When you’re learning a language there’s a breakthrough point at which you begin to be able to think in the new language instead of just translating everything piecemeal from your mother tongue. That’s what I mean by speaking (and thinking) in Pagan. Much of what passes for Pagan these days is actually a bad translation into Pagan of some variety of Natal Monotheism or, worse, Pop Culture. The words may be Pagan, but the ideas aren’t.
That’s where philosophy comes in: what does it mean to think in Pagan? To speak from a worldview that’s pagan from the ground up, not pagan-by-contrast-with-something-else? A worldview whose very premises are pagan? After doing this stuff for 40-odd years now, I feel that I’m finally beginning to have some grasp of First Principles, the theoretical physics of pagan practice. The paganisms have always been grounded in experience, and that’s the way it should be. But if we stop at experience instead of proceeding to analysis as well, what right do we have to call ourselves “wise”? As usual, Sokrates had the right of it with his quip about the unexamined life.
Christopher: Do you consider that most of witches’ chosen gods are bit too civilized and far too human-like? What do you mean by the Elder Gods?
Steven: “Civilized,” hmm. Let me say “safe.” Let me say “sanitized.” We’ve gotten so accustomed to our comfortable man-sized, man-shaped gods and goddesses, all neatly paired off in nice suburban heterosexual couples, that we bid hither and thither like domestic staff whenever it suits us. We think of them as parts of ourselves. “I work with such-and-so,” we say, thus reducing our gods to the status of co-workers. We’ve forgotten what Rosemary Sutcliff calls “the Splendor and the Terror.” (Or maybe—the black shame and sorrow of it—we’ve never even known it.) Look at the old pantheons, look at nature. It’s all so much deeper, so much darker, so much more interesting.
Enter the Old Gods, the Elder Gods, the permanent gods of the witches. Of humanity, really. These are the nature powers: wild, untamed and untamable. The far-side-of-the hedge ones.
Unlike what I would call the Younger Gods, they’re not anthropomorphic, they’re not archetypes, they don’t take birth from our minds.
As Bruner Soderberg has observed, they were here before we were, they gave rise to us, and they’ll be here long after we’re gone. Every single one of us knows them and lives in real relationship with them, whether we pay attention to it or not. We cannot not know them.
By their nature the Younger Gods vary from pantheon to pantheon, but the Old Gods turn up pretty much everywhere, and they’re everywhere busily engaged in their own very real relationships with one another, and with us.
We can describe these beings and their relationships scientifically, but we can also articulate them in story, and that’s mythology. Their presence gives a depth coherence and an internal consistency to the otherwise pastiche nature of much modern paganism, and they are the rightful inheritance of all of us, regardless of who we are, where we live, or where our people come from.
The Old Ones may well have been elbowed into the background by Younger, made-in-our-own-image Gods, but there they are: real existing beings, full of power, wisdom, and presence. Who are they?
Each of us knows them intimately
already, being the ground of every birth:
Earth, mighty mother of us all;
Sun, splendid in royal self-immolation;
Moon, queen of witches,
threefold mistress of fate;
Storm, called Thunder by the ancestors;
Sea, the fish-tailed lady of the deep;
the winged Winds, wide-faring;
Fire, youngest elder, fallen from heaven;
the Horned One, master of animals
—ourselves among them
—and the Green his firstborn brother,
lord of leaf and tendril.
These themselves are they,
© Steven Posch
These, of course, are the Greater Powers among them. Look around you and you’ll see plenty of others: river and mountain, waterfall, spring, and lake. This boulder, that tree. They neither need nor want our belief, but they’re real as real, and we cannot live without them. We are all already in relationship with them; the witch’s duty is to make it a mindful relationship. It’s truly, as John Michael Greer has said, “a world full of gods.”
Steven: If there had indeed been pagans of our ilk in Europe during the Hidden Years, and if those old paganisms had managed to survive in backwaters here and there, and if they had undergone the usual kinds of culture loss and internal innovation, and if the old ways had been influenced as one would expect by the new religion, and if those ways had managed to survive into modern times, and if our ancestors had brought those ways with them to the New World in their heads, hearts, and steamer trunks, and if those ways had become naturalized to the local weather patterns, vegetation and wildlife, and if those ways had been influenced by the lore of the indigenous peoples, and of other incomers, and if those ways had survived industrialization and the Wars, and if they had managed to come down intact to us today in the second decade of the so-called twenty-first century: then what would our paganism look like?
That, ideally, is what we’re aiming for. It’s a colossal work of collective imagination and heroic research, but that’s what we need to be doing, folks, and we all need to be doing it. As the proverb goes, a witch’s work is never done.
…In the various on-line pagan lists I’ve been part of over the years, I’ve noticed that one can rarely tell from people’s posts where they live; it doesn’t seem to have any influence whatsoever on their paganism. That’s not right. All real paganism is by definition local, and it’s our job to make it more so.
None of the old traditions have come down to us in their entirety. None. That means that in order to flesh out what we’ve inherited, we need to look at other people’s ways and have the wisdom to learn from them.
What this does not mean is stealing other people’s stuff and plunking it down lock, stock, and bicycle into what we’re doing. This is what Paganistani anthropologist Murphy Pizza refers to as the “Ooo, Shiny!” approach: the Way of the Magpie, one might say. It is precisely this that gives so much neo-paganism—I use the term advisedly—its superficial, adolescent, “unfinished” feel. When we learn something from another culture, we need to ask instead: how does this translate into Pagan? How do I say that in Witch?
Hop over and read the entire article, it is well worth it. He is articulating exactly what I have been attempting in my recent ‘Points to Ponder’ posts.