The Way We Were vs The Way We Are
Author: Ryan Hatcher
If we are to look back to the inception of modern paganism and the people who were the force behind it and were to observe how they practiced, worshipped and worked magic and compared it to how we practice, worship and work magic in modern times, while there is guaranteed to be a great deal of difference, the basic, core values should have remained the same.
I was in Norwich yesterday, a city with a strong pagan undercurrent of its own, for a brief look around the shops to pass some time while my partner enjoyed a 2-hour birthday massage, because of which my wallet had experienced a mass weight loss. So window-shopping it was. On my journey around the city I ventured into a Waterstones bookshop to have a look at their MBS section and had a skim through some of the material. Now, 90% of these books were paganism 101, which is fair enough for a standard mainstream bookshop, but reading through some of these 101 books — some of them recently published — it got me to reflecting: what is taught and considered western paganism now is much different than what it would have been considered to be 60-70 years ago.
What do I mean by this? Well, much of my personal pagan practice is inspired by these ‘old school’ methods with a touch of the modern for flavor (I’m talking about Doreen Valiente and Kevin Cochrane for the older styles, particularly Valiente; the Farrars (Stewart and Janet) represent an in-between period. Kate West and Christopher Penczack add the modern flare.) as I feel their values and ideas resonate with me. Now, keeping Valiente and Cochrane’s ideals in mind (again, more Valiente than Cochrane) , compare them to a lot of Penczack’s work and the work of similar contemporary styles and you’ll see what I’m trying to get at.
The styles and traditions of Valiente and Cochrane (hereon called the ‘older styles’) focus more on the earth-based worship side of paganism: seeing their Gods as personified manifestations of the forces of Life, Love, Death and Rebirth as well as the forces of nature in all it’s guises (be this as the four elements or simply as the grass in your lawn) . I also feel that animism in a subtler form was still there, if only felt and respected rather than overtly expressed.
The crafting of magic seems to have been simpler, as was the training (which doesn’t mean it was by any means easier than today; I’m inclined to say it was harder) . Metaphysical ideas such as energy centres, auras and layers of existence appear to have been acknowledged but were not the priority. The same for ‘the mysteries’ of the craft such as hypnosis, astral projection/trance journeying and psychism in all its forms. The works of the older styles show that they were an important part of their practice along with magic, but they were not the primary focus. I feel they were considered tools and techniques that developed along with the witch as he or she progressed down the spiritual path and was able to understand themselves and their developing abilities better and learn to control, focus and use them.
In contrast, the works of Penczack and his contemporaries (hereon called the ‘newer styles’) seem to focus more on the metaphysical ideas of paganism (energy centres, auras and layers of existence) , ‘the mysteries’ of the craft and magic as being of primary importance and therefore many chapters are devoted to these concepts. Now, I’m not saying this is strictly a bad thing; it may well suit many a new student to paganism, but when it comes to the core values about the spiritual and worship side of paganism, we start to enter the world of ‘love, light and blessed be’.
The realm of the FB, and those big furry ears seem to be cropping up more frequently in pagan literature. The spirituality of the newer styles appears to see the Old Gods as playmates: happy, fun, smiley and They do anything their precious ‘hidden children’ ask for. And unfortunately kids, you just have to look at the global history of paganism and myths of the world to now that is definitely not true. The honouring of nature and the earth extends as far as litter picking and recycling, which are very, very good ideas, and more is being suggested such as planting new trees, getting involved with wildlife protection trusts etc. Unfortunately, I feel many of the witches of the older styles, though some did get involved in these things, chose not to, possibly considering ritual devotion to be sufficient.
Ritual then is the moot point of both the old and new styles. As we are all aware, spiritual practice is a subjective thing, especially when it comes to ritual. Both new and old styles of witchcraft and paganism have placed varying levels of focus on ritual, and all have varying styles and methods in ritual that meets with their needs and the ideals of their respective traditions. However (there had to be a however) , and this goes for both old and new styles of paganism, whatever happened to just going out there and communing with nature face-to-face? No pomp and ceremony, no matter how elaborate or simple, just getting out there and being in the presence of the forces that we as pagans honour and worship.
I say, if you’re in a situation where celebrating a sabbat or an esbat with formal ritual isn’t an option, but you are within distance of a beautiful woodland, then screw it! Go for a walk in the woodland, sit under a tree and meditate! Commune with the spirits of the natural world around you and feel the power of the Old Gods, the powers of life, love, death and rebirth and pour your heart out in gratitude for all you have and for all that it means to be alive.
Wrapping it up: to me, the older styles and the newer styles and those of the styles in-between all have their good points and their bad points. The older styles are more grounded, simple and earthly. The newer styles are more flighty, ‘new-age’, hippy-esque and spiritual (in the modern concept of the word) . I’m sure you can see we have a Yin-Yang situation. And like the Yin and Yang, symbols of the older and newer styles do have parts of the other within them, but what we need to achieve is a balance between the two.
Paganism is a living and growing spiritual path and naturally changes with time, but it shouldn’t lose its heart. If we can bring together old and new, Yin and Yang, then we might be able to evolve paganism further, making it stronger, more refined and give us a definitive direction for us to aim for.
I hope that this essay will encourage pagans, both old hands and new, to review their beliefs, practices and crafts… to look back at the old, and freely explore the new and therein decide what is the best way forward in their spiritual path.
Witchcraft for Tomorrow – Doreen Valiente
Witchcraft a Tradition Renewed – Evan John Jones with Doreen Valiente
The Witches’ Bible – Janet and Stuart Farrar
The Real Witches’ Handbook – Kate West
Gay Witchcraft – Christopher Penczack
Instant Magick – Christopher Penczack