It’s an old joke: How he walked thirty miles to school each day… in the snow… uphill… both ways. The image that goes along with it is of some old guy, maybe sitting in an easy chair or on a park bench, lecturing the youngster about how ‘easy’ they’ve got it. Everybody laughs at that joke because we’ve all had at least one moment when we were that youngster and some grownup gave us a speech about how we didn’t know how tough things were ‘back then’ and we didn’t appreciate how much better off we were, growing up in the time that we were. The implication was that… somehow… walking uphill both ways by Gramps had made the world a better place for us all. Having reached the age of social security, where I’m now allowed by society to be less social and to hell with security, I can assure you that I didn’t walk uphill both ways… I crawled.
Actually, what I want to discuss is my view of Paganism for the last thirty-some years. Mind you, this is only my perspective; I don’t pretend to be an historian. And, for the most part, it is a view centered in the Pacific Northwest / Seattle area. I promise I won’t tell you how I crawled uphill both ways.
I encountered my first practicing Pagans in the mid 70’s while participating in the Society for Creative Anachronism. I thought at first that their beliefs and activities were nothing more than the playacting that is part of the SCA’s main reason for being. However, I soon realized that it was more than that for some of those people. A few actually held a spiritual belief that was so foreign to me I could hardly believe they were serious. As a young man, I had become curious about religion enough so that I had gone to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and other places of worship aplenty, finally ending up in a Unitarian church a few miles from my home. This church seemed to be a nice ‘fit’ for me and I became deeply involved in its activities. I still have good feelings for it and return from time to time to see how things are going for it and its people. But from my first encounter with Paganism in the SCA, I was drawn to its light like a moth to a flame.
In less than a year I was regularly visiting an ‘occult bookstore’ that was a nexus point for witches and druids in the Seattle area. The fellow who ran it was an interesting and well-educated person. He never proselytized, he didn’t laugh at my naïve questions, and he had this habit of answering my questions in a way that made me think there was much more than the answer he’d given. I became even more curious and began to understand enough that I knew in my gut that I had truly found a spirituality that sang to me, one that resonated in my soul.
It took almost exactly two years for me to set my feet officially on the path of the priesthood in Wicca. From then until the early 80’s, a building wave of people who were more aware of and interested in The Craft and other forms of modern western Paganism emerged both in my area as well as across the country. Up until around 1985, almost all of the people involved in this magical and spiritual movement kept hidden and there was very little of us in the public’s eye. In Seattle, there was probably less than 200 witches and maybe that many more ceremonialists and other stripes of magic workers. Within a hundred mile radius, I doubt if there was as much as a thousand. But that was changing.
Many small groups started to produce public events. Not just in my area, but all over the country. Some of them got noticed and the public quickly awakened to the fact that there were people in their midst who considered themselves witches. The variety of reactions was interesting. It ranged from extremely hostile to total delight. Those who weren’t prepared to defend themselves properly against the hostilities were made victims of some very nasty stuff. Various Pagan conglomerates formed but most of them quickly dissolved, failing to handle the internal disagreements that were inevitable. But some of these organizations survived and even flourished. And they became one of the best ways for those who were curious about us to find an entry point and a somewhat secure place to become involved.
For a period of about ten years these large associations grew, changed, and became a force in the history of Paganism. A great deal of what the public knew about us came from these groups. We still had to battle the public’s perception that we were either a bunch of super-sinister devil worshipers or a band of idiots who couldn’t figure out what was reality. These two stereotypes continue to plague us to this day, of course, but the public shock factor has diminished quite a lot. Now mainstream writers of both fiction and non-fiction refer to us in a generally favorable or at least tolerant light.
Part of this change of heart comes from one very simple act. For the most part, at least to the public, we have changed our label. The word, ‘witch,’ had such a negative connotation to the general public that it was impossible to use it to describe ourselves and not have to spend 99% of our time explaining away their fear and other negative feelings. There still are some who fight to ‘reclaim’ the word and think they can change the dictionary everyone carries around in their head. But the use of that term is now largely restricted to our private discussions. Another word has come to be used, one that has a higher likelihood of acceptance as well as a more believable ‘history’ of usage. ‘Wicca’ is less inflammatory than ‘witch’ but has both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that it describes a faith-based group, a religion. That is also a disadvantage because there are some who practice witchcraft who don’t identify with what Wicca has come to mean as a particular spirituality. So there have arisen several other labels for practices that, for the most part, have almost no difference except their label. This can be confusing, but that is the least of our worries.
The history of Christianity demonstrates how labels can prove to be a problem. One of the things that Pagans currently enjoy is a high degree of tolerance for each other no matter what label we choose to use. The Druids sit comfortably alongside the Dianics and the Georgians congenially bend elbows with the Gardnarians. We tend to accept each other based on how we act, not on what labels we use. As any who have been around the Pagan scene for a while can attest, we’ve had our squabbles, our so-called ‘witch wars.’ Though this has made for a few serious divisions between some people, they haven’t (so far) produced mortal wounds to the Pagan body as a whole. This is largely because we have never had one central organization.
When the Protestant movement caused a split in the Roman Catholic Church, it was not the first time the RC’s had seen a division in Christianity. The Orthodox factions had already proven to be a challenge to Christianity, one that threatened to weaken the authority of the Papacy and the power of The Church. It was that conflict that led to the RC declaring itself to be not only superior, but supreme. Both in doctrine and actions designed to tighten its hold on the spiritual and political reins of power, The Church sought to protect itself from both exterior and internal change. In the process, they learned the lesson that the tighter the grip, the easier it is to lose your hold. They spent a huge amount of energy fighting every perceived opponent and the drain on their resources was reason to bleed dry their followers. This spiraled into a vortex of greed and corruption of all sorts and The Church became a criminal in all but name.
If Christianity had taken a different turn early in its formation, one toward the Gnostic and mystical practices that were a real part of it at its beginnings, perhaps it wouldn’t have seen the Protestant movement or felt threatened by the Orthodox schism. But the followers of Jesus and their followers decided to base their faith on doctrine, liturgy, and centralized authority, making their church more rigid and brittle. They chose to be what is called a ‘revealed’ religion. The Protestant movement was both predictable and inevitable.
It might be thought by some that Paganism has dodged this particular bullet because we have neither a centralized power base nor much in the way of doctrine. But don’t get too comfortable yet. It took the Christians almost 300 years to produce theirs and we are barely a century into our own formation, spiritual connections into Neolithic times or medieval paganism aside. We could just as easily fall into the same pattern for many of the same reasons.
Presently, Wicca and the rainbow of other spiritualities covered by the term ‘Pagan’ enjoy a fairly relaxed and peaceful growth. We are ‘out’ enough that it is less threatening to the public and if a person wishes to find out about us and participate in our religious practices, they can easily do so. Increasingly, newcomers bypass the old style vetting procedures used when we were small groups hiding in the broom closet and form their own group. While there is a great deal more literature about us and one might think this would help newcomers know us better, we have made a problem for ourselves. There is so much information about us, anyone attempting to understand our ways will find it impossible to sort it all out. What was once considered as Gardnarian liturgy and tradition has now mixed with Strega, Norse, and Egyptian to become the who-knows-what. Or the rituals of Heinlein have mixed with Harry Potter and Star Trek and everyone who follows that tradition has to get a funny haircut. To complicate matters, some of these groups exist for no other reason than to fulfill a need for community but pretend to be honest spiritual traditions.
Essentially, most groups that spring up and die almost as quickly as fruit flies do no real harm. There is always the potential when dealing with matters of the spirit to scar the soul and anyone who conducts rituals for others must exercise care. There are some very good schools and systems for learning available to the serious student and it is important that we demand high standards for those who would lead us. Since there is little if any kind of authoritative structures in place for most Pagan religions, there are no rules or standards that regulate such matters. That also is a double-edged sword: Spirituality without regulatory institutions allows for innovation and flexibility, both factors that can help us. But at the same time, these same factors make us vulnerable. They allow for the incompetent to find followers just as easily as the competent. And these same factors allow charlatans to suck the energy from the naïve. The people who take our spirituality seriously and who care enough to educate themselves will also be the most likely to wish for standards and regulations in matters of leadership. There are several schools and umbrella organizations that have such standards and are careful in how they credit people for reaching and keeping credentials. None of them are, at the moment, calling for universal authority.
Since the wish for standards will always exist, there will also be a call for regulation of some kind. Regulation can’t happen without authority and that is exactly the problem that caused Christianity to follow the rigors of revealed religion. Paganism is definitely not a revealed religion. Any authoritative body that becomes a majority power will forever change the nature of our brand(s) of spirituality. It might sound like a good idea to establish standards for our clergy, but as soon as we set up anything that has the power to do that, we will also be giving it the power to regulate what is done by that clergy. It wouldn’t take long for that to translate into the establishment of dogma. Once that happens, all hope of the mysteries being our method of spiritual growth is out the window.
It’s impossible to know how, in one or two hundred years, this Pagan movement will shake out. Frankly, I hope that in that time it will still be impossible to know. Because that will mean there hasn’t been some overall power structure established and that the mysteries will still guide us. I believe it is important for us to maintain this lack of restrictions because, while it will ever mean we have no power to regulate our clergy, it also means we all have the freedom to grow in spirit. I don’t believe it’s possible to have authority over these matters without killing the very thing that makes us free and vital. I have been my own priest and a priest for others for over thirty years. I have grown because of this freedom and, hopefully, will continue to grow until the day I leave this plane. I sincerely hope that others will have this ability in the future and each of us has the opportunity to transform ourselves into beings of spirit and magic.