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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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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Sylvie Kaos
    Sylvie Kaos Monday, 07 March 2016

    I love this piece. It is reframing the academic Paganism/ people's Spirituality dichotomy that I get so irritated by, and looking at it from a different angle.
    (My own attached)

  • paul mienie
    paul mienie Monday, 07 March 2016

    It is always wise to view things from as many different perspectives as possible, for to do so gives the viewer a deeper and wider understanding of that which one views.

  • paul mienie
    paul mienie Monday, 07 March 2016

    If the heart sings through ones practice of ones path...then it is legitimate.

  • paul mienie
    paul mienie Monday, 07 March 2016

    Any traditional system of belief, or spiritual practice will be confined by its very traditions or practices... Restricted/controlled by their order,routines.... Rituals. People find comfort in structure. A since of security...people also find such through conformity to social consciousness, of the tribe/clan...the more in agreement - the stronger the claim ..then the more power the claim may hold...hence the more legitimate is that which the claim is made of....and thus the more secured and empowered the individual whom has made the claim. There is always more than just one level to any given thing...people/ motives,both consiously and sub-consiously driven.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 07 March 2016

    To a point. Christianity will never evolve into Paganism. But it has evolved in a great many ways that are now mutually exclusive, from Quakers to Christian Dominionists to Mormons. This is just as true if not much more so in Pagan religions. In reality traditions are much more flexible than "hard traditionalists" claim.

  • paul mienie
    paul mienie Monday, 07 March 2016

    That's because people are flexible....there is always room for this age of questions, of old systems becoming dusty and out dated,with the technology making learning an open forum, rather than that of a structured closed indoctrination. Then a cross referencing will occur naturally as the querent/s browse and assimilate from multiple flavors ...perspectives . Which will lead to a melting pot of ideas, ldeals,beliefs and practices...none pure ( traditional)....but intermingled..-the new social compromise.

  • paul mienie
    paul mienie Monday, 07 March 2016

    Thus the debate of legitimacy ...becomes

  • paul mienie
    paul mienie Monday, 07 March 2016

    The underlying spiritual practices of the church,( regardless of denomination) are of an occult orientated format...paganistic if you will.....all that is truly different ,- is the overall store or perspective/ the way in which the faith is approached by its was a true wonder in social control. Controlling the social consciousness, through spiritual consciousness.... And visa versa...true overwhelming enmasse indoctrination. The paganistic spiritually flavored rituals were reconizable and thus still held the power to draw in an even spiritually nurture the people. Yet now there are many of us who are feeling the lack.

  • paul mienie
    paul mienie Monday, 07 March 2016

    What I'm trying to say in my all over the place way, that all belief systems must be adaptable, lest they should fall to the wayside. THE ONLY TRUE CONSTANT ,...IS CHANGE.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 07 March 2016

    She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes...

  • paul mienie
    paul mienie Monday, 07 March 2016


  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Monday, 07 March 2016

    Gus, thank you for this sane article. Some information that you may or may not have, and that supports your premise:

    I imagine you know who Fred Lamond is. In fact, you probably knew him when he lived in the United States. But for anyone else reading this: Fred was one of Gerald Gardner's students.

    Ok, I should give more context: I lived with Fred in England; I also trained him in Third Road Faerie tradition, both here in the states and in England; and he's the closest thing I have to a brother. So we know each other very well.

    Fred told me that when Gardner shared his book of shadows with students, he told them that it was just a jumping off point for them to write their own book of shadows. He made it very clear it was no gospel. That blew me away after hearing all the debates in the states about the one true Gardnerian way. And of course the story makes mincemeat out of any debate about the one true Gardnerian book of shadows.

    I have never forgotten Fred's story, and have shared it with my own students, because it illustrates a sadly predictable situation: A wise teacher helps students find their own unique wisdoms, but within a few generations many students in that lineage argue over the one correct way to be, instead of continuing to carry on the message of personal truth. This seems to happen in every tradition in which its founder carries the message that the kingdom of God is within. A message of freedom gets turned into its opposite: repressive elitist standards.

    But I don't think all people who cling to those standards necessarily realize the standards are elitist and repressive. Often, I think they have the best intentions.

    Thanks again for your wonderful post. I hope a lot of people read yr sane words.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 07 March 2016

    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 is deeply respected by people I do know well and who know him. And I have always found him a wonderful person.

    What you describe him as saying about Gerald Gardner speaks to the wisdom of both.

    The problem you so well describe seems to be intrinsic to who we are. Students easily see their teacher as an Ultimate Authority, especially after they have passed on. And not just in religion.

    I think one of the hardest spiritual lessons we need to learn - and the lesson did not come to me easily - is that we each can create a spiritual path that grows and unifies our hearts with the Ultimate Context, if we do it in a way that is true to us. Teachers can help a lot - mine certainly did and I am permanently grateful to them even if my path ultimately is not theirs. But subordinating our experience to someone else's words, especially when they themselves no longer can interact with us, is turning away from how we can make this path truly our own.

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Tuesday, 08 March 2016

    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 interesting. You may know that some educators compare two teaching models: the sage on the stage and the guide on the side. I feel my job as a teacher is to do both. As the latter, I often tell my students, "Third Road is not a tradition you need to leave to do your own thing." That's because the tradition's tools continue to supports one's spiritual and shamanic path as the practitioner evolves.

    On the other hand, I do believe the sage on the stage has its place, because I have specific tools to teach—ones that support your own gifts, as well as magical techniques.

    For some reason, my Gods chose me to channel material that meets people where they are. (You may know that the tradition I teach is one that I've channeled.) So the tradition can continue to support your unique path over the longterm.

    For example, I have a student who became a master astrologer. She travels great distances to study with major astrologers. Then I gave her an astrology lesson one day. She said it was the best astrology lesson she ever had. but here's the thing: I'M NOT AN ASTROLOGER. Opening someone's gifts to the next level does not necessarily mean you have those gifts yourself. Heck, I'm not sure I even believe in astrology. My job as a teacher is to support her path.

    Regarding another aspects of finding one's own path: in my own personal journey, freedom and self-referential worldviews were not found by going to the opposite extreme of repressive systems. For example, I practice the "Christian" virtue of obedience. I have a spiritual advisor and, although she would never tell me what to do, I try most of her suggestions on for size. That is my choice, not her demand.

    Mind you, i know obedience is a tricky thing. For example, when younger, I chose the wrong teacher to do this with, and he was a jerk. Terrible problems resulted. But that has less to do with the model of obedience than with human shortcomings. i love the spiritual rigor of obedience. I don't think it's for everyone but, as someone who since childhood has had a healthy, strong ego and been sooooooooo creative about finding her own path, obedience has been pivotal in keeping me from wandering creatively into ego-based pseudo-spiritual delusions that could badly harm myself and others.

    I've seen that sort of delusion play out in teachers, and the results terrify me, because they ricochet down through generations of students, and the students are not only harmed, but perpetuate great harm. I never want to fall prey to being a teacher like that.

    God, between this and my previous response, i've almost written a whole blog. Well, I love it when I've said something a zillion times to students but never gotten it typed out, then say it in print to someone, so finally have it typed, in case I ever want to use it in print again.

    It was fun talking with you, because you're not proposing an either/or approach to the problems and opportunities of the issues at hand. Thanks again!

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Tuesday, 08 March 2016

    The pleasure is mutual Francesca. And thanks for passing on that tid-bit from Fred.

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