Monday, September 8, 2014

The Solitary Path: my time with a Neo-Pagan practitioner

Yesterday, I interviewed and joined a friend of mine on a brief ritual as part of his faith tradition. My friend is what you would call an eclectic, solitary Neo-Pagan. What exactly is this? I'll explain.

Neo-Paganism is a term that describes a number of loosely connected modern religions. The religions are attempts to reconstruct ancient pagan practices (known as Reconstructionist Pagans) or pagans who use elements of ancient religions tied with modern practices and philosophies. Thus far, I've covered one Neo-Pagan religion, Wicca, however there are other Neo-Pagan religions.

My friend is a solitary practitioner of Neo-Paganism, meaning he practices his faith alone without any group influence. He may at times join others in worship, but he strongly prefers to practice alone. He is also eclectic, meaning he draws from a number of different sources and pantheons. He identifies himself as above all else, being a devotee of the Mother Goddess.

My friend's faith has similarities to Wicca, in fact, Wicca was how he started out on his path. However, he has since evolved into his own practice which is separate from Wicca.

His faith is a common story among people in the Neo-Pagan community. Many start out in Wicca and find it no longer suits their needs and outgrow it.

Some similarities between my friend's individual faith and Wicca:

  • Both worship a God and Goddess figure rooted in nature.
  • Both believe in magic.
  • Both honor nature.
  • Both use similar ritual tools.
  • Both use meditation.
  • Both borrow from ancient pantheons and mythology.
  • Both believe in channeling energy and working with it to alter their world.
Some differences between my friend's faith and Wicca:
  • My friend rejects the aspects of Wicca he describes as "occult based" By this he means the ceremonial magic elements taken from Renaissance magic, the OTO, Rosicrucians, etc. For instance, my friend doesn't call upon the Guardians of the Watchtowers, or use set ceremonial formulas. He also rejects the elements that come into the faith from Kaballah.
  • Wiccans use the classical four elements united by a fifth element, spirit. My friend doesn't believe in the four elements.
  • Wicca is traditionally structured with certain feast days, ceremonies, and in the most traditional versions of it, set words and ritual directions in ceremonies. My friend's faith is free form. While he sometimes celebrates the same holidays, he doesn't commemorate them with rituals, but rather goes out to party or just remembers the day.
  • My friend borrows from other faiths and beliefs, including Hinduism, Asatru, New Age religions, etc.
  • My friend's ceremonies are informal and don't usually involve casting circles, summoning various beings, etc.
  • Wicca divides the natural world into male and female entities. The Sun is symbolically masculine, the Moon feminine, etc. My friend sees male and female in all things,
  • My friend uses the same ritual tools as Wicca, though only when he feels that they would be appropriate. Also, within Wicca, the tools are associated with various elements. As my friend doesn't believe in the four elements, the tools have different meanings.
My friend's altar:

Here are the ritual items held on my friend's altar, as well as other items important to his faith.

There are three items on the back wall which represent the God principle of nature: the Horned God, which represents animals, death, the Otherworld, and our animal nature. The Green Man who represents the plant world and nature itself, Finally, the Sun, which represents the life giving power of the Sun and light.

Directly on the altar itself are three items which represent the Goddess, or feminine aspect of nature. They are: a bowl of sea shells which represent the waters of the earth that give life and abundance. There's candle in a green candle holder representing that she too gives life giving light through the Sun and other ways, and also represents nature with the green holder. 

Then there is the central tool my friend uses: a cauldron. The cauldron to him represents the whole cycle of life death and rebirth. This is due to the Celtic myths involving cauldrons where the cauldron of a goddess was able to resurrect the dead, and the cauldron of the All Father (a powerful god) was able to feed people without ever emptying. For him, this symbol represents male, female, Goddess, and God. It represents all of the universe and is his most prized tool.

Also on the altar are flowers and a gourd to remember the season, as well as an image of Dionysus (in his bull horned form), a figure which to him represents emancipation, being yourself, and enjoying your natural self.

He made this statue, as well as another one which represents the Horned God. I think he did well on both of them.

And here are my friend's classical tools which are used in Wicca as well:

His knife. To Wiccans, the knife represents fire usually and is associated with projecting your will. To my friend, the knife represents cutting away that which is harmful to you, such as attachments to unhealthy things.

His chalice. To Wiccans, this represents the element of water and also represents the womb of the Goddess. My friend still sees the womb imagery as he does in the cauldron, but doesn't see the same association with water. Often he uses it for offerings. I love his chalice because it's shaped like a goat head at the base.

His pentacle. For Wiccans, this is a symbol of the element of earth and symbolizes grounding. For my friend, it represents the Star of Venus and thus represents the Goddess in her celestial forms.

My friend's wand collection. My friend has multiple versions of each tool, But the most of any tool he has are his wands. To Wiccans, the wand represents air, and also is used to direct the will. My friend only sees it as a tool to direct his energy when working magic.

My friend also has a cabinet full of herbs which is quite extensive.

And a few more miscellaneous items he uses, including a crystal ball for divination (which he says is not about telling the future for him, but sorting out things in his own head and reading energy around him), a singing bowl, and three books which contain writings of his beliefs, practices, and meditations.

The symbol on the first two books is called a triskelion and is a very ancient symbol dating back to the neolithic (new stone age) period that has had many meanings throughout history. For him it symbolizes the flow of energy and is his primary spiritual symbol and the one that represents his faith to him. He even has it tattooed on his shoulder.

I asked him a series of questions. The main one was what divinity meant to him. He said that he feels like there is something like the Hindu concept of Brahman, the ultimate reality. This reality is neither male nor female, conscious nor unconscious, existent nor non-existent, Everything is part of this ultimate reality. He said he was a pantheist and believed that everything that exists is divine and adds to the divine reality like a rich tapestry. He expresses this pantheism through animism (believing everything has a spirit or energy) and polytheism with the Gods

He sees the Goddess as the Great Mother Goddess, and the feminine expression of everything that's out there. He primarily worships her, but all the other goddesses in history have represented different aspects of her.

He also worships, though not as extensively it seems, the All Father, an all encompassing god that represents the masculine expression of everything. He feels that all the gods in history have represented different aspects of him.

Neither is superior to the other, and to him both of them are in every single thing in this universe. He says that he doesn't believe the Gods created us, that all living things create the Gods and that we only enhance them. The Goddess and God are everything, therefore they are life and death all at the same time, kindness and cruelty, Summer and Winter, etc.

He also says that he believes everyone's path is different and that his is open to all paths because all of the gods are aspects of the ultimate divine reality. He said he even feels that atheism fits into his beliefs because he constantly doubts everything. He acknowledged it could all just be in his head and that none of this is real. But he said that all it does is help him to sort out his life, help him overcome his problems, and help him feel connected to the world around him. For him, it's about making his own reality.

The Ceremony:

The ceremony was pretty simple. We went on a hike, no ritual tools, no books, no special robes, no candles, just us. We went up a trail on the mountainside near our homes. We got to a small clearing with some stones set up in a circle around a little pool. There was a pipe running off water from the snow cap up on top of the mountain down into the pool which was trickling down into a little stream down the mountainside.

We stopped here and my friend sat and meditated on nature and his life. I took pictures while he did.

After meditating, he took water onto his hand streaming into the pool from the pipe. He used it to anoint various parts of his body and chakra points. He said this was to feel cleansed and empowered by nature.

He then talked about some personal issues his mediation help get some clarity on. Prior to that, I had been tossing pebbles into the pool, and I explained how the ripples acted like sound or light waves and how energy moves in waves. and that the surrounding objects create other ripples and patterns. He said that was a great symbol of his belief on spiritual energy, that it's all around us, and we can make it move and manipulate it, but it affects everything around us, and what you put out can bounce back to you in unexpected ways.

We then packed up and left the spot. That was the whole ritual. He said this was typical ritual for him. No tools or fancy words, just him meditating in nature on personal problems, the Goddess, nature itself, or something else. He only uses the other ritual stuff when the urge or need arises, but for the most part, this was how he practiced his religion.

Overall Experience:

Even though I don't believe in spiritual energy or anything supernatural, I have to say, that his beliefs and practices are pretty interesting and cool. Mostly it just feels like self help framed in a spiritual setting. Indeed, he told me he thinks people who do self help are doing magic and are not any different than him. He has his set beliefs, but he's open to change and new possibilities. He doesn't force his beliefs on anyone nor decry others for their beliefs. He just lives life his way, and that involves a magical worldview.

He's very realistic and says that magic won't solve your problems. That saying a spell won't make someone fall in love with you, make your body image problems go away, or get you the money you want. Instead, they'll give you focus and open you up to possible avenues to make those things happen for yourself. But ultimately you must do the work.

I have no problems with spiritual systems like this existing as long as they don't cause problems like people not seeking real medical attention in favor of spiritual healing, or people denying science in place of pseudoscience and woo woo. For my friend, this all seems to just be something that helps him feel connected with nature, the world around him, the universe, and help him deal with issues in his life that he might not otherwise find a good avenue to deal with. I think it's a beautiful and charming outlook he has. So I say, have fun.


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