This was taken off of UseNet. White space has been edited to make it look
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Subject: Answer to requests for neopaganism info
Posted: 6 Oct 87 17:53:08 GMT
Organization: Willam Claude Dukenfield Discordian Cabal
Xref: decwrl rec.nude:655 talk.religion.misc:5141 talk.religion.newage:1639
This posting responds to a deluge of email replies to my 'Notes from a Neopagan
Nudist' article from people looking for more information. I have cross-posted
to the religion groups for obvious reasons.
The neopagan phenomenon is a loose collection of religious movements,
experiments and jokes that offers a healthy alternative to the dogmatism of
the Judeo/Christian/Islamic mainstream (on the one hand) and the mushy-
mindedness of most 'New Age' groups (on the other).
This article, prepared at the request of a number of curious net.posters,
offers a brief description of neopagan thought and practice. A list of good
sources for further study are listed at the end.
II. What is a neopagan?
I used the term 'religious' above, but as you'll see it's actually more
than somewhat misleading, and I (like many other neopagans) use it only because
no other word is available for the more general kind of thing of which the
neopagan movement and what we generally think of as 'religion' are special
Neopaganism is 'religious' in the etymological sense of 're ligare', to
rebind (to roots, to strengths, to the basics of things), and it deals with
mythology and the realm of the 'spiritual'. But, as we in the Judeo/Christian
West have come to understand 'religion' (an organized body of belief that
connects the 'supernatural' with an authoritarian moral code via 'faith')
neopaganism is effectively and radically anti-religious. I emphasize this
because it is important in understanding what follows.
Common characteristics of almost all the groups that describe themselves
as 'neopagan' (the term is often capitalized) include:
Neopagan religions are religions of practice, pragmatism and immediate
experience. The emphasis is always on what they can help the individuals in
them to *do* and *experience*; theology and metaphysics take a back seat, and
very little 'faith' or 'belief' is required or expected. In fact many neopagans
(including yours truly) are actively hostile to 'faith' and all the related
ideas of religious authority, 'divine revelation' and the like.
2. Compatibility with a scientific world-view
This tends to follow from the above. Because neopaganism is centered in
experiences rather than beliefs, it doesn't need or want to do vast overarching
cosmologies or push fixed Final Answers to the Big Questions -- understanding
and helping human beings relate to each other and the world as we experience
it is quite enough for us. Thus, we are generally friendly to science and the
scientific world-view. Many of us are scientists and technologists ourselve
(in fact, by some counts, a plurality of us are computer programmers!).
3. Reverence for nature, sensuality, and pleasure
Most neopaganisms make heavy use of nature symbolism and encourage people
to be more aware of their ties to all the non-human life on this planet.
Explicit worship of 'Gaia', the earth ecosphere considered as a single
interdependent unit, is common. Veneration of nature dieties is central to
many traditions. Ecological activism is often considered a religious duty,
though there is much controversy over what form it should take.
By preference, most neopagans hold their ceremonies outdoors under sun
or moon. Seasonal changes and astronomical rhythms (especially the solstices,
equinoxes and full and new moons) define the ritual calendar.
Ritual and festive nudity are common; to be naked before nature is often
considered a holy and integrating act in itself. Sex is considered sacramental
and sexual energy and symbolisms permeate neopagan practice (we like to
contrast this with Christianity, in which the central sacrament commemorates
a murder and climaxes in ritual cannibalism).
4. Polytheism, pantheism, agnosticism
Most neopaganisms are explicitly polytheistic -- that is, they recognize
pantheons of multiple dieties. But the reality behind this is more complex
than it might appear.
First, many neopagans are philosophical agnostics or even atheists; there
is a tendency to regard 'the gods' as Jungian archetypes or otherwise in some
sense created by and dependent on human belief, and thus naturally plural and
Secondly, as in many historical polytheisms, there is an implicit though
seldom-discussed idea that all the gods and goddesses we deal with are
'masks', refractions of some underlying unity that we cannot or should not
attempt to approach directly.
And thirdly, there is a strong undercurrent of pantheism, the belief that
the entire universe is in some important sense a responsive, resonating and
sacred whole (or, which is different and subtler, that it is proper for
human beings to view it that way).
Many neopagans hold all three of these beliefs simultaneously.
5. Decentralized, non-authoritarian organization; no priestly elite
Neopagans have seen what happens when a priesthood elite gets temporal
power; we want none of that. We do not take collections, build temples, or
fund a full-time clergy. In fact the clergy-laity distinction is pretty soft;
in many traditions, all members are considered 'in training' for it, and in
all traditions every participant in a ritual is an active one; there are and
can be no pew-sitting passive observers.
Most neopagan traditions are (dis)organized as horizontal networks of
small affinity groups (usually called 'circles', 'groves', or 'covens'
depending on the flavor of neopagan involved). Priests and priestesses
have no real authority outside their own circles (and sometimes not much
inside them!), though some do have national reputations.
Many of us keep a low profile partly due to a real fear of persecution. Too
many of our spiritual ancestors were burned, hung, flayed and shot by religions
that are still powerful for a lot of us to feel safe in the open. Down in the
Bible Belt the burnings and beatings are still going on, and the media loves
to hang that 'Satanist' label on anything it doesn't understand for a good
Also, we never prosyletize. This posting is about as active a neopagan
solicitation as anyone will ever see; we tend to believe that 'converts' are
dangerous robots and that people looking to be 'converted' aren't the kind we
want. We have found that it works quite well enough to let people find us
when they're ready for what we have to teach.
6. Reverence for the female principle
One of the most striking differences between neopagan groups and the
religious mainstream is the wide prevalence (and in some traditions dominance)
of the worship of goddesses. Almost all neopagans revere some form of the
Great Mother, often as a nature goddess identified with the ecosphere, and
there are probably more female neopagan clergy than there are male.
Most neopagan traditions are equalist (these tend to pair the Great
Mother with a male fertility-god, usually some cognate of the Greek Pan).
A vocal and influential minority are actively feminist, and (especially on
the West Coast) there have been attempts to present various neopagan traditions
as the natural 'women's religion' for the feminist movement. The effects of
this kind of politicization of neopaganism are a topic of intense debate within
the movement and fuel some of its deepest factional divisions.
7. Respect for art and creativity
Neopaganism tends to attract artists and musicians as much as it attracts
technologists. Our myth and ritual can be very powerful at stimulating and
releasing creativity, and one of the greatest strengths of the movement is the
rich outgrowth of music, poetry, crafts and arts that has come from that.
It is quite common for people joining the movement to discover real talents in
those areas that they never suspected.
Poets and musicians have the kind of special place at neopagan festivals
that they did in pre-literate cultures; many of our best-known people are or
have been bards and songsmiths, and the ability to compose and improvise
good ritual poetry is considered the mark of a gifted priest(ess) and very
"Steal from any source that doesn't run too fast" is a neopagan motto.
A typical neopagan group will mix Greek, Celtic and Egyptian mythology with
American Indian shamanism. Ritual technique includes recognizable borrowings
from medieval ceremonial magic, Freemasonry and pre-Nicene Christianity, as
well as a bunch of 20th-century inventions. Humanistic psychology and some
of the more replicable New Age healing techniques have recently been
influential. The resulting stew is lively and effective, though sometimes a
bit hard to hold together.
9. A sense of humor
Neopagans generally believe that it is more dangerous to take your
religion too seriously than too lightly. Self-spoofery is frequent and (in
some traditions) semi-institutionalized, and at least one major neopagan
tradition (Discordianism, known to many on this net) is *founded* on elaborate
spoofery and started out as a joke.
One of the most attractive features of the neopagan approach is that we
don't confuse solemnity with gloom. Our rituals are generally celebratory and
joyous, and a humorous remark at the right time need not break the mood.
We generally feel that any religion that can't stand to have fun poked
at it is in as sad shape as the corresponding kind of person.
III. What kinds of neopagan are there, and where did they come from?
Depending on who you talk to and what definitions you use, there are
between 40,000 and 200,000 neopagans in the U.S.; the true figure is probably
closer to the latter than the former, and the movement is still growing rapidly
following a major 'population explosion' in the late '70s.
The numerically largest and most influential neopagan group is the
'Kingdom of Wicca' -- the modern witch covens. Modern witchcraft has nothing
to do with Hollywood's images of the cackling, cauldron-stirring crone (though
Wiccans sometimes joke about that one) and is actively opposed to the
psychopathic Satanism that many Christians erroneously think of as
'witchcraft'. Your author is an initiate Wiccan priest and coven leader of long
Other important subgroups include those seeking to revive Norse, Egyptian,
Amerind, and various kinds of tribal pantheons other than the Greek and Celtic
ones that have been incorporated into Wicca. These generally started out as
Wiccan offshoots or have been so heavily influenced by Wiccan ritual technique
that their people can usually work comfortably in a Wiccan circle and vice-
There are also the various orders of ceremonial magicians, most claiming
to be the successors to the turn-of-the-century Golden Dawn or one of the
groups founded by Alesteir Crowley during his brillant and notorious occult
career. These have their own very elaborate ritual tradition, and tend to be
more intellectual, more rigid, and less nature-oriented. They are sometimes
reluctant to describe themselves as neopagans.
The Discordians (and, more recently, the Discordian-offshoot Church of
the Sub-Genius) are few in number but quite influential. They are the neopagan
movement's sacred clowns, puncturing pretense and adding an essential note to
the pagan festivals. Many Wiccans, especially among priests and priestesses,
are also Discordians and will look you straight in the eye and tell you that
the entire neopagan movement is a Discordian hoax...
Neopaganism used to be largely a white, upper-middle-class phenomenon,
but that has been changing during the last five years. So called 'new-collar'
workers have come in in droves during the eighties. We still see fewer
non-whites, proportionately, than there are in the general population, but
that is also changing (though more slowly). With the exception of a few
nut-fringe 'Aryan' groups detested by the whole rest of the movement, neopagans
are actively anti-racist; prejudice is not the problem, it's more that the
ideas have tended to be accepted by the more educated segments of society
first, and until recently those more educated segments were mostly white.
On the East Coast, a higher-than-general-population percentage of
neopagans have Roman Catholic or Jewish backgrounds, but figures suggest this
is not true nationwide. There is also a very significant overlap in population
with science-fiction fandom and the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Politically, neopagans are distributed about the same as the general
population, except that whether liberal or conservative they tend to be more
individualist and less conformist and moralistic than average. It is therefore
not too surprising that the one significant difference in distribution is the
presence of a good many more libertarians than one would see in a same-sized
chunk of the general population (I particularly register this because I'm a
libertarian myself, but non-libertarians have noted the same phenomenon).
These complexities are obscured by the fact that the most politically active
and visible neopagans are usually ex-hippie left-liberals from the '60s.
I think the most acute generalization made about pagans as a whole is
Margot Adler's observation that they are mostly self-made people, supreme
individualists not necessarily in the assertive or egoist sense but because
they have felt the need to construct their own culture, their own definitions,
their own religious paths, out of whatever came to hand rather than accepting
the ones that the mainstream offers.
IV. Where do I find out more?
I have deliberately not said much about mythology, or specific religious
practice or aims, or the role of magic and to what extent we practice and
'believe' in it. Any one of those is a topic for another posting; but you can
get a lot of information from books. Here's a basic bibliography:
Adler, Margot _Drawing_Down_the_Moon_ (Random House 1979, hc)
This book is a lucid and penetrating account of who the modern neo-pagans
are, what they do and why they do it, from a woman who spent
almost two years doing observer-participant journalism in the neo-pagan
community. Especially valuable because it combines an anthropologist's
objectivity with a candid personal account of her own feelings about all
she saw and did and how her ideas about the neo-pagans changed under the
impact of the experiences she went through. Recommended strongly as a
first book on the subject, and it's relatively easy to find. There is now
a revised and expanded second edition available.
An anthology of philosophy, poetry, training exercises, ritual outlines
and instructive anecdotes from a successful working coven. First-rate
as an introduction to the practical aspects of magick and running a
functioning circle. Often findable at feminist bookstores.
Shea, Robert and Wilson, Robert Anton _Illuminatus!_ (Dell, 1975, pb)
This work of alleged fiction is an incredible berserko-surrealist
rollercoaster that _will_ bend your mind into a pretzel with an acid-head
blitzkrieg of plausible, instructive and enlightening lies and a few
preposterous and obscure truths. Amidst this eccentric tale of world-girdling
conspiracies, intelligent dolphins, the fall of Atlantis, who
_really_ killed JFK, sex, drugs, rock and roll and the Cosmic Giggle
Factor, you will find Serious Truths about Mind, Time, Space, the Nature
of God(dess) and What It All Means -- and also learn why you should on
no account take them Seriously. Pay particular attention to Appendix
Lamedh ("The Tactics of Magick"), but it won't make sense until you've
read the rest.
This was first published in 3 volumes as _The_Eye_In_The_Pyramid_, _The_
Golden_Apple_ and _Leviathan_, but there's now a one-volume trade
paperback carried by most chain bookstores under SF.
Campbell, Joseph W., _The_Masks_of_God_ (Viking Books, 1971, pb)
One of the definitive analytical surveys of world mythography -- and
readable to boot! It's in 4 volumes:
The theoretical framework of these books is a form of pragmatic
neo-Jungianism which has enormously influenced the neopagans (we can
accurately be described as the practice for which Campbell and Jung were
theorizing). Note especially his predictions in vols. I & IV of a
revival of shamanic, vision-quest-based religious forms. The recent
Penguin pb edition of this book should be available in the Mythology and
Folklore selection of any large bookstore.
Bonewits, Isaac, _Real_Magic_ (Creative Arts Books, 1979, pb)
A fascinating analytical study of the psychodynamics of ritual and
magick. This was Bonewits's Ph.D. thesis for the world's only known
doctorate in Magic and Thaumaturgy (UCLA Berkeley, 1971). Hardest of the
five to find but well worth the effort -- an enormously instructive,
trenchant and funny book.
V. Will there be more net.info on this topic?
I am also available to answer questions by email or phone. Be warned that I
will probably tell you to go off and study some more, rather than referring you
to a group, if you haven't read at least two out of the five above or else good
equivalents like Michael Harner's _Way_Of_The_Shaman_ (Castaneda, UFOlogy books
and anything on astrology or the Great Pyramid will *not* count! Grrr...!).
No fooling, learning to do this stuff right is hard work and demands a lot
more rigor and clear thinking than most people associate with 'occultism'.
But it's also fun and empowering and could turn out to be one of the couple
most important things you do with your life.
If response to this posting is heavy, I may post some stuff on Wiccan ritual
practice and theology, that being what I know best.
Eric S. Raymond
Post: 22 South Warren Avenue, Malvern, PA 19355 Phone: (215)-296-5718