Awyn Dawn’s Paganism for Prisoners is one of those rare books that is much needed during our current, turbulent times. A quick search in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation for the past twenty years yields a paltry 64 articles and reports on the subject of religion. While some articles start at the positive impact on reduction in recidivism rates for those who are involved with a faith tradition while incarcerated or in treatment, minority traditions, such as those under the umbrella of Paganism are rarely mentioned, if at all. It is understandable therefore that a book entitled Paganism for Prisoners might appear to be a misnomer, rather than a serious attempt to address a clear need for the incarcerated who are choosing a path under the auspices of Pagan, Heathen, or Polytheist traditions and for those who serve them in ministry.
This book demonstrates the need for more Pagans to provide service in prison ministry for the growing population of new adherents who face not only the rigors of incarceration, but a climate that does not often recognize the needs of those who have discovered Paganism while behind bars.
Paganism for Prisoners presents as both a journey and reference book for the new or novice practitioner in a correctional facility. Dawn is an author who crafts this work carefully, starting with a disclaimer for the reader that would serve any magical practitioner well: “Common sense is a virtue, one which you should utilize at every given opportunity…. Remember, we are each responsible for our own choices.” (p.xiii) Ethics and responsibility are hallmarks of many traditions; Dawn’s decision to open this book with the disclaimer and the excellent foreword by Christopher Penczak serves as a reminder that this is a growing population in need of the best that the larger Pagan community can provide in terms of teachers and volunteers willing to serve inside the correctional facility setting.
The set up allows Dawn to approach the rare topic of the Pagan incarcerated from a place of genuine knowledge and experience; second, she demonstrates the long-term effect that spiritual volunteers can have on the incarcerated by her own hard work and choice to serve in the manner that helped her. The work of clergy is difficult at best. Dawn explains the reality and the possible solutions with a deftness that belies the often difficult situations that both the incarcerated and those who serve from outside the institutions face. Normally, the goal for any institution is to reduce recidivism, and the learning of spiritual practices such as those found in Paganism are a good start. Often there is a fine line however, between the practices of a given facility and the ethics and practices of Pagan paths.
Penczak’s candid introduction places the reader directly into the heart of the conflict with prison ministry and those who serve and the perceptions of those who are incarcerated. The standard training in many Pagan paths does not prepare the individual for prison ministry, despite the increasing number of individuals behind bars or restricted to treatment facilities who choose to follow a Pagan, Heathen or Polytheist path. Prison ministry is not the glamorous side of Pagan life; indeed, many facilities have difficulty finding those who are willing to commit the time and the patience to serve those who are under far more restrictions than the average person. Penczak truthfully notes “You cannot do this work and not be changed by it.” (p.xvi) He describes what is commonly seen by those who enter prison ministry: an amalgam of individuals with different practices united by their desire to have a place, a group, a spiritual home to explore those beliefs with like-minded people. Penczak’s candid words present one side of the experience: the volunteer on the outside who ventures into the realm of prison ministry not knowing what to expect. Penczak emphasizes how the words “religious requirement” are the keys to open the gateway to a fuller experience for those being served. His description of something that the outside world takes for granted, such as the freedom to take off one’s shoes and feel the grass beneath bare feet, remind the reader how even the smallest magical act is transformative for the incarcerated.
Dawn presents incarceration as a time to “reset the switch on my life” (p. 21), as she used that time to gain focus and clarity through studying Wicca. For many among the incarcerated, the benefit of books to a religious practice is invaluable. The benefit for Dawn is how “this hobby of mine kept me from getting into situations that could have lost me earned time.” This is a reality quickly faced in many facilities. The positive aspect of following a new religious path is the time it takes away from committing actions that might result in increased penalties or time added to one’s sentence or commitment.
One of Dawn’s biggest lessons regarding service that clearly resonates is how consistent and regular visits by the Wiccan chaplains provide a positive influence to those needing an example of what life could be like outside the correctional environment. The use of time becomes a strong theme and reminder of how to navigate the sometimes difficult transitional phase of parole. The lessons Dawn describes “learning how to be accountable, honest, patient, and the beauty of making small sacrifices to the gods” (p. 22) are similar to the experiences a new initiate faces on the path of learning with the gods. The strongest words in the first part of the book are a reminder, “that it is possible to have a strong spiritual practice no matter where you are or what your life’s circumstances are.” (p. 23) Dawn approaches this book’s audience with a combination of humility and practicality: read widely, question anything that does not seem right, and keep track of your findings in a book devoted to magical knowledge.
The strength of this book lies in its simplicity: thirteen lessons allows for this work as a teaching guide over the course of a traditional year-and-a-day format or for something longer. Dawn clearly specifies a goal to promote an increase in volunteers to give back to those who are clearly eager to learn and to connect with real life practical knowledge of one of the many traditions that fall under Paganism. She presents as a teacher advising those who use the text to “read the room” to know if more time needs to be taken with a particular lesson. The best part of the introduction is an explanation of not including spells and developing an appreciation of time to devote to introspection. Dawn plays on the teaching aspect by dividing the work into lessons, rather than chapters.
The first lesson, “The Power of Words and the Power of Silence”, begins with one of the most important lessons: the gift of silence. “If you don’t learn to silence your mind and be comfortable there, you will never be able to hear the voice of the Goddess nor will you be able to appreciate the opinion of another. “(p.30) Maintaining good boundaries, recognizing the power of words, and remembering our actions as Pagans honor the gods helps those who are beginning the journey as well as those who have been walking with the gods for decades. The focus on meditation and the exercises at the end of the chapter invite the reader into steps along the path while not being too intrusive.
Each lesson follows Dawn’s stated purpose: to present a text that helps to establish a foundation. In the second lesson, “The Gods”, Dawn is careful to note that this is one understanding, but not the only one. The author repeatedly reminds those reading that certain understanding is one, but not the only possible explanation. The exploration of various aspects of the Goddess and the God with a sample listing of deities who fall into each category allows a deeper insight for the beginner.
While the third lesson, “Elements and Elementals” on the elements is quite impressive, the fourth lesson, “Tools” has immediate surface value for the incarcerated and the chaplains who volunteer to do this work. The inclusion of elemental correspondences, practical acceptable alternatives for tools, plus suggestions for cleaning, charging, and blessing makes this lesson one of the most useful in this book.
Lesson Five “Rituals and Devotions” and Six “Wheel of the Year” are two of the longest chapters in the book. The focus continues to be on the needs of the novice practitioner; however, Dawn goes from the basics in grounding and centering to providing numerous modifications that will help those new to Pagan practices navigate facility requirements for conducting ritual for spiritual and religious purposes. The inclusion of a full ritual, meditation, and the guidance to understand the importance and meaning of ritual provides a solid foundation.
When discussing the sixth lesson, “Wheel of the Year”, Dawn reminds readers of the saying “Keep the sabbats if you want to keep your witch power.” (p.118). By this point in the book, the reader trusts Awyn Dawn’s voice which resonates as a trusted friend and companion on the journey onto a new spiritual path. The list of sabbats, while not exhaustive, does provide a good start for beginner. The inclusion of other events, such as handfastings, and crossing over are mentioned, but with less detail than the rest of the chapter.
Lesson Seven, “The Moon” provides one of the more fascinating examinations of the moon overall, the female vs. the male moon cycle, and the Native American traditional esbat names with a meditation for each. The level of detail makes this part of the journey accessible without being overwhelming for the reader. As in previous examples, Dawn promotes advocacy with individual facilities to increase meeting participation by requesting permission to meet on esbats, as well as sabbats.
In Lesson Eight, “Divination and Your Intuition”, includes tips from Dawn’s own reading practices, simple exercises, guidelines for divination, and a detailed list of divination tools. The section reviewing the “clair” senses works well for beginning and advanced practitioners. The strongest part of this lesson comes with a strong caution regarding the use of altered states. “Your faith should never be an excuse to get high.” (p.144)
Lesson Nine, “Familiars and Animal Magic” provides a solid background on preparing to have a familiar, including answering the question of whether having or creating a familiar is something that should be done at all. Dawn provides advice and questions to consider before making the choice to get or to create an astral familiar. There is an intriguing discussion of animal magic and how to use meditation to develop a relationship.
In Lesson Ten, discussion of “Afterlife and Death”, Dawn explores death, reincarnation, spiritual ancestors, and the reality of how to revere the dead in a way that is both respectful and thoughtful. The list of ways to celebrate and honor the ancestors is timely.
Lesson Eleven delves into “Ethics in Magic and Life” with coverage of the Wiccan Rede, karma, and how our choices play a key role. The approach with this chapter covers how to work with the Gods. Dawn does not presume the level of depth and knowledge the reader might have, which makes this a stronger work. A brief introduction to various types of spells includes a clear warning about ethical considerations before doing the work. The highlight of the lesson hearkens back to book’s first lesson: words have power.
Dawn reminds the reader of the importance of self-knowledge and power through an exploration of the self in Lesson Twelve, “Know Thyself”. The brevity of the lesson on the page does not hide the powerful and timely exercises for the novice.
Although I looked forward to Lesson Thirteen, “Manifesting Change”, I felt that the long chapter involved a number of topics that Dawn begins to address in earlier lessons. This chapter is the only real flaw in a much needed addition to books on Paganism. Dawn’s introduction and conclusion reinforce her initial two-fold goal: “to encourage others to volunteer their time in jails/prisons/institutions and to give the gift of magic to those who are open to receiving it” and letting the book “serve as a foundation. “ (p.4)
For those seeking a strong introductory foundation, Paganism for Prisoners provides a path with guidance. An excellent addition to a cannon that is sorely lacking in texts which address the needs of a growing population of new Pagan adherents and those of the prison ministry that serves them. Awyn Dawn tackles this difficult subject by presenting facts in an engaging, compassionate manner that does not sugar coat the truth about walking a Pagan path as an incarcerated person. The best way to avoid recidivism is a path similar to the one Dawn has taken: service, commitment to the larger community, and adherence to a strong practice. This book would fit as required reading for anyone called to serve in prison ministry, especially in the context of Paganism. Moreover, this book opens window on a world that few get to see or know.
~review by Clio Ajana
Author: Awyn Dawn
Llewellyn Publications, 2021
pp. 269, $18.99
Editor's Note: Awyn Dawn is speaking at the Denver library (via Zoom) on Saturday March 26th, 2022.