Janet and Gavin, Part 2: Pagan Spirituality

Originally posted on July 30, 2011 by John Halstead

Well, I had a wonderful evening listening to Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone talk at the book signing.  There I heard about an open Lughnasadh ritual scheduled for the following evening in Oswega, IL, that Janet and Gavin would be attending, so I went to that too.  The two experiences generated all kinds of topics for this blog.  But let me start with one: Pagan spirituality.

Janet and Gavin had wonderful stories about Wicca in the early years.  Janet in particular was full of venom for Alex Sanders and Maxine Sanders.  (On the other hand, she idolizes Doreen Valiente.)  Janet was full of anectdotes, but it was Gavin who had the outline for the talk, which was about the ideas in their book, Progressive Witchcraft.  Gavin’s thesis is that Wicca has evolved, and that is a good thing.
One thing that stood out to me during Gavin’s talk was this: that the one thing missing from witchcraft in the early days was spirituality.  In fact, according to Gavin, there was no Wiccan spirituality until the 1990′s.  (Gavin was initiated into Buckland’s Seax Wicca in 1986.)  He described how Isaac Bonewits did an informal survey at one point, asking Wiccans whether they felt that their High Priestess was actually calling down the Goddess.  According to Gavin, Isaac found that 70% did not.  He also quoted Aidan Kelly as saying that the Charge of the Goddess is the “great red herring” of Wicca; that the Charge was never meant to be recited at every ritual, but was something to fall back on if one did not succeed in calling down (being possessed by) the Goddess.
Gavin explained that actually connecting with deity is more important than Wiccan lineages and initiations.  For Gavin, “spirituality” seemed to mean ecstatic practice, generally — and true invocation, specifically, a.k.a. possession, what he calls “trance work”.  He seems to have been inspired by Voudon in this regard.

The growth of Wiccan “spirituality” or ecstatic practice probably is an outgrowth of contact with Victor Anderson’s Feri tradition.  Gavin’s observation that this occurred in the 90′s is probably a product of his foundation in East Coast traditional Wicca.  On the West Coast, in contrast, the eclectic group NROODG started as a group of college students seeking to recapture an ecstatic experience — and NROOGD and Feri met and cross-fertilized in 1971.  I think more recently, T. Thorn Coyle has been responsible for greater emphasis on ecstatic practice.  She herself is a product of the Feri tradition.

Interestingly, Gavin explained how he and Janet no longer relate to the gods as archetypes.  As I understood him, this is because he finds archetypes to be unapproachable, like God the Father or Brahma, in contrast to the Mary and the Saints, or Krishna.  Thus, he explained, that he has come to believe in the gods as individual beings — more like Voudun loa or Yoruba orishas — what I would call “spirits” rather than gods.  In fact, he said he preferred the term “deity” to “god”.  This correlates with his conception of spirituality as trance or possession.  I’m going to talk more about this idea as gods as individual beings later in another post.

One thing that was interesting is that Gavin seemed to have no problem working with multiple pantheons: Greek, Celtic, Egyptian, Voudon, and so on.  This is in contrast to the notion that I have heard frequently lately that crossing pantheons is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst.  More on this later.

Gavin seemed unaware that all of the deities he has encountered in his trace work had names he was familiar with.  I wonder why no previously unknown spirits or deities appeared.  Surely there are thousands of deities whose names have been forgotten, more than remembered actually.  I suspect Gavin would likely say that this is because only those deities who are remembered and who are once again being given energy through worship have the power to appear.  However, I suspect it is actually because his “trance” work is still a product of the conscious mind, rather than the unconscious.  When the unconscious speaks, it is not through the voice of Apollonian gods, but through the voice of Dionysian daemons (and I invoke the ambiguity in that term intentionally).

Interestingly, Gavin also described the Voudun deities as more demanding than the Greek or Celtic etc. deities.  He explained this as being a product of the fact that Voudon deities have been receiving energy from worship for a longer time than the Neopagan deities.  I wonder though if it is not a product of our unfamiliarity with loa/orishas.  They still seem exotic and dangerous to us, while the Neopagan deities have been domesticated by generations of scholarship and Neopagan writing.  Consequently, when invoked, the Voudon loa are more likely to be genuine products of our unconscious.  Thus, when they are invoked, we are more likely to be communicating with our id (which can be quite demanding) or our shadow, than when we invoke Neopagan deities.  The Voudon loa are much closer to chthonic daemons than they are to the ouranian gods.
Gavin also mentioned the aboriginals in Australia commenting that Neopagans are too “full of words”, too much in their heads.  This reminded be of something Carol Christ wrote about realizing that Wicca was yet another American head trip and that, by simplifying her ritual practice and tying it to the land, she was able to connect with the Goddess through her feet, rather than through her head.

I applaud Gavin for trying to develop the devotional and ecstatic sides of Neopaganism.  I would like to see Neopaganism purged of the Apollonian influences of ceremonial magic — the excessive wordiness, the head trips.  I think the growth of drumming in the Neopagan movement is step in this direction.  And think Gavin is right that the real purpose of Neopagan ritual should be to experience deity …
Which is why I found the ritual Gavin conducted the following evening to be so disappointing.  All of this has been a prelude to talking about last night’s ritual, which will be the subject of my next post.

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