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MODERN PAGANS (Worldwide Witchcraft, Polyamory, more) “Neither God Nor Master”

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34 Interviews (witchcraft, polyamory, et al) with Pagans around the world. 212 pp, 8×10″, paperback. Spiritual Color Charts. Rituals. “This book does a wonderful job of capturing the contemporary Pagan movement in the voices of its own members drawn out in skillful interviews. Highly recommended.”—Pangaia Magazine. “This is not your suburban, SUV-driving brand of Wicca, but rather a glimpse of outlaw Paganism.”—The Well-Read Witch

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RARE Article by Lady Jaye, featured in “The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.” Genesis P-Orridge, Diane di Prima, Starhawk, Thorn Coyle, LaSara Firefox, Carol Queen, Diana Paxson, Margot Adler, Erik Davis, Isaac Bonewits (R.I.P.), Bobcat, Pete Jennings, Don Frew & Anna Korn, Sam & Tara Webster (Tara R.I.P.), Matthew Fox, Raelyn Gallina, Oberon & Morning Glory Ravenheart, Anne Hill, Joi Wolfwomyn, Jack Davis, Chandra Krinsky, more. Discussions on the subjects of: Wicca, Witchcraft, Pagan Sex, Pagan Child Raising, Pagan Politics, Protest, Creativity, The Origin of the Universe, Health & The Pagan Diet, Pagan Fashion and Style. Plus much more!

1 review for MODERN PAGANS (Worldwide Witchcraft, Polyamory, more) “Neither God Nor Master”

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    Continuing a 25-year publishing tradition of ‘cultural remapping’ … V. Vale offers us a spiritual solution with Modern Pagans. Paganism, in which the body and the Earth are admired and death is intrinsic, is thought to be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world . . . Vale has captured [it] with evenhanded, gracious keenness within the context of interviews with 50 practitioners of neo-ancient traditions.”

    –San Francisco Weekly

    This book does a wonderful job of capturing the contemporary Pagan movement in the voices of its own members, drawn out in skillful interviews…Check out the cool photos, too…Highly recommended.”

    –Pan Gaia

    Modern Pagans…is frighteningly fascinating. This is not your Harry Potter-Hagrid-Hollywood-Steven Spielberg-sugar-coated version of witchcraft, this is a warts’n’all look at the world’s fastest growing ‘religion.’ …212 pages of eye-opening, sometimes mouth dropping interviews and photographs. Wickedly good stuff.”

    –Stillwater Gazette

    This book is a compilation of about 50 interviews with exponents of modern day paganism, mainly drawn from the US and Canada, with some British contributors as well.

    The people interviewed are a very interesting collection, and the book covers a wide range of pagan practices from witchcraft, Northern tradition, santeria, shamanism, Druids, Goddess worshippers and more. Please note that this book does not cover santanism/devil worship as that is considered to be an offshoot of Christianity and nothing to do with us, guv’nor. Honest. The interviewees are also a heterogeneous bunch and the book covers important topics such as child-raising, living arrangements, sexuality (lots of that!), music, and bereavement as well as the more “spiritual” side of paganism.

    For those familiar with some of the New Age types who came from radical backgrounds but who dropped out once they got their gurus, this book is a refreshing change. The political engagement here is widespread. These people are in the thick of things, including anti-nuclear action, sexual politics (and do read up on the Radical Faeries–they make the old GLF look very tame!), anti-capitalist / anti-globalist activism, environmental action and so forth.

    Unsurprisingly, given the emphasis on taking personal responsibility for one’s life, many of the people in this book are upfront anarchists. And their sense of commitment in terms of living their beliefs puts many more traditional anarchists to shame.

    Now, as an atheist who remains unconvinced of the literal existence of any supernatural forces, I find this book presents something of a challenge. Admittedly, there is a recognition by many of the people that paganism has a spectrum of opinion on such things–from those who really believe that the ancient gods and goddesses (no patriarchal monotheism here!) exist and that we can communicate in a meaningful way with them, to those who are animist, seeing the divine in the everyday, in rocks, water, animals, and all creation to those who view such creations as simply human ways of visualizing natural forces.This latter anthropomorphic personification of natural forces (do read Terry Prachett–very popular with pagans apparently) seems endemic to religions inasmuch as humans relate best to other humans, and therefore any “supernatural” forces need to be couched, in some way, in some human terms, for us to get a handle on them.

    The problem, as I see it, is that some people then treat these human creations as things in themselves (reification) which, given they are related to powers beyond direct human control, come to have power over people. Which gives rise to priests who try and “interpret” the god/s for their own benefit.

    Against this, pagans tend (and one has to issue the usual caveat about generalizing here) to emphasize individual responsibility. Starhawk (wonderful woman by all accounts) also differentiates here between “power over,” “power with,” and “power from within” so that one should not seek power over others (or allow others to have power over oneself) but have power collectively and within oneself. Essentially, anarchism boiled down to its roots. But then that’s hardly surprising, given that Starhawk is very politically aware and active (she issued quite a few excellent anti-war missives and musing in the build-up to the war on Iraq). Other activists are also represented including Darryl Cherney, who was bombed with Judi Bari in 1990 whilst the two of them were heavily involved in environmental/labour activism in the US.

    So many of the personal stories are empowering and uplifting that it is very tempting to think that maybe there’s something to all this. But from my perspective, the ideology/religion of paganism is merely the binding and veneer which allows these people to live lives less ordinary and to identify and bond with kindred spirits. That said, it’s a relatively benign form of religion which–if you’re into environmental activism, radical politics, good sex and cool TV–could well be just what you’re looking for.

    The book comes with several comprehensive bibliographies and filmographies, allowing you to delve deeper into the subject.”

    –Richard Alexander, Fortean Times

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Diane di Prima: I have a root in some kind of Paganism like that which was also very deep in my grandmother’s Catholicism. There was a day when you ate no salt, a day when you ate no bread–St. Lucy or Santa Lucia’s day which is celebrated in Northern Europe, too, when Swedish women wear crowns of candles. The saint of light, Lucia, lux, Lucy–she was a very important figure in my grandmother’s world. Although nobody said, “This is Pagan,” there was a basic interest and awe in the things of the turning of the seasons and being on the planet, that were handed to me from way back.

When I was in high school, eight women in our writing group did a lot of experimenting with the paranormal–telepathy, trance, and seance. That all went away when I became just a writer and dropped out of college, but it came back with a big bang when I was about 31 and started to fool around with Tarot cards, and would have lucid dreams. I was living in New Mexico. In the afternoons when it was hot I would stare at one card and go to sleep. When I awoke I would always have had a dream about that card. It didn’t seem remarkable or strange–I didn’t have to work at it–it just happened.

Tibetan Buddhism is concerned with, at the least, the 31 major star systems that have Dzogchen. It’s not based in the material facts of life. It’s my main belief system, within which Paganism fits quite comfortably as regards how you deal with this earth and being on it.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there is relative truth and absolute truth. Relative truth is about here, where we are, daily life, and the appearances of things. Absolute truth is about the emptiness (which isn’t empty) and the constant creative principle in that, which they call the dharmakaya. They fit comfortably together. In the same way, Tibetan Buddhism fits together with my Paganism and other kinds of ritual magic (I’m not talking about Judaic Kabalism; I’m talking about Kabalistic magic which grew out of the Renaissance, transmitted by Cornelius Agrippa and others). It’s a seamless fit with no problems. So I have my Tibetan Buddhist practice, but if my daughter has a question, I will go to the Tarot cards.

R/S: Paganism is definitely earth-based and grounded in very real practices in this world, but you overlay it with this other theory, if I can call it that, from Tibetan Buddhism, which is more concerned with causality, multiple dimensions of reality, and other cosmic theorizings. You can’t necessarily prove it scientifically–

D: No, but you can prove it experientially. It’s not easy–you don’t just go off and prove it, like in a laboratory. You have to do the groundwork, then find a teacher, then get pointing-out instruction, and actual experience of in-dwelling, void, creative principle, that is also the same as vast, timeless, and spaceless creative principle. So you can’t prove it scientifically, but you can prove it experientially. I’m reminded sometimes, when I am practicing, of that line in the Book of the Law by Crowley, “Certainty, not faith, while in life.”

R/S: “Certainty, not faith, while in life”?

D: It’s from the Book of the Law–another aspect of magic. So the Pagan movement is wonderful and I am still continuing its practices, but I hardly think about them–they’re just ingrained in my life. “Have you picked up the candles for the solstice?” Or, “Are you going to have time tomorrow for us to do something for Eve of May?” You know? I have a meditation room in the house which is wonderful, because I can roll out of bed, sleepy or sick, and do my practice, then come back to my daily life, because that room is not used for anything else.

I also have a magical altar in the healing room where Sheppard does his healing work (that’s his livelihood), and where I do occasional guided visualizations with my students, or a Tarot reading. And the magical altar is–how can I say–a landing place and a launching pad for spirits and energies and businesses of this world. It has an arrangement of things that represent the four elements, so I have, using the Tarot model, a cup, a disc, a sword, and a wand. And for the three principles from Alchemy, I have a vial of mercury, a big chunk of sulfur from Sicily, and a big crystal of solidified salt.

So Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt are the three principles of Alchemy. I integrate this with the Zodiac, too. All this is part of what I used to teach when I taught “Structures and Magic” at our magic school, the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts, which has been defunct since 1992.

For me, I started with just the simple notions I could get in Frazer’s Golden Bough about the solstices and equinoxes and cross-quarter days and how they used to be celebrated. The whole set of volumes is indexed, so you can find information about the practices of islands in the South Pacific in one volume, and information about Greece in another–with the index, you can find what you want. Then I would shamelessly make my own synthesis of what I wanted from all that, to use as a basic form, a ritual.

Solstices are easy. Equinoxes are more subtle, because you have that simple slight turning toward the light or toward the dark at that point. The cross-quarter days are wonderful–I was going to say divine in terms of earthly things–they’re earthly deities. So something comes up every six weeks that you try to at least commemorate in some little way, even if you’re very busy. I have this shrine downstairs that is the earth magic shrine set up for that, having the elements and the principles of alchemy. Salt is that which remains after the transformation, the dross is that which remains after the mercury flies away (unless you catch it and use it), and sulfur is what is consumed from the burning. Those three principles work in the four elements–here I’m going by Paracelsus. Even if you only have half an hour, you can go down and commemorate the occasion in some way. uR/S: Do you actually believe you can cross over to the land of the spirits of the dead–

D: Well, have you never met a ghost?

R/S: No.

D: Oh. I have. I’m not sure what part of a being does that. I believe in reincarnation. But I think there is a shell or some part of the persona that maybe hangs around, and it hangs around more if it’s remembered more. I honor people who do a lot for ceremonies like the Day of the Dead, but I don’t tend to do a lot of that. But after I do the Winter Solstice, I do a ceremony of cleansing the whole house, and then cleansing it again with sage and salt and so on and blessing each room, driving out any bad energy from the old year, and blessing it and calling in new energy, room by room…



RE/SEARCH: Did anyone have a radicalizing influence on you?Thorn: In high school, I had a teacher named Sister Sharon. She would show us films about what was happening in El Salvador–things like that. But it wasn’t until much later that I heard about Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan–truly radical Catholics who have become my heroes. Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement, composed of Catholic anarchists who began feeding people in the Thirties. She was a suffragist and a truly radical woman. The last time she got arrested was with Cesar Chavez when she was 75.

R/S: What did you learn from the Sufi tradition?

TC: Sufis say, “Die before you die” … meaning, die to all the false parts of yourself that you hang on to, that keep you from joining with the divine.

R/S: At an early age you got into theater–why?

TC: I have seven older brothers and sisters. Our family always sang and danced at home, so I grew up with an impulse to perform. I sang in a folk group at church for Saturday Night Mass, and began performing in children’s plays at the Whittier Junior Theater when I was eleven.

I did “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Toad of Toad Hall” (from The Wind in the Willows), and “Oliver,” the musical version of Oliver Twist. The first play I did with Whittier adult theater was “Wait Until Dark”–I played the little girl, Gloria. I did a number of musicals where I’d have to sing and dance. For the first time I found a place where I could be myself, with weird, interesting adults who understood me and took me under their wing. I hung out with them, and they saved me from the terrors of school. I was a loner nerd who read books a lot; I didn’t fit in.

R/S: So your theater training helped you to later become a Pagan priestess–

TC: All my theater training definitely helps me. My voice is big; I can make my presence big if I need to. If we’re working with some kind of myth or fairy tale as a form of ritual story-telling, I can take on different roles.

Theater puts you in a non-ordinary state of consciousness and reality; it bends reality. And ritual and magic are quite similar to that. So my body and my being have this ability to hold and transfer this power that can then slightly bend reality for that moment.

Thorn & associates R/S: [For ritual] do you put on any special make-up?mpag_thorn2

TC: I’ll powder my face and put on some lipstick, but I don’t put on much make-up anymore. The only time I’ll put on special make-up is if I’m doing what we call aspecting, which is a lighter form of trance possession than people do, say, in Voodoo. That is allowing deity to speak through me.

Sometimes aspecting can turn into full trance possession; it depends on how strongly the deity wants to speak. For a full trance journey I sometimes paint my face or parts of my body to further distance the everyday reality of “Thorn” from what’s about to occur. In the past I’ve painted blue spirals all over my face, or used red body paint if the Red God was going to come through me–that sort of thing. Some priestesses use a lot more make-up; it’s a personal choice.

I always take off my watch before ritual, because we’re entering a space of no time. Also, I prefer to do ritual barefoot, so my feet have contact with ground. If this isn’t possible, sometimes I wear special shoes. I also have thigh-high suede black boots that I like; they’re very theatrical.

R/S: What other “props” do you use in ritual?

TC: I use an athame, a ritual knife that was crafted by a blacksmith I know. It fits my hand perfectly. It’s sharp because my intention and my will have to be sharp. I also have a blade made out of an old fossil which I use if I’m working with what we call the fey–non-human entities with an aversion to steel. As a 21st-century person I think, “Of course that’s ridiculous,” but as a Witch who also enters into altered states of consciousness, I understand the feeling. [laughs]

There’s a cognitive dissonance that any religious person in the 21st century has to manage. This means holding two realities simultaneously. We have an analytical, critical brain that says “That can’t be true,” while an intuitive, more primal and emotional part of us says, “That makes perfect sense.” Part of what magic does is to help us access those more intuitive realms of knowledge we possess. Human beings are not solely rational, y’know.

R/S: Tell us about Witch Camp–

TC: In many ways it’s participatory theater or performance art. At Witch Camps we do a lot of sacred drama, like take a fairy tale or myth, break it down, and do different rituals with the themes we’ve extracted. We also do ritual storytelling, with people enacting certain parts of a story to give it more meaning. During the old Russian tale of “Vasilisa and Baba Yaga,” at a certain point the girl, Vasilisa, has to sort seeds and beans. We’ll have people doing that to get a sense for what this task feels like.

Myths can be taken both as truth and as allegory, in the same way that gods and goddesses can be both unreal and real. Sometimes we feel them moving through us, yet our 21st-century brain says, “That’s ridiculous; this god or goddess doesn’t really exist.” However, a true skeptic is skeptical of science as well!


R/S: Have you ever witnessed a fertility ritual?

AH: You bet! I went to the fertility ritual of two good friends who conceived right afterward. They had a lovely daughter who is now a good friend of my daughter’s. I’ve seen fertility magic really work!

I also have a friend who did just about every fertility spell you can imagine, and kept having miscarriage after miscarriage. I’ve had friends who ended up adopting because they couldn’t get pregnant. So what does it mean if for whatever reason the gods or the Goddess don’t grant your wish? Fertility for women is an incredibly huge issue, and there’s a lot to learn. If a woman can get past blaming herself or her body or whatever, she can learn a lot from thinking about this.

Before I had a child I was a student at U.C. Santa Cruz. I majored in Women’s Studies and then got a teacher’s credential. After about a year, I realized I wasn’t really cut out to be a classroom teacher. But that experience taught me a lot about how children learn. I think I’ve brought a lot of that educator’s perspective into mothering.

One of the most wonderful things about mothering is watching a child learn; it’s totally thrilling. Suddenly an infant will be able to reach out and actually grasp what they’re seeing in front of them. You get swept up: “Ohmigawd, using all those synapses between their eye and their brain and their hand, they’ve carved out this little channel so they can now grasp something!”

Learning exists on so many different levels. Once an infant can grasp your finger, that’s just the beginning of being able to express their needs and desires, being able to feed themselves, or otherwise get what they want. Their ability keeps on multiplying, infinitely.

Personally, I think the most challenging thing about being a mother is–and it doesn’t have anything really to do with Paganism–is that it’s an opportunity to work through my own childhood garbage. I can compare my own history when I was a kid, and reflect that my assumptions about how they’re feeling are to some degree based on how I was feeling way back when. Sometimes the insights I get from my kids are so profound it takes me years to figure them all out!

Hopefully, Pagan children will have memories of rich rituals, and of sharing deep bonds with other Pagan friends. They grow up with the sense that “I can create my own altar, I have access to spirits that are helping me–my ancestors, the elements.” Hopefully you have bonds with the community where there are people you consider elders that you can go to for help if you need it, or maybe even a circle you’ve grown up with since you were little. Having both the inner and community resources to help you through tough times–or to help you celebrate great joy–is a real advantage.

And so–best case scenario–my hope is that a child who was raised Pagan will as an adult have a sense of connection to the divinity within everything. That will affect everything: politics, relationships, choices in food and housing, their creativity and their work; everything.



RE/SEARCH: Can you talk about Pagans and activism–

DARRYL CHERNEY: Just declaring yourself a Pagan in the year 2001, anywhere on the planet, is an act of activism in and of itself! There is a long history of suppression of earth-centered spirituality, and I have my own theories as to how we humans diverted from our interconnection with the earth. I’ll offer a brief history of the world from a Pagan perspective.

I think we began our possession and enslavement of the elements when we first harnessed fire. Actually, we were enslaving two elements; as far as I can tell the elements are always paired off–fire requires air. So we were both harnessing and enslaving fire and air. At that point, they became a possession.

When you light a campfire, there is only a certain amount of space around it. Immediately there arises a power dynamic as to who gets to sit closest to the fire. Fire also allowed humans to eat meat and grains–food that we could only eat after we had cooked it. Further, it enabled us to forge metals and create phenomenal and dangerous technologies. Mastery of fire allowed us to move to other climates and leave behind our original, native habitat, the equatorial belt around the earth. Human beings are the only species on the planet that wear clothing–every other animal on the earth is naked. The reason we wear clothing is because we’re out of our native habitat!

Once we started moving out of the equatorial belt into areas with colder weather, we developed agriculture almost out of necessity. A lot of people think of the “farmer versus the city,” but they’re actually two sides of the same coin. Agriculture creates a sedentary civilization. During cold winters, doubtless the nomadic societies noticed that these cities had all this food in storage. As hunter-gatherers they decided to go help themselves. So the agrarian societies had to develop walled cities and standing armies to defend their food supplies. Thus developed the warrior–the warrior, who once offered his life for the community devolved into the soldier who guards the food and kills for the protection of the community. The food supplies were also fostering population growth.

Through all this, the male supplanted the female as the life-giver and life-provider, developing a violent role in society that ultimately led to the patriarchy. City folks developed bigger and stronger weaponry, and [as seen with Akhnaton, 1379-1362 B.C.], the Egyptian civilization embraced monotheism and the worship of sky gods. Monotheism, in general, reflects the male supplanting the female as the life-giver, as well as it reflects the monoculture, where the same crops are grown–instead of a diversity of foods and animals as food supplies.

As the war against the nomadic Pagans increased over the millennia, the city dwellers decided they needed to wage not just a defensive but an offensive campaign. So they started cutting down the forests where the Pagans lived. This was easy–you can simply ring trees with a saw; you don’t have to cut them down. Even worse, you can burn down the forests, as was common in 3,000-2,000 BC. This is documented in Jonathan Perlin’s A Forest’s Journey, a well-researched history of logging throughout recorded civilization. As soldiers had to go farther afield to attack potential invaders, they weren’t sleeping with their female partners at night. So rape became the order of the day–part and parcel of warfare.

After humans harnessed the element of fire, it wasn’t really long before they developed the nuclear bomb. From the standpoint of geological time, we put ourselves on the brink of self-annihilation within a nano-moment in the history of the world.

The Bible itself gives a fantastic metaphor that describes this process. Satan (or Lucifer) was God’s chosen angel, his favorite. Then Lucifer decided that he wanted to be autonomous, and essentially become an “independent contractor.” Is that not the exact role that human beings–especially men–have taken on for themselves? We have decided to be creators, and supersede God. We have decided to reshape, if not destroy, “the Creation.” We are the living, breathing incarnation of the Satan metaphor!

Obviously, we need to rectify this by understanding our original, true connection with the earth and the entire cosmos. Every single thing on our planet comes from the earth (with the exception of a few meteor scraps). For very pragmatic reasons, humans’ early spirituality honored and worshiped the earth, understanding the interconnection between human beings and the earth.

R/S: What can we do, on a practical level?

DC: Earth First’s slogan, “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth,” implies that an ant can move an elephant if it gets a leverage or fulcrum point sufficiently far away. And we’re ants trying to move an elephant–rather, a planet. So we have to get pretty far out there on the edge of the spectrum.

I firmly believe that we’re never going to truly live in harmony with the earth until we get rid of the Safeways of the world. We can form our communes, utopias, and cooperative communities, yet almost instantly we can escape the frustrations of trying to get along with each other by going to the nearest Safeway or Wal-Mart . . . to the corporate teat for our nutritional requirements. We always have an escape valve that prevents us from working out disagreements with our fellow human beings.

But if we can’t get rid of all the Safeways tomorrow, there are other stratagems. We can build smaller houses grouped in circles, not each one of us living on our own 40-acre parcel as happens in Humboldt County, California. This leaves the majority of the land wild and free for the animals to live in.

Those of us who call ourselves Pagans are trying to reconstruct a workable “Pagan” lifestyle and philosophy. Yet if you try to capture spirituality on the printed page, it becomes doctrine, dead words–inflexible. If you judge things by their results, the Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon and so on have promoted the practices of hatred, bigotry and the subjugation of women.

In a way, the written word has pretty much killed God! Some people think there is a huge, fundamental difference between religion and spirituality. To me, a religion is institutionalized spirituality . . . as opposed to spirituality itself, which is an internal source of self-guidance. Spirituality is what guides our spirit–isn’t that obvious? Spirituality, to me, is the way we live our lives. And the primary spirituality that rules the United States now is capitalism: the love and worship of capital and profit.



V. Vale: When you were in Morocco, did you see the Master Musicians of Jajouka?

Charles Gatewood: Ah–I have to backtrack. In the Seventies, I lived in Manhattan and worked as a professional photojournalist. I met a writer named Robert Palmer who wrote for Rolling Stone. Robert was a musician, a mystic, and a William Burroughs fan. I’d been taking photographs at Mardi Gras, which I now realize is a Dionysian festival. I was fascinated by the idea of huge numbers of people getting together, putting on masks, and being someone else–living their fantasies for a day. I took Robert Palmer to Mardi Gras and we did an article for Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone liked my photographs. At the time, they were headquartered in San Francisco, so they asked me to be their New York photographer. Then Robert Palmer sold them the idea of interviewing William Burroughs, who was living in London. Robert took me along as the photographer. I got to spend a week with Burroughs and his friends.

Burroughs was living with Brion Gysin, who for many years had lived in Morocco. Brion had discovered the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and had opened a restaurant in Tangier so they would have a place to play. The Jajouka musicians would get blasted on kif (a marijuana/tobacco mixture) and play far-out trance music. The Master Musicians and trance dancers, said Brion, were indeed practicing the ancient Rites of Pan, and their rituals go back into prehistory. There are lots of references in later Roman history to similar rites, like Lupercalia, which in turn are the source for our own carnival. Suddenly all the dots began to be connected for me, and I sensed that ritual and trance were parts of an ancient, sacred human drama. Ritual activates parts of the body, mind and spirit that are not usually accessed during day-to-day activities. These rituals activate the old mind within us, so we can tap into our deeper selves.

VV: When did you first become aware of the existence of altered or ecstatic states?

CG: My parents liked to get drunk and party–they were chasing ecstasy in their own way. In my early teens I went through a brief Christian phase, where I had visions of God in one form or another. These visions weren’t exactly transcendental–I remember praying to a blinking radio antenna–but they were a kid’s fantasy of transcendence, for sure. It wasn’t until later, when I began seriously experimenting with sex and drugs, that I first tasted true ecstasy.

I also felt a strong, rising interest in the creative process. I wanted to be a visionary artist–yet I was struggling to find my medium. Then one day I met a fellow anthropology student who was also a hugely gifted photographer. He showed me some amazing prints, and I thought, “Wow–maybe I could do that!” Finally I’d found a way to integrate my interest in social science and behavior with my need for artistic expression. Immediately I had a vision that my life’s work could involve photographing behavior–especially unusual and strange behavior–in an artistic way. So I started doing exactly that, and now, almost forty years later, I’m still doing it.

VV: Was this also a kind of spiritual path for you?

CG: Yes, indeed. When I began, I was a skeptic and considered myself an atheist, having totally rejected my Christian upbringing. In 1966 I moved to Manhattan, settled down, got married, and for a while had a fairly “normal” life working as a photojournalist. Time passed, and I published my first book, Sidetripping, and a book titled Wall Street. But then I became more and more interested in wild underground scenes, and began the work that was in my book Forbidden Photographs.

About this time–the late Seventies–my marriage broke up. I’d been drinking hard and doing lots of drugs. In the divorce papers, my wife testified, “He often spent his days and evenings taking–and posing for–photographs of an unpublishable nature.” I was going deeper into the dark side, responding to the lure of the forbidden. I was also self-destructing.

One day I found myself in Woodstock, New York, teaching a workshop, and I looked around and said, “Yes–it’s time to go back to the woods.” Instinctively I knew that Nature would help me regain harmony and balance in my life. So I moved to Woodstock, bought a house, and lived in the woods for ten years. It was wonderful. As a child I’d spent countless hours playing in the woods, and it all came back: walking outside and seeing the stars and the moon, listening to the birds sing, and watching the afternoon sunlight dance through the trees.

I found a girlfriend who was a spiritual seeker, and we began meditating, trading massages, reading Krishnamurti and other sacred texts to each other by the fireplace. Suddenly spirituality made terrific sense! I began meditating and chanting with some Tibetan Buddhists who had established a monastery in Woodstock, and I took a great workshop in Sufi meditation with Pir Viliat Khan at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. I also quit alcohol, tobacco and hard drugs–I did a lot of Twelve Step work. It took a long time, but finally I turned my life around and regained my faith and balance.

VV: How did you shift to a more Pagan orientation?

CG: Well, in the mid-Seventies I started photographing and videotaping all sorts of body modification. Often, when I asked people about their tattoos, they would mention their totem animals, or various Goddess figures, or their chakras, or their spirit guides, or say that their tattoos represented empowerment, reclaiming, and so on. Their answers were much deeper and more interesting than I’d expected, so I began to delve into Pagan ideas.

Also, I’d heard about a man named Fakir Musafar, and I knew I had to meet him. Roland Loomis was a modern guy who ran an advertising agency and drove a BMW and wore three-piece suits, but he had a secret life you could read about in scarce, hard-to-find magazines like Piercing Fans International Quarterly (PFIQ). In private, Fakir was performing elaborate rituals, leaving his body, hanging from flesh-hooks, experimenting with sensory deprivation and all kinds of body play. He was cutting, branding and piercing himself (and a few others), using pain as a vehicle to higher consciousness in the same way his ancestors had done. And I thought, “Wow–what’s he tapping into? I’ve got to know more about this.” Fakir’s journey wasn’t abstract and intellectual–it was intuitive and visceral. Intense physical experiences were leading Fakir to new spiritual paths, where body play, Paganism, and ecstasy all fuse together.

I finally met Fakir at Annie Sprinkle’s New York apartment in 1980. The next year Fakir and I worked together on a feature film by Mark and Dan Jury titled Dances Sacred and Profane, in which Fakir not only explains but demonstrates his philosophy and practices. The climax of the film shows Fakir doing the Native American Sun Dance ritual. He performed a preliminary ritual at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming–a sensational sacred site. Then Fakir found a remote wooded area, consecrated a cottonwood tree, and suspended himself with flesh-hooks while he left his body and communicated with the Great White Spirit. The footage was awesome, and when the film opened at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater in 1985 there were lines around the block. Lots of people were interested in these rituals.

While working on that film, I introduced Fakir to Vale. Vale instantly understood that something important was happening. I showed him other pictures I’d been taking of Pagans, radical sex people and body modification enthusiasts, and Vale said, “Hey–we can do a whole book about this.” That book, of course, was Modern Primitives, which came out in 1989. So far Modern Primitives has sold about 80,000 copies, and we figure over a million people have seen it and thought about the ideas and practices detailed in it. It really is a seminal book that has spread those ideas around the world, and it’s certainly changed a lot of people’s thinking and behavior.

Because of Dances Sacred and Profane and Modern Primitives, Fakir decided to come out of the closet. Now the whole world knows his work. Fakir is one of my most important teachers. He’s made me think about numerous topics that have made me better understand the Pagan world, and other radical communities. I moved to San Francisco to be closer to these communities, and I consider them my extended family. So my interests have completely changed my life: who I hang out with, where I go, what I think, what I do, what I wear, and how I express myself.


RE/SEARCH: Describe the Starwood Festival–

JEFF ROSENBAUM: Starwood is a big college of alternative thinking and alternative spirituality that suddenly appears like a carnival or circus. The tents go up, it stays there for a week, and then BOOM it’s gone, til next year.

We have 140 or more classes from 9:30 in the morning till 6:15 in the evening–sometimes as many as 12 at a time. You can learn about Druidism, Ceremonial Magic, Wicca, Tibetan Buddhism, and Native American Practices. We have classes on psychedelia and psychology, and different “movement systems” like tai chi, yoga and aikido. Past speakers have included Timothy Leary, quantum physicist Fred Allen Wolf, Paul Krassner, and Steven Gaskin, who created the Farm, the biggest hippie commune in America. It’s all included in the cost of admission.


Jeff Rosenbaum We try to bring in the “purist” forms of spiritual paths–real Africans teaching African culture, and real Native Americans teaching Native American ritual. Evenings include rituals from different cultures–a Voodoo ritual on Thursday, a Druid ritual on Friday, etc. Live music features everything from trance to jug bands to Pagan folk music. At midnight we set up an inflatable dome and have all night-raves. We want people from different lifestyles, backgrounds and world views to party together and find out the ways they’re the same, rather than different. It’s important for people to learn not only how to live with each other, but celebrate each other. Robert Anton Wilson said that the real evil done in the world is usually done by good people’s crusade against badness–by people who are rabid with righteousness and bristling with holiness.

There’s a huge bonfire ritual on the last night with over a hundred drummers–it’s an amazing catharsis. Sometimes the flames are 75 feet high.

The local hardware store opens a store on site during the event. Members of the local volunteer fire department are on hand, and we have first aid stations. Most people camp out; they can bring food and cook it. We also have a food court where vendors offer everything from basic American breakfasts to gourmet cooking, including lobster. We’re not roughing it! You can even order pizzas from a local pizza place which delivers on-site. Starwood is a complete village. People get their mail there.



RE/SEARCH: What do you think drives people to investigate alternative spiritualities?

STARHAWK: Many of the religions in which we were raised did not actually provide what we needed spiritually. They had become focused on form, money, and their own internal bureaucracies. There is a great hunger for a spirituality that values the earth. Certainly, valuing women was important–that’s probably the core reason I became a Pagan.

A lot of established religions have, over the past thirty years, made some changes and “opened up” in a lot of ways. But when I became a Pagan, in 1968, those changes had yet to occur. Probably many of them wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been a lot of challenges posed by alternative religions.

A lot of people in their teens and twenties are well aware that, unless we make some radical changes in our society and in our way of living, we’re heading down an unsustainable road. The necessary social changes need to be accompanied by changes in consciousness, as well as in political and economic structures. Changes in consciousness come about through changes in myth, ritual, and what we celebrate. Besides, Paganism is fun!

R/S: Describe your spirituality–

S: The core of my spirituality is the understanding that the earth is alive–we’re part of a living, interconnected system, a web of life that is sacred. By “sacred,” I mean in the sense of what’s most important to us, what we stand for, what we want to protect. Deity/spirit/sacred is not something outside of the world, it’s immanent and embodied in the living world.

We focus on the earth being alive, but really, if you extend it out, so is the whole cosmos. The whole galaxy is a life form and a being. But we also have many different aspects of those energies and powers that sustain the universe. For the sake of convenience, we call them “Goddesses” and “Gods.” They have their own personalities and their own constellations of particular energies. They work with particular issues, in particular realms, awakening resonating forces within us.

When we say “the Goddess,” often what we’re talking about is that whole interwoven fabric of life. So we use “the Goddess” both as an overall term, and to refer to specific aspects.

In Reclaiming, we often talk about “the Goddess” as being the Triple Goddess: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. If you look at Goddesses and Gods closely, they usually represent aspects of the cycle of birth, growth, death and regeneration that repeat over and over again throughout nature and human life. So the Maiden/Mother/Crone is one way of looking at that cycle. The God, the Green Man, who grows up and is cut down and dies and is reborn again, is another aspect of that cycle. The moon is another aspect. Plant-life is another.

R/S: How do you apply the metaphor of the Triple Goddess in your own life?

S: I’m somewhere between the Mother and the crotchety old Crone, depending on which day you see me. In human life, we go through cycles in terms of age and experience, but we also continually go back to different cycles and aspects. When I was blockading on the streets of Washington, D.C., I was the Maiden crusading for justice. But at the same time, I was also training and teaching people–trying to pass on my experience in activism, which was more like being the Crone.

When I found myself confronting an entire squad of mounted policemen and trying to get a whole crowd to sit down so they wouldn’t be trampled, I looked up at this guy on the horse and channeled the voice of Mom: “You people have created an incredibly dangerous situation here! What were you thinking?” So, an aspect of the Goddess can come through at any moment.

I had been training people for twenty years to sit or lie down if attacked by horses; the horses won’t–or at least don’t want to–trample you. They can slip and make a mistake, but by and large they don’t. It wasn’t until I was sitting under a horse that I reflected on the fact that I’d never actually tried out this theory before, but rather hoped that it was actually true! [laughs]

R/S: In your life, do the sacred and the mundane overlap?

S: They overlap a lot. I’m very lucky, in that most of the time I live out in the country and can spend a fair amount of time being in the garden or in the woods, just being present and communicating with the things that are around me. I also spend a fair amount of time teaching, leading rituals and speaking to groups, so I am able to be in more “sacred” states. But there are those other times when I’m stuck in traffic on the freeway, or trying to finish eighteen million things so I can do the next thing–when I have more jobs to do than time to do them. States of ecstasy are much harder to reach in these situations!

R/S: Your most influential book is The Spiral Dance. How many copies have sold in the past 20-odd years?

S: 310,000 copies, or maybe it was 350,000.

R/S: That’s amazing. Tell us how you came to write The Spiral Dance–

S: By that point, I had been a feminist for many years and felt it was important for women to have other models of spirituality besides the patriarchal ones. Also, it seemed important to have models of spirituality that were earth-based and earth-centered. There’s nothing in the book that’s revealing secrets that shouldn’t be revealed–I’ve never been a great one to shout, “Oh, this is so secret! This is so secret!” That really tends to support a kind of self-inflation. The real secrets of the Craft are the secrets that can’t be told . . . because you have to experience them!

R/S: Some of our intelligent, open-minded yet skeptical friends ask, “What can I possibly get out of attending a Pagan gathering?”

S: Well, first of all, I think that when you do ritual together with a group of people, or even when you do it alone, it’s a way of feeling a deep connection to your deepest values, and to those forces in the universe that most truly sustain and support our lives. In our tradition we work with things that are really pretty concrete, like the air and the earth and water and fire. It helps you to really, truly value those things that sustain our lives. And especially when you work with a community, it gives you support for your own personal growth and development, and for doing things that are sometimes quite difficult to do.

For me, I’ve also been a political activist for thirty years. And a lot of the reason I’ve been able to sustain that is we have a community of people who do that kind of thing together and who can support each other through the hard times, and who can encourage each other through the good times. And that helps you keep going, because a lot of what we do when we’re really trying to change the world can get hard, and can get discouraging. Plus, it’s fun! And fun–that’s important! When you go to something like the big Spiral Dance where you’ve got people hanging off the rafters doing their invocation and dancing ecstatically–it’s a helluva lot of fun!

R/S: Right. What was despicable about the New Age movement was its excessive amount of marketing hype, and excessive profits–a weekend expo could cost $500, and a $5 crystal would be priced at $50 at a New Age booth. How does Reclaiming meet its operating expenses? Unlike most churches, you don’t have paid clergy, right?

S: Well, we try to balance things. We believe that people should, ideally, get paid for their work and get paid fairly and well. But we also believe that events and spiritual things should be accessible to everybody who wants to come, whether they have money or not. And so it’s always a juggling act, because we live in a world in which if we do something, it often costs us money to put it on.

We have some rituals like the Spiral Dance which are a benefit for our collective for the year, that we charge money for and encourage people to pay well for. It costs no more–in fact, less than going to a rock concert. And if somebody shows up and says, “Hey, I just don’t have fifteen bucks,” we say, “Okay!”

R/S: Or you say, “Volunteer and do some work; help us clean up afterward!”

S: And when our rituals are out in a park and we’re not renting a hall, then most of them are free in public. If we teach classes, we charge for the classes but we have sliding scales. When we do a week-long Witch Camp or an intensive, you just can’t go somewhere for a week and get fed, housed and taught and everything else without it costing money. But we try to also offer scholarships and work exchange, and to keep the price within a reasonable range, and encourage people who don’t have a lot of money to come.

We’ve thought a lot about this. We haven’t always answered all the questions, and the answers we have come up with don’t always please everybody. We still get a lot of criticism sometimes for charging money at all. But we’ve definitely thought about it.

R/S: You began pioneering large-scale public rituals–

S: I felt this wasn’t just for a small, secret, private group to be doing–it should be offered to people. I was a political activist in the Sixties, and my natural inclination was, “If something is good, it should be shared. It belongs to the world.” I feel honored that I’ve been able to serve people in that way.

Now there are many public rituals going on all over the Bay Area, the country, and the world. People are taking charge of their own spiritual lives, and that’s very positive and important.



RE/SEARCH: Tell us about your home, Grayhaven.

DIANA PAXSON: We’ve lived in the house since 1971. My husband and brother-in-law had been profoundly affected by reading Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land at an impressionable age, and that’s where the idea of living in an extended family came from. We named our house “Grayhaven” because the family members had a variety of last names, and it seemed simpler just to give the house a name of its own.

The house has three-and-a-half floors. Over the years various friends and relations have lived with us, most of whom are still part of the family. There’s a living room large enough to waltz in, and every New Year’s Eve we remove the furniture, wax the floor, and people dance most of the night. We can host forty people for a ritual–the normal limitation on a Pagan group, which is the size of an apartment living room, doesn’t apply! And we host weddings from time to time.

I have altars in almost every room. I realized some time ago that if I invited the god/desses in I would be more likely to keep the house clean! The kitchen has goddesses in the four corners for the four directions, plus a shrine for female ancestors. The kitchen is the temple of the goddesses and grandmothers. In a sense, the whole house is a temple.

R/S: The Society for Creative Anachronism (S.C.A.) and the similarly-themed Renaissance Faires have attracted many Pagans over the years–

DP: In the early days, people who attended the S.C.A. fell into three basic groups: 1) those who had no particular religion and didn’t want one, 2) those who were still some kind of Christian, with varying degrees of fervor, and 3) Pagans. Most of the Pagans were “solitaries” practicing by themselves because in the Sixties, it was very hard to find a group–the British Wiccan traditions hadn’t reached the West Coast yet. But there were a lot of people who honored various old gods, primarily Norse and Celtic. They had private altars and felt a reverence for Nature.

Eventually, some of the people who met through the S.C.A. decided to get together for religious rituals as well. It being the Sixties, this took place within the larger context of, “We don’t like the world we grew up in, or the society and religion we were given. The civil rights movement changed society, so maybe we can change religion–or at least create a new one.” That’s exactly what we did.

R/S: You worked with the S.C.A. member and writer Marion Zimmer Bradley. Readers of The Mists of Avalon might be surprised that she was a Pagan in real life–


Diana Paxson DP: Marion had been interested in Occultism and British esoteric magical tradition since she was a teenager. She formed “The Aquarian Order of the Restoration” (A.O.R.) which aimed at restoring the balance between the masculine and the feminine in spirituality. Marion required everyone to take responsibility for one of the seasonal rituals. At that time I thought all I would ever be good for in a magical working would be to make sure the candles didn’t fall over! But when Marion required me to write a ritual, I discovered I could. My mother had named me after a Greek goddess, so from an early age I had read about my namesake. I had worked with mythological images and archetypes in college and graduate school, so when I started writing ritual, I already had a vocabulary and background. The fact that I could write ritual was extremely satisfying.

R/S: You also created an all-female coven with her–

DP: In 1978, a 19-year-old woman who was living with us and who had been on her own for awhile asked if we could have a coming-of-age ritual for her. We remembered our own puberty experiences, which ranged from really awful (those who started their periods with no education and thought they were dying) to anti-climactic. After some discussion we put together a ceremony involving a ritual bath–Marion had a hot tub by this time–and three women took the parts of the three aspects of the Goddess.

Most of the women at that ritual were also in the A.O.R., or in various Wiccan groups. Partly because we were a women-only group working solely with the Goddess, we contacted a different flavor of energy. It was so exhilarating that we thought, “Wow–let’s keep doing this!” So the women in that original ritual started meeting on the dark moon, because several of them already had full moon ceremonies they went to with other groups. And that became our Dark Moon Circle. It started in 1978 and is still meeting today–which is something of a record! [laughs]

At that time Marion was writing The Mists of Avalon, her version of the King Arthur legend. Her depiction of the priestesses was based in part on our work in Dark Moon Circle. Her great contribution to the Arthurian tradition was to tell the story completely from the point of view of the female characters. When Mists appeared in 1983, it became a major best-seller–and no one was more surprised than Marion! She was already well-known within the science fiction community, but this book reached a mainstream audience.

Dark Moon Circle was riding that cultural tide of feminist spirituality. And when Mists became famous, everybody in the world expected Marion to be Morgaine, the book’s heroine, and to be their own personal guru. This was more than anybody could have coped with, and she became increasingly reclusive. Her health started to fail, and by the end of the Eighties she was able to do very little.

For a long time, Marion had wanted to write the book that became The Forest House, about British Druids in the first century. It was based on Bellini’s opera, Norma. Because I knew British history as well as being familiar with the magical background of Avalon, she asked me to become her invisible collaborator. When The Forest House was a success, we wrote Lady of Avalon.

The most recent book in the series is Priestess of Avalon, which connects the British legend of Helena and the historical Emperor Constantine to Avalon. They lived during the era when official Paganism gave way to official Christianity. The question as to why Christianity superseded Paganism is one that haunts modern Pagans. In many ways, contemporary Paganism is in the same situation as early Christianity. It was mostly an urban religion, people tended to be relatively closeted, and there was a lot of fighting between factions. However, even with all the fighting between Pagan factions that I’ve seen, the early Christians still had them beat!

Marginalized groups tend to project their hostility onto each other rather than the outside world which is their real enemy–but which it’s not safe to attack. You see that in early Christianity and in contemporary Paganism as well. But now there’s this major shift from “We have to hide in people’s living rooms and hope no one notices us” to “Here we are, out in the open.” Which is what happened when Constantine [Roman emperor, 306�337] made Christianity the official state religion.

Diana Paxson R/S: How much of the Avalon books is based on history?


DP: It’s frustrating for Celtic scholars to read The Mists of Avalon because the Celts didn’t have the kind of religion that Marion portrayed. She wrote psychological, esoteric and archetypal truth, not historical truth. Mainly she was writing about the conflict between the old Goddess religion of the Priestesses of Avalon and the incoming patriarchal Christianity. Naturally, her protagonist Morgaine is very upset about this. At the end, Morgaine realizes that a lot of the spirituality of the Goddess has been transferred to the figure of Mary, and that the Goddess is going to survive–even if people do not realize that’s who they’re honoring. With medieval Christianity that’s pretty much what happened.

R/S: Are many fantasy writers Pagans?

DP: There’s Marion, myself, and maybe a few more. Many writers in their personal life are agnostic or some kind of Christian–consciously at least–but when they let the unconscious go they may invent absolutely wonderful Pagan theology. Anyone who studies mythology and ancient cultures and has any sensitivity will start pulling in kinds of mythic material, but it’s not necessarily the result of learning or practice. This is an important distinction.

It’s perfectly possible to read a lot of fantasy literature and find good insights you can use in a ritual. What you won’t get is much information on how to do it, because the authors don’t know. They’re great at describing spiritual experiences, but not good at describing how you get there. I’m gradually moving toward writing more non-fiction, because it would be nice to be able to come right out and say something directly, rather than obliquely.

R/S: You and Marion Zimmer Bradley also started the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, which is still going strong today–

DP: The first form of the organization was the “Center for Non-Traditional Religion,” formed to host Dark Moon Circle and all the other groups that were meeting in her garage. When Marion decided to withdraw from Pagan practice, the incorporation was transferred to “Spiral,” so that we could continue consecrating clergy and receive tax-deductible donations.

“The Fellowship of the Spiral Path” is a legally recognized religious corporation in the State of California. We do distinguish, however, between the role played by ordained clergy and the ability to at as a priest or priestess in one’s own circle. However, besides ritual and magical skills, a Pagan minister needs organizational and pastoral counseling skills, so we started developing training for that. You didn’t necessarily need this to act as a priest or priestess, but you needed it if you were going to be in a public role. It requires an oath whereby, karmically, you’re basically stating, “I am now fair game. If someone needs a priest or a priestess, I’m available.”

At the time, I knew that in some ways this was a really stupid thing to do, because once you have made that commitment, you give up your right to say “No.” Marion and I were consecrated in the same ceremony. At first I worried about validity, because we had had to put the training program together ourselves, but when I got involved in the larger Pagan community and began meeting people like Starhawk and Margot Adler, I discovered that many leaders of the contemporary Pagan movement had had to bootstrap themselves up as well, which made me feel much better.
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RE/Search: Tell us more about the Radical Faeries–

Jack Davis: I learned about the Radical Faeries when I was still living in Illinois. The first Faerie gathering took place in 1979 in Arizona, and the first gathering I attended was in Oregon in 1983. Radical Faeries tend to be gay men who are not in the gay mainstream, like me. As a kid growing up, I always felt unique. That feeling of isolation continued past childhood. Stonewall happened in 1969 and there was a kind of mainstreaming of gay culture, but again, Radical Faeries tend to be people who don’t fit into any mainstream–gay or otherwise. When I went to my first Radical Faerie gathering, I saw all these other fags who didn’t fit in, either. They were political, they did ritual, and they were funny. It felt like “coming home”–finding all these other weird people who not only did the same crazy things I did–they appreciated that I did them.

Many Radical Faeries do Wiccan ritual, but they’re very anarchistic about how to do it. The distinction between Wiccans and Radical Faeries is that Radical Faeries are really good at raising energy, but they aren’t always good at grounding it. Whereas I like ritual that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. If I’m leading a ritual, at the end I might say, “Okay, the planned part of the ritual is over.” Then people may continue doing what they’re doing–usually it’s drumming, dancing, and singing.

I believe there are eight or ten other Radical Faerie groups who own land in the U.S. Short Mountain in Tennessee owned their land before we owned Wolf Creek.

R/S: Have the Radical Faeries changed as a result of AIDS?

JD: Significantly, I never expected to be an elder at my age, but I am one now because a lot of Faeries my age or older have died. Also, a lot of Faeries who knew our history are just not around anymore. I’ve kept records and over a hundred of my friends have died–most of them Radical Faeries. Fortunately, there are new Faeries with new energy showing up. The younger generation has a bit more of an edge–they’re more street-smart.

I’ve learned to confront death with a certain amount of humor. In San Francisco so many of my friends were dying that we Radical Faeries felt free to deal with death and memorials the way we wanted to. Some Radical Faeries started planning their memorial service before they died, saying, “I don’t want a memorial–I want a party instead!” I led one memorial at a sex club which had a number of huge beds. We put two together, made an altar, stood around it in a circle and talked about the person who had died.

I had the very humbling experience of watching a friend die. About thirty of us were crowded into a hospital room, and we watched him take his last breath. It was amazing to realize that this spirit had just left this body. We could touch him, kiss him and say goodbye, and talk to his lover. This was an intense experience that not many people have.



R/S: Didn’t you coin the word “polyamory”?

MG: “Non-monogamy” is a popular notion among Pagans. In the Sixties there were a lot of people working on utopian communities and engaging in active social experimentation. They weren’t necessarily Pagans; their focus was more on the sociological aspect rather than on religion and mysticism. But nobody had a word for polyamory; they were defining themselves by negatives!

I said to Oberon, “We need a better defining word for our multiple relationships.” Claude Steiner had coined “omnigamy,” which has to be the ugliest word I’ve ever heard in my life—sorry, Claude. What does it mean: “marrying everybody?” Another term being bandied about was “polyfidelity” [which sounds like high fidelity]. But the idea needed to be about loving, not marrying, and there was no one word that embraced it all. Finally I realized, “This is about love and having many lovers. This is really about people who have many lovers and many loving relationships.”

I’m a person who loves words, and in fact I’ve pursued linguistic studies. I grew up with a classical education and, besides taking four years of Latin, have studied a little Greek on my own. I’ve always been interested in paleontology, and have worked in the medical profession, so I understood a lot of medical terminology in Greek and Latin. I started playing with Greek and Latin roots and came up with “poly,” which was already being used in “polyfidelity.” But “fidelity,” the notion of being faithful, always smacked to me of moral preaching. Besides, I wanted a term that was more about love. So I took the Latin root for love, “amor” (“amour” is the French twist on that) and the Greek root “poly” (meaning many), put the two together, and created the word “polyamory.”

Here’s a word, an umbrella term, that describes what we’re doing, I said. The movement was already there, but finally it had a word it could rally around. It was no longer defining itself by what it wasn’t. Polyamory is now listed in dictionaries; there are books about it; and it’s listed on the Web. The word has spread all over the world. The reason is because it is difficult to do something you have no word for. Some people are doing things they have no word for, defining the ineffable, but by and large they will remain isolated in their own universe until they find a word that other people can congregate around. This process works like salt crystals that coalesce around a single seed-crystal. The word “polyamory” is the seed-crystal, and the movement is collecting around that. Because if you can think it and say it, then you can actually BE it. Adrienne Rich once said, “Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult to come by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language: this will become, not merely unspoken but unspeakable.” What I stand for is creating possibilities. We do that with words; the word gives a sound, and the sound launches the reality.

The goddess Saraswati created all that we see and recognize as the universe. She was hatched from a cosmic egg in the void. Initially she stood up and sang a single note, and her pure tone vibrated everything into being. The universe, out of chaos, began pulsing into its evolutionary order. Each of us, when we come up with a vision and name it, are Saraswati, recreating her act of creation. Each of us are gods and goddesses capable of creation by that act of naming a thing that has no name.



RE/Search: Let’s discuss death–

Joi Wolfwomyn: Over the past ten years I’ve done a lot of work with the dying . . . dealing with death, doing grief counseling. I’ve handled many bodies, including the bodies of friends of mine.

A friend of mine named Crystal died. Those of us who were the Glamazon Warriors had been in the caregiving circle of Crystal when she died. In the drag queen pantheon we’ve created, she is the ascended Goddess of Glamour. She was very much into Egyptian magic, so my friend Goneaway and I ripped up 15 yards of black silk into strips, went into the mortuary and wrapped Crystal’s body Egyptian-mummy style. Here was our best friend who was alive a day and a half ago–although not very. So we burned incense, rang bells and wrapped her body. On her chest we bound an owl feather and a peacock feather for wisdom and glamour. A lot of people sent things to be wrapped up with her: her teddy bear, glitter, coins to go over her eyes and mouth. Everybody had put something in there, including Crystal’s parents who had known her as “Eric.” This was an incredible bonding moment.

Before she had gotten sick, she had designed a copper death mask for herself much like the Egyptian masks on mummies. It was a copper skull with two tubes coming out it, and those came down and crossed over into a copper heart that was filled with her earrings, her favorite perfume, and really bad leaf, because that’s what she smoked a lot of when she was sick. Goneaway and Cirus carved the eyes of Horus and runes into the outside of her casket.

The morticians were great. They had put her up on blocks so we could get the fabric under her. They warned us, “Be careful you don’t drop her head, because her mouth is glued shut. If you drop her head, the lip will give before the glue does”–meaning we might rip her face open. So of course we did drop her once. That was a defining moment–when that happened, and her mouth didn’t break open, it broke the tension and we laughed. But we were still able to maintain magical focus. The day after her death, the five of us went to the beach and did circle ritual there, including running naked and screaming into the ocean at 1 A.M. on New Year’s Eve.

Just this past year an old, dear friend named Maudie died. This was the first time I have tended, bathed, and dressed a body alone. It was more intense because she had been autopsied–she had these whip stitches all up her chest and her body. She looked like a big rag doll. I just thought, “This is really strange.”

So much of this culture is invested in avoiding death; people don’t touch their friends when they’re dead. It’s like, “Okay, somebody else take it away and deal with it.” If it’s a casket funeral the attitude is, “Okay, we’ll look at them after they’ve been made up and dressed to look like something they aren’t. Then we’ll close it, lock it, and seal it away in cement.” Or, “We’ll burn them and put them in this little sealed jar and never handle them again.” And it’s wrong–people should not disconnect. Even though the Pagan community vocalizes about how “Death is just naturally part of the cycle,” there is still avoidance, with people feeling guilty because they’re hurt and upset. No–we still need to make death more of a part of our life.


Joi Wolfwomyn There has to be a way and a structure whereby we bring death back into everyday life. I’ve dealt with people who have been Pagan for thirty years, but when they die, that little seed that was planted by their monotheistic upbringing springs back to life: “Am I going to be judged on Judgment Day?” People who weren’t brought up with that “judgment” notion don’t seem to go through that fear phase.

Ultimately I’d like to see our Western Culture accept death as a normal part of everything else–not have it be something that’s hidden away, not talked about or dealt with. The death of my friend who had that autopsy was a kind of rite of passage for me. Previously there had been a co-priest in attendance whenever I had dealt with friends’ bodies, but this was the first time I had gone into a room containing a dead body all by myself, dressed her in her ritual drag and done her ritual make-up. I veiled her face and then wheeled her out into the room where the wake was to take place. And not only her Pagan family but her “straight” family were there. Her partner brought their son up to her body and lifted the veil so that the boy knew that his mother was dead. It was not horrible; it just was. This was definitely something to grieve and be sad about–it wasn’t, “No, you can’t feel anything.” It was also very much a feeling of “She’s dead; her body is leaving us.”

We packed all of her ritual tools, including her staff, wand and broom into her shroud. The crematorium was wonderful, because they didn’t interfere and allowed us complete freedom to dress her body in full ritual garb and make-up before putting the body into the crematorium oven.

Each time I handle the bodies of my friends, I feel a power arising that’s unlike other magical powers and energies–you feel fully yourself in that state of presence. This level of awareness is absolutely required to deal with the dead–especially dead that you know. As part of the Faerie community, there were several years when I had ten or more people a year dying in my lap. And people wonder why I’m an extremist!

It’s a gift that I can go in and hold people when they die–not everybody can do that, although it would be nice. As word got around that I was willing and capable, strangers started calling me: “Hi, I’m dying. Would you come sit with me?” That has been interesting in and of itself.

I want to see people and the culture at large embrace death as part of life, instead of being afraid. People don’t want to think about dying and not existing anymore. People have an ego need to perpetuate the individuality of self, whether it’s manifested as “I’ll go live in Heaven!” or “I’ll be reincarnated!” But fundamentally, death happens and the world goes on.

Personally, I don’t buy the reincarnation theory, because that’s still an ego perpetuation of the individual. A part of me thinks I’m having all my lives at once! I believe that the evolution of humanity will go on. It’s all just theory, and none of us really know. And it has to be okay to not really know.

The whole profit-making industry that’s built up around death is insane. In Tibet, people staged open-air mountain top burials, and after the vultures picked the bones clean, you made ritual tools out of the bones. Some people think that’s weird, but it makes total sense to me. I’ve made ritual objects out of the bones and hair of my pets, familiars and friends for the past ten years. I have wands with hair from dead friends woven into them, and jars on my altar containing the ashes of friends.

My friend Daisy was a “rave” kid, and he wore these little bottles containing glass beads, stone chips and tiny objects in them. After he died, I took his ashes and made a bunch of little reliquary bottles, because that’s what he wanted. I had to search all over for Mardi Gras supplies, plus little plastic babies, and crack them up with a hammer and mix them in with his ashes. I made these little bottles and gave them to all of his friends and his relatives.

As a graduate of a Pagan Seminary, I’m actually a credentialed priest in California. So I get to go in and handle the bodies. A couple of hospitals know me now; I’ve done rituals in more ICUs and hospital rooms than I care to think about. When my partner Kalyn died at Alta Bates, several of the nurses told me they really liked hearing my chanting coming from his room. They said it was soothing, and that everybody on that floor slept better.

R/S: Doesn’t it feel strange: handling the body of your friends?

JW: It’s always odd; I’ll never say, “Yeah, I’m used to it.” It’s weird and strange, but somebody has to do it. Personally, I’d rather it was me doing what I know they wanted, rather than have some total stranger involved.

Occasionally I sit down and think, “This is not what I thought my life would be: handling dead bodies all the time!” But if I can do it, then it is what I should be doing, because not everybody can. Lots of people see a dead cat and flip out.

I’ve had many people die in my lap. That’s how it started: I would hold people as they were dying and they would die in my lap. Over the past few years I’ve been called to attend a lot more people who have died, which meant I wasn’t always part of their death. Maybe I last saw the person perfectly alive and now they’re a stitched-up body–and that’s strange.

I keep my focus by chanting a lot, because all these mysterious things happen. There is an energy field surrounding dead bodies that is intense; all this energy in the cellular structure of the body is evaporating. Most cultures assume that process takes at least three days.

At this point my life project is to open a Pagan cemetery. There are religious exemptions permitting cemeteries to do burials without embalming chemicals and a foot-thick cement box, which is the normal regulation–most Pagans would rather go back naked to the earth. You have to qualify for a religious exemption, which basically requires founding a church–that’s a 501c3. So I’m basically founding the Church of the Androgyne. It will be a church for people who live their lives and worship deities outside of the polarized gender spectrum. The biggest regulation for cemeteries is that you can’t be anywhere near a water table, which makes complete sense. I’m looking into Eastern Washington, New Mexico and possibly Tennessee–the latter two states already have home burial laws. Who knows? I’ve got a few more years of research to do before I really decide. Which is fine, because that will give me a chance to get an established church together beforehand.



R/S: So where does the shape of the modern Craft come from?

DF: At any given point in the history of an occult tradition, it is shaped by two factors: where it actually comes from and where its current practitioners THINK it comes from. The former is the clay the group has to work with; the latter is the shape they form that clay into. Currently, for the Craft movement in the US and UK, that shape is Celtic. Since there is precious little in the way of written pre-Christian Celtic history, there has been a tendency to look for inspiration to living cultures that seem similar. A majority of these are shamanic, so shamanism has become an important shaping force on contemporary Craft.

R/S: That reminds me: what are the oldest written sources for Pagan theory and ritual?

DF: Well, the oldest Pagan texts in the West are myths, like Gilgamesh. But if you’re talking about texts ABOUT Paganism, then late Neoplatonic theurgy and late Classical material provide some of the earliest material–we’re referring to the writings of Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus, among others. In their search for the most ancient sources of Pagan “theory” or history, most Pagans today don’t look at Neoplatonism. When modern Pagans look for their Pagan ancestors, they pretty much restrict their search to tribal peoples living in the woods of Western Europe. The Neoplatonic theurgists, on the other hand, were highly educated, urban, intellectual Pagans–the end products of a Pagan academic system spanning over two thousand years. There’s an Arabic connection here as well; one I’ve written about at some length in an article called: “Harran: Last Refuge of Classical Paganism.” [see appendix]. I am also in the process of organizing a symposium on this at UC Berkeley for Spring 2002.

Julian (called “the Apostate”), the last Pagan Emperor of Rome, was a Neoplatonist. In his attempt to revitalize Paganism in the Roman Empire, he asked his friend, the philosopher Sallustius, to prepare a sort of “catechism” of Paganism. Titled On the Gods and the World, this is a marvelous book of Pagan theology and it is usually overlooked by modern Pagans. It is filled with wonderful pithy statements. Speaking of myths, for example, Sallustius says, “Now these things never happened, but always are.” In fact, Gerald Gardner commended the teaching of Sallustius for “its startling modernity–it might have been spoken yesterday. Further, it might have been spoken at a witch meeting, at any time, as a general statement of their creed.” So, Gardner himself said that this Neoplatonic “catechism” described the beliefs of the witch group he joined. In the terms I used before, if Celtic shamanism is the shape of modern Craft, then late Neoplatonic theurgy is the clay out of which it has been shaped.

Another early source of “Pagan” theological writing is the Hermetica, said to be the teachings of Hermes Trismegistos and recorded in Hellenistic Egypt c. 2nd century CE. Get the Copenhaver translation from Cambridge; the other 4-volume set available (the Scott translation) contains much corrupt source material, although Scott’s introduction and notes are great.

There are often problems with such written Pagan “source” material, a major one being that most were translated decades ago by Christians, who when they encountered phrases like “the divine” translated it as “God.” Greek and Latin are both gendered languages with masculine as the default, so any gender-neutral concept would have been indicated by a gendered term, so we have what was probably “Parent” in the original getting translated as “Father.” This kind of patriarchal language can be very off-putting to modern Pagans.

Of course, there are a lot of non-Western Pagan texts that are much older–the Mahabharata; the Bhagavad-Gita; the Vedas; Upanishads–they’re all Pagan texts.

R/S: Some people think that “God” is something that humans can’t really conceive of–

DF: In Neoplatonism, there’s the idea that the ultimate Divine is beyond gender–a “One” beyond human conception. This concept is found in Gardnerian Craft and called “Dryghton.” It’s also a thoroughly Pagan concept. The conflict in late antiquity was NOT “one God versus many Gods”–monotheism versus polytheism; that was a rhetorical device used in Christian propaganda. The real conflict was between the monotheism of the Christians and the monism of the Pagans. The Christians said there was only one God and his name was YHVH, so all other gods were false. The Pagans said there was ultimately only one Divine Unity (which they sometimes called “God”), so it necessarily had to encompass and embrace all gods and all faiths. It was a conflict of exclusivity vs. inclusivity. The fact that non-dualism is at the heart of the Western Pagan tradition has been obscured or lost, because we Pagans have let the Christians of late antiquity define the terms of the argument!

Related to this, one issue which many Pagans aren’t clear on is Transcendence (“beyond the material world”) versus immanence (“within the material world”). Many Pagans, adopting a Christian usage misunderstand transcendence to mean “not immanent,” but neither “transcendence” nor “Immanence” necessarily excludes the other–Deity can be both immanent and transcendent. But because of buying into Christian rhetoric, many Pagans talk only in terms of immanence–again, we’re letting the terms be defined by the Christian dualists.

R/S: Can you explain the concept of Pantheism?

DF: Basically, Pantheism is the idea that the Divine is the material universe. Most Pagans I know are actually “panentheists,” they just haven’t heard the term before. Panentheism argues that the Divine is manifest as the material universe, but is also more than that. Almost all Pagans believe both in accepting our physical bodies as ourselves, but at the same time in a reincarnation that says that something transcends the death of that body. The old Hermetic dictum of “As above, so below” would certainly argue that, in this as in all things, we are a reflection of the Divine.

R/S: How old is the Wiccan Rede [ethic]?

DF: The earliest known appearance of the Rede as: “An it harm none, do what you will” was in the Gardnerian tradition and was written by Doreen Valiente. She, in turn, based it on the following, passed along by Gardner: “[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, ‘Do what you like so long as you harm no one.’ [The Meaning of Witchcraft] The passage to which Gardner refers can be found in a story by Pierre Louys called “The Adventures of King Pausol” [1901], a story about a utopian kingdom whose monarch has reduced all laws to two:

“I. Do no wrong to thy neighbor.

II. Observing this, do as thou pleasest.” –that’s the first written appearance, as far as I know. Misinformed assumptions about the Rede being copied from Crowley has resulted in an occasional drift to “An it harm none, do what thou wilt,” but this was not the original wording. The “Do what thou wilt” part is much older than both anyway, and can be found in Rabelais.