Whatever happened to Neopaganism?

This weekend our water heater went on the fritz, and I did not have a proper hot shower between Friday evening and Monday evening (although I did have a hot bath and a few quick encounters with heated water and soap). No doubt that’s why the long hot shower-and-shampoo I took last night, after the heater had been fixed, was utterly blissful, and full of expressions of gratitude to the heater, the repair man, my husband who was home to receive him, etc., etc.

Perhaps it’s also why I began thinking about something that hadn’t really occurred to me before. I realized that I missed Neopaganism, and I started wondering what had happened to it.

What is Neopaganism? you might say. There are thousands of Neopagans out there. Isaac Bonewits said so. We’re not Paleopagan, we’re certainly not Mesopagan, we’re Neopagan!

I don’t actually even hang around the Pagan blogosphere a lot, compared to some–if I may estimate by the number of blogs I read and the number of comments I leave behind–but I keep seeing people say things like, “I’m not Pagan,” or, “I don’t even think of myself as Pagan any more.” The people who are saying those things do identify as Hellenismos, or Asatru, or polytheist, or Celtic Reconstructionist, or Northern Tradition, or any one of a number of traditions that I would have grouped together as Pagan traditions. “Paganism is just an umbrella term,” and obviously there’s not enough room under the umbrella for some people.

I think now that what the I’m-not-Pagan Pagans mean is one or both  of the following. First, they might mean that “pagan” as a designation for “non-Christian” seems to come out of a derogatory use of the word by mostly urban Christian converts in the Roman Empire, directed at a way of life they saw as mostly rural: An equivalent of calling someone a hick, a rube, a hayseed. Or possibly it was a derogatory term used by Roman soldiers to mean a civilian, adopted by the Church as Christians began to think of themselves as “soldiers of Christ”. Or maybe not. But they might just mean that “pagan” is a label for their way of belief and practice that they reject because it was invented by Christians, those other guys.

They might also mean, and this seems increasingly likely the more I think about it, that they are Not Neopagan. They are not part of that alternative religious movement that I remember from the 1980s and 1990s (remember them? the 20th century?), the movement that, however furtively and uncertainly and isolatedly, I myself was part of.

Once upon a time, I believed that all pagans were liberal, left-wing, feminist, environmentalist types. I thought they were tired of religion based on rigid structures that never changed until they crumbled beyond repair; they wanted no permanent temples, no paid clergy, no outside authorities. Everyone could put on a robe (or not) and lead a ritual; everyone could speak to the Powers That Be; a living room, a back yard, an open space in a park, properly cleansed and purified in ritual, were sufficient sacred space. Pagan religion was light and portable, a religion of immanence and improvisation, inspired by the ways of the ancients but not necessarily derived from them, interwoven with high magic and low magic and poetry and craft.

In other words, I thought everyone was part of Reclaiming.

Seillean at Crossroads Companion wrote recently about how everyone has That Book, the one that turns you on to The Path. For him it was Donald Michael Kraig’s Modern Magick. For me it was, as I have mentioned, The Spiral Dance. It is perhaps not insignificant that I was thirteen or fourteen, a teenager, an adolescent, a girl who had just passed menarche, when I first read a book that glorified women, goddesses, the body, natural cycles, inner power, and poetry. And it was new, brand new, delivered to me from the mentoring hands of the branch librarian who knew how much I liked to read about comparative religion. The inexpressible thrill that Starhawk’s words raised in me was the thrill of knowing that the gods I had read about as phantoms of the past, the gods of Greece and Egypt and the North, were not dead, not far away (like the many gods of Hinduism who looked so colorful in the big two-page illustrations), but being taken seriously by worshippers right now. And religion didn’t have to mean the same beautiful but increasingly hollow words recited week after week (by a man), the same few hymns sung on the same occasions every year (by the women in the choir, while the men gathered around the altar). The Goddess was alive, and magic was afoot!

I wrote a lot of bad pagan poetry in the next three or four years. But bad pagan poetry and books on Goddess spirituality will not keep you going when your grandmother dies, and the center cannot hold, and your mother has a string of heart attacks that look like an ongoing attempt to not outlive her own mother. I went back to church, where there was soon a new rector, some different ways of doing liturgy, men allowed in the choir, and women allowed at the lectern, at least.

Later, in my early twenties, I was back in Neopaganism again, this time with a spouse and interested friends. I discovered Druidry; OBOD was re-forming, and though I couldn’t afford the correspondence course, I could read Ross Nichols and Philip Carr-Gomm and John and Caitlin Matthews. I could take a workshop with R.J. Stewart, could write rituals and host them, could read more Starhawk and take a little weekend workshop on core shamanism and have a shrine and do meditations and….

And bounce back into the church again. And back into Neopaganism. And try this group, and that group, and go back to church and sing fantastic choral music and get the occasional solo and so on, ad infinitum, lather, rinse, repeat.

In the meantime, the World Wide Web was being woven, Internet access was becoming easier, cheaper, and more widespread, I discovered online journaling and blogging, and here I am today–wondering what happened to Neopaganism.

Well, the short version, I guess, is that reconstructionism happened.  Discoveries in archaeology, ancient literature, anthropology, and other fields trickled out of the specialist journals and into popular publications where they could be found by interested pagans who began tracing the articles back to the specialist journals and asking for more. No longer were people content to light a candle, cast a circle, call the quarters, and make a rather free-form offering to the gods; they wanted to find out exactly what the gods wanted and, if possible, give it to them, short of trying to butcher a live animal in an urban living room. (Those on farms and in other rural settings found animal sacrifice more manageable.)

I realize only now that I’ve been watching all of this with a good deal of bafflement and occasional dismay. From my perspective, Reconstructionists were clamoring to have all the things that I wanted to get away from: Buildings that need budgets and maintenance; official authority figures with official titles and official costumes; pre-determined right and wrong ways of doing things; rules! regulations! what, are you people crazy?

No, you all are not crazy. You are creating what you want: Organized, stable, complex religions based on ancient models. But I am here to say that I am not crazy, either, when I say I don’t want paid clergy, official seminaries, and permanent temples. (From my experience as a fairly active Christian for much of my life, I would say there’s no better way to ensure someone stops learning and growing than to send them to a seminary and then ordain them to ministry.) Nor am I “fluffy”; I don’t believe Gardnerian Wicca goes back to the Stone Age,  I don’t believe in a peaceful ancient matriarchy ruined by discontented men who refused to love the Great Mother, and I don’t think the ancient Celts were peaceful poetry-spouting tree-huggers. (Look at contemporary Celts: Poetry-spouting, always, but peaceful?)

A few weeks ago I wondered about where I found myself, what to call myself, and whether to rename this blog. Thanks to my shower musings, I’ve come up with a new title: Retelling. It’s a conscious nod to Reclaiming, the tradition that grew out of The Spiral Dance and the people behind it, Starhawk and her compatriots. It’s also a nod to something I do a lot in private, often in the shower: I retell stories. I recount plot summaries of books I have read or video I have seen; I rehearse incidents that happened to me, sometimes recent ones, sometimes long ago. In doing so, I appropriate the meaning of those stories; I create what they mean for me; I allow them to change, and I allow them to change me.

That, my friends, is what I hope to do here: To tell and retell the stories that have made me Christian, Buddhist, and Neopagan.

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11 thoughts on “Whatever happened to Neopaganism?

  1. Mary P.

    Thanks so much for this. Your thoughts mirror my own in many ways. I was positively influenced by The Spiral Dance when I first became a spiritual seeker so many years ago as well. In fact, on occasion when I open it up to read through a little it still manages to evoke tremendous emotion and a very deep longing. Thanks again, glad to know there are others who feel similarly.

  2. Ian Corrigan

    I remain quite frustrated that “Neopagan’ has become used to refer to a specific style of modern Paganism. In my opinion Hellenic or Gaelic recons are just as Neopagan as tie-die UFO Pagans or, well, Reclaiming. Neopagan is a historical position, not a doctrinal one. If one’s system was invented or reconstructed in the last 200 years, you’re a Neopagan!

  3. Mam Adar Post author

    I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that position, Ian, but what then do you say to all the Recons who insist they are not Neopagan, or even Pagan? They’re not rejecting a historical position, surely, but a style or a subculture.

  4. Mam Adar Post author

    Mary, thanks very much for commenting. At one point I had all three editions of The Spiral Dance, original, tenth-anniversary, and twentieth-anniversary; the last time I moved, though, I kept only the (slightly water-damaged) original.

  5. Katrina

    As a practitioner of Hellenismos (and a rather devout one at that), I do not have a problem with the word Pagan, or Neopagan, per se, and I certainly don’t have a problem with eclectics or Reclaimers, or any other religious group. I chose not to use it for the most part, because it is too vague to accurately describe my beliefs and practices, but I am not about to tell others that they shouldn’t call themselves whatever they want. Sadly, I cannot say the same of many of my fellow Hellenes, and that does anger me. I have been on some Hellenismos message boards that were truly scary in how venomous they were towards others, especially those that honor the Greek Gods in non-traditional ways. Personally, I don’t care if you dress in tie-dye, roll in the mud and sing the praises of Zeus while playing the harmonica, as long as you derive some spiritual fulfillment from it and don’t impose it upon others!

    My only problem is that the words Pagan or Neopagan tend to conjure up images of a more eclectic, modern path that is just not me, and every Pagan gathering I have ever attended has been ill-equipped at best, and downright hostile at worst, in regards to Reconstructionists, and seemed to lean in a decidedly Wiccan direction. For a community that can be very vocal about welcoming diversity and embracing all paths, many events seem to cater almost exclusively to Wiccans and magickal people. Though it does not justify the nastiness, I think a lot of the criticisms coming from Recons is due to a feeling of marginalization. We get all the same crap from closed-minded Christians and other monotheists as you do, and on top of it, we have been all but invisible to other Pagans, that is, when we are not met with hostility because we may not fit the hyper-feminist, corset-and-faerie-wings-wearing, level-four vegan-with-a-compost-fetish model. There is nothing wrong with those that do, but it is just not me, and many others feel the same, and there is some resentment over constantly being lumped in with them, either by outsiders or other Pagans.

  6. Mam Adar Post author

    Katrina, thanks for your thoughtful response! I think I need to respond back in a new post rather than just a comment.

  7. Pingback: Take two: Where are all the neopagans? | Retelling

  8. Charlie Cornelius

    Well expressed. For me, paganism is rooted in the living world – a dynamic, often apparently chaotic place, that lives and dies by the seasons, never coming back quite the same as it was last time. Every day a new lesson to be learned. Every day a new miracle to encounter. I don’t much relish the idea of any of that being lost to a structure that demands we heed the structure rather than the things we have lost in building the structure.

  9. Bo

    Sudden weird instinct!! I realised I hadn’t looked at your blog in ages. Sorry to hear about various travails…

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