pagan n. & adj. —n. a person not subscribing to any of the main religions of the world, esp. formerly regarded by Christians as unenlightened or heathen. —adj. 1 a of or relating to or associated with pagans. b irreligious. 2 identifying divinity or spirituality in nature; pantheistic. [ME f. L paganus villager, rustic f. pagus country district: in Christian L = civilian, heathen]
— The Concise Oxford Dictionary
I’ve spent some time wrangling over what’s implied by calling this part ‘Paganism’, and it was an odd surprise to find a pretty good approximation in the dictionary definition given above. To be pagan is to be concerned with ‘spirituality’ (or the realities behind this illusion-saturated word), and to work with it outside the ‘world religions’. It involves being seen by many Christians as ‘unenlightened’ (we’ll take that as a compliment). It should, in my view, involve being ‘irreligious’, if ‘religion’ is defined as pompous, uncritical, fanatical or just dull spirituality. Above all, it involves finding divinity, life-source, in the physical environment, and in our bodies.
Of course it’s a lot more complicated than this at the end of the twentieth century. Paganism changes character depending on who you speak to—such is the rejection of dogma. ‘Pagan’ was originally just a term used by urbanized early Christian cultures to refer to the peasants, rustics and country folk. In academia, ‘pagan’ is now usually used to refer to polytheistic, usually agricultural societies like the early Greeks or the Celts. But today mutated paganism thrives in the hearts of cities. ‘Urban paganism’ is nothing new—the Romans, for example, were very urban, and, pre-Christian conversion, very pagan. Modern urban pagans are usually more aware of the hideous drawbacks of ‘civilization’. But cities are still environments—as the Velvet Underground said, they are “flowers made out of clay”. In Chaotopia!, Dave Lee discusses a TV interview with an Amazonian shaman:
Just before the occasion of the interview, the shaman’s son had taken him into a town for the first time. They had ridden on a bus and gone to see a film at the cinema. The old man was tremendously excited by all this; he had lived all his life in the forest, and had learned the spirit songs of animals, plants, rivers, elemental forces. Suddenly he had been precipitated into an environment where he knew very few of the spirit songs. To him, a car or a cinema was as worthy a subject of a spirit quest as any creature or object he had been brought up with. He told the interviewer how he was performing his spirit vision quests to learn to sing the song of the car, and the song of the cinema! Since these things were now in his mind, part of his mental environment, he saw no reason why they should not have songs, songs that would be his tools for improving his power relationships with them. Such an approach is far away from the guilt-ridden anti-technology attitudes of new age “shamans”, and is of the essence of the ancient current.
Well, ‘techno-paganism’ has been a fashionable buzzword for some time now; hopefully the chaff of hype will fall away quickly and leave us with a basic awareness that technology is not inherently destructive, and can, even must form a part of modern paganism.
A driving impulse behind modern paganism, though, is the desire to reconnect to the source of our life, the natural environment. Some, hearts set on stellar travel, may see this as regressive—just as Freud saw ‘oceanic ecstasy’ as a regression to ‘womb-consciousness’. Both are victims of linear models of progress, assuming that ‘the past’ is a relic, a dead weight to be shed; not a living foundation, perpetually drawn on and re-created. That said, the lifeforms that have evolved here will have to leave their native cradle some time in order to survive. It’s odd that most people who favour sticking with the Mother in preference to space exploration see the planet as an organism. This view, in my book, would make the Earth mortal (which, according to most cosmologies, both mythical and scientific, it is). We’ll have to leave well before she dies her natural death.
On the other hand, futurist evangelists who try to convince us that we have to leave the planet now, to avert ecological catastrophe, seem to me to be unwittingly siding with a grossly irresponsible aspect of humanity. “Oh shit! We fucked this place up, let’s go find another one!” I thought of this when I saw Independence Day. Besides the high humour of the president’s speech and the cheesy gung-ho, the film showed a classic case of humans projecting their skeletons-in-the-closet onto aliens (either people of different ethnic backgrounds, or, in this case, literal aliens). The aliens were seen as marauding parasites who hop from planet to planet, draining resources and screwing up eco-systems along the way. A similar idea lay behind the alien/Egyptian god in the abysmal Stargate. In both these films, the vampiric beasts from space are opposed and conquered by… American martial force. And we all know the impeccable ecological record of the US military-industrial complex! It’s these corrupt scum who’ll probably end up being humanity’s interstellar ambassadors—more power to the Autonomous Astronauts, we say.
America was, by its nature, colonized by the West’s frontier-breakers. Some were anti-law drop-outs, searching for freedom from Europe’s repressive social systems; some were religious libertarians, seeking new ground for the realization of Heaven on Earth. But the land was not a blank slate of wilderness; it was an ecosystem that already included fully developed human cultures. And despite the links formed between the drop-outs, libertarians and natives, it was the disrespectful, patriarchal and nature-fearing/hating frontier-breakers who ultimately triumphed (for the meantime). Do we want the same human impulse that massacred Native Americans and ultimately became the US powers-that-be to spearhead our birth into space?
Earth is a temporary home, our cradle; but maybe we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re grown-up enough to colonize other worlds just yet. Some may see the alienation of modern urban life as necessary preparation for the rigours of isolated interstellar life—a rehearsal for final separation from the biosphere’s matrix. Too often it appears to me to be preparation for an ignorant future of parasitism and cosmic disrespect. The real question we need to ask is: does our longing for space come from a sense of joyous overflow, of loving expansiveness? Or does it stem from bored restlessness, alienated aggression, and a discontent that will never be sated, always destroy?
Despite the energy, resources, and exciting fervour of the city, we still value and love the natural environment. There’s not much ‘natural’ environment left though. So much has been physically destroyed or spoilt by unharmonious capitalist expansion. There’s a more subtle level to this as well. I used to think that I was walking across untrammelled ‘natural’ land when I roamed about the moors here in northern England, only to discover later that these open moors were once covered in forests—which began to be cleared by humans as early as 8,000 years ago.
What’s left of nature is often conceptually boxed up, and has all its wonders theorized away by overly self-conscious modern thought, which stresses the illusory quality of ideas about ‘naturalness’. It’s important to realize how ‘nature’ is usually filtered through human mental constructs and models. But this awareness of our distance from nature is not a revelation granted to us by recent theorists. For me it is the basis of paganism—along with the realization that we are part of nature at the same time. Look at the old Germanic word Hagzissa, meaning ‘hedge sitter’. It is the root of the modern German Hexe (witch), and refers to those people in a community who straddled the gap—symbolized by the hedge—between the world of the human community and the world of non-human nature. If shamanic cultures really saw themselves as living ‘at one’ with nature, as many Western pagans see them, shamans would have no need to venture out into the wilderness alone, for what Native Americans call ‘vision quests’. This archetypal adventure away from the community is an acknowledgement that the community is, to some extent, cut off from nature by its consensus illusions. In the woods, mountains or deserts, the isolated shaman is progressively stripped of his or her cultivated perceptions and ego-barriers, and thus becomes open to contact with the spirits of nature. In pagan northern Europe, this practice was known as ‘utiseta’ (‘to sit outside’, the whole night). It is this experience that still retains the potential to burst the shell of separation from nature that modern thought often still perpetuates, with its sophistic and self-referential theories.
Of course, the shaman returns to the community after immersion in wilderness, to share the wisdom and power gained there—an activity that differentiates shamans from free-range nutters who wander off and live in their own world (not such a bad idea, but it ain’t shamanism). It is here, in the return to society, that culturally conditioned ideas of nature influence the nature-contact. I would say that the efficiency and flexibility with which this influence is mediated defines the health of a community.
There is the argument that any ‘contact with nature’, however removed from human communities, is inevitably governed by cultural constructs. Nature spirits and primeval elemental forces are masked by idiosyncratic ideas about them, however much conceptual baggage is ripped away. This can be seen in the phenomenon known as UFOs (remember what that first letter stands for!). Those from a technocratic space-age culture can see them as alien craft from other galaxies; those with an open scientific mind can see them as possibly sentient energy-forms created by tectonic stress along faultlines in the Earth’s crust (‘earth lights’); rural folk can see them as faeries or ‘the little people’; tribal cultures can see them as ancestor spirits or the disembodied souls of shamans. In terms of the intellect, and post-experience rationalization (the detritus of experience), cultural conditioning is inescapable. But in terms of experience itself, it is possible that while contact with this type of phenomenon is happening (as with intense psychedelic states) conditioning is suspended to reveal raw, concept-free communion with nature that is unmediated—at least to the extent that being human allows. And we have yet to discover the limits of being human.
The use of the word ‘shaman’ has slipped in here almost unnoticed, and it deserves special attention. It comes from the word saman, used by the Tungus people of Siberia, meaning “one who is excited, moved, raised.” In anthropology it came to replace terms such as ‘medicine man’, ‘witch doctor’, ‘sorcerer’, or ‘seer’, used to describe healers or spiritual specialists in various cultures. Mircea Éliade famously defined shamanism as “techniques of ecstasy”, emphasizing its lack of religious dogma, and its focus on methods of entering altered states of consciousness on behalf of the community. Nowadays the term has passed into popular use, and academics often descend into spasms of despair and indignation at how casually it’s bandied about. It’s suffered most in the hands of New Agers, who use the word to conjure up a feeling of ‘authenticity’ (which always rakes in more money), and debase it by glossing over some of the less palatable and marketable aspects of shamanism in tribal cultures (like sorcery, tortuous initiation rituals, and a deep concern with the experience of death and dissolution).
Technically, ‘shamanism’ should be understood to refer to a traditional practice whereby a particular individual enters extreme states of consciousness, communicates with and masters particular spirits, and utilizes these relationships for the benefit of the community—usually to heal. (Often shamanic activity isn’t really individualistic—see ‘The San & The Eland‘ in these pages.) But despite the New Age’s rose-tinted shades, I still think the words ‘shamanism’ or ‘shamanic’ can be used intelligently with a broader view than that of the academic—to refer to a range of interactions with otherworlds and the spirits that dwell there, and to mythological motifs with obvious, if indirect roots in these experiences. And however you define it, I think shamanism is one of the most fundamental phenomena behind ‘paganism’. I’ve no grand theory about this, but my own experience and research has led me to believe that the basic motifs and perceptions found throughout shamanic cultures—soul-travel, the many-levelled cosmos, an animistic worldview, death/rebirth, shape-shifting—form a good, basic map of possibilities for human interaction with the more esoteric aspects of the biosphere and the body itself. But that’s just my view.
The archetypal death and resurrection experienced by the tribal shaman can’t be directly assimilated into our culture. Modern people who, spontaneously or otherwise, undergo a similar experience, have no fixed, culturally-sanctioned net of belief to be caught by. None of us can ‘become a shaman’, because a shaman is universally accepted by his or her culture as a uniquely gifted and magickally potent individual. Try going around today believing this about yourself and see where it gets you!
As our culture has fragmented, so have our identities. More than ever before, paganism and magick today involve an acceptance of different self-images, and a willingness to allow these to shift, dissolve and reform as our personal circumstances move on. The modern West is witness to the first humans to become pagan, rather than to be born into a pagan culture. In an age dominated by consumerism and the image-obsession fostered by advertising and the mass media, consciously ‘becoming’ anything often involves more concern with the image that this new identity projects to others than with what it means in terms of experience and genuine mutation. Paganism is particularly prone to this, because it supplies such a vast wealth of images and visual styles, as well as conceptual identity-supports, that can be picked up and recycled. I don’t think anyone’s immune from some form of image-obsession, so it’s a bloody good idea to be aware of it. And to surrender the whole lot on a regular basis through whatever form of ego-shattering and rebuilding you have access to.
This, like all sound paganism, requires the exploration of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Altered states, drug-induced or otherwise, are simply a human birth-right; in some ways they are the essence of being human. Some anti-hedonists see the revival of experimentation with altered states in the West as a “phase”, part of some pre-millennial decadence. Non-ordinary states of consciousness are not a phase. If there is a “phase” involved, it is the period we are about to emerge from, a period where ecstatic consciousness is demonized and the illusion of ‘ordinary consciousness’ holds sway. Altered states have never left us and never will. Cultures like our own that suppress them by restricting access to them—through drug prohibition, sexual repression, persecution of ecstatic religions, clamping down on uninhibited communal revelry—find them popping up in nasty ways, like mental illness or mass hysteria. It is in deeper states of consciousness like trances, dreams and trips that we brush against the roots of ‘normal’ consciousness. We travel in realms that spatially and visually represent the structures underpinning the little worlds we call ‘reality’. Paganism, for me, with its multi-faceted, interconnected and non-linear apprehension of ourselves and the world, is rooted in these realms. But then again, so is everything else. I suppose paganism is distinguished by the feeling that these otherworlds are not absolutely separate from the flesh, juice, air, fire and earth that make up this world. They are related, and influence each other through a process that we can, if we want to, take part in.
The articles collected here are not a ‘summary’ of paganism, they’re just a few views on it, or expressions of it. Some contributors may call themselves Pagan. Some may use a small ‘p’ in the word, to try and shed the idea that paganism should become some new world religion. And to shed the idea that individuals are just ONE thing. Some may hate the word because of the baggage it’s been made to carry. Some might not be arsed at all about the word. The title of this issue is really just a convenient term to tag onto the spiritual ideas and perspectives that interest me.
The heavy focus on natural landscapes and archaic monuments is a reflection of my current obsessions. It’s a mistake, though, to think that paganism today has to be rooted in some ‘unbroken’ lineage of paganism from the past, especially as we’re just guessing about, and creating the past most of the time. Interpretations of prehistory inevitably say more about us than our ancestors. Well, to me this is often why looking into the past is so interesting. Even if you only vaguely brush against the ‘actual’ views of prehistoric people, you usually manage to expand your own horizons and learn about yourself and your culture in the process. The ‘creative’ use of archaic spirituality has got a bit of a dodgy reputation, understandably in light of the Nazi’s appropriation of northern European paganism. That doesn’t mean there can’t be other interpretations that are more intelligent, more concerned with human freedom, and less self-critical and pompous!
There’s plenty here to please or annoy people of most persuasions, hopefully in a creative way. Ideally, there’ll be something in here that will inspire you drop your search for the ‘true path’, and do something. Education in these realms, as in all others, comes from action, involvement, risk, failure, play and persistence. The path is not straight—it bends, curves, spirals and shifts. It is not given to you—it comes out of you. You do not work towards it—you’re already on it. And you move along it every time your senses remake the world.
Art by Monica Sjöö.