The Dimensions of Paganism in South Africa

This article applies Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion to Paganism in South Africa. Dan Wallace rues the lack of attention given to Paganism by South African scholars in comparison to academics elsewhere (1). What we know about this group is therefore limited. According to the South African Pagan Council, there is no quantification of the number of South African Pagans (2), which is arguably due to the tradition’s recent emergence in the country and the limited interest it has received from local scholars (3). We can say with some certainty, however, that South African Paganism consists of a network of small, autonomous groups whose unifying feature is the reverence of nature and belief that the sacred is manifest in matter. These include neo-Druids, Wiccans, practitioners of Witchcraft, Eco-Pagans, and members of Goddess traditions (4). This article will now focus on the seven dimensions (the Doctrinal, Narrative, Institutional, Ethical, Ritual, Experiential, and Material) of this tradition and then conclude with a summary of Paganism’s place in South Africa’s religious landscape and its perception.

As a diverse, eclectic tradition, local Paganism includes the following Doctrinal elements: Nature Religion and reverence for the natural environment (the Earth being perceived as Mother or as a goddess), various conceptions of deity (animistic, polytheistic, duotheistic, pantheistic, and/or panentheistic), anti-hierarchical, strongly opposed to external domination and central authority, resistant to perceived patriarchal religious traditions, and the embrace of a magical worldview that posits invisible elements in the cosmos (5). The notion of “Witch”, a gender-neutral term denoting practitioners of magick and witchcraft, is central to the Wiccan form of Paganism. Despite the tradition’s diversity, Paganism finds unity in its lack of a codified system of practices and beliefs (6). 

The Narrative dimension, reflected in the collection of myths, is central to the meaning-making and identity construction of Pagans (7). Narrative is an eclectic amalgamation of stories drawn from various sources across the centuries. There are foundational myths and myths of continuity connecting contemporary Pagan traditions to ancient pre-Christian religions, folk-customs, and magical systems. The myth of matriarchy points to pre-Christian matriarchal societies who worshiped goddesses. Establishing connections to ancient feminine goddess religions challenges perceived contemporary patriarchal systems, structures, and religions in which women and their bodies are denigrated. Pagans attempt to connect to ancient wisdom traditions which function to authenticate their religion in a predominantly Christian culture. The truth of these stories, myths, and traditions is not as valuable as their being able to explain the place of life in a mysterious universe (8).

Regarding the Institutional dimension, there is no central Church, although certain groups and organizations provide Paganism with a public image. The first local Pagan organization, the Pagan Federation of South Africa, formed in 1996 and only after this did the tradition begin presenting itself publicly (9). The Grove is the country’s oldest Pagan mystery school dedicated to the practice of neo-Paganism and the exploration of gnosis (secret knowledge). The Clan of Ysgithyrwyn, founded in 1998, is an eclectic Witchcraft coven. The Lunaguardia Tradition, founded in Nelspruit in 2000, holds to personal identification with the Divine. Founded in 2001, The Celestine Circle is an environmental Wiccan group that, through the use of magick, attempts to protect threatened species and areas. There also exists the South African Pagan Council (SAPC) and the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA). SAPRA is human rights alliance promoting coverage of unfair discrimination against Pagans and the liberties and freedoms enshrined in the South African constitution.

Various Ethical precepts constitute Pagan traditions. Foundational to Wicca is to harm no-one, “an harm ye none, do what ye will”, an ethic underpinning a deep respect for the natural environment and all living entities (10). Wiccans wish to help others in their spiritual lives thus offering services in training, healing, and spirituality. Neo-Druids invest nature with great significance. They are pantheists, believing God to be connected to the natural world, which leads to a profound respect for nature, the Earth, and the body, all of which are believed to be interconnected. Violence against animals is prohibited as certain types, particularly the female red deer, are venerated given their ability to provide humans with special gifts such as vitality, healing, and inner knowledge.

Concerning Ritual, many local Pagans practice their faith in private although they also gather in small assemblies called covens, groves, or circles. These groups come together to celebrate important events, such as Sabbats and Esbats, to honour God/gods, and to perform magick. Wiccans use an athame, a type of dagger, to channel nature’s energies when performing magick (11). Druids emphasize dreams, hypnosis, meditation, and shamanic trances, all of which deepen the devotee’s awareness of the sacred. There are no prescribed prayers as devotees are free to pray as they wish, especially in a circle formation symbolizing the unity of the world and humanity. The Pagan Freedom Day Movement, founded in 2003, is an annual Pagan event that celebrates freedom of religion in South Africa.

For the Experiential dimension, a strong sense of community emerges when devotees gather in covens and circles, particularly on important days to honour the Earth and deities (12). The natural environment is where an awareness of Divine presence is most prevalent, although the Divine can also be experienced in private. Connection to this power is facilitated through chants and prayers, with some of these intended to provide blessings to the group. For female devotees, the embrace of feminine spirituality is liberating. Some devotees of the Goddess Movement access ancient temples of goddesses where they perform transformative rituals. These are felt to be sexually liberating and affirmative of the power in female spirituality (13). 

Pagans have many ritual tools in their Material dimension (14). The athame is a double-edged dagger, representing either the element of fire or air, used in rituals, to create circles, and in magick to channel nature’s energies. Pagans also have an assortment of minerals and crystals. Shops, such as Judy’s Crystal Corner in the Western Cape, sell stones, crystals, glass jewelry, shells, fossils, incense, smudge sticks, Himalayan lamps, and oracle card decks. Crystal Corner, located in Hogsback, Eastern Cape, has a stone circle formation in a lush garden harking back to rituals of the ancient Druids of Celtic Europe. There are besoms (witch brooms used to clear away negative energies before a ritual), cauldrons (associated with the womb, life, and creativity), chalices (containing consecrated liquid, such as wine, milk, water, and juice), pentacles (for blessings and consecrations), and robes (worn by some devotees) used in Pagan rituals.

The Unconventionality of Paganism

Paganism is certainly an unconventional and marginal religion in South Africa. Many South Africans associate this tradition/s with Satanism, devil worship, and/or evil intent (15). The SAPC alleges that many Pagans practice in secrecy “to avoid being ostracized, [and] being treated with prejudice and contempt… the secrecy is dictated by the need for economic, social and self-preservation” (16). Wallace believes negative attitudes inhibit inter-faith co-operation and understanding, and give rise to misrepresentation, deviance labeling, and persecution (17).

Certainly, Paganism’s socio-cultural and religious unconventionality and marginality are undergirded by its devotees’ embrace of atypical conceptions and practices, such as the use of magic/magick, spells, divination, wands, pentacles, and self-designation of “witch”, most of which contradict traditional Christian and African perspectives in South African society (18). Christianity remains the dominant religious discourse in the country, which, suggests Wallace, has “not erased strong societal tendencies to equate the categories ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Christian’, with believer and non-believer, or, respectively, as those who stand inside or outside some kind of truth” (19).

Feminine concepts of God and symbols, popular among some Wiccans and most proponents of the Goddess movement, are strange to the contemporary Western mind. Feminine “God-language” emphasizes goddesses worshiped by ancient peoples. This was, according to some Pagans, a time when women allegedly held primary roles in religion before patriarchal concepts became the norm (20). Carol Christ, the foremother of the Goddess movement, views the Goddess as connected to the Earth, body, and life. To Christ and many other Pagans, Goddess theology is in opposition to perceived patriarchal conceptions of God, especially in the Christian-Judaeo traditions (21). It is felt by many Pagans that male God conceptions and religious language keep women in a state of psychological dependence on men and male authority. Feminine “God-language” is often uncomfortable and strange to South Africans supposedly reared in androcentric religious traditions where male perspectives are emphasized.

References

  1. Wallace, Dale. “The construction and articulation of a pagan identity in South Africa: a study of the nature and implications of a contested religious identity in a pluralistic society.” PhD diss. University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2006. p. 29-30.
  2. SAPC. 2013. Paganism in South Africa: An Introduction to the Pagan Religion. p. 170.
  3. Wallace, Dale. 2006. Ibid. p. 27.
  4. SAPC. 2013. Ibid. p. 26-32.
  5. Wallace, Dale. 2006. Ibid. p. 23.
  6. Wallace, Dale. 2006. Ibid. p. 20.
  7. Wallace, Dale. 2006. Ibid. p. 141.
  8. Johnson, Toby. 1992. The Myth of the Great Secret: A Search for Spiritual Meaning. Berkeley: First Celestial Arts Printing. p. 199.
  9. Wallace, Dale. 2006. Ibid. p. 17.
  10. Doyle, Ethan. 2015. “An’ it Harm None, Do What Ye Will”: A Historical Analysis of the Wiccan Rede Article.” Magic Ritual and Witchcraft 10(2):142-171.
  11. Ramstedt, Martin. 2004. “Who is a Witch? Contesting Notions of Authenticity among Contemporary Dutch Witches.” Etnofoor 17(1/2):178-198.
  12. Leff, Damon. 2020. “The Birth of the Public Pagan Movement in South Africa.” Available.
  13. Christ, Carol. 1987b. Laughter of Aphrodite: reflections on a journey to the goddess. Manhattan: Harper & Row. p. 191.
  14. SAPC. 2013. Ibid. p. 40-43.
  15. Wallace, Dale. 2006. Ibid. p. 12.
  16. SAPC. 2013. Ibid. p. 47.
  17. Wallace, Dale. 2006. Ibid. p. 12.
  18. Wallace, Dale. 2006. Ibid. p. 12.
  19. Wallace, Dale. 2006. Ibid. p. 28.
  20. Christ, Carol., and Plaskow, Judith. 2016. Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.
  21. Christ, Carol P. 2016. “If Goddess Is Not Love.” In Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, edited by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow, 241-264. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. p. 249-250.

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