion [4].  Instead it could either be that Paganism is neutral towards how we act in the world.  This would leave us with only a humanistic approach toward the world, which in some ways is unsatisfying because it leaves such a central part of who we are divorced from or what we believe.  Or Paganism could support a purely selfish, self-centered, worldview where everyone pursues their best interests, the strong survive and the weak perish.  In this formulation there would be nothing compelling justice, caring, or selflessness.  Rather it would be an entirely “Darwinian” system patterned after the competition and cooperation seen in nature.   While this tribal and harsh approach towards how the world works may be the most historically accurate in pre-Christian times, we have come a long way in our thoughts about behavior and justice since then.

On the other hand we do have a starting place to start from.  There are several different aspects of our theology that can provide a compelling set of guidelines for political belief.   I’m only going to talk about two of them here, but I want to acknowledge that I am only choosing two of them.  Other guides could include the genders of the Gods and Goddess, and the cycles of the world.

First, if the Gods and Goddesses are real, and we experience them in the world, then we and the world are in themselves divine.  Second, the divine world, and the way we experience it, act together to produce the magical intuitive experience of wonder.  Our “blessing” is the wonder we feel as we experience and interact with the world, and the divine.  So what do we have?  We have the Gods and Goddesses as real entities that exist and we interact with.  We have a divine world.  We have the blessings of our wondrous experiences of magic and the divine.

We should be able to make something from those two pieces of our belief:  the divine world, and the role of magic.
The Middle Lands

Who are we?  This was one of the questions Jesus was asking when he started his movement.  His answer was, “we are part of the kingdom of god.”  Discounting the historical context within which he preached, the “kingdom of god” is essentially a utopian vision of what life would look like were everyone to accept the radical proposition of a loving god that wanted us to treat each other with the inherent respect due his children [5].   Ok, this, for us, is relatively meaningless, but the idea is an inherently good one:  how should we behave if the Gods and Goddesses exist?

In keeping with my generally existentialist view of the divine, I would say the fact we know that the Gods and Goddesses exist is a radical proposition for us Pagans.  If the Gods and Goddesses exist what exactly should we do?  If the Gods and Goddesses bring magic, wonder, and mystery into the world, then what should we do?

So, if we believe this, then what should we do?  I’d break the “what to do” problem into the following general principles [6]:

All things that act in the world are reflections of the divine, we should honor them, respect them, and value them for what they are, not what we wish to impose on them.  If the world is divine then other people have that same reflection, that same complexity of good and evil that the Gods and Goddesses have.  It is not up to us to judge them, or to try and force them to do or believe the way we do.  Instead our goal should be to work with them in a way that honors both the divine within us as well as the Gods and Goddesses.  This requires a considerable maturity in order to see that the multiplicity in behaviors and attitudes and personalities that we see in the Gods and Goddesses are also present in other people.

In some ways this requires what I would call “radical acceptance.”  It requires us to accept the diversity and multiplicity of people, interests, goals, and attitudes in the world.  While it does not require us to agree with everyone and get along with everyone, remember the Gods and Goddesses don’t either, it does require us to understand that the other person’s perspective is “right” just as much as our own, that their personality is “right” just as much as our own, and that their actions have as much worthiness as our own.

Ok, but what if people do bad things?  Shouldn’t we punish them?  In the Christian theology acts of “sin” require forgiveness.  Jesus spoke of a radical type of forgiveness, something that seems to be forgotten by some of his more ardent followers.  However I’d say that “forgiveness” is not an inherently Pagan concept, in the sense that there is a historical and theological association in Christianity between what the “father” (i.e. god) does and what his followers should do.  He forgives us therefore we should forgive also.  Since we don’t have that legacy from our Gods and Goddesses (some do forgive, some, not so much) I would argue that acceptance takes the place of forgiveness in how we deal with bad behavior.

Instead of turning the other cheek, and forgiving, as in the Christian sense, our relationships with the Gods and Goddesses produce an intuition within us that all types of behavior go into making us, and other people, into who we are.  We acknowledge the misbehavior, but we also realize that it is only an out manifestation of an inner problem, an alienation from the Gods and Goddesses and magical wonder of the world.  We don’t have to condone it, but we don’t condemn the behavior either.  Instead we ask what elements of their (or our) inner selves that compel the behavior we find wrong.  And then we apply the magical world to help heal that element which has gone awry.

The other avenue of approach toward a Pagan polis is through the magical nature of the world.  Here I am talking about the underlying wonder we feel and see as Pagans in the natural world.  It is a magical place that fills us with an inner light and excitement.  Our relationships with the world and the Gods and Goddesses provides a center of wonder that makes hard times less difficult, and allows us to have a richer way of being in the world.

I’m not specifically talking about magical practices here, but instead of the underlying magical “energy [7],” if you will, that we perceive running through the world, through each other, and contained within the Gods and Goddesses.  That divine energy, or source, is a very different way of approaching problems in the world than almost any other religion.  Instead of seeing the world as condemned, as evil, and as fallen, we see it, and life in general, as wonder-filled, peaceful, and uplifting.  It is when we lose touch with and are prevented from seeing that light-filled aspect of the world, that we become alienated from the Gods, Goddesses and the world.  That alienation is what we understand produces behavior that works against the world, other people, the Gods and Goddesses.  Without a sense of the magical it becomes harder to sense the magical in others, and in the world.  For Pagans alienation is not only distance from the Gods and Goddesses, but deadness to the magic in the world.

Yes, this begins to articulate a theory of magic, with the underlying sense of wonder in the world being the basis for how magical belief affects us, and others.   It is a thread that I would like to explore further in future columns as it represents an alternative to either the naturalistic “energy” based approaches toward magic, or the inner-based approaches of Crowley and others.

The Outer Work

Then there are the specific issues of living every day Pagan life?  After all,  we are all well aware of the fact that it’s not all fairies and butterflies as we skip hand in hand with the Gods and Goddesses through life.  It mostly sucks, particularly when we’re at work.  Just watch the Office, or Mama’s Boys, or any number of other reality shows.  Or just watch your own life.  While the world can make things difficult for us, there are other people out there that  go a long way towards making it even a much harder, crueler, worse world than it needs to be.  How do you translate belief into specific action?

I believe that the two aspects of the divine world we have discussed above give us some guidance.  Acceptance easily translates into a requirement to treat people as aspects of the divine no matter where or how we encounter them.  It’s easy to see that from acceptance we can arrive at a political theory requiring us to the GBLT community no differently from anyone else.  It may become harder when you have to practice acceptance of your fundamentalist relatives.

But the acceptance I’m talking about goes further; in many ways it is the same as the Christian imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Instead our acceptance of the multiplicity of the world means that we love everyone and everything regardless of ourselves, and regardless of their behavior.  The Gods and Goddesses call on us to see within the other what they show to us themselves:  the being that calls us to love that exists behind the imperfections.

By extension all of this loving and seeing and divinity means that we must act in the world in a way that is consistent with the values we place on others, and on the world.  Practically this means helping both the least among us, through service, charity, and love, as well as the greatest among us.  Because everyone has various traits that mask their inner divinity, the less fortunate may not have time or ability to see deeply into the universe, while the most fortunate may have wrapped their inner divinity in self-indulgence, lies, and poorly considered actions.  They all need us to see them through the lens of the Gods and Goddesses, and to act toward them in a way consistent with the divine elements we know are in them.

What saves us, and allows us to have great impact in the world, is modeling our magical approach toward life.  If we truly see the magical aspects of the world, then we are satisfied in a deep way with those experiences.  Our ambition is to see more of the magical, not ego, self, or control.  This smallness of vision, a vision that looks into the world not out of it and out of ourselves, can ground us and provide peace.  We are “small” in that we look into the world, into nature, and into ourselves for the force we need to love and accept others.  Our vision is not eschatological, it does not force us to look to the future or somewhere else for that love, rather it places it in the “here” and “now.”

Those who see us as calm, balanced, and deeply happy will associate that with the Pagan path.  They will realize the depth of perception we have within the world.  It is not necessary to introduce the Pagan religion directly into the polis, rather it is through our behavior and modeling that the greatest effects will come about.

Fundamentally the Gods and Goddesses and magical world call us toward a quiet, colorful, and wonder-filled life, one that is radically distinct from the aggressive, needy, and stuffy way in which the book religions have organized things.  This, more than anything else, represents a radical challenge to the status quo, to the existing “polis.”  It also holds the greatest promise, a promise of a world driven not by progress toward an uncertain and potentially catastrophic future, but one that looks toward the wonder of what we have and respects the eternal cycles.  One that looks to what we’ve got, where we are, instead of what we don’t have, and where we’re going.

[1]  Starhawk is an obvious contra-example to what I’m talking about here, but in many ways she stands out because she is the exception.  She is a strong advocate for social and ecological justice.  But it seems like most political advocacy within the Pagan movement centers around either environmental issues, or religious freedom.  While both of those are important, it leaves open the question of social justice and other issues that only tangentially touch our overall faith, i.e. issues of governance, rights, and responsibilities.  Those are what I’m trying to talk about here.  So by “politics” I mean the commonly understood idea of governance by vote, and the issues that come up as part of it.  By “polis” I mean something more abstract, or the underlying relationship between our religion and action in the world.  By “social justice” I mean the common sense usage of the term, how we treat the least in society, regardless of their location or affiliation.

[2]  I was going to say “Norse and tribal” traditions, but then I realized that even the word “conservative” has many different meanings within the Pagan traditions.  It can mean “traditional” in the reconstructionist sense, or it could mean rural/fam-trad and from the land, or it could mean tribal and clannish, or it could mean politically conservative.  Since I don’t really know what I mean, I’ll just have to leave it open!  In saying some are liberal and some are conservative, I’m opening myself up to the criticism that others are not.  This is the challenge of talking about political views in such a diverse path.

[3]  Lets just assume something survived if nothing more than the Troubadours, Arthurian legends, and a romantic ideal of pre-Christian aesthetics.

[4]  And I would contend that would be a bad thing for Paganism.

[5]  I use this piece of Christianity as a foil because I believe it is inherently worthwhile, much of the other, guilt inducing, nonsense was larded on in subsequent explanations of what Jesus really meant by the apostles and the church.

[6]  These are not the only two possible divisions, and there are significant other elements toward an understanding of how we interact with the world.  The next two I’d add to the list would be the cyclic nature of the seasons as a metaphor for the cyclic nature of everything, as well as the binary dichotomy implicit in the male/female.  I don’t include these, or many others, here simply for space reasons, and because I believe that this “divine world” and “magical” argument is relatively unique, while the cyclic and dichotomous concepts are relatively common and have been included elsewhere [ref Starhawk].

[7]  Being an engineer I totally hate the idea of calling this “energy” but it will do until I come up with something better.

Pagan Theology

December, 2008

Experiencing the work:  How you treat others

In the last column we talked about what happens once we have the experience of the Pagan divine.  What evidence do we have of that experience?   Does our outlook on the world change?  Does our behavior change?

While laser beams don’t start shooting from our eyes and we don’t get assigned a Harry Potter wand (though often those show up anyway) we should change.  We should change because we have had a transformative experience, one that we seek to repeat, and often do repeat, over and over again.

Last time we talked about what happens to our desire, a desire that changes from whatever was before to one focused on the Gods and Goddesses.  Now I’d like to ask what happens to how we treat each other.  Should anything happen?  Why can’t we just behave any way we wish as long as “it harm none”?

There are two, I believe separable, problems associated with this question.  The first is the question of what, if any [1], influence transformative religious experiences should have on ethical beliefs and practices.  The second is what effects an experience with the Gods and Goddesses has on our day-to-day behavior with respect to other people.  Obviously, given my own preferences for systems and philosophies over emotion and relationships, I’ll start off by discussing the technical issue of divine experience and ethical systems.

Influence on how we think about relationships

One aspect of ethical philosophy is the search for the underpinnings or justifications for ethical systems.  What makes us be ethical?  Why must we hold one or another judgment about behavior?

Clearly most religions answer this question by invoking some sort of absolute ideal, the god that gives the law and judges you when you don’t perform correctly [2].  Believe in the god, get your instructions in a book, and don’t ask too many questions.  Problem solved.

However that won’t work too well as a basis for Pagans.  The ideal god just doesn’t exist.  Instead we have “regular” Gods and Goddesses that exist just like we do in the messy world of reality.   They have the same, or similar, ethical dilemmas that we do.  They react to those ethical challenges, and often they react in a way that some would judge as inappropriate.    As an aside, we can also note that the “one god” has similar problems if it is all powerful, but still allows all this evil to exist in the world.  But that is a digression on evil that we should save for later.

So what is the relationship of Pagan ethics to the direct experience of the divine?  Is that a path to an ethical system, or is it irrelevant?

Any ethical system derived from a direct experience will be a fundamentally practical system, as opposed to one derived from ideals or abstractions.   The other attributes of the multiplicity of direct experience of the divine also come into play.  The Gods and Goddesses are individual, and as ethically complex and ambiguous, as we are.  As individual entities they carry the same radical challenge of existence, how to make something out of nothing [3].  By “nothing” here we mean the cognitive dislocation that comes from the radical proposition that we exist, we can make choices, and we are free in those choices.

The Gods and Goddesses face the same existential dilemma as we do. While the Christian god is in itself both the beginning and the ending, the completeness of perfection that combines both the existence and non-existence, our theology places the Gods and Goddesses in a messier, more realistic, dilemma.  This choice inherent in existence that they face is what makes the Gods and Goddess diverse.  It’s where we get the Morrigan and the Dagda.  The good, and the bad.  And even within the good and bad, we have the aspect of the other side.

Because of this shared existence, we also share responsibility.  Responsibility for our actions and their consequences.  Remember the three-fold law?  It is the requirement that we be responsible for our actions that connects the Gods and Goddesses with our ethical philosophy.  Do not mis-understand, I am not saying that the Gods and Goddesses somehow impose a responsibility for action on their followers.  Instead it is the condition through which we relate to them that spontaneously creates a requirement for responsibility.

How you execute this responsibility, and what it means, to you is not determined by the Gods and Goddesses rather it arises from the nature of the world.  Hurt and suffering are inherently things we would ourselves avoid, and thus must assume others wish to avoid that as well.  So we must not impose suffering on others.  While not getting into a general discussion of ethics, I believe this leads us down the path that we are each responsible for our own behavior, and need to develop an ethics through rational and thoughtful enquiry.

Something that the Gods and Goddesses can help with, because they’ve been doing it a lot longer than we have [4].

Influence in how we treat others

Just as in the above section I skimmed over the entire discussion of how we relate the divine to ethics, I’m going to move on and skim over how this impacts how we treat others.

Again, I’m not talking about particular ethical systems here. I’m talking about a general sense of how the divine existence influences how we should treat others.  The most basic statement of Wicca is “if it harm none, do as ye will.”  This can be teased into all kinds of interpretations, but it basically boils down to “do no harm.”  Two things stand out about this, it is placed in a passive voice: making it easy to avoid any pro-active actions we might take.  And it doesn’t tell us much what it means by “harm.”

Instead of working on this rather obscure saw, we might examine the fundamental aspects of Pagan divinity to see if there are any clues there.  If, as I argue above, existence of the Gods and Goddesses implies a sort of divine responsibility on those who follow them, then other attributes of Paganism might also bring forward shaping principles for how we might treat others.

Multiplicity immediately comes to mind as a key Pagan attribute.  And not just “many” but also “diversity.”  Pagan deities come in all shapes, sizes, attitudes, and behavioral styles.  This diversity makes coming up with a prescription for behavior difficult.  What are we to make of the violent, dark Gods and Goddesses.  Ones that embody death, war, and selfishness.  If we do not accept them as mere reflections of human actions, emotions, and traits, but instead see them as existential beings making choices, then we have to ask ourselves how we deal with the diversity of the attitudes and actions we find in the Gods and Goddesses.  In some ways this is similar to the book religions challenges in dealing with pain and suffering existing in a world created by a good god.  How does evil and suffering exist in the world when the one god is good?

For us the challenge is accepting Gods and Goddesses who might not be “good” by our definition.  They may be angry, greedy, warlike, or have a general tendency toward misbehavior.  This requires a deep acceptance of the neutrality of nature, the underlying neutrality of the world, towards good and evil, light and dark.  The nature of the Gods and Goddesses show us the great diversity of our own natures, and the ambivalence of the universe towards what we choose to do.  I believe this diversity in what we honor and worship requires that Pagans bring an acceptance toward others and others behavior.  We might wish to limit behaviors that harm or cause suffering, but we also understand that such behaviors are reflections of darkness that is contained in all of us, including the Gods and Goddesses.  We might not condone it, but we approach it by condemning the behavior and its suffering, not those who for whatever reason engage in it.

Another attribute that derives from the existence of Gods and Goddesses is the joy that comes from living in a world that is inhabited by magic and magical beings.  If we bring joy and love to our approach to the social world then we will value whatever we see, we will honor whoever we are with, because we know that behind it all is a divine intrigue, a puzzle, an interest, that calls to us constantly.  This knowledge of the divine in the world is always with us, because the world is always with us.  Thus the joy in perceiving the Gods and Goddesses should also be with us as we travel in the world and relate to others.  If everyone and everything is touched by the divine, then it demands our care, respect, and love.

This divine joy, a reveling in what the world is and how it exists, is a fundamental separation of Paganism from other religions.  We do not seek to deny the world, for there is really no other place to go.  Instead we seek a profound connection with the world.  The Gods and Goddesses provide that connection, for, like us, they too are part of the world, just beyond and slightly to the left of it.

While I’m sure there are many more attributes that can be derived from serious thinking about the existence of Gods and Goddesses, I believe that these two, diversity and inner joy, go a long way to shaping Pagan relationships.  Diversity demands that we respect all beings that exist, and remember that, just like the Gods and Goddesses, they may have behaviors that require understanding, perhaps even avoiding or controlling, but they are still inherently worthy of acceptance [5].  Joy demands that we treat the world as if it is divine, that if we see the Gods and Goddesses in it, we need to work to build on that underlying joy, and bring it out in our actions and relationships.

These and other concepts can, with time and effort, be expanded into a general ethical philosophy for Pagans.  While I’m only touching the elephant here, with more work and time, we can develop a way of being that has us striving to build joyful, accepting, relationships.   We may not always behave as if we’re building joyful, accepting relationships, but at least we know what we should be trying to do!

Obviously these concepts are different from the standard moral and ethical proscriptions and concepts.  They should be.  Most ethical thinking in the West has grown up under the shadow of the book religions, where proscription and prescription are the norm.  Where backing up firm rules is the role of ethical and theological thought.  Had Paganism won over Constantine, I suspect that the way we think about right and wrong would be very different today.  Acceptance, honor, respect, and an endorsing of that which brings joy would be some of the foundational assumptions behind ethical thought.  Starting with joy will lead, I believe, to very different places than if we start with sin.  We should remember those influences as we think about right and wrong, as we think about what we should do and why we do it.  And realize that simple prescriptions like “as long as it harm none” are simply resetting the system back onto the territory of the book religions by developing simple prescriptions to complex problems.

We can do better than that.

[1] I don’t want to go into a detailed discussion of ethical frameworks and philosophy.  I want to understand the relationship between experience and ethics, not dissect the entire connection between Paganism and ethics.  Suffice to say as background, for now, that I believe the most successful, practical, and inclusive ethical system that we can use will most likely be borrowed from somewhere else, not invented through Pagan religion.  Ancient ethical systems are obviously way out of date, and it would be silly to come up with a new one when there has been so much work done on humanistic ethical systems already.  But, I believe, an even more important point is that ethics deal with the relations between people, not between people and deity, and thus should be founded on practical and realistic measures of right relations between people.  Deities can referee, or can stand as judges or guides or helpers, but they are mostly on the sidelines of any ethical system.

[2] Because we have many Gods and Goddesses, some light, some dark, this becomes a bit of a problem for Pagan ethics.  Which particular God or Goddess sets the law?  And if they’re all different, how do they come to a consensus?  One way around such difficulties is to assume some sort of unifying God that hangs around in the background and sorts things out.  I think that’s a cop out, but that’s for another column.

[3] This is a very existential argument, and I must confess to being more taken with the existentialists than the Kantians.  Why shouldn’t Kierkegaard’s radical proposition of faith “what are you going to do in the face of the reality of faith” apply to Pagans as well as Christians.  In fact I think we see it applying all the time.  Pagans get out and practice the faith, in circles, at festivals, and all over.  What would drive that trouble if it were not for a sense of radical faith?

[4] This gives us an expanded humanist/existentialist approach toward ethics.  Choice, responsibility, individual use of reason to search for truth, but also added on we get the Gods and Goddesses to help us with our search for truth.  Sort of a humanist program with a bonus.

[5]  This does not mean that we can look evil in the face and do nothing.  Remember, that our ability to choose implies that we choose responsibly.  A humanist framework can, I believe, be built which results in strong arguments for treating people as worthy and having dignity.  However the radical departure between Paganism and humanism comes in the inclusion of the Gods and Goddesses as part of any ethical framework, and the role that knowledge of them plays in shaping the world, and how we behave in the world.

Pagan Theology

November, 2008

Experiencing the work:  What Witches Do [1]

In the last two columns we discussed various ways in which Pagans can connect with the divine.  We can use prayer, meditation, shamanistic journeys, ritual, magic, or other means to connect with the Gods and Goddesses.  But what happens once we do connect?  What evidence do we have for a connection in ourselves, and in others?

This is a complex and important question that leads across psychology, philosophy, and theology.  Because its so big, and I can do it so little justice even in the column space and time that I do have, we’ll break this topic up into three installments, starting this month with a general discussion of the topic, and beginning a detailed discussion with the problem of desire.   In the next few columns we will discuss how it changes how you deal with people, and how you deal with the world.

This is an important question for a couple of reasons.  First, if we understand what to expect once “contact is made,” we can establish internal criteria for our growth along the Pagan path.  We can also recognize, as too often happens, when we are stagnant, or, heavens forbid, way far behind where we think we are!  When we meet people who profess some experience along the path, and who wish to present themselves as learned, or as teachers, we can have some criteria to assess whether they are what they say they are.

Obviously there will be a lot of different ways in which people will be affected by an encounter with the Gods and Goddesses.  We cannot possibly list them all.  However we can characterize them into broad categories, then look at some examples of how people might be affected in each of those groupings.

In my view encountering the Gods and Goddesses is a fundamentally transformative experience.  It changes what we think about, and how we think about it.  An encounter with the Gods and Goddesses opens up the expansive terrain of a reality whose limits have moved.  The Gods and Goddesses move the markers of what is possible out, out beyond what we are thinking of as the limits of the conventional world.   In the process they expand not only how we think about things, but also our emotional and social reactions to the world and others.  The scales of conventional reality fall from our eyes and we see.  And what we see is a world that has possibilities we didn’t think of before.

This line of thought fits in well with what has long been a supposition of mine:  kids are natural born Pagans [2]. For a kid of a certain age the world is a boundless unknown.  Magic is possible, spirits live in everything and everywhere, and any new object or experience is a source of wonder.  Unfortunately, we quickly outgrow that stage [3], but while we are there we are open to the idea of magic actually happening in the world.  You could say that some people never outgrow that stage, and they go on to become Pagans.  Or that some people are willing to admit that this early stage is sufficient, and nothing more is needed to explain what they encounter in the world.   Or that we actually manage to find a path that takes us back to this world of childhood, a path that leads away from a socially constructed world, and back into the naturally existing one.

So what changes when we return to this state of childhood with our adult selves? Ultimately it has to come down to something simple, something that when you see it, catches you and turns around the way you look at everything.  For some Christians this is the “born again” experience.  For Pagans it has to be the realization that the Gods, Goddesses, and lesser spirits actually walk with us in this world, and we can work, live, and play with them through our ritual actions.  If you really know that the world is filled with spirit, you are going to behave differently.

How will we behave differently?   We will change in many ways, including changes in desires, in relations with other people, and in how you view the world and how it works.  Lets discuss each of these ways in turn for now, and perhaps by the time we get to the end we will have thought of others.  But this is a good enough place to begin.


In the Buddhist tradition desire and ignorance are the roots of suffering.  Because we want, we have a problem: whenever we get what we want we get bored and want something else.  Only when we stop wanting everything will we truly free ourselves from the suffering that comes from want.

The existentialist Christian writers, such as Kierkegaard, maintain that someone who truly believes, not just pretends, but also actually believes, has a real problem [ref].  For them the world changes: things that used to be important become less important, or not important at all, and the drive of their belief will ultimately run everything. The world as seen through the lens of a radical and unequivocal belief will demand that radical and substantial actions be taken on the part of the believer.  Otherwise the belief just isn’t that strong.

Both of these philosophies get at what I consider a fundamental of spiritual belief, that there is a basic challenge to our normal way of living that occurs when deity is encountered.  You change, the world changes. Everything changes when you know (or believe) that the Gods and Goddesses exist.  This fundamental re-orienting of the world is not something that is often discussed in Pagan religious discussions, perhaps because it is seen as a reflection of the “born again” tradition that so pesters us in this country.  However it is not the same.  It is not the same because Christianity is predicated on belief, and Paganism is predicated on knowledge.

Unfortunately, for us, because we know, not just believe, we have fewer excuses than even the Christians do.

In a Pagan theology that has us actually encountering the Gods and Goddesses, Kierkegaard’s line of reasoning presents substantial challenges to our continuing to behave as if nothing happened.  We don’t just have faith, we know because we’ve seen the Gods and Goddesses.  We don’t even have the excuse of faith to get us out of radical action based on belief.  We are caught.

At the same time our knowing of the Gods and Goddesses in this world, challenges the Buddhist contention that desire leads to suffering.  The Gods and Goddesses exist in the same, suffering, world that we do.  They, as we do, have desires and suffering.   Desire, in the Pagan [5] perspective is simply part of the world; it does not necessarily lead to suffering.  Suffering, in its turn, is also part of the world, part of the overall way in which we, the Gods and Goddesses, and everything else in the world exists.  To escape suffering would be to escape the world, and to escape the world would be to deny what we, and what deity, really is.

But the fact that we can both be enlightened Pagans and still desire stuff does not answer the logical next question: what should we desire?

Proscription of desire is a common application of religion.  Many religions, trapped at one of the more infantile levels of spiritual progress, seem to be used mainly to tell people what they can’t have.   Religion is often advanced as a way to keep people in line, lest they figure out there really are no rules and run amok [6]. Religion exists to channel and repress desire, so that people behave themselves.  While this is a very naive approach to both ethics and religion, it does fulfill a very large number of those who are religions and seem to desire the structure and limits it imposes on their lives.

However as Pagans we cannot get away with this sort of limited approach toward religion and desire.  We have, and do, experience the Gods and Goddesses directly.  This forces us to confront the existential dilemma of Kierkegaard and other that asks: “they are real, so what are you going to do?”  One would suspect that the answer would be “A lot of things. Differently.”  Because we know the Gods and Goddesses firsthand, they will not let us run away or ignore them.

This direct experience does not change our desires; it changes the nature of desire.  We do not want to run amok, not because we might be punished, but because we have seen something better.  We have an alternative, and that is in the Gods and Goddesses.

After our encounter with the Gods and Goddesses, our most basic desire becomes the experience of the magical and the sacred.  This leads, in turn, to a spiritual pilgrimage, which many of you are probably taking right now.

First, having experienced the Gods and Goddesses once in circle, often when we first are called to the Pagan path, we seek to continue that sacred experience either through continued ritual practice, or through magic.  As part of that experience involves constructing circles and worship with others, this inevitably leads to complications and intrusions into the central experience of the Gods and Goddesses.   Anytime group activities have to be put on, we have the potential for trouble, and work.  Eventually this intrusion of others into the relationship with the Gods and Goddesses begins to drag; there are schedules to be kept, newsletters to be published, articles to be written, and irritating people to be avoided.  As time goes along, however, the balance between people and spirit, between organization and circle and the Gods and Goddesses, comes back into equilibrium.  Those that reach this level understand that without the relationship with the Gods and Goddesses they can’t be much use to the coven, or to Paganism in general.  At the same time, they also understand that without the Coven, one of the central parts of public worship is missed.

This sounds a lot like a progression of understanding and goals for those entering the Pagan path.  It generally corresponds to the three degrees of initiation as laid out by Gardner.  The first level, or the newly minted Pagan, is enthused and energized by their encounter with the Gods and Goddesses, and seeks more in the form of covens and circles with others.  This leads to relationships and responsibility, which distracts from practices of the spirit.  Eventually, at the third level, the sprit and the social become integrated, and brought into balance.  The enthusiasm and ability to speak with the Gods and Goddesses becomes manifest in your relationship with others, and the world.

It is this melding, or integrated spiritual practice, that fulfills all of the spiritual desires of the Pagan, both religious and mystical.  The mystical encounter with the Gods and Goddesses provides a center of calm and balance, and perspective, on how you deal with the world and the other individuals in it.  There is no desire to play political games, or to squabble or criticize, as you can see such things in the context of the radical proposition of the Gods and Goddesses’ existence.  Likewise you don’t have the same overeager and naive approach toward the mystical experience, having grounded it in much practice and relationships with others.  Your feet are in the ground of community worship, while your head is in the radical experience of the Gods and Goddesses.

Defining the trajectory of desire for Pagans leads us not to discussions about naughtiness, but rather how our direct relationships with the Gods and Goddesses affect our relationships in the world.  How do you integrate the Gods and Goddesses into your beliefs about everyday living?  As Pagans we have no choice, they will be present, its how we react to them and use the knowledge of their presence that really matters.

But we started off with desire. What is the fate of desire in the face of the radical proposition that the Gods and Goddesses exist?  To understand desire we needed to understand the process of maturation and growth through a Pagan spirituality.  Initially the relationship between spiritual experiences and desire out in the “real world” is not very clear.  We may desire, strongly, to “be” a Pagan, to have the label as a witch or the standing of an initiated level.  However as we work in ritual and magical practice we learn firsthand what love and community will give us.  It is not the object of “being” a Pagan that appeals to us; rather it is the reality of the Pagan experience, which keeps calling to us again and again.

If our faith and practice lasts, over the years the nature of the work begins to affect how we look at the world.  The world becomes full of the Gods and Goddesses.  It becomes our sacred project, a project that results in our changing how we treat others, our ambitions, and ourselves.  If you truly see and have experienced the presence of the Gods and Goddesses, then you would not treat a sacred world badly, nor would you treat another within whom the Gods and Goddesses dwelled disrespectfully.   In the end you get wisdom, and wisdom changes what you desire.

A friend of mine who became a witch by going to the local Goddess bookstore started off by threatening to, jokingly; hex everyone at work (including me!).  While we kept joking about her not being allowed to hex at work, she kept at her path.  Four years after she started going to circle we had a serious talk about what her path had done for her.  “It makes me want to be a better person, it makes me want to do the right thing, to change my life in a way that the Catholic Church doesn’t.”  That is the desire that the Gods and Goddesses inspire.  They do it without a lot of fuss, without intimidation, without guild, but softly, with guile and patience, a patience that comes from the stones, and trees, and breath of the Earth.

[1] This is a direct allusion to Stewart Farrar’s book What Witches Do:  A Modern Coven Revealed.  1983.  Not because I believe in what they say about Alexandrian Witchcraft in the book will help you figure out what I’m talking about, but because at least some of this column was inspired by a recent meeting with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone.   A meeting that showed me very clearly what it is like for someone to be far long the path of spiritual development as a Priest, Priestess, or Witch.

[2] There is another interesting argument, which we’ll discuss later that says that the “ground state” of human religious experience is polytheistic.  Not only are kids born Pagans, but humanity was born Pagan as well.  Only after it grew up, went to work, and got a job did the monotheistic exclusionists take over.  Probably to make sure we all went to work, but I digress…

[3] There is yet another line of argument in the psychological literature (James Fowler, Stages of Faith, HarperOne, 1995) that says we go through various stages in our faith development, much like we may go through stages in our psychological development.  The usual evolution seems to be from an intuitive and mythic approach to faith to one that acknowledges the truth inherent in all faiths and the transcendence of any one path.  In my opinion this type of psychological characterization of faith is a little weird when applied to Pagan faiths, and seems mostly directed at western Christian faiths where there is often a process of conformity followed by questioning and acceptance.

[4] Kierkegaard also sets up a kind of progression in his work: from “childish Christianity” which is a tendency to venerate the external manifestations of the Church and Christ to “objective Christianity” which is a definition of being Christian because one adheres to the tenants of Christianity, to “subjective Christianity” which is confronting the existential, subjective, questions posed by faith.  (See the “Conclusion” section of Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Soren Kierkegaard, (Swenson and Lowrie trans.) Princeton, 1968.)

[5] Here I’m talking specifically about the western deconstructionist paganism, not world paganism.  Whether to include Buddhism in Paganism is an ongoing debate that we won’t get into here.  Suffice to say there is always a question about the more ethereal sorts of Buddhism as to whether it is even a religion vice a philosophical outlook.  The more practical, every day, sorts of Buddhism as are often practiced in Asia clearly fit into a Pagan construct.

[6] Fowler argues that the first stage of faith is simple wish fulfillment, through certainty and unreflective faith, until, ultimately you may reach a sort of integrative faith that is open to all things, even those that threaten your concept of self worth.  While all this is thoroughly doused with psychological speak, it does provide a framework for discussing how different people integrate faith into their lives at different times in their life.  Unfortunately, the Pagan experience, which is sort of a combination of the first and later stages (magic plus openness)

Pagan Theology

October, 2008

Getting to work:  Part 2

In the last column I discussed the relationship between various types of spiritual practices and the Pagan experience of the Gods and Goddesses.  We talked about the eastern practice of meditation, western style prayer, and the use of physical and chemical means of disorienting the senses.  In this column we’ll discuss ritual and occult magical practices as means of getting in touch with the divine.

Religious Ritual

Religious ritual is a common, nay universal, way of bringing deity into the world.  While not all ritual works, or isn’t readily identified as ritual in the first place; the right ritual practice, at the right time, and under the right conditions, produces a sense of the holy.  What characterizes a ritual experience of the divine?  First, unlike the practices we discussed in the previous column where you do something inside or within yourself that produces the link with the divine, in ritual you reach out through a public, mediated, experience toward the divine.

Ritual is characterized by its repetition, public nature, embodiment of the public form of a religious doctrine (cultus), and general stimulation of the practical and symbolic senses of perception.   All of these tools help form, or mediate the experience. You are appealing to an external set of objects or actions to provide a window into the divine.  This is what I mean by “mediated,” which is something that helps you experience the divine.  Magic is even more mediated than ritual, as that almost requires actions and objects in order for you to have the experience.

Ritual is the seeking of the divine within a community, whether it’s a physical community, or a temporal one.  By physical community I am referring to the practice or ritual in groups.  In groups like-minded individuals get together and go through steps that bring them a shared experience.  But ritual can also produce a “temporal” community.  Here it is the repetition of the same actions and ritual elements through time that produces a community that connects the practitioners across time and space, even though they are not physically present.  Repetition of ritual in community that has also been practiced over time produces a bond with a much larger community. 

Because ritual is connection with community, repetition is important.  It creates a tie between past, present, and future religious community.  It also gives what is done, no matter how outwardly silly or inconsequential, a gravity that comes from association with history and our ancestors.  An example of history’s role in Pagan practice is the respect given in some circles to establishing pedigrees or genealogical histories for their practices.  Practices, which are seen to have descended from historical sources, are given far more credibility than recent concoctions.  Whether this is a result of the Abrahamic religions’ natural obsession with history, or a desire for depth and occult credibility by tracing back deep roots, it is something that seems like its important.  Ritual is a way of “tracing back roots” as it becomes the repetition of a rhythm of worship amongst those who participate together over a long period of time.

Which brings us to the second aspect of ritual that is important, its public nature.  Now, just because we call something “public” doesn’t mean that your neighbors have to witness you doing it.  However ritual, in all its forms, is a calling together of the religious community for shared worship.  So someone has to witness it, even if its just your partner is a very small coven. 

Sure, solitaires can practice rituals in their home, but, by my definition of ritual, what they are doing is a series of actions that set up an internal state for connection.  They are doing a form of meditation, prayer, or magic, not ritual.  In some ways they are getting half of the experience of ritual, all the “show” but no “witness”.  Religious ritual is intimately tied in with the speaking and witnessing of a public action.  That public witness changes the space within which the action occurs.  It could be said to change the “energy” of the action: because other people are watching what you are doing and through the watching, the action becomes different.  In the witnessing of shared religious ritual we make it into something different than it would be without the observation.   That difference is wrapped up with the presence of the other, the “not I,” that is present during the ritual.  The “not I” of fellow witnesses reminds us, and manifests the greater manifests, and the greater, us “not I” of the Gods and Goddesses.  It reminds us of the much more massive otherness of the Gods and Goddesses. 

This goes back to my fundamental tenant of Paganism:  the presence of the divine in the world.  As Pagan Gods and Goddesses exist in the same way you or I do, then they also have the same sort of existential presence, the existential “nothingness” of consciousness.  We are reminded of when we do something that is seen by others.  The others remind us of the Gods and Goddesses, and in turn they remind us that the world is a subject, a being to be respected and given the credit of consciousness, as opposed to an object that can be manipulated by us without concern for the consequences of our actions. 

This seeing of the ritual creates a space that is the sum product of all the consciousnesses that are present.  At its essence ritual is an invocation of the widespread and multiple consciousnesses of the world by the fact it brings together the participants as a focused, conscious, and aware circle.  The circle allows everyone to witness the ritual, to witness each other’s participation, and to create a space where the Gods and Goddesses are seen.   To practice without community, means that we miss that connection to the world and the Gods and Goddesses. 

Thus in the previous column we discussed the “private” acts of worship:  meditation, prayer, and shamanistic journeys.  Here with ritual we are bringing the public into our interaction with the divine.  The introduction of the public brings both connection, in time and space to community, as well as observation.   Ritual brings the world into our relationship and experience of the divine.  And, being Pagans, our Gods and Goddesses are intimately connected with the world, the same way we are.  So our rituals should in fact place us squarely in the world, right where the Gods and Goddesses are.  Which is why participating in ritual, and I would add public ritual, is so important to Pagan practice.  In the same sense our history, our real history, is important to understand.   Because by understanding history we can begin to create a community that not only spans the practice in our current groups, but transcends both time and space.  We become a community integrated across its history, and across the diversity of its practices when we understand our history, and other Pagan groups. 

There is another way in which these same bonds can be forged, a way that is special to the Pagan practice.  That is the occult practice of magic. 


This is a column on the ways in which we engage with, worship, and connect to the Gods and Goddesses.  It is not about the theory of magic.  That requires a lot more thought, discussion, and time than we have here.  Instead I would like to look at the use of magic as a way to connect with the Gods and Goddesses. 

If ritual is the way we approach the Gods and Goddesses within the presence of the other, Magic is a way we approach them from within ourselves.  Ritual is inherently public, shared, and selfless, magic is private, and generally all about the individual.  In this sense it ranks with other “internal” ways to encounter the divine such as meditation and prayer (which is why meditation and prayer are encountered frequently in magical workings). 

Now many ritualists and others are about to complain that magic has always been done in groups, so let me explain.

At its essence ritual is profession of faith witnessed by others.  Whether those others are ancestral, dispersed through time and space, or actually present at the ritual, it is the witness of the other, the connection with another person, which changes ritual from a direct mystical experience of the divine into something else.  Magic, on the other hand, is not witnessed in the same way ritual is, rather it is participated in by those involved.  Likewise magic is not a mystical experience of the divine, as it is mediated by actions and words in the same way that ritual is mediated by actions and words (“ritual”).  By “mediated” I mean that something comes between you and the divine experience, something has to be done, said, or be present (a statue) in order for the experience to happen.  The experiences we talked about in the previous column, mysticism and prayer, are not mediated, it is just you and the Gods and Goddesses, and what you make of it. 

Magic requires participation, and it requires mediation.  In order to engage in magic you have to actually do magical practices, and you have to “do” something that causes the magic to happen.  This is unlike ritual, where you don’t necessarily have to do anything actively associated with the ritual: you can simply witness it.  In that sense magic is not something you can participate in by witnessing alone, it requires active involvement of the self.  That is what I mean by magic being private; one inherent requirement in doing magic is that it is associated with individual action, not just group action.

So what does this mean?  It means that magic and religious rituals are different.  Doing ritual, as a way of connection with the Gods and Goddesses does not require magical practice, though in many existing concepts of ritual practice magic and Pagan ritual are intertwined.  Often in the same way witchcraft and Paganism are intertwined in the United States and Britain where Wiccan practices have informed a lot of Pagan practice. 

This duality between “public” ritual and “private” magic is a reflection of many different approaches to the problem of the role of religion in public life.   For example, Max Weber’s concept of social action as applied to religion can be characterized as to whether the religious action transforms within (mysticism as an inner focused working), or within the world (magic as an action that occurs in the world).  For example, salvation can be seen as deliverance from problems and troubles in this world, or the promise of a better life in the next.  This duality between the pragmatic, social, and the otherworldly, abstract, is at the heart of religious action.  For some indigenous religions it is the pragmatic, social, interactions that dominate, as religion is a cornerstone of social interaction within the clan or tribe.  For other religions, such as many religions characterized as “New Age”, it is the inner workings, the inner experience of the divine, that is the key element of religious experience.

If mystical experiences and prayer are the way you seek after enlightenment and ritual is the way you build community and celebrate the Gods and Goddesses from within that community then Magic is where you end up if you are a Pagan and you want to get something done.  Magic is religion divested of both community and transcendence; it is the practical tool that is used in a world full of spirit and deity.  

Drawing on the duality discussed above we can divide the Pagan experience up into a two-variable space much in the way that others have.     On the first axis is the degree to which our action is performed within us, or within the world.  Ritual and prayer are actions that occur in the world, while magic and mysticism are focused within us.  We call this the “world” axis, and it defines how much the activity affects us, or the world.  The second axis, the “spirit” axis, defines what the goal of the working is.  Is the goal mainly associated with connecting with the transcendent divine, or is it focused on connecting with or affecting the world.  Prayer and Mystical experiences seek a connection with the transcendent, they cut us off from the world on interior or mystical journeys.  Magic and ritual, on the other hand, connect us with the immanent divine within the world.  They are actions that happen in the world, and seek to bring us to the Gods and Goddesses as they exist in this world.  It is not surprising that magic and ritual are intimately connected with Pagan practices, while mysticism and prayer are actions that are shared with the Abrahamic religions. The figure illustrates these divisions. 


Magic is our attempt to affect the world in a practical way.  With magic we seek a worldly way to connect with the divine in the world.  Without a divine world, without the mystery of having immanent Gods and Goddesses, magic would not work.  As we, too, are divine beings in a divine world (we are Pagans after all) the action of magic is our imitation, however imperfect or humble, of the Gods and Goddesses and their actions in the world.  Magic is not so divorced from practical action; it merely is taking practical action to mimic the divine.  

As a Pagan practice, magic is a way to communicate with the Gods and Goddesses in a way that no other religious practice has available.  Because magic is acting in the divine world in a divine way, you are actually attempting to emulate the Gods and Goddesses actions and results.  While our wisdom and ability are far less, magic provides a way to experience the divine directly, by being the divine, by attempting to act as they do in the world.  Thus, while magic can be seen as the most debased way to experience the Gods and Goddesses, I’d claim that that is simply a prejudice held over from the book religions.  If the Gods and Goddesses exist in the world, as I argue they do, then the whole world is infused with the divine.  Doing something practical through magic in the world is harmonious with that divine world; it does not work against it.  It is our ability to be the divine, to experience it in a practical way.  Of course, as with any action in the world, what you do, and how you do it, will affect you and affect how you see the world, and how others see you.

This means that magic, unlike ritual, in an inherently self-ish activity, in the sense that it is self-centered.  You do it, you then take responsibility for it.  There is no way to put it off on someone else, like say a God or Goddess.  As a way to connect with the Gods and Goddesses, magic is fraught with peril, the peril of self-centeredness, and ego.  When we seek to behave like the Gods and Goddesses, we risk taking on the same moral and intellectual challenges confronted by divinity.  

Unlike the three-fold law, which invokes the concept of karma, magic as imitation of divine action makes taking magical action even more dangerous and at the same time roots it firmly in the Pagan worldview of the natural divine.  Screw up a magical working, either through hubris, selfishness, meanness, or stupidity, and the Gods and Goddesses are the ones you will answer to.  To attempt divine action without divine wisdom would seem to require great caution, circumspection, and humility.  This means that all our ethical concepts and ideas apply to magical action, not just the simple retributive three-fold law.  We should behave ourselves magically because our magic determines who we are and how we approach the world.  Behaving ourselves simply because we might be punished is something that smacks of the book religious ideas of sin and punishment for transgressions.  We are more mature than that. 

In all of this we have many different ways of reaching out to the divine world.  We can attempt to communicate with the Gods and Goddesses directly, inwardly.  We can experience them as part of a temporal or physical group through ritual, or we can attempt to “do as they do” to be like them through magic.  This is a rich and varied set of ways to experience the divine, with far more opportunity, danger, and complexity than simply accepting a savior and going to church.  It demands careful, thoughtful, action, and growth in order to reach the true destination of a Pagan experience:  knowing the Gods and Goddesses. 

And determined that drugs were a strange, and inappropriately syncretic, way of doing business.  Don’t do drugs. 

Note that I am using the term “ritual” as shorthand for Religious Ritual, which implies a ritual conducted in the context of religious activity, including worship.  You have a lot of different kinds of rituals, from how you brush your teeth to what you do before taking a test.  It is important to distinguish a series of repetitive actions (ritual) from community worship (religious ritual). 

Which is understandable given that their primary truth-claim, one that forms the under girding of all three of their religions, requires that one dude (Jesus, Mohammad, Moses) be alive at one specific time and engage in some historically relevant actions. 

Another tradition is occult groups such as the Rosicrucians and others seem always intent on constructing long and mysterious pasts that ultimately link them to Hermes Trismegistrus, Solomon, and the Egyptians.  This desire for a link to deep history seems to be less a Abrahamic obsession and more of an underpinning of the occult group’s need to have a hidden or “occult” set of information that they can peddle to their members.  Otherwise, without occult knowledge, they wouldn’t really be occult now would they?

I know that this is a controversial position that will be objected to by solitary practitioners.  It is important to remember that I make several distinctions in my thoughts about Pagan practice.  The most important is that Witchcraft is different from Pagan religion.  You can be a Christian witch, but not a Christian Wiccan or Pagan (at least from the Christian perspective, Pagans are more or less like “whatever”).   Witchcraft is a craft or practice that extends across religious practices, but is far more accepted and common amongst Pagan religions.  Witchcraft can be practiced in solitary, or in groups.  The methods of witchcraft, inner journeys (meditation), visualization, and shamanic journeys are inherently solitary practices, and not religious ritual, as I would define religious ritual.   These practices are a part of a religious Pagan practice, but they do not convey the same things as public ritual practices do. 

Ritual nudity as practiced by some Gardnarian Wiccans (and here and there by many other Pagans) certainly fits with the idea of a radical witnessing; it is a radical reminder of the fact that ritual witnessed is ritual that is connected to community and the world.   While this fits theologically, I am totally suspicious about the motives and reasons why Gardner introduced these practices into revival British Witchcraft.  I suspect that the reasons were not necessarily theological. 

To “k” or not to “k,” that is the question.  Ever since Crowley began putting a k on the end of the world magic, the question becomes whether we should follow the convention.  I would argue we should not for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s an affectation, and we don’t need more affectations.  Second the definition of magic is perfectly fine, and it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be confuse it with stage magic when reading a magic tract (though people like Jeff McBride seem to be blurring some of the differences).  Finally, I would argue that the correct way to reference what we do is “occult magic.”  This differentiates it from nativist magic, which, while some people do it, is different from the ritualistic/Wiccan/Western tradition, and it differentiates it from stage magic. 

See, for example, rituals in Starhawk and various BOSs. 

See, for example, Sharot, Stephen.  A Comparative Sociology of World Religions, New York University, New York, 2001, pp. 20-36.

Sharot, p. 22.

This seems to be a fundamental dialectic process present in early 20th century philosophy of sociology, including people like Weber and Durkheim. 

This holds true to Abrahamic magic, if all the divine is missing from the world, if the world is merely matter and energy, then magic or the supernatural, would not make any sense.  This, amongst other things, could be seen as a Pagan influence on Christian practice when Medieval magic and ritual practices are considered. 

While karma is an inherently Eastern concept and probably came to modern Paganism through that route, there were karmic aspects to European Pagan religions. 

I have not yet discussed Pagan ethics but from this you might get the idea that I think a lot of Pagan ethics are pretty simplistic.  You’d be right.  We can, and should, do better with constructing a Pagan system of ethics. 


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