Ritual, Magick & How Pagans will Save the World

by Sam Webster, M.Div ©2004


We live in an unsustainable culture which values consumption and acquisition above all else. Yet, Pagans are a cultural force unpredicted and generally unnoticed that stands against the loss of our world. Wielders of Ritual and Magick, we have the means to change the human world and bring it back in harmony with the rest of the Cosmos. Will we rise to the challenge?"



Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today, I am deeply honored that you would be interested in my idiosyncratic ramblings on the place of ritual and Pagans in contemporary society.

Hands up:

Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, etc.. . .

I have entitled my talk “Ritual, Magick & How Pagans will Save the World.”

As a ritualist, I admit my view may be myopic. It’s the hammer I’ve got so perhaps everything looks like a nail. But I don’t think the solutions and perspectives I will propose today have been tried in a long time so I think they are worth putting on the table.

Magick is a long discredited perspective too. But, in an era of dehumanized technology, the more integral approach used by the grandmother of science, namely Magick, may be a helpful corrective and one of the few bits of leverage we’ve got. Or it could just be the last hope of the desperate.

But then we have reason to be desperate, or at least deeply concerned. We live in an unsustainable culture which values consumption and acquisition above all else.

Yet, Pagans are a cultural force unpredicted and generally unnoticed that stands against the loss of our world. We are wielders of Ritual and Magick. As such I warrant that we have the means to change the human world and bring it back into harmony with the rest of the Cosmos.

The question is, will we rise to the challenge?


The Problem Situation

Let’s begin by looking at the problem we are in.

We, the inheritors of Western Civilization, are members of the only non-ritualizing culture in the world. (If you can find me another let me know, but I haven’t found one [China]).

Starting with Martin Luther’s Hammer blow on October 31st, 1517 (yes, Samhain, go figure), the West began a project of de-ritualizing itself. The Roman Catholic context in which it was operating was at best stale and at worst corrupt.

We all know the story of the sale of indulgences but we can also point to the alienation of the common folk from the rituals of the Church, being in Latin and, some might argue, being of a transcendentalist theology that had little relation to the lives of the people. Superstition, the performance of ritual activities without cognizance of their meaning, had set in.

[Hocus Pocus: Hoc est enim corpus meum/for this is my body.]

In this cultural revolution (and subsequent counter-revolution), we lost the baby with the bath water. Ritual, at first in part but later with more vigor was denounced as vain and ‘Papist’(we can’t have that) and systematically removed from worship. The altar was moved aside for the pulpit and was replaced with a highly attenuated form of ritual, the sermon.

The Word replaced the Deed. [Cf. Goethe’s Faust]

In Catholic countries ritual was degraded by the application of orthodoxy. The very soul of ritual was ripped out by defining the meaning of every act and reducing living symbols to dead signs.

Don’t get me wrong, the Catholic world is quite polyphones and so there was and is today a broad range of application. For instance the pageants, pilgrimages and festivals in Latin Countries in the Old and New Worlds and in some parts of Eastern Europe are fairly vibrant. But, on the whole, and particularly in the Northern and Anglo lands, we ended up with a rejection of ritual amongst the Protestants and an ossified ritual system among the Catholics. This did not bode well for the West but it would take some time for the damage become noticeable.

One core function of ritual is to embody and transmit the values of a culture. When examined systematically, the values promulgated from the pulpit are pretty good and summarizable in Jesus’ best word, ‘Love thy neighbor as thy self.’ Not bad. One problem: the medium is not up to the message. Nearly 500 years of Protestant preaching has had little positive effect on human behavior. It is a commonplace that we are told to ‘be good’ on Sunday, but we go right back to same old bad behaviors on Monday.

Preachers pull their hair out over this but my argument is that they are misapplying their effort. Word alone is not enough.

The Catholics have an additional problem. They can’t fill their seminaries. Soon there will not be enough priests to serve the otherwise slowly emptying churches. (With celibacy and a male-only priesthood it just doesn’t have the draw it did.) If they were filling the needs of the people they would not be having this problem. (I wonder if we could have their churches? Now wouldn’t that be an interesting turn around of history?)

Beside transmitting values, ritual has another core function: transformation. It helps us leave old out-moded states and enter the new ones into which we’ve grown. These are things like leaving the ‘single’ state and getting married, entering religious orders, return from combat back into society, leaving childhood and becoming an adult.

You all remember your adulthood rites, don’t you? When everyone in your community supported you as you left behind your childhood ways and you took your place as an adult with all of the rights and privileges thereof? No?

Of course not. This is what we lost when we lost ritual in our culture. Yes, we do still honor those getting married. Yes, we acknowledge those few who enter religious service. But the lack of reintegration rituals left many Vietnam veterans trapped in their trauma and discarded. And, there is many a young man who will die this summer attempting to drive their way out of childhood only to be stopped dead by a tree. (The situation is just more acute for the males, SOMETHING about the women).

The west also has the highest incidence of long term mental illness. Some have suggested that this is caused by the lack of transformative ritual. The only way our culture has to help a person work through a subjective or interpersonal maladaptation is through the psychotherapist’s couch. And here we are, back to talk again.

So where does this leave us? In a culture that can not transmit its best values to the next generation except by talking at them and without support to enable its members to negotiate the transformations required of us by life.

But it is not like ritual can be ignored. For tens of thousands of years humans conveyed value and meaning across time through ritual. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese cultural histories are measured in the thousands of years. They had a stability and often a quality of life we can scarcely claim.

Nor is ritual a wholly human prerogative. Many birds and mammals, never mind the primates, engage in ‘non-productive’ activities as vital acts of communication that result in successful defense, status maintenance or change, or mating.

So, human's ritualize. It's in our blood, and if this was a didactic lesson, I would show you my theory that that capacity and root is ontological, but not today.

Since ritualizing can't be stopped, where did it go in our culture?

From the ritualizing impulse arose the secular arts, especially theater. Ritual is its direct ancestor via the rites of Dionysus. Music, dance and the performative arts, never mind the plastic arts, evolved independently of the sacred and ritual contexts in which they first came into being. In other cultures most art is related to the sacred and incorporated in worship and ritual. In Medieval European society things were much the same way, thus we have, for instance, Chauser decrying his ‘vulgar’ stories late in life.

But art for art’s sake developed with a particular vigor in the West due to this separation from the sacred and ritual. It is probably why we have the marvelous music and other arts we enjoy as entertainment today.

Sports are not dissimilar. Classically games had a sacred and  ritualistic context, the most famous of course being the Olympics, but this shows up in many cultures.

But in the modern age all these became commodified. Music, dance and all of the performative arts are now products to be sold. TV and media like CDs, DVDs, etc., in general permit the packaging of performance and sport into hour-long segments or disks or whatnot which can be easily sold.

Art is for sale. Sport is for sale. It took a while but today in our culture the value of anything (and any one) is how much money is it worth...

This discussion leads into a vast array of ethical and political issues in and of itself. But our focus today is on ritual.

The problem with all of this is that the energy, the effort, the creativity, that would have gone into ritual goes into these commodities instead. That which should have be used to convey good values or transform society and its members is unavailable in the dominant culture on this planet.

Instead that creativity and energy is poured into the next sit-com, the next pop tune, the next advertising campaign and whatever values they espouse that is what is being inculcated into our lives and whatever transformation they happen to cause, they do. They do this without any thought to the direction of the transformation. Without any thought to the values the recipients will then live from and the consequences thereof.


Why should you care?

First off, because we are on board a train that is heading for a cliff and the bridge is out. Worse still, everybody, and I mean everybody, is on the train.

We live in an unsustainable culture. That means the time to remain in this condition is finite and ever decreasing. The good in this is that things will change, the bad is that if changes happens through catastrophe, it won’t be gentle on any of us. And since our culture is the dominant culture of this planet, when we go we will bring a lot of others down with us. Like the Police song puts it: “we can all sink or we all float, cause were all in the same big boat.”

And just to make sure you are paying attention, you must understand that this burden is principally yours. I’m likely to be dead before it gets too bad. You, however, will be around to deal with the consequences.

For instance at the current rate of consumption Oil will be gone by 2040, We use about 30% of the drinkable water on this world today. By 2025 we’ll be using 70% (it won’t be cheep),

If we keep paving farmland in the US like we have been by 2050 we’ll have lost another 15% or 55 million acres (of the 375 now available), even though the population will have grown by 40%. So you see, this is the problem or debt the parents of my generation have handed to us, and the bill will come due in your lifetime. Sorry.

We should note that the problem is not with production or technology. We have now the capability of providing food, clothing, shelter, fiber, medical care, and education for everyone living on this planet. And we have the ability to deliver the same to those who need it. Can you say Federal Express?

The fact that production is such that even now there is enough produced to cover everyone’s needs shows us that the problem is not with production. The fact that we can “absolutely, positively, get it there,” if we want to, shows the problem does not lie with the distribution system.

It shows that the problem resides in our philosophy of distribution and, by corollary, of our consumption. It is a matter of how we decide who gets the results of production and who gets to use the resources necessary to create that produce.

What determine these choices are values. The values that govern the distribution of production are a vast and controversial subject and suited to the discussion of better minds than mine. But the consumption part of this equation is a bit more immediate and just as painful and it makes an excellent illustrative example.

So, what are our culture’s values?

You all know the line from the Pink Floyd song, Money,

“Money, it's a gas.
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.
New car, caviar, four star daydream,
Think I'll buy me a football team.”

I think that summarizes it. The values of our culture are consumption and acquisition. When everything is commodified and money the only real value, what else is there to do but to acquire and consume? When written on the large scale this is called Imperialism which we do mostly as corporate imperialism today rather than direct political empire building which is the use of military power to conquer foreign parts and colonize them. But given current events, clearly this is only a mostly, and it is hard to say which is worse. Just ask any client nation of the multinational corporations.

However, it is what we value that drives this process. What is worthwhile in life? If you are alienated from the world and your neighbor, if the only thing you can value is what you can measure, if the only pleasure you know is consumption and acquisition what else is there to do? Just look at advertising today. The basic message is simple: buy and be happy.

As Huxley put it in Brave New World, 64 thousand repetitions equals one truth. If we hear it enough times we’re going to believe it. It does not matter if satisfaction never comes, we keep believing the message: buy and be happy. We don’t even notice we’re starving, we keep thinking these empty acquisitions, these empty calories, will feed us.

We can see from the statistics previously quoted, this can’t go on forever. We live in an unsustainable culture. We are borrowing from the future to frivolously expend today, your future. Our forbears have done the spending and enjoying, my generation is feeling the pinch and so we’re scrambling to get ours before it’s all gone, and you will get to pay the bill. Sorry

We live in an unsustainable culture. Will we change before catastrophe is upon us or do we sail gracefully off the cliff in an elegant swan song of glittering consumption into a gottdamerung of global destruction? I believe theme music for this is: “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!”

I take some comfort in this; as the Chinese note in their writing of the character for crisis is composed of Danger and Opportunity. I’ve outlined the danger. The Opportunity is us, the Pagani.

We are at a strange time in history but not a unique one. About 2000 years ago our world was at a similar crossroads. It was about to undergo a profound religious convulsion that would eventually bring down one of the greatest civilizations humans have ever produced, Rome. It was an era of Empire, of overwhelming cultural exchange, and profound disempowerment of the individual. In Alexandria these conditions lead to the development of many new strains of religious thought, some of which could coexist with others while some sought the destruction of the others.

We are in the same condition. We live in the most powerful empire humanity has yet produced. Communications, transport and supply-line systems have developed to the extent that every culture is touching every other culture now. And then there is the political situation.

I don’t know how this is being taught today but when I was in elementary and high school I was taught about our democratic government. Sadly, what I was taught is not what I see now. Instead, taking from what I learned in my undergraduate political science classes, we live in a plutocratic oligarchy or timnocracy. If you have enough money you can participate in politics, and participating in politics is about supporting the interests of the moneyed. In short, not democracy.

I’m particularly interested in seeing what happens as electronic voting becomes more widespread. You see, I’m a geek by profession and so I trust other geeks more than politicians and corporate spokespersons. The security inclined geeks I know  tell me that the voting systems are so hackable as to be a mockery of security best practices. So much for democracy, so much for the power of the individual. In other words, a lot like Alexandria 2000 years ago.

So, danger is and change comes. How are we to deal with it? From the foregoing we can see that the current system is vulnerable to change. In fact it will change but how is the question. I hope by now you can see that the issue is one of values, on what will we expend our resources, and to who’s benefit.

My deepest fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy: The religion of the dominant culture on this planet, Christianity, has the myth of the ‘End Times, the Eschaton’, after which the world, this place, will be irrelevant and all of the elect, the saved, will be in the Heavenly City. If you really believe that, and more importantly, if you believe that we are in these “End Times,” what motivation do you have conserve? In this paradigm, the world is fallen and corrupt, thus itself unworthy of salvation.

If you believe yourself among the elect, especially if you are working under the Calvinist doctrine, the world is there for you to consume until the rapture comes and after that it won’t matter anyway. You might as well just use it up. And if you are among the dammed, you might as well get yours now since you will be spending an eternity in hell. My deepest concern is that the leaders of government and industry are laboring under this belief. And, consciously or unconsciously, it guides their policy decisions. This would be bad.

So, as was in the rallying cry in Wilson and Shay’s “Illuminatus! Trilogy”, ‘don’t let the bastards immanentize the eschaton.’ We must not let the powerful ignorant destroy our world.

From my description of the place of ritual today, I think you can  see that the Mega-culture in which we are embedded just doesn’t have the tools to deal with the problem. But, we do.

One of the most outstanding characteristics about the Pagan “conversion process,” such as it is, is the feeling of ‘coming home.’ Hands Up!

Given the widespread feeling of alienation many people feel today from their world and from each other, this experience is precious and telling. And ours.

As is probably evident from the forgoing, I feel that as one of the causes of our problem today is the lack of ritual in our lives. Recovering ritual will be a vital part of the solution set.

The principal reason for this is that ritual is the only way I know of that will change the values of this society into something sustainable. But in a culture that has abandoned ritual, even considers ritual to be distasteful at best and evil at worst where can we turn to recover the capacity to ritualize?

Or, to not put too fine a point on it: How can we change the course of western civilization so that it does not destroy itself and the world it inhabits? Who can the world turn to?

Surely you have guessed it by now: You Guys! We, the Pagani!

We alone may have the power to cause this change. We alone may be able to end this threat to our lives and the future of humanity. (Frankly, I’m not too worried about life itself. It will go on as long as there is water here, just without us.)

How? There are several factors that come together. As I’ve indicated earlier, there is a profound need for ritual in this non-ritualizing culture. But one of the keys to understanding this comes from the word ‘worship’. ‘Worship’, the word, has its roots in old Saxon and can be unpacked to mean Worth-Shaping. What we do in worship is give attention, power, energy, and validation to what we are worshiping. In worship we declare and empower our values.

Our Mega-culture is unsustainable due to its values, the values it shapes, what it worships, what it puts energy into, what it rewards. What it worships is consumption and acquisition and in that worship it consumes the world. This can’t continue.

Unfortunately, if you will permit me an analogy from the computer world, because they gave up ritual they don’t have access to the source code any more so they don’t know how to change it. The Mega-culture does not have the tools to change what they worship nor do they know they can.

To put this in religious language, we must change what they worship, we must give them a choice of Gods. We can do this. I doubt anyone else can.

Pagans are something unique, something that has never occurred before in the history of humanity. We ritualize in a way no one else has before us. We are the only culture I know of that, as a regular practice, composes and recomposes rituals ‘de novio’ and usually as one-offs.

No body else does this. In the west we only have dead ritual traditions, no body changes or innovates upon the classical body of ritual when they have one. Elsewhere among living ritual traditions variations are made in the classical forms by the priestfolk as required by conditions, yet always drawing upon and founded in precedence.

Our position is peculiar. We, the contemporary or Modern Pagans, inherited a body of theory and very little practice from the classical Pagans. We HAD to make it all up again and in the process discovered we could. And so we keep doing it. And this has some very interesting implications.

Ritualizing Pagans may embody an evolutionary leap, mostly at the level of consciousness, where we are sufficiently conscious of our ritualizing capacity to be able to continually create rituals 'de novio'.

Our forebears could not. Previously the archetypal forms that inspire our rites had to break through into the consciousness of some individual who would give us the ritual that we would do  until our cultures fell or were supplanted by the inspiration of yet another.

We Pagani, instead, storm heaven to learn the mysteries of these archetypes and deities so we can write our next Sabbat which is coming up in just another 6 weeks. We don’t have time to wait and we’ve learned not too. And due to the vast information resources we now have, and which no culture before us had, we take our lessons from every culture around us and use them, for better or worse, to compose our rites. No one else does this and I don’t think anyone else wants to. But we do. And the world needs us to.

With ritual we shape the values we would live by giving ourselves the taste of what could be. We take values and lessons gleaned from throughout time and expose our souls to them to be inspired and transformed. And we are pretty good at it.

[Cite: GD modularity, Gardener moving ritual to the living room, Fuller's ephemeralization.]

I don’t really know if we are alone. There are other new religions arising but I think it is fair to say that Pagans are one of a new species of religions arising in our postmodern age. The only one I’ve seen that focuses on ritual. I believe we are an evolutionary adaptation to this time in Humanity’s developmental arc. A particular one that bears the ability: the ability to write new rituals forever.

I also feel we stand on the threshold of cultural creativity (An era much like classical Alexandria) an era of empires and vast inhuman political, and in our age, commercial forces that leave individuals disempowered. An end of the Post-Modern period and the beginning of a new era of cultural creativity. [LOHAS marketing study]

It is time to change this and I warrant that we Pagani have arisen to cause this change. We come from the shadows of our culture. We are the Occult, the Hidden in this culture, the dark fertile bits that got left behind and forgotten in the drive for modernity. Don’t the Jungians say that it is from the shadow that all real change comes? That in the shadow the resources to make profound change dwell? For this culture, we the Pagani, suppressed, repressed, and discarded, written out of history, forgotten and accursed, are the Shadow. And the repressed always returns.

Before we get into the specifics of what I think needs to happen let me warn you about how the Mega-Culture will respond to you.


What they will do is try to sell you. A citation for you:

Dick Hebdige, Subculture, Style in revolt, Revolting style. 1979, Routledge. In his study of Punk and other British musical subcultures Hebdige discovered the pattern that when the defining emblems of a subculture can be sold outside that culture it looses its vigor and the sub-culture dissolves. [Boone, Coonskin hats] When you get sold you get subverted.

Can you say Buffy the Vampire Slayer? They trying. . . I’ve been a member of the Science Fiction Book Club since my teens. A number of years ago they began selling Tarot cards, and amulets, now they sometimes offer various kinds of spell kits. It’s quite fascinating though it leaves me concerned. The hope I have is that it is harder to sell us than a fad. We’ve been around for hundreds of years and been a source of publisher’s fodder for much of that time and we ain’t dead yet. But the danger remains, so watch out.

On the other hand in a fit of perverse megalomania I realized that they may be doing us a favor. I call this the Harry Potter phenomenon. The sale of these goods, like the Harry Potter books, are exposing more folk, and young folk in particular, to our world view. Many of them will embrace it, and we must be ready for them when they come seeking us out. So maybe our task is to learn to use those channels of distribution to spread our word.

As we grow in power our opponents will try other ways to subvert us. Into violence, as the crisis looms more dangerously we may be tempted to follow the Weathermen into violent revolt. But in their case what happened was that the best minds of their cause went underground and were lost to the popular movement, stalling progress leading to its discrediting.

They may also attempt to lead us into distraction. I’m not sure how people around here feel about this one, but at least as an example of what could be done, I’d like to point you to what happened to a segment of the Feminist movement in the 70’s (I think). In the midst of many successes, the issue of pornography was raised which fragmented and stalled the movement. I’ve seen some very interesting information on where the money for that initiative came from and which sheds doubt on the motivations of the contributors for the movement.

So, in the immortal words of ‘Deep Throat,’ “Follow the Money”. It will give you a deeper understanding of who and what is at cause in any situation. Also, keep your eyes on the prize. Remember what you are working for and don’t get distracted.

And most of all, use your power: information, communication and magick.

Every time a new communication medium arises new religions arise. The hieratic imperial religions arise with writing. The protestant reformation comes with the printing press. Evangelical & Fundamentalist Christianity comes with Broadcast, the Radio and the Television. Now is our time: the Internet. Use it.

So we come to the end of the matter, how we, how Pagans will save the world.

We are here at the fulcrum of history. The culture which has put the world in threat is ours and we are intimately entwined with it. It needs what we have to transform itself and it needs what we are to awaken to values that will be sustainable, values that we embody.

Pagans are a peculiar crowd. We buy stuff but are not particularly consumption driven. We don’t have the same aspirations to acquire and so we tend not to be ambitious in the way the Mega-culture would expect of us, striving after money, property and status. We’d rather live in harmony with our world, not over consume and take the time to enjoy life. Most folks out in our Mega-culture don’t enjoy life, they just consume and are left dissatisfied.

Much of this is rooted in one key value. To us, the world is sacred. Not fallen. Not irrational. The World is our Mother, the World is our Lover, the World is our Friend and Companion. We do not seek to subdue it or have dominion over it. We work with it and it works with us. This support will be a profound advantage to us because this relationship is one we need to share with our neighbors before they trash the place.

To do this we must work on ourselves and work to transform our society.

As I said before we are its shadow and can use that position to our advantage. For one, we are unexpected. No one understands the power we have to transform, but you do, or will if you continue to practice. You do it all the time. Don’t stop. Keep growing yourselves.

If you want a clue as to what direction to grow yourselves, take a look at the Buddhadharma. The Deili Lama points out that this is a time when religions are leaning from each other. What we can learn from the Buddhists is two-fold: First, keep your eye on the prize. They name that prize ‘enlightenment’. They will use any tool or technique they can find that helps them towards this goal. All actions are evaluated by the standard: does it help me toward enlightenment or not? This continual drive has caused a continual development of the methods used to attain. It also produced an openness and a willingness to adopt new methods and to simply change as their understanding deepened.

Further, as they succeeded to develop themselves, the practitioners deepened their understanding of the goal. The meaning of enlightenment shifted from a fairly personal psychological liberation from bad patterns to a more global drive to end suffering in general to a recognition that the ultimate enlightenment transfigured not only the practitioner but the world itself. This focus on a goal-oriented spirituality makes the Buddhadharma powerfully transformative to its practitioners and to those about them. Whatever your view of the end of Pagan Magickal practice, I feel this focus is worthy of emulation.

The other element we can take from the Buddhists is the importance of compassion. I’ve discussed this in more detail in my Pagan Dharma writings you can find on-line, but suffice it to say that working only for our own personal benefit can actually cripple us in our practice. It can make us centripetal and closed in and cut us off from the very power we need to succeed. But, by seeking personal spiritual advancement to as to be better able to aid all suffering beings now and in the hour of our eventual enlightenment changes everything. The world comes to our aid and supports our works and practice, and success comes quickly.

The Buddhist term for this is Boddhichita. My warning and injunction to you is this: Magick without Boddhichita is death. Magick is the most powerful way of generating karma, of generating effect through action. Magick without this enlightened view eventually ossifies our egos and crushes our souls, but with Boddhichita or ‘Wisdom Attitude’ as it can be translated, invokes the power of the Cosmos to support our Magick. It will help everything.

Those of you who attended my workshop yesterday got a bit of a taste of this. Please use it.

One of the reasons ritual has grown irrelevant is that the world in which most folk’s rituals evolved in gone. Who lives on a flat world or in the center of the cosmos? The mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested that we need a way of spirituality that lives in an vast cosmos and uses stellar symbolism that matches our scientific understanding. This way it won’t offend our, or our neighbor’s sensibilities, but will reunite the scientific with the sacred and our hard-won knowledge with worship and mystery.

Since no one else can do it, try designing ritual and practices that deal with our vast cosmos and stellar symbolism. For me, Thelema does this. Nuit as the Star Goddess, Hadit as self as Star, and Will as my task in life all really works for me. Your mileage may vary.

Do magick in your homes and groves and temples and to transform your self and to transform the world. You can’t hurt them, but the right will and healing power you wield can help them. And right now your culture needs you. We have clearly lost our way.

But most of all do ritual, and show it to the world. The festival movement started in the 70’s, now we have the Pagan Pride parades. We have been slowly coming out of the broom closet. It is now time to turn the Wheel of the Seasons and of all Change and to do so with open arms and open circles. We must welcome our neighbors, and find ways to be ready to have them join in our rites. Only in this way will they come to taste the bliss of harmony with the world, only in this way can they attain to the satisfaction we each get when we look up and see the crescent moon.

Don’t stop, the future is counting on you.