Steel is tested and shaped on the anvil. Here, we try every Pagan idea on the anvil of history, hammered by insight and intellect, to forge a Pagan Future.

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Welcome Thinking Pagans!

This is the inaugural post of the new blog Arkadian Anvil.

For the last thirty years, my whole adult life, I have been living in and serving the US Pagan community. Since the early 1980s there has been a lot of change and growth in our community. The population has exploded, the literature has grown vastly, Pagan and Esoteric studies are now gaining acceptance by the academy. There is even a Pagan effort at a seminary.

When I completed my Golden Dawn education and became an adept of the tradition I realized that my education did not prepare me to care for members of our community spiritually, something I have felt called to do since childhood. To fix that I decided to go to seminary and studied at the University of Chicago and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, both while under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalists. Part of my motivation was to find work, or rather a livelihood, doing what I feel called to, namely serving the spiritual needs of a community. Sadly I was too Pagan for them and while they were willing to grant me a degree as a Master of Divinity, they were not about to hire me.<sigh>

However, the education was excellent. Liberal seminaries are very different from evangelical or even mainline ones. For instance, you are not taught theology in a Liberal seminary, you are taught how to DO theology, while learning a vast range of theologies that humans, mostly Christians, have previously created. In most seminaries what you learn is really just the answers to theological questions. Rather, I learned how to deconstruct theology, scripture, even the idea of religion itself and in so doing joined a rather small group of people who are engaged in the profound critique of religion that has been in process since the middle of the 1800s. Sadly, even though quite congenial for Pagans, we generally don't participate in the wider theological community since very few Pagans get seminary degrees, and even fewer become Masters of Divinity, the degree a minster would have. For me this was a problem in that no one 'spoke my language' when I graduated in 1993.

Without academic or ministerial job prospects, I decided to give up hope of support. Instead I found some employment, and returned to serving my local community, the Pagans of San Francisco Bay and environs. Priesting for Hermes, as I do, I was able to find IT work, even though I have no training in it (the advantage of working for the Lord of Information), and with my (now late) wife, Tara, bought a house with space for ritual. Over the next twenty years we built several communities and working groups and presented many rituals and workshops at our local festivals, Ancient Ways and PantheaCon. We even ran a festival, Twilight Gathering, for three years. Eventually, and quite by accident, I founded a Golden Dawn order (OSOGD.org) that has thrived since 2001.

<Grief> Death came to claim Tara, my wife of eighteen years, in 2008 after a futile and horrid struggle with brain cancer, to be followed by being laid-off two months to the day after her death. The loss of my partner ended futures long labored for. But inspired by a new and dear friend, I decided to return to the academy and study history. I have the tools of religious thought from seminary. Now I want the tools to understand the facts behind our Pagan history. Fortune was with me and I was accepted to study under the foremost historian of Paganism, Professor Ronald Hutton, Head of the Department of History and the University of Bristol, the third mostly highly rated university in England.

I mention these educational experiences not just to give my credentials but to explain why I am writing this blog. Over the years I have received several Wiccan or witchcraft initiations, and a Nath Hindu initiation. I've taken refuge in the Buddha and received many teachings and empowerments from amazing Lamas. I've been a member of the Caliphate O.T.O. since 1982, from back when Grady McMurtry was alive, and founded the Chthonic-Ouranian Ordo Templi Orientis (now Templars of Thelema in 1984 when he died). My Golden Dawn training ran from 1984 to 1989 in the order now headed by Chic Cicero. I was initiated a priest of Maat by Nema, 'taught' Chaos Magick by Fra PVN, trained in ritual, psychic skills and so much more by Oz Anderson, and learned from so many others. I've written numerous essays on our Way and been involved in both published and public conversations about Paganism and clergy, but mostly for the last twenty years I've served the local community, teaching our way and leading ritual.

But things have changed. Besides the prevalence of the Web that permits blogs like this to be, our community has changed and grown into the millions. Ideas common in the 1980s are lost or drowned in a sea of opinions. Skills commonly shared are forgotten. But worst of all is the lack of self-reflection and critical vision that has permitted the growth of ungrounded and unfounded ideas about who we are, where and when we came from, and what we are doing and thinking now.

Bucky Fuller said, if you see a job that needs doing and you want to do it, and no one else is doing it, that means it is your job to do. And so we begin. . .

In this blog we are going to take any and all ideas and practices that are called Pagan, Magic[k]al, Esoteric or Wiccan, and subject them to the anvil. Like a new-forged steel sword being slapped on the anvil to test its mettle, we will examine ideas like 'nature worship' or 'earth-centered', like 'elder' or 'Pagan leader', or even 'Goddess' or 'God' and see if they will hold up under the strain. My background gives me unique tools for doing this. My unique perspective gives me standpoints that are not common in our community that nonetheless will provide insight into what it is to be Pagan today.

So! Let's get started with the word 'Pagan', itself.

In 1999 I published "Why I call Myself Pagan" in Reclaiming Quarterly #3. (It is also available at http://hermetic.com/webster/why-pagan.html) This is another take some thirteen years later.

I (still) call myself Pagan. I despise the term Neo-Pagan since there is no culture previous to ours that called itself Pagan. They were Hellenes (Greek), Romans, Khemitic (Egyptian), Gauls, Franks, etc, etc, etc. No one called themselves 'Pagan' or 'pagan'.

My best knowledge says that Pagan was a term originally used as slang by members of the Roman Legions to designate those who did not serve in the military. It was adopted by Christians, probably those who were in the Roman military, to designate those not in the Army of Christ, other wise known as atheists, I mean Galaleans, I mean Christians.

I would like to know the first person who used the term Pagan as a positive term rather than an insult. It might have occurred during the Florentine Renaissance when Plato, the NeoPlatonists, the Orphica, Hermetica, and many other ancient texts were found and translated into European tongues. While we can find no real break in the use of magic, it is in the recovery of the ancient Theurgic tradition that the contemporary Pagan movement finds its origins. The magic of that day had all gone Christian. But, Ficino, Pico, Agrippa all knew the origins of the practices that they espoused and which will become the basis for what we do today.

Please note that I capitalize the name of my religion: Pagan. Some folks use lower case 'pagan' generally, which is just insulting. (Trying writing 'christian' and see how folks react.) Some folks use 'pagan' to designate the set of non-Christian or non-Abrahamic religions, or the religions of the ancient world. (Prof. Hutton uses this approach.) I think this is inappropriate and leads to a distorted understanding of the past. There is no one thing that can be designated non-Christian or non-Abrahamic, as though all other religions than they are the same. Lumping them all together does violence to the facts and is disrespectful to the huge array of religions outside the (very small) box that is the Abrahamic world. But it is customary today, much like certain racial epithets used to be.

There is another problem with the globalization of the term Pagan. It make us (real Pagans) think we are like other traditional religions like the Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist traditions, or the indigenous cultures like the Shuar, Cherokee, or Yoruba, among so many others. We are not.

Do you think the Earth is the center of the Universe?
Do you think diseases are caused by germs and viruses?
Do you know about more elements than four (or five)?
Has the scientific revolution touched you?
Do you think democracy is a good idea?

In traditional and indigenous society the valences of the above questions are reversed and we are in no position to go back to them. (Everyone in the room who is still alive because of antibiotics, raise your hand). In fact, these ideas are so important that traditional and indigenous societies are adopting them and adjusting themselves accordingly. Good for them, but these ideas are *native* to us. We figured them out, for the most part, and they changed us permanently.

It was in the milieu of these ideas that what we are arose. We took on the opprobrious name once used to condemn and wear it proudly: Pagan. But what we are is an entirely modern or post-modern phenomena. While we look to the past for wisdom and the knowledge of the old ways of worship and magic, we are a new people making a new religion of it. (PS: we'll talk about religion and spirituality (and magick!) themselves another day.)

This new thing, Pagan, has gone though many changes since the 1980s, never mind the 1500s. In our expansion, we specialized into various forms. Some are efforts at rebuilding ancient cultural practices. But most central seems to be the new duo-theism of Wicca. Amongst the most extreme are the Thelemites (like me) and the Dianics (like my late wife), each for their own good reasons. Some will include and others exclude the Magicians or Magi, the [Neo-]Shamans, Chaotes, and many other flavors of practice. My tendencies are inclusive.

What is important about the term Pagan is simple. It is the name for the large set of newly developed religious populations that draw on and are continually developing the stream of spiritual practice called magic today. Our community is now fracturing, but in the 1980s, it was as Pagans that we all came together.

While I have no desire to restrict anyone from crafting a name for themselves and their way, I have a very deep concern that we keep the name Pagan as the 'big tent' we can all be in together. We need a term of solidarity wherein we can come together in our uniqueness while preserving our diversity.

It is simple, if we don't all hang together, we will all hang separately.

So, what do you think of all that?
Please comment as you will, below. But, remember a few things:

1) I am a Thelemite, no matter how certain I am that I am right, that in no way means I think I have the right to tell you what to think or say or do. You can only do your will.

2) I am likely to offend you if you don't like Sacred Cow BBQ. I think they taste the best grilled, but you can bring your own tofu.

3) You are not alone when you post here. There are real people who read your posts and so it is a requirement that all discourse on this blog be civil, under the pain of banishment. All else is fair play.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.

Comments

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Sunday, 13 January 2013

    Apuleius, you are reading into my work what you want to see. Nothing I've written denies the contributions of ancient or indigenous cultures. How else would we have gotten here? How about taking the time to understand what I've written and then argue, if you need to, with that? It is fascinating how much energy this stirrs up in you. But it would be a lot more interesting if you were discussing my thesis. However, you are not.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Sunday, 13 January 2013

    I think I smell Barbeque. . . .

  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson Saturday, 12 January 2013

    You may imagine, if you want, that I disagree only because I don't understand. But if that is your only thought, you miss a chance to refine your ideas and their presentation.

    You switched from a comparison between modern indigenous or polytheist cultures, and the dominant post-Enlightenment culture of the first world, to a comparison between the latter and its historical antecedents, based on changes in material culture, to disabuse us of the idea that we can just do what the ancients did. Presumably because we understand we can't instantly become Cherokee [if we were not already] or Hindu, etc.; therefore, we can't have the same "religion" as bronze-age Hellenes or Dumnoni. That may be a good point, if any of your readers are so naive as to think they are doing exactly so. I don't think that, nor do I find it problematic. Hell, I couldn't even turn into a passable Yankee after living in Massachusetts for 22 years; doesn't mean I couldn't participate in group spiritual practices there. Once I got past the language barrier, and fixed up my wardrobe so as not to be stared at, I could have a great time discussing and doing magic and science with Thabit ibn Qurra. I'd be more likely to find the food disqualifying than anything mental or spiritual.

    You, I, and Heraclitus teach that we don't step in the same river twice. Very well; but some rivers run in the same course in the same place for many millennia.

    The category errors in your examples, I already detailed. It only takes a little digging into the deep mind (much less than you yourself have done) to see that our psychology is much more archaic than our material culture. For example, I learned in school that the Universe, a space-time continuum, is finite yet unbounded, and that there is no one canonical reference frame: so while the Earth is no worse a candidate for Kosmoskentrum than any other, it is also no better (but wait, perhaps I cannot use that? I graduated half a lifetime ago and was certainly not the same person). My psyche had already latched on to the view that Earth is the foundation of the Cosmos, and the phenomena of the Heavens occur (for my benefit, of course!) on the screen of the welkin.

    I find it valuable to be able to see it both ways, but we're all (probably) quite unable to completely unlearn the first one.

    The idea that we are essentially or psychologically defined solely by our material culture is a hypothesis that probably will not stand up to much wear and tear; certainly it won't handle being whacked against an anvil.

    To practice Magic, to be Priests of "ancient" Gods, and so on, while uncritically accepting the assumptions of our dominant culture, is untenable. The paradigm we are being fed is anti-spiritual and anti-idealist. Being Pagan in the first place is inherently counter-cultural, even if we drop some of the wilder practices.

    You might say that was a good topic for another post. Good, do it! I already did my equivalent.

    I see why you say the intent of the "valences" comment wasn't ethnocentric, and there's nothing to be gained by belaboring it.

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