Individuation in Pagan traditions

I have been thinking for a while that the aims of Pagan traditions with regard to the self, soul, spirit, consciousness and its relationship with the Universe are different from that of other religions.

The cultivation of virtue

One of the aims in several Pagan traditions is the cultivation of virtue. In Heathenry, there are the Nine Noble Virtues; in Wicca, there are the Eight Wiccan Virtues; many adherents of Religio Romana try to cultivate the virtues which the Romans of antiquity valued. The cultivation of virtue assumes that the virtues will grow in fertile soil – the soul in which they grow is not choked by weeds, although a certain amount of weeding might be required to help the virtues to grow.

In Christian mysticism, by contrast, in order for the divine image to grow in the soul, there must first be kenosis – a process of self-emptying. One is then filled with divinity (divinisation in Western Christianity; theosis in Eastern Orthodoxy), and one’s divine image is restored (previously it had been bleared by sin).

In Wicca, there are three levels of initiation, and each involves an encounter with a different aspect of divinity – but there is no self-emptying. There is a stage where everything changes and is called into question, but that is the nature of such a journey, and is found in most traditions.

The kinds of virtue that are being cultivated are also slightly different. Whilst compassion is a virtue, it is wise compassion rather than indiscriminating compassion (this distinction is very important in Buddhism, where I first came across the idea). Other Pagan virtues include strength, mirth, honour (three of the Wiccan virtues) and courage, honour, self-reliance (three of the Heathen virtues).

Seeking the authentic self

Sarah Pike, in her anthropological investigations of Pagan festivals (documented in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community), found that the goal of the Pagan quest is to find the “authentic self” or the “true self”. This suggests that we are uncovering a pre-existing treasure, rather than erasing what exists and starting again.

The authentic self may turn out not to be “nice”. The Romantic poets were true individuals who produced great poetry; but they were not necessarily nice people (thanks to my friend CA for this example).

Most Pagans view the divine and/or deities as immanent in the world (or as immediate). Therefore the world is not fallen, and a multiplicity of forces – creation and destruction, yin and yang, growth and decay, energy and entropy, are in dynamic balance within it. These forces are also at play in microcosm in the human psyche, and that is entirely natural. Being angry, or sad, and acting on those emotions (in a controlled way), is not wrong – activism comes from anger, creativity can come from sadness.

The shadow and the psyche

A person with their shadow well-integrated can use its energy to provide them with power and decisiveness. A person with a well-integrated shadow knows how to say no, how to offer constructive criticism, how to avoid foolish compassion, and how to accept, welcome, and use the “dark side” of their personality (including anger, assertiveness, power, etc). They are also more interesting to know.

A person with no shadow (or no conscious access to their shadow) appears to be all sweetness and light on the surface, and presents as either generous, receptive, or passive, but when they eventually lash out, they do so from an ungrounded place, and are unable to connect their anger with the emotions that would balance it. Often, such people are “touchy-feely” and not analytical.

I have met a lot of “spiritual” people who are just too nice, and it seems false; they even talk in a high-pitched voice that sounds fake. There’s a great Monty Python cartoon where there’s a ‘nice’ vicar type with a soapy smile, but his smile keeps unzipping and letting monsters out of his head, so he has to keep nailing the top of his head back on. In other words, the more someone suppresses their “dark” side (shadow) and fails to integrate it, the more likely it is to lead to an explosion and an eruption of the shadow aspects (“monsters from the Id”).

Jung said that the work of individuation is all about integrating the energy from the Shadow and being able to use it creatively and constructively. As we bring the obscure unconscious material into the light of consciousness, it is transformed.

The psyche and the world

In Pagan communities, people do not attempt to shape others into any particular mould – there is no template for how the authentic self should look, because it is unique to each person.

Heelas and Woodhead, in The spiritual revolution (2006), talk about religions of humanity, that attempt to mould their adherents to a particular way of being and a set pattern of virtues. Most Pagan traditions refrain from doing this, and instead encourage individuality and a quest for the true self.

The relationship of the individual with the Pagan community tends to be more network-based. We meet in pubs for Pagan moots and gatherings, and the actual spiritual work happens in small groups such as covens, groves, hearths. People come together for large festivals, but there the quest is for freedom to be one’s true self.

Spirit and matter

In many spiritual traditions, especially those descended from Gnosticism, the aim is to leave the body and return to the divine source. (The radical rejection of matter may have been one of the reasons why orthodox Christians persecuted the Gnostics, apparently.)

In Pagan traditions, I would argue, because we love the land, or the Earth, or Nature (depending on the tradition), the aim is to awaken the soul of Nature, and to commune with the spirits of place (land wights, genii loci, and so on); therefore we want to bring more spirit into matter, not to separate the two.

Some people interpret “spirituality” to mean “the things of the spirit world”. Personally, I have always interpreted it as “a response of awe, wonder, and gratitude for the beauty of Nature, art, literature, scientific insight, and poetry” but increasingly it is being used as a term that means something to do with the non-material. It has also been described, by L Bregman, as “a glowing and useful term in search of a meaning”.

So I am starting to prefer the word “embodiment”, which is all about being in touch with your body, and not alienated from it. I am still (slowly) learning about embodiment practices. However, I think embodiment is probably a more Pagan concept than spirituality.


Given that Pagan traditions generally seek to cultivate the authentic self, and to put us in touch with the physical world, the wider community of other-than-human people (animals, plants, and spirits of place), and given that Pagans generally regard the divine and/or deities as immanent in Nature, we should be wary of importing spiritual practices, norms, and goals from other traditions without first checking how they fit with our existing goals, norms, and practices.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

The struggle is not over yet

I am delighted that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people can now marry someone of the same sex in England and Wales, and that some religious groups will be able to marry same-sex couples in their places of worship.

Unitarians, Quakers, and Liberal Jews campaigned particularly hard on this, and Derek McAuley, Unitarian Chief Officer, Paul Parker (Recording Clerk, Quaker Yearly Meeting), and Rabbi Danny Rich, should be applauded for their lobbying efforts.

It is a shame that Pagans in England and Wales are unable to marry either opposite-sex or same-sex couples in a legal ceremony, but it looks as if the House of Lords have left open the possibility of humanist weddings, and weddings for other religions too.

Some queer activists have argued that same-sex marriage is just buying into a heteronormative and monogamous paradigm. Maybe it is – I personally do not want to get married – but if my fellow LGBT people want to declare their love before the community, and get the legal package of rights that goes with it, then I support that to the hilt.

There are also still issues with the provision for transgender people, in that marriages previously dissolved on the grounds of a change of gender will not automatically be reinstated.

Polyamorous relationships are still not covered – but at least awareness has been raised about them, although there was a certain amount of throwing poly people under the bus by ‘mainstream’ gay activists.

There will also be considerable legal shenanigans around converting civil partnerships into marriages.

And whilst I am delighted by this victory, and by every advance for equality around the world, we should not forget that thousands of LGBT people around the world still face persecution, and LGBT people are still being deported from the UK despite facing persecution in their country of origin.

According to the Kaleidoscope Trust,

76 countries criminalise homosexual activity. Five continue to impose the death penalty. Governments and parliaments around the world are trying to pass laws that ban gay marriage, send LGBT people to jail or outlaw even speaking out in favour of the human rights of LGBT people.

So – cautious optimism and loud jubilation – but tomorrow, we keep fighting for LGBT rights around the world, and for human rights generally. Until it is safe everywhere to be Black, disabled, LGBT, a woman, or a member of a religious minority, then our work is not yet done.

Seeking the Mystery: Giveaway Results and Review Round-up

Firstly, congratulations to Jennifer L., who won the paperback copy of Seeking the MysteryEnjoy it!

To everyone else, thanks so much for entering the giveaway. Please check out the excerpts I’ve posted here, as well as the introduction and glossary. I hope you’ll considering buying your own copy!

My fellow bloggers have posted some great reviews and responses to the book. Here’s a round-up of current contributions:

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

John Beckett

David Dashifen Kees, Seeking the Mystery: An Excellent Interfaith Resource”

Molly Remer, “Thealogy in Practice: A Lesson from the Maiden” and “Thursday Theology: Matriarchal Myth or a New Story?”

Nimue Brown (1) (2)

Elinor Predota, “How a Valley in Scotland Changed My Theology,” “Stories of Gods and Mortals: Myth and Pagan Practice,” “The Ordinary, Everyday Occult Knowledge of Herbs, Flowers, and Beasts,” “The Material, the Sacred, and the Erotic,” and “A Sense of Responsibility to Place

Tara “Masery” Miller

Jen McConnel

Philipp Kessler

…and a nice shout-out about the book’s success from Jason Pitzl-Waters.

Thanks to everyone who helped me spread the word about the book sale last week! It was really exciting to hit the end of the day and see Seeking the Mystery ranked at #1 in Amazon’s Paganism and Theology categories — but more importantly, it looks like the book is starting lots of good conversations. 🙂

Pathways in Modern Western Magic (Review)

Pathways in Modern Western MagicAs I mentioned in a previous post, Pathways in Modern Western Magic is Concrescent Press’s answer to the conditions of contemporary academic publishing—an activity that, especially for scholars of area studies, is at best difficult and at worst, financially untenable. The book is the first release under the Concrescent Scholars imprint, “dedicated to peer-reviewed works of scholarship in the fields of Esotericism, Pagan religion and culture, Magic, and the Occult from within, and without, the Academy.” In other words, this collection contains contributions from scholars, some of whom are practitioners, and practitioners who though not involved in the academy, are serious about the scholarly study of magic. Each article has been “peer-reviewed,” meaning that it was reviewed and deemed fit for publication by scholars with PhDs in relevant fields.

Unlike traditional academic publishers, however, Concrescent is set up to be fast and nimble. Headed by Pagan priest and PhD candidate Sam Webster, the press prides itself on bringing manuscripts through the publication process in a timely fashion—much more quickly than the 2-3 year process that is typical for most academic publishers. I see this publishing model as being very promising for scholars of area studies, especially independent scholars who are more concerned with being read than with the dog-eat-dog realities of tenure reviews. The editor of the collection, Nevill Drury, may be a perfect example of this new kind of scholar: having completed a PhD at the University of Newcastle, Australia in 2008, Drury now brings together formal academic training in the humanities with decades of experience in editing and publishing. His recent publications include several books on occultism and art.

So why might you, dear reader, want to read Pathways in Modern Western Magic?

First of all, although the anthology is scholarly, it is far from dry. The articles are accessible and engagingly written. For a reader who wants an introduction to the academic study of magic or an overview of major areas of magical practice in the West, this book delivers. Pathways includes articles on Wicca and witchcraft, neo-shamanism in the United States and Europe, Heathen seiđr, Thelemic sex magick, the Golden Dawn system, Satanism, Tantra, and more. In addition to these established topics of study, the collection also offers essays on lesser-known traditions and figures: Dragon Rouge; the Temple of Set; chaos magic; artist/occultists Ithell Colquhoun, Austin Osman Spare, and Rosaleen Norton; and technoshamanism.  Especially for readers new to the field of Western esotericism studies, the book provides an overview of modern Western magic while also opening up tantalizing new areas for exploration and research.

As a religious studies scholar, however, I’m always interested in what a book has to offer to the larger field. What would someone with an interest in religion and how it is (or can be) studied get out of this book? Some of the book’s articles don’t have much to offer the reader who isn’t already interested in magic: they are descriptive or historical pieces that provide essential context for the topic, but don’t necessarily make an argument for why a reader from outside the field should care. Some, however, do make broader arguments that I still find myself chewing over weeks after finishing the collection.

Nevill Drury’s introduction makes a case for the idea that emic (basically, insider) approaches to the study of religion are just as valuable as etic (outsider, “objective”) approaches. Although his article seems to have been prepared before the publication of Markus Altena Davidsen’s essay “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies?”, Drury addresses a number of Davidsen’s criticisms. Davidsen is impatient with emic, insider, and “religionist” approaches, believing that they lead to a lack of skepticism—in other words, scholars with insider approaches risk uncritically agreeing with their subjects and taking their assumptions for granted. As support, Davidsen gives examples of Pagan scholars making arguments that seem to be contradicted by their data, perhaps out of loyalty to their subjects.

On the other hand, Davidsen praises etic “outsider” scholars who, as Drury points out, have made equally clumsy errors. Drury criticizes anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, for example, for her lack of grounding in the historical study of magic. Rather than approaching British Wicca using a definition of magic derived from Western esotericism (from which Wicca is partially, but directly, derived), Luhrmann uses a theory of magic developed from the practices of pre-literate Oceanic cultures. In other words, her contextualizing theory is wildly inappropriate for the subject matter.

Davidsen makes an important point that insider perspectives can lack skepticism. But, as Drury argues, an insider can bring a far greater depth and integration of knowledge to a subject and so avoid such gross errors of context. (In her essay, Lynne Hume makes a similar argument, suggesting that too great a degree of skepticism or investment in outside theory prevents researchers from genuinely participating in the religious traditions they study and so threatens to distort their perceptions.)

Nikki Bado’s essay uses the Wiccan Triple Goddess as a jumping-off point for issues that are broadly relevant to religious studies: contemporary challenges to biological determinism that undergird sexism; literalism and the way it prevents access to other modes of truth (including the rational, allegorical, mythic, and faith stances); and most importantly, the nigh impossibility of operating outside of the paradigms of one’s own culture. Bado is an advocate of “reflexive” rather than “objective” scholarship; she believes that it is more helpful for scholars to identify and reflect on their biases within their work than it is to attempt to free themselves from them. As a low-level example, Bado focuses on the number three in both myth and scholarship. Tripartite models and triple aspects are pervasive in Western culture, conditioning us to look for and find triples even when there are other possibilities. She writes, “The problem with paradigms is that once they are created—some would say discovered—it is nearly impossible to escape their influence. Once identified, they appear everywhere, dominating and even determining how and what we see. If something doesn’t fit the model, we manipulate it until it does” (80). Bado ends with a call, not to abandon paradigms and categories, but for greater openness to their subjectivity—in other words, for a better understanding that our models are maps, not the territory.

I also particularly enjoyed James R. Lewis’ essay on the role of Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible in modern Satanism. Lewis brings his own original ethnographic research on Satanists into the essay to argue that, despite Satanists’ explicit rejection of traditional religious values, many use LaVey’s book in an extremely traditional fashion—as an authoritative textual source. This continues to be the case even as the level of education among Satanists has risen and more and more information about LaVey’s fabricated biography has come to light. Even more interestingly, contemporary Satanists’ strategy of textual legitimization is completely different from LaVey’s strategy in the Satanic Bible itself. Rather than appealing to a particular authority or text, LaVey’s philosophy was based in scientific thinking: secular humanism and a particular understanding of human nature based on Darwinian evolution. Lewis concludes, “It appears that being raised in a religious tradition that locates the source of authority in religious figures and sacred texts creates an unconscious predisposition that can be carried over to other kinds of persons and books—even in the unlikely context of contemporary Satanism” (278). The issue of how converts’ former religious affiliations influence their experiences of the religions they choose as adults has wide-ranging implications for religious studies, and Lewis’ article is a fascinating contribution to that conversation.

Overall, Pathways has the most to offer to a reader who is just beginning a formal academic study of Western magic. When it broaches less-treated topics of study and connects its subject matter to broader discussions in religious studies, however, it is also potentially valuable for established scholars of esotericism or contemporary Paganism. I am pleased to add it to my personal library.

[Drury, Nevill, editor. Pathways in Modern Western Magic. Richmond, CA: Concrescent Scholars, 2012. 484 pp.  $39.95 (softcover).]


Virtue Ethics (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 5 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.

Excerpt from Chapter Five: Ethics and Justice

Neglected Virtues

Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue attempts to recontextualize some of the virtues that were valued by pre-Christian societies for contemporary Pagans. His work draws on Greek, Celtic, and Northern European cultures to recover traditional systems of ethics and their virtues. For example, in heroic literature, honor is defined as an inherently social quality. An honorable person is one who exhibits loyalty, honesty, reliability, and trustworthiness in his relationships with others. In Northern European traditions, the word for honor is “troth,” which is related to the English word “truth.” To be honorable suggests that one demonstrates integrity in all of one’s dealings. According to Myers, however, honor is something that is given to an honorable person, not a virtue that can be cultivated in a vacuum. It is tied up with reputation and with community respect.[i] In our highly individualistic Western culture, this virtue is rarely recognized, let alone cultivated. Busy, harried schedules lead many of us to routinely break commitments to friends, and the dependable structures of relationship that are necessary for sustainable community are slow to form. Our relative isolation from each other and narrow focus on our individual households means we have few opportunities to gain honor—and yet this virtue is central to many of the myths that contemporary Pagans value. How to cultivate such virtues within a wider culture that does not support them is one of the ongoing struggles of contemporary Paganism.

The contrast between Pagan values and mainstream Western values is particularly noticeable around issues of sexuality and the body. A person who is passionately physical and delights in loving sexuality can be seen as expressing important human qualities. Yet the words that were once used to positively describe this virtue—such as “lusty”—have a negative connotation in modern English. At times, neglected virtues can be reclaimed. The older meaning of “pride,” for example, has recently been revived by pride movements such as Gay Pride and Pagan Pride. In Western culture, “pride” is often synonymous with “hubris,” the arrogance that precedes a disastrous fall. But pride is more properly understood as the state of owning one’s self and identity without apology or shame. Although community is not as essential for the cultivation of pride as it is for honor, gathering with like-minded others makes taking pride in oneself a far easier task—and sustainable pride requires choosing friends who treat each other with respect.

Contemporary Pagan ethics are inherently pluralistic. Not all virtues can be expressed at the same time, and different virtues may even suggest different courses of action. Many Pagans are polytheists, and their gods express diverse strengths and virtues. The cultivation of these virtues can support multiple ways of being ethical. For example, a practitioner might cultivate creativity and fierce compassion in honor of Brighid, poet and healer, or clear thinking and communication in honor of Hermes, patron of orators and inventors. In some cases, Pagans seek to hold paradox by cultivating the capacity for virtues that superficially contradict. In Wicca’s “Charge of the Goddess,” the Goddess calls witches to have “beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.”[ii] According to the Charge, a virtuous person must be capable of a variety of qualities depending on context. A successful group leader, for example, sees his leadership as service to the group; he puts his own agenda partially aside in order to create a harmonious atmosphere and empower individuals to work together effectively. Good leadership requires humility. However, a good group leader also has a backbone, and he is willing to use the respect the group gives him to protect it when he must. A group member who becomes disruptive or even abusive must be held accountable for that behavior by the leader, who is supported by the group as a whole. A good leader must accept that power and be willing to use the authority he has been granted. Finding the balance between virtues—for every virtue also has a shadow side—is one of the challenges of virtue ethics. Unbalanced humility can become subservience; unbalanced power can become egotism and tyranny.

Virtue-based ethics make for a highly flexible ethical system. Based on principles rather than rules, virtue ethics can easily adjust to the particularities of situations: people, places, and times. To those who were raised in a rule-based system, where ethical decisions are often framed in black and white terms, virtue ethics can appear to lack a foundation, almost like having no ethics at all. If there are many ways of being ethical, how can a person choose between them? Even worse, isn’t it possible to mistake a vice for a virtue and end up tolerating destructive behavior? Yet virtue ethics are not entirely subjective or relativistic. Ultimately, all virtues are properly cultivated in community. Healthy religious communities have elders and ancestors who embody the virtues that they value. Virtuous behavior is modeled on the actions of these role models, and the virtuous behavior of members of the community is acknowledged and praised by other members. Life experience and time-tested community traditions help young people learn virtuous behavior.

It is nevertheless possible for both individuals and communities to hold up a “virtue” that is destructive. In our own culture, for example, the ability to accumulate individual wealth is often admired as a virtue, regardless of whether that wealth is used for the good of the community. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle differentiated false virtues from true with the concept of eudaimonia.[iii] Sometimes this term is translated as happiness, but a more accurate translation is “flourishing.” A thoroughly virtuous person can be recognized by the fact that they are flourishing on many levels. The term is an expression of spiritual, mental, and physical health, not simply of a passing emotion. (Some ancient philosophers believed that that spiritual health necessarily correlates with physical health and prosperity, but I disagree. It is certainly possible to actively choose poverty out of a spiritual calling and find that poverty freeing. A spiritually healthy poverty is part of a stable lifestyle, however; it does not involve racking up credit card bills that one cannot pay. Additionally, although poor physical health can have psychological or spiritual roots, illness is a natural part of human life. A spiritually healthy person may struggle with poor physical health, but she is able to face her health crises with compassion, grace, and humor. More than outward signs of material wealth or physical health, “flourishing” is best expressed by the joy and engaged sense of presence that a spiritually healthy person brings to her community.)

In contrast to this flourishing, the pursuit of false virtues brings only a shallow and passing happiness. According to virtue ethicists, the pursuit of material wealth or worldly power for reasons other than the health of the community does not result in flourishing, but rather a persistent sense of emptiness and a lifetime of regrets. The possession of personal virtue, however, is thought to foster alignment with the divine, peace of mind, and satisfaction regardless of whether virtuous behavior is consistently acknowledged by others or results in a clearly good outcome. When greed is held up as a virtue in community, the soul sickness and social injustice that result are signs that the community has lost its way. As we know from our own society, this sickness can be difficult to correct, particularly when those embracing the false virtue have gained positions of power and are no longer accountable to those around them. Virtue ethics function most effectively in small communities with a high degree of social accountability, as well as in the presence of experienced elders whose advice and wisdom are taken seriously. As contemporary Paganism moves through its adolescence as a religious movement, the need for fair-minded elders to stabilize scattered religious communities and help to ensure accountability grows ever greater.

[i] Brendan Myers, The Other Side of Virtue (Hants, UK: O Books, 2008), 44-50.

[ii] Doreen Valiente, “The Charge of the Goddess,” The Doreen Valiente Foundation. Available at

[iii] “Ethics,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Available at

The Multiple Soul (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 4 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.

Excerpt from Chapter Four: Life, Death, and the Human Body

The Multiple Soul

Pagans have a range of beliefs about the human soul that parallels their beliefs about divinity. Some Pagans see the soul and the body as being completely identified—the soul is the body and the body is the soul, in the same way that pantheists believe that God/dess is the world and the world is God/dess. Others share the common Western belief that the soul is influenced by the body, but is more than the body, and will continue on in altered form after the body’s death (similar to panentheists’ belief that God/dess is in the world, and the world is in God/dess, but God/dess is more than the world). A third view is that personhood exists only in the body, and that there is no spiritual substance we can meaningfully call a “soul” (similar to the nontheist position).

The theology of multiple souls is gaining prevalence in the Pagan community, however. In this model, human beings have multiple spiritual essences that serve different functions. This notion is found in a number of religious traditions. Scholar Claude Lecouteux describes its appearance in ancient and medieval Northern European religion, where people were thought to have three spirits. The fylgja was an individual’s double that also served as a protective guardian spirit; the hugr was the active force of the individual that carried his or her personality out into the world; and the hamr was an inner spiritual form that determined a person’s outward appearance, but was also capable of traveling outside the body.[i] In ancient Egyptian religion, a person was thought to have three souls (the ka, the ba, and the akh), as well as other spiritual components such as the heart and the name, each of which had different functions in life and in the afterlife.[ii] In the charming book The Traveller’s Guide to the Duat, Kemetic reconstructionist Kiya Nicoll details the preparation the parts of the human being must undergo for being separated at death, transformed, and reintegrated in the land of the dead. The body is carefully preserved and left behind in the living world, where its persistence supports the stable and happy existence of the deceased’s transformed and reassembled self.

A somewhat less complex multiple soul model can also be found in the Western ceremonial magick practiced by some contemporary Pagans. Many forms of ceremonial magick borrow from Jewish mysticism, where the three parts of the soul are known as nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Simply put, the nefesh is the animal self, the ruach is the human self, and the neshamah is the divine self that survives death. Craft teachers Victor and Cora Anderson derived a similar three-soul model from Hawaiian Huna, in which the animal self is Unihipili, the human self Uhane, and the divine self Aumakua. Their writings on the subject were published in a volume entitled Etheric Anatomy, and were also spread by Starhawk in The Spiral Dance, where she names the selves Younger Self, Talking Self, and Deep Self. In the Andersons’ model, the body is thought to be of the same substance as the selves, only made of denser matter. Fostering communication and cooperation between the selves (including the body) is necessary for spiritual health, as well as for the effective practice of magick.

In multiple-soul models, the souls have different fates after death. Pagans who also believe in reincarnation tend to identify the “divine” self as the part that reincarnates, not the “human” self (which holds the personality of a single lifetime) or the “animal” self, both of which may return to the earth after the death of the body. In some traditions, it is believed a traumatic death may cause the separation of the souls from the body to go awry, and the animal or human selves may remain stranded on the material plane as ghosts. These stranded souls are merely echoes of a person, however, as the divine part of the self has already moved on. This belief is similar to that in Chinese religion, where the p’o soul can become angered and transform into a demon if not properly treated after the body’s death.[iii] Some Pagans also embrace the spiritualist belief that after death, one or more parts of the soul travel in the spiritual realms for a time before incarnating into a new human body. Reincarnation beliefs influenced by Spiritualism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are common in the Pagan community, and they are often combined with images of the underworld or afterlife realms from ancient religions. For many contemporary Pagans, these realms are temporary resting places where the soul or souls review the life just lived and choose whether to return to earth.[iv]

[i] Claude Lecouteux, The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, trans. Jon E. Graham (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2009), 162-180.

[ii] William J. Murnane, “Taking It With You: The Problem of Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt,” Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions, ed. Hiroshi Obayashi (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 35-48; see also Jeremy Naydler, Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996).

[iii] Judith A. Berling, “Death and Afterlife in Chinese Religions,” Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions, ed. Hiroshi Obayashi (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 182.

[iv] See Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ Bible (Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing, 1981, 1984), II.115-134.


Occult Knowledge and Gnosis (Seeking the Mystery, Ch. 3 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.

Excerpt from Chapter Three: Knowledge and Devotion

Occult Knowledge and Gnosis

In popular culture, the term occultism has become so associated with Satanic panics and fears of abusive, brainwashing cults that I almost hesitate to use it here. But the notion of the occult is important to many kinds of Paganism. The term literally means “hidden” or “secret,” and it usually refers to knowledge of hidden things, often requiring an initiation of some kind. In religious studies, we use the more neutral term esotericism for these beliefs and practices, with the prefix eso- meaning “inward” or “inner.” Most world religions have esoteric or occult traditions, focusing on knowledge that cannot be gained through the intellect alone. In the West, these include Jewish kabbalah, Christian mysticism, and Muslim Sufism.

Wiccan theologian Constance Wise has expanded the definition of occult knowledge for contemporary Paganism, which is more egalitarian and focused on the physical than traditional Western esotericism. She suggests that occult knowledge is the creative, non-rational, subliminal knowledge that arises from the experience of the human body.[i]  Though Wise focuses on female bodies specifically, her concept is relevant to people of all sexes and genders. For Wise, occult knowledge is subliminal or hidden in that it cannot be directly taught, but must be gained through direct experience.  David Abram’s descriptions of encountering animals, plants, and natural phenomenon as conscious and actively communicating with him is one example of gaining “occult” knowledge under Wise’s definition.[ii] Occult knowledge cannot be gained through university studies, reading the news, or even regular attendance at a place of worship. Ritual practices give Pagans opportunities to encounter this beyond-ordinary knowledge, and when they are successful, practitioners’ worldviews sometimes shift dramatically as their lives are viewed through a new lens.

These experiences of ineffable mystery can make practitioners feel oddly set apart from those who have not shared their shift in perspective. (“Occult knowledge” is what a practitioner comes away with after having encountered “mystery”; “mystery” is the divine reality that cannot be fully captured by the human mind.)  It is possible to take this sensation in an elitist direction; practitioners who have such experiences sometimes see themselves as wiser or more spiritual than others. But spiritual development is not a contest or race, nor a series of boxes to be checked. Although the hard work of spiritual practice helps to create opportunities for such experiences, they are not achieved through work, but are gifts received by grace. Some come with revelations that subtly or dramatically change one’s life (for example, the bone-deep certainty that one’s body and sexuality are sacred, despite the teachings of a childhood religion). Or they may prepare us to face the realities of the human condition, such as the inevitability of our deaths and those of our loved ones. Still other experiences of mystery may simply bring a lingering sense of joy and peace.

Some Pagan traditions use the practice of initiation to trigger experiences of mystery and to transmit occult knowledge. (Initiation can also have other functions, such as adopting the candidate into a group.)[iii] Initiations can involve ritual dramas, introductions to spirits or gods, physical or psychological ordeals, instruction in practices or mythology, and more. Occasionally initiations fail; the candidate for initiation remains unmoved, feeling awkward or silly, hoping for a spiritual experience but remaining uncomfortably in the realm of the ordinary. Although a poor ritual performance can sometimes account for an initiatory failure, at times the reasons are more subtle, having to do with the quality of the group’s relationships or their spiritual preparation.

In the second half of the twentieth century, many initiatory rituals and other material that had previously been secret or oathbound within particular Pagan and esoteric traditions were published. The release of this material is part of what has enabled the rapid growth of the Pagan movement. Some Pagans have spoken out for the importance of keeping initiatory material private, however. Druid John Michael Greer believes that there are psychological and spiritual benefits when a candidate does not know what is going to occur during an initiation, as well as in the practice of silence afterward.[iv] The element of surprise increases the impact of a ritual in the same way that avoiding “spoilers” increases the impact of a film. Once the ritual has occurred, keeping silent about information received or experiences had tends to focus one’s attention on them, leading them to become deeply integrated into one’s system of beliefs and values. Finally, when a candidate is left to wrestle with a symbol or a piece of liturgy on her own or in the context of a small group, rather than immediately discussing it on the internet or getting a cut-and-dried explanation from a teacher, she has an opportunity for contemplation and slow discovery that is unusual in our busy culture. The practices of initiation and keeping knowledge oathbound create spiritual and psychological containers for transformative spiritual experiences. While it is possible to abuse the practice of secrecy—for example, to gain power over or take advantage of others—most Pagans know that a relationship in which initiation might occur needs to develop slowly so that trust can form. Some leaders have even developed criteria for evaluating whether Pagan and other religious groups are safe, such as the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame by the late Druid Isaac Bonewits.[v]

Intuitions and information received from extraordinary sources are often called gnosis in Paganism, after the Greek word for “knowledge.” Some Pagans differentiate Unverified (or Unverifiable) Personal Gnosis (UPG)—information received by a single person—from Peer-Corroborated Gnosis (PCG), or information that is independently received by a group of individuals.[vi] Pagans often seek UPG through divination or meditation. Talk of gnosis is most common in among hard polytheists, who seek out such intuitions to serve their gods, adjust ancient practices to a different time and place, and fill in gaps in broken traditions. Examples of UPG might include intuitions about ritual (“The herbs traditionally used in this ritual don’t grow here, but my gnosis says that rosemary will be an acceptable substitute”) or personal direction (“Brighid is calling me to learn more about my ancestors—I think my family may be connected to Ireland”). More intense forms of gnosis have much in common with powerful artistic inspiration and may include receiving complex liturgies, instructions for spiritual healing practices, narratives about the gods, or requests for acts of service. Like religious people of other traditions, some Pagans see themselves as the hands of the gods in the world and may do volunteer work, create art, cultivate land, or engage in other activities as acts of devotion.

UPG is most controversial in Pagan traditions that are reconstructionist, in other words, traditions that are attempting to reconstruct ancient religions as accurately as possible. Some reconstructionists reject gnosis as innovation that will dilute their practice or render it inauthentic. Others fear that UPG will lead to changes in practice in already small, scattered communities, making it even more difficult for groups to gather for group ritual. Still other reconstructionists are nontheists, seeing gnosis as self-delusion and wishful thinking that threatens to corrupt the religion of their ancestors. Although not all Heathens (Northern European Pagans) are strict reconstructionists, the issue of UPG has been particularly divisive in that community. Heathens have particularly rich textual foundations for their practice in the form of the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas, formerly oral poems which were recorded during the medieval period. For some Heathens, these texts have an authority similar to the authority of the Bible for traditional Christians. Personal gnosis threatens that authority. Particularly controversial is the practice of seiðr, a traditional Germanic form of magickal practice that is mentioned in the sagas. Some contemporary Heathens believe they have recovered the practices of seiðr through peer-corroborated gnosis and have made these practices central to their Heathenry. Other Heathens reject the authenticity of reconstructed seiðr. In an additional twist, seiðr is associated with gender transgression in the traditional lore, and its practice has attracted homophobic prejudice from a minority of Heathens in the community.[vii]

Pagans are engaged in ongoing discussion about how to evaluate UPG and determine its trustworthiness. For example, T. Thorn Coyle focuses on developing psychological health and spiritual self-knowledge so that intuitions can be accurately received;[viii] Luisa Teish illustrates the process of testing intuition by following low-risk impulses to see where they lead;[ix] and Sarah Kate Istra Winter emphasizes the importance of checking intuitions with level-headed peers or looking for support in traditional lore.[x] In this area, Pagans have much to learn from the Society of Friends (the Quakers), who have been evolving a system to confirm gnosis among peers for centuries. It is an essential part of Quaker practice to listen for the voice of the divine, and over the years, Quaker meetings have supported views that dramatically challenged the standards of American society (most famously during the Abolition movement against American slavery). Groups called “clearness committees” assist individuals in spiritual discernment, a slow, contemplative process through which Quakers collectively seek to know God’s will. The presence of trusted elders, engagement with Quaker tradition and ethical principles, healthy group relationships, individual spiritual development, and an open timeline for decision-making all give structure to clearness committees.[xi] Similar practices among Pagan groups could help address the destabilizing effects of too-quickly embraced gnosis.


[i] Constance Wise, Hidden Circles in the Web: Feminist Wicca, Occult Knowledge, and Process Thought (Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2008), 78.

[ii] See David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Vintage, 1996) and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (Vintage, 2010).

[iii] For more information on initiation in contemporary Paganism, see Isaac Bonewits, “Varieties of Initiatory Experience,” Version 2.2 (2005),, available at; and T. Thorn Coyle, “Opening the Mystery,” 23 Aug 2010, available at

[iv] John Michael Greer, Inside a Magical Lodge: Group Ritual in the Western Tradition (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1998), 111-130.

[v] Isaac Bonewits, “The Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame,” Version 2.7 (2008), Available at

[vi] I have used my preferred terms here; alternatives to PCG include “Peer-Corroborated Personal Gnosis (PCPG)” and the simpler “Shared Gnosis (SG).” According to personal communications from practitioners active in the Heathen community, the term “UPG” has been in use in Heathen communities since at least the 1980s, but its first published appearance seems to have been in Kaatryn MacMorgan’s book Wicca 333: Advanced Topics in Wiccan Belief (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2003).

[vii] Jenny Blain, Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-shamanism in North European Paganism (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 122.

[viii] See T. Thorn Coyle, Kissing the Limitless (San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser Books, 2009), especially topics relating to soul alignment, cleansing, and complexes.

[ix] Luisah Teish, Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals (New York: HarperCollins, 1985), 43-45.

[x] Sarah Kate Istra Winter, “Discernment,” Dwelling on the Threshold (CreateSpace, 2012), 85-87. An earlier version is available at

[xi] See Lee Junker, “Friends’ Practice of Group Spiritual Discernment” (2005), available at; and Patricia Loring, Spiritual Discernment: The Context and Goal of Clearness Committees (Pendle Hill Pamphlet, 1992).

Myth and Tradition (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 2 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.

Excerpt from Chapter Two: Myth, Tradition, and Innovation

The foundation of contemporary Pagan theology is myth.

Given the colloquial use of the word “myth,” this statement may sound a bit strange. In Western culture, “myth” often means “a prevalent belief that isn’t true” (as in the popular television show Mythbusters, which tests common beliefs about the world with the scientific method). We also commonly speak of “mythology” when referring to stories of the goddesses, gods, and heroes of ancient cultures. This usage comes closer to the way “myth” is understood in contemporary Paganism, but it’s still somewhat off the mark. In mainstream society, myths are often taught as the quaint productions of premodern civilizations, with the understanding that if myths are still told in a modern context, they are preserved as part of cultural or ethnic heritage or, at most, because they convey important psychological truths. Contemporary Paganism, on the other hand, takes myths seriously as sacred stories that express values and suggest modes of behavior.

Some Pagans agree with comparative religion scholar Joseph Campbell, who presented myths as guiding individuals through stages of life and expressing truths that are universal to the human condition. Others experience myths as offering access to numinous powers and beings with whom seekers can develop relationships.  Although myths may appear to refer to a time in the distant past, they are often better understood as occurring in an eternal present, sometimes repeating over and over as part of a recurring cycle (for example, the Wiccan seasonal cycle known as the “Wheel of the Year”). Pagans often look to the myths of pre-Christian religious traditions (such as stories of Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, and Norse deities) and to those of living indigenous traditions for inspiration. Such traditions are often seen as having a more authentic connection to the earth, a particular piece of land, a people, or the divine. Other Pagans approach the religious myths of their childhood from a Pagan perspective, or create new sacred tales that, over time, begin to function as myths in their communities.

Pagans delight in narrative in general, and a story need not be old or from a foreign country to offer spiritual inspiration. When American religion scholar Sarah Pike studied Pagan festivals, she found that many Pagans located the beginnings of their spirituality in the fantasy or science fiction that they first read as children or young adults.[i] Speculative fiction of this kind tends to be idea-driven and to offer modes of behavior and relationship that are different from the mainstream. Fiction allows Pagans to imagine alternatives ways of relating to the land, to the divine, and to each other. One significant contemporary Pagan group, the Church of All Worlds, took its name directly from Stranger in a Strange Land, an influential science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein. The group’s emphasis on close personal bonding and sexual freedom reflects the values of the fictional religion that Heinlein imagined. In turn, the real-life Church of All Worlds has advocated for those values through the magazine Green Egg, which had a huge impact on the infant American Pagan movement of the 1970s.[ii] Pagans have also used fiction to spread their beliefs and practices throughout the Pagan community and beyond. Starhawk’s novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, for example, presents many of the practices of her real-life Reclaiming community as part of a futuristic dystopian narrative.

Narrative plays an important role in many of the world’s religions. Among Jews, the story of the Exodus is retold yearly at Passover as they imagine an era of peace and justice and a return to Jerusalem. Buddhists use jataka tales—stories of the Buddha’s many lives—to teach morality, as do Christians with stories of Jesus, the apostles, or the saints. Similarly, Native American stories of ancestors and animal spirits teach tribal values and traditions, as well as orienting listeners to the land on which they live. Pagans differ somewhat from these other religions in that they usually do not limit themselves to a single body of literature or tradition. There are some exceptions to this, particularly among those reconstructing ancient religions from historical texts and archeological study, but the majority of Pagans are at least somewhat eclectic. This tendency reflects Pagans’ emphasis on having a religious practice that feels personally meaningful, as well as their resistance to anything that smacks of dogmatism. The meaning of sacred stories is never fully fixed; story requires interpretation. Individual practitioners are often encouraged to feel out the meaning of a myth for themselves, and to seek the experiential truth—the mystery—at the heart of the tale.

Not all Pagans feel comfortable picking and choosing from many cultures, however. Some self-impose restrictions on their choice of material, feeling that completely unrestricted eclecticism lacks sufficient structure. To attempt to deepen their connection to a particular place, culture, deity, or group, Pagans will sometimes limit themselves to working with the myths of a single culture or the liturgical materials of a single Pagan tradition. Others are concerned with cultural appropriation, and they disapprove of taking stories and practices from other cultures out of their intended context. In those cases, Pagans may focus their work on the religious traditions of their ancestors, or on the traditions of communities with whom they have a meaningful relationship. Special care must be taken when approaching indigenous or minority religious communities who have been historically oppressed and may still be experiencing economic, social, and legal disadvantages.  For example, because of the genocidal history between Native Americans and white settlers, non-Native Pagans seeking training in Native religion must be sensitive to the concerns of traditional practitioners. While a sincere seeker who wants to contribute to the well-being of Native communities may be tentatively welcomed, some Native American peoples see whites as commodifying their spirituality and attempting to strip-mine their religion for exotic tidbits. Pagans seeking to become part of Native communities must first develop a basis for mutual trust.

Pagans employ myths in both collective and individual contexts. Myths form the basis of many group rituals. In Wicca, for example, practitioners celebrate the Wheel of the Year, which links the story of the dying and rising God and the Goddess who appears as Maiden, Mother, and Crone into the seasonal cycle. Birth, death, and fertility are celebrated in response to the waxing and waning sun and the cycle of planting, growth, harvest, and fallowness. Some groups put on ritual dramas to tell the seasonally linked tales of the gods, such as the myth of Persephone. In this myth, the seasons are related to the grief and celebration of Persephone’s mother Demeter. Demeter allows the earth to grow when Persephone returns from the underworld each year, but grieves and blights the land when her daughter descends to her husband Hades, lord of the dead. Such rituals help to connect participants with larger natural forces or with the gods themselves.

Individuals may also use myths to define their identities, create meaning around life events, or recover from trauma. Feminist Paganism has often used goddess myths for personal empowerment; women and men are encouraged to bring the virtues of various goddesses into their lives by telling their stories, honoring them in worship, and imitating their strengths. A woman seeking to become more independent in her life, for instance, might build an altar to Diana or Artemis and take up archery as a hobby while also applying for a promotion at her job.

Myths can also help individuals to turn adversity or trauma into spiritual growth. The popular myth of Inanna—another story of descent to the underworld—tells the harrowing tale of the goddess’s journey below, where she is systematically stripped of her symbols of power, then slain and hung as a naked corpse by her dark sister, Ereshkigal. But Inanna has planned ahead for the risky journey, and after three days and nights, her allies bargain with Ereshkigal, recover Inanna’s body, and return her to life. Inanna must send another to the underworld in her place, however. When she returns to the surface and finds that her husband Dumuzi is not mourning her death, she chooses him to replace her in the land of the dead.

Many individuals have used the myth of Inanna to deal with experiences of trauma, particularly trauma that resulted from voluntary actions. Ereshkigal is sometimes experienced as a stern taskmaster who oversees an ultimately transformative ordeal, and parallels can be drawn between Inanna’s resurrection and that of Jesus. Unlike in the Christian tradition, where scriptural stories are often read for ethical lessons, Pagans read myths as offering spiritual insight, not directly prescribing behavior. In the myth of Inanna, it is possible to read Inanna’s punishment of Dumuzi as “rightful revenge.” But contemporary Pagans may instead see it as a warning not to lash out against loved ones who do not understand the ordeal they have undergone. Common Pagan interpretations of the myth also include the transformative potential of vulnerability and the greater strength that can be built from having survived powerlessness.[iii]

Although Pagans do sometimes imitate their gods, as in the example of a woman devoting herself to Artemis in her quest for independence, gods are usually held up as exemplars of specific virtues rather than paragons of ethical behavior. As scholar Graham Harvey remarks about contemporary Heathenry, “Northern religion, Paganism, and other polytheistic traditions in general find meaning and value in the diverse ordinary lives of human beings. The deities introduce us to ourselves and do not only demand allegiance and worship” [my emphasis].[iv] Relationships with deity lead practitioners into deeper relationship with their humanity, rather than with a transcendent moral law. Although there is a certain amount of playful mockery around the issue of the gods and their ethics (for example, the bumper sticker “WWTD: What Would Thor Do?”), the gods are thought to hold great but context-specific wisdom. The fact that most Pagans honor multiple gods (either as individual personalities, or as aspects of a God/dess or a Goddess and a God) is consistent with contemporary Pagan virtue ethics, which stresses the cultivation of many virtues in a harmonious balance. A devotee of the Greek gods might honor Aphrodite as a goddess of beauty and sexual love, but Aphrodite lacks the virtues of fidelity and constancy. For a successful marriage or a harmonious household, Pagans might turn to Hera, who presides over weddings, or Hestia, goddess of the hearth. Even the ancient Greeks were sometimes critical of their gods, who could be petty and capricious; yet the imperfect gods still had their devotees, and their worship was at the center of a stable culture for hundreds of years. Contemporary Pagans seek to learn spiritual lessons from their myths, while nevertheless employing the sophisticated ethical thinking of Western philosophy. Some might even assert that human ethics—ethics that grow from being embodied and finite on the earth—are one of the gifts that Pagans offer back to their gods, whose perspective is not bound by a human sense of space or time.

[i] Sarah M. Pike, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 169–70.

[ii] See Chas Clifton, Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2006).

[iii] See Janet Munin, ed., Queen of the Great Below: An Anthology in Honor of Erishkegal (Biblioteca Alexandrina, 2010).

[iv] Graham Harvey, “Heathenism: A North European Pagan Tradition,” Paganism Today, ed. Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman (London: Thorsons, 1996) 51.

Seeking the Mystery Book Giveaway; Kindle Sale

Kindle Ebook $1 Sale

On Monday 7/1 and through the end of the business day today (7/2), will be offering the Kindle edition of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies for $0.99. It will be available at a reduced price of $2.99 for about a week thereafter. It’s now out in paperback too!

For those who have Pagan reading groups, I especially hope you’ll consider it as one of your selections. Each chapter ends with a  summary, discussion questions, and activities — great for groups and individuals alike.

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies[BUY NOW]

Want a preview? You can read the table of contents, introduction, and glossary here and reviews here. Look for chapter excerpts this week!

Seeking the Mystery Giveaway

Want an ENTIRELY FREE copy of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies? I’m doing a giveaway that you can enter through Monday 7/8/13. Continental US residents are eligible for a print copy; any winner living outside the US will receive a PDF. (Sorry, international shipping costs more than the book itself these days!)

To enter, do one or more of the following:

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After you’ve subscribed to the newsletter or a blog, send me an e-mail telling me what you subscribed to at ckraemer at patheos dot com! I’ll assign numbers to the entries and select a winner using a random number generator, then be in touch with you via e-mail. 🙂

Hard Polytheism (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 1 Excerpt)

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

On Monday 7/1 and through the end of the business day on Tuesday 7/2, will be offering the Kindle edition of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies for $0.99. It will be available at a reduced price of $2.99 for about a week thereafter. It’s now out in paperback too!

For those who have Pagan reading groups, I especially hope you’ll consider it as one of your selections. Each chapter ends with a  summary, discussion questions, and activities — great for groups and individuals alike.


Want a preview? You can read the table of contents, introduction, and glossary here, reviews here, and an excerpt from Chapter One below.

Excerpt from Chapter One: Deity, Deities, and the Divine

Hard Polytheism

Hard polytheism is the view that the gods are objectively existing, independent personalities with whom human beings can have relationships. This theological position is somewhat unique in contemporary Paganism because it is the only belief around which groups of Pagans have strongly rallied. Interestingly, although conversations around hard polytheism are often framed in terms of belief, hard polytheists’ objections to soft polytheism are primarily about the way belief informs practice. For hard polytheists, soft polytheist practice—especially practice that approaches the gods as interchangeable archetypes—is both less effective and potentially disrespectful. Pagans will sometimes speak of rituals where the gods do not “show up”—no energy moves, no sense of connection or presence is felt, and the participants return home in much the same mental and emotional state in which they arrived. Hard polytheists believe that this undesirable state of affairs occurs because Pagans do not recognize the nature of the gods. Hard polytheists usually experience the gods as powerful presences with distinctive desires and behaviors, as well as historical ties to particular traditions, cultures, and lands. In order to connect with a goddess or a god and form relationship with them, hard polytheists will look at rituals from the deity’s native culture for guidance. When they ask a goddess or god to be present, they see themselves as calling someone very specific. Some use the metaphor of dialing a phone number to reach a friend: the ritual objects and the proper names and prayers are ways of ensuring one has the right number. Once a deity has been contacted, an ongoing relationship can be formed through prayer and ritual. This experiential relationship allows the practitioner to move beyond attempting to reconstruct an ancient religion using historical texts, and instead to create a practice that is oriented to the present.

Hard polytheists often see soft polytheists as “dialing a wrong number.” Soft polytheists may treat named deities such as Aphrodite and Ishtar as if they were interchangeable—both forms of an archetypal “love goddess.” To hard polytheists, this is disrespectful to the deities involved, a bit like treating two cousins as if they were the same person. A practice that does not take the deities seriously as individuals is thought to produce either weak results or none at all—or, in certain unhappy cases, a true “wrong number” where a mischievous spirit pretends to be the desired deity. Hard polytheists are also critical of soft polytheist practices that they see as self-indulgent or self-serving. Although hard polytheists do not necessarily see their deities as infallible, they regard them as sources of wisdom and inspiration who deserve devotion and service. They are concerned with the possibility that eclectic Pagans will pick and choose what appeals to them from ancient traditions while thoughtlessly rejecting anything that seems uncomfortable, or that they will make up their own traditions without being well-educated in existing ones. In their view, a soft polytheist practice may be too undisciplined to result in genuine connection with divine forces.

Hard polytheist practice contrasts strongly with the monotheism that is dominant in Western culture. As a result, hard polytheists can be actively hostile to monistic language in Paganism. Part of this may be due to a misunderstanding of monism. Hard polytheists are strongly opposed to the idea that “All gods are one God,” and they tend to equate this view with monism. Yet monism does not necessarily imply a belief in a unifying personal God. Rather, it can simply indicate a belief in a unifying divine substance. Some hard polytheists do espouse ideas that are compatible with monism. Raven Kaldera  is an outspoken advocate for hard polytheism in contemporary Paganism. In Dealing with Deities, he addresses the cross-cultural similarities between groups of gods and goddesses that some thinkers have identified as archetypes. Many polytheistic cultures, for example, have a “love goddess” of some kind. Kaldera speaks of these individual deities as sharing a divine energy current that unites them and gives them a family resemblance, while still remaining distinct personalities.[i] To draw an analogy on the human level, although a friend may be a member of a family or a citizen of a town, I don’t generally think of her as “one of the Joneses” or “a Bostonian”—I think of her as “Katherine” and as an individual. Ivo Dominguez,  Jr. expresses a similar idea in his book Spirit Speak, where he describes different levels of deity forms. For Dominguez, the named gods are also part of larger and more diffuse deity forms that unite them. Importantly, however, neither Kaldera nor Dominguez see these uniting energies as the primary focus of Pagan practice. Both take the reality of individual Pagan deities as seriously as they take the reality of individual human beings. Deities may partake in larger energies, but these writers believe that Pagans can relate to them as distinct.

For some hard polytheists, the distinction between hard and soft polytheism is primarily a difference in emphasis. In the creation myth told by Starhawk, for example, the Star Goddess gives birth to all the beings of the universe, of whom she is also part. A soft polytheist is likely to focus on the Star Goddess in this story as the common origin of all things. She may seem to be the most important deity, the oneness (or the nothingness) of which all the others are part. Yet it is not just the gods that remain a part of her, but also human beings, plants, and animals. A hard polytheist is more likely to see such a Goddess as somewhat distant and abstract, while her children—both gods and mortals—are closer to us and available for relationship. In general, hard polytheists who admit to monist underpinnings are likely to see their monism as irrelevant to their practice. The idea that there is an underlying spiritual substance to being may be an interesting metaphysical idea, but it has little impact on the everyday. (Alternatively, hard polytheists may see “divinity” as a quality shared by all deities, but deny that there is a unifying substance to being. Just as an apple and a stop sign are both “red,” but not of the same substance,  Aphrodite and Parvati might both be “love goddesses” and both “divine,” but not of the same substance. This is a non-monist position that nevertheless affirms an essential commonality among the gods.)

Hard polytheists tend to take the issue of belief much more seriously than other Pagans. Like other Pagans, they usually emphasize that their belief in the gods is based on their personal experiences of them. However, hard polytheists see belief as a necessary part of the passion and devotion that is part of a committed relationship with the gods. As Hellenic polytheist Sarah Kate Istra Winter writes,

I fear that paganism may not have the strength to last in the long-term if we ourselves do not firmly believe in our spiritual reality. You don’t see Christians following up a discussion of accepting Jesus into your heart with some caveat like “or if you don’t believe in Jesus, just imagine a similar loving entity or warm light.” Or “if you need the help of a saint and don’t like any of the ones you’ve read about, just invent a new saint in your mind that betters suits you, and contact them.” As if these things are all the same. Yes, I know that many Christians go in the opposite direction and become strictly orthodox, insisting on every detail of belief, and I also know that this is what many pagans are reacting to. But it’s time to stop reacting and start building a real, solid faith that will last – and for that you need, well, faith.[ii]

Although in this passage Winter emphasizes the necessity of belief for the Pagan movement as a whole, hard polytheist thinkers also acknowledge belief’s personal dimension. Even the most devoted Pagan will not always experience the gods in all their glory; not every ritual will produce awe, ecstasy, or divine terror. In those cases, belief can help to sustain a spiritually nurturing practice. As Heathen practitioner Galina Krasskova remarked to me, “Faith and practice support me when I can’t feel the gods.”

Perhaps because hard polytheists are more likely to acknowledge the necessity of believing in and understanding the nature of the gods, much of the innovative contemporary Pagan theology of the past two decades has come from a hard polytheist perspective. Druid John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods explores polytheism as an ethical as well as a metaphysical position. Greer spends much of his time attacking pre-twentieth century Christian theology, which may be frustrating for those who are aware that progressive Christian theology has already made these criticisms. But Greer does make a strong case for polytheism as an inherently pluralistic system in which religious tolerance and the celebration of diversity make sense. Since it is obvious from history that individuals and cultures experience the divine very differently, polytheism provides a system of thought that does not have to explain those differences away.

Other hard polytheists have focused on theoretical frameworks to support their devotional approaches, such as Northern tradition Pagan Raven Kaldera’s Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology. For Kaldera, theology is not abstract or based on speculation; “faith” is a matter of trust and ongoing relationship with the gods, based on the assurance of things experienced and the conviction of things seen. He also touches on archetypal and syncretistic experiences, which have often been considered evidence for soft polytheism. Contemporary Pagans sometimes interpret similarities between deities as evidence that they have encountered a universal archetype, rather than two separate beings.  These archetypal experiences seem supported by historical cases of syncretism, where deities originally from different cultures have been worshipped as the same deity.  To provide a more sophisticated hard polytheist explanation for these experiences, theologian P. Sufenas Virius Lupus uses process theology and the work of polytheistic philosopher Edward P. Butler.[iii] Lupus argues that deities change and evolve along with human beings, which allows new relationships to be formed among the gods over time. In turn, changes in the gods lead to changes in their relationships with humans. Lupus aims to help polytheist Pagans form deeper relationships with the gods by coming to a more consistent understanding of them.

[i] Raven Kaldera, Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology (Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press, 2012), 43.

[ii] Sarah Kate Istra Winter, Dwelling on the Threshold (CreateSpace, 2012), 21. Also available at A Forest Door,

[iii] See P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, “Polytheology: Syncretism, Process Theology, and ‘Polyamorotheism,’” 2 Aug 2010, available at; and “PantheaCon 2012: Super-Syncretism! Creating Connection & Preserving Diversity,” Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous 31 Mar 2012, available at Expanded versions of these ideas are available in A Serpent Path Primer (Red Lotus Library, 2012).