Doing (and Writing About) Pagan Things

Several years ago I used to chide my friends about doing “Pagan things.” We were all Pagans, but none of us were really “practicing Pagans.” Many of us (myself included) had gotten away from doing ritual and participating in Pagan groups. About all we did together as Pagans was head out to festivals like Sirius Rising and Starwood, and our own Beltane rites. I have no idea what was going on internally with my friends, but on the outside it looked like we were all floundering.

Times change, and as long as you stay on the path there’s a chance you’ll find yourself ending up somewhere; it may not be where you originally intended to go, but it might very well be the ideal arrival point. Last February I watched many of those same people lead a lovely ADF Rite at ConVocation in Michigan (an indoor festival), and it was just so satisfying to see all of my old friends participating in and doing “Pagan things.” About the time they all got involved with ADF, my wife and I were beginning our journey into British Traditional Witchcraft. Very different paths, but both are very much “Pagan things,” and while it meant we didn’t all do ritual so much anymore, it ended up bringing us closer together. Suddenly we were all experiencing the gods externally again, and while our methods for getting theere were different, at least there were methods to talk about.

I’ll admit to sometimes spending more time writing and reading about Paganism than actively participating in it. I’m an obsessive reader (especially when working on a project), and have been know to disappear for weeks at a time inside particular corners of history. (When working on a Magick and the Occult in America workshop this past fall/winter I spent weeks at a time immersed in books about Mormonism, Conjure, and Spiritualism.) When I begin to get lost in history and find myself stepping away from the gods I remember an idea I first ran into in a Scott Cunningham book: “Reading about Paganism is not the same thing as actually practicing it.”

One of the things I’ve always tried to get across in this blog is that I do Pagan things. I do ritual two or three times a month, and I share many of those rituals here. (I try to post a sabbat ritual every turn of the Wheel.) I not only worship and honor the gods, but I experience the gods. I’m never sure if I ever completely articulate the power of those experiences, but I do my best. I know that writing about some of them has literally brought me to tears (just as I’m sure some of my typos have brought you to tears dear reader). On the outside it might sometimes look like my Paganism is wrapped up in Led Zeppelin and hard cider, but internally it’s always been about deity. Ritual plays a large role in that because it’s how I most often experience the gods, but we (the gods and I) have our moments outside of circle.

We do a lot of things very well in the Pagan Blogosphere. We’re great at sharing opinions and hashing out our internal squabbles, but what we so rarely do is express those greater moments, those times when we do and experience Pagan things. It’s great to litigate the Pagan Umbrella, but how did you end up under that umbrella in the first place? Who are your gods and what’s your practice? I like pondering the weird and wonderful questions of Paganism as much as the next person, but your opinion is going to matter so much more to me if I know how you got to here.

Many of us Pagan-writer-types often place more emphasis on the about than the why, which means we sometimes simply write about Paganism instead of writing about the experience of Paganism. If calling the ancestors in ritual is important to you, I want more than just historical precedent, I need to know why you do it and how it makes you feel. History is most definitely interesting, but the real Pagan thing is how a certain experience affects us. I don’t do things in circle because I’ve been taught to do them a certain way, I do them because they feel right, and when they feel right I experience them.

Practicing Paganism is not like fixing a watch; it’s an intuitive process, not a mechanical one. If you honor a particular god I have to assume that there’s a story behind it, unless you simply picked their name(s) out of a hat. That experience of being called to by deity is a very real Pagan thing. For me, there’s no way I could even write Raise the Horns if I was not allowed to write about Pan. He’s not just “my deity,” he’s a part of me and who I am. I’m sitting on my porch while I write this and I can just about make him out in the pine trees on the other side of the street.

Last night when my wife and I stepped into our house after a long evening walk I stopped for a minute to admire the fireplace mantle/altar we have decked out for Aphrodite and Dionysus. In that second I felt them in my home, near us. It often feels like there’s some sort of weird hesitancy out there in the online Pagan-world to write about how we experience the divine. To me, that experience is the essence of Paganism. None of us would be here without it.

I think we often misplace the wonder in Modern Paganism for whatever reason. We write about how we think others should honor the gods instead of how we honor the gods. The smartest teacher I ever had in the Craft never “taught” us anything, she simply shared where she had been, and then left it all up to us. If we wanted to follow in her footsteps we followed because her voice and her eyes told us that where she had been was true. We knew that she was not one to simply read about Paganism, but that she was one who was doing Pagan things. The wisdom and authority of “been there done that” should never be overlooked. Modern Paganism isn’t a clinical exercise, it’s a spiritual one.

Every day I try to find a moment to experience a Pagan thing. Sometimes it’s a small moment like listening to the world around me, or experiencing an emotion or feeling that connects me to greater things. Other days it’s an encounter with the gods and I get to make love to Aphrodite herself. I love knowing a little Pagan history and I’ll never give up on that aspect of the journey, but what I love even more are the gods, this world, and doing the things that make me a Pagan.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    Is THIS what you were worrying about on Facebook? This is very good, and very necessary. I’ll do my best to keep it in mind when I write about our Beltane this weekend.

    • JasonMankey

      Yup, this is what I was wrestling with earlier. There were earlier versions that made some rather specific references, I slashed those. There was a whole four hundred word thing about how so much of Patheos (as a whole) is simply political posturing disguised as spirituality. I had a ton of trouble with the whole thing.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Beautifully and poignantly stated, and a much-needed message.
    For myself, I know that I am often reluctant to share my experiences–especially in writing–because when I have, those are the blog posts and e-mail list messages that don’t get commented upon or looked at, and sometimes when they do, it’s in a critical fashion that pretty much undermines the experience, at least as it has often been done over the course of my narrations of such things over the last few years. The experiences that are the most meaningful and important and life-altering for me are the ones that make many others feel the most uncomfortable, and the ones which they question the most…and while I know that people can never fully understand why another person likes wearing white socks instead of dark socks, much less why XYZ deity is their main deity, at the same time, the lack of support, affirmation, or simple giving of a courteous “I hear what you’re saying” when such things are shared is a serious lack in modern Pagan culture, particularly on the internet.
    This may spawn a project that we could do collaboratively as Patheos.com Pagan Channel writers…we may have to speak more on this privately, but with the others as well!

    • http://www.facebook.com/eala.ban Éireann Lund Johnson

      I think this does sum up the pagan experience on the internet. It has not make itself a safe place in which to share personal religious experiences. Such experiences don’t define a religion, of course, but they do define why one continues to practice the one of choice. We need to be able to hold known facts separately from personal experiences, as they aren’t the same things, and shouldn’t be treated as such. I’d love to see more talk about this, and more safe space made online for pagan practitioners to share personal religious experiences.

  • KnowtheSilence

    “We do a lot of things very well in the Pagan Blogosphere. We’re great at sharing opinions and hashing out our internal squabbles, but what we so rarely do is express those greater moments, those times when we do and experience Pagan things.”

    That’s interesting. In the past year or so since I’ve started following a lot of pagan blogs, my impression has been pretty much the opposite. I suppose that I just pay more attention to and have a better memory of the entries where people describe their rituals, or how they became pagan, or how they met their god(s), so all the other discussions about “what does it mean to be pagan” and such fall by the wayside.

    You made it on to my reading list with the post “Finding the God” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey/2012/08/findingthegod/). I started following Teo Bishop when he wrote about a solitary ritual he performed by the ocean (http://www.bishopinthegrove.com/archives/warning-call-on-a-god-and-he-just-might-show-up/). After reading a few of his entries about the Morrigan, I read all of John Beckett’s stuff now. There are several others.

    I fully agree that reading about people’s practice and experiences is powerful,
    and I think that you and other writers are doing a fine job of getting that
    across.

    • JasonMankey

      In one of my early drafts of this I linked to one of John’s pieces. He does a great job of capturing personal experiences and making them real for the reader, as does Teo (though I didn’t have a particular item picked out to link to). Those types of writings are out there, but I can never find enough of them.

      One of the things that often bugs me in the Pagan Blogosphere is that people write about Paganism but it often seems to lack a more personal context. What tradition/path do you follow? Who are your gods? Where do these opinions come from? It’s possible that those questions have available answers and I’m just missing them.

      • KnowtheSilence

        I doubt that you’re missing them (well, some, probably; you can’t read everything). You undoubtedly have a better “big-picture” view of the pagan blogosphere than I do, and you probably read blogs that I may have looked once and forgotten about. If I browse a blog and don’t find answers to those “who I am and what I do” questions, I move on.

        Others have responded and said that they are hesitant to share these experiences, and I can understand that. I wouldn’t want to make anyone share more than they are comfortable with, but I do encourage them to consider making things more personal, at least once in awhile.

        I’ll go ahead and admit something here: for most of my life, I didn’t consider “paganism” in any of its various trapping to be a “legitimate” spiritual path. Worshipping “extinct” gods, making up rituals, etc., seemed like playing at religion rather than actually doing it; it seemed like a big game. What changed that for me was stumbling across a few blog posts by an author who wasn’t afraid to write on a personal level.

        • KnowtheSilence

          Aw, hell, I’ll name the guy and give him credit. It was Eric Scott’s writings on the “Killing the Buddha” blog that first opened my eyes. He didn’t write about paganism in general, but he told very personal stories about very mundane things (going to Wal-Mart, going to a funeral, talking to his dad). His stories stuck with me and put a human face on paganism. He wasn’t playing his religion, he was living at struggling just like me and, I suppose, everybody else.
          If all that he had written about was paganism in general, with no personal context, I probably wouldn’t have taken notice. But because of the way that folks like Eric, and you, Jason, share your experiences, I’ve moved in a few short years from not taking paganism seriously to actually giving serious thought to trying it out myself.
          So, there’s that.

  • Niki Whiting

    I love this piece. It is a good reminder to dig deeper in my own writing, to err on the side of ‘vulnerability’ – for isn’t that openness, connection, and vulnerability in a piece what makes it compelling? Us thinky Pagan writers tend to err on the side of fact. For me, it’s a defense mechanism. I’m still fighting the voices of critics inside my own head. But every time I’ve revealed more of what I do, why, or how my heart feels, I’ve gotten the best feedback/comments/hits.

    Thank you for this.

  • Bridget

    I’m only starting on my journey into Paganism, and this reminded me that while it’s good to read about the practices of others–how else can I learn if I don’t read–I should also let the Lord and Lady guide me.
    Thank you.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    A general call for more UPG? I almost want to post this on a Heathen blog just to watch their heads explode.
    FWIW, I agree we need more people, especially those with wide audiences, to share UPG, so that we can move from Unverified (i.e. I have a why, it’s just not in a book/dig site/carving/passed down from my great-great-great-grandma who was a Witch-Queen of Doom) Personal Gnosis towards PCG: Pagan Collective Gnosis. This is how we grow, and I honestly think the internet may have stalled the process a bit (hmmm…sounds like a fun blog post), since as P. Sufenas Virius Lupus posted, when things like this hit the web, it’s mostly just picked apart by trolls and recon nuts. Keep up the good work, sir. We’ll be reading. |,,|

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