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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Does Modern Skyclad Actually Derive from Christianity?

Posch, you've lost it. Are you actually saying that skyclad in the modern Craft derives from Christianity?

Well, yes: yes I am. At least in part.

Modern ritual nudity is a cord plaited from many strands, among them Christian thought and iconography. Among these strands, we may number the following:

Naturism. The period between the First and Second World Wars saw a massive rise in movements advocating cultural alternatives, the logic being: obviously the old ways aren't working; let's try something new. Modern Nudism/Naturism first arose in Germany, and spread rapidly.

The Heroic Nudity of Antiquity. The art of antiquity is replete with naked gods and heroes, which of course reentered European consciousness in a big way during the Renaissance. It's fully possible that the heroic nudity of Classical antiquity has its ultimate roots in the martial nudity of the ancient Indo-Europeans, and that the tradition of Greco-Roman heroic nudity is thus genetically akin both to the naked warriors of the Keltic world, and to the ascetic nudity of the jinas and gymnosophers of the Indian Subcontinent (as “spirit warriors”), from which, of course, the term “skyclad” itself derives.

Folk Magic. As Ron Hutton discusses in his seminal essay “A Modest Look at Ritual Nudity,” nakedness figures prominently in European folk magic, a function, essentially, of inversion: raising power by doing things backwards. Witches being quintessential magic workers, ergo naked witches.

Renaissance Art. The iconography of the naked witch first arose among Renaissance print-makers. The Renaissance saw the rise of print-making, the first modern art-form that regular people could afford and, as we all know, nudity sells. Classically-derived nudity was already big in Renaissance art, and it was the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages, which saw the worst of the Great Persecution. If the witch is popular, and nudity is popular, the naked witch has got to be a winning combination.

The Renaissance's naked witch has deeper roots, however. With the rise of the concept of the Witch's Sabbat in the 15th and 16th centuries, print-makers quickly adopted the inverted world of the Sabbat, in which nudity figured prominently, as a favorite motif. Although there is as of yet no definitive study of the development of the Sabbat motif in art, to my eyes it clearly derives from Medieval precedents: the Last Judgment and the fate of the Damned in Hell.

Medieval Christian Art. In medieval Christian iconography, to be naked = to be sinful. Adam and Eve, the Original Sinners, are the quintessentially naked people. In representations of the Last Judgment, the Saved are decently clothed, of course, while those evil Damned are, by contrast, sinfully naked and thus even more vulnerable to the tortures of Hell. (Image-search "hell" and see how much nudity you turn up.) It's really rather amusing to see how hard medieval artists worked to make the nudity of their subjects as unsexual as possible. (Contemporary Christian artists in whose work nudity figures prominently, such as Edward Knippers, have the same problem.) As the Arch-sinners and hence the preeminently Damned, it's practically de rigeur that witches should be naked.

Besides Adam and Eve, the only other Nude to make a regular appearance in Christian art is, surprisingly, Christ himself. Here divine nudity invokes the theological trope of Jesus as the New Adam, but it is impossible not to see here as well the divine and heroic nudity of the Ancient World. Really, you can't keep a good idea down.

The modern Craft is itself a thread—a red one, of course—twisted from many strands. That Christian tradition should be one of them should surprise no one, nor is this something to be ashamed of. Neither does it make us, in some way, contaminated, or "less" than the pagans of old in all their untainted pre-Christian purity. It only means that, like everyone else, we're the product of our own history.

And that's the naked truth.



For more on the raise of the witch in Renaissance art:

Charles Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe (2007). Routledge.


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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.


  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Monday, 29 April 2019

    The idea of "Edenic" nudity carried forward into some heretical Christian movements, such as the Brethren of the Free Spirit and others that believed that once they were full of the Holy Spirit, so-called sins were no longer sinful. (Sound familiar?) The only problem is that all accounts of them come from the other side: church authorities, inquisitors, etc.

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