Book review: Nature Mystics

nature mysticsBeattie, Rebecca. Pagan Portals: Nature Mystics: the literary gateway to modern Paganism. Moon Books, 2014.

This book, another title in the short Pagan Portals series from Moon Books, introduces the reader to a variety of modern (generally 19th and 20th century) writers who may be said to have influenced “the cultural environment that allowed modern Paganism to develop and flourish throughout the twentieth century”.

Beattie makes it clear that none of the writers chosen were Pagans themselves (indeed some, like Tolkien, were devoutly Christian), and she sets the date for the inception of “modern Paganism” as being around 1951 with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, to 1954, with the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today. This date is generally agreed by scholars like Ronald Hutton, so by definition most of the writers in this book could not be modern Pagans, although some such as W.B. Yeats and E. Nesbit were members of occult societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, from which much modern Paganism developed.

The writers chosen are, as Beattie’s title suggests, all to some extent “Nature Mystics”, which she defines as “someone who has mystical experiences in nature, or connects to the divine through nature, and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration”. What the divine looks like differs from one Nature Mystic to another, but it is this connection that is all-important, and it is this that can be seen as a thread linking the Nature Mystics to the worldview and experiences of nature that are central to modern Paganism.

Beattie’s selection of writers is, as she admits, not an exhaustive list, but she does an excellent job at selecting a diverse range of writers (five men, five women) who represent a wide selection of different approaches to nature mysticism in literature. The familiar figures one may expect are there (Yeats, Tolkien, Hardy) but also several whom I had not before encountered such as Mary Webb, Elizabeth von Arnim and Mary Butts. It’s interesting to note that it is the women writers who have been less well-received and less well-known throughout literary history, which is doubtless telling of the nature of literary criticism’s treatment of women.

Standing out as an outlier in the book is Keats. Beattie writes that Keats very nearly didn’t make the cut, as he was an earlier writer than the others discussed, but that people clamoured on her blog for him to be included. And I’m very glad he was, because not only is he my favourite poet, but his writing has had a big influence on my own Pagan path and worldview.

Beattie states, however, that there is little evidence of Keats as a nature mystic, and describes him instead as a “Human Nature Mystic”, whose poetry was inward looking for inspiration rather than out to nature, and, while he wrote about nature as beautiful, it was not necessarily seen as a connection to the divine.

This is one point in the book where my views differ from that of the author. Lines such as:

For what has made the sage or poet write
But the fair paradise of Nature’s light?

Alongside Keats’ invocations of the Classical Pagan landscape in Endymion, or his poems dedicated “To Autumn”, or “On the Sea”, seem to me to fit Beattie’s definition of a nature mystic as one who “has mystical experiences in nature…and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration”. In some of Keats’ lesser-known works, he comes even closer to what we might consider to be the ethos and even the forms of modern Paganism:

‘Tis ‘the witching time of night’,
Orbed is the Moon and bright
And the Stars they glisten, glisten
Seeming with bright eyes to listen –

But this is a minor criticism for an excellent book which provides a great potted introduction to some very interesting and influential writers, some of whom deserve to be better-known than they are, and all of whom (consciously or not) have influenced ideas which led to, and continue to inspire, modern Paganism today.

As with all the Pagan Portals book, this is a quick read, and one which is lovely to devour on a sunny afternoon or two. I’m definitely going to look up some of the authors mentioned and read their works thanks to Beattie’s introduction, which I think means that Nature Mystics is a definite success.


Demon est Deus inversus


A star in the morning; night and day entwined
In liminal afterglow, their passions spent.
Lightbringer, your burden is eternal – to pour out
Yourself on earth, ecstatic, theopoiesis in reverse.
Light of Days, who burns with knowledge of life
And death, the swinging thurible of time,
A pendulum above a pit; the monstrance clock
Timing your descent, a fall so fortunate.
Lux aeterna, lux feram, with wounded independence crowned,
Who bears the sun between the crescent horns:
The old heirogamy repeats itself.

*I’m currently reading about nature mystics, and have just got back from seeing the band Ghost play in concert, so I thought I’d combine the two and challenge myself to write a Luciferian poem. Not my usual thing, spiritually speaking, but it was a fun exercise, and oddly cathartic. Not sure how successful the result is, but it is what it is.

Spring Equinox


I’m so tempted to write a rant about the disastrous politics happening today, but no. I won’t.

Rather, let me wish you all a very happy Spring Equinox, however you celebrate it. I spent the weekend in the garden, planting new bulbs and flowers as well as all sorts of fruit and veg (strawberries, carrots, beetroots, radishes, spinach) and herbs.

No formal ritual for me this year, but a day digging in the earth and planting seeds was a pretty appropriate way to connect with the energies of the season, and get my practical Druidry on!

While today is pouring with rain where I am, the weekend was lovely and springlike. A reminder that whatever happens in the human world, nature persists and spring returns again.

Blessings of the season to you!

Paying for Paganism


Sometimes you hear, in the Pagan community, the assertion that you should never have to pay for Pagan teachings. While a lovely idea, in practice this is nonsense. People’s work, time and effort should be fairly recompensed, as should the costs of any materials, location booking, printed handouts etc that are part of a standard teaching session.

On the other hand, I have recently seen some discussions on Pagan online spaces that seem to suggest that paying for Paganism automatically makes you a better Pagan. This is also nonsense.

While many Pagan groups keep their fees for members as low as practically possible, there will always be some who cannot afford to pay. The attitudes that paying membership fees to some organisation or other means you are more committed to your Paganism than someone who cannot do so is not only clearly wrong, it is discriminatory and privileged. If you earn a comfortable wage then the cost of a Pagan membership might seem trifling to you, but for someone deciding between that cost and feeding their family, it can be a fortune.

When someone comments that the cost of membership fees is, for instance, “less than a cup of coffee a week”, there is an assumption that everyone can afford a cup of expensive store-bought coffee a week. I know when I was out of work I couldn’t.

It reminds me very uncomfortably of comments recently from some US Republicans that people could afford healthcare if they just didn’t buy an iPhone. It suggests that poor people are just irresponsible with their money, and if they really wanted to, they could budget enough.

The other assumption is that people are choosing to spend their money on, say, a cup of coffee rather than membership to a Pagan organisation because they care more about their coffee than their Paganism. Comments I’ve seen to this effect accuse people who can pay fees, but choose not to join a larger organisation, are simply seeing Paganism as a hobby and are not *srsly srs Pagans*.

While I applaud the work of Pagan organisations, especially those that offer some form of compassionate membership discount for people of lower incomes, I feel that it needs pointing out that you don’t have to be a member of a Pagan church, Order, coven or any other group, to be Pagan. And it certainly doesn’t make you less serious about your Pagan path if you’re not. Some of the most interesting, inspiring and committed Pagans I have come across are, or at least have been, solitary practitioners.

Joanna Van Der Hoeven’s The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid is one of my favourite books, and it eloquently discusses how to be a Druid without necessarily joining any organisation at all.

This is not to knock Pagan organisations, I am a member of at least three myself, because I am lucky and privileged enough to be in a position to be able to afford to at the moment. That could change.

But it is a plea to show compassion to people who cannot afford membership dues, travel costs, libraries of books or course fees. They are no less Pagan than anyone else.

And those who choose not to pay for any of those things, and simply greet the Sacred in the sun and the soil, they are no less Pagan either. Arguably, they may even be more so.

Because, as far as I am concerned, Paganism isn’t really about courses, organisations, churches, Orders, certificates, degrees or books. It’s about your own personal relationship with the land, the sea and the sky, and with the Sacred, whatever you conceive that to be.

And that, thankfully, is free.

Book review: Whispers from the Earth

wfteWhispers from the Earth: Teaching stories from the ancestors, beautifully woven for today’s spiritual seekers. Taz Thornton, Moon Books, 2016.

I have a confession to make. I picked this book up because of the cover. Also because I have been enjoying the short books in the “Pagan Portals” series by Moon Books, and this seemed to fit right in to my collection, but mostly the cover.

Well, despite the old saying, I made the right choice in this case. Whispers from the Earth is definitely not the sort of thing I would normally read: I tend to go non-fiction or else huge multi-book series, but this collection of short teaching stories was a breath of fresh air.

Teaching stories are, of course, as old as humanity itself and quite possibly older if our neanderthal and australopithecine ancestors told tales around their fires or huddling up in caves. Parables have been used by Aesop, Jesus, Buddha and pretty much every wise teacher you can think of, and I think the tales woven in this book could stand shoulder to shoulder with any of them.

The back cover blurb tells us:

“Throughout time, indigenous cultures have used storytelling as a way of spreading important teachings to the tribe. Much of our own rich, ancient heritage has been lost over the years, eroded with the coming of mainstream religions and new ideas, yet those teachings and stories are still there, waiting to be rediscovered and told”.

Taz has gathered and woven these tales together from her own connections with the land and the ancestors, and they are not re-tellings of familiar fairytales, but are new-old stories, channeled and brought to life for us all today.

The book itself is split into two sections, Taz’s own channeled stories, and a selection of stories from other people Taz has worked with in story-weaving sessions. Between these two sections is a practical guide to channeling your own stories through meditation, connection and inspiration, definitely useful for anyone looking to try out a Bardic exercise.

The stories themselves are remarkably diverse and drift through a range of landscapes, themes and ideas, each one short enough to read in a few minutes on a lunch break, but each one with a point, a lesson, a seed-thought, that you will spend the rest of the day thinking over.

I don’t want to give any details of the tales included, you should read them for yourself, but I will say that the stories of The Man and the Frog and The Listening Tree were particularly moving and relevant to me personally.

I’m sure that I will find myself re-reading this little book months or even years from now, and finding whole new lessons contained within.


To keep silent?


Silence is traditionally part of some Pagan practices, and forms part of the guidance of some forms of Wicca and witchcraft, as part of the advice “To know, to dare, to will and to keep silent”.

While there are many reasons for silence that are legitimate either within a particular tradition (especially one deriving from the Mystery School traditions where certain initatory rites are kept secret), or in some societies without religious freedom, I feel that there are some areas where the traditional injunction to silence is at best unhelpful and at worst injurious to individuals and Paganism as a wider whole.

Please note that I am not talking here about silent meditation, prayer or contemplation, which are of course valuable spiritual practices, nor about shutting up when listening to others’ experiences, which is just good manners.

The first, and perhaps most obvious issue with silence, is the danger of cults. Silence, the injunction to not divulge anything of the cult’s activities or even existence to non-members, is a commonplace tactic used to isolate people from friends, families and wider society and ensure their complete dependence on the cult. These sorts of commands to silence often come with a call for the member to have complete faith and confidence in the cult’s leadership and wisdom, slurs against non-members as being too vulgar, worldly or sinful to hear the cult’s message and implicit or explicit threats of punishment and exile for those who break them. Such forms of isolation, censorship and internal control are listed as cult signs in the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Framework created by Druid and ADF founder Isaac Bonewits.

In Paganism, where organisations can be self-created and have no regulation (which for the most part is a good thing, don’t get me wrong), this can be a fertile field for cult-like activity, with self-appointed High Priests, Chiefs or Archdruids holding unelected positions of absolute authority over their members and dispensing “secret wisdom” from on high.

Thankfully, this activity is rare, but it is worth being aware of and watching out for, and any injunction to silence always raises red flags in my mind.

The other way silence can be used negatively is to suppress public displays of Paganism and/or dissenting political opinions. Georgina at the Green Hedge Druid makes this point in her post about the recent “witch” protests in the USA and around the world (read the whole thing, it’s important).

Many people, unfortunately many within the Pagan community, voiced the opinion that these public forms of Pagan, or at least Pagan-influenced, protest should have been done in silence, behind closed doors. Often, this criticism was couched in terms of wanting to “protect” other Pagans who may face persecution by association with the protestors. Yet, ultimately, it boils down to a command for others to shut up, sit down and not make a fuss in public, even as a legitimate and effective form of political protest.

And when addressed primarily to women who identify in some way with the symbolic reality of the Witch as an empowered figure to make change in the world, it’s a “get back in the kitchen” argument dripping with misogyny.

This call to silence effectively oppresses an already oppressed group by taking their voice away from them. It rings uncomfortable bells that remind me of those who claim to have no problem with the LGBT community, if only they weren’t so open about it and kept it to themselves. Why should they?

As Georgina writes:

“Surely we have spent so much of our lives, and those who came before us, hiding away from persecution and sometimes death. By coming out and being public with their paganism (or just representing the ideas), these protesters have not only drawn attention to the fact that witches do actually still exist (even though many would wish that weren’t true) but that they’re bloody angry about the injustices being dealt out by the current leader of their country. I would be more concerned if pagans weren’t coming out and protesting.”

Silence will not change anything.

Silence allows the oppressive system to continue oppressing.

Silence disenfranchises the disenfranchised.

Silence is complicity.

And silence will not save you.

Perhaps instead of “to be silent” now is the time, maybe more than ever, to know, to dare, to will, and to speak out.

To speak out against injustice and oppression. To speak out, and be “out” as a Pagan. To speak, to add your voice to the wider conversation, to share a distinctly Pagan perspective on issues such as social justice, environmentalism, human rights etc.

There were no doubt times in the past when silence was the most appropriate thing to do as a Pagan, and, the way things are going, there well may be again. But I don’t think now is that time.

It’s not always easy to speak out, and I still get scared about what people might think about me if they “found out” that I am Pagan. I’m certainly not suggesting everyone needs to be loud and proud all the time in all situations. Sometimes, it is not appropriate, such as in the workplace, for example. And some people have social anxiety (I do!) that means they can’t always be as open as they would like to be and do most of their Pagan-ing from a computer.

This is OK too, but please let’s not try to shame those who are open and vocal into silence. The first rule of Pagan Club is not, in fact, don’t talk about Pagan Club. I think that public displays of Pagan, or Pagan-influenced, practices is a great thing, and opens discussion while showing people that, hey, we exist, and we have rights too.

What do you think? Is silence part of your tradition, and if so why?

Pagan protest and feminism

Everyone should read this. It’s important.

The Green Hedge Druid

Public domain image of "The Witch, No. 1"

I have been reflecting on recent discussions that have taken place on various pagan spaces, especially on Facebook, regarding the recent (and ongoing) pagan protests against Trump. I regret to report that most of the discussions I have read have been incredibly negative, especially with regards the various iterations of people conducting public rituals based primarily around witchcraft.

While I found the reports of people getting out and protesting in new and creative ways to be hugely inspiring, not everyone agrees. And that’s ok but some of the things people were saying as reasons for disagreeing troubled me and I am going to try and address some of them here. As a caveat, healthy discussion is good, hurling abuse is not. So please do not do that in the comments or at anyone within the community (or outside) who agrees or disagrees with this subject matter.

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