The Pagan Heart
Myth, Magic, and Madness

November-December 2005 Issue

Rebirth, Renewal, and Regeneration

By Axiom


This month I found myself in a number of discussions about the Pagan religion, the state it's "in", or not in, the quality of students, and other similar topics. There was a strong polarisation in all the conversations between those knowledgeable in their field and those still starting out on their path with the strongest discussion revolving around the issues of tradition, history, and education.

There is an increasing trend for new Pagans to follow an ecclectic path composed of bits and pieces picked up as they browse through the various traditions. For those who teach this is manifesting in students who are disinclined to put in the serious study required to learn a tradition, prefering instead to wander through what appeals. To the teachers this is frustrating - they know from having walked the path that the discipline required to advance spiritually is significantly more than that required to read a few chapters here and go with the flow there.

And it doesn't matter if you're ecclectic or dedicated to a tradition. The requirement for study and commitment is still there. Yet this doesn't seem to be sinking in with many newer Pagans. Or maybe it's the way it's being explained. I'm not sure. But so often when I discuss the need to study formally, to begin with some history and move forward learning about Paganism, spirituality, and magic (if interested) in some ordered form, I hear something along the lines of:

"But I'm walking an ecclectic path. I'm not specialising in Asatru or Wicca or or whatever. I don't need/want to spend a couple of months studying all that history. I just want to learn about Frigga and calling the Valkyries. And pick up a bit of the herbalism. Then I want to do some candle magic, and maybe read some Celtic myths - what do you mean which region? They're all the same. Celtic, you know. Anyway, that'll give me a feel for the Celtic pantheon so I can call on them 'cause you know I really like Brigit. Very drawn to her. Oh, and I want to do some tarot. But I'll grab a reference book - I don't have time to spend a couple of days learning each one. I'll just read the book as I go.

Oh and I'm teaching my friend. I've read so much on being Pagan over the last three months but I still remember what it's like to be just starting out.

Anyway, what with work and my life in general, I don't have the time to read that stuff you wanted me to. And I haven't really looked at those study questions - I mean I looked, but they don't apply to me, because I'm ecclectic. So I don't need to know that stuff."

This leaves me feeling somewhat confused. Firstly, how do you know you're ecclectic if you won't actually take a somewhat serious look into the various paths out there? I'm not talking years, I'm talking take a month or maybe two to explore the basic tenets, beliefs, and structure before discarding it. Aside from anything else, if you do intend to be ecclectic that means you'll be drawing from a variety of paths in the creation of your own trail. Understanding what you're taking and how it works can only benefit you. Give you deeper insight into the philosophy, spirituality, and methodology behind it.

Secondly, I don't get how you can actually be ecclectic or dedicated if you're not really reading anything. I don't mean the three pages of this book that are relative to your interest, or that generic, paraphrased version of someone else's generic ideas on Paganism. That's not being serious about your faith - it's dabbling, and that's what the playgans and fluffies do. They follow the latest fad, read enough to sound vaguely knowledgeable to the unaware, and are in it because it's cool or sexy or forbidden or whatever.

But to be ecclectic means you have found elements of various paths that appeal. So how do you find those elements if you're not reading and exploring? Comparing rituals from Greek and Roman paths with Mesopotamian and Baltic? Reading the mythology of the Russian deities to see if they call you more than the Egyptian ones? To be dedicated to a path means you know it's the right one having read up on it at least, if not others that you subsequently discarded.

And the third query I have is why call yourself Pagan if you don't have the inclination to make the time to learn your path? I have students who have time to browse online chat rooms and bulletin boards for hours at a time. Who continually talk about hours spent at the coffe shop or mall just "relaxing". Students who have the time to be bored even. But somehow they never have the time to study.... In other words, studying isn't exactly a priority. So why be Pagan then? Why not settle for Agnostic? I mean you don't know what you believe because you don't explore the mythology, the texts, the discussions. You believe, but it's in an undefined "something".

Actually, I have more questions than that, but those - to me - are the starting points any Pagan needs to begin with:

  1. How do you know what kind of Pagan you are?
  2. How do you know what being that kind of Pagan means on a spiritual and physical level?
  3. How important to you is your faith?

The reason I get so frustrated is not because I think all Pagans must meet some standard of study to be called "Pagan". Rather it's that as a teacher I get frustrated when I get new students, all dewy-eyed and excited, and then within a month the excuses start. And they never end, until the student simply stops studying. Not all my students are like this - or I'd no longer be teaching! But enough are to make it a rather questionable experience taking on a new student.

It would be so much easier if people simply stated at the beginning, "Hey, look. I want to learn bits and pieces because I'm interested, but I'm not really interested in exploring Paganism indepth."

I could give them a very basic list of topics, they could pick what interested them and I could point them in the direction of some decent material. Any questions arise and they know where to find me.

But unfortunately, every new student is insistent that s/he wants to study, wants to learn. And initially it's fun - the first month the students are obsessed with this new interest. They find the time to study. Then gradually old habits and interests srop up. The demands of studying regularly to learn and advance start to pale. And the exercises become too much effort. They want the sparkle without the sweat.

It's a viscious cycle - I've been in it for about 16 years or so now - and it gets very tiring after a while. Like many of my peers I am finding it less and less rewarding to teach and more often than not a draining, unrewarding experience. I hear from the newer Pagans the question of "who will teach us if all the teachers stop teaching?"

Yes, I want to help the true students, the ones with the thirst to learn. But you know what? One can only teach those who don't wish to learn for so long before running dry. You want to learn? You need to be prepared to prove yourself these days as we weed out those who don't.

This solstice I am taking a break. For the first time in 16 years I won't have any regular students - the last one graduated mid-year, and I haven't taken on any new ones. The few I still have are very casual and very ecclectic in their interests and study habits! I plan to enjoy my solstice and take a while before even looking at a new student. If I take on any more.

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