Pagan Politics, Part Whatever

John Beckett asks an interesting question: Must Paganism be Transgressive?

Do we lose something when a radical spiritual movement starts to be accepted by the mainstream? Or is it more complicated than that?

Beckett looks at a few other discussions going on in the Pagan blogosphere in examining this question. I saw a few themes that I’ve talked and thought about before, so I felt the need to open my big mouth.

Continue reading

More on Covens

Covens are an interesting construct to me. The represent a secretive and defensive way of thinking and operating that should appeal to my Scorpio nature, but does not. I think perhaps my high school experience has left me with a distrust of clubs.

A while back I posted a video in which I talk about covens. I talk a little bit about their history, and about how I see them function in the Pagan community, and I mentioned that I believe that they are becoming obsolete in America, and that I really hope they do.

Apparently there was some issue with that perspective:

The thing that you lose when you shift to a totally community-based open system is the intimacy of a coven – you completely missed this point. Have you ever worked in a coven, yourself, or just observed them from afar and made your proclamations based on that? When you have a small group of people who know each other so very well that they can completely remove all of their masks, have complete trust with one another, what you get is a powerful magical and spiritual unity that can never be paralleled in open communities where few know, much less trust, one another. The point of it isn’t about hiding from persecution; it’s about creating a structure in which people can pool their energies to create magicks that are greater than the sum of their parts. A coven will never be out-moded, because it’s a necessary structure. We will always have a need for covens, because there will always be people who see and appreciate the deeper paths that one can take when one forms the greater bonds of intimacy and connection that only a coven – not an open gathering of strangers – can create.

This comment was full of so much wrong and missing of the point it I almost wondered what video they were responding to. Continue reading

Passing Paganism On

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus has a very thoughtful post about pagans teaching paganism to their children.

This, however, raises a lot of questions about how many Pagans and polytheists (though more the former than the latter) are actually treating the topic of religion with their children. I’ve heard far too many Pagans, almost in the manner of bragging, say that they have not “forced” their religion on their children, while I’ve also recently heard of others who have made it a point to teach their children about “all religions” as objectively as possible so that they can choose one later in life. I even heard of a Pagan parent recently who was making their child read the entirety of the Christian Bible—something that I suspect many Christian parents have not made their children do.

I understand that many Pagans, in adopting this approach, are attempting to not recreate the situations of their own childhood, where a repressive compulsory Christianity was something that they did not enjoy and over which there still may be lingering issues with their parents and extended families. Nonetheless, it would be a good test of “truth of concept” for Paganism as a viable religion for one to raise a child in it, while also giving them a good background in other religious traditions (in a manner that is neither relativist nor condemnatory, and is as informed as possible). If one’s religion is good enough for oneself, why isn’t it good enough to teach to one’s own children? It is perfectly possible to raise a child in a given religion without “indoctrinating” them into it or in any way coercing them. Even pious adults sometimes skive when they are adults; children and teenagers, likewise, might do this as well, and there’s no reason not to let them in many cases.

There is a lot of fear of indoctrinating children into a religion they don’t want among many pagans. I can see a few problems with this thought process, though. Continue reading

The Rede of the Wicae

There is an old joke floating about the internet that equates various pagan groups to the different races and organizations found in Star Trek. First on the list are Wiccans, who are equated with the Federation:

The Federation means well. They let just about everybody into their little social club, so long as they agree to play nice. They don’t talk about rules much, but keep referring to one Prime Directive that all other laws are based on. That said, they frequently violate that rule when the need suits them. Often heard speaking in various UK accents, even though they’re not from the islands

I’ve observed that central dig on many occasions. There’s really only one rule, and it’s ditched whenever people feel they can justify it. Which happens a lot.

Yeah, I’m about to tear into the Wiccan Rede. Continue reading

The Triple Goddess

Images of the Triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother, and Crone have dominated Wicca, and through it, paganism in general. This vision of the divine feminine reflecting the cycles of women’s lives has become so popular, that some have attempted to develop similar schema for men as well.

Well, the whole thing is really made up.

Yes, truly. The notion of a Triple Goddess reflecting the Maiden, Mother, and Crone and standing for the waxing, full, and waning Moon, has about as much historical veracity as the myths of the Burning Times or the Golden Age Matriarchy. As in, none.

And Fire Lyte has been kind enough to point this out. In detail.

That Triple Goddess, as defined by modern authors of Pagan works, was said to be a divine cycle of Maiden, Mother, Crone. These three monikers not only delineate differences in age, but in life perspective, position, wisdom, power, and phases of the moon. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychotherapist and darling of the modern Pagan community for his work on archetypes, put forth that the notion of a triple deity (or triad), generally speaking, was a pattern throughout myth arising from the most primitive level of human mental development and culture. Divine Triads exist in Hinduism – where the concept is known as the Tridevi and includes Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati as manifestations of Shakti, Norse mythology – the Norns which are cognate of the Greek Fates or Moirai, Irish myth – both Brighid and the sisters Ériu, Fotla, and Banba have been presented as possible triads. The Morrígan is a figure from Irish mythology said to have possibly been a triad, though which goddesses exactly were supposed to make up that triad varies between authors and historical accounts.
But, let’s take a moment to pause and note that the concept of the Divine Triad has rarely, if ever, been depicted in myth as being a young, virginal girl, a woman in the prime of her life, and an old crone who is past the age of child-bearing. Indeed, the Greek Fates were depicted, both in art and story, as old and ugly. Likewise, the Norse Norns are both the same age and rulers of destiny, not of specific times in a person’s life. Indeed, throughout myth and culture, the notion of the young maiden, the fertile mother, and the ancient crone seems to exist mostly in the modern day, supporting the proposition by Hutton that this concept came about at the turn of the 20th century.  While it is an interesting influence of art and entertainment – this theme has run rampant in modern fantasy literature, television, and film – it does not have as much historical veracity as other parts of modern Paganism.
And with this veneration of women based upon their reproductive status, Fire makes some really good points regarding Wicca and sexuality.
You might immediately see something that’s a bit disconcerting for a religion whose deities are supposed to represent balance and shared authority. While the Goddess must be the Mother in any incarnation of her triad, the God gets to skip out on the title of Father in favor of the much more masculine and testosterone-filled moniker Warrior. These ideas, granted, are argued ad nauseam online in message boards, chat rooms, blogs, podcasts, and any other form of new social media you can use.
I find this absolutely fascinating and inspiring and the source of my answer to the problem of identifying with only one of three potential archetypes at a time.
Let’s assume that the reason many permutations of the God triad exist is because it is generally accepted that men can be, and are, more than just fathers and more than just warriors. What if we stuck all of them together? A sort of Choose Your Own Adventure style of deified life phases? What if we said the God could be Youth, Warrior, Father, and Sage? Is that less neat and tidy because it gives us four options rather than the classical three? But, what if you choose the path of the academic or poet or scientist rather than the path of the warrior? Could the God then be Youth, Warrior, Academic, Father, and Sage?
I realize that the argument can quickly be made that the word “warrior” is a stand-in for an idea, and it is not to be taken literally, but that is false. Words mean things. They have definitions. While we can say that a Warrior can also mean a fertile adult male in the prime of his life, that isn’t what the word means, and, thusly, can be hard to relate to should a man not think of his prime as Warrior-hood.
The same is true for the Wiccan triad of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Mother can mean a woman in the prime of her life, but that isn’t what the word means. The word is specifically defined in relation to the children she either has given birth to or otherwise cares for. But if you choose to be childless, how can you relate to a word that is foreign to you? What if you’d rather be a Maiden, Warrior, Crone yourself?
It is explicit that Wicca values women primarily in their ability to bear children. Its construct of deity is based up this. Explicitly. And for a fertility religion that is supposed to trace back to pre-Christian times, I suppose this makes since, since only women can bear children, and that’s a pretty big deal.
But while ancient pagan religions certainly valued the act of giving birth and the role of motherhood, even they has some options or variants. A lot of that is probably negated by Wicca’s soft polytheistic approach that mashes all the goddesses into one, but let’s think about this. Wicca supports a rather rigid view of feminine nature that didn’t even fit comfortably for ancient pagans, let alone for modern sensibilities. Especially when we consider the massive influence and presence of feminist thought in modern neopaganism.
But let’s not leave the masculine out. As Fire points out, the masculine role is not divided into stages, and efforts to do so have produced a multitude of options that far outnumber the 3-fold manifestation of the feminine. But don’t be deceived into thinking this gives men more option or respect. The message as it relates to fertility is a bit different that “male privilege”: men exist only to serve the needs of women in their fertility. Indeed, the Wiccan cycle of the year tells the tale of the male who is obligated to provide for, impregnate, defend, and ultimately die for the Goddess. His various roles as Father or Warrior or Sage or Scholar are all centered around his utility to the divine feminine and enabling her to fulfill her role as sacred mother.
From a strictly biological point of view, I guess this makes some sense. But I’m not sure that many Wiccans have thought about how their view of the divine supports male disposability and traditional female gender roles.
Many queer individuals I have spoken to are much more aware of this. Fire Lyte mentions this as well, and the response is usually some form of “Wicca celebrate creation, and there are many forms of creation out there!” And while that is true, it misses the fact that Wicca is explicitly a celebration of sexual creation. Forgive me for saying so, but the idea of sublimate the overt sexuality of Wicca into an metaphor for abstract creative and artistic processes falls flat. The Great Rite was not originally symbolic: it really did involve two people fucking in a field.

Pagan Polytheism

So earlier today I posted a post about Wicca and polytheism. I personally maintain that Wicca, at least as first designed and implemented by Gerald Gardener, is only giving lip-service to polytheism — even so called “soft” polytheism — and is essentially monotheistic, with any gods and goddesses given lip service to seen as archetypal aspects of the Divine Creative Source, whatever That may be. That is not to say that all people who identify as Wiccan hold this view, but that the original format of Wicca and the ritual structure that supports it has this assumption built into it. And I believe that this is one of the factors that is causing what I perceive as a rift between Wicca and other forms of Paganism.

But I may have spouted off rashly, and some of my own biases have shown through.

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.

You see, I am conflating polytheism with Paganism, and that may not be valid.

What it comes down to is the fact that there is still a debate in the Pagan community about what it means to be Pagan. And I’ve kind of been sitting it out.

In my own case, I have pretty much regarded three groups as comprising paganism. The first would be the Reconstructionists, or the hard polytheists, who seek to worship the old gods in ways that are as similar to the ancient ways as practical or possible. (“Gods” in this case does not have to mean gods in a pantheon, but can also refer to any other type of divine critter running around.) The second would be what I call Neo-Wiccans, the eclectic types that build off a basic Wiccan framework but aren’t really Wiccan in any sense that Gardener or Alexander would recognize. This encompasses a lot of the soft polytheism out there, the belief some gods/goddesses are aspects of others, or manifestations of natural forces. Then there are those that I consider the Outlyers, the magic-users or mystics that are ignored or rejected by other religious groups, but that Pagans don’t have a problem including. Satanists, Chaos Magicians, Ceremonial Magicians, and whatever else fits.

This has worked for me, but looking about at some other models, it seems a bit inadequate. So I must engage the debate.

Let’s start with this article by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, on hard polytheism in Paganism.

What I am noticing more and more recently, however, is that modern Paganism is being purposefully defined so as to not include the gods. In recent weeks alone: Jonathan Korman has defined “the pagan sensibility” as not necessarily needing to include the gods; John Halstead has discussed the four centers of modern Paganism, but has portrayed the deity-centric forms of Paganism as inherently creedal; and here at Patheos’ Pagan Portal, Yvonne Aburrow has defined “theology” as “reasoning about the Divine” rather than “reasoning about the gods,” which is not remotely the same thing (on which more will be said in a moment).

I have studies religion and history for some time. One thing that I have noticed is that in almost all cultures, a sophisticated and intellectual elite emerges in any religious tradition and abstracts that religion away from worship of deities. In some cases, they deny it happens at all, although the practices of the “common folk” usually belie this. History records this phenomenon in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, in China, in India, and even in Judaism and Christianity. The underlying assumption is that believe in specific gods with personalities is primitive superstition, and that abstract forms of interacting with the divine are more evolved and enlightened. (And we know how much I love evolving to more enlightened forms.)

Contemporary Paganism has a curious history, since it actually began among the enlightened elites as a more abstract form, and “devolved” into a more concrete and hard polytheistic practice. Such a development easily accounts for the reason that the gods are absent from many discussions about paganism. And it must also be said that much contemporary Pagan thought is often influenced by or a response to Christian thought. (The very act of referring to a religion as a “faith” or “creed” is a very Christian thing. Orthodoxy is extremely difficult to find among pagan religions — practice usually trumps belief.)

For a long time now, I’ve been hearing modern Paganism characterized as a “nature religion” or an “earth-based religion.” That is true to an extent (and in some cases, far less true than others—and not necessarily in a negative sense). However, I suspect a huge reason that it is characterized that way—especially to non-Pagans—is because of fear of being thought foolish or “primitive” for recognizing the gods. We have then internalized that dialogue and have spent lots of virtual and actual ink on determining whether or not one group or another is truly “earth-based,” when in fact that understanding in itself might be more of a problem than an accurate portrayal.

This touches on what I said earlier, as well as hitting the “nature religion” point. The concept of Paganism as a “nature religion” is a very modern understanding, and assumes a very romantic worldview relating to worshiping nature. I have found little to suggest that ancient pagans were “nature worshipers” as we conceive the term — most of them sought to placate the gods and spirits of nature to preserve order from chaos. It is far more accurate to say our pagan forebears were “order worshipers.” My own Roman ancestors did not worship nature in any meaningful sense, and in fact celebrated their grand civilization and the order it brought to people’s lives as having divine origins.

The idea of Pagans as “nature worshippers” fits in perfectly with the Christian conception (and, as in my case, misconception) of ancient polytheists as unsophisticated bumpkins with no place in civilized society, and therefore no business doing their rituals indoors.

In additions, it also fits perfectly with the romanticism of the politics embraced by the counter-culture that embraced early neopaganism. The emphasis on environmentalism contrasted with the exploitative stewardship model of Christianity, and the notion of free-flowing outdoor worship contrasted with the Christians hiding from the “real world” in their little boxes. Or something like that.

I am beginning to understand, more and more, the reason why many modern polytheists have chosen to distance themselves from the term “Pagan,” since polytheism most certainly involves gods (and lots of them!), whereas many modern forms of Paganism seem bound and determined to define their religiosity in every way apart from honoring, reverencing, or (horror of horrors!) worshipping a number of gods.

I think that this touches on some of my frustration with Wicca. (And indeed, in my last post I was implying that Wicca may not be properly “Pagan” because of its insistence on cramming all of the gods into two molds.) What it really comes down to for me is that I don’t like being told that the gods and goddesses I revere and interact with on a daily basis are just archetypes, or figments of the imagination of some Great God who Himself is an impersonal abstract expression of somethingorother. I see little difference between this and Christian telling me all of my gods are deceptions from Satan, or Hindus telling me that Jove is really an incarnation of Vishnu. Yes, I will desire to distance myself from anyone who condescends me like that.

Pagan or polytheist practice that emphasizes cultus presupposes a definite being with volition and consciousness on the other end of the interaction. (Cultus, for the present purpose, is active and deliberate interaction with divine beings.) Thus, when I hear Pagans being described or self-defining as “nature worshippers,” I wonder how interaction can take place at all. “Nature” doesn’t care if you make offerings, hold festivals, or sing its praises and dance and feast with your friends. Dancing at Lughnasadh will not avert global warming; singing a hymn won’t stop an earthquake; pouring a libation won’t prevent it from raining. The best way to “honor” nature is to do things like recycle, not drive, reduce one’s carbon footprint, and so forth.

But, if one (for good or ill, depending on who one asks) personifies nature to some extent as genii loci, land wights, and other spirits of nature and place, then one can usefully interact with these things even if it still might rain, have earthquakes, or get warmer. The more ecologically-conscious one’s religiosity is, the more scientifically-informed it tends to be; and if that’s the case, then the utter irrelevance of “nature worship” in any cultic fashion should become all the more obvious. Nature—and the wider cosmos more generally, with its colliding asteroids and exploding stars—is utterly indifferent to human existence at this stage, and likely will be so forever.

And this is another thing that bothers me about Wicca. If your gods are so abstract, then what are they? I interact with the gods because I can, because while they may embody cosmic forces, they do so in a way that my puny human brain can comprehend and handle dealing with. And when it comes down to it, they have their own moods and tendencies, their own preferences. Nature has no such compunctions. Which leads me to respect the gods much more than nature. The gods can be angered and placated — nature is just an environmental setting and can be manipulated as such. Regarding nature as an abstract offers no reason for not developing a forest other than aesthetics — regarding that forest as a home to spirits that will fuck you up if you mess with it will.

Christine Kraemer responded to Lupus’ article with one of her own, offering a template for Paganism that helps explain why some Pagans may feel a bit left out from the mix.

Today, in 2013, I think the three legs of the contemporary Pagan cauldron are these: polytheism, Goddess worship,* and earth-based spirituality. These three focuses for belief and practice have all contributed to what we think of as Paganism. Within the movement, a great many practitioners embrace all three perspectives, and many also engage two of the three.

A Venn Diagram is included.

Because this makes for a diverse set of attitudes, beliefs, and concerns, though, the outliers in this Venn diagram tend to struggle with the idea of “Pagan” identity. Pagan identity is most stable where the three categories overlap. Polytheists who aren’t particularly earth-based or interested in gender politics may feel marginalized, as may indoor worshippers of “the Goddess.” Those practicing “deep ecology” — a nature-based spirituality that has little to do with deities at all — may also feel out of place in the Pagan midst.

There is a lot to his, and I think it helps out. My biggest problem with this model, however, is that fact that two of the three categories are not religious elements, but political ones. “Earth-Based Spirituality” is romantic environmentalism under a spiritual sheen; “Goddess worship” in many cases is radical feminist similarly wrapped in a spiritual coating. (I would suggest something more like “Holism” for the environmental category and something more like “Monism” in the place of goddess worship, as the former includes the inter-connectivity of all things in a system, and the latter considers that the divine essentially underlies all things, in my mind embracing the divine feminine as well as the masculine. But I’m not too good at philosophy, so I may have that off …)

Some of the most potent practitioners I’ve known have been non-theist animists, urban polytheists, and Jungian spiritual feminists — and I was lucky enough to meet them because we gathered under a “Pagan” umbrella.

Agreed. And this is where I was previously unfair. In my grudge against Wicca, I was excluding a good number of pagans that are not polytheists but are still very pagan.

I’m not sure how we’ll solve this dilemma of who is Pagan and who isn’t. And maybe we shouldn’t. I think that Kraemer is on to something, but it still needs some work, especially since it reeks of the conflation of political and religious ideals that permeates so much of contemporary Paganism. It’s a good start, though, in that it allows some consideration of what does constitute Paganism, yet still allows room for those on the edges.

This need to define Paganism doesn’t seem to be waning, although the underlying issue in the above debate doesn’t seem to be so much as defining Paganism, but as defining one’s own type of Paganism as distinct from others. Paganism is such a broad term that until definitive categories are established within it, people will worry about being confused with other types that are far different from their own. (Lupus described this in an interaction with a Church and the assumption that all Pagans worship outside, which isn’t very Hellenistic. My gods had Really Big Temples back in the day.) I don’t want to be mistaken for a Wiccan, or an Asatru or a Druid, or even a Hellenic. I want to be recognized as legitimate in the bounds of Religio Romana, which is Pagan, yes, but is also its own very unique thing. And I think that is the conversation that is really going on here.

I don’t think Paganism is fracturing or imploding or fundamentalizing. I think that we’re just a bunch of people who have moved into a really big house and are making sure everyone knows where their rooms are.

Wiccan Polytheism

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).

All of these ideas are swirling around and bumping into each other in Witchcraft Today (1954). But there is not much about deities — for that, Doreen Valiente should get the credit, I suspect.

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.