European occult traditions often look backward in time for the keys to mystery. The ancient masters encoded secret knowledge for later discovery according to Theosophists and Hermetic magicians. Wicca merely revives the oldest religion according to Gardnerian witches. Whether one understands these claims as literal or metaphorical, they demonstrate a past-oriented attitude and aesthetic that shapes contemporary traditions and their values. The language of kings, queens, domains, and subjects enters ritual forms to frame the role of the High Priest and Priestess or the relationship between gods and humanity.

While royal imagery complements a pastoral aesthetic often associated with modern Paganism, it also calls forth class divides between a privileged elite and the common masses. The atavistic aesthetic may influence the perception of modern Paganism as exclusionary to communities of color, being rooted both in European mysticism and colonizer hierarchies. The regressive tendencies show up differently across modern Pagan traditions, but they are quite evident even in Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca. Even without emphasizing monarchial hierarchies, the cultural models typically applied to “Norse” and “Celtic” traditions still assume a stratified society, divided into warrior-druid-bard heroes and common artisans and farmers.

Framing modern Wicca as a revival of “the Old Religion” establishes a relationship to tradition usually associated with conservative politics. Conservative politics forms a contemporary cult of tradition, hewing to values of an imagined, idealized past that imposes duties of continuation on the present. A “traditional” approach to value reinforces historic injustice such as narrowly defined gender roles and resistance to gender identity and relationship styles that escape narrow confines.

Gardner identifies a focus on returning to nature as one of the essential elements of his witchcraft tradition. The values associated with this element of Gardnerian Wicca embrace a pastoral aesthetic. As an artistic movement, pastoralism frames the desire for simplicity and natural settings as a desire for a traditional life of clearly defined roles such as shepherd, wife, and king. Injunctions against the evils of technology and the modern world appear in Gardner’s writing, often alongside paeans to monarchy and a just, benevolent aristocracy.

While American Paganism contains strains of progressive politics, the duo-theist framework of the Wiccan Goddess and God expand rigid gender roles across polytheist pantheons. When any goddess is reducible to an abstract “Goddess” and every god is reducible to an abstract “God,” divine attributes are subsumed by attributes assigned as masculine and feminine. In addition to ignoring nonbinary gender identity and the transgender experience, the duo-theist framework aligns with culturally defined gender roles, the domain of tradition. In response to internal advocacy, contemporary Pagan traditions have begun to integrate more inclusive approaches to the God and Goddess of Wicca, but the oversight can be attributable to a framework internal to the tradition, not merely one shared by the broader culture.

Fortunately for the progressive, modern Paganism cannot be entirely reduced to its atavistic features. One must bring a critical lens to practice, tradition, and myth, but in so doing one begins a highly rewarding engagement with the path. Through the deconstruction of gender archetypes, political power, and social relationships, a modern Pagan can renew their tradition, affirming it as a dynamic and adaptive context rather than one merely recorded in a history book. When one establishes a coven as a peer community situated in an intersection of identities and related communities, witchcraft steps into the context of life as we live it today.

Racist tendencies that arise in conjunction with heritage-based traditions can be combated with the same critical lens. While only some lineages assert “heritage” as a gatekeeping measure, the dominant strains of “Celtic” and “Norse” Paganism alongside British Traditional Witchcraft have influenced the dominating whiteness of Pagan communities. Nevertheless, a white person investigating their heritage critically is invited to understand a “Celtic” or “Norse” identity and to recognize the very recent creation of white identity that subsumes other identities. Knowledge of pre-Christian people of Northern and Northwestern Europe remains limited because Roman expansion erased or consumed many traces of those cultures, laying the groundwork for a homogenization that Christianity would complete. In other words white people get an opportunity to recognize that imperialism took an identity from them as well, disrupting a continuity they had previously taken only from whiteness.

Pagans of non-English European heritage living in North America should investigate their ancestry to learn about the excluding and plastic nature of whiteness. To understand that French, Irish, German, and Polish people were deemed apart from the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant mainstream and oppressed accordingly is to understand the auto-colonization of European peoples by whiteness. A white Pagan should learn these lessons to build empathy with disadvantaged identity groups as we find them in our current context, to recognize the privilege foisted upon them by the erasure of their ancestry, and to find common cause in remedying systemic social injustice.