REFLECTIONS ON 'OLD GUARD' PAGANISM


  REFLECTIONS ON 'OLD GUARD' PAGANISM

            by Mike Nichols
        c/o The Magick Lantern
          1715 Westport Road
         Kansas City, MO 64111



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    '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 to 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.  

INACCESSIBLE VS. ACCESSIBLE  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 Leek, 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, Lealand, 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.  

SOLITARY VS. COVEN:  Old Guard Pagans  used to dream of the day they might 
meet another real Witch, or maybe even (ecstacy of ecstacies!) an entire 
Coven!  Meanwhile, there was nothing to do but continue studying AND
PRACTICING alone, as a 'solitary'.  This meant  that, since Old Guard Pagans
studied  and practised the Craft in relative  isolation, they developed strong
individual concepts about it, an inner  sense of theology, and the ability to 
use ritual and magic effectively alone.   By contrast, New Guard Pagans are 
often introduced to other PAGANS before being introduced to PaganISM.  Their 
first experiences are group-oriented ( Would you like to come to a Circle?), 
and the group continues to DEFINE  Paganism for the novice.  Without going
through a solitary phase, most New  Guard Pagans never develop a strong 
personal sense of what Paganism means.  Worse, when asked to perform magic or 
rituals on their own, they are brought  to a complete standstill, since all 
their experience has been with groups.  

LONG VS. SHORT PERIOD OF TRAINING:   Even for the Old Guard Pagan who had 
managed to find a Coven to join, it was only the beginning of an even longer 
period of intensive training -- 'a year and a day' was the standard minimum.  
During this time, the novice might be  apprenticed to any number of members of
the Coven, to learn what they had to  teach.  At the end of that time, the 
candidate MAY or MAY NOT be judged  ready for initiation.  By contrast, New
Guard Pagans are often introduced to  Paganism and invited to join their 
first rituals in the same breath (often at Pagan 'festivals').  From the Old 
Guard point of view, this is not only  wrong but actually DANGEROUS!  A person
who is untrained in handling magical  power has no business inside a magic 
circle -- for their own sake, and the  sake others attending!  

JOIN VS. CREATE A COVEN:  Naturally,  the Old Guard Pagan would much prefer 
to join a pre-existing Coven -- the  older the better.  Only then could  there
be centuries-old secrets passed  down through oral tradition for the  novice
to learn!  The New Guard Pagan  seems to care nothing for this.  It is  enough
to gather a small group of  people interested in Paganism, and  start your own
group.  From the Old  Guard perspective, this makes as much  sense as a novice
mountain-climber  being taken on his first climb by a  group of rank beginners
as green as he  is!  

ONE VS. MANY COVENS:  You may also be  sure that an Old Guard Pagan is only 
going to belong to a single Coven.  By  contrast, New Guard Pagans often join 
as many Covens as will have them,  collecting initiations as though they  were
stamps.  (This is also a mark of  New Guard Covens, because an Old Guard 
Coven would never consider initiating  someone who is already a member of 
another Coven.)  

INITIATORY VS. NON-INITIATORY:  And, of course, initiation was the ultimate 
goal of most Old Guard Witches -- the  one moment of transformation that all 
the training led up to -- the final  reward for years of difficult study, 
work and devotion -- both alone and in  the group.  Most New Guard Pagans
don't believe in initiations, since they  claim (and they are often right!)
that  there is no one in the group more  advanced than themselves.  

RESPECT FOR ELDERS VS. NONE:  This may  come the closest to sounding like
cane- shaking, but it follows logically from  the previous passage.  Most Old
Guard  Pagans would tend to assume that  someone who has been a practising
Pagan for more years than they have, has more knowledge and experience to draw
on,  and consequently more to teach.  And  unless situations prove otherwise, 
these Elders deserve our respect.  New  Guard Pagans, often feeling that
Elders must first 'earn' their respect, do not seek out the wisdom of the
older  generations of Witches.  The  unfortunate result is the loss of much 
valuable legend and lore.  

TRADITIONAL VS. ECLECTIC:  Granted,  there is no such thing as a 'pure' 
uncontaminated tradition of the Craft,  stretching back to the dawn of time.  
Nor would such a case be necessarily  desirable, even if it could be found. 
Every tradition has borrowed from  outside sources and is eclectic to some
extent.  Yet, while Old Guard Pagans  often work to preserve their own 
traditions, New Guard Pagans are often  deliberately eclectic, with a
wonderful disregard of cultural heritage.  The  advantage of being eclectic is
that it  doesn't require much work, in the way  of research.  The disadvantage
is that  one often becomes 'jack of all trads,  master of none'.  

SKEPTICAL VS. UNCRITICAL:  Perhaps  because of the value Old Guard Pagans 
place on traditional forms of magic and divination, they are very often 
skeptical of new forms.  For example,  you won't find many Old Guard Pagans 
going in for the current fad of quartz  crystals.  In fact, Old Guard Pagans 
will likely point out that there have  been no controlled experiments 
concerning the psychic property of  crystals, that there is no historical 
precedent for such beliefs, that the  use of crystals by Native Americans has
been overstated and misrepresented, and that other precious and semi-precious 
gem stones are traditionally just as  effective.  New Guard Pagans, however, 
are often not far removed from New Age  Pagans, and go in for everything from 
crystals, to channeling, to UFO's,  without much hint of critical  evaluation. 


RELIGIOUS VS. SOCIAL REASON FOR  JOINING:  This is perhaps the SINGLE  MOST
IMPORTANT DIFFERENCE that exists  between the two groups, and it could  well
account for many other  differences.  For many Old Guard  Pagans, there COULD
be NO SOCIAL REASON for becoming a Pagan, since Pagans were so few and far
between that most of us  didn't know ANY other Pagans anywhere!  New Guard
Pagans, on the other hand,  often become involved in Paganism for  purely
social reasons.  One has the  feeling that, if there weren't Pagan  groups to
join, such people would end  up in the SCA, or some other form of  surrogate
extended family.  Not that  such a need isn't valid.  But if social reasons
are the primary motivation for  becoming a Pagan, it marks a  significant
break from the Old Guard,  whose motivation was chiefly religious.   Perhaps
that is why Old Guard Pagans  are often a bit isolationist, and are  quite
happy with a fragmented, insular  Pagan community.  In fact, Old Guard  Pagans
tend to look with grave  suspicion on the 'calls to unity' -- to create a
homogenous Pagan community --  that one often hears coming from New  Guard
Pagans.  

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 them 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.