One of the best and most beautiful aspects of modern witchcraft is that it is an evolving path. Although we base a good deal of our philosophy and practice on ancient religions, paganism and witchcraft as we know them today are new. Born of the 60s counterculture and the equal rights movements for women and black, indigenous, and people of color, modern paganism was the religious form our mid-century cultural reckoning called for.
Kinda sorry I missed the 60s concert scene
The early pioneers of paganism did the best they could with what they had but it’s important to remember that they, too, were a product of their time. They were throwing off the shackles of patriarchy and white supremacy but grew up wearing them. The history and anthropology our first generation sourced was limited by archeological techniques and research bias. Although our forebears were building something new, they leaned on their experiences to create it. All of us are subject to the same pattern: what we learned in the past and the science and scholarship of our day informs what we do now. This is not a bad thing, but it is a very human thing. And we need to remember that our first generation were human.
Paganism was never meant to be static. Indeed, the branches of the family that grow too entrenched tend to wither. Confining wisdom to the past, putting limitations on the Gods, and perpetuating religious forms without critical evaluation is a fast ticket to a dead-end belief system.
This past week, a conversation about the Maiden, Mother, Crone triad archetype emerged in my community’s online forum. Over and over again I saw women posting about how much they struggled to find themselves in that narrow arc of existence. The challenges around our relationships to gender and reproductive abilities/choices mean that boiling down a life path to whether or not a womb (inside a femme presenting body) is producing more humans invalidates the sacred paths that so many lives take.
I tossed the MMC archetype to the side years ago but the conversation I saw reminded me that not everyone feels as free to let go of ideas as I do.
We were never meant to be stagnant, friends.
We were never meant to hang on to ideas forever. Paganism is designed to be improved, to be reevaluated, to be deepened and yes, to be edited. We don’t have to keep everything we started with. When we outgrow something, when a function of belief breaks or wears out, we are free to let it go.
A clean slate, just like that!
I am incredibly lucky to serve a growing Pagan community that skews younger. Let me tell you what I see happening.
Binary systems of organization are going away. My community is beautiful in its diversity. We no longer solely fall into categories of ‘men’ and ‘women,’ ‘straight’ and ‘gay.’ One of the largest growing groups within our hall is nonbinary and genderfluid individuals. Along with diversity around gender, many of us identify as bi- or pansexual. The simple checkbox system that governed life in the United States for so many years is no longer valid for us as a community. Identity, connection, love, and sexual union play out in beautiful, new, unique ways. To quote Rev. Catharine Clarenbach, ‘Gender and sexual expression are a constellation, not a continuum.’
My stepchild is 16. This fluidity around gender and orientation is not going anywhere – my stepchild’s friends change expression and orientation the way my generation changed our hair color. There is little to no resistance to or recrimination against it from other teens. As per usual with teenagers, there’s a lot of eyerolling when old fuddy duddies insist on boundaries – in this case wanting teens to identify as gay, straight, male or female. And you know what? It’s awesome. Most of my gay friends waited to come out of the closet until we were all out of high school. My stepchild’s friends are not only out, they’ve rejected the need for categories completely. They just are who they are. They love who they love. And it’s fucking beautiful. It gives me a lot of hope for us.
So, when I look at my community, I see exquisite constellations of expression. Then I look at the binary, continuum-based material of early Paganism, and I know this is a moment of change. Our forebears could not have imagined this cultural epoch. They could only barely conceive of women as equal. They could only barely conceive of gay people inhabiting shared social spaces. This is the world they found the path to, but they did not get to walk far enough down it to see some of the turns it would take.
We’re all just figuring this out. All I can tell you is what my own organization is doing with the changing landscape of human experience. It seems to be working and our community continues to grow.
We’ve dropped binary everything from rituals. We do not honor the overall archetypes of God or Goddess (or even the Both and Neither addition that some groups are trying out) in ritual. When we work with Godforms at all, we honor specific Deities. More frequently, we honor ‘Deity’ or ‘The Gods.’ We are an open community, so it works well for us – our community includes people who honor Gods from many different traditions. When we do honor specific Deities, whoever feels closest to them is the one running that altar regardless of gender expression or sexual orientation.
We do not link qualities to gender, or seasons to gender, or fucking anything to gender. The valences we balance between are the Elements instead – Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit. So we honor fiery qualities, watery qualities, earthy, stable qualities, etc, but do not add a gender to them. We honor the cycle of the seasons, so energies can be of spring renewal, summer heat, the autumn spiral inward, and winter healing/stillness. Again, no call to tack gender on here. The energies of the Elements and the seasons are sacred, whole and holy without adding on additional human baggage.
We do not perform the symbolic Great Rite within ritual. I know there are a lot of variations on the theme, but the whole thing just comes off as clunky faux Catholicism anyway regardless of how many cups and athames you use. Centering human sex and reproduction in ritual is limiting in its way – we are part of the tapestry of life. Indeed, the most responsible thing we as a species could do right now is make fewer humans. So we center the specific thread of the ritual we are following without encasing it in the trappings of human sexual practices. Cuts down on doing the dishes afterward, too.
Apparently gifs of washing a pile of chalices aren’t a thing. Who knew?
We do not have a Priest and Priestess. Our ritual format includes the role of Guides instead. We have as many as we need for the ritual to work. Sometimes that’s one person directing the flow of the ritual. Sometimes there’s a staff of 20 Guides all facilitating different pieces of the ritual. Sometimes there are two Guides for each Element. If we are honoring specific Deities, the attendant for that Deity is the ‘Ereshkegal Guide’ or the ‘Cernunnos Guide.’ By shifting from Priest/ess to Guide, we also remove a barrier to engagement. I have observed that a lot of people want to help with ritual, want to hold space, want a speaking role, but balk at being referred to as a priest/ess. And that’s fair – we get better at ritual through practice. Some of us end up as clergy through all that repetition and comfortably wear the title of priestx. However, we all begin somewhere. By making a simple change in language, more people feel more welcome to step up.
So how do we write rituals?
We focus on the thread of what people are experiencing or need at the moment of ritual creation. We center the deeper meaning of the holiday as separate from a specific myth cycle: death has no gender. Harvest has no gender. Hope has no gender. Renewal has no gender. Releasing has no gender. We find that deeper thread and then build the ritual outward from there. We explore the emotional truth, the commonality of each holiday in human experience. We support ritual mechanics that allow people to encounter the Sacred on their terms. We strive to create a safe, supportive, non-limiting container for a particular kind of spiritual experience.
So far, it’s been working pretty well.
We are learning. We are growing. We will develop ritual styles and formats that do not last. We will adjust our perspectives to meet changing times. We will let go of more habit and embrace more evolving wisdom. This is the beauty of Paganism. When you’re not bound to a particular book, tradition, myth, or practice, your spirituality is free to move. And a spirituality that dances?
That’s what I’m here for.
So, what molds are you breaking right now? How is your Paganism evolving? Hit me up in the comments.
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