Occultism and Paganism: Are We a House Divided?
Article ID: 11052
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Taylor Ellwood
Posted: December 17th. 2006
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There’s an ongoing trend in the occult and pagan communities that is slowly becoming more noticeable as time goes on: the tendency to differentiate occultism from paganism. Magicians don’t always identify as pagans and vice versa. This has been an ongoing issue for quite a while. I’ve had a number of discussions over the years as to whether paganism and occultism really go hand in hand, or if there are good reasons for this split.
‘Pagan’ is a blanket term, but it usually refers to people who aren’t in a monotheistic religion, but are part of a religion that is focused on worshipping multiple deities. Pagans tend to focus on religion first and magic later. Occultists, generally speaking, are people who put magic first and religion second. The magic may be very ritualized and formal or free form and spontaneous.
One stereotype that is associated with pagans is that they are fluffy, unable to face their inner darkness while not harming anything as much as possible. The stereotypes associated with occultists, on the other hand, are that they are unspiritual and only after results. But are these stereotypes in either case really true or is this just a needless division?
The first difference between paganism and occultism is the importance and use of magic. For most pagans, magic tends to take a back seat to a relationship with the deities and spirits being worked with. When magic is practiced, it’s used in a religious context in a ritual/ceremony to honor and connect with the deity/spirit being worked with. Also, not every pagan practices magic; although it’s fair to say the majority does.
Within pagan groups, there are priests and priestesses who primarily officiate the main rituals. Others in the group, who aren’t priests/priestesses, can and do practice magic, but a lot of the authority is invested in the leadership. These specialists may become elders and hold a special place in the community at large… though sometimes they need to be reminded that respect is continually earned.
You cannot rest on your laurels in any community, because to be a leader is to be in service to the community. Spirituality tends to be community focused and has the trappings of religion attached to it. Even among solitary pagans, magic is often a supporting second to spiritual practices
On the other hand, within occult communities, almost every occultist whom I know practices magic on a fairly regular -- and primarily solitary -- basis. The magic can be deity oriented, but a lot of it is focused on meeting practical needs (manifesting specific results that make situations work out in the magician’s favor) or for personal enlightenment. It is driven more toward process, technique, and result.
Magic is used to manifest reality as opposed to worshipping deity. When deity is worked with, it is in terms of a partnership or one-time agreement as opposed to a more religious focus. Authorities in the occult community primarily tend to be authors or very talented magicians, but authority isn’t nearly as defined or emphasized as in the pagan community. The focus in any group work is on experimentation and refinement of techniques. (This isn’t to say that spirituality doesn’t exist in occultism, but it tends to be a very individual and non-dogmatic approach.)
Keep in mind that these are generalities and people will diverge from my personal definitions. For instance, even with these differences noted, many pagans identify as occultists and vice versa. What I believe determines the choice of one calling over the other is the priority that magic takes in the life of the person.
The second difference between the two systems is that paganism is slowly becoming more’ mainstream’. Some of the recent articles on Witchvox have advocated that pagans need to stop dressing in Renaissance garb, goth gear, hippie clothing, or anything else that makes a person stand out when they go to public ritual. The rationale is that for paganism to gain acceptance within mainstream culture, it needs to conform to the norms of mainstream culture.
My wife Lupa’s article, “I am a Pagan Reject”  attempts to address this need for conformity by suggesting that it’s equally important to respect diversity in the pagan community. For now, the community is still diverse -- and it will hopefully remain that way -- but intolerance is slowly growing.
Occultism focuses on the counter-culture and usually stays within the counter-culture. Even with the recent publication of Generation Hex, which tries to give the occult a more mainstream appearance, most of the writing within it focuses on what would be considered counter-cultural activities.
If and when a magician needs to appear mainstream, that conformity is only for appearance purposes and used as a tool to achieve a desired end such as holding down a job that funds the pursuits that the magician is interested in.
The counter-culture is favored as an avenue of resistance to mainstream culture. It also allows for more creativity and diversity than is offered in the mainstream. Again, there are magicians who aren’t into the counter-culture, but I am speaking in generalities here. For the most part, whether they identify with the counter-culture or not, occultists seem to be more resistant to being assimilated into the mainstream.
Another difference is in the gender disparity that occurs in both cultures. In the pagan culture, the women are empowered while men are disempowered. Increasingly, there are complaints by men that they are left out or put in subservient roles. There is also a belief that women are more powerful at magic (though this has yet to be proven). In some forms of paganism, only women are allowed to practice magic (Dianic Wicca comes to mind). Also, although there is both a god and goddess in pagan belief systems, female divinity is often more emphasized in paganism.
In occultism, on the other hand, the gender disparity favors men. While women aren’t overtly discouraged from practicing magic, they aren’t very vocal This is partially encouraged by the competitiveness that occurs in occult practices. Men tend to be much more vocal and often times, there is a boys’ club mentality that can sometimes discourage women from taking a more active role.
These three differences are fairly pivotal. I am certain others could be noted, but these three examples reveal the split that has been slowly growing since paganism (in the contemporary times) began in the mid-twentieth century furthered by the development of modern occultism based on counterculture and experimentation. I will admit that I perceive myself primarily as a magician first and a pagan second. When I identify as a pagan, it is for community purposes and fellowship, but rarely for magical practices. When I identify as an occultist, I do so because of my focus on magical practice and experimentation and with a goal of finding people I can work with on projects. But there are similarities for these subcultures as well.
Pagan festivals are places where diverse crowds of people from different backgrounds come together. A lot of occultists go to pagan festivals to meet other occultists and to interact with pagans. There are not any major occult focused conventions that I’m aware of at this time, although there are occasional local events. Pagan festivals are excellent places to meet other people and enjoy the diversity that is present. Occult workings can happen at festivals and there is usually interest in magic intensive workshops by people who identify primarily as one or the other label. The festival experience creates a temporary space that embraces everyone who comes to it.
Another similarity is the sheer amount of diversity present in both cultures. The wealth of different belief systems that fall under the umbrella of paganism is something that both occultists and pagans partake of. The use of magic (though in different contexts) is something that paganism and occultism shares in common and both can learn from each other’s approaches provided there is interest in doing so.
Magic isn’t relegated solely to either paganism or occultism and in fact is present in a variety of beliefs from all over the world. Occultism has a diverse range of practices it utilizes and many of these practices are drawn from paganism though some are drawn from other sources and approaches as well. And more pagans are increasing their use of magic, whether it’s spells or Chaos magic.
The diversity of beliefs and culture is also helpful in exposing people to different perspectives on reality. Both communities tend to be very friendly to minorities, whether racial, gender-based, cultural, and so forth, though there will be unfortunate exceptions to the rule such as those who appropriate Odinism for purposes of white supremacy. While some mainstreaming is occurring in terms of how people present themselves to the public, the actual diversity of beliefs and practices still seems to be running strong.
Final Thoughts: How Can We Work Together?
What’s really important to realize is that although there may be differences, there are also similarities and those similarities can be used to bridge the differences. Still, a person might wonder why there’s a need to make a distinction at all. The distinction is made because of how people identify themselves.
As I mentioned above, I identify more as a magician than a pagan. My interest centers on magic. But even with that interest, I won’t deny that I enjoy pagan culture and consider myself a part of that community. The context defines the priority, however, and my priority is to focus on magic.
What we can learn from this is that paganism and occultism don’t need to be exclusive of each other. Exclusion creates elitism, which in turn can lead to misunderstanding and other problems. While occultism may not be the same as paganism, we shouldn’t let the differences split apart two cultures that are naturally interconnected. Rather an appreciation of those differences, and how they can complement each community, may serve to bring people together in a way that emphasizes that diversity is a workable model that helps people understand and learn from each other.
The issue at hand is how we begin to bridge those differences and work together. I definitely think that both cultures can learn from each other in terms of how gender is treated. Ideally, gender disparity wouldn’t exist in either case. But since it does, looking at why one gender or the other is more prominent than the other could be useful for figuring out how to create an equal balance. What would be even more helpful is to simply stop focusing on gender polarity and realize that the people we interact with aren’t defined by their sex. They are people.
Another way to bridge the differences is to acknowledge that both paganism and occultism have something valuable to offer to each other. Paganism offers the mysticism of belief, while occultism offers the rigor of practice and experimentation. Paganism offers the support system of faith and belief, while occultism offers a free-flowing approach that emphasizes mutability of structure.
The cultural diversity present in both cultures can be married to these other characteristics so that a person becomes well rounded in both cultures and in what each culture has to offer. Then integration can occur.
I use integration to some degree with my magical practices. I do a daily and monthly devotional ritual to the gods I work with which is purely devotion and acknowledgement for their presence in my life. In turn, when I need to work practical magic with their help, I find they are more receptive because I treat them with respect instead of dismissing them as psychological constructs.
Finally, both cultures can learn lessons from each other about the benefits and downsides to focusing on mainstreaming a culture or staying strictly counter-cultural. That way, intolerance for diversity can be avoided as learning to fit in as needed can be used for situations that call for it.
In the end, the choice that can be made is to focus on the obvious differences and let those divide… or to focus on the similarities and how we can take the differences and use them to become better people.
1. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=uswa and c=words and id=10551
2. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usnv and c=words and id=10792
Copyright: Copyright Taylor Ellwood 2006
Location: Portland, Oregon
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