Tag Archives: historical narratives

PantheaCon and Paganism, Part 1

Last week, Mallory, Teejay and I went to PantheaCon, and found it a profoundly un-positive experience. I don’t mean to say that we didn’t enjoy any of it, there were things which we very much enjoyed, and we are happy that we went, as it allowed us to experience things that we otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see. That said, a good deal of what we did see at PantheaCon was troubling and disconcerting.

After the fact, reading about other people’s PantheaCon experiences, the internet is atwitter with how positive and uplifting it was. It is incredibly difficult to find anyone willing to voice concern or dismay. And here I find myself torn, because I want to insert a caveat that I am not trying to discredit anyone’s positive experience of PantheaCon, and yet I feel like if people were willing to look objectively at the Pagan community as presented at PantheaCon, they would have had a significantly different experience. I have hesitating all week to speak about our experiences at PantheaCon because I simply can’t shake the sensation that any criticism will either be roundly ignored or shouted down. At the convention itself, I was amazed at how many people were absorbing what was being said entirely uncritically. There was one ritual in particular that I found deeply, deeply troubling and I remain uncertain how to treat the experience, and if I should write about it, naming names, or simply let it go unacknowledged.

I really did get the impression that a great number of people there were, to put it bluntly, drinking the Kool-Aid. There appeared to be very little critical thinking on display. I remember particularly a conversation I had wherein I mentioned how surprised I was how small the Wiccan presence at PantheaCon was. For as formative and important Wicca has been in American Paganism, I was disturbed that there was very little official Wiccan programming and that the three Wiccan organizations at the convention were all lumped together in one hospitality suite on the tenth floor. The person with who I had the conversation became incredibly defensive and said, essentially, that Wicca is no longer relevant to the Pagan experience. However, given the fact that some people claim Wicca to be one of the fastest growing religions in the United States, I really have to question that assertion. I also have to wonder what the actual demographics of those in attendance were, as I would be surprised if the majority were not some form of Wiccan.

I can only then surmise that the traditions on display were a result of fad, as much as anything. Wicca is hardly exciting at this point in time. As much as Wicca may still define the face of American Paganism, its role seems to be hardly acknowledged anymore. This is one of the reasons why I found it so troubling to see the programming focussing heavily on shamanism and African-Diasporic traditions. I honestly do not like to make accusations of cultural appropriation, as I think they are largely false and unfounded. Cultural appropriate is a tool of oppression and control, and I think that the way the charge of cultural appropriation is bandied about the Pagan community shows a remarkable lack of concern for the cultures being referenced. There is a difference between borrowing a technique from another culture, fully aware of what you are doing and citing your sources, and simply refusing to acknowledge that the techniques which you are using have a long and complicated history of use by another culture.

That being said, it disturbed me to see so much focus on the traditions of minorities when Mallory and I saw less than ten African Americans (there may have been more, but if so they didn’t make up a significant percentage of the attendees) and Teejay thinks he saw one Asian, maybe. Several of the African Americans which we did see were obviously presenters. It was odd as well that they only Latinos we saw were the hotel staff. Judging by PantheaCon, one is led to believe that Paganism is largely the religion of White People.  Those in attendance at PantheaCon didn’t even seem to represent the general demographic break down of the United States.

I’m not saying that we need to stick to White People traditions since we ourselves are all White People, simply that we need to be careful how we relate to the minorities within our community and ensure that we are engaging respectfully with their cultures. Having a series of events rotating around African-Diasporic traditions when there were very few African Americans in attendance really makes me question how comfortable we as a community make the minority groups we contain feel.

Now, PantheaCon did include a few nods to the minorities, with things like the Pagans of Color Caucus. Though, the official programming did not include T. Thorn Coyle’s panel on Pagans and Privilege, which was hosted by, yes that’s right, the Wiccans, in the Covenant of the Goddess suite, instead. I would love to know what was discussed there, but given how small the venue was I have had a hell of a time finding anyone who has actually discussed the proceedings.

I have a good deal more to talk about as a result of our PantheaCon adventure and I expect to have several weeks on content. I would apologize for being an ornery bastard, but it’s my nature. That said, I really do appreciate comments and responses. I write this stuff to generate dialogue and address issues which I view as important to the Pagan community. I am not trying to cause trouble, simply to highlight issues which I believe require further attention.

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Reflecting on Pagan Identity

It seems silly so late in that game to ask, “What is Paganism?” and yet, in my continuing interaction with the Pagan community I find that, honestly, I have very little idea of what Pagan actually means. The problem largely seems to be that we, as Pagans, have too many different ideas of what that actually means. Consider how many of us try to subsume Hinduism under the umbrella of Paganism, when Hindus themselves are largely disinterested with our attentions and frequently oppose the classification.

The most common generic definition of what classifies a Pagan religion is a non-Christian Earth based faith. However, that description includes faiths like Shinto, Hinduism, and potentially Buddhism which have long lasting traditions quite distinct from Modern Paganism, while at the same time excluding African Diasporic Traditions, like Candomblé and Vodou, and frequently leaving no place for Appalachian Conjure and Rootwork. Let’s not forget, either, how heavily Christianity influenced Modern Occultism. The Golden Dawn and its antecedents are positively dripping with references to Christianity. What exactly, then, is Paganism? Can we really exclude Christian influence from Paganism?

So, perhaps we introduce another definition. Paganism refers to belief systems which incorporate elements of magic into the core of the faith. Now we need to define magic. Simply said, magic is the manifestation of change in the world according to will. So, what does this definition produce? Now we seem to be able to exclude some of the problematic religions incorporated into the first definition, but have we sufficiently narrowed field to the point that we exclude the Judeo-Christian Faiths? I remain unconvinced. Attend a Catholic Mass and tell me that magic is not built into the very foundation of that ceremony.

I think that it has become apparent that we need to back off and approach this conundrum from another angle. So many of us Pagans have emerged from Christian Faiths, frequently as a result of trauma, and we seek to distance ourselves as thoroughly as we can from those traditions, while at the same time never really coming to terms with the ramifications of our conversion. I propose that Modern Paganism is, in fact, a spiritual revival movement beginning with the birth and subsequent rapid growth of Wicca in the 1940’s. Modern Paganism has progressed in a fairly straight line from the Occult Revival of the Victorian era. I do not believe that it is in anyway controversial to assert that Wicca is the touchstone of Modern Paganism. Wicca itself is a modified form of Golden Dawn teachings combined with various other traditional and fictitious English Hedgework and witchcraft teachings.

I, therefore, assert that Wicca is a heresy of the Golden Dawn. The basic foundation of Golden Dawn ritual is preserved wholly in Wicca. The great innovation of Wicca is to reorient the gender of the Godhead and place the feminine divine at the center of its ontological structure. The male is preserved as a divine consort, in relation to the feminine. This ontological shift is the springboard of Modern Pagan thought. It is precisely this shift, with the maintenance of Golden Dawn structure that shows Wicca to be precisely what it is, a Golden Dawn Heresy.

The Golden Dawn itself is a Christian Heresy. There can be no real doubt of that, any substantial exploration of Golden Dawn teaching reveals it to be a very strange mixture of Christianity, Egyptian mythology, and a rather messy port of John Dee’s Enochian. The roots of Modern Paganism are fundamentally intertwined with Christianity. It may be a bit of a stretch, but a good deal of Modern Paganism could be described as simply a Christian Heresy. The story of Modern Paganism is tangled and full apocryphal tales, but with a little research it is fairly easy to tease apart the strands.

Of course, I do not mean to say that we, as Pagans, are still essentially Christian. We are not. What I am saying is that our community has its roots in Christianity, and it has grown and developed out of a society that is heavily infused with the Christian worldview. Christianity, after all, can be viewed as simply a Jewish heresy, but it would be patently ridiculous to say that we are all, secretly, Jews.

I think that we, as Modern Pagans, tend to forget our roots. We forget and disguise our history to our detriment. Knowing where we came from helps us to understand who we are now, and to see where we have yet to explore. Paganism is growing tradition, still very much in a stage of flux and transformation. It is important that we hold on to our history, our true history: history that we can verify and source. Every faith, every tradition needs its mythology, but we must understand how mythology and history function separately of one another and learn how not to mistake one for the other.

Essentially, I suspect that the question, “What is Paganism?” is a question that we are very much in the process of answering. We are looking for our identity as a community, but in doing so, we must resist the urge to allow our personal history, our pain and transformation, from blinding us to the history of the community that we are building.

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The Being of Art

The same small handfull of themes and questions drive pretty much the entire content of this blog. While I have noticed that my ramblings on the theory of art have been by far the least read, I also have come to feel that they are the ones in which I have been able to express my concerns most clearly. Of course, even there, I find myself in a strangely paradoxical position.

I push the idea of art as pure surface. The apprehension of art is the apprehension of the self in apprehension. It’s a reflex. Art is art only in as much as it is perceived, and even then perceived in a fashion which allows it to function as art. Art sits, then, in a fundamental nothingness. Art is empty. The set of objects which we determine as art is necessarily an empty set. For art itself is not an object, but an object in perception perceived in such a way that art is brought into being.

I have spoken before that objects in perception are undoubtably objects. Having only our perceptions, all that we require for secure knowledge about objects is there continued coherent presentation within our perceptions. Art, however, does not present continually coherently, but flashes out and disappears from the object perceived. Art is an only occasionally present quality of objects. Art instead dwells in a kind of sympathetic perception towards art, not in the objects themselves.

I spoke previously of aesthetic arrest, of moments when the world perceives fails to align with our expectations so dramatically that it freezes us in perception. The artist, I then propose manipulates formal effects to produce such a freezing. The artist is the artist in act of producing an aesthetic reaction. The formal world produces, through chance formal relations, the necessary conditions for aesthetic arrest, the artist, recognizing those relations, skillfully manipulates them to produce the same result. Thus, the progression of art through human history: certain formal effects become institutionalized in the conception of art and over time saturate the societal expectation of art. Art is that which contains these particular elements.

For example, the Neoclassical Movement which dominated the French School prior to the emergence of Realism, Impressionism and the grand proliferation of movements which emerged during the end of the nineteenth century. Art was recognized as art only as long as it possessed the formal characteristics of Neoclassicism, spawning the Salon de Refusés. Certain artists began to feel that the formal elements of Neoclassicism so saturated the idea of art that they no longer necessarily produced the aesthetic reaction which truly elevates mere created form to art in the fullness of its meaning. The transformation of art through time marks the artists’ continual drive towards novelty.

The artist, purely devoted to art, seeks the queer, as previously discussed to turn perception back upon itself, hence art in the twentieth century’s continual obsession with Art History. Art twisted back into the history of its own ephemera in the endeavor to break the whole of its history back apart into moments of perception. What is Suprematism if not an attack on the idea of painting as art itself? The same can be said of Dadaism and sculpture. James Joyce is a novelist in as much as his novels are entirely unlike what preceded them, but reliant upon such precedents to function. The writing of Gertrude Stein is attacks the fundamentals of writing, but relies upon them at the same time.

So why my interest in art here? I am seeking to carve out realms of experience which are entirely related to the Subject, and reliant upon the Subject as Subject. Art seems to be the perfect example for discussing such realms. The being of art, I suggest, is particularly a kind of being in art. The Subject does not encounter art as art, but produces a mode of being in art through the apprehension of art in moments of aesthetic arrest. Art is undoubtably a made thing, it is tied back to the formal world, and yet the qualities which render it art are entirely distinct from the formal. The formal produces the necessary preconditions, but without the apprehension of the sympathetic Subject, the formal cannot produce art in the fullness of its meaning, merely the possibility of its being. The Being of Art is the The Being of the Subject in Art.

I believe that such realms of being, such as Being in Art, are vital to the understanding of the Subject and its relation to the world.

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Syncretic Electric

Practically, I have come to define my approach to worship as Syncretistic Classicism. The more I read about the culture and religions of the ancient world, the more I come to understand how interconnected they all are. I personally feel that we, as Modern Pagans, have this urge to find a pure line of descent for our religious practices. I think that a lot of this is a result of many of our upbringings in the Big 5 faiths, which, on the surface, appear to have strong single, unified narratives stretching back thousands of years. Though, it is important to realize, as even a brief foray into the history of the Early Christian Church will show, that this is certainly not the case. All of the major religions currently extent have suffered a series of dramatic transformations and schisms through their lifetimes, and their interactions with other cultures and belief systems had dramatic impacts on their development. Modern Christianity bears very little in common with the religion practiced by its earliest members. I feel that it is important, as Modern Pagans, to have an understanding of the fluidity of ancient religions.

The religions of the ancient Mediterranean, what we think of as Classical Antiquity, were deeply intertwined. Partially because of the literary and art historical narratives which have been built up over the passing centuries, we seem to have lost track of that. We do have these conceptions that the Gods of Ancient Greece were uniquely Greek, the Roman’s uniquely Roman (though adapted from the Greek, but still somehow discreet, as if they erased their predecessors with their emergence). This was simply not the case, however. Cults of various regional deities spread throughout the Mediterranean, drifting far from their origins and coexisting within the established structures of other religions, in some cases becoming integrated into them: the Isis cult seems to have spread as far as the British Isles. When we claim to worship the Old Gods, we need to understand that these Gods did not live in a theological vacuum. The Old Gods lived shoulder to shoulder with each other, their demesnes overlapping and interpenetrating. What is the true Roman Religion? Well, at what point historically do you decide was the most purely Roman of all of Roman history? Do we count only the early Etruscan faith that preexisted Greek contamination? Do we take the religion of the Late Roman Empire, with all its deified Emperors and Egyptian influence? Let us not forget, either, that Christianity became the state religion of Rome.

Therefore, in my practice, I try to keep myself intellectually honest, with an understanding that to the ancients religion was not necessarily an impenetrable unchanging edifice, but a fluid and syncretic thing, constantly absorbing, repulsing, and always interacting with its neighboring cultures. I do not mean to make an excuse to sloppiness in worship, however. A good deal has already been said about approaching one’s Gods in culturally appropriate ways. Research and cultural understanding are vital to any healthy spiritual practice. However, I do sincerely believe that it is important to allow oneself to maintain fluidity and adaptability within one’s practice and spiritual experience.

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