Pagans Are A Conquered People

By James Lindenschmidt

We Pagans are a conquered people. Our people have been systematically tortured, murdered, domesticated, and exploited. Our tribes have been displaced and scattered; we now live in tiny, redundant, inefficient and resource-hungry enclosure-cages creating an illusion of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism, while plugged in to the matrix with its feeding-tubes and thought-machine programs. Our traditions of dwelling with nature have been mutated, assimilated into the dominant culture of exploitation and resource extraction. Our gods have been relegated from vibrant, living beings and companions in relationship with us to mere characters in old, forgotten stories. Our magic and wonder have been dismissed as superstition, while the hegemony of the laboratory masquerades as wisdom, replacing Truth with mere facts. Our sacred connections to the land and its ecosystems have been severed, made so abstract that only a tiny handful of us could survive away from the infrastructures of civilization for more than a few days, or only a few hours in adverse conditions.

We Pagans are a conquered people. The conquest of Paganism is so complete, so fundamental, that it’s obscured from our view: many of us couldn’t even identify our conquerors. Today, while we sort our recycling bins, putting the refuse-relics of our consumerism into the proper containers for “disposal,” our culture argues about whether or not Climate Change is real, whether planetary rates of extinction are happening 10,000 times faster or only 1,000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. We get online, sipping our lattes, and we argue about whether a vegan diet or a paleo diet is healthier for people or the planet.

We Pagans are a conquered people. We don’t even know who we are anymore. Getting Pagans together is like herding cats: we joke, we celebrate our diversity, and gossip about our witch wars. There are many types of Neopagans today, and all of us have been conquered. It doesn’t matter what kind of Pagan you are, which specific tradition, subculture, or set of Pagan values you embrace, we Pagans are a conquered people.

What kind of Pagan are you? Not that it matters….

Are you a Druid? The Druids were wiped out by Romans, though there have been attempts to revive the traditions. At best, we are guessing at what the Druids were, and the ways of modern Druids — connecting to the land, being in relationship, guarding the stories of the tribe, and questing Awen — are in opposition to the mainstream culture. We are no longer aware of our direct relationship with the land and its ecosystems. There is only property to be exploited, to be conquered and “improved” for private gain subject only to the laws of free-market mythology. The Awen of direct experience, of intimate relationship and engagement, is being replaced by vicarious, secondary experience. Rather than gather by the thousands to wander in the wilderness, we gather in stadiums to watch other people run on artificial grass, elite athletes clad in kevlar armor. Rather than commune directly with the wild divinity in nature, we gather in megachurches to listen to other people sing & tell us about God, passing around a collection basket. The “tree wit” of Druidry lingers, but we must learn to see it.

Are you a Heathen or an Ásatrúar? In most places you will be seen as a racist, a white supremacist, or simply as deluded. The hagiographers say that Olaf The Saint, one of my ancestors, was responsible for converting Norway over to Christianity. The Gods of the Northern tradition endure, even if we must look deeper than portrayals of Thor as a blonde, hot-tempered hottie who is merely a quaint albeit archaic member of an elite group, aloof from humanity, who fight the evil space-aliens bent on their own agenda of colonization.

Are you a Polytheist? Two thousand years of hegemonic monotheism means that you are not likely to be taken seriously in most places in the Western world when you speak of your gods, and your relationships with them. No longer is the question of many gods up for debate; instead it is which god is real, with the rest being imaginary with frauds or infidels for worshipers. And even this is among those who acknowledge the possibility of divinity at all — for many others, talk of divinity is madness and delusion.

Do you work with magick? Your work will be derided as superstition, under the epistemological monopoly of science. Indeed, a favorite tactic of modern, fundamentalist pseudoskeptics is to reduce an idea or a concept to mere “magical thinking” so that it can be dismissed entirely as folly.

Are you a Goddess-worshiper? You are a threat to patriarchy, by even having the audacity to suggest that the feminine can be on the same plane as the masculine, and that a divine feminine is even possible. There is no room for the Sacred Feminine in Father, Son, & Holy Ghost, in Allah and His Prophet, in YHVH, much less in the “human resources” departments responsible for writing smaller paychecks to its female employees.

Are you an Animist? A Pantheist or Panentheist? Then you live in a place, on a planet, that has been systematically disenchanted, desacralized, and despoiled, a place that almost certainly bears little or no resemblance to what the place looked like a few short centuries ago before Capital got its clutches onto it, extracting all the resources it could for private profit without regard to the intraspecies genocide it left in its wake. Anyone who spends enough time out in nature has heard its call, its lament, crying out to anyone, anyone who will listen, in a language not audible to domesticated ears.

Are you a Reconstructionist? The reason you have to reconstruct your spiritual path is because it was wiped out in the first place. That these old, Pagan ways of being are not glaringly obvious even to a child in our culture is perhaps the biggest indicator that we Pagans are a conquered people. Some ancestral wisdom has been lost forever, wiped out by a mere few hundred years of colonialist hegemony, and its reconstruction will require another few thousand years of indigenous human experience as part of their ecosystems.

Are you a Witch or a Wiccan? Untold thousands of Witches were burned at the stake for over a century, one of the most widespread examples of genocide in human history. This genocide was not limited to one nation-state or one single power-structure, as one of the first historical examples of a unified, global assertion of power. The ways of the Witch are beyond forgotten, they were deliberately and systematically stamped out under direct threat of death and torture, replaced by other mechanistic social orders ripe for exploitation.

The smell of smoke lingers

Image in the public domain.
Image in the public domain.

Even today, the smell of smoke lingers. To those who learn to be attentive, to quieten the mind and pull one’s awareness away from the thousandfold distractions of modern life, the past will whisper its stories into the ears of the present. We must look at our history to discover all the layers of our identity. Who are the Pagans? What stories from the past helped to shape who we are today? I am convinced that our history reveals a very strong characterization of our tribe & our subcultural identity in the 21st Century. We Pagans are a conquered people, and we have largely become so within the past 500 years.

The Pagan ways-of-being were much more intuitive and apparent to people living 500 years ago, before the Scientific Revolution, the birth of Capitalism, and the beginnings of European Colonialism. Modernity itself rose from the ashes of the Pagan ethos as it was systematically and globally incinerated from popular consciousness on thousands of pyres and stakes of the victims of the witch hunts.

Indeed, even today the smell of smoke from The Burning Times lingers. This period in history remains the paradox of our age: at the same moment that the prevailing worldview was turning to those core values that we fetishize — the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the rise of science as the best (indeed the only) epistemology, the rise of capitalism and its notion of property and profit as the fundamental organizing principle of society and the planet’s resources — there occurred some of the most brutal examples of repression and genocide ever witnessed, a brutality that was unprecedented in its scope and scale:

In this “century of geniuses”—Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes—a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the “problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.
—Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2004) p. 168.

This past, once we clear the irritation of the acrid smoke from our eyes, will begin to speak. As we learn to listen, we begin to understand that this time is best described as a turn from Pagan values, resulting in the wholesale slaughter of entire populations who embrace these values, the marginalization of Pagans within the new power structures created at this time, and the demonization of these values within our consciousness.

The new power structures used fear both as a means of social control and to engineer this shift in values. They cultivated fear of the witch-hunters and the Inquisition, who could exercise nearly complete power-over in the most horrendous and unspeakable ways, and ultimately fear of that which they claimed to be eradicating: witches, demons, devils, and magic. Pagan ways weren’t quaint practices or ignorant superstitions that faded away because now we know better. They were deliberately and systematically repressed until they were all but stamped out. We must now reconstruct them.

In this culture of fear, our Pagan values were nearly lost. Today, the signs of this loss reveal themselves to souls attentive to the world’s condition. The first hint is a vaporous sense that is hard to put a finger on: something is fundamentally wrong with the world, with the way the world is organized, with the flows of power structures in the world. As we look deeper, they become more apparent.

Eight signs

Fallujah, Iraq (Nov. 8, 2004) - An air strike is called in on a suspected insurgent hideout at the edge of Fallujah, Iraq by U.S. Marines. Image in the public domain.
Fallujah, Iraq (Nov. 8, 2004) – An air strike is called in on a suspected insurgent hideout at the edge of Fallujah, Iraq by U.S. Marines. Image in the public domain.

First, there is always war. From the massive mobilizations and armaments of World War II, to the development, use, and threat of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, to the wars against hidden threats such as communism and terrorism, to the resource wars seeking to control supplies of oil across the globe, to the political and economic dominance of the military industrial complex, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Poverty. War, war, war. No sane person wants it, yet it is all around us, organizing much of society.

Systematic deceit is not linked to either "side" of the dominant power structure. Above, At the UN, Colin Powell holds a model vial of anthrax, while arguing that Iraq is likely to possess WMDs. Image in the public domain. Below, on January 22, 2009, Barack Obama signs an executive order to close down the illegal Guantanamo Bay prison, which remains open to this day.
Systematic deceit is not linked to either “side” of the dominant power structure. Above, At the UN, Colin Powell holds a model vial of anthrax, while arguing that Iraq is likely to possess WMDs. Below, on January 22, 2009, Barack Obama signs an executive order to close down the illegal Guantanamo Bay prison, which remains open to this day.

Second, there is habitual, widespread, and systematic deceit by those in power. These are most easily spotted in the various antics of the US government, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. From the destruction of the USS Maine in Cuban waters leading up to the Spanish-American war, to the Reichstag Fire preceding Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany, to the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the illegal “detainees” of Guantanamo Bay following the attacks of 9/11, to the Watergate scandal, to the empty rhetoric-posturing in any political “debate” preceding an election, it is clear that those in power do not say what they mean, much less do what they say. Indeed, it is fundamental to the preservation of their power that they don’t. This is not a problem of either side of the US power structure; both Democrats and Republicans systematically operate from this place of deceit, and for both parties the main goal is to preserve, consolidate, and expand their power bases, each serving the larger power structure in slightly different but related ways.

Friday, Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street - photos from the camp in Zuccotti Park. Photo by David Shankbone, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Friday, Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street – photos from the camp in Zuccotti Park. Photo by David Shankbone, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Third, there is an unprecedented stratification of wealth that continues to widen the gap between rich and poor, for individuals, businesses, corporations, and nations. As the saying goes, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. An economy exists to help regulate the use and distribution of wealth, which can only be created through labor and enclosure of natural resources. Awareness of these injustices reached a crescendo in 2011 in the various Occupy movements, and continues today with Strike Debt and countless other movements.

Fourth, humanity’s relationship with food is completely out-of-balance. In some places of the world, people starve, barely eking out adequate sustenance for survival. In other places, food is not a way to sustain life, a gift of nature of which humanity is a part, but rather a mere sensual pleasure, packaged in plastic, with a myriad of choices as to which flavor variety will suit one’s whim that day — indeed thrice daily. As a result, nearly a billion people struggle with getting enough food (to say nothing of adequate nutrition), while nearly 2 billion people are overweight or obese. There are many causes for obesity, and the problem isn’t this simple, but the poor almost never get adequate nutrition whether they are consuming too many calories or too few. In addition, because of the way food is produced on our planet, there is alarmingly little quality topsoil left, and it is deteriorating 10-40x faster than it can be replenished. The aquifers of the earth are running dry, due to both irrigation and the bottled water industries, to say nothing of fracking.

Fifth, healthcare is nearly impossible to navigate for many people in the world. In some parts of the world, there are not enough doctors, healers, educators, and above all, resources; in another part of the world, healthcare has become so profit-driven with costs so inflated that it is inaccessible to millions. The system is bogged down by the allopathic medicine machine — insurance companies driven by profit, actuarial tables, and entire departments of workers whose sole purpose is to find specific ways to deny coverage for its patients; pharmaceutical companies who hoard knowledge of health techniques through patents, who overcharge patients in certain countries so that it is more profitable, who advertise their drugs in mass media, promoting the idea that wellness can only come through chemistry, and reinforce that it is OK to profit from the suffering and misfortune of others. The witches used to be the healers. Every community had them. These healers were attuned to local ecosystems, and knew how to make medicines of all kinds. The community supported them. People didn’t lose their homes and everything they owned when they got sick.

Sixth, and related to the pharmaceutical industry, there is rampant mental dis-ease in the west. Depression, angst, and eating disorders (anorexia & bulemia on one side, emotional binge eating on the other) are everywhere one turns. Usage of psychotropic drugs are at an all-time high, including mandatory prescriptions for “difficult” (which usually means unusual or hard-to-control) children in public schools. This problem of overmedication stems from and reinforces the notion of “compulsory neurotypicality” explored by Sean Donahue, which “decreed only a narrow band of neurological experience and expression permissible, and demonized or pathologized variation from the norm.” Furthermore, these drugs are widely advertised on television, creating a sense of never-having-enough. No longer are commodified neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter modifiers tools to chemically assist people in navigating the emotional and psychological pain they are experiencing, but instead have become “happy pills” for millions of people, sold to exploit our culture’s deepening sense of unease and malaise.

Seventh, the problem of wageslavery is fundamental to western culture. There are a few who derive happiness from their jobs, but the vast majority of people would immediately quit their jobs if earning money was unnecessary. It’s one thing to expect people to contribute to society — including the unpleasant jobs that no one really wants to do — to the best of their ability, but how many jobs are truly essential to a healthy, well-managed society? Does society really need a fast-food restaurant on every corner, providing two-dozen underpaid jobs each, in order for people or the neighborhood, much less the ecosystems it extracts resources from, to thrive? Do marketing executives truly make the world a better place? Are corporate lawyers responsible for maintaining a smoothly-functioning society? In short, no. There are far more work-hours of labor performed each week than are necessary to maintain a healthy society. Our time performing these tasks should leave plenty of leftover time for adequate self-care and wherever our personal liberty takes us. It’s more difficult to enjoy and pursue one’s liberty when you have a work schedule during most of your waking hours. This is the opposite of liberty, or our culture’s promise of the pursuit of happiness, as Marcuse reminded us in 1966:

“I hesitate to use the word — freedom — because it is precisely in the name of freedom that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated. This situation is certainly not new in history: poverty and exploitation were products of economic freedom; time and again, people were liberated all over the globe by their lords and masters, and their new liberty turned out to be submission, not to the rule of law but to the rule of the law of the others. What started as subjection by force soon became “voluntary servitude,” collaboration in reproducing a society which made servitude increasingly rewarding and palatable. The reproduction, bigger and better, of the same ways of life came to mean, ever more clearly and consciously, the closing of those other possible ways of life which could do away with the serfs and the masters, with the productivity of repression.”
—Herbert Marcuse, “Political Preface 1966,” Eros & Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966) xiii-xiv.

Circular crop fields in Kansas, characteristic of center pivot irrigation. This file is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA.
Does this look natural to you? These are circular crop fields in Kansas, characteristic of center pivot irrigation. This file is in the public domain.

Eighth, unprecedented weather patterns rage across the planet. The Earth’s environment — in terms of its ability to support human life — is rapidly deteriorating. The “global warming” debate rages on in yet another dualism, where each side thinks the other is somewhere between mad and stupid. Limiting this discussion to one parameter (temperature, ie, warming) or even a few (broadening it to include “climate change”) does not look at humanity’s relationship with the ecosystem. It is clear that humans are affecting the ecosystems of the world in a profound way; all one has to do is fly over the US and look down to observe the effects industrialized human activity has had. Everything is in muted colors or artificial, mechanical, geometric patterns attached the natural landscapes. Humanity is beginning to see the effects of a few centuries of industrialization, which accelerated the desertification of the planet by way of human domestication for the past 10,000 years or so. These effects have been all-too-easy to deny because they have taken longer than one lifetime to manifest.

How did this happen?

I could go on. Many do; indeed the present (not to mention the future) seems quite bleak.

What happened? Where are the ideals of scientific progress, of Enlightenment notions of “perpetual peace” and “equality and justice for all”? After 500 years of ostensibly chasing these noble goals of the “century of genius” — the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, the dawn of Capitalism, the first experiment with modern republics and “representative democracies,” the Bill of Rights — these ideals have not fulfilled their promise.

The complex web of problems we see today is an extension of this history of Paganism over the past 500 years, a history that can be characterized primarily as a move away from Pagan values. There is a disconnect between these core Pagan values and our daily experiences within our present, 21st century world, a disconnect which produces not only the global crises outlined above, but also a spiritual and psychic conflict and crisis within each observant, thinking Pagan whose life is all-too-rarely in harmony with these values. We Pagans are a conquered people indeed. But even worse, we have been assimilated, which means we directly participate in our own suppression. This is both the horror and the genius of colonialism.

We Pagans are a conquered people. But many questions remain, and indeed will be explored in future columns in these pages. Among them:

  • What exactly are the Pagan values that have been lost?
  • If Pagans are a conquered people, then who are the conquerors?
  • What benefit are Pagans getting from this relationship of conquest? What should we do about it? Should we resist, and if so, what are the most effective modes of resistance?
  • Will Pagans be courageous enough to decolonize themselves?

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Panphage/Pangenetor

In his book Apocalyptic Witchcraft, as well as his shorter essay Rewilding Witchcraft, one of Peter Grey’s central arguments is that contemporary paganism has been tamed by the standards of urbane bourgeois consumer society and the capitalist system that underlies it. He mocks what I call “Lifestyle Paganism” which he sees as a superficial expression of belief, identity and aesthetics (robes, rituals, multi-gods, pentragrams, Pantheacon) with little impact or effect on the dominant culture that look upon it as an amusing distraction.

This system, regardless of small steps we each personally take, is hegemonic and structurally dominant. His call is for the reclamation of the Witch as a transgressive force in response to this larger social order’s continued drive toward ecological collapse. In order to do this, he asks for a rewilding of our relationship to self, nature, society and cosmos.

What Grey is saying bares a family resemblance to those who call for a decolonization of minds, and practices in Post-colonial theory. Post-Colonial theory recognizes the insidious way in which the power and ideals of a dominant culture infiltrate and co-opt the consciousness and behavior of the disenfranchised.

We each have been subjected to a set of nature alienating values, beliefs, and practices which underlie everything we experience in urbane modernity. This colonization is woven into our architecture, our social norms, our ways of thinking, even our language. In essence, the normative culture is embedded in our subconscious, and the default state is one of profound alienation from the natural world, and thus ultimately ourselves. In order to create resistance to power, we must first decolonize our minds and practices.

panIn parallel, Peter calls for a fully present Animistic engagement with nature in order for Witchcraft to be more than a colorful effort at creative anachronism. No matter what robes, rituals, or gods we may adhere to, nature-centricity is a common thread that can unite Neopagans. The root of the shamanic tradition from which paganism emerges is the awareness of the underlying sacredness, intelligence and aliveness of all beings animate and inanimate. To be alienated from our own souls and the soul of nature (Anima – Mundi) is to spiral out in a variety of dysfunctions.

Symptomatic of this, a growing litany of voices both Pagan and Non Pagan are pointing out how this “Nature Deficit Disorder” increasingly expresses itself in rising rates of depression, anxiety, violence and addictive behaviors. The relatively nascent field of eco-psychology diagnoses this problematic relationship between mind and nature seen in the alarming trend of children’s increased immersion in video game and social media. Our domesticated children and their colonized imaginations no longer play in the woods and the wild, but online fantasy worlds constructed to siphon their attention and energy down the path of addictive consumption.

Grey’s perspective on Witchcraft positions itself firmly on one side of the split between radical Deep Ecology seen among Pagan members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) vs. liberal bourgeois corporatist environmentalism most clearly expressed in the Sierra Club. According to anarchism, this contrast between radical and liberal perspectives on the environment is not one of mere taste, preference, or opinion, but rather the depth or superficiality of one’s level of analysis of the conditions at hand and how invested one is in the system itself.

Rewilding isn’t a fad or fashion; it’s an adaptive response to an alienated social order and the inherent psychopathology and ecocide thereof. Rewilding is likely the first step in “Exodus” from Capitalist modernity. As Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber writes, our best hope may be in refusing to live in a dying world, but deciding to create an entirely different one:

“The theory of exodus proposes that the most effective way of opposing capitalism and the liberal state is not through direct confrontation but by means of what Paolo Virno has called “engaged withdrawal, “mass defection by those wishing to create new forms of community. One need only glance at the historical record to confirm that most successful forms of popular resistance have taken precisely this form. They have not involved challenging power head on (this usually leads to being slaughtered, or if not, turning into some—often even uglier—variant of the very thing one first challenged) but from one or another strategy of slipping away from its grasp, from flight, desertion, the founding of new communities.” (Graeber)

Like the Zapatistas who first marched on Mexico City with the classic Marxist ideal of claiming state power, to later return to their hills and valleys and “secede” from the Neo-Liberal system in order to practice and live their sacred life ways, we ourselves might have to do the same things in the coming years. These “Lines of Flight” from the “Striated” social order with its hierarchical control systems into more organic, bottom up “Rhizomatic” ways discussed by Deleuze in A Thousand Plateaus may be our best hope. To do this we need to pay attention to how we our reproducing the dominant culture even while we think we are part of the alternative.

It’s likely that as we go further into these transition times from Peak Oil (What Starhawk calls The Great Turning)…as our water supply continues to dry up, our weather patterns become increasingly extreme, and our social order, both domestic and international, tilts further towards collapse, the message of Apocalyptic and Rewilding Witchcraft will become only more resonant.

A rewilded Witchcraft expressed in activist social efforts (either in the form of direct action or the creation of alternatives via permaculture, art, and spiritual cooperatives) may serve as a rallying point for those of us that want to create new beautiful gardens as a counterpoint to techno-industrial collapse. In turn, the voice of lifestyle paganism will, as John Michael Greer says, become as “quaint and outdated as Theosophy, Spiritualism and Nehru jackets.”

Grey is asking us to both destroy old relationships and mindsets and create new ones. Such a dual approach is evident in the image of Pan who is both all destroyer and all creator: Panphage/Pangenetor…and Pan is the essence of Wilderness.

Inspiration/Further Reading

Apocalyptic Witchcraft
Rewilding Witchcraft
Nature Deficit Disorder
Spell of the Sensuous
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
Wobblies and Zapatistas
An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory
A Thousand Plateaus