Pagan Paths: Reclaiming (Paganism 101 Ch. 13)

Photo Of Woman Sitting On Rock

Many pagans and witches are also political activists. Pagan values — such as respect for the planet and for non-human forms of life, belief in equality regardless of race or gender, and personal autonomy — often lead people to social or political action. However, as far as I know, there is only one pagan religion that has actually made this social activism one of its core tenets: Reclaiming. Reclaiming combines neopaganism with anarchist principles and social activism.

This post is not meant to be a complete introduction to Reclaiming. Instead, my goal here is to give you a taste of what Reclaiming practitioners believe and do, so you can decide for yourself if further research would be worth your time. In that spirit, I provide book recommendations at the end of this post.

History and Background

Given Reclaiming’s reputation as a social justice-oriented faith, it’s not surprising that it grew out of activist efforts. Reclaiming began with well-known pagan authors Starhawk and Diane Baker, who began teaching classes on modern witchcraft in California in the 1980s. Members of these classes began protesting and doing other activist work together, and this pagan activist group eventually grew into the Reclaiming Collective.

Out of the founders of Reclaiming, Starhawk has probably had the biggest influence on the tradition. Starhawk was initiated into the Feri tradition by its founder Victor Anderson, but had also been trained in Wicca and worked with figures such as Zsuzsanna Budapest (founder of Dianic Wicca). These Feri and Wiccan influences are clear in Starhawk’s books, such as The Spiral Dance, and have also helped shape the Reclaiming tradition.

Like Feri, Reclaiming is an ecstatic tradition that emphasizes the interconnected divinity of all things. Like Eclectic Wicca, Reclaiming is a non-initiatory religion (meaning anyone can join, regardless of training or experience level) with lots of room to customize and personalize your individual practice.

However, to say that Starhawk is the head of the Reclaiming tradition, or even to credit her as its sole founder, would be incorrect. As Reclaiming has grown and spread, it has become increasingly decentralized. Decisions are made by consensus (meaning the group must reach a unanimous decision) in small, individual communities, which author Irisanya Moon calls “cells.” Each cell has its own unique beliefs, practices, and requirements for members, stemming from Reclaiming’s core values (see below). Some of these cells may stick very closely to the kind of paganism Starhawk describes in her books, while others may look very, very different.

As with any other religion, there are times where a governing body is needed to make widespread changes to the system, such as changing core doctrine. When these situations do arise, each individual cell chooses a representative, who in turn serves as a voice for that cell in a gathering with other representatives from other cells. BIRCH (the Broad Intra-Reclaiming Council of Hubs) is an example of this.

At BIRCH meetings, representatives make decisions via consensus, the same way decisions are made in individual cells. While this means changes may take months or even years to be proposed, discussed, modified, and finally passed, it also means that everyone within the tradition is part of the decision-making process.

Core Beliefs and Values

Like Wicca, Reclaiming has very little dogma. Unlike Wicca, the Reclaiming Collective has a public statement of values that clearly and concisely lays out the essentials of what they believe and do. This document, which is called the Principles of Unity, is not very long, so I’m going to lay it out in its entirety here.

This is the most recent version of the Principles of Unity, taken from the Reclaiming Collective website in February 2021:

“The values of the Reclaiming tradition stem from our understanding that the earth is alive and all of life is sacred and interconnected. We see the Goddess as immanent in the earth’s cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration. Our practice arises from a deep, spiritual commitment to the earth, to healing and to the linking of magic with political action.

Each of us embodies the divine. Our ultimate spiritual authority is within, and we need no other person to interpret the sacred to us. We foster the questioning attitude, and honor intellectual, spiritual and creative freedom.

We are an evolving, dynamic tradition and proudly call ourselves Witches. Our diverse practices and experiences of the divine weave a tapestry of many different threads. We include those who honor Mysterious Ones, Goddesses, and Gods of myriad expressions, genders, and states of being, remembering that mystery goes beyond form. Our community rituals are participatory and ecstatic, celebrating the cycles of the seasons and our lives, and raising energy for personal, collective and earth healing.

We know that everyone can do the life-changing, world-renewing work of magic, the art of changing consciousness at will. We strive to teach and practice in ways that foster personal and collective empowerment, to model shared power and to open leadership roles to all. We make decisions by consensus, and balance individual autonomy with social responsibility.

Our tradition honors the wild, and calls for service to the earth and the community. We work in diverse ways, including nonviolent direct action, for all forms of justice: environmental, social, political, racial, gender and economic. We are an anti-racist tradition that strives to uplift and center BIPOC voices (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Our feminism includes a radical analysis of power, seeing all systems of oppression as interrelated, rooted in structures of domination and control.

We welcome all genders, all gender histories, all races, all ages and sexual orientations and all those differences of life situation, background, and ability that increase our diversity. We strive to make our public rituals and events accessible and safe. We try to balance the need to be justly compensated for our labor with our commitment to make our work available to people of all economic levels.

All living beings are worthy of respect. All are supported by the sacred elements of air, fire, water and earth. We work to create and sustain communities and cultures that embody our values, that can help to heal the wounds of the earth and her peoples, and that can sustain us and nurture future generations.”

The Principles of Unity were originally written in 1997, to create a sense of cohesion as the Reclaiming Collective grew and diversified. However, the Principles have not remained constant since the 1990s. They have been rewritten multiple times as the Reclaiming tradition has grown and the needs of its members have changed. Like everything else within the tradition, the Principles of Unity are not beyond scrutiny, critical analysis, and reform.

For example, in 2020 the wording of the Principles of Unity was changed to affirm diverse forms of social justice work — including but not limited to non-violent action — and to express a more firm anti-racist attitude that seeks to uplift BIPOC. This was a major change, as the previous version of the document explicitly called for non-violence and included a paraphrased version of the Rede (often called the Wiccan Rede), “Harm none, and do what you will.” This change was made via consensus by BIRCH, after a series of discussions about the meaning of non-violence and the need to make space for other types of activism.

Aside from the Principles of Unity, there are no hard and fast rules for Reclaiming belief. As Irisanya Moon says in her book on the tradition, “There is no typical Reclaiming Witch.”

Important Deities and Spirits

Just as with belief and values, views on deity within Reclaiming are extremely diverse. A member of this tradition might be a monist, a polytheist, a pantheist, an agnostic, or even a nontheist. (Note that nontheism is different from atheism — while atheism typically includes a rejection of religion, nontheism allows for meaningful religious experience without belief in a higher power.)

The Principles of Unity state that the Goddess is immanent in the earth’s cycles. For some, this means that the earth is a manifestation of the Great Goddess, the source of all life. For others, the Goddess is seen as a symbol that represents the interconnected nature of all life, rather than being literally understood as a personified deity. And, of course, there are many, many people whose views fall somewhere in between.

In her book The Spiral Dance, Starhawk points out that the deities we worship function as metaphors, allowing us to connect with that which cannot be comprehended in its entirety. “The symbols and attributes associated with the Goddess… engage us emotionally,” she says. “We know the Goddess is not the moon — but we still thrill to its light glinting through the branches. We know the Goddess is not a woman, but we respond with love as if She were, and so connect emotionally with all the abstract qualities behind the symbol.”

Here’s another quote from The Spiral Dance that sums up this view of deity: “I have spoken of the Goddess as a psychological symbol and also as manifest reality. She is both. She exists, and we create Her.”

In that book, Starhawk proposes a perspective on deity that combines Wiccan and Feri theology. Starhawk’s Goddess encompasses both the Star Goddess worshiped in Feri — God Herself, the divine source of all things — and the Wiccan Goddess — Earth Mother and Queen of the Moon. This Goddess’s consort, known as the God, is similar to the Wiccan God, but includes aspects of Feri deities like the Blue God.

For some, this model of deity is the basis of their practice, while others prefer to use other means to connect with That-Which-Cannot-Be-Known. Someone may consider themselves a part of Reclaiming and be a devotee of Aphrodite, or Thor, or Osiris, or any of countless other personified deities.

Reclaiming Practice

As I said earlier, Reclaiming began with classes in magic theory, and teaching and learning are still important parts of the tradition. The basic, entry-level course that most members of the tradition take is called Elements of Magic. In this class, students explore the five elements — air, fire, water, earth, and spirit — and how these elements relate to different aspects of Reclaiming practice. Though most members of the tradition will take the Elements of Magic class, this is not a requirement.

After completing Elements of Magic, Reclaiming pagans may or may not choose to take other classes, including but not limited to: the Iron Pentacle (mastering the five points of Sex, Pride, Self, Power, and Passion and bringing them into balance), Pearl Pentacle (mastering the points of Love, Law, Knowledge, Liberation/Power, and Wisdom and embodying these qualities in relationships with others), Rites of Passage (a class that focuses on initiation and rewriting your own narrative), and Communities (a class that teaches the skills necessary to work in a community, such as conflict resolution and ritual planning).

If you’ve read my post on the Feri tradition, you probably recognize the Iron and Pearl Pentacles. This is another example of how Feri has influenced Reclaiming.

Another place where the teaching/learning element of Reclaiming shows up is in Witchcamp. Witchcamp is an intensive spiritual retreat, typically held over a period of several days in a natural setting away from cities. (However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, some covens are now offering virtual Witchcamps). Because each Witchcamp is run by a different coven, with different teachers, there is a lot of variation in what they teach and what kind of work campers do.

Each individual camp has a main theme — some camps keep the same theme every time, while others choose a new theme each year. Some camps are adults-only, while others are family-oriented and welcome parents with children. Typically, campers will have several classes to choose from in the mornings and afternoons, with group rituals in the evenings.

Speaking of ritual, this brings us to another important part of Reclaiming practice: ecstatic ritual. The goal of most Reclaiming rituals is to connect with the divine by achieving a state of ecstasy.

Irisanya Moon says that Reclaiming rituals often use what she calls the “EIEIO” framework: Ecstatic (involving an altered state of consciousness — the transcendent ecstasy of touching the divine), Improvisational (though there may be a basic ritual outline, there is an openness to acting in the spirit of the moment), Ensemble (rituals are held in groups, often with rotating roles), Inspired (taking inspiration from mythology, personal experience, or current events), and Organic (developing naturally, even if that means going off-script). This framework is similar to the rituals Starhawk describes in her writing.

There are no officially recognized holidays in Reclaiming, but many members of the tradition celebrate the Wheel of the Year, similar to Wiccans. The most famous example of this is the annual Spiral Dance ritual held each Samhain in California, with smaller versions observed by covens around the world.

Further Reading

If you are interested in Reclaiming, I recommend starting with the book Reclaiming Witchcraft by Irisanya Moon. This is an excellent, short introduction to the tradition. After that, it’s probably worth checking out some of Starhawk’s work — I recommend starting with The Spiral Dance.

At this point, if you still feel like this is the right path for you, the next step I would recommend is to take the Elements of Magic class. If you live in a big city, it may be offered in-person near you — if not, look around online and see if you can find a virtual version. Accessibility is huge to Reclaiming pagans, and many teachers offer scholarships and price their classes on a sliding scale, so you should be able to find a class no matter what your budget is.

If you can’t find an Elements of Magic class, there is a book called Elements of Magic: Reclaiming Earth, Air, Fire, Water & Spirit, edited by Jane Meredith and Gede Parma, which provides lessons and activities from experienced teachers of the class. Teaching yourself is always going to be more difficult than learning from someone else, but it’s better than nothing!

Resources:

  • The Spiral Dance by Starhawk
  • Reclaiming Witchcraft by Irisanya Moon
  • The Reclaiming Collective website, reclaimingcollective.wordpress.com
  • cutewitch772 on YouTube (a member of the tradition who has several very informative videos on Reclaiming, told from an insider perspective)

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Pagan Paths: Feri (Paganism 101 Ch. 12)

Garden of Kama, 1914 - Byam Shaw

Feri (sometimes spelled Faery) is an American neopagan tradition. Like Traditional Wicca, Feri is an initiatory tradition but does not place any limitations on who can be initiated. Although the requirement for initiation makes this religion less easily accessible, Feri has had a huge influence on modern neopaganism, including influencing other (non-initiatory) traditions like Reclaiming. For that reason, I think it’s important that we discuss Feri as part of our ongoing exploration of modern paganism.

This post is not meant to be a complete introduction to Feri. Instead, my goal here is to give you a taste of what Feri practitioners believe and do, so you can decide for yourself if further research would be worth your time. In that spirit, I provide book recommendations at the end of this post.

History and Background

Feri was founded by Victor Anderson and his wife, Cora, in the United States in the 1960s. Like Gerald Gardner, Victor Anderson claimed not to have created his tradition, but to have been initiated into it and then later added to it. In Anderson’s case, he claimed to have been initiated into witchcraft by a faery when he was nine years old.

The Andersons called Feri “the Pictish Tradition” and claimed that it was originally the Craft of the “Little People” in Ireland and Scotland. Victor Anderson was also influenced by Vodou and Hawaiian indigenous spirituality, although his connections to these traditions (both of which are closed) is unclear. Some modern Feri practitioners have made efforts to distance their practice from these elements appropriated from closed cultures, but Feri remains a very eclectic tradition that encourages initiates to “use what works.” Because of this, no two Feri practices are exactly alike.

There is another, more mythologized account of the birth of Feri, shared by author and Feri warlock Storm Faerywolf in his book Betwixt & Between. (In this book, Faerywolf uses the spelling “Faery,” but he is a member of the tradition founded by the Andersons.) In this myth, a group of powerful spiritual beings known as the Watchers rebelled against a false god millennia ago and taught magic to mankind. These Watchers are the fae, and they intermarried with humans and are the origin of all magic traditions. As the story goes, it was one of these Watchers who initiated Victor Anderson into what would later become known as Feri.

Because Feri traces its origin back to these spiritual ancestors, initiation is an important part of the tradition. When someone is initiated, they are said to be made a part of this Feri lineage, similar to how newly baptized Christians are said to be made a part of Christ’s family. This means that, in order to truly practice Feri, you must find a Feri teacher to train and initiate you.

Over the decades since the Andersons founded their tradition, many different lineages of Feri have formed, each with their own unique approach. Some are more visible and more involved with the public, while others practice under strict secrecy. Many of the practices and beliefs that are common in modern Feri come from the Bloodrose lineage.

Core Beliefs and Values

In the words of Cora Anderson, “the Craft is about doing right by one another and loving everyone you see.” However, Feri does not have a universal moral code — there is no Feri equivalent to the Wiccan Rede. While love and kindness are highly valued, the Andersons did not differentiate between light and dark magic and encouraged their followers to use magic to defend themselves when necessary. (You may have noticed that, like in Wicca, magic is an integral part of Feri.)

The Feri Tradition teaches that every person has three souls, each with its own characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. These souls have different names in different lineages, but Faerywolf identifies them as the talker (the “mental soul” associated with the ego/personality), the fetch (the “animal soul” associated with the subconscious and the primal mind), and the holy daemon or god soul (the part of the self that comes directly from God Herself and is able to commune with gods and spirits as equals). Much of the work of Feri revolves around aligning these three souls into a fully realized whole.

Another important part of Feri philosophy is embodied by the symbols of the Iron and Pearl Pentacles.

Iron is a grounding metal, and contemplating the Iron Pentacle keeps practitioners grounded in their astral travel. Feri initiates not only invoke the Iron Pentacle, but seek to embody it by moving through each point on the pentacle and addressing any blocks or hangups in the associated area of their lives. The five points are sex, pride, self, power, and passion. When all five of these points are in balance, we are able to confidently and effectively work our magic in the world. For example, we should not be afraid of sex, but we shouldn’t be obsessed with it either; we should take pride in our accomplishments, but shouldn’t be too full of ourselves; you get the idea. An initiate who fully embodies the Iron Pentacle is fully centered in their own divine power, as well as their physical body.

The Pearl Pentacle is the compliment to the Iron Pentacle. While the Iron Pentacle is personal, the Pearl Pentacle is transpersonal — it represents the qualities needed to form healthy relationships with others. Some Feri practitioners believe that each point on the Pearl Pentacle represents the “higher form” of one of the points of the Iron Pentacle. In the words of Victor Anderson, “when taken together, the Iron and the Pearl embody the divine union that is necessary to fully awaken the awareness of our divine natures.”

The points of the Pearl Pentacle are: love (defined as a genuine desire for union; can be said to be the higher form of sex), law (as in, the natural laws that govern our universe and our actions; can be said to be the higher form of pride), knowledge (learning from lived experience; can be said to be the higher form of self), power (also a point on the Iron Pentacle — here, it refers to our ability to share power with others), and wisdom (the balance between logic and emotion, head and heart; can be said to be the higher form of passion). The way these points are taught, and their relationship to the Iron Pentacle, may be different in different Feri lineages.

Feri practitioners believe that, by embodying the Iron and Pearl Pentacles, they can achieve a state known as the Black Heart of Innocence, which is defined as “sexual innocence.” It can also be thought of as the innocent, untainted state of small children and animals. This is the natural state of human beings, before we are conditioned to be ashamed or afraid of our sexual impulses.

This brings us to a final point of Feri philosophy: in Feri sex is sacred, as it was through a sexual act that God Herself created the universe. As Faerywolf puts it, “sex is a sacrament in our tradition.” That doesn’t mean that all Feri rituals have a sexual component, but some of them might. Mostly, the sacredness of sex requires Feri practitioners to live in a healthy relationship with their nature as sexual beings.

Important Deities and Spirits

The central deity in Feri is called Star Goddess or simply God Herself. She is the androgynous source of all life, “having within Her all principles, powers, and potencies of Nature.” (Quote from The Heart of the Initiate by Victor and Cora Andersons.) Star Goddess is not only the source of the others Gods, but the source of all life, including humans.

According to the Feri creation myth, in the beginning, Star Goddess was alone in the cosmic void, until she came upon a reflection of her own light. She was so enamored that she made love to her own reflection, and from this act of self-pleasure gave birth to all things.

Star Goddess often appears as a black-skinned woman whose skin is dotted with stars. In ritual, she is often represented with a large black candle.

Nimüe is an aspect of Star Goddess, a maiden who represents the Black Heart of Innocence. She rules over new life, growth, and potential.

Nimüe may appear as a child or a young woman. She can be represented in ritual with flowers (especially pink or white flowers) or with a waxing crescent moon.

Mari is the Great Mother, Star Goddess as the embodiment of pure manifestation. She is associated with the earth, moon, sea, and sky — it is she who gives life and form to all things. The earth is said to be her body, and she is said to be “the spirit of every woman.”

Mari may appear a a pregnant woman. She can be represented in ritual with images of the earth, the moon, or of mothers.

The Hag, also known as the Crone, is the primal Dark Goddess and Queen of the Dead. She is the archetypal witch, but also a grandmother and wise woman. Some believe that it is to her we return when we die.

The Hag often appears as a wizened old woman. She can be represented in ritual with images of ravens and/or vultures, or with a silver sickle.

Star Goddess has two children and consorts, the Divine Twins. They are the personification of duality — light and dark, good and evil, spirit and matter, united in a balanced pair. They may appear as brother and sister, as two lovers of any combination of genders, or as mortal enemies.

The Twins may appear as the Scarlet Serpent and the Azure Dove, who represent the duality of fire/water and earth/air. In ritual, they are often represented with a matching set of candles, one red and one blue.

The Blue God, sometimes called the Peacock God, is born from the union of the Divine Twins — he contains within himself all duality and appears with a combination of male and female features. He is associated with the divine spark within all living things, including one of the three human souls, which Faerywolf calls the holy daemon. He is the god of opposites, and exists in a permanent liminal state. He contains within him both good and evil, beauty and darkness.

The Blue God may appear as a young, androgynous or hermaphroditic person with blue skin. In ritual, he is often represented with peacock feathers.

Krom, also known as the Horned God, is the god of fertility, light, and heat. He is sometimes described as the consort of the Goddess as Mari. He is God as father and lover and is overtly sexual in nature. He has solar associations, but is also the lord of the harvest.

Krom may appear as a man with the head of a stag, glowing with the sun’s warmth. He can be represented in ritual with images of stags, bulls, phalluses, or the sun.

The Arddu (pronounced “ar-THEE”) or the Dark God is described as the “crone aspect of the God.” He is the god of witches, the king of the dead, and the spirit of winter. It is said that when we die, we must confront the Arddu before we can return to the Hag.

The Arddu often appears as an old, androgynous man, with the head and legs of a goat and the wings of a bat. He can be represented in ritual with images of skulls and bones.

Deity in Feri is complex and fluid. All of the goddesses can be said to be different aspects of one Goddess, and all of the gods can be said to be different aspects of one God. Furthermore, all of the deities, both gods and goddesses, can be said to be extensions of Star Goddess. Victor Anderson believed that everything is connected and that the Gods exist within the Universe and the individual. As he said, “God is self, and self is God, and God is a person like myself.”

In addition to the deities, there are also spirits called Watchers and Guardians who play an important role in Feri. The Watchers are mysterious celestial entities, said to be the fathers of magic. Guardians are spirits associated with the elements, who are called on to guard the circle during ritual. Some Feri practitioners believe that the Guardians are Watchers, while others see them as two distinct groups of spirits.

Feri Practice

As stated earlier, much of the work of Feri involves embodying the Iron and Pearl Pentacle in order to return to the Black Heart of Innocence. This is done through ritual, meditation, ecstatic trance, art, energy work, and/or magic.

Feri is an ecstatic tradition, which means many of its rituals and practices revolve around achieving an ecstatic state. Ecstasy is sometimes defined as the state of being completely absorbed in the focus of your attention, and other times as the removal of the consciousness from normal functioning. In Feri, ecstasy is used as a tool for spiritual growth.

Astral travel also plays a role in Feri practice. A Feri practitioner may use trance states to leave their body and enter the spirit realm, where they can encounter the gods, Watchers, faeries, and other spirits firsthand. In some traditions, this travel forms the backbone of the practice.

Art and creative expression are other tools used for spiritual growth in Feri. Visual art and poetry in particular are often used to express spiritual concepts or to help the initiate process what they have learned. Victor Anderson was a known poet and published a collection of devotional poetry called Thorns of the Blood Rose — many later Feri practitioners have followed in his footsteps.

Feri is considered a magic tradition as well as a religion, and many Feri practitioners consider themselves witches or warlocks. Magic is seen as a way of directing the universal life energy that makes up all things, and is a natural extension of our divine power as each of us is a part of Star Goddess.

Like Wiccan rituals, Feri rituals sometimes begin with casting a circle and calling the quarters. However, Feri uses different language and gestures for the circle casting, with a greater focus on the earth and the circle as an extension of the Goddess’s body. While in Wicca, the circle is used for every ritual, in Feri it may only be used for some rites.

Further Reading

If you are interested in Feri, I recommend reading the book Betwixt & Between by Storm Faerywolf. This is an excellent introduction to the tradition, written by the founder of the BlueRose lineage. You may also be interested in reading the works of Victor and Cora Anderson — though Feri has changed a lot since it was founded, the Andersons’ teachings still lie at the core of the tradition.

Because Feri is an initiatory tradition, you can only go so far on study alone. Eventually, you will have to find a teacher to train and initiate you. Without this initiation, what you are doing is not, and cannot be, Feri. Thankfully, it is becoming ever easier to find online training, so you can walk the Feri path no matter where you live. The BlueRose lineage, which was founded by Storm Faerywolf, offers online training and initiation through The Mystic Dream Academy. Some other Feri teachers also have online offerings — look around on social media to see who is currently accepting students.

If you choose not to pursue initiation, you can still incorporate elements of Feri lore and philosophy into your practice, as long as you acknowledge that what you are doing is no longer Feri. In fact, many elements of Feri survive in other, related traditions such as Reclaiming, which we’ll discuss in the next installment of this series.

Resources:

  • The Heart of the Initiate by Victor and Cora Anderson
  • The Spiral Dance by Starhawk
  • Betwixt & Between by Storm Faerywolf
  • The official Feri Tradition website (feritradition.com)

Pagan Paths: Wicca (Paganism 101 Ch. 11)

the triple goddess as painted by Walter Crane, 1905-1909
Image from wiccanow.com

Wicca is the big granddaddy of neopagan religions. Most people who are familiar with modern paganism are specifically familiar with Wicca, and will probably assume that you are Wiccan if you tell them you identify as pagan. Thanks to pop culture and a handful of influential authors, Wicca has become the public face of modern paganism, for better or for worse.

Wicca is also one of the most accessible pagan religions, which is why I chose to begin our exploration of individual paths here. Known for its flexibility and openness, Wicca is about as beginner-friendly as it gets. While it definitely isn’t for everyone, it can be an excellent place to begin your pagan journey if you resonate with core Wiccan beliefs.

This post is not meant to be a complete introduction to Wicca. Instead, my goal here is to give you a taste of what Wiccans believe and do, so you can decide for yourself if further research would be worth your time. In that spirit, I provide book recommendations at the end of this post.

History and Background

Wicca was founded by Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant who developed an interest in the esoteric while living and working in Asia. Gardner claimed that, after returning to England, he was initiated into a coven of witches who taught him their craft. Eventually, he would leave this coven and start his own, at which point he began the work of bringing Wicca to the general public. In 1954, Garner published his book Witchcraft Today, which would have a great impact on the formation of Wicca, as would his 1959 book The Meaning of Witchcraft.

Gardner claimed that the rituals and teachings he received from his coven were incomplete — he attempted to fill in the gaps, which resulted in the creation of Wicca. Author Thea Sabin calls Wicca “a New Old Religion,” which is a good way to think about it. When Gardner wrote the first Wiccan Book of Shadows, he combined ancient and medieval folk practices from the British Isles with ceremonial magic dating back to the Renaissance and with Victorian occultism. These influences combined to create a thoroughly modern religion.

Wicca spread to the United States in the 1960s, at which time several new and completely American traditions were born. Some of these traditions are simply variations on Wicca, while others (like Feri and Reclaiming, which we’ll discuss in future posts) became unique, full-fledged spiritual systems in their own right. In America, Wicca collided with the counter-culture movement, and several activist groups began to combine the two. Wicca has continued to evolve through the decades, and is still changing and growing today.

There are two main “types” of Wicca which take very different approaches to the same deities and core concepts.

Traditional Wicca is Wicca that looks more or less like the practices of Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, Alex Sanders, and other early Wiccan pioneers. Traditional Wiccans practice in ritual groups called covens. Rituals are typically highly formal and borrow heavily from ceremonial magic. Traditional Wicca is an initiatory tradition, which means that new members must be trained and formally inducted into the coven by existing members. This means that if you are interested in Traditional Wicca, you must find a coven or a mentor to train and initiate you. However, most covens do not place any limitations on who can join and be initiated, aside from being willing to learn.

Most Traditional Wiccan covens require initiates to swear an oath of secrecy, which keeps the coven’s central practices from being revealed to outsiders. However, there are traditional Wiccans who have gone public with their practice, such as the authors Janet and Stewart Farrar.

Eclectic Wicca is a solitary, non-initiatory form of Wicca, as made popular by author Scott Cunningham in his book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Eclectic Wiccans are self-initiated and may practice alone or with a coven, though coven work will likely be less central in their practice. There are very few rules in Eclectic Wicca, and Wiccans who follow this path often incorporate elements from other spiritual traditions, such as historical pagan religions or modern energy healing. Because of this, there are a wide range of practices that fall under the “Eclectic Wicca” umbrella. Really, this label refers to anyone who considers themselves Wiccan, follows the Wiccan Rede (see below), and does not belong to a Traditional Wiccan coven. The majority of people who self-identify as Wiccan fall into this group.

Core Beliefs and Values

Thea Sabin says in her book Wicca For Beginners that Wicca is a religion with a lot of theology (study and discussion of the nature of the divine) and no dogma (rules imposed by religious structures). As a religion, it offers a lot of room for independence and exploration. This can be incredibly empowering to Wiccans, but it does mean that it’s kind of hard to make a list of things all Wiccans believe or do. However, we can look at some basic concepts that show up in some form in most Wiccan practices.

Virtually all Wiccans live by the Wiccan Rede. This moral statement, originally coined by Doreen Valiente, is often summarized with the phrase, “An’ it harm none, do what ye will.”

Different Wiccans interpret the Rede in slightly different ways. Most can agree on the “harm none” part. Wiccans strive not to cause unnecessary harm or discomfort to any living thing, including themselves. Some Wiccans also interpet the word “will” to be connected to our spiritual drive, the part of us that is constantly reaching for our higher purpose. When interpreted this way, the Rede not only encourages us not to cause harm, but also to live in alignment with our own divine Will.

Wiccans experience the divine as polarity. Wiccans believe that the all-encompassing divinity splits itself (or humans split it into) smaller aspects that we can relate to. The first division of deity is into complimentary opposites: positive and negative, light and dark, life and death, etc. These forces are not antagonistic, but are two halves of a harmonious whole. In Wicca, this polarity is usually embodied by the pairing of the God and Goddess (see below).

Wiccans experience the divine as immanent in daily life. In the words of author Deborah Lipp, “the sacredness of the human being is essential to Wicca.” Wiccans see the divine present in all people and all things. The idea that sacred energy infuses everything in existence is a fundamental part of the Wiccan worldview.

Wiccans believe nature is sacred. In the Wiccan worldview, the earth is a physical manifestation of the divine, particularly the Goddess. By attuning with nature and living in harmony with its cycles, Wiccans attune themselves with the divine. This means that taking care of nature is an important spiritual task for many Wiccans.

Wiccans accept that magic is real and can be used as a ritual tool. Not all Wiccans do magic, but all Wiccans accept that magic exists. For many covens and solitary practitioners, magic is an essential part of religious ritual. For others, magic is a practice that can be used not only to connect with the gods, but also to improve our lives and achieve our goals.

Many Wiccans believe in reincarnation, and some may incorporate past life recall into their spiritual practice. Some Wiccans believe that our souls are made of cosmic energy, which is recycled into a new soul after our deaths. Others believe that our soul survives intact from one lifetime to the next. Many famous Wiccan authors have written about their past lives and how reconnecting with those lives informed their practice.

Important Deities and Spirits

The central deities of Wicca are the Goddess and the God. They are two halves of a greater whole, and are only two of countless possible manifestations of the all-encompassing divine. The God and Goddess are lovers, and all things are born from their union.

Though some Wiccan traditions place a greater emphasis on the Goddess than on the God, the balance between these two expressions of the divine plays an important role in all Wiccan practices (remember, polarity is one of the core values of this religion).

The Goddess is the Divine Mother. She is the source of all life and fertility. She gives birth to all things, yet she is also the one who receives us when we die. Although she forms a duality in her relationship with the God, she also contains the duality of life and death within herself. While the God’s nature is ever-changing, the Goddess is constant and eternal.

The Goddess is strongly associated with both the moon and the earth. As the Earth Mother, she is especially associated with fertility, abundance, and nurturing. As the Moon Goddess, she is associated with wisdom, secret knowledge, and the cycle of life and death.

Some Wiccans see the goddess as having three main aspects: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. The Maiden is associated with youth, innocence, and new beginnings; she is the embodiment of both the springtime and the waxing moon. The Mother is associated with parenthood and birth (duh), abundance, and fertility; she is the embodiment of the summer (and sometimes fall) and of the full moon. The Crone is associated with death, endings, and wisdom; she is the embodiment of winter and of the waning moon. Some Wiccans believe this Triple Goddess model is an oversimplification, or complain that it is based on outdated views on womanhood, but for others it is the backbone of their practice.

Symbols that are traditionally used to represent the Goddess include a crescent moon or an image of the triple moon (a full moon situated between a waxing and a waning crescent), a cup or chalice, a cauldron, the color silver, and fresh flowers.

The God is the Goddess’s son, lover, and consort. He is equal parts wise and feral, gentle and fierce. He is associated with sex and by extension with potential (it could be said that while the Goddess rules birth, the God rules conception), as well as with the abundance of the harvest. He is the spark of life, which is shaped by the Goddess into all that is.

The God is strongly associated with animals, and he is often depicted with horns to show his association with all things wild. As the Horned God he is especially wild and fierce.

The God is also strongly associated with the sun. As a solar god he is associated with the agricultural year, from the planting and germination to the harvest. While the Goddess is constant, the God’s nature changes with the seasons.

In some Wiccan traditions, the God is associated with plant growth. He may be honored as the Green Man, a being which represents the growth of spring and summer. This vegetation deity walks the forests and fields, with vines and leaves sprouting from his body.

Symbols that are traditionally used to represent the God include phalluses and phallic objects, knives and swords, the color gold, horns and antlers, and ripened grain.

Many covens, both Traditional and Eclectic, have their own unique lore around the God and the Goddess. Usually, this lore is oathbound, meaning it cannot be shared with those outside the group.

Many Wiccans worship other deities besides the God and Goddess. These deities may come from historical pantheons, such as the Greek or Irish pantheon. A Wiccan may work with the God and Goddess with their coven or on special holy days (see below), but work with other deities that are more closely connected to their life and experiences on a daily basis. Wiccans view all deities from all religions and cultures as extensions of the same all-encompassing divine force.

Wiccan Practice

Most Wiccans use the circle as the basis for their rituals. This ritual structure forms a liminal space between the physical and spiritual worlds, and the Wiccan who created the circle can choose what beings or energies are allowed to enter it. The circle also serves the purpose of keeping the energy raised in ritual contained until the Wiccan is ready to release it. Casting a circle is fairly easy and can be done by anyone — simply walk in a clockwise circle around your ritual space, laying down an energetic barrier. Some Wiccans use the circle in every magical or spiritual working, while others only use it when honoring the gods or performing sacred rites.

While it is on one level a practical ritual tool, the circle is also a representation of the Wiccan worldview. Circles are typically cast by calling the four quarters (the four compass points of the cardinal directions), which are associated with the four classical elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Some (but not all) Wiccans also work with a fifth element, called spirit or aether. The combined presence of the elements makes the circle a microcosm of the universe.

Casting a circle requires the Wiccan to attune themselves to these elements and to honor them in a ritual setting. This is referred to as calling the quarters. When a Wiccan calls the quarters, they will move from one cardinal point to the next (usually starting with east or north), greet the spirits associated with that direction/element, and invite them to participate in the ritual. (If spirit/aether is being called, the direction it is associated with is directly up, towards the heavens.) This is done after casting the circle, but before beginning the ritual.

What happens within a Wiccan ritual varies a lot — it depends on the Wiccan, their preferences, and their goals for that ritual. However, nearly all Wiccan religious rites begin with the casting of the circle and calling of the quarters. (Some would argue that a ritual that doesn’t include these elements cannot be called Wiccan.)

When the ritual is completed, the quarters must be dismissed and the circle taken down. Wiccans typically dismiss the quarters by moving from one cardinal point to the next (often in the reverse of the order used to call the quarters), thanking the spirits of that quarter, and politely letting them know that the ritual is over. The circle is taken down (or “taken up,” as it is called in some traditions) in a similar way, with the person who cast the circle moving around it counterclockwise and removing the energetic barrier they created. This effectively ends the ritual.

There are eight main holy days in Wicca, called the sabbats. These celebrations, based on Germanic and Celtic pagan festivals, mark the turning points on the Wheel of the Year, i.e., the cycle of the seasons. By honoring the sabbats, Wiccans attune themselves with the natural rhythms of the earth and actively participate in the turning of the wheel.

The sabbats include:

  • Samhain (October 31): Considered by many to be the “witch’s new year,” this Celtic fire festival has historic ties to Halloween. Samhain is primarily dedicated to the dead. During this time of year, the otherworld is close at hand, and Wiccans can easily connect with their loved ones who have passed on. Wiccans might celebrate Samhain by building an ancestor altar or holding a feast with an extra plate for the dead. Samhain is the third of the three Wiccan harvest festivals, and it is a joyous occasion despite its association with death. (By the way, this sabbat’s name is pronounced “SOW-en,” not “Sam-HANE” as it appears in many movies and TV shows.)
  • Yule/Winter Solstice (December 21): Yule is a celebration of the return of light and life on the longest night of the year. Many Wiccans recognize Yule as the symbolic rebirth of the God, heralding the new plant and animal life soon to follow. Yule celebrations are based on Germanic traditions and have a lot in common with modern Christmas celebrations. Wiccans might celebrate Yule by decorating a Yule tree, lighting lots of candles or a Yule log, or exchanging gifts.
  • Imbolc (February 1): This sabbat, based on an Irish festival, is a celebration of the first stirrings of life beneath the blanket of winter. The spark of light that returned to the world at Yule is beginning to grow. Imcolc is a fire festival, and is often celebrated with the lighting of candles and lanterns. Wiccans may also perform ritual cleansings at this time of year, as purification is another theme of this festival.
  • Ostara/Spring Equinox (March 21): Ostara is a joyful celebration of the new life of spring, with ties to the Christian celebration of Easter. Plants are beginning to bloom, baby animals are being born, and the God is growing in power. Wiccans might celebrate Ostara by dying eggs or decorating their homes and altars with fresh flowers. In some covens, Ostara celebrations have a special focus on children, and so may be less solemn than other sabbats.
  • Beltane (May 1): Beltane is a fertility festival, pure and simple. Many Wiccans celebrate the sexual union of the God and Goddess, and the resulting abundance, at this sabbat. This is also one of the Celtic fire festivals, and is often celebrated with bonfires if the weather permits. The fae are said to be especially active at Beltane. Wiccans might celebrate Beltane by making and dancing around a Maypole, honoring the fae, or celebrating a night of R-rated fun with friends and lovers.
  • Litha/Midsummer/Summer Solstice (June 21): At the Summer Solstice, the God is at the height of his power and the Goddess is said to be pregnant with the harvest. Like Beltane, Midsummer is sometimes celebrated with bonfires and is said to be a time when the fae are especially active. Many Wiccans celebrate Litha as a solar festival, with a special focus on the God as the Sun.
  • Lughnasadh/Lammas (August 1): Lughnasadh (pronounced “loo-NAW-suh”) is an Irish harvest festival, named after the god Lugh. In Wicca, Lughnasadh/Lammas is a time to give thanks for the bounty of the earth. Lammas comes from “loaf mass,” and hints at this festival’s association with grain and bread. Wiccans might celebrate Lughnasadh by baking bread or by playing games or competitive sports (activities associated with Lugh).
  • Mabon/Fall Equinox (September 21): Mabon is the second Wiccan harvest festival, sometimes called “Wiccan Thanksgiving,” which should give you a good idea of what Mabon celebrations look like. This is a celebration of the abundance of the harvest, but tinged with the knowledge that winter is coming. Some Wiccans honor the symbolic death of the God at Mabon (others believe this takes place at Samhain or Lughnasadh). Wiccan Mabon celebrations often include a lot of food, and have a focus on giving thanks for the previous year.

Aside from the sabbats, some Wiccans also celebrate esbats, rituals honoring the full moons. Wiccan authors Janet and Stewart Farrar wrote that, while sabbats are public festivals to be celebrated with the coven, esbats are more private and personal. Because of this, esbat celebrations are typically solitary and vary a lot from one Wiccan to the next.

Further Reading

If you want to investigate Wicca further, there are a few books I recommend depending on which approach to Wicca you feel most drawn to. No matter which approach you are most attracted to, I recommend starting with Wicca For Beginners by Thea Sabin. This is an excellent introduction to Wiccan theology and practice, whether you want to practice alone or with a coven.

If you are interested in Traditional Wicca, I recommend checking out A Witches’ Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar after you finish Sabin’s book. Full disclosure: I have a lot of issues with this book. Parts of it were written as far back as the 1970s, and it really hasn’t aged well in terms of politics or social issues. However, it is the most detailed guide to Traditional Wicca I have found, so I recommend it for that reason. Afterwards, I recommend reading Casting a Queer Circle by Thista Minai, which presents a system similar to Traditional Wicca with less emphasis on binary gender. After you learn the basics from the Farrars, Minai’s book can help you figure out how to adjust the Traditional Wiccan system to work for you.

If you are interested in Eclectic Wicca, I recommend Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner and Living Wicca by Scott Cunningham. Cunningham is the author who popularized Eclectic Wicca, and his work remains some of the best on the subject. Wicca is an introduction to solitary Eclectic Wicca, while Living Wicca is a guide for creating your own personalized Wiccan practice.

Resources:

  • Wicca For Beginners by Thea Sabin
  • Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
  • Living Wicca by Scott Cunningham
  • A Witches’ Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar
  • The Study of Witchcraft by Deborah Lipp

Choosing the right pagan path for you (Paganism 101 Ch. 10)

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Photo by Brett Sayles, accessed via Pexels.

Finding a religion is kind of like dating — you need to really know yourself before you can know what you need from a religion (or a romantic partner). And, like with dating, there’s a lot of weird stigmas and social expectations around religion. A lot of people want to settle down with the first one they kind of vibe with instead of taking the time to see what’s really out there. But if you really want to be happy in the long term, you’ll need to have a little patience and be willing to do some exploration. 

Getting to know yourself is crucial to a healthy spiritual life, no matter what your religious or spiritual beliefs are. Get comfortable with who you are and what your spiritual needs are, then start looking for a system that meets those needs.

Need a place to start? Try interviewing yourself! Here are some questions you may want to include in your self-interview (make sure to write them down!): 

What, if anything, do you absolutely know, beyond a shadow of doubt, is true? What, if anything, do you absolutely know, beyond a shadow of doubt, is not true? Do you believe in absolute good and evil? Do you believe in, or are you open to believing in, reincarnation? What about the existence of the soul? What about an afterlife? Do you believe in fate? What about karma or a similar concept? Do you believe that everyone and everything is connected, or are you more of an individualist? 

It’s also helpful to go ahead and figure out where you stand on certain religious concepts that are common in paganism. For example, are you a monist, a soft polytheist, a hard polytheist, or a pantheist? Do you feel you’d do better with a neopagan system, a reconstructionist system, or a revivalist system

Answering these questions will help you start to identify what your core beliefs are and what you need from a religious system. Keep your answers handy. As we explore different pagan religions in future posts, compare their theology and philosophy to your answers. This will help you determine whether any given system is a good fit for you and your existing beliefs. 

Remember, most pagan faiths are not exclusionist — they acknowledge the value and truth of other religions. Choosing a pagan path isn’t about finding the One True Religion. It’s about finding the best religion for you. 
You’re unlikely to find a system that you agree with 100% right off the bat, but you should agree with enough core theology that you aren’t uncomfortable. I firmly believe that religion should challenge us and help us to grow, but it definitely shouldn’t be triggering or upsetting. You want to find that sweet spot where you’re comfortable but still have room for growth.

They say that when choosing a romantic partner, you should look for someone you agree with 90-95% of the time. This similarity in belief and opinion gives you a solid foundation to build on, but the 5-10% disagreement keeps your relationship from becoming an echo chamber. I think this is also an excellent rule to follow when choosing a religion. 

Once you’ve taken stock of your own beliefs, it’s time to consider your interests. Is there a certain system you feel drawn to? If so, that would be an excellent place to start your research!

For example, maybe you were obsessed with Greek mythology as a kid — if so, you may want to start by investigating Hellenismos, the worship of the ancient Greek gods. Maybe you grew up Catholic and always felt a close connection to Mother Mary — you may want to investigate Goddess worship. Or maybe you’ve always resonated deeply with the figure of the witch in fiction and folklore — you may want to investigate Wicca. Starting with a system you already have an interest in will keep your research fun and exciting. 
You may or may not choose to consider your cultural heritage when choosing a starting point for your study of paganism. If you feel closely tied to the culture of your ancestors, you might start by learning about the gods they originally worshiped. 

Let me make one thing clear: the gods do not care about genetics. If you feel drawn to the Norse gods, for example, it does not matter if you have Scandinavian heritage or even European heritage. What matters is whether you’re willing to uphold the values and practices of Norse paganism. Don’t let a lack of an ancestral link keep you from pursuing a religion that interests you! 

(Of course, ethnic religions do exist, and some of these systems are closed to outsiders. Judaism and Voodoo are good examples of this. However, all of the systems I’ve mentioned in this post, and all of the ones I’ll be covering in this series, are open to anyone regardless of their ethnicity.) 

You may not feel connected to your cultural heritage at all, and you may not even consider it as you explore paganism. That’s fine! Just know that it does offer another possible entry point into the big, wide, diverse world of pagan religion. 

You should also consider whether any pagan religions are more readily accessible to you than others. Do you have a friend who is already a practicing pagan and would be willing to take you under their wing? Do you live in a country where certain deities used to be worshiped and have access to historic sacred sites? Are there local pagan groups in your community? Consider these resources when deciding where to start your research. The good news is that, with the Internet, you’ll have access to any system you feel attracted to, at least online. 

One of the most common accessibility issues pagans run into is a language barrier. This is especially true for reconstructionists and revivalists. Unless you speak fluent Irish, you’ll probably have to rely on English translations for your research of Irish mythology, for example.

Finding quality translations is essential. A translation error can sometimes change the entire meaning of a poem or myth! The best way to find good translations is to ask other pagans. Don’t be afraid to ask someone more experienced for book recommendations!

Once you’ve chosen a starting point for your research, the next step is to start reading! (Still not sure where to start? Don’t worry! In the next several posts in this series, I’ll introduce you to some of the most popular pagan paths and provide resources for more in-depth study.) 

Choose your sources carefully. I try to read an even mix of academic sources (which tend to be less biased) and sources from pagan authors — this helps me get a more nuanced understanding of the system I’m studying. Be wary of any resource that denies science, revises history, or contradicts other authorities on the subject. Also be wary of any pagan author who fills their work with opinion and personal experience, without any research to back it up. Basing your practice on good sources will help you start off on the right foot with your worship of the gods. 

It’s important not to rush this research process. While it’s true that you can’t truly learn a spiritual system from books, it’s also true that things tend to go more smoothly if you know what you’re doing. 
Once you’ve got a solid grasp of the basics of your chosen religion, you’re ready to begin practicing! 
Start using what you’ve learned from your research to create a religious practice. This may include creating an altar or other sacred space, making offerings to deities, or performing some other daily ritual. My advice is to start small — don’t feel like you have to become a high priest(ess) overnight. 

Your practice may change as you become more experienced, and that’s a good thing. People change, and it only makes sense for our spirituality to change with us. Never be afraid to experiment in your pagan practice. This should be a fun and exciting journey! 

Coping with religious trauma (Paganism 101 Ch. 9)

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Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas, accessed via Pexels.

CONTENT WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS DISCUSSIONS OF MENTAL ILLNESS, TRAUMA RECOVERY, AND HOMOPHOBIA. The advice in this post is intended for an adult audience, not for those who are legal minors.

A lot of people find their way to paganism after having traumatic experiences with organized religion, especially in countries like the United States, where 65% of the population identifies as Christian. (This number is actually at an all-time low — historically, the percentage has been much higher.) Paganism, which is necessarily less dogmatic and hierarchical than the Abrahamic religions, offers a chance to experience religion without having to fit a certain mold. This can be extremely liberating for people who have felt hurt, abused, or ignored by mainstream religion.

To avoid making generalizations that might offend people, I’ll share my own story as an example.

My family joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, when I was nine years old. The Mormons are an extremely conservative sect of evangelical Christianity that places a heavy emphasis on maintaining a strong community that upholds their religious values. The problem with that is that Mormon values are inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic. As a teenager in the Mormon Church, I was told that as a woman, my only purpose in life was to marry a (Mormon) man and raise (Mormon) children. I was discouraged from pursuing a college education if it meant delaying marriage. I was not allowed to participate in the full extent of religious ritual because I was not a man. I was not allowed to express myself in ways that went against Mormon culture, and I kept my bisexuality secret for fear I would be ostracized. I didn’t have any sort of support system outside the Church, which inevitably made the mental health issues that come with being a queer woman in a conservative Christian setting much, much worse.

I left the Mormons when I was seventeen, and by that time I had some major issues stemming from my time in the Church. I had been extremely depressed and anxious for most of my teen years. I struggled with internalized misogyny and homophobia. I had very low self-esteem. I had anxiety around sex and sexuality that would take years of therapy and self-work to overcome. I wanted to form a connection with the divine, but I wasn’t sure if I was worthy of such a connection.

I was attracted to paganism, specifically Wicca, because it seemed like everything Mormonism wasn’t. Wicca teaches equality between men and women, with a heavy focus on the Goddess in worship. It places an emphasis on doing what is right for you, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. It encourages sexuality and healthy sexual expression. Learning about Wicca, and later other types of paganism, helped me develop the kind of healthy spirituality I’d never experienced as a Mormon. Although Wicca is no longer the backbone of my religious practice, it was a necessary and deeply healing step on my spiritual journey.

I’m not sharing my story to gain sympathy or to make anyone feel bad — I’m sharing it because my situation is not an uncommon one in pagan circles. The vast majority of pagans are converts, meaning they didn’t grow up pagan. Some had healthy upbringings in other faiths, or no faith at all, and simply found that paganism was a better fit for them. Others, like myself, had deeply traumatic experiences with organized religion and are attracted to paganism because of the freedom, autonomy, and empowerment it offers.

If you fall into this latter category, this post is for you. Untangling the threads of religious trauma can be an extremely difficult and overwhelming task. In this post, I lay out six steps to recovery based on my own experiences and those of other people, both pagan and non-pagan, who have lived through religious trauma.

While following these steps will help jumpstart your spiritual healing, it’s important to remember that healing is not a linear process — especially healing from emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma. You may have relapses, you may feel like you’re moving in circles, and you may still have bad days in five or ten years. That’s okay. That’s part of the healing process. Go easy on yourself, and let your journey unfold naturally.

Step One: Cut all ties with the group that caused your trauma

Or, at least, cut as many ties as reasonably possible.

Obviously, if you’re still participating in a religious organization that has caused you pain, the first step is to leave! But before you do, make sure you have an exit plan to help you disengage safely and gracefully.

To make your exit plan, start by asking yourself what the best, worst, and most likely case scenarios are, and be honest in your answers. Obviously, the best case scenario is that you leave, everyone accepts it, and all is well. The worst case scenario is that someone tries to prevent you from leaving — you may be harassed by missionaries or concerned churchgoers, for example. But what is the most likely case scenario? That depends on the religious community, their beliefs, and how involved you were in the first place. When making your exit plan, prepare for the most likely scenario, but have a backup plan in case the worst case scenario happens.

Once you’ve prepared yourself for the best, worst, and most likely outcomes, choose a friend, significant other, or family member who can help you make your exit. Ideally, this person is not a member of the group you are trying to leave. Their role is mainly to provide emotional support, although they may also need to be willing to run off any well-meaning missionaries who come calling. This person can also help you transition after you leave. For example, you might make a plan to get coffee with them every week during the time your old religious community holds worship services.

Finally, make your strategy for leaving. Choose a date and don’t put it off! If you have any responsibilities within the group, send in a letter of resignation. Figure out who you’ll need to have conversations with about your leaving — this will likely include any family members or close friends who are still part of the group. Schedule those conversations. Make sure to have them in public places, where people will be less likely to make a scene.

If you feel it is necessary, you may want to request that your name be removed from the group’s membership records so you don’t get emails, phone calls, or friendly visits from them in the future. You may not feel the need to do this, but if contact with the group triggers a mental health crisis, this extra step will help keep you safe.

Of course, it’s not always possible to completely cut ties with a group after leaving. You may have family members, a significant other, or close friends who are still members. If this is the case, you’ll need to establish some clear boundaries. Politely but firmly tell them that, although you’re glad their faith adds value to their lives, you are not willing to be involved in their religious activities. Let them know that this is what is best for your mental and emotional health and that you still value your relationship with them.

Try to make compromises that allow you to preserve the relationship without exposing you to a traumatic religious environment. For example, if your family is Christian and always spends all day on Christmas at church, offer to celebrate with them the day after, once their religious commitments are over.

Hopefully, your loved ones can respect these boundaries. If not, you may need to distance yourself or walk away altogether. If they are knowingly undermining your attempts to take care of yourself, they don’t deserve to be in your life.

During this time, you may find it helpful to read other people’s exit stories online or in books. One of my personal favorites is the book Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther. Hearing other people’s stories can help you remember that other people have been through similar situations and made it out on the other side. You will too.

Step Two: Seek professional help

I cannot overstate the importance of professional counseling when dealing with trauma of any kind, including religious trauma. Therapists and counselors have the benefit of professional training. They are able to be objective, since they’re approaching the situation from the outside. They can keep you from getting bogged down in your own thoughts and feelings.

I understand that not everyone has access to therapy. I am very lucky to have insurance that covers mental health counseling, but I know not everyone has that privilege. However, there are some options that make therapy more affordable.

There may be an organization in your area that offers free or low-cost therapy — if you live in the U.S., you can find information about these services by checking the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine or visiting mentalhealth.gov. You can also look for therapists who use a sliding scale for payment, which means they determine an hourly rate based on the client’s income. And finally, if you have a little bit of extra cash you may want to look into therapy apps like BetterHelp or Talkspace, which are typically cheaper than in-person therapy.

If none of those options work for you, the next best option is to join a support group. Support groups allow you to connect with other people whose experiences are similar to yours and, unlike therapy, they allow you to get advice and feedback from multiple people. These groups are often free, although some charge a small fee.

Finding the right group for you is important. You’re unlikely to find a group for people recovering from religious trauma but, depending on the nature of your trauma, you may fit right in with a grief and loss group, an addiction recovery group, or a group for adult survivors of child abuse. If you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community, you may be able to find a queer support group. (The LGBTQ+ club at my college was an invaluable resource in my recovery!) Depending on your area, you may also be able to find groups for specific mental and emotional issues like depression or anxiety.

Make sure to do your research before attending a meeting. Find out what, if anything, the group charges, who can join, and whether they use a curriculum or have unstructured sessions. See if you can find a statement about their values and philosophy. Make a note of where meetings are held and of who is running the group. Some support groups meet in churches and may or may not have a religious element to their curriculum. It’s best to avoid religious groups — the last thing you need right now is to be preached to.

Getting other people involved in your recovery will make you feel less alone and prevent you from getting stuck in your own head. A good therapist, counselor, or support group can help you realize what you need to work on and give you ideas for how to approach it.

Step Three: Deprogramming

“Deprogramming” refers to the practice of undoing brainwashing and reintroducing healthy thought patterns. This term is normally used in the context of cult survivors and their recovery, but deprogramming techniques can also be helpful for people recovering from a lifetime of toxic religious rhetoric.

To begin the process of deprogramming, familiarize yourself with the way organizations use thought control to shape the behavior of their members. I recommend starting with the work of Steven Hassan — his BITE model is a handy way to classify types of thought control.

The BITE model lays out four types of control. There’s Behavior Control, which controls what members do and how they spend their free time. (For example, requiring members to attend multiple hours-long meetings each week.) There’s Information Control, which restricts members’ access to information. (For example, denying certain aspects of the group’s history.) There’s Thought Control, which shapes the way members think. (For example, classifying certain thoughts as sinful or dirty.) And finally there’s Emotional Control, which manipulates members’ emotions. (For example, instilling fear of damnation or punishment.)

Here’s a simple exercise to get you started with your deprogramming. Divide a blank sheet of paper into four equal sections. Label one section “Behavior,” one “Information,” one “Thought,” and one “Emotions.” Now, in each section, make a list of the ways your old religious group controlled — and maybe still controls — that area of your life. Once you’ve completed your lists, choose a single item from one of your lists to work on undoing.

For example, let’s say that in your “Information” column, you’ve written that you were discouraged from reading certain books because they contained “evil” ideas. (For a lot of people, this was Harry Potter. For me, it was The Golden Compass.) Pick up one of those books, and read it or listen to it as an audiobook. Once you’ve read it, write down your thoughts. Did you enjoy it? Why or why not? Why do you think your group banned it? What was in this book that they didn’t want you to know about? Write it down.

Once you’ve worked on the first thing, choose something else. Keep going until you’ve undone all the items on your lists.

If you want to go further with deprogramming, I recommend the book Recovering Agency by Luna Lindsey. Although this book is specifically written for former Mormons, I genuinely believe it would be helpful to former members of other controlling religious groups as well. Lindsey does an excellent job of explaining how thought control works and of connecting it to real world examples, as well as deconstructing those ideas. Her book has been a huge help in my recovery process, and I highly recommend it.

Step Four: Replace toxic beliefs and practices with healthy ones

This goes hand-in-hand with step three, and if you’re already working on deprogramming then you’ll already have started replacing your unhealthy beliefs. This is the turning point in the recovery process. You’re no longer just undoing what others have done to you — now you get an opportunity to decide what you want to believe and do going forward. This is the time to let go of things like denial of your desires, fear of divine punishment, and holding yourself to unattainable standards. Get used to living in a way that makes you happy, without guilt.

Notice how each step builds on the previous steps. Therapy and deprogramming can help you identify what beliefs and behaviors need to be adjusted or replaced. Your therapist, support group, and/or emotional support person can help you make these changes and follow through on them.

These new beliefs and practices don’t have to be religious — in fact, it’s better if they aren’t. If you can live a healthy, happy, balanced life without religion, you’ll be in a better position to choose a religion that is the right fit for you, if that is something you want.

Your new healthy, non-religious practices may include: mindfulness meditation, nature walks, journaling, reading, exercise, energy work, learning a hobby or craft, or spending time with loves ones — or it might include none of these things, and that’s okay too. Now is the time to find what brings you joy and start doing it every day.

Step Five: Ritual healing

This is an optional step, but it’s one that has been deeply healing for me. You may find it helpful to design and perform a ritual to mark your recovery.

Note that when I say “ritual,” I don’t necessarily mean magic. Rituals serve a psychological purpose as well as a spiritual one. They can act as powerful symbolic events that mark a turning point in our lives or reinforce what we already know and believe. Even if you don’t believe in magic, even if you’re the least spiritual person you know, you can still benefit from ritual.

You might choose to perform a ritual to finalize your healing, or to symbolically throw off the chains of your old religion. It can be elaborate or simple, long or short, joyful or solemn. It might include lighting a candle and saying a few words. It might include ecstatic dance. It might include drawing or painting a representation of all the negative emotions associated with your old religion, then ritually destroying it. The possibilities are literally endless. (If you’re looking for ritual ideas, I recommend the book Light Magic for Dark Times by Lisa Marie Basile.)

One type of ritual that some people find very empowering is unbaptism. An unbaptism is exactly what it sounds like — the opposite of a baptism. The idea is that, if a baptism makes a Christian, an unbaptism makes someone un-Christian, no longer part of that lineage. It is a ritual rejection of Christianity. (Obviously, this only applies if you’re a former Christian, though some of the following suggestions could be adjusted to fit a rejection of other religions.)

If you’re interested in unbaptism, here are some ideas for how it could be done:

  • A classic method of unbaptism is to recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards under a full moon. (For a non-Christians version, use a significant prayer from whatever religion you have left.)
  • Run a bath. Add a tiny pinch of sulfur (a.k.a. brimstone) to the water. Get into the bath and say, “By water I was baptized, and by water my baptism is rejected.” Submerge your entire body under the water for several seconds. When you come back up, your unbaptism is complete. (You may want to shower after this one. Sulfur does not smell good.)
  • The Detroit Satanic Temple has a delightfully dramatic unbaptism ritual. For a DIY version, you will need holy water or some other relic from the faith you were baptized in, a fireproof dish, a black candle, and an apple or other sweet fruit. Light the candle and place it in your fireproof dish. Toss some holy water onto the flame (not enough to extinguish it) and say, “I cast my chains into the dust of hell.” Take a bite of the apple and say, “I savor the fruit of knowledge and disobedience.” Finally, declare proudly, “I am unbaptized.” You can add “in the name of Satan” at the end or leave it out, depending on your comfort level.

Personally, I’ve never felt the need to unbaptize myself. I’ve ritually rejected my Mormon upbringing in other ways. Maybe someday I’ll decide to go for the unbaptism, but I’ve never really felt like I needed it. Likewise, you’ll need to decide for yourself what ritual(s) will work for you.

Step Six: Honor your recovery

Our first reaction to trauma is to hide it away and never speak of it again. When we do this, we do ourselves a disservice. Your recovery is a part of your life story. You had the strength to walk away from a situation that was hurting you, and that deserves to be celebrated! Be proud of yourself for how far you’ve come!

You may choose to honor your recovery by celebrating an important date every year, like the day you decided to leave the group, the date of the last meeting you attended, or the date you were removed from the membership records. Keep this celebration fun and light — get drinks with friends, bake a cake for yourself, or just take a few moments to silently acknowledge your journey.

If you feel like having a party is a bit much, you can also honor your recovery by talking to other people about your experiences. Share your story with others. If you’re feeling shy, try sharing your story anonymously online. (Reddit has several forums specifically for anonymous stories.) You’ll be amazed by how validating it can be to tell people what you’ve been through. `

Another way to honor your recovery is to work for personal and religious freedom for all people. Protest laws with religious motivations. Donate to organizations that campaign for the separation of church and state. Educate people about how to recognize an unhealthy religious organization. Let your own story motivate you to help others who are in similar situations.

And most of all, take joy in your journey. Be proud of yourself for how far you’ve come, but know that your recovery is a lifelong journey. Be gentle and understanding with yourself. You are doing what is right for you, and no god or spirit worthy of worship could ever be upset by that.

Paganism and witchcraft (Paganism 101 Ch. 8)

Witch With her Broom
Photo by Thirdman, accessed via Pexels

Thanks to many, many centuries of misinformation, paganism and magic are inextricably linked in pop culture. Progress has been made — the word “pagan” is less likely to make people think of dark rites, blood magic, and ritual orgies in the twenty-first century than it was in, say, the seventeenth century. Even so, if you tell someone you identify as pagan, you’re bound to eventually get the question: “So, are you, like, a witch?”

The answer, like so many things in paganism is that it depends on the pagan.

Before we get into modern pagans and their views on magic, I think it’s helpful to understand the historical roots of the association of paganism with witchcraft. And for that, we have to travel back to the Middle Ages, when Christianity was already well-established as the dominant religion in Europe, and the Catholic Church was well on its way to becoming a hegemonic superpower. The beginning of the witch hunts was just around the corner.

In her book The Study of Witchcraft, Deborah Lipp claims that two very different understandings of what it meant to be a witch were both at work in the medieval witch trials.

The first concept of witchcraft, which Lipp identifies as the “folk witch,” was much older and much less Christian. These were people who used dark magic, such as hexes, to cause harm and mischief. Though they may not have been called “witches,” folk witches or witch-like figures have existed in virtually every culture in some form. Examples include British witches, Irish changelings, and Navajo skin-walkers. The one consistent feature of these diverse creatures is an association with magic and a tendency to cause harm. They were seen as a threat to the community, and these types of witches were persecuted long before the rise of Christianity.

(For what it’s worth, the fact that witches were disliked by ancient pagans doesn’t mean that all magic was. Most of the ancient cultures that inspired modern paganism also had their own magical practice, and in many cases magic does not seem to have been controversial or taboo. But again, those who used magic for good would not have been considered witches before the twentieth century.)

The second concept of witchcraft identified by Lipp is the “Satanic witch,” which is an exclusively Christian concept. These people were heretics of the worst kind, members of a cult of Satan worshipers who had sexual relations with demons and plotted against the Church. They were a threat to the faithful Christians in their community.

The only unifying factor in these definitions is a sense of deviancy. Both folk witches and Satanic witches were people who deviated from the norm. It’s no coincidence that those accused of witchcraft were often those who broke societal norms in some way, such as single mothers or women who owned property.

These two distinct definitions of witchcraft would collide in the Middle Ages, with those who were tried for witchcraft often accused both of causing harm to the community by blighting crops or killing animals, and of worshiping Satan. It was commonly believed that these witches tormented the community with evil powers given to them by Satan.

But what does all this have to do with paganism?

While it’s possible that some of the people executed for witchcraft in Europe were secretly practicing the old pagan religions, they definitely wouldn’t have been the majority or even a significant minority. Supposed witches were almost always accused of worshiping Satan, not pagan gods. Most of the people who were accused, tried, and executed for witchcraft were probably accused for social reasons, not religious ones. Most if not all of them were probably not witches as we would recognize them today.

The accusation of devil worship is one that medieval “witches” have in common with pagans. Many of Satan’s names were originally the names of pagan deities, such as Beelzebub (a Philistine god), Moloch (a Canaanite god), and Dagon (another Philistine god). This association of Satan with pagan deities reflects real-world political conflict between the Hebrew people (and later the early Christians) and the cultures who worshiped those deities. Like the label of “witch,” this serves a political function and creates a clear “us vs. them” mindset.

However, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that medieval Christians thought that witch = pagan, or that they thought pagan = devil worship. During the conversion period (several hundred years before the Middle Ages), it seems that Christians largely viewed pagan gods as just that — other gods who were in competition with their own. There are records of Christians and pagans living in relative peace in some parts of Europe — something that surely wouldn’t have been possible if Christians believed that all pagans were devil worshipers.

Fear and paranoia regarding Satan and his followers didn’t become a large part of Christianity until the Middle Ages. Before that, Satan was a relatively minor figure, less the embodiment of evil and more of an annoyance. He was even used for comic relief in religious plays! It was in the Middle Ages that Satan began to take on a more prolific, antagonistic role. Again, this coincided with the Church becoming a hegemonic political entity.

I’m by no means an expert on European history, but it sure seems to me like the witch hunts and Satan paranoia of the Middle Ages were more about controlling the people and punishing deviance than about genuine religious conviction. Just saying.

By the time the witch hunts began, paganism (a.k.a., pre-Christian religion) had all but died out in Europe. Worship of the old gods had either ceased entirely or had been incorporated into Christianity in the form of regional tradition and superstition. Thus, “witches” were accused of worshiping Satan who, at the time, would have been a much more recognizable figure than Jupiter or Anubis.

So, to make a very long story short, there really isn’t a historical connection between paganism and witchcraft, except for both of them having been in conflict with Christianity at some point. It’s important to remember that witchcraft (in this case defined as harmful magic) is a concept that predates Christianity and that witches were treated with suspicion in pagan as well as Christian communities.

That’s not to say the two aren’t connected. In fact, modern paganism is much more closely linked to witchcraft than its historic counterparts.

If you read enough older books about paganism, especially Wicca and other neopagan religions, you will likely find references to “the Burning Times.” This is an exaggerated, largely fictionalized, and thoroughly disproved narrative that was popular with early neopagans, including Gerald Gardner, the father of Wicca. The “Burning Times” refers to the idea that, in the Middle Ages in Europe, the witch hunts were a genocidal attack on self-identified witches and pagans, in an attempt to wipe out these ancient belief systems. This is almost entirely false.

Belief in the “Burning Times” requires belief in Margaret Murray’s witch-cult hypothesis, which has been almost totally discredited by historians and archaeologists. Murray believed that the medieval witch trials were an attempt to wipe out a widespread pagan religion that had survived the Christianization of Europe. Murray claimed that this witch cult spanned much of Europe and worshiped a horned deity, who was referred to as the Devil by Christians.

Again, Murray’s theory has been completely discredited. There is no evidence whatsoever of a continent-spanning pagan religion, much less one that survived into the Middle Ages. If a book, website, or teacher refers to Murray’s theory or to the “Burning Times” as if they were historical fact, they are not a good resource for your study of paganism. Remember, paganism had been largely displaced by Christianity before the European witch hunts really got going!

But Murray’s theory, although false, has still had an impact on our modern understanding of witchcraft and paganism. As previously mentioned, Gerald Gardener was inspired by Murray’s ideas and incorporated some of them into Wicca. Noticeably, the Wiccan God often appears in prayers, poetry, and artwork as the Horned King, clearly inspired by the god Murray wrote about. Wicca was also the first pagan religion to make magic an integral part of ritual, thus marrying paganism with witchcraft.

The rising popularity of Wicca, and of self-identified witches, has helped destigmatize the label. Wiccans are, for the most part, lovely people who strive to use magic only for good. This is very different from the historic understanding of a witch as one who causes harm, and it’s been great PR for the witch archetype.

Nowadays the word “witch” can refer to anyone who practices magic, although some magic practitioners choose to use different labels. “Witch” no longer has connotations of evil, mischief, or malicious intent. The witch’s pop culture makeover has also been aided by popular fiction that portrays witches in a positive light, like the sitcom Bewitched, the Harry Potter franchise, and the TV show Charmed. This new definition has caused thousands of people, pagan and non-pagan alike, to use witchcraft and the witch label as a means to empower themselves and improve their lives.

Modern pagans may or may not identify as witches. Personally, I am both a pagan and a witch — but my paganism and my witchcraft are two different parts of my spiritual identity. For other pagans, witchcraft and magic are an essential part of their religious practice.

Say it with me, now: it all depends on the pagan!

Resources:

  • The Study of Witchcraft by Deborah Lipp
  • Witches, Sluts, Feminists by Kristen J. Soleee
  • The British History Podcast, “94 — Dark Age Beliefs”
  • Irish History Podcast, “Kilkenny Witchcraft Trial of 1324 (Part I)” and “Kilkenny Witchcraft Trial of 1324 (Part II)”
  • Wicca For Beginners by Thea Sabin

Creating Sacred Space (Paganism 101 Ch. 7)

Gray Concrete Altar Between Green Trees
Photo from icon0.com, accessed via Pexels.

Very few pagans have access to temples or holy sites. If you’re lucky enough to live in the country where your gods were originally worshiped, you may be able to visit ancient temples or sacred sites, but most of us do not have this opportunity. For most pagans, sacred space is something we have to create for ourselves.

On one level, this is very literal — pagans create physical spaces for their gods to inhabit, usually in the form of home altars. An altar is a table, shelf, or other flat surface that is set aside for religious or spiritual use. The altar is likely home to religious items or tools like candles, incense burners, or statues of the gods. It is the place where prayers are made and offerings are given. It is a place within the home that is set aside for the gods.

Like everything within paganism, the exact setup and uses of your altar depend on your tradition. Some groups, like some forms of traditional Wicca, require the altar to look a very certain way, with a collection of ritual tools arranged in the appropriate places on the altar. Other traditions are much more freeform.

Even if you have not chosen a pagan path yet, you may find it helpful to create a special place to connect with the divine. This could be an altar — even a simple one, like an unused shelf holding a white candle and a stick of incense — or another special place like a yoga mat where you do meditations, a special chair where you read spiritual literature, or a special place outdoors. Having a space set aside for spirituality and religion will help you to literally and metaphorically make room for these pursuits in your life.

To dedicate this space to religious pursuits, simply verbally state your intent to use it for that purpose. You might perform a simple ritual by lighting a white candle and saying something like, “I dedicate this space to the gods and to my growing relationship with them.” (It doesn’t matter if you don’t know yet which gods you want to worship.) Now you have a special place to return to when you want to connect with the divine.

You can also build altars to connect to other types of spirits, such as land spirits or ancestors. We’ll talk more about these kinds of altars in a future post.

Though guidelines for altar setup and maintenance vary from one pagan religion to the next, there are a few basic guidelines that are pretty much universal.

For one thing, your altar should be kept clean and tidy. Don’t pile non-religious items on your altar, make sure to clean up any candle wax or incense ashes left after a ritual, and try to keep dust from building up on your icons and statues. I am a generally messy person, but my altar stays clean as a sign of respect for my gods, even when the rest of my house is a mess. If you struggle to keep your altar tidy, schedule 10-20 minutes once a week to go through and clean it up. Think of this cleaning not as a chore, but as a loving service to your gods.

If you use your altar for food offerings, you should dispose of them after 24 hours or less. As we’ve previously discussed, some pagans eat their food offerings after the gods have had a chance to consume their spiritual essence, while other pagans feel that this is rude or taboo. In the latter case, many people choose a special place outside where they dispose of food offerings (if you do this, make sure the offering won’t harm local plant and animal life if left outside). Another option is to add food offerings to a compost pile — you can use the compost in your garden, perhaps for plants that are sacred to your gods (again, make sure your offerings are compost-friendly).

Keeping your altar clean also includes energetic and spiritual cleansing. Before rituals, you should cleanse your altar to ensure that you aren’t bringing any unwanted energy into your worship. Cleansing protocols vary from one tradition to the next and may include sprinkling the altar with blessed water, wafting incense smoke through the space, or using a special tool like a ritual broom or a bell. If you haven’t chosen a pagan religion yet, simply use the cleansing method that works best for you.

When caring for your altar, keep in mind that this is your gods’ space within your home. You want it to be comfortable for them. Like decorating a guest bedroom for a friend, you’ll probably want to choose items that are significant to the god or spirit being honored on the altar. For example, my altar contains a crow skull and feathers because crows are sacred to several of the deities I work with. Take your time to create an environment that will be welcoming to your god(s) of choice. (Again, if you aren’t working with any specific gods yet, you can still create a basic altar — follow the previously stated guidelines for keeping it clean and welcoming.)

While setting up and maintaining an altar or other special space is an important part of creating sacred space, it isn’t the only part. When pagans talk about “creating sacred space,” we are also talking about cultivating a certain mindset.

Just like you need to make space for the gods in your home, you need to make space for them in your life. It’s all well and good to call yourself a pagan, but if you never pray, make offerings, or think about the gods, are you really embodying pagan religious practice? If you’re going to talk the talk, you have to also walk the walk.

Creating sacred space in your life can take many forms. One of the most common (and convenient) is small daily devotional activities. These activities only take a few minutes and can easily be incorporated into your daily routine. This may include meditation, divination, or reading a few verses from a holy book. Even the act of lighting a fresh stick of incense on your altar in the morning can help strengthen your connection to your spirituality.

It can even be as simple as remembering to thank the gods when you see them at work in your life. I have a friend who is a Roman pagan, and he has a habit of verbally thanking Mercury (the Roman god of travel, among many other things) whenever he finds a good parking space or doesn’t have to wait at a red light. This kind of small acknowledgement may not seem like a big deal, but it works to integrate our worship of the gods into our daily lives.

Take a few moments, right now, to ask yourself how you can create sacred space in your life. What can you do to make the gods feel welcome in your presence? Try to think of a single change you can make in the next 24 hours to create this space. Write it down.

Commit to maintaining this new practice for at least three weeks. At the end of each day, write down what you did to create sacred space and how it made you feel. Do you feel a sense of peace? Do you feel the gods’ presence more strongly? Do you feel a sense of connection to something bigger than yourself? Write down these and any other thoughts on your new practice.

At the end of three weeks, look back over your notes. How did this practice change the way you feel about your spirituality? How did it change your relationship with the gods? If there was a positive change, try to continue integrating this practice into your daily routine.

If there was no change, that’s okay — this specific practice may not be for you, and there’s no shame in that. Choose a different practice and repeat the experiment. Keep at it until you find a way to create sacred space that works for you on your unique spiritual path.

In my humble opinion, it’s important to learn how to hold sacred space before you start investigating different pagan religions. Not only will it give you the basic tools you’ll need for religious ritual, but it will help you to discover your personal worship style and comfort zone. With this, you’ll be better able to determine which pagan path(s) are a good fit for you.

Why do I need to feed the gods? (Paganism 101 Ch. 6)

One of the biggest adjustments for new pagans, especially those coming from a Christian background, is the concept of physical offerings. For a lot of people, it seems strange to give a physical gift like food to a non-physical being. For others, the concept of food offerings seems primitive or backwards. For these reasons, I think it’s important to address why pagans make offerings before you go any further on your pagan journey.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: food offerings are not primitive or backwards. Pagans know that the gods don’t literally eat the food we offer them. Offerings are a way to deepen your individual connection with a god or spirit — it’s not so much about what you give, but the act of giving that is meaningful.

Think of it like sharing a meal with a good friend. Throughout history, eating together has been an important part of the way humans form and maintain social relationships. Even today, our weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, and even funerals usually contain a shared meal. Food offerings allow us to share this kind of bonding with the gods and spirits that are important to us.

This is not a practice that is unique to paganism. Many people, from many different belief systems, offer food to spirits on various occasions. Food is used as an offering to kami in Shinto, and to various deities and spirits in Buddhism. Hinduism even has a special name for food offered to deities — prasada. In Día de los Muertos, a Mexican Catholic festival honoring the dead, food offerings are set out to entice the beloved dead to return and visit their living relatives.

Even the Christian practice of communion can be viewed as a type of food offering. When a Christian priest consecrates the bread and wine, he or she symbolically offers them to Jesus. The Christian belief that Jesus inhabits the offering and is then taken in by the parishioners who eat it has direct parallels in pagan worship.

Likewise, when pagans offer food to their gods, the gods symbolically and spiritually receive it. One common belief among pagans is that the gods consume the spiritual essence of the offering. They are “fed” or given power not only by this essence, but by the religious ceremony surrounding the offering.

Protocol for food offerings varies from one pagan group to the next. In some systems, such as Kemetic paganism, the worshiper offers the food to the god(s), allows them time to consume its essence, and then eats the food as a way to ritually share a meal. In other systems, like Heathenry/Norse paganism, the worshiper takes the first bite or sip of the food, then gives the rest to the god(s) — again, this allows the worshiper to bond over a shared meal with their deity. Some systems, like Religio Romana, give the gods an equal portion of the food being shared by worshipers. Still others consider it extremely bad form, or even taboo, to eat something that has been offered to the gods — in these cases, the worshiper does not partake of the offering at all.

When planning an offering to a deity, it’s important to know what the guidelines for food offerings are in your chosen religious system, as well as the historical protocol for offerings to that deity. An offering to Athena will look very different from an offering to Thor.

Some deities or pantheons also have taboos against offerings of certain foods. Some gods cannot be offered meat, while others require meat as part of a sacrifice. Some gods do not receive alcohol well, while others prefer it. It’s important to do your research ahead of time to avoid offending your gods — or their other worshipers. (When we talk about specific pagan paths, we’ll talk about the protocol for offerings in those systems.)

Food is a common choice for offerings partially because of the social implications of sharing food and partially because it’s convenient. However, it isn’t the only option for an offering, and I personally think it’s a good idea to switch things up now and then.

Non-food offerings may include physical gifts that are related to a god and their domain, such as offering a bouquet of fresh flowers to Persephone. They can also include devotional acts such as donating to a charity that shares your god’s values, growing plants that are sacred to them, or writing a devotional poem or song. I find that devotional acts are especially meaningful for me, as they typically require more time, effort, and thought than physical offerings.

Some pagan groups, especially those with Celtic influences, hold the belief that something being offered to the gods must be destroyed so that it can never again be used by humans. For example, in ancient times a sword or spear being offered to an Irish deity would be twisted out of shape before being given to the god(s). For modern pagans, this might mean burning the only copy of a poem you wrote. The concept is the same — once something belongs to the gods, it is no longer meant for human eyes or hands.

Offerings are an important part of pagan worship because they emphasize the importance of reciprocity. Pagan worship is about building relationships, and relationships require effort, thought, and care from both parties. The process of choosing the right offering and planning a ritual around it can be incredibly powerful and can help you feel closer to the gods.

Resources:

  • Where the Hawthorn Grows by Morgan Daimler
  • Irish Paganism by Morgan Daimler
  • Wicca for Beginners by Thea Sabin
  • Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
  • The Way of Fire and Ice by Ryan Smith
  • Following the Sun by Sharon LaBorde

Neopagans, reconstructionists, and revivalists, oh my! (Paganism 101 Ch. 5)

Person With Black and White Bracelet Holding Hands
Photo by Deena, accessed via Pexels.

As we’ve discussed before, “pagan” is an umbrella term that actually encompasses a wide range of traditions. Not all pagans believe the same things, worship the same gods, or conceptualize those gods the same way.

Within the bigger pagan umbrella, there are three smaller umbrellas that can be useful for classifying pagan worship: neopagan, reconstructionist, and revivalist. These labels describe different approaches to ancient pagan religion and different ways of incorporating paganism into daily life. It’s important to remember that words like “neopagan” or “reconstructionist” refer to someone’s practice and not necessarily to their beliefs.

A neopagan is someone who takes inspiration from ancient pagan religions, but does not try to recreate those religions in their practice. For example, a neopagan might feel a strong connection to the Roman gods, but they don’t necessarily observe all the intricacies of Roman ritual (and believe me, there’s a lot — Roman polytheism is where Catholicism gets a lot of its formal structure) in their practice. They’re comfortable making things up as they go along, combining concepts from different historical sources, and practicing a thoroughly modern type of paganism. You could say that neopagans strive to capture the spirit of ancient paganism, but do so in a very 21st-century way.

Neopagans are more likely to be monists than hard polytheists, and may even use pagan-style ritual as a means to connect to a single divine Source rather than a specific deity. Neopagan groups often place a great emphasis on reverence for nature and strive to live in harmony with the natural world. Neopagans are sometimes described as practicing “Earth-centered religion.”

The most famous neopagan faith is Wicca. Rather than being a recreation of an ancient religion, Wicca combines concepts from these religions (particularly Celtic and Germanic paganism) with elements of ceremonial magic and Western occultism. Wiccans worship the God and Goddess, personifications of the masculine and feminine sides of the divine Source, and many covens have their own unique mythology to describe the interactions between the God and Goddess through the cycle of the seasons. Wiccans tend to play fast and loose with historical sources, or may not include any historical elements in their practice at all. This is a good example of what a neopagan practice might look like.

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum are reconstructionists, who strive to recreate or “reconstruct” ancient religion. If you can’t do anything without reading three books about it first, you might be a reconstructionist. Jokes aside, reconstructionists seek to emulate a historical religion as closely as possible. Reconstructive practice is very research-heavy, and revolves around recreations of ancient rituals based on historical sources. There is a great emphasis on connecting to and honoring the ancient culture being reconstructed. Some reconstructionists may even learn ancient languages for use in ritual.

Reconstructionists may be monists, hard polytheists, or somewhere in between depending on the religion they are reconstructing. Their values, beliefs, and practices also depend on the culture being reconstructed. A Hellenic reconstructionist will have very different beliefs and practices from an Irish reconstructionist, for example.

Nova Roma is an example of a reconstructionist faith. According to their website, “Founded 2,750 years after the Eternal City itself, Nova Roma seeks to bring back those golden times, not through the sword and the legions, however, but through the spread of knowledge and through our own virtuous example… The modern practice of the Roman religion, the Cultus Deorum Romanorum is our attempt to reconstruct the religion of the ancient Romans as closely as possible.” Members of Nova Roma choose a Roman name for use in ritual — and those rituals are as close as possible to the rites of Imperial Rome. They even have communal religious spaces built to resemble Roman temples!

One important note about reconstruction: it’s impossible to do it perfectly. No matter which historical culture you’re reconstructing, there will likely be some gaps (possibly very large gaps) in our knowledge of their religion. No matter how much research you do, you will sometimes have to use your best guess.

While reconstruction seeks to recreate ancient religion, it is not all about looking backwards. No matter how closely you recreate Egyptian religion, you can never have the same thoughts, experiences, or worldview as an ancient Egyptian peasant. Even the most hardcore reconstructionist has to adapt their religion to fit a modern lifestyle. As author Morgan Daimler points out, “reconstruction is understanding the old pagan religion so that we can envision what it would have been like if it had never been interrupted by foreign influences and had continued to exist until today.”

I like to think of revivalists as the halfway point between neopagans and reconstructionists. Revivalists seek to recreate the spirit of a specific ancient religion, but they may not necessarily reconstruct all of the practices associated with that religion. Revivalists are much more concerned with theology and upholding ancient cultural/religious values than they are with dogma or practice.

Like reconstructionists, revivalists’ beliefs depend on the ancient culture they are seeking to revive. Also like reconstructionists, revivalists do a lot of research — however, their research acts more as inspiration or general guidelines than as something that has to be followed to the letter. Like neopagans, revivalists are very much practicing a modern religion.

Going back to our example of Roman paganism, a Roman revivalist will strive to uphold Roman values in their daily life, like xenia (roughly translated as “hospitality,” though that is an oversimplification). They likely worship the Roman gods, but may do so in a more informal way than Nova Roma or other reconstructionists. They may include some historic elements in their rituals, like wearing a head covering and making burnt offerings — but the ritual will likely be performed in their native language. Revivalists are all about taking the big ideas of ancient religion and adapting them for modern life.

The line between revival and reconstruction is not always clearly defined. Many revivalists use reconstruction in some areas of their faith, and every reconstructionist is a revivalist when they have to fill in gaps in historical knowledge of their religion. The distinction really lies in how closely you want to follow ancient traditions.

Each of these approaches to paganism has its benefits and its drawbacks. Different approaches work better for different people — a lot of it comes down to personality and preference. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the obvious pros and cons of each approach.

PROS of neopaganism:

  • Because this is by far the most widely practiced type of paganism, there is an abundance of beginner-friendly literature available for new neopagans.
  • Because of its popularity and flexibility, it’s usually fairly easy to find a neopagan group to worship with, either in person or online.
  • Neopaganism allows for a lot of experimentation and personal exploration. You are free to incorporate whatever elements work for you.

CONS of neopaganism

  • Ironically, an abundance of literature also means there are a lot of bad neopagan resources floating around. Newcomers should take care in choosing the books they read on the subject.
  • Some people become frustrated with the lack of structure in many neopagan traditions.
  • It can sometimes feel like there are no “real” right answers, since neopaganism relies heavily on personal truth.

PROS of reconstruction

  • Reconstructing an ancient religion provides a sense of structure.
  • Choosing to focus on a specific religion/culture can lead to a deep feeling of connection to that culture. This can be especially powerful for pagans who feel disconnected from their cultural heritage.
  • Because reconstruction seeks to recreate ancient religion, it’s easy to find other people who practice the same way you do.

CONS of reconstruction

  • Reconstruction is largely based on primary sources, so reconstructionists will likely have to read dense, academic, and/or archaic literature at some point.
  • Unless you live in a big city, it may be hard to find an in-person community that shares your beliefs and practices.
  • Focus on a single culture means there is less room for experimentation. You can still incorporate elements from other traditions, but only if they don’t contradict your existing beliefs.

PROS of revival

  • Revival allows pagans to feel a close connection to an ancient culture, while also allowing them freedom to customize their path.
  • Allows practitioners to be their own priest/priestess and make their own decisions regarding their practice.
  • Provides a middle ground between the fluidity of neopaganism and the stricture of reconstruction.

CONS of revival

  • Because every revivalist practices differently, it can be very hard to find a group to worship with without having to make compromises.
  • Like reconstructionists, revivalists will occasionally have to do some difficult reading.
  • Because this path is so often solitary, it can be hard to stick with it if you aren’t good at keeping yourself motivated.

If you are considering becoming pagan, take a moment to think about which of these approaches appeals most to you. Are you most attracted to neopaganism, reconstruction, or revival?

Don’t just think about which approach sounds the best, but think about which one is most practical for you. Do you need the external motivation of a group to keep you on the right track, or are you very internally motivated? Do you like following instructions, or do you prefer to make things up as you go? Do you feel a strong connection to a specific ancient culture, or do you feel more connected to nature itself? All of these questions can help guide you towards the right approach for your practice.

Resources:

  • Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
  • Nova Roma’s website, novaroma.org
  • Irish Paganism: Reconstructing Irish Polytheism by Morgan Daimler
  • The Way of Fire and Ice by Ryan Smith

Reconnecting with the Divine Feminine (Paganism 101 Ch. 4)

British Museum Queen of the Night.jpg
The Burney Relief, believed to depict either the Babylonian goddess Ishtar or her sister Ereshkigal. Photo from Wikipedia.

I don’t think it’s groundbreaking or controversial at this point to say that all three Abrahamic religions are mostly patriarchal. Sure, we can talk about the veneration of the Virgin Mary, or the woman prophets in the Tanakh, or women saints in Islam. At the end of the day, though, we cannot overlook the fact that in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, God is a man. Since 31% of the world’s population identify as Christian and 23% identify as Muslim, that means over half of the people on Earth are completely disconnected from the feminine side of divinity.

Ironically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are among very few religions that don’t embrace a feminine aspect of divinity. Patriarchal religion is treated like the norm in most modern cultures (again, largely because of the dominance of Christianity and Islam), but it has definitely not been the norm throughout human history. The Goddess, the Divine Feminine, has been a prominent part of human spirituality since before recorded history.

In ancient Sumer she was Inanna, the Queen of Heaven. In Egypt she was Isis, Lady of the Sky, Great of Magic, and Hathor, Lady of the West, and Sekhmet, Mistress of Fear. In Hinduism she is Shakti, the feminine principle that moves the universe. In Japan she is Amaterasu, the Great Illuminating Deity, and Izanami, the creatrix who rules the underworld. The Divine Feminine has taken all of these forms at different times and places, among many, many others.

Even the Abrahamic religions haven’t always been solely focused on masculine divinity. There is significant evidence that the Abrahamic God was originally part of a larger pantheon before becoming the sole object of worship in Israel and Judah. As part of a polytheist system, he had a consort, a goddess named Asherah. Rabbinic literature refers to the divine presence of the Jewish God as “shekinah” — interestingly, this is a feminine word, implying that this aspect of God is feminine.

The removal of feminine divinity from Christianity largely occurred during the fourth century, when Roman Christianity beat out other traditions as the sole “correct” Church. Before this some Christian groups, notably those in North Africa, had worshiped God as both Father and Mother — a masculine/feminine dyad, rather than the masculine trinity worshiped in Rome. Other groups identified the Holy Spirit as feminine, creating a trinity of Father, Mother, and Son. (Interestingly, these family triads were also common in Egyptian paganism.) When the Nicene Creed was created in 325 to standardize Christian belief and practice, it excluded these interpretations by affirming belief only in “God, the Father Almighty” and “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and removing all mentions of God the Mother.

All of this does not invalidate the genuine, life-changing spiritual experiences people have had with modern Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. It does, however, prove that patriarchal religion is the exception, not the rule.

Modern paganism’s acceptance and veneration of the Divine Feminine is a large part of its appeal for many converts, especially women, genderfluid, and nonbinary people who do not see themselves represented in the mythology and art of patriarchal religion. The Divine Feminine is present in all pagan religions, though She takes different forms in different faiths.

In monist pagan paths like Wicca, the polarity of Goddess and God is seen as one of the primary ways deity makes itself known to mankind. In the words of Scott Cunningham, one of Wicca’s most influential authors, “The Goddess and God are equal; neither is higher or more deserving of respect… The Goddess is the universal mother. She is the source of fertility, endless wisdom, and loving caresses… She is at once the unploughed field, the full harvest, and the dormant, frost-covered earth.”

The Goddess and the God balance and compliment each other, and this balance is at the core of many neopagan religions. (There are some traditions that exclusively worship the Goddess, but we’ll talk more about that in a future post.)

In polytheist paganism, the Divine Feminine is present in the form of various goddesses who rule over different aspects of life and nature. It is not uncommon for polytheist pagans (or monist pagans, for that matter) to work with multiple goddesses, even goddesses from different historical pantheons. Some goddesses are explicitly associated with certain aspects of womanhood — for example, the Greek goddess Artemis is associated with virgins and young girls, while Demeter is associated with motherhood.

In many (but not all) polytheist systems, there is an emphasis on balance between gods and goddesses. One of my favorite examples of this is the marriage of the Morrigan and the Dagda in Irish mythology. The Morrigan, goddess of war, magic, and death, is married to the “good god” of life, fertility, and knowledge. Their union represents a balance between opposite, complimentary forces.

This brings us to another point I want to make, while we’re on the subject of the Divine Feminine: not all feminine divinities are passive, maternal, fertility goddesses.

In Western culture, women (and, by extension, feminine deities) are seen as the passive or receptive sex. This is largely a product of Victorian England, not an ancient truth.

Without knowledge of sex chromosomes, hormones, or the complexities of gender, Victorian thinkers developed a theory that men had a “katabolic” nature that was constantly releasing energy, while women had an “anabolic” nature that was constantly receiving and storing up energy. This concept of gender greatly influenced Western occultism and can be seen, for example, in Gerald Gardener’s conception of the Goddess as the passive recipient of the God’s energy.

This is a relatively new and very Western idea. In Hinduism, for example, Shakti is both the feminine principle and the energy that moves the cosmos. In the words of author Kavitha Chinnaiyan, “there is nothing in creation that isn’t a manifestation of Shakti.” Shiva, the masculine principle, is unchanging awareness — it is Shakti who possesses the dynamic energy necessary for creation.

I am by no means encouraging pagans to appropriate Hindu concepts. My point here is that no gender is entirely active or entirely passive, which is why so many cultures interpret gender in so many different ways.

Even within systems like traditional Wicca, which operate within a strict gender binary, neither gender can be completely tied down. In their book A Witches’ Bible, traditional Wiccans Janet and Stewart Farrar acknowledge that the “masculine = active, feminine = passive” model is an oversimplification. They use the example of an artist and muse. The (feminine) muse “fertilizes” the (masculine) artist, who “gives birth” to the resulting art.

Personally, I see the masculine/feminine polarity as a constantly shifting dynamic, with both sides giving and receiving energy all the time. Which side of the polarity is more active or passive depends on the situation.

Being pagan does not mean dedicating yourself to the worship of gender binaries, and it does not mean you need to uphold those binaries. God and Goddess are only two of many possible expressions of the Divine, just like man and woman are only two of many possible gender expressions.

Monist pagans see the God and Goddess as two halves of a greater, all-gendered whole. Polytheist pagans may worship gods and goddesses who fall outside of the gender binary such as the Norse Loki or the Egyptian Atum. In either case, divinity is seen as encompassing all possible gender expressions, not just cis man and cis woman.

The erasure of the feminine from Western religion and mythology means that the nonbinary nature of some deities is often downplayed or erased completely. (You’d be hard pressed to find a mythology book that doesn’t use he/him pronouns for both Loki and Atum.) Reconnecting with the Divine Feminine opens the door for other divine expressions of gender.

The end result of this acceptance of feminine and nonbinary divinity is a religious community built on equality between all gender expressions. No one is closer to the gods because of the anatomy they were born with or the gender they present as.

This paves the way for a religion where no one’s worship is restricted because of their gender expression. It allows for priests, priestesses, and priestixes. It allows everyone to fully participate in the rites of their faith, on equal footing regardless of gender or pronouns. It also creates an environment where practitioners feel comfortable exploring issues of gender and sexuality, knowing that they will not lose the support of their community if their identity changes.

Resources:

  • The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
  • Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
  • The Morrigan and The Dagda by Morgan Daimler
  • “Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality” by Elizabeth Lee, Brown University
  • Shakti Rising by Kavitha M. Chinnaiyan, M.D.
  • A Witches’ Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar
  • Casting a Queer Circle: Non-binary Witchcraft by Thista Minai