RE/SEARCH, 20 Romolo #B, San Francisco CA 94133 | Call 415.362.1465 |

Modern Pagans Excerpt: Don Frew

Back to Modern Pagans

Don Frew & Anna Korn 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.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply