‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.
‘And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across that lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.
‘And see not ye that bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.
— Thomas Rhymer: Child Ballad 37C, 11–13
Paganism is famously a nature religion, but what does this actually mean?
** N.B. interruptions in my connection to the internet have prevented me from supplying my usual links and images. I will add these in with any needed corrections as soon as possible but did not want my technical issues to interrupt my usual posting time.
The picture of primitive religion painted by James Frazer’s Golden Bough is of a murderously competitive myth informing social order. In other words, the succession of seasons tells a story in which the summer king is killed by his brother-son at the turning of the year. This is the understanding of paganism that defines modern Wicca and its brethren. It is the Wicker Man view of paganism that prevailed during the sixties and seventies and gave rise to Robert Graves’ (in)famous book The White Goddess.
Alternatively there is the view of paganism based on Gaia theory and Jungian psychology. This sees human society as developing self-regulatory systems tied to evolutionary growth, and religion stands as one of these regulatory systems with gods and goddesses being manifestations of our uniquely human consciousness in the context of our social bond. There is even one view of religion that conceives deity as a direct manifestation of the social bond.
Most English-Speaking people’s concept of ‘nature religion’ is informed by the romantic view of nature as an irrational state of instinctive inspiration. This is the paganism of Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Butler Yeats as popularized in the music of Loreena McKennit, Omnia, Faun, etc. This is the paganism of King Arthur, The Lady of Shallot, the New Age, Brian Froud, and many Tarot decks. It presumes that nature is something beyond reason and the agency of human thought; you must be it rather than think it.
Of course the opposite of this instinctive, romantic approach is the authoritarian’s approach. This seeks to establish authoritative methods or texts which can serve paganism in the same way that sacred scripture serves the religions of the book. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to see that this approach adopted in various ways by those attempting to define themselves as adhering to a specific tradition strays from the reality of being a ‘nature religion.’ After all, a nature religion is one that is based on nature.
To base one’s religion on nature however is more involved than may be first apparent. It’s not enough to meditate on cool forests and babbling mountain brooks, to feel the hot intensity of the desert as the foundation for your own soul or swiftness of lightening as the quickness of your own thought. It’s not as easy as the Christian hymn suggests when it attempts to put in our mouths the words:
I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.
To presume that thinking about an idealized nature is the same as being in tune with nature leads us to the conclusion that ‘liking’ an article on Facebook is the same as supporting a political cause. To follow a nature-based religion is to focus on What Is beyond our perceptions and preconceptions. It insists that we are defined by our place and actions even as we can alter our place and actions through non-linear and analogical (a.k.a. magical) means.
As with everything, there are pros and cons to this.
On the one hand, you can always know where you stand, while on the other you can always change it. If you’ve done bad things then you are in fact a bad person. If you’ve done good things, then you are in fact a good person. Of course, defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a whole different kettle of semi-rotten fish. Let’s put this in cultural terms for the sake of clarity. If you speak a Celtic language, dress like a Celt, and tell Celtic stories, then you can say you are a Celt. If you live close to the land and can communicate with animals, then you are in fact a nature-child. That does not include commuting to work or watching reality television. To follow a nature religion must put us in religious relationship with the natural world.
Now I could go on devising what this religious relationship with the natural world means in a practical way through intellectual exercises, but I don’t have to. We have some really good indications of what this looks like from every traditionally pagan religion in the world. In every case we see stories relating individual tribes to the landmarks of their local region through the agency of gods and goddesses. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a story about Coyote among the Cheyenne, or a giant pig among the Irish, every story always relates back to the immediate landscape of the people telling it. It binds a people to their landscape in the same way that divine ancestry binds a people to their god through a forebear who is half-god.
In North America it is easy as pagans following a European tradition to look at the ruins of pagan literature as occupying a place apart from our modern landscape just as modern Christians see Jerusalem as a symbol of God’s City and not the vexed metropolis it is today. It’s just all so abstract and symbolic, but this perspective is very un-pagan.
Our gods and goddesses are in our bodies, our minds, our communities and our gardens. Aphrodite is in sex just as Ares is in the boxing ring with the combatants. Zeus is in every successful socio-political leader just as Hermes is in every market. At least the effects of their divine numen is in each of these places if not themselves in an essential way. Now, I’m speaking specifically in terms of Greco-Roman tradition so that what I am saying is coherent, but the principle extends through any tradition.
On the note of tradition, it’s important to note that we must not allow ourselves to be too closely bound by our understanding of a given tradition. The paragraph above limits itself to one tradition as a mental exercise, but in the context of our every-day lives we cannot afford to blind ourselves to What Is out of some imagined loyalty to one given tradition. Our loyalty must be to our people and our gods first and foremost whatever they reveal themselves to be. Sometimes it seems like people adhere to a tradition because it gives them a sense of certainty, buy What Is is so completely There that you can rely on it to be itself. In other words, don’t worry if things seem contradictory or weird. They don’t have to make sense in an intellectual way so long as they make sense in a deep, emotional way.
Ultimately all those different understandings of nature religion are accurate in their own ways depending on how you look at it. It’s like the blind men and the elephant — a true parable of paganism if ever there was one. The important thing is that we not only find that sense of belonging that lets us know we have found our place and our people but also follow it no matter what and let it inform our lives. This is home wherever it may be physically or spiritually. In one way this is freeing in that this feeling may lead us in any given direction and provide a sense of real selfhood, but in another it is ruthlessly tyrannical because it means that what we are individually is beyond our own self-determining. It places on us an enormous onus to perceive ourselves, our desires and our realities with absolute clarity and honesty — to know ourselves as the Oracle at Delphi admonished — lest we make terrible mistakes that cannot be overcome, but once we have that clarity we begin to see the gods all around us in histories, in our lives, and in the landscape in which we live.