Paganism for Beginners: Group Dynamics

The subject of group dynamics is complex, but one way of observing group dynamics is to ask the simple question, “Where does the power go in the group?” In other words, who is wielding the power?

In many groups, there is an elected or appointed leader. In most churches, the minister is officially the leader – but woe betide her or him if they upset the committee. In Wiccan covens, the leader is usually the high priestess. In a Druid grove or a Heathen hearth, there may be a small group of leaders, or a single leader. Quaker meetings usually have a group of elders.

In a small group, it can be an excellent idea to rotate the leadership role. Different members of the group take it in turns to write and facilitate a ritual. Most progressive and/or inclusive covens encourage their members to create and lead rituals.

Most people find that working in a group with a flat hierarchy is preferable to working in one with a very top-down hierarchy. Flat hierarchies are characterised by shared decision making and informal communication between team members.

Hierarchy in the gull world Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith. No prizes for guessing which one is boss!

Hierarchy in the gull world
Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith.
© Copyright Brian Whittle and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Groups often go through a process of forming, storming, norming, and performing. First the group comes together (forming). Then there is a struggle to resolve the group’s differences (storming). Once that has been resolved, the group’s values, goals, and beliefs converge (norming). Once that process is complete, the group is ready to perform. These stages can actually be a cycle rather than a linear process.

During the formation of the group and the convergence of its ideas, who is in the group, and who is outside the group, will become apparent. This is known as the in-group / out-group dynamic. The formation of the in-group can be a positive thing, in that it makes the group feel closer together, but it can be dangerous, because if the in-group projects its shadow onto the out-group, this can result in persecution of the out-group.

The projection of group members’ shadows onto other people in the group can be a dangerous dynamic. If you are the leader of a group, this a thing to watch out for, as you don’t want one person to be demonised or outcast by the rest of the group. The shadow is the aspect of our psyches that we have repressed because we don’t like that aspect of ourselves, and we often project it onto other people, especially if they resemble the repressed aspect of personality.

Another interesting dynamic in groups is “somebody has to do it” syndrome. This is where one person takes on more responsibility than the others, and an expectation is created that they will always do the task that they have taken on. This might be always being the one who leads the visualisations, or always being the one who calls the quarters, or something else less obvious, like being the person who provides a ritual if no-one else is feeling inspired. The way to break out of this dynamic is for the person who always does the thing to let go of feeling responsible for it, and for the people who never do the thing to have a go at doing it. It also means breaking the ritual tasks down into small manageable chunks so that people who might find it daunting to take on the management of a whole ritual can build up gradually by doing a small piece at a time. Luckily, Wiccan ritual lends itself well to being broken down into manageable chunks.

It is a good idea if the locus of power in a group is visible. If it is not obvious who holds the power, then it will default to the person with the loudest voice or the most stubborn resistance to new ideas.

One way to ensure a fair and balanced approach within your group is to make the rules by consensus. In this exercise (preferably on the first session of the group), ask members to suggest what the rules should be. The purpose of the rules is to make sure that everyone has the power to ask questions, to feel safe in the group, to ensure confidentiality, and to prevent conflict.

The role of the leader of a coven is to empower others and enable them to develop as priestesses or priests. This model is sometimes known as servant leadership – because the leader is mindful that the group is not there to serve them; rather they are there to create safe space for the group, to hold the space, and to empower others to be creative in that space.

Further reading

In my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca, I explore the issue of group dynamics extensively in the chapter on running a coven.

Inclusive Wicca is not just about including LGBTQIA people; it is also about including people of colour, people with disabilities (both visible and invisible), and working the rituals in a way that includes everyone and enables all participants to contribute.

Wiccan ethics

Model policies, group guidelines, etc

Teaching and Learning in a Coven

Every new generation of seekers has some obstacle put in their way. In the days before the internet, the obstacle was not enough information. Now the obstacle is too much information. There are loads of websites and would-be teachers out there offering you all kinds of advice.

Then one day, you decide to take the plunge and find a face-to-face teacher. This is generally a good thing, as in my experience, most humans learn better from personal interaction than they do from online interactions or books.

However, due to the prevalence of books and people claiming to be the ultimate authority, and the prevalence of the counter-claim that the only valid authority is the inner self, we have a situation where many people can neither learn nor teach because they are too convinced of their own rightness to actually consider new ideas from their teachers or their students.

The theory of learning and teaching that I use in a coven setting is derived from Lev Vygotsky, who theorised the existence of a zone of proximal development. Vygotsky was a social constructivist; that is, he believed that learning was mediated through social interaction, and that our understanding of the world is socially constructed.

The zone of proximal development is the idea that there are some things the learner can do unaided (that they already know how to do); some things that they can do with guidance; and some that they cannot do. It also suggests that you need to build up from the things you can do, master the skills that you can do with help, and that this will provide the building blocks to access the next level (this idea was further developed by Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross with the concept of scaffolding).

The teacher and the student build a bridge between them so they can exchange ideas and knowledge and skills. But it is important to note that the teacher can also learn from the student.

"Ponte Vasco da Gama 25" by F Mira from Lisbon, Portugal - Merging in the mistUploaded by JotaCartas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ponte_Vasco_da_Gama_25.jpg#/media/File:Ponte_Vasco_da_Gama_25.jpg

Ponte Vasco da Gama 25” by F Mira from Lisbon, Portugal – Merging in the mist Uploaded by JotaCartas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

This means that learning is a collaborative process between the teacher and the learner. It is not the case that the learner is an empty bucket that the teacher fills up with facts; rather, the teacher and the learner discover and elaborate the existing skills of the learner (and the learner may also be able to teach the teacher a thing or two). This is especially true of magical and ritual skills, which are often extensions of existing abilities.

So, if you are a seeker, find out from any potential teacher you meet what their methods are, and what they expect you to do. Do they expect you to ask questions? Do they welcome and celebrate your existing skills and knowledge? Do they recognise that you have a unique learning style? Do they invite you to bring prior experience to the table to enrich the learning process? Do they support students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or other differences?

Many seekers seem to assume that all teachers are going to dictate a prescribed way of doing magic and ritual which will destroy the spontaneity and joy of it. Perhaps there are teachers out there who behave like that, but the majority are rather more flexible than that. If you do find a teacher who won’t allow you to ask questions, who belittles your existing skills and prior experience, or who insists on doing everything in a set way, then run a mile – but don’t assume that all teachers are like that.

The method that I use for teaching conceptual ideas is the sharing circle. This is fairly accessible for people with dyslexia, because it gives people time to formulate their thoughts. There is a set topic for each discussion (such as reincarnation, the nature of deities, the idea of the sacred, the four elements, etc) and we use a token to indicate who can speak at any one time. The token is passed around the circle, and everyone gets a chance to air their thoughts on the topic. Sometimes I use other tools such as mind mapping to enable people to tease out their ideas on a topic.

In the circle, when teaching magical techniques, I encourage people to try different techniques, in order to work out what feels right for them. Some people prefer one set of gestures for calling the quarters, cleansing the circle, and so on; others prefer a different set of gestures. These may stem from a different physical relationship with the energies, or from a different philosophical concept of what energies are and how we might relate to them. None of these different gestures and words is necessarily wrong. Obviously your tradition might have a specific way of doing these things, but my BoS offers a selection of different words and gestures for calling the quarters, casting the circle, and so on, and which ones you choose may be different, depending on different circumstances and choices.

I always encourage people to make a connection with the energy they are invoking or evoking first, and then to speak the words. After all, the energy is more important, surely? It can also be helpful to use analogies from physical experience in order to get people sensing subtle energies. I have also noticed that different people experience subtle energies differently – some people see them as colours; others experience them as heat, cold, or other physical sensations.

Another thing that I have noticed is that people are either overly reliant on books, and regard them as the ultimate authority on magical matters; or they dismiss books entirely, and want to totally rely on their instincts. Surely there has to be a happy medium between these two extremes? If something you read in a book doesn’t agree with your experience, then examine why that might be the case, and either adjust your world-view, or discard what the book says. If the book is wrong in this instance, that doesn’t invalidate either that book, or books in general. If the book happens to be right in this instance, that doesn’t invalidate all personal experiences.

As with pretty much anything, it’s all about finding the middle way between two extremes.

Paganism for Beginners: Social Structures

The social world as it is currently structured is the product of a particular set of assumptions about the world, about the role of different genders, and about the relative worth of different social roles and different cultures.

The fact that people can own land, that property is deemed more important than human life by our current laws, that those with wealth and property are given more power and status, that making war is given priority over creating community or protecting the most vulnerable people, that certain social functions are seen as female and others are seen as male – these are all cultural constructs resulting from thousands of years of  looking at the world in a particular way. They have been built up by custom and practice over a couple of millennia. But they are not inevitable.

A lot of our current social and economic structures exist because of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer and other early societies organised themselves differently.  The archaeologists excavating the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey have discovered that there was very little gender specialisation in people’s roles, and that people from different genetic groups lived together.

Many of our current legal and social systems come from the structures imposed by Christianity and its cultural ancestors (such as the Akkadian empire). Many ancient pagan and polytheist societies were organised differently, with matrifocal culture, matrilineal inheritance, collective ownership, and other variations.

"Earthlights" - Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC.Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. - http://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/ve//1438/land_lights_16384.tif. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earthlights_dmsp.jpg#/media/File:Earthlights_dmsp.jpg

Earthlights” – Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC.Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. – http://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/ve//1438/land_lights_16384.tif. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Different social models

Patriarchy is a system where descent is counted through the male line, and property passes from a father to his first-born son. This meant that a man had to control the sexuality of the the woman he had children with, otherwise he might pass his property on to another man’s son. Women were punished, often killed, if they had sex with a man who was not their husband.  The word “patriarchy” means “rule of the fathers”, and before the rise of feminism and the emancipation of women, the father was the head of the household, and men had a considerable amount of power over women. Married women in England could not own their own property until 1870, and if a couple split up, the man got custody of the children. Various patriarchal systems are still in force in many parts of the world, and patriarchal attitudes persist everywhere.

It is worth noting that unless there is a notion of individual property rather than communal property, there can be no notion of inheritance, so patriarchy would be unlikely to exist without the concepts of private property and inheritance.

Patriarchal societies also tend to enforce rigid gender roles for men and women, and often separate the sexes into different spheres of activity. Women are frequently required either to stay in the house, or to wear a veil when they go out.

Rape culture is the patriarchal belief that women do not like sex (a belief promoted by so-called radical feminists as well as “men’s rights activists”), and that men are inherently predatory and want sex all the time. According to this view, women always have to be coerced or cajoled into sex. This erases the possibility of meaningful or enthusiastic consent. In this view, any woman who actually enjoys sex is a “slut” and is therefore “fair game” to be hit on by men (note the predatory language). Think of all the times you have heard the idea that a rape victim was somehow “asking for it”.

Rape is mostly about exerting power over the victim; it is mostly not about fulfilling a sexual urge. It is also worth noting that when a man rapes another man, it is often done to “feminise” the victim, in other words, to exert patriarchal power over him. A similar motive occurs in the so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians by men – an attempt to “put them back in their place” in the patriarchal power hierarchy.

Kyriarchy is an expansion of the concept of patriarchy to include hierarchies of class, sexuality, and race. According to Wikipedia:

The word is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.

Multiple inheritance is a system in some societies where property to be inherited was divided equally between the children of the owner. The problem with this approach was that it created smaller and smaller parcels of land. The interesting thing about this system is that there are no “surplus” males to be sent away to conquer other lands.

Matriarchy is a system in which the mother or oldest woman heads the family. The most important line of descent and relationship is that traced through the female line. It is also defined as government or rule by a woman or women. There are no known purely matriarchal societies.

Matrifocality is where the family is focused on a woman, usually the mother (typically because the male is absent). It does not imply anything about power outside the home. It can also be used to indicate that more “feminine” values (such as nurturing, relationship, and negotiation) prevail.

Matrilineality is the tracing of descent through the female line. It may also correlate with a societal system in which each person is identified with their matriline – their mother’s lineage – and which can involve the inheritance of property and/or titles. Many cultures (especially Celtic and Native American and Jewish) trace descent through the female line.

Egalitarian systems do not advocate the specialisation of roles by gender; do not regard people as property; and are non-hierarchical.

What does this have to do with the Pagan revival?

There were many factors that prompted the Pagan revival. One was the disenchantment of the world – the sense that everything was emptied of meaning and sacredness, because everything had become a commodity. So people began to see Nature as sacred. Another was the loss of the Divine Feminine and the relegation of women to second-class citizens. So the Pagan revival went hand-in-hand with the rise of feminism and ecological awareness. There was also an important utopian, socialist, and gay aspect to the early phase of the Pagan revival – mainly embodied in the persons of Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.

Among the impulses and stirrings that led to the Pagan revival, people began to look at alternative ways of organising communities, relationships, and property. They looked forward to imaginary utopias, and back to earlier societies, and outwards towards other cultures. They examined existing social structures and realised that they were grounded in a particular way of looking at the world – a patriarchal, hierarchical, heterocentric, property-oriented, capitalist, Protestant way of looking at the world. Some realised that our attitude to the Earth – regarding her as a resource to be used instead of a mother to be cherished – was inherently patriarchal. So they began to imagine other ways of relating to each other and to the world. That conversation, that process of reinvention, is still going on, not only in the Pagan and polytheist community, but in other communities too.

So, examining social structures and relationships has everything to do with Paganism. It’s about how we relate to the Earth, to other animals, and to our deities.

If we cease to see land as a resource to be used, and instead see it as a sacred place, then we begin to realise that it cannot be owned.

If we begin to see women as subjects rather than objects, we begin to realise that women cannot be owned, and women’s sexuality should not be controlled.

When we come to see all life as sacred, we come to see all that sustains life as sacred.

The earth is a living, conscious being. In company with cultures of many different times and places, we name these things as sacred: air, fire, water, and earth.

Whether we see them as the breath, energy, blood, and body of the Mother, or as the blessed gifts of a Creator, or as symbols of the interconnected systems that sustain life, we know that nothing can live without them.

To call these things sacred is to say that they have a value beyond their usefulness for human ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws, and our purposes must be judged. No one has the right to appropriate them or profit from them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protect them forfeits its legitimacy.

All people, all living things, are part of the earth life, and so are sacred. No one of us stands higher or lower than any other. Only justice can assure balance: only ecological balance can sustain freedom. Only in freedom can that fifth sacred thing we call spirit flourish in its full diversity.

To honor the sacred is to create conditions in which nourishment, sustenance, habitat, knowledge, freedom, and beauty can thrive. To honor the sacred is to make love possible.

To this we dedicate our curiosity, our will, our courage, our silences, and our voices. To this we dedicate our lives.

–from Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing

When we see all life, and all that sustains life, as sacred, we will truly honour and celebrate diversity, and the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” – people of all colours, all sexualities, all genders.

A place or a being who is sacred cannot be owned, so societies that regard them as sacred will also be egalitarian, co-operative, and consensual.

Paganism for Beginners: Reading list

This is my list of recommended reading for beginners. Many other lists are available. If you don’t like my list, make your own. I have tried to keep the list fairly short, so as not to overwhelm you with a great long shopping list.

My recommendation would be to read widely and deeply, noting what you agree with, what riles you, and what attracts you. You don’t have to agree with everything you read. Rather you should engage with it, see how it affects you, think about any issues it raises for you.

I have always had trouble with books that have exercises in them, because I tend to think, “Oh yes I will do that exercise later” and I either skip over it and never come back to it, or put the book down and never finish it.

I have to confess that whilst I have read a few books on Heathenry and Druidry, none of them strike me as general introductions or 101 books, so I will refer you to other people’s lists for beginners in those traditions, and other polytheist traditions.

Pagan books

The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci, by Barry Patterson

I have often said to people that if they only ever read one book on Paganism, it should be this one. It is all about how to engage with the landscape you live in, and how to connect with the spirits of place. It offers practical suggestions for deepening your connection with nature.

Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America by Margot Adler

A great, and classic, introduction to contemporary Paganism. Goes into the beliefs, practices and communities in some depth. Evocatively and accessibly written.

The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates

This is one of my favourite books of all time. It is an exploration of the world of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry from the point of view of a young Christian missionary who comes to respect the Anglo-Saxon sorcerer he has been sent to learn from. It was based on the author’s PhD research into the Leechbook, an Anglo-Saxon herbal.

Books on Wicca

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft  by Ronald Hutton

A must-read for anyone who wants to know the history of Wicca, with some reflections on how and why why the Pagan revival happened. Ronald Hutton examines the historical conditions and cultural movements that gave rise to the Pagan revival and the birth of Wicca, and looks at more recent history as well.

Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas S. Clifton

The story of the Pagan revival in the United States. Very well-written and researched. The US equivalent of Triumph of the Moon.

Wicca: Magickal Beginnings by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine

A textual and historical analysis of the possible origins of the rituals and practices of this modern tradition of Pagan Witchcraft. A fascinating book that I found to be really interesting and to deepen my understanding of Wicca.

Wicca: the Old Religion in the New Millennium by Vivianne Crowley

An excellent introduction to Wicca, with an exploration of the dynamics of the rituals from a Jungian perspective. First published in 1989, with a revised edition in 1997, this book is still a classic. In a recent reflection on the book, Vivianne Crowley wrote:

When I wrote Wicca, I had been in Wicca for 15 years. What I had seen in that time was how Wicca had the potential to transform people. Many of the processes that I had seen occurring as people worked their way through the initiatory systems were those that manifest through the inner journey of growth that Carl Gustav Jung called ‘individuation’. By exposing our inner world to the Gods and to those who share the spiritual journey with us, we are transformed. This is not the matter of a few years, but a lifelong process, which initiatory Wicca at its best can nurture, support and foster. The purpose of such a journey is that of the Great Work – the transformation of self as a starting point for the transformation of humankind; for if individuals do not change, then societies cannot evolve. Our aim is to grow nearer the Gods, to move from our egocentric engagement with the world for our own ends, to a re-centering that detaches us from our own preoccupations and allows us the see the world from a wider, deeper, and longer-term perspective.

On my to-read list

A couple of books I haven’t read yet, but keep meaning to get around to, as I see them recommended often on other people’s lists:

Other reading lists

 


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘.

 

Paganism for Beginners: Finding a group

So you want someone to celebrate festivals with, and to learn from and bounce ideas off. Personally I love having a magical group, because it gives me the opportunity to do ritual with other people, to exchange ideas, and to have conversations about stuff that never normally gets talked about,  and to experience those moments when all the energies of the group flow together and become more than the sum of their parts.

Groups can be awesome if you find the right people to celebrate with; they can also be a bit dysfunctional. The trick is to go about finding a group with your eyes open. If you experience warning signs and feel that the group you are considering joining does not fit your needs, proceed with caution. Finding the right group for your needs can be really tricky. Most people are either incredibly cautious about approaching groups, or touchingly enthusiastic and hence vulnerable.

"Ivankupala" by Henryk Siemiradzki - http://www.abcgallery.com/S/semiradsky/semiradsky7.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ivankupala.jpg#/media/File:Ivankupala.jpg

Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala” by Henryk Siemiradzki. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It is all too tempting to assume that the group you have found was somehow meant for you, and to ignore the warning signs – but sometimes that is not the way life works, and it is just a really excellent idea to run a mile. If the group you are considering joining tries to tell you that they are the One True Way and that all the other groups have it wrong – run away. Even if the group doesn’t exhibit the classic warning signs, but their approach and philosophy is just not a good fit with yours, then maybe they are not the right group for you, and you are not the right new member for them.

I often come across people who say that they don’t want to join a group for various reasons. Some of them have had a bad experience of being in a group that has put them off. That’s understandable, but not every group is the same. I had a couple of bad experiences, but that didn’t put me off groups completely – it just made me more cautious. Others say that they need to do more work on themselves before joining a group. My answer to that one would be that a group is a great place to work on yourself, because social interaction with others is where personal change and growth usually happens. Another reason for not wanting to join a group that I have come across is being an introvert. That seems like a valid reason. But joining a group doesn’t necessarily mean you have to reveal your deepest secrets or spend vast amounts of time with others; it does mean engaging with them on a quest for meaning and connection.

When you are approaching a group, ask lots of questions.

  • Does the group have ground rules?
  • How often do they meet?
  • Do they expect you to copy out rituals by hand?
  • What is their attitude to disagreement – theological or magical or political? Are they prepared to learn from other people?
  • How do they feel about members being involved with other traditions?
  • Do they value previous experience?
  • Do they value creativity and extemporisation, or do they prefer more formal rituals?
  • Can you meet the existing members?
  • Is there a training process prior to initiation?
  • Can you attend an open ritual before deciding whether to embark on the training?
  • Do they work skyclad?
  • Do they have initiations? How far into the training do these happen?

You should also ask yourself a similar set of questions.

  • Do you want a group that has ground-rules?
  • How far are you prepared to travel for meetings?
  • How many meetings per year are you willing to commit to?
  • Do you want to copy out rituals by hand?
  • How do you feel about people with different opinions from yours? Are you prepared to be challenged in your thinking?
  • Do you have the time and energy to be involved with more than one tradition?
  • What skills and experiences can you bring to the group?
  • What style of ritual do you prefer?
  • Are you prepared to put in the effort of engaging with the training process and learning new things?
  • Are you comfortable with the idea of working skyclad?
  • Are you comfortable with the idea of initiation?

The answers to these questions will vary from one individual to another, and from one group to another. Hopefully, you can find a group whose answers to the questions are a fairly close match with your answers.

Further reading

  • Patti Wiginton, How to find a coven – some excellent advice on networking and how to identify a compatible group
  • Phil Hine (1998), Approaching groups. An excellent article with a really good set of guidelines and a list of warning signals for dodgy groups.
  • Patti Wiginton, Warning Signs in Prospective Covens – excellent checklist of warning signs of dodgy groups, and groups that may be OK, but just not a good fit for you personally.
  • Patti Wiginton, Should I Join a Coven I Found Online? – points out that you should follow all the same guidelines for meeting prospective groups that you found online that you should follow for internet dating.
  • Patti Wiginton, Are you an older newbie Pagan? – for people who are new to Paganism but feel as if all the other Pagans their age are very experienced.

 


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.

 

Paganism for Beginners: Magical Names

Words and names have power. In many mythologies, the world came into being at the utterance of a particular word or sound. A magician who knows the true names of things has power over them. That is why, in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, everyone has a secret name, and a nickname by which they are usually known. It is why some Romani mothers give their children three names: a secret name whispered in the child’s ear on giving birth, and again when the child becomes an adult; a name which they are known by among their own tribe; and a name for use among the gadjo (non-Romani) – but see update below.

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman (1899) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why have a Pagan name?

Many people decide to have a Pagan name because they want to celebrate an aspect of Nature with their name. Hence people choose the names of plants, animals, or birds that they particularly like. Fortunately for me, the name Yvonne means “Yewtree” anyway. My last name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon for fortified town (burh) but it may just possibly be derived from the Anglo-Saxon for burial mound (beorh), though in that case my last name would probably be “Berrow”.

There are many reasons why someone might want a Pagan name: to feel more in touch with a particular deity, animal, bird, or tree; to emphasise a quality that you possess, or to which you aspire; to celebrate a connection with a particular animal, bird, plant, place, or being that you already feel.

Choosing your own name is a powerful magical act. Sometimes a name is suggested to you by others; if it feels right, go for it. Sometimes the name only fits in a particular group or context. I am known by a particular nickname to a particular group of people, and it feels very odd indeed if anyone outside that group uses that nickname.

Using a pseudonym

When I wrote my first book, back in 1992, I considered using a pseudonym. Ironically enough, when it was published, some people apparently thought that Yvonne Aburrow actually was a pseudonym.

At that time, many Pagan authors used pseudonyms, because it was still legal to discriminate against Pagans at work in the UK, and everybody could still remember the “Satanic Panic” in which fundamentalist Christians tried to convince social workers that there was an epidemic of Satanism in the UK, and that Pagans were Satanists.

Fortunately, the 2003 legislation on religious discrimination in the workplace means that Pagans are protected by employment law. Pagans were explicitly mentioned in the ACAS guidelines on the Act, which have the same force as case law.

Employers should be aware that these Regulations extend beyond the more well known religions and faiths to include beliefs such as Paganism and Humanism. The Regulations also cover those without religious or similar beliefs.

It is not necessarily the case that Pagans are protected by law from discrimination in the workplace in other countries, however. So some Pagans may still feel the need to use a pseudonym.

When creating a pseudonym, it is always a good idea not to use the pseudonym to claim a living ethnicity that you do not possess. So don’t make up a fake Native American name, or a fake Celtic name. It’s tacky, and it’s cultural appropriation, and it’s potentially fraudulent. It’s fine to create a Latin pseudonym, because no current ethnic group uses Latin, so it is obviously not intended to be fraudulent.

Why have a magical name?

In initiatory Wicca, a witch-name or magical name is generally used only in circle, and known only to other initiates.  The candidate for initiation is invited to choose a name prior to first-degree initiation.

When a witch is in circle, and using a witch-name, it feels as though we have stepped into our magical persona or power. Now we are ready to do magic, and have entered sacred space and sacred time. The magical name can reflect qualities we aspire to, or beings to whom we feel connected.

I read a book by Alan Richardson once, in which he suggests the following for “taking off” your mundane name and “putting on” your magical name in circle. What you do is intone your mundane name, knocking off one letter at a time, like this:

YVONNE
YVONN
YVON
YVO
YV
Y

Then build up your magical name one letter at a time. Imagine that my magical name was Yewtree:

Y
YE
YEW
YEWT
YEWTR
YEWTRE
YEWTREE

Alternatively, you can just introduce yourself as your magical name once the circle is set up.

How to choose a name

Not many people know immediately what their magical name should be. I had been given a name as a sort of joke a couple of years before my initiation, and when I was invited to choose a name, that was the one that immediately came to mind. I considered a few others, but that name kept coming back to me, so I stuck with it. I have never regretted it.

That said, don’t just choose the first name that comes to mind, or that sounds cool. And I would advise against using an internet name generator – fun though they are to play around with. Patti Wiginton has some excellent advice on how to choose a name, including how to work out if it is a good fit by using numerology (though how to do numerology with the Latin alphabet is disputed, since numerology was invented for use with the Hebrew alphabet).

Some people get their names in a dream; others choose their names from mythology or from Nature. Using the name of a major deity is regarded as a bit hubristic, and somewhat risky in that you are taking on the whole of the archetype of that deity. Minor deities and spirits, human heroes, plants, birds, animals, and abstract qualities are generally regarded as a better source of names.

Meditate on what qualities or virtues you want to embody, or which you find yourself embodying a lot of the time, and think about what animal, bird, plant, or mythological person best represents that quality. That will probably be a good source of potential names.

Once you have found the right name, you will know, because it will just feel right.


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.  


UPDATE on Romani naming practices.

The information about Romani naming practices in the article was an oversimplification. And please note that I was in no way advocating that Pagans should appropriate Roma naming practice.

My source was a book by Jacques Prévert about the Romani of Eastern Europe. Here’s a better explanation of the practice, from a library of Roma culture at the University of Graz:

Gadžo names are the Christian (first/personal) names registered in official documents (on identification papers, in registry offices; on passports, etc.) In the past, it was very rare to find a Rom with a Gadžo name. Very few Roma called their children or each other by their Gadže (official) names. Some small children did not even know their Gadže names when they started school.

and

Roma use their Roma name when they speak to each other. In the past, there was not one Rom who would not have had a Roma name. Even today, it is hard to find even one.

When a child is first born, he is spoken of as “the little one”, “the tiny one”, because his character is not yet determined. Only when he has grown a bit does his Roma name usually reveal itself.

Relatives determine the Roma name for a child in various ways.

The name can reflect a personality trait or something about the appearance of the child: Kalo(Black), Cikňi (Little), Šuki (Slender), Papin (Silly), Pušomori (Little Flea).

and

An “other name” is a Roma name with a specific function. Many Roma have forgotten this function, but in Roma settlements around Snina and Zbudské Dlhé, Roma traditionally still have an “other name”.

An “other name” protects a child from illnesses and impure forces. Let’s say that a child is named Gejza, but his mother calls him Toňu. Gejza is often kept secret from other Roma. It can happen that some illness may appear, for example oja (epilepsy), and this illness wants to possess the child. It looks for a child named Toňu, the name by which his parents and the other Roma call him. But no such Toňu exists. Toňu is merely the “other name” for the child. The illness does not know that the child’s real name is Gejza because the name Gejza has been kept secret. Therefore, the illness does not find the child and cannot hurt him.

A similar explanation is offered on this less academic site, the Patrin Web Journal, which as far as I know was set up by an actual Romani person.

Paganism for Beginners: Diversity

On encountering the phenomenon of the Pagan revival for the first time, some people ask why there are so many different Pagan traditions.

There are many different answers to this question – here are the ones I can think of.

"Ny nordisk mat (12)" by Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 dk via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ny_nordisk_mat_(12).jpg#/media/File:Ny_nordisk_mat_(12).jpg

Ny nordisk mat (12)” – a Smörgåsbord by Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 dk via Wikimedia Commons.

The varieties of religious experience

There are many different forms of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and so on, because different people have different values, different theologies, and different taste in ritual styles. Some people like solemn and liturgical rituals with quite a lot of formality, and where you can predict what will happen next. Others like a lot of room for experimentation and going with the flow.

Similarly, there are many different forms of Paganism, with different theologies, ritual styles, and values. And there is often as much variation within traditions as there is between traditions. For example, one Wiccan coven or individual might be animist or polytheist in their outlook; another might be more duotheist. Some Wiccan covens are more into ceremonial magic than others; some are more hierarchical, some are more consensus-based. The array of traditions on offer is quite a Smörgåsbord.

When choosing a group in whichever tradition you are attracted to, it is a good idea to attend some of their rituals and see if they fit with your values and tastes, and whether they are open to people with differing theological perspectives.

Ancient paganism was diverse

Ancient paganism probably didn’t have the concept of “religion” as a distinct tradition with a coherent set of beliefs, values, and rituals that we have nowadays as a result of the influence of Christianity and its norms.

However, each culture had its own deities and customs and values, and these form the basis of many of the Pagan and polytheist traditions that have been revived.

In Greek and Roman culture, it is well-documented that different deities had their own cults and that these were different in different regions. There were also many different schools of thought within classical paganism, such as the Stoics and the Epicureans. There were also sacred dining-clubs devoted to Bacchus, which I think we should revive. Anyone care to join me?

Contemporary Paganism is diverse

There are many different types of people with different tastes, values, and cultural backgrounds attracted to contemporary Paganism too. And accordingly there are many different traditions on offer, and varying styles of ritual within those traditions.

Being English, with some ancestors from Cornwall, I suspect it is a fair bet that I have both Celtic and Saxon ancestors, maybe even a Norman ancestor or two, so it would be hard for me to choose a particular ethnic religion such as Heathenry or Druidry. That, along with my interest in magic and ecstatic techniques, is one of the reasons I am a Wiccan. It also means I get to honour the other gods in my personal household shrine, who are from other cultures (Roman, Hindu, Sumerian, and so on).

Just plain Pagan?

However, if you are not attracted to any particular Pagan tradition, there’s no rush. You can always attend open rituals of various different traditions, or get together with like-minded others for eclectic Pagan ritual.

Just don’t feel railroaded into doing “Wicca-lite” – there are plenty of other ways of being eclectic. Observe what moves you, what you feel is sacred, and create rituals around that. They don’t have to be complicated – they may just be as simple as noticing beautiful experiences and acknowledging them as sacred.

Find out more

If you are attracted to a particular tradition, go along to any open rituals they offer, and read more about the tradition. Talk to practitioners, ask lots of questions. Have a look at the various different Pagan organisations, some of which represent specific traditions.


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide’. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

Paganism for Beginners: Festivals

Different Pagan traditions have different festivals. The Heathen community celebrates its own cycle of festivals. Wiccans, Druids, and many eclectic Pagans celebrate the eightfold Wheel of the Year. Polytheists have their own festivals too, usually based on the particular ethnic tradition they are working with.

The festivals of specific Pagan paths

  • The Eightfold Wheel of the Year & the Druid Festivals by Philip Carr-Gomm. An exploration of the Druidic symbolism of the festivals of the Wheel of the Year.
  • Heathen rites, festivals and practices – BBC religion page introducing Heathenry, its festivals, rituals, and practices.
  • Traditional Heathen Festivals (UK) – WikiPagan. A list of festivals celebrated by Heathens in the UK based on historical festivals and festivals from British folklore. Other festival lists exist based on the solar year, the lunar year and monthly festivals dedicated to individual gods and goddesses. The celebration of festivals varies greatly between groups and individuals who will only celebrate the festivals they consider the most relevant to their path. Typically a festival year will include three, eight or twelve of the following festivals.
  • Calendar of Religio Romana festivals – Nova Roma. There were many festivals in ancient Rome, dedicated to various different deities, and commemorating mythological events. Some of them were major events involving the whole city; others were small local affairs for the devotees of a particular deity.
  • Kemetic festivals – Kemet.org. The Kemetic Orthodox faith celebrates many festivals, both ancient and modern. These include major holidays such as Wep Ronpet (the Kemetic New Year), Aset Luminous, and Wag Festival. All of these festivals and many more (there’s nearly one for every day of the year!) can be found in the ancient calendars. While they do celebrate the ancient traditions, it’s not always known exactly how every festival was celebrated or all of the ritual events which took place. As a living and modern faith, Kemetics find as much information as they can on these ancient traditions and celebrate them in a modern way, both together in person and from afar. They’ve also created some entirely modern celebrations to honor the Gods. 

The Wheel of the Year – Wiccan and Druid

Samhain (31 October) – Samhain

Samhain is a festival honouring ancestors. It is also the “harvest of meat” when cattle would be slaughtered before the winter.  To the ancient Celts, however, Samhain was a festival of liberation from oppression.  In East Anglia, it was known as Hollantide. Many Wiccans use Samhain rituals to honour, remember, and commune with our loved ones who have passed on.

Samhain is the Irish word for the month of November.  The ancient Irish festival held at this time was about the renewal of freedom – legends associated with it tell of heroes who freed their people from bondage.  So the association with the dead was probably imported to this country by Christianity, as this was the feast of All Saints and All Souls.  After the Reformation, of course, the importance of these festivals was downplayed, and by the early 20th century, folklorists were speculating that the origins of All Hallows were actually Pagan.  The first stirrings of the Pagan revival started in the early 20th century, so the idea of Samhain being associated with the dead was imported into Paganism.

Pagans tend to focus on the preciousness of this life, not some future one beyond death.  Hence we want to celebrate and remember the lives of our ancestors.  Ancestors can be relatives and friends who have died, or people from the past whom we admire (we often honour both).  These people have shaped who we are now – given us life, given us inspiration, guided us, comforted us, and nurtured us – and it comforts us to remember them and commune with them.

Many people believe in reincarnation, and that the consciousness resides in an in-between place between lives.  In Paganism, the dead are seen as not being very far away – only a heartbeat away – and many Pagans say that “the veil between the worlds is thin” at Samhain, because the tides of life are on the ebb as winter approaches, and because the encroaching darkness of winter is seen as a time for contemplation, remembrance, and introspection.

Pagans do not see darkness and death as evil, but as part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  If there was no death, there would be no growth, no change, and no birth.  If there was no darkness, the seeds could not gestate in the warm darkness of the earth; if there was no night, there would be no sleep, and no stars and moonlight.  If there was no winter cold, there would be none of the beauty of autumn, the seeds would not germinate, and germs would not be killed by the frost.  Darkness is the Yin spoken of by the Taoists – one half of the divine dance of the cosmos.

Samhain or Hallowe’en is part of the dance of the elements around the wheel of the seasons, one of the many interlocking cosmic cycles of which our lives are an intimate part.

In many cultures, especially in Mexico, All Souls is the Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos – when people go to visit family graves, and set up altars for them in the home. This is not a morbid practice, but an acknowledgement of death in the midst of life, death as part of the natural cycle.

So why should we reintegrate this festival into our spiritual practice? Because in Britain, death is swept under the carpet, ignored and feared. If we acknowledged it (at least once in the year), it would be an invitation to live more fully and mindfully. If we ignore it, it becomes part of the shadow, the part of our psyche that we reject and that contains our fears and follies, and which we project onto other people: the Other, the outsider, the transgressor.

Whereas if we recognise death as being part of the natural cycle, like the seasons of the year, then we can live more integrated lives, living in and for the moment.

Samhain is also the time when, as the nights get longer and the winter grips the land, we descend into our own depths. Summer is a time for being extrovert, creative and expansive; winter is a time for curling up by the fireside and going within oneself to find the poetic, the spiritual and the quiet side of ourselves – the forgotten aspects, perhaps even the side of ourselves that we have repressed and need to examine.

The presiding deity of winter is the Crone Goddess. She has been feared and denigrated in recent centuries – people speak of old wives’ tales, haggard old witches muttering in corners, and so on. But traditionally, old women were the ones who were the keepers of stories and other traditional wisdom such as herb lore and midwifery. She is the midwife and the one who washed, anointed and laid out the dead, the one who cuts the cord of both life and death. She represents merciful release; but she also possesses the wisdom of old age. Wisdom is traditionally represented as a feminine being or quality. Wisdom is the joining together of instinct and experience and knowledge. It is the wisdom of the body, the knowledge of when to act and when to refrain from acting, when to speak and when to keep silent. Wisdom comes from reflection upon experience and knowledge.

The Crone is also the Goddess of the Waning Moon, which represents a time of letting go and ebbing away, so it is traditional at Samhain to let go of aspects of your life that you do not need or want any more.

Yule (21 December) – Alban Arthan

The winter solstice is the point in the year when the day is at its shortest. The sun rises at its furthest south, and rises in roughly the same place for three days, hence the name “solstice”, meaning “Sun stands still”.

When I was a kid, I was told that ancient pagans used to light bonfires on top of hills at the winter solstice because they feared that the sun would not return after the longest night. I don’t know if there is any truth in this idea, but I remember finding it thrilling.

The Anglo-Saxons called the festival Yule; the Old Norse word was jól.

The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month names (Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). It has been speculated that the word means “turning point”, but the etymology is unclear.

At Autumn Equinox, we begin the descent into winter. At Samhain, we meet the ancestors and the beloved dead. At Yule, the furthest point in the descent of the Sun, we begin to emerge from the creative and introspective phase of winter, and start thinking about the first stirrings of Spring. The sun represents the core aspect of the personality in many esoteric symbol-systems, and so its descent into the underworld represents a journey into our own subconscious, our own depths, to bring up fertile material to feed a time of creativity. Of course we know that the Sun doesn’t literally descend into the underworld, but in many mythologies, that is where the Sun god goes.

Yule is also a time for enjoyment; the harvest is over and done, there is little work to do in the dark time of the year, so it is time to feast, sing, dance, make merry, and kindle plenty of lights (to make up for the lack of sunshine, and to remind the sun that we would like it to start rising further north again!)

Imbolc (2 February) – Imbolc

Imbolc is a festival celebrating the lactation of ewes, the coming of lambs, and the first stirrings of spring. The name means either “ewes’ milk” (Oimelc) or “in the belly” (im bolg).

In Ireland, Imbolc is the feast of Brigit, originally a Goddess, and now a saint.  The Goddess Brigit is associated with healing, poetry, and smithcraft.  The saint is associated with them too, and with the perpetual flame tended by the nuns of Kildare – which possibly goes back to pre-Christian times.  There are numerous folk-customs and stories associated with Brigit.

Candlemas (also on 2 February) is the Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete her purification after childbirth in accordance with the Torah.

Both these festivals have traditionally focused on the increasing light and life as the days lengthen and the trees start to blossom and bud.  They are also a celebration of goddesses.

Spring Equinox (21 March) – Alban Eilir

Spring Equinox is a festival of balance, as day and night are equal (but after this the days get longer). It’s also the time when the coming of spring is really becoming apparent. According to Bede, the ancient Germanic pagans honoured a goddess called Eostre. She was later conflated with Ostara by the Brothers Grimm, who said she was associated with hares and the Moon and eggs; however there is no reference to this goddess in any other text, so much of the modern mythology associated with her is extrapolated from Bede, and does not have any basis in older mythology. That does not mean that it is not valid as mythology, just that people should not claim ancient origins for it. There are also some other, more interesting, myths around the Spring Equinox, such as the Easter Fox.

Beltane (1 May) – Beltane

Beltane is a festival celebrating sacred sexuality. It is typically celebrated by jumping over fires and dancing round maypoles. Pagan rituals often include symbolic expressions of sexuality.

A celebration of Beltane could include celebration of sexuality in all its forms. It could also include celebrations of the senses, and something to honour the coming of spring and the renewal of life.

Midsummer (21 June) – Alban Hefin

Midsummer is a festival celebrating the Sun. At this time of the year, the days are at their longest, so the Sun is said to be at the height of its power. However, after Midsummer, the days will get shorter, so the Sun is said (symbolically) to descend into the underworld. The Sun is a metaphor for our consciousness; as we descend into the depths of winter, the self goes inward and becomes more introspective.

A celebration of midsummer could focus on the aspects related to consciousness, and emphasise the shift from outward to inward preoccupations.

Lammas (1 August) – Lughnasadh

Lammas commemorates the death of John Barleycorn, the dying-and-resurrecting vegetation god. The corn was believed to be inhabited by the corn-spirit, which was killed at every harvest and resurrected in the planting of the new corn. In Ireland, Lammas was celebrated with games in honour of the goddess Tailtiu, the mother of Lugh the sun god, and was called Lughnasadh. The harvest is an important symbol of cyclicity, growth, and change. The wheel turns, and what has grown must die, so that the seeds can be planted for the new cycle of growth.

Autumn Equinox (21 September) – Alban Elued

At the Autumn Equinox, day and night are equal (but after this the nights get longer), so most rituals focus on this, and on the importance of balance. The festival is also said to honour the Celtic god Mabon, who was imprisoned in a tower for many years. It’s also the fruit harvest; for this reason, I associate it with the Roman deities Pomona and Vertumnus. A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on the sensual delights of food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.

In China, they see life as the balance of opposites – yin and yang, night and day, life and death, eternally cycling around each other in the great dance of existence, the dynamic equilibrium of nature.  Equilibrium means “equal freedom” – freedom to move, to grow and to change; freedom of choice.

This dynamic balance of opposites can also be seen in the dance of the seasons.  The wheel of the year turns; falling in the autumn, rising in the spring.  As it falls in the autumn, and the nights draw in, we turn inward, towards home, and hearth, and spiritual things; baking, and making jam and wine; creative projects.

In British folk traditions, there are three harvests; the corn harvest at Lammas; the fruit harvest at Autumn Equinox; and the harvest of meat at Samhain, when some of the cattle would have been slaughtered and preserved for the winter.

A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on gratitude for food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘.

 

Paganism for Beginners: Controversies

Over recent years, there have been a number of controversies among Pagans which probably left a lot of newcomers to Paganism a bit baffled, especially when the terminology got a bit arcane. Sometimes different commentators on the issue also seemed to misunderstand and talk past each other on occasion.

I think these controversies are interesting and illuminating because they illustrate our concerns as a community, or as a network of communities, or a network of networks, or a patchwork of groups, or whatever metaphor you prefer to describe the contemporary Pagan movement.

So, in a spirit of inquiry and openness, not in a spirit of washing our dirty linen in public, and certainly not wanting to reignite these controversies, here is a summary of some of the most recent ones.

These controversies and discussions raise important questions of who we are, how we relate to each other as a community and individually, what we hold sacred, and how we relate to deities and the world around us.

The A to Z of Pagan controversies

I was not sure what order to present these in, as I think that ranking them by relative importance would be invidious, so I decided to list them in alphabetical order.

Atheist Pagans

Yes, there are Pagans who identify as atheists, and/or atheists who identify as Pagans. Humanistic Paganism is a large and growing community. Yet some people argue that the worship of deities is a key aspect of Paganism, and that therefore atheist Paganism is a contradiction in terms. However, there have been people who see deities as metaphors or archetypes for decades, and they have been welcome in Pagan rituals, especially in traditions that focus on practice rather than on belief.

The debate over whether Pagans can be atheists is important because it calls into question whether beliefs, practices, or values are at the core of religion, and which of them are more important for Pagans. It also relates to the idea that there are four centres of Paganism (Nature, Deities, the Self, and Community), and that different people and traditions will focus more on some than others. If you are not a deity-focused Pagan, then being an atheist and a Pagan works just fine.

Christo-Pagans

Pagans who also embrace Christianity in some form are pretty controversial because of Christianity’s historical persecution of Pagans, the claim of many Christian traditions to be the “one true way”, and their claim that its mythology is the only valid mythology. Several Pagan commentators have said that it is not possible to be a Christian and a Pagan, because of the exclusivist stance of Christianity and the extraordinary claims made about Jesus. However, there are so many variations within Christian belief about the nature and person of Jesus, that I can see how it is possible to be both Christian and Pagan in a variety of interesting ways. It would not be the path that I would choose to walk, but if people want to do it, then I wish them well (and I think it is rather exclusivist to claim that they can’t be Pagans).

Consent

Recently there have been several high-profile cases of Pagans abusing children, and incidents of sexual harassment at Pagan events. Many Pagans would like to think that such issues would not arise within Paganism, because we are so open about sex and sexuality. However, sex-positivity does not always equate with an acceptance that not everyone wants to have sex. There were many calls for Pagan events to have a safeguarding policy and a harassment policy. The issue also caused considerable self-examination by the Pagan community on what we should be doing about rape culture in our own communities and in wider society.

Pagans are very accepting of sex and nudity, but this enthusiasm is a problem when sex-positivity tips over into attitudes like ‘you’re a prude if you don’t want to have sex with me’. We need to have an ethical sex-positive culture.

Christine Hoff Kraemer and I are editing a collection of essays on Pagan consent culture, which we hope will become a valuable resource for people seeking to firmly establish consent culture in Pagan communities.

Apart from the very important issue of making Pagan communities and spaces safe for everyone, this issue has implications for how we view ourselves as a group, how we relate to each other individually and collectively, and how we cope with the fact of human fallibility.

Kinky Pagans

Z Budapest also caused controversy when she posted a comment that stated that she wanted to blow up Pantheacon because she saw a lot of kinky people walking around. Several people, myself included, found this remark to be deeply intolerant. I wrote a piece on why I believe that anti-kink attitudes have no place in Paganism.

There is a conversation to be had about the presentation of kink in a public space. Not everyone is comfortable with people wearing a collar and leash in a public space, for example (and that includes many kinksters who are uncomfortable with it). But the outright dismissal of the kink lifestyle is just plain ignorant.

This issue is important because, if Paganism is a sex-positive and tolerant community, we need to be tolerant of other people’s sexual preferences, provided that they are done by consenting adults. As the kinkster motto has it: “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK”.

Leaving Paganism

Thinking of leaving Paganism? Please close the door quietly on your way out. Lots of people have a crisis of faith, and leave Paganism either temporarily or permanently. However, there are good ways to do this, and bad ways to do it. A number of prominent Pagan bloggers have left Paganism, mostly to rejoin Christianity. Doubtless many of the things they were having issues with are real issues for the Pagan community to consider; some of the other things seem to be just a difference of perspective. Carl McColman is an example of someone who left Paganism gracefully, converted to Catholicism, but now works to build dialogue between Christians and Pagans, and promote mystical Christianity to other Christians.

It also behooves the Pagan community to react with grace and understanding to those leaving the Pagan community, and wish them well on their new path. Even if they are being a bit of a schmuck about it.

Some people reacted to these prominent changes of faith tradition with the notion that such people were never proper Pagans in the first place, and started to point the finger at other people who do not dismiss Christianity outright, or who embrace theological concepts that look superficially similar to Christianity. If anyone ever comes up with a definition of what a “proper” Pagan is, let me know – but so many hours have been spent on internet forums debating what Pagan actually means, that I very much doubt such a definition will ever be arrived at.

LGBT inclusion

Paganism is not generally homophobic, but it can be heterocentric (centred almost exclusively on heterosexual symbolism). Many Pagans, especially some Wiccans, focus their devotion on a God and a Goddess, and often view them as a heterosexual couple, and insist on heterocentric interpretations of magical concepts like polarity and fertility. This can feel very excluding for LGBT people. Calls for a more inclusive version of Wicca, mine included, have caused considerable controversy in some quarters. I have explored the development of views of gender and sexuality in Paganism (part 1 and part 2) and so has Christine Hoff Kraemer. I also produced a video on gender and sexuality in Wicca, seeking to expand and deepen our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle and what we leave outside, and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history. I further developed these ideas in my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca.

Monism versus polytheism

Monism is the view that there is a single underlying energy in the universe. Polytheism is the view that there are many deities. Quite often, monists want to claim that the single underlying energy gave rise to the individual deities, or that it encompasses them, or that they are merely facets of it. This feels wrong to a lot of polytheists who feel that the deities are distinct beings, and that monism reduces unique experiences to a generic viewpoint. It is possible to reconcile the two viewpoints and have polytheistic monism (or monistic polytheism). There have been quite a number of blogposts from both a monistic perspective and a polytheist perspective. This matters because it is about how we relate to other Pagans with a different theological perspective, how we relate to Hinduism (which includes both monists and polytheists – if it can even be categorised using Western labels), and how we relate to our deities. Or perhaps monism and polytheism are just a matter of temperament?

The Pagan umbrella / big tent

Many people use the word Paganism, or the phrase ‘the Pagan movement’, as an umbrella term for all the various traditions that exist (Druidry, Feri, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc etc), but the Pagan umbrella is leaking, and some people are standing at the edge getting rained on.

People sometimes say that we are all taking different paths up the same mountain – but your mountain may not be the same as my mountain. One person’s Pagan path may be so different that they are not climbing a mountain at all – but their path is still recognisably Pagan. A lush and varied Pagan landscape seems like a better metaphor than a single mountain.

Still others say that an umbrella is too small, and what we really need is a Big Tent.

Jason Pitzl-Waters writes:

All of the recent debate over community, terminology, and theology, is, I think, a sign of our collective success. When our religions were under constant threat, when we truly feared jail, or worse, because of our beliefs, we huddled together for safety and solidarity. We created advocacy groups to speak for us, and empowered authors and activists to be our public face(s).

The more closely we try to define or describe Paganism, the easier it is to find someone who feels excluded by that definition or description, and ceases to identify as a Pagan. That is why models like the four centres of Paganism are really useful, because they give a conceptual framework for diversity of Pagan belief and practice.  Many people feel that celebrating the diversity in the Pagan movement is important, and that we need to have a unified Pagan voice in order to communicate and negotiate with governments, other religions, and other world-views. I don’t think that unity and diversity are incompatible – but sometimes we need to emphasise our unity, and sometimes we need to emphasise our diversity.

Pagan veiling

Some Pagan women have experienced a call from their deities to cover their heads. As head-coverings for women are often associated with misogynistic attitudes and attempts to control women’s sexuality, the fact that some Pagan women chose to cover their heads was very controversial. Pagan women who chose to do this gave various reasons for doing so – because a deity had asked them to, because covering their head makes them feel protected, empowered, and blessed, as an outward sign that they are a priestess, as a sign of maturity, to increase confidence, and because it makes them feel sexy.

This issue is important and interesting for all sorts of reasons. Do you do something you might not feel like doing because a deity requests it of you? If you do something that means something very different in another culture, are you endorsing what it means in that other culture? Should we revive every practice that existed in the ancient pagan world? What is the meaning of covering your head?

Racism in the Pagan movement

To my mind, one of the most important issues in recent years has been the inclusion of people of colour in the Pagan movement, and how we relate to other indigenous religions.

Shortly after the protests in Ferguson over the killing of Mike Brown last year, Crystal Blanton asked for expressions of solidarity from Pagan individuals and organisations, which resulted in an outpouring of support. I feel that she should not have had to ask, but it was great that the support was forthcoming. One of the responses, from Covenant of the Goddess, was a bit vague and hand-wavy, and was strongly criticised by several bloggers. They have since revised their statement. Many of the writers on the Patheos Pagan channel responded to the call, and some were already writing about the topic. I collected together some of the responses from the Patheos Pagan channel on my own Black Lives Matter post.

Controversy erupted at Pantheacon 2015 when a satirical newsletter (PantyCon) appeared, sending up the tendency of white Pagans to fail to take notice of the experience of Pagans of colour, and specifically the original vague and woolly statement by Covenant of the Goddess. Several white Pagans thought that the workshop advertised in the satirical piece was a real workshop, and actually showed up for it. The satire was rather too close to the bone, and – together with several racist comments made by both attendees and presenters – made many Pagans of colour feel unsafe and unwelcome at Pantheacon. Jonathan Korman called publicly for an apology from the authors of the newsletter, and they did apologise. The founder, organiser, and sponsor of Pantheacon also issued a statement.

One of the positive outcomes of these events was a workshop called “Creating Brave Spaces for People of Color” which sought to begin a process of truth and reconciliation.

An excellent resource for understanding issues of racism and Paganism is the book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Taylor Ellwood, Brandy Williams, and Crystal Blanton. It has essays by a number of prominent Pagans, Black and white, and reflects on racism, the rise of the New Right, cultural appropriation, and related issues. I recommend it very highly.

Crystal Blanton is currently producing a great series of posts, the 30-day Real Black History Challenge, which is another great resource for understanding the reality of systemic racism, and how to start rooting it out.

Transphobia

The anti-transgender rhetoric emanating from certain Goddess-oriented traditions has caused considerable controversy. When CAYA coven organised a women’s ritual at Pantheacon 2011, where trans women were turned away at the door, Z Budapest defended this in very excluding and inflammatory language. Traditions which take an essentialist approach to gender tend to have difficulty coping with transgender people. There is an excellent post from 2011 by Star Foster explaining the issue. The British transgender activist, Roz Kaveney, even weighed in on the issue – and note that she appears to be under the impression that all Pagans are transphobic, which is not the case, but shows how damaging these kind of incidents can be. It is a shame that she did not do a bit more research, as a Google search on the subject will reveal dozens of blogposts protesting about the incident, and some defending it too. Neil Gaiman wrote about these issues in 1993 in a graphic novel, A Game of You, and the issues it raises are explored and explained by Lady Geek Girl. [1]

Wiccanate privilege

There was a discussion on Wiccanate privilege at Pantheacon 2014, but the debate had started in the Pagan blogosphere some time before that. John Halstead neatly summarises what “Wiccanate” means:

“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

The Wiccanate privilege controversy was a debate on how  public and eclectic Pagan ritual is structured, how Paganism is represented to newcomers and outsiders, and how we define or describe Paganism. It was argued that, because most of the books and websites are about Wicca, and many public Pagan rituals are based on a vaguely Wiccan style of ritual, many outsiders and newcomers to Paganism think that Wicca is the only form of Paganism. Furthermore, the widespread assumption that everyone celebrates the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, or that everyone is a duotheist, or that everyone creates sacred space in a vaguely Wiccan manner (i.e. Wiccanate), means that other Pagan and polytheist traditions and ideas are marginalised within the Pagan community. I also feel that the widespread notion that Wicca is exclusively duotheist is harmful to Wiccans who embrace other theological viewpoints such as polytheism.

Where do these controversies start?

I am rather worried that this post makes it look as if nearly all Pagan controversies happen at Pantheacon. This is not actually the case, but because Pantheacon is a huge annual gathering, many controversies do get aired there. Controversies start in face to face interactions, get aired and discussed on the internet, and chewed over at conferences and pub moots and gatherings.

If you feel that I have missed out any controversies, or missed out any good links to articles on the ones described above, let me know in the comments. Links to good overview/introductory articles are especially welcome. I have mainly tried to focus on ones that might be especially baffling to newcomers and outsiders, and ones that have something to say about how we interact as a community, or as a linked group of communities.


 

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.

[1] Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus for pointing out that A Game of You was written way before the transphobia controversy, and hence does not directly address it, though it is relevant.

Paganism for Beginners: Things we care about

Pagans care about the same issues as everyone else – poverty, war, racism, homophobia, transphobia, the environment, saving indigenous lifeways, knowledge, and culture, women’s rights, cruelty to animals, and so on.  Like any other movement, there are many different opinions in the Pagan movement: some Pagans don’t care about these things; some take a different view of them; and  some care about them very much more than the average.

But there are some issues that are associated in people’s minds with being Pagan, the two most obvious ones being environmentalism and feminism. Many people have claimed that Paganism is a Nature religion (and many others have claimed that it’s not), and since Paganism and Nature-worship are synonymous in many people’s minds, caring for the Earth seems like an obvious thing for Pagans to want to do. And since the Earth is often viewed as a goddess, or as the Goddess, Paganism is an obvious choice for anyone who wonders why so many monotheists view their deity as exclusively male.

Environmentalism

Pagans care about the environment for many and varied reasons. Some people became Pagans because they care about the environment; others began to care more about the environment after becoming a Pagan. Either way, Pagans recognise that the Earth is our mother, and if we don’t take care of her, we will all die, and so will many other species.

The earth is our mother,
we must take care of her.

Hey yanna, ho yanna, hey yan yan.

Her sacred ground we walk upon,
with every step we take.

The earth is our mother,
she will take care of us.

Native American song (mp3)

The causes of our current destructive course are many and complex. Some people blame capitalism; others blame consumerism; and others blame the dominionist views of conservative Christianity.  I blame all three, and think they are historically interlinked.

Capitalism does not simply mean a market economy; it means the investment of surplus money in a business venture. This means that instead of being accountable to the whole community, a company becomes accountable to its shareholders, and shareholders generally want only one thing: a profit.

Consumerism is not simply wanting nice things; it is the view that only having nice things makes you happy, and the drive to acquire more and more nice things.

Dominionism is the view (derived from the book of Genesis) that God gave the Earth to humans for our use.

A major contrast with these views is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, and argues that this requires a radical restructuring of modern human societies. This certainly chimes in well with the Pagan world-view, and I explored the ecological and embodied world-view in two previous posts, Eco-spirituality and theology and Eco-spirituality in practice.

The language of ecology can be problematic, especially when it gets co-opted by business trying to preserve the status quo. Sustainability used to mean living in a way that prevents damage to the environment and loss of species habitat; now it has been co-opted to mean something like ‘greenwashing‘ (paying lip-service to environmental concerns while actually continuing to act in a destructive way), or buying carbon credits and continuing to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The “environment” implies something that surrounds us, but which we are not necessarily part of. We are part of the environment and of ecosystems; we are not separate from our habitat.

A group of Pagans (of which I was one) have recently produced A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which has been translated into several different languages and has now reached around 5000 signatures. Whilst a statement will not fix things on its own, what it does is articulate the principles and practices which will help to fix things, and signing up to the statement means a commitment to its principles and to doing something for the planet.

Feminism

Some people became Pagans because they were feminists; others began to focus more on equality after becoming a Pagan. Either way, feminism is a natural bedfellow of Paganism, because most Pagan traditions worship a Goddess or goddesses, and value diversity and equality.

The roots of feminism lie in three simple premises:

  • that women are equal to men,
  • that women are not currently treated equally in society,
  • and that we should do something about it.

However, as with any other philosophy, there is more than one flavour of feminism, because not all feminists necessarily agree on the correct tactics for getting rid of inequality, or indeed on who counts as a woman.

Variants include: Amazon, Analytical, Anarchist, Atheist, Black, Chicana, Christian, Conservative, Cultural, Cyber, DifferenceEco, Equality, Equity, Fat, French, structuralist, Global, Individualist, Islamic, Jewish, Lesbian, LiberalLipstick,  MarxistMaterialMaternalMormonNeo, NewPostcolonialPostmodernPoststructuralPro-lifeProtoRadicalSeparatistSex-positiveSocialSocialistStandpointThird worldTransTransnational, and Womanism. There is even an online quiz for deciding what kind of feminist you are.

Here are some of the ones that share concerns with Paganism:

According to Wikipedia, “Anarcha-feminism, also called anarchist feminism and anarcho-feminism, combines anarchism with feminism. It generally views patriarchy as a manifestation of involuntary coercive hierarchy that should be replaced by decentralized free association. Anarcha-feminists believe that the struggle against patriarchy is an essential part of class struggle, and the anarchist struggle against the state. ” Historically, anarchist feminists included those who advocated free love and campaigned against marital rape and the subjugation of women. 

Black feminism: Black feminist theorists argue that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together. The way these relate to each other is called intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality has been adopted by many other feminists and social theorists. According to Barbara Omolade,  ”Black feminism is sometimes referred to as womanism because both are concerned with struggles against sexism and racism by black women who are themselves part of the black community’s efforts to achieve equity and liberty”.

Eco-feminism: According to Vandana Shiva,  women have a special connection to the environment through our daily interactions. She says that women in subsistence economies who produce “wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature’s processes.”

Obviously there are lots of other things that Pagans care about,  but these are two areas that are fairly central to why so many people have joined the Pagan movement.


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

The next post in the series will be on controversies in the Pagan community, where I attempt to summarise all the controversies of the last few years, including racism, transphobia, Wiccanate privilege, and more.