Paganism and especially witchcraft are seeing a popularity explosion. But many of those coming into our movement aren’t following the same paths we did, and that’s raising some concerns – about both the Pagan newcomers and the Pagan movement as a whole.
In 2018 I wrote two posts on this topic: So You Want To Be A Pagan – A Guide For Pagan Newcomers and 7 Things We Owe Pagan Newcomers. Those cover much of what I want to say on this topic. But the most recent Conversations Under the Oaks generated some questions that go beyond these posts, and I want to address them here.
I’ve reworked questions from three different people to make this post flow a little better.
With another surge in popularity, is Paganism getting watered down?
In the 1960s and 70s, becoming a Pagan, witch, or anything along those lines took dedication. Books were few and hard to find, while covens and other groups were mostly closed affairs. There were only a few traditions and it took dedication to find one and convince those in it that you could be trusted with their secrets.
That all changed with the widespread availability of Pagan books in the 80s and 90s, and the explosion of solitary practitioners and backyard covens has never slowed down. With more people coming into the Pagan movement with no structures or elders to guide them, beliefs and practices have gotten more and more diverse. Today you don’t have to be super-dedicated to get started, meaning some people aren’t taking things as seriously as we did.
Rather than calling this “watered down” I prefer to say we’re in a “speciation phase.” More and more versions and varieties of Paganism are being formed. Most of them will only last a few years. Over time, those that are robust and resilient enough to last will grow and thrive.
The downside is that Paganism and witchcraft are getting so diverse that the terms don’t mean all that much anymore. We’re going to need more specific terms for the traditions we follow so we don’t get tied up in useless arguments about who is or isn’t a “real” Pagan.
Are movies and TV shows overemphasizing the darker aspects of witchcraft?
Yes. They’re looking for compelling entertainment. Which is pretty much what storytellers have done since the first stories were told around a campfire. We have a lot of drama in the Pagan community, but it’s not the kind of drama people want to watch.
We all understand that Hollywood magic isn’t real. What I’m looking for is the truth behind the fantasy – the messages and the themes. That’s why I enjoy The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina even though I wish the witches were Pagans instead of Satanists (which they may be, after the end of Season 3).
Seo Helrune has a very good blog post on Sabrina, Hellier, and the current zeitgeist – the themes and mood of the times. The current mood lends itself to stories of darker magic. But Seo Helrune also suggests that perhaps there are “non-human hands in human stories and hints of narratives yet to be shaped.”
I think that’s worth contemplating in much more depth… which I hope to do after I finish this round of Conversations Under the Oaks.
Is that causing us to overlook the mysteries and lose authenticity?
Possibly. But if it does it’s our own fault.
Has Harry Potter led to an increased interest in real magic? Certainly. But I’ve never had anybody come to me expecting to learn wingardium leviosa (sadly, I have had people expect me to teach them the Charm of Making from Excalibur). The vast majority of people recognize that fiction is fiction – they want to learn what’s real.
The mysteries – real magic and real Gods – are far better than fictional magic, because they’re real. Our challenge is to not get so caught up with the ten people who are satisfied with fantasy that we aren’t there when the one person who wants the truth comes looking for us.
What about younger people who are writing books and teaching classes without traditional foundations or credentials?
There really is only one issue here: does what they teach work?
If it’s grounded in authentic history, if it promotes strong connections with the Gods, spirits, and the natural world, and if its application generates good results, then it’s a good thing.
On the other hand, I don’t care how many initiations and lineages someone has or how long they’ve been a Pagan. If what they teach is based on pseudo-history, consists primarily of New Age psychobabble, and makes people feel good without accomplishing anything, it’s a bad thing.
I haven’t been young in a long time, but I have vivid memories of being told “wait your turn” “pay your dues” and “you’re a kid – what do you know?” This annoyed me, not just because people weren’t listening to me, but because they weren’t listening for the wrong reasons. As I argued at the time, either what I say is right or it isn’t – how old I am is irrelevant.
I could not have written The Path of Paganism at 25, or even at 45. I needed more experience with Paganism, and more experience with life. But if someone else can, great for them… and great for us, who get to read it that much sooner.
The phrase “age is just a number” is as true on the low end as it is on the high end.1
What about people none of us have ever heard of writing witchy books for major publishers and the mainstream market?
This is another matter entirely. Star Bustamonte had a feature on this for The Wild Hunt back in December and I encourage you to read it. I touched on this in Paganism in the 2020s – What to Expect in the Next Decade. The next wave of Pagan influencers will not come from within.
At the core, the criteria from the previous section applies here: does it work or not? The problem is that much of this doesn’t work. It’s written by ghost writers with questionable experience with Paganism and witchcraft, for editors who know even less, and marketed to mainstream readers who know nothing beyond what they see on TV.
For the most part it’s not harmful – it’s just very, very weak. It tells people that witchcraft is an aesthetic and not “the recourse of the dispossessed” (to quote Peter Grey). It’s devoid of reverence for the Gods, or pretty much any theological content. It may provide some help to some people, but it’s nothing to build a practice around.
And it’s offensive to those of us for whom these things are sacred, to see a facsimile of them sold to people who have no idea of the power and meaning behind the real things.
All we can do is be ready and available when a few of the readers of these books realize there’s more out there and decide they want it.
What can we do to make “baby witches” understand the dangers involved with hexing and cursing?
We can start by not quoting the Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law like they’re holy scripture. If you’re a Wiccan they’re an important part of your tradition. But for everyone else, they’re moral propositions that may be more or less true, and more or less meaningful. From my perspective, there is no such thing as “harm none” and I see no evidence the Threefold Law works as described.
Instead, we can talk about the Strawberry Jam Effect: you can’t work with it without getting it all over yourself. Then discuss cleansing, shielding, and other elements of magical hygiene. We can talk about defensive magic, proportional responses, and the deeper meanings of the old saying “before you embark on a journey of revenge, first dig two graves.”
But some lessons have to be learned the hard way.
We talk about “baby witches” and “baby Pagans” but no one capable of hexing and cursing is a baby. Even those who are very young and/or very inexperienced know that striking others is a dangerous thing, even if your cause is just.
But sometimes what we know never sinks in until it becomes tangibly real to us. You have to burn your hand a couple of times before it sinks in that pan + stove = hot.
And sometimes you have to punch a bully in the face, even if you get dragged to the principal’s office afterwards.
As teachers and elders it is our responsibility to warn inexperienced people about the dangers and pitfalls inherent in this path. But that’s all we can do. Learning will happen – or not – when and how it happens.
1 Do I have to point out that “age is just a number” doesn’t apply to sexual relationships between adults and minors? I think I do <sigh>.