Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pagan Values

The things that I value as a Pagan are no different than the things that I value as a human being. I think people should be treated like people. I value helping others through acts of charity. I value clean water, clean air, clean dirt, good food, my family and my friends. I first came to Paganism as a biologist more than anything else. This was in my first year or so as an undergraduate and I actively sought a faith that would not conflict with what I knew to be true as a scientist. I first stumbled across Wicca and found that the idea of balance and the celebration of the cycles of nature were right in tune with the ideas that I had formed as a scientist. Creating a synthesis between my thinking and my belief was not only easy, but connections practically formed themselves. One of the biggest things that took me a long time to figure out was a moral compass that extended beyond my gut feelings of right and wrong.

One of the first things that I looked at was Lady Sheba's laws. As part of my training as a priestess, I did an extensive project that looked at the historical and cultural context from which these laws came and that deconstructed and analyzed them individually and as a whole. As is my understanding, Jesse Wicker Bell, aka Lady Sheba, was a friend Gerald Gardener's. Either she or the both of them composed these in the early 1950's to be used as a kind of Leviticus for Wiccans. These laws are used by the more orthodox Wiccans, Gardenarians and Alexandrians in particular, as a code of conduct. There are laws regarding the persecution of witchcraft1, group dynamics2, how to worship3, and laws about the laws4. Though the fake-archaic language distracts terribly from what they were trying to achieve, there are some very good lessons that can be found within. I summed them up by listing the major points of what the laws are trying to do:
  1. Above all, protect the Craft and do what is good for the Craft
  2. Protect your fellows in the Craft
  3. Don't draw undue attention to yourself, other Craft persons or groups, or to the Craft as a whole
  4. Practice in secret
  5. Maintain order and discipline within a coven
  6. Respect your fellows in the Craft
  7. As a High Priest or High Priestess, govern as though the Gods were watching - because They are.
  8. Harm none.
  9. Act as though the Gods know what you are doing, because they do. Behave ethically and justly.
  10. Use magick ethically and mind your karma
  11. Respect the HP and HPS; they are the representatives of the God and Goddess
  12. Give due and fit worship to the Gods
  13. Serve the will of the Gods
To read these in such a way as to find any valuable lessons, one must remember the cultural context in which they were written. I believed, at the time of my detailed analysis of these, that many of them were outdated and no longer useful, even to the most orthodox of Wiccans. That which cannot adapt or change to the environment will eventually die out and if we cling to laws such as these or that of any other religious tradition without a willingness to examine their usefulness, we will be intellectually and spiritually stagnant.

Even though I do not self-identify as a Wiccan now, there are still valuable lessons to be found here. By and large, I reject most of the persecution-related laws, but remain mindful of how I may be received by the general public in regards to my religion. As a result, there are aspects of my faith and practice that I keep to myself. This is just one example. As a Buddhist, I've learned to pick up that which is useful and not worry too much about what isn't.

Moving down my spiritual path, I have come to Hellenic Polytheism and a slightly different perspective-- not much different from my Wiccan days, but somewhat. Here, the Delphic Maxims serve a similar purpose as a set of laws, guidelines, commandments, or a code of conduct. One might consider it like the Leviticus of the Hellenics (except that it predates Christianity). Though these are actually ancient and are outdated by 2500 years, many of them still ring true. "Obey the law," seems pretty straightforward. "Speak plainly" is another good one, as is "Help your friends." These have been used as a way to teach both Greek language and the Greek way of life and as I go through them slowly and deliberately, I learn a little Greek and a little more about what it was like to live as a follower of the gods then and what it can be now. I've only started in my analysis of these "commandments," but already I'm finding a great deal of valuable insight here.

So are these lists the sum of my "Pagan Values?" Not really. After a little more than a decade of being Pagan, I return to where I started. I return to those gut feelings of right and wrong, but now I do so with a little more self-knowledge. I've never really extensively studied any other religious laws and I imagine that each one has its own idiosyncrasies, archaisms, and bits of outdated advice, but having met a wide variety of religious people who are really trying to live a good life, the take-home lesson that I've learned is that the most important law is the law of love. If you choose to proceed through your life with an attitude of love and compassion toward yourself and others, you will become more skilled at being a human being. Every one of my ethical and moral values returns to this and you don't even have to be any kind of theist to practice that. Our religious laws can serve to give us a means to examine whether we are living in right relationship to the world and our deity or deities of choice, but there is no set of laws that defines the entirety of human ethics and morality.

Lord Serphant, the elder of my elders and now gone almost fifteen years (for those of you doing the math, he passed before I became Pagan), said "Love is the law." I heard a recording of him saying this very early on in my path to becoming a priestess and it struck something deep within me. This is not his innovation, of course. Others have said this very same thing, but I hear his throaty cigarette-damaged voice saying this in my head and I can't help but think that this sums up my Pagan Values better than anything else. That's it. That's all there is to it. Love. And it's simultaneously exceedingly simple and mind-numbingly difficult.

Bell, Jessie Wicker. The Grimoire of Lady Sheba. 2001 St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2001.
  1. #22-35, 51-88, 102-119, 127, 130-135, 139-140
  2. #11-21, 36-50, 93-101, 128-129, 141-162
  3. #3-10, 89-92, 108, 120-126, 136-137, 153-155
  4. #1-2, 88, 115-119

Oikonomides, A.N., Records of "The Commandments of the Seven Wise Men" in the 3rd c. BC, Classical Bulletin, 63 (1987), p. 67-73

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