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.”

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

Magic, Hexes, and “Witch Wars”

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“The Witch Wars Defense Manual” by Ed Hubbard defines the elements of such a war: target, antagonist, a reason to divide people, and an audience. The target is someone who must be silenced. The antagonist starts the argument to entice people take sides. The group who pays attention to the “war” is the intended audience. They provide the fuel to keep the war going.

Like many groups, Pagans have their share of unsavory characters, who want to stir up trouble. Hubbard elaborates on this. He has the “Director” who manipulates the activities for their own ends, by staying in the shadows. The “Herald” is free with their damaging gossip. Adding more gossip, the “Amplifier” escalates intensity of the dispute. The “Recruiter” entices people to join their side with their group’s noble cause. The “Witch Judge” decides who is correct and who is not.

The added dimension to these wars is magic. Many participants fling curses at each other. They often see hexing as being righteous and good, without understanding either the ethics or the consequences. In many cases, unintentional psychic harm has been done. The result is often a smoking crater of destruction for all.

Many people who use magic may not be aware of what magic is about. Magic can corrupt those who use it extensively. It is a wild power that does not guarantee certainty. Magic is like energy in that it cannot be destroyed or created. What magic is done will be balanced out. Good luck will be replaced by bad luck.

Magic has laws much like physics. The “Law of Repercussion” says that what you do will be done to you. The “Law of Correspondence” says that “What happens in the macrocosm happens in the microcosm.” The “Law of Equivalent Exchange” means that everything has a price. Using it means be prepared to pay the cost of casting a spell.

The “Law of Reversal” means that whatever magic can do, can be undone. Other people can rebut casted spells. One result was dueling stores who did drive by spellings went out of business. People who targeted perceived fascists ended up being destroyed themselves by their own magic.

Works Used:
Bonewits, P.E.I., “Real Magic.” Weiser Books. Newburyport (MA). 1989
Zell-Ravenhart, Oberon, “Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard.” New Page: Franklin Lakes (NJ). 2004.

Passion, Disagreements and Pagans

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As with any group of people, Pagans and Polytheists have their disagreements. People have deeply held beliefs, which others challenge. Although most discussions do remain thoughtful, there are times when it takes on an edge. And that can erupt into a “flame war.”

Much has been written about “witch wars” – what causes them and how to end them. About twenty years ago, Fritz Jung wrote on WitchVox that three things that drive them: Power (to need), Money (to want) and Sex (to have). Separately or in combination, these three things provide the fuel for endless drama.

Power comes with the desire to be well-known and thought of as an expert. Jung further breaks the mechanics of power into three groups. The “Leader” builds up their power base, with the “Inner Circle” who gain from the actions of the Leader. Meanwhile, the “Followers” are proud of their affiliation with the leader’s group. If the leader has many followers, then the leader can dictate to a wide range of people. Starting a “witch war,” they intend to diminish others while increasing their self-importance.

Money drives ambition. Once a person becomes well-known, they can pursue a business catering to other Pagans, such as selling books. Therefore, one way to increase their prosperity is by creating a “crisis,” that only they can solve. These people have an erroneous assumption that they are to be supported by the Pagan community. Since they perceive a limited pool of customers, these people start “witch wars” to destroy other businesses.

Sex, while a problem in actual groups, differs on the Internet. People name predators for people to be wary of. The fans of the accused will throw mud on the accuser, and vise-versa. It is hard to see the facts clearly in these discussions. Even after court cases against the accused have been decided, people still take sides. Even after a well-known Pagan figure is dead, the wars can still rage fiercely.

From my observations, I would add personal wounds, which manifests as emotional rage. A great percentage of Pagans unfortunately lack emotional intelligence. Many have become Pagans to remove themselves from the harm inflicted on them by other religions. They still carry inside buried wounds that can become easily inflamed. Not realizing what is happening, some will become triggered after reading a blog. Then they will go to war against the offender, with their goal being total annihilation.

The other is a broken heart, which is toxic unless it is cleansed. The follower has discovered something unsettling about a leader. Or they wanted something the leader could not or would not give. (This differs from actual harm.) People with broken hearts seek their revenge on the leader. They will nurture their hate for years, continuing to inform the public of the leader’s failings.

Understanding these causes will help to stop more harm from being inflicted. Discerning when someone is trying to manipulate others will help people not become embroiled in the conflict. Detaching from the “witch war” is the best thing to ending it.

Victoria: Roman Goddess of Victory

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One of the first Roman Gods to embody an abstract concept, Victoria became a major aspect of Roman life. This winged Goddess would descend from the heavens to award the laurel wreath to the victor. Victoria not only decided who triumphed in a war, but also allowed victory over death. Augustus erected an altar to Her in the Roman Senate, commemorating his victory over Antony and Cleopatra. His Altar of Victoria came to symbolize the Roman Empire.

In 357 C.E., Constantius II removed the Altar of Victory, and Julian promptly restored it. Then in 382 C.E., Gratian removed the Altar, and closed down Pagan temples. When the emperor did that, the Romans rioted throughout the city. (Note) This lead to a civil war that tore apart the empire. Eugenius restored it in 392 CE. However, Theodosius removed it completely in 394 C.E., and outlawed Roman Paganism.

The Romans believed that the Altar of Victory represented both the past glories of Rome and its hopes for the future. With the Altar gone, the heart was torn out of Rome. After Theodosius’ death, the empire was split into two halves. The western half was invaded and fell to the Vandals and others.

Meanwhile, Roman Paganism went underground and became a part of folk customs. Victoria was incorporated on Christian Triumphal arches as Victory. The Goddess came to represent the strength of Paganism.

Note: This became known as the “Last Battle of Paganism.”

Salve Victoria!
Goddess of Victory
You do more than decide wars
You watch the daily battles
You decide victory over death.

You remain steadfast,
As we look to You for victory
You are the strength of Paganism
Salve Victoria!