Wednesday, June 12, 2024

'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 t o 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 tolerance 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 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.

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 systematize the beliefs of Pagans. There were instead books by Sybil Lee k, 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, Leland, 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.

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 perennial 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 slightly petulant, 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 t hem 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.
Copyright © 1988, 2002 by Mike Nichols.
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