Witchcraft Traditions

When Gerald Gardner coined the term “the Wica” (originally spelt with one c), he seems to have intended it to refer to any and all witches. Subsequently, the term has come to be used by some people to mean only witches initiated into Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, and has been used by others to mean anybody who identifies as Wiccan, and a whole spectrum of meanings in between those two terms. This can make it confusing for people to understand what is meant by any individual using the term Wicca.

[Estimated reading time: 10 minutes. Contains 2020 words]

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Connecting with place

One of the key elements of Pagan thought is connecting with the Earth, Nature, and/or the land. As a general thing, Wiccans seem to focus more on Nature, Druids seem to focus more on the Earth, and Heathens seem to focus more on the land. however, there are always individual exceptions to these generalities. I have always felt very attached to the land around me, especially hills and ranges of hills.

The Pagan revival began, in part, because people felt alienated from Nature by the Industrial Revolution and living in cities.

Looking at other indigenous spiritualities and religions around the world, we can see that connection to the land and Nature is extremely important to them. This connection includes awareness of ecosystems, bio-regions, animals, plants, seasonal changes, rivers, rocks, and trees.

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Colours of Paganism

Paganism is an umbrella term for a group of religions that venerate the Earth and Nature, and the ancient Pagan deities. These religions include Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Animism, Shamanism, Eclectic Pagans and various other traditions. All of these traditions share an urge to celebrate life and to honour our connection with all other beings on the planet. Pagans often emphasise the cyclical nature of reality, and so enjoy the cycle of the seasons and the dance of Sun and Moon.

Green is the colour everyone immediately associates with Paganism. It is the colour of nature, of trees, and all growing things. It is associated with the Green Man, a symbol of our connection to Nature, and a manifestation of the life-force. Many Pagans also like the colour purple for its spiritual connotations (it is associated with the crown chakra). Interestingly, purple and green were also the colours of the suffragette movement.

The Long Man of Wilmington, Autumn Equinox
Photo by OceanBlue-AU [BY-NC-ND 2.0]

The metals are traditionally associated with the heavenly bodies: gold for the Sun, silver for the Moon and the stars, mercury for Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for Mars, tin for Jupiter and lead for Saturn.

The white, red and and black colours of the Triple Goddess owe a lot to Robert Graves’ seminal work The White Goddess. He derived it from the tendency of the Irish myths to declare those “otherworldly” colours in combination, such as the red-eared white cow that was Brigid’s only food as an infant, the red, white and black oystercatcher that is called “Brigid’s bird” or the red-eared white dogs that occur in so many stories as Otherworld animals.

The four elements are very important in Paganism, and different mythological systems associate them with different colours. Earth is associated with stability, fertility, strength and nurturing, and can be represented by green, brown, or white. Air symbolises intellect, the breath of life, and the spirit, and can be depicted as yellow, white, or black. Fire represents energy, intuition, passion and vitality, and can be orange or red. Water represents love, emotion, fluidity, and healing, and can be blue or green.

The rainbow is an important symbol for Pagans. To Heathens, it the symbol of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge between the world of deities (Asgard) and the world of humans (Midgard). For many Pagans, the colours of the rainbow correspond to the colours of the chakras (borrowed from Hinduism). It is also the symbol of LGBT sexuality.

Colors of the Rainbow
Photo  by Nicholas_T [BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Diana Paxson and her branch of Asatru (a Heathen tradition) associate colours with deities: Oðinn is black and blue; Thor red; Freya and Freyr green and gold, or sometimes brown.

White is the colour of light, and is associated with the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess. It is also the colour most often chosen for Druid robes, because of its association with the Sun.

Black is the colour of darkness, but for Pagans, darkness symbolises a time of rest, dreams, and the hidden powers of Nature. It is also a symbol of the fertile earth, in whose dark depths seeds can germinate. It is also the colour of death and the underworld, but death is seen as part of the cycle of life, death and rebirth, and so is not to be feared. For some Pagans, black is the colour of the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, and so represents the wisdom of old age. It is also the colour of women, of the cycles of the human body, and of those people considered “non-white.” Black speaks to our love of mystery, night, and the realms of the unconscious and “starlight” consciousness. It’s the color of soil, dirt, compost. It represents wholeness.

Important Pagan Dates

There are different Pagan festivals depending on which Pagan path you follow, but many Pagans celebrate the festivals of the Wiccan and Druid Wheel of the Year.

Samhain or Hallowe’en falls on 31st October, and is a festival of the ancestors and the otherworld. Its colours are autumnal: the orange skin of pumpkins, the rich reds and golds of autumn leaves, and the brown colour of the bare fields. Heathens celebrate the festival of Winternights around this time; historically this was a big sacrificial feast at which gods, elves and/or ancestors were welcomed. Nowadays Heathens make offerings of mead to the deities and wights (powers).

Yule or Winter Solstice is on 21st or 22nd December, when we celebrate the return of the light as the days begin to lengthen again. The colours of Yule are red and green for the holly and its berries, dark green for the evergreens that are brought into the house, the green and white of the mistletoe, gold for the returning Sun. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at this time, which is where the customs of the Lord of Misrule and giving presents come from, as the masters had to serve their slaves and give them gifts.

Imbolc, celebrated on 2nd February, is when the ewes begin to lactate, and it is associated with the Celtic Goddess Brighid, lady of smithcraft, healing and poetry. The colours of Imbolc are white and red; white for the ewes’ milk and the swan, which is the bird of Brighid, and red for the new growth on the trees, and for the fire of Brighid.

Red Branches Covered with Ice
Photo by Juggling Mom [BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Spring Equinox usually falls on 21st or 22nd March, and is often represented as being darkness and light in dynamic balance, because the days and nights are equal – but the light is in the ascendancy. The goddess of this festival is only known from a reference by the Venerable Bede, but it has been suggested that she may have been a goddess of Spring and of the Moon, since hares are sacred to the Moon and are associated with this festival.

The Festival of Beltane falls on 30th April and 1st May, and celebrates life, love and fertility. Its main colour is green – the fresh green of the leaves on the trees. This is the time of year for Maypoles (traditionally decorated with multicoloured ribbons) and for leaping over the Bel-fire with your beloved.

Maypole Beltane
Photo by yksin [BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Summer Solstice usually falls on 21st or 22nd June, and its colours are yellow (for the Sun and for the St John’s Wort flower, which is the flower of Midsummer) and red (for the heat of the Sun).

Lughnasadh or Lammas is the Harvest Festival, and is celebrated on 31st July and 1st August. Its colours are the colours of the harvest: the gold of ripening wheat and the harsh light of the Sun, and sometimes red for the poppies that grow among the corn.


This post was originally published at the Colour Lovers blog on 14 November 2007. It was part of a series on colour symbolism in different religious traditions:

See also: The Colorful Diwali Festival of Light

Acknowledgements and Sources

How to Become a Naturalist

Pagans often say that we want to get in touch with Nature. But there are many among us who don’t know one tree species from another, or one flower from another. It’s all “oograh“.

I was lucky to be brought up by my mother, who pointed out lots of different flower species and taught me to identify flowers by their genus. So I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of wild flowers. If you didn’t have the luck to be brought up by a keen botanist, here’s how you can become one. My mother is also keen on birds. I like birds and am okay at identifying them – but they won’t stay still, which hampers the efforts of the amateur ornithologist.

Flowers and trees are easier to get started on than mushrooms, grasses, birds, or moths, because flowers and trees are easier to tell apart. Once you have got your eye in and learnt to identify flowers, you can move on to more advanced things like mushrooms, grasses, and birds.

The key to being a naturalist is observation of detail. How big is it? How many leaves does it have? What shape are they? How are they arranged on the stem? How many petals does it have? What are the stamens like? Does it have fruits or seed-pods? Florets or umbels?

Step 1 – learn a few common flower species, or make a list of the ones you know already. Find out whether any of them are part of the same family.

Step 2 – buy a really good flower field guide, with a botanical key. The key will help you to find the plant in the book by checking the number of petals, leaves, etc. It’s also a good idea to learn the names of parts of plants (stamen, pistil, umbel, floret, etc).

Step 3 – Riffle through the book and familiarise yourself with the different plant families, and where they are likely to be found. If you know that the Brassicaceae have four petals arranged in a cross shape around the centre of the flower, or that the Umbelliferae have big umbels (like an inside-out umbrella) it’s easier to get to the individual species by going to the section of the book that deals with that family.

A similar process to the above applies to learning bird species, moth and butterfly species, and tree species.

Why classify?

If you don’t learn the names and characteristics of plants, it is a lot harder to tell them apart. Associating the specific characteristics of a plant to its name (whether it’s the folk-name or the Latin name) anchors in your mind that it’s a distinct species. It’s the way the brain works.

Go for a walk

Walking is good for both body and soul, and a great way to be in Nature (and has zero environmental impact, unless you use a car to get there). I am very fortunate in being quite near the River Thames, which is awesome for nature walks. On Sunday, we found snake’s-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Snake’s head fritillaries. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Whenever you go for a walk, take your flower book and/or tree book with you. (There are probably apps for identifying things, but it’s nice to have an actual book.) Note down the species you see, and keep a nature journal. I have done this intermittently over the years, and it’s nice to read back over old entries. If you are not keen on writing, take photos, make drawings, or take a very small sample for pressing (but never pick the whole plant, and only take part of a plant if you can see at least 20 other good plants of the same kind).

One of the things I do is write “small beauties” posts and post them to Facebook and my other blog. These are descriptions of what I have seen whilst out and about – trees, birds, flowers, interesting clouds, people, boats, buildings. Writing these sharpens your powers of observation, and reading them later is a pleasant reminder of what you have seen.

I love going for a walk and really looking at the trees, flowers, birds, and landscape that I meet on the way. It’s how I relax. And it is really rewarding to be able identify flowers and birds and trees: it gives you a sense of achievement, sharpens your powers of observation, and means that you really engage with nature instead of just seeing it as a vague amorphous mass.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

White snake’s head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Folklore of plants

It’s also interesting and useful to find out about the folklore and herbal uses of plants. In the past, the witch was the village healer (according to legend, anyway), so it’s good to learn the folklore, symbolism, mythology, and medicinal uses of plants. I am not the world’s greatest herbalist, but I know a few things; and I am a pretty good botanist.

Recommended books

Most of these are about British natural history (because I live in Britain). If you have recommendations for North America, Europe, or Australia, please post them in the comments.

  • Collins British Wild Flower Guide – a really comprehensive guide to plant families and individual species. Really clear layout, very comprehensive, beautiful illustrations, and contains a botanical key.
  • Roger Phillips, Mushrooms – this is the definitive guide. Not a field guide, but well worth getting a copy anyway.

Folklore and natural history

Useful websites

Related posts

Embodied Spirituality: Grounding and Centering

Many rituals begin with this simple practice, especially Pagan circles. It comes from the Taoist tradition originally, I think. There are several different versions of it.

Its purpose is to allow you to feel connected to the Earth (grounded), not floating away into fantasy-world, not obsessing about the past or the future, but being present in the now. The centring part of the practice allows you to feel connected to the cosmos and the four sacred directions, which are associated with the elements.

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania [free image from Pixabay]



Begin by focusing on your breathing. Don’t breathe in any special way, just notice how your breath comes in and out of your nostrils, and how your belly rises and falls.

As you breathe in and out, feel your feet planted firmly on the ground. Relax your hips and your knees and imagine a thread extending from the top of your head to the centre of the sky (this helps to align your spine with the axis of the Earth).

Imagine that your feet are tree roots, and extend your roots deep into the earth. Your roots push down into the earth, through the rich soil, finding their way among rocks, and down deep into the molten core of the Earth. As you breathe out, extend your roots; as you breathe in, draw up energy from deep within the Earth.

As the energy makes its way into your body, draw it up through your legs and feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus. Note the colour of the energy.

Now extend a tendril of energy up your spine. Imagine that your spine is the trunk of a tree, and extend your aura at the top of your head, growing branches. Extend your branches up into the sky, beyond the atmosphere, and reach for the energy of the starlight. As you breathe out, extend your branches; as you breathe in, draw the energy down from above. Feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus, mingling with the energy from below.

Now draw energy from both above and below at the same time, and let the energies mingle in your solar plexus. As you breathe in, draw in the energy from above and below; as you breathe out, feel it spiralling and swirling.

Now allow the energy to fill your whole body, extending out to your feet, your fingertips, the top of your head. Feel how you are aligned with the cosmic axis.

Now acknowledge the four directions: North for Earth, representing the body, sensation, physicality, and structure; East for Air, representing intellect, thought, inspiration and breath; South for Fire, representing passion, intuition, and spirit; and West for Water, representing emotion, the Moon, dreams, and the blood that flows in your veins.


This post was originally published at UK Spirituality.

 

Paganism for Beginners: Levels of Symbolism

According to CG Jung, there are three levels of symbolism: personal, cultural, and universal.

Personal symbolism is what things mean to you. So, depending on what part of England you live in, the symbolic colour of earth might be different for you. If you live in Devon, where the soil is red, due to the red sandstone geology, then the symbolic colour of earth might be red for you; whereas if you live in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where earth is black, then you the symbolic colour of earth for you might be black. Personal symbolism may also vary depending on your experiences, your preferences, and your outlook on life. A particular tree might represent first love for you because you experienced your first kiss under it, for example. Or you might have a strong leaning towards the element of water, and therefore it might represent something particular for you.

Personal symbolic associations are not “wrong” or “incorrect” – but they don’t necessarily have any meaning for anyone else, unless they happen to share those associations. Poets and novelists often make use of personal symbolism to create new and interesting metaphors and imagery in their poems and stories.

Cultural symbolism is the set of symbolic associations something has within a particular culture. For example, in Europe, the colour black represents mourning; in other cultures, white is the colour of mourning. In China, the colour red is particularly lucky; in English folklore, a bride should never wear either red or green, because those are the colours of the Fair Folk. In China, dragons are associated with water, live in lakes and wells, and bring rain; in Europe, dragons are fiery creatures that live under the earth. And so on.

Universal symbolism is a symbolic association that appears to exist independently of culture, or that occurs in all cultures. Universal symbolism is generally derived from our perception of the world around us and how we relate to it. For example, a hearth-fire, being generally a pleasurable thing, is good and associated with hospitality; and cold/wet/dark/outside, being generally not pleasurable, is bad.

The hearth fire: a universal symbol of warmth.

The hearth fire: a universal symbol of warmth.
[Source: Pixabay. Licence: CC0 Public Domain]

When you are examining symbolism for use in ritual, it is a good idea to think about whether it is a personal symbol, only representing the thing symbolised for you and a small handful of others; a cultural symbol that is specific to a particular group of people; or a universal or very widespread symbol. It is of course fine to use a personal or cultural symbol in a ritual – but you may need to explain how you are using it, and what it means to you, or in the context of the culture or mythology you are drawing upon.

A related concept is that of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) and Substantiated Personal Gnosis (SPG). An Unverified Personal Gnosis is an insight or revelation that you have received about the nature of a deity, or the nature of reality. It can be verified by checking it against experience, and/or other people’s insights and revelations, and/or with reference to the lore of the particular culture you are working within. The Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) is similar to personal symbolism – it is not “wrong”, but don’t expect other people to agree with you unless it chimes with their experience, or with the cultural lore associated with the deity and/or pantheon you are working with.

Many people are dismissive of UPG, but there is no need to dismiss it as “incorrect” – you only need to say that it doesn’t chime with your experience, and move on.

Many people are afraid that their personal symbolic associations with particular things are somehow wrong – but again, there is nothing wrong with creativity and personal symbolism, but your personal symbolism may not work for everyone. This is why magic and the occult are an art and not a science.

Paganism for Beginners: Group Dynamics

The subject of group dynamics is complex, but one way of observing group dynamics is to ask the simple question, “Where does the power go in the group?” In other words, who is wielding the power?

In many groups, there is an elected or appointed leader. In most churches, the minister is officially the leader – but woe betide her or him if they upset the committee. In Wiccan covens, the leader is usually the high priestess. In a Druid grove or a Heathen hearth, there may be a small group of leaders, or a single leader. Quaker meetings usually have a group of elders.

In a small group, it can be an excellent idea to rotate the leadership role. Different members of the group take it in turns to write and facilitate a ritual. Most progressive and/or inclusive covens encourage their members to create and lead rituals.

Most people find that working in a group with a flat hierarchy is preferable to working in one with a very top-down hierarchy. Flat hierarchies are characterised by shared decision making and informal communication between team members.

Hierarchy in the gull world Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith. No prizes for guessing which one is boss!

Hierarchy in the gull world
Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith.
© Copyright Brian Whittle and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Groups often go through a process of forming, storming, norming, and performing. First the group comes together (forming). Then there is a struggle to resolve the group’s differences (storming). Once that has been resolved, the group’s values, goals, and beliefs converge (norming). Once that process is complete, the group is ready to perform. These stages can actually be a cycle rather than a linear process.

During the formation of the group and the convergence of its ideas, who is in the group, and who is outside the group, will become apparent. This is known as the in-group / out-group dynamic. The formation of the in-group can be a positive thing, in that it makes the group feel closer together, but it can be dangerous, because if the in-group projects its shadow onto the out-group, this can result in persecution of the out-group.

The projection of group members’ shadows onto other people in the group can be a dangerous dynamic. If you are the leader of a group, this a thing to watch out for, as you don’t want one person to be demonised or outcast by the rest of the group. The shadow is the aspect of our psyches that we have repressed because we don’t like that aspect of ourselves, and we often project it onto other people, especially if they resemble the repressed aspect of personality.

Another interesting dynamic in groups is “somebody has to do it” syndrome. This is where one person takes on more responsibility than the others, and an expectation is created that they will always do the task that they have taken on. This might be always being the one who leads the visualisations, or always being the one who calls the quarters, or something else less obvious, like being the person who provides a ritual if no-one else is feeling inspired. The way to break out of this dynamic is for the person who always does the thing to let go of feeling responsible for it, and for the people who never do the thing to have a go at doing it. It also means breaking the ritual tasks down into small manageable chunks so that people who might find it daunting to take on the management of a whole ritual can build up gradually by doing a small piece at a time. Luckily, Wiccan ritual lends itself well to being broken down into manageable chunks.

It is a good idea if the locus of power in a group is visible. If it is not obvious who holds the power, then it will default to the person with the loudest voice or the most stubborn resistance to new ideas.

One way to ensure a fair and balanced approach within your group is to make the rules by consensus. In this exercise (preferably on the first session of the group), ask members to suggest what the rules should be. The purpose of the rules is to make sure that everyone has the power to ask questions, to feel safe in the group, to ensure confidentiality, and to prevent conflict.

The role of the leader of a coven is to empower others and enable them to develop as priestesses or priests. This model is sometimes known as servant leadership – because the leader is mindful that the group is not there to serve them; rather they are there to create safe space for the group, to hold the space, and to empower others to be creative in that space.

Further reading

In my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca, I explore the issue of group dynamics extensively in the chapter on running a coven.

Inclusive Wicca is not just about including LGBTQIA people; it is also about including people of colour, people with disabilities (both visible and invisible), and working the rituals in a way that includes everyone and enables all participants to contribute.

Wiccan ethics

Model policies, group guidelines, etc

Teaching and Learning in a Coven

Every new generation of seekers has some obstacle put in their way. In the days before the internet, the obstacle was not enough information. Now the obstacle is too much information. There are loads of websites and would-be teachers out there offering you all kinds of advice.

Then one day, you decide to take the plunge and find a face-to-face teacher. This is generally a good thing, as in my experience, most humans learn better from personal interaction than they do from online interactions or books.

However, due to the prevalence of books and people claiming to be the ultimate authority, and the prevalence of the counter-claim that the only valid authority is the inner self, we have a situation where many people can neither learn nor teach because they are too convinced of their own rightness to actually consider new ideas from their teachers or their students.

The theory of learning and teaching that I use in a coven setting is derived from Lev Vygotsky, who theorised the existence of a zone of proximal development. Vygotsky was a social constructivist; that is, he believed that learning was mediated through social interaction, and that our understanding of the world is socially constructed.

The zone of proximal development is the idea that there are some things the learner can do unaided (that they already know how to do); some things that they can do with guidance; and some that they cannot do. It also suggests that you need to build up from the things you can do, master the skills that you can do with help, and that this will provide the building blocks to access the next level (this idea was further developed by Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross with the concept of scaffolding).

The teacher and the student build a bridge between them so they can exchange ideas and knowledge and skills. But it is important to note that the teacher can also learn from the student.

"Ponte Vasco da Gama 25" by F Mira from Lisbon, Portugal - Merging in the mistUploaded by JotaCartas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ponte_Vasco_da_Gama_25.jpg#/media/File:Ponte_Vasco_da_Gama_25.jpg

Ponte Vasco da Gama 25” by F Mira from Lisbon, Portugal – Merging in the mist Uploaded by JotaCartas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

This means that learning is a collaborative process between the teacher and the learner. It is not the case that the learner is an empty bucket that the teacher fills up with facts; rather, the teacher and the learner discover and elaborate the existing skills of the learner (and the learner may also be able to teach the teacher a thing or two). This is especially true of magical and ritual skills, which are often extensions of existing abilities.

So, if you are a seeker, find out from any potential teacher you meet what their methods are, and what they expect you to do. Do they expect you to ask questions? Do they welcome and celebrate your existing skills and knowledge? Do they recognise that you have a unique learning style? Do they invite you to bring prior experience to the table to enrich the learning process? Do they support students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or other differences?

Many seekers seem to assume that all teachers are going to dictate a prescribed way of doing magic and ritual which will destroy the spontaneity and joy of it. Perhaps there are teachers out there who behave like that, but the majority are rather more flexible than that. If you do find a teacher who won’t allow you to ask questions, who belittles your existing skills and prior experience, or who insists on doing everything in a set way, then run a mile – but don’t assume that all teachers are like that.

The method that I use for teaching conceptual ideas is the sharing circle. This is fairly accessible for people with dyslexia, because it gives people time to formulate their thoughts. There is a set topic for each discussion (such as reincarnation, the nature of deities, the idea of the sacred, the four elements, etc) and we use a token to indicate who can speak at any one time. The token is passed around the circle, and everyone gets a chance to air their thoughts on the topic. Sometimes I use other tools such as mind mapping to enable people to tease out their ideas on a topic.

In the circle, when teaching magical techniques, I encourage people to try different techniques, in order to work out what feels right for them. Some people prefer one set of gestures for calling the quarters, cleansing the circle, and so on; others prefer a different set of gestures. These may stem from a different physical relationship with the energies, or from a different philosophical concept of what energies are and how we might relate to them. None of these different gestures and words is necessarily wrong. Obviously your tradition might have a specific way of doing these things, but my BoS offers a selection of different words and gestures for calling the quarters, casting the circle, and so on, and which ones you choose may be different, depending on different circumstances and choices.

I always encourage people to make a connection with the energy they are invoking or evoking first, and then to speak the words. After all, the energy is more important, surely? It can also be helpful to use analogies from physical experience in order to get people sensing subtle energies. I have also noticed that different people experience subtle energies differently – some people see them as colours; others experience them as heat, cold, or other physical sensations.

Another thing that I have noticed is that people are either overly reliant on books, and regard them as the ultimate authority on magical matters; or they dismiss books entirely, and want to totally rely on their instincts. Surely there has to be a happy medium between these two extremes? If something you read in a book doesn’t agree with your experience, then examine why that might be the case, and either adjust your world-view, or discard what the book says. If the book is wrong in this instance, that doesn’t invalidate either that book, or books in general. If the book happens to be right in this instance, that doesn’t invalidate all personal experiences.

As with pretty much anything, it’s all about finding the middle way between two extremes.

Paganism for Beginners: Social Structures

The social world as it is currently structured is the product of a particular set of assumptions about the world, about the role of different genders, and about the relative worth of different social roles and different cultures.

The fact that people can own land, that property is deemed more important than human life by our current laws, that those with wealth and property are given more power and status, that making war is given priority over creating community or protecting the most vulnerable people, that certain social functions are seen as female and others are seen as male – these are all cultural constructs resulting from thousands of years of  looking at the world in a particular way. They have been built up by custom and practice over a couple of millennia. But they are not inevitable.

A lot of our current social and economic structures exist because of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer and other early societies organised themselves differently.  The archaeologists excavating the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey have discovered that there was very little gender specialisation in people’s roles, and that people from different genetic groups lived together.

Many of our current legal and social systems come from the structures imposed by Christianity and its cultural ancestors (such as the Akkadian empire). Many ancient pagan and polytheist societies were organised differently, with matrifocal culture, matrilineal inheritance, collective ownership, and other variations.

"Earthlights" - Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC.Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. - http://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/ve//1438/land_lights_16384.tif. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earthlights_dmsp.jpg#/media/File:Earthlights_dmsp.jpg

Earthlights” – Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC.Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. – http://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/ve//1438/land_lights_16384.tif. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Different social models

Patriarchy is a system where descent is counted through the male line, and property passes from a father to his first-born son. This meant that a man had to control the sexuality of the the woman he had children with, otherwise he might pass his property on to another man’s son. Women were punished, often killed, if they had sex with a man who was not their husband.  The word “patriarchy” means “rule of the fathers”, and before the rise of feminism and the emancipation of women, the father was the head of the household, and men had a considerable amount of power over women. Married women in England could not own their own property until 1870, and if a couple split up, the man got custody of the children. Various patriarchal systems are still in force in many parts of the world, and patriarchal attitudes persist everywhere.

It is worth noting that unless there is a notion of individual property rather than communal property, there can be no notion of inheritance, so patriarchy would be unlikely to exist without the concepts of private property and inheritance.

Patriarchal societies also tend to enforce rigid gender roles for men and women, and often separate the sexes into different spheres of activity. Women are frequently required either to stay in the house, or to wear a veil when they go out.

Rape culture is the patriarchal belief that women do not like sex (a belief promoted by so-called radical feminists as well as “men’s rights activists”), and that men are inherently predatory and want sex all the time. According to this view, women always have to be coerced or cajoled into sex. This erases the possibility of meaningful or enthusiastic consent. In this view, any woman who actually enjoys sex is a “slut” and is therefore “fair game” to be hit on by men (note the predatory language). Think of all the times you have heard the idea that a rape victim was somehow “asking for it”.

Rape is mostly about exerting power over the victim; it is mostly not about fulfilling a sexual urge. It is also worth noting that when a man rapes another man, it is often done to “feminise” the victim, in other words, to exert patriarchal power over him. A similar motive occurs in the so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians by men – an attempt to “put them back in their place” in the patriarchal power hierarchy.

Kyriarchy is an expansion of the concept of patriarchy to include hierarchies of class, sexuality, and race. According to Wikipedia:

The word is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.

Multiple inheritance is a system in some societies where property to be inherited was divided equally between the children of the owner. The problem with this approach was that it created smaller and smaller parcels of land. The interesting thing about this system is that there are no “surplus” males to be sent away to conquer other lands.

Matriarchy is a system in which the mother or oldest woman heads the family. The most important line of descent and relationship is that traced through the female line. It is also defined as government or rule by a woman or women. There are no known purely matriarchal societies.

Matrifocality is where the family is focused on a woman, usually the mother (typically because the male is absent). It does not imply anything about power outside the home. It can also be used to indicate that more “feminine” values (such as nurturing, relationship, and negotiation) prevail.

Matrilineality is the tracing of descent through the female line. It may also correlate with a societal system in which each person is identified with their matriline – their mother’s lineage – and which can involve the inheritance of property and/or titles. Many cultures (especially Celtic and Native American and Jewish) trace descent through the female line.

Egalitarian systems do not advocate the specialisation of roles by gender; do not regard people as property; and are non-hierarchical.

What does this have to do with the Pagan revival?

There were many factors that prompted the Pagan revival. One was the disenchantment of the world – the sense that everything was emptied of meaning and sacredness, because everything had become a commodity. So people began to see Nature as sacred. Another was the loss of the Divine Feminine and the relegation of women to second-class citizens. So the Pagan revival went hand-in-hand with the rise of feminism and ecological awareness. There was also an important utopian, socialist, and gay aspect to the early phase of the Pagan revival – mainly embodied in the persons of Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.

Among the impulses and stirrings that led to the Pagan revival, people began to look at alternative ways of organising communities, relationships, and property. They looked forward to imaginary utopias, and back to earlier societies, and outwards towards other cultures. They examined existing social structures and realised that they were grounded in a particular way of looking at the world – a patriarchal, hierarchical, heterocentric, property-oriented, capitalist, Protestant way of looking at the world. Some realised that our attitude to the Earth – regarding her as a resource to be used instead of a mother to be cherished – was inherently patriarchal. So they began to imagine other ways of relating to each other and to the world. That conversation, that process of reinvention, is still going on, not only in the Pagan and polytheist community, but in other communities too.

So, examining social structures and relationships has everything to do with Paganism. It’s about how we relate to the Earth, to other animals, and to our deities.

If we cease to see land as a resource to be used, and instead see it as a sacred place, then we begin to realise that it cannot be owned.

If we begin to see women as subjects rather than objects, we begin to realise that women cannot be owned, and women’s sexuality should not be controlled.

When we come to see all life as sacred, we come to see all that sustains life as sacred.

The earth is a living, conscious being. In company with cultures of many different times and places, we name these things as sacred: air, fire, water, and earth.

Whether we see them as the breath, energy, blood, and body of the Mother, or as the blessed gifts of a Creator, or as symbols of the interconnected systems that sustain life, we know that nothing can live without them.

To call these things sacred is to say that they have a value beyond their usefulness for human ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws, and our purposes must be judged. No one has the right to appropriate them or profit from them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protect them forfeits its legitimacy.

All people, all living things, are part of the earth life, and so are sacred. No one of us stands higher or lower than any other. Only justice can assure balance: only ecological balance can sustain freedom. Only in freedom can that fifth sacred thing we call spirit flourish in its full diversity.

To honor the sacred is to create conditions in which nourishment, sustenance, habitat, knowledge, freedom, and beauty can thrive. To honor the sacred is to make love possible.

To this we dedicate our curiosity, our will, our courage, our silences, and our voices. To this we dedicate our lives.

–from Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing

When we see all life, and all that sustains life, as sacred, we will truly honour and celebrate diversity, and the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” – people of all colours, all sexualities, all genders.

A place or a being who is sacred cannot be owned, so societies that regard them as sacred will also be egalitarian, co-operative, and consensual.

Paganism for Beginners: Reading list

This is my list of recommended reading for beginners. Many other lists are available. If you don’t like my list, make your own. I have tried to keep the list fairly short, so as not to overwhelm you with a great long shopping list.

My recommendation would be to read widely and deeply, noting what you agree with, what riles you, and what attracts you. You don’t have to agree with everything you read. Rather you should engage with it, see how it affects you, think about any issues it raises for you.

I have always had trouble with books that have exercises in them, because I tend to think, “Oh yes I will do that exercise later” and I either skip over it and never come back to it, or put the book down and never finish it.

I have to confess that whilst I have read a few books on Heathenry and Druidry, none of them strike me as general introductions or 101 books, so I will refer you to other people’s lists for beginners in those traditions, and other polytheist traditions.

Pagan books

The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci, by Barry Patterson

I have often said to people that if they only ever read one book on Paganism, it should be this one. It is all about how to engage with the landscape you live in, and how to connect with the spirits of place. It offers practical suggestions for deepening your connection with nature.

Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America by Margot Adler

A great, and classic, introduction to contemporary Paganism. Goes into the beliefs, practices and communities in some depth. Evocatively and accessibly written.

The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates

This is one of my favourite books of all time. It is an exploration of the world of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry from the point of view of a young Christian missionary who comes to respect the Anglo-Saxon sorcerer he has been sent to learn from. It was based on the author’s PhD research into the Leechbook, an Anglo-Saxon herbal.

Books on Wicca

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft  by Ronald Hutton

A must-read for anyone who wants to know the history of Wicca, with some reflections on how and why why the Pagan revival happened. Ronald Hutton examines the historical conditions and cultural movements that gave rise to the Pagan revival and the birth of Wicca, and looks at more recent history as well.

Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas S. Clifton

The story of the Pagan revival in the United States. Very well-written and researched. The US equivalent of Triumph of the Moon.

Wicca: Magickal Beginnings by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine

A textual and historical analysis of the possible origins of the rituals and practices of this modern tradition of Pagan Witchcraft. A fascinating book that I found to be really interesting and to deepen my understanding of Wicca.

Wicca: the Old Religion in the New Millennium by Vivianne Crowley

An excellent introduction to Wicca, with an exploration of the dynamics of the rituals from a Jungian perspective. First published in 1989, with a revised edition in 1997, this book is still a classic. In a recent reflection on the book, Vivianne Crowley wrote:

When I wrote Wicca, I had been in Wicca for 15 years. What I had seen in that time was how Wicca had the potential to transform people. Many of the processes that I had seen occurring as people worked their way through the initiatory systems were those that manifest through the inner journey of growth that Carl Gustav Jung called ‘individuation’. By exposing our inner world to the Gods and to those who share the spiritual journey with us, we are transformed. This is not the matter of a few years, but a lifelong process, which initiatory Wicca at its best can nurture, support and foster. The purpose of such a journey is that of the Great Work – the transformation of self as a starting point for the transformation of humankind; for if individuals do not change, then societies cannot evolve. Our aim is to grow nearer the Gods, to move from our egocentric engagement with the world for our own ends, to a re-centering that detaches us from our own preoccupations and allows us the see the world from a wider, deeper, and longer-term perspective.

On my to-read list

A couple of books I haven’t read yet, but keep meaning to get around to, as I see them recommended often on other people’s lists:

Other reading lists

 


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‘.