A Typology of Pagan Groups

A Typology of Pagan Groups September 8, 2012

Given the commonality of the basic Gardnerian liturgical pattern, it is useful to propose a typology based on how closely the various Pagan groups resemble the Gardnerians, resemblances created because it was the “Gardnerian magnet, as Chas Clifton labeled it, that set off the Pagan Renaissance in the 1960s. I must emphasize that this typology does not reveal an organizational structure. Resemblance to Gardnerian practice does not imply that Witches of other Traditions regard the Gardnerians as having any special authority (at least, not since the 1970s).

Given that, let us visualize a circular target. At its center are the “orthodox” Gardnerians of America, meaning generally those of the Long Island lineage derived from Lady Theos’ leadership from 1973 to 1985. These “official” Gardnerians are now a very small fraction of the Craft movement, largely because they operate according to a fairly strict interpretation of the rules gradually established by the New York coven in its steadily expanding text of the Book of Shadows.

The next ring out is for the “liberal” Gardnerians, who do not regard Theos’s innovations as being authoritative and binding, and whose praxis is therefore much more similar to that of Gardnerians elsewhere in the world. Covens of both these groups have a lineage that goes back to Gardner, and for this reason the “liberals” regard Alexandrians as being Gardnerian also, since Alex Sander’s lineage back to Gardner has become public knowledge.

The third ring is for Witches whose practice follows Gardnerian practice in almost every detail, although these Witches do not claim a lineage going back to Gardner (even though they may actually have one) and do not call their various Traditions Gardnerian. The general term for Witches of this variety has become “British Traditional Witches.”

The Witches in these first three groups generally agree that they are all practicing the specific religion called Wicca, as distinct from the generic Witchcraft practiced by groups that lack more and more of the specifically Gardnerian characteristics. However, when Witches of the first three groups try to decide whether another Tradition is Wiccan or generic, they consider each case on its own merits. Naturally, there is not 100 percent agreement among Wiccans and Witches about such classification, but the grey area is smaller than one might guess.

The fourth ring is thus for generic, eclectic, or non-Gardnerian Witches, who now constitute roughly 90 percent of all the Witches in America and Canada. This ring would include the Dianics, Traditions that blend Gardnerian Wicca with aspects of other religions, such as Hinduism, and almost all covens that call themselves “Celtic Traditional.” Most American Witches, being spiritually akin to anarchists, libertarians, and other proponents of radical theories, regard the Gardnerian concept of “orthodox Witchcraft” as an oxymoron, and practice the Craft much more flexibly, using whatever they like from the Gardnerian repertoire and creating whatever else they need from whatever looks useful in past or present religions. Some of these claim to descend from some other tradition of Witchcraft independent of Gardner, but such claims seem almost always to refer only to family customs involving a folk-magic type of Witchcraft, which was so different from Gardnerianism, in both praxis and theology, that they can be considered to be the same religion only by a great stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, although some such claims may seem very dubious, others may have some validity, as long as one remembers that pre-Gardnerian Witchcraft almost never had anything like a liturgical manual, i.e., Book of Shadows, and was almost entirely focused on very pragmatic folk magic.

It is the Witches in these first four groups who would be eligible for membership in local or national groups that are intended to be for Witches only, such as a local council of the Covenent of the Goddess.

At this point in the diagram we need a third dimension, because Witches are not a subset of Pagans; there are Witches who are not Pagans. That is, these are two separate movements that overlap but do not coincide.

Aside from that, the fifth ring is for Pagan religions that do not define themselves as being a form of Witchcraft. In the mid-1970s, the Witches were only one of many varieties of Paganism. In the mid-1980s, Adler (p. 282) observed, “Wiccan organizations have come to the foreground as the primary form of Neopaganismin America, and these organizations now dominate the discussion.” Some of the most notable Pagan religions now are the Druidic groups, Asatru or other varieties of Norse/Germanic Paganism, the Discordian Society, the Church of the Eternal Source, and the Church of All Worlds. Members of these organizations can join local organizations that are intended for Pagans in general, not just for Witches. However, there is still no absolute distinction here. Whereas many of the “major” world religions do not officially allow membership in any other religion, Witches and Pagans not only tolerate but even encourage overlapping memberships. Any one person can be an orthodox sort of Gardnerian, a member of an eclectic Tradition, a Druid, a Heathen, a Ceremonial Magician, and even a Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist all at the same time. There is even a “Christopagan” movement by some who are attempting to combine many of the strengths and few of the weaknesses of both Wicca and a very liberal form of Christianity

Hence there is no absolute distinction between Paganism and the other world religions. Although some orthodox Rabbis regard all of Paganism and Wicca as idolatry and sheep stealing, many Witches come from a Reform or Reconstructionist or Socialist background, and do not find it a problem to be simultaneously Wiccan and Jewish. Some surveys have shown that Pagans are more than twice as likely as members of a random sample to be of Jewish background. Indeed, in New York City, which is a third Jewish already, an outside observer might well think that the Craft is a Jewish subculture.

Many Judaeo-Pagans have been dissatisfied with the general focus among Witches on Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, etc., divinities, and have begun to look back at their own traditions. An effort to define a Jewish Paganism that respects the essence of both traditions has been quietly growing for many years. It arises out of the historically accurate perception that Judaism was not monotheistic when it was founded, and out of the fact that one does not have to reject one’s original heritage in order to be a Pagan. Neither Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Judaism, which became the fourth branch of Judaism, nor Rabbi Sherwin Wine’s Humanistic Judaism, which has become the fifth branch, defines Judaism in terms of monotheism or even any theism, but instead in terms of the history of the Jewish people, which extends far back before the invention of monotheism by the “Second Isaiah” in about 550 B.C.E.

A sixth ring is needed for the Ceremonial Magicians, mainly those of the Ordo Templi Orientis and various offshoots of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. One can reasonably wonder if these groups can be considered Pagan or even religious at all, but their histories and the overlapping memberships are so interwoven with the history of the Craft that they cannot simply be left out. The Ceremonial Magical Lodges historically predate the Pagan movement by almost a century, and were one source for Gardner’s (and others’) creation of modern Witchcraft in the 1940s. But Magical Lodges now are very different from the Magical Lodges then: in membership, in purposes, in structure, and in interests. Some Lodges are more aligned with Paganism; some with the older sort of Judaeo-Christian magic. In the former kind, there is much overlapping of membership with Pagan organizations. One might expect to find networking associations of Pagans, Ceremonial Magicians, and perhaps members of other magickal religions, but in practice these people do not find their religions to be similar enough to allow common worship services (and it did take the Witches and Ceremonialists quite a while to grasp this). Witches generally cannot understand or tolerate the apparently “Christian” vocabulary of the older Magical groups. However, members of these groupings do simply attend each other’s semi-public gatherings as individuals if they choose.

There are other sorts of magical religions, of Rosicrucian or Masonic or Theosophical or even Mormon provenance, but they are not so plentiful now, not compared to the Pagans. (However, Pagans are gradually joining and reviving the older fraternal orders, such as the Masons, the Druids, and the Elks.) The New Age movement in general falls about here in relation to the Pagans.

Although there are no specifically religious associations that include both Pagan Witches and members of magical religions in general, there are “political” organizations. That is, although Witches, occultists, New Agers, etc., do not agree on theology, they do agree that they all have a right to their own theologies and so form associations to defend those rights. One of the first of these was Isaac Bonewits’ Aquarian Anti-Defamation League, formed in about 1974. Others include the Witches Anti-Defamation League, the Pagan Awareness League, the Lady Liberty League, etc. These associations usually have local chapters or contact persons scattered across the country and are often concerned with outreach, that is, with being simultaneously contact centers and screening devices intended to connect individual seekers with near-by groups.

The next ring out would logically be for all the varieties of indigenous religions that have influenced or are of interest to Pagans, but these religions are in the bailiwick of mainstream religious studies; so this seems to be a logical place to stop.


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