The Scarlet Letter
Volume V, Number 1 | March 1998
When is a Pagan Not a Pagan?
By Fr. Dionysos Thriambos
Thelema, or New Aeon Gnosticism, is a radically individualistic system of observance.
Thus it enjoys nearly as many characterizations as it does adherents. Even
the institution of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, a subset of that system, embraces
vast divergences. While I don't identify with the label “pagan,” I
know that many of my brothers and sisters in the Church do. This fact testifies
to both the rich variety of perspective in the Church, and the complexity and
multivalency of the word “pagan.” This essay, occasioned by the
imminence of the Council of Magickal Arts Beltane Festival, is a brief meditation
on the varied denotations and connotations of "pagan," and how they
apply to my personal observance of Thelema, and to that of OTO-EGC.
(a Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition)
Thelema might be considered polytheistic. But it might also be considered a
relativized form of monotheism, through the doctrine of the Holy Guardian Angel.
It can also be considered atheistic, based on certain fairly direct readings
of The Book of the Law. The jury is out—and I, for one, hope it
Here's the one definition of pagan with which I can comfortably identify; i.e.
any definition that would include not only Thelema, but also Islam. There
are various other shades of “non-Christian” which don't necessarily
accommodate Thelema. For example, Buddhism is more thoroughly non-Christian,
because Thelema actively makes use of the symbolic detritus of Christianity,
and thus enters into the “Judeo-Christian” continuum of religious
This definition largely overlaps the first, and for our purposes we can extend
it to cover “neo-paganism,” where an attempt is made to recreate
such religions without the advantage of a surviving tradition of practice.
Thelema doesn't fit here because it is actually post-Christian, as just noted.
The highly syncretic nature of Thelema enables it to “reactivate” pre-Christian
materials that have been assimilated by Christianity, as well as to mesh
with entirely non-Christian concepts and practices.
This definition starts to delve into the etymology of the term, from Late Latin
paganus, country dweller, and from pagus, country district.
During the spread of Christianity, "pagan" became a term of derision
for the indigenous religions, as opposed to the metropolitan sophistication
of Christianity. In a more modern (or po-mo) context, Christianity itself
fits this sense of "pagan" far better than Thelema or most neo-paganisms
This definition is related to the previous one, as well as to the kindred term "heathen." It
is particularly apt of certain neo-Pagan systems where this feature is emphasized.
There are certainly grounds for Thelemic Paganism of this type, e.g. Liber
Legis I:61. We also have evidence of the exercise of such Thelemic Paganism
in various camping festivals. But OTO-EGC, along with the bulk of Hermetic/Rosicrucian-style
Thelema, is oriented around a distinctly temple-based ritual technology.
This idea of paganism holds that pagans rely on the Book of Nature for their
religious conceptions, rather than the Bible, Koran, Stanzas of Dzyan, or some
other "revealed" text transmitted through human authorship. Thelema
obviously fails this test, though not so thoroughly as might at first be thought.
Thelema makes of itself a sounder revealed religion than most, because of the
documentation of the reception of the Law and the existence of the original
manuscript. But it is also close to natural religion in its social and moral
application, owing both to its central philosophies, and to the practical consequences
of the Class A “Short Comment” to Liber Legis.
My final observation concerns the social origins of contemporary
neo-paganism. These can be traced to:
- Wicca, of which Gerald Gardner established the germinal
form, clearly informed by his initiation in the Thelemic O.T.O. (For an entertaining
summary, see T Allen Greenfield's paper "The
Secret History of Modern Witchcraft"—currently on the World
- Various spiritual elements of the late 20th Century
counterculture of "sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll," as mapped
out in Crowley's paper "Energized Enthusiasm." (Equinox I:9,
p. 17 ff.)
- Religious consequences of American feminism in the
- Religious consequences of the environmental movement
in the countercultural context.
From the perspective of a natural history of religions, Thelema
is thus prior to neo-paganism, and the latter should be considered a development
of the former, rather than the other way around, as many contemporary students
of “alternative religions” presume.
to Vol. V, No. 1 Cover