Time to Sharpen up Our Game?

October marked one of the perhaps most memorable moments for Paganism in the last decade, as Druidry was recognized as an official religion and awarded charitable status by the Charity Commission. Following this, an article was written by Melanie Philips of the Daily Mail entitled ‘Stones of Praise Here We Come’, which sparked off a huge debate both within pagan communities as well as on the Daily Mail website. Now considering the time of year, we should really have expected another controversial article to reach the headlines! And we were not to be disappointed, as this time the Daily Telegraph writer Damian Thompson posted his own view on Paganism and witchcraft on – (you guessed it) – the 31st October, entitled ‘The BBC Sucks up to Pagans’.

My initial reaction to both of these articles was amusement. Both were so badly written and biased to their own personal perspectives that it was no wonder that the articles only made it to a blog, and never to actual newspaper print. It also became obvious with a very brief amount of research that both journalists were renowned for writing controversial, biased and bigoted articles. The first reaction of many in the Pagan community, including myself, was to retaliate on the newspaper forums – but I think it is important that as a community, we try not to resort to a victim mentality in these cases. We could argue about whose faith is older or more genuine – or more persecuted !! – until the cows come home. These journalists are paid to write articles which are going to get attention – they are rewarded for coming up with the most controversial stories in order to get more web-time. And we should remember that we were NOT alone! Just two days before writing this article about Paganism, the same Damian Thompson of the Daily Telegraph released another article, this time studying the trend of the name ‘Mohammed’ in Muslim families and expressing quite clearly his ‘views’ towards Muslims; although perhaps in a slightly more ‘shadowy’ nature than he had expressed his dislike towards Paganism. Sadly, these journalists are rarely interested in truth or education, it seems. But their articles did get me thinking about the media and our relationship with it – and particularly, our increasing presence in the public eye.

The sheer volume of retaliations against these bigoted articles on the newspaper forums alone has made it clear that Pagans do want their beliefs to be recognised and understood. Many of us share a sheer frustration with the media’s attitude to our beliefs, an uneducated attitude which is echoed by a large percentage of the general public. However, I am also aware that not all pagans want our faith to be recognised at an official, national status – and perhaps for good reason. Many of us would prefer that the religion remained at a more personal and unofficiated level; there is a fear that our religion would be institutionalized, and power taken away from our community.

But that being said, I think it would be safe to assume that all followers of paganism would prefer things to be at a stage where Paganism is at least be respected – and not openly ridiculed. The recognition of Paganism (and other associated practices) within the Police and the Armed Forces is testament to our faith becoming more accepted – and in my opinion, our inclusion in respected organizations such as these has been perhaps one of the most important steps made so far in the effort to integrate Paganism into modern society. Similarly, many of us celebrated Druidry’s elevation to charity status – but if we truly want this recognition, we must accept that (like anything which comes into the public eye) we will have to be prepared for criticism. But there is a difference between criticism, and downright ridicule. Newspapers are quick to criticize all faiths – freedom of speech, which so many of us rely upon, allows this to be so. But many journalists are cautious that they don’t over-step the line; the outright ridicule, intimidation and blatant mocking of a religion as they have to ours would usually be seen as downright dangerous. Clearly, we are not significant enough or powerful enough to be treated so cautiously.

I would suggest that the best way to deal with such criticism is to face the reasons behind the ridicule head on. As modern Pagans, we seriously need to ask the question – what is it – really – that still sets us apart from other belief systems?

It’s definitely not the number of people practicing. PEBBLE, The Public Bodies Liaison Committee for British Paganism, present data from the 2001 census on their website which indicates that almost 55,000 people specified their religion as pagan or as a sub-pagan belief system (such as Heathen, Wiccan, Druidism etc) – and this doesn’t count people who were not old enough at the time to take the census, or those who decided not to declare their faith. According to PEBBLE, ‘combined, this made us the seventh largest faith in the UK’ – and, ‘if figures for British Pagans rose as much as those in Australia, we could be looking at 280,000 Pagans. In the 2001 census, there were 150,000 Buddhists, and just 270,000 Jews’. Perhaps, it is simply that the general public are not made aware of these figures!!

Nor can it be the credibility or reasoning behind our beliefs in comparison to others – for instance, how can the beliefs of Abrahamic faiths be any more ‘believable’ than the faith of Paganism? Well, they’re not – ultimately, both Paganism and Abrahamic faiths are based on a belief in something that cannot be proved – that’s what makes it ‘faith’. Yet in this age of science and reason, Abrahamic faith is somehow still seen as a perfectly ‘reasonable’ part of life and politics – which according to Melanie Phillips, brought us ‘reason, and the bedrock values behind Western progress’.

So if other faiths such as Christianity are really no different to Paganism in terms of credibility, or (potential) numbers, or even sound judgment – what still sets us apart? Why are so many religions considered acceptable in business and politics (and even our children’s education!!) whilst the beliefs of Paganism are mocked and downright ridiculed? How can this be, when the origins of our beliefs have been recorded by academics for thousands of years, and continue to be written about as historical fact? When evidence of practices similar to our own is found in archaeology? When many of the theories behind Pagan esoteric/occult practices are even supported by modern scientific research, cosmology and hypotheses?

My initial feeling is the lack of academic and reliable information made available to the general public during the rise of interest in Paganism, in particular BTW (British Traditional Wicca) between the 40’s – 70’s. In my opinion, the act of bringing BTW out into the open (and into the eye of the media) was also a catalyst to bring many other forms of Paganism out of the woodwork. Whilst still hotly debated, it is generally believed that several other types of Paganism were being practiced in this country during, and before, the 1940’s (such as Druidry and Old Craft) but these probably only started surfacing and receiving new interest after the initial coverage and growing popularity of BTW.

Whilst their intention was no doubt good, and led to the boom in popularity of Paganism, much of the initial promotion of Wicca by some of its earliest practitioners was taken out of context by the newspapers in examples of sensationalist journalism. ‘The Manchester Evening News’ headlined ‘Amazing Black Magic Rites’, as they investigated rumours of black masses and witchcraft rituals on the Cheshire hillsides, which were being run by Alex Sanders. To a BTW initiate, the reality of what this ritual really means is quite clear – to the outsider, it sends a very different message. In another article, Gerald Gardner attempted to portray Wicca in a more positive light when he was interviewed by ‘Weekend’. Yet the photograph shows Gerald sitting within a magic circle and pointing a sword at a gargoyle (which the caption describes as a ‘weird image’) and Gerald is quoted saying, “a spell was cast – and the house was mine!” The article is entitled ‘I am a Witch’. Even the most hardened defender of Wicca cannot deny that the word ‘witch’, cannot have helped the initial reaction of this faith by the general public. A great shame – because otherwise, this misunderstood (and deeply profound) mysticism might have been taken a little bit more seriously.

We also have to consider that a great deal of research has been undertaken since the revival of Paganism and associated belief systems, since the days of Gardner and Sanders. We know a lot more about the origins of our practices than our forefathers/mothers who wrote about the Craft, and with very little study we can quickly sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of pseudo-historical here-say from those who followed on from them. But how much old and outdated information is still circulating within the Pagan community? We know more now about the true reality of our history than ever before – and for those that seek it, there is a considerable amount of material which both compliments and supports our beliefs and practices. In my opinion, one of THE most important books in the attempt to overcome these issues is David Rankine and Sorita D’Este’s Wicca: Magickal Beginnings, a study of the possible origins of this tradition of pagan witchcraft and magick. This book aims to dispel pseudo-historical claims and discover the true meanings and origins of practices, which have been reinvented or debased due to misinformation. It really is a must read for the beginner and the experienced practitioner alike.

As the author of a book which is specifically designed to teach the practices of paganism and witchcraft, I find myself resigning to say that in truth, the best books for us to learn about the origins of our beliefs and practices are in fact historical academic books, written with no biased interest towards the positive promotion of Paganism! Because we don’t actually need to engineer any practices or create a pseudo-history – it’s there, in black and white. Some of it might not be exactly what we want to hear – but its historical fact, all the same. And suddenly, the study of Paganism becomes respectable, and the reality of our practices much more reasonable.

But this aside, many books (and later on, websites) specifically about the practices of Paganism and Wicca started to be published. Several excellent and historically accurate books were written in the early 1980’s – such as material by the Janet and Stewart Farrar – but other than these writers (and a few memorable others) it seems there was a huge amount of recycled misinformation and here-say being published (particularly via the internet). One such inherent vice within wicca and paganism is the tendency to lean towards the victim mentality; the 9 million women tortured and burnt to death on the charge of witchcraft; the persecution of pagans by the church; our holidays being misunderstood, etc. But there were no 9 million women (it was more like 40,000 throughout the whole of Europe, although that’s no small number). And yes, Pagans have been persecuted by the church; but it would be fair to say that it’s been on about the same level, if not less, than Pagans persecuted early Christians. And yes, our holidays are most likely misunderstood – but that is probably because there is very little real, historical information being circulated about them. Let’s start educating, but lets get some well research facts behind us first.

The Daily Telegraph article was clearly bigoted and uneducated, however it did get me thinking about pseudo-historical claims, and as a pagan/occult writer and researcher I am happy to be the first to admit that I have probably rewoven some of these claims in my time !!! There is a wealth of interesting historical material out there to draw from, but so much of the information that has been reproduced in books and the training material of group leaders has been ‘recycled here-say’, with little or no basis in historical truth. In other cases, meanings and origins of practices or beliefs have been reinvented. Unlike most religions, we don’t have a specific sacred book that we all follow, and perhaps in some ways, this is part of the problem; the structure of the Abrahamic faiths and the rigidity of their very specific practices and beliefs seem to create a package of consistency that modern Paganism just doesn’t have yet. Whilst having some commonality, we Pagans are all pulling in different directions trying to achieve different things. We are in danger of teaching our beliefs, history and practice like Chinese Whispers, appearing incoherent and inconsistent.

However the fact that we don’t have a single, guiding holy book or a specific hierarchal structure is also exactly what gives us the flexibility to change and transform – so lets use that freedom to keep studying the exact reasoning behind practices and the historical basis for our beliefs, rather than restricting them to outdated pseudo-history. And as for the practices – how much further would have Wicca developed if Gardner or Sanders had lived another 20 years?

So perhaps the first step to getting Wicca and all Pagan faiths respected by the public, media and authorities is a re-education from within – our own communities. A questioning of the pseudo-history, and a study of the very real, very interesting origins of our practices and beliefs. An exact study of everything we say and do – because there is something very real out there to historically support almost every pagan word and gesture, if we just search a little bit deeper. And this has to start with each and every individual. This process of ‘re-programming’ needs to be embraced by every student or follower of Paganism, in heart and mind. This doesn’t mean losing the spiritual and mystical aspect of our faith; quite the opposite. And when confronted with bigoted and uneducated criticism and ridicule, each and every one of us are in a position where we ourselves can react with an educated and historically accurate response.

A comment was made in another recent Daily Mail article, ‘Pagans on the march: Harmless Eccentrics or a Dangerous Cult?’ in which The Daily Mail was told by one ‘witch’ that ‘we sometimes use the cauldron to mix spells’ and that ‘we hold moots in graveyards’. Are these the people we are leaving to promote our faith?  How can we encourage the general pubic to accept us as anything but uneducated and fantastical?

I don’t believe that people should have to change their practices or culture in order to be more accepted into society. I’m no conservative – my youth was spent rebelling against the system !! But I do believe in progression. If we wish to be respected (which many of us clearly do) then we have to respond in a positive and progressive manner. Perhaps this very criticism is giving us food for thought on our philosophies and the way that we present ourselves to the general public? We need to stop allowing television stations to film our rituals, no matter how much we think it might portray us in a positive light – they wont. These are our private ceremonies – they are not for show. We need to stop giving newspapers and the general public blatant excuses to sensationalize. We need to look at what this practice truly brings to our lives. We need to get shot of the eccentric image. Perhaps its time to cast off the remaining velvet cloaks (which, lets face it, are hardly practical – and do absolutely nothing for the anti-potter campaign!!) and start picking up some history books. Let’s start researching the very true and utterly fascinating origins of our practices. Lets write some educational and historically accurate articles. Let’s sharpen up our game.