American Neopaganism, Part 3: Past, Present, and Future

In this final part of my American Neopaganism series, I want to talk about different groups which represent, to one degree or another, the kind of open, eclectic, celebratory, and earth-centered (read non-initiatory, non-traditional/non-recon, non-esoteric, and non-deity-centered)Neopaganism I have been describing and calling “American Neopaganism”.

One very good example, which dates back to the beginning of Neopaganism in 1967 in fact, is Feraferia.  A lot has been written about Feraferia from Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moonon, and so I am not going to describe it in detail here.  I attended a Feraferia ritual at Pantheacon 2012 and I was very impressed.  If you want more information, check out this link.

Another groups that has great potential to be a celebratory tradition is the Covenant of Unitarian Univeralist Pagans (CUUPS).  Organizationally, CUUPS has the great advantage of having access to Unitarian Universalist meeting houses, while provide UU Pagans a place to gather with an expectation of privacy.  In addition, the humanistic orientation of the UUA lends itself to an open, eclectic, and celebratory practice, whether Neopagan or not.  However, CUUPS rituals tend to be Wicca-centric, often without realizing it.  Another drawback is that CUUPS groups try to be a kind of “generic” Pagan tradition and, as a result, tend to lack depth.  The UUA does have one earth-centered congregation, Gaia Community, located in Kansas.

For the rest of this post, I want to talk about some lesser known traditions and groups that might be considered examples of a distinct American Neopagan tradition.

The Pagan Way

As I described in my previous post, Ed Fitch’s Pagan Way, was really a “Neo-Wiccan Way”.  Initially he intended it to be an “outer-court” system for prospective Wiccan initiates, but it grew into a more celebratory tradition of its own.  In spite of this, most Pagan Way groves became essentially gateways to Wiccan covens.  This may have been a product of the Neo-Wiccan origins of the Pagan Way.

The first known Pagan Way grove was organized by Gardnerian priestess Donna Cole-Shultz  (“Lady Morda”) and Herman Enderle.  Cole and Enderle’s grove came to emphasize esotericism, secrecy, and magic.  The Temple of the Pagan Way became a training coven or our “outer court” gateway to initiatory Wicca.

In contrast, Penny and Mike Novack, organized a Pagan Way grove in Philadelphia which they hoped would be a celebratory group.  Margot Adler interviewed Penny Novack in her book, and Novack did not hide her vitriol for “occultists”, who she distinguished from Pagan “celebrants”.   Novack felt that the former could not “connect to the earth” and were stuck on a “pretty fantasy trip”.   She stated that, when she came to Neopaganism, she was not looking for witchcraft or magic, but wanted “goddesses and spiritual growth”.  Ultimately Novack and her husband left the Pagan Way when it was “flooded” with “occultists”.  Novack told Adler that she felt that Neopaganism needed more celebratory nature worship, and less training in Witchcraft.  Novack eventually converted to Judaism and began following a Judeo-Pagan path.

Gaia Group

While, the Pagan Way failed to develop into a celebratory Neopagan tradition and remained an adjunct to esoteric Wicca, another group,  the Gaia Group, went in the other direction, toward celebratory practice.  The origins of Gaia Group began in August 1973 in New York City by Roger and Crystal Tier.  Their group was first known as the Coven of Caerlleuad (Castle of the Moon) and was a Welsh Neo-Wiccan coven.  The Tiers observed how the feminist and queer Pagans groups were transforming Wicca from an attempt to reconstruct an ancient past and into a forward-looking movement and they sought to emulate them.  In 1985, to reflect their understanding that Neopaganism is a “universal religion”, they replaced the Welsh deities and mythology of their coven with a “Great Earth Mother” and “Great Sky Father”.  The term “coven” was also dropped, and replaced by “group”, in order to emphasize that Gaia Group was not attempting to recreate an ancient or medieval Paganism that may or may not ever have existed.

The Gaia Group began de-emphasizing secrecy, which the Tiers felt was both overused and misused in Wicca generally.  The “mystery” which Gaia Group hoped its members would experience was that quintessential religious experience that cannot be put into words.  Secrecy was used only to preserve the dramatic impact of initiation rituals.  As the Group evolved, its focus became less magical and more devotional.

The Tiers were inspired by Starhawk, especially her book, Dreaming the Dark.  They stated that they were disappointed by the collapse of radical activism after the end of the Vietnam War, and they might have become Quakers if not for Starhawk’s books.  Gaia Group began to encourage members to focus less on their own personal needs and more on communal activity, including the peace movement, environmentalism, and community service.  Advancement in the Group was dependent on social service, not just personal development.

The Gaia Group spawned a daughter group in Boulder, CO, and a “study group” in Tulsa, OK.  Gaia Group ceased to exists as a functioning entity in 1998.  Unfortunately, practically nothing has been published about the devotional practices of this small group.

Toteg Tribe

Joseph “Bearwalker” Wilson, was the founder of several Neo-Wiccan and Neopagan traditions, including the 1734 Tradition of Witchcraft, Metista (an American Shamanistic tradition), TOTEG (Temple Of The Elder Gods), and Toteg Tribe.  His autobiography “Warts and All” can be found here and is well worth reading for its honesty and for insight into the early years of Neopaganism.  For my purposes, Wilson’s story in particularly interesting for how he tried time after time to create a Neopagan tradition which was truly celebratory.  Each tradition he created brought him closer to this goal.

Wilson was introduced to Neopaganism while in the Air Force.  In 1963, he stared the first Neo-Wiccan newsletter in the U.S., The Waxing Moon.  Through the newsletter, Wilson corresponded with Robert Cochrane.  Cochrane’s tradition was distinguishable from Garnderian and Alexandrian witchcraft of the time, in part because of the focus on nature (as well as the influence of Robert Graves on Cochrane).

Wilson later worked with Ed Fitch on the Pagan Way materials.  He created the “Pagan Movement” in England, which was the sister organization to the Pagan Way in the U.S.  This organization later grew into the Pagan Front and then the Pagan Federation, which is still in existence.

Wilson was involved with numerous Neo-Wiccan traditions and organizations over the years and founded several of his own.  Each time though, he moved on, seemingly in search of something different.  The critical period came in 1977, when Wilson met Ernie “Longwalker” Peters, a Lakota Medicine Man.  Longwalker told Wilson:

“You know, Joe, if you or other white folks are really serious about our spirituality, you won’t go asking me, or us, or anyone else about what we believe, our ceremonies, our regalia, and stuff. Instead you will go out into the woods and talk to the sky, the earth, the rocks, the rivers, and the streams. And LISTEN to the answers, and listen to your ancestors. Only then will you start the long path to healing.”

This advice enabled Wilson to put together pieces of advice he had received from many other people over the years going all the way back to Robert Cochrane.

In response, Wilson created “Temple Of The Elder Gods” (TOTEG).  He said he wanted to call it “Temple Of The Earth Mother”, but he didn’t want people thinking he was “playing Indian”.  TOTEG eventually evolved into Toteg Tribe.  This new group (1) eschewed esotericism, (2) focused on the natural environment where one lives, and (3) favored connecting to the gods as we experience them today (i.e., Father Sky, Mother Earth) rather than ancient deities from other cultures.  They intentionally avoided culturally specific names of any kind, whether they be Greek, Celtic, etc., and also any ritual forms that were Neo-Wiccan.  At the time, this was radical.  Wilson writes:  “The challenge was to connect directly with our ancestors and the Gods and to discover ways that were appropriate to them based on where we lived.”

In spite of Wilson’s insistence that TOTEG avoid borrowing from other cultures, it seems to me TOTEG still has a certain Native American flavor.  This is probably because Wilson was strongly influenced by Native Americans, including Ernie Longwalker, mentioned above.  He was also influenced by Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism, which also has a Native American flavor.

Toteg Tribe has active circle in Utah, but otherwise is is largely non-existent today.  Fortunately much of the Toteg liturgy and philosophy have been published and is still available by joining the Toteg Tribe Yahoo discussion groupMore information regarding Toteg can be found at AmericanNeopaganism.com (for a few more days).

Wilson’s story actually inspired me to start this blog — which I initially titled “Temple of the Earth Mother”.  I was inspired by Wilson’s journey, how he gradually shed the esoteric trappings of Wicca and came to believe that we must develop a spiritual practice by listening to the gods and to nature and figuring out experimentally the best ways to connect with them.  Toteg Tribe is non-dogmatic, but a good summary of the Toteg mindset can be found in this article, part of which I excerpt here:

“Totegers focus on the land and spirit of the place where they reside. This focus does not preclude, but does precede, focus on the cultures or lands where their genetic forbears came from. If there is a ‘Toteg Deity’ other than the Earth Mother, and the Sky Father, it is probably the ‘Genus Loci,’ which is at once the same God, and a different God, for every place on earth. Other Deity forms, such as cultural archetypes of a particular person’s heritage, may also be honored. But ways of connecting with these Deities, in Toteg Tribe terms, will still emanate from one’s present and active connections with the Genus Loci.”

Naturalistic Paganism

Naturalistic Paganism is not (yet) a tradition in itself, but more of a family of related paths and interest groups.  I cannot due justice to the diversity and depth of this movement here, but the core values are:

1.  A naturalistic philosophy that rejects all forms of supernatural or magical causation, personal deities, and revelation.  Naturalistic Pagans see the scientific method as equally applicable to “spiritual” matters as secular ones.  The material and the “spiritual” are not experienced as distinct.

2.  A sense of wonder or awe at nature and the universe which moves one to expressions of reverence and celebration.  Naturalistic Pagans promote respect and care for the earth and non-human communities.

3.  An aesthetic sense that expresses itself in poetry, narrative, music, and ritual action.  Naturalistic Pagans do not seek to reconstruct a Pagan past, but find inspiration in ancient Pagan and Neo-Pagan mythology and practice.

These values tend to make Naturalistic Pagan groups open, eclectic, celebratory, and earth-centered.  Some of the more notable expressions of Naturalistic Paganism can be found at:

Jon Cleland Host’s Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group Jon Cleland Host,

B. T. Newberg’s Humanistic Paganism community blog,

Glenys Livingstone’s Pagaian Cosmology tradition (she also has a book), and

Cursus Walker’s Druid Order of Naturalists website.

Naturalistic Pagans tend to overlap with other groups, including: Spiritual Naturalism (examples of which include Thomas Clark’s Naturalism.org site and Daniel Strain’s Spiritual Naturalist Society site), Religious Naturalism (examples of which include Michael Cavanaugh’s site and J. Ash Bowie’s Sacred River), the World Pantheist MovementCUUPS, some forms of Neo-Druidry, non-theistic Quakers, and other pantheists, humanists, and atheists.  These groups have begun to create a religious calendar and a naturalistic mythology.  Naturalistic Pagans have much to offer other Religious and Spiritual Naturalists in the area of liturgy.

Naturalistic Pagans have demonstrated an admirable ability to use social media to connect with like-minded people.  It remains to be seen, however, if these groups will be able to create genuine community and inspire social action, or whether they will remain limited to the virtual community of the Internet.  I am also interested to see if Naturalistic Paganism can act as a counterbalance to the growth of “deity-centered” Paganism and “hard” polytheism in the Neopagan community.

Conclusion

Recently Glen Gordon authored a guest post at HumanisticPaganism.com.  Gordon is the creator of the website, PostPaganism.com.  He defines “Postpaganism” to refer to “anyone who grew out of the ceremonial and occult-revivalism of neopaganism into a more land-based orientation concerned with respectful relationship with their ecological community.”  It says something about the state of the Pagan community today that Gordon would consider a “land-based orientation concerned with respectful relationship with their ecological community” to be post-Pagan.

I believe that an earth-based, non-occultist path is Pagan, not post-Pagan — and more “Pagan” in fact than those paths which are more influenced by Wiccan esotericism.  While celebratory Neopaganism may never have represented the the majority of Neopagans, it is a thread which runs through the history of the Neopagan movement, from its inception in 1967 with Feraferia up to the Naturalistic Pagans of the present.

I started the American Neopaganism website with the hopes of both defining this distinct tradition and encouraging its growth.  I called it “American Neopaganism” in order to distinguish it from Neo-Wiccan traditions influenced by esotericism (which originated in England) and from Reconstructionist Paganism (which sought to revive European paganism) — as I described in Part 1 of this series.  However, I have come to realize that American Neopaganism, as a movement, became intertwined with Neo-Wicca at a very early point and that separating the two is very difficult at this point — as I described in Part 2 of this series.

The celebratory tradition I hoped to highlight is actually a small strand in the tapestry of American Neopaganism.  This celebratory tradition does not represent the whole of American Neopaganism, which is now largely Neo-Wiccan.  While I believe this celebratory tradition does represent the essence of American Neopaganism, distinct from the esoteric influence of Wicca, I don’t want to fall prey to a kind of Neopagan fundamentalism.  The truth is, I have never been wholly satisfied with the name.  What I need now is a new term to describe this open, eclectic, celebratory, and earth-centered family of traditions, which began with Feraferia and continued through to the present where it finds its current expression in groups like Toteg Tribe and groups of Naturalistic Pagans.

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  • http://druishinthedesert.wordpress.com wilderquill

    I like this series, John. Good work, and I’m going to recommend it to friends.
    I admire the work you’ve done here, and I can relate to your questioning of what it means to be a modern Pagan. My Pagan foundation was also in a very naturalistic non-deist expression inspired by the truth of nature and life. I admit I do return to that simplicity quite often, but also find the lessons of mythology and the struggles of the ancestors, gods, and goddesses inspirational in my life and feel that they (whatever they are) deserve an offering now and again for that.
    Very interested in the Druid Order of Naturalists – not sure how that one flew under my radar.

    -Todd.

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

      Thanks Todd. Personally, I find offerings to be a very powerful experience too, even though I don’t believe “anybody” is receiving them.

  • http://twitter.com/postpagan Glen Fishbowl Gordon (@postpagan)

    I have found all three parts of this series some of the best explanation of contemporary paganism. I see much of my own struggle with pagan identity in what you have written. I call my self a postpagan ironically with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I agree with you when you say “I believe that an earth-based, non-occultist path is Pagan … and more “Pagan” in fact than those paths which are more influenced by Wiccan esotericism.” which is exactly the sentiment that lead me to throwing my hands in the air, relinquishing my identity as a “pagan” and calling myself a postpagan because I could not find another term, and I figure moving forward will lead me back to the beginning which is wherever I find myself living and breathing in the present moment.

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

      I picked up on the tongue in cheek. Your observations about Neopaganism are, in my opinion, right on point. Oh my gosh, I just discovered your site as I was finishing this series and I wish I had found it before. I am working my way through your posts, and so much of what you have written resonates with me. In fact, I’m working on a post right now just highlighting the work you’ve been doing. I know what you mean about throwing your hands up. I fluctuate between obsessing about these abstract matters and then needing to run outside and plunge my fingers into the earth. That dynamic is kind of at the heart of this blog.

      • http://twitter.com/postpagan Glen Fishbowl Gordon (@postpagan)

        Thank you John. I’ve been keeping my eye on your blog over the last few months, and suspected we have a lot in common. Feel free to send a message on the contact link at postpagan.com if you would like to discuss things in private.

        • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

          So, postpagan.com seems to have dropped off the ‘net. Anyone know if it’s been reborn elsewhere?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

            That’s funny that you should ask that. I just emailed him about humanistic paganism.com and the email got bounced back to me. So I went to no unsacred place and noticed that he hasn’t posted there for a while. So I sent Lupa the editor there an email and she said she would check with a friend and see if he’s okay.

  • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

    I like that you chose “Naturalistic Paganism” as the umbrella label rather than Humanistic. I do wish I had chosen Naturalistic for the HP blog.

    Would you mind changing my name to B. T.? I try to avoid drawing google searches on my full name.

    Finally, Glenys’ PaGaian has three groves I think, so it might be better described as a full-on tradition than just a “book.”

  • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

    Oh, also on this page please:
    http://www.americanneopaganism.com/blogs.htm

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

      All done.

  • http://natureblog.blogspot.com Chas Clifton

    When I wrote Her Hidden Children, I was think a lot about how American attitudes about nature and spirituality — “nature religion” in the broadest sense, influenced British Wicca, which was a sort of imaginative reconstructionism.

    It certainly changed WIcca — I was not thinking so much about Wicca’s move away from the Westen esoteric tradition. Penny Nowack’s comments are appropriate.

    Now is the growth in “Traditional Witchcraft,” hedgewitchery, “the crooked path,” and so on, actually a move back towards esotericism.

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

      It certainly seems that way to me. Chas, I would very much like to hear why you think this move away from “nature religion” is happening.

  • JS

    This was a fabulous article. I’d noticed some of these same things with esoteric paganism. I still need to take time to follow some of the links.

    I also saw that your American Neopaganism site says it’s going offline on May 15. Is that permanent, or are you moving to a different site then?

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

      JS, the site will return eventually, but in a different format, so all of the information on the site now will not be available.

  • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

    Forgive the post necromancy, but this series was excellent. Thanks for your hard work on these; I had missed them in the past!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

      Thanks!


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