The Path of Paganism by John Beckett - Read Online
The Path of Paganism
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Resumen

Paganism is a way of seeing the world and your place in it. It means challenging the assumptions of mainstream society and strengthening your relationships with the gods, the universe, your community, and your self. The Path of Paganism provides practical advice and support for honoring your values and living an authentic Pagan life in mainstream Western culture.

Discover tips for establishing or deepening a regular practice. Explore how your spirituality can help you deal with life’s inevitable hardships. Learn the basics of leadership roles and other steps to take as you gain experience and move into more advanced practices. With questions for contemplation as well as rituals to help you integrate new concepts, this book guides you through a profoundly meaningful way of life.

 Praise:

“This is an absolute gem of a book! John’s love of his Pagan path fills this book with incredible enthusiasm and confidence . . . I would recommend this book to beginners and experienced practitioners alike. Both will find many pearls of wisdom within these pages. Highly recommended.”—Damh the Bard

Publicado: Llewellyn Worldwide el
ISBN: 9780738752204
Enumerar precios: $19.99
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2016

Introduction

No matter how you came to this point right here right now, wanting to learn more about Paganism, you aren’t starting from scratch. You’ve been exposed to many religions, religious ideas, and ideas about religion throughout your life. Perhaps, like me, you grew up in a fundamentalist church where you were told you had to believe certain unprovable supernatural propositions or you were going to hell. Perhaps you grew up in a household where religion was scorned and you were taught to believe nothing that couldn’t be proved using the scientific method. Or perhaps you’re perfectly satisfied with your religion and just want to learn something about a religion that’s new to you.

Regardless of your personal background, you’ve probably sung God Bless America or God Save the Queen if you live in an English-speaking country. You’ve heard stories of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. You’ve seen religious art and had holidays from work and school for Christmas and Easter. You’ve seen The Ten Commandments on TV, heard them invoked as a moral compass, and heard arguments over their place in the public square.

You live in a world where Christianity infuses the very fabric of society, where Christian images, ideas, and values dominate politics, entertainment, and ordinary conversation.

You also live in a world where the Christian religions are given lip service and their teachings are used to serve the religion of greed. Nature is valued only for how we can exploit it for financial gain, species are driven to extinction for greater profits, and our fellow humans are seen as nothing more than human resources to be employed at the lowest possible cost and then discarded when we’re finished using them.

We all like to think we’re independent, sophisticated freethinkers. But like fish who aren’t aware of the water in which they swim, even the most mindful of us can’t see all the Christian and materialistic concepts that influence our thinking and our lives. If we simply begin studying Paganism in isolation, our new religion and new spirituality will be built on the foundation of our mainstream society.

When I first discovered Paganism, I was thrilled. Here was a religion that honored nature, saw the divine as female as well as male, and didn’t insist I believe things I couldn’t honestly believe. I dived right into it … and floundered for eight years. The beliefs and practices I was trying to begin were at odds with the unstated assumptions I had learned from the mainstream society. It was only when I finally began to examine those assumptions—when I became aware of the water in which I was swimming—that I was able to start building a meaningful Pagan practice. In the fifteen years since I became aware of that water, I’ve become a full member of the Druid grade in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’ve served continuously as an officer in my local CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) group and served three years on the national board of trustees of CUUPS. I’ve become a blogger, a teacher, and now an author. Most importantly, my devotional relationships with the gods I serve and with the natural world have been strengthened and are a constant source of meaning and inspiration for me.

Perhaps you’re looking to follow the same path I took. Perhaps you picked up this book out of curiosity—you wonder why people would leave a religion that holds such a prominent place in society. You’ll see as you read that while Christianity can be a fine religion, it overlooks vital parts of the human soul. There are huge gaps in understanding the agency of individual human beings and of nonhuman species, the acknowledgement of spirits other than just one god, full acceptance of the LGBTQ community, and the urgency to defend the environment. These are just some of the many reasons people are now flocking to Paganism. My goal is that even if you’re not considering Paganism as a path, you’ll come to better understand why people are reacting against mainstream society through these forms of spirituality and maybe be able to use some of the advice and exercises presented here to further your own spiritual growth.

So in addition to presenting an introduction to modern Pagan beliefs and practices, this book also examines the unstated assumptions of mainstream beliefs and practices. We’ll look at the tension they create, the difficulties they cause for Pagans, and how we can resolve the conflicts within ourselves … and how we can live lives that are authentic, meaningful, and virtuous.

This book includes questions for contemplation, suggestions for building a Pagan practice, and rituals to help integrate new concepts into your life. It can be tempting to gloss over these sections, but I encourage you to give them your honest consideration.

Becoming Pagan means more than adopting a new set of books, tools, and holidays. It means more than praying to different gods. It means discovering a new way of seeing the world and our place in it. It means challenging the assumptions of mainstream society, keeping only those that prove true and helpful, and discarding those that show themselves to be false or harmful. It means building a solid foundation from which we can explore the nature of the universe, the gods, ourselves, and our communities. It means learning to form and strengthen good relationships with all of them.

Most introductory Pagan books begin by diving into their particular flavor of Paganism. That’s understandable—if you pick up a book on Druidry, you want to start learning how to become a Druid right away. If you buy a book on Witchcraft, you want to start practicing Witchcraft as soon as you can. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but this book takes a different path.

Part 1 will discuss the foundations of modern Pagan religion: of nature, the gods, and our ancestors. Part 2 will cover what we do with that foundation: daily spiritual practice, devotion, and dealing with the sometimes unpleasant realities of life. Part 3 will introduce intermediate level practice and the work that goes into Pagan leadership, and Part 4 will cover what to do when you reach the end of the instructions.

This journey is not easy—nothing worthwhile ever is. But it has proven meaningful and helpful to me over these many years, and I trust it will for you as well.

Shall we begin?

The Purpose of Religion

For most people in most of the world for most of history, religion has been so tied up in basic questions of group identity that changing it has been something most people have never considered. These are my people, these are my ancestors, these are my gods—this is who I am. Despite that, the two largest religions in the world—Christianity and Islam—are religions with a definite beginning that have grown by conversion.

It’s one thing to convert under the pressure (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) of missionaries and evangelists. It’s a very different thing to realize that the religion into which you were born does not match your beliefs and your values. Many people who find themselves in this position stay in their birth religion anyway. Sometimes they ignore the teachings they find offensive—sometimes they actively seek to change them. Some abandon religion altogether.

Others become seekers, exploring the religions of the world to find the one that fits them best. Some know exactly what they’re looking for, some have only a vague idea, and some know nothing other than they’re looking. There are five main needs or purposes we seek to fill with our religion.

Religion helps us deal with the human condition. Despite the unsubstantiated claims of biblical literalists and the naïve fantasies of Pagan romantics, there was never a time when people lived a life of ease in a garden or a forest where food was always there for the taking and everyone lived in peace. Life is hard, and it has always been hard. Obtaining adequate food and shelter has always required work and has never been certain. Disease and predators have always been present—usually much more prominently than they are today. People have always fought over resources and claims of dominance. And at the end, death always awaits.

We are the descendants of those who survived, and their determination has been passed down to us. But that’s only a partial answer. We don’t just want to survive, we want to succeed. We want to live lives of meaning and joy. Religion helps us deal with life’s pain and complexity. It helps us answer the big questions of life. Where did we come from? What happens when we die? How should we live? What is good and what is evil? What is good and what is better?

Theologians, philosophers, and ordinary people have contemplated these questions for as long as we’ve been human. These are hard questions, but if you want to live consciously—if you want to be awake—they are questions you must contemplate. Even if we try to avoid them, they won’t go away. They sneak into our minds when faced with difficult decisions, in the middle of the night, at the death of an elder or even a pet. It’s better to think about death on a bright Saturday in July when all is right in your world than to wait until death is in your midst.

Any religion can give you answers to these questions. The fact that different religions give different answers—sometimes radically different answers—is proof of how hard they are. A good religion will help you explore the questions, contemplate possible answers, and find the ones that best fit your values, beliefs, and experience of the world. Good religion will give you tools for living when there are no answers.

Religion helps you become a part of something greater than yourself. Contemporary Western society is very much focused on the individual. Ironically, this emphasis on the individual has uprooted our identity in our wider society and made it much more difficult for us to know who we really are. This makes us susceptible to the evil sorcerers of marketing who want us to find an identity in the products they have for sale.

Religion helps us be part of something greater than ourselves. We may be small, but we are part of a community that is larger and stronger. We may only know our parents and grandparents (or perhaps not even them), but we are a part of a heritage that goes back millions of years. Our lives may be brief, but we are a part of families, communities, and religious traditions that will be around long after we’re gone.

What happens to the individual consciousness after we die remains a mystery. What happens in this world is not. We live on in our deeds, we live on in the memories of those who knew us, and we live on in the families and communities that continue for many generations.

Religion helps us become our better selves. We need not subject ourselves to guilt and shame to acknowledge that we do not always act in accordance with our highest values. We have millions of years of evolution telling us to do what feels good now. Sometimes that’s great. Other times we choose what is easy over what is right. And sometimes the situation is so complicated that we don’t know what’s right because we haven’t considered all the factors involved.

Any religion can give you rules to follow. A good religion will teach virtues and values—what is right and fitting, what works well. A better religion will teach you how to embody these virtues and values on a daily basis, so when you’re faced with a difficult situation, you know how you want to respond and you will.

Religion helps us understand religious experiences. Many of the world’s religions began with an experience: Yahweh spoke to Moses, Saul had an experience of Jesus and became Paul, the Buddha sat under a tree until he was enlightened. What was unique about these experiences is not that they happened or even that they were especially powerful. What was unique was what the recipients of those experiences did after they had them.

Religious experiences still happen today. Sometimes they’re dramatic—more often they’re subtle. But these experiences are literally meaningless until we interpret them. Religion gives us a framework for interpreting and understanding our experiences, offers practices to reinforce them and to repeat them, and makes practical suggestions for implementing them in our ordinary lives.

Pagan religions do all these things, and they do them from a perspective that honors nature, the gods, our ancestors, and our own unique place in the world.

Learning: Helical, Not Linear

Throughout our lives, we are told how important it is to get a good education. Whether we want to or not, we’re sent to school for at least twelve years and usually much longer. We’re told we can’t get a good job without the proper education. We’re told, in not so many words, that we can’t be trusted to do serious jobs without the proper certification. This isn’t wrong. If I go to a doctor, I want to know she’s been to medical school and passed the state board exams. That’s no guarantee she’s a good doctor, but it’s a start.

The problem with this emphasis on formal education is that it marginalizes other ways of learning. The vast majority of people still learn their basic life and social skills the same way humans have learned them for tens of thousands of years—from their parents, grandparents, and neighbors. For hundreds of years, the primary way of learning a trade was through apprenticeship—working directly under a master craftsman. Even in today’s high-tech society, it’s still possible to learn many things by diving in and figuring them out as you go.

If we can learn from classwork, from elders, or even from books, we’re less likely to make mistakes as we begin. But there are some things that can only be learned by doing—by experiencing them for yourself. This is especially true in religious matters.

Add to this the many areas of emphasis within Witchcraft, Druidry, and other Pagan traditions. How much do you need to learn before you can start? How much history? How much theology? How much daily spiritual practice? How much hands-on magical work? You need not develop an Archdruid’s knowledge and expertise before you start practicing Druidry. If you wait to start practicing until you’re ready, you’ll never be ready.

This book presents material in small segments. Read the text. Contemplate what it means and how it connects with your life. Then put it into practice, both with ordinary action and with the rituals that are included in the book. Review the segment and see what you’ve learned. Then go on to the next segment.

Over time, both within this book and in your wider life, you’ll find that learning to be a Pagan is not a linear experience. It’s a helical experience. Like a coiled spring, you move around the circle, picking up bits and pieces of this and that. After a while, you come back to the same point on the circle, but it’s not the same place—you’ve learned more and you’ve moved forward too. Each time you come back to the same point, you’ll bring new experiences and new perspectives to your practice. Winter Solstice is always the same point on the Wheel of the Year, but with each solstice you know a little more than you knew at the last solstice.

Knowledge is important—otherwise I wouldn’t have spent so much time writing this book! But Paganism isn’t just about what you know, it’s also about the sun on your face, the wind on your skin, the dirt on your fingers, and the rain on your shoulders. It’s about that special feeling you get when you stand under the full moon. It’s about lighting a candle, pouring an offering, and saying a prayer.

So read on. But remember that doing is just as important as reading.

[contents]

Part 1

Building a Foundation

1

Foundations

Before we begin our exploration of modern Paganism, let’s take a deeper look at the foundations of religion in general. Let’s look at some of the questions rarely addressed in Sunday schools, Beltane circles, or atheist meetings.

The Origins of Religion

How did religion begin? It depends on who you ask. An academic—operating from a non-theistic viewpoint—will talk about the need to inspire self-sacrifice for the good of the group. Whether you live in a hunter-gatherer society where you occasionally need to bring down large dangerous animals with spears or you live in a modern society where you occasionally need to defend your country against invading armies, the continued existence of a group often depends on the willingness of people to engage in activities that are dangerous but necessary. If they believe there’s an afterlife and that death is not the end of their existence, they are more likely to take those risks willingly and even enthusiastically.

A cynic—also operating from a non-theistic viewpoint—will talk about the desire of the powerful to control the masses. Kings and warlords look for justification for their dictatorial rule. Being a priest is an easier gig than being a soldier or a farmer—they look for excuses to maintain their status.

There is some truth to both of these propositions. People who are bound together through common bonds are more likely to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. And we need only look at the abuses of religion throughout history to realize that some religious leaders are in it for themselves and not for their gods or their people. But these propositions are incomplete. They ignore the religious experiences that people have had for at least as long as we’ve been human: experiences of wonder and awe in nature, the experience of birth and death, powerful and prophetic dreams, and the interactions with gods, ancestors, and spirits that are sometimes faint and subtle and sometimes overpowering.

It’s hard enough to figure out the exact origins of a modern religion such as Wicca, the religion of Witchcraft first presented (or perhaps invented) by Gerald Gardner in the mid-twentieth century. Christians have been arguing for two thousand years about the key facts and myths around the origins of Christianity. We have no hope of reconstructing the origins of the original human proto-religion, assuming there ever was such a thing. But we are not completely ignorant. There are burials with grave goods dating back hundreds of thousands of years. Our ancestors left cave paintings. The famous ones in Lascaux, France, are 17,000 years old, while others—such as the ones in Chauvet Cave—are more than 30,000 years old. There are ruins, the oldest of which (Göbekli Tepe in Turkey) are more than 10,000 years old. All of these artifacts took effort to create—they represent an expenditure of time and energy, sometimes small and sometimes huge. People would not have left them unless they had a good reason—unless creating them was a meaningful endeavor.

Our modern culture likes to think of ourselves as advanced and sophisticated, perceiving previous cultures as ignorant, primitive, and unevolved. But it’s important to remember that biologically, we are identical to the earliest Homo sapiens sapiens—humans as we’ve been for at least the past 100,000 years. We’re them and they’re us. When we stand outdoors at night and look up at the full moon, we are doing what people have done for thousands and thousands of years. When someone dies and we contemplate our own impending deaths, we are doing what people have done for thousands and thousands of years. When we feel moved to speak to the gods, to ask for their help, and to express our thanks for that help, we are doing what people have done for thousands and thousands of years.

The social scientists and the cynics aren’t wrong. But they overlook religious experience.

Organic Religion

Imagine that through some magical, mystical occurrence, all religion is suddenly gone. Churches, mosques, temples, and sacred groves disappear. Religious texts, commentaries, and literary references to them vanish. Religious music and artwork are gone. Devotional altars disappear and holy days are simply work days. Priests are transformed into accountants and monks suddenly become grocery clerks. It takes a pretty powerful imagination to visualize a world with no religion—and what I see is horribly bland—but it is possible.

Now in such a religion-free environment, imagine you walk outside on a clear dark night and look up at the full moon. What do you feel? Imagine you watch the sun rise every day for a year, marking the changing seasons and the ebb and flow of light and dark. Is that simply the mechanics of rotation and revolution, or is there something more? Imagine you experience the birth of a child or the death of a friend, and you contemplate your own birth and death. Imagine you dream of a long-dead ancestor. Imagine you realize the benefits you enjoy because of their lives and work. How might you respond to that realization? Imagine you live in a place and it becomes yours—not in a sense of possessing it but in a sense of relationship: your home, your mountain, your trees, your city. How might you honor and strengthen that relationship? Even if religion were to completely disappear, it would quickly return because people have religious experiences all the time. This is organic religion, a religion not of doctrine but of experience, not of rules but of relationships, not of the intellect but of the soul.

Beliefs would flow out of those experiences as people attempted to interpret them and understand them. Practices would arise as people attempted to facilitate further experiences and live in alignment with their interpretations of them. Before long, people would be writing and talking about their new organic religions. Some would begin practicing together. Beliefs and practices that were most helpful would spread, and those that were less helpful would fade. Practitioners who were especially dedicated and especially skilled would be consulted for advice and assistance. Before long, organic religion would yet again evolve into organized religion. And contrary to the knee-jerk reaction from some, including many Pagans, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

As with every other human endeavor, religion in the present draws on the wisdom of the past. There is no need for everyone to invest time and energy into reinventing the wheel of religion. We can draw on the wisdom and teachings of our predecessors, build on them, and leave a stronger, more vibrant tradition for those who come after us to do the same.

Organized religions begin to lose their effectiveness when they move from spreading best practices to enforcing orthodoxy. When the affirmation of past beliefs becomes more important than the facilitation of present experiences, a religion loses its organic power. In a religious free society, it will begin to lose members and influence, setting it on a death spiral that may be long but that is certain. The modern Pagan movement is one example of what happens when those who are tired of lifeless religion return to organic religion.

How Do We Know What We Know?

So much of what we think we know is no more than casual assumptions. When we’re very young, we accept what our parents tell us as fact. We know them, we trust them, and they’ve always been good to us, so why should we at age four or five or six assume something they tell us isn’t the absolute truth? We spend years and years in school listening to teachers who are older and better educated than we are. We read books and listen to people on television who look and sound like they know what they’re talking about.

At some point, though, we start to develop our own intuitive ideas about how the world works. Every large antlered mammal we encounter is firmly on the ground, so we start to be skeptical that reindeer can fly on Christmas Eve. We stop taking people at their word and start asking for proof, or at least evidence that what people tell us is true. We learn that some people will stretch the truth or tell outright lies if it helps them get what they want.

We turn to science and reason, and we learn that experimentation can help us know with greater certainty. We learn that water freezes at 32˚F and boils at 212˚F. We learn the strength properties of materials so we can design bridges that can safely support the weight we put on them.

But the longer we study science, the more we realize that some things aren’t so black and white. Some phenomena are so complicated it’s very difficult to fully understand them. What causes cancer? How can we cure the common cold? What is the long-term impact of raising atmospheric carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels? Complicated doesn’t mean impossible—it may be that some day we’ll discover the answers to these questions. But if we do, those answers won’t be simple. A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil may not cause a hurricane in Florida, but it may very well make that hurricane stronger or weaker.

When it comes to matters of religion, science shows itself to be a good tool but a poor final arbiter. How many gods are there? None? One? Two? Many? How can we know? Some insist there is no more evidence for the existence of gods than there is for the existence of flying reindeer. Some are certain there can only be one god, while other insist they have experienced many gods. Who’s right?

The only answer we can give with absolute certainty is, We don’t know. There is plenty of evidence for the existence of many gods, evidence we’ll explore in greater detail throughout this book. But anyone looking for proof—either to satisfy themselves or to use in arguments with those of other religions—is going to be sorely disappointed.

The Age of Enlightenment brought many good things to the West, but it also brought the decidedly unhelpful idea that the only things that are real are things which can be touched, measured, and proved to be true using the scientific method. In contrast, if something can’t be demonstrated to be real using the scientific method, it can’t be real.

When it comes to religion there are other ways of knowing. We know through stories. This is how most of us first met the gods of our ancestors. I still have a copy of The Greek Gods, a small book I ordered through an in-class book sales program in the third grade. It’s a collection of abbreviated biographies and stories of the twelve Olympians (well, eleven of them—they left out Ares), and while I read them as fictional stories, they obviously had an impact on me. While I ordered and read dozens of the Scholastic books, it’s the only one I’ve kept with me over the years. Every culture has these stories, though some are more accessible than others. They give us basic information about our goddesses and gods: their parents, circumstances of their birth, their areas of interest or responsibility, their likes and dislikes, their heroic (and in some cases, infamous) deeds. The stories give us an introduction, but they do not tell us everything there is to know about a god any more than a newspaper article tells us everything there is to know about an ordinary person.

Fundamentalists believe the value of ancient stories depends on their historicity. When it is demonstrated that certain stories could not have happened literally (Noah’s flood, a six-day creation), they are forced to deny established facts or see their whole religion come crashing down.

Pagans understand that even though ancient stories can’t always be read literally, they still give us valuable information about our gods and ancestors. More importantly, they are myths—stories that teach truths about who we are, where we come from, and why we’re here. They don’t just provide information to our left brains, they also provide wisdom to our right brains. Anyone who says that’s only a myth doesn’t understand the power of myth. Read the stories of our ancestors and take what information you can from them. Meditate on the stories and let them speak to your soul.

We know what we do through observation of the natural world. Our earliest human ancestors (and maybe some of the pre-human ones as well) recognized something special in the natural world. Something animated living animals that wasn’t present in the dead. Something made the sun rise and set, made the crops grow, and the seasons turn. Whatever that something or things or some gods was, it was bigger and older and wiser than us. These experiences of wonder and awe are still available to us today. Knowing the Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa does not make a sunrise any less beautiful and meaningful. Knowing the science of evolution does not make the existence