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Modern Pagans Excerpt: Diana L. Paxson

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Diana Paxson 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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