Escaping the Otherworld: The Reenchantment of Paganism
“There is another world and it is this one.”
A Message from an “Awakened Elf”
Recently, I received a personal message on Facebook from someone I don’t know promoting a book, The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days: The Magical Heritage of Starry People and Their Continuation into the Modern World. The full message is too long to reproduce here, but I will share a few excerpts from it.
The author describes the book as “a distinctive and comprehensive combination of both scientific and historical research along with also philosophical and esoterical discussions, dedicated to all elves: ancient and modern ones” which includes “the history, scientific origin, psychology, philosophy and life style [sic] of the elves, both in the past and present.”
The truth about elves, says the author, is that they are not just characters of fairy tales and legends, but “real persons who always have existed and never disappeared and continue to live among the common people in our days!” According to the author, The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days is for those who have only started their acquaintance with elves and those who deny their existence, as well as for “the awakened elf”, among whom he counts himself.
The One Eyed Man is King
Reading about The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days, I was conflicted. My first reaction–my gut reaction–was that this person had lost touch with reality and was possibly suffering from a mental disorder–being benignly delusional, at least. This is probably how most non-Pagans would view the book.
But after some reflection, I recognized this possibly as an attempt at re-enchantment, or restoration of our sense of connection with the sacred and mysterious. If The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days is indeed part of the project of re-enchanting a disenchanted world, then it is possible that the “awakened elf”, far from being insane, might actually be among a minority of sane people in an insane world. This is probably how most Pagans would view the book.
I wonder if perhaps both perspectives might be true.
What if the awakened elf is indeed attempting to re-enchant the world, but has also lost touch with reality? What if his attempt at re-enchantment is actually contributing to the disenchantment of the world? What if, as Rhyd Wildermuth has recently written here, our Paganism is not a cure for disenchantment, but a placebo?
This is the question that I keep coming back to. It’s the question at the root of my ambivalent relationship with the Pagan community. It’s the question that keeps me walking away from Paganism and walking back again in short order. Over the years, I have wrestled with this question in various online fora, and my often unskilled (and sometimes ham-handed) attempts to articulate this question has earned me a lot of criticism (often justified and constructive). But I feel like I am inching closer and closer to being able to say it right …
There is something fundamentally wrong with the world, or at least the way we experience the world through the lens of the overculture. I think most Pagans would recognize that as true. We call it “disenchantment”. Existentialists call it “alienation”. “Soul sick” is a more poetic way to describe it. Whatever we call it, Pagans know something is deeply wrong with the world.
But the fact that we recognize the problem doesn’t necessarily mean that we know the solution. In fact, it’s possible that some of the solutions we offer might actually contribute to the problem. It’s possible that some, or even a lot, of contemporary Paganism might be a manifestation of the illness, rather than its cure.
The Intuition of An “Other World”
There are a lot of theories about how religion got started among homo sapiens–psychological, sociological, and even biological explanations. I think at least part of the explanation has to be that religion is the way that we human beings account for the feeling that there is something wrong with this world and the intuition that there is something more.
Of course, not all human beings have this intuition, but many–perhaps the majority–seem to. I know I’ve always had it–just this feeling that there is something “off” about the everyday world I inhabit and a sense that there “more” going on that what is readily apparent.
Different religions have different ways of making sense of this intuition. Many of the dharmic religions, for example, posit that apparent reality is an illusion, and that the otherness that we intuit is in fact the real world. Transcendental religions (not to be confused with Transcendentalism) posit that there are two realities, the apparent world which is real, but temporary, and the invisible “other world” which is eternal and therefore more real–the two worlds being radically separate. Both responses–the dharmic and the transcendental–dismiss, or even denigrate, the present world as ontologically inferior to the other world.
I was raised in one such transcendental religion, and I left it behind because I rejected that view of the other world. In fact, I came to see transcendental religion as dangerous–at least to me personally. I’ve always had a propensity for escapism, and transcendental religion just seemed to feed that propensity.
But, still, I had this sense of “otherness,” the sense of there being something more. In Paganism, I found another explanation for this intuition. Paganism, at least as I came to understand it, rejected the dharmic notion that this world is an illusion, while also rejecting the transcendental notion of a separation of the other world from this one. Paganism posited that there is another world, but it is this one. The other world is right here, right now …
… only we don’t see it, at least not usually.
In the Land of the Blind
The reason why we don’t see the other-world-that-is-this-one is that we are blinded to it. We are blinded by the trifecta of reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion–which collectively are responsible for the disenchantment of the world.
We are blinded by a positivism which makes it impossible for us to recognize anything as real which is not mechanism and which makes it impossible for us to value anything which cannot be measured. We are blinded by a capitalism which makes it impossible for us to recognize anything as real which is not commodity and which makes it impossible for us to value anything unless it can be bought and sold. And we are blinded by the myriad diversions which are offered to us by consumer society to fill the gaping hole left in our souls: meaningless work, compulsive shopping, and mindless entertainment.
We are also blinded by religion, by dharmic religions (or their New Age interpretations) and transcendental religions (like most forms of Christianity). According to these religions, the present world is either unreal or unworthy and the real world is “somewhere else”. It was to such religions that Marx addressed his critique of religion as the “opium of the people”, as a means of maintaining the political and economic status quo by directing people’s attention away from worldly concerns, thus preventing them from taking action to change it.
Paganism, at least as I discovered it, is not one of those religions. Like many Pagans, I came to Paganism in reaction to a world-denigrating religion, but also in reaction to a soulless overculture. As Rhyd Wildermuth has written recently here,
“The search for authentic meaning and ways of being which draws people to Paganism springs from a rejection of what else is on offer, a malaise of what is available to us by mundane, Modern means: 40-hour work weeks, concrete housing blocks, relentlessly mediated life in which too many of us only see breath-taking views of forests or communal celebrations on screens.”
Paganism offered me not escape, but immersion–immersion in this life, in the here and now. As the Pagan poet Ruby Sara has written, Paganism is “a religion of Right Here This Body This Planet Beautiful Beautiful Right Now, rooted in the Mama, the present, the Real”. Paganism, for me, was a rediscovery of this world, the world of flesh and blood, of taste and touch–and, yes, of something “more”. But that “otherness” was now very present, sensible, tangible even.
George Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Paganism offered me techniques for refocusing and seeing what had always been right in front of my nose. It opened my eyes (and my other senses) to the “other world” that is right here and right now, but which is invisible to an overculture dominated by reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion. This awakening is what we Pagans mean when we talk about the “re-enchantment” of the world, and it’s what I mean when I talk about “magic”.
The Disenchantment of Paganism
But there is another side to Paganism. Sometimes our Paganism mirrors the disenchanting techniques of the overculture. When it cuts us off from the earth, our bodies, or other people, our Paganism becomes disenchanted. When it perpetuates alienated modes of discourse and alienated ways of relating to the world and the other beings who inhabit it, our Paganism becomes disenchanted.
Our Paganism is disenchanted when we revert to scientistic terminology (like spurious analogies to quantum physics or chaos theory) to explain magic. Rather than seeing magic as a way of expanding consciousness, it is described as a kind of technology, yet another way of achieving dominion over nature. Rather than being a way of celebrating the unpredictable, wildness of life, disenchanted magic becomes another way of reducing our anxiety through the (false) promise of control. As Trudy Frisk has observed in her article “Paganism, Magic, and the Control Of Nature”:
“Paganism’s reluctance to distinguish between symbols and living creatures is not just playful fantasy; it perpetuates the utilitarian view of nature. Expecting natural objects to fulfill human desires leads to disregard for maintaining nature in all its complexity.”
And as Barbara Walker writes in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects, the real aim of disenchanted magic is
“to retreat from a troublesome reality into a world of pure symbol. However difficult, uncontrollable or indifferent the external universe may seem, symbolism is manipulatible and so provides at least the illusion of comfort.”
Our Paganism is disenchanted when our attempts to “connect with nature” actually place obstacles between ourselves and nature, such as Wheel of the Year celebrations which are routinely held indoors and blissfully ignore the reality of the present (albeit sometimes unpleasant) seasonal conditions, invocations of abstract Platonic “elements”, directional invocations which ignore the local landforms, ritual circles which position us–literally and figuratively–with our backs to the world, and worship of idealized Mother Earth goddesses, while never getting our hands dirty, like with actual dirt.
Our Paganism becomes disenchanted when (both theist and atheist) Pagans promulgate facile understandings of deity which perpetuate Western dualisms and alienated and objectified definitions of what is “real”. Words like “god”, “spirit”, and “fairy”–and yes, even “elf”–can be attempts to (tentatively) name the other-than-human presences which fill the natural world and to which reductionist positivism blinds us. But they can also refer to the figments of our imagination, which are, in the end, no better than other distractions offered up by the overculture. Rather than expanding our lifeworld and connecting us with the wider web of life, a disenchanted Paganism shrinks it, leaving us talking to ourselves alone in the dark.
Our Paganism is disenchanted when we create and consume images of pagan deities which reproduce the patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, and imperialistic aspects of the overculture. Far from disclosing the “other” to us, these images merely reflect our own egos back at us.
Our Paganism is disenchanted when our idolization of individualism and self-expression undermines any form of social organization, rendering it impossible to create sustained solidarity with one another, and when our ethical lives are guided by a libertarian rule of freedom of expression and avoidance of harm, divorced from corresponding ethic of mutual responsibility and care–which are the hallmarks of relationship and reciprocity.
Our Paganism is disenchanted when our rituals routinely culminate in a counter-revolutionary cathartic release of energy, rather than channeling that energy into constructive social action, and when we hermetically seal our Paganism off the rest of our lives, insisting that the spiritual is not political.
Paganism as Escapism
When we fall into these traps, our Paganism becomes disenchanted. Rather than revealing the “other world” that is here and now–it obscures it. Disenchanted Paganism does not empower us to change the world–it perpetuates the status quo. Our Paganism becomes a placebo, yet another form of escapism, a negative enchantment which fascinates us and distracts us from the other-world-that-is-this-one. As has been observed by Thorn Mooney, our Paganism can become just another way of avoiding our problems, of making ourselves feel special, of alleviating boredom,or even of justifying leaving mental illness untreated.
There’s nothing wrong with escapism, per se. A little escapism can even be therapeutic. But it’s another thing to build an entire religion around it. As Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ouselves to Death, wrote, “There is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.”
This is what Starhawk was describing in The Spiral Dance (in a quote that I think gets far too little attention in Pagan discussions):
“Fascination with the psychic–or the psychological–can be a dangerous sidetrack on any spiritual path. When inner visions become a way of escaping contact with others, we are better off simply watching television. When ‘expanded consciousness’ does not deepen our bonds with people and with life, it is worse than useless: It is spiritual self-destruction.
“If Goddess religion is not to become mindless idiocy, we must win clear of the tendency of magic to become superstition. …
“The value of magical metaphors is that through them we identify ourselves and connect with larger forces; we partake of the elements, the cosmic process, the movement of the stars. But if we use them for glib explanations and cheap categorizations, they narrow the mind instead of expanding it and reduce experience to a set of formulas that separate us from each other and our own power.”
The Co-optation of Paganism
We know something is wrong. The world is disenchanted. Or more accurately, the world as it is disclosed by the overculture is disenchanted. It is disenchanted because it recognizes only one very narrow and objectified definition of the real and only one very narrow and alienated way of relating to that reality. It is disenchanted because it embraces only one vary narrow definition of what it is to be human–one that is patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, and ethnocentric. It is disenchanted because of the myriad ways it separates us from contact with wild nature, both the nature within and the nature without.
But in spite of the disenchantment of the overculture, the intuition of another world persists. Our challenge is to distinguish the genuine “other world” from the myriad counterfeit “other worlds” which a disenchanted overculture offers to us (often for a price). At its best, Paganism points the way to the other-world-that-is-this one. Yet, like every other aspect of contemporary culture, Paganism is susceptible to co-optation by the overculture. Paganism is itself susceptible to disenchantment.
The fact that we Pagans have rejected transcendental religion like Christianity does not insulate us against the gnostic temptation which pervades the overculture. Nor does it insulate us against the other forces of disenchantment: reductionist positivism and consumer capitalism. These forces are insidious in the way they mimic genuine re-enchantment. As Patacelsus’ recently observed here, “A corporation doesn’t need to convert anyone to destroy a person’s spirituality, it only needs to hollow out your spirituality and then sell you back the rotten guts.”
We Pagans have a habit of thinking of ourselves as under siege. While there is still discrimination and harassment of Pagans in the public sphere, today many of us are more likely to be dismissed as a joke than to be actively persecuted. It’s possible that the greatest threat to Paganism today is not from a Christian dominionist attack on our freedom of religious expression, but from something far more subtle, something more likely to come from within than from without.
I think the real danger to Paganism is not so much that our religion will be outlawed, but that there will be no reason to outlaw it. The danger is not that guardians of the overculture will go to war with Pagans in a second “Burning Times”, but that they will have no reason to go to war with Paganism, because any difference between the two will have become merely superficial. The danger is not that we will forced to consume some counterfeit experience for the genuine re-enchantment, but that we will no longer be able to tell the difference.
Will the Phony Elf Please Sit Down?
Pagans attach a strong stigma to judging other people’s spirituality, especially other each others’. And yet, we have to judge. We have to discriminate. Should I listen to this teacher or that one? Should I adopt this practice or that one? Should I spend my time reading this book or that one? Is The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days going to reveal the other-world-that-is-this-one or is it going to be a waste of time? Or worse, might it lead me astray?
There are many counterfeit “other worlds” offered to us by the overculture, and sometimes the Pagan Otherworld is one of them. How to distinguish the real thing is the question. How do we tell the difference between genuine re-enchantment and what Starhawk calls “mindless idiocy”?
I don’t have a complete answer to that question. If I did, I would probably be some kind of spiritual guru. But I have learned some ways not to do it.
I can’t judge it by the surface.
It’s tempting to dismiss as disenchanted any aspect of Paganism that doesn’t immediately resonate with me. But if my fifteen years of Paganism has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t divine depth from the surface. As much as I am tempted to, I can’t judge The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days from its cover.
I can’t judge it with my mind only.
And while I can’t judge The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days from its title, I also probably can’t judge it by just reading it either. I have to live it or at least try to. I have to put it into practice and test it for myself. Because whether it works or not may depend more on me and where I am in my spiritual journey than anything else. To one person, perhaps it may lead to expanded consciousness and connection with the other-world-that-is-this-one, while for another it may have the opposite effect.
I can’t buy or sell it (at least not reliably).
“Magic, connection to the earth, the experience of the Other—these things the merchants of Paganism™ cannot sell us …” — Rhyd Wildermuth, “Paganism™”
Oh, I can buy the book, of course. And the book may or may not help connect me with the other-world-that-is-this-one. But the amount of money I spend will not increase my chances. In fact, I very well could spend no money and get the same effect. Of course, teachers and artists should be compensated for their services and the work. But the fact that money has changed hands is really irrelevant to whether those services or that work will be conducive of the re-enchantment of the world.
Will the Real Elf Please Stand Up?
Still, we can’t read every book or study under every teacher. There must be some criteria to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’m no expert on distinguishing genuine re-enchantment from its myriad imitators. But I have at various times in my life experienced the real thing, and there have been some common characteristics of those experiences. I don’t know if they are generalizable to everyone, but I offer them for your consideration:
Genuine re-enchantment gets me out of my head.
“Resistance begins in your body.” — Peter Grey
In my experience, real re-enchantment–or, if you will, real magic–always connects me with my body, with the earth, and ultimately with community. Disenchantment manifests as a disconnection with these things. My body is the door that leads me out of the prison of my mind. That door opens onto the natural world. And that world is populated by other beings, both human and other-than-human.
Genuine re-enchantment grounds me–literally.
Live a three-dimensioned life;stay away from screens.Stay away from anythingthat obscures the place it is in.There are no unsacred places;there are only sacred placesand desecrated places.–Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet”
The “other world”, as I have said, is right here, right now. Therefore, one indicia of genuine re-enchantment is a heightened sense of place. So I strive to, in the words of Wendell Berry, to “live a three-dimensional life” and, in my religious life, to “stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in.”
Genuine re-enchantment connects me with others.
“The danger of mysticism is that it can become an escape from concerns about other people. Entranced by the cosmic oneness of it all, we end up forgetting or ignoring the other people in the room, on our block, or on our globe.” — Roger Gottlieb, “The Transcendence of Justice and the Justice of Transcendence”
Since disenchantment breeds disconnection from one’s body and from the natural world, it leaves us trapped in a kind of mental prison of solipsism. Disenchanted forms of spirituality perpetuate this, while genuine re-enchantment brings us into intimate contact with others and fosters community.
Genuine re-enchantment is transformative.
Because it can’t be bought and sold, and because it puts us in touch with our bodies, with nature, and with each other, genuine re-enchantment is radical (meaning it goes to the “root” of things), it is transformative, and ultimately it is revolutionary. Genuine re-enchantment fosters profound change, starting with ourselves and moving outward to transform the world through us.
These are my touchstones. If it gets me out of my head, if it grounds me, if it connects me with others, if it is transformative–then chances are that it will be conducive of genuine re-enchantment … even if it has a picture elves on the cover.
But there come times—perhaps this is one of them –when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;when we have to pull back from the incantations,rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,and disenthrall ourselves, bestowourselves to silence, or a deeper listening, cleansedof oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, staticcrowding the wires.— Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude”
 I have found no better description of re-enchantment than that of Joshua Landy and Michael Saler in The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age:
“If the world is to be re-enchanted, it must accordingly be reimbued not only with mystery and wonder but also with order, perhaps even with purpose; there must be a hierarchy of significance attaching to objects and events encountered; individual lives, and moments within those lives must be susceptible again to redemption; there must be a new, intelligible locus for the infinite; there must be a way of carving out, within the fully profane world, a set of spaces which somehow possess the allure of the sacred; there must be everyday miracles, exceptional events which go against (and perhaps even alter) the accepted order of things; and there must be secular epiphanies, moments of being in which, for a brief instant, the center appears to hold, and the promise is help out of a quasi-mystical union with something larger than oneself.” (emphasis original)
 The overculture refers generally to the dominant culture. Here, it refers to the outcome of a Western cultural paradigm which incorporates reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion. This paradigm exists primarily in the form of implicit or tacitly held assumptions, rather than explicitly held beliefs. It is, for the most part, culturally invisible and personally unconscious, so it is insulated from critique. It creates and maintains the political, social, economic, ecological, and even spiritual status quo.
 Interestingly, the ambiguous etymology of one of the Welsh names for the Otherwold, Annwfn, lends itself to this interpretation. Two different etymologies of annwfn are given:
an- (intensifying prefix) + dwfn: deep = “The Very-Deep Place”
an- (negating prefix) + dwfn: world = “The Not-World”
Combining these etymologies, we may understand the Otherworld to be in this world, and yet not, manifest not on the surface, but “under” or at the roots of our experience of the world.
 This may be what French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray referred to as the “sensible transcendental”.
 Religious studies scholar, Wouter Hanegraaff, has argued that magic survived the Enlightenment by becoming itself disenchanted.
John Halstead was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which represents the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth. John is one of the founding members of 350 Indiana, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry. John is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. John writes about Paganism, activism, and life at AllergicPagan.com, Huffington Post, and here at Gods & Radicals.