All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.

For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.

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Gus diZerega

Gus diZerega

Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.
Rethinking spiritual legitimacy among Pagans

 

Recently there was a dust-up on a British Traditional Wiccan thread I often read: people debated who is or is not a genuine Gardnerian or British Traditional Wiccan. Questions about legitimacy have long been controversies due to these traditions’ concern for lineage and practice. Whenever they do, it seems some Pagans were conflicted, worrying perhaps their own groups and contact with their deities was somehow inadequate compared to others

This online commotion reminded me of other discussions of Pagan legitimacy. This insecurity is not just a BTW disease.

Consider two more examples.

The Pomegranate  began as a magazine offering serious Pagan thinkers and scholars an outlet for their writings. Some important stuff appeared there and some fascinating debates took place.  It made a major contribution to our broader community.  But in time its editor wanted to turn the magazine into an academic journal. I argued against it for the following reasons:

1. It would become too expensive for most Pagans to read. 

2. It would eliminate contributions that fit a Pagan spirituality but not an academic format. Such as poems.

3. It would let academic fields determine what was important.

My and similar advice from others was ignored.

Now, at $90.00 annually,  the Pomegranate is unavailable to most who aren't rich or have easy access to a university library that subscribes. I haven't read it in years. I am confident the Pom encourages greater respect for Pagan academics in academia, but it has little impact on our own community.

Finally, there has been a recent upwelling of essentially theological criteria as to who is or is not a Pagan or a polytheist. These arguments can be interesting, but to my mind their importance to Pagan practice is way over blown.  These questions are of great importance to monotheistic styles of thinking, but as I explained, not to oursI want to push this argument further to question how so many of us think about 'legitimacy.'  

In Whose Eyes?

Our broader culture does not seek religious legitimacy through our personal relations with Spirit and our fellow practitioners. It must first be filtered through sacred texts and often also authorities independent from us. It predisposes us to subordinate our experience to others’ judgments, even others thousands of years dead. It subjects us to attitudes and standards derived from religious traditions with assumptions that are very different from ours.

Scriptural traditions root legitimacy in some text that is supposedly without error.  But in every case these traditions fight and splinter because they cannot agree as to what is said within those pages of inspired writ. Often they end up killing one another. Making a text a final authority does not end discord and probably even increases it since all believe they alone have “the truth.”

To return to the controversy that began this piece: the Gardnerian Book of Shadows is treated by some Gardnerian Pagans as a kind of sacred text. Long and sometimes vitriolic arguments have taken place as to what is truly in keeping with ‘real’ Gardnerian Wicca, arguments made all the more intractable because there are several versions of the BOS, from Gerald Gardner’s early involvement until his death.

I have been told somewhat similar sentiments are heard from some regarding the Spiral Dance. And there are various publications using the name “Witches’ Bible.” Some are good books grotesquely misnamed. 

Scriptural issues and styles of thinking are polluting (to) a religious tradition without a sacred scripture.  Books of Shadows have never claimed the authority of a sacred text.  In the online controversy I mentioned one informed commentator wrote “The first words in the earliest BoS's - words predating Gardner - read: ‘Keep this book in your own hand of write, Let Brothers & Sisters copy what they will...’”

It is inevitable that such a text would change over the years with some new material being added, old material disappearing, and different BOSs developing along independent lines gradually becoming more and more different from one another. A phenomenon that would destroy a scripturally rooted tradition is deliberately encouraged in Wicca.

We encounter similar confusions about legitimacy among some reconstructionists who reason that unlike Wicca, their practices have genuine roots in pre-Christian Pagan practice. Supposedly Wicca was cobbled together by Gerald Gardner whereas theirs is not. NonGardnerian forms of Wicca are supposedly even less grounded in spiritual reality.

This claim isn’t valid. First, and least important for my ultimate argument, Wicca has very old roots even if not, as some once imagined, to the “Old Religion” of pre-Christian Europe. It’s grounding in a mix of ancient occult traditions and folk practices is quite real.

More importantly, no one quite knows in detail what used to happen in the old ethnic traditions now being reconstructed. Folklore, occasional surviving works like the Eddas, and accounts by Roman or other writers give important information, but these hints are limited because we no longer know the context within they originally existed.

To give one important example, the Eleusinian Mysteries were the most famous mystery religion in Classical Greece and virtually every important classical thinker was thought to be an initiate. Despite many ancient references we do not know in detail what happened in them. We are reduced to reading secondary sources.

As we know from comparing modern observers, different people reporting on the same event often produce different descriptions, especially if they report as outsiders.   This tendency helps keep historians in business. Apuleius gives important information about beliefs in his time, but his is only one description, an Isis-centric one. 

Second, some and likely all old traditions destroyed by Christian suppression had extensive oral lore, especially if they had initiatory dimensions. The Pagan Celts wrote nothing down about their practices. What we know of them comes from old poems written down by Christian monks centuries after Celtic Paganism died out at least in public,  Romuva, the reconstructionist tradition with the strongest claim to historical continuity, has had to rely on folklore to help connect their present practices with what happened in the past.  And valuable as folklore is, it has been preserved in a Christianized context where those doing research must exercise very fallible judgment as to what is genuinely old, what a newer accretion, and what its original context was. 

Reconstructionists do the best they possibly can to revive the religions of their ancestors, but they can never be sure they discovered what was known in a tradition of unbroken lineages extending for centuries if not millennia. In fact they can be pretty sure they haven’t.  At most they will have created a tradition carrying important elements of the old into the modern age.  And this is very good.

Third, judging from Native American examples I will discuss below, even within a tradition or a practice there were probably significant regional variations.  There was never “one right way,” Variety with a common theme seems to have been the real pattern. 

Today “Squat,” a commonly invoked Pagan God of parking has different characteristics and different preferences in different places. And I, for one, find Squat a wonderful force to have on my side. But I am more intrigued than bothered when a Pagan in a different region describes Squat differently.  They even make different kinds of offerings than I was taught to.  But the key question is not “Who gets Squat right?”

Tradition and Lineage

But what then makes a tradition? I would suggest lineage is about all that can do the job, and the contents within lineages change all the time.  Let me illustrate with a hopefully no-ncontroversial example from some native American religions. Ritual dances are central to the traditional practice of many tribes.  The Sun Dance is the most famous example, but there are many others.  However, when given the dance by another tribe (the legitimate way to receive a practice is to be given it) the gifted tribes would then modify both it and its meaning, if they choose.

This flexibility within respect and legitimacy seems to have involved more than sacred dances.  I was once told by a Crow Sun Dance priest “Gus, if I taught you how to conduct sweats (lodges), there would come a time when you changed it.”

I waited for a criticism of Euro-American’s lack of respect for Indian religion. It never came.

             He added “And that is how you make it yours.”

To master a practice you must be able to make it yours, though just how you do that, and even if you do that, is your call.

Using this example, we can describe lineages of a Pagan tradition, such as Gardnerian Wicca as family trees. But we misunderstand it if we expect the lineage to reproduce the same practice in detail across generations of practitioners.

The Source of Legitimacy

Legitimacy for Pagan religion arises out of practice, not text or hierarchy or dogma. Most briefly:  does a Pagan practice contribute to our ability to relate with the animate world, with deities or spirits?  If it does, it is legitimate because it is accepted by the only parties that matter: the Gods and the people dealing with Them. If the Gods or other entities do not participate we may be doing effective psychodrama, we may be celebrating the beauty and wonder of the world, or conducting a moving play but this does not demonstrate a relationship with the More-than-human beyond possible wonder and appreciation.

These are good things, do not misunderstand me. But in general Pagan religions historically, and certainly in traditional Wicca, have involved at least altered states of consciousness opening us to other realities, and often to direct experience with deities or the Sacred.

My first and still most overwhelming deity experience was at a NROOGD Midsummer Sabbat in Berkeley, California.  After my encounter with Her there was no doubt in my mind the Gods were real, that they interacted with people, and that my life was forever changed.  That NROOGD was a tradition rooted in a college class some years previously and some books by various authors was irrelevant.  

A tradition grows from the accumulation of experience among its members and its most gifted members passing on their knowledge to others, so that it grows in depth as well as width.  It is passed on by example and experience. My most powerful shamanic teacher once said he could teach everything he could put into words in a weekend, but taught that way it would be useless.  It takes time to develop the experience and the relationships to cement the connections needed for this kind of practice. That is one of the strengths of small groups, such as covens, over large rituals or being a solitary.

Modern America makes this kind of deepening difficult. NROOGD has shrunk in numbers of late and may or may not long survive.  But from a Pagan perspective the deities and other powers are always there, always available if sincerely sought.

If Gardnerian Wicca has any religious advantages over NROOGD, to my mind it is only because it incorporates a greater degree of wisdom and practice from Western occult traditions.  In one form or other it addresses every dimension of living life on this earth.  It has incorporated more depth of experience, having been around much longer. But NROOGD has the same potential.

If the Goddess or other deities appear in our rituals and workings, do we not insult Them when we wonder whether we are truly “legitimate?” What does it say about us if we seek assurances from other religions or scholars while ignoring our own experience?  We may still have much to learn (we always have much to learn), and much to learn from other traditions, but the issue of legitimacy should concern only ourselves and our deities.

 

 

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis says #
    Gus, thank you for this sane article. Some information that you may or may not have, and that supports your premise: I imagine yo
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    Thanks for you comment, Francesca. Yes, I've met Fred and corresponded with him a little bit. I don't know him very well, but he i
  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis says #
    Oh, how I love an articulate nuanced reply! The teacher's role in both the short and longterm in the matters we're discussing is
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    The pleasure is mutual Francesca. And thanks for passing on that tid-bit from Fred.
  • paul mienie
    paul mienie says #
    Yes indeed....the change maybe a little or a lot , whatever you will have needed, you will have got.....lol, THE PATH IS NOT CLEAR

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Social Justice: A Pagan Perspective

I gave a keynote talk at the Conference of Current Pagan Studies January 23 on viewing social justice from a Pagan perspective. It went well and while the paper it was based on is much too long for a normal blog post, I have made it available as an article on my web page. After a discussion of social justice at a more abstract level, I end with exploring issues of Nature and race.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    Thanks Erin...Fixed!
  • Erin
    Erin says #
    I click the link and it says the webpage can't be found. I really want to read this. Please fix.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
The Reality of Magick

 

I was reading my latest issue of Witches and Pagans and came across Michael Greer’s excellent piece on magick and the NeoPagan community. This was the first time I had read about how some busybodies were making themselves obnoxious by attacking the reality of magick. While Greer did a good job of putting these folks in their place, I want to add a personal note.

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Pagans at the Parliament of the World's Religions

 

Trying to describe the Parliament of World Religions in a short article is like trying to describe the biological abundance of a rainforest in a similar way.  It is impossible.  It was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life.  That said, perhaps I can focus more narrowly here on what it meant for we NeoPagans in general.  For at least three reasons Salt Lake City’s Parliament of the World’s Religions was an important event for us and for Pagans worldwide.

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Celebrate Wildness: the Feraferia Path.

 

For many older Pagans, the personal roots of our practice lie within the ‘counterculture’ of the 60s and 70s. New spiritual winds were then blowing across the desiccated body of American religion, which for many of us had withered into beliefs rooted in fear and habit. On a mass level questions of right livelihood first began challenging the American Dream of more things and more money - and many of us accepted alternative visions to a greater or lesser degree. Across the country efforts to make real greater equality and respect between the sexes, affirmation of different cultures and ways of life, and enhanced love for the natural world, transforming many lives. Many were drawn to seeking and sometimes encountering the Divine Feminine.

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Deborah Ann Light

Deborah Ann Light died July 22 of cancer.  I had the privilege of knowing her for some years, but never closely.  Don Frew, a mutual good friend has written a wonderful remembrance and honoring of her life that I think many pagans will find of value.  She was a wonderful woman, and the Summerland has been blessed with her presence even if we here will miss her. Here is what Don sent to a number of us, which I reproduce with his permission:

Dear Spirituality & the Earth CC members.

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A Fourth of July 4th meditation on patriotism

Here in Sebastopol, where I live, someone loves driving around in his pick-up with a huge American flag attached to its bed.  So far as I know he does it every day. I suppose he is making a statement about his patriotism.  Every week on the main corner here in town for years two groups face off, one loudly “supporting our troops” the other more quietly supporting peace.  The first waves flags and to my mind, sadly the second group generally does not, giving the first a visual advantage they do not deserve.  

Among people with more progressive sympathies patriotism has gotten a bit of a bad rap by being equated with those who talk the most aggressively about it, and shove their views in everyone’s face.  It’s rather like religion getting a bad rap because of the excesses of those who make the most noise about it.   I think this is too bad.  Patriotism is a complicated emotion and a complicated commitment, but it is very real for most of us.

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