Lately the Pagan blogosphere has been buzzing over, well, the word Pagan – what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and who should and shouldn’t be called one. GG and I made our position pretty clear early on (What’s in a Name?) – we are the PAGAN Princesses after all! But with all the hullabaloo, much of which is coming from the Don’t-Call-Us-Pagans-We’re-Heathens camp (i.e. my peeps – though we didn’t start it this time! See below for who did…) I thought I’d broach the subject again.
A little over a month ago, GG took a stab at creating a Pagan taxonomy and found it to be a daunting task indeed. We are a truly diverse lot, and many people are coming to the conclusion that we are, in fact, so diverse that trying to fit us all under one label creates a meaningless word. Many people are also concerned that the word “Pagan” has been charged with a certain set of expectations that anyone outside of Wicca won’t fulfill. For example, I consider myself a Pagan. But I don’t:
- Cast circles to create a sacred space (or for any other reason)
- Call on elements (fire, wind, water, earth, spirit, metal, wood… none)
- Wear (or use) a pentacle
- Use an athame (or other ritual knife), a chalice, a wand, or crystals
- Have any idea what moon phase it is (or refer to the moon as a feminine entity; to Heathens the moon is a man and the sun a woman)
- Cast spells
- Celebrate the Wheel of the Year
Does this surprise you? Most people outside of the Pagan community (and even some people IN the community) assume these are Pagan. They aren’t. They’re Wiccan. And many Reconstructionsts (like Heathens, Druids, Rodnovers (Slavic Pagans), and Hellenes – I’ve written on Recon before, if you want to take a look) whose practice looks nothing like Gerald Gardner’s witchcraft, are frustrated with the assumptions made about them when they introduce themselves as Pagan.
Another front across which lines are being drawn is the nature of polytheism. Wicca is often duotheistic instead of truly polytheistic. According to Wiccan teachings (sometimes, anyway – apparently there are truly polytheistic versions of Wicca*), all male gods are “aspects” of a divine Lord, and all female gods are aspects of a divine Lady. To duotheistic Wiccans, it doesn’t matter if you worship Freya, Athena, or Isis – you’re worshipping the same divinity. To a traditional polytheist (what we in the community call a “hard polytheist”) it makes a tremendous difference because we believe they are all independent beings who could be insulted by treating them as interchangeable.
Hard polytheists along with their Reconstructionist counterparts (who are, for the most part, hard polytheists; for clarity’s sake, I’ll lump these all together as “Retro-Pagans”) also differ from Wicca and other modern eclectic** faiths (for clarity’s sake, I’ll lump these all together as Neo-Pagans) in the emphases of their practice. While Neos spend the majority of their focus on ritual or spell work and communion with gods, Retros tend to spend most of their time in ancestor worship*** and working with/honoring some version of landvættir (i.e. land spirits). While Neos have a strong emphasis on individual experience and personal growth, Retros have a strong emphasis on community and creating one’s place within the tapestry of time and space. Neos have great reliance on personal gnosis; Retros are okay with personal gnosis as long as it is labeled as such (and backed up by an old book). Retros are working to bring the spirit of something humanity lost back into the present time (with reasonable adaptations for modern living, of course). Neos are more content to let the past be and build something new for the future.
We are different. Quite so. But the fact remains that we all of us find inspiration in pre-Judeo-Christian gods. We all practice a faith focused on life and not on an afterlife. We all revere nature (or her spirits) in some way, and our holidays are mostly based around cycles of nature. We all are willing to accept a variety of religious paths as valid (though we may think some are better than others ) and are not particularly interested in evangelizing. And we all share a common struggle for social acceptance in a society that still too-often paints us as devil-worshipers or superstitious nuts.
Personally? I think it may be more relevant to use the label Pagan on the same organizational level as “Abrahamic,” the bucket label for the (quite disparate) faiths following YHWH (the diety of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith), than it is to put the category “Pagan” on the same organizational level as the specific religion “Christian.” Then under big-bucket-category Pagan there can be broad religious divisions such as Neopagan, Reconstructionist, Polytheist, Folk, Native/Aboriginal, etc. Under each of these, we have specific religions such as Neopagan-Wicca, Reconstructionist-Hellenismos, Folk-Forn Sed, Native-Cherokee, etc. (And let us hope we can keep better peace with our fellow Pagans than the Abrahamic faiths, at least in the Middle East, seem to manage with their fellows!)
Until such a time comes that our individual faiths are big enough and recognized enough that telling someone I’m Heathen doesn’t conjure up images of hell-raising-wild-child and Ásatrúar doesn’t result in utter confusion, I’m perfectly happy to use the label Pagan. Like many of my fellow Retro-Pagans, I got here via Neo-Paganism, and I owe Neo-Paganism a debt of thanks for helping me find my home.
When it comes down to it, at this point and time I believe hanging together is better than hanging separately. But there are a variety of other opinions as well, and some of my favorite posts are below:
* Rogue Priest – Why I’m Not Pagan (the article that got the latest round rolling)
* Wild Hunt – Paganism, Solidarity, and the Way Forward
* Patheos – Real World Benefits of Not Being Pagan
* Meadowsweet and Myrrh – Religious Branding
* Black Pagan – Pagan or pagan?
* Pagan in Paradise – Witch Wars Revisited
We’d love to hear your opinions on this brouhaha. What do you call yourself?
*Star Foster, if you happen to read this and want to take a moment to comment about or link to one of your articles on Polytheistic Wicca (isn’t that what you practice?) I would love to have your perspective here for balance.
** In Pagan terms, “eclectic” is a faith that draws from a variety of different faiths and ideas instead of staying within an established cannon. We see this in the difference between Traditional and Eclectic Wicca (Traditional being a version of Wicca descended from Gardner’s original coven and Eclectic being a “created” Wicca that draws from Gardner’s faith but also from other sources at the practitioner’s discretion). It can also mean someone who mixes New Age or Eastern medicine and religious practices (like Feng Shui or yoga) into Paganism (Feng Shui is a secular practice that some people use religiously; yoga is a secular or a spiritual practice that isn’t Pagan in origin). Finally it can mean someone worships gods from multiple pantheons, either as a hard or soft polytheist. I have met eclectic hard polytheists before, and from what I’ve seen the “hard poly” trumps the “eclectic” and those I’ve met practice more like Retro-Pagans than Neo-Pagans, but that’s a personal observation and not something I’m stating as fact.
*** Worship in the sense of “showing ritual honor and respect” and “turning to for advice and spiritual assistance” not in the sense of “bowing at the feet of in awe and/or supplication”