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Suffer to Learn: Pagan Knowing, Learning, and Openness to Experience

Updated on February 18, 2017
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Justin Aptaker graduated from the University of Tennessee with a major in psychology, and a minor in comparative religious studies.

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A Psychosocial Critique of Sabina Magliocco's Witching Culture

“I have no doubt.”

- Gus

Gus, once skeptical about the existence of divinity, describes his transformed outlook after directly experiencing a divine presence during a life-altering ecstatic experience, which served as his entry into Pagan identity (Witching Culture 156)

"Two systems . . . can be seen as integrating organic motivation and symbols: personality and society . . . If a system has managed to develop a broad and flexible capacity for rapid learning . . . its reaction to any given internal or external situation will be open to a wide variety of alternative choices."

- Robert Bellah (10 - 11)

Note that citations with only page numbers refer to Sabina Magliocco's book, Witching Culture (see Works Cited at the bottom).

Learning, Openness, and Magic

Gerald Gardner, who essentially started the Neo-Pagan movement, said, “Thou must suffer to learn” (171). While learning may indeed involve suffering, as stated in the Biblical maxim, “He that increases knowledge increases sorrow” (KJV, Eccles. 1:18), Gardner used the word “suffer” in an earlier sense, as in “to allow (oneself)” (171). We must allow ourselves to learn. Further, there are multiple kinds of learning. Howard Gardner's (not to be confused with Gerald Gardner, above) model of intelligence proposed multiple “intelligences”, including, for example, musical, naturalist/environmental, existential, bodily, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences (Pearson 267). Likewise, learning is not limited to rational “declarative” knowledge—ideas of what is rational may themselves be cultural constructs which differ in varying social environments (101 – 102)—but extends to bodily, affective, subconscious, and existential/spiritual modes of knowing, to name a few examples. What, however, is involved in suffering oneself to learn? I will use Costa & McCrae's ubiquitous Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality to contextualize such “suffering”. I believe that a willingness to learn in multiple modalities corresponds closely to the FFM's dimension of Openness to experience, which involves not only intellectual curiosity, but a tendency towards imagination, creativity, and reflection (Cervone & Pervin 262).

A willingness to learn pervades not only Neo-Paganism, but also the fields of anthropology and folkloristics, the early manifestations of which Magliocco sees as deeply interconnected with nascent Neo-Paganism (37 – 43). With methodologies clearly grounded in Enlightenment thought, some early anthropologists and folklorists sought to unearth what they feared Enlightenment thought was burying: an “authenticity of experience”, to be found in that which was Other to much of late modern Western society (5, 37). Of course, notions of the Other were largely constructed, and therefore tended to accommodate a wide range of differing biases or agendas (37 - 38). Each of these constructions, however, drew a link between colonized peoples, contemporary European folktales and folk customs, and the Greco-Roman or Germanic cultures that had given birth to Western civilization (37 - 39). The end result of this line of thought was the idea that contemporary folktales and folk customs preserved mythic content that predated the Christian era (39), as expressed in Edward Tylor's “doctrine of survivals” (41). Magliocco makes a compelling case that links this intellectual paradigm to the birth of the Neo-Pagan movement via the former's influence on a number of amateur folklorists/anthropologists whose thought was crucial to Neo-Paganism. For example, she cites a passage from Gerald Gardner which connects Witches' practices to “remnants of a Stone Age religion” (50). This clearly indicates Gardner's fondness for survivalist ideas (50). Ultimately, both Tylor's survivalism and Samuel Henry Hooke's “myth-ritual” school of thought (42) lent to the common practice among Pagans of creating rituals based on “reclaimed” (8) folklore (39 – 40, 142). Many Pagan rituals draw upon folktales for inspiration not only because they are seen as preserving mythic content, but also because “they carry a strong affective and aesthetic charge” (151). This affective and aesthetic component is one link Magliocco makes between ritual and art (149).

Altar to Hecate
Altar to Hecate | Source

The Importance of Ritual

Ritual is central for Neo-Pagans, constituting one of the elements that unites all Pagan traditions (126). Learning is at the core of Pagan rituals. Successful rituals are “educational tools” that teach simultaneously on an inner/emotional level and a cerebral level (146). Pagan ritual, however, is also form of art (145, 148 – 149), and all art, whether it be literature, film, painting, or poetry, requires a certain suspension of disbelief (151, 160). Only via such temporary calming of rational objections can any art, including ritual, “suck you in”, so to speak. Thereby, good ritual may absorb one in a mild dissociative state: Victor Turner's “liminal experience” (150) or Erving Goffman's “framed experience” (161). But suspension of disbelief is required, not only for the affective and existential learning provided by art/ritual, but also for rational, academic forms of learning. Academia is ultimately engaged in the creative act of constructing imperfect models and narratives. Thus, Magliocco paints a picture of ethnography as an act of creation and transformation: the “magic of ethnography” (17 – 18). This type of magic is also exemplified by the fact that Gardner used survivalist theories well after such ideas were out of fashion in academia (51). Academia constructs evocative visions and narratives which send ripples of transformation throughout the world, well after these visions have been discarded by the academic community (43 – 44). Surely we may call this the “magic of academics”.

A good ritual doesn't merely absorb its participants. It moves them (147). According to one Pagan, if you feel gooseflesh, “You know a ritual's good” (147). This again evokes Costa & McCrae's Openness personality construct, of which aesthetic chills—“emotional responses” (including “goosebumps”) “to music or other experiences of beauty”—are a “universal marker” (McCrae 2007, 5). Pagans disagree about what constitutes good ritual aesthetics (145). However, in order to achieve “aesthetic chills”, a ritual should at least be comprehensible and participatory (147), and should strike a balance between artistry/spontaneity and organization/coordination, being neither too rigid nor too chaotic (147, 148).

More indicative of a successful ritual than both liminal states and aesthetic chills, however, is personal transformation (146). At the heart of magic is transformation (111). This is another connection that Magliocco makes between ritual and art, which is also an act whereby one effects transformation in accord with will and imagination (149). The end result of both art and ritual should be that people think “anew about persons, objects, relationships, social roles . . . Previous patterns of thought, feeling and action are disrupted” (149). This statement points to the fact that transformation is also at the heart of any real learning. Costa & McCrae's Openness includes openness to new ideas, feelings, and values (Cervone & Pervin 267). Most illustrative of the connection between these themes is a ritual technique used by the Reclaiming tradition, one of the most influential Pagan traditions (78). Reclaiming Witches often work rituals for “essences” rather than “forms”, whereby they seek to understand the deeper motives and needs (essences) that drive their desires for some tangible result (form) (117). Working for essences functions as a process of self-examination, in line with the Greek dictum, “γνῶθι σεαυτόν” (“Know thyself”). This is learning at its finest. Reclaiming Witches see self-knowledge and self-transformation as prerequisite to critiquing or transforming social ills (117, 82). “One cannot work . . . to bring about . . . a cleaner environment, a more just society, and a more peaceful world if one believes that security, desirability, and personal worth are measured by social status or consumer products” (117). This is reminiscent of when G.K. Chesterton was asked what was wrong with the world. His famous purported reply was simply, “I am” (Web Page, “What's Wrong with the World?”).

Learning about oneself points to an interesting view, held by many Pagans, of Pagan identity as being somehow innate (57, 200). True, Pagans do construct a sense of identity and community through the adoption of new, sacred names (65 – 68); forms of “coded communication” such as clothing and consumption patterns (63 – 64); home décor (65); and shared humor which demarcates the Pagan community as a whole, as well as different Pagan traditions from one another (84 – 91). From one emic perspective, however, Pagan identity is something a person is born with (57). From this vantage point, one must go through a process of learning one's true, original identity in order to fully actualize it. Other statements made by those within the tradition, however, seem to describe Pagan identity as achieved, rather than innate. For example, “The process of becoming a Witch or Pagan involves training the imagination to perceive the links connecting the elements in the universe” (110). From this perspective, the learning process is less about discovering one's true, original Pagan identity as it is about learning to think in the highly symbolic and interconnected manner that characterizes Pagan thinking. Highlighting this view of Pagan identity as being achieved—which need not exclude the idea that it is also innate—is a particular Reclaiming ritual. The ritual is based on a folktale thought to contain “instructions for a transformative journey” for “becoming a healer, a shaman, an artist, a Witch: one who can walk between the worlds and retrieve lost souls, one who can restore balance and justice to a world made ill” (143). Thus, from certain rituals, Pagans learn how to perform their mediating roles in society.

Magliocco describes numerous Pagan rituals which serve a variety of functions. Some of these include rituals which draw upon Christian and anti-Witch charms, reclaiming these spells for Pagan purposes (120); a healing ritual that helps a woman with cancer feel supported by a caring network of friends (136 – 137); seasonal rites to honor both nature spirits and spirits of the dead (131, 133); and an animal sound a couple of lovers made to calm each other when stressed (130). As this last example indicates, “Anything can be a ritual” (130). This does not mean, however, that rituals lack any core commonality. The heart of ritual, and what ritual strives to attain, is religious ecstasy (153). Religious ecstasy is a nearly undeniable marker of a successful ritual (149). It is also the core that unites Neo-Paganism itself (152). While ecstasy is ordinary, “an expected part of religious experience . . . which everyone can achieve” (153), it is still somewhat rare, and does not occur at every ritual (149).

Dance is one of the most ancient means of entering ecstatic spiritual states.
Dance is one of the most ancient means of entering ecstatic spiritual states. | Source

The Pursuit of Ecstasy

Religious ecstasy “corresponds to a range of . . . altered or alternate states of consciousness” (160), which Pagans achieve with a variety of methods1. A few of these methods include singing/chanting, drumming, and dancing (170 – 171); guided meditation through storytelling (167); the use of costume and other aesthetic props (173); acting (174 – 175); ritual flagellation (171); and sexual rites in the context of a committed relationship (172). More risky methods for inducing altered states of consciousness (ASCs) are generally not favored within the Pagan community, and are therefore far less common. Some of these methods include the use of psychoactive substances (172), sexual rites performed promiscuously in a group setting (172), and the infliction of serious pain (171). While ASCs vary considerably in form and intensity, common features include some degree of change in one's perception of time, identity, and self-control (160 -161). They range from the mild dissociative absorption that might characterize, say, the act of writing this paper, to complete dissociative states involving a perceived loss of identity and self-control, as well as out-of -body experiences (161, 174). Basic types of ASCs include “pathworking”, which involves inward journeys via guided meditation (166), and “aspecting”, in which the subject embodies or is possessed by a god/goddess (172 – 177).

Ecstasy, it could be said, is the central and most treasured mode of learning for Pagans. After all, “embodied spiritual or imaginative experience is the core of Pagan identity” (200). Religious ecstasy is such an experience. While ecstatic behavior is socially learned, and thus its forms are partly determined by culture (164, 178)—they are also determined by the individual psyche (178), which is why only a convergence between cultural anthropology, sociology, neurology, and psychology can even begin to understand ecstatic states—ecstatic states themselves can act as catalysts “to a fundamental change in consciousness and values” (156). They “establish and reinforce belief” (156), often via a collaborative group process (168 – 169). Such changes, even if they occur only on the level of personality or value system, certainly constitute learning. William James referred to the “noetic quality” of religious ecstasies, saying that they are experienced as “states of knowledge . . . insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect” (James 300). In ecstatic states, one might acquire deep, personal knowledge of one's interconnectedness with nature and all things (158), or of the presence of divinity itself (156). Thus, as the first quote on the title page indicates, ecstasy often draws people to the Pagan movement (153), and may precipitate a conversion experience whereby one embraces Pagan identity (153, 156). Once more, the construct of Openness to experience is relevant.As the construct's name indicates, the personality quality involves a willingness to embrace a broad spectrum of experience. Embodied spiritual or imaginative experience is something that Pagans are universally open to. Thus, they suffer themselves to learn in ways that the dominant culture ignores or pathologizes (163 - 164).

Ford assembly line, 1913
Ford assembly line, 1913 | Source

Power and Pathology: The Economics of Ecstasy and Embodied Experience

There has been a tendency in Western culture since the Enlightenment to pathologize ways of knowing that go beyond reason (163). A suppression of ecstasy, I believe, even extends into our legal codes, with the criminalization of known entheogens such as psilocybin, cannabis, and peyote. I will later discuss power dynamics behind the pathologization of ecstasy, but first I want to consider ecstasy and pathology in light of some of the classical and contemporary psychological literature. William James, whose psychology was ever influenced by his pragmatism, believed that to evaluate “[ecstatic] states, we must not content ourselves with superficial medical talk, but inquire into their fruits for life” (James 324). By this criterion, let us consider some of the fruits of life-changing (157) ecstatic experiences for many Pagans: pro-social/altruistic behavior (159), courage (159), enrichment of intimate relationships (172), reconciliation and emotional closure (125), and a sense of personal wholeness (2 – 3). Surely, William James would agree with me that such “fruit” speaks for itself.

Let's return to Costa & McCrae's Openness personality factor. McCrae, referring to Carl Jung as the quintessential person with high Openness to experience (McCrae, 1994, 260), uses Openness to depathologize Jung's seemingly psychotic experiences, as recounted in Jung's autobiography, saying:

“He felt himself to have multiple identities, or to merge his own identity with his surroundings. Anyone who has read his works knows that his cognitive style is often tortuous, following a sweep of associations rather than a logical course of development. All of these features suggest a particular structure of consciousness, in which the rigid dichotomies between reality and fantasy, self and other, cause and effect are softened. In some individuals this may represent a form of psychosis; in others it is only the modus vivendi of an extremely open mind.” (McCrae, 1994, 260).

McCrae's description suggests that Openness involves the very cognitive qualities that could predispose someone to having ecstatic experiences. If Jung indeed epitomized such a “structure of consciousness”, it might help explain the general Neo-Pagan infatuation with Jungian thought.

It is their openness to and emphasis on embodied spiritual/imaginative experiences which, perhaps more than anything else, renders Pagans a people set apart. The dominant culture is still steeped in Enlightenment values, which locate the source of knowledge in rationality. With few exceptions—Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, mentioned earlier, is a striking exception—contemporary society worships at the altar of rational intelligence, as measured on IQ tests. “Alternate ways of knowing” (9, 201), as Marylin Motz calls them, are simply less than marketable in industrial or post-industrial economies. Aptly, Magliocco mentions Foucault's etiology of madness as a category in opposition to reason, which traces such discourse to the industrial revolution (163).

In an important sense, Pagan conceptions of knowledge resonate deeply with Foucault's seminal ideas concerning the relationship between knowledge and power. One of the principle laws of magic is that knowledge is power (103), and so to name something both invokes and empowers whatever it is you are naming (67). Thus, in discussing her own dual identity as Pagan and ethnographer, Magliocco points out that the very discourse on emic vs. etic perspectives essentializes these fixed categories, whereas real human identities cannot be so discreetly compartmentalized (15). Through the magic of naming, the intelligentsia behind the industrial revolution pathologized whatever ways of knowing which did not seem amenable to the emerging power dynamics of an industrial economy (163).

Horsehead Nebula
Horsehead Nebula | Source

Oppositional Identities, and the Re-enchantment of Chaos

In the context of such power/knowledge dynamics, religions function according to the definition given by Clifford Geertz, who said that “a religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions . . . with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Bellah 12). Pagans create an “oppositional culture” with a symbol system that opposes or inverts the values of the dominant symbol system (185). For example, in a society disenchanted by a mechanistic worldview, they reclaim (204) a vision of “the ordinary world, a world full of meaning and enchantment” (181).

Magliocco's description of one Pagan woman's personal life-transformation, which rendered her both bold and altruistic (159), illustrates this re-enchantment (204, 121) of the world which re-infuses all things with meaning. This personal transformation was precipitated by a moment in which the woman suddenly sensed an underlying oneness between herself and “the stop sign, and the building, and the computer in the window and [she] felt how everything is composed of the same element” (159). For some reason, this passage reminded me of the experience of the protagonist in Sartre's Nausea, as he sits on a park bench, pondering the roots of a chestnut tree, among other physical objects (Sartre 127 – 129). Sartre's protagonist also finds a fundamental unifying element for all existing things, namely “absurdity” (Sartre 129). For Sartre, all existence is united in its essential meaninglessness, and so humans are free to invent their own meanings for things. The Pagan belief in the unity of all things, however, depicts enchanted existence as united in meaningfulness (102, 121, 181), rather than in absurdity. Meaning is inherent in existence itself, as humans do not invent this meaning, but must learn to “perceive” (121) or “discern” (102) it (emphases added). While humans do act as co-creators of meaning, the living universe would not be devoid of meaning were it to lack the presence of humans.

Pagan oppositional culture is in many ways actively and willfully constructed (202). For example, in a dominant culture that associates words like “Witch” with evil, certain Pagans willfully reclaim such terms “as emblems of identity” (185). On the other hand, while Pagan discourse actively opposes a culture of commodification and estrangement which exploits human and natural resources (202), I believe that we must again turn to individual personalities to complete the picture. For instance, while many Pagans are well-educated, they tend to choose careers in which they will be satisfied creatively or interpersonally over careers with high earning potentials (187). While this is partly why Pagans are the “inverse of the larger population” (187), we cannot assume that most Pagans choose such careers as a willful act of defiance against a dominant culture of commodification which values personal marketability over personal fulfillment. Such career choices must emanate largely from predisposing personality tendencies. In this sense, Pagan oppositional culture can be seen as partly a natural outgrowth of who Pagan individuals are, rather than as entirely a collective and purposeful symbolic construction. Likewise, while Pagans do purposefully and collectively construct a shared system of symbols and values (culture) which resists a dominant “anti-imagination discourse [which] relegates the numinous to a state of unreality” (201), within the context of individual personalities, people with active and vivid imaginations naturally live in contrast to the dominant discourse of anti-imagination. Their subdominant status is, in this regard, ascribed, not achieved.

There is evidence that infant attachment patterns significantly predict childhood Openness to experience (Hagekull & Bohlin 10). Moreover, longitudinal studies have demonstrated great stability across the life-span in personality traits such as Openness (Cervone & Pervin 273 – 274). This is certainly not to say that personality change does not occur at all. It simply means that personality is more stable across the lifespan than it is fluid. The trait of Openness to experience involves openness to fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, new ideas, and new values (Cervone & Pervin 267). It characterizes people who are imaginative, creative, curious, and reflective (Cervone & Pervin 262). All of these facts combined seem to give some credence to the Pagan conception of Pagan identity as being somehow innate. Rather, we might say that a personality factor which strongly correlates with core components of Pagan identity may very well begin to develop in infancy, and remain largely stable across the lifespan. Notably, Magliocco says that many adult Pagans were “bookish children” (200); one identified component of the Openness construct is “bookishness” (McCrae, 1994, 259). There is a need for additional research to correlate adult Openness with self-disclosed Pagan identity. In this model, social factors would act as crucial moderating variables, such that high Openness might contribute to Pagan identity formation only in the context of particular social environments or events.

Finally, Pagan oppositional culture resists the dominant discourse that marginalizes their most central and sacred means of learning and knowing. Pagans resist the discourse that disregards as “irrational or irrelevant” (197) the kinds of embodied spiritual experiences that form the core of their identity. Again, while this certainly does take the form of active resistance and reclaiming, in another sense, this opposition emerges organically out of the ways Pagans learn and know, often from childhood (57). Pagans are privy to a source of knowledge that automatically sets them apart. As their song “The Heretic Heart” says, “My skin, my bones, my heretic heart are my authority” (198). The song encapsulates both the organic and the constructed components of Pagan identity. The word “heart” suggests something natural, personal, and innate. In relying on embodied experience as a primary source of knowing, many Pagan individuals may simply be living in the way that feels most natural to them. This automaticallymakes them “heretics” within the dominant Christian culture; the Protestant reformation established a hegemony of intellectual approaches to divinity, condemning embodied spiritual experiences (163). The constructed aspect of this identity, however, is also evident throughout “The Heretic Heart”, which willfully defies the dominant symbol system by inverting Christian themes.

Holy! Holy! Holy!

With the dawn of the Enlightenment came Descartes's particularly elaborate tincture of mind/body dualism, and much Christian teaching further categorized the body as profane. Kant's ethics elevated reason by making it the sole source of all moral laws, categorically ruling out experience (Kant, Preface). This admixture led to the prevalent notion that the body must be subdued via some degree of ascetic restraint, so that the mind/soul, the seat of pure reason, may reign supreme. “The Heretic Heart” opposes this formulation, saying “My body shall not be subdued, my soul shall not be saved” (198). The body, the source of Pagans' transformative ecstatic experiences, is sacralized, rather than rejected. Pagans suffer themselves to learn from all things, as all things, including the body, are seen as divine. Allen Ginsberg, not a Pagan himself, perfectly captured the enchanted, pantheistic Pagan view of the universe in his poem “Howl”, the utterly haunting “Footnote” of which begins as follows:

“Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!

Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity!

Everyman's an angel! The bum's as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy

as you my soul are holy!” (Howl, Film, Online Excerpt)

Light pillars over Laramie Wyoming on a winter night
Light pillars over Laramie Wyoming on a winter night | Source

Notes and Works Cited


1. Since religious ecstasy is comprised of a range of altered states of consciousness (ASCs), I will use the terms “ecstasy” and “ASCs” more or less interchangeably throughout this paper. It is important to note, however, that while religious ecstasy always involves some kind of altered consciousness, not all ASCs are religious in nature or intent. For example, recreational drug use may lead to ASCs that merely facilitate enhanced social interaction.

Works Cited

Bellah, Robert N. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World. San Francisco:

Harper & Row, n.d. Scanned excerpts.

Cervone, Daniel, and Lawrence A. Pervin. Personality: Theory and Research. Hoboken: John Wiley &

Sons, Inc., 2010. Print.

Hagekull, Berit and Gunilla Bohlin. “Early temperament and attachment as predictors of the Five

Factor Model of personality." Attachment & Human Development 5.1 (2003): 2 – 18. PDF file.

Howl. Dir. Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman. Perf. James Franco. Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010.

DVD. Cited excerpt of film can be viewed at <>

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company,

1961. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. Originally published 1785.

Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Kindle file. Public domain, accessed at


Magliocco, Sabina. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Print.

McCrae, Robert. "Openness to Experience: expanding the boundaries of Factor V." European Journal

of Personality 8 (1994): 251-272. PDF file.

McCrae, Robert. "Aesthetic Chills as a Universal Marker of Openness to Experience." Motivation and

Emotion 31.1 (2007): 5 – 11. PDF file.

Pearson, Mark. "Multiple intelligences and the therapeutic alliance: Incorporating multiple

intelligence theory and practice into counselling." European Journal of Psychotherapy &

Counselling 13.3 (2011): 263-278. PDF file.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2007.

Electronic Book.

"What's Wrong With The World?" The American Chesterton Society Research Services, n.d. Web. Acessed 01/24/2013 at <>

© 2013 Justin Aptaker


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