Becoming pagan in America – an otherworld journey
Posted by Erik on September 2, 2008
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:
- A call to adventure,
- A road of trials,
- Achieving the goal or “boon”,
- A return to the ordinary world,
- Applying the boon.
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.
- Faith and the Hero’s Journey (Hawk’s Cry: The voice of a witch)
- Journeying to Otherworlds: Access Denied (Between Old and New Moons)
- Lions at the Door (Quaker Pagan Reflections)
- More Than These Words (Aquila ka Hecate)
- Journeying to Otherworlds (The Dance of the Elements)
- Mythology Synchroblog 4: Children’s Story for Mabo (Pagan Dad)
- Underground Ruminations (Gorgon Resurfaces)
- Synchroblog: Journeys to the Otherworld (Bubo’s Blog)
- Otherworlds Synchroblog: Olympus (Paleothea: the Ancient Goddess)
- Symbolic Saiho-ji and Otherworld Journeying (Symbolic Meanings)
- Welcome to the Otherworlds Next Door (Many Questions) New!
- The Wheel’s Hub: the Axis Mundi in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (Druid Journal) New!