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.