I was a Witch before I was a Pagan OR Where did Neo-Paganism Go?

17 January 2015

I had a series of stimulating conversations this morning on Skype with two friends and fellow witches from the States. One of these friends is currently studying religion and indigenous spirituality academically. We can have quite nerdy conversations as well as heart-opening emotional intimations. I find both kinds of conversation with this friend incredibly stimulating.

He began to tell me how several co-students had reacted negatively to depictions of Neo-Pagans wearing bindis and Indian dress of special significance in their rituals in a presentation he did. I totally get that. I think that the wearing of such items without personal knowledge or the appropriate context is cultural appropriation and further exoticises already othered cultures present in Western society today. He also told me that a Jewish student also expressed disdain at the presence and influence of Kabbalah/Qabalah in modern-day Witchcraft and some other Pagan groups. I find this more complex as it is generally-speaking Hermetic Qabalah that has woven its way into various Western magical traditions and orders rather organically and over time. This is one of the key differences I feel exist between modern-day Western eclecticism and the syncretism, resting on eclectic availability and cultural interchange, that transpired to influence various cultures and traditions still extant today. However there is also a difference between a culture’s absorption of another culture’s ideas or customs and a sorcerer’s use of a technique (or conjuring of a spirit) because it works. Ask me how I think that another time. Also, the idea of cultural purity is equivalent to ideologies of racial purity, which are false notions. Life is messy, borders aren’t as precise as we think they might be.

Another quality of modern Western reality that effects Neo-Pagan eclecticism is concepts of the Self that are in high contrast to the context of Self within tribal or indigenous communities and cultures. Western self is often perceived as an isolate mode of perception and reality which rests within a system that is consumerist, scientifically reductionist and bent on convenience and comfort at all costs. This effects how we experience and perceive our own identities. To identify as a modern-day Pagan or Neo-Pagan is an authentic experience of course and most people report that it feels like “coming home”. In the same token the ideas of Self and the cultural evolution of Neo-Paganism as a (mostly) American-influenced phenomenon means that being Neo-Pagan either means responding to and defining ourselves by our Judeo-Christian backgrounds and the values of wider Western society, or rejecting all of that entirely and entering into what is a “cut-at-the-roots” condition whereby we struggle to (re)create culture by which our religious and spiritual expressions may draw sustenance from. Problems abound.

I was a witch before I was a Pagan. Lately I have been wondering if I am even a Pagan in the contemporary sense of the word. These days I don’t spend a lot of time internally labelling myself though I understand labels and descriptors to be helpful in conversation with others and in discovering, potentially, those of like-mind in the wider world.

I was born a witch, like most witches, not because I was born into an unbroken line of hereditary clandestine crafters necessarily, but because this is the nature of witchcraft. We are born this way. This is Our Story. And so I sought out those like me because I felt incredibly different from other children. I felt Other and I naturally identified with the non-human more than with humans. I could see and talk with spirits and make things happen. It was raw and native ability. It had context in my family and, as I have spoken and written of before, I am not the only creature like myself in my immediate family. This doesn’t mean that those of us Marked can or should be lazy witches. No. We, like any other artist, must hone our skills and cultivate discipline and connections well and with consciousness in order to excel at our Craft. Sophisticating my magical skills is luckily one of my favourite things to do and help facilitate with others. It’s one of my callings in life.

In the West if you discover that you are a witch you will soon likely discover the Neo-Pagan and Contemporary Pagan movements. In my opinion these are increasingly distinct movements, though intrinsically related and perhaps even responding to each other.

Let me explain.

Neo-Pagan/ism (or NeoPagan as I used to stylise it) is a term that I liberally sprinkled through my first book Spirited: Taking Paganism Beyond the Circle which I now reflect on as an effective (I think) attempt to move my deeply witchcraft-influenced Neo-Paganism into Contemporary Pagan spirituality. Apart from the writing of that book which I began when I was 16 and finished when I was 19 and was originally twice the size, I did not identify as Neo-Pagan to anyone. I actually find the term difficult though I am of the opinion that it does correctly refer to a particular movement and culture that developed from early and disparate traditions and groups in North America during the 70s. This movement developed collectively in the festival scene. These disparate traditions and groups found something in common with each other and they began to share their resources, ideas, techniques and desired a common language and identifying term. Oberon Zell-Ravenheart often claims to have been the first to coin the term Neo-Pagan to identify the unity of Nature-based tribes. It stuck.

The world has changed. Neo-Paganism is not a tradition, it is a movement and it has a certain flavour as far I can tell and that flavour is often distinctly American and distinctly Wiccan-ish. The ritual language and concepts used seem to derive from what is shared of Wicca’s rites through publications such as the books of Janet and Stewart Farrar, Doreen Valiente, Gerald Gardner, Raymond Buckland and Scott Cunningham. The late and beloved Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (1979) helped to create a national unified identity amongst people who now could see themselves as Pagan or Neo-Pagan. Starhawk’s 1979 The Spiral Dance is also cited as perhaps THE most influential text on the Neo-Pagan movement, though it is not a strictly Wiccan text. In fact it comes from the point of view of an initiate of the Anderson Faery tradition. Similar language and conceptualisation of ritual technique and cosmology is used however in order to stress unity with predominant religious Witchcrafts, namely those deriving from the British civil servant Gerald Gardner. This was a phenomenon that occurred in the 70s as the Neo-Pagan movement affirmed itself and enthusiasm spread between the different traditions. I know of several Faery/Feri initiates who are removing Wiccan aesthetic and language from their Tradition in order to re-orient it to its pre-Gardnerian and traditional Craft roots.

I feel I should pause here and state that in the 60s and 70s the word Wicca in the States was used differently to how it is today. The word was not seen to indicate association with or initiation into Gardner’s Craft, but as a catch-all term that referred to witchcraft or being a witch and indeed that is what the word literally means when it is pronounced without the hard ‘k’. Today it is mostly used to refer to British Traditional Witchcraft (Wicca) which is an umbrella term under which Gardnerian Craft, Alexandrian Craft, Central Valley and Georgian Wicca, etc. congregate. The term Wicca is rejected almost entirely by those who self-identify as belonging to a distinct movement – Traditional Witchcraft – which is seen to have begun with Robert Cochrane’s (Roy Bowers) criticisms of Gardner’s ideas and practices. The Traditional Craft movement is therefore also an umbrella movement and descriptor under which congregate groups such the Clan of Tubal Cain (deriving from Cochrane), Cultus Sabbati, Anderson Faery/Feri and the two threads of Craft I am initiated into, Anderean Craft and the Sophian Scythe and Star Thread of WildWood. There are also groups and practices that could be called traditional or old Craft which do not self-identify or associate with either the Traditional Craft or Wiccan and Neo-Pagan movements.

So far, we have several movements. Here are some of my definitions:

Neo-Paganism: Nature-based, Earth-reverent, Wheel-of-the-Year observant individuals and groups who probably exalt the/a Goddess, as well as other deities or pan(en)theistic understandings of the Earth and the Cosmos. They often meet in ritual Circles with Elements and practise Wiccan-influenced magic.

Wicca: Not necessarily a movement, but a religious mystery tradition dedicated to the veneration of two deities – the Horned God of Death and Resurrection and the Goddess of Life and Rebirth. They practise in groups called covens led by High Priest/esses and often observe three degrees of deepening/elevated Initiation. Magic is definitively practised within a ritually-consecrated Circle and initiates of Wicca are also called and identify as Witches. Wiccans largely identify as Pagans.

Traditional Witchcraft: A group of diverse groups and individuals whose practises are often rooted in what we know of witchcraft and folk-lore occurring in different regions of Europe and the ‘New Worlds’ in the Early Modern period or earlier. Traditional Witchcrafts are generally land-based and bio-regional, as well as shamanistic and spirit-working, deeply sorcerous and often mystic and heuristic. Initiation is first and foremost between the spirits and the witch and coven or lineage initiations are not necessary, though they may happen. Traditional Witchcraft is not automatically hereditary witchcraft as is sometimes thought.

What is Contemporary Paganism then if it is not Neo-Paganism? Am I splitting hairs? Probably, but I don’t think so…

These are all my opinions based on my experiences travelling in Britain, Ireland, North America and Australia teaching and sharing the Craft over the past 7 years. I have shared ritual space, magic and intimate conversation with individuals from a wide variety of traditions: Gardnerians, Alexandrians, Clan of Tubal Cain, Temple of Witchcraft folk, Vodouisant, Ocha priestesses, Old Welsh witches, Faery/Feri witches, Reclaimers, eclectic Neo-Pagans, eclectic witches and Wiccans, Celtic, Greek, Germanic reconstructionists and revivalists, Indo-Pagans, Tantrikas and Yogis, etc.

What I have noticed is a growing discourse that is shaking the foundations of what some people call ‘Big Umbrella Paganism’ which some would identify as being synonymous with Neo-Paganism. I guess strictly and etymologically speaking that might be accurate, but in my experience it doesn’t feel true. It doesn’t feel like it accurately represents the realities on the ground, especially in what I have experienced in the States.

One example of this increasing pluralism and diversification – or even divergence – is the emancipation of the Polytheists. That might sound really dramatic, and for some people it is. A distinct movement has emerged from the Contemporary Pagan movement and it is a definitively theological one. It also helped me realise that there is a Neo-Pagan culture and a Contemporary Pagan web. Neo-Paganism can sometimes feel like the presumption of practitioners or celebrants that everyone present will feel moved or represented by a ritually-cast Circle in which Elements are addressed and deities are invoked to watch over some magical process or celebration. This is just not true. It hasn’t been true for as long as the Neo-Pagan movement has existed. It hasn’t been true since Gerald Gardner wrote and published his first book. It has never been true. A certain kind of aesthetic and even politics seems linked to Neo-Paganism. A Neo-Pagan might also be a Traditional Witch by the way. Nothing is cut and dried apart from cut and dried herbs and maybe gourmet meats.

Contemporary Paganism is a collection of groups and individuals who are connected because of – probably – the following:

*Inspiration from or rootedness in ethnically and regionally European and Near-Eastern customs and spiritual traditions (both Celtic-based witches and Celtic reconstructions, for example, illustrate this)

*Cosmos-aligned, Earth-centred and Land-based ritual (casting Circles, laying the Compass, opening the Way, and journeying up and down the World Tree are examples of this)

*Venerations for the Ancestors, the Dead and the Spirits in Nature (pouring libations in the hearth-fire, telling stories of our Beloved Dead at Samhain and walking through the forest and listening are examples of this)

*Magic, Sorcery and/or Shamanic Technique (spell-casting, working with or calling on spirits, invoking deities and entering trance states and faring forth in the Fetch are examples of this)

*The presence of beings often called deities or Gods and Goddesses with no known reluctance about the inclusion of deities considered feminine and perhaps with a preference to such symbolism or beings (note: this does not always mean actually believing in Them in the way a Christian might profess faith in Christ)

*Customs that sanctify or reveal the sacred in the everyday and cherish human rites of passage (first-blood blessings, sexual maturity and first-love-making, hand-fasting and Elder rites are examples of this)

*Respect and reverence for the Non-human, maybe especially so (note: there are omnivorous as well as vegetarian and vegan Pagans)

An assumption I used to have was that all contemporary Pagans were politically liberal, ecologically-responsible, embracing of queers and people of colour and generally not arse-holes.

I was wrong.

However, I was painting a not-far-off caricature of Neo-Pagans, influenced as they are by ecofeminism, the 60s counterculture, the festival scene, eclecticism, folk music and conscious marijuana adoration.

Contemporary Paganisms are of course not reliant upon certain politics or mindsets to work as traditions of power and meaning. There are racist and racialist Pagans. Queerphobic, transphobic, politically and socially conservative, capitalist Pagans exist. I find it dumbfounding because it makes no sense when one studies deeply what respecting the Non-human, working with the spirit-world and invoking Goddesses relies upon, but that doesn’t stop there being such folk involved in Contemporary Paganisms.

I was a witch before I was a Pagan. Am I still a Pagan? Sometimes, for sure. I sometimes find myself moved by Neo-Pagan rituals and perspectives as I do by a wide variety of perspectives in the world today. My politics are also shared by many Neo-Pagans. I also find it to be a potentially temporary designation and as the broader Pagan movement has matured we find ourselves with so much variety. No cookie-cutter Wiccanate Circle-casting to be defaulted too any longer…hehe, Wiccanate, hehe. What I am aware of is a deeply nuanced and plural reality of Paganisms and Witchcrafts in the West today, let alone all the other parts of this planet.

I never joined Paganism or Neo-Paganism for that matter. I never joined Witchcraft. It was already living inside of me. I think the only thing I can honestly say I have consciously joined is Reclaiming which is its own interesting animal that exists at an intersection of Traditional Witchcraft, Neo-Paganism and the idea of not being an arsehole, hopefully. No one has thus far staked a claim at 100% success on that latter point.

This has mostly been intellectual and for other culture/movement Craft/Pagan nerds out there. Whatever. I had fun writing it. Enjoy!

P.S. Seriously go read my first book. It’s awesome. That’s all.