Sunday, November 5, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 5: Pick Your Favorite Flavor

Photo by Jarritos Mexican Soda on Unsplash.

So you want to be a pagan. Great. You might be wondering what you have to do, what you have to believe, or what church you should belong to. The good news is that you mostly get to figure that stuff out for yourself. The bad news, depending on your disposition, is that you mostly get to figure that stuff out for yourself.

Here's the deal. Unlike our institutional religions, paganism has no central authority and generally no dogma. There's no pagan pope. No pagan Vatican. That makes modern paganism a bit of a free-for-all. Because even the reconstructionist pagans who want to be true to history are working off what is often very scant surviving information from ages past, everyone in the pagan community is to a greater or lesser extent making it up as he goes. And that means if you ask two practitioners what paganism is really all about, you'll probably get three answers.

Even so, I think it's fair to say that modern paganism can generally be divided into three overarching groups: 

  • Individual-focused paths that tend to focus on things like magic and spiritual empowerment.
  • Community-oriented paths that tend to look to the past for inspiration and guidance.
  • Groups that straddle these two categories.

The individual-focused paths encompass what we think of as the New Age movement. These are the folks who run those stores where you can stock up on crystals and singing bowls, get your palms read, and join a drumming circle. The focus within this group falls very heavily on self-improvement and self-empowerment. You harness the natural energies of the earth and the universe to make yourself a better you. 

There's generally no clear historical root that you can point to as the basis for the practices of the folks in this group. Instead, it's all kind of an eclectic mishmash of traditions and influences from pagan and indigenous cultures from all over the world. Wiccans fall into this category: Instead of basing their practice on the traditions of a particular bygone culture, they tend to take what works from wherever they find it, even if they ultimately decide to make something up from scratch; and they generally forgo the worship of particular deities in favor of honoring one male God and one female Goddess. Ultimately, it's all about working in harmony with nature.

If there are any downsides to this flavor of paganism, it's that its practitioners can tend to be a bit flaky and shallow, lacking a deep understanding of the traditions and practices they're tapping into. The stereotypical angsty goth teen girl falls into this category. There's also a tendency in some circles toward a kind of gnosticism that keeps people focused on the spirit realm to the exclusion of the here-and-now physical world. And if you're at all politically traditional or conservative, good luck finding a community. This subset of the pagan world is a haven for lefty-minded people. To some extent, this is understandable, given that paganism attracts oddballs who feel they don't fit in elsewhere, and that includes lots of people who for whatever reason have felt excluded from traditional religious paths. But if you want to steer clear of people who wear their pronouns on a pin, this probably isn't the path for you. 

Then you have the more traditional-minded pagans, like the Asatru folks. If you've ever encountered someone who wears a necklace of Thor's hammer and seems really into Viking culture, you may have experienced a taste of this kind of paganism. We're essentially talking about ethnic religions here, and the attempts by modern people to reconstruct them and live by the principles that the ethnic groups they honor would have observed. By definition, these groups tend to be more community-minded than the go-your-own-way New Age folks. What benefits the group, benefits the greater community and, by extension, the world. That's the general mindset. Even so, there are quite a few solitary practitioners even in this subset of paganism, often out of necessity: There just may be no one else within physical proximity to share the journey with. So you either have to drive long distances to meetups and festivals or rely on online groups for camaraderie. 

While these groups win points for trying to revive and honor the traditions of the past, they can feel exclusionary to some people. A lot of these groups, for example, place a heavy emphasis on things like physical fitness and wellness, because they contend that a strong body is representative of a strong and disciplined mind, which is necessary to cultivate values like courage and honor. While those are worthy and understandable values to hold, people who struggle with physical and emotional challenges can be made to feel unwelcome in these circles.

Then there's the race issue to contend with. I'll talk about this more in a later post, but the criticism is that there's a lot of gatekeeping in these communities based on ethnicity. There's a case to be made that people were once more united by a common tongue than by particular ethnic traits or national origin, which renders any kind of racial gatekeeping misguided at best. Yet at the same time, we're talking about ancient cultures that actually did tend to be fairly ethnically homogenous. Speaking for myself, I don't have any problem with people who want to self-organize around any ideas or principles they want, and I can also understand any group's desire to want to keep their stuff to themselves. Critics are quick to hurl epithets, but it's simply an unfair generalization to say that everyone who puts up a fence based on ethnic characteristics is a stark-raving neo-Nazi. Now, if your pagan practice is based more on racial purity than on any kind of spiritual consideration, then yeah, you probably have your priorities mixed up. But on the whole, and given how explosive any discussion of race tends to become these days, I think these groups take far more crap than they deserve to.

Finally, there are the groups that I think fall somewhere between these two camps. They look back to ancient times for guidance but also tend to embrace an eclectic approach to their practices, might work with things like spellcasting, and tend to look a little more to the spirit realm than the traditionalists do. I'm thinking in particular of the Druids, though they aren't the only ones. Like Wiccans, they often believe in things like tapping into the energies of the earth and the universe to bring about positive change, yet, being Druids, they also look back to their priestly forebears for practical guidance. This is no easy task in their case, since so little is known about the ancient Druids. It's likely that the Druids of old left us no written records because they had a tradition of disseminating their teachings orally, to prevent those teachings from falling into the wrong hands. And that means the only real information we have about them comes from secondhand sources that may or may not be biased or otherwise reliable. What do you when that's the case? Well, you get creative and fill in the blanks the best you can.

One thing I find interesting, and commendable, about the main Druidry groups out there today is that they take their teachings and traditions very seriously, just as their ancestors would have. They're not just LARPing as mysterious Celtic priests for the fun of it. The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, for example, has a rigorous, detailed, and structured study course for people to take, one that gives you books to read and rituals to learn over the course of a year or more, depending on how far you want to progress up the ladder. The head of your Druid order therefore isn't going to be some guy from down the street who decided to one day start dressing like Gandalf, with no other qualifications than what he read on a homebrewed website last week.

So where do I see myself falling? Well, there are things I find interesting about all three, and also things I'm not so sure about. My wife and I have long frequented the New Age stores. We're not above playing with crystals and gemstones. We do family tarot readings with the start of each new year. I've used pendulums and dowsing rods to try to communicate with the dead. So I'd be lying if I said I had no interest in that path. But I also can't get past the sense of spiritual shallowness that seems to characterize so much of the movement. And while I'm all for eclecticism in pretty much all walks of life, I do think there's a point where simply folding, say, American Indian, Egyptian, and Chinese practices all in on each other shows a disrespect for the uniqueness of each culture's practice and also becomes a hindrance to in-depth learning about any of the individual practices. 

I also don't like how ego-driven it all seems to be: If spirituality is supposed to take you out of yourself and place you in a larger context where you see yourself as part of a greater whole, then the frequent self-improvement theme you hear in these circles means that people seem to be missing the point. This is the complaint I've long had about how Western people tend to cherry-pick the things they like about Eastern philosophies and commodify them. Yoga was a spiritual practice within the framework of Hinduism; now it's an exercise to make you feel better about your physical body, and you can even buy overpriced mats and sexy yoga attire to advertise to the world just how much money you're willing to put into looking and feeling your best. Same goes for Buddhism: We've stripped all the acculturations from it and reduced it to a meditation practice, overlaid with a vaguely Eastern mystical gloss so you can tell everyone how much more spiritually enlightened you are than those goofy Baptists down the street. For people who have a habit of scolding others for cultural appropriation, there sure is a lot of colonization of Eastern sacred traditions and practices going on here. And yes, this has been a pet peeve for quite some time, if you couldn't tell.

Then there's the politics. Hoo-boy. I saw this sign posted outside a New Age store not far from us. As with all woke ideology, your value is dependent on how many identity boxes you check, rather than on just being a human being. Might as well have just said "Straight White Dudes Not Welcome."

At least there are still some gender essentialists among this contingent of paganism -- generally second-wave feminists and older, wiser ladies who understand how the complementary balance of yin and yang energies works in nature. But as they fade from the scene, and the batshittery of gender ideology inevitably takes deeper root, I don't see much hope for sane and rational people who want to be part of this pagan subculture.    

As for the middle-path folks, I very briefly toyed with the idea of Druidry. I think the Druids strike a good balance between the practical and spiritual, I like that they take their practice seriously and try to preserve tradition, and I admire that they're great advocates for the continued health and sustainability of the planet. But I lack the time and money to undergo the proper education to become a proper Druid. And, gotta be honest, I think I'd feel foolish walking around with robes and a staff like I was on my way to a Ren Faire, and even more foolish doing the public rituals and incantations. I fully respect the stuff they do at Stonehenge and other historical pagan sites, especially when it's in service of cultivating a greater public awareness of the ecology. But I don't think it's for me.  

That leaves the reconstructionists. Look, I'm no Viking. Nor am I a gym rat, an intimidating-looking biker dude, or anything of the sort. The only six-pack I've ever had came in a cardboard box. Nope, I'm an old, fat white guy with crappy health, just trying to get by the best I can from day to day. I have type 2 diabetes, and I can't sleep. The Vikings of old would have taken me out in the woods and put me out of my misery, so that I wouldn't put an undue strain on the village's resources that are best left for the continued strength and well-being of the young and healthy. The Vikings needed warriors ready at a moment's notice to charge headlong into battle, not broken-down human jalopies. Would any of these groups welcome me? Well, there are groups among the reconstructionists who, seeing a Nazi behind every tree, have decided that these groups dedicated to historical correctness should be open to all colors and genders and orientations -- which is utterly ridiculous given the context, even if the gesture is well-meaning. Makes about as much sense as saying this fat old white guy should be welcomed with open arms in some Voodoo group. But anyway, if I wanted woke paganism, I'd just hang out at the New Age store with the Wiccans and their pronoun badges.

If I'm going to find a home here, it's going to be with the reconstructionists. Yeah, we'll still do our annual tarot readings and turn our Wheel of the Year and do our seasonal bonfires, and I'll probably dig out the pendulum now and then to try to talk to our house's resident ghost. My eclectic goddess altar isn't about to go anyplace, either. But what I want to add to that is something that feels more substantial, more grounding. If that means just doing some traditional prayers and rituals on my own and trying to connect with some like-minded folks online, then that's what it'll have to be. I have a feeling the Asatru folks wouldn't care to have me around anyway, and that's their right. At least if they don't, they'd admit to being exclusionary, as opposed to the people at that local New Age store whose "inclusivity" is actually more discriminatory and exclusionary than anything any modern-day Viking group has come up with. And, you know, I can respect you if you're just straightforward with me. 

I suppose the bottom line is that I want something that I feel an ancestral connection to, I want something that feels substantial, I want to be able to study and learn and deepen whatever practice I come up with, and it's a bonus if I can tap into my love of language and history and spirituality at the same time.

That's how I've arrived at the path I think I want to explore a little more deeply. More on that in a future installment.   

[WC: 2,479 / TWC: 14,576]

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