We are pitted against an industrial industry which fabricates our dreams for us and insinuates them through our culture and our language. How can we dream when our vocabulary of symbols has only the nuance of newspeak? These are spectres of desire and though marked for sale, remain unattainable.
–Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft
“But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say can be reduced to signs that constitute faith? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum – not unreal, but simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real, but exchanged for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.”
–Jean Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra
ONE: CIRCLES FOR THE STONE
Fast past villages with both English and Welsh names he drove us. She sat between us. I tried on her hat. It amused me. It amused them.
And then we were there, the top of an ancient high hill still wet from recent rains. We walked, speaking. I missed some of the threads of our conversation, distracted by the distant vistas. Eyes constantly drawn north: Gwynedd, Snowdonia, over which dark clouds gathered. The wind echoed a promise reminded, an oath I gave in one of those valleys.
In the remnants of a cromlech we stood, its stones worn down near nothing by wind and rain. From the centre to the tallest a line formed, extended towards those mountains. It felt important, that stone, that direction, a prehistoric compass directing the eyes to a place wherein something older than stones breathed and waited.
By the “offerings” arrayed at its base, others had thought the stone important, too. Baubles, pink plastic fairies, bracelets, a few slivers of quartz, the coins of empire.
“Neopagan trash,” my guide said, sweeping the offerings up in his hands. His eyes burned with something deeper than disgust, and something older. He flung them from the circle with a deft, calm rage. My eyes followed their flight through the air, then met his, then quickly turned away.
“They leave this shit everywhere,” he said.
Something about the innocence, or really the pinkness, of the proffered plastic fairy moved me. I imagined some child leaving it, or one of those addled-but-loveable Goddess-type women who are always telling you “we are all-one.” Misguided and naive, but their gesture of offering felt at least benign, harmless.
I said so.
I think I said, “There’s hope in their search for something authentic. They just don’t know what to do yet.”
My companions did not answer. They did not need to. As the words spilled out of me, the unbidden image of low-wage Chinese women stamping pink plastic into the form of cartoon-style fairies answered my objection.
TWO: DO WE DARE?
“People lose the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. They also begin to engage with the fantasy without realizing what it really is. They seek happiness and fulfilment through the simulacra of reality… and avoid the contact/interaction with the real world.”
A little more than five years ago I stood in an open field, staring into an abyssal sea of stars circling about me, speaking aloud the answer to a question.
Do you dare?
“Yes,” I said, losing the ground below me. “I dare.”
I cried. My mind shattered. I slept, I didn’t sleep. The smell of earth choked me, the stars above my tent screamed distant songs, wheeling as I tried to cling to the wheeling planet upon which I supposedly belonged.
I say five years ago; it might have been forty, the length of my life thus far. I stopped being able to count after that; calendars make no sense any longer, the procession of hours no longer relevant. Only season after season repeating means anything, but even then I cannot clutch to their movement like I once could. Time itself changed, or my place within it. I changed: broken, reforged, broken again, remade, remade, remade.
Before all this I was a chef and a social worker, a partner to a man, a citizen of a city, a denizen of a home. Before all this, Pagan was an identity, like ‘gay’ or ‘gamer.’ Paganism was something I liked, a shared interest, an aesthetic. After this, it became the only way I knew how to describe why I slept among stones, sat long nights on fallen trees in cold wet forests. Why I stood shirtless in winter upon a rock as dragon fire shone through a drop of rain falling from a branch, knelt in circles of crow feathers, bled upon an ashen blade, knocked on shields, lay down across rivers, pulled the beards of giants and fucked in moon-silver shadow of antler and branch.
Paganism is the word I’ve used to explain why I have sat at council with dead hooded men around fires, flew past a guardian into the blood of an enemy and there clotted those hidden streams, turned great edged wheels to grind down the mind of a dangerous fool, stood upon hills watching how some worlds end, why I stole glimpses of toads impaled on pencils and turned that sorcerer’s malice into his catastrophic downfall. It is the shorthand for why I have awakened a forest and watched smiling as strangers brought in their gods, ran barefoot through nettles alongside a river of blood, been summoned by children to a tomb across an ocean, argued with the angry hearts of mountains, learned to walk invisible through city streets, and spoken the names that plants call themselves.
But for all the wisdom I’ve since gathered from bodied and unfleshed teachers guiding me through thick bramble or dark forest, I still didn’t know why I called any of this Pagan.
Every word is an utterance for the inexpressible, but once uttered can become the thing itself.
To name yourself happy is to leave the moment happiness is meant to describe. Every mystic knows the moment words are found for the vision, the vision is over.
The land and stars which initiated me into the Other scream of a thing for which Paganism is mere translation. Like all sounds given to the pre-literate, pre-vocal thing-ness below what we call things, its expression can ossify in our mind, wall us from its world. So to name what I have lived and seen and been these last five years “Pagan” has been in some way to betray it.
Yet words waken. A call to arms, a shouted warning to watch out; “I love you” whispered in the trembling of night, “I’m sorry: she’s dead” from the lips of a doctor, “fuck you” and “help me”: these open gates to new existences even as they close others.
Were it only up to the poets and mystics, the word Pagan would always evoke, always call us outward. Were it only up to me, Pagan would be the sound I make to initiate desire into others, a beckoning into realms of vision and connection.
But it is never up to the poet or the mystic.
Like land that has become property, work that has become labor, and art that has become commodity, Paganism has been enclosed. Paganism is now mostly product, sign without signification, representation without represented. You can go to Pagan conferences, listen to Pagan music, buy Pagan products made by Pagan artisans in Pagan shops. You can read Pagan blogs written by Pagan writers published by Pagan publishers. You can apply Pagan like a label upon any thing you do or say or think, investing by every action and transaction into a Global Brand through which the “Pagan” capitalists draw dividends.
By calling all that I have seen and learned, all that I have written and created, and all that I have known as truth “Pagan,” I have inadvertently fed into this branding, improved its market reputation, and helped increase the profits of those for whom Paganism is a thing that can be sold, not become.
Yet under all this are still my experiences which cannot be sold, the moments of the Other inexpressible, for which I have no other word except Pagan.
The Pagan of the hotel dress-up convention or the pink plastic fairies littering ancient stone exists. We can point to such things, such brandings and say—here! Here is a Pagan thing. We cannot do the same for the trees at which I stared at as I first began to type this, trees beyond which lie the last remnants of the great Celyddon once covering much of Yns Prydein. That cannot be bought. That cannot be branded.
The Witchcraft of the glossy books or online-teachers can be regarded with certainty: this here is “witchcraft.” Not true, however, for the moments which I know as witchcraft. A few days ago on the Isle of Skye, encountering my accidental initiator ‘by chance’ upon a street corner just after thinking his name, both of us six thousand miles from where we last lived—that is the Witchcraft I know.
But it is not a thing I can show to you, nor is it a thing I can sell.
A refrain of a song never before sung yet we already, somehow, know the words. An echo from a past we have not yet lived, dreams which speak truth by measures for which we will never find metric. The reflection of sky in water which displays an additional dimension of perception in which we can not move except in dream: all these things I call Pagan, all these things are my witchcraft. All these things cannot be bought.
Witchcraft and Magic and Paganism exist. But they cannot be found through the very means by which we lost them.
FOUR: “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”
Perhaps because they refuse to shake off their Protestant culture, American Pagans are fond of speaking of the “big tent,” under which all the many of “us” gather: Heathens, Polytheists, Occultists, Wiccans, Reclaiming witches and Feri witches, Unitarian-Universalists and solitary practitioners, all crowded under a massive canvas painted blue with white stars like some hokey wizard’s hat or, closer to the truth, a U.S. flag without the red- and white- stripes.
The “big tent” is supposed to be about inclusion or some rot, but since it’s the same phrase the Democratic Party has used to justify why anti-capitalists, environmentalists, and pro-corporate war-mongers should all be in the same political gathering, there’s likely something else happening here. Perhaps what they’ve always meant isn’t ‘tent’ at all, but corral, wall, or internment camp.
Because ultimately, the “big tent” benefits only the vendors of pink plastic fairies, the sleek white gaywitches with their laughable invocations to “The Dark Goddess,” the dottering old racist uncles hailing the ‘folk’ in Alt-Right rallies, the altars photographed and filtered in devotion to the #instawitch hashtag. It does not benefit you, but instead the right-wing Christian corporation that runs a Pagan blog site, the ‘community news’ organisation constantly skewing capitalist, nationalist, and ever-so-libertarian, and all the pay-to-pray traditions eager for your money and attention.
The ‘big tent’ isn’t a shelter, it’s a Market. Within the tent, Paganism isn’t a belief or a culture but an interest, spirituality just another thing for you to buy in a world that already has too much shit anyway.
But the story of how Paganism became a product is not just the story of opportunistic women and men seeking profit. It is the story of disenchantment itself. It is the story of displacement and colonization, the wakened horror from which spawned Empire and Nation, Race and Identity. More than anything it is the story of our divorce from land and ourselves, a sickness for which Paganism is sold not as cure but placebo for a necrotic wound we really ought to get checked out.
People seek Paganism to find magic or gods or authentic ways of being and meaning. But the magic and gods have never been gone: they are only buried deep below the asphalt over which they drive, the concrete upon which they walk, the steel and cement in which they live. The gods of rivers are buried beneath the cities, poisoned; we wipe our asses with the corpses of forest gods. The magic of human will and sense is psychologized, medicalized: “aberrant” perceptions of the myriad are disciplined or drugged out of us, then sold back to us on spiritual retreats.
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. Those depictions—pixelated, fed and filtered through Instagram feeds; or used as mere backdrop for mythic television series like Vikings or Game Of Thrones—serve not to draw us closer to what we seek, but push us even more distant from the world we have lost.
FIVE: MAGIC IS EVERYTHING BUT WHAT YOU CAN BUY
“And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality. And so art is dead, not only because its critical transcendence is gone, but because reality itself, entirely impregnated by an aesthetic which is inseparable from its own structure, has been confused with its own image. Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of reality. It no longer even surpasses fiction: it captures every dream even before it takes on the appearance of a dream.”
We search for the authentic in the only place it cannot be found. We seek the gods and spirits not in the land around us but in empty symbols, poorly-written books and “mystery traditions” led by leaders for whom their unwitting initiates are their only way of getting laid.
We scroll endlessly through blogs promising to teach us how do magic, purchase special oils and candles to stave off the terror of modern life and maybe make us not feel so lonely. When none of that works, we try again, and again, forgetting that magic has nothing to do with what you buy or which online-tradition gave you a certificate of completion.
Magic has nothing to do with the teachers of magic, the vending tables at the con’s or the Etsy shop, none of which are much different from the pink plastic fairy left at the base of a stone.
Magic is you.
It has always been you, you and the world around you. Magic is the breathing forests, the scream of owl and raven as you wander alone through darkness. Magic is in the stars above and the stars you see after your eyes close, the wind from distant mountains and the loamy breath of the grave.
Magic is the stone, and it is also the circle, and especially in all the forgotten wisdom with which ancients living millennia before anyone called themselves ‘Pagan’ raised them.
Magic is what it has always meant to be human, before the makers of the pink plastic fairies and the ringmasters of the Big Tent set up shop.
Magic, connection to the earth, the experience of the Other—these things the merchants of Paganism™ cannot sell us, and the fact that they try is proof they have never experienced those things themselves.
Let them be honest. We are all only selling books and candles, art and skills. Let these things be judged on those qualities, without the false promises and dishonest marketing.
And let us all be honest: The real magic is the world the capitalists have been selling off from under our feet, the real connection is our reclamation of the earth, and the real Paganism is resistance to all commodification of what it means to be human.
Rhyd Wildermuth is the managing editor and co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He trucks with Welsh gods and lives in Bretagne, or Dublin, or old Scottish port cities, or pretty much anywhere he feels like it. He’s a theorist, punk, nomad, anarchist, and all kinds of other stuff.
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