I’m going to take a break from my usual exhortations toward steady, committed, daily practice to talk about something that I don’t generally bother with. I want to talk about fiction. Not fiction for its own sake, but what fiction says about the West and about the meaning of magic.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox.
Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

We’re Not the Target Audience

Most fiction isn’t written for us. And by “us” I mean spiritual practitioners of all stripes. From the devout Christian visionary to the third degree Witch to the Master of the Temple, those who have crossed the abyss (by whatever name) and returned are somehow set apart.

With the exception of the occasional documentary that hits just the right note, there’s not much that the writers of the entertainment industry have to say that is of any use.

The grim reality is that we magicky types are, in the words of Hooper from Chasing Amy (1997), “a minority in a minority of the minority” – and nobody’s paying any attention to us. For the most part, that’s no different from other subcultures.

The movies we watch and books we read are a pleasurable distraction written by people who, by and large, do not know much at all beyond the here and now. The stories aren’t for us, but sometimes they are about us.

The Stories Told

For the everyday person, the idea that there might be people with “superpowers” is a ridiculous speculation. Tell them there is a world beyond what they know and they ask, “where is the proof?” But at the same time they carry a lingering doubt, founded on the knowledge that they live in a world they don’t understand. No matter how hard they cling to certainty, a voice whispers inside them what if…?

As people living in the 21st century, and as Westerners in particular, we live in a world of heretofore unimaginable knowledge. Each of us has the opportunity to be so educated that there is no historical comparison. And yet such knowledge does not set us apart – it is knowledge open to all of us.

The everyday, good citizen is prone to flights of fancy, and it is encouraged within a limited context. And there is a certain subset of fiction that is geared for those who wish that magic and superpowers are real. While there are a thousand to choose from, I wanted to examine some of the ideas behind two of my favorites: Harry Potter and the X-Men.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Flight into the Unknown

The worlds of both the Harry Potter and the X-Men franchises focus on small populations set apart from the everyday world. In both of them, some people are born with powers and marked as separate from the common life. In both of these fictional cases, the development of powers is a generally considered a metaphor for coming of age and stepping into the power of adulthood.

For the actual practitioner, such ideas are metaphors. Here in the “real world” the ability to “break the rules” as we commonly accept them is generally unimpressive, though it does hold a certain power. Simply, we magicky types might sense the opportunity for a promotion at work, or the predator lurking, and thus be marginally better off than someone untrained. We might perform magic to find a date, with varying and sometimes hilarious results. We do not, however, learn to literally fly, or shapeshift, or teleport.(1)

That doesn’t mean we don’t have power – power that allows us to reach out from the unknown and turn things to our advantage, ward off our enemies, or whatever else we care to turn our deeper selves to. There is much to be learned, and the greatest lesson is that the universe is more than we ever imagined.

Those who have not made the trip into the unknown imagine us practitioners as not what we become, but petty, everyday people with hidden knowledge and power shoehorned in. It’s a terrifying thought.

Sometimes even Sansa can't save you.
Sometimes even Sansa can’t save you.

Harry Potter Got Muggles Right
In the magical community, there is something of a love-hate relationship with Harry Potter. I think there are two opposing tensions involved.

On the one hand, the movie has nothing to do with anything resembling real magic. That doesn’t set us apart – I’m pretty sure LEOs know there’s nothing real about cop shows, forensic anthropologists know there’s nothing real about CSI or Bones, and so forth.

On the other hand, we’re thrilled to be the good guys for a change (even if we’re also the bad guys, too). Except that’s not true.

Harry Potter isn’t about us as practitioners. It is about everyday people, given gimmicky magic powers. And while it appeals to us as everyday people, it doesn’t really reflect anything about actual spiritual development. It’s fantasy, just like it’s meant to be.

But that’s not really my point. What is interesting is the world that Rowling created, and how she saw that from the perspective of the muggles(2) there would need to be some sort of regulation around practitioners.

Sure, the books are written from the wizards’ perspective, and the characters might (or might not) look down on the muggles, but the wizards are engaging in their own flight of fancy. If there were a war, the muggles would slaughter the magic types and drive them into hiding or extinction.(3)

The Ministry of Magic, in the Harry Potter world, is there to keep the wizards safe. It helps keep the peace. Because within the world, if there were a war, the muggles would wipe out the wizards in about a week. Even more frightening is the idea of what the wizards might have to do to win.

If Harry Potter is about people carefully trained to be wizards, then the X-Men is about people with such powers thrust upon them. There’s little in the Marvel Universe to recommend being a mutant. It’s pretty much a terrible fate.

And speaking of terrible…

Where X-Men: Apocalypse Went Wrong

No, I’m not going to simply agree with Roger Ebert, who gave X-Men: Apocalypse one out of four stars on its merits. I actually kind of liked the movie. I didn’t think it was good, but for a superhero-franchise movie it did its job.

What I would like to reflect on is the lack of serious worldbuilding. The mutants were so inhuman that I ended up sympathizing with the supposedly cowardly, villainous Major Stryker, a man who believed that the mutants should be controlled or destroyed at any cost.(4)

The villainous Apocalypse ends up killing tens, or even hundreds, of millions of people. Just for starters, he wipes out Cairo, a city of about ten million people. He disrupts the lives of every person in the world. By contrast, the “good guys” (if you include a mind-controlled Wolverine) kill mere dozens.

Sure, Apocalypse loses in the end. It’s a superhero movie. But what frustrated me was the sheer lack of anyone but the X-Men taking action. And I’m not talking about the Avengers. A hundred million dead, and still the silly humans don’t learn.

The Truth about Muggles
The “muggles” of the Marvel Universe take the death of a hundred million people lying down. In this, X-Men: Apocalypse is wrong about the power, and the goodness, of humanity. Perhaps we are supposed to hate and pity Major Stryker as a caricature of the blind fear and hatred. The writers want us to see him as inhuman, someone unable to see the humanity – of those who could snuff him out like a candle. He’s no villain; he’s not inhuman. In fact, he’s all too human.

And there’s something to be learned there. Like I said in the beginning, these movies resonate with the everyday person. We love the idea of a hero with superpowers. We are thrilled by the villain who can break the rules – not just of society, but of the universe.

All this takes place against a backdrop of Western culture. It’s a place few seriously believe that there is any power beyond the physical. On a daily basis, most religious people don’t take the power of their prayers to change the world seriously. Whether it’s prayer or ritual, they believe in “magic” but don’t practice it.

As a result, Westerners have some strange ideas of what magic is. We might think it is rebellion against God and the natural order, or a gift from the gods. But few think of it as simply part what people do.

If we want to understand how most cultures, which accept that magic is real, deal with the dangers it poses, it’s not impossible. We need only to think of how we would feel if those powers rested not in fiction, and now with heroes and villains. Imagine if those with hidden powers were our coworkers, our competitors, or even our spouses. Other cultures have rules about those things, enforced with everything from social approbation to mob action.

Wow!  That feels like 100 years ago.
Wow! That feels like 100 years ago.

Magic as a Martial Art
I’ve sometimes heard, in magical circles, a disdain for those who do not know. We follow the trend fiction and call them muggles; we shrug at the mundanes who cannot understand. However we set ourselves apart, we fail to understand that it is we who are relying on our common humanity.

I am not suggesting that we need a Ministry of Magic or some such fictional solution to regulate magical practices. Mostly, such activities are self-regulating.

For our own sake, we need to understand and respect the power of the culture we live in. I have yet to meet a practitioner with a thousandth of the mana(5) of a key political or economic player. In short, we can train to make ourselves stronger within out limits, but there are people out there, as mundane as the day is long, with more spiritual power.

There has been a trend in recent years toward treating what we might call (without judgement) “martial” magical practices as if they weren’t a double-edged sword. Taught by fiction, we with a lightness more appropriate to fiction.

In the martial arts, we tell our students not to abuse their newfound powers. We drum into them, “only for self-defense.” Maybe they think we’re protecting those around them, but it is clear to me that we are primarily protecting our students from the repercussions of bad decisions.

If there is a lesson to be learned, if these stories are modern morality plays, then stories about people with superpowers are about how we choose to act responsibly. And they are also stories about the dangers that await us if we fail in our responsibilities.

(1) There are occasional claims to the contrary. I’ve been present at some bona-fide miracles and the beneficiary of at least one. I have spent much of my adult life studying the “impossible.” Such claims can be lumped into the category, “talk is cheap.”

(2) I feel like I can assume that most everyone reading this blog knows what a “muggle” is. Within Harry Potter, the word is a somewhat snide descriptor of those not born with magical abilities, and who are thus considered somewhat clueless about the “real world.” I have hear the term brought, semi-jokingly, into real life.

(3) The division of the muggles from wizards is taken as a given in the Harry Potter books and movies. For a deeper discussion on it, see this article on Wizards, Mundanes, and Economic Benefit.

(4) The Major Stryker of the X-Men comic books is a much less palatable character, who sets himself up as a televangelist, runs an extrajudicial paramilitary organization, and was originally based on Jerry Falwell’s televangelism in the early 80s. I am ignoring all that and focusing on his character in X-Men: Apocalypse.

(5) I am using the term “mana” here to refer to that raw spiritual power that comes from having high social status. The term comes from the Hawaiian language to refer to the spiritual power of people who are leaders. There are advantages to those positions of power that extend far beyond a fat bank account and swooning investors, and anthropologists have long used this term to describe any similar belief system (while not quite admitting their core origin).

It was time.

She’d seen it coming for months. When she had moved to the area a few years ago and had opened her Practice, she’d had a flurry of new clients and felt sure that soon this Practice would be as successful as the one she’d had to leave behind in her previous city. She’d hung on as long as she could, even subletting a part of her office space to staunch the financial hemorrhaging, but it wasn’t enough. She was going to have to let all of it go.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

In the last days of the Final Harvest season she asked me to help her craft a Ritual that would honor the death of her business, and the death of the dreams she had had of making her living by using her training and wisdom to provide healing.

On the afternoon of Samhain, we met at a local Forest Preserve. We walked the paved path from the parking lot to the river’s edge, stopping a few minutes to compose our thoughts. The water, swollen and swift from recent rains, slip-slid past the leafless fingers of branches trailing their tips in the current. I watched the branch-fingers bobbing gently, reminded of human fingers fruitlessly seeking to grasp something before it slips away.

We walked along the river to the bridge that crossed it, and paused at the base of the concrete steps leading to the bridge under a massively monumental bur oak. Jane Giffords writes in The Wisdom of Trees (pub. 2000), “The oak represents courage and endurance and the protective power of faith. […] The oak reminds us that the strength to prevail, come what may, lies in an open mind and a generous spirit.” It was a fitting Guide for the beginning of our journey. We lingered under the deeply grooved, twisted branches far above us, watching the dancing shadows of the leaves upon the ground as sunlight filtered through the canopy, then turned our backs to the oak and focused our attention on crossing the river to gain the higher ground beyond.

The land on our side of the river was significantly lower than the land on the other side, and the steep concrete steps leading to the bridge soared at least ten feet into the air, bookended by four-foot high walls of more concrete that flared out at the bottom of the stairway. Standing at the base of the stairs we were surrounded—half entombed—by smooth, chalk-grey concrete. Our voices took on an echoed, somewhat tinny quality. We could not see the river that we knew we were about to cross; we could not see the bridge that we knew was at the top of the climb; we could not see the meadow that we knew was on the other side of the bridge.

We ascended the stairs slowly, rising closer to the vaulted ceiling of criss-crossed oak branches with each step before reaching the lip of the wooden bridge, stopping again as we reached the center of it. Stopping in mid-transition. She cast her prayers upon the river; I thought about bridges, of crossing into unseen land, of knowing where you’ve come from and focusing on where you’re going, and missing the journey. I thought about living into the tension of balance, so often misperceived as a static state when in truth there is a barely controlled dynamism at work, a teetering, trembling energy of seeking and maintaining a shifting center. I remembered the concrete barriers that had surrounded us at the beginning of our journey, the wall of concrete steps that had loomed before us, and thought about thresholds we barely perceive as we move into the center of boxes that we allow to define us, to contain us.

"Sprouting from the Acorn" photo by Mykola Swarnyk, via WikiMedia.  CC License 3.0
“Sprouting from the Acorn” photo by Mykola Swarnyk, via WikiMedia. CC License 3.0

When she was ready, we continued our journey to the small high meadow on the far bank of the river. The earth was moist and spongy under the flattened grasses, muffling our footsteps as we neared the outdoor fireplace we would use as part of the Ritual. She laid her offerings on the hearth—small sea shells and stones—while I quietly chanted and marked the Quarters with my Stones, creating a sacred, holy space. I added my pocket Goddess and a few acorns to her altar. We stood facing North, attuning ourselves to the forest we would be walking after honoring the death of her Practice. The heart-shaped leaves of the basswoods flickered in the light autumn breeze, joined in rhythm by the leaves of elms, sugar maples, and black walnut trees. The breeze died away.

We poured an offering of pomegranate juice upon the earth, and sat on the hearth. She made a funeral pyre for her hopes and dreams out of torn intake forms, crumpled business flyers, and folded business cards, and lit a match to the pile. We watched in silence as these physical representations of all she had lost were transformed into rising smoke and glowing ash. The breeze returned, kicking the burned paper around the firebox, but she tended her fire, never taking her attention away from the destruction of all she had dreamed of, all she had worked for.

At last, only smoke remained. I took the bittersweet chocolate she handed me and passed it through the sanctifying smoke, chanting a short blessing over it. We sat in silence as we drank the juice of the pomegranate, that ancient symbol of rebirth, and munched chocolate, so bitter and yet so sweet. I opened the Circle and just as I finished, a trio of women—daughter, mother, and grandmother—emerged from the forest trail we were about to explore.

As they walked the perimeter of the meadow to the bridge, we widened our hearts to whatever wisdom might be offered to us; much like e.e. cummings, “[…] the ears of [our] ears [had awakened and […] the eyes of [our] eyes [had] opened.” She led on the trail; I followed, the river several feet below us down the embankment on our left, the forest rustling and whispering before us and on our right.

One hundred yards in, she stopped, picked up something nestled in the moss.

An acorn, split and sprouting a soft, determined tendril of shimmering green, its leaf tightly furled, pulsing with energy. With life. With potential.

In every end, a beginning.

What captivates my mind at the moment is contemplating the future of religion. Where will religion be by the end of this century? What will religion be like in the next century? How will monotheism change? What does the future look like for paganism? How will paganism evolve? Will paganism grow? I think it will grow, as paganism is a religion for our future.

When it comes to religion it appears true that everything old is new and vice versa. When Christianity came onto the scene, it was a new religion. The traditional religions of the Greco-Roman world had been around for centuries and well entrenched into the cultures of empire. Christianity was new, it was “oriental” and with that brought some people to it out of curiosity. Some willingly converted, but by in large Christianity was overwhelming forced onto the empire, out of fear, or political expediency people converted. Much like the new age wave of the late 20th century, Christianity was different and provided something new for people who were possibly experiencing religious fatigue.

"The Triumph of Civilization" by Jacques Réattu.  From WikiMedia.
“The Triumph of Civilization” by Jacques Réattu. From WikiMedia.

Religious fatigue is causing the religious landscape to change once more. Christianity is old. It is not the new religion it once was to attract the curious; it is also losing power to secular governments, thankfully. Another important observation, they are not producing enough new Christians via births to retain their dominance. Globally, monotheism is not dying out, Islam is positioned to become the largest religion by the second half this century.[1]Americans are also becoming more spiritual but less religious; Pew Research reports that over a quarter of adults identify as spiritual but not religious, up 8% from five years ago.[2] Atheism is also seeing growth, especially with millennials.[3]

What about paganism? Our Hindu friends are and will continue to face challenges from the onslaught of monotheism. For Christianity to secure its dominance (population wise), they will have to convert in large numbers. The number one target of Christian conversation is India, the last largest polytheistic population with an estimated one billion adherents. Project Thessalonica, a Christian missionary effort, is working to evangelize India. A sub-project of the Joshua Project II, they report that in India the “evangelical annual growth” is at 3.9%[4] It was reported earlier this summer that ten people were arrested for allegedly trying to convert tribal children of Jhabau and Alirapur region to Christianity.[5] There are also the reports of temple vandalism from Muslims.[6]

Every pagan should be mindful of the missionary activates around the world. Their goal is the eradication of indigenous (pagan) traditions, all done in the name of their god in the attempt to “save souls.” If such missionary organizations are to be truly successful, Hindus will become a minority in their homeland. They will then disappear like the Hellenes, Romans, Heathens and countless others.

While paganism faces challenges around the world, there is hope for continued growth and advancement. What is old is new again, paganism is new again. It is fresh and different while at the same time familiar. Paganism might seem obsolete to those outside of our big tent, it is relevant.

Because of the religious fatigue experienced by many, often caused by dissatisfaction with organized religion, paganism is providing fulfillment for people who were lacking spiritual satisfaction. Paganism is satisfying people; it is rewarding. For religion to be successful, it needs to be functional and meaningful. The religion has to mean something and do something for the adherent. People tend to leave Christianity, or whatever religion they followed because it lost these two essential qualities. Their birth religion did not provide meaning, fulfillment and left them wanting.

Paganism is a religion for our future because it provides fulfillment on the individual level and is productive on a societal level. Monotheism, while it can be fulfilling on the individual level, on a societal level, it proves to be a detriment. Religious extremism is one clear societal determent that is systemic within monotheism. Paganism, in my opinion, can eliminate this.

"The Pleiades" (1885) by  Elihu Vedder.  From WikiMedia.
“The Pleiades” (1885) by Elihu Vedder. From WikiMedia.

On the individual level, paganism offers personal religion that many people crave. One of the reasons Christianity is popular with people is the relationship with Jesus that many claims to have. Christians do not have exclusive claims to divine relationships, pagans also claim to have relationships with their god(s). The personal nature of paganism removes the need for an intermediary like a priest. People coming to paganism generally express dissatisfaction with organized religion, paganism provides direct access to divinity people want.

On the societal level, paganism is the best path that protects and advances multi-culturalism. The beauty of paganism’ polytheistic nature, is the diverse pantheons of various cultures. Every culture’s religion is seen as special and equally truthful. Within monotheism, however, this is not the case. Monotheism does not see other religions as equal in truth or worthy of protection. Historically, Christians persecuted pagans because the pagan religions were seen as evil. According to the early Christians, the gods were actually demons, the fallen angels from heaven. How can a religious system that views outside religions as demonic be an advocate for religious diversity and religious equality?

Monotheism also creates mono-culturalism, it does not defend diversity because diversity means different opinions and views from the “correct” views, which leads to conflict. Having different denominations of the same religion is not real diversity. Different cultural appearances of one religion do not create real diversity. True diversity is found in diverse cultures, expressing unique traditions, philosophies, pantheons, and literature. True diversity, a real multi-cultural society views these difference worthy of respect and preservation.

"Jonah and the Whale" by Pieter Lastman.  From WikiMedia.
“Jonah and the Whale” by Pieter Lastman. From WikiMedia.

If we want to end religious extremism, then paganism is the way forward. Religious extremism is fueled by monotheism’s claim of Absolute Truth in knowing God, his will, and what is proper for mankind. No deviation is allowed away from what is viewed as orthodox. This breeds violence and intolerance towards anyone or anything different.

If the world accepted a pagan mindset, in which religion is relegated to a culture’s tradition instead of the universal, we could end the fight of religious absolutism. In other words, religious relativism places Yahweh on the same level as any other god. Yahweh is not the supreme creator of the world, he is not anything special. Instead, he would just be seen as another god among many other gods. His “will” would be limited in reach, not a universal law.

Making Yahweh relative again, scaling him down from the lofting highest as the only one god would free humanity from their blind allegiance to him. A god which most of the world owes nothing to and does not really need. Unbinding the world from Yahweh can end religious extremism and restore harmony in the world.


[1] “Why Muslims Are the World’s Fastest-growing Religious Group,” Pew Research Center, last modified April 6, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/06/why-muslims-are-the-worlds-fastest-growing-religious-group/.

[2] “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual but Not Religious,” Pew Research Center, last modified September 6, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/.

[3] “Religious Landscape Study,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, last modified May 11, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-family/atheist/.

[4] Joshua Project, “India | Joshua Project,” Joshua Project, accessed October 29, 2017, https://joshuaproject.net/countries/IN.

[5] 71 Tribal Children Rescued in MP En Route to ‘Bible Camp’; Missionaries Claim Persecution -,” Hindu Post – Truth Alone Triumphs, Not Untruth, last modified June 11, 2017, http://www.hindupost.in/politics/71-tribal-children-rescued-mp-en-route-bible-camp-missionaries-claim-persecution/.

[6] Mauritius: 9 Goddess Kali Temples Attacked,” CT, last modified November 2, 2017, http://www.currentriggers.com/world/mauritius-goddess-kali-temples-attacked/.

I have an orange Jack O’ Lantern pumpkin plant now growing in my garden, so fingers crossed it makes it to harvest. I wish we could get those pretty ornamental gourds here in Australia like we have back in Tennessee, or even the plain kind we used to use for water dippers and making blackbird houses. Some gourds are good for decorating up and making rattles and drums out of, too. They have so many uses; there’s just something about squashes and pumpkins and gourds that I find magical and always have.

Photo by  Umberto Cancedda via Pexels.  CC0 License.
Photo by
Umberto Cancedda via Pexels. CC0 License.

Pumpkin is one of those staple foods you find here in Australia and all the grocery stores are full of them, but not the big orange pumpkins– you only see them at Halloween, as recently past, after which they evidently go back behind the mystic veil and don’t come out again until next year when the veil thins and witching time rolls back around. The rest of the time the pumpkins here are mostly all butternuts and kents and grayskins, more rightly winter squashes than true pumpkins – good eating, but not quite the same. The only other squashes we have are the little button shaped ones called pattypans, hardly what I’d call a proper Southern squash, but we scrape by with them as best we can.

I accidentally smuggled a yummy yellow crookneck summer squash back from the States in my carry-on bag after my recent trip there. Hardly anybody here has ever heard of them. I had bought it for a crunchy lunchtime snack on my last day in the country and then forgot all about it being in my satchel bag. Of course you aren’t allowed to bring back anything like plants or seeds or anything alive or that might become alive on account of this being an island and all, and lord knows we have enough invasive species here already. But somehow it slipped right past and I ended up at home with it without ever recollecting it was there until I unpacked. Even though it was immature, I tore it all apart and got all the seeds out and planted them anyway, but nothing ever came out of those seeds but sore disappointment and so I didn’t get to eat that last pretty crookneck squash neither. 🙁

So now we have Australian brush turkeys scratching up the whole garden, digging holes and looking for witchetty grubs as they are called, while making a pure havoc out of my veggies and witchy herbs. I’m not sure why they call them witchetty; they don’t seem especially witchy to me or of any use in making potions, although the original custodians of this land loved to eat them and they are supposed to be full of protein and quite delicious when fried up, a regular crunchy snack of a more Australian flavour. Probably tastes like fried chicken. They are pretty good eating raw right out of the ground too I guess, if you’re a brush turkey.

Now I need to figure out how to run those turkeys off from my garden, and all without offending their delicate poultry sensibilities seeing as how they are a protected species and all. And they know they’re protected, too. I saw one the other day walk right out into the street pretty as you please, just knowing nobody would dare to run him over, although he did look both ways before crossing. All in all I reckon those brush turkeys ain’t quite as bird-brained as you might first think.

Anyways, being a bit of an invasive species here myself I’d be much obliged if anybody has a good spell for keeping brush turkeys out of your garden while at the same time making them think it’s their own idea to leave and go looking for their witchetty snacks somewhere else. They are protected after all, unlike the poor dug up veggies in my garden.

For weeks, my morning Tarot meditation had yielded nothing but an annoyingly redundant, increasingly frustrating insight: “You’re stuck.” “I know I am,” I snapped snarkily at the layout, “but what are YOU!?”

Maybe it was time to give up the Old Gods, and begin again.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

A year earlier I had spent several days in and around Athens, Greece, exploring The Agora and its remarkably preserved Temple of Hephaestus (my husband’s favorite), as well as the Acropolis and its Museum, which happened to be hosting a temporary exhibit on the oracular site of Dodona.

In ancient days, Dodona was almost as important as the oracular site of Delphi. Nestled at the foot of Mount Tomaros, it was surrounded by fields and trees. Prophecies were interpreted by listening to the sound of the wind soughing through the branches and leaves of the oak trees, and by hearing the pinging patterns of acorns as they fell into the great kettle-like receptacles placed underneath. Dodona, which common folk visited to make personal petitions and prayers, was dedicated to Zeus and Dione. “Dione was described as ‘the temple associate’ of Zeus . . . [h]er name is simply the feminine form of Zeus (Dios).”

We were also fortunate to visit Delphi, site of prophecies that were of State-level importance. The site was held at one point by the Titan goddess Phoibe. Again, from www.theoi.com: “Phoibe was the third goddess to hold the great oracle of Delphoi (Delphi) which she in turn bestowed upon her grandson Apollon. Her name was derived from the Greek words phoibos ‘bright’ or ‘radiant’, phoibazô ‘to prophesy’ and phoibaô ‘to purify.’”

Returning home, I decided to add invocations to Dione and Phoibe to my daily Practice. Because I am very drawn to sets of three, I hesitantly added Hekate to the line-up. Thus, part of my incantation as I shuffled the cards became, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart always be acceptable to You, Ancient Mother, Dione, Oracle of Dodona; Phoibe of the Bright Intellect, Oracle of Delphi; and Hekate, Guardian of the Crossroads and Keeper of the Keys.”

Weeks passed and I felt a growing confidence in my connection to these Goddesses. I continued to study (and note this word, “study”, for it becomes important later in this Telling), and to learn more about the archeological sites associated with them. I bought a new Tarot deck by Lisa de St. Croix to celebrate my progress. My readings, which had already been fairly insightful, became more nuanced. Yup, things were just clicking right along. Until they weren’t.

Slowly, more Swords started showing up in my daily four-card spreads. The suits of Cups and Pentacles disappeared almost completely, though they would still make an appearance when I read for other people. Reversals became common. The Devil and The Tower made regular appearances. I felt increasingly disconnected from myself and the Goddesses I continued to call upon. Still, I maintained my daily Practice even though I did not perceive that I was getting anything out of it, knowing that daily Practices are not about having daily “aha!” moments. Instead, they are about cultivating Mindfulness and sharpening self-awareness. Almost a year after my “Come to Goddess” moments in Greece, though, I finally had to admit that This Wasn’t Working Anymore.

I put the cards on the shelf for a few days, then a week, and then a couple of months had gone by. Every now and again I would sit at table with one of my decks, just to see if my spiritual logjam had cracked free—the answer, with disheartening consistency, was “no.”

“Maybe,” I told my friend Andrea, “I’m studying the wrong gods.” “You mean praying to“, she replied. Uhm, no.

And there it was. I realized I hadn’t been venerating Dione or Phoibe (or Hekate) at all; I’d been asking that they help me out during Tarot card readings. I had researched their histories and knew all sorts of facts about the archeological sites associated with Dione and Phoibe, but I hadn’t been trying to connect with their Essences . . . and I had never truly opened my heart up to Hekate, which—it turns out—had a lot to do with me not opening my heart up to myself. After waiting about a year for me to get my spiritual rear in gear, they were giving me the message, “Guess what? The words of your mouth and the mediations of your heart are NOT acceptable to us!”


Altar, photo by the author.
Altar, photo by the author.

“Where do you feel most in touch with the Divine?” continued Andrea. “Forests,” I promptly responded. And so, the next morning I began to think about opening myself up to The Green Man as I shuffled my cards and cradled them in my palms.

I visualized an altar we had once created on an old bench of weathered grey stone set deep in an otherworldly grove of Norwegian spruce at the local Arboretum. We had limned the edges of the bench with fallen spruce fronds, and used what was at hand as icons of the elements. Slender cylindrical pine cones, their brown scales as tightly compacted as snakeskin, represented Earth. Desiccated maple leaves that had once danced in the passing breezes had been collected from an adjacent copse and now symbolized Air. Cooled charcoal from a controlled burn in the East Woods stood for Fire, and Water poured from my bottle completed our offering of thanksgiving. There, in the shadows of giants, we felt a momentary stillness steal upon us as we meditated on the altar we had created.

Focusing on the image of our rough-hewn, rustic altar, I thanked Dione, Phoibe and Hekate for the time they had spent with me and said a respectful goodbye, at least for the time being. I reminded myself that a relationship with the Divine is more than book-learning and research; it is a learning of the heart, a sinuous, sensuous intertwining of the soul with All That Is. A grounding of Self in the Holy.

I drew my one card.

It was the Knight of Pentacles which is, in the de St. Croix deck, The Green Man.

I resumed my daily mediation spreads—only two-card this time—and as the days spun into weeks my focus once again sharpened. I rededicated myself to spending regular, weekly time wandering the nearby woodlands. I resisted my natural inclination to immediately intellectualize experiences and instead leaned into being in and of the moment. Less talking. More listening. Less pridefulness, and so much more humility.

And eventually, the Gods were no longer silent.

This started out as a bit of a joke in a conversation on social media, but like many such things there’s some truth to it as well so I decided it was worth writing about here. I was discussing something in witchcraft and paganism that is a widespread belief but that I myself do not believe in and joked that I must be some sort of pagan heretic. Obviously this was a bit tongue in cheek as there isn’t any literal witchcraft-wide orthodoxy but on the other hand (or maybe the same one) there are several things that tend to be so common across wider neopagan witchcraft communities as to often be assumed of everyone.

What I mean by that is when out and about socializing with other people who consider themselves witches of the neopagan variety there are certain general beliefs that tend to simply be assumed as universal, even though they aren’t. Obviously it’s fine either way, to believe what many people do or to believe differently, but I have found there can be some serious push back when you are expressing beliefs at odds with most other people in a religious community. Hence the joke about heresy.

So, that all said, here’s a short list of a handful of my own heresies. It’s definitely not an exhaustive list.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

-Veil Between the Worlds: This was actually the topic that began everything. I do not believe in a veil between the worlds. I understand that it is a very popular idea and one that has become nearly ubiquitous among neopagans, but it is not a concept that works for me. Mat Auryn wrote a good article about the history of the term and in discussion I did get that there’s two different views out there: one which sees the veil as an actual separation between worlds and one that sees the veil as something within a person that occludes perception of the numinous.

Ultimately while I can intellectually grasp both concepts it just isn’t something that works for me on a personal level so I don’t use it. I see the worlds as separate and closely connected like two sides to a piece of paper, but with a lot of crossover, the way ink bleeds through from one side to another. Its just a more permeable barrier than a veil, for me, so the analogy of veil doesn’t work.

-Rule of Three: I hear this one a lot from people, especially when I’m talking about cursing. The knee-jerk response from people seems to be to warn me about the rule of three – this includes people I consider extremely good friends so I’m not judging those who do believe this in any way. The things is though, I don’t believe in any iteration of the rule of three.

I believe that actions have consequences and that we need to be prepared to deal with the consequences of what we do, certainly, but not that what we do has some instant moral judgement attached that brings back magnified good or bad. That idea, for me, would hinge on the universe itself having sentience and an immediate vested interest in judging and punishing every living person within it for each action. And my paradigm just doesn’t support that understanding of how things work. I’ll grant you that the universe is sentient, but not that level of vested personal interest.

"A Knight, Death, and the Devil" allegedly by Cornelis van Dalem.  From WikiMedia.
“A Knight, Death, and the Devil” allegedly by Cornelis van Dalem. From WikiMedia.

-The Devil: One of the single most common things I hear from neopagan witches is the claim that they don’t believe in the Christian Devil.  Okay. As it happens I do believe in the Devil, or Satan, or Lucifer, or whatever we’re calling him. I also believe in Yahweh, and Jesus, and Mohamed, and pretty much all the Gods and demi-Gods of every pantheon or culture out there. I believe they exist. But that belief in no way compels me to acknowledge or honour them, and therein I suspect lies the crux of the issue. I have my deities and spirits and I stick to them; but in no way do I deny the deities and spirits of other people, monotheism included. Yes I do understand that monotheism hinges on a belief that their deities and spirits are the only real ones, but I don’t believe in the tenets of those religions so it doesn’t bother me.

I believe the Japanese Kami exist without thinking that obligates me to follow any religion attached to them. I believe the Hindu Gods exist without believing that I must be Hindu or strive for Moksha. So yes, I believe that the Judeo-Christian God’s great adversary exists, but in no way do I feel obligated to buy the attached p.r. or follow the rules those beings lay down.

And before anyone decides to chime in and ask how I can believe in them and not be afraid of them on some level, I’ll say two things. Firstly my own Gods are who I deal with first and foremost and I have never had an issue with an ‘outside’ deity unless I inserted myself into something I didn’t belong in. Secondly having not been raised Christian I have no ingrained fear around this deity or spirit and I can think of a variety of pagan Gods and spirits that are just as scary or more so, but that doesn’t dissuade me from being pagan either.

-Fairies: In my experience many pagan witches view fairies as either nature spirits/elementals or a kind of Tinkerbell like spirit guide. I do not. For me fairies are, in all their dizzying diversity, what folklore has always described them to be. Sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful, entirely inhuman and sometimes inhumane, with their own agendas and purposes. This comes from my own experiences since childhood, my reading of preserved folklore, and my discussions with other people in cultures who still actively believe in these beings. This particular heresy has gotten me more criticism than you might expect (or maybe not) and I have heard a very, very wide range of criticisms for not holding to the modern pagan view. Still I persist because I  can’t see the logic of ignoring my own experiences as well as lived cultures beliefs on the subject.

Neopagan witchcraft is a hugely diverse group with a wide range of beliefs, yet there will always be those who form a kind of mainstream and those who are outliers. I am decidedly an outlier on these issues, and that’s okay. I’m comfortable with my heresies. I think we need heretics to keep us on our toes, to keep challenging the mainstream as it forms, even here in our niche minority religion. We need that challenge to orthodoxy of belief to keep people thinking and to challenge the wider community to keep striving to develop well articulated theology. And most of all we need heretics among our ranks to remind us that we are all heretics to the over-culture we belong to, so that we don’t become complacent and start to assume that there is homogeny and conformity. We are witches and we should be diverse in our beliefs and practices, not identical.

I hope we resist taming and choose to stay wild.

Pagans view the Earth as a sentient Being. We often define our spirituality as “Earth-Based.”  All around the world, Pagans take up social and environmental causes. We express our views through social media sites and peaceful demonstrations. We call our government representatives. We vote. We garden. We recycle. We take action on a daily basis to honor and mend our Mother, Planet Earth.

What additional action can we take when our voices are not heard by those in power? What else can we do? For those like myself, hexing is an option.

Photo from pxhere, public domain image, CC0 License.
Photo from pxhere, public domain image, CC0 License.

Hexing, Curses and Jinxing

Magical practices such as Hexing, Cursing and Jinxing are often viewed in a negative manner. Visions of “Witch Wars” or the use of witchcraft to settle personal grudges often comes to people’s minds when the words are mentioned. There are Traditions such as Wicca that discourage or forbid the practice of hexing under the tenant of “Harm None” or the ‘Rule of Three”.  For other Traditions hexing or cursing is a recognized part of the practice of the Craft.

Merriam-Webster defines hex as “to affect as if by an evil spell.”   A Curse is defined as “a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one” and Jinx as “to foredoom to failure or misfortune :bring bad luck to”.

I believe these terms are oversimplified and demonstrate the overall lack of knowledge and understanding of Witchcraft and its varied Traditions by the mainstream population.

Hexing is a tool that can be used when all mundane options have been exhausted in a situation.  There is a long history of people employing Hexes when they had no other way to obtain justice.

A Brief History of Hexes and Curses

In Ancient Egypt curses were often used as a means of protection in tombs. One of the most famous curses of all times is known as “The Mummy’s Curse.” The following inscription was placed on a stone of the pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, “Death Shall Come on Swift Wings to Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King.” This curse was thought to be responsible for the death of several people associated with the discovery of the tomb in the 1920’s.

The Curse of Tippecanoe, cast upon the American Presidency by Native American Leader Tecumseh during William Henry Harrison’s time in office, was credited for causing the deaths of every President elected in the year ending in zero. The curse was said to be lifted after former President Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt.

Objects can be the origin of curses as well. The Hope Diamond was stolen from a Hindu statue by a French merchant in India. It is said to have a curse attached to it. The large blue diamond is credited with the mysterious deaths of several of its former owners.

A Modern Case for Hexing: Pipelines

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipeline Projects are two current pipeline projects impacting my home state of Virginia. The DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) protests were highly publicized but have been ineffective at halting the project at this time.  Pipeline projects cut through vast lands and water sources. Personal properties rights are being eroded due to Eminent Domain laws. Despite numerous protests, legal battles, and even opposition from local governments, the projects are being pushed through. FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) recently gave its approval to both the ACP and MVP pipeline projects.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline will cut through properties that have been in my family for generations. I took this as a call to action on my part. After attending local meetings and protests to no avail, I hexed the pipeline project. Specifically, that it will never come to fruition. At this time, construction has not begun on the pipeline, but it does seem to be looming in the near future.

I will continue to express my views against the pipeline projects by attending meetings and protests. I will also continue hexing with the intent to delay the projects forever.

Hexing for a Higher Cause

Hexes and Curses are not a part of everyone’s path. And while most of us practice the Craft on a small level from day to day, I encourage everyone to consider the world around them and how they can be of help. Being of service to our community magically and mundanely should be a central part of all our paths.

I slipped two intentions into the cauldron during the last Full Moon Circle: the first, a fervent desire to release the generalized low-level anxiety I had been feeling over the past several weeks. (The second, I’ll write about in another post.)

Perhaps I could blame my mild hyper-vigilance on the Trump Effect, “an uptick in harassment and violence against racial and religious minorities after Trump’s election victory.” Or maybe my sense of unease had been a side-effect of the social-emotional punches several members of our Kindred had been enduring—suicidal ideations, hospitalizations, closings of businesses, significant injury, losses of jobs, terminations of marriages . . . the year seemed to have left no stone unturned—or friend unscarred—in our community.

Photo by Jeremy Perkins via Pexels.  Public Domain Image.
Photo by Jeremy Perkins via Pexels. Public Domain Image.

I returned to my place in the Circle, listening to the flames as they licked up the energies we had fed them. There was no crackling or popping, only a continual hiss, like a slowly indrawn breath softly whistling through a wind cavern. “When the flames die down,” I thought to myself, “my anxiety will change; it will be released.”

Except, that’s not what happened. I had forgotten that when transformation is invited, you’re no longer in control of what happens during the visit.

The flames did not die down; instead, they spurted higher, swirling several inches above the illusory boundary of the cauldron’s lip. I started to worry about how close the altar was to the back window of the Sanctuary, wondering how I was going to explain sooty glass to the church Board members. I fretted about how hot the tripod legs of the cast iron cauldron might be getting as they dug in to the altar cloth, and the table beneath it. Would the cloth smolder? Begin to flame? Would the table then catch fire? I had been granted what I had asked for: my anxiety had changed, but in the wrong direction!

“Well,” I thought, “this Ritual is lost on me.”

Except, it wasn’t. The meaning I made wasn’t in the moment; insight seeped into me afterward, after the flames had accepted and consumed our intentions, after they had tucked themselves back into their warm blanket of glowing ash and smoldering possibilities.

The experience of personal transformation generally contains an element, much like fire, that is only just under control, and when transformation enkindles—sometimes after much huffing and puffing and fiddling about with the kindling—it can roar into fierce and fearsome Being. One moment you are face-to-the-fire, blowing on scraps of paper, twigs, sharp sticks of Self resistant to change; the next instant you are set back on your haunches as sudden flames, with a deeply indrawn breath, leap out with greedy tongues to consume any- and everything they can gorge themselves upon.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

That moment—that spark—between latent potential and fiery metamorphosis can seem instantaneous, but the flames of personal transformation, once fed, take as long as they need to consume the fuel you’ve given up to them. Sometimes they take longer than the time you had thought to allot. Sometimes the flames consume a fuel—a sharp stick of Self—that you hadn’t realized you had offered until you watch it transmute into something you cannot recognize as having been a part of you. Too late for take-it-backs now; you’ve invited change into your life. Time to reap the firestorm wind, My Friend.

And sometimes, perhaps more often than we’d care to acknowledge, we can’t recognize—we don’t understand—what we are left with after our intentions have been offered to and accepted by the fires of personal transformation. We are different, changed, and—being not quite as we once knew ourselves—we don’t quite know how to move and live and have our being in the sameness of the world, in the predictability of our communities. We’ve been tempered, annealed . . . but into what, exactly? And how best to care for, to nurture our new and tender Selves while yet maintaining our commitments, meeting our obligations of family, of community?

I opened myself to personal transformation, and offered my old way of Being to her flames. I sought release, and instead was offered purpose. I sought control, and instead was set aloft. I sought a quick spark of change, and instead was given a slow-burning field of embers that even now is changing the landscape of my interior world, licking up the energies I released and transmuting them into something new.

Ground fires can smolder unseen beneath the surface of a forest floor, and so, too, has it been with me after our Full Moon Circle was opened last month. Threaded under the convivial post-Ritual chatter I heard a tentative new song of my Self testing out its emergent melodies. Some of the phrasings are yet forming, still in the composition process, but they have integrity. Some of the inflections seem to be harmonies I’ve never heard before; they are strange, but compelling. Unsettling, but comforting.

They sound like slowly indrawn breaths softly whistling through a wind cavern, catching me unaware, as entrancing as Circe herself.

Do you know the old saying, “Be open-minded, but not so much your brains fall out”? Though the skeptics who tout this quip might not be super-friendly toward the religious in general and Pagans in particular, there’s a certain amount of truth to the saying when it comes to defining Paganism itself.

"An Alchemist in His Laboratory" by David Teniers the Younger. F rom WikiMedia.
“An Alchemist in His Laboratory” by David Teniers the Younger. F rom WikiMedia.

Over the past years, in an attempt to be inclusive, the definition of Pagan has been broadened time and time again. To a certain extent, this is reasonable; some of this redefinition reflects growth and innovation in our community. Paganism is relatively new and still developing, and the definition needs to change with our understanding.

But there is a separate problem with this constant redefinition of Paganism. We mostly have come to rely on an operational definition of Paganism. It is commonly argued that “Pagan” is whatever people we recognize as Pagans say it is.

At that point, we have to admit that this definition of “Pagan” is no longer theoretical, it is simply a social construct. On the face of it, that is technically true of every word and symbol. However, this is a rhetorical position and not a productive one. (1)

When we decide that “Pagan” is a socially-defined grouping rather than a religious one, we quickly reach the point that, as Jason Mankey explores here, the term Pagan itself becomes “inadequate” – though I would go further to say irrelevant – as a means of describing our spiritual and religious activity.

Revitalization Movement

It sometimes seems Paganism has gone from being a revitalization movement (2) to a social movement. When we reach the point where Pagan membership is simply through self-ascription – “I’m Pagan and you can’t tell me I’m not!” – we’ve lost something important.

As a reaction to that trend of defining Pagan socially, I have developed a theoretical definition of “Pagan” religion that will allow me to at least think clearly about what is Pagan, and what is not.

While formally studying anthropology of religion, I examined the social structures that exist around religion. As scientific research, my observations were necessarily divorced from any discussion of actual religious experiences. That is, statements about religious experience were considered to be “social facts” and not examined spiritually, but only socially.

As to whether the religious practitioners were describing something real, imaginary, or in between, it was necessary for me to remain intentionally and willfully agnostic. Anthropology is science, and while we can observe and describe the social structures around religious experience, science cannot delve into those actual experiences in any effective manner. There is a gentleman’s agreement not to try.

My role now has changed; as a member of the Pagan community, I have a different seat from which to observe. As a group member, I am privy to insider views, have access to different kinds of evidence, and an welcome in different (and deeper) conversations.

From this very specific perspective, I have attempted to form a definition of Paganism that is an honest reflection on Pagan experience. Such a definition, while not scientifically admissible, is at least informed by the academy.

“The Great Sphinx” by David Roberts (1839). Read more at http://admin.patheos.com/blogs/agora/?p=16234#yr8dhRTk7u2oM0LG.99
“The Great Sphinx” by David Roberts (1839).
Read more at http://admin.patheos.com/blogs/agora/?p=16234#yr8dhRTk7u2oM0LG.99

Religion Defined

The first boundary we need is to define religion. A religion is a cultural structure that regulates interaction with the spiritual and sacred other.(3) This is slightly different from the definition that you might find in a textbook. Here we admit that there is an actual ‘other’ to contact. I think we can take it a bit further and say that we are so constantly in contact with it that we need tools to manage relations.

This defines religion pretty broad. Through this lens, Christianity is a religion, but so is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Spiritualism would be a religion, and so would Shinto.

This definition lacks many of the standard Western hallmarks of religion. It lacks specific reference to deities, dodges explanatory functions (4),ignores the creation of the universe, and ditches the metaphysical underpinnings of the social order. While these things can and do exist in religions, I believe it is key to realize that they are not the point of religion.

By common Western understandings of religion, the spiritual and sacred “other” is strictly defined. This makes sense when we realize that the purpose of religion is to put a name and face on something that is otherwise beyond description. It is through what we call religion that we extend ourselves from the everyday world to reach for something out there.

With that behind us, let’s see if we can get to describing what Paganism is.

"The Firmament "(illustration from Camille Flammarion's 1888 L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire)  From WikiMedia.
“The Firmament “(illustration from Camille Flammarion’s 1888 L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire) From WikiMedia.

Paganism Is Western

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, everything is understood in a relation to a single deity. They have texts that define and shape those relationships. When questions arise, it is to sacred texts, their commentaries, and the long history that members turn. Experiences outside of that framework are at best considered dangerous.

Because of the Judeo-Christian influence on Western thought, we have long attempted to understand other religions (and the religious “other”) through this same lens. We ask, what do they believe? who are their gods? who told them these things?

However, both Paganism and the New Age are variations from (or rebellions against) these Western norms. Neither gives strict definitions of the spiritual or sacred “other.” They are more a collection of sects and loose beliefs, a collection of practices and a broad field of experiences.

For Paganism and the New Age (I’ll differentiate them later), the first part of the definition is simple: they are Western. Paganism and the New Age are both Western religious phenomena. Non-Western religions are not part of the New Age or Paganism.

Non-Western practices studied under traditional authority and practiced within their original context simply are what they are. When they inform New Age or Pagan thought, they are being incorporated into something wholly different.

No matter how similar to a Pagan or New Age belief a non-Western practice is, it is neither part of the the New Age nor Paganism by the simple fact that it is not Western in origin or by tradition. For example, an American Shintoist is not a Pagan (5), but a Japanese Wiccan would be.

Pagans Are Not Judeo-Christians

The second part of the definition of Pagan is where we have to define what it is not. Paganism is not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Paganism might at times be shaped by Christianity and informed by its history, but that same truth can be said of just about every aspect of Western culture. (6)

While I understand John Beckett’s proposition that it is rhetorically problematic to define our Paganism by what it is not, I think it is necessary in a theoretical definition.

Certainly, we should not depend on being defined from the outside. On the other hand, within the Western context – which is by default set in some variety of Judeo-Christianity – we have little choice but to make this distinction.


Seeking the Spiritual and Sacred Other

Paganism is certainly more than simply what it is not. This broad field of “Western and not Judeo-Christian” is not a whole definition. We can take this still-broad field of practices and experience and divide it further.

While both Paganism and the New Age are attempts to recapture the spiritual and sacred other, Pagans attempt to unearth an “other” in a cultural or historical past. The New Age, by contrast, attempts to capture a different kind of “other” – one defined by geography and culture.

We can never know what the lost Western paganisms truly looked like. And without engaging non-Western beliefs in their original context, Westerners will forever try and fail to grasp non-Western beliefs in attempts to revitalize our own spirituality.

Still, at their best, these two – Paganism and the New Age – are honest attempts to grasp a spiritual and sacred other outside the realm of Judeo-Christianity. Western Paganism is a way of encountering and interacting with the spiritual and sacred “other” through a prism of a past that is Western but not Christian. It is, at its root, a revitalization movement.

Paganism is an attempt to recapture something thought long lost in the West. The impetus to do so is, I believe, a visceral and necessary one. After two millennia of religious monoculture, the West lost access to some of the wonder of the spiritual and sacred universe. Paganism is an attempt to get it back.

(1) The position that words mean whatever we want them to mean is technically true, for some definitions of “we.” This observation, while clever, is as useful as any sentence that begins with the word “technically,” as described in the web comic XKCD here.

(2) In short a revitalization movement is a “deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture”.

(3) I use the phrase “spiritual and sacred other” consistently in this post, and in line with my other posts, as a replacement for “the numinous.” I have been looking for a replacement for “numinous” since reading Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.

Otto’s conception of the wholly (and holy) other is completely bound with the notion of a transcendent other. It is inconsistent with my experience of non-transcendent spirituality. In short, the term numinous works perfectly for Christianity. Its utility for Pagans is limited unless we redefine its underlying assumptions. I would rather avoid the term entirely, distinguishing between the spirit and the sacred soul.

(4) E.B. Tylor, the founder of both anthropology and the first evolutionary model of religion, argued that the primary purpose of all religion is as an explanatory system for the world around us. For him, all religion was proto-science, to eventually be replaced by science itself.

(5) A Shintoist might be considered a (lowercase “p”) pagan in some circumstances, and in addition could be a Pagan separately. For numerous examples of the latter, see Megan Mason’s blog, Paga-Tama.

(6) I am not trying to wipe away any consideration of Christian/Pagan hybrid religious sects. Most of these syncretistic beliefs are meaningful in their own context and culturally interesting and informative. But to lump them into Western Paganism is to avoid deeper divisions that I suspect these practitioners are attempting to resolve.

       “[W]hy the myths are divine it is the duty of philosophy to inquire.”
        -Sallustius On the Gods and the World

Mythology is often the first exposure to Paganism that we experience. I can recall being exposed to Greek myths throughout my career in school. From elementary to college, mythology has been there. There is one problem with the way myth is dealt with in and outside of academia: it is not treated as a living tradition.

A living tradition by my definition is a tradition which is (a) functional and (b) meaningful for use as a way of life and understanding life. The functionality of a living tradition means that the tradition does something and it works for the followers of that tradition. Functionality leads to meaningfulness, which is the sense of purpose, wisdom, and knowledge.

"Nyx" by Henri Fantin-Latour.  From WikiMedia.
“Nyx” by Henri Fantin-Latour. From WikiMedia.

Functionality and meaningfulness are the two criteria I use when evaluating a tradition for their incorporation into my spiritual practices. Qabalah is a good example of this. Qabalah as a knowledge system provides function and meaning. It is a system that does something and works. Does that mean Qabalah is “true?” Maybe not in the way scientists think of what is true or not. But it is true if it works for you as a system of understanding and wisdom.

In academia, mythology does not receive the same treatment as world religions because of the notion that mythology is dead religion. While classicists do treat myth seriously, they only do so as an artifact of ancient culture. Myth functions as a means to understand a past culture, not as a means for living today, or understanding a current culture, or as a knowledge system for relating to the divine and the world.

The distinction between how we approach and understanding mythology in and outside of academia is obvious to me. The Crash Course series is a contemporary example of this. Crash Course offers free educational videos on various topics on YouTube. Among their various series, they include World Religions and Mythology. When you compare the discourse and evaluation of the two topics, you will notice they are dealt with differently. There is a more serious tone with World Religions compared to the comical treatment of Mythology, which often includes mocking and jokes.

Why is mythology treated like this? Why do we mock myth? Mythology is mocked because society views myth as primitive stories attempting to explain the unknown. Mythology is mocked for being thought of as false stories, fantasies, immoral, violent, and so on. Much of this comes from Christian culture which directed how we viewed the world. There were “pagan” critics of mythology, but I think we take those criticism to have more importance than they really had in their time, or maybe that we are not understanding the sense those criticisms had in their own context.

The mocking of myth is deeply rooted in our consciousness. On a visit to Poughkeepsie this year, I stopped into the local Barnes and Noble to muse around. I came across a book in the bargain section, Classical Mythology by British historian H.A. Guerber. It looked to be a solid book, comprehensive with many myths. I bought it, $8 was not a lot anyway.

As I read this book, the Judeo-Christian bias was apparent right from page one. The opening chapter addresses creation. The author writes that “among all the nations of the earth, the Hebrews alone were instructed by God, who gave them not only a full account of the creation of the world and of all living creatures, but also a code of laws to regulate their conduct.” Further on, Guerber writes that the other nations lacked such instruction and revelation by the Hebrew god. The Greeks and Romans lacked “definite knowledge which we obtained from Scriptures, and still anxious to know everything, were forced to construct, in part their own theory.”

Further in, when addressing the creation stories of Greece, Guerber recounts the story of Chaos and Nyx, the first two divinities to appear. From them are generated Erebus, Aether, and Hemera. Erebus dethrones his father Chaos and marries his mother Nyx. The author comments on this saying, “with our present views, this marriage was a heinous sin; but the ancients, who at first had no fixed laws, did not consider this union unsuitable.”

Reading three pages into the book and the author has disparaged the myths of Greece as immoral and ignorant. Greco-Roman polytheism is argued to be inferior to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Such an attitude and evaluation of myth reflects poor scholarship. The author’s attitude stems from improper understanding on Greco-Roman religion. Guerber reads the myths literally, a grievous error that many still fall into when reading myths. Many believers in the Christian tradition approach their texts with a literal eye. The Virgin Birth was literally a virgin birth. Jesus literally walked on water, raised the dead and would later be resurrected after his crucifixion. Applying this mindset to myths, with the presumption that the myths are untrue, will lead the reader to think one thing, how silly and crazy these stories are, how could anyone actually believe them?

"Perseus and the Graiae" by  Edward Burne-Jones.  From WikiMedia.
“Perseus and the Graiae” by Edward Burne-Jones. From WikiMedia.

       “It is requisite that those who are willing to hear concerning the gods should have been well informed from their childhood, and not nourished with foolish opinions.”
        -Sallustius On the Gods and the World

Literalism in myth plagues paganism today, as a carry-over from our exposure to monotheism. We tend to treat mythology as evidence for how the gods literally behave. In one of my first posts here on Patheos, “We Don’t Have Relationships with the Gods, or Do We?” – I questioned the assumption that relationships with gods were possible. The rebuttals I received cited myth as evidence of relationships between mortals and humans.

This brings us to two approaches to myth, the poetic and philosophic. The poetic approach views mythology as literal/concrete while the philosophic approach views myth as having deeper meaning. The latter requires little analysis while the former requires contemplation. Sallustius, writing in the 4th century of the common era, shows us the philosophic approach. In his On the Gods and the World, Sallustius explains that myths can be theological, psychical, physical, and sometimes material in their content.

If you are familiar with the story of Kronos swallowing his children, those without the theological understanding will simply be baffled by this tale. How immoral and evil Kronos must be to eat his own children! How could Greeks believe in this myth? It must be nonsense! Sallustius comments on this myth, and explains the theological teaching that “[s]ince god is intellectual, and all intellect returns into itself, this myth expresses in allegory the essence of god.”

Essentially what I am arguing here is that because “pagan” culture was effectively killed off, the seriousness and meaning of mythology was lost. Mythology and the gods are thus treated as subservient to monotheism, because either society won’t allow it to be equal, or we assume it cannot be equal. I think it is both.

Pop culture reveals our attitudes and how we play with things like religion and myth. Reflect back on the shows and movies you have watched that had to do with mythology in some way. How was it portrayed? You’ll notice a theme in how mythology is used.

Supernatural on the CW is one of my favorite shows because of its involvement with myth and religion. In this show, Dean and Sam are hunters, who travel around the United States killing monsters. Throughout the series they sometimes encounter gods. The gods are always causing trouble and doing harm, and Dean and Sam end up killing many of these gods. There is one episode where Dean and Sam end up at the Elysian Fields Hotel, where various gods are meeting to deal the oncoming Judeo-Christian Apocalypse that was started by Lucifer. Lucifer arrives at the hotel, confronts Mercury, calling him and the other gods “petty little things, worse than humans, worse than demons, yet you claim to be gods.” Lucifer goes on a rampage where he kills off almost all the gods in the hotel.

Only in our monotheistic world would such a plot happen. All of this stems from our loss of paganism as a legitimate living tradition. The divine mythology is degraded to fairy tales, shrugged off as irrational stories from primitive society. For mythology to be treated seriously once again, we must treat them seriously. Mythological hermeneutics needs to return. I ask that you revisit your myths and contemplate on their deeper meaning(s), dig beneath the surface of the story, you’ll find gold of wisdom underneath.

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