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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Pagan Novelist Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy


If you haven't read Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake yet, you should. (You can read my review of it here.)

Imagine that you've lost everything: your property, your possessions, your family, your culture itself, even your very gods. This is the tale that Kingsnorth tells in The Wake. The year is 1066.

In despair, the novel's protagonist, Buccmaster, calls to the Old Gods for succour.

And lo! one of the Old Gods hears: hears and and answers.

One of English literature's fresh new voices, Kingsnorth has been a lifelong eco-activist, though in recent years, despairing of the possibility of reversing the momentum of ecocide, he has come to refer to himself as a “recovering environmentalist”. (“Environmentalism is the catalytic convertor on the silver SUV of the global economy,” he wrote in a 2017 essay.)

He's also a pagan—or was. “Call me a heathen,” he writes in “In the Black Chamber,” his striking essay on the Palaeolithic art-cave at Niaux and the nature of the sacred, adding parenthetically, “I'd take it as a compliment.” His collection of Green Men watch him as he writes. For a while, he was active in Alexandrian Wicca. (English by birth, he now lives in Ireland where, as I gather, Alexandrians are thick on the ground.)

Hence my surprise (and disappointment) to learn that he was recently baptized into (of all things) the Romanian Orthodox Church.

(His baptism, aptly enough, took place in one of Ireland's sacred rivers, the River Shannon: a more “Nature”-adjacent initiation than anything that most pagan groups have on offer, I suspect.)

“In 2020, as the world was turned upside down, so was I. Unexpectedly, and initially against my will, I found myself being pulled determinedly towards Christianity,” he said. “I started the year as an eclectic neo-pagan with a long-held, unformed ache in my heart, and ended it a practicing Christian.”

There, he found, the “ache” was “gone and replaced by the thing that, all along, I turned out to have been looking for.”

My heart hurts to hear his words, but I understand them.

Organized religion has a lot to offer that (let's be frank here) the paganisms mostly don't: stability, depth, commitment to community, a sense of continuity.

But in Kingsnorth's case, I suspect that the roots run even more deeply.

As virtually his entire corpus of writing makes clear, Kingsnorth has long sought a religion of “Nature”: a spirituality that connects him with the rest of the living world, a way of life premised on the notion that we, and every other living being out there, are all kin.

(Nature, as Kingsnorth notes frequently, is a problematic term, but I'll use it here because—as he also notes—there's no ready substitute to put in its place.)

That's where the new paganisms mostly fail. They aspire to be religions of “Nature,” and for this reason many are drawn to them, but in reality they very rarely live up to that aspiration. Mostly, I suspect, pagans get our herbs from the store, and couldn't identify half of them if we came across them in the woods. How many pagans could identify the 20 most common trees native to their area, or the 20 most common local birds by their songs? Can you tell an aspen from a cottonwood, or a red maple from a sugar maple? How many pagans, for all their astrology, could actually identify the Archer or the Scales in the night sky?

The only real pagans are those of Here and Now. As long as we're people of Long Ago and Far Away, we'll never be the pagans that our time and place need us to be, and too many of our best and brightest—as here—will leave because we haven't lived up to our claims.

Hail and farewell, Paul Kingsnorth: the Sun and Moon on your path. Still, my heart tells me that we may not have seen the last of you just yet. Tribe, after all, is tribe.

The Green Men are still watching.



Please, please, please read “The Old Yoke”, Kingsnorth's scintillating little essay on the Green Man.

You can find it in his 2017 collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays.




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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.


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