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), NeoPagan.net, available at http://www.neopagan.net/Initiation.html; and T. Thorn Coyle, “Opening the Mystery,” Patheos.com 23 Aug 2010, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Opening-the-Mystery.

[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), NeoPagan.net. Available at http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF.html.

[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 http://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/discernment/.

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