My Dedicant Program Work, circa 2002

Modern Paganism Book Report


By Margot Adler

It is a daunting task to write a concise book report on a book as long and complex as this one. Ms. Adler covers so much here that this could be a major pagan textbook about our recent past. The book's only drawback is that it is quite dated, even with the revisions made in 1986. But as a guide to groups and events prior to that date, this is an excellent resource.

She opens the book with some background on Neo-Pagan thought, stressing their sense of aliveness and “presence” in nature and the view that humanity's “advancement” and separation from nature is the prime source of alienation. She also stresses that this is a religion without converts, where people simply allow certain kinds of feelings and ways of being back into their lives.

In discussing the Pagan worldview, she brings up the three concepts of animism, pantheism and polytheism , indicating that Pagans view these concepts somewhat differently from the common perception. Animism implies a “reality in which all things are imbued with vitality” where all things partake of the life force. Pantheism is similar to animism where “divinity of inseparable from nature and deity is immanent in nature.” This is how we can participate in divinity in our groves and circles. Polytheism has the view that all reality, including the divine, is multiple and diverse. One can be both pantheistic and polytheistic, where “one might say that all nature is divinity and manifests itself in myriad forms and delightful complexities.”

Also, polytheism promotes diversity, while monotheism does not. Issac Bonewits called monotheism an aberration, but “particularly useful in history when small groups of people wanted to control large numbers of people.” Considering the religious and political views that dominate society at large, it seems that only those strong or educated enough can make the arguments for a world of diversity and multiplicity. Perhaps, though, as our numbers increase, these values can join the mainstream.

In her section on Witches, she examines the Wiccan revival and the myth of Wicca, based in part on the writings of Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner. This myth was taken literally by most of the Wicca until the mid 1970's or so, while few did so by the mid 1980's, which is in itself proof of the revival's flexibility.

Issac Bonewits defined three types of witch: Classical, Neoclassical and Gothic. The Classical witch was usually an older female adept in the use of herbs, etc. for the purpose of healing and hurting and who uses magical talents for good or ill as she sees fit. The Neoclassical witch uses magic, divination, etc. without much regard for religion and the Gothic witch is a church fiction from the burning times.

But Gerald Gardner made contributions to the religion that are quite pervasive as well as new: the preeminence of the Goddess, the idea of women as priestesses, the idea that a woman can become the Goddess and a new way of working magic that could be used by small groups. But whether Wicca is based on ancient traditions or newly invented is irrelevant since “it is valid on its own terms. Why? Because it is a religion based on experience.”

Ms. Adler later goes into ethics, which is one of the few places of agreement among the various groups of her time, as well as into the basics of how covens work. She then explores the various “traditions” or sects within Wicca. The Traditionalists follow the myths or folk traditions of a particular country (Welsh Traditionalists, Scots, Greek, etc.). They are less likely to work skyclad and less prone to using sexual symbolism. The Gardnerians are covens that use Gardnerian rituals. Usual elements include: the 162 (more or less) craft laws, ritual nudity, a circle of 9 feet, the symbolic use of the scourge to purify, a ceremonial form of casting the circle, the use of the “Great Rite”, the Charge of the Goddess, three degrees of advancement and the ritual known as Drawing Down the Moon. The Alex andrians have rituals very similar to the Garderian ones, but with a little more emphasis on ceremonial magic. The covens of NROOGD (New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn) created their tradition out of research, poetry, inspiration and the gatherings of small groups of friends. The Georgians are an eclectic revivalist tradition that is very open and composite that lays great emphasis on freedom. The Dianic covens are actually a number of traditions. What they have most in common is their emphasis on the Goddess. The two primary streams are the feminist Craft which exclude men and another which includes them, while still exalting the feminine. Dianic covens worship the Goddess more or less monotheistically. The School of Wicca is a correspondence witchcraft school, which does not consider itself Pagan but does consider itself monotheistic. Their opposition to homosexuals in the craft caused much controversy as did their book, “The Witch's Bible”, both of which were exacerbated by the founders' occasional claim that their methods were “the Way.”

The book then discusses witches and persecution today and then follows that with an interview with a modern witch, who stressed that the important part of her religion is “that we get on with it and produce these ecstatic states in which real generation of energy occurs” as well as insisting on “Universality of form, no! Universality of content, yes!

The chapter on Magic and Ritual is enlightening. Magic is described as “a combination of an art and a science that is designed to enable people to make effective use of their psychic talents.” Altered states of consciousness are required to make this work. These talents are achieved, “not by any sixth sense, but by using the five senses to their full capacity.” But altered consciousness isn't all there is. Bonewits states that “a change in consciousness is certainly required , but when magic is really magic it involves changing the world as well as the interior person doing the magic.” Rituals (the chants, spells, dancing, etc.) “are all means to awaken the “deep mind” – to arouse high emotions, enforce concentration, and facilitate entry into an altered state.

Feminism in the craft has caused some covens to form with different ideas and practices. A series of characteristics of many feminist covens include: they have no men, they do not work from a handed-down Book of Shadows, they often disregard craft laws pertaining to coven structure and regulations, they attempt to recover matriarchal ideas and institutions through research, art, play, psychic explorations and daydreams, and they actually serve a viable community: the feminist community.

Ms. Adler then explores other types of Neo-Pagans. The first were the pagan reconstructionists who attempt to re-create ancient European pre-Christian religions. While the following groups listed below were very influential in the early days, Wicca now seems to be the dominant influence today.

These early groups include the Church of Aphrodite , which was established in 1938. Its purpose was “to seek and develop Love, Beauty and Harmony and to suppress ugliness and discord.” This religion was to be a formal structure with belief in monotheism, creed and dogma.

Another religion was that of Feraferia . This is the private vision of one man, Frederick Adams, and is a religion of both wildness and delicateness. It is a “Paradisal Fellowship for the loving celebration of Wilderness Mysteries with Faerie style, courtly elegance, refinement and grace.” By 1986, however, activities by Feraferia were pretty minimal.

The Sabaean Religion Order is “a philosophy of action that states that human beings should live in the present, identifying with those principles that are unchanging even in the face of death” such as the pursuit of knowledge. Their God or Gods are called Am'n, which is said to mean the hidden numberless point. They are total knowledge and can be described, symbolically as five different Goddesses, though divinity is sexless. The Red Goddess represents Autumn and the Amerindians. The White Goddess represents winter and the Caucasians. The Black Goddess represents spring and the blacks. The Yellow Goddess represents the summer and Orientals while the Blue Goddess represents leap year, the day between the years, and the races and peoples beyond the earth. They are henotheists, which means that they can worship one god without excluding the existence of others.

The Church of the Eternal Source is a federation of Egyptian cults centering on the power, artistry and beauty of the ancient Egyptians. There is no central truth or dogma. They view the universe “as a rhythmic movement within an unchanging whole.” Religious practice is based on the personal shrine and their members are encouraged to learn psychic and divinatory arts. They also emphasize very clearly a commitment to diversity, multiplicity and freedom.

Odinism, Asatru and Norse Paganism were left out in the original version of this book. While there has been some confusion between these and right-wing groups using the old pagan traditions of northern Europe to advance neo-nazi ideas, the Norse religions are not necessarily right-wing. Asatru means, “believe in the gods” or “loyalty to the Aesir” in old Norse. The gods are honored in daily rituals and there are seasonal celebrations as well. They are also very concerned with their ancestry. And these religions tend to attract people who are more politically conservative than the majority of Neo-Pagans. But like most Neo-Pagans, Odinists do not believe in sin and regard guilt as destructive.

The Church of All Worlds got a chapter to itself. This group believes that science fiction is “the new mythology of our age” and an appropriate religious literature. What started out as an organization originally based on the visions of a science fiction writer, a psychologist and a right wing philosopher who hated with a passion all forms of reverence for nature and all forms of religion actually became a Neo-Pagan religion due to contact with the ecology movement and research into the history of ancient and primitive peoples. They feel that there is no other reality than what we experience and so whatever we experience is therefore reality, and therefore true. This group may still exist in California , but elsewhere it has disappeared.

Druidry is covered first through the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA), which originally started as a humorous protest movement against Carleton College 's requirement that all students attend a certain number of religious services. But according to Bonewits, “over the years it grew and mutated, much to the horror of the original founders, into a genuine Neo-Pagan religion.” But by 1985 most of the reformed Druid groups had disappeared. However, Isaac Bonewits founded Ar nDraiocht Fein (Our Own Druidism) which is a well functioning group operating today. This was necessary as most of the RDNA was not Neo-Pagan, and resented their organization becoming that way. ADF has a comprehensive training program including drama, music, psychic arts, physical and biological and social sciences, counseling, communications, health skills and languages. They are trying to fill a need for structured study and scholarship in the Pagan movement.

Discordians and Erisians bring absurdist and surrealist activities to Neo-Paganism. At times they have stated that “the Erisian revelation is not a complicated put-on disguised as a new religion, but a new religion disguised as a complicated put-on.”

Another group is the Radical Faeries . This is a group of (mostly) gay men willing to live on the edge and who feel there is a power in their sexuality. They feel that “it is simply easier to blend with a nature spirit, or the spirit of a plant or animal, if you are not concerned with a gender-specific role.” Theirs is a quest to reclaim their hearts through a journey to freedom and they feel they have liberated themselves from many of the things men don't even realize oppress them. As one man said, “we have the ability to play. Men who are stuck in the role model of the stern, mature adult never truly engage in creative play.”

The next section of the book covers scholars and writers on the occult, and their theories. Many of these theories can be put into three classifications: one that the growth of Neo-Paganism is evidence of regression, escape or retreat; two, that this growth is a positive reaction to the limitation of Western thought; and, three, theories which don't fit either of the first two. One main thought is that the growth of magical groups today is “an attempt by various people to regain a sense of control over their environment and their lives.”

The section entitled “Living On The Earth” is a discussion of the political and ecological views of Neo-Pagans today. The author notes, for instance, that “Neo-Pagans, in contrast, often express positive feelings towards modern technology, and almost everyone I talked to had astonishingly positive attitudes toward science, the scientific method, and Western modes of thinking.” Also, Pagans have a friendly relationship to the universe and feel a vital contact with natural forces. But most Pagans live in urban or suburban settings. Perhaps the disadvantages of city living produce a reverence towards nature. And as one Fam-Trad witch from Wisconsin put it, “The Goddess lives under concrete as well as in the mountains.” But Paganism means a return to those values, which see an ecologically balanced situation so that life continues.

The author also mentions the role that festivals have played in the Pagan revival. These festivals have created a national Pagan community and even led to the creation of a new ritual process that permits a large group to experience ecstatic states and a sense of religious communion.

This book also has a large section devoted to Appendices, including the author's 1985 questionnaire, a section on rituals and another larger section on resources.