What is the purpose of religion?

It is often assumed that the purpose of religion is to shape its adherents into nicer people. However, a quick look at the number and variety of unpleasant people in every religious tradition gives the lie to this idea. If religion doesn’t make people nicer, what is it actually for?

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Creating inclusive rituals

It is a useful magical and intellectual exercise to examine each segment of your ritual structure, and ask yourself why you do it in the particular way that you do. Why do we sweep the circle, consecrate it with water, salt, and incense, cast it with a sword, and so on? What is the function and symbolism of each of these actions? Can they be improved – either in the sense of making them more magically effective, more reflective of reality, or more inclusive?

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Living Traditions

Why cultural appropriation doesn’t work 

A culture, and a religion, is a massively complex system of interlocking ideas, philosophies, symbols, and practices.

If you take one of these ideas out of context and try to shoehorn it into another tradition, it’s like taking a complex part out of a clock, and trying to put it in a completely different clock, or even a completely different machine.

Prague Astronomical Clock. Photo by Steve Collis. CC-BY-SA2.0

Prague Astronomical Clock. Photo by Steve Collis. CC-BY-SA2.0 (wikimedia)

Or it’s like an organ transplant – the new organ may be rejected and you need to take lots of drugs to get your body to accept it.

The New Age, which has lots of different parts cobbled together, is basically Frankenstein’s monster.

Or it’s like looking at a completed jigsaw puzzle and taking one beautiful rose from the middle of the picture and trying to put it in a completely different jigsaw. No two pieces are exactly the same, and it doesn’t fit the picture in the other jigsaw anyway, and so you have to hit it with a hammer and file off the edges to get it to fit in the other jigsaw.

Thanks to Bob for the ideas of the jigsaw and the organ transplant.

What Does An Inclusive Coven Look Like?

A lot of people seem to think that inclusive means “I’ve got some gay people in my coven”. That is certainly welcoming – but is it really inclusive? I think there’s a spectrum of inclusivity – so one coven might score 100% and another might score 80% – but I think we have to accept that different people will have different ideas and priorities. However, it would avoid a lot of heartbreak all round if people stated upfront how inclusive their coven actually is.

Inclusive Wicca (design by Yvonne Aburrow)

Inclusive Wicca (design by Yvonne Aburrow)

An inclusive coven ticks some or all of the following boxes:

  • Understands that diversity has a place in celebration, theology and cosmology.
  • Understands that gender identity, gender expression, sex/gender assigned at birth, and biological characteristics are distinct (when I say distinct, I mean noticeably different, but interpermeable and with fuzzy boundaries).
  • Understands that you can make energy through polarity (tension of opposites), resonance (two similar people), or synergy (joining the energies of the whole group).
  • Understands that polarity can be made by two or more people of any gender and sexual orientation, and by two or more people of the same gender, and that polarity exists on a spectrum where Person A may be yang in relation to Person B, but yin in relation to Person C.
  • Understands that you can make polarity with any pair of opposite qualities (e.g. morning people and evening people, cat lovers and dog lovers, tea drinkers and coffee drinkers, air signs and earth signs, fire signs and water signs).
  • Understands that fertility is not strictly biological and may refer to creativity (and that you don’t need a male body & a female body to produce fertility on a symbolic level – e.g. when blessing crops).
  • Allows invocation of any gender deity onto any gender human.
  • Allows gender fluidity in ritual roles & doesn’t make people stand boy/girl/boy/girl in circle.
  •  Does cakes & wine with reference to lover & beloved, or using two cups, or on the understanding that we all contain both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ energies, or some other inclusive variation, and can be done by two people of any gender.
  •  Accommodates difference (e.g. neurodivergence, dyslexia, left-handedness, aphantasia) and disability. Bonus points for embracing the social model of disability.
  •  Is open to other cultures and ethnicities and does not insist on a genetic basis for culture (e.g. anyone can worship gods from any culture). Bonus points for being aware of the concept of systemic racism.
  •  Tries to avoid cultural appropriation.
  • Is accepting of kink, polyamory, and monogamy.
  • Promotes consent culture.
  • Welcomes members of all ages (over 18) and accommodates older members’ needs.
  • Does not automatically exclude people with mental health issues.
  •  Accommodates different theological perspectives (animism, atheism, pantheism, polytheism, duotheism etc).
  • Body-positive: does not allow fat-shaming or body-shaming.
  • Is prepared to accommodate coven members who are less well-off (by not organising expensive social activities, or having a massive and expensive reading list, for example).
  • Does not insist that its members reach a particular educational level or belong to a particular socio-economic class.
  • Listens to the views of all the members.
  • Values the contributions and ideas of all the members.


Inclusive Wicca is about being inclusive towards everyone.

There isn’t a competition over who is more oppressed, and there is no queue for liberation. We can work on small issues and large issues at the same time – I am not suggesting that all the categories mentioned in the list receive the same degree of oppression in society – they are included in the list because at some point, they have been excluded from some Wiccan circles for some reason.

Also, please note that inclusive Wicca is not a new or separate tradition; it is a tendency within existing Wiccan traditions. (Though just to confuse matters, in Australia, there actually is a tradition called Inclusive Wicca, which is unconnected to the inclusive tendency – though it may have similar goals.)

Double rainbow in Alaska

Double rainbow in Alaska. Photo by Eric Rolph at English Wikipedia – English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5.


Thanks to Alder Lyncurium, Anna Hammarlund, Anya Read, Brian Paisley, Francois Schaut, Lirilin Lee, Susan Harper, for suggestions and comments on the first draft of this.


UPDATE: I have now created an inclusive Wicca website.

Metaphors for Religion

There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.

Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).

Religions as languages

Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.

Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:

Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.

Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as people

Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.

Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:

[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.

Religions as landscapes

This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.

Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?

Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’

Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.

Religions as light, colour, energy

I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.

Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:

Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.

Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of PaganismColors of JudaismColors of IslamColors of HinduismColors of ChristianityColors of Buddhism.

Religions as art-forms

I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.

Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):

Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.

Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.

Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet.  Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.

Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.


But What About The Tradition?

Every time I mention polarity and inclusive Wicca, someone at the back is sure to say, with irritating regularity, “But what about the tradition?” There is also a tendency to assume that polarity must always be made by a man and a woman, and that that is the default option for making polarity. It has got to the point where other forms of making magic don’t seem to be considered in some circles.

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, and as my friend Alder Lyncurium points out in this excellent article on polarity, there is much more to polarity than the interaction of a male body and a female body:

Polarity is, in essence, a constant interaction between more than one force or element. It is the movement, the striving of those forces, and the rhythm in it, that creates the dynamism. As occultists, witches or magicians we observe the underlying patterns of that rhythm, get insights and tap into it, or try to emulate it — either conscious or unconsciously.

There is also resonance (named by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path), the ability of two people who have a strong similarity between them to make magic together. It is rather like sympathetic magic.

And then there is synergy, the ability of several people to create magical energy together by bringing their energy together, and making something that is more than the sum of its parts.

But if you want to talk about tradition – which is, in any case, a constantly evolving and developing discourse – then let’s talk about tradition. If you want your Paganism (whether it is Heathenry, or Wicca, or Druidry, or any other Pagan religion) to be really traditional, really connected to ancient pagan religions, then it should not just include LGBTQIA people as some kind of afterthought or bolted-on concession to contemporary “liberal” sensibilities.

On the contrary: truly traditional Pagans should regard LGBTQIA people as an integral part of society. There should be rituals for same-sex partners. Lesbian poets should be celebrated and their songs recorded for posterity. Gay lovers such as Hadrian and Antinous, or Patroclus and Achilles, or Pausanias of Athens and the poet Agathon, should be widely celebrated for their heroic love. Transgender deities such as Loki and Vertumnus should be celebrated for their changes of gender. Humans such as Tiresias should be celebrated for their exploration of the other gender.

The Pagan revival

Many of the Pagan pioneers of the early 20th century, especially Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, were gay, and their enthusiasm for Paganism was partly informed by the knowledge that ancient pagans were gay-friendly. A friend of mine who has studied the period informs me that, similarly, early 20th century bisexual and lesbian women such as Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) were inspired by the example of Sappho. And Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of Lolly Willowes (whose heroine is an unmarried woman who becomes a witch) was both a Nature mystic and bisexual, as explored by Rebecca Beattie in her excellent book Nature Mystics. The first civil rights group for lesbians in the USA was the Daughters of Bilitis, named for a fictional contemporary of Sappho.

It is not clear to me exactly when or how homophobia became such a huge part of Western culture.  Many people would like to blame the Bible, but that book is surprisingly ambivalent about same-sex love. The love of David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, and Jesus and the beloved disciple John, are all praised; it is actually fornication (sex without love) that seems to be condemned. Later Christians would of course take a dim view of all pleasures of the flesh, but that seems to have been part of a general turn against the body in Western culture that occurred around 500 CE. Looking at the timeline of LGBT history in Britain, it was not until 1102 that the church took steps to make people aware that homosexuality was sinful; and anal sex was not made illegal until 1533.

Ancient pagan religions’ views of homosexuality

Looking back to ancient pagan religions, most of them were tolerant of gender and sexual diversity, but regarded the passive role in sexual intercourse (whether that role was occupied by a woman or a man) as lesser. Both the ancient Greeks and the Vikings took this view. However, it is not clear whether this view was introduced to Viking society along with Christianity, or whether they felt that way before the introduction of Christianity. Viking Answer Lady has a very comprehensive article on the subject, and it appears that the Vikings were very scathing on the subject of men who were on the receiving end of anal sex; but on the other hand, Oðinn was frequently called ergi, a term which meant a variety of things including effeminate, passive, and irritable. Practitioners of seiðr were regarded as ergi. As many Viking men had female concubines, it was quite likely that some of them had same-sex relationships (as has been found in other cultures with concubinage). There were also male prostitutes, and priests of Frey who danced with bells and were regarded as ‘effeminate’ by the Christians. It is also worth noting that all the sagas and tales were written down 200-300 years after the heyday of pagan Viking society, and were written down by Christians who were hostile to homosexuality.  It seems likely that there were ritualised roles for gender-variant and homosexual people (as is the case in many ancient cultures), and whilst the Vikings may have found ergi men uncanny, there was a role for them as priests of Frey and Freyja.

As to the ancient Greeks and Romans, they were much more positive about same-sex love, and extolled its pleasures and virtues in many texts. Again, the active role was regarded as ‘manly’ and the passive role as ‘unmanly’, but same-sex love was not condemned. There were gender-variant deities (Hermaphrodite), deities who engaged in same-sex love (Zeus and Ganymede being the most well-known example). Again, it was complicated. Ancient pagans were not all sweetness and light in their attitudes to same-sex love, but there were many positive examples of it in ancient pagan mythology, and it was not universally condemned.

By David Liam Moran - Own work. Image renamed from Image:Ganymede serving Zeus.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2847602

Photo by David Liam Moran – Own work. Ganymede serving Zeus, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Numerous LGBT Pagan traditions draw their inspiration from ancient examples: the Minoan Brotherhood, the Modern Gallae, the Temple of Antinous, the Ekklesia Antinoou, and so on. Inclusive Wiccans, whilst not a distinct tradition, and not harking back to any particular ancient example, like to point out that gender-variant and queer magical practitioners have been known in just about every culture, and that “all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals”, and any pair of opposites can make polarity. Given that Wicca was only developed in the 1950s, and has grown and changed since then, there is no excuse for claiming male/female polarity as some immutable tradition. The idea that only a man and a woman can make polarity is merely a heterocentric assumption rooted in Victorian notions of gender. The Minoan culture of Crete, which inspired both Gerald Gardner and Eddie Buczynski, certainly included same-sex love.

Conclusion: it’s complicated

What all of this shows is that attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance are complicated and varied in all societies, and that how they are viewed by others, and how they are represented symbolically and managed through ritual, has varied over time. It is certainly not the case that we can assume that so-called traditional Christian attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance can just be lifted across into Paganism and assumed to be traditional. How Christians have viewed same-sex love has also varied from one region to another, and from one historical era to another.

So, if you are harking back to some ancient pagan view of the world, and want to adhere to ancient pagan values with regard to LGBTQIA people, it was a mixed picture, and there was no single view (just as there has never been a single view of this or any other issue).  The ancient pagan world had rituals and roles for LGBTQIA people, and often regarded them as sacred, and therefore a bit uncanny and weird. Hence the eunuch priests of Cybele, the Galli, and the ergi men devoted to Frey and Freyja. But there is no justification in ancient texts for the kind of virulent homophobia found among some right-wing so-called Pagans.

This leads me to the conclusion that, fascinating though ancient views of sexuality are, we live in our own context and culture, and have to make up our own minds. But perhaps we can recover something of the sacredness of gender-variant and homosexual magic by looking at the myths, legends, and practices of the ancient world.

Re-Imagining the Hero’s Journey

I just got back a week ago from AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)’s annual conference. (You can check out the action at Twitter. Search on #AWP15) The Minneapolis hotel didn’t run out of alcohol (that has happened in the past) but they did have a run on the tabouleh in the first 24 hours. Well, with approximately 15,000 writers in town, you’re going to run out of something.

Maybe there’s something about being (lost) among that sea of writers that has me thinking about the Hero’s Journey. I could have used a clever animal sidekick or a pair of magic scissors or something. Or maybe it’s just another way for me to think about shaping this story I’m always trying to write. Or this life I’m trying to live. Living the life, writing the book…same project, as far as I can tell.


Joseph Campbell picked up where Jung left off and got us all thinking of the Hero’s Quest or Journey as an archetypal form we could overlay onto our own lives. He outlined the steps of the Journey. I’ve seen it stated slightly differently in different places, but here is one model:

  • Hero as outcast/outsider.
  • Hero called to adventure.
  • Hero refuses the call.
  • Hero meets mentor (supernatural aid, spirit guide, etc).
  • Hero “crosses the threshold,” embarks/leaves ordinary life behind.
  • Hero undergoes a series of tests on the path.
  • Hero meets the love that has greatest significance, is all-encompassing, all-meaningful. Campbell called this meeting the Goddess.
  • Hero meets the Temptress, in the temptation to fall from his Quest.
  • Hero faces ultimate challenge/greatest fear.
  • Hero gains the gift or treasure, the fulfillment of the Quest.
  • Hero returns home, with treasure.
  • Hero faces one final test.
  • Hero comes into his own, is crowned King or otherwise recognized in community.

Wikipedia tells me Campbell borrowed Joyce’s term “monomyth” for this. And like monotheism, the “monomyth” has a pronoun problem. Campbell wasn’t so great on the wimminfolk, as you can tell from the above steps. The Hero for him was always a boy or man. True love is represented by “the Goddess,” and tempation likewise takes the figure of a woman. Towards the end of his career (I read this anecdote from The Sound of a Silver Horn, by Kathleen Noble—a great book on women and the Hero’s Journey for anyone interested), a young woman asked him in class, “What about women?” Campbell answered, “Women are the Mother, the Goddess, the Beloved…what more do you want?” “I want to go on an adventure,” she said. “I’m glad I’m retiring,” was his reply.

Freya, by Igor Alexis Osorio Solis

Freya, by Igor Alexis Osorio Solis

Let’s diversify the Journey.

What if the Hero is not an outcast? What if she is enmeshed in her community at the start of the story?  What launches her out of her comfort zone and onto the Path? Is there an archetypal moment of rejection, and would this come from within or from without? Or is she just bored? Is that enough? What if she has children? What if she has an older relative she’s taking care of? What if she is the head of the PTO?

And what happens to her at the end? A wise man may be a king. A wise woman is almost always a witch. Mind you, I’m down with that.  A woman (anyone) who listens to a wilder song and has truly gained wisdom from that will not be welcome back into a community structured by patriarchy. This is why the witch lives at the edge of town, or deep in the woods. This is an essential difference which does not have to be gender specific.

Stretching our imaginations to re-vision the Hero’s Journey is helpful to writers as we think about plots…but larger than that, if the Journey  is an archetype we all may follow in how we think about and understand our lives, there needs to be a diversity of possible paths. Not everyone wants to be king. Not everyone wants to end up married and happily ever after.

If we follow Jungian thought, archetypally, a “king” has been understood to represent someone who is healthily centered, who has embraced their own shadow and is able to rule themselves wisely. Maybe a “witch” is someone who purposefully and deliberately uncenters. Who pushes into the margins, the boundaries, who camps on the edge. Who insists there is still, ever, much of the self she doesn’t yet know.

What would it be to be both?

All my thinking is aswim. What stories can we tell? E with beret

Tradition and change

What is a tradition?

In English, we use the word ‘tradition’ in two distinct ways.

There is tradition in the sense of an entire set of practices, beliefs, and values – a cohesive religious tradition. Examples include the Wiccan tradition, the Mennonite tradition, and the Quaker tradition.

There is a tradition in the sense of a traditional practice or ritual, such as marriage, initiation, invocation, a Passover Seder, lighting lamps for Diwali, decorating a Christmas tree, and so on.

Image by JOAT, courtesy of Shutterstock

Image by JOAT, courtesy of Shutterstock

What is the function of tradition?

Traditional practices function to bring groups together by acting out their shared values, commemorating previous generations, acting out their mythology and stories, and reinforcing group identity. Examples include the Passover Seder – a beautiful and effective ritual for commemorating past generations, teaching the story of the Exodus from Egypt to future generations, reinforcing the identity and values of the group, and transmitting Jewish values and culture to the next generation.

Other traditional practices (such as marriage) function to make a connection between the individual and the tribe. When you get married, you affirm the relationship with your partner in front of your tribe (family and friends) and your deities or deity. When you undergo a rite of passage (e.g. Bat Mitzvah, Bar Mitzvah), you make the transition from child to adult, and your connection to your community or tribe is reaffirmed. When you get initiated into Wicca, you make the transition from uninitiated to initiated, and you become a full member of the Wiccan community.

Traditions that affirm identity and community can be a wonderful and life-affirming thing. They make us feel whole and loved and part of something bigger than ourselves.

Traditions can harm or heal

Some traditional practices are obviously harmful – examples include foot-binding, female genital mutilation, and so on. Other traditional practices are disputed, because they are regarded as harmful by one community, but helpful by another (e.g. male circumcision).

Other practices are widely regarded as desirable, but may exclude some categories of people – the obvious example being marriage. I would argue that a traditional practice that excludes a whole category of people is broken, and needs to change to include that category, provided that making that change harms no-one. (Clearly, a child or an animal cannot meaningfully consent to marriage, so that rules out underage spouses and bestiality, because being forced into an arrangement to which you cannot consent is obviously harmful).

In my video on Gender and Sexuality in Wicca, I said, “If a tradition is broken, then it needs fixing”. I was referring to harmful traditional practices, or practices that exclude entire categories of people, not to an entire religious tradition. However, if you equate a particular practice or set of practices with the whole of your tradition, or as the most important part of your tradition, and that set of practices excludes a whole category of people, then maybe your entire religious tradition does need re-examining.

In that video, I argued that certain traditional practices within Wicca, such as those that appear to value heterosexuality more than other sexual orientations, or that prevent LGBT people from doing certain magical activities together, harm LGBT people by excluding us from those practices. They also fail to represent the lived reality of gender and sexual diversity, and they may be preventing everyone within Wicca from experiencing the full spectrum of magical possibilities available to us.

Why might traditions change?

Traditions evolve and change all the time in response to the changing needs of the community. This applies both to religious traditions as a whole, and to traditional practices within them.

If a traditional practice excludes a whole category of people because of their core identity, then I would argue that it needs to be expanded to include them. There is no need to abolish the practice for the people for whom it works. The obvious example here is Wiccan initiation. For the vast majority of people, male / female initiation works just fine. If you are cisgender and heterosexual, there is no reason to change how you will be initiated.  But what if a person is transgender? Should they be initiated by someone of the opposite gender identity to themselves, or someone of the opposite physical sex? Or should they be allowed to choose? What about genderqueer people? What about those who are exclusively attracted to members of the same sex? This depends on whether you think initiation depends on polarity, and what you think polarity is, and how you think it is created. Is it created by erotic attraction, biological characteristics, or other differences?

What are valid criteria for changing a traditional practice?

If the traditional practice is actively harmful to a large group of people (examples include child marriage, genital mutilation, and footbinding) either physically or psychologically, then it needs to be modified or abolished.

If the traditional practice excludes a category of people because of their innate characteristics (e.g. not allowing same-sex couples to get married, or refusing Wiccan initiation to people with a disability), then it needs to be expanded to include that category, provided that it does not harm anyone else.

If the traditional practice affirms the identity of your group at the expense of making derogatory claims about other groups, then it needs to be changed so that it is not derogatory towards the identity of another group. An example might be a Christian affirmation that they are ‘not like the heathen’, or that they renounce ‘wicked idolatry’. The Vatican officially dropped a part of the Catholic liturgy that said something rude about the Jews, for example.

If it is claimed that the traditional practice excludes a category of people because of an acquired characteristic that is not part of their core identity, then we need to think a bit harder about modifying it. For example, I would argue strongly that the Wiccan practice of working skyclad is empowering and life-affirming and enhances group trust, but some people claim that it is harmful for people who have been raped or molested. I would certainly not want to add to their trauma by insisting that they work skyclad, but I would want to encourage them to work towards a state of trust and self-confidence where they felt able to work skyclad.

What are valid criteria for retaining a practice unchanged?

Is the practice life-affirming? Does everyone in your group or religious tradition feel included in it? Does it affirm the core identity of everyone in your group? Does it express and affirm the core values of your group or religious tradition? Does it help to transmit your values, beliefs, stories, and identity to new members of the group? Does it accurately describe a key magical or cosmological concept or experience? Does it help rather than harm? If the answer to all or most of these questions is yes, then congratulations, you have a really worthwhile traditional practice.

Old magic versus new magic

Morgan le Fay, by Frederick Sandys

Morgan le Fay, by Frederick Sandys

Recently I received an enquiry from a seeker in Eastern Europe, where much of the traditional magical practices and folklore were wiped out under Communism. There are many seekers in the area, but not many experienced practitioners. The seeker was especially interested in older forms of magic, and asked how to tell the difference between fake and real techniques.

I replied that we don’t know everything about what people did in the past, so have had to supplement with other techniques. Also, Wicca is not an ancient religion, but an outgrowth of many different strands of magic and spirituality coming together (see Triumph of the Moon: the rise of modern Pagan witchcraft by Ronald Hutton).

Even reconstructionist traditions have had to supplement the writings they have with a lot of personal gnosis (which starts life as unverified, but may become substantiated, either by matching it up with traditional lore, or by finding that the experience has been shared by others).

I must also point out that not all Pagan traditions practice magic; but I do think that if you are going to practice magic, it is best embedded within a religious tradition.

Some books of magic from the medieval period survive. Some 19th century handwritten books survive; they are not books of shadows in the modern sense.  Avalonia Books are translating and publishing some of them.  One very interesting book documenting 18th century fairy beliefs is The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk. Another very interesting book is by a Finnish traditional witch, and is called Snake Fat and Knotted Threads by Kati-Ma Koppana, describing what survived of Finnish witchcraft. I also recommended Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition by Nigel Pennick.

The Pagan revival is a new thing building on old ideas. Paganism was wiped out in Europe by forced conversion and (in some areas) slaughter and persecution. However, many of its ideas, stories, and techniques survived – written down by Christian monks and antiquarians like Snorri Sturluson, or retained as folk customs and practices. The Christians who wrote down these ideas sometimes did so from second-hand hearsay, and sometimes tried to explain away Pagan deities as ancient kings and queens. Folk customs only began to be recorded systematically in the late nineteenth century, so in many cases, it is not clear how old they are, or how much they may have changed in the intervening centuries. The good news is that Pagan traditions are a human response to the land and its other-than-human inhabitants; even if all the books and stories disappeared, Paganism is inscribed in the land itself and our response to it, as John Male once said to me. That is why the old deities and the old customs would not, could not, lie down and die. People will always respond to the land in a magical and mystical way.

If you want old and traditional, start by researching the folk magic of your region. The seasonal festivals; the protective magic people did for their crops and livestock. If this information is not available from older people, it may have been collected by folklore collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But bear in mind that tradition is dynamic and fluid and always changing – it is not a fixed thing.

Older descriptions of magical techniques are not necessarily better than newer descriptions, and in any case, the newer books are generally based on older books, and draw upon them. The trick is to distinguish between fake and real. If it claims to be an old and unbroken tradition, it is very likely to be fake. If it has references to academic works, it is probably real. If it is realistic and moderate in its claims, it’s probably real. If it claims to be the solution to all your problems – that’s fake. If it wants to charge you money for Wiccan training – that is fake. Real Wicca does not cost money; face-to-face participatory coven training is free, though you would be asked to bring food to share, and perhaps contribute to the cost of candles and incense. You would be charged a modest fee for things like workshops and day courses, to cover the speaker’s time and travel expenses.

People assume that older traditions are better than newer ones, but this is not necessarily the case. Everything was new once. For me, the test of whether any tradition is any good is: does it work? does it help (in the long term as well as the short term)? Is it a coherent system? Does it both challenge and empower its participants? If you want to understand the underlying theory of magic, I would recommend Isaac Bonewits’ The Laws of Magic.

Magical techniques include visualisation, invocation, protection magic, cleansing, sigils, talismans, and divination. These techniques are very old and were used by most magical practitioners from ancient times to the present. They have been presented in new styles by a number of different writers; but they are essentially the same techniques. I once bought a book about witchcraft and magic in Russia, called The Bath-house at Midnight, thinking that Russian magic would be very exotic and different. I was disappointed to find that it drew on the same sources and almanacs as much of the folk magic of Western Europe.

I also recommended that the enquirer should contact the Pagan Federation International to find like-minded people. If you are in a similar situation, I would recommend you do the same.

If you build it, they will come

As Pagans, what do we hope to build?

Much of the current dialogue in the Pagan blogosphere is about carving out ways to explain and justify our personal experiences and beliefs in relation to other traditions, but without a clear vision of the place our own traditions and experiences might have in an ideal world. Will the Pagan movement become one tradition-heavy set of religions with several “fringes”? Will it split apart into competing factions? Or will we find a way to unite using some shared cultural language? What institutions will we build, or will we build institutions at all? What rights or recognition will we have in the larger society?

What does your Paganism look like in 50 years?

~ Christine Hoff Kraemer

John William Waterhouse - The Crystal Ball

John William Waterhouse – The Crystal Ball  (Wikipedia)

I have entitled this post “If you build it, they will come” because the kind of people who will join the Pagan movement of the future will be determined by the kinds of structures and traditions that we build now. If we build traditions and institutions that empower and enable people to develop and grow, then we will attract people who want that; if we build inclusive traditions where diversity is welcome, we will attract a wide range of people.

Unity and diversity

I have written about the issue of unity and diversity before (in The Pagan umbrella is leaking and The varieties of religious experience) and so has Christine (in Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron, or Must Pagans Be Polytheists?)

There are some key themes that unite Pagans and polytheists of various flavours, but we don’t have to agree on absolutely everything – where would be the need for different traditions if we agreed on everything? Not all Pagans agree that the environment is of paramount importance – but many do; those of us who do can work together on that issue. Other issues on which many Pagans agree (but not all) would be LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and freedom of religion. We might come together to work on projects around these issues, or we might participate in secular projects to further these aims; however, I do think it is worth bringing Pagan perspectives to the table on these issues, as we often have a different perspective that might be helpful.

In the future, I think that each of the current traditions might be strong and numerous enough to stand alone and only work with other Pagans and polytheists on selected projects. I don’t think that time has arrived yet. I think we still need “big tent Paganism”.  Those who don’t feel that we need it are of course entitled to their views, and to start building strong independent organisations for their particular path. There is room for more than one approach.

Building institutions

I would like to see visible Pagan temples and sanctuaries (we currently have only one in the UK – I know there are several in the USA). I don’t want to see building committees running these (because committees are the fastest way to kill spirituality), but I hope that they could be administered fairly and for all Pagans to use. I would also hope that all Pagans would use them responsibly. Many people say they don’t need a temple for their spiritual practices; however, practicising ritual as a group requires ritual space, and the weather is not going to be getting any better over the next few decades.

It would be difficult and expensive to get a permanent Pagan temple, and it would be difficult to know where the first one should be situated.  So I had an idea: the Pop-up Pagan Temple. It could be a yurt that is available for hire to Pagan groups around the country or region, to put up in parks (having agreed this with the local council).  Clearly it would need security to protect it, but it would not be up for more than a week in any one place, so the cost of that would not be prohibitive.

I am ambivalent about the notion of professional Pagan ministry. I think that a more educated community is a very good thing, and I very much applaud what Cherry Hill Seminary are doing. I am not sure that I want to see a clergy and congregation model developing. We need to think very hard about the dependencies created by the congregational model, and what gets projected onto ministers and leaders. However, many Pagan leaders put in a lot of unpaid hard work, and it would be good to see that acknowledged and fairly recompensed. It is a tricky issue, and one that the Pagan community needs to start discussing.

One very important institution is the Pagan Newswire Collective, a group of people dedicated to improving news coverage of Pagan issues and events. The Wild Hunt blog is also a very important resource.

Another vital organisation is Cherry Hill Seminary, which educates Pagan clergy in ritual, theology, practice, and ministry. We need a similar project in the UK.

The Centre for Pagan Studies in the UK is doing a great job at getting public recognition for Paganism. They have put up a blue plaque for Doreen Valiente (the first blue plaque to a Pagan, and the first on a council-owned residential building); and they will be putting up a blue plaque for Gerald Gardner on 13 June 2014.

Pagan organisations are also important (and too numerous to mention them all by name). I would like to see more co-operation and dialogue between different Pagan organisations. The main one in the UK is the Pagan Federation. Pagan Federation International is also doing sterling work to help fledgling Pagan movements in other countries.

Rights and recognition

I would like to see Pagan weddings become legally recognised in England and Wales. I would like to be able to practice Pagan rituals in public without fear of harassment. I would like to see public bodies acknowledging Pagan holidays in listings of holidays both secular and religious. (In the UK, many employers send round lists of holidays from various faiths, but Pagan holidays are often not listed.)  I would like to see a Pagan student society in every UK university, and a Pagan temple accessible to every Pagan who wants it. I would like to see Pagan traditions covered in education about religion (not indoctrinating children into it, just teaching them the facts about it). I would like Pagan traditions to be full participants in interfaith councils and bodies.

Paganism in 50 years’ time

I want to see a diverse, vibrant, and non-dogmatic group of polytheistic, pantheistic, and animist religions, firmly grounded and confident in our theology and practice, all having equal space in the ‘big tent’, and even more inclusive of gender and sexual diversity than they are now; a world where Pagan contributions to public debates are valued and respected; a world where it is safe for all Pagans to be open about being a Pagan.