Pagan Roots in the East

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The Hindu god Ganesh is popular with many modern Pagans.

Paganism and occultism in the English-speaking community today owes a lot to the East. Sure, most of the borrowed Eastern ideas have been adapted and changed over the years by various English practitioners but the basic ideas themselves are from Eastern sources. We don’t have to look very hard to find things that come from the Middle East, from India, from China and other Asian countries.

Let’s start by going way back in history to before what we call the Common Era, before the religion of Christianity was founded. The Hebrew culture flourished and had established itself in Israel among their Arab neighbors firmly entrenched in the area we now call the Middle East. The Hebrews and later the Christians were exposed to the dualistic philosophies of the Arab Manichean and Zoroastrian religions which explained reality in terms of a constant battle between a god of Good and a god of Evil. Arab scholars (famous in Christianity as the exotic Magi) taught their sciences of mathematics and astronomy to eager Greek and Roman philosophers who incorporated the ideas into their own systems. Some of these teachings are so integrated now that we use them every day in the English-speaking world without even thinking about it. The system of numbers we use today, 1 2 3 4, was introduced to Europe by Arab scholars and quickly replaced the Roman numerals which were in use previously. It’s interesting to note that so-called Arabic numerals actually originated in India.

Arab names for stars are also commonly used today without a thought regarding their origins. Betelgeuse and Aldebaran are just two star names that are based on Arab terms. It’s also interesting to note that in ancient Persian astrology there were four “royal stars” which were associated with the equinoxes and solstices and were considered to be guardians. Aldebaran is linked to the spring or vernal equinox, Regulus to the summer solstice, Antares to the autumn equinox, and Formalhaut is associated with the winter solstice. Perhaps some of the emphasis on the solstices and equinoxes and the astrological associations with them trace at least partially to Arab sources. It’s also possible that the four elemental Watchers mentioned in English occultism come to us from these four Persian stellar guardians.

Gods, goddesses, and new religions were also introduced into European cultures from the East and in some cases became wildly popular. The goddess Cybele was known in Rome as “Magna Mater” (the Great Mother) although She was a foreign goddess who had come originally from Phrygia, now part of modern Turkey. Cybele’s sacrificial son/consort Attis was celebrated every year with a pine tree that was cut down, decorated, and then set up in a place of honor in the town. Sound familiar? 

Ancient magicians were also clearly familiar with Eastern deities such as Ereshkigal from Mesopotamia. In some of the incantations and spells from ancient times provided as English translations in “The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation” edited by Hans Dieter Betz we have all sorts of examples where not only were Eastern deities named and evoked, but they were invited to assist the magician along with other very European deities at the same time. My favorite example of this is a love spell on page 44 of Betz’ book where Kore, Ereshkigal, Hermes, and Thoth are requested by name along with many other deities. Magick has always been about being practical and getting things done. Ancient magicians seem to have been quite comfortable drawing eclectically from multiple cultures on the theory that every little bit helps. 

Other Middle Eastern ideas have had an enormous impact on European and British religion: Judaism and its popular descendant, Christianity. In addition to dominating European and British culture with the conversion to Christianity, European occultists took wholeheartedly to the mystical theory of the Cabala. It’s hard to study magick and modern Paganism today without acknowledging the huge influence of the Cabala. The Cabala is the primary source of a lot of our numerological theory, theories about correspondences and planes of existence, and is the underlying philosophy behind most popular versions of the Tarot. The massively successful Rider-Waite-Smith version of the Tarot deck and the hundreds of other decks based on it that are available today owe a lot to Eliphas Levi’s work in the mid 1800s linking the Tarot and Cabalistic theory.

The mid to late 1800s and early 1900s were a boom time for occultism and Eastern philosophies merging with European and British culture. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Col. Henry Steel Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 followed by the publication of Blavatsky’s books “Isis Unveiled” and “The Secret Doctrine.” The Theosophical Society sought to produce a universal philosophy embracing religion, occultism, and science. To do so Blavatsky drew heavily from Christianity and Judaism but also from her understanding of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religious systems. Blavatsky claimed to be in frequent contact with Tibetan spiritual masters (a claim which was never proven to be factual) and promoted the idea of a secret and invisible group of super-evolved humans referred to as the Secret Chiefs, Invisible College, or simply as the Masters. The Theosophical Society was very popular and still exists today.

Another highly influential group, founded in 1888, was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn with its first base in London England. Two of the main founders, William Wynn Westcott and Samuel “Macgregor” Mathers, were Freemasons who were also involved with a number of different occult groups at that time. Like Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, Westcott and Mathers claimed that their group was a branch of a larger group that was guided by a secret inner circle of highly evolved beings. Also like Blavatsky’s case, the Golden Dawn claim to a formal link to higher established authorities has been largely debunked.

The Golden Dawn as an organization lasted only until about 1900 when it fell apart after a series of personality clashes and political shenanigans among the society’s leaders. The teachings however lived on as former members went on to found their own groups such as the Alpha et Omega, and its own subsequent descendant the Society of the Inner Light (founded by former Alpha et Omega initiate Dion Fortune.)

Between 1937 and 1940 occultist and author Israel Regardie published the Golden Dawn rituals making them easily accessible to anyone who wanted to read them. The Golden Dawn system is a complex mixture of Cabala, astrology, Hermetic philosophy, Jewish and Christian symbolism, but also includes clearly Eastern material such as the use of the Hindu tattwas, yoga, and meditation techniques taught in India. 

Another notable occultist of the early part of the 1900s who built on Golden Dawn material was Israel Regardie’s mentor, Aleister Crowley. Crowley didn’t stop at just keeping Golden Dawn teachings alive but expanded on them quite extensively with his own very Eastern-influenced material. Crowley’s teachings include Eastern practices such as yoga, tattwa meditations, and assorted concepts from both Hindu and Buddhist philosophies as more than just add-ons to his system: they were key parts which his students were expected to practice and master. Crowley also did a lot to popularize the Chinese divination and philosophical system we know as the I-Ching. Its elegant system of yin and yang polar opposites, combined in the eight possible trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams, is evident in a lot of Crowley’s writing. Crowley’s group, the O.T.O, still exists today. O.T.O. stands for “Ordo Templi Orientis” or Order of the Oriental Templars. Even the name indicates their Eastern inspiration! 

Moving towards the middle of the 1900s we have the birth of modern Wicca at the hands of Gerald Gardner. Gardner didn’t come to Wicca as a blank slate – before his involvement in promoting Wicca he lived and traveled in the East quite extensively before he retired to England. While abroad he explored magick and folklore of the native people where he was living at the time. Once he returned to England, he became involved with various occult and magickal groups including Spiritualists, Rosicrucians, and Crowley’s O.T.O. He was so involved with Crowley’s O.T.O. that he obtained a charter from Crowley himself authorizing Gardner to administer the first three degrees of the O.T.O. and to establish O.T.O. groups based on those initial degrees. While Gardner never did fulfill the office granted him by the O.T.O. charter, the inspiration that he drew from Crowley was clear in Wicca right from the early days of Gardner’s involvement. Doreen Valiente recounts in her interesting book “The Rebirth of Witchcraft” how she spotted sections in Gardner’s Book of Shadows that were lifted directly from Crowley’s work. When she confronted Gardner regarding this he suggested that she rewrite them. Doreen did precisely that which meant that for at least a time some of the more overt Crowley material was hidden within Wiccan rituals. 

Wicca in particular has more clear Eastern connections besides the link through other occult groups such as Crowley’s O.T.O. A few of the most popular ideas in Wicca trace at least some of their origins to Eastern philosophies. Among those Eastern-inspired ideas are the concepts of reincarnation, the Threefold Law, and even the popular (although not universal nor required) concept that all deities are aspects of a Great Goddess and Great God. 

Reincarnation, or the idea that we go through a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in various forms, is an idea that certainly existed in many cultures in addition to India and other Eastern regions. However the idea fell out of favor with the dominant Christian leaders and was suppressed for centuries in Europe and Britain. When people such as H. P. Blavatsky introduced Eastern philosophical and spiritual ideas reincarnation took off again in the popular mind in Europe and Britain. Reincarnation is still not an official teaching of mainstream Christianity but the idea is known by many in the English community thanks to the work of Theosophists and related groups. So in a way the idea of reincarnation itself died off in English culture, but was reborn in an outwardly Eastern form. The Eastern explanations of reincarnation were then reinterpreted again to fit in with English ideas so what we have now in groups like Wicca is not exactly pre-Christian British Isles philosophy, but neither is it accurately a Hindu manifestation of the philosophy. It’s a very British interpretation of Eastern philosophy along with ideas drawn from Britain’s pre-Christian past.

The Wiccan Threefold Law, the idea that what we send out comes back to us three times over, is often correctly identified as stemming from the Hindu and Buddhist idea of karma. Like reincarnation the idea was probably borrowed from Eastern sources but then was modified to make it fit in with English philosophies. As we’ve moved more into scientific ways of looking at the world the Wiccan Threefold Law is sometimes described as being just another way of saying for every action there is a reaction. Another way of looking at it is that our decisions to act or to refrain from action will have consequences. Whether it is possible to quantify results as threefold or not is something else and may not really be relevant.

The third example of all deities being facets of a larger Divine is one which is popular among many Wiccans as well as other modern Pagans, but is certainly not universal nor necessarily a requirement of belief. There are significant numbers of Wiccans today as well as members of other Pagan groups who believe that all deities are in fact quite distinct and are not aspects of a greater Divine. 

The idea though is not a modern one. It traces in Europe back at the very least to the time of Lucius Apulieus, a Latin author who lived around 123 to 170 CE, who describes the popular cult of Isis as the worship of a Great Mother who is known in many different cultures by various names but is a single Great Goddess. Apulieus’ novel “The Golden Ass” is still available in print today in various translations. 

More importantly for our discussion of Eastern sources though is the point that the idea of aspects and a supreme Divine also exists within that ancient yet modern world religion known as Hinduism. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with innumerable gods and goddesses. However, it is also a religion that includes the teaching that there is a supreme and essentially unknowable Divine, who presents to the fallible human race as limited aspects or manifestations that we relate to as the many different gods and goddesses. One common way this is explained gives the Absolute a name, Brahman. Brahman is beyond human perception and beyond human understanding and so the best we can do is to approach Brahman through various limited manifestations. Kali and Shiva and Ganesha and Durga and indeed all gods and goddesses are merely aspects of Brahman. Being an aspect of a larger Divine does not make them any less real or less distinct!

We might never know exactly how specific Eastern ideas came into modern Pagan religions such as Wicca. Perhaps it is through the teachings of other groups such as the Theosophists, perhaps through Golden Dawn material, maybe it came from some other source that was contemporary or maybe even older. There is still a huge amount that we don’t know about the history of modern European and British Paganism. Some clues are there so we can at least speculate. As we explore more it’s inevitable that more questions will come up as well.

The history of the human race is one of mixing, blending, borrowing, and sometimes stealing. Things rarely stay frozen in just one immutable form. Ideas can spring up in a number of different places independent of each other, and they can blend together into something else that is a product of all the sources. Travel was certainly more challenging in the past but it still happened. Different cultures did transmit ideas from one to the other, and those ideas in turn were passed on to yet other cultures. The British Isles might be surrounded by ocean but that doesn’t mean they are isolated from the influence of cultures in Europe and farther east. Even the mighty yet distant cultures of the Middle East, India, and China have left an indelible mark on the culture, philosophies, and religions of Britain and by extension the English-speaking world. And those Eastern influences are clear to see within modern occultism, magick, and English Pagan culture if we open our eyes to look for it. 

References for information on the four “royal stars.” for the origin of star names. for the origins of the number system we use today. for a brief explanation and history of the concept of karma.

Apulieus, Lucius (translated to English by Robert Graves.) “The Golden Ass.” New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. A modern translation of the Latin classic written in the second century CE.

Betz, Hans Dieter (editor). “The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. An amazing collection of English translations of historical prayers, spells, and incantations that date back to BCE times.

Drury, Nevill. “The History of Magic in the Modern Age.” New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2000. A good exploration of the history of occultism in Europe and the British Isles.

Greer, John Michael. “The New Encyclopedia of the Occult.” St. Paul MN: Llewellyn, 2003. Entries on the Golden Dawn, Theosophy, the O.T.O., and the various individuals who were key players in European and English occult history.

Heselton, Philip. “Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration.” Miverton UK: Capall Bann Publishing, 2003. An excellent presentation of the direct influences on Gerald Gardner and the origins of Wicca.

Huson, Paul. “Mystical Origins of the Tarot.” Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 2004. An excellent explanation of the history of the Tarot deck.

Hutton, Ronald. “The Triumph of the Moon.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An often-recommended scholarly account of the influences that lead to the formation of modern Wicca.

Jones, Prudence & Pennick, Nigel. “A History of Pagan Europe.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Provides a good overall account of the history of Paganism in Europe.

Regardie, Israel. “The Golden Dawn.” St. Paul MN: Llewellyn, 1995. Detailed explanations of the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Turner, Patricia & Coulter, Charles Russell. “Dictionary of Ancient Deities.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Descriptions of deities and their historical origins.

Valiente, Doreen. “The Rebirth of Witchcraft.” Custer WA: Phoenix Publishing, 1989. An amazing historical account of Wicca including many first-hand stories by a highly influential High Priestess.

Note: This article previously appeared in Issue 96 of Circle Magazine.