Wicca: History, Belief, and Community

Ethan Doyle White has recently published an important new book: Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and due for release on 1 November 2015. So I approached him for an interview. 

Wicca - by Ethan Doyle White [Cover image supplied by Ethan Doyle White]

Wicca, by Ethan Doyle White

DfD: Tell us about yourself, Ethan…

I am a trained archaeologist with a particular interest in the pre-Christian belief systems of Europe and the manner in which they have been reinterpreted and utilised in modern contexts, particularly within the contemporary Pagan movement. I am currently engaged in MPhil/PhD studies in Early Medieval archaeology at University College London (UCL), and run the Albion Calling blog on which I have interviewed such scholars as Ronald Hutton, Sabina Magliocco, and Graham Harvey.

DfD: What prompted you to start researching Wicca?

It was just down to personal interest, quite frankly. Growing up in suburban London, I was born and raised in what Professor Robert Mathiesen called an “esoteric family”, in that my parents were involved in various esoteric movements. In the case of my own household, that esotericism expressed itself as a syncretic blend of Spiritualism, the New Age movement, and (to a lesser extent) Christianity. I’m thus in a fairly unusual position of being an individual who was raised to believe in the fundamental normalness of esoteric ideas; I would come home from school to find séances, Tarot card reading, or reiki healing taking place in the living room, for instance. Quite a few friends and acquaintances have expressed jealousy of that fact.

As a tweenager and teenager I was very interested in religious studies. On a personal level, I experimented with the likes of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism, and developed a great fascination with ritual and the materiality of religion ((of course, at the time I’d never heard of such jargon as the “materiality of religion”, which describes the way in which religiosity is expressed in “material culture”, or to put it more bluntly, it’s all about religious paraphernalia and other “stuff”!). I was also very much interested in mythology, folklore, and the pre-Christian societies of the European continent, in particular those of the North. As I would later find out, these are all common elements reported by those who subsequently convert to forms of contemporary Paganism, thus helping to generate the sensation of conversion being a “homecoming.”

Ethan Doyle White (photo supplied by EDW)

Ethan Doyle White

Pretty soon I came upon Wicca through an eclectic ‘Wicca 101’ book, and I found it absolutely fascinating. I certainly flirted with the ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement, as so many others did at the time. However, within a few years my involvement with the Craft had moved from being that of a teenage spiritual seeker to quite firmly being an “outsider” with no particular desire for practical participation. As I grew into my late teens and early twenties I had lost my faith in many of the esoteric and religious ideas that I was raised with, becoming a great deal more sceptical about the existence of preternatural entities, magic, and all such ‘paranormal’ things which have not had their existence confirmed by scientific enquiry. These days I self-define as a secular humanist, although my strong fascination for religions like Wicca has remained and for that reason I have continued to research the subject and write on it in an academic capacity. I think that I’m quite well placed to do so, being an “outsider” to the religion who at the same time has an awful lot of respect for esoteric and Pagan schools of thought as a result of my own personal background. My work on the subject is therefore not un-critical, but is generally quite sympathetic and is certainly not hostile; I hope therefore that it will satisfy both devout practitioners and ardent critics of the Craft.

DfD: How long did the book take to write?

If I remember correctly, I started to write a book on the subject of Wicca – specifically the history of Wicca – when I was seventeen (so seven years ago now). At the time I had never read an article in a peer-reviewed journal and had absolutely no idea how to write academically. After entering the university system, as well as independently researching and publishing a variety of articles in peer-reviewed journals, I gained a much better grasp of how academic writing is done. For that reason, I largely scrapped my original manuscript and started again when I was nineteen, this time deciding to create a work that would cover all areas of Wicca – history, belief and practice, and sociological and cultural issues – which I felt was probably a lot more useful for people than a book purely dealing with the faith’s history.

By this point, I had realised that while some excellent research on Wicca had been conducted – work by Ronald Hutton, Sabina Magliocco, and Helen Berger jumps to mind – there still wasn’t a single academic book that actually offered an introduction to this new religious movement. There were introductory works on contemporary Paganism as a whole by the likes of Graham Harvey and Margot Adler, and of course there were various ‘Wicca 101’ books authored by practitioners, but these weren’t ideal for the needs of a religious studies student or just a general interested reader who really wanted a good, scholarly, yet in-depth summary of Wicca. I’m not terribly business-minded, but quite simply I saw a gap in the market.

Thus, I would say that the book as it currently exists probably took me five years to write; of course, I had to juggle its production with my university studies, research articles, the Albion Calling blog, paid employment, and of course an all-important social life! So it has been a lengthy process, and a labour of love, but I do hope that it was worth it.

DfD: What was your research methodology? 

In this case there wasn’t a research methodology per se. I wasn’t in the position to conduct in-depth ethnographic research – and even if I did it would have been regionally constrained – but rather I wanted to produce a textbook that brought together other scholars’ work and synthesised it all in one place. Most of those with a scholarly interest in Wicca will be aware of the best known book-length academic studies of the subject, but in producing this volume I discovered that there was an awful lot more research on the subject than I had ever realised, with hundreds of academic articles having been published, often in comparatively obscure academic outlets like the World Leisure Journal and Cornish Studies. That’s why my book’s bibliography is 29 pages long!

However, as I was writing the work there were questions that really intrigued me, in particular regarding such issues as the etymology and changing usage of the word “Wicca” within the Pagan community, the origins of the Wiccan Rede, and the life and theology of the British Witch Robert Cochrane, so I undertook historical studies on those particular issues, resulting in articles for peer-reviewed academic journals like The Pomegranate, Correspondences, Folklore, and Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft. These were spin-offs from the book as it were, and helped to give me – as someone too young to possess either a doctorate or professional academic post – the scholarly credibility that I needed to ultimately gain an academic publisher for the volume.

Can you share any of your more surprising findings?

I think that my most surprising findings all arose from my research into the word “Wicca”, which resulted in my very first academic publication, ‘The Meaning of “Wicca”: A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics’, in a 2010 issue of The Pomegranate. It seemed that most people with an interest in the Craft – including myself, initially – were under the impression that Gerald Gardner had either developed the term “Wicca” (based on the Old English wicca) or gained it from the New Forest coven. According to this story, Gardner used the term explicitly to describe his Gardnerian tradition, but in the 1970s and 1980s “eclectic” practitioners adopted it for themselves and stretched it into a far more inclusive term for all forms of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft.

Simply put, a methodical examination of the early texts of the movement showed that that wasn’t the case. Gardner never used the term “Wicca”. What he did use was the term “the Wica”, which contains only one c, not two. However, “the Wica” was not a name for this religion, or even his tradition specifically. Instead it referred to the community of Pagan Witches – a community that he of course believed (or at least, publicly appeared to believe) – represented isolated survivals of a pre-Christian Murrayite witch-cult with its origins in prehistory. Thus, in Gardner’s understanding of the term, “the Wica” comprised not only his own Gardnerians, but also members of the traditions propagated by other Witches like Charles Cardell and Victor Anderson, both of whom he was in contact with.

The historical data shows that the term “Wicca” – as a name for the religion itself – appears in Britain in the early 1960s, where it is use among the early Alexandrians. They don’t use it in an exclusive manner to refer solely to the Gardnerians and Alexandrians, but rather in a far wider, inclusive manner, to refer to all Pagan Witchcraft groups claiming to be the survivals of Murray’s witch-cult. If you read Stewart Farrar’s What Witches Do, an early Alexandrian work, you’ll see him talking of Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Traditional, and Hereditary “Wiccans”, not “Witches”.

Basically, what we see here is that the common conception of the etymology of “Wicca” – that it was originally very exclusive and only later transformed into a wide-ranging inclusive term – is completely wrong. The term was in fact very inclusive from the start, and instead it was practitioners of the Gardnerian-Alexandrian tradition operating in the U.S. who then tried to restrict its usage during the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps as a part of boundary policing at a time when they wished to distance themselves from the growth of the Dianic Wiccans, Feri Wiccans, and self-dedicants who had built their tradition on the published work of Lady Sheba, Paul Huson, Raymond Buckland and the like.

For those Wiccans, and scholars interested in Wicca, who have not necessarily been following all of the latest developments in the study of the subject over the past few years, or even decades, I think that my work will be a bit of an eye opener.

DfD: How do you think Wicca, which was born in the repressive 1950s, and grew up in the “permissive” 60s and 70s, fits in with contemporary culture?

Well, in many ways I think that Wicca is intrinsically counter-cultural – it’s hardly a widely accepted part of mainstream culture to call oneself a “Witch”, venerate a deity other than the Judaeo-Christian God, and proclaim the ability to work magic! It is also marginal in that it holds the adherence of only a very tiny proportion of the overall population in any given country. Thus, I think that – just like other esoteric and Pagan movements – it exists within the “cultic milieu” at the cultural margins of Western society, which is part of what makes it so interesting for me and probably for many of its own participants, but at the same time it is that which makes it vulnerable to prejudice and persecution. I’m personally sceptical regarding the idea that Wicca will ever truly break out of this marginal position and enter the cultural mainstream; to do so I think that you would need to see not only the “western rationalist” scientific establishment embrace the objective validity of magic but also Wicca become a dominant religion with a large minority or even majority of the population professing allegiance to it. I appreciate that there are Wiccans who do believe – or at least hope – that this might eventually happen, but if I’m honest I have to say that I’d very surprised if such a scenario ever came to fruition. Then again, stranger things have happened – how many people living in the Roman Empire during the first-century CE thought that Christianity would come to dominate not only Rome itself but the entirety of Europe ?

DfD: What do you think might be the future for Wicca – both the eclectic varieties and the initiatory traditions?

I think that the short term future – the next fifty years or so – looks quite bright. The established, initiatory traditions are in a fairly stable place right now, at least in the Anglophone Western nations. Even if they aren’t growing at the rapid pace that they once experienced, their membership isn’t in significant decline, they’ve shown their capability to develop good relations with their neighbours, and they’ve established legally-recognised organisations that have helped to provide Wicca with greater visibility and legal protection. While this process of routinization definitely brings benefits for some Wiccan groups, at the same time other practitioners have resisted all of this and retained a fairly anarchic, secretive structure that they are far more comfortable with. To me, this says that Wicca is remarkably flexible and adaptable, able to fit both its participants’ desires and society’s demands, and that will no doubt stand it in good stead, at least over the coming decades.

When it comes to the “eclectic” Wiccans, I think that we will also see things remaining fairly stable in the near future too, with no dramatic surges and no dramatic declines. I have little doubt that while the books of Scott Cunningham and Silver RavenWolf remain readily available, you will still see a trickle of practitioners brought into the fold through them. I’ve noticed that in the past year or so there appears to have been something of a miniature revival of pop culture interest in Wiccan(esque) witchcraft and magic: we have a remake of The Craft coming out, talk of a revival of Charmed, and the girl band Little Mix recently launched a music video that revolved around the idea of four schoolgirls discovering a magic book and using it to advance their own interests. Sound familiar? Furthermore, I’ve noticed a fascinating but rather unexpected interest in Wicca within the queer hip hop scene coming out from the States; an artist called Zebra Katz released a song called “Blk Wiccan”, while one of the most innovative rappers of recent years, Azealia Banks, has talked about Wicca in some widely publicised tweets. I suspect that all of this reflects an embodiment of 90s nostalgia – like myself, these are all individuals who were exposed to Sabrina, The Craft, Buffy, Charmed and the ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement as they were growing up, and now that they are bursting onto the musical scene they are bringing those formative influences with them. However, it would not surprise me if these factors resulted in a second ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement, emerging among those consuming this new media, even if this one is not as large or as significant as its late 90s/early 00s predecessor.

As for the longer term, by which I mean the next five hundred to a thousand years (and as an archaeologist I often find myself thinking in those terms), I’m really not sure what will happen to Wicca. I believe that the impulse that many Westerns have – to “revive” in one way or another pre-Christian spiritual systems – will undoubtedly survive and thus I think that modern Pagan religiosity will undoubtedly surface again and again, in either explicitly spiritual or simply artistic and aesthetic forms, just as it has done ever since the Renaissance. Wicca itself, however, has the potential to die out at some point in the far future. Both history and archaeology tell us that most religious groups do eventually succumb to extinction, either by being wiped out or by evolving into something else entirely. Since the 1950s, Wicca has been propelled in part by its counter-cultural chic and its rejection of dominant modes of monotheistic religiosity, but there could come a point where Wicca just feels like an out-of-date irrelevancy for people, and is unable to attract young blood to its cause. It could become an old folks’ religion on the brink of extinction, which is the fate that many (formerly powerful and influential) Christian groups in the West are facing right now. Equally, it could fall victim to serious persecution, or fall by the wayside as humanity is wracked by totalitarianism, epidemics, or war. I appreciate that that might not be a message that many Wiccans want to hear, but I don’t believe that practitioners of the faith should ever think that their religion is somehow immune to the forces of history that have wiped out many belief systems in the past, including those “paganisms” of the ancient world that inspire Wicca’s modern spiritual endeavours. However, even if this pessimistic outlook should be the case, I hope that texts such as my book will have helped to document the existence of this truly fascinating religious movement for posterity.

Thank you very much, Ethan!

You can find out more about Ethan Doyle White by following his blog, Albion Calling, or his work on Academia.edu.

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‘.

 

A Queer Pagan Reading List

Here are a bunch of books for the LGBTQ Pagan reader. I have either read these and can recommend them, or I have read another book by the same author, and can therefore recommend the ones on this list.

Collection of some Contemporary Pagan & Male Nude Sculptures created by Malcolm Lidbury

Collection of some Contemporary Pagan & Male Nude Sculptures created by Malcolm Lidbury (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Gay

Inclusive

Kink

Lesbian

LGBT

Polyamory

Queer

Transgender

Other people’s lists of recommended books

Online resources

Gender and sexuality in Wicca

This is the video of my talk at Witchfest in Croydon, November 2014. The talk discusses expanding and deepening our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle (our whole self, or do we bring only our essence, and what does our essence include?) and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history.

"All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca", by Yvonne Aburrow

All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca, by Yvonne Aburrow, published by Avalonia Books, 2014

In my talk, and in my book, I advocate a more nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality, and biological sex, and using these understandings to inform our understanding of magical concepts like polarity and fertility.

In the middle of my talk, we did a practical demonstration of another form of polarity, asking all the people who were born under Air and Fire signs to create energy together, and all the people who were born under Earth and Water signs to make energy together. We then merged the two energies together. Polarity happened. And the room became warmer and everybody became more animated. The energy changed.  (We didn’t video that part of the event because of issues of consent.)

There are many different forms of polarity, and whilst it is great that a man and a woman can make polarity, many other pairings can also make polarity – and even if you are focussing on male/female polarity in your rituals, you may be sure that other types of polarity are also occurring at the same time. The bottom line is: if one person can generate polarity with another person, regardless of gender, sexuality, or biological sex, let them do so. If a same-sex couple, or a man and a woman who are not a couple, or a person born under an Air sign and a person born under an Earth sign, or any other combination where oppositeness can be generated, want to make magic together, then let them do so. And no-one is saying you can’t have male-female polarity and heterosexual symbolism. We are just saying, why does it have to be that 100% of the time?

At a previous discussion of this, back in the summer, a couple of people said they felt that you don’t bring your personal stuff into circle (of course you don’t bring petty concerns about the shopping and the car etc into circle, but you do bring your core identity, which includes sexual orientation). But I bring my whole self, including my politics, gender identity, and sexual orientation, before the deities. I don’t leave behind my concerns about the struggle for justice for Black communities, or First Nations, or women, or LGBTQI people, when I am in circle – I do magic to support those struggles.

Others have commented that we should not adapt religious traditions to suit ourselves, but should allow the tradition to transform us. Yes, up to a point, but when the tradition excludes a whole group of people because of who they are, then it is time to dig deeper.  If we look at the concepts of polarity, fertility, and gender as they are expressed in traditional magical texts (which are the source material for Wiccan ritual, as demonstrated in the excellent book Wicca: Magickal Beginnings, by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine), we can see that they are separate and distinct concepts, which are not reducible to a simple and restrictive gender binary. If we look at ancient pagan traditions (which Wicca also claims to draw upon) then we can see that they were also inclusive of people with diverse gender and sexual identities.

For me, Wicca is neither solely a path of self-development, not is it only a path of service to the deities. I was taught that we work in partnership with the deities. The deities are more powerful in their realm, but they need our physical embodied presence and co-operation to get stuff done in the physical world. I discuss this in some depth in chapter 14 of my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca, and I also touched on it in chapter 16. I wrote a whole chapter on it in Priestesses, Pythonesses, and Sibyls, edited by Sorita d’Este.

Traditions evolve, and Wicca is evolving. They evolve because they are living and moving discourses, not fossils set in stone. Wicca is received differently by the different cultures in which it is practised, because of history and culture and context. Tradition is not a fixed and unchanging thing. Of course we should be mindful of accuracy in transmitting what has been handed down to us, because history and oral transmission of lore are important – but that does not mean we cannot change and adapt things, provided we transmit the original versions of the rituals that we received.

I discuss all of this in more depth in the video and in the book, so I would be grateful if you would watch the video before commenting.

A happy New Year to all the readers of Sermons from the Mound, and may 2015 bring you happiness, health, and peace.

Pagan Theology: Recommended Resources

Looking for resources that explore the theoretical and theological bases for contemporary Pagan practice? Look no further: here’s an annotated list.

Books

The Spell of the SensuousAbram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Pantheon, 1996.

Reading level: Academic/Undergraduate

I can’t overstate how important this book is to the development of contemporary animism. Abram argues that without contact with the other-than-human world, human beings’ capacities for perception are badly stunted. He backs up his argument both with Western phenomenology and with his lived experiences studying shamanic practitioners in Bali — but the book is structured so less-academic readers can skip the hardcore philosophy if they prefer. Overall, however, the book is best read as poetry or theology, as Abram’s argument about the transition from oral to textual cultures rests on shaky research that takes him well outside his academic field of expertise.

Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of ReligionButler, Edward P. Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion. New York: Phaidra Editions, 2012.

Reading level: Academic/Graduate

Make no mistake: this is a challenging read and probably requires some pre-existing university-level study of philosophy (especially ancient Greek philosophy) to appreciate. For the Pagan who wants a scholarly basis for a fundamentally polytheistic philosophy, however, this book is satisfyingly sophisticated. (Note: several of the essays were previously published in peer-reviewed academic journals.)

 

She Who ChangesChrist, Carol P. She Who Changes: Re-imagining the Divine in the World. New York: Palgrave, 2004.

Reading level: Academic/Undergraduate

Christ has been at the center of the Goddess spirituality movement since the late 1970s. She Who Changes draws on Christ’s formal training in theology to combine Goddess spirituality with process theology. In process theology, divinity is immanent in the world and in a state of constant flux and change–one in which human beings and all things actively participate. Readers will find an accessible introduction to process theology that can be adapted to other Pagan theological contexts.

 

A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into PolytheismGreer, John Michael. A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism. Tucson, AZ: ADF Publishing, 2005.

Reading level: Semi-academic/Undergraduate

This self-published introduction to polytheistic theology by Archdruid John Michael Greer is very useful, but flawed. For readers who know little about theological terminology or want to explore what kinds of religious behaviors and ethics a polytheistic sensibility calls for, it is an excellent read. For those who have a theological background, however, the fact that Greer’s theological knowledge seems to stop around the mid-twentieth century may be frustrating; his portrayal of monotheisms is outdated, and his writing often falls prey to the same kinds of circular arguments and special pleading that he criticizes in others. Typos are common, and a number of references are missing from the bibliography, which makes it difficult to check Greer’s work. Because of these issues, A World Full of Gods is best read as a grounded introduction to Greer’s polytheistic theology rather than an authoritative, scholarly text.

 

Dealing with DeitiesKaldera, Raven. Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology. Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press, 2012.

Reading level: General audience

The purpose of this book is to introduce its audience to a theological position often called “hard” polytheism — the belief that deities have individual and distinctive existences in the same way as human beings. Kaldera, however, is unusual in the movement for his accepting and compassionate attitude toward other theological positions. His writing is accessible and often personal, and although he uses and explains basic theological terminology, fundamentally his purpose in writing is to make recommendations for polytheistic practice. Kaldera makes no claims to scholarly authority, but his theological reflections on human-deity relationships are rich and come directly from his decades of experience as a practicing shaman.

 

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan TheologiesKraemer, Christine Hoff. Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies. Englewood, CO: Patheos Press, 2012.

Reading level: General audience

I wrote this book after noticing that Pagans were increasingly hungry for more coherent theories behind their practice — but that many simply didn’t have the background they needed to read theology. Seeking the Mystery systematically introduces basic theological terminology and concepts relevant to Pagans. At the same time, it also introduces and summarizes Pagan theological writing that already exists (including the books recommended in this post). Most importantly, however, Seeking the Mystery emphasizes not that Pagans need theology, but that they already have it: theologies are attitudes and beliefs that arise out of practice and then inform that practice in an ever-renewing cycle. The book contains discussion questions and activities for individual and group study.

 

The Wakeful WorldOrr, Emma Restall. The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature. Hants, UK: Moon Books, 2012.

Reading level: General audience/Undergraduate

This is one of several recent sophisticated books on “the new animism,” along with the work of David Abram and scholar Graham Harvey (Animism: Respecting the Living World). I’ve chosen to highlight Druid Emma Restall Orr’s book here since she is writing explicitly for Pagans as a Pagan philosopher and because she draws directly on both of these other writers: her book functions as an introduction to Abram and Harvey’s works, and it is also less textbook-like than Harvey’s Animism. Not just a presentation of the idea that all things have a spirit or soul, The Wakeful World is an argument for adopting an animistic worldview.

 

The Deities Are ManyPaper, Jordan D. The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Reading level: Semi-academic/Undergraduate

Jordan Paper is a religious studies scholar who spent his career traveling the world to study indigenous and shamanic religious traditions. After publishing several academic studies of these religions, Paper wrote this short book during a month-long sabbatical. It is the first book of his that could be considered “theology” as opposed to a more-or-less objective anthropological study. In it, Paper backs up his own polytheistic beliefs with his lived experiences of the traditions he spent his life learning from. The book is a tour of the many approaches to polytheism that can be found around the world. Pagans looking for a how-to on thinking like a Pagan polytheist will probably prefer Greer or Kaldera, since Paper does not identify as Pagan, but they are still likely to resonate with Paper’s eclectic personal spirituality and conviction about the reality of spirits, gods, and ancestors.

 

Hidden Circles in the WebWise, Constance. Hidden Circles in the Web: Feminist Wicca, Occult Knowledge, and Process Thought. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2008.

Reading level: Academic/Graduate

Like Carol Christ, Constance Wise brings formal training in process theology to her work — but unlike Christ, she explicitly identifies herself as a Pagan and her work as Pagan theology. Hidden Circles is a challenging book, but it is chock-full of juicy and innovative ideas: for instance, Wise redefines “occult knowledge” in a feminist framework as inherently experiential knowledge that comes through the body, and she presents not just a process theology of the Goddess, but a process theology of human history and gender. The book’s dense theological passages are lightened by Wise’s personal anecdotes and reflections.

 

Pagan Theology - Michael YorkYork, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Reading level: Academic/Undergraduate

York’s Pagan Theology attempts to formulate a theology from a sociological point of view. Rather than using Western theological terms or concepts, York looks at indigenous, earth-centered, and place-based religious traditions around the world to identify their commonalities. He argues that these “pagan” religious impulses constitute humanity’s root religion, and that remnants of this first religion remain in all the world’s religions. York seeks to lend legitimacy both to indigenous religions and to contemporary Paganism by presenting this root religion as a coherent worldview — one of four that he identifies, along with the Abrahamic, dharmic, and secular worldviews. Pagan Theology has been heavily discussed in academic circles, and its definition of “paganism” continues to be influential. There is a summary of academic reviews and critiques of the book on Wikipedia.


Websites and Blogs

Arkadian Anvil — Sam Webster, MDiv, Pagan Priest, and PhD candidate, has posted a number of essays on theological topics here (recommended starting point: “Theology Is God-Talk“). He also writes At the Herm for the Patheos Pagan channel.

Theologies of Immanence — A wiki hosting resources on Paganism, pantheism, polytheism, polymorphism, animism, Heathenry, Druidry, Unitarianism, Wicca, and more. Many of the contributors are known writers or scholars. Edited by Yvonne Aburrow, who also writes here at Dowsing for Divinity. (Recommended starting point: “Pagan Theology.”)

Aedicula Antinoi — Essays by polytheist theologian P. Sufenas Virius Lupus (recommended starting point: “Theology vs. Philosophy: What’s the Difference?“). Lupus also writes for the Patheos Pagan channel (recommended starting point: “Polytheology: Syncretism, Process Theology, and ‘Polyamorotheism‘”).

Theology on Dowsing for Divinity — Recommended starting points include “What Is Theology?” (Yvonne Aburrow), “Theology Is Not Religious Studies” (Christine Kraemer), and “Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue” (Christine Kraemer).

Patheos Pagan Channel — Posts and blogs relating to Pagan theology.

Proteus Coven Library — Essays on Wiccan theology, ethics, and more. (Recommended starting point: “Pagan Deism: Three Views.”)

Theology from Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) — Essays by former Archdruid Ian Corrigan on how ADF understands Pagan theology.

Animism: Respecting the Living World — A companion website to the book of the same name by Graham Harvey.

The Alliance for Wild Ethics — Resources on cultural ecology, philosophy, and animism from David Abram and associates.

PaganTheology.com — This page, which primarily hosts the writings of a UU-identified Pagan named Porphyry, unfortunately seems to be inactive. Nevertheless, there are some useful introductory essays here (recommended starting point: the misleadingly-titled “Theology Is for Christians“), and more recent work by the same author can be found at PaganPages.org.

 

Did I miss your favorite Pagan theology-related book or website? Let me know in the comments!

Announcing Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

My new book, Seeking the Mystery, is now available from Amazon and B&N! The e-book edition can be read on any computer, smartphone, or e-reader (computers and smartphones will need free software to open the file). The entire Introduction is available to read through Amazon preview — just click on the book cover.

Will there be a print edition?

[EDIT July 2013]: Yes, there is now a paperback edition!


Seeking the Mystery

An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

by Christine Hoff Kraemer

Copyright: 2012
Publisher: Patheos Press

Going Beyond Pagan Practice

Contemporary Paganism focuses on practice, often neglecting theology. Yet belief and practice are intertwined. As the religious movement continues to grow, so does the need for intellectual frameworks for practice and ways of approaching the controversial question of belief.

In this book, Christine Hoff Kraemer asks central questions about the varieties of Pagan belief: Why is multiplicity so important to contemporary Pagan understanding of deities? How do Pagans experience divinity in nature? In what way can the human body be a sacred site? And what are “virtue ethics” for Pagans?

With an estimated 1.2 million Pagans in the United States and significant numbers elsewhere, Seeking the Mystery is important for Pagan self-understanding and also for non-Pagans who want to understand what their Pagan neighbors believe. This short introduction to Pagan theology—or better, theologies—is a valuable primer for students and practitioners alike.

Endorsements:

As contemporary Paganism puts down its roots in the fertile soil of the 21st century, Pagans are seeking to deepen their understanding of their chosen spiritual path and to explain it to others in shared language. Seeking the Mystery is an important new book that enables Pagans and others to explain contemporary Paganism in the language of theology. It is highly recommended for both theologians and religious practitioners of all faiths.
—Vivianne Crowley, Author of Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium

Grab a pen and start taking notes, because Seeking the Mystery is going to take you on a whirlwind course in Pagan theologies where you are guaranteed to learn something new. Pagans will find language and frameworks here to clarify their own perspectives; non-Pagans will be challenged to a deeper understanding of their own traditions through dialogue with Pagan beliefs.
—Sarah Whedon, Author of Birth on the Labyrinth Path: Sacred Embodiment in the Childbearing Year

An indispensable guide to the myriad varieties of experience, practice and belief among modern Pagans.  Kraemer deftly applies the language of theology without sacrificing the freshness and vitality of this often counter-cultural spiritual movement.
—Holli Emore, Executive Director, Cherry Hill Seminary

[Additional Reviews]


One minor note on the e-book: We wanted readers to be able to easily see the definitions for various key terms, but due to the limitations of the current software, that means the definitions ended up as footnotes. Welcome to the adolescence of e-books! ;> Hopefully future e-books will employ a more elegant solution.