I recently revisited a text on Neo-Paganism titled Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. I wrote a review for the book for a course in American Religion, and as it is the “spooky season,” I thought I’d recreate it into a little guide about modern Paganism.
The term “pagan” calls forth complex and often negative connotations or expectations, though the term simply means pre-Christian, nature-religions. Witchcraft is perhaps the heaviest and most controversial aspect of paganism and is often considered separate from it. Modernly referred to as “the Craft,” modern-day witches are attempting to portray witchcraft as “the Yoga of the West” (Adler), meaning to focus on the aspect of self-realization rather than spell-casting.
The origin of paganism is something debated by various “occult scholars” (usually meaning sociologists or anthropologists of ancient religions), most notably the controversial Margaret Murray. She emphasizes the roots in European Witchcraft, to the extent of claiming that British royalty were members of the “Dianic Cult.” Other scholars insist that paganism is something not carried overseas, but rather is a natural religious that springs forth independently in multiple (well, all) cultures.
Scholar Aiden Kelly insists that “the craft of the Craft is the craft of producing altered states of consciousness, and, traditionally, always has been.” The term “magic” is another springboard for debate but should be considered separate from the term “supernatural.” For most followers of the Craft, magic and ritual are pragmatic tools to arouse emotions and tap into a different psychic reality, likened to heightened Christian sermons (speaking in tongues) or Native American practices.
As our pointy-hat stereotypes would support, the Craft is undoubtedly feminine. There are several movements within the Craft that revolve around goddess worship, most notably influenced by the text The White Goddess by Robert Graves. Yes, he is an outlier, but his text can even be found in feminist bookstores, which tend to only carry female authors. Wicca, a form of the Craft, is considered a catalyst for female-driven political change, as it emphasizes their abilities as not only communal but agenic beings (there is equality in spell-casting). Wiccan women (womyn, wimmin, womon) generally recoil from “patriarchy,” sometimes due to negative experiences with men or other circumstances, and find self-esteem and empowerment in a community of women.
Although the pagan’s relationship with the ancient is crucial, there is also a movement that looks entirely to the future, named “the Church of All Worlds.” The Church of All Worlds has called science fiction “the new mythology of our age” and believes it to be appropriate religious literature. The general theme in science fiction of “reality as a construct” is taken as a perspective of “the universe anew,” Heinlein‘s Stranger in a Strange Land viewed as the most influential.
The Pagan movement has even been dubbed as “eco-psychic,” or marked by an extreme connection with the earth, as ecology comes closest to bringing mankind to the threshold of a religious relationship to his world. Often categorized as “cultish” by popular society, Pagans also struggle with legal recognition and institutionalism and often placed as a subcategory in New Religious Movements.
Perhaps the more alluring aspect of paganism, beyond the potential for hexing those who truly deserve it, is the boisterous joy their ceremonies promote. Pagans, unlike most New Religious Movements, tend to waive fees for any of their workshops and ceremonies, so you too can enjoy the natural beauty of the earth–and maybe lose yourself in an orgy or two (yes, that really is a slight, but real, part of some pagan rituals). This Halloween you’ll likely see more Sarah Palin’s than witches, but if you happen upon a young lady with a cauldron, you may want to throw in an extra piece of candy…just in case.