One of my occasional hobbies is digging into the history of the modern pagan movement, which is a project about which I can wax quite tedious given the opportunity. It is full of all kinds of interesting rabbitholes and cross-connections, and actually digging into it can resolve questions like “Why the heck is all of this unrelated stuff called ‘pagan’?” and “what are the commonalities in pagan religions?”
One of the origin points of the pagan movement was the reaction to the scientific and industrial revolutions: the rationalisation of the cosmos led to an experience of disenchantment. This is the social science concept of “disenchantment”, not the colloquial meaning of being disappointed by loss of illusions. (Though, of course, there is interplay between those meanings.)
The enchanted world is heavily populated with spirits, ghosts, fairies, angels, demons, and other magical creatures; it is engaged with through ritual and incantation, prayer and magic, tradition and custom. It is a place where the hands of the divine are visible and miraculous; where spiritual battle can take place; where symbol and reality intertwine.
All the nooks and crannies where the good folk lived seemed to fade away before the onslaught of science, the demons of disease started to give way before treatment and vaccination, and the growth of industry pulled people into routinised employment that separated them from the rhythms of the day and increasingly equated moral virtue with money. Philosophers wondered about the death of God and what that would mean for an increasingly rational and rationalised world.
A lot of people didn’t take the process of disenchantment lying down, of course, and there were many, many different reactions. Some people sought out replacements in political ideologies. Some people doubled down on religious mythology (the idea of scriptural literalism and the origins of modern fundamentalism lie in the same area). Some people found new, more scientifically aligned explanations of old phenomena – there are reasons that tales of alien abductions have a lot in common, structurally speaking, with stories of being captured by fairies. Nature was invented as a lost paradise rather than a savage wilderness needing to be tamed by the influence of civilisation, and communing with it became a way of recovering lost humanity. Occultic organisations of all kinds got increasingly popular, and in the United States the legacy of the Civil War’s many dead and buried far from home was part of what gave birth to Spiritualism and the appeal of ouija boards. The birth of fantastic literature created worlds, partially contained in pages, where enchantment could be literal, gods could be served or overthrown, or science itself created an enchanted garden for the exploration, an entire cosmos full of the alien and wonderful and terrible and powerful. Various nationalisms created gods as avatars of their countries, invented spirits unifying their people, constructing propaganda as metaphor, speaking of the deep magic of their heritage.
And, of course, there were the various founding pagans, many of whom were motivated by a sort of nostalgia for a time when enchantment was unquestioned, when old gods walked the earth, when magic was a familiar tool to bring to hand.
I am not a native inhabitant of an enchanted world. Enchantment is difficult, unnatural, still something that I put on with a certain self-consciousness. There are times I step to the side, and wonder at my own rituals, my own practices, ask myself if it isn’t all silly, to think that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden who might appreciate my offerings of cream, to imagine the little icon of the domovoi on the shelf in the kitchen means a spirit who appreciates the gifts of baked goods and vodka. I can construct lengthy explanations of how, even if all of my experience of gods, and spirits, and the numinous is in my head, it’s still valuable.
But then there are the moments when enchantment comes easy, where it’s not a matter of belief, just of seeing, being, knowing.
I was at a talk given by Malidoma Somé, a man who was stolen from his people, raised in an unenchanted world, and found his way back to tradition and enchantment. He talked about his grandfather’s presence in his life, his ongoing guidance, his critique. After he said something moderately sassy about his grandfather’s spirit, his microphone exploded in static, like ethereal laughter, and he laughed, as if he was saying, “See? You see what I have to live with?”
I may have my own impressions of the domovoi, and doubt them routinely, but if I don’t keep our agreements, the glassware starts breaking. Not supernaturally, just, someone bumped it, someone dropped it, sometimes that toppling would have been fine but this time it wasn’t. As soon as I get back on the wagon, it gets better.
Two days after an elder died, I lit her a candle, and I felt a shimmery silver-blue cool presence wash over me, evaluating but not unfriendly, and I came away with a conviction that I was loved, that I belonged, and that I was permitted to call her Grandmother.
Agitated, I stalked back and forth, and finally, in a fit of something or other, shouted at the computer “What should I do, then?” and waited to hear what the random shuffle music would say to me. It said “Ground” and I laughed helplessly and sat down, and closed my eyes, and tried to breathe.
Gods have challenged me, demanded things of me, and I have demanded things of them, and I have not always believed, but I have always believed that there was something worthwhile to be had there. I have bargained with them and yelled at them and shaken my fist at sky and earth, and there have been times that there have been answers.
And at a ritual with drawing down, the call of one god for another through mortal bodies, mortal voices, the working of the dance as they taunted each other from across the dance floor, and when they touched for the first time, in that very instant, the heavens opened and the rain came, sweeping in like a desperate thirst was finally satisfied.
And regardless of everything else, I go in, I do the rituals, and I feel better, I feel more at peace, I feel more competent and put together. There is no small magic in that.
Even when I fall away, into an unenchanted world, I remember what it is, to have been enchanted.