My $0.02 on the Hekate brouhaha

So, apparently somebody wrote an article on Patheos about Hekate worship. Then, a few other people wrote responses.

Judging from the uproar, it seems like a lot of folks are struggling with this. So, here are a few thoughts you might find helpful.

This is not part of the dogpile. I thought the original author had some good points. I also thought some responses had some good points. This isn’t about those points. This is about the dogpile.

It’s not just about you

OK – so what I mean by this, is that each of us needs to reconcile our agency, autonomy, and individuality against the same agency, autonomy, and individuality of others.

Here’s the thing – in general, it doesn’t hurt you for someone else to be worshiping whatever deity, however they want. We don’t have to care. It doesn’t do jack to my partnership with Hekate for any of these people to be doing whatever they’re doing.

With that said, sometimes there is a public consensus on a particular topic. For example, Hekate is a Greek name, and it’s usually pronounced [HECK-uh-tay]. Some people change the emphasis, and say [heck-AH-tay]. People who are really striving for authenticity might say [eck-ah-tay].

If you pronounce her name [heck-kate]. you’ve just marked yourself as a noob. Sort of like pronouncing Samhain as [sam-hane]. (In case you’re new, Samhain is pronounced “Sow-wen.” It’s Gaelic.)

Now, as a linguist, I recognize that sometimes we learn words from reading books. Some words don’t sound like they look, and I don’t want to patronize people who learn words from reading.

But I still notice. Everyone notices.

So there’s this social/community aspect that we need to be aware of. Language and words don’t just belong to one person. In order for language to have any meaning, there has to be a common understanding of what a word means.

Jason Miller’s article (linked above) does a pretty good job of outlining the difference between historically-accurate practice, versus personal practice. Think of this like “true for me,” where we might have a personal definition of a word or deity – versus “true in general,” where the same definition/deity holds across a group of people.

I’ve had some things revealed by Hekate, which she has in no uncertain terms told me to keep to myself. Because it’s not canon, not historical, and meant for me personally. It’s not for me to broadcast those as The Godess’s Revealed Truth. Because they might contradict history and other people’s personal experience; who am I to say my perceptions are better for another person than their own?

What I mean by “it’s not about you” is this: you aren’t the decider on what is or is not a valid practice. Nor what is a valid word, definition of a word, or pronunciation of a word. These things belong to the “hive mind” of the group. You very well may need to adjust your personal definitions, pronunciations, and even practices in order to align more closely to the group you want to participate with.

The place where people run into trouble

Most of the time, people who write these opinion pieces have a hidden assumption that someone else needs to change what they are doing.

Wanna know how many people have changed their mind because of something they read on the internet? About five (if you count me).

So the odds are not in your favor for changing someone’s mind.

(Side note – maybe some bloggers already realize this, and are simply repeating a point to build community. Outrage is the machine that runs Fox News and Facebook, after all. They’re preaching to the choir, but the choir buys more stuff when they’re pissed off.)

This is an invitation to challenge the idea that someone else should be doing something about whatever the thing is.

What can I do about this?

Not me, the writer. Though I try to practice what I preach.

I mean you, the reader. Read that heading out loud. What are you doing to change?

If you want something done, you have to do it yourself. So, what are you doing? Are you reading up on your Hekate history, so you have some context about what’s historically authentic? Are you performing rituals and listening for some kind of feedback or communication?

There’s another dimension to this, which I think is (conveniently) overlooked by many Pagans. It’s not popular. In fact, even mentioning it can get you ostracized from the Pagan community. But I’m a bit of a contrarian, and it needs to be said.

Sometimes you’ve got to adjust a little in order to fit with a group.

In today’s world of self-centered identity, many people are struggling to a) figure out who they are, and b) stand authentically in their identity. This is especially true for those struggling against oppression. I get it. I’m a Pagan in Mormon-occupied US, and I so get it.

Wanna know how I made it through an awful childhood, and into adulthood? By learning when to listen and keep my fuckin mouth shut. Learning when I need to swallow my pride/individuality, and “when in Rome” my way through a situation.

Don’t think of this as advice to change who you are. Rather, think of it like this: society and language belong to everyone who use them. You probably don’t like being forced to act or speak a certain way. Other people don’t like it either. In other words: no one appointed you Emperor of the English Language, Decider of Universal Gender Pronouns and Methods of Goddess Worship.

You might have to let some things slide in order to participate in a community.

About community…

Remember that bit about how the community belongs to everyone? Yeah. Wanna know how well community works when everyone is trying to make things go their way?

It doesn’t. That’s how you fuck up a community. (Ask me how I know…)

Here’s a logic puzzle for you. If you want to be part of a community, but you want it to accommodate your every little anxiety and discomfort, so you decide the community needs to be changed to fit you – why do you even want to join that community in the first place? If you change it, it’s no longer the community you want to join, right?

Like, I’m a straight white guy. I’m sure, somewhere out there, is a women’s group I could join to learn more about feminism or women’s concerns. (If they’d even let me through the door. Which is a a topic for another time.) But I would be decidedly unwelcome if I joined that group and took over and tried to make it run more like a men’s group.

I wouldn’t even have to try to make it an MRA or PUA group (though, for real, those are disgusting). Just a social club, like the Freemasons or Billy Bob’s Beer & Bullets Shootin’ Club fer Men. I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of what the culture of those clubs might look like. Why even join them, unless you want to participate in that culture?

I think Pagan communities work the same way. We can work to accommodate everyone in the community, and try to hold a space that serves most folks. But that requires a couple of things. First, some folks are going to have to reconcile that the community isn’t going to be everything they want or need. Some people might have to leave a few wants and behaviors at the door. Second, some people will need to be excluded for the safety and harmony of the group. (Like sex offenders, toxic people, violent criminals, thieves, etc.)

Bringing it all together

So, the bridge where we get from “I want this thing to be this way” to “Hey, this is an awesome community I like being part of,” is when I do the work. Again, not I the writer, but “I” the person reading this.

So – in the context of Hekate, it’s helpful to remember that other people experience her differently. We don’t have a High Priest/ess of Hekate who reveals the Truth. And even if we did, this isn’t a case where there’s a single “truth,” but rather many, many facets of truth that apply to individuals. Also note how Christian denominations tend to go astray when there’s a single infallible leader. There but for the grace of The Mistress of Keys go we.

Seriously. Just let people have their stuff. Maybe have a discussion where you can share equally in your experiences. Aim to listen – really listen – to what the other person is saying. The cream will rise to the top – that is, the experiences that are valid and verified will become more noticeable, and the weird individual experiences will simply stay private.

You’ve gotta give a little to get a little. And it’s important to decide what it is you want. Do you want community? A place among followers of Hekate? Respect as an authority over things that are known (and unknown) about Hekate?

Or do you want a soapbox? A place to yell at other people to get off your lawn? An individuality so loud and strong, that no one else can stand to be around it?

I don’t care what you want. It’s your choice. But I am pretty sure I know which kind of person I’d rather be in community with. And the only way I can get there, is by becoming the person I want to see in the group. Which – once again – means I need to adjust myself a bit.

A Pagan perspective on Death

Here in the West, we go to great lengths to avoid death. How many people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on healthcare, just to buy a few more months of life?


To be fair, this avoidance of adversity can be found in other areas as well. We avoid setting boundaries to avoid coming across as rude. We bathe our brains in neurotransmitters to avoid feeling emotional pain. We even stay in shitty situations because at least we know what to expect, because it’s uncomfortable to face the unknown.

And Death is the ultimate unknown.

What happens when we die?

I don’t really have an answer to this. No one does. There are a few people who claim to have come back from death. I don’t feel like we can always trust what they have to say.

With that said, I feel like we do have some information about what happens after we die. These are my perspectives, based on my Pagan worldview and other cultures that I’ve explored. There may be some influence from Jason Miller’s teachings, from Yoga, Buddhism, and more. I promise, I’m not trying to plagiarize, just write out my thoughts on the matter.

Death is not The End

Some part of us lives on after we die. There are enough verifiable accounts of small children recalling concrete facts, that I think reincarnation is a thing that happens. I’m not sure it happens all the time, but I’m convinced that some people come back around.

So that leads me to believe that there’s a part of us that is permanent, and transcends our bodily functions. I’ll call it a Soul, for lack of a better term.

Even though we have a permanent soul that can store memories across lifetimes, that doesn’t mean all our personality traits are rooted in the soul. If they were, people with brain injuries might not have their personalities so strongly affected. Likewise, a person under anesthesia appears to be gone – absent, like their consciousness is absent.

So in addition to the soul, I think there are other aspects of our non-physical existence. For the sake of discussion, let’s say there are:

  • physical body
  • energy body
  • conscious/astral body
  • soul

Note: I’m not an atheist, nor an atheopagan. Even if I were, I feel like there’s enough evidence to demonstrate an existence beyond the physically measurable. However, even if you’re an atheist, the people you love still affect you after their death. You grieve their loss and are moved by their memory. Even if you’re an atheist, death doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is gone, so long as they are remembered.

What happens when we die?

I’ve seen several family members die. Mostly grandparents. Fortunately, I’ve been Pagan and a practicing sorcerer for most of that time. When someone dies, I turn on the “wizard eyes” to see what’s going on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the recently dead tend to be confused. I suspect there are a couple reasons for this. First, I think the afterlife is not generally what they were taught to expect. Second, it’s like learning to walk – you have to re-learn how to operate your non-physical body, after a whole lifetime of using a physical one. The confusion seems to last for 1-6 months, after which there’s a gradual shift in how close the spirit is to this world.

Some dead people move on. I don’t really have a better word for this. Maybe go to rest is another way to put it. When I reach out to contact the resting dead, I get a very faint response (if any response at all). If I had a very strong connection with the deceased – like a relative – I sometimes get a response. This is usually love, and happiness, and joy at being connected and seeing how we’re doing. These dead seldom want to hang out and interact with the material world.

Some dead stick around. There are lots of different narratives about why this happens, and what to do about it. Some dead want to stay in touch with their families. Some are stuck. Some are pissed off about stuff that happened in their lifetime, and that creates bonds that keep them here. Some take a vow to help the living – boddhisatvas, for example, who promise to stay on this plane of existence until every human achieves enlightenment. Or, just as likely, grandma sticking around to make sure you don’t screw up the pie crust recipe.

The Physical Body

There is a concrete, documented process that the human body experiences. This starts before the actual time of physical death, and extends to the gross parts of decomposition.

The actual time of death can be a matter of debate. Recent experiments with dead pigs  invite us to question whether brain-death is really a thing. Likewise, there is a controversy around declaring time of death early, so that organs can be harvested and transplanted.

On this, I tend to agree with the atheists. Once your physical body is dead, you’re dead. Your cells stop converting ADP to ATP to create the energy used to move muscles. No muscles means no heart or lungs, which means no oxygen, which means no brain activity.

I think it’s highly unlikely that a person could physically come back after they’ve started to decompose. If you’re curious as to the process of physical death, I encourage you to read more on the subject.

The Energy Body

The energy body is the part of you that feels good after a workout. It’s where other people perceive the emotions you’re feeling, and where you perceive “vibes” and magical activity.

This part of you is a system of channels, vortices, and pools that store, cycle, and move energy. Movement seems to be an effective way to cause this energy to move. Specifically, breath and muscle movement. Emotions also create and affect this energy. Strong emotions seem to be able to “color” energy, imbuing it with a sense of that emotion. Have you ever walked in on a tense conversation? Stumbled into a Christian revival, just as they hand out the collection plates? Get a creepy vibe on a date? That’s emotion “coloring” the energy you’re sensing.

When we die, I think most of this energy dissipates quickly. If there’s an especially energetic person, I think their energy can get “stuck.” Just like a concentration of spiritual energy can spontaneously achieve its own consciousness, I think the energy of a deceased person can become a sort of spirit.

Spirits created in this way seem like the deceased, but I think they’re just an echo of part of that person’s existence. These spirits can still be contacted for help with magical or spiritual tasks. They sometimes have information or allies, and can operate on the spiritual realm. However, they tend to be limited to the biases of the person they were in life.

So if Grandma was good at making pies, her energy body might hang around and help you out in the kitchen. If grandpa was a racist, his lingering energy body probably won’t become un-racist. This part of a person doesn’t seem to get any extra powers that a regular person wouldn’t have

The Conscious/Astral Body

This is the part of us that is the “I Am.” Each of us has a place in our body where we feel like we exist. It’s the place where we feel like we’re perceiving the world around us. Usually our head, here in the West. Interestingly, we can focus on that sense where we feel like ourselves, and move it around in our body.

You can try this right where you’re sitting. Where in your body do you feel that “I Am”? Try moving that location to another place. If you feel the “I Am” in your head, try moving it down to your heart. Try to figure out what it would be like to perceive the world from the location of your heart.

This is the part of you that does astral travel and shapeshifting. Consciousness is a weird thing. It is affected by our physical brains, our emotions, our physical senses, and our energy body.

But it’s also got some features that are independent from those.

Consciousness can manipulate energy. That’s the fundamental method of spell-work – we use our consciousness to decide what we want, then we raise energy and use our consciousness to send energy into that desire.

I think that the conscious/astral body is what we most commonly refer to when we’re talking about ghosts. This is the part that can “move on,” or linger locally. Some are quiet, some are restless.

Historically, most death rituals were designed to help the consciousness/astral body move on to a place of rest. (Or to a new incarnation.) For the ones who were angry or restless, we had procedures to help them find peace.

Our modern death rituals don’t do that anymore. This is creating a problem with angry ghosts. And since these spirits can manipulate energy (and hence, probability), we are seeing the results of several hundred years of social trauma weighing down our society. We literally can’t get past slavery or abuse, because so many of our ancestors are restless ghosts twisted up in those traumas.

These ghosts can be called upon. Sometimes, they don’t respond – I interpret this to mean that particular spirit has moved on. If they’re lingering, they may be restless (angry dead), or they may stick around to help (honored dead). Since these spirits are conscious, I feel like they have a decision about what they do when they die. We can ask for contact or help, but they are typically not obligated to do so.

I think that the Consciousness/Astral body influences where they go after death. Further, I think that the collective beliefs of consciousnesses can collectively create environments to live in. So, maybe there really is a heaven that Christians go to. Maybe there is a Hell where the wicked sign up for punishment. Maybe there is reincarnation, where a spirit hangs out in the Summerlands for a while before hopping back on the ride. The choice appears to depend on what the deceased believed when they were alive.

The Soul

I feel like the Soul works sort of like a video game. If a person is the character in the game doing the things, then the player holding the controller would be like the Soul.

I think there’s a “Spark of the Divine” aspect to the Soul. When we get to this level of existence, it’s really hard to wrap our material minds around it. For example, time doesn’t work the same from a soul-level than it does from the material level. Imagine what you’d look like if time weren’t a factor – you’d be old and young at the same time. Rather, you’d be all ages at all the same time. I don’t know about you, but my mind isn’t really equipped to make sense of that.

The Soul is what preserves information that we experience in our lives. I figure the data has to be stored somewhere! If a consciousness lives a life, then dies, then incarnates into a new life, sometimes they have memories of a previous life. These memories can be verified. The consciousness doesn’t take anything physical with them when they reincarnate – so it seems to me that the Soul is a place where all that life experience and memory is stored.

The Soul is a quiet influence on our life. If we’re getting information from our physical body, our energy body, and our consciousness, then a part of ourselves so far removed as the Soul can be very quiet in comparison. It can guide us, and we can learn to listen to it. Sometimes, I think the Soul will “hack” reality, and put things in our path for us to deal with. This could be another person (for a “lesson”), or even a set of circumstances. Personally, I don’t feel myself if I’m not doing martial arts. I suspect that’s a Soul-level thing.

I can’t pretend to know what each Soul’s agenda is. But there do seem to be common themes of experiencing reality, learning and growth, and increasing agency and prosperity. And connecting deeply with others. Maybe also being of service to others and society, but that doesn’t seem universal when placed in the context of people who hurt others. I think that any model of the Soul has to account for people who seem called upon to hurt others. It’s not a fun thing to think of. It lends itself to victim blaming (which is not cool). But it could explain why some people seem called or compelled to commit harmful acts.

The Soul is invincible. You can’t sell it to the Devil. You can’t damage it with trauma. If you consider the analogy of a wise parent, a soul would be like a wise great-great-great-great-grandparent. It doesn’t usually manifest in front of you and tell you what to do. Truth be told, I feel like sometimes mine goes on vacation somewhere else, leaving me at the wheel (and that’s why sometimes I experience more anxiety and depression).

What should a Pagan do with Death?

If you have a loved one dying, one of the best things you can do is let go. Let them die in the way they wish to die. You can help this by telling them that you’ve got this, and they can let go and move on.

You can invite your Honored Dead and Ancestors to be present. Those Who Came Before often have a perspective and a wisdom that can help the Newly Dead ease through the transition. Even holding this space can allow Those Who Came Before to help process the traumas of the Newly Dead. There’s some Shamanic work that can be done here, if you have the inclination.

Allow yourself to grieve. Grief is a natural part of the process, and it has to happen for you to process the loss. Grief is weird – it’s highly personal, there are common themes, and people can be motivated to do different things. I feel like anyone who loses a loved one gets a pass for 24-48 hours afterwards, where the things they say and do kinda don’t count.

Incidentally, humans grieve whenever we experience loss. If you are trying to stop smoking, you might try grieving your relationship to cigarettes. I know when I’ve let go of things I’m attached to – even when they’re not good for me – grief helps me process and be more successful at leaving them behind. This goes for relationships, political parties, bad habits, old cars, you name it.

If you’re still grieving after several months, that might be a sign that you’ve crossed into unhealthy behavior. You might consider scheduling an appointment with a counselor who can help you work through your grief.

Hold a memorial. Some religions do a wake, some do a death watch, some do a funeral, some have a photo at a memorial, some have a feast. Schedule a get-together for all the friends and family of the deceased. Have people bring lots of food. Provide space for people to relive their favorite memories of the deceased.

Avoid forcing emotions, for yourself or for others. Some Newly Dead were real assholes, and deserved to be gone off this planet. If you feel that way about someone who’s died, it sucks trying to sort the grief from the anger. Give people who are angry space to say or do the things they need to do. Try to avoid coercing people into expressing themselves the way you think they ought to.

Weirdly, a lot of sex happens after a death. This is normal – life asserts itself in the face of death. For yourself, remember the agreements (marriage, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.) that you are committed to. If you know someone who had sex after a death, just realize that’s a totally normal thing to do. (Though you are free to deal with any broken agreements as you see fit.)

Consider keeping a memento that belonged to the Newly Dead. I have, and I’ve found them incredibly helpful for seances and other rituals to speak with them. Possessions can help boost the signal and help the Honored Dead find you. With that said, don’t hoard their possessions. Their things need to be dealt with. Clean out the house. Have an estate sale. Let family take things that they want or need; for example, if the grandson just moved into an apartment, it’s totally appropriate to pass along the dishes.

Don’t fight over a deceased person’s possessions. No good can come from that. Like the person, just let things go. You may have wanted those earrings, but trust me, it’s not worth the fight, and you can find another memento to remind you of that person. You don’t want to come across like a vulture, picking at a dead person’s belongings.

Have someone write a nice obituary. If you’re the one writing it, here are a few tips:

  • Say what the person meant to you (briefly)
  • Recall a fun memory
  • Recall a touching memory
  • Speak briefly about their legacy, or something they were passionate about
  • Tell readers where the service is, and where food/donations/flowers can be sent

Ritual Suggestions

It’s important to consider the wishes of the Honored Dead. When my Lutheran grandmother died, the minister kept saying she was “Dancing at the feet of Jesus.” Dude even added it to the obituary I wrote. It annoyed me a little, but – the funeral wasn’t about me. It was about Grandma.

I doubt the church ladies would have been impressed had we done a Pagan circle and spiral dance as a send-off.

Some families get into arguments about what the deceased wanted. Mormon families especially want to conduct Mormon last rites, even when the deceased identified as Pagan. This doesn’t have to be a problem. Let the family do as the family is going to do – they have a say.

But they can’t stop you from having a Pagan memorial on the side. We’ve done these for members of the Pagan community, and they can be lovely. Some ideas to consider:

  • A Memory Candle to represent the Soul and Consciousness that transcends this life
  • A photo to remember the deceased
  • A token of the deceased, in case they wish to attend in spirit
  • You can have everyone hold an unlit candle, then light one from the Memory Candle, then each person lights their candle in order around the circle – this can represent the love and the impression the Newly Dead left on us
  • Food
  • Casting a circle, and inviting in the Newly Dead (and Honored Dead / Ancestors)
  • Give everyone space to speak, if they want, about their favorite memory of the deceased
  • Incense, to carry the thoughts and wishes from the physical world to the Newly Dead
  • A short blessing, spoken out loud, to help the Newly Dead hear your wishes and find their path
  • Plant a tree in their name
  • Scatter ashes in a place that was special to the deceased
  • Collect donations to give to a charity in the deceased person’s name

These are just a few ideas. You are welcome to take them and improve upon them.

Final Thoughts

OK, yeah, bad title for a section.

Seriously though, Pagans die. And you’d think with all the work we do on the non-physical plane, that we’d be better equipped for dealing with death.

But many of us aren’t. Plenty of Big Name Pagans have died, and their spouses had to set up GoFundMe accounts for final expenses. Like a frickin casket.

So here are some things you can do to make your own death easier on the people around you.

Write a will – Seriously. This tells your survivors what you want done with your things. You should include computer passwords, safety deposit boxes, and bank accounts. There should be a master plan that outlines where you stashed all your stuff.

Set some money aside – Or, have life insurance. Leave some money with instructions on what your family should do with your body. Cremation? Burial? Planted as a tree? Cremated, then your ashes turned into a jewel set into an Athame? Leave some money to handle these things.

Leave instructions for magical projects – You probably have spells going, or you might have ongoing relationships with spirits (and perhaps deities). You may want these things buried with you. They probably couldn’t be cremated with you. If there are special instructions for decommissioning statues or other objects, make sure you leave those. You would not want spirits to get pissed at your kids because they didn’t follow a protocol you established with your guides.

Death is scary. But it doesn’t have to be paralyzing. There’s enough evidence that part of us continues to exist, that we need not fear the “Greatest Adventure.” I hope this article gives you some ideas on how to handle Pagan deaths in your social group. If you have any questions, you are totally welcome to email me and ask away.

Paganism as a Reaction

One issue I find problematic in the alternative-spirituality movement – including New Age, Neopaganism, and many Western non-Christian groups – is that we’ve emphasized a focus on validating beliefs and experiences, but we seem to have overlooked becoming better people.

For example – how many Pagan groups do you know that advocate acceptance for people the way they are?  How many do you know that promote change to meet an ideal?

I am familiar with groups that promote self-improvement, or at least working to adhere to a behavior and ethical code.  But my sense is that, among those who identify as Pagan, Witch, or New Age, the thrust is towards validation and acceptance.

So, this post is an exploration of how Paganism – and specifically Neopaganism – might provide options for us to become better people.

Also, this essay is an examination into the ways Pagans can get locked into response-mode, how that might be limiting to someone’s path.  I offer a few thoughts on ways to break free from that mentality.

Quick note – it should go without saying, but these are simply thoughts and observations I’ve had around Paganism.  I’m not married to any of these ideas, but I find them interesting to consider in the context of self-mastery.  I reserve the right – as should all people who call themselves human – to change my mind or my opinion as I learn and grow.

Paganism as a response

First, I find it helpful to examine how modern Paganism became popular, and how Paganism functions for many of its practitioners.

So I’ll start by inviting you to consider – how many people do you know who became Pagan because they were pissed off at Christians?

I know only one person who was raised Pagan.  All the rest became Pagan because they experienced shitty Christians (or shitty Christianity).  I mean, I’m Pagan because of the way Christians treated me.  And most Pagans I’ve talked to have similar experiences.

Since many people become Pagan because of something Christians (or Christian churches) have done, this kind of conversion can be seen as a response.  We respond to a shitty situation or incident by leaving the Christian religion.  In my case, Christians hold that love is the most important value to uphold.  Some Christians express love by acting with cruelty.  Cruelty is not an expression of love.  Since Christians treated me with cruelty, they were acting hypocritically, so I chose to end my association with Christianity.  My actions were a response to the experiences I had with Christians (and Christian churches).

Would I be Pagan if I hadn’t been treated poorly?  I don’t know.  Who can say what their life would be if they made different choices?  But I can say that my treatment at the hands of Christians prompted me to seek another spiritual path.  So my actions were a response.

A lot of people look for the opposite of Christianity when they experience a crisis of faith.  That’s totally normal, and I’m not really qualified to make judgments about the validity or rationale for a person’s path (unless you’re harming or coercing other people).

But many Pagan practices, especially in Wicca, are a direct response to cultural conditions.  Before 1951, Witchcraft was illegal in England.  Once those laws were repealed, Gerald Gardner promoted Wicca as a religion.  If we look at the practices of Wicca as  Neopagan path, it appears Gerald Gardner stitched together ceremonial magic with nudism and nature-based fertility.  Wicca has since grown beyond those origins, but it is not a pre-historical religion that was passed down in secret.  It was invented in the 1920’s, and is often portrayed as a way to legitimize magic and alternate sexual practices.  That is to say, Gardner launched Wicca as a response to cultural conditions that prohibited nudity and magic.

And that’s OK.  But like my own exodus from Christianity, Wicca is a response – Gardner wasn’t able to fulfill his spiritual needs in the existing religious organizations, so he responded by creating his own.

And I feel like this is a bigger trend in most Pagan and Neopagan paths.  Most people don’t change religions when they’re comfortable, so perhaps there’s a mass discomfort (or mass trauma) causing people to respond accordingly.  Maybe Christianity simply isn’t fulfilling anymore, and is pushing people away.  Many Christian groups are demonizing a group of people (like LGBTQ+ folks) in order to drum up a sense of tribalism, which has a polarizing effect.  People in the in-group tend to bond more strongly against perceived enemies, and people in the out-group are marginalized, pushed aside, or labeled enemies.  In a progressive, global, multicultural society, these actions alienate a fair number of followers.

Another factor in Paganism as a response, is that our society is becoming secular and materialistic.  Naturalistic Philosophy – the belief that all observable phenomena arise from purely physical sources – is a constant subtext to our culture.  Also called “Scientism” or “Scientific Materialism,” Naturalistic Philosophy implies that there is a rational and material explanation for everything a person experiences.  (I used to call this scientific materialism, but some adherents of this philosophy find that term offensive, so I’ve adjusted.)  This is a great philosophy when you’re trying to find a better way to build an iPhone, or to evaluate material usage and waste in a business process.  But there’s no room in Naturalistic Philosophy for purely non-physical phenomena.

So even though everyone has a ghost story, in Naturalistic Philosophy, there can be no such thing as ghosts.  Even though we can be spiritually or emotionally moved reading a book, it can’t be measured, thus is considered subjective – therefore invalid – evidence.  There can be no Gods or Magic or Spirits, because those things are artifacts of consciousness, immeasurable, and therefore nonexistent.

And yet, people still have phone telepathy, or precognition of accidents, or ghost experiences.  I’d like to suggest that one reason people are moving to Neopaganism is that most Neopagan paths offer a worldview that celebrates the intangible (and interesting) experiences that fall through the cracks of the laboratory floor.

It may not even be validation of the woo~, but simply acknowledging that immaterial experiences have merit.  We read a good book because we like it, even though it doesn’t give us an edge in our next sales pitch.  We enjoy a cup of tea with a friend without having to have a cost-benefit analysis of the time spent and the networking achieved.

Immaterial experiences matter.  And Neopaganism celebrates them.

It appears, then, that Paganism is a response to this centuries-long devaluation of the non-material.  Consider the story of Robinson Crusoe, who – through hard work – transformed his material world into spiritual and material prosperity.  Crusoe does not rely on magic, but rather the physical mastery of the resources around him.  So it is, in our modern culture, that we are taught that value exists only in the work we do (usually for a corporation), and that our value is measured only by the materials we can buy.  This worldview leaves no room for immaterial experiences.

For those of us who’ve seen ghosts, it’s no wonder we’re looking for a spiritual path that celebrates immaterial experiences.  (This is not a debate about whether magic is real.  Who knows?  But clearly something is happening, even if only in our subjective conscious experience.)  This, again, is a response to the world we live in.  Our jobs, our scientists, nor our economy cannot account for ghosts or magic.  But people love a good ghost story.  So we respond to the absence of immaterial effects by switching to a spiritual path that celebrates the immaterial.

I mentioned Wicca as a Neopagan countercultural response.  I am aware that Heathens are less reactive, and tend more towards embodying a core set of values, which I would view as less of a response.  Greek and Near Eastern pre-Christian practices are also being revived, offering a historically-based practice for people who are called to them.  But even the most meticulously-researched historical Pagan spiritual path has gaps.  What do we do when our reconstructed religion doesn’t have an answer?

How do we fill the gaps?

Young religions like Wicca and Neopaganism often have gaps in theology, ethics, or mystical practices.  In contrast, religions like Christianity have the benefit of thousands of years of art, philosophy, and co-opting indigenous practices.  These different techniques help to create a rich, full experience for people following that religion.

It’s a fundamental truth that humans share practices and information.  (If you don’t believe me, do a quick search for “Grandma’s recipe” or “family recipe”.)  In some ways, that’s good – I’ve got a batch of red beans and rice in the slow cooker right now because someone posted a recipe online.  With religion, this can get a little complicated.  Catholicism has a habit of absorbing the local spiritual practices of whatever culture it came to dominate, as is the (suspected) case with St. Brigid.  This might feel like cultural appropriation.  But it’s also a factor that leads to the preservation of many indigenous spiritual practices.  This preservation is why Mexican Catholicism looks different from Vatican Catholicism.  Or why Tibetan Buddhism looks different from Japanese Buddhism.

When we’re throwing out tradition “Because Christianity,” we lose a vast repository of spiritual tech that works and adds meaning to spirituality.  It’s sort of a baby-and-the-bathwater situation.  When you’re building a spiritual path from scratch, or building a spiritual path to be the opposite of a mainstream religion, important material will be left out.  If Neopaganism can survive for a few hundred years, I’d expect to see artists creating robust, fulfilling spiritual practices, artwork, and narratives intrinsic to the tradition.

But that takes time.  And many influential Neopagan artists haven’t been born yet.  In the meantime, we have people practicing Paganism who reach for a guide to ethical behavior (or belief, or practice), wanting to do something different from Christianity or mainstream society, but instead finding a gap.

It’s not just newly-created religions that experience gaps.  Some Pagan paths are reconstructions of ancient pre-Christian practices.  Asatru and Heathenry are an attempt to reconnect with Germanic and Scandinavian spiritual practices, and there are numerous Druidic organizations that seek to reconnect with Celtic spiritual practices.  The same can be said for ancient Egyptian, Greek, or even Sumerian spiritual practices.

I am a proponent of authenticity whenever possible, so I see the reconstruction of these spiritual paths as a very good thing.  But even the most dedicated historian must admit we don’t have all the information about these ancient religions.  There’s just not enough information for more than an educated guess.

Many practitioners compromise.  We do our best to respect the historical record, then we use educated guesses and personal gnosis to fill in the details.  This process of filling the gaps is a type of response – we’re using our contemporary understanding of spirituality to respond to the historical data, and create a living tradition that we can practice.

Much of the filler in Paganism comes from the New Age movement, which in turn borrows material from Helen Blavatsky and her (controversial) Theosophist movement.  Surprisingly, some of the material also comes from Christian philosophies (though it might not seem like it).  Plus,  many Indian and Far Eastern spiritual practices have been imported, like yoga and Buddhism.  So, part of the answer to where we get the material to fill the gaps in Paganism is that we borrow it from other religions, or we attempt to fill it in with material from the culture we live in.

One of the gaps – and a central challenge with Paganism – is that it lacks a central and functional guide for ethical behavior.  Wicca has “An’ it harm none, do as ye will,” but problems with the Rede have been addressed by many folks more experienced than me.  Furthermore, because of the inherent diversity in Pagan religions, right behavior for me is not necessarily right behavior for you.  And worse, some Pagans aren’t even interested in changing their behavior, but rather finding acceptance and validation for their current behavior.  Without a central pillar of belief for guidance, Pagans must look elsewhere to fill the gaps and figure out what is appropriate in a given situation.

Since most Neopagans are raised in a culture dominated by Christian religion, it makes sense that some of our fundamental values stem from Christianity.  Even if we don’t realize it.  For example:  we think nothing of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to extend the life of a person for a few weeks, often without regard for the quality of that person’s life.  This is an extension of the Christian value that God has given humans life, and it’s not ours to decide when it ends.  It also reflects the Christian value to give people a chance to do good and/or “come to Jesus” in order to earn their way into Heaven.  If we truly believed in reincarnation (as many Neopagans do), it seems to me that we’d be more likely to allow someone a merciful end to their suffering, so their soul can move on and reincarnate in their next life.

In a similar example, a Buddhist might look at the amount of pain and suffering a sick person is experiencing, and how that suffering is magnified amongst family and loved ones.  Since a core ideal of Buddhism is to reduce suffering, euthanasia might be more acceptable to a Buddhist, in order to reduce the overall suffering in the world.

A different (and controversial) example might be Pagan attitudes towards money.  Many Neopagans (and especially Wiccans) refuse to pay or accept money for teaching or spell work.  The idea is that money is impure, and will exert a corrupting influence on the work.  This comes straight from the Christian philosophy that money is of the world, and therefore less pure than spiritual matters.  That is, immaterial, spiritual pursuits are godly, and therefore “better” than material things like money.  This attitude also comes from the Christian belief that God is responsible for miracles, and that humans oughtn’t take credit (or payment) for that which is God’s domain.  If we were truly Pagan, we might say that we incarnated into a material existence for a reason — perhaps to master the material realm as well as the spiritual.  Money is an excellent way to negotiate and transmit value, and to expand the influence of our will.  Furthermore, if we look to Nature, many animals participate in the exchange or saving of resources.  (Think squirrels hiding acorns, or birds collecting trinkets.)

Now, some of these ideas may come as a shock.  If you’ve divorced yourself from all things Christian, how is it possible that you’re still following Christian beliefs?  It’s normal to feel a little disrupted by this.  But consider pre-Christian tribal societies who ensure that their shaman is provided for.  Consider hoodoo, in which practitioners are paid for their services.  In some Buddhist countries, monks are only allowed to eat on what they collect in a donation bowl, and some monks offer blessings in exchange for donations.  Even in a basic Animist worldview, we give gifts to the spirits in order to maintain good relationships, so that the spirits give us gifts in return.  It is normal and natural to participate in an exchange of resources.  If you don’t feel that way, I invite you to consider where those beliefs come from.

Side note:  Also on the topic of money, maybe pay attention to how many Big Name Pagans have had to launch GoFundMe programs for medical or funeral expenses.  For fuck’s sake, people, you can give up a trip or two to Starbucks so that someone who deeply influenced your spirituality can afford to be cremated.  Buy their books, pay for their classes, and/or volunteer to help organize their events.

It seems to me that filling gaps in a spiritual path with something familiar is a normal and natural process.  When someone is following an ancient or lost spiritual tradition, they may not know how to behave in a given situation.  This could be because our technology is different, our laws are different, or simply lack of written resources.  If we encounter a situation that our spiritual path doesn’t prepare us for, we fall back on the default behavior from our surrounding culture.  Often, this comes from the way we were raised.  (We may not even be conscious of these behaviors!)  So in the case of money in Paganism, if we’re not specifically taught to make financial contributions to our Pagan community, we’ll probably just approach it by whatever default we grew up with.

In this case, Christianity.  (Maybe New Age or Atheism.)  And even if you were raised atheist or Pagan, you were still raised in a culture that is strongly influenced by Christian values, so you may have adopted Christian ethics without realizing they are Christian.  (I live deep in Mormon country.  Guess which religion I picked up counterproductive habits and beliefs from‽)

Want to see how Christianity has influenced regular culture?  Have a picnic in a cemetery.  How do you feel about that?  How do you expect to be treated by other visitors? Maybe you feel a little uncomfortable with the idea.  I know I do.  That’s a sign that we’re bumping up against a Christian value we didn’t realize we had.  I worry about what other people will think, or that I’ll be 86’ed from the cemetery, or even that ghosts or dead people will rise up and drag me to hell – which is another way Christian values have influenced society.  In comparison to non-Christian societies – Japanese or Tibetan, for instance – the difference is stark.  In Japan, ancestors are honored and welcomed – some people keep a shrine for ancestors at their home.  Tibetan Buddhists have extensive rituals for contemplating death; if our culture embraced something similar, perhaps we wouldn’t feel acutely uncomfortable at the idea of a picnic in a cemetery.

It’s only here in the West that hanging out with dead people seems uncomfortable.  Interestingly, people used to have picnics in cemeteries as recently as the 1800’s.  Also interestingly, it’s socially OK for people to go to a grave and talk to a dead person.  Humans seem to be wired for it.  But try the same thing with a Ouija board, and watch how many people come out of the woodwork to warn you about Darque Speerits.

So, we fill in the gaps in our spiritual practice – consciously, or unconsciously – with existing beliefs and practices.  It takes work to change those core beliefs.  That means challenging our preconceived notions and biases (which is always uncomfortable).  It means spending time looking at why we have knee-jerk reactions to things like paying for a Pagan event.  Or having a picnic in a cemetery.

Kudos to everyone out there who is doing that work.  If you’re not there yet, that’s cool too.  Just realize that this is uncomfortable, but necessary.  Your writing doesn’t get better when someone tells you it’s perfect.  You don’t walk into a karate class already knowing karate.  It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that you’re not already enlightened, and that you’ve got some hard lessons before you get better at your spiritual practice.

A response typically isn’t as fulfilling as a coherent path

There are more than a few Neopagans who end up back in Christianity because Paganism doesn’t fulfill them the way they expect.  They find that it doesn’t have the answers, it doesn’t solve an underlying anger, or it simply lacks depth and mystery.

This can happen when people engage Neopaganism as a response.  Sometimes, a trauma is so deep that a person has to find the most opposite path they can to Christianity.  What are some of the buzzwords that might attract people looking to rebel against Christianity?

Satanism.  Witchcraft.  Paganism.  Et cetera.

Using spirituality for revenge can only be satisfying for so long.  Longer, if it keeps getting a rise out of people.  But eventually, the satisfaction of “sticking it to the man” just doesn’t fill the craving for a spiritual connection.

One possible reason for this, is that when a spiritual path is defined in relation to another spiritual path, it’s not standing on its own.  It’s like a kid playing tug-of-war; we learn quickly that we fall down when the other kid lets go.

Side note:  This is not to suggest that everyone participates in a religion for a spiritual connection.  For many people, religion is just “something we do,” sort of like standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.  This might explain some people’s sensitivity about non-Christians living in America.  In their America, Christianity is just what everyone does.  Unsurprisingly, most mainstream religions actively seek to dominate their social landscape; that way, the religion (and the control scheme inherent in that religion) is inseparable from the cultural and social behaviors.  But I digress.

I was talking with my beautiful and intelligent wife about this the other day.  She mentioned that, in her view, Pagans who stop being Pagan were never really Pagan to begin with.  That is, they never had that full, deep spiritual Pagan experience.  I thought that was a good way to put it.  She also clarified that sometimes, people do find that deep spiritual experience in Paganism, but it’s not quite the right fit, and they keep looking.  Simply leaving Paganism isn’t necessarily an indicator of fulfillment; it’s a bit more nuanced.

Thing is, it can be difficult to distinguish a spiritually authentic practice from a knee-jerk spiritual response.  And that’s OK!  We need the freedom to be able to try things out, and see which practices and beliefs fit.  And to get rid of the ones that don’t work for us!

But that doesn’t mean that we just “do what feels right.”  Well, it kinda does, but substantial personal or spiritual growth requires a level of discomfort or sacrifice.  If a Neopagan only pursues “what feels right,” they risk locking into the pursuit of “positive” emotions, and attempting to suppress “negative” emotions.  How many times have you heard a Lightworker or New Ager (or even a Neopagan) say, “Quit bringing your negative vibes into this space!”?  Like, how else are we supposed to deal with life’s bullshit?  I find it unhealthy to expect people to be “on” and “positive” all the time.  (Not that I invite or tolerate drama in my groups.  I just think it’s important not to condemn “dark” or “negative” emotions.  Or even a healthy level of discomfort.)

Side note: if a person has exploitive, coercive, or harmful impulses that “feel right,” we should not encourage a person to indulge those impulses at the expense of others!

Many of the emotions that our society considers to be “negative” – things like sorrow, depression, anger, conflict, etc. – are feelings that we have for a reason.  There’s a reason we get angry when someone treats us poorly.  There’s a reason we cry when we’re feeling sad.  If we just lock those feelings away, or pretend we don’t feel them, or anesthetize ourselves against them with fancy crystals (or drugs), we’re not living an authentic or fulfilling spiritual path.

Furthermore, and more to the central point of this essay, all of these actions are a response to something else.  We feel bad, so we respond by seeking out healing and protection.  Or validation.  And those definitely have a place.  My experience, though, is that validation, healing, and protection are a bottomless pit – no matter how much you throw at them, it’ll never be enough.  On the other hand, karate is hard (physically and mentally), but it’s very fulfilling (to me) to work towards an ideal.  I think spirituality is similar.  If we’re following a path that’s coherent and authentic, and matching ourselves to that path (whether it’s set forth by a guru or our higher self), it might be hard or uncomfortable.  But it’s more likely to be fulfilling than a path based on emotional reactions, or reactions to situations we encounter.

I mean, I get it.  I experienced several childhood traumas, and I know how good validation and healing energy feel.  They’re soothing, and it just feels good to be free of the bullshit for a while.  But immersing myself in the Light isn’t actually helping me to deal with the ugly things in my life.  Things might appear pretty on the surface, but there’s a mountain of shit building up in my unconscious – unless I put on my emotional hip waders and shovel shit through the pipelines.

Validation is good, until it leads to stagnation

One of the hallmarks of modern Paganism, at least on social media and the groups I’ve experienced, is the push for validation.  Often, this takes the form of “You do what feels right,” or “Everyone’s path is valid,” or even “It’s not up to you to question another person’s experience.”

And Gods help you if you challenge someone’s beliefs or spiritual path.

Here’s the thing.  If your spiritual path is valid, it can weather criticism – and if it can’t, then you should be questioning it.  One of the factors I consider for the healthiness of a group is how well the teachings (or the leader) can stand up to criticism.

Or to a challenge.

I’ve noticed a lot of folks bristle at the idea of being challenged.  There seems to be an unspoken rule in American culture that we’re not supposed to “talk back.”  Are you uncomfortable asking for a lower price when you make an expensive purchase, like a TV or a cell phone?  Do you feel like it’s rude not to take someone at their word?  Do you get anxious when you need to say “no” to someone, without having an excuse as to why you can’t accommodate them?  These are all symptoms of discomfort with a challenge.

Let’s put some context around the idea of a challenge.  A challenge isn’t necessarily a demand to do what I say!  A challenge should be seen more like asking, “Are you sure about that?”  Consider two male deer.  One of them says, “I’m taking this herd of females for myself.”  The other says “Fuck you, we’ll see about that,” and they engage in a discussion/contest to decide the winner.  Or maybe a more peaceful example; two English professors get into an argument about whether J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a metaphor for World War II (with the ring symbolizing nuclear weapons, and the Orcs representing the Nazis), or whether it’s a story that reminisces about the loss of pastoral farming to industrialization.  They might argue with each other, challenge each other’s positions, offer support for their positions.  It could even become a heated discussion!  At the end, though, they’ll probably both walk away thinking their perspective is right, even though the other had good points.  (Interestingly, both of these professors can be correct.)

We experience challenges all the time.  When a woman stands up on a plane to protest and prevent a deportation, we applaud – she challenges authority and refuses to surrender her phone.  On a more personal note, I feel awkward when someone challenges me.  Like, if I go to the deli counter and ask for shaved ham, and the counter lady says “We don’t do shaved ham here,” I feel uncomfortable – but that doesn’t mean I can’t challenge her back, saying “I’ve gotten shaved ham before, other people slice it thin like that for me.”

There’s a time and place for validation, and there’s a time and place for challenges.  Including keeping our cool when we find ourselves challenged by others.  We like it when other people validate us for what we’re thinking or feeling or saying or believing.  It’s a lot harder when people challenge us.  But we’re all different people, with different ideas and thoughts.  Given the diversity inherent in Paganism, it’s inevitable that we will encounter people who challenge our beliefs (or whose very existence stands as a challenge to our beliefs).

So it behooves us to become passingly comfortable with being challenged.  And with challenging others.

In Neopaganism, there’s an unspoken rule that we aren’t supposed to question or challenge people on their beliefs.  The whole point, I think, is to nurture people, to validate them, to make them feel safe and welcomed.  And these are great ideals (though I would argue that they come not from Neopaganism or reconstructionism, but rather the Hippie movement of the 1960-70’s).  But how can we prevent people from being exploited, coerced, or harmed if we don’t challenge the people doing the exploitation, coercion, or harm?  Very often, predators begin grooming their potential victims by validating them and making them feel good.

So validation is not inherently good; rather, it’s a tool used to achieve a particular purpose, good or bad.

More poignantly – how do we coexist with other Pagans who believe differently, if we need validation all the time?  It would be more reasonable to expect differing beliefs might create tension.  Likewise, it would be reasonable to expect to be challenged, just as we might challenge others.  This is the price we pay for the freedom to choose our individual spiritual path – we have to find a way to live in tension with other people and paths that are different from ours.

One way to do this, is to remember that being challenged isn’t the end of the world.

The unquestioning validation I see in many Neopagan groups is also unhelpful in the long term for personal and spiritual growth.  Why would you need to work on your habit of dominating a conversation, if you’re already perfect and beautiful just the way you are?  What’s the point in working to commit more to your group, if you’re already accepted as a slacker?  And worse – if a fake psychic is bleeding someone for thousands of dollars, how are we going to call them out without violating the “sacred truth” that all paths are valid?  Hint:  we can’t.  And people do spend thousands of dollars on fake spiritual shit.

Side note:  As usual, not all spiritual things are shit.  But some people use fake spiritual shit to prey on vulnerable people.  We need a better way to discern predators, which I think involves challenging them.  Which in turn means that real Pagans need to get more comfortable with responding to being challenged.  More of that “price to pay.”

Now, clearly there’s a lot of nuance on this topic.  We don’t want society hurting people because of who they are, and we don’t want people feeling threatened for holding a belief or viewpoint.  We also don’t want to leave room for people to hold a harmful view, justifying it under the banner of diversity.  (Like, for example, the wackos advocating for legalization of pedophilia.)  I think that there’s a way that we can challenge people on their views without it being a condemnation.  That happens on both sides of the discussion.  As a challenger, we can be more careful to avoid condemning a person before they have a chance to clarify their position.  As someone being challenged, we can adjust our perception of a challenge as an opportunity to clarify, to which we can respond appropriately.

(Again, we don’t need to justify our inner emotions and beliefs.  But if someone is asking us why we seem to be behaving unethically, we should be able to give a good response.  If we realize that we’re not, in fact, behaving ethically, we should be able to recognize it and change our behavior.)

The same goes for spiritual paths.  The Jewish religion, as I understand it, exists in a constant state of debate by rabbis over the interpretation of scripture.  They have an official scripture, but the meaning of those words is subject to interpretation – and it’s the debate over interpretation which forms the central pillar of the religion.  You could make the same argument about the conflict over teaching Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and whether it should be included or excluded from the canon for its depiction of race.  The point is the tension between those arguments – because often, each side can be right, even if they conflict.

In Neopaganism, then, there is certainly a place for validation – we all like our views reinforced.  But not when it leads to harm or exploitation.  (We would not validate someone’s beliefs who advocated for having sex with underage children.  We could validate someone who had a spiritual experience with a deity or spirit.)  There is also a place for challenging beliefs, or having your beliefs challenged – if it’s a valid and defensible position, it should be able to stand up to the challenge.  If your beliefs can’t stand up to a challenge, then perhaps that’s a sign to clarify, revise, or adjust your beliefs.

Final note on this point:  to challenge something does not equate to condemning or invalidating it.  Rather, a challenge is more like saying, “are you sure about that, or do you need to clarify your point?”  A squirrel might challenge a thistle looking for a meal; the thistle’s thorny response sends the squirrel looking elsewhere.  Another challenge might look like, “Was that really a ghost, or did the light flicker because of the guys practicing Jujitsu upstairs?”  A lot of people get defensive about being challenged.  But the older I get, and the more I learn about healthy boundaries and interpersonal skills, the more I believe we need to rethink the way we consider challenges.  Rather than a condemnation, maybe we consider a challenge as an invitation to explore our position (or our beliefs) more deeply?  Just a thought.  There’ll probably be more on this in a later post.

Often, we don’t realize we’re stuck

My wife called me out the other day for playing a victim.  It wasn’t my intent; I’ve suffered some shitty things in my life, which still affect me on an unconscious level.  Also, our modern society gives special consideration and power to victims.  I found myself stuck – my body was reacting in a way my conscious mind wasn’t aware of, and I was relying on old habits to navigate a difficult situation.  (You might say I was reacting.)

I’ve had to pull the victim card to be taken seriously, as a white cis-gendered male Pagan.  Apparently, I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be sexually harassed, or have to fear for my life when I walk out the door, or to be in a domestic situation where my grip on reality is in question.  (Actually, I do.)  I think there’s a tendency in Neopaganism to validate people’s victimhood, and to take people more seriously because of it.

As usual, I’m not saying that victims deserve to be victims.  (And at this point, I think if you’re reading that into what I’m saying, you’re deliberately acting like a troll.)

But it’s easy, I think, to get stuck in victim-mode.  When a psychiatric condition gives you control over the way the school treats your kid, it’s tempting to spam it as a way of influencing the school.  When you get attention and compassion from talking about your trauma, it’s tempting to keep bringing it up.  When you’re excused from being held accountable or responsible because of your victim status, it’s tempting to keep lean harder into it.

But the mindset and energy of being a victim places all the agency outside ourselves.  While it might feel empowering, it’s actually the opposite.  I’m a little wary about even saying this.  It feels like a slippery slope to victim-blaming (and it can be, but is not my intention).  But if we’re doing magic to try to make our lives better, then on some level we have to acknowledge that we want some level of control over our lives.

Playing the victim locks us into the space of responding to things.  If you think about it, it’s very much like leaving the Church because of a disagreement.  Or pulling harder in a tug-of-war.  If you’ve experienced trauma, it’s important to get help to triage and heal from that wound, whether it’s physical or psychological (or both).  But just like the problem with the tug-of-war, if we keep holding on to our victim status, it perpetuates the trauma on the other end of that dynamic.

The trauma on the other side of victimhood might be an abuser or attacker, or it might be an authority who takes action on our behalf.  In the case of an abuser, perpetuating our victim status keeps the attacker present on the other side of the abuse.  In the case of an authority, playing the victim surrenders all our personal agency to the authority to take action on our behalf.  Staying in victim mentality locks us into a position where we are always operating from a place of responding, instead of being proactive or exercising our agency (and will).

So, just like it’s important as a Pagan to have a stable core of beliefs and practices, it’s important for each of us as an individual Pagan to stand on our own.   If we really are seeking to be personally empowered, we’re not helping ourselves by staying in reaction-mode.  We can’t simultaneously use magic or spirituality to improve our life our our situation, and also use a victim status to navigate our life’s narrative.  The two are not compatible.

I’m doing this too, as I write this.  Who would I be, if I hadn’t been bullied into accepting affection when I was young?  Who would I be if any of the shitty things that happened to me, hadn’t happened?  At some point – at least for me – I need to decide who I am and what I do.  Not in response to some outside influence, but as an expression of who I am.

And I know that some folks might take my saying this as victim-blaming, or victim-shaming, or whatever.  Not my intent.  Again, if you’re the victim of a crime, go to the police.  Get help.  Avoid contact with people who try to keep you in a harmful situation.  But also realize that it’s easy to get stuck in that victim mentality.  You’ll probably find your life works better when you’re free from reaction-mode.

The duality of response versus authenticity

In general, I don’t like to oversimplify a topic into two opposites.  For example, I feel like it’s problematic to simplify the world into “good vs. evil,” or “of the light vs. not of the light.”  With that said, I still find value in looking at a topic through a duality, so long as I keep in mind that the metaphor is not the reality.

So it is with Paganism.  In this case, I’m thinking “response vs. authenticity.”  I can be Pagan as a response to the people and institutions around me, or I can be Pagan because that’s the most authentic expression of my spiritual self.

It seems like this perspective might be useful across a range of different topics.  If victimhood is a response, then what might it look like if we flipped to the other side of the duality, and approached trauma with agency?  (This is a train of thought that I’ve found helpful in dealing with anxiety, depression, and other side-effects of trauma.

One problem with getting locked into response-mode is that it becomes easier for other people to manipulate you.  That might seem counterintuitive, given the current political climate.  After all, most of the political left in the US is geared towards resisting the Republican regime.  But here’s the trick – resistance is largely ineffective at enacting legislation.  Sure, there’s a lot of noise, but actual policy changes are few and far between.  What’s worse, people on the political right – from the Executive branch all the way to twitter-trolls – are acting in such a way as to evoke a response from the left, which functions as a distraction from the actual legislation and policy that’s being enacted.

In other words, when we’re stuck in response-mode, we’re letting other people set the terms on which we’re engaging with a given topic.  All someone has to do is say “The Pussy Church is anti-Trans,” and suddenly every Pagan rushes to their keyboard to CAPS-LOCK their opinion.  Only, no one seems to notice that by making the initial (and inflammatory) statement, the original poster locked every outraged respondent into the choice of voicing their outrage, or risking being ostracized as a TERF.  No one seems to realize that there are other possible responses to this statement.

Consider the alternative.  If a person has come to terms with their own views on transgender people in Paganism, and their beliefs and practices are authentically developed, a much different situation happens.  If a person is a Dianic Wiccan, they might say “The Pussy Church seems similar to our practices, but we don’t know enough about them to really judge.”  If a person is a God-Goddess Wiccan, they might say “It’s not my place to decide one way or another for another person’s path, but for me the magic and sexuality only works with biological gender.”  A queer Pagan might say, “Every human falls somewhere on a spectrum between gay and straight, masculine and feminine, and a variety of other traits, so the Pussy Church isn’t at all for us.”  A Transgender Pagan might say, “The Pussy Church is a bunch of assholes, and I want nothing to do with them.”

In other words, having an intrinsic and authentic belief system gives each of us a perspective against which we can measure other perspectives.  Furthermore, a well-developed belief system helps us to be more resilient and less threatened by beliefs that we might not agree with.  Alternately, if I’m shaky on my basic beliefs, I might feel threatened by a challenge presented simply by the existence of another group.

Side note:  a challenge doesn’t need to be articulated.  Simply existing can be a challenge to another person’s identity and perspective.  As a white, straight, cis-gendered man, I’m sure my very existence – not to mention my hubris expressing an opinion – acts as a challenge to people who believe people like me are what’s wrong with the world.  But if we’re committed to the idea that we’re all humans, then we must acknowledge that a person’s opinions are valid, regardless of their class.  If it’s wrong to silence someone for being transgender, it’s likewise wrong to silence someone for being cisgender.

To me, it seem that the most measured, balanced, and nuanced opinions about complex Pagan topics come from people with a strong and well-developed core practice.

On getting better…

This whole essay is intended to give you things to think about, in the hopes that you examine your own beliefs and actions.  Hopefully, this leads you to make deliberate adjustments to become more effective, more authentic, more compassionate, more spiritual, more coherent.

You might not agree with me, and that’s OK.  (See Validation and Stagnation above, where the price of freedom of speech and thought is having to find a way to deal with people who disagree.)

Here’s the thing, though.  If it’s true that response-mode makes us more susceptible to manipulation, and creates a mindset where we’re defined in relation to something else, and sabotages our ability to take action in the world – then it makes sense that ditching that mindset would be essential for becoming a more effective Pagan (and magician).  So – we’ll be more effective Pagans if we pursue the beliefs, practices, and ethics that lead us towards having more agency, and away from being reactionary to outside influences.  I see this as a Very Good Thing.

But I can tell you from experience that it is not a comfortable thing.  The only suggestion I can offer on that front, is that you have to make peace with the edge of your discomfort.  If you’re always comfortable, you’re not growing.  But you don’t want to push yourself into stress or traumatic discomfort either.  It might be helpful to consider a teaching from Yoga to find your edge, listen to your body, and pay attention to the line between “I can’t do this” (which is a lie) and “I shouldn’t do this” (which is the truth).

So.  Some practical actions you can take to start getting better, and move out of the response mindset.

  1. Take a class, or join an existing movement.  One of the great features of an existing program of study is that it’s been tested to work by multiple students and teachers.  In some respects, there really is no good substitute for having a mentor observe, coach, and correct you from a position of experience.  Also, if you’re not in the habit of self-change, joining an existing and established group can help you learn how to adapt to new information and create change for yourself.
  2. Learn to tolerate differences.  By this I don’t mean shouting (or typing in all caps) that trans women are women.  What I mean is that it’s helpful to cultivate a bone-level knowing that it’s OK for someone else to have a different opinion than you without it being a threat.  If you feel good with where you’re at on this, take it up a notch and start letting your existence sit in tension with a person (or idea) you disagree with, without needing to yell or convince them.  Just let the differences sit.
  3. Learn and practice setting and enforcing healthy boundaries.  Also learn and practice respecting other people’s boundaries.
  4. Learn how to let shit go.  Seriously.  One way you can think about this is, that if you are not a member of a marginalized group, or if you’re not personally affected by an issue surrounding a marginalized group, maybe take a step back.  Not every social injustice is worth amping up your blood pressure and stress level.  The more you cultivate the ability to let an issue go, the better you’ll be able to resist the manipulations of trolls.
  5. Develop a deep personal practice. This may take some searching and experimentation to find a good fit.  And don’t need to feel like you can’t switch horses if you need to. I switched martial arts after 15 years.  I definitely have some habits to adjust, but that depth of practice gives me an edge many other practitioners lack.  If you take the same approach to your spiritual practice, you’ll have similar results.  So – if you like Wicca, cast a circle every day for a year, and draw down the Moon every cycle.  If you’re into Sumerian practices, celebrate all the holy days for a couple years, and find a prayer or devotional to perform every day.  If you’re going towards Norse, same thing – read the stories over and over, and practice regular rituals.  Whatever you decide to do, you need to put miles on it.  This helps you develop some of the deep bone-level understanding of your spirituality, and it’ll help you build a solid core practice.  Which, as you read above, will help you become more resilient in the face of challenges.

As you can guess, none of this happens overnight.  My guess is that if you’ve read this far, you’re probably someone who values delayed gratification, so some of this may be preaching to the choir.  But I’ve done it both ways – I’ve whipped up a quick programming skill to perform a task, and I’ve spent years practicing the same series of moves.  I can say, with no hesitation, which one is more effective in creating lasting and meaningful change.  (You can probably guess too.)

Do you have thoughts on Paganism as a reaction?  Send me an email at dmkoffer at gmail dot com.

Everyday Paganism – Elemental Earth

I wrote a post last year about Elemental Water, with the intent of writing one about Elemental Earth.

But anyway, I built a deck.  (Well, I helped my dad build stairs for a deck.)  And a website.  And I did some rebuilding on my personal beliefs and values.  And I think there’s something here, in the way that we move earth and create structures to support our daily lives.

The new stairs, attached to an existing deck. A solid construction 40 years ago let us build these as an addition, instead of a whole replacement project. My photo.

Not another gods-damned element post

I have this project I’m working on, about how elements and Pagan practices function in the desert.  I thought someone had recently written a book about this, but after about a half-hour of google-fu, I can’t seem to find it.  (Shoot me a link if you know which book/author I’m thinking of.)

And I thought, “You know, maybe I could discuss the different ways that the elements manifest in the desert, because it’s different from the way magic manifests on, say, the coast where there’s plenty of water.”

Only, I’ve seen a metric fuck-ton of Pagan books organized around the elements.  I have a lousy one sitting on my desk right now.  So, if I’m tired of it, other people probably are too.

Accordingly, I ask your forgiveness for the tired old “elemental Pagan post” here.  Hopefully some of these ideas will be fresh and interesting, and challenge you to think about your life and your magic in a different way.

Dirt and soil

You’re looking at the back of the stairs. On the left is the pile of dirt we dug out.  And when I say “we,” I mean my dad had it mostly done by the time I got there.

We don’t really think about dirt very much.  I mean, we sweep it off our furniture and out of our homes when we’re cleaning.  We scrape it off our shoes before we come inside.  Some folks dump dirt into a pot, and poke a seed into it with some water.  You may be familiar with dirt roads (and all their questionable charm).

So dirt isn’t inherently bad.  We walk on it all day long, and it’s the origin of the food we eat.  Like water, there is an appropriate place (and shape) for dirt.

When building dad’s deck, the first thing that had to happen was anchoring the base of the stairs to the ground.  Now you might think that’s a pretty simple thing, but the ground wasn’t level, and it had poor water drainage.  (Pooling water could cause the wood to rot).

This speaks to the ability of earth and soil to facilitate growth.  In this case, we don’t want the growth of bacteria and fungi, which would damage the wood.  But we could take that soil and put it somewhere else to level the ground, or we could put it in a planter pot for growing flowers.

There is a mystery here, if you care to examine it a little closer.  Consider Earth not just in its aspect of “rock” and “stability,” but “structure,” as in providing the structure for a plant to send roots into.  Consider how that structure offers not just physical structural support, but also holds on to nutrients and moisture that the plant needs.  The plant has to take the nutrients, and has to do the work of pushing the earth aside as the roots grow.  But the earth holds onto those things, as a sort of unlocked potential.

So anyway, to build the deck we had to move some dirt.  With a shovel.  Which, if you think about it, is probably super relevant to starting any new project in your life.  You need to do some work — actual work, not just “thoughts” or “intentions,” but picking up a shovel and digging.  In this case, we dug a long, narrow hole to start on the base of our stairs.


A closeup of the light-grey sand, with bricks nestled in. After we dug out the dirt, we filled the hole with this sand. It lets the bricks slide a little for a good fit, and helps the water drain.

When I think of sand, I think about coarse silica sand that looks like little balls, about the size of those little styrofoam balls that break off packing material.  But this is a specialized form of sand specifically used for well drilling, and your idea of sand is probably a little different.

Other kinds of sand are beach sand, which includes tiny fragments of rock and glass and seashells, desert sand which may be rounded or sharp, or hourglass sand.  Maybe sand-dune-sand, or sandbox-sand, or something like that.

So after digging a hole, we filled it with sand.  Two main reasons for this were that a) it’s easier to shift things around to seat the base of the stairs, and b) the holes between the sand grains are large enough to let the water drain.

A recent post I read on magic talked about using magic to cross a big gap in your life.  It suggests that many people try to fill the gap between [where you are right now] and [where you want to be] with a few big boulders.  (The boulders represent large actions or enchantments.)  But in reality, it’s a whole bunch of little decisions and actions and enchantments that actually get us across.  Like sand.

Incidentally, this idea works pretty universally across metaphors.  It’s a lot easier to make a whole bunch of little decisions and actions to bridge the gap between [where you are] and [where you want to be].  Want to get a black belt?  Each training class is a grain of sand.  Want to be a musician?  Each time you practice is a grain of sand.  Boulders, then, would be like the “silver-bullet” solutions, the one-clean-shot-to-fix-my-problems type of thinking.  Which are a) a lot of effort and b) place a lot of faith in one or two actions, which c) can roll or go wonky and mess up your project.

In reality, unless you’re one of those rare people who can fix things by flipping an internal switch or shooting a personal demon with a silver bullet, filling the gap is the result of a whole bunch of tiny actions and choices.  A.k.a. sand.

And because sand is a bunch of little chunks of stuff (or metaphorically, small actions and choices), a mistake with one doesn’t undo the results of all the others.  And it becomes a lot easier to adjust and shift around all those other little grains in order to make the bigger things fit.  And when you do put bigger stuff on top of your sand (or pile of actions and choices), not only is it easier to make them fit, it offers superior support to bear the weight of those bigger things.

Bigger things like bricks

A row of bricks resting on the sand. Who needs a perfectly level rock to build on, when you can make one?

You should be able to see that, on top of the gray sand, we used lie a line of red bricks.  One interesting thing about bricks is that they are a) solid like stone, and b) manufactured in a specific shape.

Ever been to your local courthouse?  It’s probably made of stone, like marble.  Or maybe the interior has polished flagstones that you walk on.  That effect is pretty impressive by itself.  Now consider the effort that goes in to cutting a block of stone from a quarry, then polishing it, then hoisting it up to put it in place.

I mean sure, polished stone is impressive, and it lasts a long time.  But that permanence takes a lot of effort.  (And machinery.)

So bricks work as a compromise.  More permanent and weather-resistant than wood or soil, easier to work with than cut marble.  By building a solid foundation with these blocks of solid building material, we created a foundation that will allow the stairs to be fully supported, well-drained, and still bear the weight of people walking up and down the stairs.

Your beliefs might function like bricks in your life/magical practice.  Or you might have a set of basic techniques and skills on which you base your practice.  These are the big things, important and foundational.  Your world would (rightly) be rocked if one of these broke or shifted, so it’s a good idea to be intentional with the bricks you choose to build your practice out of.

Have you ever known someone (or been someone) who had a crisis of faith?  Where things you held deeply as true were revealed to be false?  I have (on both counts).  You go a little crazy when this happens.  Like when your deck rots and starts falling apart, and maybe someone trips and almost tumbles down.  But it’s also an opportunity to build a good, solid foundation to support your new deck.  (Ahem, I mean spiritual practice.)


You can see how the supports are structured, and how everything attaches and reinforces other parts of the structure. Also note the metal hardware for attachment, which is (coincidentally) also a manifestation of Earth.  The deck has seen some weather, so you might notice a little bit of warping in the wood.

To me, Wood seems to fit in with elemental Earth.  Perhaps because it’s solid, you can build with it, and it grows out of the soil.  Even more than brick, wood can be cut to the shape you need.  And assembled.  But there are some things to be aware of with wood.

Wood works like a compromise between the solidity of stone and the fluidity of water.  (Maybe because trees need both soil and water to grow?)  Wood is easier to cut and shape than stone.  It can be hauled around and moved more easily.  It lasts a long time, and its lifespan can be increased with treatments like paint or lacquer.

Different woods have different grain structures, which respond differently to stress.  We used pine in this project.  It has long, straight-ish grains which bear weight well.  It does require a seal coat; we left the wood unfinished over the winter, and moisture has seeped in and cracked the wood near the grains.

Other woods, like Oak, are harder to work, but some folks like the way they look finished.  Exotic woods like Mahogany are usually used in high-end furniture for their interesting swirls and patterns, but might not be worth the expense for an outdoor deck.  Softer woods like balsa-wood are used in craft projects, or for their extremely light weight – but would not be strong enough for a large project like a deck.

For the combination of cost, durability, and ease of use, wood is often the choice for building projects.  I mean, can you imagine a wrought-iron deck?  Cool, but heavy and expensive.  Or a plastic deck?  Just no.

Like digging out the soil, we had to shape the wood to fit our needs.  Each support beam was cut from a single two-by-twelve piece of lumber, with a zig-zag cut out for the stairs.  Each stair piece had to be cut to length, then attached with screws.  Someone will probably replace this deck in another 40 years, which is an excellent compromise between structure and longevity.


Screws, nails, and brackets, all made out of steel.  So, again, Earth.  And like bricks, these are Earth molded into shapes that are useful for getting things to stick together.

We put the stairs together, got the steps all bracketed in, supported, and screwed together.  And then we walked up and down the stairs.  And I’ll be damned if it didn’t feel like walking on solid ground.

There was a slight glitch in one of the measurements.  Dad said, “Walk on it, your feet will tell you if it’s level or not.”  And sure enough, I could feel the ones that were a little out of whack.  Everything was still rock-solid, but the ones that were mis-measured were tipped forward just a bit.

There are a couple of mysteries here, if you care to ponder on it.


Me, standing next to an outcropping at the City of Rocks.

So what do we do with all this?

Well, first of all, you don’t have to accept your life the way you find it.  You can use a shovel to move the dirt around, or wood and brick and steel to build something different.

You can build structures in your life that are custom-fitted to their application.  Like a brick for supporting a larger structure, or a sand-pit for water (emotional) drainage.  Earth can be used to fasten things together, like a gold ring to fasten two people together.  Or maybe a piercing to symbolize commitment to a spiritual path.

Because Earth has to be moved, shaped, cut, and fastened, your life-structure will work better if it’s built to a plan.  For example, you want to buy a house.  You map out the things you need, like a blueprint.  You save for a down-payment, which works like creating a solid foundation.  You have a home inspection, which tests the stability of your structure.  Maybe you look at property insurance to work like a support beam, to keep your home supported in case of an emergency.

If you measure before you build, and include a decent amount of architectural support, your plans will be a lot more solid.  Solid, in this case, means resistant to disruption.  So, a good plan will be able to weather things like a low paycheck, or an unforeseen expense.

Earth doesn’t move with intent, it moves with work.  You can’t just wish something was different.  You have to actually put your hands on it and expend physical energy to make Earth move.

Even if a rock is broken apart into thousands of tiny grains of sand, it’s still Earth, and still retains some of those properties.  And can actually function better than solid rock for some applications.

Earth facilitates growth, providing the structure for plants to grow, take in nutrients and water, and stand upright.  It can also hold water and allow mold and bacteria to grow in places you might not want.  So be mindful and intentional about the combination of Earth and Water.

If you’re looking at Earth as a metaphor for spiritual energy (or even tuning in with Earth as an elemental force), I think a lot of these things still apply.  Earth doesn’t like to move, so it’s great for structure or stability.  It takes work to move or change your spiritual beliefs or structures.  Earth tends to be heavy.  It also provides substance in which other spiritual practices can grow, or on which other things can rest.  So you might make daily meditation a “rock” on which you base the rest of your practices.  Or you might spend some time carving out a mythological belief system, which works to provide meaning and opportunity for your practice.

Dealing with unwanted Earth can be difficult.  One example is when physical objects impact the human body.  It can be annoying like a splinter, traumatic like a flying brick, or even deadly like a bullet.  It can be the unyielding Earth of a set of stairs you’re falling down, which bruise your body before they yield.  Since we live in the physical world, it’s helpful to have a mind for your physical safety when dealing with solid objects.

Final Thoughts

I feel like there’s a lot of Paganism that’s mostly in our heads.  That can be fantasy wish-fulfillment, like pretending fairies and dragons are really visiting you in person, or it could be imagining that running a group in which no one has to work or pay money is somehow feasible.

This article series is an attempt to get us out of our heads, and into the real world.  How do the Elements work if you’re a plumber?  Or a drywall installer?  Or a bank teller?  What can we do with different elements?  How do we manage them?

And it’s a reminder that we do live in a physical world.  And making changes often takes work, effort, time, money, or materials.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have any experiences with elemental Earth that you find relevant?  Please share in the comments!