Sometimes I take it for granted that Pagans are polytheists.
It seems to make sense to assume that, since one of the traditional definitions of the term “pagan” is centers on polytheism. And really, I don’t know that I have met a Pagan who did not at least believe in other gods, even if they didn’t worship them.
Well, except maybe for Wiccans.
I’ve been having issues with Wicca for some time, not because of its modern origins, but because of its Jewish ones. Wicca’s take on divinity is a duotheistic Procrustean bed that crams any and all gods and goddesses into just one god and one goddess, who are both really dual sides of the same divine source, which looks remarkably like the Qabalistic understanding of IHVH. In practice those gods and goddesses can be worked with as an interface for that divine power, but they never seem to amount to much more than archetypes that reflect Qabalistic principles.
And that’s what gets to me. I can’t see Wicca as anything other than a cheap copy of a rather elegant and complex Qabalistic Ceremonialist system that is essentially monotheistic, but pretends to be polytheistic.
And now I know I’m not alone. Apparently the great Gerald Gardener wasn’t too big on the whole polytheism thing himself.
If [Gardener], Edith, and friends were talking about witchcraft during lazy days at the nudist camp in the late 1940s, they had a lot of concepts swirling around, concepts such as these:
- Witchcraft was merely a collection of psychic abilities available to everyone.
- It was spells and herbal curing and folklore and whatever, with no clear organization — just a soup of this and that.
- It was power given to someone after a pact with the Devil.
- It was power that you were born with, either for good or ill.
- It is a super-secret Pagan cult that survived 1,000 years of Christianity in western Europe (Margaret Murray’s view).
Given the views om psychism at the time, it is entirely plausible that Gardener and pals were agnostic or even atheist, and viewed magic and witchcraft as a means of activating latent psychic abilities through psychological theater. Gardener himself abandoned his work with Ceremonial Magic relatively easily after a series of embarrassing failures and a snub from the great Crowley, only to suddenly emerge as an “initiate” of a “secret, ancient cult” that he had been working with forever, because if he didn’t mention his Ceremonialist past no one would remember, and all of the similarities between Wiccan ritual and Ceremonialist ritual is purely coincidental and probably an artifact of the influence of the ancient and universal pre-Christian pagan cult, and certainly not because Gardener simply repackaged the Ceremonialism he know in a shiny new coating. Didn’t seem to have any issues related to adopting or adjusting to new gods at all, or even mention experiences of worship, for that matter.
Heselton writes [in his biography of Gardener], “Indeed, he really didn’t, I think, have any of what we might call ‘spiritual’ feelings: at any rate, he never wrote about any.” Nor, in his assessment, did Gardner believe in spirits or have any success at working magick on his own (640).
Think about that, the chief founder of a new Pagan religion who never had one of those knock-you-down experiences with the gods that convinces you that She, He, or They are really there.
Wow. It really is starting to look like Gardener created Wicca not to develop a religious experience, but as a means of garnering status and justifying his desire to whip naked teenage girls.
But enough Wicca-bashing. It’s too easy, and perhaps a little unfair. I know several people who are devoted Wiccans, and who have a well developed (although somewhat hodgepodge) worship practice. And they get something out of it.
But none of them are Gardenarian Wiccans. They’re all eclectic. Which basically means they took a few elements of Wicca to use as a framework and filled the spaces with whatever took their fancies.
When people not in the know ask about the difference between witchcraft and paganism, what I usually tell them is along the lines of “Witchcraft is a practice or activity, paganism is a religion. Being pagan does not mean you do witchcraft, and doing witchcraft doe snot mean you’re pagan.” Gardener used the terms Witchcraft and Wicca almost interchangeably. So does this mean that Gardenarian Wicca isn’t really a religion?
Back to polytheism. I have always defined paganism as a belief in multiple gods. I can’t think of many pagans who disagree with this, and the ones that do are usually what I think of as “outlyers” – those who aren’t quite pagan but associate with pagans because they do magic of some kind. Paganism as a practice involves some form of devotion, directed at some kind of deity, which usually has some manner of divine associates. And what we’re seeing is that Gardener was pretty much ambivalent to gods as a concrete reality.
Is Wicca a religion? In its current form, absolutely. But it seems to be a religion built on the back of a practice that may not quite have been. And while that practice may accommodate a polytheists worldview fairly well, it does not require or dictate one.
And my conceptual rift between Wicca and Paganism widens.