Pagan Archetypes

Over at Alison Leigh Lilly’s blog, Peace, Poesis, and Wild Holy Earth, she brings some wonderful insight to the question of Pagan (in her case Druid) identity:

“As a religion, modern Druidry has grown up around the archetype of the Druid as the wise sage, the inspired poet, the bright-eyed seer and the lover of nature. That archetype of the Druid is the acorn from which the oak of Druidry as a religion grows and expands, reaching limbs in all directions, sending down roots deep into the earth and the present moment. The Druid archetype is the ideal that helps to shape and guide the religious lives of those who practice Druidry — just as the acorn contains within itself the genetic patterns necessary to create the mature oak, and yet each oak itself must draw nutrients from its immediate environment and will grow in its turn to fit its own place and time. No two oaks that grow in the wild will be the same, and that process of growth is never-ending as each new branch, twig, leaf and root seek their own way towards sunlight and soil.”

I think what Alison says about Druidry could be said of Paganism, Witchcraft, etc.  It is perhaps the archetypes of the Druid, the Pagan, the Witch, the Magician and so on that are the seeds of our respective identities, more than the reality of any ancient Pagan past.  I also appreciate Alison’s observation that these archetypes do not limit or circumscribe our respective identities, as each of us has to grow our identity in the present, and each of us will do so in a different way.  But what can bind us together is the shared archetype.

So, Alison is a Druid because the image of “the wise sage, the inspired poet, the bright-eyed seer, and the lover of nature” calls to her.

“Druids Cutting the Mistletoe on the Sixth Day of the Moon” by Henri Paul Motte

And I call myself a (Neo-)Pagan, because the image of the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest non-Christian calls to me.

“The Youth of Bacchus” by William Bouguereau

While others are called by the image of the Witch, the powerful woman on the margins of society, the healer and visionary.

Of course, the Pagan and (even more so) the Witch archetypes are different from the Druid, in that they have strong negative connotations in our society. (I have never known someone to be called a Druid in a pejoritive sense.)  But for some of us, it is precisely because these terms carry negative connotations that we embrace them and seek to reclaim them.  Part of the reason I identify as (Neo-)Pagan is actually because the term is synonymous with irrelegion and hedonism for many Christians, and because my religion is so different from Christianity that some Christians don’t even recognize it as a religion.  (Check out this article on Pagan religion in the world’s least “religious” country, recently posted on Wild Hunt. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/worl…..e-14635021 )  I like the challenge that the name “Pagan” presents to others.  And I suspect that many who identify as Witch feel the same.  As Cynthia Eller writes in Living in the Lap of the Goddess:

“For spiritual feminists, being a witch, saying one is a witch, is most often a feminist statement, the symbolic encapsulation of a feminist political program. The witch is the powerful outsider, the despised and excluded person who is threatening the established order. All women are witches, according to some spiritual feminists, whether they want to be or not, because they possess nature (female) powers linked to childbirth and their intimate communion with nature, and they are therefore compelled to be outsiders to a male-dominant society.”

(See also Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s article “From the Devil’s Gateway to the Goddess Within: The Image of the Witch in Neopaganism” in Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions).

“Druid” also seems a little different because it actually was a specific religion, or as Alison points out, a class of people in a specific religious culture.  Perhaps this is part of the appeal of the Druid archetype.  As I understand it, “Pagan” and “Witch” were always pejoratives that were applied by people to outsiders and never really embraced by anyone until recently.  I’ve heard (read) people from hereditary witchcraft traditions say that their grandmother or whatever told would acknowledge that other people might call what they do “witchcraft”, but they eschewed the terms themselves.

I am curious though if the archetype of the Druid, “the wise sage, the inspired poet, the bright-eyed seer, and the lover of nature”, like the archetypes of the Pagan and the Witch which our modern identities grow out of, is really more a product of Romanticism than any genuine reflection of an ancient culture.  I suspect that Ronald Hutton addresses this in his recent book, Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain, which I still need to check out.

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  • http://twitter.com/alileighlilly Alison Leigh Lilly (@alileighlilly)

    Thanks for such a thoughtful response to my post, John! By the way, you mention at the end of your post:

    “I am curious though if the archetype of the Druid, “the wise sage, the inspired poet, the bright-eyed seer, and the lover of nature”, like the archetypes of the Pagan and the Witch which our modern identities grow out of, is really more a product of Romanticism than any genuine reflection of an ancient culture. I suspect that Ronald Hutton addresses this in his recent book, Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain, which I still need to check out.”

    Hutton does address that — in both that book and his shorter, more layperson-friendly book The Druids. In fact, The Druids is organized into chapters according to different archetypes that the figure of the Druid has symbolized throughout history, including things like the Wise Druid, the Green Druid and the Rebel Druid — which kind of goes to the point that you make. The archetype of the Druid also includes the archetype of the rebel or outsider, the wild man/shaman who dwelled in the forest among the beasts. I think that’s one reason why Druidry called to me so strongly — it embraces both the wild and the civilized, the liminal and the social. I’d definitely recommend Hutton’s The Druids if you’re interested in the archetypes of Druidry and want a slightly shorter read, since Blood and Mistletoe is somewhat of a dry, academic slog. ;)

    As for romanticism…. I think it gets a bad rap. There’s something about our modern, cynical age that seems to shun any emotional involvement or sentimental attachment to the natural world (and the dreams of imagination) as dangerous, maybe because it seems to make us vulnerable or less than in complete control. I’ve discovered that in almost every art medium, there’s a taboo against “nature” art — nature poetry, nature painting, etc — because it’s considered sentimental, overly romantic and even lazy. And in many cases there are artists who feel they can only engage with that subject matter if they do so in a way that emphasizes irony, distance or morbidity. But doesn’t that just point to the subtle but persistent belief in our modern society that our human-ness comes from our separation from (the rest of) nature and our need to assert ourselves against it? Somehow, I don’t think that my Celtic ancestors were all that worried about whether or not they were indulging in romanticism… The very concept of “romanticizing” is inherently modern.

    For me, intellectual integrity demands that I embrace the whole spectrum of my animal mind, not only the rational aspects but the parts of me that respond to symbolism, mythology and aesthetics. It’s inspiration and imagination that let us create a rich, full and complex living tradition even when we run up against lack of evidence. :)

    • http://naturalpantheist.wordpress.com naturalpantheist

      I like that last point you made Alison – about embracing the whole of our selves, not just the rational side. I find it difficult to let go of my rational side most of the time and I think that’s why Druidry appeals to me – it encourages me to pursue my imagination and creativity and helps me become more balanced.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      “As for romanticism…. I think it gets a bad rap. There’s something about our modern, cynical age that seems to shun any emotional involvement or sentimental attachment to the natural world (and the dreams of imagination) as dangerous, …”

      I agree. I’m a proud Neo-Romantic. To paraphrase Novalis, I seek to educate my senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite. I think this makes a great description of Paganism.

      I like how you defined Romanticism in terms of connection.

      “I’ve discovered that in almost every art medium, there’s a taboo against “nature” art — nature poetry, nature painting, etc — because it’s considered sentimental, overly romantic …”

      I suspect this is why some of my favorite painters, William Bougereau and the Pre-Raphaelites like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John Waterhouse, and John William Godward, are considered “kitsch”.


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