ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
Beardsley illustrationFor some time I've been watching, with wry amusement, the antics of a certain subset of Neopagan witches who have apparently decided to embrace the Christian notion of what witches are, i.e., evil. These are the folks who have been posting long earnest essays online insisting that witches have to curse people and do other forms of nasty magic, since after all that's their heritage, and it's justified at least sometimes, and real power means the power to harm, etc. etc. Me, I'm an old-fashioned occultist and not any kind of witch, so what witches do is really no business of mine -- not my circus, not my monkeys -- but as my academic background is in the history of ideas, I'm intrigued to watch this particular remake of a familiar pattern. 

A few days ago one of the Neopagan witches just mentioned, one who's sufficiently on board with the idea of witches being evil that she's embraced the term "banefolk" for herself and those who agree with her, posted a lengthy diatribe on her blog that denounced Neopagan witches for being, well, evil. Specifically, she accused them of making up traditions and then lying about their origins, of making money off witchcraft, and of various kinds of sexual improprieties -- all of which, in her eyes, are apparently sins far more serious than (say) using magic to hurt people. 

There are plenty of things that could be said about the diatribe in question. It's amusing, for example, that she starts out by denouncing the habit of equating "pagan" with "Wiccan" and then goes and does exactly that, treating habits and teachings specific to modern American eclectic witchcraft (such as the "Thirteen Principles of Neopagan Belief") as though they're common not only to all Neopagan traditions, but to unrelated phenomena such as the Druid Revival and chaos magic (!). Still, the thing that struck me most was a powerful sense of déjà vu. 

La-Bas cover artI don't know how many of my readers are familiar with the French author J.-K. Huysmans, a very popular literary figure at the turn of the last century, or with his most notorious novel, Là-Bas. (Down There is the usual English translation, though it's very rough; the French idiom "là-bas" is pretty much untranslatable.) It's a novel about Satanism -- specifically, the fashionable Satanism that became wildly popular in French occult and countercultural circles at the end of the 19th century. The viewpoint character, Durtal, disgusted by the banality and crassness of modern life, lets himself be drawn by the mysterious Mme. Chantelouve into Paris' devil-worshiping underground, attends a black mass, and then tears himself away from Satanism to return to the Catholic faith of his childhood.

Là-Bas
once had a lurid reputation, though it's frankly pretty tame by modern standards; the thing that often gets mislaid by modern readers is that it's a profoundly Christian book, and it accepts as a basic truth the orthodox Christian attitude toward occultism -- essentially, that if it's serious it's devil worship, and if it's not devil worship it's just play-acting and dress-up games. The Paris occult scene at the time Huysmans was writing was large, active, and those people who weren't playing at Satanism were by and large involved in serious work; the Martinist tradition and the modern alchemical revival are just two of the things that were getting under way then and there; but you won't learn that from Huysmans. 

What's more, Huysmans spoke for a significant movement in the counterculture of his time. There really was a big Satanist scene in late 19th century Paris; last I checked, most biographers of Huysmans agree that he probably based the black mass in his novel on one he actually attended. That movement had a predictable outcome, too, one that W.B. Yeats wrote about in his visionary essay Per Amica Silentia Lunae. In his early visits to France, he recalled, "one met everywhere young men of letters who talked of magic." Fast forward a few decades, and that had changed: "It was no longer the soul, self-moving and self-teaching -- the magical soul -- but Mother France and Mother Church." 

Beardsley illustrationSatanism was the intermediate step between those two conditions, and it's easy to see why. If you embrace the idea that Christian orthodoxy is right about the nature of occultism, it's a very short step to embracing the idea that Christian orthodoxy is right, period. Once people got tired of the fringe benefits of being evil -- in turn of the century France, those mostly involved plenty of cheap sex and the opportunity to shock people, more or less the same as today -- they could then go through a fine melodramatic repentance, renounce their sinful ways, and be welcomed into a community of people who were eager to give them lots of attention and encouragement. This they accordingly did. 

It's far from the only time that's happened. Some of my readers are old enough to remember the twilight of the hippie scene at the end of the 1960s. Peace and love and brotherhood got chucked overboard by a significant faction of hippies, who took up in its place the kind of evil-hippie image made permanently famous by the late and unlamented Charles Manson. This was followed, after an interval of a few years, by the transformation of a great many hippies into "the Jesus People," and after another brief interval most of the latter ditched their countercultural values and settled down to get jobs and raise families as ordinary Christian Americans. 

I'm pretty sure that's what's going on in this case, too. Countercultures die when their members give up their own independent value judgments about the counterculture, and accept the (usually hostile or dismissive) judgments of the mainstream culture from which they previously distanced themselves. Now that a significant fraction of the Neopagan scene seems to be embracing the notion that witches are evil, and a few early adopters (like the author of the essay cited above) are generalizing from that to denounce the whole movement for its sins, I don't think we'll have long to wait before the current trickle of defections from Neopaganism turns into a flood. Conservative Christian denominations, on the off chance that this post of mine comes to their attention, might want to brace themselves for the arrival of a great many loudly repentant sinners in the years immediately ahead. 
ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
No one expects the Spanish inquisitionI fielded a distinctly unexpected email the other day from a Wiccan I've met several times in a professional context. The topic was a book of mine; more to the point, the topic was this person's insistence that the book in question was wrong, wrong, wrong -- oh, and did I mention wrong? -- because the practices and teachings it included aren't the same as the ones that you'll find in use in your common or garden variety American eclectic Wiccan coven. 

What made this startling to me is that I never claimed anywhere that the book conformed to American eclectic Wicca. I wouldn't have imagined that anyone would expect me to do so -- after all, ahem, I'm a Druid, which is not the same thing, and a Druid in the traditions of the 18th and 19th century Druid Revival, which is emphatically not the same thing. It's not just that we keep our robes on during ritual, though of course that's true; it's also that the teachings, symbolism, practices, and philosophy taught in Druid Revival traditions differ sharply, and not just in superficial ways, from those you'll find in American eclectic Neopaganism. Thus insisting that a book by a Druid is wrong because it doesn't conform to American eclectic Wicca is roughly on a par with insisting that a book by a Buddhist is wrong because it doesn't talk about Jesus and quote the Bible. 

Two possible explanations for this odd tirade occur to me. The first is that the person in question was simply melting down about my political writings online, which of course don't support the sort of mainstream liberalism that's standard in many Neopagan circles these days, and (worse still) don't conform to the mainstream liberal stereotype of the only alternative to mainstream liberalism. (I've found that many American liberals these days react far more heatedly to, say, a moderate political stance than they do to actual fascism; I think it's because, given the increasingly shrill moral dualism that pervades American political discourse these days, the existence of any viewpoint other than the extremes causes a pretty fair case of cognitive dissonance in those who've bought into the claim that the only alternative to their own viewpoint is some suitably mustached variety of evil incarnate.)

The second is rather more troubling, at least to my mind. There's always been a certain tendency among many members of the eclectic Wiccan mainstream in the US to treat what they do as real Paganism and relegate everyone else in the Neopagan scene -- Druids, Heathens, polytheists of various kinds, and so on -- to a kind of second-class status. That's typical, and though it can be annoying, most of those of us who've been assigned that status have learned to live with it when dealing with the Neopagan community. Over the last few years, though, I've noticed a hardening of boundaries on the part of the mainstream, and the first signs of an effort to impose doctrinal and ritual uniformity on the entire scene. So far, this has usually been presented in velvet-soft forms -- "I just want to see every Pagan joining together in one big tent, all singing 'We all come from the Goddess'" and that sort of thing -- but you don't have to be a weather mage to tell which way the wind is blowing. 

So I'm wondering whether other people outside the American eclectic Wiccan mainstream have begun to field anything like the kind of diatribe I got. As Monty Python reminded us, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition...but I'm beginning to wonder whether it's time for those of us who aren't part of the mainstream to keep a weather eye out for Neopagan fundamentalism. 

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ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)John Michael Greer

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