Writing in The Guardian, Alex Mar explains how making a documentary film “about a handful of fringe religious communities around the country” led her deep into the pagan world.
The article is an interesting account of where the search for meaning (whatever that may be) can take the credulous and the restless, and, beyond that, of the eternal appeal of the divine – and the break from the banality of everyday existence that comes with celebrating it.
The ritual was a devotional to the Morrigan, the heavyweight Celtic goddess of war, prophecy and self-transformation. In the center of the circle, surrounded by her ritual crew, stood Morpheus, with all eyes on her.
At the time Morpheus’ day job was working for a federal environmental agency, not, perhaps the most thrilling of line of work. Being possessed by an ancient Celtic goddess on the other hand….
Dressed in black, in a leather corset and a long skirt slit up each side, she wore her hair in elaborate, heavy braids that hung to her waist. She stalked the circle’s edge, flapping the vulture wings she’d strapped to her arms and staring into the crowd. Her slender body doubled over, as if suddenly heavy, and began bobbing up and down as if something was bubbling up inside her.
The sight of a possession, for those who’d never witnessed one, was alien, impressive. After what felt like a long time, she raised her head up and in a growling voice not her own, announced that she was Morrigu! Badb Catha! The roomful of witches circled closer, tightening around her, and a fellow priestess lifted a heavy sword above our heads: she directed us to take a vow. “But only if it’s one you can keep. Don’t take it lightly.”
As Morpheus (or the goddess she was channeling) continued heaving, breathing hard, hundreds of people crowded in, taking turns to raise their hand up and touch the tip of the blade.
I was one of them.
Mar, who also went on to write a book (Witches of America) on this topic, argues that there are now as many as a million “self-identified witches (typically called pagan priests and priestesses)” in the U.S.
In the past, it may have been tempting to dismiss this community as Earth-loving crystal collectors or velvet-wearing goths. In fact, the dozens of esoteric but related traditions share a spiritual core: they are polytheistic, worship nature and hold that female and male forces have equal weight in the universe. Pagans believe that the divine can be found all around us and that we can communicate regularly with the dead and the gods without a go-between. They don’t believe in heaven or hell; many subscribe to some version of reincarnation, or a next world called the Summerland.
In other words, it’s nonsense, but to each his (or her) own…
And then we get to the key point:
Throughout my life, most of my friends have been fashionable atheists of the creative classes, but it was becoming clearer to me that this does not exempt anyone from the very human need for meaning. As someone with a strong “religious impulse” but without a practice to relate to, I’d long been envious of people whose lives are structured around a clear system of belief. It seems like a tremendous relief, to be able to wake up everyday with a shared sense of purpose versus the low-level existential pain of living without something to believe in, a religious tradition to guide and ground you.
Most people, it seems do indeed feel that way: It’s hard-wired within and some of the more evangelistic atheists (for whom, I suspect, atheism is, in all probability, a surrogate religion) would do well to remember it. Religion will always be with us. What matters is the form that it will take.
But note my reference to ‘most people’. There is another group, a happy few (or perhaps not so few) who find the absence of any overarching ‘meaning’ to be something of a relief, and that, far from being a source of “low-level existential pain”, “living without something to believe in” (at least ‘believe’ in a capital B sense of the word) can be a pleasantly liberating experience.
Transcendence, no thanks.