PAGANISM AT THE CROSSROADS
These are tricky and dangerous times. Paganism has grown in
size to the point where we no longer enjoy the luxury of
obscurity. We now face a choice that all initiatory paths face
at some time in their development; whether to remain a viable
initiatory path, and if so under what circumstances; or to
devolve into a mere religion.
I'd better backtrack -- some readers may not understand what
an initiatory path is or how it differs from a religion. Others
may think paganism is a religion already, and wonder what I mean
by suggesting it is or could be something else.
A defense often used against fundamentalist Christians and
others who attack paganism on a religious basis is to say "We are
not like you, only different in a few not-so-important ways. We
are a religion, like you, another belief system, harmless,
ordinary. We worship the Earth, the Goddess, the same way you
worship your abstract God. You should extend tolerance to us for
the same reason you extend it to Muslims or Buddhists or
Catholics or Jews. When you single us out as something weird,
you are exhibiting hysterical paranoia." It's an effective
defense, but somewhat disingenuous.
We are different. We aren't just a religion. We are at
present, and in my view should try to remain, a path of
initiation. It may be inevitable that a religion grow up around
us. It may even be desirable to employ such a religion as a
cloak, or a doorway, to both. But a Pagan religion is also a
threat to the Pagan path of initiation. We need to ensure that
the growth, if it occurs, is that of a tree from a seed, not of a
pearl from a grain of sand.
A tree produces more seeds.
A pearl only hide the sand to save the oyster from
What is an initiatory path? And what, then, is initiation?
We touch here upon a word badly misunderstood by many
Pagans. Initiation is one thing; an initiation ritual is
another. A person is not an initiate, in the sense I mean here,
just because he or she has passed through an initiation ritual.
Initiation is a personal experience in which one becomes aware of
mysteries; realities that were previously hidden and which cannot
be communicated by one person to another in words or symbols, but
must be experienced directly, firsthand. This last point is
crucial. One finds "mysteries" communicated in coven initiations
or even at festivals, but these are only hidden meanings of
symbols and tools used in the Craft, or of stories told about the
Gods. The fact that they can be communicated makes them not true
mysteries, only secrets.
A body of teaching, practice, and ritual which facilitates
initiation is an initiatory path. Most religions start out as
paths of initiation.
Religion tends to be conservative. Initiation, however, is
Initiation transforms a person's life, bringing inner peace,
greater insight into the workings of fate, and awareness of the
connections linking all things, as well as magical power. If it
were a commonplace event, if people went through initiation as
surely as they go through puberty, we would have a far different
and better world.
Even if the circle of initiates included a significant
minority of the population, the magical effect of such a number
of altered minds on the world would be profound and positive.
Of course, this very fact means that initiatory paths will
be opposed by those interests, both human and non-human, that are
opposed to positive change. The opposition is not really a
conspiracy; it seems more than an automatic reaction, a law of
Initiation is not an instantaneous event, but one that
occurs through years of effort and devotion. It seems likely
that there is no end to the process, and that the idea of there
"fully enlightened being" is a peculiar Oriental fantasy. There
are times, it is true, when revelation comes in a flash like
lightning, but such moments are exclamation marks punctuating a
story that unfolds chapter by chapter.
Many tools and methods for achieving initiation have evolved
over the ages. Some are intellectual, aiming to expand
consciousness through thought: Vedanta and the Caballah come to
mind as among the most impressive. Others are ritual or
devotional; Bakhti Yoga, chanting the names of the Gods, drawing
down the Moon, the meditations of the monastics. Some are also
physical: Hatha Yoga, Sufi dancing, some forms of martial art.
Some aim at expanding consciousness directly by stretching it to
its limits; meditation, Raja Yoga, guided visualizations, vision
quest. Then there are sex magic, drugs, drumming, austerities,
use of talismans, self-discipline, and so on. Most of these
techniques evolved outside a pagan context, but they are
amendable to incorporation in a pagan framework. Initiation
rituals, of course, are another method, but they are seldom
sufficient by themselves.
Initiates can be found into the context of any religion,
including those least similar to Neopaganism. St. Francis of
Assisi was an initiate, and many a Sufi and Caballist, Buddhist
and Yogi, Taoist and shaman. A modern Neopagan initiate has far
more in common with them than with an illiterate, superstitious
pagan of the Roman Empire, gobbling the flesh of sacrificed
animals while contemplating how to backstab his competitors. All
initiates of all paths have a common heart; it is religions,
which circle the periphery of the sacred, that differ.
But, while Christian, Jewish and Muslim initiates do exist,
the established religions don't make it easy. For every
illuminated Catholic saint, there are hundreds of burned
heretics. Indeed, many post-Constantinian saints escaped burning
themselves only by miracles greater than those for which they
were canonized. Burning is passe nowadays but condemnation for
heresy is not, and thrives as well in most Protestant
denominations. So bound about with the fetters of faith is the
Christian that initiation is virtually impossible, except for
their boldest and best minds.
This is no accident.
The tragedy of Christianity is that it began so well and
decayed so quickly into such a parody of its beginnings. This is
a recurring phenomenon. Again and again, the initiatory message
has presented itself in some new form and met with some success,
only to be hidden in a maze of illusions, and crusted over with
barriers and restrictions. There are always counterattacks from
outside the new path, from established religions, but the truly
effective counterattacks come from within, so that what began as
a bright new hope becomes a mere religion. The priests, the
figures in authority, forge an instrument for the furtherance of
their own authority, to which genuine initiation is a serious
threat. The initiatory impulse is carefully bled off into
harmless channels, and all magic outside those channels is
There is a great deal of magic in Christian monastic orders,
and more still in Hindu and Buddhist ashrams, or wielded by
wandering saddhus. But these illuminated souls, both Western and
Eastern, are sworn to poverty, chastity, humility. Many do not
reproduce, ensuring that, if there is a genetic component to
magic, it will be weakened by removing its best practitioners
from the gene pool. Too, in renouncing the world, they ensure
that their spiritual insight will play a small role shaping
events. In contrast, a few secret initiatory paths remain active
and true to their original mission. These paths, which include
Hermeticism, the Caballah, surviving shamanic traditions, and a
few branches of Sufism, have made themselves non-threatening in a
different way. They continue to live in the world and to learn
and teach practical as well as spiritual magic, but in such tiny
numbers and in so furtive a fashion that they hold little promise
of genuine large-scale transformation. There is not really
anything wrong with this; such secret orders have acted over the
centuries to preserve the Mysteries, not to spread them. Without
them, efforts to break the chains on a large scale would be to no
avail. But Paganism is different.
Neopaganism is unique--at this time, though not
historically--in that it is a genuine initiatory path that has
grown large. Moreover, in its diversity and flexibility, its
protean and progressive nature, it promises to incorporate all of
the virtues of the other surviving paths. It may not be the most
advanced, the most powerful, or the most aesthetically refined,
but these characteristics can all be absorbed from the smaller
paths which possess them, for Paganism is an all-gobbling magical
amoeba, sucking up the mythos, methods, and knowledge of every
other path in existence. Once again, an initiatory path
threatens to break out and make some changes in reality.
On schedule, opposition has begun to arise.
As always, some of the opposition is from the outside, but
I don't think we need to be concerned about that. A strain of
paranoia is built into our origin myths and traditions, and is
always a greater danger than the persecution we fear. The
external opposition has seldom been very effective against any
path. Some right-wing Christians are beginning to engage in
Witch-hunting of a relatively genteel sort, mostly involving
propaganda. However, propaganda is legitimate (they have a right
to express their opinions about what we do, as we have the right
to speak in counterpoint.) There may be more serious
difficulties, even occasional violence, but the Burning Times are
gone for good, barring a complete collapse of civilization. We
have more important things to worry about within our own ranks.
The rapid increase in our numbers in the last few decades
means there are many newcomers. Newcomers are ripe for
exploitation, both monetary and political, and both have begun to
occur. The first fills me with amusement and outrage. The
second is more alarming.
There seems to be a growing desire in some quarters to
commercialize Neopaganism and profit from it. That's only
natural, but when crystal athames go for $1,400 and classes are
taught in return for a pledge of a percentage of the students'
income in perpetuity, somebody is getting fleeced. This is bad
enough, but not nearly as bad as what might happen in reaction.
Better a crowd of poorer and wiser novices, the hucksters filling
the role of the Dweller on the Threshold, than a Paganism reduced
from a path of initiation to a mere religion, its bright promise
gone dull, as have so many others.
The seeds of this development lie chiefly in individuals we
might call Pagan politicians, and in our response to them. They
may not be high initiates or powerful magicians, but they are
skillful at organizing, they like to strike poses in public, and
they know how to work the media. Sometimes they appear on
television to say "This is what Paganism is. This is what
Witchcraft is," self-appointed spokespersons for the entire Pagan
community. Their power over the Craft may be small, but it could
easily grow as the Craft grows, as they sink their hooks into
more and more beginners.
An experienced initiate is unlikely to be moved by a picture
on television, or a story in the newspaper. It is otherwise for
a novice. When first appraising something, it is the surface one
sees. And there are two dangers in this trend; First, that
insightful, intuitive, independent people, the kind who would
make good Witches, maybe turned off by the media spectacle
(analogy: What is your reaction to the words "New Age?".)
Secondly, that those who are not repelled may develop a kind of
mundane "Neopaganism," a mere religion, based as other religions
are on faith, dogma, and prescribed observances, conservative (in
the sense of resisting progress, not of voting Republican) and
anti-initiatory. There may be points in common between it and us
(such as an environmental ethic or "worship" (how I despise that
word!) of a Goddess), as a baboon might wear a tuxedo, but the
heart and soul would be gone. Anyone who sought initiation would
have to pass the gauntlet of this other paganism first and then
unlearn this religion to approach the new path. Few could be
expected to do so.
It is important to recognize these politicos for what they
are. They are our would-be clergy who, like Christian priests,
Muslim mullah and Jewish rabbis, would be religious leaders but,
with rare exceptions, no initiates. Their authority would derive
from knowledge of accepted doctrines and from political acumen,
rather than spiritual awareness. Pagan pontiff pretenders are
not necessarily malevolent, but they do not comprehend the
purpose of initiation or the fundamental ways in which Paganism
differs, not just from this or that religion, from all religions.
Consequently, they do not understand that priests, ministers,
rabbis, and so forth are not good role models for Pagan spiritual
leaders, even if allowances are made for differing value systems.
Paganism, as currently practiced, is not simply a different
religion, but a different category of thing altogether. Not
only does it not suffer without an organization comparable to
that of established religions, but creating such an organization
may bury us.
The bishops who created the Catholic Church were not
particularly evil men. But they were misguided, and the result
of their labor was disastrous. Yet some movement on this road is
inevitable. It is the fruit of growth, a sign that a path of
initiation has matured into a serious threat to the status quo.
It represents a counterattack by the forces of inertia.
Let's not be unduly alarmist. We are not in immediate
danger, but the clouds can be seen on the horizon, and we need to
prepare ourselves, and consider whether anything can be done to
avoid the usual fate of an initiatory path at the crossroads.
All our predecessors, on reaching this juncture, have taken the
wrong turning. But we have ;advantages former initiatory paths
lacked. That no one has succeeded up to now is not so imposing
an obstacle as it might seem.
One of our advantages is the First Amendment to the United
States Constitution and similar provisions, in fact and tradition
if not law, guaranteeing religious liberty in all Western
democracies. It is literally impossible for a Pagan Catholic
Church, even if one comes into existence, to exile or execute
dissident Pagans, as was done to dissident Christians after the
Council of Nicaea. It is unlikely that any Pagan organization,
or that of any other religion, could get a modern Western
government do its dirty work to any significant degree. Overt
persecution is reduced from a terror to a nuisance. That's no
Another advantage is modern information technology.
Communication of ideas is now so easy, and suppression of them so
difficult, that to contain or channel or eliminate the initiatory
message will be harder than ever before, and may be impossible.
Of course, the downside of this development is the proliferation
of blatant nonsense. But I think that is an acceptable price.
Better the truth be heard whispering through shouted lies and
bellowed folly than that it not be heard at all.
The third, subtlest and possibly the greatest advantage we
have over our predecessors is science.
By science I do not mean any particular bit of knowledge
which has been uncovered by scientists, although all that is
useful as well. I mean the attitudes of science. I mean the
methods of science. Above all, I mean the vision of science.
Thanks to science, we no longer think of all knowledge as
being handed down to us from the past. Thanks to science, we can
consider magic not only in its sacred and spiritual and aesthetic
dimensions--though these are certainly important--but in its
technical dimensions as well, as seek the laws and principles
that underpin magic, analogous to the laws of physics that
Best of all: Thanks to science, we are not limited to what
we know today. We understand that even our best picture of
reality is only an approximation, that we will have a better
picture tomorrow. This gift promises to upset the creeping
authoritarianism that has ruined so many paths of initiation and
created so many religions.
These are potent advantages. I believe they allow us the
possibility of success. But not the certainty. As we approach
the crossroads, there are a number of things that need doing.
Some of these steps are simply a matter of keeping our attitudes
in the right places. Others involve research, development, and
artistic creation. Others still involve magical tasks. We need
to understand that modern Paganism, though built on the past, is
not limited by it, that we are capable of improving on our
ancestor's wisdom--even to the extent that their wisdom is not a
product of our own romantic imagination, which is large measure
it is. We need to recognize, once and for all, and say so, that
our origin myths are just that: Wicca is not a survival from the
pre-Christian past, but an eclectic/creative construct meant to
imitate what such a survival should ideally be. Its resemblance,
and that of Neopaganism in general, to ancient paganism in any of
its multitude of forms is slight and ultimately besides the
We need to do these things because they will allow us to
take the next step, which is to expand Paganism, as a path of
initiation, to its potentia. We cannot do that so long as we are
locked into an old model--real or romanticized. The initiatory
paths of the past have failed. Therefore, we need something
better than what has gone before. We can take the essentials of
Neopaganism, the broad strokes of its mythology and ritual, as a
starting point, but we must go beyond that start.
First, we need to penetrate beneath the level of religious
symbolism to what might be called the physics of magic, the nuts
and bolts and laws of nature that account for what magic does and
is. Next to the initiatory experience itself, which can never be
communicated or replaced by anything--that point cannot be
emphasized too much or too often--the physics of magic would be
the deepest level of understanding, accounting for all forms of
symbolic knowledge. I have developed on system of laws which I
believe to be workable. (An account of those laws will appear in
an upcoming issue of Enchante.) It is the duty of every
scientifically-minded reader to rip them apart as best as
possible, to test them, and improve on them.
Secondly, we need to improve our tool chest of spiritual
methods. Much of the work has already been done by initiates
outside Paganism. All we have to do is translate it and
incorporate it within our own framework. At the same time, an
expanded and improved body of poetic ritual would be useful.
These things have already begun to happen, but the pace should be
accelerated. A common recognition of both the possibility and
the need would be a valid step. We must acknowledge that Yoga
can meditate us into a corner, that the Caballah theorizes rings
around us, and that any good shamanic lineage works magic to put
us to shame. We must also insist that Paganism has advantages
over these that should not be surrendered, and work to
incorporate what other paths can teach us into our own framework.
These accomplishments would serve to strengthen and fortify
the initiatory path of Paganism. It will need all the strength
it can get if it is to resist turning into a religion. But there
are other things that need doing as well, on both the
communicative and magical fronts.
Those of us with active pens must communicate the idea of an
initiatory path that lies within the mythical and ritual
structure of the Pagan religion, as it out to and once did lie
within all religions. There is, at present, no established Pagan
doctrine or dogma, no established pagan clergy, and no
established Pagan pantheon, and this also must be made clear.
The magical side of the battle may be the most important
one. Here, the guiding principle should be a clear visualization
of what we want Paganism to be.
Should exoteric Pagan religions grow up around the
initiatory core, then, ideally, we would want the priest/esse/s
of this religion to be initiates. But this may not be
practicable. First, many of us are unsuited for or uninterested
in the role of ministering to those who are unready for
initiation. Second, there may be too many newcomers to Paganism
(by some estimates the fastest-growing religion in North America)
and too few initiates.
I believe we could agree on two goals; a viable and visible
initiatory tradition must be maintained within the religion and
no exoteric priesthood must be allowed to gain preeminence over
the path. To those ends, then, the following magical workings
Weave the Net. There is a tenuous telepathic link among all
initiates. This can be invoked as part of the opening of any
major magical work, which will strengthen both the work and the
net. Some covens and individuals already do this. Reach out the
heart's fiery hand and feel the love of one another, both within
the coven and beyond it, setting aside the quarrels of the mind,
poles of a tipi each supporting each, moving faster, faster,
circles made of love. In this way, a synergistic entity, a
collective consciousness, may be generated, incorporating all our
diversity yet stronger than any of us alone. This consciousness
can be invoked like any deity, and can be a guide and
empowerment. We can give it names; there will be private names
known to individual covens or solitaries, but among us all the
name is Love.
Shine like a Beacon. Another working, which I feel is
appropriate to a Full Moon ritual, is one to avoid the light-
under-a-bushel syndrome, to illuminate all minds equipped with
eyes to see. The metaphor of a lighthouse beacon seems
appropriate; we can visualize this light shining brightly,
overpowering any attempt to hide it, so that truth cannot be
hidden from those able to understand it, initiation cannot be
denies to those capable of attaining it.
Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom; or, Divide and Rule. Assume
that a mundane Paganism must arise; above all we must not allow
any one sect or denomination of the Pagan religion to achieve
preeminence over the others. It doesn't matter how much we like
or dislike what the leaders of this or that sect are saying. Any
Pagan doctrine will always be wrong, even if it's right, because
initiation cannot be conveyed in words or symbols. We can,
through our magic, encourage diversity and creativity in the
ranks of newcomers and noninitiate leaders, preferring chaos to
conformity, and subtly bend the path of discourse so that it
leads toward initiation rather than away from it. We must avoid
the temptation to encourage a unified, strong Paganism, and that
temptation will arise! A fractious, splintered, disorganized,
and confusingly multi-headed Paganism may be somewhat
embarrassing when it appears on network news or in Time magazine.
But if the initiatory tradition is clearly visible within, we
will be far better served by chaos than by an order which serves
its own purposes, not ours.
I believe--certainly I hope--that these steps can preserve
the Neopagan path of initiation, prevent its burial under the
mantle of religion, and permit what has never before happened:
genuine, large-scale, beyond-the-point-of-no-return breakout of
the Mysteries, leading to the transformation of human culture and
this planet--assuming, of course, that civilization survives the
crisis of the coming years.