I’m Gonna Go There: A Rant.

Paganism is a very broad category. It includes a tremendous range of traditions, practices and paths. Which is as should be: people are diverse. They should do what gives them joy and meaning.

So it can be about many things. It can be about rituals and “magic”. It can be about the Earth. It can be about gods. It can be about principles for living. It can be about activism.

But you know, one thing we can say with confidence is that at its heart, Paganism is not about owning witchy clothes, or fancy tools, or other trappings. It’s not about Harry Potter or goth aesthetics or LOTR or Renaissance Faires, however much we may enjoy them.

And it’s not about collecting The Right Books.

Or writing books.

Or people claiming status or authority because they wrote a book.*

It is–or should be–about empowering us, strengthening our sense of personal agency, our senses of wonder and meaning in living, of joy in one another. About respecting our minds and encouraging that we use them. Building community. Fostering creativity in the ritual arts so people find what works best for them. Encouraging ecological responsibility, and making concrete efforts to make the world a better place.

But no, sorry. That isn’t what I see our community primarily focused on, folks.

I see it focusing most of its attention and energy on commerce.

We have a terrible problem in our community of people looking to “authorities” for what to believe, how to think, how to be, how to practice. With self-defined “leaders” who claim to know and teach “mysteries and wonders”—for a price—and with the sheer gullibility such figures encourage their followers to maintain. And the endless flogging of goods for sale.

Don’t think for yourselves, these “teachers” seem to be saying. Listen to me instead, and keep listening. You need what I’ve got. Take my workshops. Buy my books. Buy my products. Here, buy my magic rocks/potions/oils/tinctures/sigils/sex toys!

Buy buy buy buy buy.

Buy my bullshit.

Nowhere in all that miracle-claiming and hocus pocus sales pitching is an adjuration that your mileage may vary, to think for yourself, or to apply critical thinking to discern likely truth from likely nonsense. Nowhere is a suggestion that you don’t need anything from some Big Name Pagan to be an effective ritualist, a wise, strong, effective, happy and conscientious person.

Religion as grift is an epidemic in the United States, with its prosperity gospel megachurches and televangelists. But Paganism suffers even worse from it, proportionately, than does Christianity.

Sadly, I say:

Show me a Pagan who makes their living solely off their religion,
and I’ll show you a modern-day medicine show barker.

There are exceptions, but they are rare, and they tend to be humble, and focused on bettering the world rather than on themselves and their “magickal arts”.

Most of the Pagans I know are bright, interesting and creative. And yet they line up to fawn over these hucksters at conventions. They buy their books and products; they shovel money at them. And no one urges them to do otherwise.

So long as 1) the acquisition of Pagan “stuff” is seen as a significant signifier of “being a Pagan”; 2) “celebrity Pagan” worship continues to dominate Pagan spaces; and 3) self-interest is a primary driver of said Pagan “celebrities”, Paganism writ large will be just another capitalist market, and…yes, I will say it, a complete sham when it comes to reverence for the Sacred Earth.

We could be so much better than this!

What if Paganism as a whole turned its back on consumer culture?

What if we stipulated that the only things that could be sold at our conventions would be things made by hand by the vendor? No reproductions from Chinese factories, no products of Nature like mineral specimens. Hand-crafted art and products, period, full stop.

I’ve dutifully trudged the hall at Pantheacon  every year I’ve attended, and I’m proud to say I haven’t seen one single thing I felt an urge to buy in more than a decade. It all just strikes me as wasteful, Earth-destructive and well beside the point of a meaningful practice and path.

I understand that much of what is sold there is handcrafted, but honestly, a lot of it is mass-produced in China and India, too.

I’m not against art, and I want to support our community’s artisans, but I am against hucksterism and mass-produced commercialism. I think we need to go in a different direction.

I made nearly all my ritual tools, and I sourced most of the rest from outside the Pagan marketplace. I’m done: I don’t need another, ever again. Nor do I need a bloody book to tell me how to use each one.

I have a couple of Tarot decks; I don’t need more, what I need is to explore the ones I have more deeply.

I don’t believe in “magic rocks” and I won’t be a part of the destructive industry that pries them from the Earth to market to the credulous.

I don’t need witchy clothing and I don’t need need fifteen symbols clanking around my neck. I sewed my own cloak and that will do.

I have a couple of drums, and that’s enough. Can only play one at a time, after all.

The world is full of sticks; why on Earth would I want a Harry-Potter-style wand?

I don’t need any of the junk being ground from the fabric of the Earth (and often, the poorly paid labor of the less fortunate) to sell to Pagans. I get my candles at a grocery store and that’s the only ritual consumable I buy.

Now, there is a little merchandise offered on this site. Mostly self-identifier items, so people can proclaim their status as Atheopagans to the world when the occasion demands (or not): T-shirts, clerical collar pins and stoles, etc. Small stuff, and none of it expensive. But all of it except the third-party (wooden and metal) Atheopagan symbols generates revenue for our chosen charity, Indigenous Climate Action. Not for me.

You don’t need stuff to live this path fully. As an experienced ritualist of my acquaintance once said, “If you can’t do it with a stick you picked up on the way to the circle, you can’t do it at all.”

Yes, restricting vendors would mean that event organizers would make less money. And it would mean that Pagan artists couldn’t branch out into mass production for purposes of convention sales.

I’m sorry, but I’m okay with that.

Along similar lines, sure, folks: crib ideas from others if they appeal to you. Lots of people have good ideas. And effective ritual is rooted in scientific facts about the way the brain works; we can learn these from others who know about them and be more effective in influencing ourselves and our co-ritualists.

But the only authority on making your ritual “magic” is you. Only you know what is meaningful and evocative for you. So when someone starts going on about how they can teach you “mysteries” or how to “work with energy” or how you need some particular product or book in order to conduct a ritual, it’s time to secure yourself a ten-foot pole.

That’s just marketing, and it’s as credible as a Facebook ad.

If we collectively pulled the financial plug on Pagan hucksterism, not only would our ecological footprint as a community go down considerably, but perhaps more importantly, it would become immediately obvious which of our “leaders” are in it for themselves, and which for the betterment of the community and the world. The latter we can support through vehicles like Patreon.

Shouldn’t we be able to live the meaningful, powerful religious paths we choose without needing them to incorporate shopping sprees for resource-consuming, inconsequential toys and baubles?

Shouldn’t we be able to think for ourselves and dismiss the barrage of hucksterism for the hollow and meaningless capitalistic chatter it is?

In short, shouldn’t we in the Pagan community, the so-called “wise”, be frickin’ responsible grown ups?

My vision of Paganism is as a radically empowering, thoughtful, idiosyncratic, and culturally transgressive path of liberty, community, equality, and service: both to one another and to the Earth. Maybe not everyone shares that, and that’s fine, but I don’t really think that being a community of little capitalist bees busily spinning money for ourselves wherever possible is consistent with Earth reverence or with the values we so often say we represent.

/rant

OK.

Cue the howls of outrage in 3…2…1…


*Yes, let me acknowledge: I wrote a book, and I offer a class. I hope to support all those pursuing nontheist Pagan paths in the development of the practices they choose, which is why the class costs so little and most of the material in the book is also available here for free. Neither comprises a significant element of my personal financial support. And I claim to be an authority only insofar as my own path. It is my offering and invitation to others to partake of what I create, if it works for them. I do not EVER claim to “know the right way to do things”. 

18 thoughts on “I’m Gonna Go There: A Rant.

  1. Claps! Say it again louder for those in the back row, “Show me a Pagan who makes their living solely off their religion, and I’ll show you a modern-day medicine show barker.”

    I had this awesome idea for a cosplay but I see you beat me to it! Awesome. Hawk a rainbow collection of waters, moon charged, blessed and holy waters, oils for all sorts of reasons, candles galore and even a TENS unit to push the power of gods, ecology, love into people like in the old fashioned revivals. It’ll be an awesome show! Don’t forget the organic vegan treats and fair trade coffee.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Okay, everything you say is true.
    And, I wonder if you are overreacting.

    The adoration of symbol over practice is not unique to modern Pagan communities. It drove both Moses and Jesus to violence. Luther railed against it. In my life, one of the most influential books was Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through the Spiritual Materialism, about new-agers and wannabe Buddhists. The accretion of spiritual bling in households of Catholics, Hindus, and (some) rich Buddhists is scandalous. People aspiring to be respected for their devotion to the Divine, in whatever form, are usually collectors, which means they have to shop. It’s a weakness, but a human weakness, not a Pagan weakness.

    Similarly, the fact that there are merchants available for all the marketing niches provided by this craving for bling, is a feature, not a bug, of having a Pagan community. There are still places, I’m sure, where wanting something as simple as a ritual cauldron or a tarot deck would require either a long journey, or trusting a stranger on the web (and their ISP, which could log you as a witch in case anyone cared to find out). So I would respect merchants even if I don’t respect their stuff. And hawkers gotta hawk; if they didn’t find work serving their chosen community, they’d be selling athletic shoes or pharmaceuticals.

    As for people claiming “authority”—I haven’t encountered that personally, so what can I say? If I did see it, I’m sure it would turn me off, so I would ignore it. Generally, the Pagans I have known would act the same way, so the “authority” problem was self-limiting. So I wonder: are you disturbed by an observable trend, or just a chronic imperfection?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d say it’s an observable trend. Pagan gatherings used to be characterized by a kind of stuck-in 1968, low-tech tiedye thing, which was its own kind of annoying but wasn’t crass materialism. Now they are opportunities for people to preen for one another with their tools and velvet gowns and endless collections of crap.

      There are TONS of people out there offering classes, correspondence courses, workshops and other “instruction” with exaggerated claims of what the instructor knows and can do. It’s rather like thumbing through Common Dreams magazine, but the Pagan version.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As Jonathan Woolley wrote a few years ago Paganism is structured as a fandom not a religion. So its not surprising one finds people perceived as celebrities acquiring fans as a core element of it. This does facilitate the creation of music, books, courses, and other learning materials and the work of decent people (as well as an endless parade of pap publications and shysters).

    You could also describe Paganism as a subculture, and like other subcultures it has markers of membership relevant to its own internal cultural preferences and of course has its own aesthetic which people tend to indulge by collecting or displaying objects. This in turn facilitates the work of artists (as well as factories churning out resin and plastic tat).

    Both these things are rather inevitable in a decentralised movement which exists against a capitalist background dominated by social media. I don’t think they will change, but everyone needs to work together to expose the shysters and critique the environmental impact of mass produced tat.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You ain’t wrong. My Paganism is about the land, sea and sky, not costumes and jewellery. Want a magic rock? Go pick up a pebble from the beach. Want a wise teacher? Sit under an oak tree.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is what I think of as a diffraction grating problem. What you see is a function of the angle from which you view the problem. From the direction you outline here, yes, I would agree that many individual pagans, some events and much of pop culture interpretations of paganism are too much about money and consumption. With that said, defining over-consumption is a very subjective thing.

    For the most part, I haven’t found vending at festivals too obtrusive. There has been some mass produced junk on offer, but also a good amount of handmade items. Shopping is something to do during a multiple day festival, its often a good focal point for networking, and it provides a much needed source of income to festivals which otherwise would have to come from increased attendance fees or reduced programs or both. There are vendors who are just making a buck off of a lifestyle aesthetic or the growing popularity of “witchy” things, but many of the ones at festivals are ordinary pagans who run their booths as a way to afford traveling the festival circuit.

    The “stuff” of paganism – the clothing, the ritual implements and the like, can be distractions from real practice, badges of social status or a means of “posing”. Sometimes I get irritated by people making bank off of the movement we created or using the trappings in shallow ways. But then I realize that its not for me or anyone else to police, and that at the end of the day, nobody is really getting over on anyone. Plenty of people like our gear and symbolism without any pretense at serious belief or practice. The shallow people or “fluffy bunnies” or whatever you term them, will only get out of it what they put into it, and nothing more.

    Trappings are not necessary to any spiritual practice, but properly employed, they can be powerful tools and adjuncts. I’ve done plenty of good rituals in street clothes, or none at all, but my trusty black robe also had its place. In my old coven, those robes and some good chanting music would put us in a proper head space for ritual, quickly, after a day full of ordinary work and life stress which otherwise might have taken hours to purge. Trappings, ritual garb, smells and bells, a bit of theater, are effective ways to change consciousness. Catholics and many pagans of old understood that in ways austere protestants never did.

    Viewed from other angles, I would argue that paganism today is not enough about money. What I mean by that is we have taken a healthy skepticism of money in spirituality to such extremes that we have a dysfunctional relationship with financial matters. Even if you have a religious/spiritual system with minimal infrastructure and hierarchy, things cost money, and nobody in modern pagan circles thinks they should have to pay for the goods and services they demand. Festival organizers think they’re entitled to have top tier authors and other presenters travel across the country at their own expense for the “privilege” of selling a few books or CDs. People expect intensive and time consuming teaching and mentoring for nothing because money would “contaminate” the craft or whatever.

    They think they should have community centers and temples and chaplains paid for by “the community” which means anyone but themselves. Many, as you will come to learn as an author, feel entitled to “free” information, which means they will pirate your work. There’s a subset of pagan who seem to think that any sort of gainful employment is spiritually inauthentic and regularly mooch off of others for festivals, housing, food etc. For all of the supposed shameless self promoting and cache of “big name pagans”, I’ve seen a lot of them die without a pot to piss in or even the money for modest funeral expenses.

    As long as they’re not misrepresenting their credentials or presenting themselves and the only path to wisdom, I can’t begrudge people offering classes for reasonable fees or trying to market work they have spent sometimes hundreds of hours to create. Nearly all of the fees I see contemporary pagans seeking are, at their worst, still a decimal place below what New Age promoters seek, and receive. We’re not the folks doing $3500 weekend intensives on crystal healing in Sedona or raking in tall cash on faux Native American sweat lodge rituals that end up killing people.

    And in the scheme of things, our worst money grubbing is positively nano scale next to the hustles of the Catholic Church, the Mormons or the Scientologists.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In some cultures, farming is seen as sacred; in others, there is sacred hunting; in many agricultural activities are ritualized. Well, in our pagan practice, commerce is seen as a sacred act. (Indeed, note where the word “commerce” comes from) Hunting and farming were mundane, life-sustaining acts for the very cultures which endowed them with religious significance. Similarly, commerce is the mundane, life-sustaining act for me today, and so why should we not imbue it with spiritual significance and encode it in ritual?

    Like

  7. “The world is full of sticks; why on Earth would I want a Harry-Potter-style wand?”

    Because they are lovely. Waving a stick around already doesn’t make any kind of sense from the outside so it’s not like I’m doing it because it is the sensible thing to do. Paying money for a wand I find is attractive has not put me in the poor house and brings me great joy.

    Like

    • Well, if it brings you “great joy”, fine. What I see happening out there in the Pagan community writ large, though is the endless acquisition of mounds of STUFF, carved out of the resources of the living Earth. We can do better.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I only ever bought one wand. A beautiful specimen of ebony. Mostly I got it to help fundraising at Circle Sanctuary. I used it sometimes in public space where an athame might draw unwanted attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is spot-on! As a green witch, I consider my “tools” to be the herbs I grow, stones from the beach or my own yard (I gave the few crystals I had to Goodwill a long time ago, feeling I had no real connection to stones that were mined out of the ground from who knows where), and shells gathered from the shore. Ironically, the stuff I did buy – a mini-cauldron and statues – I use the least now. Instead of statues, I now just print out or draw a picture and put it in a frame purchased second-hand. Have always avoided incense, which is often not eco-friendly and may cause pulmonary damage when used regularly. I find pagan consumerism disheartening, we should be protecting natural resources, not frivolously using them. I saw criticism of this post on patheos and couldn’t wait to read it! Although I am a theistic witch, I am finding your blog and John Halstead’s far more authentic and to the heart of what paganism is for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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