Fear, ignorance, and hate are the very things that keep “alternative” views, and those who live them, marginalized and oppressed. This bigotry can manifest at any level from simply turning a blind eye in the hopes that such people will go away to something more brutal: a beating, a lynching, a murder. A holocaust. A genocide. This book was written to demystify the neo-pagans and their beliefs, both to other neo-pagans and to anyone who might wish simply to learn more. To my mind, the ones who need to read this the most are the very ones who will stick their nose in the air and thump their holy book. That sort of nonsense is how intolerance becomes injustice, and it’s what breeds such things on any side of the religious divide. I know this from firsthand experience. This book quite literally changed my life the first time I read it and actually helped me to better appreciate a great many religions — including the dreaded Christianity, whose followers had beaten me down for decades. With that in mind, for this review to mean much, I’m going to have to offer a large amount of my personal background because this book obviously ties directly into it. I’m also going to offer a great deal of commentary in this review that will likely come across as standoffish and maybe even preachy to some. I assure you such is not the intent, but sometimes we all get defensive — me as I write, you as you read. Communication begins when we both let our guards down.
Towards the end of my college career, nearly 20 years ago, I was introduced by a faithful Christian practitioner to a woman who claimed to be a high priestess in the Craft, having secured that title through the examination of her own instructor, ironically enough, in the same year I was born. She was raised in the Catholic tradition, having gone through the seminary and completed her studies with the highest of marks, before she questioned her faith and turned inward to discover a very different path. By the time I met her, she ran an eclectic spiritual circle where quite literally anyone was free to attend the ritual provided they entered the circle “in Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.” She patterned the ideals of what she was trying to accomplish, bringing people of various religious backgrounds together, after those of King Arthur and Camelot. According to legend, Arthur had one foot in old world paganism (represented by Merlin and some of the knights) and one foot in the Christianity (represented by Guinevere and some of the other knights) that was becoming prevalent in that area when he is said to have reigned. That diversity is part of what united the kingdom under his banner. I can’t say everyone in the circle had the same level of commitment to its ideals that she did. In fact, the same destructive infighting that brought down Camelot ended her circle, an irony that caused her a lot of mental anguish. So much for Perfect Love and Perfect Trust. For my part, I learned a great deal from her and was proud to call her friend.
The point she stressed at the very end of every single ritual is that the Burning Times were still upon us, that the simple dogmas of those who would not or could not listen, for whatever reason, meant that lives were in danger simply for accepting — or for even inquiring about — an alternate path. For this reason, a great many people in that circle stayed “in the broom closet.” Hiding my own transgender identity from everyone at that point and being all too aware of this very real danger from the yokels all around (many of whom were in my own family) who proudly declared hateful things for no reason at all, I took this reminder to heart. It wasn’t an exercise in academics. You could read in the newspapers (remember those?) every single day of someone getting beaten or killed because of somebody else’s self-righteous attitudes. The Inquisition formally ended with its final execution in Spain in 1826, but its spirit was alive and well on country roads and in back alleys of major cities. This reminder was always followed up by a scratchy, 3rd or 4th generation copy of this song. Regardless of what faith tradition you hold dear, please listen carefully to the lyrics before proceeding further on this review.
No doubt some of you bristled at the message, and no doubt some of you didn’t even finish listening. For those of you who did, I would imagine there’s a mix of anger and sadness, regardless of your personal background. Religion has always been designed from the beginning to unify the masses in a common vision. The problem is that religion means different things to different people. Those who find spirituality find that there are many paths up to the top of the mountain, as many paths as there are people, in fact. In the history of the world, nothing has ever worked as a one-size-fits-all concept, no matter how many carrots or sticks are used in the attempt. Religious intolerance has led to more wars in history than any other contributing factor. This continues today, especially in the world of Islam where that religion is currently undergoing its own version of the Reformation.
After all the others had gone home, my priestess friend and I would often gather at her kitchen table over coffee and delve into deep and meaningful discussion of various religions and traditions. Absolutely anything. Those discussions are at the root of my own spiritual path, which I began walking after what was to that point a lifetime of being bullied and menaced by my fundamentalist Christian family. As I told her in one of our discussions, I’ve never understood how a religion that was founded under conditions of such persecution could turn around and levy the same malice and tactics towards other outsiders, even against those who claimed also to be Christian. By this point, my studies in the Crusades had been going for a few years, one of the highlights of study being how on the way to the Holy Land, crusaders would stop and pick off other “heretical” Christian sects, to say nothing of anyone identifying as anything other than Christian. It is from my friend that I first learned the dreaded name of Torquemada. But at the same time, it was also during these college years that I met Christians who actually seemed to understand or follow anything Christ embodied, and it is one of the greatest ironies that it’s one of those tolerant Christians who led me into this experience. Curious, no? That combination is what helped me to stop judging whole religions, helped me to read individual people, and turned me to the idea of seeking my own answers within, based upon the whole of my experiences. As the saying goes, they who seek God read holy books; they who find God need no holy books. That said, I still find a great deal of beauty and wisdom in virtually every holy book I read, even if I don’t subscribe to the religions behind them. I can’t really claim to have found God, but I certainly learned to appreciate the creation itself. It’s hard not to be humbled when you grow up in the country surrounded by the vast, open night sky where the stars aren’t blacked out by light pollution from cities. The message of the Italian Renaissance, of which I am a great admirer, was that God is found in the evidence of the creation, a point that was deemed far too pagan and ultimately resulted in the Reformation because intolerance always reigns supreme even when “Love thy neighbor” is a mandate. Oh, irony… Beyond that, all I can say is there’s nothing quite like a firsthand experience of an angelic encounter at a young age to keep one’s mind open enough to separate teachings from followers. It’s an experience that I cannot and will not quantify or qualify to anyone else. It is simply mine. No one can take that away from me.
And that brings us back to this book, which was handed to me by my friend one evening during one of our all-night discussions wherein I told her about that angelic encounter and my inability to reconcile it with the people and religions I’ve come to know. Upon finishing this book that first time, I can’t tell you how invaluable it was to informing a baseline of communication between us. It was then, as it remains today, one of the only books to discuss the foundations of the modern pagan movement in the United States. It is one part scholarly dissertation, one part personal biography, and one part spiritual commentary. As much as it is an insider’s look into the pagan culture as it exists today, it is also an incredibly fair and balanced — if at times brutally honest — assessment of pretty much anything related to it or standing in perceived opposition to it.
The original version of this book, which I read nearly 20 years ago, was published in 1979. There have since been two updates, one in the mid 80s, and one after the turn of the millennium, before the author’s passing. I picked up both the ebook and the audiobook of this latest edition, which has been reworked from the ground up to encompass the ever-evolving developments of paganism since the birth of the internet.
Because of this book, I learned how to read the Bible and pretty much every other holy book I’ve gotten a hold of since through a dual lens as this book recommends, seeing such texts as both poetry and prose, each bearing forth a very different intent, and thus a very different meaning. To this day, I continue to learn about different religions, and I continue to draw from a great many of them those things that I find beautiful and helpful. It’s because of that influence that I felt, given all of the rapid and radical instances of growth and change in my world recently, that I should revisit this text. Doing so might very well be one of the best things I’ve done for myself in recent memory, right up there with letting go of grudges and paying off debts. I have to say, I’m most impressed with the updates all around, as they do give voice to the rather anarchic manifestation of neo-pagan groups and their social structures. It’s bananas, but it makes sense once you understand why and how it unfolded the way it did. It speaks directly to the fear of hierarchy and domination, things with which I readily identify given the eclectic path I’ve walked and my transgender nature.
Another friend of mine who was raised in Christianity, and with whom I shared this book, was so inspired what she was getting from the text that she shared this song with me while in the process of reading it. It’s a particular favorite of hers and speaks, I think, to the very heart of what spiritualism is all about.
I think it’s safe to say that the common understanding in faith traditions, behind the dogma, is alive and well regardless of what path we walk. All that’s required is that we set aside labels and simply listen to — and with — our hearts. For some, that will never be enough, and that’s why divisions in any religious sect and wars between religions will continue. But for those with ears to hear, these things are unnecessary.
Of course, there will always be those who get defensive about different ideas and say “this is a trick of the devil” or some such nonsense. There are many who will hear only what they want to hear, triggered by specific words or so insecure in their beliefs that they will retreat into fundamentalism with their fingers in their ears. That’s the kind of thing that keeps the battlefields freshly perpetuated with blood and ash. For myself, I’ll still subscribe to the philosophy of the Star Trek Vulcans, IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. From my own point of view, if God/dess — by any and all names — is truly limitless and beyond mortal comprehension, then it is not by reason alone that we will find our answers. Hearts must remain open to the idea of love. Last I checked, it’s something every religion claims to embrace. I submit it’s nearly impossible to kill or to inflict intentional harm upon someone you truly love, which is the entire point of the exercise of loving.
Religions fragment over the smallest of things, and our secular societies have done the same thing, all to the common detriment of our species and our world. Openness and tolerance are the means by which we find common ground and explore the concept of peace. This book is an excellent litmus test for just how open or not we might truly find ourselves to be. I won’t sit here and tell you I believe every word of it. Nature of the beast. But I most certainly believe in the idea behind it that demystification is the first step in overcoming fear and hatred. I also believe in the idea that, as bizarre as we can be, and as different as we can be, we have far more in common than we do points of separation. I believe the same regarding our philosophies and our religions.
At the risk of sounding a bit childish or impish as I wrap this up… I triple dog dare anyone — of any faith or of no claimed faith at all — to read this book with an open mind. Don’t think you can? The obstacle is the way, so says the enlightened masters of pretty much every faith out there. Can you rise to the challenge? Will you? If so, what can you expect to find? In the words of Master Yoda, “Only what you take with you.”