Dissonance and reality in Paganism and the GD

A few days ago was St Patrick’s Day. As well as struggling through crowds of young green-clad merry makers, most of whom I’d wager had not a drop of Irish blood, I also struggled a little with a few emails telling me not to celebrate the day. Why? Well, apparently St Patrick was actually a nasty Christian missionary who did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, as the myth suggests, but rather zealously oversaw a genocide of Irish Druids and Pagans, who are represented by the snakes in the story.

After a few of these, and a couple of Facebook posts, I started gently replying that the whole snake = Pagan thing was a modern myth. Rather than seek source material myself (I’ve been busy), I simply pointed people to this excellent post on the Wild Hunt and quoted just a snippet from it:

The simple fact is that paganism thrived in Ireland for generations after Patrick lived and died, and, as Lupus puts it, “ the ‘final’ Christianization of the culture didn’t take place until the fourteenth century CE.” There was no Irish pagan genocide, no proof of any great violent Druid purge in Ireland, it simply doesn’t exist outside hagiography. By the time hagiographers started speaking of snakes and Druids, Irish paganism was already a remnant, and Irish Christianity the dominant religious force on the island. They were more worried about establishing heroic Irish saints than eradicating traces of paganism.

My correspondents were aghast, and to the last one simply refused to believe it. No counter arguments, no citing of opposing research, just a simple denial. A couple used the same phrase, “Spirit tells me…” I am not sure what ‘Spirit’ means elsewhere, but in Perth it often means ‘that part of myself that refuses to input new data’. *sigh*

Caroline Tully

This was a concrete example of what the brilliant Caroline Tully discusses in her recent article ‘Researching the Past is a Foreign Country: Cognitive Dissonance as a Response by Practitioner Pagans to Academic Research on the History of Pagan Religions‘. The title says a lot, but to quote:

It is in an effort to reduce dissonance that these Pagans resort to denial, justification, accusations of anti-Pagan prejudice, and indulgence in confirmation bias: the favouring of information that confirms their preconceptions, regardless of whether it is true—or as archaeologist Brian Hayden describes it, “feel-good epistemology.”

We have seen some this on MOTO when discussing the work of Professor Ronald Hutton on Wicca and Paganism. Caroline’s article is well worth reading for anyone involved in these or other discussions.

Now of course, academic reality and spiritual reality are not congruent and myths should be allowed to work without recourse to peer reviewed articles. As described on MOTO previously, when I am in a Wiccan circle, the Goddess and God are not expressions of modern religious thought, they are eternal and real deities descending back in time. When I am receiving Communion, Christ was not a Master among Masters, He is the One made manifest and I am spiritually partaking of that Mystery through consumption of His body.

So, I am not against myth…just against it being applied where it is not appropriate and maintaining it as “real” in the same way as the election of Barrack Obama is real. The insistence that religious and spiritual myth is real, that is partakes of shared time and space, is a relatively recent phenomena. As Karen Armstrong and others have shown it stems from the Renaissance where the Churches reacted to the new sciences which were proving incredibly successful in understanding the material universe. Facts were soon established as being only true in the material-scientific realm. The scientific and material methods became valorised as progressive and modern. The Churches responded to this change by asserting that what was once only religiously true as being now also factually true. So Jesus really DID walk on water, Moses really DID walk through a miraculously parted Red Sea.

This approach has led not only to some absurdities such as Creationist museums but is, ultimately (and ironically) what lies behind Pagan insistence on myths being real. Gerald Gardner really DID contact a Coven with lineage back to the stone age. There really WAS an underground Witch cult throughout Europe. St Patrick really DID persecute Pagans in Ireland. If it REALLY DID happen in share space-time it is real, valid and true. This ignores and devalues mythic and spiritual truth which is equally important and equally as real since it informs our lives and transforms our beings as much, or more so, than factual physical truth.

So it becomes important to look at what function our myths serve. It is quite obvious that the myths of Wiccan foundations and secret Witch cults connects modern Witches with the past, with a sense of belonging and lineage. It serves a healthy and valid purpose (of course, as I relate in this post, the actual history of Wicca is equally as awesome and moving). I am not sure of the purpose of the St Patrick murdering Irish Pagans myth. What function does this serve? I am unsure if modern Pagans need a yearly-repeated myth of Christian persecution. While it is true a minority of modern pagans are religiously persecuted and so may draw spiritual comfort and solidarity from this myth, most simply are not, certainly not those Facebooking about it with their real names. In the past the adoption of ‘persecuted people’ by modern Neo-Pagans has irked me somewhat, and I think this myth simply ties in to that belief and positioning.

Applying all this to the Golden Dawn, I wonder about the myth of the Secret Chiefs. This myth combines a number of motifs into one glorious package: ancient wisdom handed down in secret; Adepts beyond normal powers; spiritual legitimacy; unseen guidance; and assistance to those who are worthy. The myth therefore serves a number of valuable functions, and when entered correctly it could be prove very beneficial.

However, I think the Secret Chiefs myth has run its day and is no longer needed. The spiritual appeal and function it once had relied upon what is essentially a Victorian mindset where authority, power and wisdom were invested in father figures. These days it is quite clear that magical and spiritual wisdom can be found on the net or local bookstore, and we have all we need to progress and unfold. We also are less in need of father figures and find our spiritual legitimacy by practice rather than dubiously signed warrants. Since the end of the classical Golden Dawn era the myth of Secret Chiefs has been slowly replaced by that of Inner Contacts which are democratically the right and resource of all within the magical community. All but a few die hard Secret Chief enthusiasts are very happy to wish them a fond goodbye.

Now, of course there are people and groups who claim contact and physical interaction with Secret Chiefs in the contemporary world. Good for them. However, until the whole thing can be verified as being really real in shared-space time, I would say they remain a myth and function in the same manner. In fact, I would go further and say partial revelations via blog posts and assertions of the physical reality of Secret Chiefs causes a dissonance of its own. It places the concept of Secret Chiefs in a quasi real-mythic state, neither myth or the real – presuming of course one trusts the veracity of the reports of their meetings and teachings.

Such a state of dissonance is comparable, I feel with that produced with the publication of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Such was the brilliance of Swift’s satire some folk took it all very seriously and the imagined and mythical became real, and expeditions were quickly created to search for the islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu. So too with the Secret Chiefs – if we promote them as real not mythic, but cannot or do not give access to them, we are like Swift describing Lilliput without a map. People will take it all seriously, and like Dr Felkin, will search the physical world for physical Secret Chiefs. Problems are sure then sure to arise. Serious problems in some cases. ‘Nuff said? 🙂



  1. Mike Howard · March 20, 2012

    Sadly many modern neo-pagans and Wiccans live in their own imaginary world of fantasy history. This is not helped by the ‘ghetto mentality’, persecution complex and paranioa that permeates the neo-pagan community. They just love to be the underdogs continually howling that their human rights have been violated. Also many are anti-Christian and confuse Christianity with Churchianity. Whenever the subject of dual faith observance is raised you know you are going to get a load of personal abuse! 🙂


  2. Mike · March 20, 2012

    Amazing post Peregrin! It’s interesting to read this now, someone I had been working with on a project for months told me she was Wiccan recently. What I found interesting was that she considered it her religion. I’ve never really considered the GD a religion, but when you see appeals to faith for the existence of the secret chiefs then it’s easy to see how the esoteric can quickly become exoteric, how the goal of attainment can switch to slavishly following a leader type. And it makes you wonder if a lot of religions these days managed to start in a similar fashion.

  3. Philip · March 22, 2012

    The myth of the persecuted minority, – while having some relevance- seems to undercut most of the collective Western consciousness, as opposed to just being an issue found amongst Pagans. As much – as Mike Howard mentions above – as Pagans like to imagine that they’re under attack by the Christian majority, in America (though I have heard similar instances from other countries, I’m more familiar with the evidence from the issues found in my own country) the Christian extreme purports to be under attack as well. The homosexuals feel that they’re under attack. There is a lot of political rhetorics regarding “the War on Women”. African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos all write their personal narative as the disenfranchised minority. Everyone wants to claim victimhood.

    …which begs the question: What element in our modern mythology leads so many to consistently imagine themselves as a member of a victimized subculture that has to fight the oppressive majority?

  4. Robert Halvarsson · March 22, 2012

    I was writing an argument based on exactly the same dilemma that Philip underscores. It is quite uncanny!

    In some cases there are legitimate grievances that have been extremely traumatic (in the real), and in some cases you cannot even argue that it serves as a progressive vehicle of mythical truths. As with the myths of some pagans. But this cause only a minor annoyance to me, compared to say: right-wing christians and political islamists who constantly assert their victimhood to gain real substantial power in society.

  5. Mike Howard · March 22, 2012

    I think part of the problem is the psychological hang-up with the so-called ‘Burning Times’ that is part of the mythology of modern Wicca. Also when Wicca and neo-paganism became politicized in the 1970s many sympathised with and identified with other persecuted or victimised religious, ethnic and social minorities. Of course there have been cases of discrimination against Wiccans and neo-pagans, but that is to be expected if a minority belief takes a public profile and tries to claim the same rights as a world religion. Ironically while schoolchildren in the USA have been banned for wearing pentagrams here in the UK Christians are now being forbidden to openly display crosses in work places – and this policy is being supported by a right-wing government!

  6. Tarian · March 22, 2012

    I think what a lot of pagans resent is being told what to believe, especially by somebody who hasn’t actually studied the subject in depth, but has read one or two academic books (which they generally define as books with lots of footnotes), and now considers themselves one level above the ‘fluffies’. Early Christian Ireland is certainly an interesting (and difficult) area of study, and we certainly have good reason, from some of the literature, to believe that there was conflict between the old pagan druidic order and the new Christian priesthood. However, the question of whether the ‘snakes’ are a synonym for the druids is probably a question which may never be definitively answered (although interestingly there is a similar tradition relating to St. Birinus in Southern England); the idea is certainly plausible, though. However, what it seems to have happened in neo-paganism is that the denial of this hypothesis has in become in effect an item of credal doctrine, joining a growing list of similar items (the origins of the word ‘Easter’ is another example) as touchstones of whether one is a serious pagan.

  7. asariah · March 27, 2012

    I believe one of the issues is the recent changes in Anthropology. In the USA the term “science” has been removed as part of an ongoing trend, and research parameters are now the shoddiest in Academia except for the more Evolutionary and actual science based compartments. Another problem is that Anthropologists, primarily cultural Anthropologists and post-modern Anthropologists have no consequences for ethics violations that are harmful to the communities they are investigating. Often the “researcher” is promoting their own agenda, and disturbingly for financial gain and power brokering with specific sects and groups. In most any other academic field this would not fly. This is a direct result of abandoning what vestige of scientific method was left in that field of study.

  8. Pingback: Not Christian, Or Pagan… « The Raptor's Claw

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