A Pagan/Polytheistic Understanding of the Twelve Steps
Printed in the May issue of the Covenant of The Goddess (C.O.G.) bi-
monthly, national newsletter; a publication written by and for the Neo-
Pagan Witchcraft community.
Essay by: Nora
I need to write this essay under a pseudonym because, while I need to
discuss my own experience, I also need to respect the tradition of
anonymity in the Twelve-Step Programs. Anonymity is needed, not so much to
protect my privacy, but to protect the program against my potential
megalomania. Although I would be happy to identify myself to anyone
privately, I must abide by the Eleventh tradition, which states, "We need
always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and
As for my qualifications for writing this essay: I have over 6 years of
sobriety in the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and 1 year of recovery in the
Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Al-Anon programs. Although I have been a
consciously practicing Pagan and Witch for only 1 year, my personal
theology has been polytheistic for over 15 years.
I will discuss each of the twelve steps in turn1, sharing my understanding
of these steps within the context of a Pagan theology. I can only share my
own experience and my own understanding. I in no way claim to speak for all
Pagans or for all members of Twelve-Step programs. I wish to share what
works for me in the hope that some or all of it may work for someone else.
As I was told at my first meeting, "Take what you like and leave the rest."
I do not see these steps as a set of directions; rather, they are a
description of a process, the process of spiritual and emotional growth. My
understanding of this process has continued to evolve, mature, deepen. I've
come to believe that the only step limited to those of us with some type of
addictive/compulsive behavior is Step 1; the rest of the steps can be
experienced by anyone. The process of Steps 2 to 12 -- reaching toward
divinity, knowledge of self, attainment of serenity through knowledge of
the divine -- has been described by Socrates, Aquinas, the Kabalists and
other Ceremonial Magicians, the Shamans, and others (to greater or lesser
extents). I propose that what Bill Wilson and his colleagues did was
describe this ancient spiritual process in a vocabulary that could be
understood by the working-class drunk. In no way did this diminish the
power or mystery of spiritual metamorphosis.
As in the ancient schools and spiritual / magical disciplines, you do not
walk the journey of the 12 Steps alone. The role of Mentor/Teacher within
the Anonymous programs is fulfilled by the Sponsor; and I'd like to take
this opportunity to thank the men and women who have held my hand during my
journey: Gina, Pat G., Dorothy B., Jim R., Nancy, and Despie -- Blessed Be!
Step 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had
In September 1981 I could not deny that I was powerless over alcohol; that
from the moment I took the first drink I could not predict my behavior. I
could also see that a lot of the unmanageability I was experiencing in my
life was a direct result of my drinking. This insight was a double-edged
sword; the knowledge that I was controlled by a substance that I thought I
controlled was completely demoralizing; but I was liberated by the message
that I would be free by refusing the first drink.
I am one of the lucky ones. I haven't found it necessary to take that first
drink since my first meeting (not everyone who comes to A.A. is given this
blessing). However, with this blessing comes the knowledge that the
unmanageability in our lives is not due only to our drinking. Step 1 does
not say "therefore our lives . . ." If there were a direct cause-and-effect
relationship between the drinking and unmanageability, there would be no
need for Steps 2 through 12. As the alcohol left my system, I began to
understand the threefold nature of the disease of alcoholism: physical,
emotional, spiritual. Once the physical part of the disease had been dealt
with, by the actual detoxification and abstinence from alcohol, I became
aware of the emotional and spiritual sickness in my life, and I began my
journey through the steps.
Step 2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity.
My initial panic with this step was over the phrase, "restore us to
sanity." All my life I've known I was different, been told that I was
crazy! How could I be restored to something I had never experienced? Gina
convinced me that at some point, maybe when I was two cells big, I was
sane. I have come to believe that the gods intend for me to be healthy and
sane, that I can be "restored" to sanity even if I am being restored to
something that had previously existed only as an intention.
Now, I could look at the first part of the sentence, "Came to believe that
a power greater than ourselves." I knew I couldn't re-store myself to
sanity; therefore, if it could be done, it would have to be done by a power
greater than me.
(I'd been reared in a Catholic household, and I had been a "searcher"
since about age 12; that was when I decided that there was a logical
inconsistency in Catholicism as I saw it: if God was infinite, why would He
have only one path leading to him? An infinite god would have infinite
paths. Curiously, this led to six years of constant battle with my parents
as I explored one church after another. Unfortunately, I'd never connected
with one that met my needs, not until February 2, 1987, when I met The
So, yes, I believed there was a power, divine, greater than me, who could
restore me to sanity. I didn't know what or who it was. Would "it" restore
me? If it didn't, I would die: this I KNEW. I chose to believe it would
until proven otherwise.
Would anyone who had not (at some level) reached the cross-roads described
by this step begin to search for a connection with divinity? I think not.
There must be a need, a void that must be filled, before someone will begin
the arduous journey toward the gods; the search inside and outside yourself
for the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, the Child, Father, and Wise One.
Step 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of
God as we understood God.
Again, I started at the end of the sentence. Did I understand God, and if
so, how? My understanding has undergone tumultuous evolution throughout my
sobriety. Sometimes I needed the white-haired, long-bearded father of my
childhood fantasies; the ethereal nonentity / energy / force of my
adolescence. I still couldn't pigeonhole god. The Siddha tradition
beckoned, but wasn't the answer. My mind could not encompass
undifferentiated infinity; yet any attempt to define it denied the infinite
reality of the divine. The polytheistic pantheon model of divinity answers
my need. I can communicate with subsets, or aspects, of the infinite
godhead. The gods and goddesses are nodes in the holograph that is
Could I turn my life and my will over to the care of the gods? What of
"free will," that essence of being human? Would it be taken from me? I
felt that the key was in the word "care"; to be cared for is not the same
as to be dominated. To be cared for is to be given direction, but the
decision to follow that direction was still mine. The decision of this step
is actually a conscious affirmation of our relationship with the divine: we
are children of the gods. My initiation as a Priestess of the Craft, a
dedication of my life as a member of The Lady's clergy, was a dynamic Third
Step; it was taking this step into a dimension I had never experienced, in
fact, had never dared to dream possible.
Step 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."2
With Step Four we identify the recurring patterns of our lives, in order to
see where our personal strengths and weaknesses lie. Some people reach this
point in their program and attempt to write elaborate autobiographies. On
more than one occasion I have seen others become mired in confusion by
approaching this step in that manner. I have found that listing specific
subjects, and then looking back to see how I have handled these in the
past, is the clearest way for me to spot patterns.
How do they tend to begin?
How do they tend to end?
Do my partners have common characteristics?
How do I earn it?
How do I spend it?
How do I control it?
What have I owned?
What do I own now?
How do I spend my time?
Do I "run out" of time?
How would I prefer to spend my time?
Why don't I spend my time the way I want to?
Are there activities I want to add/eliminate?
How do I perceive myself:
What is the external evidence:
Time devoted to meditation/spiritual reading?
Where does my perception match the evidence and where does it differ?
There are an infinite variety of subjects that could be used to find our
behavior patterns. It is very important to remember to look for our
positive characteristics as well as the negative; this is not an exercise
in self-flagellation! It is an honest appraisal of who we really are: what
we like about ourselves, what we don't like but cannot change (I'm never
going to be any taller than I am today), what we don't like that we can
change (I've been divorced twice, and I don't want to go through that
During Step Four we do not concern ourselves with how we're going to change
our behavior or mend broken relationships. This is an information-gathering
process. Again, as with Step Three, the Craft offers tools with which to
work this step in an entirely new dynamic.
By using the "Meditation Room" (internal astral temple), path-working,
Shamanic journeying, and totem identification as information sources, I
have been able to learn more about myself than ever before. When my spirit
guide made Herself known to me, I spent weeks meditating on why this
particular aspect had come to me. I knew that Her identity held a key to
who I really was, what I was looking for, what I needed in order to
I've also been able to use these magical tools to identify the child within
who had been abused by my parents, and to identify other ACA3 issues.
Step 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the
exact nature of our wrongs.
First, when working with a pagan theology, we can choose which
God/Goddess/Gods to work with here. In Alcoholics Anonymous, Athene or
Apollo would be appropriate; for Overeaters Anonymous, Demeter comes to
Next, this is NOT an act of confession, a search for forgiveness or
absolution. It is a continuation in our journey to know ourselves honestly.
It has been my experience that we share not only our wrongs, but also our
rights; we share what we have learned in Step Four.
My personal theology is based on divinity as simultaneously transcendant
and immanent4; so admitting to "God" was inherent in the process of writing
and talking with another person.
Why the other person? Because humans are very gifted at lying to
themselves. What I had learned about myself in Step Four was of no active
use to me as long as it remained my secret. I have an in-credible ability
to "forget" what I have discovered if that discovery remains silent. The
other person is also important because I tend to be unreasonably hard on
myself, to chastise myself when it is not appropriate, to fail to give
myself credit for the good I do and for my talents. The other person is
our reality check.
I have worked this step with sponsors and my therapist. As I shared with
them, I would be confronted if my perception of myself was being warped or
clouded by insecurity or egomania. In no way did I expect these people to
forgive, heal, fix, or change my life for me. The act of verbalizing my
feelings about me and my behavior made it impossible to deny that this was
indeed how I felt. My mind could no longer play its circuitous game with
me, sending me spiraling down through never-ending discovery and denial.
That pattern was broken; so now I could begin to break the others I had
Step 6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of
We have the same choices with the word "God" here as we had in the previous
The "defects of character" are the patterns that we identified in Step Four
and shared in Step Five, and that we no longer wish to repeat. Some
defects were at one time very useful defenses.
As a child I maintained a fantasy life in my head, that I could escape to,
in order to survive in the violent, abusive environment I grew up in. But
as an adult, maintaining a parallel, fantasy life was blocking my attempts
to manifest the life I wanted. A sophisticated and successful childhood
defense had become a destructive defect.
As long as a "defect" is useful, we cannot become willing to have it
removed; but once we grow beyond the defense and recognize the behavior as
destructive, as a "defect," we can become willing to live without it.
This decision, this change in perception, this willingness, is the entirety
of this step. It is very simple and sometimes extremely difficult.
Step 7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
I change "Him" to "Her/Them" in my understanding of this step.
There is a legend in A.A. that someone once asked Bill Wilson (who wrote
the Steps) why Step Five refers to "wrongs," Step Six to "defects of
character," and Step Seven to "shortcomings." He replied, "I didn't want to
To be "humble" is to be concious of your defects5: so if I ask to have a
defect removed, I am, by definition, humble. There is no groveling inherent
in the concept of humility.
I ask the gods to remove these unwanted patterns of behavior, because I
cannot do it alone. If I could live my life without the gods, I would never
have sought a conscious connection with them. That connection is that spark
of divinity within me that gives me life; it is the true essense of my
humanity. Therefore, I am capable of nothing without the gods, for I would
not Be without the gods.
However, could the gods change my life and the patterns of my life without
my knowledge or petition? Most certainly, that happens to me all the time.
When I ask for help, to have something removed from my life, I am affirming
for myself what was already to be. For once a pattern is recognized as
useless, it will cease to exist. The petition to the gods is not what
causes the removal; the petition is to remind me of my relationship with
divinity. The strengthening of my understanding of my relationship to the
gods is the spiritual journey that will heal me.
Step 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing
to make amends to them all.
As I analyzed the patterns of my life in Step Four, I became aware of the
people in my life who had caused me pain and those that I had hurt in some
way. I went back and listed the people I had harmed and a brief description
of the circumstances. I asked myself if I was willing to apologize for my
behavior within the relationship, and became willing to clean up my side of
My experience has been that this step helps me understand how I behave in
interpersonal relationships. I could no longer deny my possessiveness, my
neediness, my lack of tact or subtlety, the times I had resorted to
emotional blackmail in order to get my way. And, as my sponsor instructed
me, I put myself on the list. I owed myself
amends. I could see when I had allowed myself to become the "doormat," to
be victimized. I could not expect my parents to make restitution for their
abuse, but I could talk to the child within, hold her, allow her to play
and have her fantasies realized. I have been able to do these things in my
internal "meditation room." The experiences have been very powerful, and
have left me feeling whole and serene.
Step 9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except
when to do so would injure them or others.
A sponsor's guidance with this step is imperative; often a newly sober
alcoholic will cause unwarranted pain and chaos while attempting to make
right all the wrongs of the past. My sponsor stopped me when I wished to
apologize for what I knew I had done, whenever the "wronged" party was
unaware of my actions; for the amend would have caused pain instead of
healing. And, I was told, I was one of the "others". If in making amends I
was endangering myself, I was to wash my hands of the relationship and not
attempt the contact, or else send a letter instead of facing the person
My apology to my first husband was done via letter for this reason. I was
afraid of physical violence if I went to see him, and yet I needed to own
my wrongdoing in the relationship. I sent a letter; he wrote back saying he
was sorry I was still so mentally ill. So I learned another hard lesson
with Step Nine: we have no control over how our attempts to mend the torn
relationships in our lives will be accepted.
I have found that to do what is ethically right, without expecing right
action in return, is often very difficult, sometimes frightening, and
sometimes horribly painful.
For me, the most difficult spiritual lesson I have learned from this step
has been a recognition of my personal rights, and the knowledge that the
times when I have done the greatest harm to myself have always been when I
have tried to meet someone else's needs at the expense of my own physical,
emotional, or spiritual wellbeing.
Step 10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong,
promptly admitted it.
A continuous analysis of the status of our lives allows us to monitor our
recovery, to clean up the wreckage of our all-too-human errors. I have come
to view "guilt" as a form of self-bondage; when my actions within a
relationship haunt me, I need to take action to restore the serenity that I
now view as my rightful way of life. Often the guilt I feel is the result
of my having denied my own rights in a situation: by failing to provide a
safe environment for myself, by shrinking away from stating my wants or
needs, by denying my right to live happily. There have been times when, in
order to make amends to me, I've had to walk out of a situation, a job, a
relationship. Doing so has been frightening, and painful; but I've become
more whole, serene, and healthy as a result of taking care of me.
Step 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious
contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's
will for us and the power to carry that out.
I am filled with such gratitude for the tools of conscious contact with the
divine in the Craft that it is hard to find words to describe what this
step is like for me now. I spent years looking for a form of prayer and
meditation that would work for me: in Circle I have felt Her arms around
The grounding and centering meditations, the path workings, trance
inductions, divination, Cakes and Juice, are all dynamic, life-giving forms
of prayer. I no longer accept the existence of divinity on "blind faith";
I've seen Her, talked with Her, cried in Her arms, and have been healed by
Her. I know that because of the gift of the Craft I have experienced a
depth to this step that few of my "mundane" friends in the program will
ever imagine, let alone experience.
To ask only for the gods' will for me, through divination or any other
tool, seems to me why the tools are there. If the gods' will were of no
consequence, we wouldn't bother the oracles in the first place.
Whenever we invoke the gods, ask their protection, draw the power of The
Mother into our bodies, we are asking for the power to do their will. They
are the source of power, and as with any power source we must take the
action to allow empowerment by connecting.
Step 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we
tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles
in all our affairs.
The result of these steps is spiritual awakening, the continual process of
growing closer in understanding to the gods. These steps are a continual
journey, for life doesn't stand still. We are either growing or decaying,
recovering or sliding backwards. And, like physical life, spiritual life
We need to pass on the gift of sobriety and serenity, pass on our personal
understanding of the steps, in order to keep those gifts for ourselves.
The process unfolds, becomes new, leads me to a new understanding, each
time I've sat with a newcomer and shared my experience, strength, and hope.
To carry the message to others in need is not proselytization in order to
increase the size of the fold. In some ways it is much more selfish than
that: to carry the message to others is the only way to continue the
journey myself and to ensure my own sobriety.
Thinking the process through in my head, alone, will get me nowhere. I need
to share the program in order to keep it alive. As a wise Rabbi once said,
"Belief without action is meaningless." I cannot believe my way toward
spiritual health: I must act my way toward it.
As a final note, I would like to mention my gratitude for the amount of
support I have received in the Neopagan community. When I was first
invited to a gateway Circle, the High Priestess asked if I had any problem
with wine in Circle. I told her I didn't have any problem with it being
there, but I couldn't drink it. From that Esbat on, the HPs used both juice
and wine in Circle, in clearly different cups. This same HPs also ensured
that there were sugar-free cakes available, since my consort also abstains
from sugar. There have been well-attended A.A. meetings at the festivals I
have attended, and these festivals and large Sabbats in our area have also
had juice available in Circle. This undertanding that some of our members
need to abstain from alcohol is a sign of the spiritual strength within our
1. As printed in Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition, 1976, pp. 59-60.
2. George Santayana.
3. Adult Children of Alcoholics.
4. This has been standard Western theology for many, many centuries; the
terms will be found in any dictionary.