I discovered Paganism by accident. If you believed the Chick tracts, you’d think that I stumbled upon it through the “horrors” of Dungeons and Dragons. In reality, it was a book mis-shelved in the fantasy section of a very standard book store that did it. I was looking for something to read. Beware the smart children; they discover all sorts of things while you’re underestimating them.
The book was D. J. Conway’s Celtic Magic, which is a terrible book. But it exploded my little pre-teen world: this was a whole other way of believing, of seeing, of engaging in religion. Intrigued, my inner academic wanted to know more. My inner cat was all curiosity. And so I researched.
What I found changed the way I be within the world, as profoundly as had that first candlelight service on a Christmas Eve so long ago, when I tried so very hard to be a Methodist. Here was a religion connected to the ancient past– or so said the authors who wrote about it– the turning of the seasons, to the land itself, with no concept of sin, no sexual shame, and a Goddess who was all Goddesses here present in the world I could touch. Or that’s how it was presented on paper.
Things are never just as they appear on paper. Truths hide in margins, they hide in the doing, and they hide in the places we come from. Sin isn’t in religion alone, but in the culture one is raised in; sexual shame exists in staunch atheists for reasons none other than that the culture accepts it, teaches it, passes it on.
I know what really happened. Gerald Gardner invented Wicca. But then, the English invented the kilt (Trevor-Roper 2006: 21-23). Never tell that to a Scotsman. But the narrative of Neo-Pagan history, like all tales told round the fire, is not a thing spun of fancy, but a thing of yearning. Wicca has more to do with the secret societies of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie than with Paleolithic shamans, more to do with Aleister Crowley than with women cruelly burned at the stake during the Inquisition. Gender essentialism abounds, even though many authors claim it to be equal and feminist. But the claims made about the religion say something about where Paganism wants to be within the world.
I know where Paganism wants to be, I think, but where do I want to be? Not tangled in strict-gendered concepts of an “earth momma” goddess and an over-endowed jack-o-the-green god. Not waving crystals, trying to conjure some semblance of prosperity from a few unhappy stones. I want to be here where I am, dirt-twixt-toes and staring in wonderment at the ugly bug landed on my finger. I want to be taken on my own terms, unrepentant heathen and devout Pagatheist, believing nothing and everything at once. The thing that keeps this umbrella of a label, “Paganism,” above my head is the fact that there is room to grow under here. For now, there are so many fewer expectations attached to that label. I can stretch out in this shade.
And brushed close to so many religions, affected powerfully by faith and ritual, what happened to the atheist child? She never went away. She couldn’t have, sitting so close to the bone, whispering in my ear about what made sense and what didn’t. She did learn the art of accepting poetry for poetry, though. Skeptimystic, standing in the gap between one way of being and another, learning to be silent in the presence of a Mystery, but never ceasing to question. After all, it’s just another metaphor. A likeness to stretch the boundaries of what we can say, can question. I learned the art of holding religion like a stone in my hand, not evaluating the weight of it, or the shape, but simply holding it, without accepting and without rejecting. Such is the art of moving between.
Trevor-Roper, Hugh. 2006 (1983). “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland” in The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 15-42. New York: Cambridge.
*Edited 2/6/10 and 2/24/11 for grammar and flow and structural connective tissue.