Monday, November 09, 2009

Common Neo-Paganism Questions John Gets Asked

Q: What is Neo-Paganism's theology?

There is no one theology. Neo-Paganism is a 21C, primarily Occidental, urban or suburban religious trend which views the universe as a living and sacred system of choices and consequence, with a little bit of random chance thrown in. Neo-Paganism borrows celebratory, communion, transformative, and meditative techniques from a variety of traditional Pagan, contemporary indigenous, and 19th and 20th C occult sources. It is a continuation of social trends with roots in the Age of Enlightenment and especially Romanticism.

Q: Are all Neo-Pagans earth, moon or sun people; is this a denominational difference?

No. Some pagans are sea people, and some are Tree Huggers. :-) I think a better question might be, "Are all Neo-Pagans Goddess Worshippers?"


Generally, Neo-Pagans gather -- ideally for ritual, celebration, and communion -- at eight points in the year. Four are on the equinoxes and solstices, four are between the equinoxes and solstices. Sometimes they gather on the nights of the full moon.

Neo-Paganism is an umbrella term for polytheistic, immanent, Earth mystery religions such as Wicca and Druidism. Wicca itself has several branches based on founders of differing methods. Some also include Heathenism: An umbrella term for religions (i.e. Ásatrú, Odinism, Forn Sed, and Theodism) based on the "Northern Mysteries" of Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Germany, with practices gleaned from the Eddic Sagas and other material sources.

Neo-Paganism should not be confused with indigenous Paganism (such as Shinto, Native American, or African practices), or with historical Paganism (such as pre-Christan Rome). In my experience, Shamanism seems to straddle Neo-Paganism and occult technique (as opposed to ceremonial magick, a technique used by many Neo-Pagans, or a High Mass used by Catholics).

At the other end of the spectrum from Neo-Paganism would be "New Age" practices and beliefs, particularly those which seem to view angels, devas, faeries, candles, and crystals as personal delivery-folk from a cosmic mail-order catalog.

Q: What draws a person to Neo-Paganism?

I think it depends on *when* one is drawn to Neo-Paganism -- individually as in age and culturally as in which decade. I always felt closer to "god" in the woods than I did in the Corvallis Episcopal church, and in 1985 I decided Neo-Paganism was a better match for my spiritual needs.

Other reasons:
- The Christian church is
+ too restrictive
+ says everyone is a sinner
+ tool of Dead White Guys
- To freak out one's family
- To do spells and perform magick
- To find a significant other
- To find a religion that is one's own choice, and not blindly inherited

Q: Do you use / do divination, magic and crystals ?

Pausing to remember that Starhawk cautioned about [Neo-Paganism] becoming "mindless idiocy." ...

** Divination ... I know a minister who says, "Scripture is everywhere, pay attention." Divination works the same way on the premise that everything is connected to everything else (a universal application of Sir James Frazer's law of magical contamination). The universe is seen as being governed by fate, fortune, and choice -- things are like really complicated clockwork, but there's some wiggle room; so it helps to pay attention so you know what actions to choose.

Divination methods with Tarot cards most western Neo-Pagans use today are derived from the turn of the 20th century methods developed by the Golden Dawn (Waite, Mathers, Levi, Crowley, Regardie). Other older methods involve drawing tokens (runes), casting yarrow sticks or coins, or counting birds/clouds/leaves/whatever during a particular span of time. Oh, yeah... dreams and visions -- um Oracal at Delphi. Er.. and Astrology... yeah... a 2000 year old compendium of Egyptian and Babylonian star lore.

My sense is in the past the "results" of various divination methods were more clockwork; these days, folks are likely to say that the results are more a reflection of the future (or of the hidden present) *at that moment*. Sort of like a weather report.

I've done Tarot Readings -- it's possible that I've unconsciously stumbled onto a cold-reading method. I've also had a few "spooky action at a distance" readings. I find they work better when they're for other people than if they are for me. My experience is that the cards suggest things to me, so I'd call them a focus aid.

About once every two to three years I have a dream that seems to predict the future -- but it's always about little mundane things (like seeing a foyer of a house I've yet to visit) and I never realize the prediction until after the fact. I wish they'd tell me things like when the stock market is going to crash or who will be president.

I would add that divination is simply one more method to gather, organize and analyze data about one's relationship with others, the environment, or deity. It's always good to cross-check your information sources.

** Magic (sometimes spelled Magick) is the art of using voice, body, song, dance, prayer, props and poetry to imagine a desired outcome, coupled with actions to manifest that outcome. But you have to really want it, and you have to be willing to work for it. And action works a whole lot better at getting something done than staring into a candle's flame.

Starhawk writes about Magic: "A spell is a symbolic act done in an altered state of consciousness in order to cause a desired change." AND... "Spell casting is the lesser, not the greater, magic; but the greater magic builds on the less. 'spells are extreamly sophisticated psychological tools that have subtle but important effects on a person's inner growth." AND ... In one sense, magic works on the priciple that 'it is so because I say it is so.' ... For my word to take on such force, I must be deeply and completely convince that it is identified with truth as I know it. If I habitually lie to my lovers, steal from my boss, pilfer from supermarkets, or simply renege on my promise, I cannot have that conviction."

Dion Fortune (Violet Firth) writes about magic: "Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will."

** Crystals.... are pretty. I think Mdm Blavatski started the thing with crystals when she imagined Atlantis as a super nation of magical technicians. But now that I think about it, what is the history of the crystal ball? Hmmm. Dr John Dee... 1550...?

I had a collection of tumbled crystal stones that lived on a window sill most of the time. Occasionally I would put one in my pocket if the mood struck me... Oh, yeah. OK... I do have a basalt rock with a natural hole in it that I found on the beach which I call "The Lodestone of Atlantis". A friend said that it looked like something a charlatan would wear, so I immediately found a thong for it. I wear it for rituals and on days when I think I'll need extra help staying calm and clear headed.

Q: Where does "magical power" come from?

When I'm feeling secular, I'll say that these are all psychological aids. When I'm feeling woo-woo, I say that these things are influenced and influence subtle patterns in a spiritual dimension. When I'm feeling somewhere in between, I'll say that my brain is somehow picking up subtle information not necessarily psychological.

Q: What is Samhain?

Samhain is an old Irish word for a"Celtic" festival taking place sometime midway between the Autumnal equinox and the Winter Solstice. I put "Celtic" in quotes because historical Celts ranged over Ireland, Spain, Gaul (France), Germany and parts of Eastern Europe over a time period beginning around 300 BCE to the 12th century (or later depending on if you think Christianized Celts are still Celts...) . So when someone says something is "Celtic", one should ask, "Yes, but what kind of Celtic?"

In "Celtic" tradition, Samhain is the last harvest when everything's stored, the herds are culled for winter (to make their feed last until Spring), and -- at least in theory -- it's the hunkering down time before things get cold and nasty and someone dies of influenza.

Sometimes Samhain is called the "Celtic New Year." The veils between this world and the Faerie World (or the world of the dead) are thin, and beings may wander between the worlds. Supposedly, it's a good time for divination because it's a kind of inter-calendary, limbo time. Sometimes people who have died in the previous year are remembered (ala Día de los Muertos).

Because I think using Old Irish terms for a borrowed "Celtic" folk customs is cultural appropriation, I prefer the term "Ides of Autumn" to indicate this particular time of year.

Q: Why does Neo-Paganism ignore logic, focus on anecdotal evidence, and is particularly "woo-woo?"

My preferred way to ask this is, "Why does it seem like so many Neo-Pagans are refugees from Math and Science?"

I think this is a Eugene-specific, but American-general phenomenon. The three or so British introductory books I've read stress a more balanced approach to spiritual / magical practices and keeping good records. However, Neo-Paganism's roots in the Counter-Enlightenment placed extra value on the emotions and intuition, and I think this tends to attract emotional and intiutive people to Neo-Paganism's ranks.

Q: What are five beginner texts and why?

This is a really hard question because most of the beginner texts I've read are really dated, or not "beginner" texts, or should have the good bits gathered together into a primer.... Sir James Frazer, Andrew Lang, Margaret Murray have contributed a lot of -- er -- dated research which has crept into books on Neo-Paganism and Neo-Pagan Theology and have yet to be rooted out. And although I might lose my honorary lesbian status by saying so, ditto Merlin Stone and Riane Eisler... and Maria Gimbutas.

Here's my picks:

1. "Drawing Down the Moon," by Margot Adler. The standard overview of the Neo-Pagan movement in the United States by an NPR reporter and practicing Witch.

2. "The New Encyclopedia of the Occult," by John Micheal Greer. Quick and easy introductory articles that seem well researched. Greer has an eye for "the emperor has no clothes" which shows up in his writing. Good alternative to Hutton's "The Triumph of the Moon (which is not a beginner book)".

3. "The Druidry Handbook," by John Micheal Greer. Accessable, well researched, no "pedigree bullshit." Introductory rituals and methods. Great annotated bibliography.

4. "The Mystical Qabalah," by Dion Fortune. Written in the archaic style mastered only by the English in 1935, this is an attempt to integrate Eastern philosophies with the practices and wisdom of the Hebrew Qabalah. Has some interesting explorations of the ethics of magic and the psychological boundaries between magical reality and delusion. Dion Fortune is the author of the phrase "all the gods are one god, and all the goddeses are one goddess, and there is one initiator," and "magic is the art of changing consciousness at will." Fortune established the concpet that polarity -- especially sexual polarity -- is a magical force and that (heterosexual) sex is sacramental. She's also a product of her time, so she's classist, racist, and homophobic; her writing style is chatty and gossipy, and I find that if I read her with a Monty Python accent I enjoy her books immensely. . . . and if one wants to understand the magickal theory behind most Western Neo-Paganism, one has to read this book (it's more accessible than Alestar Crowley, and it's possible that "A Garden of Pomegranates" by Israel Regardie -- which I haven't read -- might be a better choice ).

5. "Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions," by Starhawk et al. Simple language and fun activities... even if it is a little gynocentric (my pet peeve). Starhawk, the "American Witch," introduced me to Wicca, and she'll always have a special place in my heart; but she's really focused on the female reproductive system (which I don't have) and she's adopted the Persephony Myth as her own personal story (which does get tedious after the third book). Starhawk's fatal flaw is that she is a novelist -- while this allows her to communicate complicated ideas with powerful images, she sometimes reasons by analogy or presents her imaginings as actual fact.


In terms of Wicca, which is the tradition I'm most familiar with, books tend to be focused either on ritual, spells, and the neopagan calendar; or they tend to be historical / sociological / archeological.

** History / Sociology / Archeology

Ronald Hutton
The Triumph of the Moon -- If you want something more pithy than Drawing Down the Moon (or even if you don't) I highly recommend this book.Very dense history of the development of paganism, starting with the general movements of the English Enlightenment and Romantic eras, narrowing down during the Industrial Revolution and Modern eras to focus on specific occult scholars and students. Ends with an examination of the influences of Aleister Crowley on Gerald Gardner, and Gardner's subsequent development of Wicca.

Witches, Druids and King Arthur -- especially the first chapter "How Myths are Made."

Ancient British Paganism

Cynthia Eller
The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory -- Wildly sarcastic, but it addresses some unspoken core feminist values embedded in American Wicca. Excellent companion to "How Myths are Made."

Grahm Harvey
Contemporary Paganism -- Sort of a 1990's British/European version of Drawing Down the Moon

Carlo Ginzburg
Ecstasies. -- Translation of 1989 work tracing the history of pogroms against lepers, Jews, and non-Christians in Europe by an examination of court records. Questions the Murray thesis of the Burning Times. Examines records of self-identifying witches and other occult villagers who have ecstatic, mystical experiences.

William G. Dever
Did God Have a Wife -- Dever argues that there is text and objects in the archaeological record supporting the theory that families worshiped a goddess, Asherah, at family shrines in 11th century BC Israel. Further states that Asherah was a fertility goddess, most likely worshiped by women, and that Asherah was Jahweh's consort.

Watshington, Peter

Madame Blavatsky's Baboon -- A review of the doings of H. P. Blavatsky, Master Koot Hoomi, Annie Besant, William Judge, Charles Leadbeater, G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Krishnamurti. Spanning the time of the rise of the English Empire, the fall of the Russian monarchy, the decline of English colonialism, and the rise of California-style demagoguery, this book veers between comic and melodramatic turns.

** Ritual and Magical Theory

Bonewits, Isaac
Real Magic -- A master's thesis written in the early seventies. Sometimes a little too cute, it attempts to codify magic into a scientific paradigm.

Fortune, Dion (Violet Firth)
Psychic Self-Defense -- Lots of anecdotes of the psychic doings of the English Occult Jet Set. In between some of the quaint racism and homophobia is good advice for determining what kind of experiences one is having, and what to do if the experience is a bad one.


Spiral Dance, The -- A discussion of spells, rituals, and ethics behind the women's spirituality movement.

** Wiccan Theology

Farrar, Janet and Stewart
Witches' God, The -- Attempts to reexamine the role of male deity within Wicca. Very dualistic and concerned with polarity, and therefore heterosexist. A good overview of various cultures and gods.


Truth or Dare -- An detailed discussion of the workings of our hierarchically based society, in which the forces of power-over and power-with are examined closely.

Dreaming the Dark -- A discussion of the workings of power upon the fields of sexuality and politics. Includes a discussion on the ethics of magic.

** Earth Sciences

Heath, Robin
Sun, Moon and Earth -- A wonderfully illustrated book and a great introduction to the motions of the sun and the moon across the sky. A must read for anyone wishing to make their own observations of the seasons. Very accessible.
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