Reflections on Old Guard Paganism

By Mike Nichols | July 26, 2001

‘Old Guard Paganism’. The phrase started out as a joke, but then caught on. This tells us something. It tells us there is a NEED for such a term. It also implies its own antithesis, ‘New Guard Paganism’. And it indicates that there is some difference between the two — a ‘difference that makes a difference’ — and thus requires differentiating labels. (It should perhaps be noted that the word ‘Paganism’ is used in the present context — however inaccurately — to refer to modern Neo-Pagan Witchcraft, or Wicca. With grave misgivings, I have adopted this usage here.)

The first time I heard the phrase ‘Old Guard Pagan’ (used as a pejorative, as I remember) was during the organizing of the first Heartland Pagan Festival. It seems that the festival was being organized mainly by ‘New Guard Pagans’ who felt they were not getting the anticipated support from the ‘Old Guard’. Yet, even after such misunderstandings were cleared up, the phrase remained. Why? And what is the line of demarcation?

I remember a discussion I had at the time with a long-time High Priestess and friend, in which we laughingly concluded that an Old Guard Pagan was any ‘pre-Starhawk’ Pagan. ( Starhawk’s important book, ‘The Spiral Dance’ was first published in 1979.) Thus, an Old Guard Pagan is any pre- 1979 Pagan. And yet, seniority alone couldn’t BE the difference — although it might ACCOUNT for many differences. (It is interesting to note that Starhawk’s book is responsible for a massive influx of people into feminist traditions of Wicca, and this shift in focus may likewise account for key differences.)

I suppose it’s time for a bit of a disclaimer on my part. By the preceding definition, I myself am an Old Guard Pagan, having become a Witch in 1970. Thus, my views may be consequently biased toward the Old Guard. Still, I don’t intend for this essay to degenerate into shaking my cane at novices and using words like ‘whipper-snapper’ and ‘scalliwag’. On the contrary, I enjoy working with novices and have taught a beginner’s Witchcraft course for the past 18 years. No, my real goal here is to examine what I believe to be real and profound differences in attitudes concerning certain key issues between the two groups. Hopefully, this will lead to greater understanding and tollerance on the part of both.

In the following passages, I’ve tried to distill the differences between Old and New Guard Paganism, presenting them as strict dichotomies. However, bear in mind the vagaries that must accompany all such generalizations and the exceptions that will inevitably be cited.

FEW VS. MANY: Even today, with a substantial Pagan community for support, a newcomer often feels insecure, frightened, and alone when rejecting the religious training of childhood in favour of Paganism. Imagine then, how much more insecure, frightened and alone an Old Guard Pagan would have felt, with literally no one to support such a decision. In fact, no one to talk to at all. When I first became a Witch, I knew of no other Witches anywhere. For all I knew, I was the first human being in centuries to make such a conscious choice. And this, I found, was typical of most Old Guard Pagans.

RESISTANCE VS. ACCEPTANCE: Naturally, only those of extraordinary courage and perception would make such a choice back then. Not only because they assumed they were choosing a solitary path, but also because they were sure to encounter active resistance — if not outright hostility. Today, of course, Witches have appeared on Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, and other national TV and radio shows, and the general populace is becoming more educated and, if not totally accepting, at least more tolerant.

SECRECY VS. OPENNESS: But before such positive media PR, most Old Guard Pagans learned quickly to ‘keep themselves to themselves’. Usually, there was no one to talk with anyway, and when there was, it was someone trying to dissuade you from your choice. Thus, most Old Guard Pagans are more inclined to secrecy concerning their involvement than New Guard Pagans.

INACCESSIBLE VS. ACCESSIBLE INFORMATION: For Old Guard Pagans, information was hard won indeed. There were no Starhawks or Margot Adler’s back then — no one to neatly organize and systematize the beliefs of Pagans. There were instead books by Sybil Leek, Paul Huson, Leo Martello, and Lady Sheba (at best), and books by Hans Holzer and Louise Huebner (at worst). And there were the historical tomes of Murray, Thorndike, Robbins, and others, as well as the disorganized ‘linking’ work of Gardner, Lealand, and a few more. And there was no one to tell you which book was worthwhile and which wasn’t — so you read them ALL! Typically, an Old Guard Pagan has read (and owns!) a small library of books on Paganism. And, back then, if you HADN’T read the classics (like Murray and Gardner) then you weren’t taken very seriously by other Pagans. By contrast, many New Guard Pagans feel that reading one or two books (usually Adler and Starhawk) is quite sufficient. One unfortunate result is that Adler’s or Starhawk’s version of Paganism is taken as the ‘standard’ by the New Guard, which is far from the case.

SOLITARY VS. COVEN: Old Guard Pagans used to dream of the day they might meet another real Witche, or maybe even (ecstasy of ecstasies!) an entire Coven! Meanwhile, there was nothing to do but continue studying AND PRACTICING alone, as a ‘solitary’. This meant that, since Old Guard Pagans studied and practised the Craft in relative isolation, they developed strong individual concepts about it, an inner sense of theology, and the ability to use ritual and magic effectively alone. By contrast, New Guard Pagans are often introduced to other PAGANS before being introduced to PaganISM. Their first experiences are group-oriented ( Would you like to come to a Circle?), and the group continues to DEFINE Paganism for the novice. Without going through a solitary phase, most New Guard Pagans never develop a strong personal sense of what Paganism means. Worse, when asked to perform magic or rituals on their own, they are brought to a complete standstill, since all their experience has been with groups.

LONG VS. SHORT PERIOD OF TRAINING: Even for the Old Guard Pagan who had managed to find a Coven to join, it was only the beginning of an even longer period of intensive training — ‘a year and a day’ was the standard minimum. During this time, the novice might be apprenticed to any number of members of the Coven, to learn what they had to teach. At the end of that time, the candidate MAY or MAY NOT be judged ready for initiation. By contrast, New Guard Pagans are often introduced to Paganism and invited to join their first rituals in the same breath (often at Pagan ‘festivals’). From the Old Guard point of view, this is not only wrong but actually DANGEROUS! A person who is untrained in handling magical power has no business inside a magic circle — for their own sake, and the sake others attending!

JOIN VS. CREATE A COVEN: Naturally, the Old Guard Pagan would much prefer to join a pre-existing Coven — the older the better. Only then could there be centuries-old secrets passed down through oral tradition for the novice to learn! The New Guard Pagan seems to care nothing for this. It is enough to gather a small group of people interested in Paganism, and start your own group. From the Old Guard perspective, this makes as much sense as a novice mountain-climber being taken on his first climb by a group of rank beginners as green as he is!

ONE VS. MANY COVENS: You may also be sure that an Old Guard Pagan is only going to belong to a single Coven. By contrast, New Guard Pagans often join as many Covens as will have them, collecting initiations as though they were stamps. (This is also a mark of New Guard Covens, because an Old Guard Coven would never consider initiating someone who is already a member of another Coven.)

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INITIATORY VS. NON-INITIATORY: And, of course, initiation was the ultimate goal of most Old Guard Witches — the one moment of transformation that all the training led up to — the final reward for years of difficult study, work and devotion — both alone and in the group. Most New Guard Pagans don’t believe in initiations, since they claim (and they are often right!) that there is no one in the group more advanced than themselves.

RESPECT FOR ELDERS VS. NONE: This may come the closest to sounding like cane- shaking, but it follows logically from the previous passage. Most Old Guard Pagans would tend to assume that someone who has been a practising Pagan for more years than they have, has more knowledge and experience to draw on, and consequently more to teach. And unless situations prove otherwise, these Elders deserve our respect. New Guard Pagans, often feeling that Elders must first ‘earn’ their respect, do not seek out the wisdom of the older generations of Witches. The unfortunate result is the loss of much valuable legend and lore.

TRADITONAL VS. ECLECTIC: Granted, there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ uncontaminated tradition of the Craft, stretching back to the dawn of time. Nor would such a case be necessarily desireable, even if it could be found. Every tradition has borrowed from outside sources and is eclectic to some extent. Yet, while Old Guard Pagans often work to preserve their own traditions, New Guard Pagans are often deliberately eclectic, with a wonderful disregard of cultural heritage. The advantage of being eclectic is that it doesn’t require much work, in the way of research. The disadvantage is that one often becomes ‘jack of all trads, master of none’.

SKEPTICAL VS. UNCRITICAL: Perhaps because of the value Old Guard Pagans place on traditional forms of magic and divination, they are very often skeptical of new forms. For example, you won’t find many Old Guard Pagans going in for the current fad of quartz crystals. In fact, Old Guard Pagans will likely point out that there have been no controlled experiments concerning the psychic property of crystals, that there is no historical precedent for such beliefs, that the use of crystals by Native Americans has been overstated and misrepresented, and that other precious and semi-precious gem stones are traditionally just as effective. New Guard Pagans, however, are often not far removed from New Age Pagans, and go in for everything from crystals, to channelling, to UFOs, without much hint of critical evaluation.

RELIGIOUS VS. SOCIAL REASON FOR JOINING: This is perhaps the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT DIFFERENCE that exists between the two groups, and it could well account for many other differences. For many Old Guard Pagans, there COULD be NO SOCIAL REASON for becoming a Pagan, since Pagans were so few and far between that most of us didn’t know ANY other Pagans anywhere! New Guard Pagans, on the other hand, often become involved in Paganism for purely social reasons. One has the feeling that, if there weren’t Pagan groups to join, such people would end up in the SCA, or some other form of surrogate extended family. Not that such a need isn’t valid. But if social reasons are the primary motivation for becoming a Pagan, it marks a significant break from the Old Guard, whose motivation was chiefly religious.

Perhaps that is why Old Guard Pagans are often a bit isolationist, and are quite happy with a fragmented, inular Pagan community. In fact, Old Guard Pagans tend to look with grave suspicion on the ‘calls to unity’ — to create a homogeneous Pagan community — that one often hears coming from New Guard Pagans.

RELIGIOUS VS. POLITICAL REASONS FOR JOINING: Similar to the passage above, this again deals with one’s primary motivation for becoming a Pagan. For Old Guard Pagans, being political was something that grew out of one’s religious ideas. But, just as there is much variance in Old Guard Paganism, so too there is much variance in Old Guard politics. From my own friends, I can cite Old Guard Pagans who run the gamut from Socialist to Libertarian. This same political diversity is noticeably absent in New Guard Paganism, with most New Guard Pagans sticking to the same party line. Also, there is less tolerance of Pagans who diverge from that party line. More stress is placed on being ‘politically correct’.

RELIGIOUS VS. FEMINIST REASONS FOR JOINING: Finally, many Old Guard Pagans have become feminists AS A RESULT OF their Pagan beliefs. By contrast, many New Guard Pagans are Pagans AS A RESULT OF their feminist beliefs. Once more, it’s a question of which takes precedent. And although it may seem like the final result would be the same, such is not the case. Pagans who come to Paganism via feminism are often separatists, Goddess monotheists, anarchists, distrustful of both structure and authority, insisting on such ideas as consensus political forms, rotating High Priestesses (often without High Priests at all), and other non-traditional Coven structures. (Often, such groups disdain to use the word ‘Coven’ and simply refer to their ‘Circles’.) The perenial problems that plague such groups (the lack of focus, the inability to set goals, the endless personality clashes and power plays, and the fact that nothing ever gets done) come as no surprise. Much of this would be unthinkable to Old Guard Pagans, who would no more rotate the position of High Priestess in their Coven than they would rotate the position of mother in their family. ( The New Guard attitude toward authority arises, I believe, from a healthy mistrust of it as it is typically used (abused) in patriarchal society. This perception is particularly acute among feminists. What it fails to consider is how authority may be used positively in a matriarchy.)

NON- VS. PROSELYTIZING: For an Old Guard Pagan, the idea of saying to someone ‘Would you like to join our Coven?’ or ‘Would you like to become a Witch?’ would have been unthinkable. Proselytizing was one of the most detested aspects of the religious tradition (usually Christian) being left behind. Those groups who actively recruit members were, to the Old Guard, groups to be shunned at all costs. Witchcraft is not the one, right, and only religion. In fact, it probably appeals only to a select few. And those few exhibit their courage and sincerity when they seek out a Coven or a tradition. When a Coven seeks THEM out instead (Won’t you please join our Circle tonight?), there is no gauge of the novice’s devotion. Perhaps that is why the ‘drop-out’ rate is much higher for New Guard than Old Guard. (Other mystery traditions, such as the Freemasons, strictly forbid a member to ask an outsider if they would like to join.)

Lest one conclude that there are only differences between Old and New Guard Pagans, let me mention a few things they seem to have in common. First, there is magic — both in its frequency of use, and what it is used for. Second, the use of drugs by modern Witches has always been a minority position, and seems to remain so. Third, the times of celebration and festival, appointed by the seasons and the phases of the moon, seem constant (although New Guard Pagans often employ inappropriate names for the holidays). So, while there are differences, there is common ground as well.

If the remarks you overhear made by Old Guard Pagans (and the remarks made in this essay!) seem slighty petulent, tinged with sibling rivalry, it is not to be wondered at. The Old Guard Pagan is in the position of older brother or sister of the family. They often feel, quite justifiably, that the things which they had to fight Mom and Dad so HARD for, are now being handed to the younger brother or sister on a silver platter. They feel that since their freedoms and privileges were so hard won, they value them more. They often feel that the younger siblings do not APPRECIATE all the things the older siblings have done to make such freedoms possible. And, of course, they are right. Such will always be the way of the world — the march of generations. Still, the thing to remember about sibling rivalry is that, underneath it all, we ARE siblings; we ARE brothers and sisters, whatever forms may divide us; we ARE all sons and daughters of the Great Mother.

Document Copyright © 1988, 1998 by Mike Nichols

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