Finding Pagan Culture, Part One

PART ONE:
THE WHAT

 

DISCLAIMER: These thoughts are very personal, and often unspoken frustrations. While I happen to share them with a few others, they are by no means widely shared. Nor are they a critique of my interactions with you or of your own communities. For more details on this disclaimer, read the next post here.

For a while now I have come up against and done some light skirmishing with a problem few other people notice about the wider, neopagan community. Or, perhaps these things are noticed, but forgotten. Perhaps they are simply not spoken of. The problem is this:

While we have organized ourselves locally, and sometimes even nationally and internationally, after more than six decades of growth there continues to be a profound lack of pagan culture.

Allow me to back up a bit and provide some personal context. I will complete my 14th “trip around the Wheel” this upcoming Mabon. Though I started seeking out the largest public group near me, I have since joined others, watched them dissolve for petty or good reasons, and helped to form/maintain my very own “inclusive social network.” By all means, I have been successful in my search for community and have gained life-long friendships from these adventures. I feel like I finally belong to a “chosen pagan family” that embodies fairness, diversity, curiosity, and strengthens bonds across the county I live in.

I have had the opportunity to attend many local festivals in Florida (and one in Georgia), as well as Pagan Pride Days within a 50 mile radius of where I live. I like to roam and meet new folks, experience different group dynamics, observe and learn. Because of aforementioned friends, I have learned of the difficulties of the festival/gathering organizers, the dropping attendance rates, and the stiff competition. I watched closely as a valiant effort was organized in the west/central coast of Florida to prevent competition and encourage cooperation between these costly events. I still wish Community not Competition Initiative the best of luck in its endeavors, though I cannot personally recommend my county-based group to sign up with them.

Finally, I have taken an increasingly present role in the pagan blogosphere in Patheos and other venues (like Naturalistic Pagans and Gods & Radicals). I still prefer not to write for them and keep my musings here, relatively isolated, but I pay as much attention to the comments section as the articles I read themselves. I have felt conflicted about the “schism” between the devotional polytheists and the nontheistic pagan folks. My personal path is too mystical to rule out devotion and other-than-human agents, but my philosophies make me sympathetic to the naturalistic pagan’s critique, at least.

And yet, for the life of me, I can rarely get a good answer to this question:

What does pagan culture mean to you? How would you describe it?

It seems only the academics steeped in the field, like Alder, Hutton, Greenwood, Berger, Lehrmann and others can give a somewhat satisfactory answer here. (I am probably missing notable academics who have done work in/about paganism, please suggest their work in the comments!)  Even they seem to define the contours of a thing, the negative space that haunts it, the inherent contradictions in such a task as defining something as countercultural as us.

It wouldn’t be a problem if the answer wasn’t so important.

Anthropologists might define the term “culture” as follows:

The system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.

— from the University of Manitoba, Canada’s website

There are three important parts of this definition, which also happens to be very close to what I was taught at Florida Atlantic University, here in Florida (same textbook, perhaps). In the first part, we must identify the beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts shared in paganism. This is easy, as we can simply rattle off a long list and note wherever exceptions occur. For example, differences between Druidic traditions and Celtic reconstructionism, and different attitudes toward the so-called Threefold Law. We also have the many aspects of craft inherent in the common practice of witchcraft within paganism, as well as any devotional items. Similarities abound here, more than exceptions.

The second part is very telling and extremely important: how we use these things in order to cope with our lives in the world and among one another. This part stresses relationships, which reveal the deeper contents of a culture. In this case, we have the work of aforementioned academics to be  a guiding light. I personally prefer the work of Lehrmann, if a bit outdated, as well as Berger and Greenwood, which are more current. We learn that the accouterments one can list are directed mainly toward self-improvement, magical practice, religious devotion, and the study of old pagan cultures. There is nothing essentially wrong here–it is important to remain culturally relative, after all, even within one’s own cultural milieu–except for one item of critique: the fetishisation of Nature and subversion of physical reality with a mythological world (Greenwood, The Nature of Magic). More on this later.

Finally, the third part of the definition is the most problematic one, at least in my view. This is where we really fall short and where we have the greatest growth yet to make as a new religious movement. Passing on the knowledge that defines our culture is absolutely essential when a group, like ours, is immersed in a wider and sometimes alienating culture. The prevalent methods of transmission are currently internet sources, one-on-one paid apprenticeships (long distance or in-person), coven teaching, or individual pursuits through available books and other mass media. In turn, these each contain a seed of the problem: internet sources, books, videos, and blogs all require little commitment and foster no real sense of community; paid apprenticeships are often outside of the financial reach of serious seekers; and coven structures are often limited geographically and can be seen as limiting.

Very few, if any of these methods of cultural transmission, foster a sense of community wider than what personal relationships a person might forge and sustain. They rarely gather us as a village/tribe in order to revel in our shared values and beliefs.

The problems with festivals and gatherings here make a perfect example, rather than the exception one might expect. While it is true that many pagans will frequent at least one pagan event–even if locally–within a year, the connections made there are fleeting. Eventually, everyone must go back home and then struggle to sustain friendships online.

It is no small wonder that there are three main attractions to most of these events: vendors, workshops, and ritual. The need for communal expression of shared beliefs is so great, many are willing to pay hundreds of dollars and take time off work for it. Workshops often provide the only real exposure to diverse aspects of paganism, if they are not the same ol’ introductory regurgitation easily found on print. And finally, the most money and time will be spent with vendors, many of whom are excellent people of marvelous magick, but who establish a mostly consumerist relationship.

The problem comes when we return home and find there are little to no support structures to keep us engaged. Inevitably, the daily pressures of life become too great and we lose the “high” feeling from these events, and many like it. We become ordinary against, as if the entire intent of going away was forgotten. Few can support this heightened state of being, not just psychologically, but also financially. Making a living off of one’s magickal gifts is rare and often transient. Success is so rare, they become celebrities–the so-called “Big Name Pagans” we all know about.

Even for those with established, small groups back at home, there is great difficulty in maintaining one’s sense of paganism and “witchyness.” And it goes without mention that the strain of running these groups effectively drains even the best of us. Hence, our paganism become unsustainable in the long run–fated to rise and fall with the seasons, but also fated to stall. From this stagnation, revelation or the gods themselves strike a lucky few and new sparks fly, lighting new hopes of a transformative path. With very few exceptions–and absolutely requiring the prodigious charisma and talent of those gifted individuals–these new sparks die out.

We become fragmentary, divided, querulous, even. We stop serving our divine function on this planet–to bring everyday folks into mystical contact with Nature, the Gods, and the Mysteries–and consume ourselves trying to simply be.

It is time to we go beyond those limited modes of interaction. It is time we did the hard, honest work of building pagan culture.

Whether or not we exist within the popularly spoken of “Tower Time” or the threats of the Anthropocene, paganism has a big role to fill in society. As the established religious institutions fail to unite the people–and fail to even act morally–it is our turn to offer up a solution to a world becoming increasingly secular but also increasingly desperate.

It is actually quite simple–all we have to do is walk the path of our ancestors. Survival against great odds is literally spelled out in our genes. It is also quite difficult–confronting and healing our collective Shadow will take the work of powerful, daring folk. But we cannot do this if we do not first define what ought to be our center, our source of power, and what boundaries we present to the world, how we are seen and approached.

There is no a brief “interlude” or “disclaimer” accompanying this piece, which took on a life of its own and became its own supporting post. Find it here. Find out how we could do accomplish this in Part Two here.

10 thoughts on “Finding Pagan Culture, Part One

  1. As always, I appreciate your writing and thoughtfulness, Dayan. I know we differ on many philosophical points but the part I agree with the most is that we must each walk our paths. At this juncture, I’m not sure that establishing a ‘pagan’ culture is needed. My practice isn’t much in line with a majority of practicing pagans right now so I’m not sure where the points of intersection really are. Perhaps there will be a paradigm shift that happens in the near or far-off that changes my mind but presently I only observe people become more insular, isolated and disconnected. Our communities need to evolve a sense of willing interdependence and mutual aid before we can be serious about cultivating a more firm identity, in my opinion.

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    1. Sabina Magliocco’s “Witching Culture” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) is a very good book on Pagan culture, and cultural transmission. She’s a folklore/anthropology professor currently at University of British Columbia, formerly at Cal State U. Folk traditions are spread through songs, rituals, and community celebrations.

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