There is a Difference Between Paganism or Polytheism, on the One Hand, and Occultism or Witchcraft, on the Other, and This Illustrates One Aspect of That

Occasionally, I write blog posts that decompress about growing up in modern Neopaganism, and this is one of those. The title, “There Is a Difference Between Paganism or Polytheism (on the one hand) and Occultism or Witchcraft (on the other), and This Illustrates One Aspect of That” is a good summary of what you are in for by reading it. Paganism or Polytheism refers to the modern Western NRMs (New Religious Movements), and Occultism or Witchcraft refers to the melting pot of practices we see in those areas nowadays.

Several of the times I ran into friction on Twitter, it was for voicing frustrations about the modern polytheistic and pagan New Religious Movements: moments when I posted that I wished less content was targeted at “witchy” audiences, comments about what was essential to a practice for many Gods and what wasn’t, and so on. The whole situation over the past three years that led me to abandon reconsturctionism-revivalism (note: I’m all for historically-informed, but it’s 2022) as an irredeemably flawed model is, I would argue, another one of those moments, as it is an example of me putting aside what I thought I desired in order to prioritize what I think is best for the worship of many Gods in America as a whole if, indeed, the telos is establishing the worship of many Gods rather than building a fleeting cult of personality or a “cultural moment” or building an entire religious viewpoint around soothing one’s appetites or emotions (AKA spiritual bypassing).

Those years I was on Twitter, which I will place at roughly 2017 until mid-2022 with some hiatuses thrown in, are definitely a life chapter with scars. The algorithms train people trapped there to be reactive and vindictive, after all. I learned so much, and I absorbed so much, and perhaps that wouldn’t have happened had it not been an eristic, Areic place.

A negative reaction to what I said makes the most sense if one is talking to converts who entered modern Western paganisms and polytheisms through witchy, witchy-pagan, and occult media and who see that content as essential to it. From that point of view, if one isn’t into witchcraft, why the f–k is one in this space? It assumes that those of us who grew up in this NRM umbrella don’t exist or that we might have different perspectives on what is essential from a religious standpoint and what is supplemental. For example, I went to Circle before I started reading the Silver RavenWolf, Scott Cunningham, and Christopher Penczak works available at Waldenbooks, and the way I approached those books was to mentally gloss over and intentionally discard things about spells in favor of information about Gods, meditation and divine connection, and the seasonal rituals we did every six weeks. I do wonder, now that I am writing this, if the appeal of the “recon” track was actually that it was focused on religious activities — prayer and cyclical observances — that I wanted, that “person with a shrine at home where she prays” thing, that seamless integration with a life.

The example I want to go through is something from my current revision of The Soul’s Inner Statues. While streamlining and improving the resources section, I’m now separating out “resources to take a look at” from the actual bibliography. These “resources to take a look at” are works that I may not be 100% in agreement with, but that may be generally useful further reading because I think they are accessible and potentially useful for brainstorming. It has been a struggle to locate content for this despite being a trained librarian.

I want to add books that give me the same feeling I had when I found Frances Bernstein’s Classical Living: A Month to Month Guide to Ancient Rituals for Hearth and Home in the library as a young teenager — one of the books that had escaped the “check out and lose” purges of the pagan books section (something common in rural Bible Belt libraries) because it was written in a very different way and thus shelved apart, albeit in close proximity. It was a sense of hygge and relief that paganism — or, the term I prefer, polytheism — could be about this cozy homecoming to ritual and a household shrine, that the spellwork and magic and “manifesting” and occultism that saturated so many of the books I read was not the only thing that religion could be.

This matters to me because this resource I have written was created for five (equal) reasons.

  1. What do I do to help people who want to pray reduce decision paralysis so they can actually just get started and feel confident about the practice they are doing?
  2. Why is [seemingly] everyone in modern paganism an esotericist? Can we ensure that there is space for people who just want to pray to Artemis or Sunna or Ishtar for a few minutes a day?
  3. What advice do I wish I could give to my younger sisters, whose religious and spiritual paths have been a bit more winding than mine?
  4. How can I make a worthwhile contribution that reduces toxic escapist tendencies in modern American polytheism?
  5. How can I repackage, revise, and rethink blog post content so I am actually excited about sharing links with people because it communicates what I mean to say effectively?

The resources I want to refer to are relevant to Question 2. While I am into mysticism, and some people who are religious end up sliding that way at some point in their lives, this is not required to have a spiritual practice and hearth shrine. These practices are the foundation, and whatever people do on top of that is up to them.

Whereas many people who convert to paganisms and polytheisms score high on openness to experience and related traits, as someone raised going to Circle, I’m more spiritually conservative and have come to realize over the past three years that I view myself more as troubleshooting my way through a continuity with my childhood to figure out how to make it all well-ordered, with about as much eventful detouring as Odysseus trying to get home, especially that 10 years I spent IDing as a recon Hellenic Polytheist. In my 20s, when I rebooted KALLISTI, I did not anticipate getting into mysticism at all — I was fatigued by impractical advice and lack of concern for how to help working professional adults, the very things I was navigating at the time as I adjusted to starting a 9-5 and had to figure this all out. My VIA Strengths test in 2018 ranked me highest in “love of learning, judgment, spirituality, honesty, and perseverance” — this is a manifestation of that last one, that I didn’t quit being religious. But what about others like me?

I rarely encounter other people raised in a pagan or polytheistic NRM religion, at least in the United States. (I can think of 3 people who are not related to me and who didn’t go to Circle with me.) This is troubling because the movements exploded at about the time Baby Boomers were having kids. While I might find a few more people if I went to in-person festivals, where on Earth are we? There should be many more Gen X, Millennial, and Zoomer second-gens than it appears there are, and my hypothesis is that the shitty and virtually nonexistent support for people who are more normative ends up creating intergenerational drain because kids who are not into the occult stuff like witchcraft or ceremonial magic end up checking out by their mid-teens or early 20s, especially after leaving home for college or work. I don’t believe this is ill-intentioned — people just rarely think about us. Many authors and Influencers treat occult activities as if they are essential for being pagan or worshipping Gods when they’re actually a supplemental thing that many converts are just really into. This goes back to what I said at the beginning about that irreconcilable perspective — converts, while they are catered to, can sometimes be hostile to the “normalization” of our polytheistic and pagan NRMs because they fear that we will behave towards them just as badly as Evangelical Christians.

The only essential is worshipping Gods. To do that, all one needs is a space — permanent or pop-up — to give offerings and pray. That is it.

My critiques have nothing to do with people living their best occultist life. If you want to do magic or astrology or whatnot, you’re an adult, and I’m not here to judge your supplemental spiritual practice. (I admit that I do hope you pray even when you’re not doing a Working.) It felt, and still does feel, absurd to me that people who have such a saturation of books to read and teachers to study with feel like a second-generation pagan sounding an alarm on how the movement is failing us and causing absolutely unnecessary levels of attrition is a personal attack. The truth is, most people in the pagan movement do not think about us or want to recognize that changes in rhetoric and a broadening of pagan books away from the “we are POWERFUL witches who MANIFEST our DESIRES” will actually do a lot of good for us all. I’m a highly motivated person who is willing to take a machete to the meadow to make a path. Most people are not brazen like that.

I flipped through Classical Living this weekend. I stress-purchased my own copy on Amazon years ago, as it had gone out of print at one point, and I was worried that the price would go way up. (It’s now back in print, thank Gods.) Despite not having a Romanizing lararium practice, it’s soothing, like a teddy bear or chunky blanket. It makes me daydream of summer nights with the smell of incense and honey-cakes, of winter new moons with a joyous feast. I felt that familiar coziness as I slid through it — the rhythms of the year, the down-to-Earth approach to veneration.

And then I opened up Amazon (which has great book metadata and search functionality) to figure out, if I were doing reader’s advisory, which other books I might recommend to people who are looking for something to read after The Soul’s Inner Statues that is not filled with in-your-face occultism. Something that may have some recipes or chill recommendations of how to observe seasonal changes, solar maxima and minima, and the endless cycle of the moon. Something for brainstorming rituals and cozy things for a household practice.

It was an annoying experience because there is still such a gap here. There is probably less money in the types of books I’d like to read or recommend. The word “witch[craft]” sells like wildfire, as does “pagan,” so anything about anything Western(ish) and Gods-oriented will be branded with one or both words by the publisher. Manifest. Learn the secrets. See what hidden truths we’ve uncovered. Unlock. Unleash. Summon YOUR God.

I iterated through searches and quickly abandoned looking for paganism-related books because nothing there vibed like Classical Living. Most that came close called basic religious observances witchcraft, and while one can definitely make it so, there is nothing inherently witchy about praying to the Moon. Pagan and witch are also often synonyms in these books. I had more success (but had to wade through a sea of New Age fluff) looking for “observing the seasons” and related terms without using the word pagan. I didn’t necessarily want Wheel-of-the-Year content, but I didn’t not want it. There were some atheistic spirituality books that had great book descriptions but were usually venting about the author’s prior experiences in Christianity and how they are repairing their mental health through secular ritual, with a lot of generalizing jabs at religion and spirituality that were about as poorly researched as expected, so I couldn’t rec those.

Eventually, I located a few works — the authors definitely have a different perspective from me — to supplement several books I have read. It took far longer than I had anticipated, but I am satisficed. SIS hasn’t been updated (yet), but stay tuned.

There are few research studies on the children of converts to pagan religions, the most noteworthy being the 2017 Fennell et al. study on the (n=183) Internet sample of people raised pagan, which had limitations because the authors had trouble locating a large enough sample. I don’t think I saw that survey when it was out, and I read a lot of pagan blogs, so I believe the authors when they admit that their sample may have been skewed. I definitely didn’t respond to it. The authors find that people raised in specific, rather than eclectic, pagan/polytheistic NRMs are more likely to remain religious as adults, and so are those who were very religious as kids and teens. The retention rate is decent for an NRM, but not as good as mainstream retention rates.

My non-systematic analysis of the content I saw might back up their findings. Specific traditions and religions are far more likely to have non-occult content for practitioners. Asatru seems to have a lot of “here is a book for a prayer cycle for this God” content; Kemetism has devotional liturgies; and so on. The more generic stuff suffers from the occultism, witchcraft, or New Age branding. People like me who were raised generically pagan have the highest attrition issues, according to Fennell et al.; people like me who were raised generically pagan have the worst time locating non-witchy content; most people I know raised-pagan-still-pagan fled from Wicca to a historically-based practice like I did. As far as community goes, since many of us in the Millennial generation had to move for work to find jobs with salaries high enough to afford our student loan payments, many of us who grew up around other pagans don’t have the benefit of a local community — it isn’t there at all or there’s something that makes it not a great fit — which can also cause issues. Personally, I’m steady with my household worship and would rather have a few polytheistic friends to go to spin class or grab a tea or coffee with, as I think many of my specific interests (Platonism, Going for the One) are served better in Zoom meetings due to geographic spread.

Maybe things will change soon. Hopefully, the open access The Soul’s Inner Statues will be a welcome shift in both how we publish and what we publish, ushering in a more quotidian, practical type of content to fill the gaping hole that exists today.

10 thoughts on “There is a Difference Between Paganism or Polytheism, on the One Hand, and Occultism or Witchcraft, on the Other, and This Illustrates One Aspect of That

  1. Much of witchcraft/magic is very based on Christian mysticism/esotericism (including Spiritualism, Theosophy and many Pagans influenced by those things don’t realize that their ideas about “Love & Light”, the Three-fold Law/Karma (a misnomer!) are really Christian-based. Consumerist, ego-focused pop spirituality has become so pervasive and I thought it was bad enough in the 2000s with the goth craze & celebrity dabbling. I remember when even fairly basic spiritual supplies could be found only in hippie food co-ops & sometimes what I now realize were head shops! Some candles, tarot cards, crystals, Buddhist/Hindu related items. Or the occasional women’s or left-leaning bookstore. (This was in small town Iowa before I moved to the Twin Cities) Now I see stores with mystical tchotchkes in relatively small towns, prominently displayed in the windows at least any places that has some tourism. The “Mind/Body/Spirit” category in Barnes & Noble is called something like “Self-Exploration”. So now this stuff actually makes it harder to find real practicing pagans who aren’t just vague spiritual dabblers. There’s always been too many of those, but now it’s more widespread. LeSigh.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No worries! I do remember those types of shops and how now it’s possible to get nice incense at the grocery store. There have definitely been some positives to the “witchy/occult” mainstreaming that I benefit from despite not being that.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an interesting post. You’re one of the very few people I know who was raised Pagan, and the only one I know who took that to polytheism and writes about it.
    My poor kids got dragged through my ‘seeking’ years, which were all in Christian denominations because it never occurred to me to look outside that paradigm. Then, after my Wicca epiphany, they got the full Circle Round treatment, celebrating the Wheel of the Year with me and sometimes doing ritual stuff with my Wiccan friends and playing with candle magic.
    Not surprisingly, they fled to agnosticism when they left for college.
    My practice has become so eclectic that it’s hard to describe any more. I use the term polytheist among other Pagans, and just Pagan to the greater world.
    I’ve got a young teen protegee, whose startled but supportive parents are cautiously letting her communicate with me (they have access to all of our emails and have met me IRL). It’s such a surprise to meet someone her age who is only interested in worship and serving the Gods, in particular the Two Goddesses (hence her finding me.) It’s vanishingly rare to find kids who are interested in any of it any more, let alone ones not in it for the magic.
    Just 20 years ago there were witchy shops all over the place. I can only think of one any more, and it’s too far away for me to care about getting to it.
    I don’t read any more How To books about witchcraft, magic or even polytheism any more. My own path is taking me places no one else can show me. But I’m looking forward to yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I remember you mentioned some of this about your kids before! I don’t think being exposed to so many different religions is what sent them to agnosticism. I think it’s just the times that we’re in right now. Also, many witchy shops have dried up over the years due to the competition with the Internet … there’s one on the coastline near me, but I’ve never been there because it seems to have just crystals and incense and I’m not sure it’s worth the trip to just encounter New Agers.

      That’s really cool about your mentee — best of luck to you both!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. While I wasn’t raised pagan or polytheist, I share your frustration over trying to find non-“witchy” books.

    I clicked through to the Fennell and Wildman-Hanlon study you linked to. (Just to be clear, since it’s paywalled, I’m responding only to the abstract and not the body of the article.) They note that “children who grew up in more specifically defined Pagan paths, such as Wicca or Druidism, are more likely to remain Pagan and in those paths.”

    The particular two examples they chose are interesting. Here’s my own, admittedly unscientific, experience of people I’ve actually known/met personally. Wiccans from the strong, initiatory “trad Wicca” groups, regularly, across the board, actually pray to Gods. Folks from the Starhawk-type groups, who also in many cases self-describe with the term “Wiccan,” consistently have a severe allergy to anything that smacks of “altar work” (some of the ones I’ve known aren’t even going to say the words “devotional prayer,” much less say an actual prayer). Druids (mostly from the US and Canada, a very few from the UK) are a wildly mixed bag: some make prayer to Gods the foundation of their spiritual practice; others don’t pray to Gods much or at all themselves, but are indifferent to whether folks around them choose to pray; still others are actively hostile to the very idea of anyone—and particularly anyone who self-identifies as a Druid—praying to Gods** at all, ever.

    **The qualifier “to Gods” is critical here; they still say the “Universal Druid Prayer,” but in a mode where the opening and closing lines invoke one or more impersonal forces, rather than any God(s).

    So on those (again, impressionistic but non-scientific) grounds, the authors’ “more specifically defined Pagan paths” seem like a bit of an incoherent hodge-podge. (And again, I only read the abstract; they may very well address this in the paper itself.) Meanwhile, what about the specific religious traditions you mention in your post, mostly notably (for my impressions of numbers in the US) Heathen/Asatru/etc types of movements? They too would seem to fit the “more specifically defined” umbrella, though at least some of their members (again, drawing in part on specific personal experience) would resist being called “Pagan” at all…

    Switching gears slightly to the more general point of your post, my sense has been that “polytheism” and “witchcraft/occultism” are the two primary circles of a standard Venn diagram. There’s a wide space where they intersect, but they’re each their own thing, and from within each circle considered in its own right, without regard to the other circle, different things will be (correctly) regarded as central or peripheral. Which of course still leaves plenty of space for critiques of the sort you raise in the post: Polytheism is a different thing from witchcraft, even if some (many?) people do both, so please, quit colonizing our spaces; insofar as we’re focused on polytheism, we need to start from prayer rather than “workings.” But it’s not that they’re doing witchcraft wrong, just that when they’re doing it in that way, they’re not doing polytheism.

    And “Paganism” is maybe a third circle yet, which intersects only partially with each of the other two? Here I’m thinking both about Heathens who strongly resist being called Pagan, and also about Druids who identify as Pagans but not polytheists (precisely because they have no interest in praying to Gods). And about myself: I’m happy to be called a polytheist (since I pray to many Gods, daily even!), but I don’t find “Pagan” in its modern sense to be terribly helpful. (Maybe because too few Pagans are polytheists first?)

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post, and the spot-on critique!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t ID with the pagan word, either, but I’ve started using it more over the past few weeks out of a feeling of futility. I emailed the guy behind the SHWEP (Earl) to add some comments to anecdotes he raised about modern paganism and polytheism. I think culture writ large (and especially scholars) will continue using “pagan” and he has a point that there may not be enough people uneasy with the term for not using it to be anything more than vocabulary Tetris. It’s disappointing for us, although admittedly it helps the SEO of a piece like this to mention the word so much. I think the third circle in the Venn Diagram is Earth-based spirituality, which can be theistic, semi-theistic, or atheistic.

      What you mention is perhaps tied to the religiosity metrics Fennell and Wildman-Hanlon were taking. More people who scored higher on doing religious acts when they were younger were retained as adults, even if they became less religious, and that may be a metric less vulnerable to the “outsiders trying to understand sects in the broad umbrella of our NRMs” issue.

      There was a book published this May that’s kinda interesting by someone using the pseudonym Solstice, The Earth Spirit Hearth and Home: A Seasonal Guide for a Nature-Based Home. It kinda reads like someone’s hippie pagan aunt giving broad-spectrum spiritual and life advice. Both she and the author of Ásatrú for Beginners: A Modern Heathen’s Guide to the Ancient Northern Way, Mathias Nordvig (who grew up Asatru!), are people from Nordic countries who moved to the USA, and I wonder if that cultural outlook is part of why both books seem very down-to-Earth to me. Nordvig actually discusses appropriating things like Advent candles (big in Scandinavia) so families/kids can emphasize being chill rather than counterculture, and I thought that that was interesting. I’m in the camp that has strongly protested my immediate (pagan/UU!) family celebrating secular Christmas ever since I was in my early teens because I thought we should do the feast/gift-giving on the actual Solstice or on New Year’s Day, but I do agree that adaptation can be easier from a PTO and cultural standpoint.


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