Why Dowsing for Divinity?

We decided that the title Sermons from the Mound no longer quite fitted the type of posts we are actually writing. Technically, a sermon is a reflection on a text, and an exposition of its meaning. That’s not what we are actually doing with our writing.

So we had a very enjoyable brainstorming session via email, with a total of fifty-five different suggestions for names for the blog. But we kept coming back to dowsing imagery, with its connotations of looking for hidden currents, connections with the unseen, hidden waters, and hidden patterns.

We also liked the fact that divining is another name for dowsing, so there is a pleasing symmetry in the name Dowsing for Divinity. The divine, if we choose to listen for it, to feel for its presence, is hidden just below the surface of things, in the woods and the waters and the rocks and trees, hidden in plain sight in the land itself.

As W B Yeats wrote:

Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine, and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and pools, almost all things under the sun and moon, and the sun and moon, were not less divine and changeable. They saw in the rainbow the still-bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence; they heard in the thunder the sound of his beaten water jar, or the tumult of his chariot wheels; and when a sudden flight of wild ducks, or of crows, passed over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening to their rest….

I love this quote, and it was for me the starting-point in the creative process of finding a new name for the blog.

— Yvonne Aburrow

When the three of us started brainstorming a new name together, once someone tossed out the word “dowsing,” we kept circling back to it. Dowsing is a form of divination sometimes known as “water witching” because it’s often been used to find ground water (though it can also be employed to find metal, lost objects, gravesites, and more). To dowse, the diviner holds a forked stick with one end in each of their hands, and then follows the motion of the third end to find what they’re seeking.

I love dowsing as an image for the kind of theological exploration we do on this blog. Dowsing is an intuitive, physical activity that requires a receptive state of mind. Of course, we bring our education and analytical skills to our writing—these intellectual resources provide essential structure for our theology and practice. But the heart of what we’re creating here is experiential, not intellectual: it reaches for a place that is beyond words, but as close as our own flesh. Through writing and thinking and living and being, we are seeking: Divinity? Mystery? Our Selves? Perhaps all of those and more.

Dowsing also appeals to me as a metaphor because of the close relationship between spirit and water in many cultures. Water is used for blessings and baptisms; it can be found in healing baths and holy wells; it makes up 60% or more of our bodies, and it is essential for life. To me, dowsing for hidden water is a perfect image for spiritual seeking.

— Christine Hoff Kraemer


Pick up the forked stick and move by feel and feeling, towards the secret source, the spring and springing. Suss out sympathetic resonances, wait for the dip, the tug and pull. Close the eyes and trust that there is water, that you will find it. Dare to step forward.

To dowse is to listen. To dowse is to walk, aware.

In this space, we do theology by gut, by feel, listening under the surfaces of events and words, making our way through the terrains of intuition, experience and reflection.

Reflection…another water word. Pointing us back to the original mirror, the calm pool, surface in which to see and seek.


–Sarah Sadie

Friends, May I Present to You… Your New Channel Manager!

With a mix of excitement and sadness, I am writing to announce my resignation as Managing Editor of the Patheos.com Pagan channel. I will very much miss the way this job brought me into daily contact with such thoughtful, dedicated people—both Pagans and people of other religious traditions. But I’m also excited to lead a slower-paced life and spend more time with my family. Think of me, please, chasing my toddler around outside without an electronic device in sight!

Our very own Jason Mankey will be taking up the mantle of Managing Editor. In addition to writing Raise the Horns, Jason is an accomplished ritualist, coven leader, and workshop presenter, with particular interest in popular music and contemporary Pagan history. Jason has been very committed to representing the Pagan channel to our community, most recently co-organizing a Patheos Pagan panel on blogging at Pantheacon. I’ve often heard him say that his blog cannot be successful unless the entire channel is doing well—we succeed or falter as a group. I think he’s going to do a fantastic job! I hope you’ll all offer him your support as he learns the ins and outs of the position. His official duties begin on March 1.

As for me, I’ll be taking a nice long break from the Pagan blogosphere while Yvonne and I are editing our Pagan Consent Culture anthology, and then I’ll be returning to occasional blogging at Sermons from the Mound. I look forward to remaining part of the Patheos Pagan community in this quieter and less public role.

Thank you all so much for the energy you lend to this space. I have learned so much from all of you, and I’m glad I will be able to go on doing so. Many blessings.


Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective – Signed Copies Available

I am pleased to announce the publication of my theology of touch, Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake, from Routledge! I hope it will be of interest to anyone studying contemporary Paganism, LGBT issues, and/or body theology.

Eros and Touch from a Pagan PerspectiveSynopsis:

Within the past twenty years, contemporary Pagan leaders, progressive Christian and Goddess theologians, advocates for queer and BDSM communities, and therapeutic bodyworkers have all begun to speak forcefully about the sacredness of the body and of touch. Many assert that the erotic is a divinely transformative force, both for personal development and for social change. Although “the erotic” includes sexuality, it is not limited to it; access to connected nonsexual touch is as profound a need as that for sexual freedom and health. In this book, Christine Hoff Kraemer brings together an academic background in religious studies and theology with lived experience as a professional bodyworker and contemporary Pagan practitioner. Arguing that the erotic is a powerful moral force that can ground a system of ethics, Kraemer integrates approaches from queer theology, therapeutic bodywork, and sexual minority advocacy into a contemporary Pagan religious framework. Addressing itself to liberal religious people of many faiths, Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective approaches the right to pleasure as a social justice issue and proposes a sacramental practice of mindful, consensual touch.

How to Get This Book: Request a Library Purchase

I know many of us can’t personally manage the steep institutional prices hardcover academic books are offered at, but I urge you to ask your university or public library to purchase Pagan studies books (not just mine!) so that they will become more widely accessible.

Routledge has a recommendation form for your librarian, and of course most libraries have their own purchase request form. (For examples, here are forms for my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, and my local library, the Boston Public Library. Your library no doubt has one too!) If you do make such a request, please let me know — it’ll be great to know there’s interest.

How to Get This Book: Rent the Kindle Edition

Kindle editions can be read on your PC, smartphone, e-reader, tablet, or other device. Rent the Kindle edition of Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective for a period of up to 120 days, at less than $1 a day! Plus, if you decide to buy the book during the rental period, your rental fee will be applied to the purchase.

How to Get This Book: Buy a Signed Copy, Get a Gift

If you are in the fortunate situation to be able to buy new academic books, please consider purchasing directly from me! For the full cover price of $125, I will sign the book to you personally (or to a friend or loved one, as you specify) and include a free copy of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies as a small thank you. Paypal to chkraemer13 (at) gmail dot com, or contact me at that address to pay with a check.

Please pass on this post to groups and institutions who are interested in LGBT issues and religion, Pagan and body theology, or religion and sexuality. With luck, the hardback will sell enough copies so that Routledge will agree to release the book in a reasonably priced paperback.

In the meantime, enjoy this excerpt on Academia.edu, which includes the entire introduction.

Happy Samhain, everyone!

Seeking the Mystery: Giveaway Results and Review Round-up

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

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

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

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

John Beckett

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

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

Nimue Brown (1) (2)

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

Tara “Masery” Miller

Jen McConnel

Philipp Kessler

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Chapter Five: Ethics and Justice

Neglected Virtues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ii] Doreen Valiente, “The Charge of the Goddess,” The Doreen Valiente Foundation. Available at http://doreenvaliente.org/2009/06/poem-the-charge-of-the-goddess/.

[iii] “Ethics,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Available at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/34560/Aristotle/254721/Ethics#toc254722.

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

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

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

The Multiple Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Excerpt from Chapter Two: Myth, Tradition, and Innovation

The foundation of contemporary Pagan theology is myth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking the Mystery Book Giveaway; Kindle Sale

Kindle Ebook $1 Sale

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

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

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

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

Seeking the Mystery Giveaway

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

To enter, do one or more of the following:

1. Sign up for the Patheos Pagan newsletter using the link at the top of the page, here:

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2. Subscribe to any Patheos Pagan blog using the link in the blog’s sidebar, which looks like this:

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3. Add an RSS feed for any Patheos Pagan blog to your blog reader (look for this symbol):

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

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

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

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

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


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

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

Hard Polytheism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ii] Sarah Kate Istra Winter, Dwelling on the Threshold (CreateSpace, 2012), 21. Also available at A Forest Door, https://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/the-gods-are-real/.

[iii] See P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, “Polytheology: Syncretism, Process Theology, and ‘Polyamorotheism,’” Patheos.com 2 Aug 2010, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Polytheology-Syncretism-Process-Theology-and-Polyamorotheism; and “PantheaCon 2012: Super-Syncretism! Creating Connection & Preserving Diversity,” Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous 31 Mar 2012, available at http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/pantheacon-2012-super-syncretism-creating-connection-preserving-diversity/. Expanded versions of these ideas are available in A Serpent Path Primer (Red Lotus Library, 2012).

Introductory Pagan Theology Book — $1 Kindle E-Book Sale, Plus Paperback Release!

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

All, I’m excited to announce that my book Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies is now available in paperback as well as an e-book edition! I hope this gives those of you who are using it in reading groups more options. 🙂

Additionally, Amazon.com will be offering the Kindle edition for $0.99 on Monday 7/1, then at a reduced price of $2.99 for about a week thereafter. Hooray for sales!

After watching the Pagan blogosphere explode this past month over theological issues, I feel ever more strongly that having a sophisticated theological vocabulary can only help both our intrafaith and our interfaith communication (especially as I watch writers misdefining key terms!). What is monism (because it’s not the same as monotheism!)? What about pantheism vs. panentheism? Dualism vs. duotheism? And how do these ideas describe and inform our practice?

Seeking the Mystery includes chapter summaries, discussion questions, and activities at the end of each chapter. I hope some of you will consider it as your next Pagan book club selection!

[Want a preview? You can read the table of contents, introduction, and glossary here. Also, thanks to John Beckett for updating his kind review on the occasion of the paperback release.]