Sometimes (or, frequently), I see discussions that use the term Neopagan in a pejorative sense, and I want to present the following notes as one option to clarify terminology in order to get to the meat of what we’re talking about. This topic has come up in a few conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks, including earlier today, so it may be a good time to put forward some thoughts.
The reasons why many people use Neopagan in a pejorative sense are rooted in the reaction to “fluffbunnyism” that was current when I was an older child (at least; who knows if people were griping about it earlier) and teen. This was a backlash against what many perceived were overly wishy-washy and escapist forms of Neopaganism, frequently associated with non-initiatory Wiccan practices as practiced by seekers. Then, during the discourse about whether pagan and polytheist could coexist as terms, hard/soft polytheism, and so on, there were more divisions and cuttings made around what these terms meant and which ones were good and less good. While I’m definitely on the record as not being a fan of the term pagan, maybe most of these terminology-defining arguments skirted around the actual issue.
In an episode of the Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast from a few years ago, I became acquainted with the word “occulture” — from occult + culture — and, subsequently, I had a reckoning with the fact that scholars are still going to call us pagan regardless of whatever we decide to call ourselves. I do not define myself as an occultist or an esotericist, so it’s also a bit challenging for me to think of us all as somehow existing in that occult umbrella.
The problem we are facing is caused by the toxic side of pop occulture, which we could call pop occulture’s shadow or some other catchy term if we wanted. While it’s nice that you can throw a stone and hit some nice spiritual jewelry with Goddesses on it and heartwarming to know that many people are establishing spiritual ritual practices at home, the drawbacks of spiritual consumerism, spiritual bypassing, and spiritual materialism are very prevalent. While a lack of piety and (sometimes) an escapist mindset are definitely at play, more often than not, the impiety and escapism are coming out of a lack of solid grounding, and they’ll resolve slowly when more attention is paid to the root issues. Spiritual activity needs to be anchored, and the resources that exist don’t always do the most effective job at enabling that.
Most publishing houses that focus on pagan and polytheistic topics dive into pop occulture’s shadow to make their profits, which is why you don’t see the level of grit and substance that you see from other spiritual publishers of newer religious movements. For example, take a look at the upcoming publications from Shambhala (connected to the rapid dispersal of centuries-strong Tibetan Buddhist teachings into the “West”) versus any pagan publisher and take note of the topics they’re treating. Shambhala is much more treatise-based while at the same time preserving an actionable relatability that any spiritual readership would want, especially nonspecialists. While we can attribute some differences in their approach to our different religions, that doesn’t explain all of it. The closest I can think of to the types of books that Shambhala comes out with is Gods & Radicals, and perhaps a few of the books in the Pagan Portals series, the Philosophy, Praxis, and Theology series from Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and a few self-published items. Tibetan Buddhism in the United States, despite some setbacks due to cultural differences and teacher malpractice scandals, is doing decently well; paganism and polytheism, on the other hand, have become haunted by transience and a lack of persistence, especially after the social media era snuffed out many informal local groups.
While I could gripe about a lot of things about shadows and occulture, I don’t want to leave this post there. The best way to handle the problems is to find a flashlight, put in some batteries, and do what we can to bring light to what is lightless (or at least under-illuminated). If Iamblichus can write an entire chapter on how to know if you’re really being visited by a God in the De Mysteriis, then we can certainly do our own minor part, too.
Example One: Write that treatise you’ve always wanted to write that links verses from the Hávamál to remaining ethical and grounded in business; or that personal memoir about how twelve months of devotion to Persephone guided you through your mother’s difficult decline and passing; or that highly specialized book that fuses your background in psychotherapy with your understanding of the descent of Inanna and how practitioners can incorporate the katabasis into their mental wellness journey through devotion to Inanna; or a guide for new moms from a pagan perspective; or anything similar. Big things take time to write, so pray and go with what the Gods sow into your heart.
Example Two: Review the religious jewelry you buy from pop occulture lines. Mention that you worship the Gods and give details, if possible, of how you consecrated the piece and what it means to you as part of your practice and your efforts to be aware that you are grounded in the Gods. Review the books of rituals and give concrete examples of how you added the Gods to suggestions made by the authors. Mention that you bless your gym shoes at your shrine when you talk about how comfortable and supportive they are. Small actions, when repeated regularly, are powerful — these specific examples make others aware of devotion as a possibility without being pushy.
There are tangible community-building things that can be done, too.
Basically, anything that we do that is grounded in solid theology and teachings is fruitful and useful for steering this massive ship away from the iceberg.
3 thoughts on “Pop Occulture”
I recall the emergence of a lot of argument around the term Neopagan, as well as what to call people who wanted to be Wiccan but for whatever reason weren’t initiated, seeming to coincide with the growth of online spheres. There didn’t seem to be as much debate about this locally where I live, but on the other hand at the time I was involved with an organization that I later developed serious reservations about and ultimately left, so who knows what conversations I wasn’t having due to siloing within the community.
I’ve only found your blog recently but I’m finding it very helpful as I navigate some changes in my own thinking that I suspect are pretty common to someone who came to polytheism by way of neopaganism. My own devotional blog is mostly altar pictures and brief meditations and sharing of other people’s work at the moment, but I’ve recently recommitted to writing some longer pieces of my own.
I have been taking classes at the Grey School of Wizardry, which is Neopagan based. I have been warmly received and people ask questions about Polytheism. When I do my essays, I do explain why this Neopagan subject is foreign to me and how I come to understand it.
I know I rail about Neopagans. My problem has been that it has developed into a do-it-yourself faith. Like diy projects, it depends on the skill level and learning of the person to see if it goes well. (My mother couldn’t sew to save her life, for example.)
I think that the internet becomes a place where many Neopagans get their information. When I do research for my GSW essays, I find this to be true. The sites are many, and often filled with the same information. That leads me to believe that people are seeking a manual of some sort.
Another problem for me has been that the loudest voices on the Internet have been given the most attention. Most of those voices are Orthodox Progressive. So of course, my vision of Neopagan becomes skewed.
LikeLiked by 1 person
The DIY aspect was present, but less of a huge issue, in the 90s and early 00s. It was far easier for people to find local groups to attend, which helped in the sense that even solitaries could occasionally make contact with people. And, at least where I was, the used bookstore The Opened Book (which also sold pagan items) was a touchstone for getting members of the extended community together. There was a summer pool party there for the community every year that was so, so fun. The extreme version of DIYing set in as social media started standing in for real-world community.
On the other hand, though, I totally resonate with the people who don’t go to in-person things. Once I’m in soft pants for the evening, the only thing that could cause me to leave my apartment is taking out the trash or, like, a natural disaster or fire. People in older generations seem much more open to later-evening things, but I don’t want to be out past 8:30 — I want to go home and wind down. One of the yoga studios downtown is doing full moon practices, and I noticed that even they start close to commute-time whenever the full moon is on a weeknight.