Written for Prospect Magazine:
I am on the rail replacement bus service outside East Midlands Parkway train station, which itself lies resplendent beneath the ravishing architectural solicitation that is Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in the rain. I am on the top deck with three other men. One has a gold tooth, another a shaven head and a feverish red beard, and the third a ponytail and a couple of vehement face piercings. Down below a man I will come to know as Nuka Raven is biding his time dressed in a black tunic and cloak with silver trim. We’re 10 miles outside Nottingham.
“Don’t worry,” says Tim Spicer, the gold-toothed 36 year old, “it’s not just warlocks. They’re not elitist. Everyone is welcome. It’s very… affirmative.”
“Druids?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. And maybe some wicca chicks.”
Forty-five minutes later and I’m marching resolutely up a hill with several hundred men and women who look as if they’re heading straight for the gates of Mordor. There are banners saying “Welcome to Pagan Pride Parade 2013.” There are time-smoothed staffs, purple runic-patterned dresses, bright yellow and pale blue flowers and several people are drumming. Sure, I’m not pagan, but I am a sucker for people who mean it—so I join right on in when the shout goes up: “We are pagan! And we are proud! We are pagan! And we are proud!”
We arrive at the Arboretum in central Nottingham. This is one of the UK’s biggest pagan gatherings and has been roughly timed to coincide with Lammas on 1st August—a date that originally marked the first harvest festival of the year.
Paganism was finally recognised as a religion in the UK at the 2001 census. The numbers are rising: in 2001 about 42,000 people identified as pagan; in 2011 the number was 75,000. Informal estimates are three times this number. Until recently, many a pagan has been chary of coming out. But as the doors of our busy national closet have begun to ease open, so too the pagans are venturing on to the streets. I find myself ignorant of even the basics, so I’m here trying to find out what being a pagan entails. More than 20,000 people gathered to celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge on 21st June. But why are people turning to “the old religion”? Who are they? And is modern Paganism really anything to do with pre-Christian traditions?
I snag a passing shaman. I’m hoping to be reconnected with my soul.
“How long does it take to get to the spirit world?” I ask.
“Well, a lot of shamans can take about 45 minutes but I can do it in about 45 seconds,” he replies. “I’m 73 so I know what I’m doing.”
I don’t doubt it. “How do we get there?”
“I use my drum. I enter a trance.” He indicates what looks like a large tambourine. “Do you need healing?”
“Me and everyone I know.”
Unfortunately, a fine rain has started to fall and it’s bad for everyone’s makeup, so we have to break off. I take shelter under a nearby tree. And it’s here I meet Nuka Raven and his crew. Nuka is 21 and from Corby. He’s with Emma and Imogen, also 21, and Charlotte who is 17. It turns out that Nuka is a Germanic neo-pagan priest and a graduate of Sheffield University.
“We pagans are not confined to doctrine,” Nuka says. “That’s a big part of it. You have to understand that it’s not a political movement, it’s a freedom of choice movement.”
“I’m here because I’m with him,” says Charlotte. “But it is true there is a lot more opportunity and respect for women.”
Like a lot of people I have met, Nuka and Charlotte are genial and good hearted. And I’m struck by how much they’ve thought about their lives and the world. (The others speak less; though I can’t be sure, I think this is because they are eating curried goat.) Nuka jogs me through the principal types of Pagan: there are wiccans, shamans, German and Slavic neo-pagans, Celtic polytheists, druids, witches, Hellenists and your catch-all pantheists. I keep on with the questions.
“So what does being a priest of Germanic neo-Paganism involve?”
“I like to walk through the forest and feel the energy. It’s not spiritual in the sense of fairies. It’s more that you feel the growth all around you.”
“And at home?”
“I might light a candle or two—but it’s just a ritual. There are lots of rituals. Whether they are real or not is another matter. But they are a way of making you feel better. They help you help yourself. But listen—you should speak to Cat. She’s one of the leading druids.”
I set off. I’m beginning to wish I had a staff. There are men with tankards. Children playing. Students with t-shirts that say things like “Twisted Soul.” There’s the Witches Shop (“for all your witchy needs”). There is a store called Gemini Aspect (“wands, cloaks, robes… magic sundries”; “We take Paypal”). The atmosphere is peaceful, convivial, friendly and vibrant. Talks are advertised: “Beyond Earth Worship: Diverse Paths Under the Pagan Umbrella.”; “Pantheism: One source, Many paths.”
The first major revival of Paganism took place at the start of the Renaissance in the 14th century. Then, in about 1481, we get Botticelli’s Primavera, the first major painting of mythological figures since classical antiquity; it is secular, sensual, attractive, pagan. Venus presides while Zephyrus kidnaps and possesses a nymph, whom he transforms into a deity, the goddess of spring and the eternal bearer of life. Thus we have the erotic and the metaphysical—the human and the divine—co-existing once again. And this, the painting suggests, is what creation is about. In other words, the Christian idea of the body as a locus for shame, pain and torture is set aside in favour of the re-enthronement of beauty, strength and fertility.
I’m haphazardly considering all this when one of my brothers calls to say his relationship is over on account of his refusal to accept a life of pragmatic inconsequence. I tell him hang tough, bro, and that I’ll be back with him right after I’ve spoken to some druids.
Cat Treadwell is in the druid tent. I take an instant liking to her. She’s modest and engaging and clearly a woman of generous intuition and compassionate intelligence. My guess is that she is in her late thirties. She is a trustee of the Druid Network and an ordained Awenydd (Priest) of the Anglesey Druid Order.
“Druids hold that all things have equal value,” she tells me. “That rather than seeking to dominate it, we are part of the world. So we have an awareness of the land. We believe that there’s a common human element of wonder in nature. That nature has an intrinsic value and consciousness in and of itself. We are not aside or above this, but part of it. We seek to reclaim this relationship and participate in it.”
“So it’s about reconnecting with the landscape?”
“Yes. It’s about the native spirituality of Britain.”
“In what way is it a religion though?”
“Well, I would say that religion is about what you do as much as it is about what you believe. We share rituals. We celebrate the cycle of the year. Our ancestors did this.”
“How do you know what your ancestors did?”
She is refreshingly candid. “Well, we don’t really. There’s so little known about ancient druids. We don’t claim any direct descendancy.”
“So it’s a revival, not a survival?”
“Yes. We are seeking to reconnect with what we imagine were the rites and practices of the ancient druids. But—you know—the landscape is the same. The British isles are the same.”
I call my brother. I tell him I’m starting to feel much better informed. Several common themes and pagan principles are emerging. There’s an apprehension of something immanently divine, or at least non-physi cal, in nature. There’s an appreciation and celebration of the cycle of the seasons, the “wheel” of the year. There’s a very strong belief in the power of the feminine and this sets itself directly against the misogyny of Christianity, Islam and Judaism—women as possessions, virgins, whores, troublesome birthing vessels, to be controlled and made to obey men. There’s respect for the earth. There’s a strong commitment to personal growth; lifestyle must be consistent with one’s beliefs. There’s a minimum of dogma and a maximum of individual responsibility. Messiahs and gurus are to be avoided; the mediation of another being is unnecessary for an individual to commune with a deity—power from within is preferred to power over others. But most interesting of all are the connections with both modern environmentalism and the idea of an ancient Britishness.
“Paganism is really an umbrella term for myriad different beliefs and practices—they call them ‘paths’,” I say to my brother on the phone.
“Terrific,” he says, “Now can you ask someone there what the hell I am supposed to do about love. I need answers. I need solutions.”
Luckily, the President of the Pagan Federation is a healer. His name is Mike Stygal; he is 48 and lives in London. We sit on a bench and he smokes while I try not to. We talk love, death and lost souls. He explains how he does his healing.
“I would use the techniques common to all religions to enter an altered state of consciousness. We’d go into the spirit world and look for animal allies in order to gather information.”
“What are we hoping to find, Mike?”
“Well, the shamanic view of pain is that it’s really an aspect of soul fragmentation. Some kind of trauma causes your soul to fragment. And so we would be going to find the missing piece in order to bring them back and seal them within you again.”
“Great. But isn’t this really a psychological process?”
He thinks for a few moments. “I don’t know. I tread a fine line on this. I don’t consciously create the journey. On the other hand, I do believe that the human mind is a very inventive thing. But I cannot dismiss what I understand to be a very spiritual process.”
I feel the need for intellectual ballast. So I call Jonathan Woolley who is doing a PhD at Pembroke College, Cambridge, on “Paganism and Pagan Druidry.” I want to understand more about religious notions of Britishness.
“A lot of Paganism engages with the idea of our deep history,” he says. “It’s not to do with the nation or the state, but the landscape itself and all the social history that has gone into the landscape. Before the Romans, and the Anglo-Saxons, and so on—the ancient mythic past.”
I put it to him that one interesting aspect of modern Paganism is that the movement seems aware of its own fictions. He points out that ideas of transcendence—of sacred texts, truth and rituals passed on—are all very Christian ones. And he contends that what Paganism really represents are the deeper and older currents in western European society; an expression of a culture that has always been there and one that is not so very different from that of the classical civilisations. These currents bubble up from time to time just as they inform other, newer religions. But they no more come and go than the landscape and the people.
“OK, but do you believe in the reality of these spirits?”
“This is the great thorny unasked question—what makes souls.”
“Yes it is.”
“Paganism is a way of approaching this question. One chooses a place between superstition and materialism that allows us to interact and grapple with the non-physical.”
I’m with him on the Britishness and the pagan connection to environmentalism. But still, and though I hate to say it, I can’t help but feel that this is the familiar dodge of all religion: the mobilisation (and glamorisation) of mystery at the expense of reason.
I take this up with Tim Jenkins, a reader in anthropology and religion at Cambridge. I explain that over the years I have come to the conclusion that religions are very human inventions constructed to deal with the inexplicable, to cope with trauma, to celebrate, console and commemorate; psychological frameworks that human beings seem to need in order to get the deeply uncertain business of living done. At its most fundamental, I would argue that religion is an effort to redeem our collective and individual solitude.
“Ah, yes, but religion isn’t solely defensive,” he counters. “It’s also a way of inquiring into being alive. There’s a lot of human energy involved—generally rather inventive human energy. Religions offer people a way of interacting with the world, engaging, participating beyond the self.”
“What about neo-Paganism?”
“Well, in a sense it is the same as every other religion. On the one hand, it’s typically religious in that there’s a belief in self-improvement, self-perfection, such as you might find in Protestantism. On the other, there’s a very Abrahamic and apocalyptic belief that this is our last chance or that our plight is urgent. Intellectually, these two ideas should be somewhat at odds. But religions often combine them.”
I’m left with the modified idea that all religions are really just human beings improvising a way of being in the world. But that this is more apparent in Paganism because there is nothing written down, little formal communality and certainly none of the mighty power structures of, say, Rome. The new pagans, it seems to me, are well-intentioned folk who like to dress up, while maintaining old customs and creating new ones as they try to make sense of their lives. In this they are no crazier than the Archbishop of Canterbury et al. Maybe less so—as one of the druids put it: “If you have to worship something, it might as well be the earth—at least we know it exists.”
Back at the festival, I get myself some curried goat and call my brother.
“The good news, bro,” I say, “is that lots of people care about the nature of your existence—love and death and all of that. But the bad news is that nobody seems to know anything for sure. I think the best thing to do is just to keep asking questions.”
“Oh god,” he says. “Well, shout if you meet anyone with some answers.”