Imagined, but not imaginary


This article was first published in October. Under my references I did cite: “On The Pagan Parallax: A Sociocultural Exploration of the Tension between Eclecticism and Traditionalism in Contemporary Nature Religions” by Léon van Gulik. However, Chas S Clifton is correct. Especially in the first two sections of my article, there are a number of paragraphs that are indeed too closely comparable to Van Gulik’s writings. It seems that I did indeed fail to fully acknowledge and credit Van Gulik’s work, and that some of the conceptual ideas I utilised in my writings were substantially similar to the originals. Although I did to some extent change the original words, and did cite Van Gulik’s work under my References, I did indeed failed to indicate where I utilised his ideas and failed to fully credit him when I did so. I hereby wish to sincerely apologise to Van Gulik and his publishers, and wish to assure them that I at no time intended claiming Van Gulik’s work as my own.

The following revised version of said article has been reworked below. [Ed.]

“To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.” – Emily Dickinson

The imagined and the imaginary play a central role in much of religion, but nowhere is the line between the two perhaps more blurred than in contemporary Paganism which as an experiential religion – where spiritual meaning is gained from direct experience and intention, and it is one of the few religions which is neither regulated or guided by holy texts and dogma.

Because of the individuality of this religion it is difficult for contemporary Pagans to justify their spiritual experiences, and this is also complicated because much of  Paganism is exactly that, contemporary or modern, and as such it is also a religion re-imagined – true, often based on earlier forms of paganism but always practiced in a rather individualistic method.

In “On the Pagan Parallax – A Sociocultural Exploration of the Tension between Eclecticism and Traditionalism as observed among Dutch Wiccans”, speaking about the development of  certain forms of contemporary Paganism, Léon A Van Gulik writes: “…these religions constantly have to reinvent or reconstruct their traditions. At the same time, the present context is entirely different to that of when the classic paganisms emerged.”

It is clear that while certain Pagan (and Heathen) paths are closer to their origins, and have been “reconstructed” by modern adherents, the question regarding both the selectivity and veracity of historical texts utilised in this process remains largely unanswered.

Perhaps these reconstructed paths are merely another form of eclecticism cloaked in a thin veil of re-imagined authenticity?

On the other side of the coin, the majority of contemporary Pagan practices are more or less eclectic, where “re-imagining” and “re-inventing” ancient practices tends to be the practice and the norm – although most Pagans will defend their “traditions” with ardent passion and deny that anything has been imagined. 

Simone Weil wrote: “Imagination and fiction make up more than three-quarters of our real life.”  And this may indeed be true for most paths within contemporary Paganism.


“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.” – Bill Watterson

The word eclectic stems from the Greek word “eklektikos” which means “selective”. And this is exactly what eclectism is. It is the selection of elements from a variety of sources and systems, and is as such not based on tradition, but is rather the formulation of “new traditions” (an oxymoron, I know).  

 Although much of our eclectic paths are founded on earlier contemporary traditions, even these founding traditions are not very old and may have been rather eclectic themselves –  while it would also be difficult for Reconstructionists to claim that their traditions are devoid of  all eclectic elements.

Traditionalists and eclectics often fail to see eye to eye, and one of the main disputes is the question of authenticity. The irony is that Pagans face the same criticism from outside Paganism, where non-Pagans often dispute the authenticity of Paganism but rarely question the religion itself.  Addressing this issue, Van Gulik writes: “…most engaged criticisms revolve around the issue of invented tradition. Most strikingly different however, is the fact that these discussions outside Paganism and those inside are virtually identical.”

So it seems that the perceived “inventiveness” of Pagans is problematic to both Pagans and non-Pagans alike, and this has fueled a certain amount of uncertainty when it comes to another subject: whether a personal religious experience is true, truthful, imagined or merely imaginary.

But the imagined, and in this case even the imaginary, has not necessarily been to the detriment of Paganism. In fact it would seem that being inventive and being imaginative may exactly explain how much of paganism and some of its traditions and beliefs managed to survive into modern times. Fantasy, or the imaginary, may in fact have helped ensure paganism’s survival.

 In her article Paganism is not Fantasy (or maybe fantasy is paganism), Greenfairy explains: “Spells, cultural history, stories, lessons and mythology survived many times by being put into children’s songs, stories, and activities… Have you wondered where “fairy tales” came from? These are not simply fantasy. If cloaked in enough symbolism, pagan themes can be easily overlooked by Christianity.”


“A tradition without intelligence is not worth having.”  – T.S. Eliot

Pagans often talk about their traditions, however, tradition is presumed (as defined by The to be rooted in the “passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation”, something often ancient and tested, and as such not something most of contemporary Paganism can lay claim to.

As most non-reconstructed Pagan paths are pretty much eclectic, tradition, as defined above, is practically nonexistent and plays a very small role, and most individuals are free to formulate their own belief systems and practices, and most do exactly that – and this begs the question of truth and especially personal truthfulness.

Personal truth and truthfulness are two very tricky subjects.

I know someone who claims to have met an invisible dragon in the Drakensberg. He swears by it and believes it, and this experience has become part of his spirituality. However, as I believe that dragons are mystical/symbolic/archetypal creatures, there is simply no way that his personal truth can become my personal truth. So not only do I not share his truth, but I cannot share in his spiritual experience.

Truthfulness, one the other hand has more to do with honesty or the lack thereof. It has to do with integrity – something many Pagans seem afraid to tackle especially when it comes to personal gnosis. This approach of accepting a person’s word when it comes to anything spiritual has seen an “anything-goes-attitude” develop within contemporary Paganism – and this has in turn led to accusations, especially from the more conservative Abrahamic religions, that Paganism tends to be an imaginary religion.

So, what are the differences between imagined and the imaginary?

According to The

Imagined:  “To form a mental picture or image of, or to make a guess; conjecture…” 

Imaginary:  “Having existence only in the imagination; unreal…” 

As can be seen there is indeed a difference between the two concepts. Imagined seems to me to refer to conjecture, and as such it is a creative and visionary process – as was utilised during the formation (or should I say formulation) of many modern Pagan paths. Imaginary, on the other hand, refers to make-believe and as such it is devoid of vision.

It has often been said that there are no absolute truths, and in Paganism truth is indeed determined by each individual. But this is problematic as Paganism is not only made up of individuals but it also represents an authentic spiritual community and culture – and idiosyncrasies have the habit of crossing over from individual to group.  And nowhere could this perhaps be more risky than in what is known as unverified personal gnosis (UPG).


“All are lunatics, but he who can analyse his delusion is called a philosopher.”   – Ambrose Bierce

Though it is unclear exactly who first coined the term UPG, according to Wikipedia consensus seems to be that the term and its variants originated in the Germano-Scandinavian Reconstructionist communities in the 1970s. The first written mention of the term appears to have appeared in Kaatryn MacMorgan’s book “Wicca 333: Advanced Topics in Wiccan Belief”, published in March 2003.

Gnosis is a Greek word, and Plato, for example, used the terms “gnostikoi” and “gnostike episteme” in the text called Politikos. In this context the concept means the “knowledge to influence and control”, which is exactly what I think we should guard against.

“Tending to the Flame of Brighid: Reconstructing an Order of Flame Tenders from Pre-Christian Ireland” by Micheál O’Miadhachain) makes it clear that when considering whether someone’s UPG may be worthy of inclusion in your spiritual practice, the following guidelines may be useful:

• No UPG should contradict known facts about the associated culture, and no practices based only on UPG should stand as more than modern inventions.

• If a belief or practice based on UPG does not contradict known facts, but cannot be verified within the same body of knowledge, it remains a modern invention.

And here the concepts of imagination versus the imaginary become important to practitioners of contemporary Paganism. For even when an UPG has gone through the “checklist”, the question of truthfulness remains. However, like in the case of my friend who talked to a dragon, even if his truthfulness is not questionable, the usefulness and veracity of his experience can still be questioned.

As Paganism is not dogmatic no one has the right to enforce their version of the truth, especially not when it involves personal gnosis. It is called “personal” gnosis for a very good reason. I strongly believe that personal truths, no matter how sincere, can never, and should never, become shared experiences.

Without truthfulness the imagined can easily be transformed into the imaginary.


On The Pagan Parallax: A Sociocultural Exploration of the Tension between Eclecticism and Traditionalism in Contemporary Nature Religions by Léon van Gulik


– Tending to the Flame of Brighid: Reconstructing an Order of Flame Tenders from Pre-Christian Ireland by Micheál O’Miadhachain, June 2009 at


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2 Responses

  1. Helen says:

    Now I can post this great quote that reminded me of your article 🙂

    “He who has imagination without learning has wings but no feet.”
    Joseph Joubert (1754-1824)

  1. May 25, 2012

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