The Devil is in the Detail

Over at Common Tansy, Pat Mosley has been tearing it up with his posts about the Devil in witchcraft, A Case for Inviting Satan (Back) to Wicca and Prying Open the Devil’s Broom Closet. And Ian Corrigan has also written on the topic of the Devil and the darker side of Paganism. Jason Mankey has written about the origins of the Horned God of Wicca.

Francisco de Goya's Witches Sabbat (1789), which depicts the Devil flanked by Satanic witches. The Witch Cult hypothesis states that such stories are based upon a real-life pagan cult that revered a horned god

Francisco de Goya’s Witches Sabbat (1789), which depicts the Devil flanked by witches. [CC0 – Public Domain]

The Devil and witchcraft

Some folkloric Craft practitioners have always honoured both Lucifer and Jesus, regarding them as brothers (from the reference in the Book of Job about Samael being among the Sons of God). Cain is also an important figure in their mysteries, and is viewed as the son of Samael and Lilith. And Tubal-Cain is viewed as the earthly vessel of Azazel. They place a lot of importance on the smith-gods such as Prometheus, Tubal-Cain, Hephaestos, Wayland, and Vulcan.

I can understand why some Wiccans completely denied that they even believed in the Devil, as I vividly remember the fear instilled in us by the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s. It is much easier to say “we don’t believe in your mythology at all” than it is to say something more complicated, such as “we don’t accept your dualistic cosmology, but we do believe there is a place for acknowledging the darker aspects of the psyche, and deities associated with them, and rather than demonising them, it would be better to integrate those forces into consciousness and work with their energies”. Some Wiccan and Pagan writers actually did attempt to convey this more complicated message.

Various concepts and images of these entities are lurking about in the basement of the Western psyche – but we are not powerless to change them. Some people will prefer to ignore them altogether; others feel the need to change these images by working with them. That is their prerogative.

However, there is no need to throw Satanists under the bus when stating that Wiccans don’t worship the Devil. There are at least three different flavours of Satanism, the philosophical and anarchist variety allegedly espoused by Mikhail Bakunin, the inversion-of-Christianity variety, and the people who are actually worshipping the Egyptian god Set. Therefore, claiming that Satanism is “just an inversion of Christianity” is an inadequate explanation of what it actually is.

I have not met that many Satanists, and many of the ones I have met have taken considerable pleasure in being self-consciously “dark” and very left-hand-path. Some of the ones I have met were very right-wing. There are nasty people in every group, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are like that. I also know a couple of Setians and some left-wing Satanists.

It is worth pointing out that an acknowledgement of the possible existence of Lucifer, or Samael, or any other such entity, does not mean that we are suddenly Satanists. Some Wiccans have been acknowledging Lilith for years – so why is Samael so taboo?

I think that Wicca and Satanism are two separate and distinct traditions,  but we are not being fair and reasonable if we demonise Satanism in the same way that some Christians have done to us.

Who cleft the Devil’s foot?

From a hard(ish) polytheist point of view, I would argue that Lucifer, Satan, Samael, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and various other entities are different beings. They may have got lumped together as one by the monotheists, but then I think we would all agree that monotheists have a tin ear when it comes to mythology. One of the Pagan deities whose image fed into the Christian concept of the Devil was Pan, and it is thought that that is how the Devil acquired his cloven hooves (unless it was from the image of Azazel as the scapegoat).

Some people have argued that neither Jesus nor Satan have a place in contemporary Paganisms, because we don’t accept the dualistic and antagonistic world-view of Christianity.  However, I don’t have to accept that monotheism’s assessment of the stature or nature of a being is true in order to accept that the being (or at least, its archetype) exists.  I don’t accept the philosophy of Buddhism, but I am happy to honour Kwan-Yin.  I think Jesus probably exists, but I certainly don’t accept monotheism’s view of who he is. So why not his brother Lucifer? We don’t accept Christianity’s assessment that all our deities are the devil in disguise – so why should we accept their view of Lucifer?

Northern Light 27 points out that the various deities that were some form of adversary (and a necessary source of creative conflict) in the pre-Christian pagan religions all got lumped together to form the Christian version of the devil as the main adversary of Yahweh. What’s more, the Jewish concept of Samael / Satan was quite different, and existed alongside other figures such as Lilith as necessary aspects of the cosmic order.

I think the Christian view was probably influenced either by the two gods of Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu), or by the good and evil entities of Manichaeism. Manichaeism was essentially a Gnostic view of the world that held that matter was created by an evil demiurge, and that the source of all good was the creator, to whom light and spirit seek to return by escaping from matter. Zoroastrians, on the other hand, say that the world was created by Ahura Mazda, the good god. However, both systems have an ultimate force of good pitted against an ultimate force of evil. Contrast this with Judaism, where Samael was essentially under the control of Yahweh – in this view, Samael existed to punish transgressors. If you look at the history of Jewish mythologization of Satan, Samael, Azazel, Asmodeus, and other characters, it is pretty clear that they are much more nuanced than the Christian versions. I really wish people would not conflate Judaism and Christianity, or back-project Christian attitudes onto Judaism, which is a completely different religion that Christianity is a massive distortion of. (And as far as I know, it is a heresy in Christianity to regard the Devil as being of equal power with God.)

As I do not accept monotheism’s view that there is only one god and one adversary, I have room in my concept of deities for some that like to promote conflict for whatever reason they think it necessary (even if they don’t happen to be among the deities with whom I have a personal relationship, because I do not like conflict).  If I acknowledge the existence of  Lilith and Loki and Set and Yahweh and Asherah, then I am prepared to accept that Lucifer, Samael, and Asmodeus also exist. And Baphomet too.

My polytheism consists of acknowledging the existence of many deities, and honouring and/or worshipping those that have called to me. So far, only one of these entities has come knocking at my door, but if one of the others shows up, I think I would make my own assessment of their character. After all, Christianity was very rude about all our other deities – why should I take their word for it about any entity?

As to whether the Wiccan Horned God contains a bit of the Devil in his DNA… I think he probably does. If the Devil is equated in the Christian world-view with prancing about naked by moonlight, joyous love-making, and wild shenanigans – then the God of the Witches does represent these things.

What is interesting is that Pan, who may have informed some of the Christian idea of the Devil (because he represents wildness and wilderness and unbridled sexuality) is one of the few beings involved that was not an adversary figure in ancient mythology. (Though the Devil’s horns and hooves may have come from Azazel the scapegoat rather than from Pan.)

In Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia: the gospel of the witches, Aradia is presented as the consort of Lucifer, and it appears that Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente replaced Lucifer with Cernunnos when they were forming Wicca – in part because they believed Margaret Murray’s theory that the being worshipped by witches was an ancient pagan Horned God (but also because they were well aware of the media furore that would result if they admitted to devil-worship). However, it appears from some research by Sabina Magliocco that the legend of Aradia actually pre-dates the association of witchcraft with devil-worship.

Horned deities in India were possibly associated with shamanism and animism, both of which have been viewed as transgressive by established religions.

It is also worth noting that the word demon (daimon in Greek) originally meant a spirit of place, or the genius of a gifted person, and had no negative connotation in ancient paganism.

My personal theology celebrates the marriage of spirit and matter, and not their separation. I celebrate wildness, and chaos, and the celebration of physical pleasure. I do not think that blind obedience is a virtue. So I think a deity that represents anarchy, and rebellion against absolute authority, is worth looking into.

Adversaries in ancient paganisms

Some ancient paganisms had the concept of a struggle between two groups of deities (in Greek mythology, the clash of the Olympian gods with their rivals, the Titans; and in Norse mythology, the clash of the Aesir and Vanir with the giants) but these were not so much conceived of as a struggle of good and evil, as a struggle between natural forces such as fire and ice, some of which were more inimical to humans than others. But things were complicated in the Greek myths because Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity (an impious act, but one for which we can be grateful). And in the Norse myths, the gods were born from the primal giant, Ymir, and then slew him to make the heavens and the Earth.

Some ancient religions of the Near East had powerful beings who were slain by the creator god (for example in Sumerian mythology, Tiamat the serpent goddess was slain by Marduk, who formed the Earth from her body – probably the original of many dragon-slayer stories). We can trace some of the motifs that went into the making of the archetype of the Devil back to some of these figures.

Be careful

I’ve got to admit that the name ‘Satan’ makes me really uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable with ‘Old Nick’, ‘Lucifer’, or even ‘the Devil’. But then I am curious to delve into the depths and find out why it makes me uncomfortable.

However, given the enormous weight of negativity attached to the archetype of the Devil, anyone invoking these entities needs to be really careful to invoke the aspects of the complex that they want (the freedom, anarchy, hedonism, and sex-positive aspects) and avoid the negative associations with it (selfishness, greed, destructive impulses, etc). I find it very interesting that most people work with lesser-known names and beings such as Samael and Lucifer (arguably the bright side of this archetype) and avoid the more negative aspects. So much negativity has been loaded onto the archetype that it may be really difficult to recover the bright aspects of it. If you do invoke or evoke such a being, are you a powerful enough magician to handle it?

Civilisation and its discontents

It is fairly easy to see how gods of the wildwood (symbols of the wilderness and therefore opposed to civilisation, with which Christianity strongly identifies itself) may have fed into the Christian archetype of the Devil. Recently, I read Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and in that book (written in 1926), the god of the witches is unequivocally represented (with considerable glee) as Satan. He is quite kindly, and the freedom of the countryside where he holds sway is contrasted with the stifling atmosphere of middle-class respectability from which the heroine escapes.

Many myths and legends (from ancient times until very recently) are about the struggle to establish civilisation and order, set against the urge to return to a state of nature and chaos. It has not been universally agreed that the imposition of law and order and civilisation is necessarily all good.

If someone was to draw a mindmap or a family tree describing all these entities and their mythological relationship with each other, it would get quite complicated. The massive number of references to the Devil in popular culture add an extra layer of complexity.

So – when you say that you don’t worship the Devil, you might need to be a bit more specific. Do you mean Old Nick, Satan, Asmodeus, Azazel, Beelzebub, Baphomet, Samael, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Angra Mainyu, Iblis, Loki, Set, Apep, Prometheus, or some other adversarial figure? The Devil really is in the details.

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

PAGAN CONSENT CULTURE Anthology Is Available!

Pagan Consent Culture - cover by Shauna Aura Knight

cover by Shauna Aura Knight

Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow are pleased to announce the release of Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy, a new collection from Asphodel Press.

How might a Druid understand consent? How about a Wiccan, a Thelemite, a Heathen, or a Polytheist? In this collection, Pagans of many traditions show how to ground good consent practices in Pagan stories, liturgies, and values.

Although many Pagans see the body and sexuality as sacred, Pagan communities still struggle with the reality of assault and abuse. To build consent culture, good consent practices must be embraced by communities, not just by individuals—and consent is about much more than sexuality. Consent culture begins with the idea of autonomy, with recognizing our right to control our bodies and selves in all areas of life; and it is sustained by empathy, the ability to understand and share the emotional states of others.

In Part One of Pagan Consent Culture, writers develop specifically Pagan philosophies of consent, tackling complex issues such as power differentials, sexual initiation, rape culture in traditional myths, and relationships with the gods. Part Two presents personal narratives of abuse and healing, as well as policies to help prevent sexual abuse and assault and to effectively respond to it when it occurs. Finally, Part Three provides resources for teaching and practicing consent culture, including curricula and exercises for children and adults.

Pagan Consent Culture is available from Asphodel Press (via in paperback and electronic formats.

Check out the Pagan Consent Culture website for further resources, as well as a free study guide!


Table of Contents

Part I: Developing Pagan Philosophies of Consent

  • Culture of Consent, Culture of Sovereignty: A Recipe from a Druid’s Perspective, by John Beckett
  • Thelema and Consent, by Brandy Williams
  • Consent within Heathenry, by Sophia Sheree Martinez
  • Matriarchy and Consent Culture in a Feminist Pagan Community, by Yeshe Rabbit
  • Wicca and Consent, by Yvonne Aburrow
  • The Anderson Faery Tradition and Sexual Initiation: An Interview with Traci, by Helix
  • Consent. Contact. An Animist Approach to Consent, by Theo Wildcroft
  • Seeking a Morality of Difference: A Polytheological Approach to Consent, by Julian Betkowski
  • The Charge of the Goddess: Teachings about Desire and Its End, and Their Limitations, by Grove Harris
  • Walking the Underworld Paths: BDSM, Power Exchange, and Consent in a Sacred Context, by Raven Kaldera
  • Saving Iphigenia: Escaping Ancient Rape Culture through Creating Modern Myths, by Thenea Pantera
  • Is “Tam Lin” a Rape Story? Yes, Maybe, and No, by A. Acland
  • Godspousery and Consent, by Sebastian Lokason

Part II: Responding to Abuse and Assault

  • The Third Degree: Exploitation and Initiation, by Jason Thomas Pitzl
  • From Fear into Power: Transforming Survivorship Sarah Twichell Rosehill
  • In the Midst of Avalon: Casualties of the Sexual Revolution, by Katessa S. Harkey
  • Responding to Abuse in the Pagan Community, by Cat Chapin-Bishop
  • Sexual Assault and Abuse Prevention: Safeguarding Policies for Pagan Communities, by Kim and Tracey Dent-Brown, with the Triple Horse Coven
  • The Rite and Right of Refusal: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in Communities and at Festivals, by Diana Rajchel
  • Sex-Positive, Not Sex-Pressuring: Consent, Boundaries, and Ethics in Pagan Communities, by Shauna Aura Knight
  • Living in Community with Trauma Survivors, by Lydia M. N. Crabtree
  • Consent in Intergenerational Community, by Lasara Firefox Allen

Part III: Building Communities of Autonomy and Empathy

  • Mindful Touch as a Religious Practice, by Christine Hoff Kraemer
  • Consent Culture: Radical Love and Radical Accessibility, by Stasa Morgan-Appel
  • Wild Naked Pagans and How to Host Them, by Tom Swiss
  • Respect, Relationship and Responsibility: UU Resources for Pagan Consent Education, by Zebrine Gray
  • Self-Possession as a Pillar of Parenting, by Nadirah Adeye
  • Paganism, Children, and Consent Culture: An Interview with Sierra Black, by Sarah Whedon
  • Teaching Consent Culture: Tips and Games for Kids, Teens, and Adults, by Christine Hoff Kraemer
  • Asperger’s Syndrome and Consent Culture: An Interview with Vinnie West, Joshua Tenpenny, and Maya Kurentz, by Raven Kaldera
  • Consent in Gardnerian Wiccan Practice, by Jo Anderson, with the Triple Horse Coven
  • Teaching Sex Magick, by Sable Aradia
  • Healing the Hungry Heart, by B. B. Blank


  • Additional Resources
  • Sample Handout: Tradition-Specific Consent Culture Class
  • The Earth Religion Anti-Abuse Resolution (1988)
  • A Pagan Community Statement on Religious Sexual Abuse (2009)


Making Meaning at the Movies

The Patheos Public Square question for this month is:

Has Hollywood Become Our National Conscience? Many 21st-century movies—both animated children’s films and big production feature films—have tackled moral and cultural questions in ways that have shaped the public conversation. Is this good and helpful or dangerous? In what ways has Hollywood asked the right questions and shaped the discourse? Can the art of movie-making be an act of social justice?

My answer is, I suppose, “it depends”. If the agenda of the film is generally progressive and inclusive, that’s great — but there are also some harmful tropes in Hollywood movies, and some disappointing things.


Honestly – if I never see another uncritical superhero movie, that’ll be just fine. I am fed up of lone vigilantes and their superpowers. Give me the complex and multifaceted heroes of the Marvel universe, like the X-Men (and women), and that’s much more interesting and diverse. The notion that we will all be saved by Superman or Batman is deeply flawed and annoying. My favourite superhero movie is of course The Incredibles. I also really liked Megamind, because it was ultra-critical of the squeaky-clean superhero. The problem with the whole notion of superheroes like Superman is that they promote the notion that problems can only be solved by a single individual with superpowers, and that there is some evolutionary arc that points towards the appearance of superheroes.


One of the worst things about Hollywood movies is the idea that a man who has been wronged can and should go out like a lone vigilante and take revenge. This is found in film after film and seems to be regarded as mostly unproblematic. Vengeful people end up hurting innocent bystanders and they don’t actually benefit the person they are trying to take vengeance for. It is also part of the rugged individualism that is often claimed to be part of the American psyche. Really, you should all be slightly grumpy and moany like the English. It’s much more fun.

White saviour complex

Another really bad trope is “white people solve racism”, because according to this trope, obviously Black people couldn’t have been resisting and organising on their own, they clearly need a “white saviour” to come and rescue them. Hence we have films about white anti-slavery and anti-racism activists, but not so many about Black activists. The situation is improving here – but the dire example of the film The Help tells you everything you need to know about this phenomenon.

Everyone in the movies is white, male, and straight

A related phenomenon is the notion that everyone in the future is white. Obviously Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) did his very best to kick this notion into the long grass, with the wonderful Ahura (played by Nichelle Nichols), and other great characters. Firefly and Babylon 5 also get honourable mentions here for having more than one excellent black character (the doctor in Babylon 5, and Zoe and Shepherd Book in Firefly).   But other films and TV shows quite frequently have an overwhelming number of white characters. But where are the LGBT characters?

I was very excited by the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, from the perspective of equality. There’s a film that passes the Bechdel Test.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Bechdel Test

asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.

Another measure of representation is the DuVernay Test:

… named after critically-acclaimed director Ava DuVernay behind 2014’s Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic Selma.

Newly coined by the New York Times writer Manohla Dargis, the DuVernay test passes if a film portrays “fully realized” African Americans and other minorities who have their own plotlines, motivations, desires, and actions that are not informed by white characters.

However, the fact that we needed a Bechdel Test and a DuVernay Test in the first place, because there are so few films that have well-rounded female characters or people of colour in them, is sad.

A Tumblr blog, Every Single Word, has highlighted the lack of representation of people of colour in Hollywood films. Buzzfeed’s Fiona Rutherford explains:

The project’s founder, Dylan Marron, cuts and edits movies to remove all lines spoken by Caucasians – and the resulting clips are pretty depressing.

In the Biblical epic Noah, for example, there are no speaking roles at all for people of colour.

Films like Selma have been redressing the balance a little bit, as did Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad, which mainly focused on the black characters liberating themselves.

But then we get absolute face-palm moments like the fact that the film Suffragette completely failed to include any women of colour in it, despite the fact that there have been Black and Asian people in Britain for centuries (though not as many as there are now), and ignoring the fact that Sophia Duleep Singh was the next President of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship after Mrs Pankhurst’s death, and was active as a suffragette around the time depicted by the film.

There is an equivalent test for LGBT inclusion in films, called the Russo Test:

  • The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.
  • That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. the character is made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters).
  • The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.

The obvious film that would pass this test would be the recent film Pride, which was totally awesome and most of the characters were gay and lesbian (though there were no bisexuals or transgender people). It wasn’t a Hollywood film though, it was a British film.

Apparently the film Stonewall (about the Stonewall Riots) was really disappointing, in that it made all the trans people (who were most of the main instigators of the riot) into gay characters instead. And reviews of Dallas Buyers’ Club (in which the main character was trans) were mixed, but it was widely agreed that the trans character should have been played by a trans person.

However, things are looking up: back in the day, LGBT, Black, and women’s films were considered niche and special interest. Now they are making big bucks at the box office, that notion is being gradually overturned. But the fact that Suffragette, Stonewall, and similar films were made at all – even with the massive flaws that they had – is encouraging. They could still have been a lot better, though. On balance, I would say that Hollywood these days is generally progressive, but could try harder.

The under-represented, the misrepresented, and the invisible

What about making a decent film about Native Americans (and no, Dances with Wolves does not qualify). Films about trans characters seem woefully thin on the ground, and I can’t remember ever seeing a film about a bisexual character. And some films about Pagans that represent us as something other than teen witches whose spells go horribly wrong (like in The Craft) or witches who never actually do any rituals (like Practical Magic) or witches who summon a demon Jack Nicholson (is there any other kind?) or sex-mad Pagans desperate for a sacrifice (The Wicker Man).

What about the environment?

I would also like to see more films that deal seriously with climate change and the environment. Avatar was alright, but we need more films that inspire people to care for the Earth and the environment. I can’t even think of any recent films about our relationship with Nature right now. Though I really liked The Emerald Forest (1985), and the screenplay was by Rob Holdstock.

Feelgood factor

I don’t like zombie films, horror films, war films, films about the inner workings of  capitalism and the law. The kind of films I like are the ones that are quirky and funny and show unexpected solidarity and community between people. Most of the films that I have loved over the last decade or so were made by the excellent Working Title, not Hollywood. I like films where the underdog wins the day, and the powerful are brought low. I like science fiction where interesting characters struggle against dystopias. I like films that question the notion of superheroes, and show solidarity being the key to overcoming oppression.

The great thing about science fiction is that it can show us alternative worlds, both good and bad. Science fiction holds up a mirror to our contemporary dilemmas and mores, and asks “but why does it have to be this way?” Science fiction isn’t about the future, it is about the present. It says, “Don’t dream it – be it.”

By George Grinsted -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Oakley Court, the house in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Photo by George Grinsted on, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Should Public Expressions of Religion Be Allowed?

Many secularists have argued that no public expressions of religion should be allowed – no hijabs, no cross pendants, no Easter processions, presumably no Pagan Pride Day, no street preaching (can’t say I would miss that one), no nothing.

No religious expression in public?

I have come across atheists arguing that the hijab, and the wearing of religious jewellery, should be banned. Given that many people wear religious symbols like the cross without any idea of their meaning, I think that such a ban would be way over the top. A friend overheard a conversation in a jewellery shop between two women contemplating the purchase of a cross pendant: “Do you want the plain one, or the one with the little man on it?” Clearly they had no idea at all what the difference between a cross and a crucifix is, or even what it signifies.

Since a person wearing a hijab headscarf, or a cross or a crucifix, or a Pagan pendant such as a mjollnir, valknut, pentagram, and so on, is not actually doing you any harm, why should you care what they choose to wear? I personally dislike the niqab and the burqa, but forbidding Muslim women to wear such garments is not the way forward. Let them choose what they want to wear, and if they want to wear something that offends your secular or feminist sensibilities, that is their choice. Plenty of Muslim feminists wear hijab. As long as it is not forced on them, and as long as they don’t try to impose their dress code on me, then let them get on with it. I also support those Muslim women who campaign against being forced to wear hijab, of course. I also happen to dislike large life-size (death-size?) crucifixes outside churches, but they are on private property, so again, they have a right to put them there. The point is, it should be a free choice.

As long as no-0ne is being harmed by the expression of religion (and the preaching of extreme racism and anti-LGBT bigotry does constitute harm), then public expression of religion is part of free speech and should be permitted.

If a Muslim or a Jew wants to eat halal or kosher meat (I am not convinced by arguments that halal and kosher methods of slaughter are any less humane than any other kind), and does not want to eat pork or drink alcohol, that is their prerogative. Just as it is the prerogative of a vegetarian to avoid meat altogether, or a vegan to avoid meat and dairy products altogether.

Some Pagan women choose to wear veils and headscarves to honour particular goddesses (such as Hera or Hestia). Again, you may not like it, but it is their choice.

If the local Muslim community wants to build a mosque, or the Hindu community wants to build a mandir, or the Sikh community wants to build a gurdwara, or the Buddhists want to build a temple, that’s great. It makes it all the easier to imagine that one day, we can have Pagan temples in every town.

I would personally prefer it if loud proselytising and evangelism in the street didn’t exist, but the cost of freedom of speech is that people are allowed to say stuff that others don’t agree with (as long as it isn’t hate speech and incitement to violence). As atheists are very fond of pointing out, “there is no right to not be offended“. Though there is a right to defend oneself against slander, libel, and hate speech.

Baroness Onora O’Neill, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, argued that it was possible to legislate against certain speech-acts, but that any ‘right not to be offended’ would be unworkable.

‘There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended.

‘Any supposed right not to be offended would founder on the fact that offensiveness is subjective, and would put others’ freedom of expression wholly at the mercy of the sensibilities of possible audiences, including audiences who may include some who are hypersensitive, paranoid or self-serving—or worse’.

Religious beliefs in the workplace

I have had discussions with atheists and secularists where they have said that people should not bring their religious beliefs to work. I must say that in many ways, I agree, where those beliefs are based in bigotry and prevent someone from doing their job properly (such as registrars who don’t want to marry same-sex couples, for example). However, my religious beliefs include a desire to care for the environment, and a desire to see everyone treated fairly: not because the gods command it, but because it is a natural human impulse. My religious beliefs include the desire for social and environmental justice for all beings on this planet, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, colour, and species.

When I was a trade union activist, there were eight people on the committee: two atheists, a Greek Orthodox Christian, a Catholic, an Anglican, a Baptist, a Druid, and me (a polytheist Wiccan). Considering that this was in a university, where the proportion of atheists is higher than in the general population, I found it significant that it was mostly people of religion who stepped up to volunteer for the trade union. The reason we ended up having that particular conversation was that the atheist guy jokingly said, when the Druid joined, “We seem to have a disproportionate number of Pagans on the committee” so I pointed out how many of the committee were Christians. We were acting on our religious conviction that everyone should be treated fairly. (Please note that I am not saying that it was because we believed that God or the gods command it, though I didn’t ask the Christians what the source of their belief in social justice was, but it was certainly a deep-seated impulse of conscience.)

So I think my conclusion here is that if your religious beliefs prevent you from doing your job properly, get a different job. I wouldn’t work for a company that manufactured weapons of war, because it would go against my conscience, and nor would I work for a company that was responsible for widespread environmental destruction, such as fracking, strip-mining, or cutting down large swathes of forest. So if you are a Christian who disagrees with same-sex marriage, don’t be a registrar of marriages in a country that permits same-sex marriage. Simple.

However, religious beliefs and ethics are not some optional bolt-on extra that can be detached and put away – they are a core part of people’s identity – whether that is a liberal religious identity or a conservative one. That does not mean that we cannot seek to challenge people who justify their homophobia by claiming that the Bible supports their bigotry (it doesn’t). We can and should seek to persuade them of the error of their views – but the corollary of this is, that they get to argue back. That is how free speech works. (I should add that this does not contradict the “no platform” argument, which is that if you host bigoted views in your premises or on your website, you are, in a sense, endorsing those views. Freedom of speech means that they can still get their own building or website where they can express those views.)

Separation of church and state

I agree with the separation of church and state in the United States, and wish that we didn’t have bishops in the House of Lords in the UK, and that the monarch was not head of the Church of England. I do not think it is appropriate for government to be so entwined with religion. I do find it interesting that it is acceptable (even required) for US politicians to state their faith in God, whereas if a UK politician states his or her belief in God, there is a general expression of distaste. Especially if that politician thinks that their illegal wars are justified by their religious faith (I’m looking at you, Tony Blair).

I object to universities having graduation ceremonies in Christian religious buildings, or with Christian prayers, unless other religions are also invited to take part, and that should include Paganism – but of course it usually doesn’t. Either every religion should be included, or no religion should be included.

If local councils and state legislatures have opening prayers and dedications, these should either be offered by all the different faiths, including humanist dedications and Pagan prayers, or not at all. The same goes for public statuary and sculpture, and public religious buildings: either all faiths should be included, or none at all.

I disagree with the requirement in UK schools that assemblies should be broadly Christian in character (except in schools where the majority of the students are of another faith), and so does the School Governors’ Association.

Freedom of expression

I completely agree with the National Secular Society (UK) that freedom of expression for everyone (the religious and non-religious alike) is the way forward, and applaud their efforts to get ‘blasphemy’ removed from the list of crimes in the UK, which it now has been. But freedom of expression for everyone means that there is freedom of expression for atheists and freedom of expression for people of religion.

Some years ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend the closing ceremony of a Buddhist sand mandala at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath. Some Tibetan monks had come and made the sand mandala over several days. It was very beautiful. At the end of this process, as an expression of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, they swept it up and carried it down to the River Avon and offered it to the waters. They placed the multicoloured sand in a special vessel, and carried it under a beautiful silk parasol. The procession, led by the Buddhist monks, and with the rest of us following behind, made its way through the streets of Bath, down to the river. There, another monk blew into a very long trumpet to herald the beginning of the offering to the waters, and they emptied the vessel of sand into the river, and said a prayer (in Tibetan, I assume). It was very beautiful.

Last Easter, as I was leaving my house, I saw the local Christians processing with a donkey and a large and ornate cross, and some priests in all their finery. Very picturesque. And when I was in Italy in 2004, the local church had a big Easter procession. And in Greece, Easter is celebrated with great exuberance. Why ever not, as long as they don’t object to other religions publicly celebrating our festivals, or LGBT Pride parades, or Pagan Pride, or whatever.

Many traditional folk festivals are celebrated all over Europe, which have pagan origins or pagan themes. There is the wonderful revival of the celebration of Beltane on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. There are many folk festivals in Eastern Europe, especially in Bulgaria which has retained much of its pagan folklore and traditions.

By Saturnian - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sânzienele at Cricău Festival, Romania, 2013.
By SaturnianOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Yes, it is annoying when someone tries to convert you to their religion. I really wish they wouldn’t. And sometimes they take it so far that it does become harassment. But that does not mean that all religious expression (even religious expression which does not seek to convert others) should be banned.

If all public religious expression was banned, we would lose many rich and interesting customs and practices, and colourful and exuberant processions. And that would be a sad loss.

The reason that laws banning things exist is because the prohibited things cause actual harm. Dangerous driving, murder, guns, hate speech, and so on, are all illegal or restricted in most countries because they are harmful. Most religious expression does not harm anyone, and so it should not be banned.

But What About The Tradition?

Every time I mention polarity and inclusive Wicca, someone at the back is sure to say, with irritating regularity, “But what about the tradition?” There is also a tendency to assume that polarity must always be made by a man and a woman, and that that is the default option for making polarity. It has got to the point where other forms of making magic don’t seem to be considered in some circles.

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, and as my friend Alder Lyncurium points out in this excellent article on polarity, there is much more to polarity than the interaction of a male body and a female body:

Polarity is, in essence, a constant interaction between more than one force or element. It is the movement, the striving of those forces, and the rhythm in it, that creates the dynamism. As occultists, witches or magicians we observe the underlying patterns of that rhythm, get insights and tap into it, or try to emulate it — either conscious or unconsciously.

There is also resonance (named by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path), the ability of two people who have a strong similarity between them to make magic together. It is rather like sympathetic magic.

And then there is synergy, the ability of several people to create magical energy together by bringing their energy together, and making something that is more than the sum of its parts.

But if you want to talk about tradition – which is, in any case, a constantly evolving and developing discourse – then let’s talk about tradition. If you want your Paganism (whether it is Heathenry, or Wicca, or Druidry, or any other Pagan religion) to be really traditional, really connected to ancient pagan religions, then it should not just include LGBTQIA people as some kind of afterthought or bolted-on concession to contemporary “liberal” sensibilities.

On the contrary: truly traditional Pagans should regard LGBTQIA people as an integral part of society. There should be rituals for same-sex partners. Lesbian poets should be celebrated and their songs recorded for posterity. Gay lovers such as Hadrian and Antinous, or Patroclus and Achilles, or Pausanias of Athens and the poet Agathon, should be widely celebrated for their heroic love. Transgender deities such as Loki and Vertumnus should be celebrated for their changes of gender. Humans such as Tiresias should be celebrated for their exploration of the other gender.

The Pagan revival

Many of the Pagan pioneers of the early 20th century, especially Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, were gay, and their enthusiasm for Paganism was partly informed by the knowledge that ancient pagans were gay-friendly. A friend of mine who has studied the period informs me that, similarly, early 20th century bisexual and lesbian women such as Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) were inspired by the example of Sappho. And Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of Lolly Willowes (whose heroine is an unmarried woman who becomes a witch) was both a Nature mystic and bisexual, as explored by Rebecca Beattie in her excellent book Nature Mystics. The first civil rights group for lesbians in the USA was the Daughters of Bilitis, named for a fictional contemporary of Sappho.

It is not clear to me exactly when or how homophobia became such a huge part of Western culture.  Many people would like to blame the Bible, but that book is surprisingly ambivalent about same-sex love. The love of David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, and Jesus and the beloved disciple John, are all praised; it is actually fornication (sex without love) that seems to be condemned. Later Christians would of course take a dim view of all pleasures of the flesh, but that seems to have been part of a general turn against the body in Western culture that occurred around 500 CE. Looking at the timeline of LGBT history in Britain, it was not until 1102 that the church took steps to make people aware that homosexuality was sinful; and anal sex was not made illegal until 1533.

Ancient pagan religions’ views of homosexuality

Looking back to ancient pagan religions, most of them were tolerant of gender and sexual diversity, but regarded the passive role in sexual intercourse (whether that role was occupied by a woman or a man) as lesser. Both the ancient Greeks and the Vikings took this view. However, it is not clear whether this view was introduced to Viking society along with Christianity, or whether they felt that way before the introduction of Christianity. Viking Answer Lady has a very comprehensive article on the subject, and it appears that the Vikings were very scathing on the subject of men who were on the receiving end of anal sex; but on the other hand, Oðinn was frequently called ergi, a term which meant a variety of things including effeminate, passive, and irritable. Practitioners of seiðr were regarded as ergi. As many Viking men had female concubines, it was quite likely that some of them had same-sex relationships (as has been found in other cultures with concubinage). There were also male prostitutes, and priests of Frey who danced with bells and were regarded as ‘effeminate’ by the Christians. It is also worth noting that all the sagas and tales were written down 200-300 years after the heyday of pagan Viking society, and were written down by Christians who were hostile to homosexuality.  It seems likely that there were ritualised roles for gender-variant and homosexual people (as is the case in many ancient cultures), and whilst the Vikings may have found ergi men uncanny, there was a role for them as priests of Frey and Freyja.

As to the ancient Greeks and Romans, they were much more positive about same-sex love, and extolled its pleasures and virtues in many texts. Again, the active role was regarded as ‘manly’ and the passive role as ‘unmanly’, but same-sex love was not condemned. There were gender-variant deities (Hermaphrodite), deities who engaged in same-sex love (Zeus and Ganymede being the most well-known example). Again, it was complicated. Ancient pagans were not all sweetness and light in their attitudes to same-sex love, but there were many positive examples of it in ancient pagan mythology, and it was not universally condemned.

By David Liam Moran - Own work. Image renamed from Image:Ganymede serving Zeus.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo by David Liam Moran – Own work. Ganymede serving Zeus, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Numerous LGBT Pagan traditions draw their inspiration from ancient examples: the Minoan Brotherhood, the Modern Gallae, the Temple of Antinous, the Ekklesia Antinoou, and so on. Inclusive Wiccans, whilst not a distinct tradition, and not harking back to any particular ancient example, like to point out that gender-variant and queer magical practitioners have been known in just about every culture, and that “all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals”, and any pair of opposites can make polarity. Given that Wicca was only developed in the 1950s, and has grown and changed since then, there is no excuse for claiming male/female polarity as some immutable tradition. The idea that only a man and a woman can make polarity is merely a heterocentric assumption rooted in Victorian notions of gender. The Minoan culture of Crete, which inspired both Gerald Gardner and Eddie Buczynski, certainly included same-sex love.

Conclusion: it’s complicated

What all of this shows is that attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance are complicated and varied in all societies, and that how they are viewed by others, and how they are represented symbolically and managed through ritual, has varied over time. It is certainly not the case that we can assume that so-called traditional Christian attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance can just be lifted across into Paganism and assumed to be traditional. How Christians have viewed same-sex love has also varied from one region to another, and from one historical era to another.

So, if you are harking back to some ancient pagan view of the world, and want to adhere to ancient pagan values with regard to LGBTQIA people, it was a mixed picture, and there was no single view (just as there has never been a single view of this or any other issue).  The ancient pagan world had rituals and roles for LGBTQIA people, and often regarded them as sacred, and therefore a bit uncanny and weird. Hence the eunuch priests of Cybele, the Galli, and the ergi men devoted to Frey and Freyja. But there is no justification in ancient texts for the kind of virulent homophobia found among some right-wing so-called Pagans.

This leads me to the conclusion that, fascinating though ancient views of sexuality are, we live in our own context and culture, and have to make up our own minds. But perhaps we can recover something of the sacredness of gender-variant and homosexual magic by looking at the myths, legends, and practices of the ancient world.

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The Gay Roots of the Pagan Revival

It is a little known fact that many of the early pioneers of the Pagan revival in England were gay: Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, who came up with the idea of the League of Nations, was a gay man, and had close connections with the Bloomsbury group, and was a friend of E M Forster and Edward Carpenter, both of whom were gay.

Back in the late 19th century, he advocated the revival of the Greek view of life, including Paganism and same-sex love.

Edward Carpenter, a gay Pagan vegetarian socialist poet around at the same time, also advocated a return to nature and wildness, and corresponded with Walt Whitman for a time. His vision of the socialist utopia sounds very Pagan:

Carpenter began to believe that Socialism should not only concern itself with man’s outward economic conditions, but also affect a profound change in human consciousness. In this new stage of society Carpenter argued that mankind would return to a primordial state of simple joy:

“The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon.” (Edward Carpenter (1889) Civilisation: its cause and cure

Edward Carpenter was an enthusiastic advocate of Nature as a place of freedom, and following him, his friend E. M. Forster made the hero of his novel Maurice feel “at one with the forests and the night” as soon as he had made the decision to adopt an actively gay lifestyle. Harry Hay, founder of the Radical Faeries, who was a Carpenter enthusiast, also stressed the importance of communing with Nature.

Research carried out by Rebecca Beattie into the literary roots of the Pagan revival has also uncovered a bisexual woman who was enthusiastic about ancient paganism, Nature, and the countryside: Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of Lolly Willowes.

We can in fact trace influences between authors: the Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Walt Whitman in America, corresponding with Rabindranath Tagore, W B Yeats, Edward Carpenter, and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson. Carpenter then influenced D H Lawrence and E M Forster, who were fascinated with nature mysticism, and all these ideas fed into the Pagan revival.

These early pioneers were forgotten in the later Pagan revival of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and it was only in  the late nineties that Pagans began to be interested in them again.

Full Moon by Nidan [CC0 Public Domain] on Pixabay

Full Moon by Nidan [CC0 Public Domain] on Pixabay

Paganism and LGBT people

Paganism is an umbrella term that includes a number of different traditions. The most widely known ones are Wicca (Pagan witchcraft), Druidry (Celtic nature worship), and Heathenry (Norse and Saxon traditions).

There are also a number of different groups reconstructing ancient Pagan religions, such as Religio RomanaLietuva, and Kemeticism.

Because these traditions mostly arose out of post-Enlightenment culture, they are generally inclusive towards LGBT people and friendly towards people of other religions and no religion.

Ancient pagans were also tolerant towards both same-sex love and gender variance. Paganism celebrates wildness, sexuality, the beauty of Nature, and the sheer joy of being alive.

However, while the vast majority of Pagans are not homophobic, they can sometimes be heterocentric.

Those of us who are LGBT and Pagan, together with our allies, are working to recover the ancient pagan traditions of the gender-variant shaman Divine Androgyne, deities of same-sex love, and to discover or invent new symbols for the diversity of LGBT experience.

The Pagan community also supports marriage equality, and we see the struggle for LGBT equality and the recovery of LGBT stories, mythology, and ritual as complementary efforts.

Currently, Pagans in opposite-sex relationships in England and Wales cannot have a legal wedding, except at one venue, the Glastonbury Goddess Temple. This is because buildings are what get licensed as wedding venues in England and Wales, and Pagans don’t own any buildings.

So, even when same-sex marriage became available in England and Wales, Pagans – much as we would want to – were still unable to perform any wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples that would have any legal standing. We can still do same-sex handfastings (just as we have always done) but they won’t have any legal standing.

In Scotland, Pagans in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships can have a legal wedding, because people are licensed as celebrants, and the wedding can be performed anywhere you want. So when same-sex marriage became available in Scotland, Pagan celebrants were then able to perform same-sex weddings.

The Scottish Pagan Federation actively campaigned for equal marriage in Scotland, along with the Unitarians, Quakers, Liberal Jews, and other groups.

In Wicca (the Pagan tradition I have practised for 25 years), there is some discussion around creating LGBTQ-inclusive rituals, because many Wiccans honour a specific pair of deities (male and female).

Some covens focus on the mythology of the divine couple to the exclusion of other mythology, and this can be alienating for LGBTQ Wiccans (including myself).

However, many Wiccans are keen to create rituals that include everyone, and explore other ideas.

If we look back into the Pagan past, we can see many queer deities, such as Odin, Vertumnus, Pan, Artemis, the Pales, and so on. There is a tradition of the Divine Androgyne in Wicca.

It is not difficult to tweak the rituals slightly to make them more LGBTQ-inclusive, and this is also great for heterosexuals who find the gender binary paradigm rather tedious.

In Heathenry, there is the practice of seiðr, a shamanic practice which can involve gender-bending and same-sex love, and many LGBTQ people are attracted to Heathenry as a result.

There is a long tradition in indigenous cultures of gender-variant shamans and same-sex love. Traditional societies often regard queer people as being especially able to step over the threshold between the seen and unseen worlds, hence the traditional link between being fey and being queer.

Paganism is largely an open-source religion, where people are free to create their own rituals, drawing on the glittering variety of mythology and symbolism available from past and present, so it is an ideal setting for LGBTQ people to explore our spirituality, because it is mostly welcoming and inclusive.

A previous version of this article was originally published in Gay Star News in 2013 (I have updated it to reflect the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal in England, Wales, and Scotland, and that Pagan weddings are now available at one venue in England). The original is now only available from The Wayback Machine.


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If You Have A Racist Friend

So you have a racist, sexist, homophobic, white supremacist friend. Your racist friend is perfectly affable to you, buys you beers, likes to chat about the football and whatever. But you are white and male and straight, so of course he is nice to you. And he doesn’t challenge your world-view, or your assumptions about how the world works, because both you and he are white, straight, and male.

But you know what they say: a person who is nice to you, but not nice to the waiter, is not a nice person. 

One of your acquaintances, on the other hand, points out (on a fairly regular basis) that Black Lives Matter, that there is racism and white supremacism rampant in your community. He (or she) makes you uncomfortable, because s/he challenges your assumptions, and makes you aware that you might have straight/white/male privilege. You are unable to separate out his calls for social justice from  other aspects of his personality that irritate you. Maybe he isn’t actually irritating by any general standard, you just find him irritating because he makes you think about topics you would rather not think about.

So what are you gonna do about it?

Apparently one answer is to do a public character assassination on the anti-racist acquaintance, claiming that he is abrasive and difficult.

In the feminist and anti-racist communities, this is called “tone policing“. It is the assertion that people who demand social justice (as opposed to asking for it politely) are automatically wrong for demanding equality and inclusion. In the anti-racist community, it’s also called “being an apologist for racism”. People who are on the receiving end of racism, sexism, and homophobia (and other forms of oppression) have a right to be angry:

Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. Politeness is nothing but a set of behavioral expectations that is enforced upon marginalized people.

If you see someone who is angry and upset about something that was said or done to them, don’t tell them they should be nicer. Instead: Recognize their emotions as valid. Recognize that their emotional state is an indication that something extremely harmful was done to them, whether it was by you, or someone else. Work to understand why the action was oppressive. Take all that energy that you’re wasting being so concerned with how people are responding to their own oppression, and channel it into fighting oppression. 

Another answer is to say, well, y’know, I don’t like the anti-racist guy, but he is right about calling racism out in my community, so even though he gets up my nose, I will stand with him on this one issue. And the racism of racist guy is so extreme that I am going to have to dissociate myself from his white supremacist views, and call him out on them publicly.

Regardless of whether you find racist guy to be an affable dude to hang out with, and anti-racist guy to be a bit of a douche: racism is wrong, and white supremacism is even wronger. That means racist guy is not an affable dude; he’s an asshole.

And as The Specials so memorably put it, If you have a racist friend, now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end.

But apparently some people just want a quiet life.

Well, I don’t want to see racism, white supremacism, or apologies for racism on Patheos. And I don’t want to see character assassination of individuals on Patheos. So I agree with John Beckett: Racism cannot be tolerated, and Stephen Abell should no longer be welcome to post on Patheos Pagan.

By Frerieke from The Hague, The Netherlands - Flickr: Day 20.06 _ Diversity and Unity, CC BY 2.0

By Frerieke from The Hague, The Netherlands – Flickr: Day 20.06 _ Diversity and Unity, CC BY 2.0

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