I am a Pagan

Star Foster – of Patheos fame – asked me to weigh in on a controversy that’s apparently raging right now over Pagan identity.

Over the years I’ve struggled* with the meaning of this term and its lack of precision. I’ve opposed attempts at unity based on homogenization. And let’s face it, I’m mostly critical and contemptuous when it comes to the Pagan community at large. But at the end of the day I still feel that there is something inherently “Pagan” about my religious practice and philosophy. In some ways I think that this might even be a more accurate designation than “Hellenic” or “Greco-Egyptian” or even “Local-focus polytheism” – because for all of its numerous faults Paganism has two important things going for it: aesthetics and continuity.

Until comparatively recently – say, the middle of the 20th century – this word has had a fairly definite meaning. “Pagan” referred to whatever the Church found unacceptable and disturbing. Pagans were those who resisted conversion or clung to their ancient ways even when they were forced to conceal them under the illusion of Christian symbolism. Pagans conducted strange, secretive rites in the woods. Dressed in animal masks and other frightening costumes they danced beneath the moon, they invoked ancient, forgotten gods; they feasted and drank, laughed and fucked; they celebrated life even when all around them was ugly, brutish and cruel. This rebellious spirit of mirth could not be extinguished. Yes, the Christians succeeded in eradicating ancient Paganism – they destroyed the temples, murdered the priests, burned the books and converted the common folk – but the spirit remained and always found new ways to manifest. In art and literature, in folk customs and the festivals of saints with dubious histories at best, and a thousand other ways besides. There may have been no direct line of transmission – but the same ideas, the same practices, the same essential core can be found everywhere and at all times, because deep down man’s soul is Pagan. When you read accounts of the Kalends of January celebrations, bacularia, Coptic Nowruz, the Feast of Fools, European mumming, the Witches’ Sabbath, Tarantism and all the rest it’s hard not feel a powerful affinity between these things. The elements that run through all of them are the stuff of my Paganism, even if much of it only came about as a response to Christianity and is, sadly, for the most part lacking in contemporary Paganism. But I don’t really favor this designation so that I can find common ground with Wiccans, Druids, Ceremonial magicians, Recons, etc. The Pagans that I feel the deepest kinship with are the ones whose stories I’m telling over at Eklogai as well as the visionary and rebellious authors, artists and philosophers who have proudly claimed this label as their own over the centuries. I am honored to stand in their company and share the name with them, and that’s why I’ll never completely abandon it even if my Paganism has nothing to do with what most people think of when they hear that word today.

* Note that this is a link to a forum where my piece was posted without permission. This should not be taken as tacit support of that forum, nor can I vouch for the accurate reproduction of the essay. You can find a correct and complete version of it in From the Satyr’s Mouth: Wit and Wisdom from an Opinionated Polytheist.

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23 thoughts on “I am a Pagan

  1. While over time I get much less worked up about what to call myself (maybe because I’ve mellowed out, maybe because I just don’t talk to many people anymore and it doesn’t come up), and I don’t mind the term “pagan” as much, I still vastly prefer “polytheist” – gets rid of the baggage of modern paganism, has a precise definition, and puts the focus entirely on the gods.

    • I am so beyond caring what other people call themselves – or even me for that matter. And while I do tend to refer to myself as a polytheist, especially in casual conversation to avoid the baggage that contemporary paganism has, there are elements of my religion that aren’t necessarily god-focused, even if the gods retain their hierarchical position in my religion. Stuff like history, culture, aesthetics, symbolism.

      • True. However, I have yet to find someone who calls themselves a polytheist ignore or even deny the actual existence of the gods, which unfortunately I’ve seen from plenty of pagans over the years. Polytheist, at least, explicitly declares a belief in the gods, and makes such belief (and its attendant worship) primary, whereas “pagan” as often as not describes a contemporary lifestyle or subculture that doesn’t have much to do with actual worship, belief, or anything else.

        I’m really glad I’m no longer invested in being part of ANY community, so I don’t have to deal with these dilemmas anymore!

  2. Soliwo

    Sannion, I think I use the term pagan for much the same reasons as you do. Drew Jacob does make some interesting points to mull over, especially the following bit:

    “Individual Pagan groups should strike out on their own, as yours did, and not restrict their activities to other Pagan groups! Culture fairs, interfaith work, anything: it does us no good for Paganism to be thought of in terms of a unity. It’s misrepresentative and invites people to dismiss Paganism as a whole based on their impressions of one group.”

    I am not yet sure how I feel about this.
    But I do feel it is significant somehow.

    • I actually agree with a lot of what he said in the piece, despite my preference for this term. To be perfectly honest with you, I’ve stopped going to local Pagan events or advertising in the hopes of meeting interesting people to do ritual with. Paganism tends to attract an inferior class of people – not just poseurs, but people with profound mental and spiritual illnesses. I’ve had far greater success putting my efforts elsewhere, in the type of activities, events and groups that he recommends.

  3. Addy

    In certain parts of my community, there’s a lot of kuffufle about labels and how they apply from person to person. It’s quite easy enough to say, ‘ well shoot, I don’t need that, labels smaebles. .’ but then you get a person who is genuinely interested or intrigued about who you are and what you do. . .and in those circumstances, I’ve found a label goes a lot way.

    That having been said, in a great many of my encounters with people who aren’t pagan, there’s a lot of mixup between “Paganism” and Wicca. Or satanism, as the negative stereotype. You tell people you’re pagan and you’ll either get them thinking you’re a ‘tree hugging hippie feminist’ or a spawn of satan demon worshiper (wasn’t so bad out in Cali, but in the bible-belt, naturally, it’s just awful). Of course, I settled on using ‘Pagan’, anyway. People don’t look to kindly on ‘Theistic Luciferian’. ‘Pagan’ is much simpler (and safer). I’ve mentioned *once* I was Luciferian to a longtime friend. They ran screaming for the hills and never came back. Versus the dozens of times I’ve said ‘pagan’ and someone goes, ‘ Oh, you worship more then one god?’ and I say, ‘yep!’ and then usually, they don’t ask many more questions that I can’t easily explain. So, in that sense ”pagan” has also become synonymous with “polytheist”.

    So, in other words. Whatever floats you boat. . .? ;)

    • And labels can help us articulate our ideas and practices better, even if just to ourselves.

      For the most part, though, I avoid these sorts of debates and the people regularly engaged in them, because they rarely lead anywhere meaningful and usually just devolve into petty bickering and insults.

  4. I have two major definitional problems with replacing the term “pagan” with polytheist:

    1. It excludes all those pagans who aren’t polytheists: the animists, the henotheists, the monists, those who focus on the orisa, or the ancestors, or nature spirits, or the elements, or…

    2. One of the most significant changes I’ve noticed in modern paganism over the last few decades is the gradual inclusion of more retro-pagan approaches. While all of the Indo-European pagan cultures practiced reverence to multiple gods and are thus polytheistic, they also all practiced reverence to nature spirits and ancestors. I see it as a real sign of maturation in modern paganism that the nature spirits and ancestors are being honored by more and more modern pagans. The use of the term polytheist encourages an unbalanced emphasis on just gods.

    • Personally, I’m not advocating that all people who use “pagan” should instead use “polytheist” – simply that the latter is a more appropriate term for me, especially given all the various connotations of the former that *don’t* apply to me.

      It’s true, technically you could say it focuses on gods over other entities, but I feel that’s a matter for deeper discussion with whoever you’re talking with – no term is really going to be perfect anyway, and encompass everything one does and believes. My practice actually puts quite a large emphasis on spirits instead of gods, yet still polytheist seems okay to me.

      • If we’re speaking strictly on a linguistic level I don’t know that it does privilege gods above other types of entities. The Greek words theos, theion, etc. were inclusive of a wide range of divine beings and often used interchangeably with daimon and related terms. In Homer (Iliad 20.4-9) when the assembly of all the gods is called everyone and everything from Zeus on down to nymphs and rivers and heroes are present, with the only exception being the great earth-surrounding Okeanos.

    • I’m totally okay with excluding such people. I’m not interested in bridge-building, political support or community involvement for the sake of community involvement. For the most part I’m quite happy being a solitary or worshiping as part of a small group. The only reason I’d be even vaguely interested in reaching out to someone is for the sake of group worship and if they don’t agree with me on things like theology, aesthetics and ritual style then we’re just not going to gel very well when it comes to worship. Further, my worship is purely devotional in focus. If someone doesn’t even believe in my gods or is trying to get something else out of the experience then there’s going to be a fundamental conflict there unless they’re willing to put their beliefs and expectations aside. That approach has certainly worked well in the past – but I am not willing to compromise in that manner, nor would I expect someone else to do so regularly. Ergo, it’s best that I just do my thing and they go off and do their own and the less interaction we have the happier I’m sure we’ll all be.

      I agree very much with your observations about the importance of ancestor and nature spirits, however.

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  6. For myself, I prefer “polytheist”, but I’m not a fanatic about it. My tendency is reverence and devotion to local spirits and the ancestors, but there are a few gods in there, as well. I am still unsure of any solid division between “spirit” and “god”, but words are words.

    “Polytheism” is also valuable in that it covers so many variations: animists, henotheists, those who call their greater accessible spirits by other words like “lwa” or “kami”, those who focus on ancestors or nature spirits, and so on. Pretty much everyone who accepts that there are spiritual entities worthy of devotion, and who also don’t deny to others the legitimacy of their different spiritual entities worthy of devotion or even the legitimacy of not devoting themselves to any spiritual entity.

    • *nod nod* And that is definitely why I use the term myself. As far as I’m concerned the only distinction between spirit and god is in their relative power* – otherwise I consider them similar types of being, sort of like the relationship between dogs and wolves.

      * An ancient Greek, especially if he had some philosophical inclination, would probably have added that gods are immortal while spirits – though long-lived – are not. But since some of the gods I deal with are explicitly dead gods (e.g. Dionysos and Osiris, for instance) that distinction kind of loses any meaning for me.

      • One of the questions that I have been struggling with for a long time now is, “What does it mean when a god dies?” Death, in the case of mortal humans, is comprehensible to some degree, but for immortal gods? That’s another question entirely. It’s not helped any by the fact that the situation seems to be different with different gods who have been said to die.

        I’ll have to compose a post on that sometime.

        • I think that’s the key: the deaths of Dionysos and Osiris were very different (Osiris, as an example, remained dead and forever dwelt in the Beautiful West – Dionysos, on the other hand, was continually reborn) which is really the problem I have with people lumping a bunch of them together as a kind of dying and resurrecting god ala Frazer. You really have to seek to understand what each death means in its proper context – especially what it may have meant to the individual devotees. Even then I’m not sure that we fully can – or that any human could, for that matter. This was, after all, a central component of many mystery cults suggesting it’s beyond human comprehension. What I wonder is, are there gods who did not simply go from the earth or the divine realm into the land of the dead – eg death as a transition to another state of being – but rather ceased to exist entirely?

          • And from the Shinto mindset, conceptualizations like that in Mononoke-hime are also contributions to the discussion, I’d say, not to mention the story of Izanami and Izanagi.

            Then there’s the mythic idea in which the gods are only immortal due to a particular substance that is not an inherent attribute, like the Apples of Idun or the Soma. Without it they would be as mortal as any other.

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