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(en) Organise #58 - A critical look at the pagan movement: What can magic do for anarchism? Why has paganism become so popular?

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 13 May 2003 11:43:10 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

Despite an increase in the number of
people interested and affected by
anarchist ideas, the actual growth of
membership in organisations and
activist groups has been relatively
small. On the other hand,
organisations and movements that
could be defined as religious or
spiritual have seen an enormous
upsurge in the past decades. Though
they might seem very different, some
examples of such movements are
Muslim and Christian fundamentalism
and paganism.
This article will focus on the pagan
movement. I will try to explain why
paganism has become so popular and
then discuss to what extent paganism
could have a role to play, along with
anarchism, in the creation of a new
It is difficult to know how many
pagans there are in Britain. The Pagan
Federation claims 3,000 members and
also estimates that there are between
100,000 and 200,000 practising
pagans. These estimates are based on
attendance at various festivals. The
reason it is so difficult to know
numbers is that there are a variety of
different groups and practices that
come under this umbrella term. In
addition, many people may see
themselves as pagan, but would not
join an organisation; they will just hold
a set of beliefs and maybe carry out
their own individual practices.
What is paganism?
It is often argued that paganism can
trace its origins back to pre-Christian
times. It is thought to be the religion
practised by people who had an
intimate relationship to the land and
its seasons. However, it is unclear
exactly how linked modern paganism is
to the past.
Some of the first groups emerged in
the US in the '70s and said they were
neo-pagans. One of the first groups,
Church of all Worlds, took its name
from a religious group in a science
fiction book by Robert Heinlein. In
Britain, the movement is thought to
have its origins in a witchcraft coven
founded by Gerald Gardner back in the
'50s. He claimed to have found
evidence of a coven that could trace its
origins back to the witch-hunt days of
early modern Europe. Another
influence was Robert Graves' book on
the White Goddess.
Whatever the actual links to the
past, modern paganism is essentially a
reconstruction based on what people
want to believe. And for most, it
doesn't matter whether the new
paganism is the same as the old. A
good description of paganism comes
from Cairril Adaire, the National Co-
ordinator of the Pagan Education
network in the US: "Paganism is a
collection of diverse religions which
are nature-centred and rooted in
personal experience. While some pagan
religions provide training structures,
the movement as a whole has no
hierarchy, no holy book, no one, right,
true authority. Pagan religions
encourage the individual to develop
her own relationship with Divinity,
however she views it. And most
intriguing to me, you could be an
atheist pagan!" Some of the different
pagan traditions include wicca (or
witchcraft), druidism, shamanism and
chaos magic. Most share some
common beliefs and practices and see
nature as divine in some way.
Beliefs: The divine is female, too
One of the main beliefs common to
pagans is that divinity has both a male
and female aspect. In religions such as
wicca, the Goddess is usually the main
focus of worship. Pagans will also see
other gods and goddesses, associated
with different aspects of nature or the
human condition. Pagans would argue
that a belief in these spiritual beings is
not the same as in other religions. The
divine is not outside and above the
world, but exists in everything,
including humans. It's difficult to say
whether people actually believe that
these beings exist or whether they are
just symbols that people use.
Starhawk, a well-known American
witch, talks of using symbols as a way
of visualising things so that we can
experience them. If we can name
something, we can integrate it into our
consciousness. So, for example,
someone may go on a shamanic
journey and meet their spirit helper.
They ask the spirit helper a question
they are trying to answer in their
lives. Now, this could be seen as a
journey to the other world that really
exists, or it may only be seen as a way
of accessing parts of the unconscious
self. Similarly, a pagan ritual may
invoke the Goddess, but only because
this is only a symbol of an aspect of
themselves that they want to develop.
Pagans also use a wheel or circle as
a symbol and place great emphasis on
the marking of the seasonal cycle. By
celebrating the solstices and
equinoxes, pagans believe they are
integrating the natural rhythms into
their own lives. It creates a bond with
nature which is itself divine. Apart
from the belief in the God/Goddess
and the sacred nature of the seasonal
cycles, there are not many actual
pagan beliefs that are held in common.
Instead, paganism is very adaptable
and individuals will create their own
particular beliefs. Even the morality is
vague and left to the individual; `If it
doesn't harm, do what you will' is the
only rule. It is instead the practice of
paganism that seems to bind people
Ritual magic
With the popularity of Harry Potter,
talk of magic is very much in fashion.
But what exactly is it? There's no
doubt that pagans have a strong belief
in the effectiveness of magic. This can
take place one two levels: magic to
transform the self and magic to effect
some change in the world. Starhawk
stresses the use of magic to transform
consciousness. The pagan defines
magic as being: "the art of changing
consciousness at will". The principle of
magic is that consciousness has
structure. She actually uses science to
support a belief in magic in her book
Dreaming the Dark.
`If it doesn't
harm, do what
you will'
"Modern physics no longer speaks
of separate, discrete atoms of dead
matter, but of waves of energy,
probabilities, patterns that change as
they are observed; it recognises what
shamans and witches have always
known: that matter and energy are not
separate forces, but different forms of
the same thing" (p10).
Ritual can therefore be used as a
way of changing the structure of
consciousness. By using powerful
symbols and by going into trance,
pagans will try and tap into the
movements of energy and change the
images in their minds and patterns of
behaviour. Power is a key part of
magical practices. However, pagans
would argue that it is not power-over,
but power-within, using the power one
has acquired through the ritual and
the journey to the `other world' to
channel one's own energies and
consciousness in the direction the
individual wants to go.
In Chaos magic, the aim of the
rituals which involve trance and
sometimes spirit possession, is to alter
consciousness in order to be liberated
from the prison of society. They want
to think and act in an unconditioned
way. Magic rituals are also used to
change something outside in the
world. It is common to carry out
rituals to summon help for members of
the group, such as a healing ritual, or
to bring some benefit to someone. For
example, a coven in London did a
ritual for a local shop owner to help
out with business and within two
weeks of doing the ritual the business
took off! Pagans will argue that magic
can be used for both harm and good
and that for them it should only be
used for good.
The appeal of paganism
There are a number of reasons why
paganism has become so popular.
Marion Adler, in her book Drawing
Dawn the Moon, discusses a number
of reasons. Firstly, the fact that the
Goddess is the key figure in the
religion has appealed to many women.
The Pagan federation was first
organised by women. Wicca amounts
to about 40% of practising pagans and
is especially popular with women.
Covens are usually no more than 13
people and will be led by a couple. So,
though there is a priest, it is the
priestess that seems to have more
status. There are also many all-women
covens, especially in the US. With the
demise of the women's movement and
the drop in political activity, paganism
has become a haven for many older
feminists but also younger women.
The stress on the sacredness of
nature has also struck a chord with
many in the environmental movement.
There has been a cross-over between
environmental activists and pagans. It
would be interesting to know how
many links there actually are between
for example Earth First and the Pagan
Federation. Pagans were apparently
involved in the struggle against the
road over Twyford Down. But even
though I don't know any more details,
it stands to reason that people who
believe so strongly in the value of
nature would want to get involved in
helping to preserve that nature.
Another important aspect of
paganism is the way that it presents
an alternative vision of the world and
the cosmos that represents freedom
and autonomy. Pagans would argue
that it does not have any of the
negative aspects of religion. Pagans
can act as they want because there is
not the notion of sin or guilt. They can
practice the religion as they want,
without having to worry that they
have `got it wrong'. The reasons
people give for becoming pagans can
be perhaps summed up by this quote
from Cairril Adaire: "As a pagan ­ as a
witch ­ I can be powerful, passionate,
intelligent, fun-loving, compassionate,
loving and dynamic. My spirituality
supports my personality, values and
politics. It challenges me to develop
continually into a more whole, healthy
human being. It also offers a
community of like-minded individuals.
It answers my questions about the
meaning of existence, the importance
of justice and the value of change."
Why not anarchism?
So why don't people become
anarchists instead? One of the main
reasons people have for becoming
pagans is the lack of power people
have in their everyday lives. This may
be one of the main reasons why
people become pagans rather than
anarchists. Paganism offers the hope
that despite living in a society that
aims to control and mould every
aspect of your life and thoughts, there
is a way to escape. By using magic,
you can transform yourself and
become something different. In
addition, it may even be possible to
cause change in a small way in the
world at large.
Anarchism is a political movement
that seeks to bring about a totally new
society. This is not an easy task and
will not be done for the foreseeable
future. Many people who are
committed anarchists often despair at
the difficulties involved, so it's not
surprising that others would want to
find something that makes them feel
that they are changing something
now, even if it is only themselves. In
addition, paganism seems to offer
much more than politics, as can be
seen from the quote above. It can be
seen as political, but it also offers a
more general perspective on issues to
do with the `meaning of life'.
Give up anarchism, become a
Despite being able to see the
attractions of paganism, I would argue
that paganism is not only limited in its
vision, but it could actually conflict
with the basic principles and practices
of anarchism. The problem with
paganism is that the focus is too much
on the individual. There is nothing
wrong with wanting to escape social
conditioning and to expand one's
consciousness, but if this is all that
you do, then it will have little, if any
impact on the world. In fact, any one
could become a pagan, no matter what
their position in society and use the
magical practices. So it could be
equally of use to the manager who
wants to become more powerful and
confident as it would be to a worker
who wants to become more
autonomous in relation to
management's attempts to control
By using magic, you
can transform
yourself and become
something different
If we are going to create a new
society, we need to directly challenge
and eliminate capitalism and the state.
This can only be done by building a
powerful movement, based on the
working class, which engages in
struggles over very concrete issues.
Paganism has no intention of doing
anything like this. They would not
have time in any case, with most of
their time taken up with various
rituals. There seems no awareness
that there are very real material forms
of oppression and exploitation. No
amount of magic or self-
transformation will stop the bombs
falling or put food on your table when
you have no money.
There is another equally important
problem of paganism. Though the
stress is supposed to be on power-
from-within, I am not convinced that
this is always the case. There are
many inherent dangers within the
belief systems and practices.
Susan Greenwood is an
anthropologist with many sympathies
to witchcraft and paganism. However,
in her research she became very
worried about the problem of power
relations within covens. Witches
journey to the other world in order to
tap into the power and knowledge of
other beings. Those who are seen to
have more access to this power and
knowledge often have more power
within the group. Therefore, she found
that in some covens, the priestess
used her position of being in a
superior position in relation to the
otherworld to dominate and
psychologically abuse the other
members of the coven.
She cites one example where the
priestess set up a ritual and wouldn't
tell the other members what it would
entail. Once it was underway and she
had `summoned the Goddess', she
asked the priest to go around to all the
members of the group with a knife,
asking them who would suffer pain for
the Goddess. This was a way of testing
individuals' willingness to obey her,
under the guise of saying it's to obey
the Goddess. This might not be typical
of the practice of covens, but the basic
structure of a coven, dominated by a
priestess and priest, does not
encourage equality. Also, the use of
the `otherworld' to enhance your
personal status and position in this
world, seems no different than what
happens in other religions. I do not
see how the emphasis on magic and
power can help us to create a society
where we have destroyed power. Even
if pagan groupings are less
hierarchically-structured, there is still
the problem of `tyranny of
structurelessness' where certain
individuals dominate because of their
personality and experience. This
critique of power relations within
paganism does not mean that
anarchist groups are free from these
issues. In some ways, there are similar
problems. For example, a knowledge
of anarchist theory or super-activism
can be the source of individual power
within a group. But at least in
anarchism there is no outside source
of power.
Common ground?
Paganism may have some serious
flaws that make it no substitute for
anarchism if the goal is to create a
new society. However, this does not
mean that it is impossible to be an
anarchist and a pagan. As mentioned
above, anarchism is a political
movement and though it says that it is
important for individuals to change, it
does not offer any ideas on how this
should be done concretely, except
`through struggle'.
Anarchism may try and create new
forms of organisation but there is little
consideration of how we should try
and change as individuals, though
these issues were addressed by
anarchists historically. Also, anarchism
has nothing to say about the general
question of the meaning of life. Many
anarchists will say there is no meaning
nor anything apart from this world.
However, whether they admit it or
not, I'm sure there are many who do
ponder some of the `bigger questions'
such as the origin of the universe and
what it all means. There does seem to
be a need amongst many people in
general to have some sort of
`spirituality' or way of dealing with the
unknown. I don't really see it a
problem for the anarchist movement if
people do want to involve themselves
with such issues. The main point is
whether or not their beliefs cause
them to believe in some external
authority, whether it be a God or the
Goddess. It would not be at all in tune
with anarchism if people presented a
view on something because they said
their spirit helper had told them to!
Whatever the ultimate meaning of the
cosmos, as far as we are know, there is
only us. We have only ourselves to rely
on in terms of creating who we are,
how we want to live and the meaning
of human existence.
In addition, there are some beliefs
within paganism that are compatible
with anarchism. We agree that the
current society is unacceptable and
that we should create a society that is
non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal and
in harmony with the environment.
And you never know, maybe a magic
ritual might give the movement just
that boost that we need!
On the other hand, paganism can
lead to mystification of the world and
a misunderstanding of what is wrong
and why, the maintenance of relations
of power and a very time-consuming
diversion from building a movement
that can truly change the world.

Organise! is the magazine of the Anarchist Federation (AF) and the Anarchist
Federation Ireland. Organise! is published in order to develop anarchist
communist ideas. It aims to provide a clear anarchist viewpoint on contemporary
issues and initiate debate on ideas not normally covered by agitational papers.
Anarchist Federation contacts:
London: AF, c/o 84b Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX
Birmingham: AF, PO Box 3241, Saltley, Birmingham B8
Leicester: 73 Humberstone Gate, Leicester LE1 1WB.
E-mail: LeicesterAF@aol.com
Manchester: PO Box 127, Oldham OL4 3FE. E-mail:
Merseyside: PO Box closed, contact through London Group
South East and all other areas: AF, PO Box 375, Knaphill, Woking, Surrey GU21
Tyneside: PO Box 1TA, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE99 1TA8
Wales/Cymru: PO Box 7, Pontypool, Gwent NP4 8YB
Scotland/Alba: AF, PO Box 248, Aberdeen AB25 1JE, Scotland/Alba. E-mail:
Anarchist Federation Ireland: Anarchist Federation (Ireland), PO Box 505 Belfast
BT12 6BQ. Phone: 07951 079719. E-mail:
Anarchist Federation: www.afed.org.uk
Leicester AF: http://hometown.aol.co.uk/leicesteraf/myhomepage/opinion.html
Manchester AF: www.geocities.com/anarchist_federation
AF Ireland: www.afireland.cjb.net
AF Scotland/Alba: http://flag.blackened.net/

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