Authentic Pagans in the Modern World

By William Bloom

(from GreenSpirit magazine, summer 2009)


Some pagans and eco-spiritual campaigners despair of modern life, which they see as having abandoned all connection with earth, elements and seasons. But from another perspective, this is not so. The core pagan instincts are actually fully alive in our general culture but in new cultural forms.

The spiritual experience of the natural world still throb in modern, urban culture. The rhythms of nature and cosmos still dynamically express through us. The basic and tribal instinct to pulse our bodies to nature’s rhythms never ended. Millions, billions, for example, still dance! In fact, there is more non-stop dancing and music than ever before on our planet: rock and roll, pop, disco, raves, MTV, thousands of bands and gigs. In these situations people absolutely feel the connection and common pulse of life. You may despair of ipods but view them more hopefully. Human creatures are enjoying music and rhythm.

We also still follow the seasons, going to the beach in the Summer or to the snow in the Winter. And our connection with the natural world also manifests itself in many mass consumer and media habits, as we buy plants, keep pets, take vacations in beautiful places, watch nature programmes, sail, trek and do all the other activities that connect us with the natural environment. You can either perceive all this through the half-empty glass of yearning for a time lost, or hopefully, noticing nature’s rhythm in new forms.
Even though we are urbanized, even though we have been so tragically destructive to the landscape and our natural resources, we are still glorious apes – full creatures of this planet. Watch the natural flow, rhythms and good humour of children; remember what it feels like to be one of them – the bubbling vitality. We still curl up in our beds like hamsters in nests. We slurp and enjoy our food and drink. We know how to rest and we know how to play. We know when to be with others and when to be on our own. We have all the pulses of creatures who are fully alive.

Whatever certain green pessimists may think of our species, we are still emergent beings from the earth and universe – and instinctively, we know it and feel it.
We also find great enjoyment with each other. We truly enjoy our culture together, engaging in our mutual concerns and delights. The beauty of a flock of birds moving in unison, the glory of a forest – this kind of complex connection also erupts through mass humanity.

Urbanized humanity throbs in its own way to the vibrancy of being alive. People love being industrious and creative. The cities are filled with marvels. The arts, social care, education, sports, science and technology are brilliant. It is a sad person who can see the beauty in the colour of a butterfly’s wing but is blind to the beauties of human society.
At one huge rave in the UK in the 1980s, 10,000 people gathered in a remote aircraft hangar to dance through the night. High on natural endorphins and ecstasy, the deejays led the rave into a peak of blissful rhythm which exploded at dawn. The whole eastern side of the warehouse, a huge door, slowly began to rise, revealing the rising sun. The dancers, pulsing with the music, merged with the landscape and the light of the new day.
The megalopolises and great cities of our world are no more separate from nature than bee-hives, anthills and bat colonies.

The arts in general are also an expression in many different forms of how we experience, interpret and express the world around us. Detached from the land, humanity has not lost its sensibility to the rural and wild environment, but has stretched its artistic response to include all aspects of civilization, sublime and grotesque. This is obvious in dance, painting, sculpture and writing. It is also there in popular music. Hip-hop is precisely an interpretation and expression of urban social and technological reality, its use of rhythm, voice and movement absolutely in parallel with tribal and pagan dances that, too, reflect their environment.
Who were the great pagans and animists of the last century? It is not useful to look to the pagan ceremonial teachers, because – to a degree – they missed the point, detaching from the mass collective, the human tribe, and yearned for something lyrically romantic. Surely it is more appropriate to look to Picasso, James Brown or Marilyn Monroe. These are the true medicine people, shamans and gods/goddesses of the last century.
What then were the great pagan events of the last century? Again, we need to look to popular culture: the great rock and roll concerts, the sensational movies, the explosion of MTV and the global Live Aid events.

I write all this celebrating life as it is.

If I were melancholic, then of course I would be looking to a romantic lost time when things were better. The challenge, for me, is not to be over-stimulated or harassed by the noise of the modern world. The challenge is not to be a grumpy Green. The challenge too is to understand the changing flows of history and culture and see through the plastic bling to the soul that is always there.

Biophylia – the embedded, cellular love of nature – is inside us simply by virtue of our existence. As the pagan chant goes: Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath and Fire my spirit. Not just out there, but inside too.

William Bloom is an educator, author and activist working in the field of spiritual and holistic development. He is a founding director of the Foundation for Holistic Spirituality and Spiritual Companions.