One of my pet peeves is that I believe we are still sorting out what it is to be a pagan in the post-modern age, and yet there are people out there who insist on conserving their traditions above all else. While it’s good to keep documentation for historical purposes, performing the same sparse, boring liturgical lore year after year doesn’t automatically make one either a pagan or a witch. I believe there has to be some real thought and inspiration given to what it means to be a pagan, and this requires quite a bit of thinking outside of the box, as it were. (An even better term for this activity would be thinking outside of the “Book of Shadows.”)
Some of the things that Sam Webster has been writing about at the Patheos blog site are sensible, challenging and actually quite practical; but they also reveal a certain superficiality to the basic modern Pagan and Wiccan mind-set. The two specific articles that I am referring to are his articles on restoring idolatry and also restoring sacrifice. You can find them here and here. I think that he has made some really good points, so I would like to review and discuss some of those issues that he has presented in these articles.
One of the things that he has previously stressed is that modern Pagans need to develop a personal relationship with their deities so that their religious experience is based on their own personal experiences and perspectives and not that of the tradition or group. Another thing that he has talked about is the importance of sacrifice, and he is referring here to the actual ritual killing of animals. Mr. Webster has also proposed that would-be pagans should also engage in the practice of animating statues and treating them as key access points for communing with the Deities that they represent. I have some opinions about these ideas, so let us first build some context to understand the pagan religious beliefs of those who lived in antiquity.
If we review what ancient paganism was like in the European Mediterranean arena, at least according to Walter Berkert, then we can see that there were actually three domains through which the overall pagan religion was performed and celebrated. The first and highest level was the domain of the polis or the city-state, which was basically the state sponsored religious practices. This would also have included the mystery schools, even though they functioned outside of the bounds of the polis. The next level would have been the family tradition, headed up by the pater familias or head of household, and it would have included family based deities and practices associated with the household, including the lares and penates, threshold deities, hearth deities and a host of other entities. The lowest level was that of the individual, who could have their own private and personal relationship with a specific deity or deities as well as membership in one of the mystery colleges (as a participant). So, these are the three levels that broadly represented the sphere of pagan religious activity in antiquity.
Regarding animal sacrifice, this rite was typically performed at the level of the state religion of the polis, but it could also be found in the family tradition and the religious activities of the individual. Animal sacrifice at the state level consisted of large animals, such as cattle, oxen and the like. Family traditions typically would sacrifice smaller animals, such as goats and rams, and individuals might sacrifice doves or other smaller, less expensive animals. Mystery colleges sometimes employed large or small sacrifices, depending on the cult and level of social engagement. We will examine animal sacrifice and try to determine if modern paganism needs to adopt it or if other surrogates can be used instead.
As far as idolatry is concerned, ancient pagans incorporated statues and works of art to represent what I would call access points where groups and individuals could commune with and bask in the numinousness of their Deities. They didn’t believe that the statues or works of art were themselves the actual Deities, but that they represented a sacred place where the spirit of the Deity could reside. This form of idolatry was central to most of the state religious temples, mystery cults, homes and even individuals. Homes had their special shrines and niches where the Gods could be accessed, and individuals had their small portable figurines that they could place in a family shrine, in their sleeping quarters or to take with them on journeys. Even slaves had their representations of the Gods in their possession. Idolatry required rituals that could cause the Deity to inhabit the statue or figurine (some kind of blessing/charging), and then it would require periodic offerings and devotions in order to keep it fully vested with the spirit of the Deity. In the state polis religious cults, statues were fed, dressed, taken out in public and treated as living dignitaries; this also occurred within the mystery colleges as well.
When Christianity displaced paganism towards the end of the Roman empire, what it did was to replace the various state pagan cults with the practices and beliefs of the Christian church, and it also forced the mystery colleges to shut down. What it didn’t immediately displace was the family tradition or the religious beliefs and practices of the individual. That happened slowly, over a long period of time and it probably took centuries. If any pagan religious traditions remained, they would have been found in the practices and beliefs of the family. It would have been easy to disguise or loosely reinterpret pagan family traditions so that they would seem outwardly Christian. This is one possible way in which some practices and beliefs that were obviously pagan in origin might have survived the forced Christian mass conversion of an entire populace. Another possible survival would have been the various magical practices that individuals would have employed (or paid others to perform for them) to aid them in times of sickness, distress, injustice or untimely death.
In our modern world, we have attempted with some success to reconstitute the pagan religions of antiquity. However, what is missing in this attempt at reconstruction and recreation represents a greater deficit overall than one might actually think. Wiccan and Pagan groups have managed to reconstitute what would have been the family religious traditions of antiquity, with some allowed extensions because the members of these modern groups are not actually part of a family. So modern Pagan and Wiccan religious practices are a kind of fusion between an extended family tradition with some mystery school elements thrown in for good measure. However, what is missing, of course, is the state sanctioned religion and also, oddly, the religion of the individual. Idolatry and sacrifice have also been omitted, or at least performed in an inconsistent or substituted manner. These practices can be given new life if they are redefined and established within the practices that have already been developed for these various traditions. (Of course, I am omitting various types of modern reconstructed heathenism from these considerations.)
So, what we have in modern Wicca and Paganism is a kind of truncated hybrid religious system, or at least when it’s compared to the pagan religious practices of antiquity. While it is obvious that we are unlikely to ever see paganism becoming so populous and large that it can facilitate a kind of state sponsored pagan religion (nor would we want to invalidate our secular government institutions), we can at least bring the hybrid family tradition down to the individual level and thereby activate two of the three levels of paganism from antiquity. I also believe that it would be beneficial to reconstitute a modern version of the mystery colleges and open them to all religiously pagan individuals. Reconstituting the pagan religion for the family traditions, individuals and the mystery colleges would go a long way to rebuilding a comprehensive pagan religion in the modern world. So would incorporating some form of idolatry and sacrifice.
How do I define the pagan religion of the single individual? According to Berkert, individuals in antiquity often engaged in a personal approach to one specific deity for various practical or religiously inspired reasons. It was usually precipitated by a very specific need, such as health issues, the desire for justice, trying to deal with catastrophic changes or seeking some kind of physical validation of life. What it entailed was a process referred to generally as “henotheism,” or the devotion and focus on one specific deity within a pantheon of deities. Henotheism required specific and periodic personal devotions, sacrifices, offerings and spiritual service for the deity itself as well as its social institutions (temple precinct, priesthood, etc.). There might also be a mystery school associated with that deity, but usually, it was just a powerful inclusive relationship established between the individual worshiper and the deity.
As I have said previously, Sam Webster has said that Pagans and Wiccans need to establish a deep and powerful relationship with one or more Pagan Deities. I wholly agree with this sentiment, and I believe doing so will open the door to a kind of pagan spirituality that would not be found within the modern tradition or group. Therefore, I advocate a kind of individual henotheism, since that would be the easiest activity for an individual to perform. Because the intensity and breadth of each group is represented by the common denominator of the individual members, then if each individual develops a personal pagan religious spirituality, the overall group will become spiritually deeper and its rites will be more meaningful. Certainly, having a deeply spiritual perspective will help a group to evolve its liturgy and beliefs because the Pagan Deities will be truly alive within each individual member.
Here is how I would organize and assemble a periodic pagan practice for the individual or family group. There are five categories for these kinds of activities, and they consist of offerings, devotions, sacrifices, worship via idolatry and communion, and spiritual service to the community. These practices would be periodic and they should be established in some kind of calendric system associated with the cycles of the moon and the sun. There would be daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal activities that represent the ever turning and changing cycles, yet that place (in the center) where the Deities would preside would be unchanged and eternal. Let us briefly examine each of these five categories in greater detail so they might be better known.
First, it is assumed that the individual or the group has some kind of place or location in their living space to set aside for their pagan spiritual activities and to build some kind of shrine. It doesn’t have to be grandiose, and in fact it can be simple and tucked away in a part of the house where it will be accessible but not interfere with the normal flow of activities. The shrine should have some basic attributes, such as a flat table-top where candles, dishes, incense burners, flower vases, and if possible, a statue or some kind of figurine of that Deity can be placed. Whether the purpose is to focus on just one pagan Deity or to engage with a collection of Deities, it is up to the individual or group to fully research and learn everything that one could possibly know about each of those Deities or the one Deity that is to be the focus of the shrine. (We should also keep in mind that a shrine with more than one Deity would require that each be accorded their own separate individual liturgical workings.) The shrine is used to hold items that are symbolically associated with the Deity, and that would include the color of the cloth used to cover the table-top of the shrine. The shrine niche could even include posters of the Deity and any other appropriate artwork. A pillow or meditation matt would also be a useful for any of the ritual work to be done before the shrine.
Votive Offerings - these practices represent regular gifts to the Deity that signify that it is resident and active in the shrine. These offerings would include lit candles or oil lamps, incense, flowers, portions of food and drink. It could even include special gifts, such as items that symbolically represent the Deity. For instance, if the Deity was Aphrodite, then sea shells, pearls and other kinds of symbolic objects could be given as votive offerings to the Deity. Typically, votive offerings are repetitive and represent the periodic upkeep of the Deity as associated with its focus, which would be a statue or figurine.
Active Devotions - these practices are performed as types of adoration, glorification and the declaration of love and commitment to the Deity. Similarly to how you would romance a lover beyond your station, the practices of devotion represent the expression of love and worship that one feels for a specific Deity. Forms of devotion would include poetry, historically researched paeans (such as the Homeric Hymns to the Gods), declared glorifications, songs, music and even dance. Sleep incubation in order to communicate with the Deity while in a dream-state is another form of active devotion.
Sacrifices - these practices are special events and are typically performed during calendric seasonal celebrations or when a greater offering is needed than what is covered by votive offerings. While some have stated that Pagans and Witches need to master the art of actual animal sacrifice, I believe that there are plenty of modern surrogates for this practice. The reason why I believe surrogates will work is that the knowledge required to properly sacrifice an animal and the efficient butchering of that victim is generally beyond the ability of modern people. This is because few actually possess these skills, and it is important that the animal be dispatched in clean and efficient manner with little suffering or fear.
Pagans in antiquity went to great lengths to ensure that a sacrifice went smoothly and without difficulty, since if it was performed badly, if the animal panicked or something else went awry, then the auspices for that sacrifice would make it practically useless. Ancient pagans went so far as to drug the animals so that they wouldn’t experience much fear or pain when ritually killed. Once killed, the blood would need to be properly collected and used, and the carcass immediately butchered to apportion the share for the Deity as well as the worshipers. The portion for the Deity was burned up in a special fire (on a special altar) and the portion for the worshipers would have been cooked (barbequed but not burned). So, I think that for most practical situations an actual animal sacrifice is beyond the ability or scope of most (if not nearly all) modern pagans.
If an actual animal sacrifice is either unwanted or incapable of being properly performed then what are the appropriate substitutions? What I have found is that there are three earthly places where a sacrifice can be placed and so given over to the Gods. First of all, a sacrifice as I perform it is usually the collected victuals of a feast given in honor of the Gods. As the feast is arrayed, I usually collect a sample of all of the food and drink before anyone is served, thus, the Deity is served first before the worshipers. Prior to this apportioning, I have dug a small hole in the earth and started a small fire outdoors. I then take the victuals and place them in the fire (those that will properly burn, such as cooked meat), or in the earth (vegetables, salad, potatoes, rice, tubers, etc.), and the drink I pour into a nearby shallow lake. Additionally, one could dedicate a very special and precious belonging and give it to the Deity as a permanent gift by placing it on the shrine table-top. Other variations of this kind of special sacrificial offering can be delivered up, and I believe that it is quite acceptable and in accordance with modern Pagan and Wiccan practices.
Spiritual Service to the Community - these practices represent a sacrifice of time and resources in the name of the Deity that one is serving. This can be simply performed as a kind of volunteer work associated with other community volunteers. The fact that the Pagan or Witch is doing it as a service to their Deity doesn’t need to be shared with the other volunteers. Valid service can be given even if that volunteer effort is sponsored by some Christian organization. Other kinds of service could be as a Pagan minister or volunteering time and resources to the local pagan community. Regardless of the volunteer work that one employs, the stated purpose of it is to be a representative of the Deity in the community doing work that benefits those who are in need of assistance. Giving money is also another way, although not as direct and satisfying.
Pagan Idolatry - these rites are the specific liturgical ceremonies that one performs to draw down the numinous presence of the Deity into a statue or figurine, and therein, to have intimate contact and communion with it. Unless you have a proclivity for classical theurgy or are adept at modern forms of magick, then performing a specific rite to perpetually animate a statue is not something that you will be able to do. I have written up a modern approach to statue animation in an article that I posted a couple of years ago, and if you are interested, you can find it here.
However, for those who are less adept magically they can perform a periodic drawing down type of rite to imbue the statue or figurine with the essence of the Deity and this will likely suffice. All that you need to do is to write a custom drawing down ritual for your specific Deity and perform it once a month during an auspicious time, depending on the characteristics of that Godhead. You can also perform a Godhead Assumption of that Deity and perform that in addition to the Statue Drawing Rite. A special meal of cakes and wine, or bread and ale (or whatever might be appropriate for that Deity) is also typically presented to the Godhead as a special offering, and this food, once blessed and charged, is consumed by the worshipers after a certain portion is set aside for the Godhead.
The statue or figurine used in such work is referred to as an idol, but if a person becomes the focus of the Draw, then he or she is called the Idolon of the Godhead. Any person who is going to take on the temporary role of the Deity must be sequestered for a period of time and immerse themselves with the qualities and characteristics of the Godhead. They should also perform a long period of devotion so that when they perform the assumption, as little of their own personality will remain intact. Using an idol instead of an idolon ensures that the Draw will not be adversely impacted by the personality of the mediator. Still, an idolon can speak for the Deity, while the idol requires the recipient of such communication to be in an altered state of consciousness. Establishing a dialogue with the Deity is, I believe, the most important part of the practice of idolatry. Each Pagan or Witch should develop this kind of liturgical working to the point where they can periodically hear the voice of their Deity whispering in their minds words of wisdom and sagacity. Clearly, such a connection would not only inspire individuals but it might also give birth to new rituals and practices, since they would have as their guide the spoken words of the Deity itself.
So now that we have covered the five categories of a basic Pagan religious practice for the individual or the group, I believe that with a little bit of effort and practice pagan spirituality can have an important rebirth and reveal a greater spiritual depth to its adherents. I am not saying that no one is performing these kinds of liturgical operations, but perhaps not enough of us are doing them on a regular and consistent basis. If each of us had a special and potent connection to at least one Pagan Deity, then we would be able to advance our religious practices and beliefs without any worries or concerns about maintaining our doctrinal traditions. This is because our ultimate authority would be our own personal connection to our Deities. Over the course of decades and even centuries, our Pagan and Wiccan faith could then evolve into a much higher level of consciousness, and we could then see about coalescing these beliefs and practices into proper religious orthodoxies (if that would even be needed). Yet until that time in the distant future we need to discover how to behave religiously as Pagans and Wiccans in this modern world.