Pagan Romanticism and the Examined Life

This morning, stemming from Laura Patsouris’ recent post, I had an interesting, brief exchange with Jonathan Korman on romanticism in Paganism. I stated that romanticism and the fanciful were necessary for religion to be religion, and that they had a greater power and energy on their own than when grounded in reality. Jonathan’s response was “Aye. But it’s good to be aware of when we’re being romantic.”

Maddalena of Florence. Perhaps an icon of Pagan scrutiny?

On reading his response my first thought was of Socrates stating that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Balance is something that my teachers emphasize, and something I really struggle to incorporate into my life. I like to think I balance the romantic and the factual in my life. I will admit that I allow myself to float away on modern myth and romanticism on occasion because I find value there, but I also hope I am always aware I am doing so. I certainly endeavor to make it clear when writing about Pagan romanticism that that is what I’m doing, not that it prevents debunkers and alarmists from sounding off in the comments.

Romanticism is what gave birth to the Modern Pagan movement, whether you’re a Reclaiming Witch or trying to reconstruct what your great-grandparents did and expand it. We have to believe that what came before is a little better than what we now have, and that it has restorative value. That’s why we embrace the label Pagan, because it hearkens back to the heyday of polytheism and tribalism, which was likely not as wonderful as we imagine it to be.

Yet if we don’t recognize our romanticism for what it is, then we become hypocrites and endanger the very movement we love. We cannot criticize other religions for indulging in the romanticism of their mythology while not recognizing when we engage in romanticism. When we don’t engage in romanticism honestly, we set a precedent for fundamentalism and absurdity in generations to come.

Mythology and romantic nostalgia are useful tools. They inspire us. While I honestly don’t believe my religion as it stands today existed before the 20th century, I find great value in the legends of a Wicca-esque Witchcraft surviving through the centuries. It’s important to separate the tool from the truth. There is nothing in our religion of worth that will shrivel away under scrutiny.

Our goal is self-knowledge, and there is a valuable lesson to be learned in being able to say, “I say this because I wish it were so, not because it truly is so.” Knowing yourself, knowing the meaning behind the things you believe and having the discernment to know where the divide between reality and fancy lay, that is the work we are engaged in. An unexamined life may not be worth living, but an unexamined religion is not worth practicing.

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  • kenneth

    There’s no question in my mind that witchcraft survived through the centuries. Not as some intact unchanging cult that survived Christianization unscathed, but as an instinct that found expression where and when it could. It was sublimated in things like folk magic and folklore and the undying and unquenchable fascination with the classical world that haunted Europe from the middle ages. It found expression even within the guise of Christianity and altered that religion profoundly.

     There is no evidence that a full scale operative religious/magickal tradition survived unaltered from pre-Christian times. But so what? The ritual forms of a religion are just tools as you say, the interface for interacting with the divine.  That has always been in flux, being revised and destroyed and remade with the rise and fall of civilizations. The underlying truths have not. We never stopped loving our gods and goddesses, our ancestors and the land, and they never stopped loving us. Our ancestors in 19th Century or 12th Century Europe were no less pagan in soul than us, and we are no less pagan than our First Century progenitors. We do have the great fortune of being able to call it openly by name and to work with a full and new set of tools suited to who we are now, and who the gods have always been. 

  • kenneth

    There’s no question in my mind that witchcraft survived through the centuries. Not as some intact unchanging cult that survived Christianization unscathed, but as an instinct that found expression where and when it could. It was sublimated in things like folk magic and folklore and the undying and unquenchable fascination with the classical world that haunted Europe from the middle ages. It found expression even within the guise of Christianity and altered that religion profoundly.

     There is no evidence that a full scale operative religious/magickal tradition survived unaltered from pre-Christian times. But so what? The ritual forms of a religion are just tools as you say, the interface for interacting with the divine.  That has always been in flux, being revised and destroyed and remade with the rise and fall of civilizations. The underlying truths have not. We never stopped loving our gods and goddesses, our ancestors and the land, and they never stopped loving us. Our ancestors in 19th Century or 12th Century Europe were no less pagan in soul than us, and we are no less pagan than our First Century progenitors. We do have the great fortune of being able to call it openly by name and to work with a full and new set of tools suited to who we are now, and who the gods have always been. 

  • Well said. ‘Nuff said. 

  • Well said. ‘Nuff said.