The Path of Paganism by John Beckett

The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice
John Beckett
Llewellyn Publications, 2012

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Review by Rebecca Buchanan.

John Beckett is a well-known writer and speaker, and a member of the OBOD, CUUPS, and the ADF. In The Path of Paganism, he offers practical, heart-felt, hard-earned advice on how to be Pagan in the world. Not just offer lip service to the idea of Paganism, but how to actively honor the Gods, live their virtues, and find our true purpose.

Beckett divides the book into four sections: Building a Foundation (the origins and purpose of religion, the different types of Paganism, the place of nature in Paganism, the nature of the Gods, and so on); Putting It Into Practice (the importance of prayer and meditation, piety, how to build an altar, ethics, and so on); Intermediate Practice (individual and group practice, sample rituals and circles, initiation, and so on); and Living at the Edge (the importance of continuing to learn and experience and grow our Paganism, whatever tradition it may be). Most chapters end with questions for contemplation or suggested rituals.

Following his proposal that life, experience, and learning are helical or cyclical, not linear, each section builds on the last, returning to previous discussions and ideas with new insights and information and suggestions. For example, in the beginning Beckett discusses growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church; the seeds of doubt planted in his childhood continued to plague him until he really began to take his Paganism seriously; when he finally answered the calls of Cernunnos and Danu and the Morrigan (or maybe, began to hear the calls for what they were is more accurate), everything fell into place and he came to understand why he was here and what he was meant to do.

It has been a long time since I underlined anything in a book. I underlined a lot in The Path of Paganism. The pages are filled with both practical advice and real wisdom. I found myself pausing more than once to wonder how this or that line could apply to my own life, or how would I react in this situation, or gee, I should really try to incorporate this into my practice because it sounds useful! Beckett is a Druid and he does honor the Celtic pantheon; if you’re not, don’t let that scare you away. Much of what he discusses — how to answer the call of the Gods, how to live faithfully in troubled times, how to care for the world and the people around us — can be applied across any tradition.

One element that I found particularly compelling was Beckett’s emphasis on science. More than once, he notes that “bad science makes bad religion.” This, in turn, ties into the over-emphasis we place on literal truth and scientific validation. “When we misuse and misunderstand science we are doing exactly the same thing Christian fundamentalists do when they insist the Bible is inerrant [….] The foundation of their proof has crumbled, and they are forced to deny established facts to pretend otherwise. [….] Science has become the arbiter of truth in our materialistic society and we want science to bless our religion. At the root of this desire is the idea that the only truth worth having is the kind of truth science can validate, that the only knowledge is literal, material knowledge. This is why fundamentalists insist the Bible is literally true — if it’s not literally true, they think it’s worthless. They ignore the value of mythical and mystical truth.” (pp. 32-33) For Beckett — a Druid, an engineer, and an environmentalist — science and religion are the twin branches of a helix, twining together to create a life of virtue and knowledge, a life worth living.

Highly recommended to both those new to Paganism and those already far along their chosen path, especially when read in conjunction with Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up by Lupa, The Earth, The Gods, and the Soul by Brendan Myers, The Earth Path by Starhawk, and A World Full of Gods by John Michael Greer.

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Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes

Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes
Edited by Wendy Griffin
ADF Publishing, 2014

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Review by Sharon Paice MacLeod.

This lovely little volume is an exciting and unique addition to the corpus of writing on NeoPagan Spirituality! It represents a selection of papers presented at Cherry Hill Seminary’s first Symposium, held in conjunction with the University of South Carolina following an earlier Pagan Studies Conference in Claremont, California. It contains a Preface by Holli S. Emore, the Executive Director of Cherry Hill, and an Introduction by “NeoPaganism’s favorite academic,” Ronald Hutton. The conference was held in 2013 and was entitled, “Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes: The Cosmography of the Pagan Soul.”

The book contains six academic articles on the role of landscape in various aspects of NeoPagan belief and practice. The papers are each quite different from each other, and all are extremely interesting. Most of the presenters are Pagans and also academics, a trend that I (as another Pagan academic) am heartened to see.

Having Pagan Academics present and publish their work is an important step in having our religions taken seriously by those outside the movement. It also serves to show that we are smart, serious, and we know what we’re doing.

The first essay by Wendy Griffin discusses the role of land, community on the land, and landscape in the Feminist aspects of Paganism and Goddess worship. Sara Amis presents a charming essay on being a Southern Witch, adroitly presenting information about Southern folk magic and its relationship to Pagan magic.

Christina Beard-Moose presents some findings on her research on Pagan pilgrimage and moments of ecstatic connection, and Hayes Hampton writes about connections between Pagan rock and perceptions of the land and countryside. Elinor Predota shares some of her research on young Glaswegians’ response to urban parks and forest, followed by Jeffrey Albaugh’s essay on “Internal Dialogue with the Wild.”

Rather than providing a Pagan’s Digest Condensed Version of each paper, I strongly suggest you get a copy for yourself. By so doing, you will be supporting a Pagan Press and giving a boost to those who are not only swimming against the tide in terms of their religious beliefs, but also breaking new ground in academia. You’ll be glad you did.

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Dancing with Nemetona by Joanna van der Hoeven

Dancing with Nemetona: A Druid’s Exploration of Sanctuary and Sacred Space
Joanna van der Hoeven
Moon Books, 2014
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Review by Jennifer Lawrence.

When I first began reading this book, I was wholly unfamiliar with the goddess Nemetona. I knew the word nemeton, of course; as a member of several druid organizations, it would be difficult to remain unaware of the idea of a sacred grove. As it turns out, it isn’t odd that I was unfamiliar with Nemetona, because very little is known of her with any sort of historical accuracy. A few place-names, a few inscriptions: all that’s left to tell us about a goddess whose worship apparently once stretched from Germany to Spain to Britain. Greece, Gaul, Ireland, Wales; these places paid reverence to her, but today she has all but vanished from history, and the author tells what little is known of her within a page and a half of introduction.

The first chapter talks about one’s personal “nemeton,” which, rather than being a term for the sacred space outside of one’s body, appears to be the author’s way of discussing a person’s aura — that veil of energy which wraps around and through the physical body, changes color and shape with health and mood, and can be impinged upon by others both positively and negatively.

As the book moves into further chapters, it takes time exploring Nemetona’s titles and purviews: the Lady of Edges and Boundaries, of Hearth and Home, of the Sacred Grove, of Sanctuary, of Ritual, and finally, of Everything and Nothing. Of all these, only the final chapter seems to be a stretch: while the last title might be valid in a modern interpretation of Nemetona’s strengths (which, of course, this is), I suspect that the original peoples that venerated the goddess might have found room to argue the point. If nothing else, “everything and nothing” smacks of a monotheistic deity that rules all, and given how many modern Pagans came to Paganism after leaving such monotheistic religions, they might not want much to do with a deity that claims some of the same qualities as the god they left behind. However, the rest of the material leading up to that chapter is excellent, both well-written and well-presented, although I might have wished that the book as a whole was longer.

It was a bit of a surprise to see how much of the material in this book was originally found by the author within the ideology of Zen Buddhism. This is less odd in today’s mix-and-match Paganism than one might suspect. The Zen material woven into the book actually supports the ideas on Nemetona well enough to not be objectionable.

There is so much good material that works well in this book that the above-mentioned issues are of very small import. Not only are the exercises simple to do and effective, the greatest mass of the written material reads like poetry, full of elegant and beautiful imagery that flows like clean water. When the author describes the shadowed, quiet peace of the forest, the sweet smell of earth after the rain, the songs of the trees and the sunshine, the reader is vividly and instantly able to see that forest, smell the wet earth, and hear those songs. That ability to paint a vivid picture is one of the marks of a really talented writer. This is especially so in any book on material of a spiritual nature, where the reader must be lifted — or even torn — away from the dull reality of mundane life. That Van Der Hoeven has succeeded so well at this minimizes anything I might find fault with otherwise.

This was a beautifully-done book with some excellent exercises and enough material to give an individual the tools to begin a relationship with this obscure but important goddess and the things she rules over.

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