Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Earth's Secret Name



A novel about the last of the Neanderthals, told from the Neanderthal perspective.

Now that's what I call a truly heroic leap of imagination.

Pagans will most likely know novelist William (Lord of the Flies) Golding (1911-1993) as name-giver to the Gaia Hypothesis—he and scientist James Lovelock were long-time friends, next-door neighbors, and drinking buddies—but let me tell you about a novel of his that's a little pagan gem.

In The Inheritors (1955), Golding tells the story of the last, doomed group of Neanderthals in Europe, and their disastrous and deadly encounter with a group of incoming Cro-Magnons.

(Back in the Paganolithic Era, we used to joke about how—our style being strictly mask, drum, and red ocher—if we were Wiccans, our trad must be Cro-Magnon.

(My friend Stephanie Fox once gibed about a scenario in which a big, burly guy approaches at Pagan Spirit Gathering one summer. “Hi, are you guys the Cro-Magnon Wicca people?” “That's us.” “Oh yeah? Well, we're the Neanderthal Wicca.” Wham!)

More: Golding tells their tale, as I said, from the perspective of the Neanderthals themselves.

It is, admittedly, no quick read. Golding's Neanderthal-think takes some deciphering,

Oh, but the pay-off is worth the work.

The story I'll leave to your own reading pleasure, but let me pass along to you one of the novel's shining treasures.

The great power in the Neanderthals' world—their goddess, although they don't call her that, of course—is Oa: Earth. (Their most sacred object of power—although, naturally, that's not how they would speak of it—is the little Oa, a pebble naturally-shaped like a fleshy, naked woman.)

Oa: a musical, primal name. Speak to Earth as Oa, think of her as Oa, and see what she tells you.

To Golding's Neanderthals, Oa is a being with whom they're on personal terms. Sometimes the theological language of gods and goddesses can get in the way, make distance, can unnecessarily complicate something that's really, at heart, very simple. Sometimes it's good to set the language aside and just get on with the relationship. Oa.


An old man named Mal dies. The band dig a hole under the place in the rock-shelter—one of their regular camps—where the fire burns. They lay his body there on its side, as if asleep, and strew handfuls of red ocher over him.

Oa be warm for you, Mal, they say.

They put a haunch of meat beside him.

Eat, Mal, when you are hungry, they say.

They pour handfuls of water from a nearby spring over his face.

Drink, Mal, when you are thirsty, they say.

Then they cover the body with earth.

Oa has taken Mal into her belly, they say.


Now that's a ritual. For honesty, purity, and sheer beauty, I challenge any modern pagan rite-maker to equal it.

Earth has many names, hers to her. Surely Oa is one of them.









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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Saturday, 26 June 2021

    Mr. Posch,

    That's beautiful!

  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Sunday, 27 June 2021

    Thanks for the recommendation. Another novel with the same premise is Bjorn Kurten's Dance of the Tiger, published in 1980 but written earlier.

    One Amazon reviewer writes -- and this rings true for me -- "What more could we ask? Written by a paleoanthropologist, with an introduction by Stephen Jay Gould - all while managing to be a truly compelling novel.
    The Whites (Neandertal) and Blacks (Cro Magnon) coexist in relative piece with, of course, exceptions. The major exception in this case is a pair of twins, each of whom calls himself "Shelk" (named for a huge elk-like creature) who makes war on the Neandertal (thought of as "Trolls").
    The book was published in 1980, predating the sentimental "Clan of the Cave Bear" (which owes much to this book). Kurten had access to all of the scientific thinking of the time, but he allowed himself to speculate as well. As a result, the Neandertal is a far more diverse and intelligent race than was portrayed before, and science in time proved Kurten right on all counts. Yes, there were blonde and red-headed Neandertal, and likely there were matriarchal clans.
    Kurten does a magnificent job incorporating the fauna and landscape, something with which most authors struggle. Is there anything more dull than, for example, lengthy descriptions of varieties of trees, or flocks of birds of which you have never heard? In Kurten's hands, the landscape is active, a friend and a foe, and birds become portents both good and evil. Not a line is wasted."

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