An Assessment of “Paganism in Depth” by John Beckett

John Beckett, in “Paganism in Depth: A Polytheist Approach,” covers topics ranging from mystical experiences to community building. He is a blogger at Patheos Pagan – “Under the Ancient Oaks. As a Roman Polytheist, I decided to read his book to see how I could deepen my practice.

According to Beckett, Paganism (Note 1) is a movement, not an institution. It is a “Big Tent with Four Poles (Centers or Pillars).” (Note 2) Beckett explains, “These are poles you’re closer to or farther away from. Some Pagans are so close to one Pole, they’re hugging them – they don’t care about the other three Centers. Others are close to two to three or even all Four Centers.” The Four Pillars are – Earth (Nature)-centric, Self-centric, Deity-centric and Community-centric.

The Earth-centric Pagan seeks divinity in Nature. Beckett writes “I’m a Pagan because I have a commitment to Nature.” (Note 3) A Deity-centric Pagan defines their Paganism by their relationship with the Gods. Beckett continues, “my polytheism is informed by experiences of the Gods.” The Self-centric Pagan seeks the Divine within the Self. Beckett says, “I am a Self-centered Pagan because I can’t do justice to Nature and the Gods without a commitment to excellence in spiritual life. Community-centric Pagans find “the Divine within the family and the tribe — however they choose to define those groups.”

Beckett states that he is “looking to build a contemporary religion, for this place and time…It requires being open to spiritual experience that the mainstream tries to rationalize away and then examining them to see what we can learn and what we can do to build robust religious and spiritual traditions from them.” His goal is to “build a collection of ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public Pagan Polytheism worthy of our Gods and ancestors.”

Beckett’s stated aims are an example of what Tara Isabella Burton has observed about Neo-Pagans. In her book, “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” Burton writes “modern religious movements focus on the religious search for meaning, purpose, and identity on the individual disembedded from and often in active opposition in institutional infrastructure.” She continues “the roots of these new religions are from New Thought which treats the self as the ultimate source of authority and divinity.” People of these new religions follow the Doctrine of Emotional Authenticity: What matters the most is the personal experience. According to Burton, “the world view of Paganism is the promise of personal and political empowerment through untraditional and literally unorthodox avenues.”

Beckett, himself, has followed this pattern. He blogs of “escaping fundamentalism” and details his journey in his first book. Raised a Fundamentalist Baptist, he rejected that religion to become a United Methodist. He wanted a “kinder, gentler church” than the hellfire and brimstone of his original faith. He left Methodism to embrace as he describes it, “a vague deistic universalism.” Encountering Wicca, he dabbled first with that and then later Paganism. After he experienced the Gods first hand as a Pagan, he became a Druid Priest.

Beckett’s journey was of crafting his own faith by rejecting institutional structures. Beckett writes for the post-modern individual who is spiritual but not religious. Many of these individuals are refugees from various forms of authorities. They, like Beckett, stress self-sovereignty in all of their religious workings. Beckett writes in his book, “We can be faithful to the callings of our gods and ancestors and trust that doing something will be good and helpful, even if it may not be everything we wish it was.”

As for me, I could not reconcile his theology with the Roman Religion. I already do much of what he writes but with a different view of humans and Gods. The Roman values which stress piety and right relations are what I follow.

Note 1: Beckett refers to Neo-Paganism as Paganism and what he does as Pagan Polytheism.

Note 2: In 2012, John Halstead at “Allergic Pagan” (Patheos Pagan) attempted to develop a theology for Neo-Pagans. John Beckett expanded on his ideas and further fleshed them. His book, “The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice” details more fully this theology. However, in 2020 Beckett doesn’t see much hope for the Big Tent to continue.

Note 3. Beckett identifies himself as a “Pagan, Druid, and Unitarian Universalist.”

The Curious Theologies of Neo-Paganism

After reading “Paganism in Depth: A Polytheist Approach” by John Beckett, I felt unsettled. His books and blog are well-received by Neo-Pagans. So why was I feeling empty after reading the book? I believe that was unsettling to me was that Beckett places the Neo-Pagan in the center of the Cosmos. I interpreted this to mean that they are separate from the ecosystem of the Cosmos, entering and exiting at will.

Beckett (Note) writes for these Neo-pagans on how to deepen what individual practice they may devise. He says, “All of us start with our foundations. Our experiences lead to belief as we try to interpret what happened to us. Our beliefs lead to practice as we try to implement our understanding and as well, we try to re-create our experiences. Practice leads to more experience. This becomes a virtuous circle that draws us into deeper understanding, deeper practice and stronger experiences.”

Tara Burton in her book, “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” assesses Neo-Paganism of today. According to Burton, people of these new religions follow the Doctrine of Emotional Authenticity: What matters the most is the personal experience. She asserts that, “the world view of Paganism is the promise of personal and political empowerment through untraditional and literally unorthodox avenues.” Beckett, in his statements, exemplifies that.

Neo-Paganism began as intensely political acts of resisting the mainstream culture. Neo-Pagan “Resistance” meant rejecting Christianity and its institutions. They decried how Christianity re-enforces the patriarchy. However, Neo-paganism is tied to Christianity, since they define themselves in regard to that religion.

Neo-Pagans continue to “resist” Christianity, while remaining steeped in the political culture of Neo-Liberalism. They rebel against the status quo while fighting to preserve it. Beckett and others stress self-sovereignty which has a political and class bias. The idea of a person as “Captain of their fate,” is an upper-class Neo-Liberal idea. Self-sovereignty can devolve into self-indulgence since the person is the hub of the wheel. The corporate mainstream culture is embedded in the religion of Neo-Paganism. For example, they buy products that support their causes, which the corporations’ market to them.

Burton observes that the aim of the Neo-Pagans is, “the new world that will inevitably arise from the ashes of a patriarchal, racist, homophobic, repressive Christian society will be infinitely better, fairer, and more loving than what has come before. The Remixed faith in individual human potential, and in the potential of human beings to rewrite their relationships to one another and to their communities is here extended to the world at large.”

Through their magic and beliefs, Neo-Pagans believe that they can create the new world. However, modern secular society holds those values already. Human potential is the focus of the mainstream society, with an emphasis on self-help.

Burton notes, “But if these ideologies are to survive, they will need to take on a more formal shape. They need to become not merely religious sentiments or implicit theologies, but ironically institutions withstanding the weight of internal dissent and providing a unified from against more established spiritual rivals… provide a sufficiently strong narrative that offer a robust sense of not only meaning and purpose but also ritual and community.”

Note. Beckett identifies himself as a “Pagan, Druid, and Unitarian Universalist.”

Polytheism: After Reconstructionism

For Western Polytheists, a lot of their time is spent trying to reconstruct the Polytheism of the ancients. They are trying to revive, reconstruct, and modernize these religions, that were taken from their ancestors. Usually, this endeavor requires a lot of research and reading. The result is that the person’s Polytheism becomes bound up in a dry intellectual tradition. The lore becomes more important than personal gnosis.

At “Axe and Plough,” Marc discusses “Post-Recon? What Happens Next.” For what comes “next,” he introduces the concepts of “renewal, restitutions, and restoration.” His aim is to have a “living breathing religion.” My interpretation of Marc’s terms is as follows. “Renewal” means to embrace the living traditions of the ancients such as piety. “Restitution” is resolving the neglect that humans have done in the cosmic ecological (Note 1) system that they are a part of. “Restoration” is the act of recreating the ancient religion for modern times. Using these concepts, a person can develop a methodology to revive their “living” Polytheisms.

His post can be found here:

“The Soul of a Pilgrim” by Christine Valters Paintner offers suggestions on how to do this. Paintner, a Lay Benedictine and Abbess of the Abby of the Arts, writes for a Christian audience but her advice can be applied to Polytheists. In her writing, she presents eight stages of pilgrimage from “hearing the call” to “coming home.” (Note 2)

We Polytheists have responded to the call of the Gods. Our inner fires are lit as we try to relearn and recreate the Polytheism of our Ancestors. However, we do not have a map except for scraps of lore. “Reconstruction” focuses on creating a coherent map out of the scraps. To do this, Paintner advises relinquishing control, as you cross the threshold starting your journey. Then trust that the flow of greater currents will carry you home. For me, it is the direction of the Gods. When I feel lost, I consult the Ancestors and follow their direction.

While on the pilgrimage, Paintner stresses daily practice. For Polytheists recreating their religion, devotions act as touchstones that will sustain them. What offers structure to deepen our faith are the rituals and practices of our traditions.

In her writing, Paintner warns against trying to domesticate the Sacred into prayers that follow our own rules. That is, in my opinion, the problem with modern Paganism. By placing the Gods into “teacups,” people expect Them to be genteel and delicate. In so doing, the Gods become housebroken and companionable to Pagans. This is how humans separate themselves from the ecological system of the cosmos.

In her book, “Earth: Our Original Monastery,” Christine Valters Paintner explains that ecosystem. There are three circles, in her opinion. The egoic circle refers to a person’s private feelings. The next, the ecological circle is the bridge from the inner to the outer worlds. The third circle, the cosmological is where everything and everyone embrace in a sense of transcendence. Now, everything is intertwined and interwoven with everyone.

By re-entering the ecosystem, we become ready to be broken open and moved beyond our safe places. The Holy cannot be tamed. By remaining separate from the Cosmos, we can pretend that our Gods are domesticated. Then we can never encounter the Unknown Gods in their awful mysteries. Rejoining plunges us into the Great Unknowing.

Sannion (House of Vines) has discussed how he intends to construct the Starry Bear Tradition. Through personal gnosis and research, he is tracing how certain Gods such as Odin move through multiple worlds, times, and realities. Searching folk traditions and myths, he is focused on which piece fits into making the puzzle, “whose finished picture has been lost.” By beginning again, Sannion embraces the unknown on his way home to the Starry Bear Gods.

As for me, I am in the throes of an oddly-eclectic devotion. My main focus is Roman and Mesopotamian Gods. However, I have altars to Anubis, Hekate, The Morrigan, and the Gods of Canaan. I also have altars to the Ancestors, the Prehistoric Dead and the Norse Gods. I have no idea where this is going but I am on my way.

Note 1. This ecosystem consists of Gods, Spirits, the Dead, Ancestors, humans and the Others (elves, dwarfs, etc.).

Note 2. The Eight Stages are:
Hearing the Call and Responding
Packing Lightly
Crossing the Threshold
Make the Way by Walking
Being Uncomfortable
Beginning Again
Embracing the Unknown
Coming Home

The Triple Goddess of Modern Paganism

crescent moon

Photo by Flickr on

The belief that the various Goddesses (such as Venus, Aphrodite, Inanna, Astarte, and Ishtar) are parts of the Great Goddess (a single Goddess) is prevalent in modern Paganism. The Great Goddess is often understood as the Triple Goddess, who is the Maiden, Mother and Crone. Examples of the Triple Goddess for modern Pagans are Diana, Isis and Kali or Kore, Persephone and Hecate. (Note 1)

The Triple Goddess could be regarded as a Trinity of the Divine Feminine. The Maiden, the waxing crescent moon, is the young woman of new beginnings. The Mother, the full moon, is the mature woman of fertility. The Crone, the waning crescent moon, is the elderly woman of wisdom. Modern Goddess religions often add a fourth – the Dark Mother, the new moon, who is the Shadow of the Mother.

The concept of the Triple Goddess was introduced to modern feminists through Robert Graves’ work, “The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth” (1946). Graves, a poet and Greek scholar, theorized that there was an archetypical triad of Goddesses in European polytheism. In the 1970s and 1980s, Starhawk in “The Spiral Dance” and Margot Adler in “Drawing Down the Moon” fleshed out his ideas to be “the Maiden, Mother and Crone.”

The concept of the Triple Goddess did not originate with Graves. It came earlier with Jane Ellen Harrison of the Cambridge Ritualists (Note 2). This classical scholar argued that the Greek religion had triple Goddesses who combined he phases of the moon with the cycles of a woman’s life. Harrison based her ideas on the theories of Sir Arthur Evans, the noted British archaeologist. While excavating Crete, Sir Evans decided that the Minoans (ancient peoples of that island) worshipped a Double Goddess (Virgin and Mother). (This is reminiscent of the Christian Virgin Mary.)

The Triple Goddess is not a part of traditional Polytheistic religions. There are groupings of Goddesses such as the Norse Norns (the Fates). There are Goddesses such as the Morrigan (with Babd and Macha) who are tripartite. However, none of them are tied with all of the cycles of the moon with the cycles of a woman’s life. Many Goddesses do have aspects of the Maiden, the Mother, or the Crone, but not all three.

Note 1. Diana is Roman, Isis: Egyptian, Kali: Hindi, Kore and Persephone: Greek, and Hecate: Greek and Roman.

Note 2. The Cambridge Ritualists, of the late 19th Century and 20th Century, theorized that myths are echoes of rituals, which are a form of magic to alter nature.

The Celts and Timekeeping

ndlivestockLike many ancient peoples, Celts kept time for only one reason: their survival. Among ancient peoples, survival was credited to various Gods. Therefore, a part of people’s religious duties was to keep time for the ceremonies for the different Gods. For example, in Hawai’i, when the Pleiades rise at sunset (October-November), the rainy season began. At this time, people made offerings to Lono, God of Agriculture for bountiful crops.

The Celts were pastoral people who kept great herds of cattle. Raising cows meant knowing when it was safe to take them to pasture, and when to bring them inside for the winter. Also, people, who rely on cattle, need to know when the calving season happens and when to cull the herds for winter. Modern ranchers employ a cycle of calving in the spring, and culling in the fall. In the American West, where spring snows and fall blizzards often happen, having cattle die in unprotected pastures is a major concern.

According to Roman sources, the Celts divided their year into a light and dark half. The light half began after the calving season was over, and when it was safe to drive the cattle to upper pastures. The dark half started when the cattle had to be taken inside (mid-fall).

The current Neo-Pagan calendar of cross quarters (between the solstices and equinoxes) seems to fit the Celtic lifestyle – it follows calving, pasturing, culling, and over-wintering seasons for Britain. This modern calendar, which is devised from Irish myths, has important holidays at midwinter (Imbolc), mid-spring (Beltane), midsummer (Lughnassadh), and mid-fall (Samhain). The light half begins at mid-spring and ends at mid-fall. However, this cross quarter calendar is based on the sun, since solstices and equinoxes need to be tracked.

The most reliable and most common time-keeping method among ancient peoples was to use combination of a sun, moon, stars, weather, and natural phenomena. Since the Celts regarded themselves a part of nature, they would notice many things such as the annual salmon migration.

The Coligny Calendar, considered to be devised by the Celts, is a solar-lunar calendar. The sun and stars would accurately tell when the seasons will happen. Meanwhile, the moons and various events that occurred during the months gave a broader sense of the seasons.