A Pagan/Polytheistic Understanding of the Twelve Steps

by Nora     

     I need to write this essay under a pseudonym because, while I need to
     discuss my own experience, I also need to respect the tradition of
     anonymity in the Twelve-Step Programs. Anonymity is needed, not so much to
     protect my privacy, but to protect the program against my potential
     megalomania. Although I would be happy to identify myself to anyone
     privately, I must abide by the Eleventh tradition, which states, "We need
     always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and

     As for my qualifications for writing this essay: I have over 6 years of
     sobriety in the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and 1 year of recovery in the
     Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Al-Anon programs. Although I have been a
     consciously practicing Pagan and Witch for only 1 year, my personal
     theology has been polytheistic for over 15 years.

     I will discuss each of the twelve steps in turn, sharing my understanding
     of these steps within the context of a Pagan theology. I can only share my
     own experience and my own understanding. I in no way claim to speak for all
     Pagans or for all members of Twelve-Step programs. I wish to share what
     works for me in the hope that some or all of it may work for someone else.
     As I was told at my first meeting, "Take what you like and leave the rest."

     I do not see these steps as a set of directions; rather, they are a
     description of a process, the process of spiritual and emotional growth. My
     understanding of this process has continued to evolve, mature, deepen. I've
     come to believe that the only step limited to those of us with some type of
     addictive/compulsive behavior is Step 1; the rest of the steps can be
     experienced by anyone. The process of Steps 2 to 12 -- reaching toward
     divinity, knowledge of self, attainment of serenity through knowledge of
     the divine -- has been described by Socrates, Aquinas, the Kabalists and
     other Ceremonial Magicians, the Shamans, and others (to greater or lesser
     extents). I propose that what Bill Wilson and his colleagues did was
     describe this ancient spiritual process in a vocabulary that could be
     understood by the working-class drunk. In no way did this diminish the
     power or mystery of spiritual metamorphosis.

     As in the ancient schools and spiritual / magical disciplines, you do not
     walk the journey of the 12 Steps alone. The role of Mentor/Teacher within
     the Anonymous programs is fulfilled by the Sponsor; and I'd like to take
     this opportunity to thank the men and women who have held my hand during my
     journey: Gina, Pat G., Dorothy B., Jim R., Nancy, and Despie -- Blessed Be!

Step 1.  We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable.

     In September 1981 I could not deny that I was powerless over alcohol; that
     from the moment I took the first drink I could not predict my behavior. I
     could also see that a lot of the unmanageability I was experiencing in my
     life was a direct result of my drinking. This insight was a double-edged
     sword; the knowledge that I was controlled by a substance that I thought I
     controlled was completely demoralizing; but I was liberated by the message
     that I would be free by refusing the first drink.

     I am one of the lucky ones. I haven't found it necessary to take that first
     drink since my first meeting (not everyone who comes to A.A. is given this
     blessing). However, with this blessing comes the knowledge that the
     unmanageability in our lives is not due only to our drinking.  Step 1 does
     not say "therefore our lives . . ." If there were a direct cause-and-effect
     relationship between the drinking and unmanageability, there would be no
     need for Steps 2 through 12. As the alcohol left my system, I began to
     understand the threefold nature of the disease of alcoholism: physical,
     emotional, spiritual. Once the physical part of the disease had been dealt
     with, by the actual detoxification and abstinence from alcohol, I became
     aware of the emotional and spiritual sickness in my life, and I began my
     journey through the steps.

Step 2.  Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

     My initial panic with this step was over the phrase, "restore us to
     sanity." All my life I've known I was different, been told that I was
     crazy!  How could I be restored to something I had never experienced? Gina
     convinced me that at some point, maybe when I was two cells big, I was
     sane. I have come to believe that the gods intend for me to be healthy and
     sane, that I can be "restored" to sanity even if I am being restored to
     something that had previously existed only as an intention.

     Now, I could look at the first part of the sentence, "Came to believe that
     a power greater than ourselves." I knew I couldn't re-store myself to
     sanity; therefore, if it could be done, it would have to be done by a power
     greater than me.

     (I'd been reared in a Catholic household, and I had been a  "searcher"
     since about age 12; that was when I decided that there was a logical
     inconsistency in Catholicism as I saw it: if God was infinite, why would He
     have only one path leading to him? An infinite god would have infinite
     paths. Curiously, this led to six years of constant battle with my parents
     as I explored one church after another. Unfortunately, I'd never connected
     with one that met my needs, not until February 2, 1987, when I met The

     So, yes, I believed there was a power, divine, greater than me, who could
     restore me to sanity. I didn't know what or who it was. Would "it" restore
     me? If it didn't, I would die: this I KNEW. I chose to believe it would
     until proven otherwise.

     Would anyone who had not (at some level) reached the cross-roads described
     by this step begin to  search for a connection with divinity?  I think not.
     There must be a need, a void that must be filled, before someone will begin
     the arduous journey toward the gods; the search inside and outside yourself
     for the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, the Child, Father, and Wise One.

Step 3.  Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

     Again, I started at the end of the sentence. Did I understand God, and if
     so, how? My understanding has undergone tumultuous evolution throughout my
     sobriety. Sometimes I needed the white-haired, long-bearded father of my
     childhood fantasies; the ethereal nonentity / energy / force of my
     adolescence. I still couldn't pigeonhole god. The Siddha tradition
     beckoned, but wasn't the answer. My mind could not encompass
     undifferentiated infinity; yet any attempt to define it denied the
     infinite reality of the divine. The polytheistic pantheon model of
     divinity answers my need. I can communicate with subsets, or aspects, of
     the infinite godhead. The gods and goddesses are nodes in the holograph
     that is divinity. 

     Could I turn my life and my will over to the care of the gods?  What of
     "free will," that essence of being human?  Would it be taken from me?  I
     felt that the key was in the word "care"; to be cared for is not the same
     as to be dominated.  To be cared for is to be given direction, but the
     decision to follow that direction was still mine. The decision of this step
     is actually a conscious affirmation of our relationship with the divine: we
     are children of the gods. My initiation as a Priestess of the Craft, a
     dedication of my life as a member of The Lady's clergy, was a dynamic Third
     Step; it was taking this step into a dimension I had never experienced, in
     fact, had never dared to dream possible.

Step 4.  Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

     "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
     With Step Four we identify the recurring patterns of our lives, in order to
     see where our personal strengths and weaknesses lie. Some people reach this
     point in their program and attempt to write elaborate autobiographies. On
     more than one occasion I have seen others become mired in confusion by
     approaching this step in that manner. I have found that listing specific
     subjects, and then looking back to see how I have handled these in the
     past, is the clearest way for me to spot patterns.
  •  Relationships:
    • How do they tend to begin
    • How do they tend to end?
    • Do my partners have common characteristics?
  • Money:
    • How do I earn it?
    • How do I spend it?
    • How do I control it?
    • What have I owed?
    • What do I owe now?
  • Time:
    • How do I spend my time?
    • Do I "run out" of time?
    • How would I prefer to spend my time?
    • Why don't I spend my time the way I want to?
    • Are there activities I want to add or eliminate?
  • Self-image:
    • How do I perceive myself:
      • Physically
      • Intellectually
      • Emotionally
      • Spiritually
    • What is the external evidence:
      • Weight?
      • Academic achievement?
      • Mood swings:
      • Time devoted to meditation/spiritual reading?
    • Where does my perception match the evidence and where does it differ?
    • Why?

     There are an infinite variety of subjects that could be used to find our
     behavior patterns. It is very important to remember to look for our
     positive characteristics as well as the negative; this is not an exercise
     in self-flagellation! It is an honest appraisal of who we really are: what
     we like about ourselves, what we don't like but cannot change (I'm never
     going to be any taller than I am today), what we don't like that we can
     change (I've been divorced twice, and I don't want to go through that

     During Step Four we do not concern ourselves with how we're going to change
     our behavior or mend broken relationships. This is an information-gathering
     process. Again, as with Step Three, the Craft offers tools with which to
     work this step in an entirely new dynamic.

     By using the "Meditation Room" (internal astral temple), path-working,
     Shamanic journeying, and totem identification as information sources, I
     have been able to learn more about myself than ever before.  When my spirit
     guide made Herself known to me, I spent weeks meditating on why this
     particular aspect had come to me.  I knew that Her identity held a key to
     who I really was, what I was looking for, what I needed in order to

     I've also been able to use these magical tools to identify the child within
     who had been abused by my parents, and to identify other ACA issues.

Step 5.  Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

     First, when working with a pagan theology, we can choose which
     God/Goddess/Gods to work with here.  In Alcoholics Anonymous, Athene or
     Apollo would be appropriate; for Overeaters Anonymous, Demeter comes to
     mind, etc.

     Next, this is NOT an act of confession, a search for forgiveness or
     absolution. It is a continuation in our journey to know ourselves honestly.
     It has been my experience that we share not only our wrongs, but also our
     rights; we share what we have learned in Step Four.

     My personal theology is based on divinity as simultaneously transcendant
     and immanent; so admitting to "God" was inherent in the process of writing
     and talking with another person.

     Why the other person? Because humans are very gifted at lying to
     themselves. What I had learned about myself in Step Four was of no active
     use to me as long as it remained my secret. I have an in-credible ability
     to "forget" what I have discovered if that discovery remains silent. The
     other person is also important because I tend to be unreasonably hard on
     myself, to chastise myself when it is not appropriate, to fail to give
     myself credit for the good I do and for my talents.  The other person is
     our reality check.

     I have worked this step with sponsors and my therapist. As I shared with
     them, I would be confronted if my perception of myself was being warped or
     clouded by insecurity or egomania.  In no way did I expect these people to
     forgive, heal, fix, or change my life for me.  The act of verbalizing my
     feelings about me and my behavior made it impossible to deny that this was
     indeed how I felt.  My mind could no longer play its circuitous game with
     me, sending me spiraling down through never-ending discovery and denial.
     That pattern was broken; so now I could begin to break the others I had

Step 6.  Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

     We have the same choices with the word "God" here as we had in the previous step.

     The "defects of character" are the patterns that we identified in Step Four
     and shared in Step Five, and that we no longer wish to repeat.  Some
     defects were at one time very useful defenses.

     As a child I maintained a fantasy life in my head, that I could escape to,
     in order to survive in the violent, abusive environment I grew up in.  But
     as an adult, maintaining a parallel, fantasy life was blocking my attempts
     to manifest the life I wanted. A sophisticated and successful childhood
     defense had become a destructive defect.

     As long as a "defect" is useful, we cannot become willing to have it
     removed; but once we grow beyond the defense and recognize the behavior as
     destructive, as a "defect," we can become willing to live without it.
     This decision, this change in perception, this willingness, is the entirety
     of this step. It is very simple and sometimes extremely difficult.

Step 7.  Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

     I change "Him" to "Her/Them" in my understanding of this step.

     There is a legend in A.A. that someone once asked Bill Wilson (who wrote
     the Steps) why Step Five refers to "wrongs," Step Six to "defects of
     character," and Step Seven to "shortcomings." He replied, "I didn't want to
     repeat myself."

     To be "humble" is to be conscious of your defects: so if I ask to have a
     defect removed, I am, by definition, humble. There is no groveling inherent
     in the concept of humility.

     I ask the gods to remove these unwanted patterns of behavior, because I
     cannot do it alone. If I could live my life without the gods, I would never
     have sought a conscious connection with them. That connection is that spark
     of divinity within me that gives me life; it is the true essence of my
     humanity. Therefore, I am capable of nothing without the gods, for I would
     not Be without the gods.

     However, could the gods change my life and the patterns of my life without
     my knowledge or petition? Most certainly, that happens to me all the time.
     When I ask for help, to have something removed from my life, I am affirming
     for myself what was already to be. For once a pattern is recognized as
     useless, it will cease to exist. The petition to the gods is not what
     causes the removal; the petition is to remind me of my relationship with
     divinity.  The strengthening of my understanding of my relationship to the
     gods is the spiritual journey that will heal me.

Step 8.  Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

     As I analyzed the patterns of my life in Step Four, I became aware of the
     people in my life who had caused me pain and those that I had hurt in some
     way. I went back and listed the people I had harmed and a brief description
     of the circumstances. I asked myself if I was willing to apologize for my
     behavior within the relationship, and became willing to clean up my side of
     the street.

     My experience has been that this step helps me understand how I behave in
     interpersonal relationships. I could no longer deny my possessiveness, my
     neediness, my lack of tact or subtlety, the times I had resorted to
     emotional blackmail in order to get my way.  And, as my sponsor
     instructed me, I put myself on the list. I owed myself amends.  I could
     see when I had allowed myself to become the "doormat," to be
     victimized. I could not expect my parents to make restitution for their
     abuse, but I could talk to the child within, hold her, allow her to play
     and have her fantasies realized. I have been able to do these things 
     in my internal "meditation room." The experiences have been very 
     powerful, and have left me feeling whole and serene. 

Step 9.  Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

     A sponsor's guidance with this step is imperative; often a newly sober
     alcoholic will cause unwarranted pain and chaos while attempting to make
     right all the wrongs of the past. My sponsor stopped me when I wished to
     apologize for what I knew I had done, whenever the "wronged" party was
     unaware of my actions; for the amend would have caused pain instead of
     healing. And, I was told, I was one of the "others".  If in making amends I
     was endangering myself, I was to wash my hands of the relationship and not
     attempt the contact, or else send a letter instead of facing the person

     My apology to my first husband was done via letter for this reason.  I was
     afraid of physical violence if I went to see him, and yet I needed to own
     my wrongdoing in the relationship. I sent a letter; he wrote back saying he
     was sorry I was still so mentally ill. So I learned another hard lesson
     with Step Nine: we have no control over how our attempts to mend the torn
     relationships in our lives will be accepted.

     I have found that to do what is ethically right, without expecting right
     action in return, is often very difficult, sometimes frightening, and
     sometimes horribly painful.

     For me, the most difficult spiritual lesson I have learned from this step
     has been a recognition of my personal rights, and the knowledge that the
     times when I have done the greatest harm to myself have always been when I
     have tried to meet someone else's needs at the expense of my own physical,
     emotional, or spiritual wellbeing.

Step 10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

     A continuous analysis of the status of our lives allows us to monitor our
     recovery, to clean up the wreckage of our all-too-human errors. I have come
     to view "guilt" as a form of self-bondage; when my actions within a
     relationship haunt me, I need to take action to restore the serenity that I
     now view as my rightful way of life. Often the guilt I feel is the result
     of my having denied my own rights in a situation: by failing to provide a
     safe environment for myself, by shrinking away from stating my wants or
     needs, by denying my right to live happily. There have been times when, in
     order to make amends to me, I've had to walk out of a situation, a job, a
     relationship. Doing so has been frightening, and painful; but I've become
     more whole, serene, and healthy as a result of taking care of me.

Step 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out.

     I am filled with such gratitude for the tools of conscious contact with the
     divine in the Craft that it is hard to find words to describe what this
     step is like for me now. I spent years looking for a form of prayer and
     meditation that would work for me: in Circle I have felt Her arms around

     The grounding and centering meditations, the path workings, trance
     inductions, divination, Cakes and Juice, are all dynamic, life-giving forms
     of prayer. I no longer accept the existence of divinity on "blind faith";
     I've seen Her, talked with Her, cried in Her arms, and have been healed by
     Her. I know that because of the gift of the Craft I have experienced a
     depth to this step that few of my "mundane" friends in the program will
     ever imagine, let alone experience.

     To ask only for the gods' will for me, through divination or any other
     tool, seems to me why the tools are there.  If the gods' will were of no
     consequence, we wouldn't bother the oracles in the first place.
     Whenever we invoke the gods, ask their protection, draw the power of The
     Mother into our bodies, we are asking for the power to do their will.  They
     are the source of power, and as with any power source we must take the
     action to allow empowerment by connecting.

Step 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

     The result of these steps is spiritual awakening, the continual process of
     growing closer in understanding to the gods. These steps are a continual
     journey, for life doesn't stand still. We are either growing or decaying,
     recovering or sliding backwards. And, like physical life, spiritual life
     requires regeneration.

     We need to pass on the gift of sobriety and serenity, pass on our personal
     understanding of the steps, in order to keep those gifts for ourselves.
     The process unfolds, becomes new, leads me to a new understanding, each
     time I've sat with a newcomer and shared my experience, strength, and hope.
     To carry the message to others in need is not proselytization in order to
     increase the size of the fold.  In some ways it is much more selfish than
     that: to carry the message to others is the only way to continue the
     journey myself and to ensure my own sobriety.

     Thinking the process through in my head, alone, will get me nowhere. I need
     to share the program in order to keep it alive.  As a wise Rabbi once said,
     "Belief without action is meaningless."  I cannot believe my way toward
     spiritual health: I must act my way toward it.

     As a final note, I would like to mention my gratitude for the amount of
     support I have received in the Neopagan community.  When I was first
     invited to a gateway Circle, the High Priestess asked if I had any problem
     with wine in Circle.  I told her I didn't have any problem with it being
     there, but I couldn't drink it. From that Esbat on, the HPs used both juice
     and wine in Circle, in clearly different cups. This same HPs also ensured
     that there were sugar-free cakes available, since my consort also abstains
     from sugar. There have been well-attended A.A. meetings at the festivals I
     have attended, and these festivals and large Sabbats in our area have also
     had juice available in Circle. This understanding that some of our members
     need to abstain from alcohol is a sign of the spiritual strength within our

Nora is a High Priestess of the Protean lineage. She wrote this essay for the Covenant of the Goddess Newsletter sometime in the mid 1980s, and was amazed to discover that it is still available in several places on the Web. The experiential qualifications she states at the beginning are now very old. It's more like 20+ years of recovery and 15+ years in the Craft. Re-reading the essay recently, she found herself still comfortable with the substance of what it says and gave permission to post it here.

Very strongly recommended: The Recovery Spiral by Cynthia Jane Collins
      (NY: Citadel, 2004) ISBN 0-80652-512-6

other recovery links:

  • Pagans in Recovery
  • Web of Addictions
  • or you can return to:
  • Counseling Basics menu
  • Proteus Library

  • The address of this page is http://proteuscoven.com/counsel/Norasteps.htm