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Reflections on OLD GUARD PAGANISM

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Subject: Reflections on OLD GUARD PAGANISM

                              By: Mike Nichols

   '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 favor 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
   decission. 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.

   INACCESSABLE VS. ACCESSABLE 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 systemitize 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 (ecstacy of ecstacies!)
   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.)

   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 crytals, to channeling, to UFO's, 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 homogenous 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
   noticably absent in New Guard Paganism, with most New Guard Pagans
   sticking to the same party line. Also, there is less tollerance 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 guage 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
   inapporpriate 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 justifyably, 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

   This document can be re-published only as long as no information is
   lost or changed, credit is given to the author, and it is provided or
   used without cost to others.

   Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike
   Nichols.

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