“Religious morals, in a healthy society, are best enforced by drums, moonlight, f[e]asting, masks, flowers, divine possession.”
— Robert Graves, “Food for Centaurs”
I’ve been to my share of public Pagan rituals in the last decade or so. The vast majority have ranged from disappointing to excruciating affairs. (See “Gods Save Us from Bad Pagan Rituals: 10 Signs You’re Half-Assing Your Mabon Ritual” and “Lowered Expectations Is Not the Answer to Bad Pagan Rituals”.)
I have been fortunate to have participated in some notable exceptions. I think Reclaiming rituals tend to be on the better end of the spectrum. I would attend any ritual led by Thorn Coyle or Shauna Aura Knight. The Kali Puja which Chandra Alexandre and Sharanya led at Pantheacon is truly exceptional.
But the absolute best pagan ritualist I have ever met is Steven Posch. So, I was very excited to receive Steven’s invitation to the Grand Sabbat held at Sweetwood Temenos in Southwest Wisconsin this past weekend. It was not a festival, at least not like others I have attended. There were no workshops, for example. Rather, it was tribal gathering, a gathering of the Tribe of Witches.
Let me say this about the Tribe: They are serious pagans. And by “serious”, I don’t mean solemn. I mean they weren’t playing at being pagan; they were living it. Paganism, for them, seemed less a matter of dressing up (though, of course, there were costumes) and more a matter stripping away (both literal and figurative).
Of course, there were varying degrees of participation among those gathered–both in the common sense of the word and in the special sense of the participation mystique. But my impression of those who were core of the Tribe was of their seriousness. As Posch has written, “There’s witches. And there’s witches.”
The culmination of the gathering was the Sabbat. I can honestly say that I have never participated in a pagan ritual like it. I wish I had had this experience fifteen years ago. (Of course, if I had, I would have been even less patient with all the bad “pagan” rituals I’ve attended since.) I was not sworn to secrecy. But the experience was so special, so sacred, I’m really not comfortable writing about it … at least not directly. I will say this: The Sabbat called to mind a quote from Carl Jung, which he expresses his hope that a revivified feeling for symbol and myth would transform Christianity back into a pagan religion and …
“transform Christ back into the soothsaying god of the vine, which he was, and in this way absorb those ecstatic instinctual forces of Christianity for the one purpose of making the cult and the sacred myth what they once were—a drunken feast of joy where man regained the ethos and holiness of an animal. That was the beauty and purpose of classical religion, which from God knows what temporary biological need has turned into a Misery Institute. Yet what infinite rapture and wantonness lie dormant in our religion, waiting to be led back into their true destination. A genuine and proper ethical development cannot abandon Christianity but … must bring to fruition its hymn of love, the agony and the ecstasy over the dying and resurgent god, the mystic power of the wine, the awesome anthropophagy of the Last Supper …
The emphasized parts of the quote above describe what I experienced at the Grand Sabbat, and that’s as specific as I’m going to get.
A lot of Pagans today are uncomfortable with any mention of Christianity in association with paganism, but Jung believed that, if you dig down deep enough into Christianity, you find paganism. For his part, Posch is explicit about the connection between Christianity and his paganism:
“… the Craft is a paganism that has arisen in response to Christianity. It is a paganism that has been wise enough to learn from, and to be changed by, Christianity. This is a paganism that has had the audacity–and the courage–to absorb Christianity …”
Posch has described witchcraft as a co-optation, a subversion, of Christianity. While this may be a scandalous suggestion to many contemporary Pagans, it’s not a new idea.1 From Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière to the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.) of the 1970s, witchcraft has been understood as a form of rebellion.
Many Pagans today do their best to disassociate themselves from Christian stereotypes of pagans. But Posch embraces the stereotypes, at least as a place to start. And this weekend’s Grand Sabbat was, in many ways, the epitome of those stereotypes. It was a true witches’ sabbath (at least as I imagine it, before it was infected by the trappings of the Western esoteric tradition).
I know there will be some polytheists and reconstructionists will balk at the suggestion that a modern reaction to Christianity could be genuinely pagan.2 But when I say that the Grand Sabbat was genuine paganism, what I am talking about is the substance of paganism, not its ancient forms.3 By “substance”, I mean, not a set of beliefs (paganism isn’t really an -ism at all), or even a set of religious practices, but a relationship–a living, organic relationship with the world.
That organic relationship is our birthright as human beings. But two hundred years of capitalism and industrialism, three hundred years of Enlightenment4, two thousand years of Christianity, and five thousand years of patriarchy and civilization5, have all done their work, breaking the connection between us and nature, reducing nature to commodity, resource, object, and something degenerate and inferior. To be pagan today is to try to reclaim the “original relation” (Emerson) with the world.
Another way of saying this is: To be pagan is nothing more and nothing less than to be fully human, fully human in a more-than-human world. The alienating forces of Christianity etc. have divided us from ourselves, from each other, and from the more-than-human world. The work of being pagan today, then, is to reclaim our humanity. As Posch explains:
… “pagan” isn’t something that you convert to.
Pagan is what you already are.
Paganism is inherent in human experience. Everyone is born pagan.
Anything else, you have to be made into.
“Becoming” pagan, then, is a process of recovering what’s already yours, yours by right.
To learn what it means to be fully human, then, we need to strip away the layers of that have accreted to our collective soul over the centuries. Christianity, yes, but also capitalism, industrialism, Enlightenment, patriarchy, and civilization. This is by no means an easy or a quick process.
One place to start is to look at very young children, although we are discovering that the process of socialization (including socialization to the forces of alienation) begins very earlier than we thought. Another place to start is look back to our ancestors, those who lived prior to the advent of the Christianity etc. The farther back we go, the closer we get to the real pagan deal.
Margaret Murray’s theory that medieval witchcraft was a “survival” from prehistoric times is rubbish, but she was onto something when she made the connection between Paleolithic religion and medieval witches. Both were “pagan”, in the sense in which Michael York has used the term: as a spontaneous, atavistic, human response to being in the world.
No secret knowledge has to be passed on orally through the centuries for paganism to survive, because we carry it in our flesh and blood, in our DNA. It is a function of our co-evolution as a part of the living world. We can be pagan again today because we live under the same sun on the same earth and feel the same wind blowing in our hair and the same rain falling on our skin. There are many differences, of course, between than and now, but at our most fundamental, we are still the same human beings we were ten thousand years ago.
What did it mean to be human in the Paleolithic? It just so happened that, as I was relaxing with a book in my campsite, I came across a quote by poet Gary Snyder in which he describes his values as those of the Upper Paleolithic:
“the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.”
And these were the very values which I saw on display this weekend at the gathering of the Witches’ Tribe. I had pretty much given up hope of finding any genuine paganism in the contemporary “Pagan” community. What I experienced this weekend was the closest I have ever found. I’m not saying the Grand Sabbat was the perfection of the pagan ideal, but it was a damn good start.
1Numerous academics, including Linda Woodhead, Jone Salomonsen, Joanne Pearson, and Michael York have all described contemporary witchcraft/Neo-paganism as a kind of reformation of Christianity. For example, Ronald Hutton has described the neo-pagan Horned God as the “paganization of the Christian Devil”. There’s good evidence that the Horned God is a Romantic/Modern re-paganization of medieval Christian Devil imagery, making the Horned God once removed from the Christian Devil, but twice removed from any ancient pagan horned god. Posch isn’t shy about the connection himself.
2The idea that we could escape two millennia of Christianity by mentally time traveling to the pre-Christian past is naive at best. We can never be pre-Christian again. At best, we can be post-Christian. As Posch writes, “the only pagans that we can honestly be is the pagans for our own time and place.”
3It should be noted that, much of what passes for reconstructionist paganism today is the reconstruction of the paganism of the polis. It is paganism after it has been civilized by city-dwelling literati.
4According to Horkheimer and Adorno, “the program of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world”.
“To the Enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion; modern positivism writes it off as literature. Unity is the slogan from Parmenides to Russell. The destruction of gods and qualities alike is insisted upon. …
“Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the increases of the power with alienation over that which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator towards men. He knows them insofar as he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things in so far as he can make them.”
— Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947)
5Derrick Jensen’s definition of civilization is “a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts—that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state).” In contrast, “pagan” comes from the Latin paganus, which meant a country dweller, one who does not live in the city.