The Pagan Heart of the West – review

Randy P. Conner is my favourite historian. His queer and pagan eye on humanity’s past brings awareness and understanding that historians of the past, approaching the subject through the prejudices and assumptions of their time, simply did not access.

The topic of queer sexualities and the sacred in history was opened in the 1970s by Arthur Evans in his work ‘Witchcraft and the Gay Counter-Culture’. The 80s saw a new wave of gay historians re-interpreting the past, but there was nothing produced to compare with Randy P. Conner’s masterpiece, ‘Blossom of Bone’. First published in 1993, Blossom of Bone covers a broad sweep of human existence from phallic cave art to the loosely neo-pagan sex magic of the Radical Faerie community, teasing out the links between “homo-eroticism, gender-variance and the sacred” in just about every culture of the planet that we have records for. Despite its broad remit, Blossom of Bone is packed full of detailed information and fascinating history that keeps me picking it up again and again. It is my primary go-to resource book for queer spiritual history, and although a few other books on the subject have appeared, I can’t recommend and praise this one enough.

In his new 5 volume epic, ‘The Pagan Heart of the West’, Randy has set himself another far-reaching task – this time to challenge the historical orthodoxy of the past that took for granted that ancient pagan faiths were inevitably superseded by more sophisticated Abrahamic religions, and then eradicated entirely under Darwinian influenced scientific rationalism. His wish is to “view them in their own light and perhaps in the light of other ancient and indigenous sacred traditions.” He makes a very convincing case for the continuation of pagan beliefs, customs and practices long after the establishment of the Christian religion, as well as presenting a very useful picture of the gradual spread of Christian dominance in Europe, without assuming Christian (or secular) superiority.

Volume 1 ‘Deities and Kindred Beings’ contains an amazing cataloguing of divinities celebrated throughout the continent, recording their legends and how they were worshipped, how long that worship continued, and where it re-emerged. Through reading this volume, for example, I now have a heightened sense of the central place that tree worship in sacred groves took in indigenous European religion and the impact it had when Christians burnt the massive ancient trees, replacing them with their stone churches. Randy also succeeds in overcoming the usual western European bias of so much religious history – here we also read in detail about the traditions of the Slavic, Baltic, Romanian… peoples.

The first chapter of volume 1 contains a review of the historiography of the subject, revealing that, as with LGBTQ+ history, our pagan past is yet to be properly appreciated, as he calls out various highly regarded historians for the cultural lens they look through. It takes a pagan eye to see the historical strands in their true light – eg his chapter on the earth goddess and her male consorts help us to remember just how important, how central, and for how long, female divinity has been a part of our European past. The whole book just drips with tales of glorious divinities that I bet most of us have never heard of before, as well as revealing how ubiquitous was belief and trust in the Goddess, Pan and other deities, throughout the past two millennia, how slow Christianity was to take hold in some places, and how the pagan divinities and practices re-emerged, adapted and survived.

The chapter on ‘Veneration of Fairies, Elves and Kindred Beings’ suggests that the pagan deities transformed into fairy in the Middle Ages because of the persecution from the Christian authorities. Randy does accept that elemental beings were known before this time – eg he mentions 16th century Scottish witch Alison Peirsoun who seemingly connected fairy to ancient Egyptian teachings of Hermes Trismesgistus – but makes a strong case for the arrival of a fairy magical culture during the Middle Ages, possibly influenced by the Persian belief in the peri and the Hindu devas. I personally wonder why he takes this line, for it seems equally likely to me that interactions with the spirits of nature had been a normal part of indigenous European society perhaps for many millennia prior to the arrival of Christianity.

Randy is one of still very few historians who are changing our understanding of humanity’s spiritual past. I am also a student of queer and pagan history – one who has realised for example that the references in the Christian Bible to goddess worshipping, gender-bending, sodomising temple priests never get mentioned by modern LGBT Christian activists because they have not made their own connection to the goddess path, to the mysteries of sex magic and pagan communion with the spirit worlds. They judge the pagan past just as heterosexual Christians too, without realising that the virulent condemnation of same sex love and transexuality was directly linked to the suppression of ancient holy practices. I write about the Qedesha (condemned in the OT) and the Gallae priest/esses of Cybele (condemned by Paul in the New), because I have found myself to be one of their receivers of their inheritance – a modern gay man who has discovered that the feminine inside himself connects him to this ancient path of spiritual service, of the Goddess. I live the reality of the pagan calendar, the moon cycles and seasonal festivals, and I live the reality of ecstatic communion (eg through drumming, dance and also sexuality) with the spirit, so I have a perspective on that strand of queer spiritual history that is just not available to either Christian or secular queers.

Like Randy, I seek also to reclaim and explore the holy energies of our pagan past. This is a practical goal, not simply an academic one. It’s a lived experience in queer spirited spaces, such as Queer Spirit Festival in the UK and Radical Faerie sanctuaries around the world – books like The Pagan Heart of the West are essential tools on this journey, as we reconnect the human spirit to its ancestors and its beloved divinities, to the unity that underlies our diversity.

I am so excited to read the next four volumes!

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