More accurately than nomadic tribes in some long lost Stone Age, our more recent ancestral ways speak of village life, with all this entails. It is quite evident wherever the dream of building or creating a pagan settlement emerges, set aside for “just us” to deepen our practice and live together in harmony. But this dream soon clashes with the social models that prevail on our consciousness and the reality of how we are presently organized. The truth is, we have lost the “art” of living in a village–we barely even live in neighborhoods.
I hope to start the conversation around this topic with this humble post, so do not expect an exhaustive look at the subject matter. In the future, if the conversation is particularly productive, I might update it some day with more ideas. It is important to note that when I say “village” I do not mean a physical place in the world, but an extended metaphor for how to structure the pagan movement going forward.
WHERE WE CURRENTLY DWELL
It is important to note that modern paganism isn’t even as old as the witchcraft revival sparked, in the popular imagination at least, by Gerard Gardener in 1950s England. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that it is a lifeway that survived in pockets of Europe beyond the Renaissance. Elements within country life, commonly ascribed as superstition, survived even to this day and many of our family members can attest to that.
Nevertheless, what most of us practice within the “umbrella term” of paganism today emerged after the feverish Enlightenment and the wars of the Protestant Reformation, and squarely within the modern period of increased urbanization and the breaking down of social units. Paganism, to some extent, was shaped by all these. All you have to do is ask the big questions of our future/destiny, or the way we ought to move forward to a more established future, and you’ll find the colloquialisms of modernity emerge: little responsibility, no grand vision or path toward unity, and personal freedom above all.
The concept of personal belonging in modern paganism seems to exist either in an untraceable wilderness of chance encounters (with other pagans and their paths) or snugly within the Big Tent approach. The first allows for minimal complexity and growth among different paths and individuals. The second one sometimes feels claustrophobic and bursting at the seams.
As we can learn from studying early human settlements in the Neolithic, increased social density brought together and tested the good ideas necessary to build civilizations and the ancient paganisms we look to for inspiration. Therefore, a free-for-all approach that keeps pagans scattered across the vast wilderness of modern life, where only the brightest personalities and their products are easily accessible, leads to little more than comfortable stagnation. Innovations rise and fade away almost in obscurity, while bad ideas and behaviors have a greater chance to spread due to lack of established mores and securities.
It is no wonder we have the Big Tent on the opposite end of the spectrum, since it appears to be partially modeled on the last successful human religious organization idea: congregationalism. A Big Tent is a singular structure that drives attention toward commonalities over potentially divisive differences. It dilutes power from a central figurehead obsessively, but it also demands conformity within a certain set of tenets–a creed, if you will. While its overall effect might be benign, it has a similar effect on innovative practices as the free-for-all approach.
It is, however, preferable to the “anything goes” wild ethos, in my opinion. The problem is that there is only one structure within the Big Tent, and no everyone fits comfortable within. In fact, it is impossible to keep all members within. Our paths demand hasty exists in the chase for inspiration, as well as reintegration within the group. What is needed, then, is a navigational guide into and out of dwelling within paganism; reassurance that one may stray but never be lost, and always, always be welcomed back.
WHERE IDEAS FLOURISH
At the edge of the wilderness, the village offers escape from and around stifling structures for the expression of individual creativity and inspiration. It is bordered by fields of productive work, where ideas can be tested openly and within the reach of the curious. It has many structures along an agreed-upon plan of relationships and passageways, each expressing the bonds that unify wildly different persons and interests. It polices its borders and interior based on the evolving ethics of its inhabitants, establishing justice and allowing for social mores to conform to daily living, rather than being imposed. The Big Tent fits within the village, and is erected during every festival or gathering.
This is, obviously, an idealized description. No village can be such an utopia unless its leaders and the majority of its members are actively committed to the welfare of all its inhabitants and visitors. The occupation of ethics must always be shared among many stakeholders for it to be successful.
Different pagan paths can each find their place within the village and retain autonomy. Better yet, they can find representation within its organizing structure. But it also allows for the free flow of ideas between paths. The observance of one celebration or taboo can be observed and queried, following the social mores established upon settlement.
“Spiritual tourists” can happen upon the village and pass through an example of harmonious co-creation. If they do not stay, they can move on with the hope and inspiration of finding their own village one day. Those who have journeyed out into the wilderness in search of epiphany may return to known social units and comforting lifeways.
A pagan village organization requires something else that I have previously discussed: kinship. While it cannot be expected that every distinct “structure/path” making the village its home should be equally related, a web of relationships inevitably forms. I believe such webs exist already and they are very much the templates along which the village idea will form, given time. That is, households or friends or local groups such as CUUPs that contain members from many different paths, who nevertheless worship and celebrate pagan life together.
These little nuclei operate on the concept of kinship as I outlined before, but are limited to their own boundaries. I proposed that these bonds, which may allow for a heathen and a Hellenic witch to express their spirituality on equal terms, be shared among all pagans. Social media already makes this possible, yet much strife and grandstanding is to be found online. Therefore, the idea of kinship needs to be taught, adopted, and practiced regularly to properly bond the pagan movement into an effective whole. Similarly, the village will require such a mindset to cohere to the lofty ideals described above as utopia.
WHERE TO START
No plot of land is needed here: a pagan village can emerge within the concrete jungle itself. It can grow in parking lots and city parks, breaking through the cracks of alienation and create a strong, beautiful, affirming, and democratic network of inspired individuals.
I have always believed that paganism contains the promise of a New World, born out of the decaying Old one we inhabit. Perhaps more than any other culture in the world, the ancestral practices that sing in our blood concerned themselves with the transition from life into death and into life again.
Not solely based in Europe, but all around the Mediterranean, the ancient paganisms that inspire us today knew how to transition a world, and gods, from dying into rebirth. Theirs is the wisdom we ought to reclaim, housed for thousands of years in villages that birthed, and sustained, great human wonders.