Second book review: Modern Paganism

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Hutton, R. The triumph of the moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft. Oxford University Press, 1999.

The book I have chosen for the Modern Paganism topic is The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton.

Hutton is an academic historian at the University of Bristol, UK, with a deep interest in modern and ancient Paganism and how it interacts with culture.

The book’s focus is British Wicca, and the reason I’ve chosen it from the reading list is that many of the other books focus on American pagan movements, which are not as relevant to me here in the UK. While I am not Wiccan, Wicca is the source of much of modern paganism, and its ideas and symbolism have percolated popular culture to an astonishing extent. Yet some of it is rooted in outdated scholarship and debunked theories.

According to Our Own Druidry, Hutton’s book “serves as a counter-balance to much of the information and theories that are likely to be encountered when reviewing Neo-Paganism in general”.

The first part of the book explores the background to the creation of modern Wicca, and discusses the influence of Romanticism, spiritualism and Victorian ideas of “nature” (including the archetypes of the wild horned god and the triple goddess, essentially created by Robert Graves) which were brought into Wiccan thought from the very beginning.

Other influences Hutton discusses are Freemasonry (which may have been the source of the liturgical phrases “merry meet” and “so mote it be”), and the ceremonial magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a 19th century magical order which included W.B. Yeats among its members. The Golden Dawn’s ritual structure (casting circles, calling quarters, use of four elements and pentagram symbols) was clearly a major influence on Gardner’s development of Wiccan ritual, which in turn has influenced other Pagan groups including much of British Druidry today.

Hutton debunks several modern Pagan myths in this book, skewering false beliefs with academic precision. The “witch cult” theory of Margaret Murray, the belief in pre-Christian goddess-worshipping matriarchies, the lack of Pagan origins for the Green Man figure seen in English churches…all are shown to be modern interpretations based often on insufficient evidence. Gardner’s own version of the events that led to the founding of Wicca is also shown to be more myth than history: it is highly unlikely that he was initiated into a secretive ancient coven by a mysterious “high priestess”.

The effect of wishful thinking, esoteric fantasy, charismatic individuals and some fairly poor scholarship all played a role in the creation of Wicca, although this does not necessarily mean that Wiccan practices are not valid as a modern religion, but that it cannot be claimed as a survival of ancient Paganism.

Triumph of the Moon also traces the development of Wicca after Gardner, in both Britain and the US, and the growth of modern “eclectic Wicca” or “eclectic Paganism” as well as how Wicca, originally a cult of (hetero)sexuality and fertility, became an environmentalist and feminist nature religion through influential writers such as Starhawk.

Hutton’s work may ruffle the feathers of Pagans who believe in the claims of unbroken ancient traditions, but I believe it is essential to know and understand the true history of modern Paganism if we are to take it forward into the future as a modern, environmentally aware and scientifically conscious way of life for the 21st century.



Three Kindreds: Nature spirits

Representation of wood spirits, Eden Project, Cornwall. Photo by me.

Representation of wood spirits, Eden Project, Cornwall. Photo by me.

While for some Pagans, the term “Nature Spirits” refers to otherworldly or mythical entities like fairies and dryads, as a naturalist I don’t believe such creatures exist outside of the realms of story and dream. For me, they are representations of the inherent consciousness of nature itself and remind us of our connections to it. The word “spirit” has unfortunate connotations in this context, as it suggests a dualistic metaphysics whereby “inanimate matter” is contrasted with “incorporeal spirit”. This seems to be a hangover of a Christian worldview and is not one that fits in my personal version of Druidry.

However, the word “spirit” comes from the Latin “spiritus”, which originally meant simply “breath” or “life”. Modern animists, such as Emma Restall-Orr and Graham Harvey interpret “spirit” in a different manner, as a “spark” or life-force, similar to the Classical Greek Pagan philosopher Aristotle. Taken in this way, Nature Spirits are all the various living creatures that we interact with and share this world with.

In Norse Paganism, Nature Spirits are often referred to as Landvaettir, or Land Wights. Patricia Lafayllve writes that the word wight is “used to refer to any being at all. Humans are wights…animals are also wights.”

Thus, it can be shown that there is no need to see Landvaettir or Nature Spirits as in any way “supernatural”. The real world is filled with Nature Spirits, who are amazing, evolved, sentient beings who together make up the vast tapestry of life of which we are a part. My pet gerbils, the birds and squirrels in the garden, the vast oak trees, the bugs and spiders, caterpillars and moths, tiny minnows and giant blue whales, elephants and mice and even the microbacteria that live within our bodies and keep us alive, all are Nature Spirits and all deserve to be respected and honoured.

In my personal practice, I tend to refer to these fellow-creatures as “Nature-kin”, partly to avoid the term “spirit”, and partly to reinforce a sense of relatedness, biological and moral kinship, with all life. The Nature-kin remind me that humans are not the centre of the universe, or the pinnacle of creation, but simply another animal, one part of nature in all its majesty and wonder. And this means we have a duty of care, of hospitality, to the rest of nature, and to all our Nature-kin.


Dangler, M. J. The Dedicant Path through the wheel of the year. Garanus, 2010.

Lafayllve, P. M. A practical Heathen’s guide to Asatru. Llewellyn, 2013.

Orr, E.R. The wakeful world: Animism, mind and the self in nature. Moon Books, 2012.

Found 12,000 Year-Old “Floating” Rock

Nature sometimes does weird, amazing, things!

Floating RockRare sight: The 12,000-year-old floating stone. (Photo: Mogens Eskesen / NRK)

In the village of Ljosland in Åseral, Vest-Agder County, you can experience a spectacular sight: A 12,000-year-old floating rock.

When Mogens Eskesen and his wife were hiking in the Ljosland Mountains, they caught sight of something special. A large rock “hovered” above the ground, only with the support of three smaller stones.

– We have never seen it before, though we have walked along the path several times. Nor have I ever heard of others who have seen it, he tells NRK.

Eskesen took several photos of it, and he does not believe it is made as a prank.

– I guess it has been here since the last Ice Age.

He is indeed right.

Ole Fridtjof Frigstad is a retired geologist and has previously worked at Agder Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden. He is amazed after seeing…

View original post 91 more words

Nature is speaking

In ADF, the Earth Mother is always honoured first and last in ritual, and Nature often forms the central focus of Druidry.

Conservation International have made a beautiful, moving and thought-provoking series of films looking at different aspects of Nature and how we as humans need them to thrive.

Nature is speaking – are we listening?

Watch the full series at Conservation International, and read more on the CI Blog.

A call for sanity

Pagan Pride. Image from Leodis Pagan Circle.

Pagan Pride. Image from Leodis Pagan Circle.

I said I wouldn’t get into this, but…

Once again, various corners of Pagan internet spaces have been riven with infighting, insults and gossip. Polytheists versus atheists, archetypalists versus literalists, reconstructionists versus revivalists, and it’s getting silly.

In fact, no, it’s not getting silly, it’s getting damaging. Look, we’re a small enough minority as it is without splitting ourselves even further into smaller and smaller groups (shades of Monty Python and the Judean People’s Front) who all hate each other.

While some Pagans are busy drawing battle lines, declaring war and building walls to keep out anyone who doesn’t fit their doctrinal purity (an idea anathema to Paganism in the ancient world and one which as Ronald Hutton said “evokes the smell of disinfectant and the sound of jackboots”), we forget that we have bigger problems.

Pagans are still persecuted, and I don’t just mean the Yazidis in the Middle East being slaughtered by ISIS, or the children killed in Africa for “witchcraft”. I mean the people in the UK and US who lose their jobs once they are outed as Wiccan, the parents who lose custody in divorce cases because of their beliefs, the families whose homes and businesses are attacked with bricks and petrol bombs for their religion.

And on top of this we have devastating climate change, deforestation, extinction, overpopulation: things that earth-centred Pagans should be on the frontlines fighting.

To tackle any of these issues we need to be united. What makes us Pagan isn’t what we believe, or how many gods (if any) we worship, or what race we are, or how we practice. What makes us Pagan is simply that we declare ourselves to be.

That means polytheists, atheists, Wiccans, Asatru, Druids, conservatives, liberals, whatever. We’re all Pagan. More than that, we’re all human.

So, please, can we stop throwing insults, threats and curses (magical and profane) at each other, recognise that what unites us is more important than what divides us, and stand together against the real issues we all face instead of creating imaginary ones of our own.


Two Powers final essay

The tree unites earth and sky. Image by me.

The tree unites earth and sky. Image by me.

The “Two Powers” are a key concept in ADF cosmology, and a central practice in ritual. The “Two Powers” refer to the currents of the Earth and the Sky, which the meditator visualises as flowing through their body and mingling together.

Our Own Druidry describes the Earth power as cool and nourishing as well as chaotic; the Sky power is described as bright, warm and ordered. I have practiced a Two Powers meditation as part of my daily devotionals each morning, and also make it a central “grounding and centering” practice in High Day rituals.

In my experience, the Earth power is soothing and familiar. This is the power that flows deep within the earth, and brings with it nourishment and growth. Rather than chaotic, I interpret the Earth power as restful and peaceful. It brings with it associations both of new life and of death, as we all return to the earth after we die.

The Sky power is the power of the sun, bringing golden, warming light. It is also the silver rays of the moon, reflecting the sun’s light and transforming it. In meditation this power feels more electric, and carries ideas of potential, transformation and awakening.

I have noticed a difference between doing the Two Powers indoors or out. Indoors at the shrine, it can be harder to connect the symbolism of the Two Powers with the reality of land and sky. Outside, when I can really feel the earth beneath my feet and the wind and sun on my face, it all feels so much more real and vital. Doing the Two Powers meditation sat on a glacial boulder by Eidfjord in Norway was particularly moving.

In ADF cosmology, the Two Powers portray a structure of the cosmos as one of both order and potential, spanning from the deep well of wisdom to the heights of the heavens. The “three Hallows” of ADF ritual symbolism reflect and recreate this structure. The deep well represents the Earth power, the fire the Sky power and the tree the world-tree that connects the two, rooted in the earth and reaching for the sky.

In a Norse hearth-culture, the Earth power is associated both with Midgard, the world on which we live, and also the deep well of Wyrd at the base of Yggdrasil, from whence comes fate, and wisdom. The Sky power can be associated with the “upper world” of Asgard, home of the gods, and also the divine twins Sunna and Mani, the sun and the moon. Yggdrasil, the world-tree, grows from the well of Wyrd and spans the nine realms with its branches.

The Two Powers can be representatives of various binary forces: light/dark, cold/hot, chaos/order. One suggested “binary” in The Dedicant Path Through the Wheel of the Year is  “feminine” and “masculine”. Gendering natural concepts and forces is one of the things that pushed me away from other forms of Wiccan-influenced Paganism. I  don’t see the need to impose our (heavily culturally constructed) notions of gender roles non-human nature, and since gender is a spectrum not a binary, it cannot be clearly mapped onto the idea of the Two Powers.

The Two Powers meditation is a symbolic and practical form of meditation for Druid ritual. Druidry is deeply connected to trees, and the image of the world-tree linking the powers of Earth and Sky is a very appropriate one, for any I-E hearth culture, as the tree was a common symbol across Europe, as was the sacred well and holy fire. Regular practice of this meditation helps us to attune to a Pagan view of the world, and connect to the two main powers flowing through the mythic cosmos.


ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

Dangler, Michael J. The ADF Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010

Egelhoff, Nicholas. Sunna’s Journey: Norse liturgy through the wheel of the year. Columbus, Garanus Publishing, 2012.

Seventh High Day recap: Samhain/Winternights

Home shrine set up for Samhain/WInternights. Image by me

Home shrine set up for Samhain/Winternights. Image by me

For Samhain/Winternights, I decorated my shrine with pumpkins, pine cones, and symbols of death, and celebrated with my first ritual from Nicholas Egelhoff’s Sunna’s Journey: Norse liturgy through the wheel of the year, which includes full ADF Core Order rituals for each of the eight High Days in a Norse hearth culture.

It was nice to not have to worry about writing the ritual myself this time, having a pre-prepared script took a lot of the leg work of planning and preparation out of things, and Egelhoff’s wording is beautiful throughout. The three kindreds are addressed as Forfedur (ancestors), Landvaettir (nature-kin) and Gudir (deities) respectively, and the offerings section to them was longer and more involved (though still simple enough for a small rite) than what I had done previously, which helped get me into the flow of things a lot more.

The gatekeeper for the rite was Hel, the Lady of the Underworld in Norse myth (and daughter of Loki).It took a lot of effort to overcome my residual Catholic programming and not wince when making offerings to Hel (“Hell”). I used a lovely Santa Muerte (Holy death) statue I got at a Dia de los Muertos event last year to represent Hel, as her skeletal face and flowing robes seemed fitting.

The main focus of the rite revolved around recounting a story of the first humans, Askr and Embla (Ash and Elm), who were carved out of driftwood by Odin and his brothers. The story told of the death of Askr and his afterlife in Hel’s hall. While I don’t believe in an afterlife, it was a beautiful tale and I interpreted it as saying how we all return to under the earth after death, and also live on in the memories of those still living.

Telling a story mid-rite was a new one for me, but it felt authentically Norse, with the tradition of the skalds and sagas, and made the central offering to Askr and Embla more meaningful for knowing something about them.

Guinness, skulls and candles. Image by me

Guinness, skulls and candles. Image by me

Offerings were also made to honour the ancestors, especially those close to us, which in my case was my mother who died last year, and my grandfather, who died some years before. As my family is Irish (albeit from the Viking-founded cities of Cork and Dublin), the offering was a bottle of Guinness…well, it had to be!

All in all, the rite was very moving and I look forward to doing more rituals with Sunna’s Journey in future.