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Culture Blogs

Popular subjects in contemporary Pagan culture and practice.

Category contains 2 blog entries contributed to teamblogs
Rethinking spiritual legitimacy among Pagans

 

Recently there was a dust-up on a British Traditional Wiccan thread I often read: people debated who is or is not a genuine Gardnerian or British Traditional Wiccan. Questions about legitimacy have long been controversies due to these traditions’ concern for lineage and practice. Whenever they do, it seems some Pagans were conflicted, worrying perhaps their own groups and contact with their deities was somehow inadequate compared to others

This online commotion reminded me of other discussions of Pagan legitimacy. This insecurity is not just a BTW disease.

Consider two more examples.

The Pomegranate  began as a magazine offering serious Pagan thinkers and scholars an outlet for their writings. Some important stuff appeared there and some fascinating debates took place.  It made a major contribution to our broader community.  But in time its editor wanted to turn the magazine into an academic journal. I argued against it for the following reasons:

1. It would become too expensive for most Pagans to read. 

2. It would eliminate contributions that fit a Pagan spirituality but not an academic format. Such as poems.

3. It would let academic fields determine what was important.

My and similar advice from others was ignored.

Now, at $90.00 annually,  the Pomegranate is unavailable to most who aren't rich or have easy access to a university library that subscribes. I haven't read it in years. I am confident the Pom encourages greater respect for Pagan academics in academia, but it has little impact on our own community.

Finally, there has been a recent upwelling of essentially theological criteria as to who is or is not a Pagan or a polytheist. These arguments can be interesting, but to my mind their importance to Pagan practice is way over blown.  These questions are of great importance to monotheistic styles of thinking, but as I explained, not to oursI want to push this argument further to question how so many of us think about 'legitimacy.'  

In Whose Eyes?

Our broader culture does not seek religious legitimacy through our personal relations with Spirit and our fellow practitioners. It must first be filtered through sacred texts and often also authorities independent from us. It predisposes us to subordinate our experience to others’ judgments, even others thousands of years dead. It subjects us to attitudes and standards derived from religious traditions with assumptions that are very different from ours.

Scriptural traditions root legitimacy in some text that is supposedly without error.  But in every case these traditions fight and splinter because they cannot agree as to what is said within those pages of inspired writ. Often they end up killing one another. Making a text a final authority does not end discord and probably even increases it since all believe they alone have “the truth.”

To return to the controversy that began this piece: the Gardnerian Book of Shadows is treated by some Gardnerian Pagans as a kind of sacred text. Long and sometimes vitriolic arguments have taken place as to what is truly in keeping with ‘real’ Gardnerian Wicca, arguments made all the more intractable because there are several versions of the BOS, from Gerald Gardner’s early involvement until his death.

I have been told somewhat similar sentiments are heard from some regarding the Spiral Dance. And there are various publications using the name “Witches’ Bible.” Some are good books grotesquely misnamed. 

Scriptural issues and styles of thinking are polluting (to) a religious tradition without a sacred scripture.  Books of Shadows have never claimed the authority of a sacred text.  In the online controversy I mentioned one informed commentator wrote “The first words in the earliest BoS's - words predating Gardner - read: ‘Keep this book in your own hand of write, Let Brothers & Sisters copy what they will...’”

It is inevitable that such a text would change over the years with some new material being added, old material disappearing, and different BOSs developing along independent lines gradually becoming more and more different from one another. A phenomenon that would destroy a scripturally rooted tradition is deliberately encouraged in Wicca.

We encounter similar confusions about legitimacy among some reconstructionists who reason that unlike Wicca, their practices have genuine roots in pre-Christian Pagan practice. Supposedly Wicca was cobbled together by Gerald Gardner whereas theirs is not. NonGardnerian forms of Wicca are supposedly even less grounded in spiritual reality.

This claim isn’t valid. First, and least important for my ultimate argument, Wicca has very old roots even if not, as some once imagined, to the “Old Religion” of pre-Christian Europe. It’s grounding in a mix of ancient occult traditions and folk practices is quite real.

More importantly, no one quite knows in detail what used to happen in the old ethnic traditions now being reconstructed. Folklore, occasional surviving works like the Eddas, and accounts by Roman or other writers give important information, but these hints are limited because we no longer know the context within they originally existed.

To give one important example, the Eleusinian Mysteries were the most famous mystery religion in Classical Greece and virtually every important classical thinker was thought to be an initiate. Despite many ancient references we do not know in detail what happened in them. We are reduced to reading secondary sources.

As we know from comparing modern observers, different people reporting on the same event often produce different descriptions, especially if they report as outsiders.   This tendency helps keep historians in business. Apuleius gives important information about beliefs in his time, but his is only one description, an Isis-centric one. 

Second, some and likely all old traditions destroyed by Christian suppression had extensive oral lore, especially if they had initiatory dimensions. The Pagan Celts wrote nothing down about their practices. What we know of them comes from old poems written down by Christian monks centuries after Celtic Paganism died out at least in public,  Romuva, the reconstructionist tradition with the strongest claim to historical continuity, has had to rely on folklore to help connect their present practices with what happened in the past.  And valuable as folklore is, it has been preserved in a Christianized context where those doing research must exercise very fallible judgment as to what is genuinely old, what a newer accretion, and what its original context was. 

Reconstructionists do the best they possibly can to revive the religions of their ancestors, but they can never be sure they discovered what was known in a tradition of unbroken lineages extending for centuries if not millennia. In fact they can be pretty sure they haven’t.  At most they will have created a tradition carrying important elements of the old into the modern age.  And this is very good.

Third, judging from Native American examples I will discuss below, even within a tradition or a practice there were probably significant regional variations.  There was never “one right way,” Variety with a common theme seems to have been the real pattern. 

Today “Squat,” a commonly invoked Pagan God of parking has different characteristics and different preferences in different places. And I, for one, find Squat a wonderful force to have on my side. But I am more intrigued than bothered when a Pagan in a different region describes Squat differently.  They even make different kinds of offerings than I was taught to.  But the key question is not “Who gets Squat right?”

Tradition and Lineage

But what then makes a tradition? I would suggest lineage is about all that can do the job, and the contents within lineages change all the time.  Let me illustrate with a hopefully no-ncontroversial example from some native American religions. Ritual dances are central to the traditional practice of many tribes.  The Sun Dance is the most famous example, but there are many others.  However, when given the dance by another tribe (the legitimate way to receive a practice is to be given it) the gifted tribes would then modify both it and its meaning, if they choose.

This flexibility within respect and legitimacy seems to have involved more than sacred dances.  I was once told by a Crow Sun Dance priest “Gus, if I taught you how to conduct sweats (lodges), there would come a time when you changed it.”

I waited for a criticism of Euro-American’s lack of respect for Indian religion. It never came.

             He added “And that is how you make it yours.”

To master a practice you must be able to make it yours, though just how you do that, and even if you do that, is your call.

Using this example, we can describe lineages of a Pagan tradition, such as Gardnerian Wicca as family trees. But we misunderstand it if we expect the lineage to reproduce the same practice in detail across generations of practitioners.

The Source of Legitimacy

Legitimacy for Pagan religion arises out of practice, not text or hierarchy or dogma. Most briefly:  does a Pagan practice contribute to our ability to relate with the animate world, with deities or spirits?  If it does, it is legitimate because it is accepted by the only parties that matter: the Gods and the people dealing with Them. If the Gods or other entities do not participate we may be doing effective psychodrama, we may be celebrating the beauty and wonder of the world, or conducting a moving play but this does not demonstrate a relationship with the More-than-human beyond possible wonder and appreciation.

These are good things, do not misunderstand me. But in general Pagan religions historically, and certainly in traditional Wicca, have involved at least altered states of consciousness opening us to other realities, and often to direct experience with deities or the Sacred.

My first and still most overwhelming deity experience was at a NROOGD Midsummer Sabbat in Berkeley, California.  After my encounter with Her there was no doubt in my mind the Gods were real, that they interacted with people, and that my life was forever changed.  That NROOGD was a tradition rooted in a college class some years previously and some books by various authors was irrelevant.  

A tradition grows from the accumulation of experience among its members and its most gifted members passing on their knowledge to others, so that it grows in depth as well as width.  It is passed on by example and experience. My most powerful shamanic teacher once said he could teach everything he could put into words in a weekend, but taught that way it would be useless.  It takes time to develop the experience and the relationships to cement the connections needed for this kind of practice. That is one of the strengths of small groups, such as covens, over large rituals or being a solitary.

Modern America makes this kind of deepening difficult. NROOGD has shrunk in numbers of late and may or may not long survive.  But from a Pagan perspective the deities and other powers are always there, always available if sincerely sought.

If Gardnerian Wicca has any religious advantages over NROOGD, to my mind it is only because it incorporates a greater degree of wisdom and practice from Western occult traditions.  In one form or other it addresses every dimension of living life on this earth.  It has incorporated more depth of experience, having been around much longer. But NROOGD has the same potential.

If the Goddess or other deities appear in our rituals and workings, do we not insult Them when we wonder whether we are truly “legitimate?” What does it say about us if we seek assurances from other religions or scholars while ignoring our own experience?  We may still have much to learn (we always have much to learn), and much to learn from other traditions, but the issue of legitimacy should concern only ourselves and our deities.

 

 

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis says #
    Gus, thank you for this sane article. Some information that you may or may not have, and that supports your premise: I imagine yo
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    Thanks for you comment, Francesca. Yes, I've met Fred and corresponded with him a little bit. I don't know him very well, but he i
  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis says #
    Oh, how I love an articulate nuanced reply! The teacher's role in both the short and longterm in the matters we're discussing is
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    The pleasure is mutual Francesca. And thanks for passing on that tid-bit from Fred.
  • paul mienie
    paul mienie says #
    Yes indeed....the change maybe a little or a lot , whatever you will have needed, you will have got.....lol, THE PATH IS NOT CLEAR

A Pagan TestamentIt is a common complaint of seasoned Pagans that there is a dearth of advanced material out there. Wicca 101 books are a dime a dozen, but books that deal with the deeper matters of Pagan faith are rare. This is one of those much-desired books. But it's also ideal for the student or the journeyman, and for different reasons.

Canadian Pagan author Brendan Myers is a doctor of philosophy who has not crawled up his academic navel. His language is clear and flowing, almost poetry even in his prose, and it engages at a heart level. He teaches you by taking you through his journey and you're not even aware, at least until the end, that you're learning something.

Clearly it was Myers' goal to bring together the written elements that comprise the common Pagan body of literature and mythology, as the synopsis tells you. So what did he include, and why did he include it?

Much of his material was gathered by surveying the Pagan community. What did they consider to be important? Though this is probably the most effective method of determining a common liturgy, this also resulted in one of the book's weaknesses, which is that much of the contemporary section (which is, don't get me wrong, both extensive and valuable) feels to me like it has a regional bias. This is inevitable because of the nature of the beast; when you make a public appeal for a response, you are likely to get responses heavily weighted in favour of the people you know. It's just a matter of course. But I don't feel that much of the Western North American Pagan literature is represented here, save through Starhawk, as a result. It's probably a less regional collection than most because Myers lived in both Eastern Canada and the U.K., and has traveled quite a lot, but there are natural limits to what any one person can do.

However, the classical literary section is probably bar none. Here Myers' long experience in the Pagan community comes together with his classical education, and he has managed to include almost every piece of source material for the common Pagan mythos that I would ever recommend to my students. He begins with an examination of the primordial Mother Goddess and Horned God (and the anthropological theories on them that spawned modern Paganism, even the parts that are currently disproven.) He then includes formative Aboriginal beliefs that influenced the Pagan movement. One might argue that with its European origins an Aboriginal influence seems unlikely, but I would disagree for two reasons: the first is that Ronald Hutton conclusively demonstrated that the woodcraft movement, which is, in essence, a British Colonial interpretation inspired by Aboriginal beliefs, is an essential part of the formative elements of modern Paganism; and secondly, the North American witchcraft movement in the 60s and 70s most certainly embraced and incorporated (limited interpretations) of Aboriginal beliefs. This is perhaps noticed more profoundly here in Canada than elsewhere, since it is often said that Canadian culture is, and always has been, defined by the juxtaposition between English, French, and Aboriginal cultures.

From there he goes into the classical written sources: The Descent of Inanna and Babylonian Hymns to Ishtar. Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece. Celtic tales of the Morrighan the Dagda, and Cuchulain. Selections from the Poetic Eddas in regards to the Norns, the World Tree, and various Gods and Goddesses.

Then he progresses into the lore of the witch: Beliefs about witches from the Malleus Malificarum. Lore of the witchcraft trials that formed the myth of the Burning Times. Selections from Aradia: Gospel of the Witches.

He includes a selection of poetry and music that is part of our common lore. I think this section is really well researched and there's only a few pieces I would have included that Myers did not. But again, this is one of the "modern literature" sections that would have been impossible to present completely, since the lore is so extensive. It consists primarily of several folk ballads, most of which originate as the English Childe Ballads, and poetry, much of it cribbed from Kipling, Keats, Yeats, Burns, and Wordsworth. I would also have included some of the work of Walt Whitman and Aleister Crowley, but perhaps that's my regional bias showing, since they likely were more influential on the North American Pagan movement than the European one.

He follows with a section on the Book of Shadows, which includes selections from the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, the work of Doreen Valiente, Margot Adler, the Farrars, and Tamarra James, and some explanatory blurbs on some Wiccan traditions such as the Five Fold Kiss. This section is strictly Pagan material written strictly by Pagan writers for the formative liturgy of Paganism. I don't think he missed a single thing that I might have included, save perhaps some brief passages from the Book of the Law; but the OTO can be downright stuck up about their copyright, so perhaps he asked but was denied. It also does not include any of the work of the Clan of Tubal Cain, so perhaps that could be considered an oversight or a Gardnerian bias.

The next section is on what he calls "wisdom teachings." These are the common proverbs and lore that we Pagans share amongst one another. It's awesome! I'm so glad he thought to include this; I would not have, and that shared oral tradition is so important to what makes us a community and what builds our faith and our movement. He lists the things we say in blurbs and verses presented like a list of Proverbs or the Song of Solomon; and then he presents an explanation at the end for those who, for example, may not know what the "two passwords" are.

The following section is on Circle Songs; chants. This is the section I felt was the most regionally-focused of the lot, but the collection of chants is extensive and valuable, and it displays most of the most important elements of the Pagan liturgies that we teach each other in this way. I only wish the tunes had been included! But I suppose that's what Google's for.

Last, Myers offers his own commentary on the Pagan world view, in which he references philosophical authors whose works have influenced our movement. He discusses Schweitzer's idea of "world view," the act of Naming, the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Word of Creation and the Song of Life, simple wisdom and Utilitarian theory, Hinduism and Tantra, the often-forgotten but very important influence of Sufi mysticism, and the nature of love and the dwelling-place of Divinity. It's awesome stuff, and these elements are a wonderful examination of the sources of Paganism.

He breaks this up by discussing the often-overlooked influence of Schopenhauer, which is excellent, primarily through Crowley, as well as Crowley's own influence. This is one area in which I strongly disagree with Myers' conclusions, who was dismissive of Crowley's philosophy as self-serving and shallow (self-serving most certainly, but shallow I would argue with, and probably will in a blog column). He also derided Crowley as a bad poet; which he was, but that doesn't diminish the influence of Crowley's writing on Paganism and I think it should at least have been included.

So, this is excellent for the long-term "advanced" Pagan, because it obviously sparks thought and discussion. It's excellent for the journeyman because it would be a great way to fill in the blanks. By the time you get to that level in your study, you realize that you have some gaps in your knowledge, mostly due to the still largely oral tradition we have and the deterioration of modern classical education, and these are absolutely the things that you should know. And I'm putting on the required reading list for my students, so obviously I think it's great for the novice too. A highly recommended book that I think every Pagan should read.

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QUESTIONS FOR THE CRYSTAL PEOPLE: Can crystals be used to guide others without their consent?

I received this question, and immediately one of my crystal Guides, (not Venus), who comes through with a heavy accent has stepped in to answer the question. When I inquired as to why there is an accent associated with her answers, she said "because it is easier for you to determine that the answers are coming from us if we answer with an accent." However the answers come, I am both honored and blessed! At any rate, here is the question, followed by the answer.

QUESTION:

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Now The Green Blade Riseth

Down the years, it's become the leitmotif of our spring evenday (equinox) celebration.

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain:

wheat that in the deep Earth many days hath lain.

Love lives again, that with the dead hath been:

love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

 

The tune is a 17th century French noel, with lyrics written by an early 20th century Anglican clergyman. Now the pagans sing it when, having descended into the underworld, we find Spring and bring her back. As a round we sing it, vining, intertwining, calling forth the green.

 

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The Anti-racist Movement and Goddess Spirituality

As thousands of refugees are arriving to Greece from Syria, Iraq, and other countries, we see images that we've never witnessed before. Greeks are showing their solidarity in large numbers despite the efforts of Neo-Nazis, authorities, and the mainstream media. The poison of racism and Islamophobia is not finding fertile ground. All over Europe there's a massive movement in support of those who flee war, poverty, and oppression.

Anti-racist activists are preparing large mobilizations for March 19, the International Day against Racism. They're demanding the opening of the borders and the safe passage and stay of refugees and immigrants. Apart from Greece, rallies are going to take place in a series of other countries: Britain, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, the Netherlands, France, Cyprus, Lebanon, and more.

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  • Yia Alias
    Yia Alias says #
    Greetings Harita! Loved reading this article. Our treatment of refugees here in Australia does not sit well with Goddessians down

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First

The first of March is always a day of evaluating how close we are to Spring. The adage about lions and lambs comes into play, but because February has been so warm in my part of the world (record setting!), March First celebrates a number of untimely firsts.

I've already seen the first flower. It's a tiny little purple thing, smaller than a pea, that only grows on the dark, damp Eastern side of the house. This flower, which I have not been able to identify, is always the first flower on my land, often the first flower of any kind that I see in late Winter. Sometimes I find it while there is still snow on front lawn. Sometimes, I find it on a surprisingly warm and bright Winter day, like I did last week, when I'm out working in the yard. In either case, I usually don't find it til later on, this is the earliest I have seen this flower blossom.

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Man of the Mounds

There was a man who came to the New World from the Old. He worked hard and saved his money, and in time he bought himself a parcel of land and began to farm it.

Now it so happened that on this land there were some mounds.

"Dig 'em up, see what's inside," said some. "Plow 'em under," said others.

But the man knew mounds from the Old Country, and he knew that no good ever comes of meddling with them. And so he did neither.

Well, the man prospered and bought more land, and on this land also there were mounds. But no more did he meddle with these than he had with the others.

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  • T-Roy
    T-Roy says #
    Blessed be this wise ancestor, Fredrick Bronnenberg.

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