Becoming pagan in America – an otherworld journey

This post is (belatedly) part of the Mythology Synchblog 4.

Generally, when we think of the term “Otherworld”, the first thing that comes to mind is some version of a land “beyond the fields we know”, as Lord Dunsany put it – a place not of this mundane material world, where the experience is wholly other, and where we can go (if we can go at all) only at our gravest peril, or after we are already dead. Heaven, Tír na nÓg, Hades, Hel, the Realms of Faerie; these are all otherworlds, and the heroes that journey there come back (if they come back) radically and permanently changed by the experience.

I do have reservations about many of Joseph Campbell’s conclusions, but the otherworld journey pattern he described is pretty solidly evidenced. The journey follows a broadly recognizable pattern – the following (very concise) listing from Wikipedia covers the most important elements of the journey. Many books have been written justifying more detailed lists, but I’m not too concerned with that level of detail here (although I may pick up on a couple of the sub-categories if they seem to reflect my experience – after all, not every otherworld journey tale contains all possible elements, or they would all be the exact same story). Here’s the short list:

  1. A call to adventure,
  2. A road of trials,
  3. Achieving the goal or “boon”,
  4. A return to the ordinary world,
  5. Applying the boon.

My personal journey into paganism seems to follow this pattern pretty closely – and I imagine I’m not alone.

Becoming a religious “other” in America – particularly moving from being either Christian or (to a lesser degree) secular to being an identifiable something-else – is a startling experience. The sense of disorientation can be overwhelming at times as you grow increasingly out of phase with the assumptions of the dominant Christian and/or consumerist culture. So how did we get here?

You pick up a book, or have some sort of encounter with a spirit of nature, or listen to a little too much Tori Amos… ;) At any rate, something happens, and suddenly you find yourself open (being opened?) to the idea that maybe there’s something more out there – you are hearing the “Call to Adventure”. Maybe you don’t spot the moment consciously, or you ignore it – or even actively fight against it, depending on where you are at that moment on your journey – but it stays with you, and eventually something else triggers that awareness and the thoughts surface again… and again… and eventually you realize that you have to follow up on them and see where they lead.

Once you make that decision, you are well and truly on the “Road of Trials”. These trials can take many different forms:

  • Resistance from friends and family, or concern about such. This can range from your friends thinking you’re “weird” (and not in a good way) to arguments, emotional blackmail and broken relationships.
  • Social pressure to be or remain “normal”. Again, this can cover a wide range of deliberate and unintended pressure, from the merely annoying to the potentially dangerous.
  • A dearth of high-quality information about pagan religions (becoming both less and more of a problem, thanks to the Internet – much more information is available much more readily, but the signal-to-noise ratio may actually be decreasing).

The next step, “Achieving the Goal”, should be fairly obvious – once you have found a way forward and negotiated the immediate challenges, you begin to settle in to your new pagan life. My gut feeling is that his phase blends pretty seamlessly into the next, the “Return to the Ordinary World”. As you grow in comfort and familiarity with the demands, expectations and rituals of your new faith, and hopefully also deepen your faith in and relationship with your Gods, your entire way of looking at and being in the world shifts… until one day you wake up and realize that the assumptions and thought patterns you grew up with, and that the culture around you still espouses, are really foreign to you.

Now you’re ready to take the final step (on this round of the story, at least), “Applying the Boon”. In this context, I look at this stage as the point when you start to take action in the world that is based in your new faith and worldview. Political action, charitable work, blogging :) – even just a change in the way you interact with the people around you. Whatever form it takes, it is distinguished by the fact that it is specifically and explicitly rooted in your new condition.

This is obviously a VERY quick and shallow overview, and I’d love to hear about the particulars of your faith journey that correspond, expand on or contradict my thesis – that becoming Pagan in America means becoming involved in an Otherworld that is present right here in this one.

Other participants:

12 thoughts on “Becoming pagan in America – an otherworld journey

  1. Feral Boy

    I’ve also found this to be true when talking about government or economics! I’ve found that many of the views that I hold, especially concerning the responsibility of a business towards its customers, are directly opposed to those of some of my dearest friends. I have listened many times to the economic equivalent of “kill them all, God will know his own” (in their words, a company is ONLY responsible to its shareholders). I guess there’s a reason the 3 taboo subjects for polite conversation are religion, politics, and sex.

    There is also convergence between politics, economics, and religion, especially when you consider the moral implications of decisions by government or business. So you may also find that you are taking your first steps into The Darkling Wood when you choose to make and stand by your statements on the responsibility of those who govern us or sell to us:

    — Should a company be responsible for deaths caused by a dangerous product, or is it absolved from that by simply “making the facts known” in some small way?

    — Are economic considerations sufficient grounds for a country to go to war with another?

    — What of a government that discourages any means of contraception other than abstinence? Should they bear any responsibility for the failure of that method?

    — In the same vein, if all living beings BEFORE birth are to be protected, who has the responsibility to care for ALL of these precious people for the rest of their lives if their parent(s) cannot, or will not?

    — Feral Boy

  2. executivepagan Post author

    Good point. There is a sense, of course, in which a seriously committed conservative Christian is also an outsider, at least to the world of mass media and its constant message of sex and self-interest…

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  5. Feral Boy

    executive pagan wrote :
    > … There is a sense, of course, in which a seriously committed conservative Christian is also an outsider,at least to the world of mass media and its constant message of sex and self-interest…

    You’re probably right for the most part. Even when news agencies expose public figures for transgressions (which might discourage some of them), it is more for the titillation factor ;) and ratings.

    I think this is probably true for anyone who does not share what passes for values today. You might simply call it Value, as in everything has its price, and the more you have, the better. Having instead of being,
    taking it all instead of taking care of everything that you have (Gaia).

    — Feral Boy

  6. mahud

    I’m still on the second stage: the road of trials.

    My call to adventure, the beginning of my sacred journey began as a Christian at the age of 21. I was convinced in the reality of God in a way I never thought possible, as I never received a religious upbringing.

    The Road of Trials

    However, while I was enthralled with the message of the Bible (mostly the New Testament, although I found the major prophets equally fascinating), I never really made the connection with most of the Christians I met (excluding my current girlfriend that is). In fact, Christianity was a painful time for me, and a confusing one, although I certainly had moments when I felt connected to God and received provision for my needs and much guidance. The trouble was I was ignorant of other systems of belief and new next to nothing about mythology, which has become my great passion.

    I began to study religion, history, archaeology, mythology in an attempt to reconcile what we know about the world and what the Bible claims and I finally came to the conclusion that the Bible was not a divinely inspired book, at least not in the sense that many full-on biblical types would have it.

    This led to a lot of confusion as to the reality of God, but even though my perception of the Bible had changed somewhat, I still believed in it’s core message as centred in the person of Jesus.

    But then I began to think about practitioners of other faiths. Would they be condemned for not experiencing the reality of Jesus. Would God really set in motion a world that would generate so many differing ideas about attaining paradise, Nirvana, Moshka, etc, and expect people to be able to discern which is the one true religion? Not to mention the multitudes of people who have never even heard of Christianity.

    An so, my thinking began to change. God would not punish us for our lack of knowledge. Actually in the Bible it states that knowledge is ephemeral, and will actually pass away, whereas Love, faith and hope are eternal.

    And so I ceased to base my beliefs on knowledge (which is pretty much on the top of the Christian agenda if you ask me). And I began searching for the truth down alternative avenues.

    Eventually, I discovered Pagans (thanks to Kay Songs of Unforgetting) and I discovered something I could build upon and experiment without any fear of damnation, and so far on my road of trials my journey has been a very interesting one to say the least :D

    After all we are finite beings who don’t know everything

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  8. Theo

    I am currently on the path to…I don’t know. Any input is helpful though. I really need people at this point to help me understand things. I was raised Christian, but my mother always taught me to keep an open mind. At the age of 13 I rejected my denomination as a Baptist telling people that Christian should be Christian and if we were a real religion we would band together as Christians and drop the sub-tags i.e.(Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran..). Anyways, at this point I began to study many different types of religions but I held on to my Christian beliefs. At 16 or 17 I rejected organized religion believing that the Christian faith had become nothing more than a corrupt organization greedy for money. I joined the Army went to Iraq and continued as a non-denominational Christian. I game home in 2005 at 22 years old, and actually thought about becoming a Pasture. The only thing that held me back from that is the I believed that it would be very hypocritical of me to tell people how to live their lives when I am very much a sinner and I know it. As my search for truth continued I started to uncover facts about the past of the Christian faith and that of others I started thinking about becoming a Theologian. Though, now I have really started to question the Christian faith all together and I am finding more of a friendly well rounded community in the pagan lifestyle, but I don’t know any myself. So, in the hopes that I will not receive any junk mail, I am leaving my email address for those that read this and might be able to help me out. I am currently 25 years old male living in phoenix Arizona and full of questions: Saoithe1 (at) gmail (dot) com
    Thank you for your time everyone

  9. executivepagan Post author

    Hi Theo,
    In the hopes of saving you from being bombarded by spambots (evil programs that do nothing but crawl the web looking for unprotected email addresses), I have taken the liberty of reformatting your address more safely (as you requested, I’ll take the rest of the discussion offline).

    Thanks for reading!

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  12. Blackplates

    an old thread i know, and yet i found it in my search. i have been searching for many years and i have not found the way. the “noise to signal ratio” is certainly weak on the Internet but with respect to following a pagan road the signal has been weak for many centuries. i am not at all inspired by imitation, and yet im looking for a revealed truth, or lighted path…what a riddle! im not looking for people to belong to, or claim people who belong to me.Magic ( personally i dispense with the Crowley-esque “K”. i know its something of a convention these days) must be part of my solution. magic and ritual performed with chlidlike faith combined with a genuine sense of wonder and expectation. And yet the older(and sadder) we get the more impossible those conditions become. I know the Gods and Godesses are the same, whatever names and faces and costumes they wear in different lands. Im not searching for Zeus, or Isis, Or Horus, or Wotan. Im searching for authentic communion or a revelation from these beings.I have found that Art and Magic are very nearly the same thing. In fact, they may be the very same thing. So i search for the keys to unlock the gates of the gods whithin Art that i find powerfully moving. Discipline is important as well as some spiritual and Ascetic practices. It is true spirituality i am searching for not cultural affinity, or senusuality or novelty for thier own sake. I try not to dilute a source (when i pick up its thread)by creating umpteenth generations of pantomime. im not interested, for instance, in perfoming Aleistair Crowleys rituals and works, that path was for him alone.Im not looking for a club to belong to or a replacement for the communion of Christianity.My road has been mostly a solitary one.

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