I delivered the following speech at a multi-faith discussion event on the subject of Freedom at Chatham Unitarian Church on July 20th 2017.
I’d like to play you an excerpt from a song by British rock band Inkubus Sukkubus. This band is popular in the British Pagan community, as they frequently sing songs about nature worship, witchcraft and other songs with a Pagan theme.
You can learn a lot about how Pagans view themselves, and the movement to which they belong, from listening to an excerpt of an Inkubus Sukkubus song called “Craft of the Wise.”
Excerpt from “Craft of the Wise”
Inkubus Sukkubus (1995)
Across a thousand nations
And forty-thousand years
The teachers and the healers
We are the Craft of the Wise
The Old World and the New World
Remember the nature people
We who were persecuted
And we shall rise again
Chorus: And we dance round, hand in hand
We are at one with the tides and the land
We are wild and we are free
We are wild and we are free
But the tide is ever changing
The Wheel ever spinning round
And in the heart of the dying Empire
Was born the Church of Rome
And they did rise, but they shall fall
And all their lies shall be seen as lies
And the world shall be free from the yoke of guilt
And they shall be no more
The lyrics of this song reveal much about the Pagan mindset and ideology. It should be stressed that these ideas are not shared by all Pagans, and it also should be stressed that not of all these ideas are necessarily true. But they do reflect a narrative that is commonplace in the Pagan public mind, largely thanks to its repetition in popular Pagan culture such as songs like this.
So what ideas have been reflected in “Craft of the Wise?”
Firstly, Pagans believe themselves to have a deep, special connection to the natural environment – the “nature people” – and that thanks to this connection, Pagans have access to particular knowledge and wisdom.
Secondly is the idea that Paganism as a religion spans millennia – “forty thousand years,” if Inkubus Sukkubus are to be believed. Moreover, the modern Pagans today may see themselves as directly connected to those practicing nature worship in the past. They may see their religion as one that has continued more or less unbroken throughout the ages.
Thirdly is the idea that Pagans represent a persecuted people and that the main perpetrator of this persecution has been Christianity – the “Church of Rome,” as referenced in the song. Pagans see themselves as rebels, defying a religion that may once have persecuted them as heretics and sinners.
And fourthly, which is of course the main topic today, is the repetition of the notion of freedom: “We are wild and we are free,” as the song goes. Pagans believe that their path sets them free.
In this talk, I’d like to talk about some of the ideas raised in “Craft of the Wise,” as I believe that ultimately they all relate to this broader theme of freedom.
Introduction to Paganism
Let’s begin by trying to get an idea of some of the basics about Paganism.
People who call themselves Pagans today are part of an extremely broad spiritual movement that has no single set of beliefs, practices, or texts. The one thing that Pagans share in common is that their practises are inspired by pre-Christian religions, often from Europe. This includes the religions of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts, Vikings, and Egyptians. Other characteristics that Pagan beliefs often share include polytheism, an emphasis on venerating the natural world, a focus on ritual and action rather than philosophy, and a belief in magic and witchcraft.
Despite what Inkubus Sukkubus sing in Craft Of The Wise, Paganism in the form in which myself and others like me practice today is for the most part a modern phenomenon. The first modern Pagans, or “neo-Pagans” as some call them, have their origins in the Romanticist movement of the 18th-19th centuries. In the 19th century, Europe also saw an increased interest in the occult, as well as a feeling of nostalgia for rural traditions as Europe begin increasingly urbanised. These waves of interest in ancient pre-Christian beliefs and practices continued until reaching a peak post-war, in which various writers popularised paganism and witchcraft. The ideas expressed by these writers gelled well with social movements of the 60s and 70s, such as the hippie movement, environmentalism, feminism, and the decline of Christianity in many parts of Europe and America.
Today, there are a wide variety of Pagan paths. The most popular form of Paganism is Wicca, which is centred on the worship of the God and the Goddess and places emphasis on Witchcraft. Another popular form of Paganism in the UK is Druidry, which is inspired by the beliefs of the Celtic peoples and is shamanic and nature-orientated. Other Pagan paths include Heathenry, which is based on the beliefs of the ancient Anglo-Saxons and Vikings; Hellenism, which focuses on the Greek pantheon; and the Goddess movement, which devotes its energies to the veneration of the feminine. These are just a few examples of the wide variety of Pagan paths out there, but what’s important to remember is that a large number of Pagans generally do not stick to one specific path. Many are eclectic, incorporating bits and pieces of paths that make sense to them. Pagans might even worship deities from different pantheons together, or combine their Pagan beliefs with those of other faiths. I myself practise Western-style Paganism in combination with Japanese Shinto. Paganism can be both solitary or group-orientated, and when Pagans do get together as a group, it’s common for the group not to follow one specific path.
Now I’ve given a little outline of the basics of Paganism, I’d now like to talk more about the idea of freedom in relation to the Pagan path.
Nature as Freedom
Firstly, Pagans believe that being closer to nature makes them free. You could say that nature is the ultimate expression of freedom as nature is inherently untamed, in contrast to human society which is controlled and regulated. In deepening their connections with trees, rivers, standing stones, mountains and other natural phenomena, Pagans believe they are liberating themselves from the constrains of human society, and getting back to a more primal state in which are no societal obligations to fulfil.
Somewhat related to this point is the idea that Paganism represents freedom from authority. Paganism is founded on the folk traditions of the general populace, rather than the teachings of a particular individual or institution. This is partly true for pre-Christian pagan beliefs, and certainly true for modern Pagans today. Paganism has no founder, no leader, no centralised institution, no holy book, and no clergy. In fact, Pagans tend to reject any hint of authoritarianism. Attempts to turn Paganism into a path constrained by a single doctrine, or to give Paganism a single voice, are largely met with resistance in the Pagan community. As many within the community comment, trying to impose rules and structure on Pagans is like trying to “herd cats;” an apt description, not only because cats are a favoured animal among Pagans and witches, but also because cats are an enduring symbol of liberty. As David V. Barrett says in A Brief Guide to Secret Religions:
“It is arguable that one of Neo-Paganism’s greatest strengths is its diversity. Although there is sometimes rivalry and mutual criticism between different traditions and groups of Neo-Pagans…there is probably far more commonality between them, and mutual support in the face of opposition, than there is between the many variations and offshoots of Christianity.”
You could say that Pagans are in fact united as a community because the majority believe in liberty, diversity and respecting each other’s individual paths, rather than enforcing rules and dogma. It is because we believe in individual freedom.
Author Nina Lyon, who has written books about her own eclectic, liberal form of nature-based spirituality, has described her beliefs as “punk religion.” I think that “punk religion” is a very good description for Paganism. Paganism is a religion that rebels against the traditions of many organised religions both by defying concepts like idolatry and blasphemy, and by letting its followers interpret Paganism however they see fit. As such, Pagans frequently see themselves as counter-cultural and non-mainstream, not only in their spirituality but in other aspects of their daily lives and views of the world.
Freedom of Thought
There’s another reason why I think “punk religion” is an apt label for Paganism, and that is the idea that it encourages freedom of thought and the imagination. Paganism as a movement has long history of creativity. Like the Punk movement, which rejects cookie-cutter, factory-made materialism in fashion and music in favour of individual expression, Paganism seems to attract a lot of imaginative, artistic types. The majority of Pagans I know have some kind of creative hobby: Drawing, writing poetry and novels, singing, baking, and creating beautiful objects of art, to name but a few.
I think that to be a Pagan, you need to have a degree of creativity and imagination, because Paganism has no real texts giving instructions on to how to practise the religion and to live one’s life. There are no firm rules as to how one should be Pagan.
What’s more, a great deal of creativity is encouraged in Pagan rituals. Most practitioners of Paganism seem to agree that Pagans gain a lot spiritually by creating their own ritual, rather than copying one written by another word-for-word. Pagans may also write poetry or songs to perform during a ritual, and playing instruments such as a drum at ceremonies is not uncommon. This creativity extends to altars as well – although there is some guidance as to what is appropriate on a Pagan altar, Pagans tend to put a lot of imagination into their altar designs. And then of course there’s the tools,offerings, incense, oils and other items used in Pagan practice….all of these can be home-made and many books on Paganism come with instructions for making these.
Imagination and creativity is central to witchcraft as well. A key aspect of many forms of magic is visualisation – the act of seeing in your mind’s eye what you want to achieve. A practitioner of magic may use visualisation throughout ritual: They may envision the energy they are summoning as something like light or electricity, or the elements embodied in the form of supernatural beings, or the presence of their deities in the Circle. For a magic worker, the barrier between the physical world and the world of the imagination is tenuous, or even illusionary.
And for those many Pagans who try to live an environmentally-friendly lifestyle due to their beliefs, creativity is something of an essential. Trying to live a life that is low-carbon, low-waste, sustainable and fair trade requires a lot of thinking outside the box, forethought and imagination; you quickly find that practically every aspect of modern life is an ecological problem to be solved.
It is for this creativity that we can consider Paganism to be the Punk Rock of religions. But there is another, deeper reason too. And that is its enduring rebelliousness and resistance to political oppression. Paganism has continually represented political freedom.
We must not forget that the reason why Paganism flourishes in the Western world today is because of liberty. Without exception, the only countries where Paganism, and especially witchcraft, can be practised openly are those that embrace civil liberties. For Pagans living in a liberal society, it’s easy to forget how transgressive our path is in the context of less liberal nations. Our way of life is literally blasphemy in the eyes of oppressive states and fundamentalists of organised religions: It promotes the veneration of many deities, the reverence of sacred images, the practise of magic and communion with the divine among laymen, the view of nature as something not inferior to humanity, the embracing of sexual freedom and the naked human form, and, most subversive of all, the equality of all people regardless of gender, race, sexuality or religious belief. The only reason why I am not imprisoned and punished by the state for saying this, and why I do not fear violent repercussions from those who disagree with me, is because I live in a society that says that I cannot be detained by the state for writing about my beliefs – and, importantly, other people in this country do not have the right to commit crimes against me because I offend them. That is the essence of freedom of expression.
It was not always like this in the UK. The Witchcraft Act, introduced in the 16th century to punish practitioners of magic, was only repealed in 1951, while blasphemy laws were abolished less than a decade ago in 2008. While these laws were in force, people could be, and were, punished by the state for actions deemed offensive to Christianity. Practitioners of witchcraft and other pagan ways most definitely fit this category in the strictest interpretation of these laws, hence the witchcraft trials of the 15th – 18th centuries.
How different things are today. Not only have the laws that officially prohibited Paganism been repealed, but Pagans are in fact defended from persecution by the Equality Act, under which religion is considered a “protected characteristic.” This means that it is now illegal to discriminate against Pagans on the basis of their religion. So not only can I openly practice Paganism without fear of persecution from my own government; I can also practice openly in the knowledge that employers and service providers cannot legally discriminate against me for being a Pagan.
Pagans are not simply benefactors of the fight for greater political freedom, either. Pagans have been active fighters in the continuing battle for greater liberty for all. The 1960s and 70s saw the rise of second-wave feminism, in which women campaigned for greater equality and freedom in the workplace, family and reproductive rights. At the same time, Europe and America saw the rise of modern witchcraft and the Goddess movement. In a way, these two movements were the spiritual expression of feminism. They sought to bestow greater spiritual power on women within a society that was largely Christian – a patriarchal religion. Additionally, they reclaimed the idea of a “witch” not as the evil, ugly, cackling hag, but as the powerful, wise woman in control of her own destiny and living in harmony with nature. Today, Paganism continues to attract a large female following, and many members are politically active in other causes fighting for freedom for others.
Paganism is a path that both supports freedom, and depends on freedom. As a liberal path, it empowers ordinary people by saying they have the right to interpret their religion, commune with their deities, and tap into supernatural forces without the need of guidance from a priest or other authority figure. It encourages its followers to explore their spirituality through their own individual, creative expression. And it rejects illiberal laws that oppress the voices that question or defy established religious institutions. This is why Pagans may regard themselves truly as wild and free.