No-Nonsense Paganism: Introduction

My very first public pagan ritual was a bit of a surprise.

I had been identifying as “Pagan” for almost a decade before I ventured to meet other Pagans in the flesh. I had learned about Paganism from Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, and Graham Harvey’s anthology, Paganism Today: Wiccans, Druids, the Goddess and Ancient Earth Traditions for the Twenty-First Century. So I had a certain vision of what I thought Paganism was: spiritually profound, intellectually nuanced, politically progressive, philosophically naturalistic, and competent in the execution.

What I discovered was something very different.

I remember sitting in a rented church hall. I remember the ritual leaders using a broom make of sticks to “cleanse” the ritual space. I remember a shabby little altar in the center of the circle, which no one did anything with. I remember a boring lecture on the meaning of “sabbat”. I remember holding hands in a circle and singing some corny song that apparently everyone else had already memorized. And I remember eating some dry, store-bought bread and drinking apple juice from a styrofoam cup.

I tried to keep an open mind at the time, but now I can say it: It was terrible.

And unfortunately, it wasn’t unusual, at least far as public Pagan rituals go.

If you try to learn about Paganism from practically any book that you find on the shelf at a bookstore (in the unlikely event you still have one of those near you), you’re going to come away with a hodgepodge of ideas and practices which come from Western esotericism, like “casting” circles and elemental correspondences, pseudoscientific talk about “energy”, New Agey paraphernalia like crystals and tarot cards, folksy arts-and-crafts like Brigid’s crosses and “put a pentagram on it” projects, “spells” that involve burning little pieces of paper with things written on them, a hodgepodge of hackneyed myths from around the world, mismatched etymological vestiges like Anglo-Saxon “Litha” and Gaelic “Lughnasadh”, and deliberate misspellings like “fairie” and “magick”. There will be very little internal cohesion, intellectually speaking, and very little connecting it to the actual earth, spiritually speaking.

If you try to learn about Paganism on the internet, you’re likely to find yourself down a rabbit hole of literalistic evangelical polytheism, π-in-the-sky chaos “magic”, or Sabrina-fandom teen witchcraft.

And if you go to a public Pagan festival or conference, you’ll get all of the above, plus Halloween witch costumes, fairy/pirate/BDSM cosplay, and nudism.

There is something really profound about paganism (I prefer to use small-p nowadays), buried though it is underneath decades of accretions of occultist make-believe, New Age sloppy thinking, adolescent rebelliousness, capitalist exploitation of all this, and any excuse to dress up like a goth fairy.

Mind you, I don’t necessarily have a problem with everything above. I think nudism can be fun and healing. I love dressing up. I think pop culture witchcraft shows can be entertaining. I am fascinated by tarot cards. I’m obsessed with mythology. And I have a weakness for etymological minutiae. But none of this–none of this–really has anything to do with paganism.

For the past 20 years, I’ve been trying to pare away at this mishmash to find its essence, and without throwing out the baby with the bathwater–neither of which is easy to do.

In this series, I want to share what I’ve found, or what I am still finding. Or better yet, how I am finding it. This won’t be me trying to tell you what to do on the solstices and equinoxes, but rather, how to think about what to do on the solstices and equinoxes, and all the days in between.

If you’re interested in Paganism as an aesthetic, as a way to look or feel edgy, you won’t find it here. If you’re interested in Paganism as an excuse to talk to imaginary friends or to learn how to do with “magic” things that you can’t do or are too afraid to do with your hands, you won’t find it here either.

If you’re interested in listening, really listening, to the place where you live, if you’re interested in cultivating your relationship with the more-than-human world in your neighborhood, if you’re interested in taking that instinctive feeling of wonder or gratitude at the sight of the first snow or the smell of burning leaves and turning it into a simple but powerful ritual, if you’re interested in celebrating being alive and just feeling more … human, then this will be a good place to start.

Welcome to no-nonsense paganism.

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