Many religions have a distinction between exoteric- or outer knowledge available to all members of a religion, and esoteric, inner knowledge only available to a smaller class of initiates as part of a mystery tradition or mystery religion. In many cases throughout history and various cultures, this pool of potential initiates could only be from the noble or priestly castes. In others, such as many of the mysteries of Greece & Roman, they were available to any free citizen (some only to men or to women)
To be considered for initiation, a participant must be seen as spiritually, physically and psychologically ready for the intense, trans-formative and ecstatic experiences involved. An initiation often involves an ordeal- a difficult and possibly dangerous test. If a prospective initiate does not pass such an ordeal, this means a denial of initiation at that time or for the rest of this life. It is called a mystery because not only is it secret, but because the participants have gone through an experience they cannot describe to others. In several of the Greek & Roman mysteries, it was believed that one could only gain entrance to the afterlife- or a better afterlife by going through these mysteries- hence they were very popular.
Wicca and witchcraft in most forms are both mystery traditions. It is certainly perfectly valid to practice many forms of Paganism in an exoteric manner- focusing on celebration and regular devotion- as a layperson, or simply in a tradition that does not have a clergy/laity distinction. Other traditions of Paganism exist only in esoteric form, and one must be initiated to participate. In Wicca- there are typically 3 degrees of initiation, and the third makes you eligible to lead a coven and initiate others. Many covens have what is called an Outer Court, which includes people who are not yet initiated, or have only their 1st degree. The Inner Court is reserved for members who at least have a 1st degree. Lots of Outer Court material has been released to the public- starting in particular with Rites from the Crystal Well by Ed Fitch, Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. As a result, Wicca- or as traditionalists may call it Neo-Wicca* has spread like wildfire. Though solitaries frequently self-initiate, I believe the term *dedicate* is more accurate, and think initiation is something that must be done by another person, generally within a group structure like a coven, grove or magical lodge. I’m not Wiccan, however so really my opinion on this is moot, though we do have initiation in various types of Druidry, such as ADF, the organization I belong to.
*Note: some people will consider the term “Neo-Wicca” to be derogatory, use with discretion. Non-traditional, eclectic or non-British Traditional Witchcraft (BTW) are less controversial terms to use.
Mystery traditions and religions are also found outside of Paganism. Christianity arguably started as a mystery religion, and in some cases still is- particularly in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This is even more so for priests, monks and nuns. Likewise in Buddhism and Hinduism, there are regular practitioners as well as members of more esoteric sects. Mormonism is also an interesting case- a regular member of the LDS church attends services at a ward, similar in set up to many Protestant sects. But if an adult Mormon fulfills certain requirements, he or she can get what’s called a Temple recommend, and gain access to special ceremonies in the Temple. This is modeled after Temple-era Judaism’s Holiest of Holies, and also has influence from Freemasonry, as their prophet Joseph Smith was a Mason- like Gerald Gardner. So bizarrely enough, Mormonism is in some ways Wicca’s distant cousin.
Questions to reflect on:
What’s the difference between exoteric and esoteric?
Do you need to be initiated or become part of a mystery tradition to be a Pagan?
Do you need to be initiated or become part of a mystery tradition to be Wiccan?
In *your opinion* is self-initiation valid? In what tradition(s)? Under what circumstances and why? (No right or wrong answer here!)
Does the religion of your upbringing (if any) have a mystery tradition or esoteric aspects?
Like all the Centers of Paganism, the Nature-center definitely extends beyond the bounds of Paganism. There has been a general rise globally in ecological awareness in both secular and religious contexts, and Pagans have most certainly played a role in the latter. But seeing nature as sacred and worthy of protection and/or preservation is not a uniquely Pagan feature!
In my opinion, making an effort to conserve resources and be ecologically mindful is just part of being a good citizen of planet Earth. You can have some theological rationale for it, like regarding the Earth as a living being (the Gaia hypothesis), being a steward of the Earth (as in the Abrahamic faiths) seeing everything as divine (pantheism) or see many spirits as being part of nature (animism) You can even combine some of these beliefs as many people do. Or you can simply regard the Earth and all its creatures (including humans) in a scientific manner. I think the important thing is what you do, not why you do it!
For indigenous people, the issue of sovereignty and habitat preservation is important to maintain traditional relationships with the land, animals and plants- and thus their cultures. For example, with global climate change, the warming of Arctic areas is having an adverse effect on the reindeer herds that the Saami people of Scandinavia & Russia depend on. Closer to home (for myself) the Idle No More movement led by First Nation people in Canada has been gaining steam, including some support from polytheists and Pagans.
One approach that can be easily incorporated, regardless of a person’s location and culture, includes scientific information and gives a lot of space for various theological views and practice, is bioregional animism.
The intersection of ecology and religion (and socio-political implications related to it) is very broad and complex, so I’ll go into more specific aspects of it in other posts. For now here’s a preliminary list of reading to get you started. (To be frank I have not read most of them- with the exception of Creation Spirituality!) As time goes on and I read more, I will post reviews- for one I am very interested in Lupa’s works.
Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality & the Planetary Future by Bron Taylor
Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey
The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature by Emma Restall Orr
The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythyms of Nature by Starhawk
Plant & Fungus Totems, New Paths to Animal Totems, DIY Totemism, other works by Lupa- see her website Green Wolf for more info
Ecoshamanism by James Endredy
Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality, other works by Matthew Fox (from a Catholic viewpoint, but much of it applicable/inspiring to people of other traditions
Bibliography of Earth-based Judaism– Tel Shemesh
It’s now past the season for this, but I came across this and wanted to post before I forgot. And perhaps our friends in the Southern Hemisphere can use the idea come September…
Move Over Easter Bunny, here comes the Easter Fox! interview with a fellow who’s been trying to bust misinformation about Eostre/Ostara (If you’re familiar, the problem isn’t so much Bede, it’s Jakob Grimm- and the supposed festival was supposed to be in April, not March!)
An Easter fox- it just seems more appropriately German in character. And I’ve been following Trellia’s blog, and she’s a British Pagan who also practices Shinto, and is devoted to the kami Inari, who is associated with foxes. So I thought she’d appreciate it too!
Syncretism is when you combine two things together to create a new thing, and it’s very common in many religions. It happens both historically and in modern times, for a variety of reasons. I’ll start by discussing historical examples, and will cover ways to approach syncretism yourself in another post.
Syncretism in the Roman Empire– We’ll Go to War with You and Then Add your Gods to Our Pantheon!
As Romans added territory to their Empire, they encountered people who worshiped other gods. Being polytheists, they didn’t really care so long as the Gauls, Germannii and so forth obeyed them. But the Romans liked to say “oh, that god you call Wodan is kinda like Mercurius”, just as they had done earlier with the Greek gods. This is referred to as Interpretatio Romana. Sometimes these foreign gods were adopted into Roman religion, often with Romanized names. Sometimes we don’t know the original Celtic, Germanic, Iberian or Slavic name as a result. In addition various Eastern mystery cults were brought in- often by soldiers and traders- including Isis (Greco-Egyptian) Kybele (Anatolian) Mithras (Persian) It was kind of like the ancient Roman version of the New Age- ooh, cool, I’m going to try out this new religion! Complete with parents and other authority figures getting annoyed by all this weird new-fangled stuff. More on mystery cults in another post.
Colonialism, Slavery, Suppression of Culture/Religion– When people from West Africa were enslaved and taken to the Caribbean, the American colonies, Brazil, and other parts of South America they brought their culture and beliefs with them. Because they were expected to be “good Christians” (often synonymous with being an obedient slave!) they kept their traditions alive under the guise of Catholicism- various spirits were identified with saints. Theology note: in many of these traditions there is a Creator God- identified with the Christian God who is more distant, and other beings who serve Him- so the world “god” is only used for the High God, the rest are Spirits or Powers. In mainly Protestant areas such as the Southern United States (outside of French Catholic Louisiana) African influences can be found in music, ecstatic healing and dancing, folk art, stories like Brer Rabbit and Aunt Nancy (Anansi) belief and magic. These are often referred to as Afro-Caribbean religions. *Some* followers of these faiths identify as Pagans or associate with Pagan & metaphysical communities, others group themselves more with African Traditional Religions (ATRs)- some with both. Many also consider themselves to be Catholics, and would look at you strangely if you invited them to a Pagan Pride event!
Similarly in Central and South America, indigenous religious beliefs are often syncretized with Catholicism. It’s very interesting to watch how various Catholic officials in Latin American have reacted over time to manifestations of folk religion. La Virgen de Guadalupe, (who may be influenced by the Aztec goddess Tonantzin) is totally accepted as the patroness of Mexico. The cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death, a female Grim Reaper figure) on the other hand is greatly discouraged by the Church, but has many devoted followers who generally identify as Catholic.
Conversion of Europe- Messier than Your Sunday School Teacher said it was… Now, to be clear in contrast to the mass conversion of the Americas, Christianization in Europe was not necessarily the result of colonialism. It was nasty sometimes, but it didn’t go along with slavery and genocide to quite the same degree. Within the Roman Empire, colonialism and slavery were already there, Christianity was just a nice bonus. Outside the Empire, people typically became Christian because their king or chieftain said, “I’d love to be allies with you, neighboring Christian king- sure I’ll get baptized if that’s what it takes!” and then the peasants had to at least pay lip service to Christ, even if their heart wasn’t in it. Remember, for a good chunk of European history, in many places there was a lack of formal churches and trained clergy, and most people were not literate. So often people were mostly “Christian” politically, but on a daily basis in their little villages, they were praying and making offerings to spirits and ancestors- over time more Christian language was added, and gods became disguised as saints, so in many ways not so different than the later examples I gave in the so-called New World. Actually one way we often learn of various gods and holidays and customs, is from accounts written by clerics complaining about this or that awful pagan thing those ignorant peasants keep doing! We have to keep in mind that they may exaggerate and make it sound “worse” than it was (especially if they are trying to convince Rome to send more missionaries to someplace cold!) but still it’s kind of a ironically fun way of finding information!
So likewise, if you are researching European forms of polytheism, you will likely need to research local folk versions of Christianity in whatever country and region you are studying.
Questions for reflection (this is messy so there are really no “right or wrong” answers!
How does syncretic polytheism in the Roman Empire remind you (or not!) of modern cosmopolitan cultures?
Who of the different people(s) I discussed might consider themselves pagan, Pagan, Christian, Catholic or a member of an indigenous religion? Might they identify with more than one label? Can you be both pagan and Christian? Why or why not?
What examples of syncretic folk religion are you familiar with in your own life? (Could be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist etc)
Have you noticed differences in how religion was taught officially vs. how it was practiced at home? Did this cause any confusion for you growing up?
One thing that attracts many people to Paganism(s) is a curiosity about magic (sometimes spelled magick). Magic is a common practice among many religions that fall under the Pagan umbrella. But you don’t need to be Pagan to practice magic, and not all Pagans practice magic. Many Christians and Jews have practiced forms of magic throughout history and still do today. You also don’t need to practice or believe in a religion to practice magic.
I don’t practice magic (being rather skeptical of it, in fact!) so this post will be briefer than some of the others. Mainly I wanted to clear up the distinctions between magic, religion and Paganism, and discuss different types of magic. If you want to learn more about *what magic is* from someone who practices it, check out Jenett’s page.
Folk Magic– magic as practiced by regular common people, handed down orally, folk magic traditions typically survive most strongly in rural areas that are more isolated from outside influence. Folk magic is often associated with folk religion- beliefs and practices of regular people that are not officially endorsed by religious authorities. Regular household objects and ingredients tend to be used, saints and plant or animal spirits might be asked for aid. Some traditions of folk magic are more open to people from outside the culture, others are much more secretive. Spiritual practices that are often labeled as “shamanic” in nature are often interrelated with folk magic and religion. (See future post on shamanism)
Witchcraft– a wide variety of magical practices, arising from Western cultural contexts. Witchcraft can be religious or non-religious, it includes Wicca but is not limited to it. That is- most Wiccans are Witches, but not all Witches are Wiccan. The word “witch” when translated into most languages generally comes off as very negative even in cultures where the practice of magic is quietly accepted. Just as it does in American and European cultures- typically in spite of public relations efforts! Therefore I would recommend if you speak another language, rather than directly translating witch, look for words that mean something like healer, wise one, herbalist and so forth. Though most self-identified witches are Pagans of some variety, there are also Christian Witches, Jewitches, atheist or agnostic Witches and yes, Satanic or Luciferian Witches. (See future post on syncretism)
Ceremonial magic– this body of magical arts and philosophies that underpin it are part of what is called the Western Mystery Tradition, that draws from many sources including the Hebrew Kabbalah, esoteric and mystical forms of Christianity- such as Gnosticism, medieval & Renaissance lore about angels and demons, Greek and Roman philosophy- especially Neoplatonism, which had a major influence on Kabbalah. Tantra, a branch of Hindu philosophy & practice, and Egyptian religion are also influences. Ceremonial magic is typically practiced by secret societies or lodges, that require initiation. Freemasonry, though less magical in nature, is a related philosophy and order, and Gerald Gardner was a Mason, which accounts for Masonic influence on Wicca. Individuals also can practice ceremonial magic alone. Some examples of groups who practice ceremonial magic include- off-shoots of the Golden Dawn, Ordo Templi Orientalis- the order devoted to Thelema, the magical philosophy developed by Aleister Crowley. Ceremonial magicians may or may not choose to identify as Pagans- it often depends on if they have a desire for community outside of CM, or religiously identify as Pagans or have close associates that do so.
Chaos Magick– If you’re a fan of Dungeons & Dragons- while Ceremonial magicians are like Paladins or Wizards, Chaos Magicians (or chaotes) are the Rogues! Chaos magic is much more free form, sees belief as a tool and an active magical force. Chaotes typically draw freely from many sources, from traditional religions to pop culture. Use of technology- computers and the internet is very common- technomagick and technopaganism overlap quite a bit with chaotes, though technomages/technopagans are not necessarily chaotes. Discordianism– a part serious, part parody religion or philosophy- is also a big influence.
Pop Culture Magic– use of characters, concepts, symbols and phrases from popular culture (TV, films, comic books, manga, anime, video/computer games) in magical spells and rituals. This is usually an outgrowth of the ideas of chaos magic- the idea that “hey, if it works, use it”. Pop Culture Paganism or Polytheism is related, though I get the impression most people who engage in pop culture-influenced magic, don’t necessarily incorporate it into a religion. See my post on Pop Culture Paganism
Culture-based religions are often otherwise called ethnic, tribal or indigenous religions- all those terms have more limited connotations, hence why I came up with a more general one. The label of “folk religion” is also sometimes thrown in with these by anthropologists, though that is a little different, so I’ll treat that separately. Individual or groups who practice culture-based religions may or may not identify with the word Pagan, especially if they belong to a (more or less) continuous living tradition. A culture-based religion can be contrasted with a universalist religion– which typically has a prophet, or series of prophets and claims to have a moral code & message for all of humanity- such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai’ism. Strictly speaking, we can’t really divide all religions perfectly into either category- for one, universalist religions are of course, influenced by the cultures from which they originate, though they tend to adapt themselves- and often syncretize (combine) with culture-based religions. For example, Shinto in Japan is quite seamlessly syncretized with Buddhism, so much so that Japanese people often don’t label themselves as being Buddhist or Shinto(ist). They just *do* Buddhist and Shinto-related practices.
That there is the clincher. The religion is an inseparable part of the culture- to the point where if there is a word for the religion, it’s often one invented in response to foreign missionaries- frequently with a meaning like “The Kami Way” (in the case of Shinto) or Old Custom (Forn Sidr- Danish) “traditions of our people” and so forth. Just as the word people call themselves in their own language simply means “People”, “People of the Mountain/River” etc.
To join a culture-based religion, one typically needs to be ritually adopted into the culture, if possible, or otherwise immerse themselves as they can into the culture. I have seen some people divide culture-based religions into “closed” and “open” traditions- and while that does help people understand that they can’t join anything they want to, I believe it’s an oversimplification. We’re not talking about joining or converting to any specific religion at this point, we are merely exploring and learning.
When newcomers enter the Pagan community, they often ask for suggestions on which tradition or pantheon they might start out with exploring. In the United States, Canada, Australia and other multicultural colonized countries, people are often told “Start with the traditions of your ancestors”. After a lot of observing of other folks journeys as well as my own, I actually recommend against that advice. Why? Because culture is more important than ancestry. Honoring ones’ ancestral roots is certainly an important part of many traditions, it’s not that I’m discouraging. But we are often very disconnected from the cultures of our ancestors. If it is our calling we can certainly make the effort to re-connect. But to begin with- I would look again at those questions I asked in my previous post- what aspects of culture were you raised with? What other cultures are you familiar with?
For myself- I was raised by college-educated liberal parents, multiple generations removed from my mixed British Isles ancestry- so fairly conventional mainline Protestant American culture, with its various holidays (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Independence Day) I was always interested in learning the origins of holiday customs, and read up on all of them, as well as any fairy tales and mythology books I could get my paws on. I came to identify more with my Irish heritage, and have been studying the language, history and culture, Druidry and Celtic Reconstructionism. However, I have to admit that this has been a somewhat artificial process- all a choice on my part. I wasn’t raised with much in the way of Irish culture, other than with an awareness of being Irish, some knowledge of history of the Potato Famine, “No Irish Need Apply” signs and so forth. Lately, I’ve been pondering more about how to incorporate my mixed cultural influences- I don’t mean so much by ancestry, but more by environment. I talk with Druids from across the pond, in Britain and there are various things that strike me about our cultural differences- a lot them simply being- who the heck would I be, even as a “white” culturally Protestant American, without influences of Eastern European Jewish, African-American and many other cultures? I don’t belong to any those cultures, but I carry pieces of them with me.
What is culture? It’s all the stuff you take for granted. This is the way we do things of course! Any other way would be weird or rude or just “not feel right”! Most of it is less visible than all the things we point to when we’re trying to be multicultural (holidays, food, music).
Before we go exploring Paganism(s), we need to be prepared by unpacking and repacking our spiritual and emotional baggage from our philosophical, and/or religious upbringings. We need to make sure we aren’t bringing things along that will drag us down, and make sure we are equipped with the right tools for what we might find! Even if you have been practicing Paganism for a while- or many years, sometimes it’s good to take a look at what you are carrying around, sort thru it and repack!
Initially I was dividing this up into questions for people who had a religious upbringing vs. a secular one but it felt like a rather artificial division- so just answer whichever questions seem relevant to you!
What religions or philosophies are dominant in your country, region and/or cultural background(s)?
Is there any status, privilege or social advantages that go with belonging to those religions?
If you were brought up with a minority religion or philosophy (this can include a secular/nonreligious one) how did this affect you and your family?
Are there customs and traditions you were brought up with that have religious origins? What personal and family meanings do they have?
What attitudes did you learn about people of different faiths or non-religious people? People in or from other cultures and countries- or even regions of your own country?
What attitudes did you learn about gender and sexuality?
What kind of ethics, morality or value systems were you brought up with? From what sources do these values come?
Views of death and the afterlife- importance or lack of- as compared with the value of this life?
Important for Repacking and Setting Off to Explore:
How have your views on these various issues changed over time, and what influenced them to change? (Education, talking to people with other views, reading/watching/listening to media, your own thoughts, experiences, etc)
Do you have any feelings of anger, guilt, frustration towards your upbringing, family members, clergy or religious communities? What work do you need to do with those feelings so they don’t get in the way of your spiritual explorations?
What positive things did you learn and experience from past religions you’ve participated in? What worked for you or didn’t? What helped you grow spiritually and emotionally?