A Pagan Bestiary, Part II

This is the second installment of A Pagan Bestiary, a brief history of Modern Paganism, and an attempt to categorize and explain many of the different beliefs, paths and practices of Modern Pagans. Parts III will be published here next week.

By Embreis23

THE TRADITIONALISTS: In general, Traditionalists believe that they are continuing practices or traditions that have been passed down secretly since pre-Christian times.

Traditionalist Wicca: Also called traditional witchcraft or initiatory witchcraft. It is based on a claim that an ancient underground tradition of witchcraft has existed since ancient times.They typically emphasize formal systems of initiation and usually venerate a Goddess (whose name is a secret) as a chief deity, and a male counterpart called the Horned God. This includes the Gardnerian Tradition, founded by Gerald Gardner in the early 1950s. Other Wiccan traditions include The Alexandrian Tradition and the Feri Tradition.

Traditionalist Wiccans typically meet in covens of initiates and some place great emphasis on their “lineage” from the public founders of their traditions.

Alexander Sanders with his Wife Maxine “The Witch Queen”

Family Tradition Witchcraft: Some people come from families that have traditions of Witchcraft that have been handed down from generation to generation. Alexander Sanders, founder of the Alexandrian Tradition stated that the basics of his practice were handed down in his family. Some family-traditions remain closed to people outside the immediate family, while others have become more public and have expanded, the Alexandrian tradition being one.

Other Folk Traditions: There are many other folk traditions, such rootwork, that may or may not find expression as Paganism. For example, Victor Anderson, who later founded the Feri Tradition, said that he was initiated into a coven near Ashland, Oregon, in 1932, although no record of this coven exists other than Anderson’s recollection. There are uncounted systems of magic that are passed on only privately, which may or may not have Pagan religious elements.

Dianic Witchcraft: Dianics emphasize worship of a single Mother Goddess, and are sometimes quite monotheistic about it. Some Dianic Covens only allow women in leadership positions and others refuse men entirely. The most extreme Dianics also refuse entry to trans women, which has led to some serious conflict in the larger Pagan community.

The Reclaiming Tradition: The Reclaiming Tradition combines Traditionalist teaching with modern political activism and is one of the most influential traditions in the U.S. Its founder, Starhawk, was initiated into both Gardnerian and Feri covens, but chose a different approach. Reclaiming continues the basic religious teachings of Traditionalist Wicca, but is less secretive and is involved in social activism, including non-violent civil disobedience.

The Corellian Nativist tradition: which combines Cherokee lore with Scottish Traditional Witchcraft, has apparently existed since 1879, and is associated with a clan called the High-Correll family. The Correllians, one of the most centrally organized Pagan groups in the U.S., have formally identified their practice as a form of Wicca since the 1990s.

The Church of All Worlds, co-founded founded by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart nee Timothy Zell, could be identified as post-modernist, since it was originally inspired Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land, but early on adopted a Traditionalist Wiccan set of practices. Its journal, Green Egg, was an important Pagan magazine for many years.

A special note on “Traditional” Witches and Witchcraft: On the internet at least, I see quite a lot of people who describe themselves as Traditional Witches and their paths as Traditional Witchcraft. What they mean by “traditional” seems to vary a lot, but it does not necessarily mean they are Traditionalists in the sense I use that word. If such folk have been trained in a family-tradition or folkloric system that they plausibly believe to have been passed down through many generations, then they would also be Traditionalists in my sense of the word. However, I have noticed that many of those who describe themselves as “traditional” are actually either Reconstructionists or Eclectics, but use the word “traditional” either to signal that they are politically or socially conservative, or to position themselves as especially authentic.

THE RECONSTRUCTIONISTS: In general, Reconstructionists doubt that any authentic Pagan or Heathen traditions were passed down through the ages, but seek to reconstruct ancient ways and practices through study of documentary or archaeological sources.

A Note on Folkish beliefs: Folkishness is not actually a separate path or practice but a tendency found mostly in Reconstructionist circles: this is the opinion or belief that people should only venerate deities or adopt practices that are associated with their genetic or ethnic heritage. Not all Reconstructionists are folkish, and some folkish groups accept people’s subjective understanding of their ethnicity without question. Others, however, emphasize genetic relationships or “blood,” sometimes to an extent that seems racist. Folkishness has a complicated relationship with recent ideas about cultural appropriation.

Heathen leaders Steven McNallen, Valgard Murray, and Hnikar Wood, AlThing 20, Utah, 2000

Heathenry: Heathens, also called Northern Tradition Pagans, are (most often) reconstructionists who focus on the Old Gods of Northern Europe. There are many subgroups, based on the even more specific ethnic divisions, or on their attitude toward ethnic exclusivity. Asatru is the best known and is focused on specifically Scandinavian gods. Asatru is a major religion in Iceland. In North America, Asatru traditions range from The Troth, which accepts people of all Ethnic backgrounds, but teaches a strictly orthodox form of Norse Religion; to the Asatru Free Assembly, which excludes people who have no northern European ancestry, but who deny having any political agenda.

Odinism, which also venerates Norse gods or at least uses their names, is hard to classify. It developed independently of other forms of Heathenism, mostly in prison populations, and is openly aligned with white supremacy.

There are many others who follow Heathen ways but are not affiliated with any of the larger Heathen organizations, and do not espouse racial or ethnic exclusivity.

Druidry: “Druid” is the name the Romans gave to the Celtic priest/bards of the classical period and probably earlier and later. As the original Druids left no written records, everything we know about them comes from their enemies. Nonetheless, there have been active Druid revivalists since the 18th Century although the older forms are very Christianized. Druids typically are interested in specifically Celtic myth, but emphasize scholarship and philosophical openness. Many Druids I know are indistinguishable from Eclectics.

Other Celtic Reconstructionists: Outside of Heathenry, Celtic Reconstructionism, which seeks to revive the religious practices of ancient Ireland, Scotland or Wales and other parts of Western Europe before the Roman invasions, is probably the most popular. There are some very strict groups of Celtic Reconstructionists, but there are many others who hang out with Eclectics and Traditionalists.

The Religions of Classical Europe: Other fairly large groups seek to reconstruct the practices of Ancient Egyptians (sometimes called Kemetic), Classical Greece (Hellenism), and Classical Rome. For almost any prior culture we know about, someone is probably trying to reconstruct its religion. I’ve even encountered an Indo-European reconstructionist.

Next time, Eclectics and the rest