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Pagan Theology

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: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2005/is_n1_v32/ai_21186997/?tag=content;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: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2005/is_n1_v32/ai_21186988/?tag=content;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.