Arkadian Anvil: Hammering out a Pagan Future

Steel is tested and shaped on the anvil. Here, we try every Pagan idea on the anvil of history, hammered by insight and intellect, to forge a Pagan Future.

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UPG: an ugly, misguided notion

“Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” as a term is dismissive and insulting, but worse it turns us away from the only spiritual reality…experience.

The only point in saying that a person has had a UPG, an Unsubstantiated (sometimes Unverified) Personal Gnosis, is to be dismissive and demeaning to them, and on examination the claim or criticism of UPG has no worthy intellectual basis. The Wikipedia entry is illuminating. I will start by taking the phrase apart, backwards:

‘Gnosis’ is being used here as a euphemism for knowledge acquired through intuition, insight, or a spiritual event, such as conversation with a Spirit or Deity. In another day this might have been called a revelation. There may be words or symbols involved, but it is not limited to discursive intelligence. Non-discursive communication or knowing (properly called noisis and contrasted with gnosis which means knowledge in the ordinary sense), is also included when people use UPG as a label.

The internal and private nature of this phenomenon leads to the ‘Personal’ clause in UPG. By not being ‘public’ or external and visible to all (or some) the ‘Gnosis’ is reduced to mere interiority without any claim on the public outside of the recipient. “It’s just personal” becomes a way of dismissing the insight into irrelevance.

For the third term, I’ll start with its inverse by asking what is ‘substantiated’. It could mean that the revelation was beheld by a multitude, sometimes called ‘shared gnosis’, but that would have made the Gnosis public and so out of our scope, although the critique developed below applies. What it usually refers to is that the data provided by the vision can be found in a known source, usually a book, possibly a myth, especially one treated as scripture. When that doesn’t happen we get told, “We can’t find your insight in a (our) book, therefore it is unsubstantiated.” Do you see the problems in this?

For one, the data we have about the past, the ancient cultures and religions from which we draw much of contemporary Paganism, especially the Reconstructionist part, is very poor. Admittedly it takes actually digging into the primary sources to realize how fragmentary it is. Worse, study shows how distorted the secondary sources are, rendering judgements on the basis of the scholar’s culture or ignoring data felt irrelevant because it was ‘merely’ ritual or magic, or women’s things. (For one example, take a look at Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine, which critiques the issues with Northern European Protestant scholars trying to study the ritualizing cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.)

As if this was not bad enough, there is a massively more important reason why the data that we have is such a small portion of what was. We come from a writing-driven culture; what is important must be recorded. The dominant religions surrounding us are called ‘religions of the Book’ because of their high valuation of text, and their scriptures in particular. They were given this title because of the peculiarity of this behavior in the ancient world. While most possessed writing, in ancient cultures orality, and with it memory, was esteemed far greater than text. You simply do not write down the important things. The Mysteries were not preserved, to our sad loss, because they were never written down. We know from Aristotle that Plato had unwritten teachings to be received after the written ones. Think of the loss in Ireland when the Judges and Poets died, sole preservers of law and history. The Norse were no different; how many sagas were not written down? The list goes on in all of the ancient peoples. What we have today is a fragment, not even the important part, and so much of it was written down by Christians as the older culture was suppressed. Yet more filtering…

What we are left with is the bias of our culture that privileges text. Because it is ‘in a book’, it is considered valid. Publication is to us consciously and unconsciously the standard for substantiating all other knowledge. And this is a delusion.

Books are derivative; someone wrote them down. They are not their subject, the thing itself. If they were, reading the recipe would be as nutritious as eating the meal. The thing itself is experience.

All religiosity is derived from someone having an experience. Sometimes in company, but most times alone, someone had an experience and then shared it with others. Most of this is so far back in time that we have no idea about the person so started the cult or religious tradition or lineage of practice, but many times we do know. Never mind the great founder religions like Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, when we examine what record we do have, there is the often mythical tale of the founder of the cult or even the whole culture and usually it is based on them receiving some divine mandate or instruction. If you think about it how else can it be? Even if the God came down and delivered the text literally into the prophets hands, Moses for example, he still had to be there to receive the text. Most of the time in these stories the Deity transmits cult or even technology (agriculture is a favorite), but it is always to a human who then passes it along (usually orally).

Experience is the center of all spiritual and religious life. Text is at best derivative. By creating and using such a term as UPG, “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” we privilege text over experience. (This is a rather Christian move, and those who have been following my writing know how I feel about that. . .) Even more damagingly, by framing someone’s experience as a UPG we dissociate ourselves from the primary data of spirituality. We can then bracket and set aside the immediate real, and go back to our books. In the process we may have damaged both the knowledge we could have shared in, but also possibly the recipient of that knowledge, who could have been another culture bringer, but instead was told their experience was of diminished value, or of no value at all, simply because we can’t substantiate their insight in a book.

The world is very different today, and so are we. We will NEVER be able to reconstruct the ancient world, and nor should we; there were plenty of problems back then we don’t want today: lack of disease control and slavery, for example. How are we to restore the worship of the ancient Gods? How are we to build a Pagan future? I am a historian and a priest. I deeply value the information we do have as a way to understanding the past, however imperfectly. But without recognizing that experience is primary, that one taste of honey is worth more that all the descriptions of it ever written, we will close ourselves off to the immediate and ever present Divine influence that is teaching us today how to find our way to It, and not just to some ink scratched on paper. Let us not chase the Word, but kiss the Speaker.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Naya Aerodiode
    Naya Aerodiode Thursday, 11 July 2013

    My own perceptions are verification enough for me. In fact, they are all I require.

  • Kris Hughes
    Kris Hughes Friday, 12 July 2013

    Judith O'Grady recently wrote a very good book on this subject, called "God-Speaking".

  • Christine L Berger
    Christine L Berger Friday, 12 July 2013

    Thank you Kris Hughes for referring to "God-Speaking". I got chills reading the comments about it and think it will be very helpful personally.

  • meesha j
    meesha j Friday, 12 July 2013

    I've always understood the term as "Unverified Personal Gnosis", rather than "Unsubstantiated" (though I've heard both), and while (dictionary wise) they technically mean the same thing, I think that there is a subtle subtext that (to me at least) makes the former friendlier--it sounds less final and less, its just not verified *yet*. While I agree with the criticism of persons using UPG as an insult of sorts, I don't necessarily dislike the term (particularly when used in conjunction with PCPG--peer corroborated personal gnosis, or other similar terms).

  • Edmund Pendleton
    Edmund Pendleton Friday, 12 July 2013

    Are we sneaking up on modern forms of heresy and dogma here?
    May be useful to review the issue issue of discernment.
    Seems to me that the central question here is, "How can I tell if Herself is talking to me or I'm just tuning into self generated delusion, psychological or cultural noise; or worse, conscious and unconscious, attempts at manipulation by others?
    I suspect one answer may be found in one's own Praxis? Sort of a "By their fruits shall ye know them" solution, in attending to discernment- listening to that Still, Quiet voice within; tempered in patient and persistent inquiry, alloyed in conversation with spiritual friends, and most importantly, freely tested in the field of your personal experience; reported, then rigorously reviewed by colleagues is the path forward.
    The aim of Religion, baby, the method of Science.

  • Fire Lyte
    Fire Lyte Saturday, 13 July 2013


    I posted my own response on my blog, Inciting A Riot. Enjoy!

    Unverified Personal Gnosis: A Response & A Challenge

    Love and Lyte,

    Fire Lyte

  • Power Before Wisdom
    Power Before Wisdom Saturday, 13 July 2013

    Rather than seeing it as a term to shut us down, when I hear it I hear a (commonly true) recognition of a lack of verification. That doesn't mean that it can't be verified, it just means it's hasn't been yet. There ARE people recognizing UPG as a starting point to either be verified or disproven.

    In the past I setup a Personal Gnosis Verification Tool on my blog . I took it down recently due to an update and a complete lack of use. Now that people are having this conversation I may set it back up. ;-)

    The processed started with posting a UPG. If other members had a supporting experience they could vote it up. If they had a disputing experience they could vote it down, and if they had no experience on the topic they were asked to please NOT vote. There was a place to link to sources or examples which supported or disputed the UPG. At a certain number of up votes the UPG would become recognized as an SPG (shared personal gnosis) and at a much higher number of votes it would transition into a VPG (Verified Personal Gnosis).

    Some people want more verified sources than others. I'm someone who is willing to try something and see if it works for me very easily. Others I know won't do something until it has gone through major verification and validation. There is no one size fits all on the issue of Gnosis.

  • Rachel Lindsay
    Rachel Lindsay Monday, 15 July 2013

    I really cannot agree with this position. UPG is not a derogatory term. It is used in a derogatory manner by some people. But the Pagan community embraces many terms that have been used in a derogatory fashion, such as "Neopagan" and "Witch".

    What else would you choose to call an insight that is personal and not applicable to others? And why use a different word at all? In this phrase, "unverified" or "unsubstantiated" simply refers to the fact that it is not a shared insight. Shared insights are not UPG, they are the basis for a religious tradition embraced by a group. This is a question of scale, not value.

    The final words of this article show a blatant lack of respect for an entire segment of the Pagan community, considering that Reconstructionists value direct experience too; they place great stress on right action and right living as a religious experience.

    I cannot see that you are advocating any change in belief; only a change (reduction) in terminology. This is not any kind of advantage.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
    P. Sufenas Virius Lupus Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    I agree, and have written similar things in the past...

    It amazes me how often "That's UPG," or even just the phrase "Your personal gnosis" gets used to kind of indicate, in essence, "What your experience is has no validity for me whatsoever, and don't even attempt to make me think that it might." Which I find problematic, for a variety of reasons...

    I don't recall ever reading inscriptions from the ancient world that accompanied, for example, an inscription at an Asklepeion which attested to the god's appearance to someone in a dream, that are followed by "But that's just Kritias' own personal viewpoint, which none of the priests of the shrine have approved and duly verified, so you shouldn't really trust it, and it has no bearing on what you should think about the god or seek to do in your own practice." There is no making a caveat to an aretalogy, and given that most aretalogies that we possess were made after an individual's personal experience, and we often cite these texts for information that is taken as definitive about a given deity (even when that information is innovative, as it often is in aretalogies), it is rather astonishing that the experiential basis for those is entirely elided because they are "literate" sources...

  • Miss Lynx
    Miss Lynx Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    I don't think anyone (or at least, that anyone other than perhaps hardcore atheists, or fundamentalist members of scripture-based faiths) is saying that religious experience is useless, or always 100% subjective. That seems to be a straw man - a position that people frequently attack with vigor, but that I've yet to see anyone in the pagan community actually profess.

    Religions evolve out of experience. Even the scripture-based ones start that way, but eventually have the founders' experience and intuition set down in writing. An individual has a religious experience or insight, shares it with others, and - if others or have had similar experiences, or otherwise find it relevant and meaningful for them - it grows and spreads and becomes part of the shared belief of first a small group, then a larger one, or a family or network of related groups, and perhaps eventually of a tradition, community, or a people. But there was an important if in there: not every experience or insight that anyone has becomes shared by others, or is felt to be relevant by them.

    The history of religion is a filtering process - yes, every religious thought, idea, practice, etc. was at some point born of some individual's personal experience or insight. But that doesn't mean that no one has ever had a religious experience or insight that didn't go on to become a shared belief or practice. To use your example, no, we aren't likely to see any ancient inscription conclude with "But that's just Kritias' own personal viewpoint..." etc., because of Kritias's dream had not been felt to be relevant by others, it probably wouldn't have been inscribed there in the first place, or still be being discussed centuries later. We have no way of knowing how much more the ancients may have experienced that we don't have records of.

    Another factor is that religious experience in ancient pagan cultures may have been far less varied and divergent than it is now. Modern western society is highly individualistic compared to virtually any other past or present society, and is also the product of a vast variety of different cultural and religious influences, to an extent that wasn't possible before the advent of frequent worldwide travel and communication. A person raised in a more homogeneous and less individualistic culture, where virtually everyone followed the same gods part from perhaps a few visiting traders, would probably be far less likely to have religious experiences or insights that were radically different from those of others around them. To refer back to one of the examples in my original comment, if someone in iron age Ireland became convinced that the Morrigan wasn't really a battle goddess and that the Celts ought to immediately become peaceful matriarchal vegetarians, the best they could probably hope for would be being laughed out of their village - but it's highly unlikely they would have ever come to that conclusion in the first place.

    I'm not saying that either the individualism or the multiculturalism of modern society are bad things - far from it! But they do mean that we live in a very different type of society than the ancients did - one where it's commonplace to liken any effort to organize pagans to herding cats, and joke about how having two pagans in a room guarantees at least three opinions on any topic. Given that, I think we do need to adjust our handling of individual religious experience somewhat from what the ancients may have done. Because in communities as diverse and fractious as the modern pagan communities tend to be, regarding every individual's religious experiences and insights as the immutable word of the Gods, no matter how much they may all conflict with each other, is a recipe for a lot of headache-inducing arguments.

  • Apuleius Platonicus
    Apuleius Platonicus Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    In fact, individualism, diversity, and cosmopolitanism were all firmly established features of ancient religion. The reason why modern Paganism can appear more "individualistic" is only due to the lack of grounding in tradition.

    Ancient Paganism provided both plenty of room for innovation and also various mechanisms for negotiating between the tradition and innovation. Only with such mechanisms is it possible to not merely preserve a tradition but to keep it alive and dynamic.

    Personally I agree that the term UPG is ugly, obnoxious and misguided. But I also think that many people employ this term not just because they are being ugly, obnoxious and misguided, but primarily because they are frustrated by a real problem that besets modern Paganism. And the problem is not that individual Pagans have very personal and direct experiences of the Divine, but rather than too many Pagans take their own personal experiences, interpret these experiences very clumsily, and then try to get others to validate and accept these interpretations.

    It's not that hard to tell when some Pagan is trying to get others to follow her or his own Personal Gnosis. Usually they give their Personal Gnosis some stupid name, put up a website (or, worse, a Pagan Square blog), and then proceed to loudly proclaim sweeping generalizations about what is wrong with modern Paganism and how their new revelation will fix things.

  • Scott
    Scott Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    PSVL, your observations suggest to me that (a) we don't fully grasp the context of the ancients in this respect - remember, they were not coming out of a cultural background in which text *was* authoritative and trying to construct an alternative paradigm, so they may have taken for granted any number of views that we need to articulate more explicitly; (b) we should by all means encourage modern Pagans to be more thoughtful and critical about the texts that they choose to use (as you well know, I'm pretty critical of some of the Irish texts which are considered bedrock by large portions of modern Paganism); (c) misuse of the term is not a good reason to cast it aside entirely.

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    Sam, it has been a long time, glad to see you are still fighting the good fight. Thank you for the spiritual ardor yr post demonstrates. If you did not see it, I wrote a blog relevant to yours (and am delighted to see you wrote one that is so relevant to mine). Check it out: Onward!

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