So, I’m really not that invested in the term “Pagan”, eh?

I’ve read a few of the recent posts around the pagan blogosphere on the relevance of the word “pagan” and the “pan-pagan” community. Normally, I try to eschew simply re-stating the thoughts I share with others, especially if they’ve done a perfectly adequate job — and indeed, many already have.

My first forays into “the pagan community” as an adult were very focused: Hellenic polytheism, Hellenismos, the religion of the ancient Hellenes — and about a dozen or so other terms, some of which have been downright goofy (like “gentile Hellenes”, as I noticed a few people tossing around for about ten minutes, in Internet Age™). By and large, it stays that way. I read a few “pan-pagan” blogs, or at least the few I consider intelligent-enough (well, OK, I read The Wild Hunt and it’s “family blogs” and Patheos: Pantheon, and occasionally, I’ll read something else), but I don’t really go to “pan-Pagan” events, and I find most “pan-Pagan” message boards to be equal parts dull and insipid and occasionally incredibly irritating (the primary exception being The Cauldron; The Pagan Forum isn’t bad, but it also is lower in activity than some).

For as much as I find it hard to interact with other Hellenes (I’ll get to that in a mo’), I find it ten times harder to keep my head around most people of other paths, especially very individual-focused paths. The few articles I posted to WitchVox, several responses I got in return, though well-meaning and generally positive, offended me on many deep levels that left me wondering if they’d even read the article, much less the person information I’d posted in my WV profile about my path — one quote that especially sticks out in my mind, in response to an article about Urban Spirituality where I mention the compatibility with my own path, was from a woman and she had congratulated me on “discovering [my] goddess forms in a concrete place” — I had made no mention of such, first of all, and only have the vaguest idea of what that might mean, that I find it hard to imagine why she felt the need to congratulate me on something she had no real idea if I’d ever done.

I have some local friends who some may refer to as “scene pagans” as opposed to “religious pagans”. Before moving to the area, I spent a weekend at the house of one of them and was met with flabbergastion that I’m in an automatic habit of burning incense daily — now, I’ve since re-thought the idea of bringing said into another person’s home before assuming it would be fine-and-dandy, but the feeling of my throat leaping gutward never quite shook, and the tension felt when at first it was assumed by the friend in question that I was somehow just randomly lighting things on fire in the guest room was immediately clear. To me, this is “what pagans are supposed to do” — to them, this was something pretty far “out there”, especially as it was simply a Friday and not a religious festival for either their tradition or mine.

While I clash with other Hellenes, this is usually just personality clashes, or arguments about nuances of belief or interpretation of primary sources — the kinds of arguments that even a lot of people in the same sects of Christianity or Hinduism may have (as a quick example: I’ve met Hare Krishna who advocate veganism, and I’ve met those who prefer to be semi-vegetarian, eating mostly vegetarian, but occasionally having meat, especially if offered some as a guest in another’s home; my father, though generally easily described as Irish Anglo-Catholic had been married four times, including two divorces, and supported abortion in many circumstances that even many other abortion-permitting Catholics would have found excessive). Little, if anything I do, will seem “foreign” to the average Hellenistos or Helleniste. Where we differ is regional focus (I prefer the Boeotian region, while most seem to be focused on Attika, and at least a highly visible minority may be described as “Hellenistic”), semantics, philosophy (Diogenes, FTW!). We don’t tend to differ in what we do, and we don’t tend to differ in the broadest areas of belief. We have a generally shared mythology and religious culture, even if the details may serve as bone-picking moments.

Now obviously, I disagree with the sharp and strict sense of “separatism” that some vocal Hellenists seem to favour — I don’t give honour to Aegyptian deities, and I don’t generally give much thought to Roman deities outside of Britannia, whom I’ve adopted strictly as an ancestral deity or daimon, but I generally don’t mind Hellenic syncretics, and simply regard them as another sect or as giving cultus to deities whom I simply do not. As said Burkert, “Polytheism is an open system” and it’s hard to have contact with so many cultures and their gods without seeing the occasional deity who simply can’t fit into a mould previously set by one’s native pantheon, and thus finding a moment where one may consider that deity’s validity. And, like Sannion, I find it peculiar that so many who seem to give emperor Julian so much regard fail to take into account that the man’s own religious practises would be “eclectic” by the standards said people have established. I can live with where Hellenes and I tend to differ, whether I like said people on a personal level or not, but it becomes harder to find a comfortable area of common ground with the average American individuality-focused pagan.

In theory, I have no real problem with Eclectic practises — again, it’s usually just something that I simply don’t do. I know that Eclectic and other individuality-based pagans can take that approach intelligently, and give some amount of respect to cultural traditions whilst creating something unique and spiritually valid. Where it becomes problematic is when it’s assumed this is the “Gold standard” for the pan-Pagan population — and indeed, every time I’ve ventured into certain more-unsavoury areas of said community, I find people taking things and tossing them together all willy-nilly, a downright perverse sense of pride in collective anti-intellectualism and anti-academia, and an acute lack of self-examination with some ideas that, at best can be a sign of unhealthy narcissism and, at worst a charlatan. The _michigan_pagans e-mail list features people who will mock you for any amount of book-learning (outside certain publishing houses often decried as “fluffy”), and also boasts a moderator who will harass you over personality differences — apparently some find an informed spirituality “incredibly shallow” or one that “can’t possibly be real” and some men in their late forties with have such a downright infantile response to men in their twenties being so flabbergasted at the “enforced fluff” around one that after the latter unsubscribes, the former will forward the latter every single nasty post made by list members to the now-unsubscribed party, requiring one to alert Yahoo to the harassment.

As best as I can tell, once I start travelling outside my own tight-knit community of Hellenes for the “pan-Pagan community”, there is little incentive for establishing common ground. Even “ex-community, please-don’t-call-me-Hellene-I’m-my-own”-types are noticeably different to interact with than the “spiritual anarchists” than dominate, well pan-Paganism, likely because of that commonality of experience, not just with other Hellenes, but with dealing with pagans on the outside of that community — they seem to understand what the other “doin’ my own thing” Pagans are doing wrong when interacting with recons, and so have a relaxed approach to sane recons (and tend to avoid the nutters). Furthermore, I’ve noticed a trend, whether this is relatively new or long-established, I cannot say, of “scene pagans” who tend to be more eclectic and “religious pagans”, who tend to be more recon in practise*. You know what I mean when I say “scene pagan”: They tend to venture out to public rit and maybe even set up a shrine or altar for major festivals, maybe even go to regular pan-Pagan meet-ups, but even on deeper glance, it’s apparent that spirituality and practise are dead last in their approach to religion, behind going to events and conventions, behind “polyamoury” circles, behind organic foods, getting wasted, and so much else. What makes them “pagan” seems rather superficial, and it’s like “pagan” is the new term for “hippie”. This is different from those who may be deeply religious but make efforts to keep different aspects of their lives “superficially separate” — after all, a deeply religious or spiritual person naturally is influenced by their religious culture in all other aspects of their lives; and obviously quite different from those who are deeply religious and very obviously flaunt their religion’s influences on one’s life. I know it’s not my place to judge, but most of the people I tend to designate as “scene pagans” will actively eschew religious or spiritual discussions, even when things are obviously going to remain civil, and give no real signs of even having a religion except a few times a year — and some of these people are quite lovely folk, but I just tend to have even less incentive to look for any religious or spiritual common-ground, and am always left wondering just what got them interested in paganism, anyway.

As for the term “pagan” itself, as I’ve said before, I’m not married to the term at all. I think it’s become a little too “unloaded” in recent years and don’t blame any one pagan grouping more than any other for this. While, ideally, I’d like to retain a “rather Victorian” impression of the word, I lament that I cannot. Perhaps this is due to ultimately coming to paganism as an adult, and an adult long-jaded by a perceived superficiality of the “pagan” community? I know not, and ultimately, it matters not, because even if I came to Paganism in my idyllic youth and stayed pagan through into adulthood, and thus retained a benign mental image, this isn’t the common mental image held by the overculture, and this isn’t the common mental image held by most within the “pagan” umbrella. The cultural drift is, at this point in time, quite deeply rooted — perhaps in time, it will loosen, and perhaps continuing to fiddle with it will loosen, or perhaps the root will react by digging itself deeper, as a means to try and protect itself. I care not for strategies to get rid of this trend, cos I’m not especially bothered by it — after all, “polytheist” means something, and even in ancient times, when “paganus” was especially pejorative, it was vague.

So was there a point to all this? Probably not. This may, in fact, just be another cantankerous polytheist shouting into the cold unforgiving (and not to mention paradoxical) Khaos-Kosmos of the Internet that is both a formless void while being everything and anything, and this shouting is destined to fall on the ears of a few. Perhaps it will be the start of yet another useless bickering. Perhaps I’m just putting too much thought into what’s essentially nothing, what with this widespread meme that somehow words don’t actually mean anything. If anything, I hope that perhaps religious communities are being and will continue to be forged for the better.


*as always, these are not absolute judgements, there are those of each in each group

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for almost a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros most of that time. He also paints, makes music, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival subculture of the early 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.
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0 Responses to So, I’m really not that invested in the term “Pagan”, eh?

  1. I think that you’ve hit on a very good point.

  2. Okay, signing in apparently means posting now … anyway, I think you’ve made a good point about the vagueness of the term “pagan.” It is essentially useless to have an umbrella term that is too large to really tell you anything about what a person actually believes, experiences, or does. We tend to put labels on people to tell us more about them and to inform our social interactions, and this label does not seem to provide that any longer. (Whether it ever did in the first place is a completely different question.)

    • I’m still getting used to the differences in DisqUs as a commenting system — but I am so much in love with the moderation-end of it. If I was a robot, it would be clunk-able.

      I have so many really mixed feelings about this issue. On one hand, I can see some remaining usefulness in “pagan” as a vague label. I’ve also had a lot of experiences with people who know VERY little about suffixes and prefixes and root-words in the English language, and so the word “polytheist” has honestly puzzled them until I finally gave up and said “OK, whatever, forget that: I’m an ancient Greek-styled pagan” — I still feel the need to add a few modifiers to make it clear that I don’t do Popular Wicca or somesuch, but that’s what gets the point over to some people.

      Ultimately, I do feel like, in many ways, I’ve simply “conceded” to the pagan community, because I have very little in common with most pagans. Now, there have been some great strides in “inter-Pagan” communication in the last few years, but I’m still very recon-oriented and a lot of what Drew Jacob noted about still feeling a disconnect from the “recon community” feels true for me, as well — my main differences with them feel easy to point out, but there’s still a community Status Quo that many Big-R-Recons like to maintain that I feel kind of misses the point.

      • I have noticed that a lot of people are not familiar with the term as well, but I just say “polytheism means that one worships multiple deities” and they usually understand that.

        It is true that the online community has seen some very good developments in communication among different Wicca-derived and polytheistic religions. However, I am very skeptical that this has trickled down to the real-world community. For each person who goes online and interacts with the community via forums, blogs, Twitter, or Facebook, there are probably a dozen whose only exposure consists of in-person meetups, community ‘zines, and informal E-mail communication. Most of the pagans I know fall in this category. A lot of them don’t even know what the Wild Hunt is, and that’s one of the most popular general pagan blogs on the Internet.

        • [nods] Yeah, I kind of give up a little early with people on explaining what “polytheism” means, and one time, I even repeated the word three or four times, but the woman kept hearing “atheist” until I enunciated ve-ry slow-ly, llike “no, Pol-Y-Thee-Ist; as in ‘the belief in many gods and goddesses’,” and her response? “Oh, you mean pagan.”

          That’s seriously the main reason why I feel I’ve “conceded” to using “pagan” in self-identification: It’s not my favourite word, I recognise many distinct characteristics between what I do and what (especially) many self-identified “pagans” who aren’t very active on-line will do to the point where I figure it’s best that we seldom mix (at least religiously), but it’s when I communicate with people who aren’t of Hellenic polytheist paths, and who aren’t part of the pan-Pagan mega-community that “pagan” seems to have the most real-life use. It’s not the most precise descriptive, but it’s one that (at least in my experiences) is generally benign in urban and campus-dominated areas. I know in some rural parts of Michigan, even, to self-identify as “pagan” is to essentially self-identify as one of two main things: Either you’re aligning yourself with certain kinds of spiritual/New Agey hippies, or you’ve pretty much called yourself a Satanist (this was all that got through to a lot of people in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties in the mid-1990s, when I danced with my own self-styled Celtic poly-re-the-struction-Druidism that, on reflection as an adult, looked more like what a few people I’ve seen who claim to practise an “unbroken Celtic tradition” do than what some of the CR people I’ve encountered do).

          I’ve also encountered pagans who don’t read or had at least never heard of The Wild Hunt, which I agree, seems to be one of the most (if not the most) popular pagan-focused news blogs — you can tell how popular it is, if only cos the comments can often be as head-desky as The New York Post or somesuch! LOL I agree that the level of re-education on what “pagan” means still has a long way to trickle-down before it’s thouroughly understood that “pagan” is most useful as an umbrella term for many different religious paths, and not a synonym for generic or DIY forms of Popular Wicca. THAT is where this all gets frustrating with the pagan community.

  3. Pingback: Ruadhan’s Further Adventures in Over-Thinking Pagan Identity Crisis 2011 — NOW WITH GRAPHS!!! | Urban Hellenistos

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