Over the last few days I’ve been watching yet another lurid sexual scandal explode in the Neopagan community. There have been quite a few of those over the last few years—fewer, let’s be fair, than in Hollywood or the Roman Catholic priesthood, but the same ugly habits of coercion, exploitation, and hypocrisy that earned their share of headlines in these latter cases can also be found all too widespread in the modern Neopagan scene, and the same wholesale turning out of skeletons in closets we’ve seen elsewhere of late is affecting the Neopagan community as well.
The scandal du jour this time around centers on the late Isaac Bonewits, in his time a major figure in the scene and the founder of Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF), a Neopagan church still very active in the US and elsewhere. I don’t propose to go into the details here; they’re pretty sickening, and they’re also irrelevant to the points I want to discuss in this week’s post. The various reactions from the Neopagan community range in the usual fashion from honest disgust through sanctimonious posturing to weasel-worded evasive maneuvers—again, this is nothing new, in or out of the Neopagan community, and again, it’s not that relevant to the points I have in mind.
During the twelve years I put in as presiding officer of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), I was several times asked to comment on the latest sexual scandals in the Neopagan scene. I consistently refused to do so, as AODA under my leadership made rather a point of staying out of Neopagan politics. I’m probably going to have to say something this time around, though, for a simple but inescapable reason. The late Isaac Bonewits identified as a Druid; so do I. Our spiritual paths have nothing in common except the name, but there is that name, borrowed separately from a long-extinct tradition of the distant past.
Ironically, one of the best witnesses I can cite concerning the difference between our traditions is Bonewits himself. He spent most of his public career saying quite a range of nasty things about the Druidry I practice and teach, insisting among other things that we—the old-fashioned, white-robed, sickle-carrying Druids of the Druid Revival—were horrible antiquated Mesopagans, not good modern up-to-date Neopagans like him. I saw, and see, no reason to disagree with him, in that what made us horrible in his eyes was apparently that we keep our robes on during ritual and have no interest in signing on to his various political, religious, and sexual agendas.
In case it isn’t obvious yet, I’m not a fan. I met the man only a few times; we were both civil to each other, but we never talked at any length; had we tried to do so, I’m not at all sure we would have had much to talk about. He came out of one spiritual movement and I came out of another, and to judge from his books (I’ve read them) and the church he founded (I joined many years back, found no common ground between its interests and mine, and soon left), we had no more in common than a Zen Buddhist has with a Southern Baptist.
A little history may help clarify things, and it’s not recent history, either. It starts with a man named Thomas Taylor, an Englishman of humble origins, born in 1758, with a wild passion for the philosophy and religion of the ancient Greeks. Raised a Christian, he read the writings of the Neoplatonist philosophers, went through a classic conversion experience, and became the first public Pagan in the English-speaking world since the Dark Ages. It helped that he was a self-taught scholar of unusual brilliance, who translated every scrap of surviving ancient Greek philosophy into readable English; and of course it helped that he hit the zenith of his career during the Regency era, and made friends in the British aristocracy who were quite willing to help support a philosopher and his charming and equally learned wife, and shield them both from the potential downsides of being known as worshipers of the gods and goddesses of Olympus.
Through his translations, Taylor had a massive impact on the cultural life of his time. In his wake, classical Pagan spirituality stopped being a straw man to be beaten enthusiastically by Christian preachers and turned into a live religious option again. As Taylor’s influence spread, his writings—and the classical Neoplatonists whose works he unleashed on the British and American reading public—came into contact with two other traditions already in existence.
The first of them was the secretive subculture of occultists who passed on the heritage of the great occult revival of the Renaissance. A recent book, The Myth of Disenchantment by Jason A. Josephson-Storm, has pointed out that it’s simply not true that magic was ousted by science, as there are still plenty of people who practice magic in the industrial world today. He’s right, but the myth isn’t completely wrong. Back in the Renaissance, astrology, magic, alchemy, and their sister arts were widely accepted parts of high culture, things that intellectuals discussed freely in public; by the 18th century, if you were interested in those, you existed in an underworld not that different from the one inhabited by gay men and lesbians in those same years, a world of who-you-know and carefully guarded secrets that could bring social ruin if revealed.
Since the Renaissance occult revival also drew heavily on classical Neoplatonism, the occultists of Taylor’s time pounced on his translations with glad cries. Until then, occultism had been heavily Christian, with borrowings from Judaism and the Greek monotheism of the Corpus Hermeticum; afterwards, a revival of Pagan polytheism within the occult scene got under way.
That was the first tradition. The second was launched by the white-robed, sickle-bearing, horrible Mesopagan Druids mentioned earlier. That got started in the 18th century—claims in the Druid Revival identify 1717 as the date when the first modern Druid organization was founded, the first documented Druid groups were meeting in London by the 1740s, and the movement was a going concern across the English-speaking world by the time Thomas Taylor hit his stride. Why did so many British eccentrics during those years find the fragmentary records and legends of the ancient Celtic Druids a source of spiritual inspiration? That’s a good question with only hypothetical answers; the fact of the matter was that the thing happened, and ever since then Druids have been an enduring part of the British cultural scene.
The Druid Revival has always gone long on intellectual diversity, not to mention a degree of syncretism that puts magpies to shame. Thus Thomas Taylor’s books found an enthusiastic welcome in Druid Revival circles; the belief, common in those days, that there was a primal wisdom shared by all the world’s wisdom traditions made it seem perfectly sensible for Druids of the Revival, who were reassembling the shattered fragments of an ancient tradition, to borrow useful bits from all over.
So you had Druids, and you had occultists, and you had Pagans, which in the language of the time mostly meant worshipers of the same Greek gods and goddesses to whom Thomas and Mary Taylor burnt incense and poured libations of wine in their back garden. The degree of overlap between these movements varied dramatically, but by the early twentieth century you had a significant number of people who were all three: whose Druidry embraced magic and the worship of Pagan (usually Celtic) deities, whose occultism had a Druid and Pagan flavor, and whose Paganism was magical and full of the eccentricities and insights of the Druid Revival.
Then you had another—well, you can’t call it a movement, except in the context of ribald jokes.
Back in the heyday of Victorian sexual hypocrisy, women who wanted to engage in unfettered sexual activity faced a very awkward double standard. Men who had sex out of wedlock, as long as it was with women, suffered no social penalty; women who did so faced catastrophic social consequences, and often legal consequences as well. Among its many other difficulties, this left women vulnerable to blackmail, with their male partners the most likely perpetrators of that act.
I’m not at all sure who came up with the perfect solution to that problem, but sometime in the 19th century some bright person figured out that there was a way to even the scales: set up a sex club under the guise of a deviant religious cult. Men could shrug off accusations of sexual impropriety, but belonging to a bizarre cult was quite another matter, and suitable documentation dropped on the desk of a man’s employer would have consequences for him just as cataclysmic as the ones a woman faced if her extramarital activities came to light.
That was what drove the rise of one of the most distinctive institutions of the English-speaking world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the sex cult, a voluntary social organization that used socially unacceptable religious practice as a protective measure to facilitate casual sex. It offered men and women alike sexual freedom in an atmosphere of perfect love and perfect trust, backed up by the threat of mutually assured social destruction.
There were a great many such organizations during the heyday of the sex cult. Some of them had actual occultism or non-Christian religion mixed in with the more horizontal activities that were their mainstay—for example, the Tantrik Order in America, launched by Oom the Omnipotent aka Pierre Bernard aka Perry A. Baker, actually taught quite a bit of Hindu philosophy to cash in on the Theosophy market, and ended up morphing into a chain of yoga studios once the bottom dropped out of the market for sex cults. As a result, as the sex cult industry spread, it—er—interpenetrated with the occult scene in various ways. Readers who recall The Secrets of Dr. Taverner by Dion Fortune may remember lurid hints about the sinister “Chelsea black lodges”; those were sex cults—though the occult scene in those days included a broad range of attitudes toward sex, from the promiscuous to the Puritanical. (For what it’s worth, the Druid Revival scene was pretty consistently on the moderate-to-tame end of things; those occultists interested in mixing slap-and-tickle with their magic generally went elsewhere.)
But that’s how matters stood when the first tentative draft of the modern Neopagan movement made its appearance. That was Gerald Gardner’s newly invented Old Religion of Wicca, and—let’s be frank here—it was a fetish club.
I mean that quite literally. Wicca started out as a standard sex cult with a sideline in flogging, “the English vice,” and a little more ritual than most. Oh, I know, it marketed itself as the world’s oldest religion, handed down unchanged from the Neolithic by a long line of third degree grandmothers blah blah blah. That kind of malarkey was standard practice in sex cults at the time. The Tantrik Order in America claimed that its founder had been initiated into ancient Tantric secrets by a genuine Hindu Tantric adept who somehow turned up in Lincoln, Nebraska; the Ordo Templi Orientis—another sex cult, until it got reworked by Aleister Crowley as a vehicle for his messianic ambitions—claimed to be descended from the Knights Templar, and so on.
I have it on good authority that in at least some traditional Gardnerian covens, members are still obligated to have sex with any other member of the coven who requests it. (That was standard practice in most sex cults, to ensure that members had no shortage of partners; if you didn’t like it, you could always quit.) The fetish-club form of Wicca was the form that spread through the English-speaking world, and until a specific day—October 31, 1979—it was the Neopagan mainstream, the model that every other budding Neopagan organization imitated: a great deal of casual sex with a modest amount of ritual and magic on the side.
This wasn’t a secret, either. Read early works on Wicca or other pre-1979 Neopagan offerings, and if you know the mildly coded language of the time, it’s not hard to tell that you’re reading a prospectus for a sex club. I’ve been told by people who were there that Wiccan covens as late as the mid-1970s routinely advertised in swingers’ newsletters. For that matter, if you frequented mail-order occult supply houses at that time, you could pick up manuals on how to found your own Magic Circle—that is to say, local ritual-themed sex club—with all the details of protective mutual blackmail laid out right there in print.
Then came October 31, 1979, and two books published that day—Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, and The Spiral Dance by Starhawk—redefined Neopaganism completely as a life-affirming feminist religion of Nature in which sex played only a peripheral role. Both books were huge bestsellers, and both attracted a torrent of people to the Neopagan movement who had no clue that they were joining a collection of sex cults.
Half the crisis over sexual behavior that’s been roiling the Neopagan scene since then is a direct result of the massive miscommunication that resulted from that redefinition. Do sleazy things happen in sex clubs? You bet, and in the days before issues of consent were as sharply defined as they are now, the sleaze factor could get very high indeed. The fact remains that back then, everyone understood that they were joining an organization for the purpose of having casual sex with lots of partners, and a certain degree of consent could be assumed of those who joined and didn’t just turn around and walk out the door.
Once Neopaganism was redefined away from its origins as a collection of sex cults, though, a very large number of people joined who were there for the spirituality, not for the sex. The difficulty was that too many members of the older generation of Neopagans, who got involved in the scene before it got redefined, either never got that memo or crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. That’s why the Neopagan scene has been roiled repeatedly by problems with elders who act as though another person’s presence at a Neopagan event still amounts to tacit consent for sexual advances, no matter how loudly the other person says “no.”
Of course there’s more to it than that. Victorian sexual repression was a disaster, but the sexual revolution did a fine job of demonstrating that the opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea. For a while there it was embarrassingly common among the supposedly liberated to see sickening abuses such as pedophilia and “corrective rape” held up as praiseworthy steps toward total sexual freedom. Since the Neopagan movement in its pre-1979 form was by and large on board with the far end of the sexual revolution, a number of people active in the movement in those days did some pretty appalling things, and that’s been a major source of the skeletons that have come tumbling out of broom closets in recent years.
The late Isaac Bonewits got involved in the Neopagan scene in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s, when it was still very largely about sex. To give credit where credit is due, he played a more than minor role in the redefinition of Neopaganism in the 1980s. His most famous book, Real Magic, helped begin the refocusing of ritual as something other than a means of foreplay and a source of blackmail fodder, and whatever may be said for or against the Neopagan church that he founded, ADF, it’s emphatically not a sex club.
The fact remains that he was one of the people who apparently never got the memo mentioned above. It may be sheer accident that every single time I was around the man, without exception, he was busy trying to put the moves on a younger woman who didn’t want anything to do with him, and he showed no interest in taking no for an answer. Based on everything I’ve heard from other people who spent time around him, though, it was probably par for the course. (Mind you, that says nothing about the truth or falsehood of the far more serious allegations recently made against him, but I’ll be honest, the experience didn’t give me any reason to think well of him.)
Ultimately, though, that’s neither here nor there. It so happened that a variety of people in the Neopagan scene, Bonewits among them, decided to borrow the word “Druid” for themselves, in exactly the same way that the founders of the Druid Revival did rather more than two centuries earlier. The Neopagans have as much and as little right to the name as the Druid Revival does, and while the result is an unfortunate confusion between two movements with radically different histories and interests, that confusion is unavoidable at this point. All any of us can do is explain what kind of Druid we are, and what that means.
Me, I’m squarely on the Thomas Taylor side of the line, connected by my initiatory lineages as well as my interests and attitudes to the Druid Revival of the 18th century, the inheritors of Renaissance occultism, the Neoplatonist polytheism that Taylor revived, and certain modern traditions descended from these. Partly because my position as Grand Archdruid of AODA required it, partly because my publishers thought it would help sell my books, and partly out of ordinary curiosity, I dabbled in some corners of the Neopagan scene for a while, but what very limited interest I had in that scene trickled away a while ago, and I don’t expect to go back.
I don’t claim to be any kind of ethical paragon, and traditional occultism, Neoplatonist polytheism, and the Druid Revival have no corner on moral superiority; quite the contrary, they’re as much a mixed bag as anything else human. That said, there are things they pretty reliably don’t stand for, and just now that seems like a worthwhile thing to me. I wish Neopaganism well; I hope the movement gets its act together, and finds constructive ways to deal with the awkward aspects of its heritage, but when it comes down to it, it’s not my circus, not my clowns and monkeys and dancing bears.
My path lies with an older tradition—you know, those horrible antiquated Mesopagans that Isaac Bonewits denounced with so much vitriol for so many years. That path, to the extent that I understand it, leads into distances that haven’t been explored much since Neopaganism grabbed the limelight. In posts to come, we’ll be talking about that a good deal more.