G is for Gerald Gardner

gardner_g03Gerald Gardner was born in 1884 and over the course of his life, held many jobs, moved in many circles, and did a great many unusual things. He was a plantation owner in Borneo and a customs inspector in Malaya. He was an expert on Malaysian ceremonial weaponry, a folklorist, and an amateur anthropologist. He was a Co-Mason, a member of a Rosicrucian theater company, and even held a charter in the notorious occult society, the Ordo Templi Orientus. Drawing on these diverse experiences and associations, Gardner earned what must be his most unusual distinction: the “father” of Wicca, which is probably the most widely recognized form of Neopaganism.

Gardner’s role in Wicca can be seen in various ways. Most people, both within the Wiccan faith and outside it, recognize Gardner as the religion’s founder. Interestingly, Gardner himself claimed otherwise. By his account, Wicca is the surviving remnant of a native European religion. This religion, he claimed, had been vilified and its adherents hunted to near extinction by inquisitors who burned its priests and priestesses as witches.

In explaining his claims, Gardner often referred to the work of anthropologist Margaret Murray, who posited that in the transcripts of the infamous “witch trails” of the inquisition, evidence could be seen of an indigenous European pre-Christian religious tradition. Murray theorized that Witchcraft had been grossly misrepresented by inquisition propaganda. According to her, Witchcraft had actually been a folk religion which had encompassed much of Western Europe. She believed that it had been driven into hiding by persecution, but that clues to its nature existed in the testimonies of witnesses at the trials of alleged witches, and that clues also existed that pointed to the possibility of a modern survival of the cult.

Gardner claimed to have been initiated into exactly such a surviving remnant of the old witch cult. He claimed that a coven existed in the New Forest region, and that he had encountered it as a member of the Rosicrucian theater there. He referred to a leader figure called “Old Dorothy Clutterbuck” to whom he attributed considerable authority in the cult. He maintained that his information about Wicca came from Dorothy and her coven, although he admits that their information was sketchy and required some reconstruction on his part.

The more widely accepted version of the story is that Gardner, a well-read amateur anthropologist himself, took the theories of Murray to heart and, using his own abilities and experiences, attempted to reconstruct the native European religion that she hypothesized. Gardner was certainly qualified to make the attempt. As a folklorist, he was well acquainted with the foundational mythology such a religion would entail. As a Co-Mason and occultist, he had access to the forms of ritual and ceremony that would lend structure and authenticity to the rites. He had traveled widely and lived abroad among people of various religious paths for many years, and therefore had a working concept of comparative religion.

Whether Gardner created or simply revived Wicca, its existence as a modern religious movement certainly began with him. The practices and basic theology of Wiccans across the world all trace back to his work. He drew on a wide variety of resources in constructing (or reconstructing) the rituals and theology of the faith, but it would be inaccurate to say that there was nothing original in his ideology. Ideas which had never been combined before came together in Gardner’s religious vision. To many Wiccans, their religion has outgrown its beginning as a reconstruction attempt. It is something new and valid in its own right.

Gardner described a theology that is more difficult to categorize than that of many other religions. In Wicca, Divinity can be seen in both pantheistic and polytheistic terms. Wiccans believe that Divinity is manifest in nature, but that it is also, in its ultimate essence, both unknown and unknowable. Gardner said that humans lack the ability to relate directly with Divinity in its totality, but that we are able to relate to facets of the Divine. He said that there were both masculine and feminine facets, and Wiccans recognize these various facets as aspects of the God and Goddess. The God and Goddess represent the core duality in Wiccan theology, not oppositional, but complimentary forces, inherently fundamental to the natural world. These forces are seen together as comprising an ineffable and nameless Divine source which is itself inherent in the world around us.

Gardner also provided the central ethic of Wicca, the Wiccan Rede, although the term itself wasn’t used until later. According to Gardner, the core ethic of Wicca is the same as that of the “legendary good king Pausol” who mandated two laws for his subjects: 1) Do no harm to your neighbor 2) Otherwise, do as you like. This sentiment is usually phrased in eight words “An it harm none, do as ye will” (in this context, “An” is an archaic form of “if”). Most Wiccans interpret the Rede as discouraging harm to oneself, as well as harm to others.

Gardner also introduced a principle which has become known as the “law of threefold return”, which can be seen as similar to the Eastern idea of karma. Basically, he taught that a person’s actions, either good or ill, would be met by reciprocal responses from the world around them. This encourages good deeds and discourages harm, certainly, but it is not seen as a punishment and reward system. The law of threefold return is considered more like a principle in physics than as a moral imperative. It describes action and reaction, but attaches no objective moral value to them. Those values are left to the Rede to define.

PaganaveburySince Gardner first introduced Wicca, many divisions have formed in the faith. These are referred to as “traditions” of Wicca, and the Gardnerian tradition remains one of the most widely known. Some derive directly from Gardnerian practices, such as Alexandrian Wicca. But even traditions further removed from Gardner’s influence, like Seax-Wicca or various Dianic traditions, still include much of his teaching, ritual, and terminology. Even many Eclectic Wiccans, who adhere to no firmly defined tradition, are still largely Gardnerian in practice.

Gerald Gardner died in 1964, but his ideas about ethics, mythology and Divinity remain central parts of Wicca, which has grown from the first handful of Gardner’s associates in England’s New Forest to become the faith of many thousands across the world. While a few of the practices Gardner initiated have changed or been discarded in some traditions, other aspects are largely unaltered. Although only one formal Wiccan tradition bears his name, the continued importance of Gardner’s ideas is evident in all branches of the faith.

F is for Failure.

Everyone fails. At least everyone who is truly challenging themselves does. If you don’t fail every once in a while then you aren’t really trying. Yoda might have been a great Jedi, but he was wrong about one thing. “Do” and “do not” aren’t the whole story. There really IS a “try.” And “try” has a lot going for it.The whole magic of “try” is that it sometimes works, even when we don’t expect it.

yodaBut, of course, sometimes it DOESN’T work. That’s the other part of the magic of trying. We make mistakes, or we have bad luck, or something breaks. For one reason or another, we sometimes fail. But not all failures are created equal. Some are more disappointing, more dangerous, more embarrassing than others. It’s important to learn how to fail gracefully, or at least safely. Because a bad failure can cascade into a whole cycle of repeated failing. If you aren’t careful, failure can lead to fear, and just ask Yoda what fear can lead to.

Recently the online Neopagan community got to witness a very ungraceful failure. I’m talking about the NEW “American Council of Witches.”

Basically, some guy who runs (or ran) a Pagan themed internet radio station started pulling some strings behind the scenes to get a group together and named it after a short lived effort to form an organization from back in the mid seventies. The original ACoW was the group that drafted the “13 principles of Wiccan Belief” that you might occasionally see floating around.

The new bunch didn’t get very far though. They started a Facebook group and put up a bare-bones website, but they were never very clear about their purpose or their goals. There were vague promises of “more information to come” but no direct answers to any questions. Comments and questions were heavily censored on the community page, and even people on the “council” were kept in the dark mostly. Frustrated council members dropped out as quickly as new ones were recruited. The entire thing seemed to dissolve and reform almost hourly.

failboat1If you want more details about it, there is still chatter going on about it in several places. There is even a Facebook group especially for uncensored commentary from critics, including a few ex-members of the council itself. The various screencaps and notes in their files section reveal the whole thing to have been extremely shady and poorly managed from the very beginning. It’s not pretty, but you can learn a lot about how to fail at starting a council by reading over it.

But what struck me about the situation wasn’t that a group failed, or even that a group failed so epically. What struck me was how little they understood about their own failure, even as it was happening. At no point did the “inner circle” ever acknowledge that they were, in fact, failing. They never took basic responsibility for what was happening, and they never acknowledged that what they were trying wasn’t working. Rumor has it that they are, even now, planning their next re-launch. They seem caught in Yoda’s false dichotomy. They can’t succeed (“do”) and they can’t quit (“do not”), and they don’t know the special magic of “try.”

They don’t know that it’s OK to fail.

E is for epiphany

An epiphany is a flash of insight or inspiration. Usually these arrive after long tedious hours laboring over a problem or struggling with a concept. Then, like magic, something unexpectedly clicks, some spark bridges a gap, and the solution suddenly appears as though out of nowhere.

The word itself is constructed of Greek roots that taken together literally mean “prominent or startling appearance.” It was used primarily to describe the arrival of Divine beings to specific locations. Examples include the epiphany of Aphrodite at Cypress and the epiphany of Apollo at Delphi. But no one does epiphanies like Dionysos. He’s practically the God of epiphany, in fact.

Dionysos_mosaicPart of the reason that Dionysos is so strongly connected with Myths of arrival is that part of His archetypal identity is “the other.” Although modern archeology shows that He is one of the earliest of the Greek Gods to emerge in the region, He is consistently cast in the role of a new or foreign Deity. Even in His birth city of Thebes, the wine God arrives as a stranger; bringing new forms of worship and challenging the existing order.

His arrivals follow a similar pattern wherever His epiphanies occur. He comes to a place as a new and unproven God, drawing people (usually women) away from their established societal roles and recasting them as His own ecstatic worshippers. He is resisted by the current authority figures, and his followers are persecuted. The God then asserts His power, usually in some horrific or terrifying way, and punishes those who resisted Him.

bacchaeThe pattern can be clearly seen in “The Bacchae,” a tragedy by Euripides. The play is set in Thebes, and the action centers on the return of Dionysos to His birthplace. The God arrives disguised as a mortal mystery priest of His own religion. He is leading a band of foreign women, His “bacchae.” These are soon joined by some of the city’s women, who take to the neighboring hillsides and engage in His ecstatic form of worship.

Pentheus, who is the current acting king of Thebes (and also cousin to Dionysos Himself), is angered by these events and brings the mystery priest (actually the God in disguise) into custody. Speaking as the priest, Dionysos trades barbs with Pentheus, and gives him the opportunity to relent and accept the Divine authority of the God and His new form of worship. Instead, Pentheus imprisons Him, or at least he tries to.

pentheusDionysos, unsurprisingly, is difficult to hold in a cell. He wastes no time in making His escape in the least subtle way imaginable. He shakes the castle down with an earthquake and magically drives Pentheus out of his mind. He manipulates the addled king into adopting the disguise of a bacchic woman to spy on the city’s women (including his aunts and mother, Agave). After leading His cousin to the hillside where the women were worshiping, Dionysos causes them to see Pentheus as a wild lion, which they promptly tear to bits.

His own mother returns to the city carrying Pentheus’s severed head, still seeing it as the head of lion. She proudly displays it to her father, Cadmus, and the assembled city folk. When she asked where her son is so she can show him her trophy, the God allows her mind to clear she sees the head it for what it really is. She is faced with the sudden realization that she has torn apart her own son. Dionysos then shows up in His full glory and pronounces His judgment on the ruling family of Thebes. Agave and her sister are sent into exile, while their father and mother will be forcibly transformed into snakes.

That’s one hell of an epiphany.

D is for Dichotomy

A dichotomy is a total division and separation of two things. The root of the word is Greek, and is based on the idea of something being cut into two parts. People seem to really like the notion of things being separated like that. Well, at least some people do. Maybe there are really two kinds of people: people who tend to see dichotomies everywhere they look and people who do not. I’m one of those second kinds of people.

sliceThe first kind of person should be pretty familiar to most of you. Some of you probably ARE that first kind of person. You see a world of clearly delineated things. There are short things, long things, right things, wrong things, red fish, blue fish, etc. All with strong, solid lines dividing them out and sorting them into easily classified boxes. You might spend a lot of your time trying to figure out what box something fits in, but once you know, you drop it in, and you can move on. Yours is the sword of reason that divides and separates. Everything ends up on one side or the other.

My view of the world tends to be less binary. My default answer to “either or” questions is “why not both?” When faced with the horns of a dilemma, my impulse is to break the scenario and find a solution outside (or somewhere between) the two I’ve been given. One way to describe this might be to say that I have a greater than usual reliance on lateral thinking in my approach to problem solving. Another way might be to say that I don’t like being told what my choices are. Which is it, really? Probably both.

Now, this mindset might just arise out of my more general worldview. Maybe my very syncretic angle on polytheism helps me to look for overlap in other situations too. Maybe my eclectic implementation of the Wiccan framework has opened me up to combining diverse ideas and methods in other aspects of my life. Or maybe that is a core tendency of my personality and is the real reason that I am so syncretic and eclectic. Again, it’s probably both. Either way, it’s pretty closely woven into my identity.

linesSo that’s why when people try to draw bright lines between things, I’m often the one coming behind and smudging those lines up. I like playing with boundaries, being a liminal figure out there connecting dots in new unexpected ways, riding the horizon, waiting to find the focal point where so many differences fall away and truth is wearing its summer clothes. It’s pure magick. In fact, it’s witchcraft.

And maybe that kind of magick is my strongest connection with the power of the witch archetype. Because even more than the framework of my religious practice, and even more than the occasional spell I cast, rearranging paradigms of thought and putting together new ideas from the broken pieces of old ones just makes me feel witchy. Maybe that’s the kind of witch I was always meant to be.

C is for Clergy

clergy1Even though the word often conjures images of Catholic priests in sternly cut cassocks, “clergy” isn’t just a Christian concept. Many Neopagan organizations recognize it and authorize some of their members to serve in sacerdotal roles; ie to act as clergy. I’ve done it for about fifteen years myself. I’ve married and buried, and I’ve blessed newborns and comforted the sick and dying. It’s been an honor to serve my church and my community, but it’s been a hard road to travel sometimes.

The word “clergy” has etymological roots dating back to ancient Greece. It ultimately comes from the word “kleros,” which meant “allotment.” It was often used to describe something received through inheritance or by virtue of heritage. The early Greek Christians connected it with service to their faith with the idea that clerics gave up their hopes of earthly inheritance, and in exchange received God as their allotment.

So it seems that the idea of clergy offering service with little hope of material reward is pretty firmly woven into the history of the term. Today that may be even more true of Neopagan clergy than of our Christian counterparts. Neopagan churches (or groves, or temples, or astral energeriums, or whatever) almost never have paid clergy. These groups are served more or less exclusively by volunteers, who also often reach into their own pockets to cover the costs of keeping everything running.

Beyond_griefAnd we usually do it without much in the way of training, at least not training like they get in mainstream seminaries. Traditional initiation and coven training might be a good way to become proficient in working magick, or performing the established rituals of a particular tradition or order, but it doesn’t seem to delve too deeply into ministerial roles. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of concentration on administration skills, or on techniques for responsible spiritual and emotional counseling. We might be ready and able to raise energy for healing a family member, but sometimes we’re lost on how to share and lessen the grief that comes when a healing spell isn’t enough to pull that family member through.

Maybe it’s because the people who founded and designed those traditions and orders never really expected them to fulfill the same role that religion has come to play in our modern culture. Most Neopagan religions are built around somewhat sketchy frameworks, with a concentration on more non-conventional spiritual practice. Some are drawn together from a range of eclectic sources, like Gardner’s creation of Wicca. And others are stitched together from sparse historical culture records, like the various polytheistic reconstruction efforts. Maybe trying to match the spiritual services provided by more mainstream religions is just pushing our structures beyond their natural limits.

One solution would be to fill in our gaps with the same training those other faiths are getting. We could send our Neopagan clergy to traditional (Christian) seminaries. But the chances of us fitting in there are petty slim. Also they certainly wouldn’t let us pick and choose only the courses WE think we need. There would be a lot of sitting through classes that directly contradicted our own theologies and teachings.

socratesAnother thing we could do is start our own seminaries. This is actually already happening. There’s one about three hours from where I live. I’ve taken one of their online classes and found it to be a good resource. But this approach also has problems. Although this school is good, it is not yet accredited. They are working towards that goal, but the process of accreditation is slow. It’s harder to implement educational financing strategies when the degree you’d be working toward isn’t backed by accreditation. And since most of our clergy are unpaid and have to maintain day jobs to make their own rent, it’s especially hard to self-finance.

But despite the problems, I continue to see quality and dedication in my fellow priests and priestesses. I see people filling in the holes, and sharing those techniques with others. I see us growing stronger together. I know that as our movement (and its many component religions and traditions) grows and matures, that our collective pool of resources will also deepen. We’re not yet where we need to be, but I believe that we are moving in that direction. We’ll find the way to make it work. We have to; it’s our lot in life.