Originally appeared in the Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1993

By now, most of us need barely glance over our shoulders to see the cracks and
fissures running through the facade of Western Civ. Rationality has degenerated
into an instrument of control, science spawns the very problems it then hopes
to mend, traditional canons crumble, and the social system that crawled out of
Europe’s chilly bogs now munches its way across the planet’s surface like some
cancerous machine set on auto-destruct.

For those of us inside this bustling ruin, the crisis of civilization is also
a crisis of being. Our identities, forged in no small measure in the smithy of
the state, are leaking, and conventional remediesdrugs, therapy, materialism,
distractionare just so many buckets. Identity must itself be tinkered with,
unfolded, perhaps rekindled. And the first thing that needs major tweaking is
our monotheism of mind.

Wait a minute. Isn’t God dead? Perhaps, but his chattering skull lives on. For
what is the righteous ego if not our own personal Yahweh? Jealous of the other
figures of mind, locked in his panopticon, armed with a Cartesian camera, this
self-serious tyrant demonizes the pantheon of moods in the heart and the packs
of beasts in the body. Left to its own devices, the ego becomes demiurge,
breeding dualisms left and right, clutching a single tragic vision that divides
the self from the dreaming world and kills that world in the process.

The unhealthy dominance of the ego calls for a cure, but obviously not the
violence of surgical removal. Totalizing solutions are just more commandments,
born-again delusions of a clean-slate self. Instead we need a complex, gradual
disintegration. The Jungian renegade James Hillman suggests a polytheistic
psychology. A cranky and oddly classicist postmodern of sorts, Hillman rejects
the Jungian notion of a unified self as a humanist crock, while still accepting
the psyched as a field that can be deepened into a collective landscape of
imaginative resonance. “What we now all the unconscious are the old Gods
returning, assaulting, climbing over the walls of the ego,” Hillman says.
Rather than foment schizophrenia, this revival expands the self into a fluid
and grounded multiplicity of styles, rhetorics, and drives, thickening the
texture of interior life while simultaneously unfolding the self into the body,
the street, and the field: no longer an alien master of dead matter, but a
polymorphous Pagan in an awakened world.

But cures never work in the mind alone. They must be expressed and performed,
and for at least three decades, all across the country, folks who have never
read Hillman (or visited California) have been putting polytheistic remedies
into practice: WASPs raised on Bewitched cast ritual circles, Jews
invoke the Canaanite fertility goddess Astarte, systems analysts worship trees.

These Neopagansor Pagans, as they increasingly call themselvesseek to live
in a world in which, as Euripides said, “all things are full of gods.” To do
this they must not only crack the mundane ego, but bootstrap the imagination,
our distinct faculty of resonant perception. As children, all of us possessed a
certain eye that glimpsed gnarled faces in rocks and clouds; Pagans seek to
recapture that mode of liminal awareness, conjuring it our of the body with
ritual and trance and magical visualizations.

Half a century old, larger than the Unitarian church, Paganism is no fad. As
Chas Clifton writes in his introduction to Witchcraft Today: The Modern
Craft Movement
, the Craft “presents a radical critique of the dominant
forms of spirituality more than it seeks an accommodation with them.”
Wiccansand the more inclusive category of Pagansreject scientism, dualism,
and the pure drive for escape velocity found in many transcendental Eastern
paths. And though Pagans root through the New Age grab bag of positive
thinking, alternative medicine, and Gaia talk, the movements chafe more than
the sing: while well-heeled New Agers float in a diaphanous haze of “higher
frequencies,” the far more bohemian Pagans ground the spirit in, as, as Clifton
puts it, “dirt and flowers, blood and running water, sex and sickness, spells
and household tools.”

The boldness of Paganism’s revisionary religionas much a subculture as a
system of worshiphas swollen its ranks with the marginalized, the
progressive, the weird: feminists and soldiers, lesbians and gays, SF fans and
computer programmers, eco-hippies and Jews, garage scholars and the
sword-wielding medievalists in the Society for Creative Anachronism. While any
given Pagan festivalimagine a clothing-optional occult Renaissance Faire
where everyone is in characterwill turn up a wide mix of druids,
Radical Faeries, and “Episcopagan” ceremonial magicians, witches (or Wiccans)
increasingly dominate the movement. Most Wiccans work, with varying degrees of
slack, within the tradition cobbled together by retired British civil servant
and nudist Gerald Gardner in the 1940s: small covens that cast circles on full
moons, dance and chant, and invoke a horned hunting God and a Triple Goddess.

While some “trad” Wiccans remain surprisingly insular and
conservativeespecially for folks whose rituals include nudity, flagellation
and mild bondagefeminism and the anarchic strain of American spirituality
have now produced far more “eclectics:” loose-limbed and more improvisational
witches who sample from many traditionsand generally bag the scourges. And
though generalizing about such a ragtag crew is like painting a rainforest with
one shade of green, it can be said that all Pagans, recognizing humans as
little more than animals with particularly swelled heads, seek to plug
themselves into the imaginative and energetic matrix of nature. But while
Pagans lose themselves in ritual, they simultaneously recover themselves in the
folktales, relics and bloody testimonies of Indo-European history.


When secular intellectuals hear the words “European folk culture,” most reach
for their revolvers, remembering how successfully Continental fascists juiced
up the masses with appeals to intuition and peasant values. But such reactions
say more about a common intellectual paranoia in the face of mythic thought and
experience than they do about the intrinsic politics of occult spirituality or
nature mysticism. Besides, with the exception of an isolated pocket of racist
Vikings, fears of reactionary irrationalism are belied by what Pagans actually
say and do.

Far too antiauthoritarian to brook fuhrers or gurus, Pagans use historical
materials to cure themselves of historical determinations, and to tape the
underground streams murmuring beneath the dominant narratives of the
patriarchal state. Histories of the Craft invariably invoke the Inquisition,
and images of conflagration haunt many Wiccans. Though often inflating the
death toll of “the Burning Times” to Holocaust proportions, Wiccans use this
historical echo to create an intimate connection among the underdogs of
Europegays, women, heretics, the poor, Gypsies, Jews. And, with the
exception of the Romany, all these groups are well represented in the Pagan

By identifying with their pre-Christian ancestors, the white folk drawn to the
Old Religion are performing a Euro-American equivalent of Afrocentricity. For
they consider themselves yet another group colonized, then demonized, and now
misrepresented by the powers that be. It’s no accident that the Celtic lore of
Irelandthe most popular European tradition for Neopagansbelongs to one of
Europe’s most downtrodden peoples. Besides their legitimate concern to
distinguish witchcraft from Satanism, some contemporary witches condemn the
evil hags and sirens of Halloween and Disney with all the earnestness of campus
crusaders. And most Pagans are highly sympathetic to the struggles of people of
colorand not just because many Native Americans, West Indians, and Latins are
struggling for their gods as well.

Pagans thus navigate a powerful route between bland white liberal guilt and
Caucasian appropriations of nonwhite cultures, whether Rastafarians, Indians,
or Santeristas. Pagans thus create a margin of white authenticity from which to
proclaim a critical religious and social counter-history of the West traced,
like the Black Mass, backward: from the Christian devil to the horned Pan, from
the early church to the mystery cults, and from ancient polytheists all the way
back to the Stone Age haze when only the Goddess reigned.

All this leads to a highly combative use of history. In his feisty and
fascinating Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture , Arthur Evans admits
that because his heavily footnoted history of gay sex, heresy and rural magic
concerns “the victims of Western civilization, rather than their rulers,” his
book is one-sided, subjective and arbitrary as to sources. He further points
out that all historians work this way. Of course, shit like this really riles
academic scholars, but what stands out most in their intellectually legitimate
critiques of Pagan revisionary history is not the sharpness of the bones they
pick but their snide and arrogant pleasure in the process.

But the conflict goes beyond a turf war between professionals and garage
scholars, into the thorny issue of the role of speculative imagination in our
understanding of history. Europe’s Pagan residue lingers in the shadows of
recorded (Christian) history. Any Pagan revisionist must also raid the worlds
of mythology and poetic intuition, uncorking alembics of spirit in history’s
dusty labs and transmuting the chemical record of the past into an alchemy of

Nowhere are the curious consequences of this alchemy more evident that in the
work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. In the mid-70s, Gimbutas began using
pots and figurines to construct a tale of an Old European matriarchal
partnership society that worshipped the Goddess and lived in peace until around
6000 years ago, when marauding Conans and their macho sky gods came thundering
in from the east on their excellent horses. Though clearly an eco-feminist Eden
myth, Gimbutus fuels her speculative fire with a mass of research and
comparative myth, and this tension between facts and an imaginative use of
folklore makes for fascinating reading.

Gimbutas cleared the space for the Goddess movement to flourish, though the
seeds were first sown by British revivalists like Gerald Gardner, feminist
witches like Z. Budapest (who formed the Susan B. Anthony Coven in the early
’70s), and Starhawk, whose great The Spiral Dance galvanized the Craft
with its pragmatic link between progressive politics and a no-bullshit grasp of
magical techniques.

But where Gimbutas leaps, many of her followers veritably fly, and much of the
Goddess phenomenon now stands apart from Paganism proper. In the hands of some
feminists, the polymorphous Goddess of flux crystalizes into yet another
totalizing, and essentially monotheist, ideologywhat Morning Glory Zell calls
“Jahweh in drag.” While it’s fine to experience such disgust with civilization
that you reach back to the Stone Age for an image of the good life, this
backwards-masked mode of ecological and patriarchal critique often settles into
simple therapeutic catechism. Though the best Goddess books rattle their
archaic evidence like curing fetishes, recovering the Goddess from the dust of
pre-history often becomes the archaeological analog of recovering your inner

While too many Pagans and Goddess authors lapse into literalism and strident
claims of authenticity, many also recognize that the creative force behind
their revisionist stories is not truth but the polymorphous reflections of
their own shifting perspectives. Strong polytheism allows fabrication and
authenticity to dance without destroying each other. And when you set out to
straddle the dry shores of facts and the swamps of mythology, or try to channel
the oral ghosts which haunt the written word, distortions both clever and
careless arise. But so what? History’s a Rorschach blot, and the gods peer out
of your eyes. Can you see the vulva in a standing stone? The horns on a
jester’s cap? The Green Man in the corner of a church? Or the goddess that
surveys New York’s harbor? A funny thing happens when you start looking for the
winks and signatures of these furtive figures. They start looking for you.


Though Paganism prides itself on rejecting holy scripture for immediate
experience, it remains in many ways a religion of books. Surveys confirm that,
as the witch Heather O’Dell put it, “most people drawn to the Craft are
addicted to reading.” And many are also drawn to it through readingnot
just classics like Janet and Stuart Farrar’s What Witches Do or Margot
Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (which remains the best history of the
American movement), but through fantasy novels as well. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s
Mists of Avalon, a feminist revision of the Arthurian mythos, may have
hooked more witches than Starhawk, and Pan only knows how many druids were born
with the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Avoiding the ossifying reaction of academic traditionalists, the tiresome
fugue states of theory, the glib ignorance of the New Age, or the ironic
capitulation of TV addicts, Paganism finds its postmodern soul in the
crepescule between dream and text. Many critics have noticed that for all the
rhetoric of “information,” our age demonstrates the triumph of image over the
word, the dissolution of intellectual coherence into a sea of simulation. But
Pagans have their cake (and ale) and eat it too, and not just because magic has
always been a science of simulacra. Pagans know that words feed images. In a
sense, Pagans read Gimbutas, The Mabinogion, and Mircae Eliade the same
way they read comic books, Carl Jung or Ursula LeGuin: with a strange
combination of wonder and pragmatism. They want that buzz, that mythic
resonance that sets the spine ablaze, but they’re also on the prowl, ready to
poach maps, chants, and god from the texts at hand.

Modern witchcraft began not with a revelation or an initiation, but with
reading and rewriting. Though Gerald Gardner claimed to have contacted a secret
New Forest coven whose tradition stretched back centuries, the Craft scholar
Aiden Kelley and others basically proved that Gardner’s system was basically
fabricated. Gardner cribbed much of the ritual from the notorious occultist
Aleister Crowley and the American folklorist Charles G. Leland, whose wonderful
Aradia collects the spells of a late-19th century Italian Dianic cult.
Gardner also heavily borrowed from the historian Margaret A. Murray’s 1921
The Witch-cult in Western Europe, which took somewhat Gimbutus-like
leaps to argue that witches’ sabbaths were actually pagan fertility rites and
the devil a man dressed as a horned god. Like Robert Graves, whose White
also strongly influenced British Wiccans, Murray wove a tale from
folklore and fact. But to Gardner and others, these historical poems rang true,
and though subsequent work by Carlo Ginsberg and others has shown Murray’s
essential intuition to be correct, most witches today owe their existence to
what was in some sense a literary resonance.

Which is why my favorite Pagan origin story is not Gardner’s New Forest
initiation but the birth of the Church of All Worlds at Westminster College,
Missouri in 1962. Undergrads Lance Christian and Tim Zell were obsessed with
Ayn Rand and Maslow’s self-actualizing philosophy. Then they read Robert
Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land, which described the communal
non-monogamist Church of All Worlds founded by the Martian exile Valentine
Michael Smith. Grokking their deepest desires in the SF text, the two students
and some female friends performed Smith’s sacred water-sharing ritual, hopped
in the sack, and founded a church. Later Zell renamed himself Otter, penned a
prescient form of the Gaia hypothesis, and started using the word “Pagan” to
describe CAW’s increasingly earthy and eclectic religion. As Zell recently put
it, “we’re a sequel to a myth that hasn’t even happened yet.”

Cobbling together new Old Ways, Pagans proceed by a curious process of memory
and forgetting: first, remembering the broken limbs of the gods scattered in
books, museums, and nursery rhymes, then erasing those mundane sources into a
vast memory of practices which simulates the timelessness of oral transmission.
Most Wiccans don’t have a clue that one popular midsummer chant is an
adaptation of “A Tree Song” by Rudyard Kipling. Or if they know, they don’t
really care, because for them the chant works.

Their emphasis on pragmatism may seem paradoxical to some, but Pagans are more
positivist than you thinkthey just expand their definition of admissible
evidence. Such this-worldliness explains why occult shops (and botanicas) are
as much like hardware stores as book worlds: the candles, swords, bowls, cards,
talismans, jars of herbs and incense, all asked to be used. And much of
the printed material consists of reference tomes or how-to books like Scott
Cunningham’s popular Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, which
includes basic rituals, descriptions of tools and altar set-ups, and recipes
for incense and “crescent cakes”. Most of these manuals are rather slight
variations on a basic theme, and frequently lapse into the simply
superstitious, forgetting the words that close the lovely Charge of the Goddess
in the Gardnerian liturgy: “if that which you seek, you find not within
yourself, you will never find it without.”

Still, these Wiccan cookbooks invest their religion not with dogma but with
lorethe customs, hints and hand-me-downs that help Craft the magic into
ordinary life. Rather than the ponderous intonations of ceremonial magic, this
kitchen witchery blurs the distinction between herbal remedies, Gramma’s
cooking secrets, and the secret ingredients for a Full Moon ritual anointing
oil. Reflecting the fact that most Neopagans are city-folk, Patricia Telesco’s
The Urban Pagan include lots of handy ecological tips for apartment
dwellers alongside self-help visualizations and herbal cures. Her chapter “The
Frugal Magician” includes designs for popsicle stick pentagrams and a
discussion of “techno-magic” using computers, microwaves and TVswhich, when
turned off, apparently make good surfaces for scrying.

Telesco’s massive attempt to reimagine the alienated objects in the urban
field stands as a testament to the Pagan urge to sacralize and imaginatively
deepen the world by whatever means necessary. Clearly, these techniques, a
kind of magical pop art, extend beyond the recovery of rural folkways or naive
Romanticism. So what’s going on? In describing the options of the individual
within the technocratic state, Michel De Certeau unintentionally nailed the
tactics that underlie Pagan practice: “Increasingly constrained, yet less and
less concerned with these vast frameworks, the individual detaches himself from
them without being able to escape them and can henceforth only try to outwit
them, to pull tricks on them, to rediscover, within an electronicized and
computerized megalopolis, the ‘art’ of the hunters and rural folk of earlier
days.” That art is natural magic.


The hands-on aesthetic of Pagan spirituality carves a postmodern peasant
religion from a world of unseen but ever-present landlords. Yet a strong
millennial strain courses through the movement, an apocalyptic urgency not
grounded in Christian eschatology but in a frank assessment of our ecological
crisis. Healing the soul of its imaginative anomie and the body of its rigidity
becomes analogues to healing the earth. Pagans recognize that rules and
regulations alone cannot alter attitudes toward nature that are welded to
civilization at least as securely as sexism is. The belief that humanity lords
over the biosphere as its master and finest product is a function of the
structure of Western consciousness, a structure that Pagans attempt to erode
with art and ritual and enacted imagination.

Still, apart from psychedelic aficionados, the environmentalist fringe, and a
few cool comic books, the link between Pagan imagination and deep ecology
remains confined with a rather hermetic subculture that doesn’t proselytize or
sell itselfand may party more than it should. Pagans do draw folks into
their world, but that world is itself conjured on the fly: festivals and ritual
circles are said to be “between the worlds,” spaces cast and then collapsed (or
“opened”) like a psychic nomad’s hut. Along with the few islands of
Pagan-owned land, Pagandom consists of a shifting network of temporary
autonomous zones and the virtual communities created through computer bulletin
boards, online discussion groups, and, most the exchange of zines.

Pagans currently produce over 500 periodicals, a tremendous output for less
than half a million people and one that underscores the centrality of writing
to Pagan experience. The Crone Chronicles reclaims the figure of the
Crone for older women, while the teens that put out HAM cater to the
growing crop of Pagan kids. The increasing influence of gays on Paganism can be
felt not only in ongoing debates about gender and magical polarity but in zines
like Out of the Broom Closet and Coming Out Pagan (the latter of
which noted that the obviously pagan Ice Man found in the Alps a few years ago
had traces of sperm around his anus). But the Church of All World’s Green
remains the great Pagan publication: besides unearthing old gods and
birthing new ones (call on Squat the next time you need a parking place), and
Green Egg‘s Readers Forum remains the best print intro to the fractious,
funny, sexy texture of Pagan community.

Just as Pagans see our species as inextricably and joyously embedded in the
matrix of the earth, they also view the human soul as immersed in collective
experience, a carnival of dark mothers, gay centaurs, vengeful redwood sprites
and cyberspace tricksters. A most postmodern archaic turn, one that suggests
that the death of the subject may have been announced prematurelythe self did
not die, it just slipped like Persephone into the underworld. The babbling
surreality and fragmentation of contemporary culture not only signify the
collapse of the West’s sun-bent master narrative, but the return of the tales
of a thousand and one nights. And that’s why you make a friend of the moon.