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.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

The Man Who Loved the Goddess

In this season of the ancestors, I remember W[illiam] Holman Keith (1900-1993), the Baptist minister who fell in love with the Goddess and so became one of the pioneers of the New Paganism in the United States.

From the jacket of his book Divinity as the Eternal Feminine, the first (1960!) American book of self-consciously pagan theology:

W. Holman Keith, born June 11, 1900 at Vincennes, Indiana, began his “pilgrimage of faith,” to use his own words, with evangelical Christian Protestantism. After taking a BA degree at Franklin College...he went on to earn the degrees of Bachelor of Divinity and Master of Systematic Theology at Newton Theological Institution...and an MA in Theology at the University of Chicago. His subsequent career included two brief pastorates at Baptist churches in Massachusetts and New York. However, he writes, “I was progressively disillusioned in the two theological schools I attended,” and he subsequently abandoned his vocation as a minister. His search for faith “at last found its haven in a small chapel in West Hempstead, Long Island, New York, known as the Church of Aphrodite, of which the Rev. Gleb Botkin was the founder, and the priest of Aphrodite.

Presently, the author writes, “the challenge of this truth commands all my loyalties of mind, heart, and will.

And so it would be to the very end of his life.

Gleb Botkin (1900-1969), Keith's mentor and himself a remarkable man, was the youngest (and only surviving) son of the last tsar's personal physician. After his father was executed along with the Romanov family in 1917, Botkin briefly considered a vocation as a Russian Orthodox monk, but eventually married and fled (via Japan) to the United States, where he became a successful writer and illustrator. A lifelong supporter of the claims of Anna Anderson to be Anastasia Romanov, the tsar's youngest daughter,* he founded America's first legally-recognized pagan temple, the Long Island Church of Aphrodite, in 1938. ("It's better than worshipping Mary Baker Eddy," quipped the judge who granted the church its legal recognition.)

 

It was what Keith had been searching for. He joined the Church and in 1960 published Divinity as the Eternal Feminine, in which he argues that patriarchy and its father gods have failed, and can only realistically be supplanted by a resurgence of matriarchy, the Mother Goddess, and her religion of Love.

Divinity very much reflects Botkin's central focus on the Goddess of Love—Botkin's conception of Aphrodite was in fact an exclusive monotheism—but Keith was soon to fall out with his friend and mentor over theological issues, and in fact this ground-breaking work of new pagan theology shows him actively moving toward the inclusive Goddess monotheism that would characterize his later thought.

Keith moved to the West Coast, where he met Frederick Adams and mentored the founding of the now- legendary Feraferia, legally chartered in 1967. By 1969 Keith was leading what he called the “Neo-Dianic Faith”— clearly we see here Margaret Murray's influence—from his apartment in LA, and in that year he became one of the original signatories to the short-lived but influential Council of Themis. After the Council's implosion due to internal bickering, in 1975 Keith signed the founding charter of Covenant of the Goddess, which still exists today. In 1983 Keith and his Neo-Dianic Faith were listed in James V. Geisendorfer's exhaustive Religion in America: A Directory.

W. Holman Keith was to become something of a senior spokesman for the newly emergent American paganisms of the 1970s and 80s, and published widely—if not, admittedly, particularly influentially—in the pagan press of the day. In 1971 he wrote in Green Egg magazine:

The neo-Dianic religion—Aphrodisian, Feraferian, Wiccan—in claiming an indispensable truth and message for our time and crisis, is seeking to awaken the modern mind to a glory of the Divine that is lost to our orthodox religious thought. The complete routing of the Goddess truth in the three great monotheism[s]...made its eventual and triumphant return all the more inevitable. And the living Goddess will mean more in this day of desperate coming to grips with life and reality than in pre-Christian Paganism.

He boldly concludes, in capitals:

GOD IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE GODDESS!

Keith lived long enough to see the Return of the Goddess that he had hoped for all his life, but not, alas, long enough to receive the recognition that his pioneering work so deserved. He died, nearly penniless, in Los Angeles in 1996. His magnus opus and intended sequel to Divinity, The Mysterium Tremendum, has never been published.

I myself first encountered Keith's work in a roundabout way. During my freshman year in college, my French teacher, overjoyed to discover a fellow admirer of the Goddess (he called himself a “gynolator”), lent me his copy of Divinity, and we spent long hours discussing it. The book impressed me then with its clear-sightedness and intellectual courage, and it still does.

Fifty-five years after its publication, Divinity as the Eternal Feminine continues to read prophetically, even shockingly. The rise of women's power, the cultural “feminization” of men, and widespread general acceptance of same-sex love were all things that he foresaw and predicted. If all acts of love and pleasure are indeed Her rituals, he concluded, this must also of necessity include such acts (when consensual) as incest and sex between adults and adolescents. A religion of love, he acknowledged, must necessarily be premised on polarity; but, he warned, the polarity of Male and Female must never be allowed to blind us to polarity in other forms, a trap into which Wicca (in particular) has all too often fallen.

In this season of the ancestors, I remember W. Holman Keith, pioneer and prophet.

You I remember, O lover of the Lady of Love, and to you I pour.


*Clearly pagans have an instinctive (if quixotic) sympathy for lost causes; I note with amusement a predilection for Jacobite thought among certain Old Craft writers. This makes, of course, admirable sense: surely in the West, paganism is the veritable Great Mother of all Lost Causes.

 

W. Holman Keith, Divinity as the Eternal Feminine (1960). Pageant Press. 

_____, “The Rising Tide of Pagan Tradition” in Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, ed., Green Egg Omelette (2009). New Page Books.

 

Last modified on
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.

Comments

Additional information