There is often an assumption from outside observers that Neopagans are nothing but hedonistic freaks, willing to indulge any desire or participate in any depravity they wish. We are often portrayed as crazy or even criminal. One of the first questions I’m asked when I tell people I’m Pagan (as opposed to saying “heathen” or “animist”, to which people say, “Huh?”) is, “Do you sacrifice animals?” Sometimes they’ll even follow up with, “You don’t sacrifice people, do you?” I deal with some real winners in life, let me tell you.
The fact is, while Pagans tend to be a little more lax when it comes to bedroom etiquette, this doesn’t make us necessarily hedonistic or immoral. No, we do not sacrifice people, and most of us do not sacrifice animals. There are groups that do, but they do so cleanly and respectfully (we’ll touch on this in a later post). In general, we Pagans are much like those of other religions: we go to work, work hard, come home, tend to families and friends, go to worship services (like others go to church or temple), and simply live. Our values are somewhat different, but as we are recreating our religions in modern society, our religions include values that are quite compatible with that society.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Pagan values and more mainstream ones is that many in our community tend to emphasize virtue rather than discouraging vice. That which one should not do is often seen as something relegated to society, to government or to its laws, and we focus instead on what we should do, what is right to do. This is a view we certainly have worked hard to cultivate in Neopagan Animism.
Why do we approach our values this way? In the myths, the Gods and heroes are powerful, skillful, and wise, but even they will do something wrong or distasteful once in a while. Sigurd and his sister bear a child together. Odin lies, cheats, and steals to get the Mead of Inspiration, Oðrørir. Thor kills the giant that brought him out fishing because he cuts Thor’s fishing line (which, by the way, had Jormungandr the world serpent on the other end!), thus saving the boat. That’s just the Norse. In Celtic myth, Dian Cecht kills his own son for being a better physician. Lugh refuses to show his mercy in punishing three murderers, letting them die after they complete each and every task he set forth. Cu Chulainn kills his own son for the glory of Ulster. In Greek and Roman myths… never mind. I’m not touching that soap opera with a ten foot pole. And these are the best and brightest of us. In short, we know that no one is perfect, and so I like to think we strive for perfection rather than worrying over much about not achieving it.
Neopaganism is also rife with people who have seen the way society does things and envision a better way. We don’t tend to see the moral issues as black and white. We idealize the stance of looking at each situation and judging it on its own merits. Perhaps we do not reach this lofty ideal nearly as much as we should, especially when we are far removed from the situation. We are after all products of this society. However, an ideal it remains, for we see the instances where strict application of a law has hurt members of our community more than once, especially during the so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980’s. If only we did not take the news at face value these days, as well – more and more, we simply distance our faith and values from those who are accused of a crime, rather than judging whether or not they might be innocent of the accusation. You’re probably sick of hearing me saying this, but we’ll get to that in a later post on ethics and morality.
For now, I want to bring up some of the virtues that Pagans of various stripes follow, which may or may not be adopted by a given Neopagan Animist. First, we’ll investigate one of the most well-known of Pagan virtues, the Wiccan Rede.
There are 22 stanzas in the Wiccan Rede, but most Wiccans seem hard-pressed to recite more than the last line. It’s a beautiful poem, containing a lot of lore of the religion. However, the last line, “These eight words the Rede fulfill, an harm ye none do what ye will,” has been quoted, misquoted, requoted, misrepresented, interpreted, and reinterpreted time after time. It is a very important line, I will grant you. There is something to be said for not bringing harm to others, and that is a noble goal. Not all Wiccans follow this rule, however, and many Reconstructionists would cite several problems with the stricture. Certainly, it has been a bone of contention between military and non-military Wiccans in the past. Some say that defending oneself (even to the death) is not harm, while others take a much more pacifist approach, and say that any violence is harm. Taking a job out of another worthy opponent’s hands through magick is not generally seen to be harm, but is it? Perhaps that other person needed the job more, or would starve without it. Like most Pagan virtues, the Wiccan Rede has quite a bit of wiggle room, and interpretation and use is often left to the adherent. Even so, those who have displayed this virtue have won a bit of recognition and even fame in the Pagan community.
For your perusal, I provide the full Rede here below. In the Rede, one can see the virtue of *ghosti which was discussed previously, as well as several others which we will be discussing later. Pay special attention to lines 2, 5, 6, 27-35, 39, and 43 if you are interested in seeing this virtue echoed elsewhere.
The Wiccan Rede (Full Version, true author unknown, often attributed to Doreen Valiente)
Bide within the Law you must, in perfect Love and perfect Trust.
Live you must and let to live, fairly take and fairly give.
For tread the Circle thrice about to keep unwelcome spirits out.
To bind the spell well every time, let the spell be said in rhyme.
5 Light of eye and soft of touch, speak you little, listen much.
Honor the Old Ones in deed and name, let love and light be our guides again.
Deosil go by the waxing moon, chanting out the joyful tune.
Widdershins go when the moon doth wane, and the werewolf howls by the dread wolfsbane.
When the Lady’s moon is new, kiss the hand to Her times two.
10 When the moon rides at Her peak then your heart’s desire seek.
Heed the North winds mighty gale, lock the door and trim the sail.
When the Wind blows from the East, expect the new and set the feast.
When the wind comes from the South, love will kiss you on the mouth.
When the wind whispers from the West, all hearts will find peace and rest.
15 Nine woods in the Cauldron go, burn them fast and burn them slow.
Birch in the fire goes to represent what the Lady knows.
Oak in the forest towers with might, in the fire it brings the God’s insight.
Rowan is a tree of power causing life and magick to flower.
Willows at the waterside stand ready to help us to the Summerland.
20 Hawthorn is burned to purify and to draw faerie to your eye.
Hazel-the tree of wisdom and learning adds its strength to the bright fire burning.
White are the flowers of Apple tree that brings us fruits of fertility.
Grapes grow upon the vine giving us both joy and wine.
Fir does mark the evergreen to represent immortality seen.
25 Elder is the Lady’s tree burn it not or cursed you’ll be.
Four times the Major Sabbats mark in the light and in the dark.
As the old year starts to wane the new begins, it’s now Samhain.
When the time for Imbolc shows watch for flowers through the snows.
When the wheel begins to turn soon the Beltane fires will burn.
30 As the wheel turns to Lamas night power is brought to magick rite.
Four times the Minor Sabbats fall use the Sun to mark them all.
When the wheel has turned to Yule light the log the Horned One rules.
In the spring, when night equals day time for Ostara to come our way.
When the Sun has reached it’s height time for Oak and Holly to fight.
35 Harvesting comes to one and all when the Autumn Equinox does fall.
Heed the flower, bush, and tree by the Lady blessed you’ll be.
Where the rippling waters go cast a stone, the truth you’ll know.
When you have and hold a need, harken not to others greed.
With a fool no season spend or be counted as his friend.
40 Merry Meet and Merry Part bright the cheeks and warm the heart.
Mind the Three-fold Laws you should three times bad and three times good.
When misfortune is enow wear the star upon your brow.
Be true in love this you must do unless your love is false to you.
These Eight words the Rede fulfill: “An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will”