On the Origins, Problems, and Future of Neopaganism
My goal here is to do more than just lift up a corner of the old wool carpet of neopaganism to reveal the dirt underneath. I think it is high time we just flip the whole bloody thing over and yell about how no one vaccumed under it for decades but just cleaned up what was visible. Lazy, right? Get your dusty brooms out of those closets and get ready to clean house!
My intent in writing this long article is to use my best “professor of contemporary pagan studies” voice and define neopaganism, to explain how neopaganism and the paths within it make up a movement and not a religion, to point out where things went wrong, and to help foster a discussion on how and if things can be changed for the better at this point. You may find frustration and disillusionment in my words. I may make you angry or sad. Or, I may make you grateful that someone finally spelled out all the fake-lore and flaws for you. I ask you to keep in mind that in person I am a very sarcastic and silly person from a long line of tricksters and there is a lot of tongue-in-cheek and wordplay in this piece. I am a writer and words are my passion. I refuse to dumb myself down for this one. I am no outsider looking in. I am no newbie. I have been immersed in neopaganism for the past twenty years as a student, initiate, community volunteer, teacher, performer, festival board member, and occult author. Some parts of neopaganism I really love, but other elements have brought be great disappointment and suffering. I am very aware in this age of globalization that I am not alone. My fears surrounding talking about the inherent problems of neopaganism are fading, so get yourself a hot cup of tea or coffee and get ready for a deep discussion.
Before I really get into the meat of the issues within neopaganism, I first need to get through the exhausting process of defining it. Stay with me, it’s worth it to clarify all the things.
NeoPaganism vs. Paganism
I’m just going to come right out and say it: Paganism isn’t the right word. I know I’ve said it before, but I’m going to keep saying it. Paganism is not an accepted term for today’s non-Christian religions or polytheistic religions. The term paganism is considered out of technical use; archaic by the rest of the world. The only people who weren’t informed are the ones calling themselves Pagan with a capital P. There is no capital P in pagan and paganism. It is grammatically incorrect. The words “paganism” and “pagan” are used by the rest of the English speaking world mainly in reference to ancient polytheistic pagan cultures, such as Greece and Rome, or in impolite reference to “pagans” and “heathens” as hedonistic people and godless people “who delight in sensual pleasures and material goods”.
This is just an aside, but why does the latter definition sound more like most of today’s neopagans than the former? It makes me so sad that a lot of neopagan groups became cults of the yoni and the phallus rather than the deities they are supposed to represent; choosing instead to worship at the altar of ego, supposedly liberated sex, and their own genitals. If you think I am exaggerating, a self-identified Wiccan woman actually replied to my previous article on sexual abuse in neopaganism telling me that men represent the horned god and the great phallus on earth, that men should be worshipped because of this, and that everything I wrote must therefore be wrong. No joke.
Moving on . . .
People who identify as pagan today are called neopagan (or neo-pagan for the US) which literally means “new pagan”. Notice it is also not capitalized. Yes, this is grammatically correct. This is the term academics are using to describe today’s paths of Wicca, Druidry, Asatru, Heathenry, Hellenism, Kemeticism, Traditional Witchcraft, solitary paths, and most any form of contemporary nature-based and/or polytheistic faith inspired by or related to ancient paganism. Notice the capitalizations of the individual paths. These can be argued as religions: contemporary religions. Here is a grammar example: “The neopagan revival of the ancient Egyptian polytheistic faith is called Kemeticism and it is sometimes combined with other neopagan belief systems resulting in paths like Kemetic Wicca.”
Photos of Alexandrian Wiccan initiation ritual
Neopaganism is an umbrella descriptor term for the paths falling within it. It is the blue in “blue lake”, not the lake itself. It is not a path or religion in and of itself. It is not uncommon for neopagans to dislike the term and try to disassociate themselves and their spiritual paths from it, again, usually in a bid to seek historical legitimacy and validation and to avoid the terms “new/neo” and “modern” at all costs. If the shoe fits, it fits regardless of the naysaying so don’t hate the shoe. Neopaganism includes even the reconstructionists, Traditional Witchcraft™ practitioners, neoshamans, chaos magicians, Thelemites, and others who would rather separate themselves and not be under the neopagan banner. Sorry to disappoint, but they are still under the definition and categorization of this new religious movement whether it is desired or not.
It was the neopagan community’s self-forced synonymity of pagan and Wicca over a period of decades that led to the misbelief that “Paganism” is a religion. The same issue happened with the conflation of Wicca and witchcraft. It started off with people constantly using Wicca and witchcraft interchangeably and then transformed into people refusing to stop using “Pagan” and Wicca synonymously. During this confusion people started publishing books using all the terms interchangeably or wrongly resulting in the branding of altered Wiccan ritual practices as “Pagan” or non-Wiccan witchcraft as Wiccan and it all snowballed pretty fiercely from there. It has confused many people into viewing neopaganism and witchcraft as religions. After a few decades came a point when neopagans made everything capital P “Pagan” all of sudden and largely dropped the neo- and then capitalized the first letter in an ill-fated bid for half-intentional religious legitimacy. “We are Pagan! Hear us roar!”
The rest of the world didn’t notice or care. They kept on using neopagan, but let’s be honest, they mainly just keep calling everything related to neopaganism “Wicca” or [lowercase] witchcraft because that is as much attention they care to devote to the subject. Maybe neopagans should care less too and think about taking away the capital P and putting more focus on their individual paths. I admit to starting out totally confused and brainwashed by all of this nonsense. I had to hang out with a lot of non-neopagans to really understand that no one uses or knows the word pagan –capitalized or not.
Gardnerian Wiccans Doreen Valiente and Patricia Crowther:
Neopaganism as a Movement
If you look up the terms neopagan or neopaganism in any major dictionary you are going to find either references to 1800s movement of Romanticism or a definition of neopaganism as “a modern religious or spiritual movement connected to or based on paganism”. The key words are “modern” and “movement”. Other definitions use the terms “contemporary” and “today”. Let’s clarify this: paganism is not a religion, it is a term used to describe ancient, specifically polytheistic, religions of pre-Christian cultures. Neopaganism is also not a religion but a modern religious movement. Notice the use of religious as a descriptor not a noun. Now what is a movement? There are almost twenty possible definitions for movement, which you can find here (including bowel movement), but the ones that fits the neopagan definition best are:
“A diffusely organized or heterogeneous group of people or organizations tending toward or favoring a generalized common.”
“A group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas.”
“A progressive development of ideas toward a particular conclusion.”
To put it more plainly: neopaganism is an idea of a pagan-like spirituality shared by a widely spread out and divided group of people who are very different in personality and belief. I would say it is pretty accurate.
The term neopaganism was first recorded around 1875-1880 and is defined as “a 20th-century revival of interest in the worship of nature, fertility, etc., as represented by various deities.” The revival spoken of was specifically called Romanticism. Romanticism was the 1800s movement of artists, musicians, and intellectuals who anthropomorphized nature and romanticized ancient pagan Greece and Rome. Their art and writings are the still the source of many of neopagan beliefs and perceptions today.
At this point in history neopaganism as a whole is no longer a newborn with almost 150 years under its belt, beginning as an idea or philosophy by Romanticists and Victorian ideologists. Another path originating in the same time frame as neopaganism is Mormonism which began in in the 1820s. Satirists and critics like to compare Wicca to Mormonism due to the comparable levels of fakelore and sexual abuse. The term neopaganism may have been in use for 150 years, but the new independent neopagan traditions within it are much younger with new ones being created as I write. Neopaganism and its faiths are not part of a long-standing greater religion of “Paganism”. The neopagan path of Wicca is around 70 years old. To give you some perspective, Wicca is the same age as Scientology. Neopaganism may not be a newborn, but its actual spiritual paths are still babies compared to Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism which are all currently at around 2,000-2,500 years of active practice.
In Conclusion of Defining and Clarifying Things
The point of all this is: neopagan is used to refer to practitioners of paths within neopaganism and pagan is used to refer to the practitioners of ancient paganism during ancient times. You can use the words pagan and paganism to talk about today’s pagans and their paths, but to be grammatically and technically correct you would still need to preface the use with “contemporary”, “modern”, or “today/’s” to be accurate.
Having defined these terms and written all of this, I’d like to add the addendum that I personally really don’t care what pagans/neopagans want to call themselves and most people aren’t going to care either. Do what you want. Scream from every mountain top that “Traditional Witchcraft™ is NOT neopagan!” or “my tradition IS ancient!” or other nonsense. Just don’t get mad if you get burned for it. My real burning question is does Pastafarianism count as a neopagan path because it is discordianism embodied, or, would it be left out because it is technically monotheistic and only loosely associated with neopagans?
Moving on . . .
The Core Problems of Neopaganism
Lesser “You Should Know Better” Problems
The issues I label as “can you just stop already?”: the neopagan habit of never agreeing on any descriptive definitions for themselves or each other (not even the dictionary’s), not agreeing on who can be considered pagan or of any path under the umbrella of neopaganism, endless witch wars, paths claiming they are better or more legitimate than other paths for whatever reason, groups stealing students and adherents from each other, and lastly, using religion as an excuse for escapism (look up: spiritual bypassing please). These are all a huge waste of time. Just stop. You can’t tell people what they are or aren’t, and no one made you the authority on who is legit and who isn’t. Every initiate thinks they are in the bestest, most legitimate cult, but the truth is they are all equally in cults.
There is no witch blood, no witch race, no hereditary gene making you a shaman, sorceror, or witch etc. Anyone can practice magic if they actively seek it and do the work. No one is especially special. Magic is our birthright as the human race. We are all connected, all magical.
“What about legends from indigenous cultures about special people or families called by spirit to be shamans for their community?” What I have to say to that is: are you living in an indigenous culture with intact spiritual beliefs in a small village your family has lived in for countless generations that needs a shaman? No? Then please be quiet. “What about people chosen by the gods?” What about them? They were chosen to serve a deity, usually a raw deal and a bunch of people probably said no before someone agreed to the deity. It doesn’t mean they are special, it means they said yes. Kind of like in Supernatural season five where the Winchester brothers have to say “yes” to the angels Michael and Lucifer before they are able to steal their bodies and souls so they can destroy the earth. Anyway, the point is there is no bloody pagan or witch police. No one is better or somehow above anyone else other than in their own imaginations. Spiritual gatekeeping is not okay no matter your rationalization. We need ethics, not gatekeepers nitpicking over tradition. I don’t care if you identify as a Wiccan, Traditional Witch, Heathen, or three-toed sloth –cut it out. This is why I started off this piece with definitions. If you want to argue against facts and be some kind of ancient supernatural being then you can get in line with the fundamentalists who believe the earth is only 4,000 years old and dinosaurs and humans co-existed.
Photos of Janet Farrar, co-author of The Witches’ Bible
A related lesser issue I want to briefly get into is escapism. Escapism is using fantasy or illusion to escape what one considers the boring rigors of daily mundane life. Does anyone else find the pervasiveness of fantasy, Renaissance fair, and LARPing aspects of modern paganism to be more than a bit odd and juvenile? I am not certain how the whole neopagan community and most of its paths became stuck in the Middle Ages –even in groups with no ties to the SCA. Neopagans have romanticized this time period to such an extreme it can be very hard to attend a modern pagan event and separate the spiritual elements from a LARP or SCA event. The beliefs, hierarchies, costumes, ritual tools, the social roles of men and women, lord this, lady that, and “ye olde English speake” found within neopaganism are all something from a historically inaccurate ren fair or fantasy novel.
“Now we are an irrelevance, a harmless eccentricity, a fairy ball sporting stick on ears and dressing up box deviance, a social joke.“
~ Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft
My best guess as to how this happened is because there has been and continues to be much overlap between members of neopagan groups, members of SCA groups, and members of both who are really into all things fantasy and that simple cultural diffusion has caused them to bleed into the other naturally over time. In my opinion it is a resounding sign that today’s neopagans are romanticists of the dark ages whereas the neopagan Romanticists of the 1800s were idealizing ancient Greece and Rome. Maybe neopagans are stuck in the dark ages because all the best-selling fantasy novels, tv, movies, video games, and fairy lore all seem to be set around the Middle Ages? The gateway drug to neopaganism and witchcraft is fantasy and mythology after all. It certainly was for me. It would explain a lot of current neopagan subculture and festival subculture. I’ve got to say it though: the Middle Ages were an awful time period! The dark ages were literally dark times. There was terrible feudalism, slavery, the black plague, gender inequality, unsanitary living conditions, pirate raiders who would rape and burn everything… I could go on and on. Things weren’t good. The end.
Greater “We Really Need to Talk About It” Problems
Pretty serious issues in neopaganism include the prevalence of fakelore, the prevalence of fakelore being taken seriously by adherents, the prevalence of fakelore being continuously propagated and taught over multiple generations despite long-published evidence against its legitimacy, the misuse of oathbound secrecy to purposefully protect fakelore and keep new initiates ignorant, the use of fakelore to invent traditions and leadership positions in order to gain power, money, and sexual favours, and the unfortunate combination of fakelore, cultural appropriation, and cultural diffusion.
Stop Transmitting Fakelore
You are not going to find fakelore in the dictionary, just Urban Dictionary. It is slang and has been in use for about a decade that I am aware of. I’ve certainly been using it for that long. It is defined as any art, writing, music, traditions, etc passed off as genuine folklore/historical lore when it is not. It is largely about misdirection and propaganda. Fake news is the new fakelore. Use that term if you’d rather –both are equally damaging.
The intent of those intentionally inventing fakelore is never good whereas those who transmit fakelore unintentionally usually do so with good intent and by accident. For better context, if a neopagan author writes a chant themselves but then publishes it as a traditional Hopi chant –that chant becomes fakelore. The people who believe the creator pass on the chant as Hopi thinking that is what they are sharing. Both actions lead to harm, however. Another example: if an individual or group of individuals come together and create an entire witchcraft-based path from scratch and appropriate materials from other authors, groups, and folklore and then they teach or publish that material as having ancient origins to one source and an unbroken tradition of practice –that entire tradition becomes fakelore.
left: Janet Farrar, right: Eleanor Ray Bone and coven
Don’t panic. This doesn’t mean that anything you create yourself like a chant, ritual, origin myth, or personal beliefs is fakelore. What makes it fakelore is if you present it to others as coming from a historical or cultural source when in reality it does not because you are the source, or at least the source of your own personal mash-up of borrowed folklore. An example would be the golden plates of the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith claimed to have found in a buried stone box near his home in New York state at an angel’s direction in 1823. You can’t see the plates because Smith claims he returned them to the angel after translating them into English using magical seer stones. He got eleven men to sign an agreement that they saw the plates and they were real though, so that makes it true, right? Just like the Malleus Maleficarum written by disgraced catholic priest Heinrich Kramer had approval from the University of Cologne and clergyman Jacob Sprenger. It’s not like they actually condemned him publicly and called his work an unethical and illegal abomination or anything [insert sarcastic tone here]. But hey, what damage could the false endorsement of a book do? Only the torture and death of hundreds of people over the course of multiple centuries in the Malleus Maleficarum‘s case and then the endemic issues of gender inequality, human trafficking, sexual abuse, and child abuse that are serious problems within today’s Mormonism.
Don’t feel as if your tradition is being pointed out in this section as almost every new pagan and witchcraft tradition is guilty of inventing and mashing-up things from Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca to Chumbley’s sabbatic witchcraft to Simon Buxton’s “The Shamanic Way of the Bee”. I’m sorry to say the majority of content published by the big name neopagan publishing companies is fakelore based on misinformation based on fakelore. I want to see authors admit when they’ve invented a magical system and own it rather than inventing a granny story and try to pass it off as “ye olde tradition”.
It doesn’t matter if a piece of fakelore goes on to become accepted by the mainstream as real and receives a mass following and it doesn’t matter if that made-up path ends up being practiced continuously for the next hundred years it is still fakelore and, as you’ve learned, it can still cause harm. I am sad to say fakelore runs as rampant through neopaganism as predation does and that the predators often depend on fakelore to convince neopagans that the abuse is founded in some kind of legitimacy. It is up to every individual neopagan and group collective to recognize and abolish fakelore. Speak out, speak up, and speak often.
Stop Appropriating All The Indigenous Spiritual Traditions
I’ve spent fifteen years watching neopagans try to absorb every and any indigenous religion or folk religion devoid of Christianity such as Hinduism, Shinto, Vodou, Obeah, Santeria, and pretty much any regional pre-Christian faith still existing in Europe, Eastern Europe, and Russia. For example, there is no such thing as Estonian Wicca or a specific path of Estonian witchcraft, but there is an indigenous pagan religion in Estonia that pre-dates Christianity and is still practiced by a percentage of the population today. Its existence does not legitimize neopaganism as having ancient roots, it is not a part of neopaganism or “Paganism”. It is its own isolated occurrence of a religion forming naturally over time in harmony with the local bioregion and its inhabitants; usually referred to by academics as folk religion,but also sometimes as animism. Some of today’s still existing folk religions are influenced purely by animism, ancestor veneration, and their ancestors’ pagan beliefs, while others are influenced by Christiany or Islam, and many others contain animism and Abrahamic traditions simultaneously. Folk religions evolve and change depending on factors like colonization, religious persecution, religious conversion, war, and migration. They are alive and ever-changing: rooted in ancient tradition but also influenced by every interruption and interaction by other peoples and traditions throughout that folk religion’s history.
The people following these traditional belief systems did not ask for this inclusion into “Paganism” or desire it. Forcing them under the umbrella of the neopagan definition of paganism is akin to calling Inuit people “Eskimos” or calling First Nations people “Indians” for centuries. To do so is to force your own perception on to them without their permission. No one asked you to. It is not technically correct to lump indigenous spirituality in with neopaganism because, unlike neopaganism, indigenous belief systems are not new. Neopagans are not ethnographers or anthropologists and shouldn’t try to be as in the past they were often privileged white colonizers who viewed their own race and faith as superior. They more often than not destroyed the indigenous traditions they were attempting to document. I really hope neopagans and their authors and journalists figure this out and stop claiming and labelling everything non-Christian as “Pagan” and anything with a hint of folk magic as “witchcraft”. My own personal opinion is that neopagans keep up this habit in a mainly subconscious effort to seek legitimacy for their spiritual paths of modern origin. For many “big name pagans” and authors I have a feeling it’s not so subconscious.
Be Aware of Cultural Diffusion
The term “cultural diffusion” is used in anthropology to describe the transmission of elements of one culture to one or more separate cultures over a period of time. Diffusion means to spread out, dilute, or stretch thin. For example, how folk and fairy tales historically travel from one place to another and become adopted and adapted into the new cultures they are introduced to. It can be cool to watch their migration but it can be very hard to trace the true origin of a tale or even find the original tale. An example of cultural diffusion within neopaganism would be the slow intentional and unintentional adoption of principles, tenets, practices, and rituals between neopagan groups which, over a few decades, has lead to complications of where things originated, who has a claim to them, and who is copying who. Diffusion can happen across neopagan paths and it can happen when outside elements are brought into neopaganism from other spiritual traditions (aka appropriation / misappropriation).
An example of diffusion within neopaganism is the large number of people who whine about the dilution of Wicca by non-initiates who call their non-initiatory and solitary practices Wicca, or Traditional Witches complaining that their tradition is being diluted due to its own popularity, or Heathen reconstructionists arguing that the Wiccan and neopagan aspects in some practices of Ásatrú (aka Wiccatru) dilutes and harms their traditions. They aren’t wrong, but for the most part they have no control over other people or the diffusion of their traditions and can only decide whether they include the aberrations of their own tradition into their tradition or keep them separate.
Janet and Stewart Farrar
Cultural absorption can also lead to accidental appropriation when a neopagan author or group leader adds elements from another culture or the cultures of their own personal heritage to a neopagan path but leaves out the source upon sharing it or those who transmit the path leave it out. When others follow that path, they may be unaware, but they carry forward that act of appropriation. Years pass and now it is accepted as “traditional” to a neopagan group until one of the members stumbles upon the truth.
Humans are crows and magpies, we just can’t help it. We take any shiny thing that strikes our fancy including ideas and words. Our memory storage and recall is not as linear as we would hope though. Our brains store information more like a public bulletin board: things randomly hung up everywhere, some pinned, some tucked, and a bunch of things covered up by new things. The problem with diffusion is that there becomes a point when people can’t remember the origin of something. Past this point the thing may have ended up as religious cannon or wrongly attributed to an ancient or “traditional” source. Past this point there is no way to separate out the thing or know where it came from. The thing can be a belief, a proverb, a prejudice, or the colour of robe your group decides to wear. Today diffusion happens even more easily because of the globalization of communication, air travel, and the internet.
A good example was the time a friend of mine in a Georgian Wiccan coven came to visit me and brought the wand her high priestess had just had all the initiates make. My friend was a healthy skeptic of all things and wanted to know what the symbols she was told to carve into the wand meant and where they came from. Her high priestess had refused to tell her, only saying that it was “tradition”. To give some context: at the time I was 22 and not an initiate, my friend was 50, and her locally respected high priestess was in her mid 70s. I informed my friend that the symbols on the wand came from The Lesser Key of Solomon written in the mid-1600s, that Gerald Gardner had published them in his 1949 fiction novel High Magic’s Aid and used them in his Wiccan tradition, and that they could also be found in Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft from 1970. In general occultism her wand was considered a “Solomonic” wand. She laughed, let me keep the wand, and quit the coven.
It’s pretty hard to sort things out after decades have gone by but you can prevent unwanted cultural diffusion by citing your goddamn sources EVERY time in writing and verbally.
Neopaganism is one of white people’s ways of trying to reconnect with a core spirituality as, over time and waves of mass immigration, many people of European origin have lost the knowledge and practice of their ancestors’ cultural beliefs, traditions, festivals, rites, and body of knowledge. Today’s metropolitan expanses are full of people adrift like zombies who have no inherent faith, culture, songs, or community. They fill the void in their soul with yoga, white-washed Buddhism, stolen First Nations spiritual culture, self-help workshops, alternative/natural health, entheogens, burner music festivals, and a lot of pharmaceuticals. Sometimes, if they discover it’s actually an option, they fill their spiritual black hole with Wicca, Druidry, Healthenry, Thelema, Traditional Witchcraft, eclectic or solitary witchcraft, or other neopagan path that appeals to them. Some people stick with their paths for a long time, some outgrow them and leave and keep on seeking. Some read enough books and talk to enough elders to figure out that most of neopaganism is completely invented, modern, and has propagated many harmful attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours over the decades. I have watched a lot of people just walk away from it completely when they reach this point. Some return to Christianity, some become agnostic, some become become Buddhist, some go to a Unitarian church, and many more continue on as solitaries with their own beliefs.
No neopagan path is ancient or has legitimate ties to anything more ancient than what people made up in their living rooms from the 1950s and onward which they based largely on the rites of secret societies and fraternities who made up those rituals in their parlours in the 1800s. As neopaganism is a small world, all of the groups and organizations founded from the 1950s to the late 1970s all knew each other or had lineage from the same sources. I have seen charts of the evolution of Wicca and its offshoot eclectic traditions belonging to covens and they much more resemble interwoven family trees than a list.
The early good intentions of neopaganism as an environmentally aware, nature-worshipping spiritual path died with the 1970s. From 1980 to the 1990s, a significant portion of North American occultism was fueled with cocaine, heroine, alcoholism, and sex magic. The 80s were all about extravagance and excess after all. If you’re thinking “my group didn’t do any of that” you were not hanging out with the cool kids or the swinging was done behind close doors and you were not invited. Though the neopagan road to hell was initially paved with supposedly good intentions, the actions of the founders, leaders, authors, and other public voices of the neopagan movement have led its followers to a dark and troubling place nonetheless. People cared and still care more about power and sex than spiritual growth and being stewards of the earth. I ask you this: is neopaganism a legitimate religious movement or is it a collective body of independent cult leaders, their followers, and solitary practitioners who only share the same vague principles some of the time?
left: Maxine and Alex Sanders, right: Patricia Crowther
The Serious Issues and Why Its Too Late
Capitalism, Llewellyn, and the American Council of Witches
I suppose you want some evidence about all the neopagan things being largely made up. Be careful what you wish for. Has someone ever inferred to you that Llewellyn Publications is “evil” but not able to explain why… and you couldn’t really figure it out? Well, I’m going to explain. In 1973 the American Council of Witches was named and members were sought. From April 11-14th of 1974 the members gathered together for a conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Seventy-three people attended and the membership was made up of metaphysical authors, publishing companies, manufacturers, and leaders of organizations. Pretty much everything that happened isn’t really known today by non attendees except that they all came up with and agreed on a list of thirteen common principles of belief. The council was dissolved later in 1974 and the its members never tried to revive it.
The thirteen principles they came up with are sometimes referred to today as “Principles of Belief”, “Principles of Wiccan Belief”, or “Principles of Pagan Belief”. At the time the council used the word “Wicca” to describe themselves but they really meant “neopagan” as multiple groups represented were not specifically Wiccan. The term “Neo-Pagan” hadn’t been popularized yet by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart to include other neopagan paths besides Wicca.
These thirteen principles can still be found in circulation by many big name neopagan organizations, groups, and even by the US military. They have been copied and pasted by hand between groups countless times and then across the internet over and over in the 45 years since they were written. You can read the full original list of principles over at religioustolerance.org. Though there are some odd things and contradictions in the principles, the good groundbreaking bit was the acceptance of members no matter their age, race, gender or sexual orientation. That was pretty big at the time. After reading the rest of this piece you may start to wonder if it was out of the goodness in their hearts, to put on a good public face for their sexual revolution brethren, or to seek the widest consumer base possible.
“We are not bound by traditions from other times and other cultures and owe no allegiance to any person or power greater than the Divinity manifest through our own being.”
This is a statement from the American Council of Witches and it is still true as a belief of neopagan groups today. It is akin to a terms of service agreement stating “we reserve the right to do whatever we want, whenever we want” generally used to legally cover a company’s ass. This statement truly reflects the early neopagan distrust of authority. It is a middle finger to “The Man”. It unintentionally grants adherents permission to make up any path or group they wish and claim a personal connection with divinity without other NeoPagans having the right to call bullshit because they are technically all doing the same. The part about not being bound by other times or cultures is a pretty big red flag to me. It could be worded much better. As is it’s a one-lane highway to justifying appropriation and abuse of power.
Even though you can’t get neopagans to agree on anything (not even the ones who made up and agreed on these principles), the “Principles of Wiccan Belief” still make up the accepted common beliefs and behaviour expressed throughout neopaganism and its many paths today. This is true despite the fact that many neopagans are not aware of the existence or origin of the principles. Where did today’s neopagan tenets really come from?
It was in fact Carl Llewellyn Weschcke who orchestrated the founding of the American Council of Witches, the council conference, and the creation of the common principles of belief. Carl Weschcke was the self-appointed chair of the council and CEO of Llewellyn Publishing. The Llewellyn website cites Carl Weschcke as the source of the principles of belief with no mention at all of the council and its one and only meeting on their entire website. Even on his Wikipedia page there is no mention of the council. Perhaps he was embarrassed at the council’s quick dissolution only one year after its founding or perhaps he didn’t want it or what happened at the conference as common knowledge. It is likely that the rampant copying and pasting is what preserved the principles at all.
To give a bit more background, Carl Llewellyn Weschcke owned a major occult book store with a well-attended magical school attached to it. He lived in a famous haunted house and smartly used it for media attention. He could be considered the inventor of the “Pagan” festival as we know them today; founding his Gnostica Aquarian Convention aka Gnosticon in 1971. After Gnosticon the Pan Pagan Festival is one of the earliest known neopagan festivals and was founded in 1976. He paved the way for neopagan and metaphysical publishing to become as big as they have. How big? The metaphysical/new age industry is worth well over 10 billion a year right now. There are now many neopagan publishers thanks to Llewellyn.
Carl Llewellyn Weschcke and parts of his Gnostica empire
The official reason given by Carl Weschcke for creating the American Council of Witches was to come up with the principles of belief. The reason given for creating the principles was to have a set of common beliefs so anyone of any background who agreed to them would be welcome in the greater neopagan community and could identify themselves or their path as neopagan. A little bird who was there told me the unofficial reason behind the council meeting was for neopagan leaders and businesses to decide on an agreed upon definition for neopaganism and what paths would be part of it, not to clarify things or make it easier for people to enter into neopaganism, but so those cult personalities and businesses could more easily market it to the masses for profit and personal gain.
Carl Llewellyn Weschcke created a worldwide empire based on what he learned from all the people who signed up for the council and came to the meeting. Whether they were all in on it or not is unknown. I suspect many were not aware of Carl Weschcke’s profit making scheme and it may be a reason why the American Council of Witches disappeared as quickly as it was created. Many of the neopagan paths and beliefs we recognize today, and in some cases the North American governments legally recognize, came from the council meeting. The idea that these paths are age old traditions having roots in ancient pre-Christian belief systems came from the council members’ beliefs and from Llewellyn Publishing. Before them, the ancient origins of neopaganism hung by a thread on Margaret Murray’s disproved assumptions of a legitimate ancient witch cult in Europe.
After the council meeting Llewellyn suddenly published an epic amount of NeoPagan books. How many? Their first dealer’s catalogue in 1980 was 50 pages long. Many of the books published by Llewellyn from the 1970s into the 1990s were about paths that are completely fictional but presented as having genuine Old World origins such as Celtic Wicca, Druidic Wicca, Seax Wica, Faery Wicca, Gypsy Wicca, Witta, Asatru (aka Norse Wicca) and more gems. Many of these paths and books have been since been outed as complete inventions. Many of the books printed in this time period also contained outright plagiarism on top of the fakelore. Despite this, the authors who wrote them, such as Edain McCoy and Raymond Buckland, went on to write many more books for Llewellyn. There was no punishment because the authors were purposely encouraged to create fakelore and keep to the story of ancient origins for the sake of profits. Some of you may not realize it, but big publishers will often tell their authors what to write rather than the authors having free reign. I have experienced this a couple times and it is one of the reasons you haven’t seen a full book from me yet.
Publishing is a cut throat world because it is a capitalist industry. There have been many such scandals of fakelore and plagiarism in neopagan publishing over the past few decades, but most of them happened quietly and are not common knowledge. How many people know that Llewellyn author and American Council of Witches member Herman Slater plagiarized fellow council member Ed Fitch’s A Book of Pagan Rituals from Fitch’s public Pagan Way material he created along with Joe Wilson, Thomas Giles, and others. You can’t buy Ed Fitch’s version, but Herman Slater’s plagiarized version is still available from Weiser. Then there was the time Kisma Stephanich ripped off author R.J. Stewart’s writings for her Faery Wicca books published by Llewellyn. And the time Llewellyn put Raymond Buckland’s name and a new title on Henri Gamache’s famous 1942 Master Book of Candle-Burning in 1970 and then Michael Howard put his name on it in 1975. Then there was satanic witchcraft author Michael W. Ford’s plagiarism of lore combined from the works of Paul Huson and Andrew Chumbley. Then Robin Artisson invented his own fakelore and path drawing from many British Isles authors including Andrew Chumbley, Nigel Jackson, Nigel Pearson, Nigel Pennick, well-known Cornish witch JackDaw, well-known Cornish witch Gemma Gary, and others.
I am constantly finding my own writings published under other people’s names in books and online, my works being copied and sold without my permission for personal profit, and finding lore of my own admitted creation passed off as “traditional”. The mess of modern pagan and occult publishing goes on and on and is still happening today.
Now that you are aware the intent to create a unified neopaganism by the American Council of Witches was more likely a capitalist profit making scheme by Carl Llewellyn Weschcke to launch a successful neopagan publishing empire, let’s talk about sex.
Sources and Causes of Sexual Abuse in NeoPaganism
Where did the high prevalence of sexual abuse in neopaganism originate from? It is coming in from multiple sources, some of which were embraced and some which were forced into neopaganism. One obvious influence is the sexual revolution in North America from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. The representations of open sexuality presented in male-written, popular science fiction from the 1950s to the 1970s is another. Then there are the more subtle sources of romanticized ecstatic cults of Artemis and Dionysus in ancient Greece. The Victorian Romanticists and goths glorified these early nature cults and their debauchery, but they also white-washed them of the murder, rape, and cannabilism described in surviving early Greek texts. Yes, you heard that, in early Greek texts, not in Medieval church propaganda. The Catholic church took this readily available material, mixed them with current superstitions, and demonized early ecstatic cult rituals and anything resembling them. They copied and pasted accounts of ecstatic rituals into their own made up propaganda against supposed witches (such as the ill-fated Malleus Maleficum), the propaganda quickly spread. and thus we have the myth of the witches’ sabbath as we know it today; complete with goats, baby sacrifices, drugs, orgies, and sex with the devil. The early founders of witchcraft traditions would not have had unbiased source material to draw on. They read confessions from the witch hunts, documents written by clergymen and witch hunters, collections of folklore on witches written by righteous men who damned witchcraft, or collections of cultural folk tales on witches. These influences of biases, myths, and fakelore were all drawn into modern witchraft along with the thieved structure, secrecy, and rituals of fraternities like the Freemasons.
Humans have always sexualized witches and witchcraft from the ancient succubi, vily, rusalka, and sirens of folklore and the sensual witches of ancient literature like Circe and Medea to the sexualization of the witches’ sabbath across cultures and accounts. The sexualization of witchcraft is nearly inescapable. The witch is alluring because they are mysterious, powerful, and sexy. It is why so many people are first attracted to witchcraft and occultism. Who doesn’t want to be sexy? Unfortunately, after the terms pagan and witch, pagan and wicca, paganism and witchcraft, and Wicca and witchcraft were all used interchangeably (and will-nilly at that), neopagans suddenly became equated with witchcraft as well and the sexualization naturally spread to other traditions and communities in neopaganism. Then the polyamory of the Zell-Ravenheart’s naturally backwashed into Wicca and witchcraft.
Let’s again return the American Council of Witches as they too are a source of the sexualization of neopaganism as a whole. The majority of the American Council of Witches members were of an age to have been consenting adults during the hippie free love movement in the 1960s. The sheer amount of rumours surrounding the sexual appetites and scandals of yesteryear’s big name pagans leads one to think they kept the sexual revolution alive within their spiritual practices and overlapping social circles.
“The values of the so-called Sexual Revolution brought on by the confluence of the introduction of the contraceptive Pill and the counterculture’s rejection of mainstream puritanical mores deeply informed the Pagan upsurge of the late Sixties and Seventies. And the Pagan community was about as extreme in its sexual libertarianism at that time as any element of society we might choose to examine. Sex was good! It was healthy, it was freedom, it was…well, in reality it was a male-dominated free-for-all with nonexistent boundaries and little sense of responsibility. Under the banner of breaking with mainstream society as “sex positive”, Pagan circles were rife with unwelcome advances and outright assault…”
Take a look at the names of the members of the American Council of Witches available on Wikipedia. Not all the names are listed there. Forty names are missing including Cat Yronwode of Lucky Mojo who has been outed numerous times as abusive. Others are known plagiarists and shysters. The published names should be familiar but many will be unknown to today’s millenials. Isaac Bonewits and Gavin and Yvonne Frost have since been accused of pedophilia. Only Yvonne Frost is still alive of the three. (Below: Oberon and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart)
The Origin of Polyamory in Neopaganism
Eight members of the Church of All Worlds were in attendance significantly outnumbering all other groups represented on the council. Oberon and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart have been tied to lesser scandals of goat abuse (yup) and cultural appropriation and claimed responsibility for creating and defining the term and practice of polyamory. They are known for founding The Church of All Worlds and openly basing its beliefs on Robert Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. This book featured an “open sexuality” that was also reflected in the works of Heinlein’s contemporaries such as Robert Anton Wilson. These writers presented sex as good, portrayed women desiring sex as much as men, and described a sexual openness outside of the traditional marriage framework closer to the swinging and polyamory prevalent in NeoPagan communities today. It isn’t reaching to say that the Zell-Ravenheart’s sci-fi influenced open sexuality was shared by many other neopagans of their era.
The issue with the sexual beliefs portrayed in 20th century science fiction is that the books were written in misogynistic times and, despite the author’s attempts to be forward thinking, these men still forgot to portray women as autonomous persons who may desire sex, but not necessarily with them or you for that matter. Instead the sexually open women are written more to be willing sex toys for men and unquestioning participants in polyamory. Many neopagans like to gloss over or make fun of the Zell-Ravenhearts today but back in the day they were a big deal. They thought so too. Oberon even claimed he came up with the Gaia hypothesis. Their church and school were open to the public, they were some of the first to actively use the term “Neo-Pagan” (capitalized of course), and they published Green Egg: an openly broad neopagan magazine that had worldwide distribution from 1968 to 1976 and then from 1988 until 2001. Then as an e-zine and subsequent podcast from 2007 until present. Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon wouldn’t have happened without Green Egg‘s high popularity in the 70s. She once said “It took a catalyst to create a sense of collectivity around the word Pagan, and in the United States the Church of All Worlds and its Green Egg filled this role.”
And so the “sexual openness” of popular science fiction from the 1950-70s along with the Zell-Ravenhearts being the most open and loud proponents of polyamory are revealed as some of the main sources of the over sexualization of neopaganism and the origin of misogynistic polyamory to neopaganism’s unwritten tenets. One could say the Zell-Ravenhearts opened a door that has made NeoPaganism more susceptible to sexual abuse and no one has tried to clarify things or close that door since. Instead we have witchcraft articles in Cosmopolitan Magazine stating “many witches are polyamorous” as number seven in a piece of click-bait titled: 9 Things You Never Knew About Real-Life American Witches.
(Below: Maxine and Alex Sanders performing an initiation ritual, right: Patricia Clowther)
Sexualized Religion as a Tenet of Neopaganism
Most of the founders of the well known Wiccan traditions and neopagan leaders knew each other, were friends, circled together, or worked with one another in some way. Now that you have a background on who the predecessor’s of North American neopaganism, you can better understand the impact the American Council of Witches’ fourth principle of belief has had on the prevalence of sexual abuse in neopaganism.
Here is the fourth principle supposedly agreed on by all the ACW members:
“We conceive of the Creative Power in the universe as manifesting through polarity — as masculine and feminine — and that this same Creative Power lies in all people, and functions through the interaction of the masculine and feminine. We value neither above the other, knowing each to be supportive to the other. We value sex as pleasure, as the symbol and embodiment of life, and as one of the sources of energies used in magickal practice and religious worship.“
Let me rephrase that last part for you:
“We value sex as one of the sources of energies used in magickal practice and religious worship.“
Polyamory and swinging are on one end of the spectrum as acceptable private practices between consenting adults, but incorporating sex into religious tenets is historically and statistically harmful to its adherents; especially women, children, the disabled, and people who identify as LGBTQ+. This is the factual argument currently employed to justify North American laws on polygamy and polygyny (which also encompass polyamory). As an active in-person member of neopagan communities for 15 years I saw the prevalence of sexually inappropriate behaviour harm exactly these groups. Women are endlessly groped and assaulted at spiritual events and by their spiritual teachers. People who identify as LGBTQ+ have to deal with harassment from the male/female polarity crowd, homophobia, bullying and assault. Neopagan children who grow up in the communities with open sexuality policies, numerous polyamorous parents, and who attend festivals with the adults trying to hump everything with a heartbeat in full sight can become just as damaged as the children of the 1960s sexual revolution. They can grow up to have a complete lack of personal boundaries, self-worth, self-confidence, and can be more likely to develop mental health issues and engage in potentially dangerous sexual situations.
At this point it is important to note that a lot of neopagan groups who share “The Principles of Wiccan Belief” today leave out number four in their literature and websites. Now why would they do that? Some are admittedly leaving it out because this principle of belief does not come off as LGBTQ+ inclusive. The document itself uses the term “sexual preference” instead of sexual orientation improperly implying the belief of the time period that sexuality and attraction is a choice. The fourth principle excludes a large body of today’s neopagans with its talk of male and female polarity. Some groups alternately use this principle to try to support their right to intentionally exclude queer, trans, and non-gendered folk from joining. If you don’t fit into their men’s mystery rituals or women’s mystery ritual then you are either left out or intentionally excluded. My own community argued over this on an annual basis. This is still happening. The internet is currently buzzing with tales of the Old Guard trying to justify the male/female polarity in initiatory mystery traditions while the new adherents question it and demand change and inclusion of those it leaves out. Other groups withhold the fourth principle simply because it has the potential to make them look bad to the public and the government they seek legal recognition from. They just want there to be rumours of neopagans and witches being sexually liberated, but not actual evidence of what that means in modern practice.
So why were so many leaders of neopaganism, especially Wicca, so keen to see sex as part of their accepted, common religious practice despite history, statistics, and the law telling us it won’t have a good outcome? I mean, it has a good outcome for the leaders who love having harems of nubile flesh, but not so good outcomes for those who experience sexual assault under the excuse of religion at the hand of their clergy, teachers, and mentors. Wicca has never needed to be a legally recognized religion in order to get the great rite accepted as part of their faith. There are many upon many abusive high priests and priestesses who have convinced their students the literal great rite is mandatory for initiation or gaining a degree or obtaining secret knowledge in a tradition. They have used the sexualization of Wicca and witchcraft for coercing students into non consensual sex and also to give themselves free reign to make anything in their tradition sexual in nature from encouraging polyamorous relationships among all members and leaders to groping a woman’s breasts and pelvis during the ritual of drawing down the moon.
Wicca is the source of the cultural diffusion of BDSM flowing into and mixing with neopaganism. If you advertise your spiritual or witchcraft path as “sexually open” or “sexually liberated” you are going to a attract people with out of the norm sexual tastes. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact. I don’t think I need to explain how BDSM got mixed up with Wicca after all the vintage Alexandrian and Gardnerian Wicca photos shown with this piece, but in case you didn’t know: Gerald Gardner really fancied BDSM along with his nudity. Alex Sanders took the bondage, knives, swords, nude rituals, and sexual great rite and really ran with it and then so did all of his initiates. It is also fair to say that his hot wife Maxine Sanders and his equally hot initiate Janet Farrar are responsible for a lot of the fetishism surrounding Wicca and witchcraft.
The Consequences of Sexualizing Spirituality
Within localized neopagan groups and communities the inappropriate sexual behaviour expands into the mentality that all people within a group, or even greater community, should be sexually liberated and prove it by sleeping with anyone in the community who propositions them. When a reasonable person says no to the advances of any fellow member and will not play along with this mentality, this person is often slandered, shamed, and ostracized for simply saying no to sex as is within their right to do so. Gender doesn’t even factor into the abuse at this point, anyone is fair game. Sexual openness is now so deeply associated with and ingrained in neopaganism and its festival culture that just attending a local event is often met as an open invitation to your genitals. A lot of neopagans aren’t snobs either; they will ask for access to your genitals regardless of your age, race, gender, weight, attractiveness, or willingness. Neopaganism is about equality and inclusion after all. I am not exaggerating. For those who haven’t ever attended a “Pagan” festival, many across North America have what I call “public fuck temples”. Sometimes they are called Aphrodite’s temple, Pan’s temple, or Pan’s Lair. This seems to be especially common on the Western half of North America but the attitudes towards sex seem constant throughout neopagan communities worldwide.
Those drawn to witchcraft are supposed to be sexually liberated freaks who push all boundaries, right? Who says? I can think of Heinrich Kramer and Aleister Crowley off the top of my head. Not the most reliable or sane of sources, however.
When I was in an abusive relationship with an older Gardnerian Wiccan man in my early 20s, I was new to the community and he brainwashed me to the point that he had me systematically ask women he liked if they would sleep with him at local sabbats and festivals. I wasn’t allowed to talk to any men though. Our open relationship didn’t go both ways and was often non consensual with his many affairs. I at first thought he was an overly jealous man due to his odd an overprotective behaviour, but then over time after every heterosexual male of every age in my community I first thought were my friends asked to have sex with me, I soon realized my jealous ex was jealous out of fear. His fear was due to the knowledge that every other man had the same attitude about women.
I further realized how endemic the problem was when I was bringing friends to any overnight neopagan events or festivals I found myself warning them about unsolicited sexual advances and sexual predators. Then I would have to tell my friend that the person flirting with them was in a monogamous relationship and their significant other wasn’t there. It didn’t make me feel good that it was necessary to do this. Over a period of fifteen years I’ve stopped the attempted assault of two male friends, one female friend was almost raped, one friend had someone strip naked in front of them, more than one friend was drugged, and way more than one friend experienced attempted assault and unsolicited sexual advances. Many women I knew within my community all had their stories of inappropriate sexual behaviour, sexual assault, and rape. I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not keen on bringing friends and loved ones to neopagan events anymore. It shouldn’t be the people we should be scared of. The guilt I have for bringing friends in the past is already enough for me.
It is very, very clear to me that neopaganism has a serious problem with harmful beliefs and behaviour surrounding sexuality.
The sexually open attitudes of today’s neopagan culture are a page taken right out of Aldous Huxley’s science fiction novel Brave New World. A pious “savage” who shuns modernity calls out his society for their abhorrent views on what they consider acceptable sexual behaviour. When it was published in 1932 the sexual societal practices Huxley presented under the guise of science fiction were considered incredibly shocking and offensive. In Huxley’s novel the savage is the hero/martyr, but future authors like Robert Heinlein and the infamous Frosts instead glamourized the open sexuality and child sexuality Huxley wrote of and expounded on it in their own works. Reading Brave New World now, the sexual abuse accepted as normal by the modern society is the perfect analogy for how sexual abuse has been normalized as acceptable in neopaganism. Neopagans have been conditioned for so long that expected sexual openness is now the norm. This is the future of neopaganism if it keeps on propagating future generations as is: the acceptance and adoption of increasingly inappropriate sexual behaviours disguised as religion and culture resulting in inherent, normalized sexual abuse. The reality is your daughter or granddaughter getting into hardcore BDSM at sixteen with multiple partners and a boy on a leash who licks her boots or your preteen son getting molested while attending a local Wiccan sabbat or your own trusted witchcraft teacher stripping naked and trying to have sex with you during a lesson. This is the future of neopaganism and especially Wicca as they spread across the world like well-meaning Christian missionaries.
(Below: Alexandrian Wicca initiation ritual with great rite)
In early 2010 Jason Pitzl-Waters, former managing editor of The Wild Hunt, made this call for a neopagan community ethics statement on sexual abuse: An Ethics Statement: How to Start. A discussion forum was set up online and moderated by qualified volunteers. The organized debate failed completely, fights were started, threats were made, and volunteers quit. Eight years later and nothing ever came of it. What happened? In 2014 Brendan Myers, a philosophy professor and one of the volunteer moderators wrote this update on his blog explaining part of why it failed and why he personally walked away: Whatever happened to the pagan community statement on religious sexual abuse?
“No further work was done on it since that time, because most of the various contributors and critics had lost the will to continue with it. There was a lot of disagreement, often angry disagreement, about whether the statement went too far, or didn’t go far enough, and so on. […]There’s one group of criticisms that I’d like to draw special attention to. There were a lot of angry voices who continued to demand the right to perform sexual acts as part of initiation ceremonies, even when the inductee would not be warned in advance about the nature of the ceremony, and even when the inductee was legally a minor. The most common argument in favour of that position was an appeal to tradition…”
You read that right. Members of initiatory mystery traditions, mainly Wicca, essentially shut down the creation of an ethics statement because they were so threatened by the idea of not being able to use their religion, and often self-appointed position of leadership, to coerce their dedicants and initiates into sex. The reasons the creation of a neopagan community statement failed are the very reasons a statement is needed in the first place. The abusers were so threatened at the idea of their ability to abuse being taken away that they completely stopped all progress on the statement and therefore any efforts to introduce firm stance on ethics into the greater neopagan community.
A major contribution to ongoing sexual abuse in neopaganism remains the transmission of the literal great rite as an acceptable practice. As long as it exists in neopagan practice and tenets, so will sexual abuse. It needs to be outright killed and now. I’m not saying consenting adults shouldn’t perform sex magic. I’m saying they need to do it privately on their own time and not during coven time and that is should be excluded from group lore and practices. I’m saying that just because the high priest and priestess and their second husband are polyamorous and all in open relationships with other people, it is still never okay for them to expect their students and initiates to have sex with all of them and each other or to forcibly proselytize open sexuality. No one should be forced to choose between having nonconsensual surprise sex with their priest/ess (aka sexual assault or rape) and gaining initiation into a coven or tradition. I know initiates who were kicked out for simply speaking out about sexual abuse in their group. The third option is you get kicked out? I mean, are you fucking kidding me? How has this been normalized for so long? I guess because, instead of changing things for the better, people just kept getting kicked out or leaving and moved on somewhere devoid of abuse.
Sexual initiation ceremonies should be stopped. Confession: the non-Wiccan tradition I was trained in had a sexual initiation, but lucky for young me it was a very healthy, sex-positive, and LGBTQ+ inclusive tradition. My teacher was a gay man, and even if he wasn’t, their policy was no sleeping with the students, period. I was given the option of having consensual sex with my current significant other for the sex part of the ritual, or to masterbate, or to have astral sex. Pretty reasonable, right? This is not the initiation experience I hear from a lot of Wiccans. The story I hear over and over, especially from women and gay and trans people is “they told me they couldn’t initiate me if I wouldn’t have sex with them.” Some say yes but the act itself still isn’t truly consensual because it is done under coercion. Some say no and are assaulted anyway. Some say no and escape harm but are verbally assaulted and slandered throughout the group and tradition.
Wicca’s founder Gerald B. Gardner
If the North American governments knew about the inner court Wiccan material and how it has been rampantly abused over time by coven leaders to commit assualt and rape, Wicca would not be a recognized religion in Canada and the USA. Wicca would’ve instead ended up on a cult watch list. Wiccans are holding on tightly to a tradition that is just a time capsule of Gerald Gardner’s beliefs, made up religion and sexual proclivities. It was he, an avid nudist, who first used Aradia to justify nudity in any ritual. It was he, a man of his times, who surrounded himself with nubile women and petitioned all of them for sex. He was the first to blur the lines between Wicca and BDSM. He set the first example. Before him was Gardner’s main influence: the beast Aleister Crowley. His abhorrent sexual behaviour and preferences make Gardner look like a harmless vanilla. Crowley believed the more taboos you broke, the more you separated yourself from humanity and became divine. He was right about the loss of humanity part. Who will set the example today of choosing to change things? To do better? To be better human beings?
At this point so close to the year 2020 it is my opinion that the inappropriate sexual beliefs, behaviour, and predation within neoopaganism is so insidiously woven into its collective consciousness that it is impossible to separate from what neopaganism has evolved into. You cannot remove the sexual abuse without removing the factors that lead to it. Those factors include the acceptance and expectation of sex rituals as part of ordinary religious practice, the coven hierarchical (aka power) structure, enforced oaths of secrecy that protect abusers, guru/celebrity worship leading to abuse of power, the cult of not questioning tradition, pagan festival culture (aka orgy porgy), the high prevalence of polyamory, the high prevalence of vulnerable adherents with mental health issues, the high prevalence of predators and narcissists drawn to leadership positions, and other built-in openings for abuses of power. NeoPagans did this to themselves. Shot themselves in the proverbial foot.
They Were All Just People Making It Up As They Went Along
It is time to take a big step back and view neopaganism as a whole, in “as is” condition. Is it a force of good? Does it help more people than it harms? Does it actually have a future as a recognized religious organization with structure, temples, and tax exemption? Does anyone actually care or do they just want to enjoy the colourful insanity that is their annual neopagan festival and be allowed to live their magical fantasy for a long weekend? Does it actually exist at all or is it an invention of neopagan publishing and independent cult leaders? Neopagans are largely consumers to a capitalist industry they are unaware they’re a part of. I want to burn away all the fantasy and lies and see what remains at the core. Is there anything left to be saved when the bulk of the lore, beliefs, and practices were completely invented over the past seventy years? Why do people cling so tightly to neopaganism and tradition, especially the parts unquestionably absorbed from Wicca? Well for one, neopagan groups are fringe groups where anything goes and even the unacceptable can find itself accepted –no matter how odd one’s beliefs and practices may be. This is very appealing to people. Secondly, neopaganism allows people with no training, experience, or background to make up a tradition with themselves as the founder and leader and then hang up their sign advertising for followers. It’s essentially a “build your own cult” kit. It’s not a joke. This is pretty much the actual history of every neopagan tradition, group, and organization. Someone just made it up one day and appointed themselves the grand poobah, but don’t be mad bro because you can do it too!
There is a technical term for this. It is called “new religious movement” or NRM. It doesn’t matter how real and ancient the source material for your spiritual practices are, because of the time you live in your spiritual practice is still classified as a new religious movement. If that practice revives ancient polytheistic beliefs it also becomes classified as neopagan.
Above: symbolic great rite with chalice and athame
This is why neopaganism is not organized. This is why it has no infrastructure. Neopaganism as it currently stands is a collective of independent cult of personality leaders and solitary practitioners. Some are playing pretend for escapism, greed, or lust and some are genuine in their spiritual pursuit. Each group and person is completely unique in beliefs, practices, and intent. Do the spiritual paths of neopaganism deserve a place at the big table with the grown up religions who are millennia old? In the current state of things, no, I do not personally believe they do. I do not think society will ever take neopagans seriously and the real question is why should it? I honestly don’t think neopagans can or should be taken seriously at this point. Things are too fucked up and it is already too late to tackle some of the more serious issues.
The tendency to invent fakelore within neopaganism has been and still is responsible for the appropriation and erasure of many indigenous spiritual traditions, not just of Native American ones, but even the European ones. This wave has officially reached Asia as well:
“Globalisation, urbanisation and, especially, capitalism have profound impacts upon small-scale, popular religious practices that we might call animist. It’s really no surprise; when there are profound changes in how people live their lives and how they see the world, of course they’ll develop a different cosmology.”
~ Andrew Alan Johnson, author of Ghosts of the New City: Spirits, Urbanism and the Ruins of Progress in Chiang Mai
“[…]when asked why he would adopt a European form of animism [Wicca] when Thailand has its own, and how he sees it fitting in with Thailand’s Buddhist culture, Atiwon Kongsorn is unable to offer an explanation. Perhaps the question has never dawned on him before.”
The body of fakelore from neopaganism is now so large that all the real indigenous folk religions and cultural traditions are almost completely buried under its weight. You can’t open a neopagan book or an online newspaper or a magazine without seeing the influence of the principles of belief from the American Council of Witches along with a healthy dose of modern myths and fakelore. In having only read and communicated largely within their own neopagan community, neopagans have sat in a bubble while the rest of the world went by. There is a whole world of books outside of neopagan publishing and a whole host of ideas and philosophies that the world is talking about and many neopagans aren’t. Neopaganism has become infected with the curse of its traditions: frozen in a time in a never ending cycle of power, control, and abuse. It is time for neopagans to break tradition and enter into the modern world. If it was all made up anyway, why is it so hard to leave the bits behind that we know are wrong and harmful?
Finding A Brave New World
What can we do to break tradition and encourage change?
Stop making the attainment of power and a leadership role be the goals of a tradition.
Stop propagating secrecy, group hierarchies, and teacher-student dynamics that create an express highway to abuse.
Stop adding sex to religious ceremonies. Seriously, no one else does this without getting into legal trouble.
Stop erecting public fuck temples at neopagan festivals.
Stop forming cults of personality.
Stop reading books churned out by big name neopagan publishers, especially ones who have a lot of titles with one publisher, and start reading books from independent publishers as well as mainstream works on folklore, mythology, history, anthropology, animism, botany, quantum mechanics, and, of course, read as many fairy tales as you can. If you are looking for book recommendations I have a lot of reading lists on my blog.
Stop appropriating everything like a magpie. Learn the beliefs and traditions of the bioregion you live in and its indigenous people so you can respect them and their boundaries if you are not a descendant. Learn the beliefs and traditions of your cultural heritage(s) and visit the homeland(s) as best you can whether you are of Somalian, Estonian, Thai, or Irish decent, or all of the above.
Stop looking for things outside of yourself to make you feel whole. Look to your ancestors. Look to nature. Look for animistic philosophy and try to incorporate it into daily life. Aspire to bioregionalism, assimilate to the flow of your local seasons, treat all life on earth as deserving of respect, and seek a connection to your own heritage.
Animism has the potential to either save neopaganism or take away all of neopaganism’s adherents. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially the youth, have the knowledge and the resources to educate neopagans about healthy sexuality, boundaries, consent culture, preventing sexual abuse, and how to come up with safety plans for groups and events. They can help if neopagans just ask. Reconstructionists have the potential and experience to keep existing indigenous spiritual traditions alive or to resurrect dormant ones as closely as possible with respect the originals. So there is hope, but it will require a lot of change on every individual’s part. Who is ready?
Here are some books on the history of neopaganism and its paths. I do not endorse these books, they are simply what is available and some are an important part of neopagan history, inherent flaws and all.
Aitamurto, Kaarina and Simpson, Scott. Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Routledge, 2014.
Aitammurto, Kaarina. Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism: Narratives of Russian Rodnoverie. Routledge, 2016.
Berger, Helen. A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States. University of South Carolina Press, 2013.
Berger, Helen. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States. University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Cooper, Dr. Michael T. Contemporary Druidry: A Historical and Ethnographic Study. 2017.
Harvey, Graham. Animism: Respecting the Living World. Columbia University Press, 2005.
Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: Religions of the Earth from Druids and Witches to Heathens and Ecofeminists. New York University Press, 2011.
Harvey, Graham. The Handbook of Contemporary Animism. Routledge, 2015.
Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press, 2018.
Luhrmann, T.M. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Harvard University Press, 1989.
Magliocco, Sabina. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Pike, Sarah. New Age and Neopagan Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Reid, Sian. Between the Worlds: Readings in Contemporary Neopaganism. Canadian Scholars Press, 2006.
Rountree, Kathryn. Contemporary Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Europe: Colonialist and Nationalist Impulses. Berghahn Books, 2018.
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Viking Press, 1979.
Farrar, Janet and Stewart. Witches’ Way: Principles, Ritual and Beliefs of Modern Witchcraft. 1986.
Heselton, Phillip. Doreen Valiente, Witch. Centre for Pagan Studies, 2016.
Heselton, Phillip. Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner vol. 1-2. Thoth, 2012.
Heselton, Phillip. Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival. Capall Bann, 2001.
Holzer, Hans. The New Pagans: An Inside Report On the Mystery Cults of Today. Doubleday, 1972.
Holzer, Hans. Wicca: The Way of the Witches. Manor Books, 1979.
Holzer, Hans. Witches: True Encounters with Wicca, Wizards, Covens, Cults and Magick. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2002.
Howard, Michael. Modern Wicca: A History From Gerald Gardner to the Present. Llewellyn, 2010.
Russel, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, & Pagans. Thames & Hudson, 1980.
Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. Robert Hale, 1989.