Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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A Lost Pagan Classic: Rereading Gerhart Hauptmann's 'Island of the Great Mother'

Gerhart Hauptmann's novel The Island of the Great Mother or the Miracle of the Île des Dames: A Story from the Utopian Archipelago was first published (in German) in 1928, but 90 years on, it still reads appositely, especially for the pagan community.

Here's the story.

A passenger liner filled with women (they're going to a women's convention) is shipwrecked somewhere in the Pacific. Several hundred women, with only one male among them—the prepubescent son of one of the castaways—are washed ashore on an uninhabited island.

There they create a glittering women's civilization, with its own gynocentric culture and religion.

Then something amazing happens. One by one, the women begin to become pregnant and give birth.

It's one of the novel's great strengths that these mysterious pregnancies are never explained. Hauptmann makes it quite clear that they are not, in fact, due to the only surviving male on the island, now grown to adolescence. They arise, apparently, as an inherent quality of the island itself.

Well, but there's trouble in utopia. Half the children born are female, half male. What to do with the males?

Being a good feminist society, the women decide against killing the male infants, but neither are they willing to raise them in the women's civilization as they have created it. So they exile the males to the other side of the island instead.

You can see where this is going. Growing up in exile, without benefit of culture, the feral males, as they mature, become violent and destroy everything the women have created.

Hauptmann, of course, is satirizing his own society here, where the situation is exactly the reverse of the Île des Dames. He warns of the long-term danger to any culture that systematically excludes half of its population. In effect, his literary parable argues for radical inclusivity.

Pagan activist and demographer Todd Berntson has written of the “disappearing pagan male” and of the danger that such a population-drain represents to the long-term survival of the pagan community. In this New Pagan Civilization that we're building today, there simply has to be something for the men, or they'll vote with their feet and walk away. Who wouldn't? But if that happens, quite frankly, it means the end of the Pagan Dream.

Hauptmann was a man of his own time and place. The racist and anti-Semitic elements of his fiction read (to say the very least) uncomfortably today.

But, in the end, his arguments for a culture of radical inclusivity—the Nazi party turned down his application for membership because his fiction contained too many non-Aryan characters—read as convincingly today as they did a century ago.

As pagans, it's a lesson that we need to heed.

Include, or die.


Above: Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Self Portrait


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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