On Common Ground: World Religions in America Introduction to Paganism

World Religions in America Introduction to Paganism

World Religions in America Introduction to Paganism - World Religions in America Introduction to Paganism
Roots in Ancient Cultures

The many present-day American religious communities clustered under the name Paganism have roots in ancient cultures from all over the world. "Pagan" originally meant "country dweller," implying a life lived off the land, close to the seasons and cycles of nature. Today, the many congregations and communities of "Neo-Pagans" in America, different as they may be, would all describe their tradition as an Earth Religion, in which all life is seen to be sacred and interconnected. Many American Pagans are active participants in the environmental movement, seeking to live in a way that honors the Earth and the cycles and balances of nature.

With the twentieth-century resurgence of Paganism has come an attempt to reconstruct, historically and sometimes creatively, the long history of Pagan religious traditions. Through the lens of twentieth-century concerns, modern-day Pagans have made a serious attempt to reconstruct the history of the Earth-centered traditions maintained in ancient times without written records or scriptures. With a keen interest in ecology and in the Earth, Pagan movements pay special attention to the many feminine faces of the Divine. Both women and men are involved in Paganism, but the tradition is especially open to women taking on leadership roles.

The modern Pagan resurgence has been stimulated by highly speculative and imaginative research and writing. The work of folklorist Margaret Murray, beginning in the 1920s, caught the imagination of many with its theories of persistent Goddess worship and Pagan tradition in the Christianized West. In 1948, Robert Graves published The White Goddess, a massive compilation of theories about the worldwide presence of the Great Goddess. In the 1950s, the repeal of British laws prohibiting books on witchcraft allowed Gerald Gardner to publish the story of his initiation into a hereditary lineage of Witches.
His work sparked a wave of Gardnerian covens in England and, through the work of Gardnerian Raymond Buckland, in the United States. While most doubt his claim of a continuous ancient lineage, he did inspire many people to practice ritual and follow a Pagan spiritual path.

Though academically flawed in their attempts to establish evidence for the continuity of ancient Paganism into modern times, the work of these writers was nonetheless influential in sparking a revival of Paganism in the West. Margot Adler, discussing these works in her examination of modern Paganism, Drawing Down the Moon (1979), states that most revivalists in North America today "accept the universal Old Religion more as a metaphor than as a literal reality--a spiritual truth more than a geographic one." Since the 1970s, there has been an explosion of Pagan writings, both in books and periodicals.

In America, the publication of Starhawk's The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess in the same year as Margot Adler's book brought a wealth of information about Paganism to the public. Drawing down the Moon documents the history, growth and range of contemporary Pagan religion and The Spiral Dance explains the feminist philosophy and practice of Wicca, the Old English term for what has been called "witchcraft." While outsiders today, as in times past, have misunderstood witchcraft to be a malevolent practice, Wiccans use the term to connote the Goddess and Earth-centered practices of spirituality and healing.

Pagans of today's Earth Religion look back to early agricultural communities that experienced directly the forces of nature and closely connected to the cycle of seasons. All over the world and throughout history, people have performed rituals to express this connection. Rites of birth and death, planting, harvest and thanksgiving are among the most ancient human religious expressions, involving singing, dancing and feasting. In the West, ancient practices connected to the cycle of life and the seasons of the year preceded Christianity: for instance, in England and Ireland, ancient stone circles were built and used in worship as early as the third millennium BCE.

The Earth, so central to these practices, was often considered a Goddess--generative and life giving and worshipped by people in many cultures. Martha Ann and Dorothy Myers Imel's book, Goddesses in World Mythology (1993), lists more than one thousand names for Earth Goddesses. There are as many for mother Goddesses and nature Goddesses. The destroyer Goddess, also almost universal, has around four hundred different names.

The ancient small figurine known as the Venus of Willendorf, named for the area of Austria in which she was found, dates as early as 22,000 BCE, in the Paleolithic era. Its ample female body may be an artifact of one of the earliest forms of worship. Images from much later in human history are more plentiful: those of the Minoan snake goddess, for instance, date to 1600 BCE. In Egypt, from as far back as the eleventh century BCE were found images of priestesses playing frame drums and worshipping the Egyptian goddess Hathor. Most ancient cultures honored a multiplicity of female and male deities, and different traditions of Goddess worship may have influenced each other, creating many similarities in the development of sacred images, along with much specificity in each tradition. Today, replicas of figures such as the Venus of Willendorf are found on the altars of America's new Pagan practitioners.

The derogatory use of the term "pagan" did not begin until the fourth century CE, when Christianity came to power in the Roman Empire and non-Christian religions were gradually outlawed. However, Christianity seems to have coexisted with Paganism in the villages and the countryside for many centuries, through a process of syncretism. Pagan shrines were installed with Christian images and later, had Christian churches built right over them. Popular Pagan festivals and holy days were taken over and adapted to Christianity, with Goddesses gradually incorporated into the world of Christian saints.

Despite these forms of syncretism, the Christian tradition explicitly proclaimed Pagan religious belief and practices to be false. The decentralized, pantheistic Pagan worship was viewed as heretical to the Christian understanding of God's oneness. As the Christian church grew in power, it tried to stop what it could not assimilate: Pagan practices were displaced from the public sphere, although some must have continued, privately, and in secret.

In the 14th century, the practice of Pagan traditions called "witchcraft" became defined as a crime of heresy, punishable by death. The rubric of witchcraft included a wide range of practices seen as magic, sorcery, even Satanism. Herbal healing, which had long been practiced by women, was also suppressed as witchcraft. Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, the burning of Western European women for the crime of witchcraft was widespread. While men were also convicted and burned, 85% of the victims were women who were tortured into confessions. Estimates of the number who died during the "witch-craze" range from 100,000 to several million. Homosexual men were also burned; the derogatory name 'faggot' comes from the bundles of wood used to fuel the fires. Rural communities experienced the arrival of inquisitors and witch hunters, and witnessed the public execution of neighbors. To protest was considered heretical, and with the possible result that the protester joined the victims burning at the stake. The American colonies of the 17th century saw outbursts of violence against those accused of witchcraft: in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, 12 women and 7 men were hanged as witches.
Women who were healers were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. At that time, medicine was in the process of being professionalized to the exclusion of these female practitioners. Eventually even the practice of midwifery, long the domain of women, was deemed illegal if the midwife had no formal institutional training, and access to these institutions was available only to men. The use of women's skills, often the only ones available to the rural poor, was outlawed. Some healers persisted in their work at the risk of their lives.

Violent persecution did much to stop ancient Pagan practices. Today there is a lively academic debate over whether any traditions could have survived in a direct lineage of practice from medieval to modern times. How much has been lost, how much went underground, and how much can be reclaimed through ritual are all areas of exploration. Today, many are rediscovering and renewing ancient religious ways, obscured during the development of both Christianity and Judaism. While some Pagans search for ancient roots in myth, history and archeology, most are not concerned about a direct lineage to centuries past, and search within themselves and nature for a connection to the Divine.

Modern Paganism includes a wide variety of practitioners of nature religions, such as Druids, Eco-feminists, Gaians, and Wiccans or Witches. The broad spectrum of Wicca is also known as Witchcraft or, simply, the Craft. Among the many Wiccans today are Gardnerian, Minoan, Shamanic, Alexandrian, Faerie, Eclectic, Dianic, and Hereditary traditions. While many people define their path as Pagan, others feel the term is too broad. Some prefer to be called Neo-Pagans to acknowledge that they are adapting ancient ways to a contemporary context. Many Wiccans prefer the word Witch because of its historical connections to the wise women and folk healers who were persecuted, while others dislike the name because of the negative stereotyping it carries. Some Pagans claim ancient lineages; others freely chose new spiritual paths. Many do some of both.

There is no single standard, text, or scripture to which Pagans look for authority, yet the many strands of Paganism have a number of common foundations. The Divine is not separate from the Earth, but can be found in nature. The Earth is sacred, and human connectedness to nature deeply valued. The yearly cycle of the seasons, and the corresponding cycle of human life from birth to maturity to decline and death, is central to Pagan ritual. In most Pagan traditions, the Goddess is revered among the many aspects and faces of the Divine. Dianic practitioners tend to worship her exclusively. But whether as God or Goddess, the many faces of the Divine are not in conflict with one another. Other Pagans worship Goddess and God together, and some Pagans believe that since the Divine Spirit infuses all of life; there is no need for specific forms or images. Finally, Pagans acknowledge the Divinity within each person, which means that Pagan groups tend to be egalitarian. Each individual can experience and manifest the Divine directly, and each participant contributes to the power of a ritual.

Pagans are becoming more open in their practices in the twentieth century. There are public gatherings in many cities, and churches can be found in the Yellow Pages and community church directories. In 1992, thousands of Witches from around the world gathered on Gallows Hill in Salem, Massachusetts for a ritual commemorating the three hundredth anniversary of the execution of Witches there. The town has erected a memorial to the victims.

In 1993, a number of Pagan groups participated in the Parliament of the World's Religions held in Chicago. Through panels and presentations, American Pagans were able to explain their faith in their own terms, answer questions, and disarm negative stereotyping. A large Pagan ritual was held in Chicago's Grant Park, with Mother Tongue, a Pagan choral group from the Earth Spirit community, performing. Hundreds of participants came both the Parliament and from the public. The Pagan presence, while difficult for some religious groups at the Parliament, seemed to represent a new level of openness in the Pagan contribution to the American religious landscape.

Current American Resurgence

Wicca is one of the major categories of contemporary American Paganism. The term comes from the Old English "wicce" pronounced "witche" which referred to the "Old Religion" - Witchcraft or the Craft. Many Wiccans in America today deliberately choose to call themselves "Witches," claiming the very name for which women and men of centuries past were persecuted.

Contemporary Wiccans or Witches cope with many stereotypes. In the popular mind, they are frightful, greenish old ladies with warts, or perhaps buxom, dangerous young women, who dress in black, have cats, wear pointy hats, concoct manipulative magic spells, and deliver hexes. In reality, they may in fact wear black and love cats, but they also may wear all the colors of the rainbow and prefer dogs. They come from all walks of life, and might be accountants, lawyers, or social workers. They live in the city, in the country, and in every state of the U. S.

During the last few decades, the U.S. Pagan community has multiplied dramatically, possibly quadrupling in size in the last fifteen years. Many Pagans attribute this growth to the attractiveness of a life-affirming path in an alienated society. Some people are drawn to Pagan ways because of the celebrations of the seasonal holidays, the participatory rituals, and the prospect of a living relationship to the elements of nature the earth, air, fire, water and spirit. This is especially attractive for those who seek spiritual grounding for their growing environmental consciousness.

Modern Paganism also attracts many because of its reverence for the Goddess or Goddesses. "Goddess Spirituality" is one of the fastest growing movements in American religious life today, and Paganism is a strong contributor to it. Much contemporary Neopaganism contains a strong feminist perspective: many women came to this spiritual path through the women's consciousness raising movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when communities of women began to search for and, in some cases, to create a woman affirming spirituality. Through experimentation as well as research into ancient mythology, women found that a connection with Goddess imagery was empowering and concretely helpful to their lives. In Pagan circles, they also found many opportunities for spiritual leadership.

Since Paganism is a grassroots religious movement, it is difficult to study comprehensively. None of the standard religious surveys includes Paganism, though a Pagan Census Project is now conducting statistical research to document both the size and diversity of this path. Pagans do not proselytize, and while classes and retreats may introduce people to the path, the initiative is with each individual. Some Pagans may also be part of another religious community, perhaps a church or synagogue. The source of growth in Paganism is through small groups - variously called groves, nests, covens and circles--forming on their own to cultivate a spiritual connection with Nature. The intimacy of small groups lends itself to real contact among the practitioners, which is a strength of this religious path.

Among the large public rituals is the San Francisco celebration of Samhain, the Pagan New Year, on October 31, which culminates in a ritual spiral dance led by the Reclaiming Collective. In 1994, over fifteen hundred people attended Samhain and more than one hundred and fifty participated as volunteers. The celebration was held in a huge indoor pavilion in San Francisco's Mission District, and structured so everyone could participate actively. The ritual began with "casting a circle," creating a circular sacred space within which people gathered in three smaller circles. Led by the priests and priestesses, the ritual moved through all three circles. They invoked the spirits of the four directions and the center, and then the spirits of God and Goddess. In this public ritual, as in many private ones, paganism guides people through the difficult passages of life: all those present were invited to remember and mourn their beloved dead and follow the priestess on a meditative trance-journey to encounter them. This was followed by the spiral dance, in which all participants held hands, weaving into the center, out to the periphery and back into the center.

Some Pagans are open about their religious life, sponsoring public rituals in urban parks, attending weeklong annual gatherings, and supporting numerous Pagan non-profit religious organizations. Many more, however, still keep their faith and practices private. Although the "burning times" are long past, misunderstanding and persecution continue. Many Pagans fear repercussions on the job or at their children's schools if their religious practices become known. Firings are not uncommon, and the threat of losing one's children in custody disputes is ever-present. Many work with public information to help dispel negative stereotypes; some groups are willing to talk to local churches and schools about their beliefs. Accurate information is seen by many to be the best investment in a peaceful and free future, while at the same time Pagans are involved in legal work to protect their right to religious freedom.

While in the past, there has been a sense of mystery surrounding Pagan gatherings, today more groups are becoming publicly known in their local communities. There are many forms of Pagan networking. In many communities, a local Pagan supply store selling herbs, candles, and books also serves as a social center, where people meet, read flyers, exchange information, and publicize their gatherings, ranging from large holiday celebrations on the solstices and equinoxes to small, monthly full moon rituals.

Publications are an important resource for the far-flung Pagan community. The Circle Guide to Pagan Groups, first published in 1979, lists hundreds of groups throughout the United States and facilitates access to them. A newsletter like Circle Network News of Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin provides an important sense of community for those, widely separated in their daily lives. Increasingly the Internet also links individuals and groups together and provides a forum for dialogue and exchange. There are many Pagan web sites, and an active virtual network of Pagans. Today, as national and global organizations create bridges of communication, Pagans experience far less isolation than in the past. Moreover, as information on their traditions becomes available, they anticipate the diminishing of negative stereotyping as well.

Some Pagan groups have become organized at the national level, with branches across the United States connecting individuals with groups, providing training for practitioners and clergy, and doing public relations work. Most of them hold large annual gatherings, often-weeklong outdoor conferences or festivals that bring together the dispersed community. Perhaps the oldest of these is the Church of All Worlds, which began in 1962, incorporated in 1968 and now has groups across the nation. The Covenant of the Goddess, incorporated in 1975, is organized at the national level and dedicated to training Pagan clergy, with branches in Europe and Australia as well. The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, or CUUPS, started in 1986, is now a national organization affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church. It represents a groundbreaking initiative to situate a Pagan fellowship within the context of an inclusive, truth-seeking church.

Many people who come to Paganism participate first as curious observers--part of the audience, at large public rituals. Some may feel alienated from mainstream values and find in Paganism a form of rebellion, since in Paganism conformity is not a unifying value. Some say skeptics make the best Witches. In time, however, many who have become Pagans recognize this path as something already familiar, and coming to Paganism is for them a kind of homecoming. While there are some hereditary practitioners brought up in the Craft, most find their way to Pagan circles as adults, though children are welcome at many rituals, and future generations may well see many more young people brought up as Pagans from birth.

Priestesses of the Goddess

The feminist movement, beginning in the 1960s, provided an important impetus for the growth of contemporary Paganism. Over the course of the last thirty years or so, women began exploring religious forms that were empowering to them. Two modern movements grew out of this exploration: the Eco-feminist movement, which emphasizes the relation of environmental issues to the ancient honoring of the Earth and nature, and the Goddess Spirituality movement, which emphasizes feminine language and images for the Divine.
Both movements have grown rapidly and been influential in shaping new American Paganism, which women have found particularly attractive for its religious perspective that honors the earth, respects the body, and emphasizes the interconnection of all things.

Through the exploration of ancient mythology, women also found connection with Goddess imagery to be empowering and concretely helpful in their lives. The diversity of Goddesses includes images that are powerful, nurturing, and protective images as well as wrathful, destructive, and warrior-like. According to those in Wiccan and other Pagan traditions, these images of the Divine have enabled women to embrace and honor the multiple aspects of themselves. For example, the Wiccan Triple Goddess embodies the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, sanctifying each stage of a woman's life and knowledge. The Maiden is honored for her physical strength and initiative, the Mother for her generativity and nurturance, and the Crone, the wise old woman in the third and final phase of her life, for her sagacity and endurance. As a Crone, a woman may offer guidance to less experienced women and provide a positive model for the middle-aged, celebrating the wisdom of the old in a society focused on youth.

In the Pagan, movement every woman can be a leader, for every woman embodies the power and creativity of the Goddess. Many feminist covens use a model of rotating leadership as they develop alternative models of power. Like many populist reform movements, the feminist movement begins with lived experience and strongly affirms, "The personal is political." The feminist Neo-Pagan movement goes on to insist that the personal and political are also spiritual. Many women are drawn to Paganism for precisely this, as it offers positive self-image, and calls for putting spiritual ideals into practice.

Pagan priestesses are women who have practiced a Pagan spiritual path for some time and have trained in-group ritual. Some groups recognize High Priestesses, who have an additional level of training and experience. Priestesses may work on a local level, and might be well-known regionally or nationally. A look at several prominent Pagan priestesses today shows the range of their experiences.

Among the most well-known American priestesses today is Star hawk, a writer, ritualist, activist, and teacher based in the San Francisco Bay area. Her 1979 book The Spiral Dance, an instructive manual of the practice of Wiccan ritual, is considered a primary text on the Craft. She has also published Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (1982), Truth or Dare (1987) and a novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993). She also works with the Reclaiming Collective, dedicated to "reclaiming" a spirituality that is both feminist and political. Her political activism has been a model for others on this path: she has protested the nuclear development of Diablo Canyon and led rituals for gay rights activists preparing to do civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. She was arrested for her role in trying to protect old-growth forest in British Columbia. As a leader, she works to enable others to find their own inner authority and ways of leadership.

Selena Fox is another nationally known spokesperson for Paganism and a leading advocate of religious freedom. She is the founder and priestess of Circle Sanctuary in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin--a nature preserve, community, and organization offering a wide array of resources and services to Pagans. A peace advocate for thirty years, Selena travels to give lectures and seminars, and at home at Circle Sanctuary does private counseling and full-time ministry. Circle Sanctuary sponsors the Pagan Academic Network, the quarterly newspaper Circle Network News, and the Lady Liberty League.

Phyllis Curott is a lawyer living in New York City and a Wiccan priestess who officiates at large public Wiccan rituals, both in New York and around the country. As an attorney, she won the right for the Wiccan clergy of the Covenant of the Goddess to perform legally binding marriage ceremonies in New York. Beyond teaching introductory classes in Wicca, she and a circle of elders from the Minoan Fellowship have formed teaching circles where novice practitioners have the benefit of working with experienced practitioners. As the past First Officer of the Covenant of the Goddess, Phyllis Curott represented this group at the Parliament of the World's Religions i