good essay, david.
here's a series to complement it:
Paganism, part 1: what is modern paganism?
The majority of pagans these days do not dwell in the country, but a yearning towards nature is marked
Monday 15 July 2013
According to the recent census, there are around 80,000 people who call themselves pagans in England and Wales today. Although they are insignificant numerically, they haunt the imagination, earn public fascination and derision in equal measure, and have featured heavily in the recent press – an article on
Hellenic paganism at the BBC, one on Anglican attempts to recruit pagans
in the Telegraph, and on the
future of Stonehenge
everywhere. As I write this,
the Association of Catholic Priests
is bemoaning the apparent fact that Ireland is now a "pagan" country, which might come as a bit of a shock to their parishioners. To quote
the Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
So what does "pagan" mean now? Who are we? What do we believe? And how can we possibly believe it?
I need to emphasise straight away that modern paganism – at least in the UK – has no direct links with whatever it was that ancient pagans, whoever they were, believed in. The term comes from the late Latin "paganus", which simply means "country dweller" or, less flatteringly to the modern mind, "peasant". Most country dwellers today obviously are not worshippers of Hera or Horus, and the name has emerged over the last 100 years or so as an umbrella term to cover a multitude of practices and beliefs – plus many believers who are waking up to the fact that they have very little in common with one another – and certainly not with any ancient practice. We don't know what the original druids did, except through Roman writing of questionable accuracy, and although the presence of cunning men and women is by contrast relatively well documented from medieval times onwards, the set of folk magic practices, and more sophisticated grimoire-based magic, remains firmly rooted within the Christian tradition and is unlikely to reflect any earlier worship except in a very tenuous form.
Modern paganism's roots are in part embedded in the late 19th century, with the rise of organisations such as the Golden Dawn – a society which involved a set of highly theatrical, and more than somewhat turgid, magical practices, and which was heavily patronised by luminaries like George Bernard Shaw and WB Yeats. Its more sensational proponents were people like McGregor Mathers, who fancied himself as a Scottish count, and a young Alistair Crowley. Predictably, the Order disagreed with Crowley and, no doubt fanning itself furiously, booted him out, whereupon he set up his own society, now known as the Ordo Templi Orientis. The pattern of rows, flouncing, schism and petty ideological disagreement – common to all religious orders the world over – has been repeated ever since.
Whatever flavour of practice you care to name, however – wicca, druidry, heathenism, or ceremonial magic – there are some common themes: romanticism, classicism, a harkening to the historical and mythical past, and a focus on the natural world and the passage of the year. The majority of pagans these days do not dwell in the country, but a yearning towards nature is marked: it is fair to say that most have had something to do with the environmental movement, whether this means ordering one's solstice cards from Greenpeace, or hardcore road protests and political activism.
Having been metaphorically beaten over the head by academic historians such as Ronald Hutton and Owen Davies, British pagans are now prone to taking a more measured look at the actual past, as opposed to the mythological one. It is generally accepted that 5 million witches were not burned at the stake (certainly not in the UK, where hanging was more popular), and that wiccan lineages go back to the 1950s, not hundreds of years to where bands of goddess-worshipping priestesses were ousted by evil Christians. That leads us to the question of belief in a historically well-documented, recent attempt to create a religion, and that's one of the questions which we'll be looking at in the weeks to come.
Do modern pagans believe in deity? Some of them do, but not all. Do they perform their rituals outside in nature? Many do, but many occultists wouldn't be seen dead in a grove of trees and prefer to work indoors. Do they undertake political activism? Again, many do – and these sorts of questions are what makes any study of contemporary pagan practices exceptionally broad. We are not a text-based religion, and arguably not a theism or set of theisms per se; modern paganism is diverse, fluid, and individualistic.
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfre ... NTCMP=SRCH
Paganism, part 2: how does one become a druid? You ask nicely
theguardian.com Monday 22 July 2013
Pagans don't tend to fight about whose god is best, or whether they even exist – many have fled from repressive religions
What do pagans actually believe in?
GK Chesterton's famous quote
is frequently invoked: "When a man stops believing in God, he doesn't then believe in nothing – he believes anything." Unfortunately for easy analysis, the issue with pagans is more that they believe in lots of anythings, but what those anythings consist of is open to substantial debate.
I remarked in
my previous article
that currently pagans are realising that they don't really have much in common with one another. You'd think this would have been apparent from the get-go, and I'm sure in ancient times it was, but both
and, to a lesser extent, modern
druidry, were set up in part as a reaction to prevailing Christianity and culture, and thus you have alliances that are somewhat artificial: more of a question of defining something by what it is not, rather than what it is. The demographic is changing these days, but a number of pagans came out of repressive Christian upbringings and fled as far as they could towards one of the principal opposites available to them.
Many pagans do believe in deities, or figures from mythology that are now treated as deities with little or no theological justification. The Welsh magician/trickster
is a case in point: mentioned in the Mabinogion, he's a dodgy anti-hero figure, now treated as a minor deity, whereas his rapist brother Gilfaethwy (happily) is not, and nor is his uncle the master magician Math. Why choose one and not the other? There's a randomness to the current Celtic pantheon, which is best explained by reference to cultural and literary factors – WB Yeats, we're looking at you – than to any theological underpinning.
Lacking much direct reference from the ancient Celts themselves – Roman reference to Celtic gods is patchy and many deities have dropped out of contemporary worship entirely – the history of current Celtic paganism emerges from the Celtic twilight of the late-19th century onwards. In wicca, the "goddess" Aradia stems from
Charles Leland's 1899 novel, The Gospel of the Witches; whether Leland took her practices from old Tuscan folklore, or simply made much of it up, is in some question, but scholarly opinion tends towards the latter. Followers of Egyptian, classical or Norse pantheons are in a slightly more secure position as regards names and natures, but not necessarily where authentic practices of worship are concerned.
But it isn't necessary to worship any deity in order to be a pagan. It isn't really a set of theisms per se; rather, a way of interacting with the cosmos via a varied set of practices: following the ritual year, for example. We do count agnostics and atheists among our number, and there are a lot of people who regard deities as Jungian archetypes – facets of an entirely human psychology – rather than as anything real and "out there". There is debate about this, but it tends not to slide into anything recognisable as fundamentalism: we're not text-based; don't have a set dogma; and thus any argument is dependent on factors that are opinion-based and aesthetically or socially dictated.
What you don't tend to find in paganism are arguments as to whose god is more powerful – or more existent. Ontologically, the movements and organisations beneath this very broad banner are fluid and hyper-eclectic. You might be a follower of
Horus, but that doesn't mean you're going to declare all-out war on worshippers of
Baphomet. Nor do there tend to be the "angels on a pinhead" kind of disputes that arise between members of religions that have a text that is open to multiple interpretations.
This does not mean, of course, that we're an argument-free zone. Principal disagreements tend either to be much more petty (the precise timing of so-and-so's
wiccan initiatory lineage, for instance); broadly political (no nice pagan likes a Nazi, and there are a handful of Aryan nation types in some traditions); or deriving from the assumption made by pretty much every practitioner of ceremonial magic that no one amongst one's peers knows what the hell they're talking about. And since pagan clergy tend to be self-appointed, or sanctioned through a usually short initiatory line, there's a dearth of authority to which appeal can be made. In many ways this makes the pagan traditions more transparent than other religions: with recent spiritualities, it's obviously easier to document their emergence and their history, plus the personalities that created them are known to a large number of individuals still living.
A friend of mine once asked a contemporary druid how one might become a druid. "You ask nicely," he replied, which more or less sums up entry into modern paganism.
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfre ... NTCMP=SRCH
Paganism, part 3: the wheel of the year
The idea there is a 'wheel' of dates on which pagans hold rituals may be artificial, but it provides a vital link to the natural world
theguardian.com, Monday 29 July 2013
Most contemporary pagan practice, throughout the UK, US and the antipodes, is based around the central concept of the wheel of the year. Paganism
states that this was a focus of ancient Celtic worship; a dubious statement, to say the least, but we might with some accuracy note that it is a focus of pagan worship now, whatever might have been done in the past.
The idea is that every six weeks, on the "quarter days" (solstices and equinoxes) and the so-called "cross quarter days" (the first of February, May, August and November), you hold a ritual or series of rituals to celebrate that particular festival. Some of these are already extant in both folklore and the political and religious calendars: 1 May (Beltane), for example, has traditionally been the focus of a range of celebrations, from fertility to socialism. That's the basic structure, but various paths undertake different practices on top of that: wiccan groups who work with the phases of the moon, for example, or ceremonial magic practitioners who might adopt some of the sacred days of the Egyptian calendar.
Then there are chaos magicians, who work whenever they like and do more or less what they want. Rituals that involve Doctor Who or Buffy rather than Celtic deities? Go for it: chaos magic involves a creative and eclectic approach to popular culture and in many ways it's the cutting edge of magical practice.
So what actually happens in a magical ritual? The author Dennis Wheatley has a lot to answer for as far as popular expectations go, and so does the late
wicca high priest Alex Sanders: the latter was well known for summoning the tabloids. An erudite and charismatic man, the founder of Alexandrian wicca was nonetheless a relentless publicist with a showman's natural flair, and a tendency to promote the craft in the most photogenic manner possible in the late 60s and early 70s.
However, these days, what you will be most unlikely to see are: sacrificed virgins/small children; blood; nudity (depending on the group and where they are working, but it's not common and I will add that, in this country's climate, I'm not prepared to risk pneumonia for my beliefs, quite frankly); an orgy; or the manifestation of Satan. In most medieval texts, such as the
Grimoire Verum, demons generally require the sacrifice of a small piece of toast rather than blood: very dull of them.
What you will see is the consecration of a ritual circle with fire and water; salutations to the four directions, plus their correspondences; the evocation of a deity/spirit; and food at the end of it. The purpose of the ritual will either be seasonal or for a specific reason – for instance a healing or initiation. Who leads the ritual? Pagan clergy are unlicensed: wiccans work on a lineage system, a bit like a minor form of apostolic succession, depending on who initiated them; and other groups tend to take it in turns.
What's the point of those rituals? In short, connection with the seasonal year. I noted at the start of this article that connection to the original festivals of Britain is sometimes tenuous: some basic research will, for example, show you that May Day used to be a point of the year in which the dead were said to return, as well as All Souls, and the August festival of
Lammas or Lughnasadh
was celebrated in Ireland, but not necessarily in many places across the British Isles. So our "wheel" is a relatively recent construction, made out of various components drawn from folklore and the imaginations of more recent practitioners: the autumn equinox was renamed Mabon by the writer Aidan Kelly in the 1970s, for reasons that remain obscure, since it has absolutely nothing to do with the Welsh superhero of the same name (who is, if anything, associated with the new year in January). And
Adrian Bott has done some good work on deconstructing the name of Ostara, on the other side of the year.
This cycle is reconstructionist at best and artificial at worst; but the same might be said with regard to any religious festival sequence and ritual practice. All start somewhere, and the virtue of the current cycle is its reminder of an agricultural and seasonal cycle from which it is easy to become divorced. Why, in a 21st-century society, should we need that reminder? Well, many feel that they require a link with the natural world, even – or especially – in the middle of the city, and whether that's primarily spiritual, or primarily aesthetic, it is surely hardly harmful.
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfre ... NTCMP=SRCH
Paganism, part 4: the literary and artistic underpinnings
Authors as diverse as Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit, and JRR Tolkien have shaped modern paganism as greatly as any theological underpinnings
theguardian.com, Monday 5 August 2013
I've implied in earlier articles that the notion of genuinely ancient roots for contemporary paganism is something of a red herring. We've looked very briefly at some of the strands that filter into the modern movement and it's time now to consider these more closely. I would suggest that Romantic aspect of paganism emerges as strongly from literary and poetic antecedents as it does from any theological origin. We've commented on Charles Leland's Aradia. William Harrison Ainsworth's 1843 potboiler Windsor Castle is also responsible for popularising the myth of Herne the Hunter (identified by both Shakespeare and William Ireland as the ghost of a real individual), who has become conflated with the European figure Cernunnos and deified in turn. The further involvement of the literary establishment with late 19th century occultism – George Bernard Shaw's affair with Golden Dawn luminary Florence Farr and Yeats' intense flirtation with ceremonial magic informed both the world of the esoteric, and their own work: modern pagan sensibility owes much to Yeats' preoccupation with the Celtic Twilight. The writings of Arthur Machen seep into the mythologies surrounding the first world war (the legend of the Angel of Mons, for example, derives from one of Machen's short stories).
Also emergent from the Golden Dawn were Dion Fortune, whose novels form part of the "ripping yarn" tradition that inspired Dennis Wheatley, and Alistair Crowley – a much more entertaining writer than he is given credit for. Crowley is the disgraceful uncle of modern occultism: respected and reviled in equal measure, but he cannot be ignored. And on the artistic front are the extraordinary paintings of Austin Osman Spare, the youngest member of the RCA, who burned out on the establishment front before the age of 25, and who spent the rest of his life in Southwark, painting portraits in exchange for booze, accumulating cats, and experimenting with ceremonial magic. Spare's legacy includes the work of his acolyte Kenneth Grant, whose novels are, to say the least, startling.
Wheatley himself hasn't really done the actual practice of magic a great service – most of the presumptions regarding satanism stem from his early novels – but I am personally of the view that he's due for a revival. Wheatley's actual occult involvement is open to some debate: he met Crowley, but does not seem to have been overly impressed. People read Wheatley's novels and assume that this is what occultists actually do: alas, we lead far less exciting lives. (Personally, I'd be very happy to spend my time in a smoking jacket sampling fine wines and giving advice on demonology).
On top of this long strand of occult writing we have the Gothic narrative itself, and the plethora of fantasy which has been informing the western imagination ever since the turn of the last century. Authors as diverse as Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit, and JRR Tolkien have shaped modern paganism as greatly as any theological underpinnings. When people come across paganism, it is common to hear that they experience a sense of familiarity: the natural inclination is to attach this to some form of spiritual experience, but I wonder whether it is as closely related to early reading matter. A lot of us were fans of CS Lewis's Narnia when we were children (I know this is a Christian allegory but that went right over my head at the time in favour of a talking lion); other mid-20th century works such as LM Boston's Green Knowe, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series are the literary heirs of Machen and Ainsworth – although it's unlikely that any of these are infused by a deliberately pagan sensibility, they certainly possess it.
To that extent, contemporary paganism might be described as a literary and artistic movement as much as a religious one. This brings us to issues of the imagination and its enactment: would pagans say that their practices are purely aesthetic, reflecting a literary sensibility dating from the mid-19th century onwards? Most, I think, would not, claiming some form of reality behind ideals which may nonetheless stem from literary foundations. Whether they claim that this reality reflects the paranormal, or is purely psychological (many pagans take a Jungian view of the archetypes of deity), may vary. I've commented elsewhere that rationalists make a category error with regard to religious practices across the board. They aren't illustrations of pre-existing theories. They can't be reduced or translated into theoretical or quasi-scientific propositions. Even so it would be misleading to present paganism
as wholly a literary/artistic movement: it makes claims about the nature of reality – but they arise from an aesthetic basis that it would be disingenuous to ignore.
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfre ... NTCMP=SRCH
Paganism, part 5: politics, ethics and cults – and their absence
The innate stroppiness of pagans keeps cults at bay while its decentralised structure makes it increasingly progressive
theguardian.com, Monday 12 August 2013
At the beginning of this series, I said that paganism covered an extremely broad range of bases, both quasi-theological and political. It is fair to say that a large percentage of contemporary pagans support the environmental movement in some form, whether this consists of the road protest movement – perhaps the most visible engagement of paganism in environmentalism – or tree planting programmes, or opposing the proposed badger cull.
A number of pagans are rightwing (ranging from Telegraph-reading, pro-foxhunting country types to a thankfully small handful in the English Defence League) – but a greater number are liberal or left, and many are self-proclaimed anarchists. In many respects, paganism is intrinsically anarchic, at least in the UK. It resists formal structures and organisation: anyone who has ever tried to organise a pagan event will testify to this. It also resists a formalisation of the very loose theological principles and beliefs gathered beneath its conceptual umbrella.
The situation in the US is somewhat different, as registered religious organisations can get tax breaks, so structures tend to be more formalised. There's also a tendency for American Wiccans to become more hung up on initiatory lineages, and to be more dogmatic about a spiritual path that doesn't actually have any dogma. But this is evidence of a particular mindset, common to all religions and political paths: insisting you're right is a bug, not a feature, and there's nothing in any pagan texts that insists on the primacy of one's personal belief system.
Because contemporary paganism is essentially so new, its underlying ethical structure is not particularly sophisticated. One exception might beheathenism, the set of practices based on Norse/Anglo-Saxon spirituality, which formulates its ethics on the Havamal, a 13th-century text that provides a surprisingly useful conduct guide. Although these days I wouldn't rely on the section, in stanzas 80-100, about seducing women: "Let him speak soft words and offer wealth \ who longs for a woman's love, \ praise the shape of the shining maid – \ he wins who thus doth woo."
Otherwise, pagan ethical principles tend to be somewhat rudimentary: the oft-repeated "An [as long as] Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will" derives from St Augustine (Dilige, et quod vis fac) via Rabelais and thence Crowley, and is obviously open to a wide variety of philosophical interpretations. Early (1950s and 60s) paganism ran on the ethical engine of the Threefold Law, based on a very simple karmic principle: do a bad thing and it will come back to you three times. A quick glance at the life of the average merchant banker will provide instant empirical disproof of this, and its main virtue was that enough people believed in it to put a halt to a certain amount of interpersonal disagreement and hold back from cursing each other.
It's not found in most indigenous spiritual practices to which some modern western pagans may adhere, such as voodoo or candomblé, and it's not a feature of the kind of magic that cunning folk practised in Britain over the last few hundred years, in which cursing people was, like it or not, pretty standard: a quick visit to the excellent Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle will attest to the fact that not all early practitioners of magic were dear old herb-gathering midwives with only the good of the local parishioners at heart.
One advantage of this resistance to formalisation and structure is the relative lack of pagan cults. Although in the early days of Wicca it was known as the "witch cult", there's little that's cult-like about pagan practice. It's too diverse, and lacks central figureheads. There are a few people who are, let's say, personality-challenged, who would like to set up a cult, but in large part they fail, due to the innate stroppiness and independence of their fellow pagans. Very small cult-like groups might form and these tend to be classically abusive, but don't in general attract large numbers.
As with every generalisation, there are possible exceptions: Damanhur, the extraordinary structure currently being built in northern Italy, might function as an instance of a cult, with commensurate accusations surrounding it of brainwashing and tax evasion. Central figures of its worship include Horus, Sekhmet and Pan, which brings it beneath the pagan aegis. However, Damanhur's leader, Oberto Airaudi, has recently died, so quite what will happen to the admittedly remarkable temple that he inspired is open to some question.
In contrast Philip Carr-Gomm, the nominal head of one of the largest pagan organisations – the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids – is so low-key that many druids would be hard-pressed to pick him out of a line-up: a deliberate approach that avoids the abuses of many religious organisations. Might we draw comparisons with other, decentralised religions such as western Buddhism? I think we can, and in this light paganism is appearing increasingly progressive.
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfre ... NTCMP=SRCH