(Expanded from a comment responding to my last entry)
I still 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.
The standard dictionary-definitions of “pagan” are indeed vague: An Abrahamic religionist’s “not us” word — hell, even the Puritans eschewed Christmas customs as “too pagan” (and indeed, many are rooted in Roman pre-Christian customs), and Evangelical Protestants like Jack Chick deride Catholicism as “pagan” (and thus “Satanic”). Looking at basic Muslim interpretations of Jesus as a prophet, I’m sure to some Muslim schools of thought, Christianity is “pagan” in its veneration of a “god-man”.
The dictionary also typically tells us that “pagan = polytheist”, especially ancient polytheisms that were mowed down by Christianity. Now, this is where the etymology gets loaded. “Paganus”, in Latin, means “country-dweller” or, in common use “hick”, “redneck”, “hillbilly”. This was adopted by an early militarised Christianity to deride those living out in the hills as somehow “too uncivilised” to convert willingly, and was quickly adopted to apply to especially stubborn polytheists in the cities of the ancient Roman empire. Whether or not “paganus, as in hill-billy” was used specifically to deride the differences of practise of rural polytheists in the Græco-Roman world, or was just used as a general, all-encompassing derision of rural folk by urban folk is a nuance that is occasionally debated by degree-toting linguists and language geeks alike — but the fact is clear: One who was “paganus” in Rome is one who was derided by the many.
This is where I see a lot of people defend use of the word “pagan” as a “reclaimed word” in the same style that “bitch” and “cunt” have been reclaimed by a certain hipster caste of feminists, or in the way I have a t-shirt with “FAGGOT” written across it in pseudo-Swaorvski crystals, or how I’ve seen a few trans women self-apply “tranny” — but when we go to the etymology, and compare to what I do, and where my spiritual connections are strongest, we can see clearly that I’m an “urban dweller” — so, like the few trans women I see who self-apply “tranny”, but remain appalled by the trans men who dare to1 what business do I have to self-apply, as one of a city-based practise and urban-strengthened spirituality, a word of derision for those of the country? My Quaker (Christian) step-mother may have more of a right to “reclaim” the word “pagan” than I do!
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 this has been largely on-line, and considering that I do occasionally encounter pagans off-line who have never even heard of The Wild Hunt, I’d wager that this re-education and re-forming of the meanings of “pagan” is a privilege of pagans who take advantage of regular Internet access. I’m also 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’ve also taken note of YSEE spokespersons have said on the Hellenic_Recons e-mail list, espousing that “YSEE does not practise reconstruction”2, setting themselves apart as something distinct from what a lot of “Recons” in the Anglosphere Status Quo-ify, I find myself unable to help but wonder if there isn’t something maybe to the sparse claims I’ve seen from citizens of Hellas that maybe there are a few unbroken traditions that survived Christianity similar to how many pre-Chrisstian Gaelic and Brythonic traditions survived. I also am hesitant to “reclaim”, as YSEE members and supporters have, “Ethnokos Hellene” for myself because, as a supporter of the S.H.A.R.P.s (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), I am extremely conscious of the fact that the modern English “ethnic”, rooted in the ancient Hellenic term “ethnikos” (plural, “ethnikoi”), will often carry connotations of Neo-Nazism or more casual racisms and fascisms — I have enough clashes with other Mods and with tradskins that this term, which sounds awfully similar to “ethnic” at a casual listen, would give me more grief than my British self-identity, my loyalist stance on the Ulster situation, and my residency on North Amerikan soil already does. I make no secret of my religion at Mod & Skin gatherings, and have occasionally brought my small Apollon bust to nights I’ve DJ’d (indeed, He is the Moddest of our Gods), so I’m already pretty weird among a lot of people whose religious leanings tend toward existential atheism, agnosticism, and “social Christianity [or, far less often, Judaism]” — I don’t need people falsely accusing me of Nazi sympathies because they didn’t notice a slight difference between an ancient Hellenic word and a modern English one. “Pagan” can then become a minor bonding moment among other Mods and Skins who have similarly eschewed atheism, agnosticism, and social Abrahamism, even if we have nothing else in common (indeed, I’ve only personally encountered, on-line, two others — one was an initiate of Traditional Wicca, I forget about the other, but I want to say she was softly polytheistic Buddhist) — but in this context, it’s not about a religious experience, but usually a moment of jest amongst a handful of people in a arts-and-fashion-based subcultural tribe.
Maybe if I find the ancient Aeolic equivalent of “city-slicker”, I’ll adopt that as my defining religious term — after all, I seem to have only the vaguest claim to “pagan” considering the history and etymology. I’m not a “country dweller” and my spirituality is urban — I feel the closest to the Theoi and Daimons in large cities, and my spiritual feelings are weakest when out in the countryside or woodlands. It’s easily argued that I have as much right to “re-claim” the word “pagan” as I have, as a gay man, to “re-claim” the word “sapphic”. But at the same time, it’s proven occasionally useful when conversing with those coming from a more mainstream religious culture — outside the on-line pan-pagan community, the word “polytheist” still seems pretty sparsely used. “Polytheist” is the best generalised description of my own beliefs and practises, and though I do occasionally use “pagan”, that use is definitely a concession because it says precious little about my beliefs and practises, and in the “pagan community” tends more often than not to imply things about what I do that I typically do not.
The usefulness I have in the pagan community is little: I enjoy several blogs and occasionally meet other Hellenic polytheists that I “click” with. I definitely can get behind the socio-political goals of the pagan community, so that’s another good use I have for it. That’s really about it. Religiously, I have little in common with the overwhelming majority of pagans, so it makes little sense to say I’m a part of the “pagan community” as a whole, rather than “a socio-political supporter of many pagan goals and ideals”.
Still, it’s very mixed. In the last few years I’ve conceded to the term “pagan”, I’ve made few strides in my (albeit feeble) attempts at building a community around Boeotian polytheism — indeed, I seem to have made a greater stride at that in careful SEO-mancy via blogging. While I cannot deny that the Abrahamic overculture will always see my religion as “paganism”, no matter what I call it, admitting it is not necessarily a whole-hearted adoption of the term: It is nothing more than a sign that I live in Reality™.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, really, what words I use for my religion — what matters is what I do to honour the Theoi.
1: This has a lot to do with the way mainstream cisgender uses the word “tranny” to put-down trans women and even cis women who are especially tall, square-jawed, wear heavy make-up. The word “tranny” is misogynistic in the overculture, and has clear implications outside of “reclaimed word” contexts: This person is a “fake” woman. This implication is truly the most-comon use of the word, and trans men have as much right to “tranny” as gay men have to “dyke” or “carpet licker”.
2: Message #4840 of Hellenic_Recons yahoo!group archive