Paganism Brought Me Home

August 2000 at the third Queer Pagan Camp in the rolling fields of Dorset, UK, my five year AIDS trial of shadow and light, of spiritual renewal, physical collapse and resurrection came to its culmination point. At a peak moment of communion a gap in the sky opened for me, loving voices came through reassuring me that here in Britain, in the nature and with the people of the land I was born into, lay my path: my confusion about how to re-enter and engage with the world post AIDS, where to direct my energy having experienced such a profound transformation of my being – having come to know the eternal part of my soul, to regard myself as a spirit visiting the Earth – was cast away. In the magic circle with fellow queer witches, druids, shamans, faerie workers, in the arms of the elements, ancestors and the goddess, I felt a divine wellness and wholeness sweep through my being, I felt my spirit expand in joy from deep in the earth to the sun and the moon. The desperately sick years were behind me, the mental anguish about facing life again, having become so comfortable with the idea of death, fell away in that Dorset field.

Five years earlier in 1995 I had made a profound shift in my mind, which led me into a total inner transformation, by dropping the atheism I had adopted – or I might say I believe I had been brainwashed into – by the age of 12. Impending death can focus the mind like that, and five years since my HIV+ diagnosis, I wanted some answers as to why I existed in the first place. So, being a rationally minded graduate in history from Cambridge University, I applied some logical thought to this situation, and started to study. It dawned on me that the question of the ‘meaning of life’ had been humanity’s obsession for thousands of years, but somehow the education I had received and the culture I had been exposed to, had not encouraged me to think about this, quite the opposite – growing up in the 1970s, the backlash against the hippy culture was a big influence on me, religion was in decline and materialist science was the new god.

The search for my true self did in fact start in my early 20s when I came out of the sexuality closet, but it took the crisis of HIV/AIDS to push me to take that search deeper. Once I realised just how much effort humanity had put into this already, I approached the question as a historian – reading source materials, studying mystical teachings from throughout history and from across the world. The idea of just approaching the mystery of our existence through only one religious or spiritual path seemed illogical as we came to the turn of the millennium when for the first time in history all of humanity’s explorations of the spiritual are accessible to us and so the opportunity is there for an intelligent modern human seeking answers to obtain a broader view and understanding, if they put the effort in.

This was not a simply intellectual exercise of course. This was practical too. I learnt about the different forms of meditation – passive, dynamic, visualisation, mantra… I caught onto the idea that to know the divine reality we need knowledge, but also experience – so I practised creating ritual spaces, learning to open my heart as well as my mind to the spirit through devotional practice. Inner guides appeared and led me on totally unexpected, exciting pathways of discovery through my own imagination. At a time when I was expecting to be sad about impending death, I found myself on the most exhilarating soul journey, unlike anything I had ever known before. Not knowing if there was any chance at all that I might survive AIDS I kept hope in my heart and dived into spiritual practice and study, somehow sensing right away that I was on a five year path, but to death or life at the end I knew not.

My turn around from ‘dying’ to ‘living’ came early 1998. I was part of the Lazarus phenomenon at that time, as skeletal men, often, like me, with leopard like Karposi Sarcoma spots on our bodies, suddenly turned the corner. I had refused to take AZT as I had seen friends who were on it pass away, tried ‘alternative’ therapies and only took medication once the protease inhibitors were available. In ’97 my CD4 count was down to 3, in June I was hospitalised with PCP, but responded to treatment and spent most of the year home in my cosy south London flat with my French partner, we each taking care of each other through various states of sickness. The love between us kept us alive, of that I am quite sure.

Excited at the prospect of survival, by the end of 1998 I was riding high on my first attempts to combine my new inner magical discoveries with other people. There was a gay spiritual event in London called Connections, at which I met an American called Carl Shapley who was a channel for the Ascended Masters. I shared my story with him and we spent a lot of time together, he seeing me as a servant of the Divine Mother, as a person who had awoken to his purpose on this planet through a classic shamanic death-rebirth ordeal, and a sign that many more magical folk would soon be waking up too – especially amongst the LGBT community.

With Carl I took part in a few ceremonies around London, including a night where we opened cosmic gates at Piccadilly Circus. He took me to a meeting at the House of Lords, for even there at that time a buzz around spiritual change was in the air, and, along with places like the UN, these were the kind of circles Carl was working in to bring light.

It was walking home along the Thames from that meeting at Parliament that a sense of enormity at the challenge of re-entering the world as a mystical channel hit me hard, and that night back at my flat I experienced a complete overwhelm in the form of a loss of individuality, a merging into a non-physical reality that terrified me. I felt myself on the knife edge between life and death, felt my physical survival was far from assured. I went through an internal mental collapse, and had to spend the next few months lying mostly in a darkened room, slowly putting myself back together.

Most of 1999 for me was a time of nervous anxiety as I tentatively met the world again. That summer saw my first time at Queer Pagan Camp, and the effect of meeting experienced gay, lesbian bi and trans pagans was utterly inspiring. My study of the religious paths to the divine had left me challenged by questions around sexuality as I returned to life. But here were happy, spiritual queers who embraced sex and all life’s pleasures with passion. I learned the Goddess creed “All Acts of Love and Pleasure are My Rituals” and I took it to heart. My internal opening to the spirit realms had brought me first to the presence of the Divine Mother and her angels -at that time I had no idea of the rich and ancient, global, history of queer people as servants to the Goddess, but in that Dorset field over the next few summers I was to get many direct and powerful experiences of what it actually means to be that, and how queer people reclaiming our natural spirituality, which religions have spent so many centuries suppressing, is a crucial part of the global shift in consciousness that humanity is undergoing.

In 2000 I made two pilgrimages, the first to the ashram of the Mother of Immortal Bliss, Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as Amma the Hugging Mother, in Kerala, and the second back to the English fields with the Queer Pagans. At the ashram I received powerful healing, and being in the company of other spiritual seekers was incredibly affirming. I came back to the UK feeling much stronger and more confident, but before I left India, a few days in the stunning nature and free spirited atmosphere of the Goa beaches brought me even more sense of belonging and ‘home’ than had the ashram. Then a few months later at the Dorset Camp I found that HOME in the English countryside amongst the most inspiring, talented, unique and magical queers I had ever met.

I have spent the last 20 years seeking to meet other queers on their own path of self-discovery and awakening, joining the global Radical Faerie community, where in sanctuaries and gatherings we reclaim the sacred power inherent in queerness, explore our gifts as healers, transformational artists, midwives to the dying, walkers between the worlds. In London I set up the Queer Spirit Circle in 2005 with a lesbian friend named Anna, offering the space as a meeting point for queers of any spiritual persuasion, which continues 15 years later as a Full Moon Drum Circle, a non-commercial event where sometimes up to 100 people gather for spiritual and social interaction. The rapid growth of the network in the UK led to the birth of Queer Spirit Festival in 2016 – five day camping festival of queer magic, the third of which took place in 2019.

I have also spent the last 2 decades living my life in tune with the planet’s natural cycles and with ever growing understanding of the interplay between the cosmic forces of the solar system and our human experience. Paganism gives us the tools to live in a state of self-acceptance and harmony – the four elements give us a map of the human being that is expansive and health-giving, helping us to engage all the parts of our nature (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) as equally important; the solstices and equinoxes are natural planetary turning points that occur within our bodies and minds also; the zodiac year maps out the journey of the soul in symbolic language (showing us the way home); the moon guides and influences our emotional fields all the time. By giving these aspects of life our attention, eg by making ceremony to align ourselves with the divine rhythms of existence such as full moons etc, we bring our personal energy fields into harmony and alignment with life itself.

When faced with death I turned to the world’s great religions for answers to the meaning of life. I found that at their core they all said the same thing, about the unity of consciousness, how its nature is love, that it emerges through nature and becomes us. But religion in the world was not teaching these things, not spreading this simple divine perspective, certainly not living up to it. Eastern religions taught me much, particularly the complex and fascinating philosophies of Hinduism – which, we had been told at school, is a ‘pagan’ faith, where many gods are worshipped just as the old ‘primitive, foolish, ignorant’ people of Europe had once done before the arrival of glorious Christianity – what a lot of lies we were told back in those Religious Education lessons. Pagans were mocked for worshipping the Sun and Moon, rocks and trees, and I’m not sure the fact that paganism was reviving in the UK rapidly since the 1950s was mentioned.

When, during my AIDS study years I discovered the glorious, universal light contained in Hinduism I figured out that our own European paganism must come from the same ancient source, contain the same wisdom and joy (features that seemed so lacking in the patriarchal monotheistic religions), and when I got to meet Queer Pagans and as I have celebrated with Radical Faeries I have found this to be true. As I have walked the Wheel of the Year and found a relationship with the spirit of the land in which I began this lifetime, I find that Celtic paganism gives the tools to create our own lives as a well-rounded, love filled, adventure – plus the tools to heal ourselves from the wounds we have gained and the belief in separation we have had to endure in a world that is in a serious, soul-numbing state of mental madness.

Once the whole world was ‘pagan’. The word implies attunement to nature and the planetary cycles, a recognition that we are part of those too, not separate from or above them. Pagan reminds us we know within ourselves how to talk and commune with trees, plants, animals and ancestors, that deities are there to reflect to us and help us discover the divine power in ourselves, that divinity is feminine and non-binary as well as masculine, and that the body is holy, with pleasure its natural way to worship existence itself. Religion taught me a lot about humanity’s long search for Self but Paganism is about embracing, being and manifesting that Self, about becoming an individualised, independent, self-actualised divine entity within the greater whole, not better than any part of it in any way, but simply and perfectly, eternally AT HOME in it.

Pleasure is A Goddess

I remember Religious Education lessons at my school during the late 1970s in which indigenous pagan traditions of old Europe and the rest of the world were mocked for their primitive worship of the Sun and Moon. Our teacher was a Christian, and although I recall him giving a reasonable introduction to the great religions of the East, nature based faiths, we were firmly told, were superstitious nonsense.

Since I have become aware of the rich spiritual culture and inner growth that paganism offers, I’ve wondered whether that teacher, Dr Surin, really had so little understanding of nature spirituality or his attitude was a conscious ploy to direct the development of our 13 year old minds.

As long ago as 1851 American archaeologist and historian E.G. Squier wrote in ‘The Serpent Symbol’ that the active and passive principles of nature, –

“symbolised by the sun and the moon, or the sun and the earth, was recognised in the mythological systems of America”.

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Those religion lessons skimmed over paganism in less than one session, and no wonder, for there was a crucial central feature to nature based spiritual paths the world over that the teacher did not want to mention – the centrality of pleasure, the inclusion of sex in pagan ritual worship and their regard of the genital organs as holy. This was surely a very conscious decision to hide all this, for British paganism was back in the open by this time, and far back in the 19th century historian H. H, Bancroft, in the Native Races of the Pacific States of North America (1874), had understood that, –

“the life-giving and vivifying principle of nature has been always symbolised by the human organs of generation”.

Traditional faiths were mocked by my religious teacher as ‘fertility religions’. We were told the stupid people used to make ceremony to ask the gods to bless the crops, and that was about it. But back in the 1940s George Ryley Scott was already pointing out (in ‘Phallic Worship: A History of Sex and Sexual Rites’) that the pagans were also honouring pleasure itself, for they regarded sexual ecstasy as a state of communion with the gods. And for this reason the phallus was an almost universal holy symbol across the world. Where the patriarchal phalli did not completely subjugate the feminine the vulva was honoured equally.

From Roman times the Christians began to call the sacred sex workers who had operated for millennia in the temples of antiquity (throughout Middle East and Asia) ‘prostitutes’. But George Ryley Scott pointed out that, –

“It is important to note that these temple prostitutes… were not looked upon with disgust… They were “brides of God” or “slaves of the idol” and were accorded a degree of respect far in advance of anything given to the ordinary female member of society. It was considered to be an honour to serve the gods in this way.”

In the 1970s feminist and gay historians such as Merlin Stone (‘When God Was a Woman’) and Arthur Evans (‘Witchcraft and the Gay Counter-Culture’) were going as far as to call the traditional, ancient faiths ‘sex religions’.

There is a crucial connection between the virulent homophobia that developed in European Christianity and which it then spread around the world in the last 500 years and the destruction of the ancient sex positive cultures. To achieve this, women’s sexual power was turned into something dark by the adoption of the misogynistic Hebrew creation story and the gradual association of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah with gay sex instead of it being about hospitality and the rape of strangers (a process begun by Christian thinker Philo in the 1st century CE). The Christians followed the example of the Hebrew Kings of the period 1000-600 BCE whose efforts to stop the worship of phallic symbols and the sexual temple practices carried out by women and the Qedesha (meaning the ‘Holy Ones’, the word was translated into English as ‘sodomites’) had been only partially successful. From the 4th century onwards pagan statues, temples, sacred groves were all attacked by Christians, again following the instructions of the Old Testament Yahweh (such as Exodus 22:20 “He that sacrificeth to any God, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed”), backed up by juicy lines from the New such as Luke 10:19 “Behold I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy”.

The religions of the Father God caused a separation of the spirit and the flesh, and over the centuries of the Middle Ages destroyed rival Christian groups that accepted sexuality, that gave power to women, that refused the authority of the established Church. By the Early Modern era the repression of gay sex in Europe, was being taken up by the political lawmakers as well as the Catholic Inquisition. Europeans were utterly shocked by the open expression of sexuality they found on their world explorations. On every other continent they came across people who had no shame about sex, who had not thought of the concept of obscenity, and they found sexual rites of worship, same sex couples, transgendered souls held in high regard, and sacred phallic imagery, all of which they set about doing their very best to destroy.

George Catlin wrote about the Sioux Buffalo Dance in 1867, recording the climax when O-ke-hee-de (owl spirit) came into the scene: “In his hands he carried a sort of wand – a slender rod of eight feet in length, with a red ball at the end of it, which he slid about upon the ground as he ran”. Professor Gerard Troost of Tennessee wrote of a statue of a priapic kneeling man (he switched to Latin in his work to describe the ‘membrum generationis virile in erectione‘) that was ‘considered too indelicate to be preserved’. Phallic imagery was common throughout the Americas, and in Africa and Asia too, as it had once been in pagan Europe (as the modern world realised with shock when the ruins at Pompeii were revealed). For example, 19th century British explorer Richard Burton wrote that phallic worship in Dahomey, west Africa, “is uncomfortably prominent; every street from Whydah to the capital is adorned with the symbol.”

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The cultures of Asia show many examples of phallic worship…..

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In the western world the 1960s brought the ‘Sexual Revolution’ at the same time as an explosion of interest in all things mystical and occult. The still prudish atmosphere of the mainstream at the time, plus the materialist backlash against spirituality that has been raging since the 1980s, has prevented as yet a proper reunion of the sexual and spiritual sides of our humanity. When it comes to sex, we as a species are still learning about the basics of respect, equality and consent, and maybe we have to get these properly in place before we can truly embark on the pagan, tantric, embrace of life in all its pleasure giving glory, before we can access all the potential of the life-giving, pleasure-giving sexual organs, symbols and tools of the divine creation, and of the divine creative presence within us.

Pleasure is a Goddess

The Ancients knew

Pleasure dissolves the boundaries

Between Me and You.