When is a Pagan Not a Pagan?

T Polyphilus, Ep. Gn.

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

In a word, to-day Christianity is the irreligion of the materialist, or if you like, the sensualist; while in Paganism, we may find the expression of that ever-haunting love – nay, necessity! – of the Beyond which tortures and beautifies those of us who are poets.
–Aleister Crowley, “Eleusis,” Epilogue and Dedication to Collected Works (1903)

Religious Thelema, or New Aeon Gnosticism, is a radically individualistic system of observance. Thus it enjoys nearly as many characterizations as it does adherents. Even the institution of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, a subset of that system, embraces vast divergences. While I don't identify with the label “pagan,” I know that many of my brothers and sisters in the Church do. This fact testifies to both the rich variety of perspective in the Church, and the complexity and multivalency of the word “pagan.” The present essay is a brief meditation on the varied denotations and connotations of “pagan,” and how they apply to my personal observance of Thelema, and to that of OTO-EGC.

Pagan: “especially : a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome)“
(a Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition)
Thelema might be considered polytheistic. But it might also be considered a relativized form of monotheism, through the doctrine of the Holy Guardian Angel. It can also be considered atheistic, based on certain fairly direct readings of The Book of the Law. The jury is out–and I, for one, hope it stays there.

Pagan: “an adherent of a non-Christian religion”
Here's the one definition of pagan with which I can comfortably identify; i.e. any definition that would include not only Thelema, but also Islam. There are various other shades of “non-Christian” which don't necessarily accommodate Thelema. For example, Buddhism is more thoroughly non-Christian, because Thelema actively makes use of the symbolic detritus of Christianity, and thus enters into the “Judeo-Christian” continuum of religious conception.

Pagan: “an adherent of a pre-Christian religion”
This definition largely overlaps the first, and for our purposes we can extend it to cover “neo-paganism,” where an attempt is made to recreate such religions without the advantage of a surviving tradition of practice. Thelema doesn't fit here because it is actually post-Christian, as just noted. The highly syncretic nature of Thelema enables it to “reactivate” pre-Christian materials that have been assimilated by Christianity, as well as to mesh with entirely non-Christian concepts and practices.

Pagan: “a follower of a rustic or provincial religion”
This definition starts to delve into the etymology of the term, from Late Latin paganus, from Latin, country dweller, from pagus country district. During the spread of Christianity, “pagan” became a term of derision for the indigenous religions, as opposed to the metropolitan sophistication of Christianity. In a more modern (or po-mo) context, Christianity itself fits this sense of “pagan” far better than Thelema or most neo-paganisms do>

Pagan: “one whose worship is performed in the wilderness”
This definition is related to the previous one, as well as to the kindred term “heathen.” It is particularly apt of certain neo-Pagan systems where this feature is emphasized. There are certainly grounds for Thelemic Paganism of this type, e.g. Liber Legis I:61. We also have evidence of the exercise of such Thelemic Paganism in various camping festivals. But OTO-EGC, along with the bulk of Hermetic/Rosicrucian-style Thelema, is oriented around a distinctly temple-based ritual technology.

Pagan: “a conservative adherent of the customary civic religion”
The most up-to-date etymology, according to Ronald Hutton's excellent Triumph of the Moon, is Pierre Chuvin's derivation of the term from pagus as the local unit of government. In the US, that would make the Pledge of Allegiance and Thanksgiving into quintessential expressions of “paganism.” This sort of providential Deism doesn't seem to be a very good fit with Thelema, and I don't know of any any country with a “customary civic religion” that would be much better–to say nothing of Thelema's declared abrogation of earlier rituals.

Pagan: “a 'civilian' who is not in the 'army' of the faithful”
This definition is courtesy of Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians, in which the author observes that ”Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians' view of life.” (pp. 30-31, 685 n.11) This sort of “paganism” does not suit the “knight-monks of Thelema,” and it runs counter to the military images and metaphors involved in both EGC confirmation and OTO initiation generally–especially the chivalric degrees of the Second Triad.

Pagan: “a follower of deistic or 'natural' religion, as opposed to 'revealed religion'“
This idea of paganism holds that pagans (basically synonymous in this case with “freethinkers”) rely on the Book of Nature for their religious conceptions, rather than the Bible, Koran, Stanzas of Dzyan, or some other “revealed” text transmitted through human authorship. Thelema obviously fails this test, though not so thoroughly as might at first be thought. Thelema makes of itself a sounder revealed religion than most, because of the documentation of the reception of the Law and the existence of the original manuscript. But it is also close to natural religion in its social and moral application, owing both to its central philosophies, and to the practical consequences of the “Short Comment” to Liber Legis.

My final observation concerns the social origins of contemporary neo-paganism. These can be traced to

  • Wicca, of which Gerald Gardner established the germinal form, largely inspired by his initiation in the Thelemic OTO.
  • Various spiritual elements of the late 20th Century counterculture of “sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll,” as mapped out presciently in Crowley's paper “Energized Enthusiasm.”
  • Religious consequences of American feminism in the countercultural context.
  • Religious consequences of the environmental movement in the countercultural context.

From the perspective of a history of religions, Thelema is thus prior to neo-paganism, and the latter should be considered a development and speciation of the former, rather than the other way around, as many contemporary students of “alternative religions” presume.

I will therefore beg my readers to proceed…to the work itself, and leave…weary Aleister Crowley to his Pagan rapture.

–Aleister Crowley, Preface to The World's Tragedy (1910)

Love is the law, love under will.

Traditions Antecedent to New Aeon Gnosticism
Vigorous Food & Divine Madness

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