Tuesday, January 8, 2013


A couple of posters have pointed out my unfortunate turn of rhetoric at the very end of this post. I referred to "the gods of ancient Europe" as a defining quality of 'Paganism', when I should have been more inclusive. I've changed the phrase to "the gods of the ancients", much more what I meant... Thanks for pointing that out!

I'm all for personal power and the ability to shape and guide one's own life. After all, that's why I'm a mage and not the sort of mystic who simply 'lets go and lets God'. However I rather think that my generation, and the children they have taught have made fetish of it in a way that is in danger of becoming an obstacle to sense and understanding.

When my first marriage was ending I once told my wife that I would do this or that. "But that will affect me thus-and-so," she complained, and asserted that she should have the right to veto my action so that she would not have the consequent ill feelings. Being past caring at that time, I refused her. Sez she "So, I don't have a right to control my life?" After a moment's thought I answered "Not the part of it that is me..."

The point here is that she thought she should have the right to control her life - even the parts of it caused by other people. Here we reach that fetish I was pointing out. Boomers and post-boomers have come to believe that individuals have a 'right' to 'control' almost everything about our lives. We expect social convention to give way, rules to be bent, and even for authority to come down to support us if we insist that things should be our way. Many Pagans seem to view the right of absolute self-determination as a kind of cosmic principle, often expressed as an imperative - "No one can tell you what is right for you, but you," etc.

Some Pagans are like this...
I find this ideology of sovereign individualism to be one of the primary hindrances to our development as a community. Students have the notion that they need not do as teachers teach, people reject the very idea of community leadership. People talk about not being a 'joiner' as if that spoke to good character rather than to personal foible. Myself, I see a distaste for groups and community as a disadvantage, maybe even a handicap.

Certainly the traditional mindset is based on community above individual. Iron age tribal life was socialist, with the Chief/King (i.e. the state) owning all property and assigning it to the tribe based on rank and merit. Personal definitions of self were based in social class, and on the individual status earned through deeds. One was what one was, and one did what one did. Modern society put an end to that. Every American child is taught "You can be whatever you want to be". I suspect that for many humans the simple prescription "You'll be an X like yer daddy" would be an easier leap into the world. Hell, I dunno what I wanna 'be' to this very day...

I started out by saying that I support personal freedom and empowerment, and I do. But one of the aspects of power is wisdom, and I think wisdom requires acknowledging that humans are social primates, adapted to living and working in groups. Our nature is to sort ourselves out into working, fighting and family bands. However our big brains give us a level of ability to think up alternatives and schemes that is mainly beyond other primates. We have the ability to leave the band (humans don't have 'herds' we have primate bands) and make up a life on our own. We also have the ability to expand the band conceptually beyond our immediate bio-survival group.

Various romantical authors have made the notion of the heroic individual adventurer central to their tales. Certainly the business of departing from home, leaving hearth and garth to seek the path is core to the western mystical vision. However it is hardly central to the daily blessings of health, wealth and wisdom that are the core work of a Pagan religion. Most of the Hobbits will stay at home and do just fine, thank-you. I don't think that the Pagan model of the world includes the notion of a time when everyone will be heroes. 
Some more like this...

So I think that modern radical individualism needs to be balanced with a good dose of the traditional virtues of loyalty, kinship and community. Certainly there are pitfalls in those big words, but we've lost a lot of value in our turn to cocooned mercantile self-sufficiency. That's why my left-wing politics fits well with my spirituality - it shames me that any member of my kin should go hungry and, on some level, my nation (and my planet) is my kin.

But, you can certainly ask by now, what is the point?
I don't think it's realistic to expect a 'right of self-definition'. Likewise, It is foolish to hope to not be 'labeled'.

Nouns are nouns, dude. If a noun describes you, you 'are' that. In many cases that noun will also describe people/things who share only that characteristic with you, maybe things you don't like or wouldn't care to be associated with. Too bad, that. You can ask people not to refer to you by that noun, I suppose, but you can't stop them (by either right or ability) from simply knowing that it describes you. We are defined primarily by others. If you don't want to be labeled as anything, don't look like anything.

Now, must we review the benefits and difficulties of lables? Benefit is mainly in concise and direct communication - broad sets of categories can be transmitted easily. The downside is in the same feature - the individual cannot control the contents of the assumptions attached to the label, and those assumptions will vary widely. In one part of town gay may contain "likely to be a prosperous customer", while very different ideas may attach elsewhere. So wearing a label openly will produce different results at different times. I understand how that leads some to try to avoid labels.

I think that wisdom must admit that we can, at most, influence our world, and not, in almost any case, control it. We can't control the name we grow up with, and various hilarity in the Pagan community is the result of our stumbling efforts to try. (I actually support the idea that kids should get to pick their own names at some point, assuming we can rule out Rainbow Medicine Turkey...). We have failed to control the content of the word witch, though it has at least been pulled in the right direction. Now we continue to bicker over the term Pagan.
Some even like this - all Pagans, though...

The cause of this rant is the continuing discussion around the label Pagan. I remain disappointed at those who want to create separate categories and discard the general one. I far prefer to contend for the content of the label. Some folks like 'polytheist', but I just don't find that a broad enough term. Really, polytheist describes a single doctrinal position, not a religious category. I find it most useful when attached to a cultural tag, like 'Gaelic polytheist' thus distinguishing my Celtic interest from various 19th century fun. But I find that the Eyes Glaze Over factor is very high when one's self-description involves even one hyphen. We're better off working to improve the attachments to a simple, large-group label than we are dividing into multi-hyphenate special cases.

So.To me, anyone who worships one or more of the gods of the ancients is a Pagan.(Along with various sets of gods of the moderns, I'm sure...) Tie-dyed or white-tied, circle-castin' or fire-lightin', tightened-up system or pants-seat improvisationalist, Evola conservative or California lefty; if you're a polytheist, you are described by the noun Pagan.

You don't have to like it, but there it is.


Gwynt-Siarad said...

Yes! thank you for writing this!

Harmonia Sphæras said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harmonia Sphæras said...

You bring up some great points that I think would be useful for discussion in all kinds of spiritual societies.

You are right in saying that my generation (post boom) and the previous one enforced personal freedom until entitlement knew no bounds.

The unfortunate part of this is that it is coming at a time when social media (like this) is driving home the point, while organizations from the religious to the athletic are providing plenty of justified reasons to forgo community.

But for those who persevere and learn that conflict of personal space and ideas is natural, I think the reward still justifies the risk.

Thanks for the thoughtful post!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! It's not about how we label ourselves, but about the label others will understand. This is why we have language. My cognition professor was fond of saying "humans are walking, talking categorizing machines."

Jason White said...

I continue to be inspired by and enriched by your writing. Thank you for this.

Kris said...

The need to constantly re-label and re-package everything is a great annoyance of modern life. I agree that it is a symptom of the devaluing of community.

Ruadhán J McElroy said...

Unfortunately, the problem isn't simply that polytheists are, more and more, eschewing the term "pagan". The problem is that such a broad range of people, including those who are essentially atheists and don't have any gods anywhere in their practices, and including a handful of people who identify as Christian or Muslim and "pagan", without syncretism, are clamouring for their "right" to be "pagan, too!" and a lot of polytheists are very reluctant to actually define paganism as meaning something that might exclude people who want to be pagan but aren't. It's Geek Social Fallacy #1, "ostracisers are evil", in action, and because the term is basically a reclaimed slur that is rooted in the Latin equivalent of "ignorant hillbilly", and has historically been applied to atheists almost as much as polytheists, the reluctance to define it definitively is certainly understandable.

Now, certainly there has been an established trend within the community, since at least the 1950s, to implicitly define "pagan" as having a religious practise reconstructing, or at least based chat on, influenced, or inspired by or at least concerning the deities of the religions of pre-Christian, non-Abrahamic Europe and the Mediterranean (yes, Egypt counts under this implicit definition, and considering how many pop Wiccans invoke the name of the Middle Eastern goddess Astarte, I cannot, in good conscience, restrict any meaningful definition of "pagan" to be completely restricted to Europe), and that honestly sounds like the most meaningful way to define the word outside its history as a slur, but I still anticipate that many people will be unsatisfied with this.

LilithsPriest said...

I, too, was nodding and smiling along, until you got to the "Gods of ancient Europe" part. I don't really think you meant to discriminate against North Africa, the Levant, Mesopotamia, etc; no one did so in antiquity.