Sunday, August 31, 2014

Top Ten Books Pagans Should Read About Hinduism

Hinduism represents, far and away, the greatest success story in the history of resistance to the spiritual predations of monotheism. Because of this, Hinduism serves not merely as a source of inspiration to modern Pagans, but as our single best source of information about what a living, modern polytheistic religious tradition looks like in full flower.

Because western culture is still so dominated by Christianity, often in ways that are (at least to the unitiated) quite subtle, finding reliable sources of information about Sanaatana Dharma can be quite a challenge. To assist anyone seeking such reliable information, the following list is presented for your critical appraisal. I hope to flesh this out more in the future. For now it's just titles and links.

  1.  Complete Idiots Guide to Hinduism, 2ed
    by Linda Johnsen (idiotsguides.com).

  2. Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece
    by Linda Johnsen (shop.himalayaninstitute.org)

  3. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas
    by David Kinsley (www.ucpress.edu)

  4.  The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krishna
    by David Kinsley (www.ucpress.edu)

  5.  Rebirth and Karma
    by Sri Aurobindo (www.lotuspress.com)

  6.  Defense of Hindu Society
    by Sita Ram Goel (www.voiceofdharma.com)

  7.  Glory of the Divine Mother: The Devi Mahatmya
    translated by S. Sankaranarayanan (books.google.com/)

  8.  Kali: Black Goddess of Dakshineswar
    by Elizabeth Harding (books.google.com)

  9.  Bhagavad Gita
    translated by Eknath Easwaran (www.easwaran.org)

  10.  Mother of the Universe: Visions of the Goddess and Tantric Hymns of Enlightenment by Ramprasad Sen
    translated by Lex Hixon (books.google.com)


 




 




Saturday, August 30, 2014

Vergil's Cosmology and Modern Paganism

[Did someone say, "More Vergil, Please!"??? Here is another old post reborn -- originally from December 13, 2010.]

There is astonishingly little material in the English language on the religious aspects of Vergil's writings, and the Aeneid in particular. This is especially appalling considering the fact that the Aeneid is hands down the single most influential work of literature in all of Western history, and that it is unquestionably a work of religious literature from start to finish. This last fact is well recognized by a few (if completely unsuspected by most); for example noted historian Peter Brown has referred to the Aeneid as "an inexaustible source of precise religious information." (for more on Brown and Vergil, see here.)

The religious vision of Vergil should be (and would be if it were more widely known and understood) immediately familiar and very attractive to the vast majority of modern people who consider themselves "Pagan". First of all, Vergil's Cosmos is inhabited by both Gods and humans, and the relationship between them lies at the core of the story of Aeneas. In particular, communication between Gods and humans appears over and over throughout the Aeneid, in the form of prayer, visions, divination, omens, rituals, dreams, etc.

But the similarities between classical Greco-Roman Vergilian Paganism and the more recent versions of Paganism go much further. Vergil's cosmos is alive, conscious, intelligent and decidedly "magical", and against this cosmic backdrop humans are primarily spiritual beings who undergo repeated earthly incarnations, and in the process, at least potentially, make spiritual progress from lifetime to lifetime, with help and guidance from the Gods if such is sought properly, but primarily under their own power and by their own choice. This is essentially the same conception of reincarnation (or, more precisely, metempsychosis) that was held by both Gerald Gardner and Dion Fortune (for examples), and it is ubiquitous among modern Pagans.

Aeneas embodies not only heroic qualities that clearly separate him from ordinary humans, but also conventional virtues, the first of which is piety, in a way that grounds his character and that emphasizes his humanity (both in the sense of his human-ness and his humane-ness).

The story of the Aeneid is the story of the spiritual quest of a truly virtuous man, and, as such, is not a story of "redemption" in the Christian sense. Aeneas is no "miserable sinner" in desperate need of salvation. This is an important contrast not only with the self-loathing message of the Christian gospel, but, and more subtly, with the Aeneid's only real competitor in the class of epic journeys of self-discovery: Homer's Odyssey.

The intersection of Homer and Vergil (and, concomitantly, of Odysseus and Aeneas) is significant in many ways. For one thing, it is Vergil, not Homer, who supplies us with the most famous Homeric/Odyssian episode of all: that of the Trojan Horse and the Fall of Troy, which are not to be found in either the Iliad or the Odyssey (as every schoolchild should know, but vanishingly few do).

Of far greater importance than the gaps filled in by Vergil is the tremendous contrast between Odysseus and Aeneas in terms of their character. The former is primarily characterized by his daring and cunning, the latter by his virtue and piety. Aeneas certainly possesses those qualities that earn Odysseus the epithet "wily", whereas Homer's hero is, especially at the beginning of the Odyssey, rather deficient in the pietas department.

Odysseus succeeded in acquiring great wealth and fame through violence and deception, only to lose it all by the time we get to the 24th Book of the Odyssey. In the end, Odysseus must expend all of his strength and intelligence just to regain what he already had before he left Ithaca, 20 years previously, in search of ill-gotten gain. In contrast, Aeneas (who, it should not be overlooked, was on the receiving end of Odysseus' great victory) suffers a collective disaster that befalls his people and his polis, but from which he is spared, so that he can be entrusted with not only the safety of the survivors, but the founding of a whole new civilization in far off Hesperia.

One thing that especially distinguishes Aeneas is his extraordinary parentage. Not only is his mother the Goddess Venus Herself, but his father is the remarkable Anchises, the mortal lover of the Goddess of Love. And it is to fulfill his promise to his father, that Aeneas undertakes the great task that stands alongside the founding of Rome as equal in importance: the conquest of Death itself. The following is a very nice redaction of the cosmological vision revealed to Aeneas by Anchises upon the Fields of Elysium. It is taken from Agathe Thornton's The Living Universe: Gods and Men in Virgil's Aeneid.
In the 'Underworld', the spirit of Anchises reveals to his son Aeneas the values and structure of the universe and the value of man's life within it. The following is part of his teaching.

First of all, heaven, earth, sea, and sun and moon are set over against breath or spirit (spiritus) which nourishes them from within; in further explanation, limbs, mass, and mighty body are set over against mind which is spread through the limbs, stirs the mass into action, and mingles with the body. So there are heaven, earth, sea, moon, and sun which form the mighty limbs of the massive cosmic body. These are nourished, pervaded, and set in motion by breath or mind. The whole cosmos or universe is one body alive in every part through the breath and mind that pervade it. This implies that what we should call 'inanimate nature' -- heaven or sky, earth and water -- is alive, because throughout each of them and each part of them is poured out the breath or mind in this universe. Here the cosmos is one, its unity being that of a living organism.

From the mingling of the breath or mind of the cosmos with the body of the cosmos came to be man, beast, bird, and fish. The life-force within them is fiery, and the origin of their seed is heavenly. their bodies, on the other hand, are 'harmful' to them, 'slow them down', 'make them weak', and are doomed to death'. Their bodies and limbs are such, because they are 'earthen'. Man and animals have then within them two contrasted substances: the fiery and heavenly on the one hand, and the earthen on the other. The fiery and heavenly means life and strength, the earthen harm, slowness, weakness, and death. This conception of the nature of man and the animals tells us not only about man, but by implication it also adds a new dimension to our knowledge about the cosmos as a whole. So far we have been told that the whole universe is alive through the indwelling breath or mind. Now we learn that the cosmos is not the same all over, but that its upper portion, the heaven, is fiery and connected with strength, life, and fertility, while its lower portion, the earth, implies all that tends to impeded life and in the end overcomes life by death. This introduces a gradation of values into the world: the cosmos rises from the deadly depths of the earth to the fiery height of heaven which abounds in life.

Man is then a mixture of heaven and earth, and as such is subject to the baneful influences of his earthen parts. From these arise in him fear and desire, grief and joy, and the incapacity to see clearly the breezes which move, of course, in the heaven. This implies a further definition of values in the cosmos. What is of the sky of heaven is fiery, full of life, free of passion, and free of the darkening of mind caused by the fetters of earth; what is of he earth is tied up with death, subject to conflicting emotions, and deprived of vision. If all this is imagined in its full scale, it means that the universe is a structure which from the turbulent evil depths of the earth rise up, with light, tranquility, and purity increasing, to the top of the heavens, where there is nothing but the fiery ether and mind. This gradation in life-force and in moral quality is characteristic both of the One Cosmic God, and of the world of the many living beings which have been born from the One God, namely men, animals, birds, and fish.

The universe is then twofold in nature. On the one hand, it is One all-comprehensive divine being; and the parts of the cosmos, like heaven, earth, sea, are his limbs. But is is also a world full of many beings graded in the quality of their character.
[pp. 35-36]
The above paraphrase of Anchisean cosmology rather over-emphasizes its dualistic nature, and, in particular, exaggerates the "evil" character of all that is earthy/terrestrial. Thornton somewhat compensates for this later on when describing the types of beings that populate the surface of the earth (as opposed to it's nether regions) and "the land in which people live" generally:
The spirits that are, in the most general way in the Aeneid, the life of nature on earth and sea are the Fauns and the Nymphs. According to King Latinus indigenous Fauns and Nymphs inhabited the woods on the site which later became the city of Rome (8.314). The safe harbour in which Aeneas lands in Libya ends in a cave of grotto (antrumm 1.166) below overhanging cliffs: 'Here is [a spring of] water and there are seats of living [i.e. not man-made] rock, the house of nymphs.' 'Nymphs and rivers are closely connected,' as Conington says: Aeneas prays to the nymphs as the 'fountainhead of rivers'. But they also dwell in on the mountain-tops 94.168) and they are often the mothers of great men in mythical times, as of Latinus and Iarbas and others (7.47, 4.198).

Sea-nymphs come to his aid when Aeneas returns from Evander and Etruria ignorant of the danger besetting Ascanius and the Trojans he has left behind in Latium. These nymphs appear to him on his night voyage and warn him of the situation (10.219ff).
[p. 44]
Thornton then proceeds to describe the pantheistic view of the physical universe that pervades Vergil's thinking, although she unnecessarily mangles things by insisting that the conception of the universe as a single "immense living being" is somehow "monotheistic", when it is nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, in acknowledging that Vergil shares with Varro (and Plato and many others) the view that the physical world as a whole is inherently divine, any kind of simplistic world-hating dualism is thereby thoroughly undermined. Thornton then goes on to explain that not only is the Cosmos as a whole divine, and not only is "the land in which people live" also populated by magical creatures who can come to our aid, but in addition the Sea and the Air are themselves Gods (Neptune and Juno, respectively), and the Air, in particular, is the sacred medium through which communication between Gods and humans takes place. So it's not such a bad old world after all!

Another highly significant aspect of Vergilian cosmology that Thornton discusses is the cyclic nature of time: "The concept of time implied here is 'cyclic', and the fact that the ancient time notion is 'cyclic' and not 'linear', as our own time notion tends to be, is well known. Virgil thought of time in the ancient way." [p. 70] A little later on, Thornton synthesizes various elements of Vergilian cosmology as follows, "When we consider the cosmos of the Aeneid as a whole ... [it is] a coherent world of Gods, nature, and men revolving onwards with ever a new slice of it entering into the actuality of existence." [p. 74] Thornton further characterizes the active role of the Gods in affairs of the world, and human affairs in particular, that is to say, "the relationship between the divine and human worlds," in these words: "the wills and actions of the Gods permeate and determine the natural and human world in such a way that each slice of cosmic living is imbued with and characterized by the nature of the divinity acting in it and ruling it."

Many modern Pagans struggle to find a coherent and intellectually satisfying theology that is compatible with their own personal intuitions and experiences of the divine. All too often these attempts are frustrated by a reliance on completely useless sources: either those that are heavily influenced by monotheism (and Christianity in particular), or modern (often supposedly "Pagan") sources that ignore, or even denigrate, the relevant insights of our ancient Pagan ancestors. The simple truth is that well known and readily available ancient Pagan works, such as Vergil's Aeneid, Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, etc, constitute an inexhaustible source of insights into the Gods and the Cosmos.

further reading:

Monday, August 25, 2014

"Inexhaustible Source": Reflections on Vergil and Augustine

[Another golden oldie. This one was originally posted waaaaay back when, on April 5, 2009.] 

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Contra Paganos

In the year 413, Anno Deceptoris, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church, began writing his magnum opus, "City of God, Against the Pagans." The main catalyst that impelled Augustine in this undertaking was that, for the first time in almost 800 years, the city of Rome had been entered by an invading force. The sacking of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths under the command of Alaric (who was himself a Christian, albeit a heretic in the eyes of the Church) had sent shockwaves through the (only recently) Christianized Roman world. Jerome had summed up how many felt: "If Rome can perish, what can be safe?"

A century earlier (in 312) Constantine (at the time not yet sole Emperor, but already ruler of half the Empire) had had his famous vision of the cross, marking the beginning of what would come to be known as the "triumph" of Christianity, a pleasant sounding euphemism for the forceful imposition of one single monolithic ideology on about one fourth of the earth's population, while simultaneously destroying (systematically and intentionally) a significant portion of the cultural heritage of humanity. From Constantine to Augustine, each passing generation had witnessed a relentless ratcheting up of the pressure on all those who dared to cling stubbornly to the old ways and the old Gods.

In 381 the Emperor Theodosius had removed any lingering fig leaf of tolerance and declared the practice of all religions other than Nicene Christianity punishable by death (although this proved far easier to decree than to enforce). Ten years after Theodosius' edict, the temple honoring Isis and Serapis in Alexandria, including the famed statue of Serapis (nearly 700 years old), was reduced to rubble by a Christian mob--a fate that had already befallen most of the other major sacred sites of the ancient oikoumene (the "known world"). And as the destruction of the Serapaeum illustrated, it was not only legal penalties (up to capital punishment, but also including fines, imprisonment and torture), but also vicious mob violence, usually incited and led by Christian monks, that incentivized conversions to the new religion of the "creed making fishermen", as one notable fourth century Pagan critic labeled the Christians.

Augustine was writing his anti-Pagan polemic, De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos, over thirty years after Theodosius had outlawed Paganism. So, apparently, or at least in Augustine's mind, Christianity's "triumph" over Paganism was still in some doubt. But perhaps Augustine was merely kicking those who were already down and defeated, if only to ensure they stayed that way? To what extent did Pagans continue to pose a substantial threat in reality (that is, not just in Augustine's literary imagination)?

Peter Brown, Augustine's most notable modern biographer, had this to say about the potential lingering danger to Christianity still posed by just a single Pagan book, Vergil's Aeneid:
"The Christian Emperors had abandoned the title of Pontifex Maximus, but Vergil might still replace them in performing this office for [Pagan] religious readers. From being a school text-book, Vergil could become, like the Bible, an inexhaustible source of precise religious information."
What basis is there for the fear that Brown ascribes to Augustine as the motivation for bothering to write a book "Against the Pagans"? Well, after all (and as Brown rightly points out) the Bible itself is just a book, and anyone who wished to suppress Christianity would certainly see the Bible as a potential source of problems in that regard.

Pagans versus Christians


Lets take a moment to look more closely, if only briefly, at the situation, with respect to Pagans and Christians, in the Roman Empire in 413. Just eight years earlier, in 405, a high ranking political official named Stilicho (who was also a celebrated general) had ordered the destruction of the Sibylline books, ancient and revered Pagan oracles which had played a central role in the religion, and the history, of the Roman people since the 5th century BC. Just a little over a year later, on December 31, 406, a mixed group of Vandals, Alans, and Seubi crossed the Rhine river, thereby virtually erasing (forever, as it turns out) the boundary separating the Empire from the "barbarians". Numerous Roman cities were attacked by these invaders, and in addition there now occurred a wave of unrest within the Roman army itself, including mutinies in which senior officers lost their lives at the hands of the soldiers they commanded.

This also coincided with an intensification of the ever-present internecine political intrigues and subversive plotting (both real and imagined) among officials at all levels of the Roman state. Like all powerful men, Stilicho had acquired powerful enemies, and in 408 those enemies (fellow high ranking Romans) managed to have Stilicho arrested and lost no time in putting him to death, and soon thereafter his son Eucherios was also murdered. More executions followed and a general state of chaos, confusion and panic was taking hold throughout the Western Empire, including Italy itself.

After the execution of Stilicho, the Visigoth leader, Alaric, began planning another attack on the city of Rome. For it had been Stilicho who had defeated Alaric's previous assault on Rome, and, in fact, destroying the sacred Sibbyline books had been part of how Stilicho had chosen to commemorate his victory over Alaric and the Visigoths (when Stilicho returned triumphantly to Rome in 405 he accused the remaining Pagan holdouts in the city of using prophecies taken from the Sibylline books to attack the Christian government, and so had the books seized and burned). Alaric, himself a Christian, probably did not care (or possibly even know) about the fate of the sacred Pagan texts, but he certainly knew of and cared a great deal about the death of his nemesis Stilicho, especially since it coincided with a disastrously low ebb in both the political and military cohesion of the Western part of the Roman state. This string of catastrophes culminated in 410 when the city of Rome was entered by a foreign invading force, Alaric's Visigoths, for the first time since the sack of Rome by the Celts in 387 BC.

Diehard Pagan Resistance to Christianization

Despite persecution, the "ancestral traditions, coeval with time" had remained stubbornly entrenched in the hearts of many of the inhabitants of the city built on seven hills. And now the Roman Pagans voiced their bitter satisfaction over the disaster that had befallen them, blaming this on the Christians. The sack of Rome was proof, if any was needed, that it had been a grave mistake to abandon the Old Gods, to destroy the sacred sites and sacred texts (like the Sibylline books), and to punish and even murder pious Pagans, including Priests and Priestesses.

Well before Alaric's sack of Rome, a resurgence of Paganism had already been underway during the second half of the fourth century. In 360, during the brief (less than two year) reign of the Pagan Emperor Julian ("the Apostate"), there was, for example, "a resurgence of [Pagan] temple building in the rural areas" of far away Roman Britain, according to Dorothy Watts in her "Christians and Pagans in Roman Britain" [p.140]. Watts also notes that "the demise of some presumed [Christian] churches coincide with this revival of Paganism." Theodosius' edict of 381 can also be seen as rather strong evidence that such a revival of Paganism was quite real and widespread.

At the opposite end of the Empire from Britain, and nearly thirty years after Julian's death, when the Temple of Serapis and Isis in Alexandria was destroyed in 391, the Christian mob had to first fight their way through Pagans who had gathered to defend that holy place. And in 394 Pagans attempted a revolt against the Emperor Theodosius. This revolt, under the leadership of Eugenius and Arbogast, enjoyed support among the remaining Pagans in the Roman Senate. Like all revolutions, this one was far from "pure" in its alliances and motivations, and there was certainly as much politics to it as religion, if not more (although to a very great extent the two cannot be separated), nevertheless it amounted to an all-out Pagan revolt against the Christian Emperor, albeit an unsuccessful one.

The defeat of Arbogast and Eugenius was felt as a body blow to those who had continued to hope for a frontal assault on Christendom by Pagan die-hards. And yet the struggle was far from over. And so, when the Christian God was unable to defend the city of Rome against invaders who were themselves Christians, there were still plenty of Pagans around to take cold comfort from that catastrophe.

Many, both Christians and Pagans, fled Rome in 410, and many of them ended up in the cities of North Africa, where Augustine lived. Peter Brown describes the Christians who "flocked" to North Africa in 410 as "uncertain of themselves." According to Brown these same Christians had only recently "boasted of a 'Christian era'", but now "found themselves unpopular" because of the "unparalleled disasters" that had befallen the Christian Empire.

Religious tensions were already very high in North Africa. For years the fanatic Christian Bishops had been orchestrating a reign of terror against Pagan hold-outs, using both legal and extra-legal means without restraint. Peter Brown describes the super-critical situation in North Africa in 410 in these words: "For over a decade, the Bishops in Africa had provoked the destruction of the old ways. Public Paganism had been suppressed: the great temples were closed; the statues broken up, often by Christian mobs; the proud inscriptions ... used to pave public highways."

In one incident a group of Pagans had managed to gain the upper hand and nearly killed a Christian official who was trying to break up a public procession in honor of an ancient Pagan festival in the town of Calama in 408. Afterward these local Pagans feared for their lives as the Christians debated what manner of collective punishment to mete out against them. Augustine himself was dragged into the conflict over how best to teach a lesson to the unruly Pagans of Calama. In the end there is no record of executions in the wake of the Calama "riot", but ruinous fines were imposed on local Pagans, and temples, statues and other Pagan holy objects that had survived up to then were ruthlessly destroyed.

When things went from bad to worse in 410 with the sack of Rome and then the stream of refugees (a mixture of newly disheartened Christians and long embittered Pagans) into Africa, Augustine roused himself to action. He was in his late 50's and in ill health. But he was increasingly fearful that, far from being merely inconsequential dead-enders, the remaining highly educated Pagans constituted "a wide intelligentsia, spreading throughout all the provinces of the West." And far from being just a bunch of irrationally stubborn troublemakers, this Pagan intelligentsia was comprised of "deeply religious" men and women committed to "the preservation of a whole way of life", despite the fact that their way of life had long ago been officially abolished.

"The great Platonists of their age, Plotinus and Porphyry," Peter Brown tells us, painting a vivid picture of the mental universe of these deeply religious and just as deeply rational Pagan intellectuals of the early fifth century, "could provide them with a profoundly religious view of the world that grew naturally out of an immemorial tradition. The claims of the Christians, by contrast, lacked intellectual foundation. For such a man ... to accept the Incarnation [of Jesus] would be like a modern European denying the evolution of the species; he would have had to abandon not only the most advanced rationally based knowledge available to him, but, by implication, the whole culture permeated by such achievements."

At first Augustine limited himself to writing letters, giving sermons, and even engaging directly with Pagan intellectuals. But he had already established his reputation as the great intellectual of Western (that is, Latin-speaking, as opposed to Greek speaking) Christendom. And as fears mounted that Paganism might yet rise from it's own ashes, Augustine was implored to go further, much further, and to accomplish nothing less that a "final exorcism of the Pagan past." [p.310] The result took him almost 20 years to complete, and even the author could not restrain himself from calling it "a giant of a book". Apparently he did not realize that he thus cast Christianity as Goliath, and Paganism as David.

Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and the Problem of Evil (Modern Paganism and the Ancient Mysteries, Part Two)

[Jeez Loueez, it's been over a month since I posted anything. I am actually working on a couple of posts, including at least a couple inspired by Lucien Febvre's "The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century" in which it is argued that Paganism was not merely non-existent, but veritably impossible, nay, unthinkable, during the Renaissance. This is ludicrous hypothesis has, sadly, insinuated itself into modern Pagan thought by way of the influence of a certain "Pagan" "scholar" who also happens to be mentioned in the old post recycled below, originally published on February 6, 2011. Enjoy. Or don't. As you see fit.] 

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"From the outset, Gardner's witches faced the dilemma that if they were to multiply (or, as Gardner put it, to save the Old Religion from extinction), then they needed publicity; but that negative publicity might destroy them."
[Ronald Hutton, History of Pagan Witchcraft, in
Witchcraft and magic in Europe: The twentieth century
ed. Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, p. 54]

1."Witchcraft doesn’t pay for broken windows."

Indeed, Gardner's witches did multiply, and soon Doreen Valiente had formed a new, sister Coven, in 1957. A number of factors contributed to this growth, among them being the publication in 1954 of Gardner's book Witchcraft Today, combined with Gardner's eagerness and talent for courting public attention.

However, a great deal of the resulting attention paid to Gardner and his Witches was decidedly negative. According to Hutton (continuing on in his essay on The History of Pagan Witchcraft already quoted above), starting in 1955 the popular press began to "run features attacking witchcraft as Satanism .... In 1957 and 1959 the original London coven was denounced sensationally and unscrupulously, putting a considerable strain on its members and fracturing relations between Valiente's group and Gerald Gardner." In response, Gardner came out with (in 1959) The Meaning of Witchcraft: "answering the press attacks and attempting to establish the historical credentials of his religion more firmly by relating it to a string of ancient religious texts and images, and later magical groups." [p. 55]

(It should be noted, at least parenthetically, that, Hutton's crude misdirection notwithstanding, the connections drawn by Gardner, in The Meaning of Witchcraft, between 20th century Wicca and "ancient religious texts and images, and later magical groups," constitutes a seamless continuation of the way Gardner had presented the history and roots of Wicca previously in Witchcraft Today. In fact, Gardner had included in the Foward of that earlier book a prominent reference to the Mystery cult of Isis and the writings of the Platonic philosopher Apuleius, who was an initiate in the cults of Isis, Asclepius, and Hermes, and possibly that of other deities as well. Gardner also devoted an entire chapter of Witchcraft Today to "The Witches and the Mysteries", as well as another chapter titled "Out of the Land of Egypt", which is also primarily focused on the Mystery Religions of the ancient world. And there are in addition significant references to the Mysteries in the chapters on "Witch Beliefs" and "Witch Practices".)

The following two passages from the first chapter of The Meaning of Witchcraft give some indication of the kind of hostility that Gardner and "his Witches" were up against:

"I am a member of the Society for Psychical Research, and on the Committee of the Folklore Society; so I wanted to tell of my discovery. But I was met with a determined refusal. 'The Age of Persecution is not over,' they told me; 'give anyone half a chance and the fires will blaze up again.' When I said to one of them, 'Why do you keep all these things so secret still? There’s no persecution nowadays!' I was told, 'Oh, isn’t there? If people knew what I was, every time a child in the village was ill, or somebody’s chickens died, I should get the blame for it. Witchcraft doesn’t pay for broken windows.'

"I can remember as a boy reading in the papers of a woman being burned alive in Southern Ireland as a witch; but I could not believe that there could be any persecution nowadays in England. So, against their better judgment, they agreed to let me write a little about the cult in the form of fictions, an historical novel where a witch says a little of what they believe and of how they were persecuted. This was published in 1949 under the title of High Magic’s Aid.

"In 1951 a very important event occurred. The Government of the day passed the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which repealed and replaced the last remaining Witchcraft Act, under which spiritualists used to be prosecuted in modern times. This Act is, I believe, unique in legally recognising the existence of genuine mediumship and psychic powers.

"I thought that at last common sense and religious freedom had prevailed; but even so, the passage of this Act was highly obnoxious to certain religious bodies which had been preaching against Spiritualism for years and trying to outlaw it as 'the work of Satan,' together with any other societies to which they objected, including Freemasonry and, of course, witchcraft.

"About a year previously, this Museum had been opened, and I had flattered myself that showing what witchcraft really is, an ancient religion, would arouse no hostility in any quarter. I was to find out in due course how wrong I was!

"Any attempt to show witchcraft in anything even remotely resembling a favourable light, or to challenge the old representation of it as something uniformly evil and devilish, or even to present it as a legitimate object of study, can still arouse the most surprising reactions. The virtues of humanism, which Charles Saltman defined as 'sensitivity, intelligence and erudition, together with integrity, curiosity and tolerance,' have still quite a long way to go in their struggle against the mentality which produced the Malleus Maleficarum."
[The Meaning of Witchcraft, pp. 11-12]


"The Old Horned God of the witches is not the Satan of Christianity, and no amount of theological argument will make him so. He is, in fact, the oldest deity known to man, and is depicted in the oldest representation of a divinity which has yet been found, namely the Stone Age painting in the innermost recess of the Caverne des Trois Freres at Ariege. He is the old phallic god of fertility who has come forth from the morning of the world, and who was already of immeasurable antiquity before Egypt and Babylon, let alone before the Christian era. Nor did he perish at the cry that Great Pan was dead. Secretly through the centuries, hidden deeper and deeper as time went on, his worship and that of the naked Moon Goddess, his bride, the Lady of Mystery and Magic and the forbidden joys, continued sometimes among the great ones of the land, sometimes in humble cottages, or on lonely heaths and in the depths of darkling woods, on summer nights when the moon rode high. It does so still.

"From time to time the public have been treated to various highly-coloured and highly unconvincing 'revelations' in the popular Press and elsewhere upon the subject of 'Black Magic', 'Satanism', and similar matters, and occasionally these have been linked with witchcraft. Let me state right away that I personally maintain an attitude of thorough-going scepticism towards these things, and that even if they do exist I do not consider them to have any relation to the survival of the witch cult. Alleged 'confessions', especially where witchcraft is mentioned, bear ample internal evidence of their own meretriciousness, in that they are obviously modelled upon sensational thrillers and reveal no knowledge whatever of genuine witch practices."
[The Meaning of Witchcraft, pp. 21-22]


2.
"That there is no positive evil."

Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique is an Oxford educated anthropologist who is chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at l'Université d'Etat d'Haïti. She is also a highly respected Priestess (Mambo) in the Haitian Vodou religion. In September of 2009 (fully 55 years after Gerald Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today), Beauvoir-Dominique was interviewed in conjunction with an exhibit on Vodou at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden (too see the interview, go here).

The first question asked of Professor Beauvoir-Dominique was "what is Vodou?" A perfectly reasonable question, to which the Mambo gives a very informative answer. However, it does not take long for the other shoe to drop. The second question was "Are there any evil forces in Vodou?" To which Professor Beauvoir-Dominique again gives a very educational answer, part of which is:

"Vodou ... is part of Haitian culture, and in this culture we don't see that there is Evil. We think that the word Evil is constructed, it comes from other places, and is really not ours. The "good" and the "bad" are very Christian notions, very Manichean. We think more in terms of grays, of black becoming white, of white becoming black. Of Yin and Yang. As in the figure of Yin and Yang -- there is a perpetual movement of things. And for us there is no Evil. Things become evil when they are seen through evil eyes."

When Gerald Gardner chose to answer accusations against Wicca in his second exposition on the religion, The Meaning of Witchcraft, he took a very similar approach to the one we see in Mambo Beauvoir-Dominique's patient and thoughtful answer to the question about Vodou and "evil". In particular, when Gardner responded directly to the most infamous accusation, namely that Wicca amounts to "worship of the Evil Principle", in his chapter entitled "The Black Mass", Gardner, like Beauvoir-Dominique, explains that Wicca "positively denies the existence of a Power of Evil." [p. 171]

This chapter on "The Black Mass" is, in fact, the section of The Meaning of Witchcraft in which Gardner introduces Sallustius' Peri Theon kai Kosmou and pronounces it to be "a general statement" of the beliefs of Wiccans (as discussed in Part One of this series). The first portion of Sallustius' Pagan Manifesto that Gardner quotes is the entirety of Section XII: "The origin of evil things; and that there is no positive evil."

"The Gods being good and making all things, how do evils exist in the world? Or perhaps it is better first to state the fact that, the Gods being good and making all things, there is no positive evil, it only comes by absence of good; just as darkness itself does not exist, but only comes about by absence of light.

"If evil exists it must exist either in Gods or minds or souls or bodies. It does not exist in any God, for all god is good. If anyone speaks of a 'bad mind' he means a mind without mind. If of a bad soul, he will make the soul inferior to body, for no body in itself is evil. If he says that evil is made up of soul and body together, it is absurd that separately they should not be evil, but joined should create evil.

"Suppose it is said that there are evil spirits: - if they have their power from the Gods, they cannot be evil; if from elsewhere, the Gods do not make all things. If they do not make all things, then either they wish to or cannot, or they can and do not wish; neither of which is consistent with the idea of god. We may see, therefore, from these arguments, that there is no positive evil in the world.

"It is in the activities of men that the evils appear, and that not of all men nor always. And as to these, if men sinned for the sake of evil, nature itself would be evil. But if the adulterer thinks his adultery bad but his pleasure good, and the murderer thinks the murder bad but the money he gets by it good, and the man who does evil to an enemy thinks that to do evil is bad but to punish his enemy good, and if the soul commits all its sins in that way, then the evils are done for the sake of goodness. (In the same way, because in a given place light does not exist, there comes darkness, which has no positive existence.) The soul sins therefore because, while aiming at good, it makes mistakes about the good, because it is not primary essence. And we see many things done by the Gods to prevent it from making mistakes and to heal it when it has made them. Arts and sciences, curses and prayers, sacrifices and initiations, laws and constitutions, judgments and punishments, all came into existence for the sake of preventing souls from sinning; and when they are gone forth from the body, Gods and spirits of purification cleanse them of their sins."
[On the Gods and the Cosmsos, Sallustius, Section XII: "The origin of evil things; and that there is no positive evil."]

3.
"The inner meaning of religious rituals."

The section of Sallustius that Gardner turned to first requires little or no explanation. It is, in fact, one of the clearest explications of a Pagan answer to the so-called "Problem of Evil". Less clear, perhaps, are Gardner's reasons for his next selection from Sallustius, which deals with, as Gardner styles it, "the inner meaning of religious rituals."

"It is impious to suppose that the divine is affected for good or ill by human things. The Gods are always good and always do good and never harm, being always in the same state and like themselves. The truth simply is that, when we are good, we are joined to the Gods by our likeness; when bad, we are separated from them by our unlikeness. And when we live according to virture we cling to the Gods, and when we become evil we make the Gods our enemies -- not because they are angered against us, but because our sins prevent the light of the Gods from shining upon us, and put us in communion with spirits of punishment. And if by prayers and sacrifices we find forgiveness of sins, we do not appease or change the Gods, but by what we do and by our turning toward the Divine we heal our own badness and so enjoy again the goodness of the Gods. To say that the Gods turn away from evil is like saying that the sun hides himself from the blind.

"This solves the question about sacrifices and other rites performed to the Gods. The divine itself is without needs, and the worship is paid for our own benefit. The providence of the Gods reaches everywhere and needs only some congruity for its reception. All congruity comes about by representation and likeness; for which reason the temples are made in representation of heaven, the altar of earth, the images of life (that is why they are made like living things), the prayers of the element of though, the mystic letters of the unspeakable celestial forces, the herbs and stones of matter, and the sacrificial animals of the irrational life in us.

"From all these things the Gods gain nothing; what gain could there be to God? It is we who gain some communion with them."
[On the Gods and the Cosmsos, Sallustius, Section XIV (partial): "In what sense, though the Gods never change, they are said to be made angry and appeased." And also Section XV: "Why we give worship to the Gods when they need nothing."]
But what bearing does the subject of "the inner meaning of religious rituals" have on responding to accusations that Pagan religion is somehow involved with Evil?

The issue here is not merely the accusation that Pagans do evil things, but rather that we worship Evil Things. This accusation goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Among its clearest expressions is that found in the writings of Augustine, and his City of God, Against the Pagans in particular. Somewhat ironically, Augustine wrote that work largely as a defense of Christianity against the accusation, from Pagans, that the Christian prohibitions against the worship of the old Gods had led to the downfall of Rome (some of the historical background to this is discussed in Reflections on Vergil and Augustine.)

In Book VIII of his Against the Pagans, Augustine asserts that the traditional Gods worshipped at Pagan festivals and in the urban Pagan temples are "rather malign demons than gods." Furthermore, Augustine employs a favorite Christian trope that is still popular today with Ronald Hutton and his fanbase, in which it is claimed that the religion of ancient philosophers is somehow different from and unrelated to that of the Pagan masses generally. (By this logic the "philosophy" of Augustine is equally unrelated the lowbrow Christianity of the ignorant, unwashed masses who make up the vast bulk of the Army of Christ, thus making Augustine no Christian at all. But any such appeal to consistency is lost on the likes of Hutton.)

And so Augustine now focuses not on "the fabulous, that is, the theatrical" theology of the plebs, nor on the more staid "civil, that is, the urban" theology of the aristocratic priests and priestesses serving the deities of the polis. Instead, Augustine explains that he wishes to address himself "not to ordinary men, but to philosophers ... concerning the theology which they call natural." In particular, Augustine, and here he shows that he knows what he is about, directly attacks the magical and erotic theology set forth by Socrates in Plato's dialogues.

In his famous speech in the Symposium, Socrates had revealed what the Witch (for surely she fits Gardner's profile for ancient Witches) Diotima had revealed to him as a young man concerning the nature of Eros. She had instructed Socrates that Eros is not really a God, per se, but rather a Daemon: "A great Daemon, Socrates; for the whole realm of the Daemons is intermediary between the Gods and mortals." At this point Socrates had inquired about the "powers" possessed by these Daemons. And here is Diotima's answer:

"Interpreting and conveying things from men to Gods, and things from Gods to men, prayers and sacrifices from one, commands and requitals in exchange for sacrifices from the other, since, being in between both, the Daemons fill the region between both so that the All is bound together with itself.

"Through this Daemonic realm moves all prophetic art and the art of priests having to do with sacrifices and rituals and spells, and all powers of prophecy and enchantment. The Gods do not mingle with mortals, but all intercourse and conversation of the Gods with humans, waking and sleeping, are through this intermediary realm. Those who are wise about such things are truly divine, but those who are wise about any other arts or crafts are mere technicians and mechanics. The Daemons, then, are many and manifold, and one of them is Eros."
[202d-203a, taken from R.E. Allen's translation, with some liberties]
The above is only one small part of Diotima's teachings on Eros and the Daemons, according to Socrates, according to Plato. Just a little later on, Diotima states that Eros is πόριμος (clever, contriving), a φιλόσοφος (a lover of wisdom, philosopher), a γόης (witch), a φαρμακεύς (one skilled in potions), and a σοφιστής (sophist).

Almost two thousand years later, Marsilio Ficino wondered why Diotima, in addition to describing the great Daemon Eros as clever, philosophical and a sophist, had also imputed magical powers to Eros:

"But why do we think that Eros is a magician? Because the whole power of magic consists in Eros. The work of magic is the attraction of one thing by another because of a certain affinity of nature. But the parts of this world, like the parts of a single animal, all deriving from a single author, are joined to each other by the communion of a single nature. Therefore just as the brain, lungs, heart, liver and the rest of the parts draw something from each other, and help each other, and sympathize with any one of them when it suffers, so the parts of this great animal [the cosmos as a single living being], that is, the bodies of the world, similarly joined together, borrow and lend natures to and from each other. From this common relationship is born a common love; from love, a common attraction. And this is true magic .... [T]he works of magic are works of nature, but art is its handmaiden .... The ancients attributed this art to Daemons, because the Daemons understand what is the inter-relation of natural things, what is appropriate to each, and how the harmony of things, if lacking anywhere, can be restored .... They [the ancients, such as Socrates, Zoroaster, Apollonius of Tyana, and Porphyry] seem to have become magicians through friendship of the Daemons, just as the Daemons are magicians through understanding the friendship of things themselves. And all nature, because of mutual love, is called a magician."
[De Amore, Marsilio Ficino. This is specificaly from Speech VI, using the translation by Sears Jane, p. 127 of the 1985 Spring Publications edition]

But let us return now to Augustine, and to Book VIII of his Against the Pagans in particular. We have already seen how Augustine equated the traditional Gods with "malign demons". Later (Chapter 5 of Book VIII) he calls them "impure demons, under the name of gods." Most of the latter half of this Book (Chapters 14-26) is devoted to attacks on the Platonic conception of the role of Daemons in magic and religion. In addition to Plato himself, Augustine pays special attention to the Platonic philosopher Apuleius and to the figure of Hermes Trismegistus.

The take home message from Augustine's polemics against Plato, Apuleius, and Hermes is that the whole Daemonic realm is, in reality, Demonic in the sense of being purely Evil. In other words, what Plato portrayed as the liminal realm of the Cosmos, situated above the human realm, whose purpose is to connect us with the Gods, and which is responsible for the efficacy of both religious practices and magic arts; that this is in fact an infernal realm populated with demons that are "arrogant" and "deceiving" who prey on those who seek "divine refuge" by "feigning divinity". These demons are everywhere "lying in wait for the deception of man!"

The Christian view, then, is that (1) Pagan religiosity is generally evil, (2) more specifically, the spiritual Powers upon which Pagans call are evil beings, and (3) the whole spiritual realm (outside of the Holy Ghost and "angels") is filled with and characterized by malignant Evil. It is in order to counter these dark (and as perversely self-serving as they are self-revealing) Christian fantasies, which they sometimes try to hide behind the philosophical niceties of the so-called "Problem of Evil", that Gardner invokes the words of Sallustius on the subject of the "the inner meaning of religious ritual." In essence, Gardner wishes to categorically disprove any idea that the magical/religious practices of Wiccans amount to calling upon evil forces. However, Gardner chooses not to explicitly defend the liminal/Daemonic aspects of Platonic theology but to explicate Pagan rituals in such terms as (1) being "joined to the Gods", (2) having "the light of the Gods ... shining upon us", and (3) "by turning toward the Gods we heal our own badness and so enjoy again the goodness of the Gods." All this and more comes about because "The providence of the Gods reaches everywhere and needs only some congruity for its reception."

The fact is that Sallustius provides no opportunity to more directly defend the intermediary spiritual realm, for, true to the title of the work, he sticks to "the Gods" and "the Cosmos". And it is unlikely, anyway, that Gardner would have thought there could be anything to be gained by trying to convince the general public that Wicca relies on daemons, but not on demons. And then there was also Gardner's choice to (dishonestly, as is now generally accepted) deny the very real connections between his Wicca and Ceremonial Magic (where explicit references to Daemons are easy to find).

But (even though he avoids direct references to Daemons) it is quite clear that Gerald Gardner in 1959, just like practitioners of Vodou today, had to defend himself against the mindset that all spiritual powers outside Christianity are by definition infernal, evil and Satanic. And Gardner turns to the Platonic Paganism of Sallustius to assert both that (1) in terms of belief, "Wicca positively denies the existence of a Power of Evil" (using Gardner's words), and (2) in terms of practice, the Gods of Wicca "are always good and always do good and never harm" and "worship [of the Gods] is paid for our own benefit," with the end in mind that by such worship we might "live according to virture" and be "joined to the Gods by our likeness to them" (using Sallustius' words as cited by Gardner).

Modern Paganism and the Ancient Mysteries:
  1. Part One: Sallustius, Gardner & Wicca: "A general statement of their creed."
  2. Part Two: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and the Problem of Evil
  3. Part Three: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and Reincarnation
  4. Part Four: "Divested of their garments"


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Behold: The Future of School Prayer in Post-Potter America?

[Lately my life hasn't left me much time for blogging. So, sometimes now when I go a whole week or more and I haven't had a chance to write anything at all, I just look through some of my more popular old posts and change the date, add a little prologue, and maybe edit it/add to it slightly. This post was originally prompted (well over three years ago) by a graphic that suddenly appeared in several of my Pagan friends' facebook feeds. I was so struck by the subversive brilliance of it, that I tried to find out who was behind it. I only ever got as far as finding the original photographer and model, both of whom are highly talented in their own rights. But to this day I have never discovered who the genius was that added the captioning to the image. If anyone happens to know, please leave a comment! And now without further ado, here is a little something I posted back on November 20, 2010.] 
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Some pictures really are worth a thousand words, but there are times when just the right caption can add something essential to the end result.

This "Motivational Poster" style commentary on school prayer has been making the rounds on teh interwebs. It started as part of a "Student Witch" series by photographer Marcus J. Ranum. You can see the whole series at Ranum's DeviantArt gallery here.

(Ranum's wikipedia entry tells us that he is a computer security expert of some note and that "his hobbies include photography and firearms.")

I would like to find out whose idea it was to add the eleven words to Ranum's already quite magnificent photo, thus taking it to the next level of brilliance!

The book she is holding is Aleister Crowley's "Magic in Theory and Practice", which you can make out if you look at the full size image of the original. The book on the ground is something by Anton LeVay.

Ranum, who is an atheist and a supporter of Richard Dawkin's "Out Campaign", has this to say about inclusion of the LeVay book as a prop in the original photograph:
Someone mentioned (rightly and courteously) that I might have given offense by mixing the word "witch" with LaVey's goofy satanic bible. It's just a prop. I was tempted to fix the title but then I realized that would be inconsistent. As an equal opportunity disrespector of all religion, it would be unfair of me to show wicca more respect than I show any of the other goofy superstitions of the world. So, with all due respect, if this image bothers you - "get over it."
As long as I'm trying to give credit where credit is due, I'm pretty sure the model is Laura Unbound. She also has her own DeviantArt page here (actually that's a direct link to the photo of her to the right by Scott Church, which is part of Laura's own online portfolio).

[Since first posting this I have received direct confirmation from Laura Unbound that it is her. She also left a comment below.]

Here's my other personal favorite from Ranum's "Student Witch" series (Student Witch - 5), as well as some other works featuring the lovely Laura (by photographer Rodney Mickle), just for the hell of it, and also possibly just to jack up my hit count in one of the most obvious and time tested ways:

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

What is wrong with Islam? Five views.

[This was originally posted on September 1, 2010. It seems, to me, to be as relevant now as it was then.]

1. Religion = Bad
All religions are both irrational and intolerant, and they all have a natural tendency toward totalitarianism. All religions are, therefore, ultimately incompatible with humanist values, with liberal democracy, and with the ideals of individual liberty and human equality. At most, Islam is simply a worst case scenario, but the negative characteristics of Islam are shared with all religions, if to a lesser extent.
Proponents: Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists [This position was formerly that of most of the Left, but nowadays leftists are among the most loyal apologists for Islam.]

2. "Islam is retarded."
Islam is uniquely irrational and intolerant, and its tendency toward totalitarianism sets it apart from other religions. Christianity, on the other hand, is especially compatible with, and in fact helped to give rise to, humanism, democracy and the ideals of equality and liberty.
Proponents: Geert Wilders, Sarah Palin, etc.

3. The Three Impostors theory
All monotheistic religions have their origins in totalitarian designs. In particular, Moses, Jesus & Mohammad were "grand masters of the art of trickery" whose sole motivation was the desire "to oblige the people to submit to them." The teachings of these "Three Impostors" have been cynically perpetuated down through the ages by "the ambitious" who used religion to accomplish "the propagation and perpetuity of their laws, as well as the culture of such ceremonies and fanaticism as they deemed proper to establish." [Quotes taken from infidels.org.]
Proponents: Variously ascribed to Friederich II, Averroes, Michael Servetus, Machiavelli, Rabelais, Erasmus, Milton, Giordano Bruno, Boccaccio, Gassendi, Spinoza, etc. The overall argument is similar to those found in the Enlightenment critiques of Christianity penned by Voltaire, Hume, Paine and Gibbon, and also to the writings of contemporary Egyptologist and historian of religion Jan Assmann.

4. The Evil Twins theory
As tempting as it is to classify the monotheisms together as above, it seems, at least to me, to be an outrage against common decency to lump the Jews together in this way with those who have expended so much energy to exterminate them. And I think there is also a need to give far greater weight to the practice of intolerance than to merely theorizing about it. We should look first to the historical record, according to which there can be no doubt that Christianity and Islam form their own aberrant subset of violently intolerant religions - religions that leave a bloody trail of smoking destruction everywhere they go. Having established this category on the basis of objective facts, we can then look to the "teachings", such as they are, of these Evil Twins, to better understand their behavior.
Proponents: Yours Truly

5. What is wrong with Islam? Nothing. And you are a vile bigot for even asking.
Islam is the Religion of Peace. It is not a mosque and it is not at Ground Zero. Arbeit macht frei. We will be greeted as liberators. The public was never in danger. It's morning again in America. We are the ones we have been waiting for. The smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud. Universal home ownership. With the Big Mind Process, a genuine kensho can occur in about an hour—seriously. Remember the Maine. We believe the products we make are not injurious to health. We have always been at war with Eastasia. Land Bread Peace.
Proponents: Karen Armstrong, Barack Obama, etc.


See also:
The Essence of Religion: Four Theories
Are there two kinds of religion?
Good Fences Make Good Religions?
Religions of the Library

[The "NEVER take your freedoms for granted" graphic was snagged from craigread.com, a right-wing website that promotes position #2 above.]

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Hail Satan" meets "Nailed It"

Gerald Gardner, Magna Carta, and the Right to Bear Arms

[This was first posted on August 10, 2012. I am reposting it now in honor of Gerald's 130th birthday.]

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"... my Luger and Donna's revolver ..."


In August of 1940 the Battle of Britain was just getting under way, and it very much remained to be seen who would prevail. If the Luftwaffe managed to establish control of the skies over Britain, then the Wehrmacht would soon be marching on British soil.

It was under these circumstances that one Gerald Gardner wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph under the title "Resisting the Invader" and subtitled, "Delaying Actions by Civilians". (See Philip Heselton's wonderful book Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, Volume I, for the full text of the letter as well as more background information, sources, etc.)

The main thrust of Gardner's letter was that in the event of a successful invasion of Britain by the Nazis, any civilians who found themselves behind enemy lines should engage in armed resistance against the foreign occupiers. In order to prepare for such an eventuality Gardner specifically proposed that "Everyone willing should be given arms when they are available and taught how to use them."

Gerald Gardner was as good as his word. As a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, he had already begun distributing the few weapons he himself possessed (including pikes and coshes) to his fellow wardens. In addition, Gardner took an inventory of the privately held weapons among his neighbors, which he found lamentably inadequate for the task at hand: "We expected Hitler on the seashore any day. We had no weapons worth the name. In my three-mile beach sector there were six shotguns, my Luger and Donna's revolver, and a few other pistols, with about six rounds apiece for them. Then there were my pikes and swords."

When a small unit of regular army soldiers was dispatched to Gardner's area, he further complained about their lack of serious weaponry: "barring rifles and not much ammunition, they had nothing. No artillery, no automatic weapons. I tried to get an old Malay cannon going, with some blasting powder for explosives, but nothing came of this." Despite the lack of success with the Malay cannon, Gardner did manage to get his hands on some Sten guns for the local Home Guard, and he also showed his neighbors how to make Molotov cocktails.

Gardner, a proud Conservative, worked closely with the local Commander of the Home Guard, Major Fish, a Canadian socialist. Despite their significant political differences both men shared a common anti-authoritarian streak, and a fierce determination to "fight them on the beaches" when and if it came to that. Fish enrolled Gardner as an Armourer for his battalion despite the fact that ARP wardens were officially forbidden from taking up arms even in the event of an out and out invasion. But Fish and Gardner agreed that this prohibition was nonsensical, and, besides, Gardner "could be a warden during air raids and Home Guard during the All Clears".

One might be tempted to assume that Gardner's Churchillian sounding letter was nothing special, just an obvious and unproblematic statement of ordinary patriotic sentiments in the face of an imminent threat to British national sovereignty. But the role of civilians in warfare is a matter of perennial controversy. Wars should be fought by armies on the battlefield, and civilians should having nothing to do with it, or so one way of looking at things would have it. After all, in theory at least, the "rules of warfare" dictate that civilians should not be the targets of military attacks. But when civilians arm themselves and join the fray, as Gardner was proposing, what makes them any different from any other armed combatant? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the act of taking up arms, civilians thereby make themselves (and all nearby civilians) "fair game."

To Gardner's mind, however, there was nothing theoretical about any of this: "If each village and town had defended itself, France would never have fallen as she did, and Germany might well have been on the way to defeat now," he wrote in his letter. England must not repeat the mistake of the French: "Why should people who wish to defend themselves be prevented just to make it easy for Germany? By Magna Carta every free-born Englishman is entitled to have arms to defend himself and his household. Let us now claim our right."

The official Nazi press took notice of Gardner's "Magna Carta letter", as it became known, and responded by publicly lecturing Gardner about "advances" in "human ethics": "His suggestion is condemned as medieval and as an infringement of international law."

The Nazi position was not quite as ridiculous as one might think. All too recently Europe had witnessed first hand the mind-bending horrors of modern, mechanized warfare. The killing power of machine guns and poison gas, combined with other technological advances such as rail and air transportation and electronic communications, had all combined in the Great War to result in a truly staggering loss of life (2% of the British population, 4% of France, nearly 4% of Germany ....).

And when all out war raised its ugly head again in Europe in the 1939, it came in the form of Blitzkrieg, which made the weapons that had slaughtered so many millions in WWI look crude and primitive by comparison. What could civilians with pistols and swords and clubs hope to accomplish against Stuka dive-bombers and Panzer tank divisions? To many it just seemed ludicrous to think that ill-equipped and barely trained civilians could play any meaningful role in modern warfare, other than to provide a cruel pretext for savage collective retaliation against civilian populations.

Additionally there is the embarrassing (especially for Conservatives like Gardner and Churchill) fact that it was just a tad inconsistent for the British Empire to uncritically embrace the general principle that ordinary people have a right to take up arms against a foreign occupying force. For, you see, once that is conceded then one is already well on one's way down the slippery slope toward such things as "self-determination" and "national liberation". And if the point was lost on anyone in 1940, this ineluctable logic bomb exploded with full force in Africa and Asia less than a decade later, once the European "Great Powers" had settled their differences.

But desperate times have a way of focusing the mind. With Nazi aircraft directly overhead and only the English Channel separating them from Nazi jackboots on the ground, Britons knew that their choices were down to two: submit or fight. And they knew that to fight meant to fight by any and all means necessary, and this demanded that "Everyone willing should be given arms when they are available and taught how to use them."

"While the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans."

It should be emphasized just how fitting it was for one of the most important figures in the modern Pagan revival to invoke the Magna Carta. It is even more fitting to turn to a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright in order to illustrate this point. (source)

In 1776, the year in which Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at the behest of the Continental Congress, John Cartwright produced a work that was arguably even more radical. The title of Cartwright's book was Take Your Choice, and in it he argued for the radical reform of Parliament in order to make England truly democratic. Specifically, Cartwright argued for the principle that we now call "one man one vote" (a phrase that Cartwright used and may have coined), that is, universal male suffrage and strictly proportional representation.

Nearly fifty years later, in 1823, Cartwright's reforms had not been enacted in England. In the U.S., on the other hand, property restrictions on voting had been removed for white males, but other serious issues remained (as they do today, such as non-proportional representation in the Senate, the electoral college, and so forth). In that year Cartwright published another highly significant book on The English Constitution. In that book, Cartwright set himself the task of showing that the basic democratic principles that he had devoted his life to were based in Anglo-Saxon Common Law. This meant that the democratic reforms that appeared so radical to some were, in fact, simply a long-overdue reestablishment of ancient traditions.

As one might expect, Cartwright was generally well disposed toward the American Revolution and its leaders. The copy of his The English Constitution tha one finds online at archive.org (link) is signed and personally dedicated to John Adams. Cartwight also personally sent a copy of his book to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to thank Cartwright, and to make a few specific observations.

One thing that Jefferson found especially worthwhile about Cartwright's book was the author's conclusion that the essential rights and liberties cherished by both the English and their American cousins were traceable back to the first arrival of the Anglo-Saxons on British soil. Jefferson was pleased not only because this afforded the founding principles of the United States such a long and estimable pedigree, but more specifically because it decisively undercut any claim by Christianity to a central place in the English or American political and legal systems, and, thereby, resoundingly validated that principle which Jefferson held especially dear and with which his name is so closely associated: the separation of church and state.

Here are Jefferson's own words to Cartwright:

"I was glad to find in your book a formal contradiction, at length, of the judiciary usurpation of legislative powers; for such the judges have usurped in their repeated decisions, that Christianity is a part of the common law. The proof of the contrary, which you have adduced, is incontrovertible; to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed."

The opinion that Jefferson expressed in his 1824 letter to John Cartwright, that the rights and liberties cherished by the English and the Americans were rooted in pre-Christian traditions, was one that Jefferson had long held. This is shown by another letter, written just one month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

This letter concerns another project, in addition to the Declaration, on which Jefferson, Adams and Franklin were also working at the same time: a committee (the first of three, as it turned out) charged with designing an official "Great Seal of the confederated States." In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams described Jefferson's proposal that that Seal should portray "Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed." (full text of letter, dated August 14, 1776, here.)