Paganism for Beginners: Finding a group

So you want someone to celebrate festivals with, and to learn from and bounce ideas off. Personally I love having a magical group, because it gives me the opportunity to do ritual with other people, to exchange ideas, and to have conversations about stuff that never normally gets talked about,  and to experience those moments when all the energies of the group flow together and become more than the sum of their parts.

Groups can be awesome if you find the right people to celebrate with; they can also be a bit dysfunctional. The trick is to go about finding a group with your eyes open. If you experience warning signs and feel that the group you are considering joining does not fit your needs, proceed with caution. Finding the right group for your needs can be really tricky. Most people are either incredibly cautious about approaching groups, or touchingly enthusiastic and hence vulnerable.

"Ivankupala" by Henryk Siemiradzki - http://www.abcgallery.com/S/semiradsky/semiradsky7.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ivankupala.jpg#/media/File:Ivankupala.jpg

Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala” by Henryk Siemiradzki. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It is all too tempting to assume that the group you have found was somehow meant for you, and to ignore the warning signs – but sometimes that is not the way life works, and it is just a really excellent idea to run a mile. If the group you are considering joining tries to tell you that they are the One True Way and that all the other groups have it wrong – run away. Even if the group doesn’t exhibit the classic warning signs, but their approach and philosophy is just not a good fit with yours, then maybe they are not the right group for you, and you are not the right new member for them.

I often come across people who say that they don’t want to join a group for various reasons. Some of them have had a bad experience of being in a group that has put them off. That’s understandable, but not every group is the same. I had a couple of bad experiences, but that didn’t put me off groups completely – it just made me more cautious. Others say that they need to do more work on themselves before joining a group. My answer to that one would be that a group is a great place to work on yourself, because social interaction with others is where personal change and growth usually happens. Another reason for not wanting to join a group that I have come across is being an introvert. That seems like a valid reason. But joining a group doesn’t necessarily mean you have to reveal your deepest secrets or spend vast amounts of time with others; it does mean engaging with them on a quest for meaning and connection.

When you are approaching a group, ask lots of questions.

  • Does the group have ground rules?
  • How often do they meet?
  • Do they expect you to copy out rituals by hand?
  • What is their attitude to disagreement – theological or magical or political? Are they prepared to learn from other people?
  • How do they feel about members being involved with other traditions?
  • Do they value previous experience?
  • Do they value creativity and extemporisation, or do they prefer more formal rituals?
  • Can you meet the existing members?
  • Is there a training process prior to initiation?
  • Can you attend an open ritual before deciding whether to embark on the training?
  • Do they work skyclad?
  • Do they have initiations? How far into the training do these happen?

You should also ask yourself a similar set of questions.

  • Do you want a group that has ground-rules?
  • How far are you prepared to travel for meetings?
  • How many meetings per year are you willing to commit to?
  • Do you want to copy out rituals by hand?
  • How do you feel about people with different opinions from yours? Are you prepared to be challenged in your thinking?
  • Do you have the time and energy to be involved with more than one tradition?
  • What skills and experiences can you bring to the group?
  • What style of ritual do you prefer?
  • Are you prepared to put in the effort of engaging with the training process and learning new things?
  • Are you comfortable with the idea of working skyclad?
  • Are you comfortable with the idea of initiation?

The answers to these questions will vary from one individual to another, and from one group to another. Hopefully, you can find a group whose answers to the questions are a fairly close match with your answers.

Further reading

  • Patti Wiginton, How to find a coven – some excellent advice on networking and how to identify a compatible group
  • Phil Hine (1998), Approaching groups. An excellent article with a really good set of guidelines and a list of warning signals for dodgy groups.
  • Patti Wiginton, Warning Signs in Prospective Covens – excellent checklist of warning signs of dodgy groups, and groups that may be OK, but just not a good fit for you personally.
  • Patti Wiginton, Should I Join a Coven I Found Online? – points out that you should follow all the same guidelines for meeting prospective groups that you found online that you should follow for internet dating.
  • Patti Wiginton, Are you an older newbie Pagan? – for people who are new to Paganism but feel as if all the other Pagans their age are very experienced.

 


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.

 

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Walking While Black: A Song

Walking while Black

A song for Sandra, Tamir, Eric, Freddie, and many others

Protestors carrying placards at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City 28 November 2014, 12:50:28 CC-BY-SA 2.0 Author: The All-Nite Images

Protestors carrying placards at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City
28 November 2014, 12:50:28
CC-BY-SA 2.0
Author: The All-Nite Images

Eric was walking down the street
Walking while Black, held his head high
Just trying to breathe, trying to pray,
Trying to get through another day.

O mourners, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O mourners, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

Tamir was playing in the park,
Walking while Black, held his head high,
Sandra was just trying to drive,
Trying to survive, trying to thrive.

O sisters, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O sisters, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

As Bree was climbing that flagpole,
To bring down a symbol of hate,
And Martin was dreaming of a new world,
Even though the hour is late.

O brothers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O brothers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

Walking while Black should never be a crime,
In this or any other time.
And we must rise against Jim Crow,
O Lord, enough blood has flowed.

O mothers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O mothers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

The Charleston nine had met to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
And they shall wear the starry crown,
Resting in the heart of God.

O fathers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O fathers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

They that followed the drinking gourd,
They that survived the Jim Crow years,
They that rose up to get the vote,
This time, we’ll find a way.

O singers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O singers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

As we go down to the river to pray,
Black lives matter every day
We remember those who fell,
Speak their names, for ever more.

O mourners, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O mourners, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

As we walked over the Pettus Bridge
Let’s follow the river to freedom now
And we shall find the promised land
Heart to heart and hand in hand.

O dreamers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O dreamers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.


(Tune: Down in the river to pray)

As I went down in the valley to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
When you shall wear that starry crown,
Good Lord, show me the way.

O mourner, let’s go down,
let’s go down, let’s go down,
O mourner, let’s go down,
Down in the valley to pray.


I wrote this song in response to the murder of Sandra Bland, and all the other deaths at the hands of police and systemic racism.

Paganism for Beginners: Magical Names

Words and names have power. In many mythologies, the world came into being at the utterance of a particular word or sound. A magician who knows the true names of things has power over them. That is why, in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, everyone has a secret name, and a nickname by which they are usually known. It is why some Romani mothers give their children three names: a secret name whispered in the child’s ear on giving birth, and again when the child becomes an adult; a name which they are known by among their own tribe; and a name for use among the gadjo (non-Romani) – but see update below.

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman (1899) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why have a Pagan name?

Many people decide to have a Pagan name because they want to celebrate an aspect of Nature with their name. Hence people choose the names of plants, animals, or birds that they particularly like. Fortunately for me, the name Yvonne means “Yewtree” anyway. My last name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon for fortified town (burh) but it may just possibly be derived from the Anglo-Saxon for burial mound (beorh), though in that case my last name would probably be “Berrow”.

There are many reasons why someone might want a Pagan name: to feel more in touch with a particular deity, animal, bird, or tree; to emphasise a quality that you possess, or to which you aspire; to celebrate a connection with a particular animal, bird, plant, place, or being that you already feel.

Choosing your own name is a powerful magical act. Sometimes a name is suggested to you by others; if it feels right, go for it. Sometimes the name only fits in a particular group or context. I am known by a particular nickname to a particular group of people, and it feels very odd indeed if anyone outside that group uses that nickname.

Using a pseudonym

When I wrote my first book, back in 1992, I considered using a pseudonym. Ironically enough, when it was published, some people apparently thought that Yvonne Aburrow actually was a pseudonym.

At that time, many Pagan authors used pseudonyms, because it was still legal to discriminate against Pagans at work in the UK, and everybody could still remember the “Satanic Panic” in which fundamentalist Christians tried to convince social workers that there was an epidemic of Satanism in the UK, and that Pagans were Satanists.

Fortunately, the 2003 legislation on religious discrimination in the workplace means that Pagans are protected by employment law. Pagans were explicitly mentioned in the ACAS guidelines on the Act, which have the same force as case law.

Employers should be aware that these Regulations extend beyond the more well known religions and faiths to include beliefs such as Paganism and Humanism. The Regulations also cover those without religious or similar beliefs.

It is not necessarily the case that Pagans are protected by law from discrimination in the workplace in other countries, however. So some Pagans may still feel the need to use a pseudonym.

When creating a pseudonym, it is always a good idea not to use the pseudonym to claim a living ethnicity that you do not possess. So don’t make up a fake Native American name, or a fake Celtic name. It’s tacky, and it’s cultural appropriation, and it’s potentially fraudulent. It’s fine to create a Latin pseudonym, because no current ethnic group uses Latin, so it is obviously not intended to be fraudulent.

Why have a magical name?

In initiatory Wicca, a witch-name or magical name is generally used only in circle, and known only to other initiates.  The candidate for initiation is invited to choose a name prior to first-degree initiation.

When a witch is in circle, and using a witch-name, it feels as though we have stepped into our magical persona or power. Now we are ready to do magic, and have entered sacred space and sacred time. The magical name can reflect qualities we aspire to, or beings to whom we feel connected.

I read a book by Alan Richardson once, in which he suggests the following for “taking off” your mundane name and “putting on” your magical name in circle. What you do is intone your mundane name, knocking off one letter at a time, like this:

YVONNE
YVONN
YVON
YVO
YV
Y

Then build up your magical name one letter at a time. Imagine that my magical name was Yewtree:

Y
YE
YEW
YEWT
YEWTR
YEWTRE
YEWTREE

Alternatively, you can just introduce yourself as your magical name once the circle is set up.

How to choose a name

Not many people know immediately what their magical name should be. I had been given a name as a sort of joke a couple of years before my initiation, and when I was invited to choose a name, that was the one that immediately came to mind. I considered a few others, but that name kept coming back to me, so I stuck with it. I have never regretted it.

That said, don’t just choose the first name that comes to mind, or that sounds cool. And I would advise against using an internet name generator – fun though they are to play around with. Patti Wiginton has some excellent advice on how to choose a name, including how to work out if it is a good fit by using numerology (though how to do numerology with the Latin alphabet is disputed, since numerology was invented for use with the Hebrew alphabet).

Some people get their names in a dream; others choose their names from mythology or from Nature. Using the name of a major deity is regarded as a bit hubristic, and somewhat risky in that you are taking on the whole of the archetype of that deity. Minor deities and spirits, human heroes, plants, birds, animals, and abstract qualities are generally regarded as a better source of names.

Meditate on what qualities or virtues you want to embody, or which you find yourself embodying a lot of the time, and think about what animal, bird, plant, or mythological person best represents that quality. That will probably be a good source of potential names.

Once you have found the right name, you will know, because it will just feel right.


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.  


UPDATE on Romani naming practices.

The information about Romani naming practices in the article was an oversimplification. And please note that I was in no way advocating that Pagans should appropriate Roma naming practice.

My source was a book by Jacques Prévert about the Romani of Eastern Europe. Here’s a better explanation of the practice, from a library of Roma culture at the University of Graz:

Gadžo names are the Christian (first/personal) names registered in official documents (on identification papers, in registry offices; on passports, etc.) In the past, it was very rare to find a Rom with a Gadžo name. Very few Roma called their children or each other by their Gadže (official) names. Some small children did not even know their Gadže names when they started school.

and

Roma use their Roma name when they speak to each other. In the past, there was not one Rom who would not have had a Roma name. Even today, it is hard to find even one.

When a child is first born, he is spoken of as “the little one”, “the tiny one”, because his character is not yet determined. Only when he has grown a bit does his Roma name usually reveal itself.

Relatives determine the Roma name for a child in various ways.

The name can reflect a personality trait or something about the appearance of the child: Kalo(Black), Cikňi (Little), Šuki (Slender), Papin (Silly), Pušomori (Little Flea).

and

An “other name” is a Roma name with a specific function. Many Roma have forgotten this function, but in Roma settlements around Snina and Zbudské Dlhé, Roma traditionally still have an “other name”.

An “other name” protects a child from illnesses and impure forces. Let’s say that a child is named Gejza, but his mother calls him Toňu. Gejza is often kept secret from other Roma. It can happen that some illness may appear, for example oja (epilepsy), and this illness wants to possess the child. It looks for a child named Toňu, the name by which his parents and the other Roma call him. But no such Toňu exists. Toňu is merely the “other name” for the child. The illness does not know that the child’s real name is Gejza because the name Gejza has been kept secret. Therefore, the illness does not find the child and cannot hurt him.

A similar explanation is offered on this less academic site, the Patrin Web Journal, which as far as I know was set up by an actual Romani person.

Why is Hate More Newsworthy Than Love?

Recently, Icelandmag reported that Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and the members of the Ásatrúarfélag (Icelandic Pagan Association) had received hate mail from a few vocal homophobic and racist bigots for their intention to conduct same-sex marriages in their new Heathen temple, and their view that a person of any ethnicity can be a Heathen.

“Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. -

Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. –

So I decided to launch a page where people could sign to show their support. A petition site seemed wrong, as we were thanking them for being inclusive, rather than asking them to do anything, so initially I launched a page on 38 degrees – but quickly discovered that only people in the UK could sign it. So I launched a change.org page as well: Thank you for supporting same-sex marriage and inclusiveness. At the same time, Haimo Grebenstein created a Facebook event in solidarity: “Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!” The event is sponsored by Asatru-EU, an informal group of people of Germanic Heathen background, most of them members of associations from many European countries. They have been active since 2006 and are hosting the International Asatru Summer Camp (IASC), which starts on 25 July in Sweden.

The Facebook event has 2400 people supporting it, from many different Pagan and polytheist religions; the change.org petition has 640 signatories, and the 38 degrees petition has 124 signatories.

Meanwhile, if you can see the Facebook social plugin on the Icelandmag article (I can’t see it on a PC or an iPhone, and only intermittently on my iPad, but I am getting notifications of who has replied to my comment on there), then you will see that the haters appear to be in a tiny minority compared to the people who support inclusivity towards both LGBT people and people of other ethnic backgrounds.

Icelandmag ran a follow-up story about the messages of support, but again focused on the original hate-mail rather than on the messages of support:

Over the weekend we will be publishing an exclusive interview with Hilmar Örn, about the honourable and respectful nature of Ásatrú as it is practiced in Iceland, his interaction with foreign pagans and the disturbing messages he has received from foreign pagans.

The Wild Hunt also did an article, Ásatrúarfélagið Threatened with Vandalism over LGBTQ Support– also focusing somewhat more on the hate-mail than the outpouring of support, though kindly linking to Haimo’s Facebook event and my petitions. I am glad that the issue has been covered, but concerned that what I believe to be a small minority of haters is getting more coverage than the overwhelming number of people who support inclusivity. Maybe it is because hate and bigotry (despite what you might think from reading the newspapers) are actually the exception rather than the norm? Or is it because the mainstream media wants to make us feel small and isolated and powerless in the face of all this bad news?

The same thing happens with Christian bigotry against LGBT people. Granted that there are some loud voices of hate, but there are also many Christians who support same-sex marriage and regard same-sex love as natural, and are welcoming towards LGBT people. In the UK, Stonewall, the LGBT pressure group, did a survey of attitudes of religious people, and found that 58% were in support of same-sex marriage (as compared to 68% of the general population). So the difference in support between the religious population and the general population is 10%. There could be a variety of reasons why this is, but given the focus on religious bigotry by the media, most people would probably be surprised by how small the difference is. It is also noticeable that church leadership (who are often the ones making the bigoted pronouncements) are seriously out of step with the laity on this. Not only that, but the list of religious groups where leaders and laity alike support LGBT equality is quite long and impressive, and some groups (Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal Jews, and Pagans) have supported and campaigned for LGBT equality for decades.

It is also noticeable that Heathens, Polytheists, Wiccans, Druids, Kemetics, and Pagans from all over the world have signed the change.org petition. There are so many awesome comments, I urge you to go and read all of them – it is very heart-warming.

So here are a few of the signatories of the thank you petition, and why they signed:

Kurt Hoogstraat ELK GROVE VILLAGE, IL

I’m gay and a heathen. My husband and I have been together 25 years, raised a daughter and have two grandchildren. Family is very important to us, and I live the practices of my religion every day with my family. Besides, the Gods communicate with me and protect my family every day — they don’t seem to mind I’m gay!

 

Dale Overman WEST VALLEY CITY, UT

Our ancestors were far more open minded than many modern heathen in some parts of the world. The world and its religions and deeply divided as it is. We modern heathen and Asatruar need a bit of common unity and respect. Inclusiveness and hospitality is part of a decent human community.

 

Wendell Christenson CLOVIS, CA

I know in the news reports when they said that “foreign practitioners” of Asatru are sending hate mail, that “foreign practitioners” really means “American Heathens.” It is embarrassing! Not all American Heathens are simply Protestant Christians who grew up to drink mead and “play Viking” on the weekends! Thank you, Ásatrúarfélagið, for building a modern-day temple and providing services to all.

 

Dieter Tussing GERMANY

Celtoi and Gaulish Polytheists say thanks. We are in complete agreement with you.

 

Carl Guldbrand LINDESBERG, SWEDEN

Bröder och Systar, jag står med er.

 

Reverend Janet Farrar CLOGHRAN, IRELAND

They truly represent the old Gods of their land.

 

Elma O’Callaghan BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM

Basically, some people are so full of hate when they see others being happy. They need to know that Paganism is all encompassing and inclusive of equality and human rights. Well done Iceland and Hilmar for showing the true face of humanity.

 

Heather Demarest WANCHESE, NC

I honor these same deities and know that deep wisdom is its truth, that our souls are equal and even Odin supposedly dressed as a woman. Once you get past all the chest-thumping, Heathenry has deep and profound and beautiful wisdom that can empower all of us, regardless of gender, sexual preference or race.

 

Mike Stygal LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM

There should indeed be no room for racism or homophobia or transphobia in Heathenry, Druidry, Wicca, witchcraft, Paganism, polytheism, and kindred traditions.

 

Alexander ter Haar ZOETERMEER, NETHERLANDS

The Asatruarfelagid give an example of how heathenism can be: tolerant and open-minded, hospitable and respectful. It is saddening to hear that they receive hate-mails because of that. And at the same time it is wonderful to see how many people stand with them. I am proud to count myself amongst them.

 

Rev. Selena Fox BARNEVELD, WI

Appreciation, Well-Wishes, Support to You for your support of same sex marriage.

 

Jay Friedlander ANDOVER, ENGLAND

As British Heathen I support equal rights for same-sex marriage. Homophobia and transphobia has no place in modern heathenry or modern society either! I support inclusivity of all regardless of race, faith, sexual orientation, social class or any other ‘difference’ and believe tolerance of all is the only way forwards in a modern multi-cultural world.

 

Freya Aswynn CóMPETA

I am Asatru.

 

Wayne Sievers

The Icelandic Asatru Association conducted my marriage last year.

Navigating the ethical minefield

Normative Ethics: a guest post by Woods Wizard

As we go through life, most of us find our ethics are guided by the field of Applied Ethics. That is, we use concepts of duty and legal/contractual obligations to guide our behavior. Witchcraft requires a different approach: one of normative ethics. Normative Ethics attempt to define, in general terms, what actions are morally right. In this discussion, I have divided normative ethics into five categories: Nihilism, Ethical Altruism, Utilitarianism, Ethical Egoism and Consequentialism.

With the exception of nihilism, all of the different ethical approaches have their place, and must be considered together. Of course the approach we use is dependent on our situation. A starving man is more interested in doing what he can do obtain food, without consideration of the general welfare of others, for example.

 

Nihilism

Ethical nihilism is the view that morality does not exist, therefore no action is preferable to any other. This is an extreme position of situational morality wherein a person refuses to judge any action or ethical code as morally right or wrong. Alternately, a nihilist might argue that all meaning is relative depending on the outcome. This point of view is actually a form of Consequentialism, discussed later. Ultimately, nihilism can be self-destructive. The nihilist argues therefore that actions are random, based on whatever emotion or motivation dominates the individual at the time. This can easily lead to the conclusion that one is not responsible for one’s actions, as no one action is preferable to another, or that the consequences of an action cannot be foreseen.

 

"Daienin Kannon". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daienin_Kannon.JPG#/media/File:Daienin_Kannon.JPG

Daienin Kannon: Kannon statue in Daien’i, Mount Kōya, Japan”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ethical Altruism

Ethical altruism holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary, at the sacrifice of self-interest. Practical altruism sacrifices one’s own interests to help others’ interests, so long as one’s own interests are equivalent to the others’ interests and well-being.

While there have been many good examples of altruism (Quan Yin is a popular one), it is a most difficult ethic to maintain. Not everyone can “belong to the world” as Mother Teresa described herself. Yet, at times all of us exhibit altruistic traits. We all have the desire to help those in need.

Yet, altruism can have a negative side. A suicide bomber, sacrificing his life for his cause, is still sacrificing self-interest for the “benefit” of others.  Any soldier sacrificing his life for the greater good can be considered an altruist, at least at the moment of sacrifice. In both these cases however, duty-based ethics dictate this altruistic behavior.

 

Utilitarian Ethics

In its simplest form, Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that argues the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies. Many utilitarian philosophers judge an action by its usefulness in bringing about the most happiness (or good) of all those affected by it. As such, it moves beyond the scope of one’s own interests and takes into account the interests of others. Something is ethical if the total “good” it generates, to include intangible forms of “good,” outweigh the negatives. Statements like “An (if) it harm none, do as ye will.” in the Rede are utilitarian. It prevents us from harming a large number of people to benefit what we may perceive as the greater good, or for our own benefit.

Two influential contributors to this theory are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  Bentham treats all forms of happiness as equal, with goodness measured in terms of intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent.

Mill’s famous formulation of utilitarianism is known as the “greatest-happiness principle”. It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason. Mill’s major contribution to Utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. Mill argued that intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures).  Mill distinguishes between happiness and contentment, claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter, a belief wittily encapsulated in the statement that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Classical utilitarianism as espoused by Bentham can be hedonistic, but values other than, or in addition to, pleasure can be employed. G. E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica (1903), presented a version of utilitarianism in which he rejected the traditional equating of good with pleasure. The test whether something is good can be applied to moral assessments and rules of conduct. According to utilitarianism, the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, although there is debate over how much consideration should be given to actual consequences, foreseen consequences and intended consequences. Witches face these same issues.

One of the biggest problems with utilitarian reasoning is that the reasoning itself is nothing more than a problem solving tool like mathematics or computer programming. If, as in computer programming, you put garbage in, you will get garbage out.  When we set the right objectives and incorporate valid assumptions, utilitarian reasoning can be a very powerful and necessary tool to help us reach our goals.

Utilitarian reasoning is by no means a philosophy where everyone can reach the same logical conclusion. Over the ages, people have had different ideas about what constitutes the highest good, and how to get there. For example, John Locke put a heavy emphasis on the preservation of an individual’s right to private property, whereas Karl Marx wanted to collectivize as much property as possible. Who is right? We would likely argue the concept that promoted the greatest freedom results in the greatest good, but both Marx and Locke would have arguments that their philosophies do that also.

Utilitarian ethics strive to avoid I win – you lose scenarios, but must also consider the three other possible win-lose combinations.

  • In a win-win situation, the utilitarian has many ways to act “good,” all of which create “good” out-comes. The most “ethical” choice is the one that yields the greatest overall good.
  • In lose-lose situations, one must select the lessor of evils. Either choice will cause harm (loss of a breast or loss of a life to cancer is a good example), and the Utilitarian choses the least harmful option.
  • In a short term lose, long term win situation, the Utilitarian makes a short term sacrifice in hope of achieving a greater long term gain. In this instance, the utilitarian must be very careful to ensure that his goal is beneficial for all, not just for himself.

A primary advantage of utilitarian reasoning is that it challenges us to think more broadly about the impact of our actions on the world around us, and encourages us to make ethical decisions on our own rather than rely on government or our social circle to think for us. This ties into Kant’s belief that true morality (ethics) came solely from reason. Kant stated: “I ought never to act in such a way that I could also will that my maxim become universal law.” In other words, whatever one decides, one must be willing to accept that decision is true for others, as well as oneself. Kant’s belief is critical for utilitarianists, for it helps to avoid the pitfalls of ethical egoism and consequentialism.

Another advantage of utilitarian thinking is that it gives us some flexibility. We can examine alternatives and decide on the most ethical course of action. The utilitarian viewpoint encourages us to think ahead and avoid the pitfalls the unethical people of the world lay for us.

 

Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is the position that one ought to do what is in one’s own self-interest. Egoism elevates self-interests and “the self” to a status not granted to others. It is focused on the Self (or clan) while utilitarianism does not treat the Self’s own interests as being more or less important than the interests, desires, or well-being of others.

Ethical egoism does not, however, require harm to the interests and well-being of others when making an ethical decision. Egoism allows for others’ interest and well-being to be disregarded or not, as long as what is decided and acted upon satisfies Self-interest. Nor does ethical egoism necessarily purport that one ought always to do what one wants to do. It endorses selfishness, not necessarily foolishness.

American philosopher James Rachels, arguing the pros and cons of egoism over utilitarianism stated that

“each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs. Moreover, each of us is uniquely placed to pursue those wants and needs effectively. At the same time, we know the desires and needs of others only imperfectly, and we are not well situated to pursue them. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if we set out to be ‘our brother’s keeper,’ we would often bungle the job and end up doing more mischief than good.”

He also argued that

“All of our commonly accepted moral duties, from doing no harm unto others to speaking always the truth to keeping promises, are rooted in the one fundamental principle of self-interest.”

While Rachels was a proponent of ethical egoism, he also noted that the best objection to the theory is that it divides people into two types: themselves and others, and then discriminates against one type on the basis of some arbitrary disparity. This, to Rachels’ mind, provides the soundest reason why the interests of others ought to concern the interests of the self. He asks:

“What is the difference between myself and others that justifies placing myself in this special category? Am I more intelligent? Do I enjoy my life more? Are my accomplishments greater? Do I have needs or abilities that are so different from the needs and abilities of others? What is it that makes me so special? Failing an answer, it turns out that Ethical Egoism is an arbitrary doctrine…. We should care about the interests of other people for the very same reason we care about our own interests; for their needs and desires are comparable to our own.”

In his best known work, “The Moral Point of View,” Austrian philosopher Kurt Baier opines that ethical egoism provides no moral basis for the resolution of conflicts of interest, which form the only vindication for a moral code. Far from resolving conflicts of interest, claimed Baier, ethical egoism all too often spawns them. Baier also argues that egoism is paradoxical: that to do what is in one’s best interests can be both wrong and right at the same time, depending on one’s point of view. Although a successful pursuit of self-interest may be viewed as a moral victory, it could also be dubbed immoral if it prevents another person from executing what is in his best interests.

 

Consequentialism

Consequentialism is the class of ethical theories holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. This is the dark side to Normative ethics best expressed in the statement “the ends justify the means.”

A completely ruthless Consequentialist acts only for himself and has no feelings for others or society. He does not hesitate to rob, cheat, and steal whenever he feels he can get away with it.  Many people not considered criminals in today’s society employ consequential reasoning that only factors in their own gain and do not take into account the needs of other people. These people employ a short term win, long term lose situation: they are greedy, enriching themselves in the near term while inflicting greater overall costs to society. Short term win, long term lose situations are often created by people who lack the character to delay gratification who are motivated by personal power or who do not, for whatever reason understand the full consequences of their behavior.

 

So Which System is Right?

With the possible exception of Consequentialism and nihilism, the answer is all of them, dependent on the situation. Most of us think of what works best for ourselves (or our group) first (Ethical Egoism) and then (hopefully!) secondly consider what our friends will think or whether our actions are illegal (Applied Ethics).

From the perspective of many pagan paths where Deity-imposed Commandments are not part of our moral code, one more step is required: once an action is examined from egoism and applied ethics perspectives, consider it from a utilitarian point of view. Is the action going to provide the greatest good (or least harm) to all affected? Is there a short-term loss that will produce a longer term gain for all involved? For a Pagan, the action, once it passes egoism and applied ethical tests, ought to pass utilitarian reasoning as well.


 

About Woods Wizard

Woods Wizard always had a close spiritual connection with the earth, but didn’t identify as a pagan until about 10 years ago when a certain Celtic Deity came knocking.  Self-taught, he has spent the last five years organizing the Shadows of Nature: Guardian Steading (because coven implies agreement as to theology) and writing educational material for that group. Material in this guest blog is condensed from the ethics chapters of the Seeker book he wrote for the Steading.   He lives on eight acres of woodland and meadow outside of Spokane Washington and maintains a web page, Spokane Pagan Village Commons, for local pagan groups: www.spokanepagans.com  Woods loves trying to tie together mythology, history, archeology and science into an internally consistent theology – and sometimes it actually works!  He makes a living as a geologist.

 

Polytheist Day of Protest and Remembrance

I agree with and support the Polytheist Day of Protest and Remembrance, but I would like to see more emphasis within it on the people killed by DAESH, as well. I note that the call to action includes “and all the other horrors Daesh have committed” but that seems like only a nod to the people they have killed.

People are carriers of memory too: the Jews have a saying that “whoever saves a life, saves a world entire”. People have hopes, and dreams, and memories, and loves, and they keep and transmit and create culture.

I am horrified by the atrocities committed by DAESH – the murder and displacement of Yezidis, Christians, and Muslims, and the destruction of whole cultures, peoples, ways of life, and cultural monuments. Their attempt to wipe out anything that does not conform to their extremely narrow version of Islam is nothing short of genocide.

Accordingly, I will be adding to the proposed prayer:

May the victims of terror rest in the loving arms of the Great Goddess.*
May they be reborn among those whom they love.
May they never be forgotten.
May those who are displaced find their way home.
May those who are in danger be safe.

May the evil purposes of DAESH be confounded.
May all their plans turn to dust and ashed in their mouths.
May they be forgotten and confounded.


* For me, the Great Goddess is the Universe herself, the matrix of matter and spirit, the cauldron of rebirth. It is she in whose arms the dead rest, and who gives them rebirth. For me, this idea is not in conflict with my polytheism. If you use my prayer, feel free to adapt it as you see fit, and substitute the name of a deity you feel represents this role.

Paganism for Beginners: Diversity

On encountering the phenomenon of the Pagan revival for the first time, some people ask why there are so many different Pagan traditions.

There are many different answers to this question – here are the ones I can think of.

"Ny nordisk mat (12)" by Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 dk via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ny_nordisk_mat_(12).jpg#/media/File:Ny_nordisk_mat_(12).jpg

Ny nordisk mat (12)” – a Smörgåsbord by Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 dk via Wikimedia Commons.

The varieties of religious experience

There are many different forms of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and so on, because different people have different values, different theologies, and different taste in ritual styles. Some people like solemn and liturgical rituals with quite a lot of formality, and where you can predict what will happen next. Others like a lot of room for experimentation and going with the flow.

Similarly, there are many different forms of Paganism, with different theologies, ritual styles, and values. And there is often as much variation within traditions as there is between traditions. For example, one Wiccan coven or individual might be animist or polytheist in their outlook; another might be more duotheist. Some Wiccan covens are more into ceremonial magic than others; some are more hierarchical, some are more consensus-based. The array of traditions on offer is quite a Smörgåsbord.

When choosing a group in whichever tradition you are attracted to, it is a good idea to attend some of their rituals and see if they fit with your values and tastes, and whether they are open to people with differing theological perspectives.

Ancient paganism was diverse

Ancient paganism probably didn’t have the concept of “religion” as a distinct tradition with a coherent set of beliefs, values, and rituals that we have nowadays as a result of the influence of Christianity and its norms.

However, each culture had its own deities and customs and values, and these form the basis of many of the Pagan and polytheist traditions that have been revived.

In Greek and Roman culture, it is well-documented that different deities had their own cults and that these were different in different regions. There were also many different schools of thought within classical paganism, such as the Stoics and the Epicureans. There were also sacred dining-clubs devoted to Bacchus, which I think we should revive. Anyone care to join me?

Contemporary Paganism is diverse

There are many different types of people with different tastes, values, and cultural backgrounds attracted to contemporary Paganism too. And accordingly there are many different traditions on offer, and varying styles of ritual within those traditions.

Being English, with some ancestors from Cornwall, I suspect it is a fair bet that I have both Celtic and Saxon ancestors, maybe even a Norman ancestor or two, so it would be hard for me to choose a particular ethnic religion such as Heathenry or Druidry. That, along with my interest in magic and ecstatic techniques, is one of the reasons I am a Wiccan. It also means I get to honour the other gods in my personal household shrine, who are from other cultures (Roman, Hindu, Sumerian, and so on).

Just plain Pagan?

However, if you are not attracted to any particular Pagan tradition, there’s no rush. You can always attend open rituals of various different traditions, or get together with like-minded others for eclectic Pagan ritual.

Just don’t feel railroaded into doing “Wicca-lite” – there are plenty of other ways of being eclectic. Observe what moves you, what you feel is sacred, and create rituals around that. They don’t have to be complicated – they may just be as simple as noticing beautiful experiences and acknowledging them as sacred.

Find out more

If you are attracted to a particular tradition, go along to any open rituals they offer, and read more about the tradition. Talk to practitioners, ask lots of questions. Have a look at the various different Pagan organisations, some of which represent specific traditions.


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide’. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

Many deities, one beloved

It is so tempting to claim that polyamory and polytheism are a natural combination… After all, they both start with poly, and they both involve loving many different beings in diverse ways.

However, it is possible to affirm the existence of many deities, but have a devotion to only one, or only a few. That’s henotheism.

There is not an automatic link or correlation between polyamory and polytheism. If you say there is, you are erasing the existence of polyamorous monotheists, and monogamous polytheists. Please don’t.

It is possible to be a monogamous polytheist, or a polyamorous monotheist. I am monogamous and polytheist. I regard being monogamous as similar to a sexual orientation. I always assumed that I was polyamorous and then discovered otherwise. I tried and failed to be polyamorous. I am definitely monogamous (and madly in love) and it is nothing to do with jealousy and everything to do with love.  I also know some polyamorous Unitarians and UUs – tolerant and inclusive monotheists who happen to be polyamorous. Friends who are polyamorous report that they have always felt that way. I have always thought that I would be polyamorous, but in practice I have mostly been monogamous, and I have enjoyed it more than polyamory, when I was with the right person.

I fully support the efforts of polyamorous people to get their relationships recognised and to get the security of some kind of contract, up to and including marriage, if that is what they want to do. (Some opponents of polyamory have argued that this will open the door to unequal relationships – but a monogamous relationship does not guarantee equality, sadly.) I also fully support the right of polyamorous people not to get married, if that is what they choose.

I have many polyamorous friends and 100% support their right to be polyamorous, and have defended polyamory to the hilt in arguments about it. But I personally am NOT polyamorous.

But please please please don’t try to claim that polytheism and polyamory go together like apple pie and cream. And don’t dismiss all monogamous people as motivated by jealousy and insecurity. People who are monogamous prefer to focus all our sexual energy on one person, because that is the way our sexuality works. My inner fire burns for one person only, and that is my beloved. We trust each other completely to be around other people of either gender, but we reserve our sexual interactions for each other. I find that this makes our connection all the more powerful.

Obviously the issue is clouded by the fact that monogamy is assumed as a cultural default, so people rarely have to come out as monogamous. Most people have to discover they are polyamorous and then work out how to make it work. I am sure there are more people who are naturally inclined toward polamory who are trying awkwardly to fit in the cultural mould of monogamy. However, as someone who assumed from the outset that I was polyamorous, but then discovered that I am monogamous, I am convinced that a person’s orientation towards poly or mono exists at a deeper level of the psyche than mere choice, and is a sexual/romantic orientation in the same way as one’s preference for opposite-sex or same-sex partners, or both.

What colour is your witchcraft?

In my previous article “7 things I wish people knew about Wicca“, I wrote a section about “black witchcraft” versus “white witchcraft”. It is one of those topics that is not easily dealt with in a quick soundbite, and this quickly became apparent from the comments.

I also realise that the headline of that section (There is no such thing as ‘black witchcraft’ or ‘white witchcraft’) was ambivalent. What I meant was that there isn’t a whole movement of people who consider themselves to be “black witches” or “white witches“, not that there is no such thing as “black magic” or “white magic“, although I do consider those terms to be very very unhelpful for a number of reasons.

Besides, as everyone knows, the colour of magic is octarine.

“It was octarine, the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchantment itself.
But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.”

Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic

There are of course Black people who are witches and/or Wiccans, and that is one of the reasons I object to the use of the term “black” to mean maleficent. If you say “there are no black witches” (meaning “there are no 100% maleficent witches”) it sounds like you are saying “there are no Black witches” (meaning “there are no Black people who are witches”, which is obviously not true). Furthermore, associating black with evil is unhelpful, as it may reinforce racist assumptions about Black people.

I am not denying that magic can be used for bad or selfish purposes, or even that it can be used to call upon entities with a less than benevolent agenda. I would deny that the entities called upon are the source of the magic, however. The universe is the source of the magic. However, people cannot be divided up neatly into “black witches” and “white witches”, and there is no cosmic force of evil or cosmic force of good in the Pagan worldview.  There are no personifications of good and evil in Wicca, but there are personifications of destruction, disorder, etc. (Loki, Kali, Eris, etc.), but these are regarded as part of the natural cycle: agents of chaos or destruction, bringing change so that renewal may take place. There are also personifications of growth, life, and light to balance the agents of chaos and destruction. And Wiccans are strongly discouraged from using magic for bad purposes. Therefore the question “are you a black witch or a white witch?” is redundant.

I believe that the same energy underlies all magic, and that energy is a natural property of the universe – or perhaps preternatural. In my view (which as far as I know is agreed upon by a large number of Wiccans and other magical folk), magic exists independently of those who wield it, whether they are human or spirit. Magic is a bit like the Force in Star Wars – which was actually based on the concept of the Tao, or possibly on ch’i (which are of course not equivalent to each other).

Magic, and spiritual beings, are agreed upon by most Pagans to be immanent in the universe, intertwined with matter – not outside and beyond the universe. if there is an Otherworld or spirit realm, it is usually seen as very close to, or intertwined with, the physical realm. As Michael York writes:

The supernatural as we know it is largely a Christian-derived expression from the idea that its ‘God’ is over and ‘above’ nature – material/empirical reality. It is this notion that is the target of secular and naturalistic animosity alike. Instead, rather than ‘supernatural’, I turn instead to the ‘preternatural’ that expresses the non-causal otherness of nature – one that comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime. Most important, however, the preternatural does not demand belief or faith but instead encounter and experience – whether through contemplation, metaphor, spontaneous insight, ecstasy, trance, synchronicity or ritual or any combination of these. As Margot Adler expressed it, paganism is not about belief but what we do.

Yes, magic can be used to call upon entities such as gods and spirits (who may be preternatural or supernatural depending on your theological perspective), but why would you call upon an entity that you consider to have a negative or maleficent agenda? Of course, there are people who work with entities who are labelled as demons, but I’m pretty sure those people would defend their magical work and the entities as benevolent or at the very least, just misunderstood.

As to the possibly malevolent or beneficent agenda of magical entities: surely that depends on your perspective? Some entities may be hostile to humans, because we are busy despoiling the planet and making other species extinct. From the perspective of those other species, humans are evil (even those of us who are not actively going out and killing endangered species are complicit in the habitat loss and pollution that is making many species extinct). Some entities may be entirely indifferent to humans, and not notice that they are trampling on us. The hurricane and the volcano and the venomous spider don’t intend to kill people; they just do.

I am aware that there are people who use magic for selfish or even maleficent purposes; but Wiccans are taught that this is a bad idea, because there are negative consequences. A person who consistently acts only in their own interest will hurt other people, and eventually hurt themselves.

I believe that morality and ethics are much more complex and contextual than a simple black/white dichotomy. For example, if someone was to curse a dictator such as Stalin or a mass murderer like Pol Pot, would that be “black magic” or “white magic”? Or if I give healing (normally considered “white magic”) to someone who then goes on to commit a very evil act, was my healing “white magic” or “black magic”?

Magic is a bit like a tool: it can be wielded for good or bad purposes. As Lori Ann James commented on my previous post:

Magick is a tool. A hammer can smash a window, or it can build the cabinet.

The intent of the magic-wielder, and the consequences of the magic, and the intentions of any magical allies who helped with the work, all contribute to the benevolence or malevolence of the magic. So, until all the consequences have played themselves out, and until all the motives have been weighed and analysed, it is a bit difficult to tell whether it was good magic or bad magic. As in the story of the Taoist farmer, the consequences of many actions or events are hard to classify as wholly good or wholly bad.

The problem is, when someone asks “are you a black witch or a white witch”, they are not looking for a long explanation of the Pagan worldview, or Wiccan morality and ethics. They are looking for a quick soundbite; they probably want you to say “a white witch, of course”. But it is an ignorant question in so many ways, and one to which there is no simple and straightforward answer. That’s why I tend to reply with “I am a green witch” or “your question makes no sense in my paradigm” because otherwise one ends up reinforcing a simple binary view of morality and people as neatly divided up into “good people” and “bad people”, or “good actions” and “bad actions”.

Starry Night, VVincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Starry night, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Both magic and reality are swirly and complex. We do ourselves, our Craft, and the gods a disservice if we allow them to be reduced to a simple binary dichotomy of “black” and “white”; and if we allow darkness to be used as a metaphor for evil, we also do the night a disservice.

In Wicca, darkness does not symbolise evil. The darkness is necessary for rest, growth, and regeneration. Death is not evil, but a necessary adjunct to life. If there was no death and dissolution, there could be no change or growth. The cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is part of the interaction of the polarities. Suffering is also part of the process of growth; just as a tree is shaped by the wind, we are shaped by our experiences. It is only by experiencing suffering that we acquire sufficient depth to know the fullness of joy. It is then that the full light of consciousness dawns in us, and we achieve mystical communion with the divine/deities.

So, if someone asks you “are you a white witch or a black witch?” how do you answer the question?

Pagans and politics

What is the relationship between Paganism(s) and politics? Some have argued that Paganism is not political. Some have criticised the political style and presentation of the emerging polytheist movement. Some are uncomfortable with the politics around consent culture, racism, gender, and sexuality in Paganism and polytheism. Some are uncomfortable with the critique of capitalism offered by Gods and Radicals.

I do agree with those who say that being Pagan doesn’t automatically predispose people to a particular political stance. There are Pagans of many different political persuasions, for reasons which may or may not relate to their particular way of being a Pagan. Not being expected to sign up to a particular political stance or party is an important aspect of Pagan religious freedom.

Read the rest of the article on Gods & Radicals.