Elitism: The Intellectual Path in Paganism

Elitism: The Intellectual Path in Paganism November 9, 2010
Image courtesy nathan williams from London, UK via CC license

You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a ****** education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.” – Will, Good Will Hunting

“Where is fancy bred? In the heart or in the head?” – Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

There’s been a lot of talk about elitism lately. It’s entered our political rhetoric full-force recently but it’s always been an issue in matters of religion. Intellectualism is seen as an attack on the heart of the faithful, a cold dissection of things seen only by faith. Intellectualism is seen as a private club where those who worship ecstatically.

In Paganism the divide is very apparent. Sometimes it can be seen as a jagged fissure separating the Reconstructionist religions from the Wiccans and Goddess-religions. Why is this divide so strongly felt in the Pagan communities? I think it’s the lack of library resources.

Think about it. If you want to learn physics all you really need is a library card and an internet connection. The information is there. True, you may not receive the same benefits of a guided, formal education but with dedication and perseverance it’s perfectly possible to become well-versed in physics without attending an Ivy League school for years.

If you want to be a Bible scholar, the very same is true. Libraries are full of resources and almost every translation of the Christian Bible is available on the internet. Studying the Torah or the Qu’ran might not be quite as easy but the resources are there if you look for them.

What if you want to study Paganism? You will be lucky to find one or two books at your local library and not much more in your library’s network. Most of the books are geared towards beginners. You’ll find some of the classics, mainly those ancients who were important to the development of Christian thought. Online the noise to signal ratio is high.

If you want to seriously study Paganism not only do you need the money to purchase books and classes, you often have to blaze your own trail. This field of study is not readily accessible and there isn’t an open community set up to support such studies unless you pursue Reconstructionism, which isn’t exactly a wide-open and accessible set of communities.

To be an intellectual Pagan is to some degree an elistist thing. The communities that do offer support and sometimes resources are often semi-closed and even secretive. To study Paganism requires not merely dedication and time, but money, proper geography and heart. To enter into a Pagan tradition requires more than just being an egghead, you have to have passion, love and a desire for ecstatic mystery.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. What it does seem to create is a system by which every generation of Pagans is a first generation. A movement made up of converts who have to fight the same battles for understanding over and over. Someone I spoke to at PSG said that they thought the most amazing development in Paganism were children being raised in our traditions. These children don’t have to wrestle for understanding like we have and are free to move forward in new ways.

In how many traditions are children given a religious education? What resources are available to them? I think they would have an easier time becoming a physicist than a Pagan scholar.

Do we worship by reason, or by the faith blooming in our hearts?

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Wow, talk about your tangents. I need coffee before I write from now on.

  • I think you underestimate both the availability of scholarly resources, and the power of interlibrary loan (at least in the US).

    The key to pagan scholarship is to not limit oneself to books that are written for pagans. There is ongoing academic scholarship concerning modern pagans. But most of the pagans I know don’t read academic books.

    Some titles I’ve found valuable:

    * Blain, Jenny. Nine worlds of seid-magic : ecstasy and neo-shamanism in north European paganism. Blain, Jenny. London ; Routledge, 2002.

    * Hutton, Ronald. The triumph of the moon : a history of modern pagan witchcraft. Oxford, [U.K.] ; Oxford University Press, 1999.

    * Lewis, James R. (ed.). Magical religion and modern witchcraft. Albany, N.Y. : State University of New York Press, 1996. [Includes two literature reviews.]

    * Luhrmann, T. M. Persuasions of the witch’s craft : ritual magic and witchcraft in present-day England. Oxford, UK : B. Blackwell, 1989.

    * Salomonsen, Jone. Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

    One can also draw on the scholarship of older pagan religions, such as the extensive academic literature on Orisa devotion, Classical paganism, Hermeticism (both from antiquity and in the Renaissance.)

    First off, go to the reference desk (sometimes called the information desk) at your local public library and ask how interlibrary loan works. Then ask them how to use WorldCat to identify appropriate materials.

  • In my town interlibrary loan is limited to my library’s network, which is comprised of small town libraries in rural GA. Triumph of the Moon is the one Hutton book not available in these small-town libraries.

    If you live in the suburbs or the city, you certainly have more resources. Even so, what resources are there for studying polytheology? A small handful of books not readily available in the library systems for the most part, some of which barely scratch the surface of the subject.

  • Bookhousegal

    That’s an interesting one, Star.

    I do think that a lot of it comes down to demographics: our rate of growth alone tends to mean that there are more coming into Pagan paths than born to them, and people are more likely to select paths and trads according to their own temperaments than they might otherwise, if, say, they meet in-person communities first. (And even then, bookish types might gravitate toward the trads with more bookish people in them.)

    It’s my observation that where we see more ‘multigenerational’ communities and families, we find more diversity of temperament and emphasis. Thus eventually we’ll see less sorting-of-intellectualism-by-trad.

    Pagan scholarship’s an interesting topic… It does get kind of rarefied. (I eventually pretty much dropped out of studying my ancestral stuff, mostly because it became less relevant to my notion of Pagan ministry when, well, I was no longer around so many people looking for knowings about that heritage. But there was also a certain factor of, ‘If it didn’t happen in surviving translation from long ago, it didn’t happen,’ and that would sometimes include things *happening right now.*)

    I do think that as community evolves, it becomes more OK to be more specialized within a trad and/or community, while not being so subdivided in these ways, or worrying about each being the complete epitome of one trad or another, because, well, we *can.*

  • That’s partly why I listed the contents (still catching up on adding things) of my personal library on my website of  _the_Groves_of_the_Greene_Man’s_Denne_, for the purposes of making it available to local Pagans as a Non-Lending library (I want my copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead back! and a few others books, too).

    And those contents are most definitely NOT strictly about/by modern Pagans.

  • @ Star
    “In my town interlibrary loan is limited to my library’s network, which is comprised of small town libraries in rural GA.”

    Are you sure? Have you asked specifically about interlibrary loan from colleges and universities?

    In library-speak, there’s a distinction between “consortial borrowing” (which is what you describe, and is usually visible in the online catalog), versus “interlibrary loan” (which often requires talking to a librarian and learning to use more sophisticated and less visible research tools).

    After typing the above, I did a bit of web-stalking…

    I found multiple copies of “Triumph of the Moon” in the Pines online catalog:

    Also, on the library website, they specifically suggest asking library staff about interlibrary loan:

    Please note, this is not about Star. It is an ongoing issue that patrons don’t know what their library can do for them, and don’t even know how to ask. In about half the cases when someone says “I wish the library did X,” the answer is “we do.” So everyone who reads this: Next time you want a resource, go ask at the reference desk at your local library. Don’t assume you can’t have it just because you can’t find it yourself. Connecting people with resources really is what many of us live for. (And I’m not even a librarian, just a staff person.)

  • I deliberately moved to a larger city to gain access to better resources, and I did find that with very careful financial planning, I have built a decent home-reference library.

    Within Wicca, I’ve found two gaps that I find troubling:
    1)Especially among those who attended college after around 1996, people no longer know how to do genuine research. Most think all it takes is a Google search and then unwittingly purvey inaccurate information.

    2)A lack of creativity/willingness to experiment. I lived in rural MN when I first started practicing, and I found ways to create my craft as I went – while I’m more urban than hedge witch these days, those skills still come to fore. Too many people either don’t read enough or don’t apply an understanding of correspondences well enough to get the magic off the page and into real life.

    As to the social divide that creates, I admit that I isolate myself out of frustration.

    I imagine that’s how those in the Craft before me felt when I came along – they weren’t fond of repeating conversations over and over, and not seeing the information hit home. There’s also related issues of people confusing facts with feelings, pride getting involved in a negative way with the intellectual and academic aspects, and the old-fashioned refusal to simply admit it when in error.

  • Kerry W.

    I think what Ian Phanes says is right, but that some libraries publicize — and otherwise make more accessible — interlibrary loan more than other libraries do. Along those lines, some libraries have better physical collections to begin with, and that’s important. For one thing, it gets you spending more time in the library, becoming more comfortable and familiar with the people who work there, the signage directing you to (for instance) reference, and so on. I think it’s pretty fair to critique a lot of libraries on these grounds.

    I’ll say, too, that we’re not really comfortable in our society with public libraries. They’re one of the last bastions of shared community resources, which are so at odds with capitalism as we know it. I’ve worked in libraries and ordered countless ILL loans and copies — and still hadn’t thought my particular public library could do that beyond the local consortium. I’m going to go check that out.

  • You don’t need “Pagan” books to be a smarty-pants Pagan. Most libraries (even small ones) have books on history, mythology, folk lore, archaeology and so forth.

    There’s more to being a smarty-pants Pagan than being well read as well.

    Its called critical thinking and deep thinking.

    How about observation? That’s a good one too!

    Here’s an important one: application of knowledge.

    And another thing! Thinking for yourself and not doing what a book tells you, but sorting the information and coming to your own conclusions, then trying them out, then back to the drawing board.

    The problem is that a couple of books or classes aren’t going to make you an intellectual. That’s the first step on the road.