“Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own. […] and I was seized with the fear that I was falling apart. At the same time I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying. […] I soared where my hallucinations — the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves […] billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal — were swirling along,” (Gustav Schenk, The Book of Poisons (1956), pgs. 36-37, documenting his experience with henbane seeds).
Like many youth, I spent my teens and early twenties pursuing spiritual truth and escape from reality through entheogens. Terence McKenna famously recommended five grams and total darkness. I recreated these circumstances to the best of my ability, encountering a wild phantasmagoria of astral imagery, entities, and far off places. Radical visions accompany this unfettered liberty. As each generation is initiated into this subculture, we rebel against social custom, law, and upbringing, bitingly calling attention to societal hypocrisies and the failures of both culture and ourselves.
Potent upheaval spills from our shadows.
As my mind emptied through mental landscapes of trauma and conditioning, the kaleidoscope eventually ran out, leaving me with nothing but the deafening and maddening awareness of Nothingness.
I termed this the Void. The Fall from high-flying Pleiadian lightships and astral travel marked my soul with bitterness and angry confusion. The timelessness promised by drugs was abruptly broken into periods of adulting, work, responsibility. Still, the imagery is mesmerizing. Some attach to devils and devas alike. Unlike many of my psychonaut companions, I survived the folly of youth.
The Void pressed on–in the memories of their dark pupils, and in terrifying dreams of what it is like to die. Growing up, returning to the material world I’d abandoned for heaven encouraged critical re-analysis of all I’d seen and encountered. The longer I spent sober, the more material reality came into focus, and the more it all felt like a dream.
Those who return–we find ways to make it through. We come back from the mountaintop with a new appreciation for art, life, love, religion. We re-integrate and orient ourselves as parents, activists, massage therapists, or Buddhists. Those who fail to return stay imprinted in our minds or their own–eternal youth, ruling the astral planes promised by dancing visions, imagination, and drugs. They are Ganymede, Antinous, dead rock stars and murdered children, images of hippies and protesters.
Amanita muscaria so clearly showed me how easy it is to become trapped in the astral. I was abducted into another world, a dungeon ruled by powerful and magical mushrooms much larger than myself. I could stay here forever–and that terrified me. With such great force and all the strength I could muster, my legs climbed backwards up the wall and I vomited straight down onto the floor, collapsing back to this world, relieved.
Wicca, while commonly perceived as a haven for the astral dalliances I’ve outgrown, welcomes me as a post-Void home. In Paganism, I’ve found space to engage with my irrational mind–its traumas and anxieties who likewise evade rational explanation. The Pagan gods offer Queer reflections to this heterocisnormative culture I am immersed in. And while others may pray to them, for me they are an archetype to restore to the mind, a hirstory of our presence here, and a reminder of my own Power.
My coven connects me to the youth of other generations–some still navigating their own mushroom dungeons, while others similarly engage in this experimental psychology of post-theistic Paganism.
I remember years ago that an academic researcher interviewed me for a study on Paganism in Appalachia. I disappointed her. In my juvenile state of weed-induced visionary vomit, she saw Paganism as little more than youth counterculture.
At first, my ego was wounded by the truth of her assessment. In my foolhardy play, had I been unfaithful to the pagan ancients who allegedly inspired me? In entering Wicca, I’ve found the patterns of my astral explorations repeating back through the modern age–in my high priest and in the magicians who likewise inspired him. Entheogenic researchers like McKenna of course assert that our relationships with hallucinogens extend back much further, to the ancients, even to the evolution of the species.
But for me, being a stoned ape has grown to be simply a starting point, not an end goal or spiritual focus. For all his talk of machine elves, even McKenna eventually broke through to the Void. Though apparently cut from the final form of his brother’s book, Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, this passage sums up his experience:
“Terence’s pivotal existential crisis came abruptly. Sometime in ’88 or ’89. Everything that happened after that event was fallout. I don’t know exactly when it happened and I don’t know exactly what happened. I am piecing it together from what Kat has told me and she has volunteered few details and I am reluctant to probe. It happened when they were living for a time on the Big Island and it was a mushroom trip they shared that was absolutely terrifying for Terence. It was terrifying because, for some reason, the mushroom turned on him. The gentle, wise, humorous mushroom spirit that he had come to know and trust as an ally and teacher ripped back the facade to reveal an abyss of utter existential despair. Terence kept saying, so Kat told me, that it was, ‘a lack of all meaning, a lack of all meaning.’ And this induced panic in Terence and probably, I speculate, a feeling that he was going mad. He couldn’t deal with it. Kat’s efforts to reassure him were fruitless. After that experience, he never again took mushrooms and he took other psychedelics such as DMT and Ayahuasca only on rare occasions and with great reluctance.” (source: here)
The Void uncovered beneath the astral, the crisis of our existential reality, the poetry of life upon the Nothingness–these things call me forward, not as a believer or devotee of any gods or God, but as an appreciator of metaphor, a human, a heretic, even a Witch.
Why not stop at plain atheism? Many do. And perhaps I will join them one day. Why atheopaganism? Because, from my perception, our world is full of rituals, full of god-characters, and full of bullshit we wholly believe in. Some are poetically beautiful, others are harmful.
Since 9/11, traveling by airplane has increasingly involved the ceremonial security theater of checkpoints, shoe and full-body scans. Is this so different than any protection spell in any Wiccan grimoire? Both are laughably reductive performances engaged in for the sake of our mental well-being.
We form loyalties to brands whose products we only buy to acquire social capital or to appease the trauma of being told we’re ugly or fat without them–ever catch yourself humming commercial jingles? Is this less questionable than chanting in communities united in maintenance of a commons?
We believe in mythic terrorists–Muslims and transgender women, while ignoring the atrocities of the church and state represented by those who peddle in those myths. Are these myths more believable because they lack the label of gods–lack social standing?
Wicca, for me, offers a framework for seeing through to the Power of myth, manipulating that Power to subvert patriarchal social dynamics, or at least, learning enough self-discipline to reject myth that is undesired. It is a necessary post-Void step, for me, in a world that believes in so much–more than just gods, more than rejected by atheism alone–regardless of how or what I believe.
More assertively, claiming the mantle of Witch, refusing fear of Satan or any god–these aspects of Paganism evoke the superstitious fears of those religious despots traumatizing the world I live in. They level our playing field, and call into question the absurdity of their belief systems.
Wicca grounds me in ritual practices that incite personal empowerment, provide community, and grant me a greater sense of control over the irrational forces–anxieties and traumas–that complicate this life. And unlike many of my ritual companions, I embrace an atheopaganism that discerns deeper than the astral entities and dreamscapes that entice us in siren song.
The Void is not something I wish to escape or cover. It is the reality of nature I seek most to celebrate. Wicca, for me, is a guiding force to maintain that vision of existential reality in this material world of glittering politics and terror.
Sous les pavés, la plage!