An Exploration of Dark Paganism

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Gothic Paganism
by Elizabeth Barrette

<KA-CHING!> You have just pulled the Lecture Lever on the Bard-O-Matic. Please stand by for data dump.

What is this "Gothic" stuff?
Gothic refers to a lifestyle which blends modern and historic elements of darkness and power. Goths often love the color black, also other dark and powerful colors like purple, blue, and burgundy. A Goth dressed as a Goth is pretty hard to miss; the outfit may hark back to Victorian or even Dark Age garb, with white lace and black scarlet-lined cloak, or it may draw on modern times with leather, more lace, chains, and sharp spiky studded collars or wristbands. No, they don't look like bikers, though the differences may sound subtle in a text description. There are a number of Gothic clubs, bars, and other gathering places, mostly in large cities; and there are some Gothic events such as conventions and other gatherings. While many Goths cherish their solitude and love to haunt lonely places, most of them do enjoy the company of other Goths and similar like-minded people.

Goths may frequent cemeteries, read horror stories (one subgenre of which is even called "gothic" horror) especially the classics like Shelley's Frankenstein, tell ghost stories, have a keen interest in the processes of death or decay, study psychology (especially criminal psychology), enjoy the sight or taste of blood, appreciate old architecture including mausoleums and cathedrals, delight in reminding people that everyone has a dark side, consider rain and fog "beautiful weather" and avoid the sun, live a nocturnal life as much as possible, appreciate wild places, see social game rules as arbitrary and sometimes ludicrous constructs, collect death symbols (especially merry macabre ones like dancing skeletons), read mythology about death deities, struggle openly (as opposed to secretly) with powerful desires, believe in confronting rather than avoiding fears and challenges, and generally find appeal in things that most folks consider somber and unattractive, even disgusting. There are many more markers of this type, as there are for any culture, and most individuals have some subset of these rather than all of them. In fact I doubt that anybody has them all, and of course this is just a partial list. Some people have a sizable subset of these markers without necessarily identifying as Gothic, although they may follow a similar path.

What does vampirism have to do with all this?
Some people find the idea of being a vampire, or being bitten by a vampire, appealing. Many value the concept for its dynamic potential, for in much of the best literature the vampire is a creature striving to maintain its humanity against dark and powerful urges. The vampire becomes a symbol of struggle, transformation, freedom, desire, passion, and power. It also ties in with the ancient feminine blood mysteries. In some ways, for instance, role-playing a vampire can teach a person a lot more about what it means to be human. Vicarious experience is still a great way to learn ... and a lot less dangerous than some of the other options.

Not all Goths are interested in vampirism of whatever sort, though many are; and not all vampire mavins are Goths. Given the similarity of content (i.e. the fascination with darkness, desires, power, and forcing people to deal with things they'd rather ignore, like death) it is no surprise that these two subcultures overlap. Yes, some modern "vampires" really do drink blood, and believe it or not a lot of them are ethical and they have no shortage of eager "donors" who derive some pleasure or other desired experience from this. Suffice it to say that this, like most activities, can be done well or badly depending on the participants.

What, then, is Gothic Paganism?
Gothic Paganism is a relatively new path arising from the overlap between the Gothic and Pagan cultures. Some Goths have discovered Paganism, and some Pagans have discovered Gothdom, and from this has sprung a fresh tradition which incorporates both ancient and modern motifs. A sizable number of Gothic Pagans have come to their path because they got sick of a spreading attitude in the Pagan and New Age communities that dark = evil. Well, it doesn't, and plenty of folks know that. Sade Wolfkitten and Terry Sindar did the first known study on Gothic Paganism, with initial results made available in 1996; issued in Gothic and Pagan forums both online and in hardcopy, this study probably remains the most cohesive piece of work on Gothic Paganism.

Gothic Pagans often encounter stiff resistance from the rest of the Pagan community. A lot of people would like to believe the world is all sweetness and light, but it isn't. They hate being confronted with these powers and passions, with the inevitability of death and its dark glory, with the wild and the untamed and the ferocious. Why? They don't want to let their Beast out of its nasty little cage, and they want desperately to pretend that it doesn't exist. But it does. Darkness is not evil. Ignorance is evil. By confronting and exploring out deepest selves, we can draw on that inner strength instead of stifling it. This comes in real handy when the shit hits the fan. Put another way, which would you rather trust to ride: a horse that has been through sixteen different rivers and freaked out a few times but made it across, or one that seems perfectly calm but has never gotten its feet wet?

If you go exploring down this fascinating path, you will discover that Gothic Paganism spans quite a variety of disciplines. Followers may choose their divine patrons from almost any pantheon, given that they usually gravitate towards deities with darker aspects. Popular totems in this tradition include anything commonly maligned and feared, such as Bat, Scorpion, or Wolf. For those with an interest in herbalism, favorites are powerful beneficial plants which turn deadly if misused: Belladonna, Foxglove, Mistletoe, etc. Some Gothic Pagans practice ceremonial magic, either a system of their own construction or a classic such as Enochian or Thelemite magic.

What are they all about?
Gothdom and Gothic Paganism are about self-exploration and self-expression. These people understand that dark is simply the natural complement of light, and not necessarily bad or evil, but offering its own wisdom and benefits. Denying strong emotions like rage or fear does not banish them; only confronting them can do that. Repressing them just causes them to build to a point of explosion later on. By working with their shadow selves, Gothic Pagans learn acceptance and control, and gain mastery over their own power. Each person must take responsibility for his or her own actions, feelings, and decisions ... including the consequences thereof.

Gothic Pagans want to find out who and what they are, and deal with that, and develop their strengths. They are willing to face a lot of ugliness and pain in order to do that. They believe the rewards are worth it, and experience strongly suggests they are right. You must heed the voice you hear in your heart, and if it leads you into darkness, trust that there is a reason. We all must walk the path which calls to us. For some, that path leads through shadows ... and we come to know them as friends.

What are some other darkpath traditions and related interests?
Numerous other Pagan traditions deal with darkpath elements. The ancient Sumerian belief system did this quite graphically in the well-known myth "The Descent of Inanna." In fact, Her sister Erishkegal is one of the better darkpath deities to know. Erishkegal is the Goddess of Thankless Tasks. Baggage check, sis! Kali is another famous dark goddess. She creates and destroys, fucks and kills, wears a necklace of skulls. She remakes the Universe when necessary. Nobody messes with Her. Arawn is the Celtic god of the underworld. In the old stories, His hounds dealt with traitors, rapists, and certain other scum. Some of the Druidic mysteries deal with this deity. The Druids also know the power of a willing sacrifice (which contrary to popular opinion did not necessarily have to be a death). Afro-Caribbean religions deal richly with power, passion, and death. Ghede and Baron Samedi appear variously as bawdy and elegant, and they are among the most powerful loas. So the Gothic Pagans are hardly alone.

Now, after all this, I must remind you that I myself don't identify as Gothic Pagan ... but I do a substantial amount of darkpath work. I just pulled the following excellent books off my very own reference shelves. So I get into a lot of the same neighborhoods.

Recommended Reading List

  • Romancing the Shadow: Illuminating the Dark Side of the Soul by Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf.
  • The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over by Starhawk with M. Macha NightMare & the Reclaiming Collective.
  • Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery by Starhawk.
  • The Dark Goddess: Dancing with the Shadow by Marcia Starck & Gynne Stern.
  • Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer.
  • Oya: In Praise of the Goddess by Judith Gleason.
  • In Search of Herne the Hunter by Eric L. Fitch.
  • The Wise Wound: The Myths, Realities, and Meanings of Menstruation by Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove.
  • Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance by Evan John Jones with Chas S. Clifton.
  • Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth by Graham Harvey.

I also recommend the classic Star Trek episode "What Are Little Girls Mad Of?" in which Captain Kirk gets split into his dark and light selves ... which, naturally, cannot survive unless reunited.

Here is some good fiction featuring darkness, desire, and power:

  • Children of the Night by Mercedes Lackey.
  • Sympathy for the Devil by Holly Lisle.
  • First Channel by Jean Lorrah and Jacqueline Lichtenberg.
  • Pomegranates Full and Fine by Don Bassingthwaite.
  • An Exchange of Hostages by Susan R. Matthews.
  • Vampire of the Mists by Christie Golden.
  • Nemesis: Book One of Indigo by Louise Cooper.
  • The Killing Dance and Burnt Offerings by Laurell K. Hamilton. These are actually the last two novels in her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series but they're also the best; read the earlier ones if you wish.
  • "Trials of the Damned 4.0" by Gwendolyn Miriel Piper and "Hands of a Dark God" by Raven Kaldera in the anthology S/M Futures edited by Cecelia Tan. This anthology combines high adventure, erotica, and speculative fiction ... these are just the two most relevant stories since all of them touch on the same basic themes.

"Gothic Paganism" copyright 1998 Elizabeth Barrette, first posted to FIRE listserv, revised for web publication July 1998. More of Elizabeth's writing can be found at PenUltimate Productions

All work is copyright the listed author.

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