Tuesday, April 03, 2018


As a product of the counterculture, I tend to mistrust and avoid institutions.  I suspect this is a common attitude among “first generation”[1] NeoPagans in the U.S.  We found existing institutions, be they religious, educational, or governmental, to be oppressive, unfulfilling, and irrelevant to the conditions of the world in which we found ourselves.

Let’s face it: established religions such as Christianity in its many forms, were created and gained ascendency in other times and places.  There was no threat of nuclear annihilation, no looming environmental degradation, no water shortage, no organ transplants, no vaccinations against such diseases as smallpox and polio.  Those religions addressed the concerns of the peoples in other times and places.  Further, few of these religious institutions adapted to changing circumstances.  Nowadays some are trying to be more relevant, often by adopting practices, such as involving lay people in their rituals and dancing during worship.

In the years since Paganism has become visible, particularly in academia and interfaith, we have gained credibility in the wider world, and although we remain a religious minority,[2] we have not done much in the way of establishing lasting institutions.

There was a time when I was still too close to that against which I was rebelling and too chafed by the institutions I was escaping that I resisted any talk of Pagan institutions.  Sam Webster has convinced me that by creating institutions, we will have a lasting legacy that will survive our individual lives.

The institution to which I’ve devoted the most time and energy for the last 12 years or so is Cherry Hill Seminary, for many reasons, not the least of which is that I find intellectual discernment to be in short supply, drowned out by the noises of UPG (unverified/unverifiable personal gnosis) woowoo.[3]

Smaller institutions like CoG do maintain disaster relief funds, never very big.

Most Pagans do as I do, and contribute to existing institutions that were created to address certain crises, like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders.  And to other nonprofits related to environmentalism, the pursuit of peace, seeking cures for specific diseases.  I’m comfortable that those institutions are established, organized, funded, and run more efficiently than any smaller Pagan organization could be to achieve their stated goals.

Having said all that, I come to the subject that is the immediate incentive for this post.

I have been meeting with the Wiccan circle at San Quentin State Prison. This service has led to my encountering

Federal law mandates that all inmates in any prison in the country be afforded religious worship and counsel of their choice.  This is what allows this circle to meet.  The Wiccan circle at San Quentin meets in what is called the minority faith chapel, which is shared with Spanish-language evangelical Christians, practitioners of Ifa,[4] and others.  Our “chapel” is a fairly dismal place that we try our best to decorate when we meet.

So here’s my problem: financial and other support for the few Wiccan inmates.  It’s obvious that mainstream religions, particularly some Christian sects, have a much easier time doing their thing.  They appear to me to be given priority over minority religions as to meeting space, resources, and time.

Christians have the Gideons distributing Bibles.  Depending upon their particular Christian sect, inmates are provided with missals, rosaries, images, and all manner of study and meditative literature.  Jewish inmates have Torahs and Muslims the Koran.  Abrahamic inmates have access to a plethora of Abrahamic literature.  And although we Pagans have no “book,” per se, we do have plenty of books and other writings.

Prison libraries, like those in our communities, experience the frequent disappearance of Pagan or Craft-related titles.  The Jewish chaplain at San Quentin, who supervises our particular minority faith, and thereby me, has offered to keep books in her office and lend them to individual inmates.  This is not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Individual Pagans have helped me set up this ministry by donating books they’ve written.  For instance, Christopher Penczak sent me two of his books, which I will use to the extent I can.[5]

The previous incarnation of this circle were devoted specifically to Isis and Ra.  Wishing to provide these men with meaningful materials, I bought the newly published tenth anniversary edition of Isis Magic, by M. Isadora Forest.  If this book proves helpful, I will see if I can get a copy donated to the small Pagan library in the Jewish chaplain’s office.

I am also considering providing them with two of Ivo Dominguez, Jr.’s books, Spirit Speak and Casting Sacred Space, in addition to exploring other books and sources.

Currently I bring in photocopies of a page or two each time – a meditation, a drawing or chart, an image and/or prayer, a song.  This isn’t the most efficient way to provide them with literature, one reason being that I myself have limited resources and copying costs can add up.

I’m aware of at least two recent publications created to address the training of Pagan inmates, but I’m unsatisfied with them and do not wish to use them.  One is more formal and “high episcopagan” for my taste and the other lacks a cohesive approach.  Therefore, I’m seeking sources harmonious with my approach and talents.  Bear in mind that inmates cannot have such things as candles and incense in their cells, nor can they have any images of the divine that are unclothed.  They are, for instance, allowed to have a deck of Tarot cards, but most Tarot decks show at least a breast or two and therefore don’t meet prison restrictions.  I understand that Raven Grimassi has designed a deck specifically for inmate use and will check this out further. 

* * * * *
Circling back to the notion of Pagan institutions:  Now that I’ve lived considerably more than half my life – I’m glad to be around and am hoping to reach 100 – I’m thinking about legacies.  What are we Pagans leaving our children and grandchildren in terms of our religions?  We already know that our Mother Earth is changing in a direction that’s not conducive to life as we know it.  Not meaning to be a doomsayer, just stating the obvious.  Climate change, however, is a topic for a different discussion.  In the meantime, assuming we adapt – and I really believe that Pagan values, perspectives, and minds have much to offer in the search for solutions – what kind of institutions, if any, are we leaving our descendants?

[1]           By “first generation” I mean those boomers and pre-boomers who grasped whatever threads of Pagan practice and thought they could find, wove them into a fabric of their making, and grew to become contemporary American Paganism. Many were disillusioned or unsatisfied by the religions in which they were reared, or came from secular or mixed-religion families. Some of these threads were tied to older traditions, such as Gardnerian Wicca, in Britain; however, in the main, we self-determined out of many sources (mythology and folklore, ethnic and familiar customs, environmentalism, feminism, and the zeitgeist in general.
[2]           It’s fine with me if we remain a minority religion.  We do not seek converts as many of the mainstream religions do.  I don’t hold growing our numbers as a goal.  Paganism is not for everyone, but for those of us like myself to whom it matters, we are entitled to equal treatment and a voice in our communities and governments.
[3]           I am in no way putting down UPG; I consider it akin to mysticism/the mystical experience.  However, since it is so personal, idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and cannot be recreated, UPG does not allow the kind of rational analysis that other religious phenomena permit.
[4]           Strictly speaking, a divinatory system found in Yoruba and other African diaspora religions.
[5]           Inmates are not allowed candles, for instance, and many of the exercises in Christopher’s books employ candles.  I, and we (inmates and myself) have to adapt as much as we can.