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Drawing Together: Themes of Connecting in Neo-Paganism

Updated on March 2, 2019
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Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a B.A. in psychology and a minor in religious studies.

A Review of Margot Adler's "Drawing Down the Moon"

In-text citations with only page numbers refer to Adler's book.

One explanation of the word “religion” locates its origin in the Latin “religare” (tie/fasten). Whether or not this etymology is correct, it highlights the connective function of religion (11). Religion, in its nobler expressions, can connect or reconnect us with each other, with nature, and with the divine itself. Neo-Paganism, as described by Margot Adler, in many ways fulfills this connective function on more levels than any other system of practice with which I am familiar. Neo-Pagan traditions reconnect the spiritual/sacred with the physical/profane (11, 25 375, 383). They connect modernity with “primitive” (378, 392) “ways that are older than the human race itself” (41, emphasis original). They connect people with one another (164, 199 - 200), with nature (154, 159, 164, 199), and with the divine (169 - 170, 203). This reconnecting involves a deep realization of the ultimate union of the things being connected. It involves a sense, not that we are merely connected to nature, but that we are nature, in that we are an integrated and vital part of nature. We are offered a chance, not just to commune with the gods, but to embody them (169 - 170, 203), directly experiencing our underlying union with them. This union with the gods is enacted through the ritual which Adler's book is titled after, “drawing down the moon” (23).

The Neo-Pagan movement originated largely out of a desire to reconnect with ancient, pre-Christian ways of being and practicing. This is expressed in what Adler calls “the myth of Wicca” (43). With this myth, Pagans1 connected themselves to a putative universal religion from ancient times that was all but stamped out—it ostensibly survived and resurfaced—by Christianity (43). The myth was fueled by the work of amateur folklorists such as Margaret Murray (44 – 46), Charles G. Leland (54 – 56), and Gerald Gardner (57 - 63) in the early to mid-twentieth century.

In order to reconnect to this supposed ancient religion, it was necessary for early Neo-Pagans to reconnect, or connect for the first time, disparate fragments from traditions both ancient and modern. For example, Gardner's writings, “stealing from any source that didn't run away too fast” (89), referred to Neo-Platonic works from classical antiquity (82), but also used more modern language from the secret society of the Masons and the occultism of Aleister Crowley (60). Doreen Valiente explained this eclecticism as Gardner's attempt “to link [fragmentary rituals] into a coherent whole and make them workable” (60). In Aidan Kelly's view, Gardner “pulled together pieces” (79) to create a new, living system. Other early Neo-Pagans were raised in “family traditions” that likewise connected various sources, such as “Masonic and Rosicrucian techniques, Spiritualism . . . Theosophy, and so on” (72). A motif in nascent Neo-Paganism was the story of such “fam trads” encountering and being influenced by Gardnerian thought (70, 71, 74). In fact, Gardner's influence on the Neo-Pagan movement as a whole is ubiquitous (77). He may rightfully be called the key figure in the emergence of Neo-Paganism.

Since the emergence of Neo-Paganism in the mid-twentieth century, it has grown tremendously. While no one actually knows how many Neo-Pagans there are today (104), estimates range between 200,000 and 1,000,000 (104). The actual figure is probably somewhere in the middle of this range. Neo-Pagans tend to be urban (389), white, and middle-class (386), although the movement also shows considerable ethnic and class diversity (19). Some of the most common Neo-Pagan professions include, in order: computer programmer, student, clerical worker, counselor, and teacher, among other things (413). Politically (401) and ideologically, Neo-Pagans are so diverse that they practically “defy categorizing” (466).

Most Pagans today no longer take the myth of Wicca literally (82 – 83). Questions of literal origins are simply not as urgent as they once were (83). Part of this reason for this is that Neo-Paganism de-emphasizes belief (19, 175) in favor of experience (15, 102, 139, 168, 173, 459), ecstasy (26, 146, 424), praxis (70, 173, 323 – 324), and lifestyle (101, 102, 375, 386). One of my favorite parts of the book, striking in its importance for a contemporary American society dominated by “religions of the book”, noted how connection is the antidote to dogma. Ecstatic rituals allow worshipers to “live” and “experience” their gods, and only when a separation is introduced into this experience of union does dogma and doctrine appear (161). “Most of humanity . . . represent a point where magic stopped, i.e., where the results of previous research inspired no further investigation but instead solidified into dogma” (161). The closed canons of the Abrahamic religions which dominate the West and the Middle East seal up the divine revelation of direct experience, substituting for living Truth a solidified, static artifact, incapable of bending or growing as living things do. The validity of Neo-Pagan traditions rests, not in their literal origins, but in how effectively they answer to urgent contemporary human needs (84 – 85, 86). Moreover, creativity may itself be considered the movement's true “source” (87), as well as the most vital Pagan tradition (82), facts which place intrinsic and practical value in creating new practices that are relevant today (85 – 86). This highlights the improvisational, adaptive elements of the movement. Such adaptability is a key Pagan value.

Pagans so value flexibility that they often cite the Indo-European roots “wic” and “weik” (to bend or turn) as sources of the words “Wicca” 2 and “Witchcraft”2 (10). Blind adherence to ancient traditions can be too rigid for the Pagan palate (85). The Witch Diana Demdike suggests that Witches “make a huge bonfire of all their carefully copied old books of rituals” (135). This destruction of the old locates Pagan mutability within a transforming cycle of death and rebirth. In harmony with the themes of death and rebirth present in their myths (202 – 203), initiations (109), other rituals (169 – 171), and common belief in reincarnation (109, 151, 170 – 171), dynamic Pagan traditions themselves are dying and being reborn from one instant to the next. One Pagan boasts that his tradition is “thirty seconds old . . . it keeps changing all the time” (133).

Aside from highlighting the importance of adaptability in the Pagan value system, Pagan creativity deserves a discussion of its own, as it appears on virtually every page of Drawing Down the Moon. One of the most distinctive commonalities between people who are drawn to the Neo-Pagan movement is a deep appreciation for beauty, vision, and imagination in myriad forms (20), and Pagans grant preeminence to their “poets, bards, and writers of ritual” (172). Pagan creativity can be seen as a form of reconnecting. Creativity reconnects the rational mind with the unconscious, irrational, and emotional components of our humanity, as these are the wellsprings of creative inspiration. One Pagan suggested that after working a job involving “the mind and the intellect, one needs a religion of the senses, the emotions, the world” (414). The Witch2 forges “a link between the [conscious and unconscious] mental systems” (39).

Wiccan myth should be understood in terms of this creative ideal. It is the spirit of these myths, like all myths, that is important, rather than any deductively valid “truth”. Robert Cochrane wrote, “We teach by poetic inference, by thinking along lines that belong to the world of dreams and images” (119). When Gwydion Pendderwen felt guilty about engaging in creative exaggeration in some of his writing, Aidan Kelly reassured him that “the vision [he] had had was a valid Craft tradition” (87). Thus, although there was no universal religion going back to Paleolithic times, the myth of Wicca expressed the more general truth that many Neo-Pagan ideals and practices are true in spirit to ancient and venerable “archetypal patterns” (86), howsoever fragmented these patterns may be. Likewise, even if the “sacred narratives of the Burning Times and the Paleolithic Origin of Matriarchy are not literally true, . . . they have a kernel of metaphorical truth” (237). The Matriarchy myth, which describes a primitive stage of universal matriarchy (191), embodies a “vision and ideal” (192)which does not stand or fall depending upon the historical facts. The idea of matriarchy “challenges women to imagine themselves with power” (193). Likewise, legends of the Burning Times, though often exaggerated, express the heavy truth that great atrocities involving incalculable human suffering did occur (236).

Ultimately, the lines between the real and the symbolic are blurred by the multivalance of language and the failure of all conceptual maps to exactly correspond to reality. This is a point that, in true Zen fashion, some Pagans drive home emphatically. Discordian thought tries to uncover “the absurdity of all ideas” (349). NROOGD's journal, The Witches' Trine proclaimed, “It is all real; it is all metaphor” (165). Even if an idea or word were to correspond to reality, the question would remain, “Which reality?” Neo-Pagans believe that reality is infinite (174), and that every being lives in its own reality (23). Thus, there are literally innumerable alternate realities (347), which makes the idea of capturing “reality” with a word or thought all the more ludicrous. Neo-Pagan myth, therefore, functions not so much to reflect reality as to create reality, just like all other human creative arts (303).

Another important creative art which generates Neo-Pagan realities is ritual magic. Sharon Devlin expressed the connection between art and ritual by saying “Human beings have a need for art and art is ritual” (145). Highlighting one reconnecting role of ritual and magic, Pagans such as Isaac Bonewits define magic as an art and a science simultaneously (157), relinking domains now quarantined from one another in academia. The magical worldview sees all things as interconnected (158), and ritual is a concrete process for enacting, entering into, and working with these interconnections. For example, Adler sees Pagan rituals as a means of ending our “alienation from nature and from each other . . . [,] reintegrating individuals and groups into the cosmos” (164, emphasis added). Ritual is a “vocabulary that cuts underneath all the divisiveness and unites us” (200). Speaking of a part of the ceremony of cakes and wine as the ἱερὸς γάμος (Hierogamos), or “sacred marriage”, Aidan Kelly calls it the “great rite”, a union “between male and female, . . . 'spirit' and matter, . . . the worlds of gods and men, . . . death and birth” (170). While the study of ecology demonstrates rationally that all things are connected, rituals “re-create that unity in an explosive, non-abstract, gut-level way” (165).

The magical faculty is also what connects the conscious and the subconscious (158). So like other forms of Pagan creativity, magic and ritual connect the everyday, rational mind with the dreamlike “primary thought processes” (a Freudian term) of the unconscious, which are devalued in our culture. As dreams are a form of communication from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind, Pagans see ritual as a way for communication to flow in the other direction: from the conscious to the unconscious (200). In true psychoanalytic fashion, Margot Adler, a descendant of the great psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, emphasizes that magic connects us with hidden aspects of the self (163). Likewise, the Feri tradition explores “the hidden places where we have buried the parts of ourselves we fear and hate, and [finds] there the source of beauty, love, creativity. . .” (123). This explicitly evokes the Jungian notion that one must confront and assimilate the “shadow” on the path to integration of the self.

The integration effected by ritual magic is not seen as supernatural (6, 157). Rather, magic is a methodology for the “internal sciences” (156), which works by harnessing focused attention, will, and emotion (158), and directing it towards pragmatic ends (7, 164). The mind itself is the crucial element (7); ritual magic is quintessentially a method for entering altered or expanded states of consciousness (159, 160), which are central to Neo-Pagan experience (156, 167). Bonewits and Devlin call rituals “dramas”, the enacting of which potently taps into parts of the mind associated with psychic energy or power (145, 164). The ritual's outward forms (111) or “trappings” (138)—the various physical acts and implements—are merely props (139) in these sacred psychodramas. They have no talismanic, intrinsic power in themselves, but are simply tools to create an attuned (159) or altered mental state (160), from whence the real power flows. While the energies thus generated can be used either to heal or to harm, most Pagans espouse an ethic of personal freedom with the caveat that one's actions should not harm others (95, 97). They also believe that “you get back what you give out” (109).

Neo-Pagans have found small groups of individuals to be most conducive to the flow of these mental/emotional energies. Again, there is nothing supernatural about this; the synergy of small groups has simply proven to optimize effectiveness (83, 105). Thus, the fundamental unit of Neo-Pagan organization has been the small group, often called a coven (105) or grove (342), although the Internet has led to an increase in the number of solitary Pagan practitioners (453). The coven was also the traditional entry into Pagan identity (113), although many people are now coming into the movement through festivals, larger community groups, popular books, and the Internet (449). While a few Pagans may see validity as based in proper initiation into a valid coven (97), and thus might question such entries into Pagan identity, many others “see initiation as an inner process” (94), and would not question a genuine experience of transformation, regardless of the medium through which it came.

While some covens join in various networks or alliances, such as the Covenant of the Goddess (99), they retain their autonomy (95), so the Neo-Pagan movement as a whole is highly decentralized. The movement is not entirely without leadership; each coven has its own leadership, making the movement polycephalous, rather than acephalous. Covens may follow larger “traditions”, yet, “There is no authority . . . outside each coven” (173). However, Neo-Paganism has “an exception to everything” (105), and so Bonewits's formed his Ár nDraíocht Féin tradition as a “benevolent dictatorship” (342 – 343). Nevertheless, a non-hierarchical ideal prevails throughout the movement, which has been described as “religion without the middleman” (21). Ideally, ritual practice within Pagan groups should lead practitioners to a direct experience of the divine, or even of their own divinity, which excludes the need for mediators. Because Neo-Pagan groups seek the divine “by strengthening the self rather than by obliterating the ego”, they tend to lack “authoritarianism . . ., 'gurus'. . ., [or] 'masters'. . .” (169).

Lack of hierarchy within the movement may be partly a function of the movement's relative newness, as well as its strong roots in the counterculture of the 1960's. Already, signs of an ambivalent routinization are apparent. As the movement matures, its population is aging (446), and new generations are growing up in the movement (444 – 445, 450) instead of converting in adulthood. Some see this as a good sign that a genuine Pagan culture is emerging (450). However, the presence of children in the movement is also making it less radical and more family-friendly, as rituals are often tamed so that children can participate (445). Some fear that a desire for acceptance within the mainstream might lead to a loss of “the fire at the core of it all” (445). Andras Corban Arthen advocates “paganizing” mainstream culture, rather than making a more mainstream Paganism (448). Others, however, see acceptance within the mainstream as needful (451), and say, “Our very survival hinges on being a real community, being organized—only that way will we secure our freedoms” (452).

As Neo-Paganism matures, religion without the middleman is in some places giving way to a system of full-time Pagan clergy, as well as a sort of laity (449 – 450). With the increasing institutionalization of Neo-Paganism, one Pagan worried that the movement is drawing in people who lack crucial Pagan values, “asking: How do we become part of the power structure? How do we gain institutional recognition?” (446). Morgan McFarland notes a loss of spontaneity among a new generation of Pagans, and speaks of “the last bastions of revolutionary Craft” (232).

The increasing institutionalization of Neo-Paganism comes with many benefits. These include the granting of tax-exemption for incorporated Pagan churches (133, 408); the publication of a peer-reviewed Pagan academic journal (420); the presence of Pagans at interfaith dialogues (427); the appearance of Pagan seminaries, chaplains, AA groups, and charities (422, 447); the flowering of material culture (434); and increased civic involvement, such as participation in highway beautification projects (447). But the institutionalization of Neo-Paganism also brings new challenges. For example, while many Pagan traditions have always forbidden the exchange of money for religious instruction (409), there has been an exponential rise in the number of Pagans charging for religious training (409), and full-time “clergy” in need of financial support (410). Adler points out the obvious danger of corruption that enters the picture when money and religion begin to mix (410).

As the Neo-Pagan movement as a whole becomes increasingly accepted and mainstream, at least one sub-set of the movement is retaining its fiery revolutionary fervor: feminist Neo-Paganism. In general, feminist covens are more non-hierarchical, informal, and adaptable than “traditional” covens (208, 222, 228). They carry on the most vital function of the old revolutionary Pagans, Aidan's “Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches” (176): resisting oppression (124, 180, 228). In this role, they reconnect women with culturally “masculine” ideals, such as strength (221). While they encourage women to view derogated associations with the feminine—the irrational, unconscious, and receptive—as positive, they go beyond this, performing the ultimate act of connecting by altogether “nullifying the binaries” (220) that have long polarized social conceptions of gender. Women can embrace and embody ideals from both sides of such supposed pairs of opposites, as their very opposition has been erased (220).

Another magical connection accomplished by feminist Pagans is the reconnection of the spiritual and the political (124, 187, 227). They see “all human concerns as both spiritual and political, and they regard the separation between the two as a false idea born of 'patriarchy' . . . that has produced much bitter fruit” (182). Z Budapest calls religion “the supreme politics” (190). Perhaps this reintegration of the political and the spiritual, which grounds Witchcraft “firmly in rebellion” (226 – 227), constitutes feminist Neo-Paganism’s greatest contribution to the broader Neo-Pagan movement.

The connection between the spiritual and the political is one important lesson that even non-pagans should learn from feminist Pagans. A person's spirituality is intertwined with their worldview, and a person's worldview is, in one sense, their politics (402). Ultimately, our spirituality, if it is to be worth anything, must be concerned not only with our personal wholeness, but with the well-being of all things; all things are connected, and we are thus inseparable from our social environments. Thus, wherever we see disjointedness in our social systems, true spirituality teaches us to feel this sickness on a gut level as partly our own, and to work towards the transformation of the social system (402 – 403).

A true spirituality must also create for us, in an emotional, non-abstract way, a sense of our interconnection with our physical environments. Our culture has conditioned us to think of ourselves as “archangels who live quite independently of the life processes of the universe” (469). We therefore live with “indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (17). One of Neo-Paganism's most vital contributions to contemporary society rests in its animistic worldview, which reconnects all things to a universal life-force. Z Budapest says, “Trees talk to me. My plants are telling me right now that they could use some more water . . . The sky kisses me. I can talk to stones, and sometimes clouds part if I ask them to” (385). While this exhibits a sense of childlike wonder, one of the strongest commonalities between Pagans (384), for those of us who do not naturally think this way, it would be more instructive to see such a worldview as a healthy attempt to reconnect in friendship with the rest of nature (469), rather than as a pathological regression to an earlier stage of development (467). Even if we find ourselves unable to see rocks as being literally alive, it is vital that we learn from Pagan animism “the cherishing of a much wider range of things” (31). Likewise, in this age of social alienation and widespread environmental destruction, it is vital that we learn from Pagan pantheism that both our social and our physical environments are holy.

Finally, in this age of holy wars and hydrogen bombs, it is absolutely incumbent upon us that we learn from Pagan polytheism that infinite reality is infinitely diverse, manifesting in “myriad forms and delightful complexities” (23). Our very survival depends upon it. We needn't believe in the literal existence of a multiplicity of “gods” in order to do this. In fact, many Pagans do not see the gods as literal beings, but as metaphors (175). They are “symbols or personifications of universal principles” (32). They teach us that even if reality is whole, it is simultaneously multifaceted like a radiant jewel, “harmonious but differing” (28). They teach us to see beauty and truth in diversity, as no individual can embody the totality of the Whole, but each individual, like a prism, filters It into a spectrum of color, and carries in them their own vital piece of It. In order to catch a glimpse of the Whole, we must turn to one another, as only by looking into others can we find the pieces that we ourselves are missing (33). Thus, Neo-Pagan traditions are not warring or exclusive denominations, as we see in some religions; they are simply guides, with fluid, permeable boundaries between them (134). The different names are much the same at heart (32). Oh, that other religions would follow suit! So the Pagan re-admittance of multiple gods into the divine serves much the same function as their re-admittance of humans and trees into the divine: it reconnects Reality—which has been divided and rank-ordered in the value system generated, ironically, by some of those who say that God is “One”—into a Whole.

I would like to think that Adler wrote this book primarily to bring Neo-Paganism’s vital message of reconnection to the public at large. The title of her book, after all, points to one of the movement’s most potent rituals of reconnecting. She wrote for a general audience, to familiarize them with what she perceives to be the most valuable ideas that a relatively obscure and misunderstood movement has to offer the broader society. She clearly reveals some of her own biases, stating that she embraced Pagan identity partly out of a desire for an ecological (395) and anarchistic (452) religion. At the beginning of her chapter on women, feminism, and the Craft—notably, one of the longest chapters in the book—she speaks with a wistful nostalgia about the passionate and idealistic glory-days of the feminist movement (178). Before describing a group of very politically active liberal Pagans she says that she wishes that such Pagans were representative of the Neo-Pagan movement as a whole, although they are not (405).

I, for my part, share Adler's biases, so I am hardly an objective critic of her work. However, she did succeed prodigiously in showing me the affinity of my own values with a movement that I had previously known little about. So vis-à-vis the segment of her audience which shares some of my own values, she absolutely succeeded in her apparent goal of driving home the importance and relevance for contemporary society of the Neo-Pagan gospel of connecting and reconnecting.


  1. In this paper, I will use the term “pagan” to refer to ancient forms of paganism, whereas I will use the terms “Pagan” or “Neo-Pagan” interchangeably to refer to the traditions of the Neo-Pagan resurgence which began in the mid-twentieth century.
  2. Words like “Witch”, “Witchcraft”, and “Craft” generally apply to the subset of Neo-Pagans who are initiated in the Wiccan religion (10), such as British Traditionalists, Gardnerians, Alexandrians etc. (114 – 117). There is debate among Neo-Pagans over who should be considered a “Witch” or “Wiccan” (417). Moreover, different Pagans have varying reasons for wanting to or not wanting to call themselves “Witches” (40 – 41; 416 - 418). As space doesn’t allow for a complete discussion of concepts like “Witch/Wiccan” in all their complexities, for more information see Adler’s discussions on pages 9 – 11, 95 – 102, and 416 – 418.


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