Pagans in the World
By the light of the Great Bonfire, we witnessed how the wrongs inflicted on native people and African people, continued to this day, were part of a cycle in European history. It began with the Roman Empire, forcing cultural hegemony upon conquered Gaelic and Germanic tribes, and continued through the Christian faith. Europeans, through their ancestral roots and memories, were forced to carry the scars of conquest and conversion. This doesn’t excuse the perpetration of these acts upon the peoples of the New World, but we must understand the “disease” of the West before we can work toward healing.
Our ancestral pagan roots remind us of an identity beyond these scars. They become an ideal to strive toward. I am convinced that attempting to reconstruct, as much as it is possible, the relationships that kept our eco-spiritual balance will help us deal with the inherited trauma of the ancestors. Hence, the topic of this second part. It is possible that anthropologists, historians, and psychologists could work together to extract some cultural therapy without invoking ancient spirituality. However, I know this to be true: for the past 60-plus years, a working treatment exists in neopaganism. Paganism is our heritage beyond the Cross, the medicine of our people.
DISCLAIMER: As before, I am presenting a deeply held personal viewpoint. My job here is to convince the reader that this work is both essential and inclusive. For starters, I must recognize there will be at least two types of readers: pagans and nonpagans. My true audience are people of European ancestry, who are already pagan or pagan-adjacent. Nonpagans are encouraged to seek a working understanding of the neopagan movement since the days of Gerard Gardner. It is beyond the scope of this blog post (though perhaps a thorough overview will be germane to a future book treatment).
It is not necessary to change religions, however. Cleave to whichever source of grace and Divine inspiration you can find in this world. When I say “paganism” I mean more than a barely-revived religion or spirituality; I refer to a culture, which is, by necessity, as diverse as all of Europe’s people. Even when the Romans attempt hegemony, they could never erase the ancient roots of identity. I ask that we remember them, too, and derive wisdom that can help us heal our relationships to self, others, ancestors, and the Land.
FROM THE GOD/DESS
A full moon peeks from sailing clouds, surrounded by the eternal stars. A gentle breeze blows across this imaginary space we share. On it, the words of a popular pagan song ride:
We all come from the goddess,
And to Her we shall return
Like a drop of rain,
Flowing to the ocean.
From the start, pagans are grounded in an idea of the natural world. We are told the names of ancient mythological beings, asserting their female primacy, and given to understand their power over/with/through Nature. Some are identical to the natural forces and cycles they represent. Thus, the Goddess comes into our new life in the Way of the Wise, cradling us in her protective arms and soothing charms. Who can avoid the seduction? Though before we had only distant Sky Fathers and a Judgmental Savior Brother, now we are enfolded in the proof of a forgotten Divine who’ll care for our deepest needs and hint at mysteries yet to come.
Our spirits feel the call stretching out across eons and the answer is at once foreign and familiar. Ghostly memories in our DNA confirm this feeling of returning home after a long, exhausting voyage. This is all familiar—some second nature we didn’t know we could access before. We’ve played at Her skirts before and whispered incomprehensible things to the wild spirit twilight.
The resurgence of the Goddess has been documented before, but here I posit that it is part of a deeper undercurrent. At last, the ancestors awaken from spiritual lethargy, reaching out to be known and understood. It is no wonder that their symbols and stories now strike a resonant chord. And those of us, who never lost the gift to listen to the hidden past, despite all these centuries, respond to their calling. Before long, we embark on a new journey, following the whispered inspirations of long-lost relatives and the summons of an old mode of thinking. We enchant the world in this manner, acquiring more than mere superstitions, but entire new cosmovisiones and personality traits.
Do not judge harshly. We have precious little that remains among the ancestor’s bones picked clean by scavengers, or lost to time’s erasure. Even then, these pieces suggest a concoction we can brew in the name of healing. We learn the whispers of herbs and the tone in the stones, how the wind carries on about forgotten knowledge, and the murmur of the waves ashore.
In time, we learn to look again at our Divine Fathers and Spiritual Hero Brothers. We learn forgiveness from the stories our ancestors told. They work subtle changes in our minds, alongside dreams and outright visions. The world gains new, invisible layers of meaning understood only by mythographers, visionary artists, and fellow pagans. With them, we forge new families of choice and meaning. Covens, groves, circles, and wide-open community. They are kin because they speak the lingo and our experiences resonate like echoes on cave walls.
A neopagan song says:
Earth my body,
Water my blood,
Air my breath, and
Fire my spirit!
And yet another one:
The river is flowing,
Flowing and growing,
The river is flowing
Down to the sea.
Mother carry me,
Your child I will always be.
Mother carry me
Down to the sea.
Finally, around a circle we might hear:
Hoof and horn, hoof and horn:
All that dies shall be reborn.
Corn and grain, corn and grain:
All that falls shall rise again.
Each of these short, ritual songs convey a central tenet of neopaganism: The Earth is sacred, conscious, and in a deeply personal relationship with each of us. Despite the obvious anthropomorphism in the lyrics, these aspects of the movement underline a modern realization of ecological connection. Because they are used in the act of changing consciousness—commonly referred to as magick—these songs can have a deeper impact. Rather than explaining natural phenomena or simply comforting pagans, it forges a connection between living systems and living beings. It introduces us to relationships with spiritual allies we can nurture.
As pagans, we are called to honor these experiences, because they are manifestations of an ancient heritage. They are gifts of the ancestors crowding around the Great Bonfire. For a brief moment, they open a window into the minds and reality of people far removed from us by time and language. Relying on courage, we are to leap into this world again as best we can. There, we experience a world before conquest and conversion. Like the old spirit-riders in our ancestry, we can bring back a piece of this knowledge to share with those around us.
Many neopagans have done this work already, all arriving at similar shades of realization. We reclaim our ancestral bonds for healing, and find the threads that connect us to the natural world around us. We work through the traumas of the past and in turn find the awareness and conviction to address them in our time.
If our Mother is the ground below, we’ll concern ourselves with the health of her soils. If our Mother is guardian of the wilderness, we won’t stand for its destruction. If our Mother is the life-giving waters, we’ll do anything to prevent its poisoning. If our Mother is a smith, then we’ll oppose the abuse of technology. Not because she is a Goddess and we’re worshipers, but because the bond is forged in love and it can move mountains.
Every pagan I have spoken about these matters shares the same declarative commitment. It is one of the most important and unique aspects of our beliefs in these times of natural chaos. It is a treasure we’ve inherited from the past, sometimes overlooked in the dazzling mysteries of spirit. It is the essential link we must forge in the weave—for ourselves and for others—when we stand with our allies in the making of a better world. We can stand for the welfare of all living beings, believing in the inherent divinity of life and the systems that sustain it.
Our Divine Fathers can help with a different healing. They will help us speak to ancestors that transgressed against the Natural Order and help them settle accounts through us. They will call us to review our lives and to regain our honor, to become vehicles of justice. These Divine Fathers, so often ignored in modern neopaganism, will help us to stand in this heritage without shame, knowing we collectively work for a more equitable world. Through them, we are called to guard and defend the dynamic balance of Nature.
A pathway comes into focus, then, as we consider these visions of what pagans could be. We are Awakened because we are called to make right the wrongs of the past. Those who can only affect the world through their descendants give us this challenge: fix what is broken, restore balance. Re-establish contact with all our relations.
THE ROLE OF PAGANS
I have seen shame where there should be pride. Perhaps that is why we’re quick to imagine an ancient Utopia of our pagan past, and then fall to victim consciousness at its demise. That is no longer a tenable position once we honor all our ancestors. We’re made up of both conquerors and the conquered. European history rewarded the adaptable and complicit; we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing who we are descended from. In fact, we should embrace this complexity for the sake of wholeness. It is our shared heritage that has made us strong enough to undertake this essential work.
The first role of pagans is that of a healer. We’ll confront every aspect of our heritage, deriving strength and comfort from heroic altruism, and grimly getting to work on the unsavory. This role demands courage and commitment. Self-delusion must be challenged, but forgiveness must also be attainable. The process will be absorbing and difficult; the results will untap reserves of wisdom and personal power. When an equilibrium is reached, we must force ourselves to look outward.
Beyond the personal scope, we will be sensitive to the inequities within our community. Here, our work joins the work of others. We begin to transform the language and culture taken for granted. Misappropriation becomes intolerable, demands addressing. Realization sinks in: there is no need to pillage from other cultures when we’ve got a rich history to uncover and remember. We find ourselves as “enough” and “worthy” as a people, perhaps for the first time.
There is joy and homecoming here, cherish it and chose the next path.
One option is the role of the guide. This is not a warrior: there is no one to overcome but our own deficits. The pagan guide must point out the scars of the past that still linger, and the audience is the broader culture of nonpagans. There will be many allies at this stage, and we are encouraged to seek them humbly and for strong relationships to be built.
In fact, the guide must first be guided by those who are knowledgeable in these matters of social justice and decolonization (seek experts in those terms). But, most of all, the guide must first learn from they who suffered and continue to suffer from the colonial past. Their voices and leadership are essential. As we have learned to honor our roots, we must recognize the inherent worth of theirs and honor it to the extent permissible. Most of all, we must respect the boundaries established. They, too, are in the process of reclaiming and decolonizing an ancestral cosmovision. We cannot infringe on some misperceived kinship.
Guides will be outward facing, engaging the world in a process to confront the shadows of the past and reclaim a measure of grace from it. The guide will confront the modern inequities that linger and fight for restorative justice alongside native people and people of color. They will carry the banner of paganism proudly and will not mind confused looks and raised eyebrows.
There is also the role of the weaver. They will focus entirely on the creation of a unique culture that carries on the legacy of a multifaceted/multicultural Europe. Through meticulous academic research, language studies, unverified personal gnosis, they will weave a new way of life for the future. Most importantly of all, they are expected to pass it on to the next generation freely.
It could be argued that many of us in neopaganism are already engaged in this aspect, and that is true to some extent. This weaver of culture will do the work of reconstructionists while facilitating the healing process of the community. Through community-based rituals, they will instill pride and courage in all members so they can openly reclaim their heritage. Listening to the nature spirits around them, they will build practices rooted in the Land Herself. They will make it possible for the guides to stand supported in the work of social and environmental justice.
This is an ambitious vision of the pagan future, but I believe it will lead us to the greatest level of authenticity and realization. We cannot be a reaction against our Christian past, retreading the same wounds our ancestors suffered. They demand healing. We must proceed to heal this trauma and theirs by extension. Once we have done this bitter work, we stand to fill a role that wasn’t available to us. We can be the link between deep ancestry and the future, between the Land and the society that depends on Her. This is the role of the ancient, pagan priests. They stand among our ancestors, too, and the Gods awaits their return in us.
ECHOING A PRAYER
I wrote these words last time because nothing else seemed like a fitting way to end such an emotionally charged appeal. I repeat them now, and I hope you will say them, too:
May the past only inform us, for we cannot be immobilized by it.
Too many things remain undone.
May those who see themselves as damned guide us to make amends.
The scars of the past remain to be healed.
May we remember the ancient sacredness in our blood, stretching back into infinity.
May our newfound roots sip from the buried wisdom spilled by thousands, returned to the soil and forgotten.
May we remember that we are not our wounds, but the promise of justice for tomorrow.