Thursday, May 3, 2012

Yes, I’m Pagan!

There’s news, eh?

Yesterday was national Pagan Coming Out Day. It’s pretty much a redundancy for me, since I’m nearly as out as one can be, without actually hanging a ‘witch’ shingle or raising an idol in the *front* yard. (The one is the back yard can’t be seen from the road.) My friends, family and bosses know, and if every co-worker doesn’t know it’s only because we have a pretty religion-neutral workplace where the subject doesn’t come up. Nevertheless I’m a Pagan, and proud to wear the label.

I must admit finding the unwillingness of some folks to adopt the label to be rather puzzling. Yes, I know it isn’t an authentic label from any ancient culture. I know it may be an invented term probably first popularized by Christians to describe the hold-outs of the Old Religion. I know that it conflates systems from multiple cultures into a mish-mash modern term that tells very little about what any individual may believe.

Too bad. I’m willing to use it anyway. I wish more people were. One of the main reasons, I think, that the term is viewed askance is that it has no clear definition in terms of religious doctrine or even cultural description. The word is in flux, and has been for 100 years. I hope to help it settle in to refer primarily to Us. It hasn’t much use for anything else.

So, I have an ongoing philosophical project to devise a definition of the word Paganism that suits what I think are the unspoken assumptions of the movement, and doesn’t insult scholarship. The first part of that isn’t possible in any absolute sense – too many will always disagree, and our theological flux is at least as wide as the flux in the word’s definition. Still, one can apply weight to one’s end of the balance, and see how it goes…

Toward A Definition of Pagan Religions

Let’s start with the schoolboy stuff. I remind us that dictionaries trail behind usage, and are commercial indicators, not legislators of the meaning of words.
I’m rather pleased to see the online Free Dictionary give:
1. An adherent of a polytheistic religion in antiquity, especially when viewed in contrast to an adherent of a monotheistic religion.
2. A Neopagan.
3. Offensive
a. One who has no religion.
b. An adherent of a religion other than Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
4. A hedonist.
(Odd that 'hedonist' isn't on the offensive list...)

Oxford gives:
1: a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions: a Muslim majority had to live in close proximity to large communities of Christians and pagans
2: dated, derogatory a non-Christian.
3: a member of a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or practices from outside the main world religions, especially nature worship.
It is interesting that the current language says “the main world religions”. Just a decade ago it would surely have said “Christianity, Judaism or Islam”, and maybe not Islam.

Merriam Webster gives:
1: heathen: especially : a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome)
2: one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods : an irreligious or hedonistic person
3: neo-pagan

In all three cases I’m pleased to see that neopaganism is given as one of the standard definitions of the word, and that two of the three give traditional polytheism as a/the defining characteristic. Usage has long abandoned the use of ‘Pagan’ to refer to ‘any non-Abrahamic religion’. Dictionaries are following suit, and hopefully on-line pontificators on the topic will catch up.

Also interesting is the ongoing development of the understanding of the etymology of the term.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives:
pagan late 14c., from L.L. paganus "pagan," in classical Latin "villager, rustic, civilian," from pagus "rural district," originally "district limited by markers," thus related to pangere "to fix, fasten," from PIE root *pag- "to fix" (see pact). Religious sense is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for "civilian, incompetent soldier," which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (e.g. milites "soldier of Christ," etc.). Applied to modern pantheists and nature-worshippers from 1908.

That’s all just as I would have said, ten years ago. Lately it has been noticed that ‘pagus’ doesn’t refer to anything specifically rural or countryside. The meaning of ‘district limited by markers’ applied to urban areas as well as to country districts. As a modern metaphor we might think of ‘wards’ or ‘parishes’. Culture being what it was in a tribal or post-tribal Indo-European nation each district would have had its constellation of temples and shrines, around which the natives would have grown up. So if ‘pagan’ has a meaning derived from its etymology (always a chancy claim…) it might be ‘local’. Pagan religion was/is the religion of the Gods of the place where you live.

In this context one can see why even later polytheist Hellenes, for instance, might have used it as a term of disdain. As cosmopolitanism crept into culture, with the establishment of multi-ethnic cities and multi-state empires in Europe, the ‘religious marketplace’ would have come into existence. Many intellectuals and fashionable aesthetes would have been interested in foreign cults, brought in strange books from eastern lands, etc. The fashion in Rome before Christ, for instance, was certainly for various mystery cults – Isis, Dionysus/Orpheus, the fashion for Judaism and the rising monotheism of the Neoplatonists. Those who clung to their local Olympian gods in the old way of sacrifice and blessing might have seemed unfashionable to the literate classes. Unfortunately, that’s all surmise on my part, until we find some snippet of text from the period. It does make sense of the term ‘civilian’ since ‘pagan’ would have most directly meant ‘local’ to the world-travelling legions.

So we find ourselves with both polytheism and locality as characteristics. That’s good so far. What we don’t find is any sense of Pagan applies exclusively or primarily to rural or countryside settings. One hears occasional complaints that ‘urban Pagan’ is a linguistic contradiction. Recent scholarship says it ain’t so.

In later usage the political church used Pagan to refer to all those who held to any of the previous cults or sects. Since the church was willing to consider all of those gods as members of Satan’s single conspiracy of demons it made it possible to imagine a single ‘religion’ that the Christian religion was set against. Thus when that church encountered the tribes of the north they recognized Paganism as well. Of course they were more or less right. The religions of Greece, Rome, Gaul, Germany, and the Isles were similar enough to be recognizable to literate commenters, though different enough to be remarked upon. But rites of sacrifice to great powers, and local cults of stone, trees, wells and springs, as well as varieties of ancestral and ghost religion would have been as recognizable as Lutheranism to a Catholic.

Here we enter a phase where the literate observers of the traditions we seek to emulate are writing from a position of active opposition to what they observe. Mostly we have the laws written by churchmen forbidding the continuing remnants of the Old Religions. In these the most common references are to the making of offerings to wells, stones and trees, along with formulaic language forbidding ‘witchcraft’ or ‘ill-working’ that surely refers to practices that would have been called part of religion by the previous generations. To me, that is enough to indicate the practice of the veneration of ‘natural’ or material presences as the habitations of spirits. That, in turn, is enough for me to refer to the Paganism the churchmen observed as ‘nature worship’.

I know that there are segments of the polytheist scene that resist the term ‘Nature Worship’. I must admit to being puzzled at that. Sure I direct my ‘worship’ (that is, my ritualized respect) mainly to the Gods and Spirits. I don’t see how the Gods and Spirits can be conceived of as outside of nature. Isn’t the idea of a ‘Creator’ that exists outside of the existing cosmic order an Abrahamic thing? Didn’t the Gods arise from the Mater-ial of the world, whether in the First Slaying or from the Cosmic Egg or the Stuff of Night, etc.? To me the whole cosmological picture of Indo-European religions places Gods, Spirits and all *inside* what one might call nature.

All that aside, if one makes offering to a spirit that lives in a tree or stone or pool, that is nature worship. To be clear, this has zero to do with one’s position on political environmentalism, or on any specific model like the Gaia Hypothesis. Traditional Paganism seems plainly to declare that divinity can be present in and as objects in the material world. It is also plainly acceptable, even desirable, to understand divinity as specifically present in or as the object. We can discuss whether some separation between spirit and matter might exist, but we’ll be doing it as we make offerings to a tree or mountain. Even those who make offerings to stars are honoring nature.

So we find ourselves with polytheism, locality and the divine-in-nature as visible characteristics of what has been previously called Paganism. Do we find those in Neopaganism? In fact we do. While the theological discussions of the nature of the Gods in Neopaganism ranges from monism to abstract duotheism to various ever-firmer polytheisms, our practice almost always includes addressing the spiritual in multiple names and persons. The ancients never asked one another whether the Gods were ‘aspects’ of one another, except in moments of philosophizing, and we needn’t either. It simply isn’t important for us to agree on how many gods there “really” are, or what their natures might be, to worship together or to accept that we are part of the same broad religious tradition, which I think it would be simplest to call Paganism.

Locality is the rule in modern Paganisms. While books may transmit broad concepts and some specific images of the Gods and Spirits, every living-room circle or one-woman shrine will make their own connections with the Powers. We can agree that all of our local Hecates are presences of Hecate, but Your Shrinage May Vary as to flavor, potencies or cult from the Hecate in the next pagus. Usually it is poets, who have to entertain in multiple neighborhoods, who have to be able to speak of Hecate (or whomever) in a way that all will recognize. If we were all to simply Pagan up, it would be entirely consistent to simply welcome every hearth-god and local cult as another aspect of the religions. Disputes about who is correct are just irrelevant to a polytheist attitude toward the practice of religion, though they were probably inevitable in the ale hall or symposium.

How nature-grounded is Neopaganism? Not enough yet, imo, but progress is being made. Re-enchanting the landscape isn’t a decision you can make on Facebook. It will take a generation or three to start to have storied places of our new Paganism in North America. Living rooms just won’t be preserved long enough. One can watch the work happening through various blog-windows on the internet as modern spiritual workers make new alliances, meet the guardians of local places, and develop local nature-based cults. Some of our success in securing and remembering storied places may be would up with our ability as a movement to develop institutional management of land and money. That can only be made easier by being willing to join together under a generic banner that makes room for all our local variants.

Finally, it seems to me that some folks resist the label ‘Pagan’ because they don’t wish to be associated with certain others people who use the term. For this I have nothing but disdain. Do these folks think they are sooo cool that they would lose cool-points by wearing the same label as less cool people? Are they concerned that their own coolness will allow less cool people to claim unworthy coolness by association? In personal style I am more like a tie-dye hippie than a business-suit professional, but if I can stand to be associated with various Euro-Pagan followers of Evola, Guenon, etc, then I think even conservative polytheists can stand to be associated with me, in order to grow a Pagan movement that can have a useful impact on western culture.

Pagan isn't a term that can tell much about the specific spirituality of any adherent. Truly the same can be said for the term Christian or Hindu. While Christianity often pretends unity around scripture and tradition the practices and beliefs of members vary widely from sect to sect, and also from believer to believer. No amount of legislated doctrine can prevent people from developing their own opinion. However 'Pagan' can serve as a general tag for most of the polytheistic, mystical paths that have grown up in or near it. We freely use the term 'bread', but to hear something called bread tells us very little about its actual composition, style or flavor. It remains a useful term, as does Pagan.

(Engage full soap-box-mode) So I really do encourage those who are polytheists (that includes animism, for me) who seek to work their spirituality in the land where they dwell with the spirits that are part of their work to be willing to stand with others in identifying as ‘Pagan’. There’s not a reason in the world not to.


Spanish Moss said...

I have begun using the term Contemporary Paganism when not specifically referring to a particular tradition.

By the way, I hope you do not mind that I linked your blog to mine.


Joel the Brewer said...

I think this is a fine discussion. I am curious if any of our friends in Asatru have weighed in with this use of the term Pagan versus their preferred "Heathen". I have heard cogent arguments by self-described "Heathens" about why they prefer Heathen instead of Pagan. While I appreciate their position and personal preferences, I have never agreed with them, since I consider both terms to be effectively the same word, with the same root. But, to be sure, this is definitely my personal view on a potentially sensitive topic.