Wiccanate Privilege Discussion at Pantheacon

Wiccanate Privilege Discussion at Pantheacon February 22, 2014

One of the highlights of this year’s Pantheacon for me was the scheduled discussion about Wiccanate privilege presided over by Don Frew and PSVL. The discussion was held in a packed room in the COG/NROOGD/NWC suite. There were many “Big Name Pagans” (BNPs) there, including Starhawk, Margot Adler, Gus DiZerega, Macha Nightmare, Sabina Magliocco, Taylor Ellwood, and others, and I felt privileged to be in the room. (There were lots of other people there whose names I should know, but I did not catch, so I apologize in advance for not being able to refer to everyone by name.)

Anyway, Don Frew started out the discussion by explaining that he had written an article, “The Rudiments of Neo-Pagan Spiritual Practice”, which was published out of its intended context, and elicited a strong reaction, as it definitely was not an inclusive statement of Pagan practice. You can read some of that response in the comments at The Wild Hunt’s Pagan Community Notes and in the comments to Don’s guest post at Pointedly Pagan and at PSVL’s blog. PSVL then explained a little about devotional polytheism and Wiccanate privilege. What followed was, unfortunately, less of a discussion and more of a series of people taking turns talking. I would much rather have heard Don and PSVL respond to each person’s comments, which would have taken longer, but in my opinion would have been more productive, even if everyone didn’t get to “have their say.” The result was, I think, that a lot of people left without really understanding what PSVL and the other devotional polytheists present were talking about.

I can’t do justice to the entire session, but I do want to highlight a few points. But before I go there, I should explain two things. First, “Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

Second, I am one of those Pagans who benefits from Wiccanate privilege, because my ritual and my theology are influenced by what is variously called “Neo-Wicca“, “California Eclectic Wicca”, etc. — i.e., I celebrate the eight stations of the Wheel of the Year, my mythology is inspired by Robert Graves, I am comfortable with ritual structured by a quartered circle and the four Greek elements and four Jungian functions, and my theology is pan(en)theistic and hetero-normative. Having said that, I recognize that Wiccanate privilege is real and it is problematic.

All Wiccanates are not Wiccans

The first thing I noticed in the discussion was that there is still some serious confusion about what “Wiccanate” means. The initiated Garnderians in the room heard “Wiccan” and “Wiccanate” and they seemed to think the speaker meant initiatory British Traditional Witchcraft. What polytheists mean by “Wiccan” or “Wiccanate” is not traditional initiatory Wicca, but Wicca-inspired Neo-Paganism or Neo-Wicca, what Don Frew pejoratively called “Llewellyn Craft”. You can say that only initiatory British Traditional Witchcraft is “real Wicca” until you are blue in the face. But folks, that ship has sailed. It sailed with Scott Cunningham and Llewellyn and the Internet. To most people, “Wicca” now means American Neo-Wicca, the blending of traditional Wiccan ritual forms, with spiritual feminism, Jungian psychology, and the mythology of Robert Graves.

Today, Neo-Wiccan or Wiccanate theology and ritual forms have so thoroughly interpenetrated Pagan festivals and publications that its influence is invisible to many people steeped in the culture. There are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that, decades ago, influential Pagans like Oberon Zell and Ed Fitch started referring to “Outer Court” Wiccan ritual forms as “Neo-Pagan” or just “Pagan”. At the same time, “Pagan” was starting to be used as an umbrella term to describe a variety of religions, including many that had little to do with Wicca and some which were consciously trying to distinguish themselves from Wicca, like ADF and pagan reconstructionists. This was a recipe for confusion. Continuing to insist that “Wicca” is limited to initiatory British Traditional Wicca today just contributes to the obfuscation of Wiccanate hegemony. This is why I could attend a CUUPS Imbolc ritual where the ritual leaders cast a circle, called the quarters, invoked the Lord and Lady, and even used a bessom broom to clear the ritual space, and those same leaders could emphatically state that they were not “Wiccan”, i.e., because they were not initiated.

One polytheist who took part in the Wiccanate discussion at Pantheacon (Finnchuill, I think) attempted to problematize a prayer by Thorn Coyle which closed the Pantheacon “Paganism and Privilege” panel, calling it “Wiccanate”. The prayer in question begins, “Holy Mother, in whom we live, move, and have our being …”. The Wiccans in the room promptly responded that this was Feri, not Wiccan. Setting aside the question of Wicca’s influence on Victor and Cora Anderson, the founders of Feri, this response really missed the point. Whether it is Wiccan or Feri, it is “Wiccanate” because it invokes a pantheistic universal Goddess, rather than a singular, individual goddess.

When Starhawk’s turn to speak came, she explained that she does not read blogs and, in her opinion, all these theological distinctions don’t matter, because what all Pagans can agree on is that the earth needs saving and we need to take action. This was met with applause. Part of me agrees with her about the relative importance of theology and ecology. But her statement was, itself, another manifestation of Wiccanate privilege. Starhawk seemed to assume that “Pagan” was synonymous with “earth-centered”. This is a very common mistake to make, one which Gus DiZerega has made repeatedly. In fact, I think it was Gus, who during the discussion said that the three things that Paganism brings to interfaith are (1) the earth, (2) the divine feminine, and (3) ritual. As much as this resonates with me personally, I have to recognize that this is an earth-centric Pagan perspective. And the fact is that it excludes devotional polytheists whose practice is more deity-centered than earth-centered. While traditional initiatory Wicca is not really earth-centered — British Traditional Wicca is more big-“S” Self-centric — Wiccanate Paganism is earth-centered.*

I was surprised that many of the BNPs in the room did not seem to get that. This was evident when someone attempted to correct PSVL’s intentional reference to the gathered group as “interfaith”, erroneous assuming e meant “intrafaith”.  Honestly, a big part of the confusion seemed to be a generational divide.  PSVL handled it very well, better than I would have.  I was, frankly, disappointed in my fellow Wiccanates.

Don concluded the discussion essentially inviting devotional polytheists to greater participation. This is a nicer version of a common injunction to devotional polytheists to “show up”. This assumes they have not. It’s quite possible that they have, and we have not taken account of them. As one devotional polytheist recently wrote to me, “In a way, what we are fighting against isn’t their desire to exclude us, but their desire to believe they have already achieved perfect inclusivity.” That nails it on the head for me! It’s good that we Wiccanate Pagans value inclusivity, but it kind of misses the point, because holding the value and actually being inclusive are different. Whenever it comes to Pan-Pagan gatherings and Pagan ecumenical efforts — like Pagan Pride Day — Wiccanate ritual and theology always prevails.

Consider the experience of Pagan Pride Day described by Luis Valadez (Oracle) here and here, which seems to be a common experience among devotional polytheists.  It’s a problem is that we even believe there is such a thing as a “generic Pagan prayer” or a “generic Pagan ritual.” I’ve heard this term used by Wiccans, Neo-Pagans, and devotional polytheists alike. And that statement itself is a manifestation of Wiccanate privilege — whether the statement is made by the privileged or the un-privileged. What we commonly call “generic Pagan” ritual — casting a circle, calling the quarters, invoking the God and Goddess — is not generic anything. It is Wiccanate. It is Wicca-inspired Neo-Paganism or American Neo-Wiccan Paganism. And as such, it excludes many Pagans, including devotional polytheists. When we present a so-called “generic” or “watered-down” Pagan ritual at Pagan Pride Day, we are really privileging Wiccanate Pagans.

I was pleased to hear, though, Rayna Templebee respond by identifying the privilege that was manifesting in the room at the time. She pointed out that some of the speakers had not bothered to introduce themselves (Starhawk was one), because they could assume that everyone knew them. That is a manifestation of privilege, as was the implication that their understanding of Paganism is normative.

Who Speaks for Us?

Was it appropriate for Thorn Coyle to offer a pantheistic prayer following the close of a panel discussion on privilege? As someone in the discussion pointed out, it would be quite surprising to hear Thorn offer any other prayer. But when a person offers a prayer in an interfaith context (and the “Paganism and Privilege” session was an interfaith context), what responsibilities do they have to represent the gathering as a whole when they pray? What alternatives are there to praying from one’s own tradition? Is it even possible to pray in a way that will be representative of everyone present? I think it does behoove the person praying to try to be inclusive, but it is probably impossible to pray in a way that will not exclude somebody.

At one point in the discussion, PSVL directed a question to the room as a whole; e** asked if we would not feel excluded were e to offer a prayer to Antinous at the close of an interfaith gathering. The room responded immediately and vocally with a near-unanimous, “No!” We all said we would not feel excluded. Several people said that they would want to hear PSVL’s prayer. PSVL later shared eir account of participating in the closing ritual for Pantheacon years ago in which e was invited to call one of the quarters and e did not say “hail and farewell”. The response was something less than what e had hoped for. I suspect this was probably because those gathered did not know how to respond to the call. But there is a larger point here. The people participating in the Wiccante discussion (including myself) could be gracious about wanting to hear PSVL’s prayer to Antinous because we are the beneficiaries of Wiccanate privilege. We can make room for PSVL’s prayer, because there is so much room available for us. We would not feel excluded by PSVL’s prayer, because eir prayer remains the exception to the rule. And that rule is Wiccanate Paganism. I suspect most of the people in the room would have felt differently if devotional polytheism were the norm and Wiccanate Paganism were the exception.

The problem, as I see it, is not that Thorn or anyone else would offer a pantheistic prayer in a Pagan interfaith context. No prayer can be totally inclusive. The problem is when a pantheistic prayer is offered in such a way that it seems to assume that the prayer is representative of everyone. Thorn can offer her prayer, but I think she should have prefaced it by explaining briefly that this is a prayer that she knows from her tradition and it reflects her understanding of deity.  Instead, to some people who heard it, it seemed like she was assuming that everyone knew where her prayer came from. Honestly, I never thought this before when I heard Thorn offer this prayer, but I can see now how it can be perceived as a manifestation of privilege. Thorn actually has addressed this recently here, and you should definitely read her post.  I would expect PSVL to give the same kind of explanation when e offers a prayer to Antinous at an opening ritual of Pantheacon.

Polytheistic with a Hyphen

PSVL explained to the group that “polytheism” means the worship of more than one deity. Of course, to me, this begs the question of what a “deity” is. E took the position that, if you are a polytheist and something else, like a monist or a pantheist, then you need to say so when you use the word “polytheist”. If you are a “polytheistic panentheistic monist” like Don Frew or a Jungian polytheist like Margot Adler, then don’t just call yourself a polytheist, especially when talking to other Pagans.

I agree, but I was a little surprised to hear PSVL except emself from this rule, and imply that “polytheism” necessarily means eir kind of polytheism, i.e. a belief in multiple gods as independent volitional beings that exist outside of us.  E had recently blogged that e had adopted the term “devotional polytheist”, which I think is a good way of distinguishing eir deity-centered polytheism from other forms of polytheism, like Jungian polytheism, for example.  I had hoped e would promote this distinction.  Instead, e claimed the right to define a word for others — which is a cardinal sin in a Pan-Pagan gathering.

There was a moving moment in the discussion when Margot Adler shared her story of coming to Paganism, when “Wicca was all there was.” She said that, if there had been a Hellenic polytheism at that time (the 1970s), she would have chosen that path, because she was always called to the Greek gods and goddesses. Margot then looked directly at PSVL, and her voice broke as she said that eir excluding “archetypal” understandings of the gods from the definition of “polytheist” makes her feel excluded and “worries” her. This stood out to me, because Margot is someone I admire greatly, and she was one of the people I quoted in my post about my Neo-Pagan theology which recently set off a mini-firestorm in the Pagan blogosphere over of my use of the word “polytheism”.

Margot happens to be the granddaughter of Alfred Adler who, together with Freud and Jung, founded psychotherapy. She considers herself a polytheist, but she is not the same kind of polytheist as PSVL. She recently wrote in her book, Vampires Are Us, “I entered into Paganism because of a love of ritual and a love of the Greek goddesses going back to childhood. And if I go back to my earliest dreams and fantasies of Paganism—the Greek goddesses that I so loved when I was twelve—I knew in the depths of my being that I didn’t want to worship them; I wanted to be them.” (emphasis original). This is the difference between deity-centered and Self-centric Paganism.

I agree with PSVL that the hyphens are necessary when we are communicating to each other what kind of polytheists and Pagans we are. However, I think that applies to devotional or deity-centered polytheists, too! Otherwise, you end up excluding nearly everybody else in the room (almost who all raised their hands to indicate they identified as “polytheist” is some sense).  This includes people like Margot Adler, for gods’ sake, who was using the term before many of us were even born!  The insistence on a definition of polytheism that excludes people like Margot Adler will always be a dead end for polytheists hoping to communicate with other Pagans.

So here was my take away from the discussion:

1.  Wiccanate privilege is real. Don’t assume that all Paganism is earth-centered.

2.  There is no generic Paganism. Don’t assume that your Paganism is anyone else’s.

3.  Embrace hyphens. Don’t assume your polytheism is anyone else’s.

Note: PSVL has summarized eir experience of the discussion here.  Go check it out!

* See Vivianne Crowley (1998), “Wicca as Nature Religion” in Pearson, J. et al (eds), Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 170-179; Jo Pearson (2000), “Wicca, Esotericism and Living Nature: Assessing Wicca as Nature Religion” in Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Issue Number 14, November 2000.

** PSVL is a metagender person, and metagender pronouns are different from the binary gendered pronouns most people are familiar with.  For more info, see here.  Consequently, what looks like typos above is the intentional use of alternative pronouns for an individual who is not male or female.  (Sometimes I still mess up though and accidentally use binary gendered pronouns for metagender persons.  If you notice I have, let me know and I will correct it.)


Browse Our Archives