[PBP2013] Europe & Paganism

As I said in my last post, I’m not the first one to define “pagan” as “European pre-Christian, non-Abrahamic religious traditions”, and I likely won’t be the last. I’ve always found this a bit odd, that the community seems to have ostensibly defined “Paganism” as coming predominantly from Europe and the Mediterranean (though few remember that Egypt isn’t in Europe, nor is Mesopotamia, where the goddess Astarte was first worshipped), even if only a handful have ever had the guts to admit it.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it understandably carries a lot of baggage. I remember a few years ago, when the Council of Ethnic Religions(?) dared to propose a European-based definition of “pagan” and “paganism”, as an umbrella term specifically for the pre-Christian indigenous religious of Europe (and maybe the Mediterranean?), and half of The Wild Hunt’s commenters practically had an aneurysm, screaming “Racist!” left and right —as if this isn’t something they’ve been doing, as a community, for decades. No, seriously, look at ANY “Paganism For Dummies” sort of primer, and very little —at best, a few deity names, maybe an incense or two, but almost never any rituals— is based outside practises of European or Mediterranean origin, and most of it comes from the British Isles or Germany. I’d understand the anger if that announcement was clearly against the current status quo of the pagan community, but the truth is, it’s only been fairly recently that pagans have been at all interested in African diaspora traditions, and before that, it was Far Eastern Asia, and before that, it was Indigenous American tribal traditions —and it’s usually been something that’s been a very trendy, flash-in-the-pan sort of interest. Like suddenly, High Priestess (self-appointed) Lillywhite Wykkanmoon rrealised that Black people had religions outside Baptistism and decided to act like she cared about forging a relationship with some Akan “face of Goddess” so she can feel good about “not being a racist”. To be perfectly blunt, after the novelty wears off for most people, and assuming they’re still identifying as somehow pagan after that, most people hopping on the Hip New “Ethnic”-Wiccan Fad™ are going to go right back to their Eurocentric way of doing things, maybe recon-influenced, maybe Wicca-influenced (which, as far as I’m concerned, is a new indigenous religion of England —but maybe that’s just me), but only a few of the white people hopping on any non-European/Mediterranean pantheon fad are going to stick with it and actually remain interested in it, even looking beyond the “exotic” façade and getting into cultural assimilation.

The thing, though, is that the communities those religions come from almost never (not enough for any practical estimate) refer to their religions as “pagan”. “Pagan” is an English word, based on a Roman root. Amongst indigenous tribes of the Americas, “pagan” is a word of the oppressor, it’s not what they do. I imagine a lot of other “coloured” ethnicities see it that way, too. Might some of the more diplomatic try and forge bridges with pagans, on the grounds of religious minority status? Sure, but to conflate the two would be like calling a heteronormative transsexual woman “a gay man” because she may share some similar oppressions with effeminate gay men: It’s not only offensive, it’s inaccurate to the lived realities of both parties.

And don’t get me wrong, it can be a good thing to bond over similarities, and it’s always beneficial to use those similarities to band together in hopes of protecting the civil rights of all, but similarities don’t mean you’re doing the same thing.

There’s also some serious baggage with the realisation that “Pagan = European and Mediterranean traditions”. Hell, you can barely throw a stone in any direction in the Heathen community (at least according to my own research) without having a 50/50 chance of hitting some fucko into Nazi mysticism, or distorting certain passages in that community’s ancient sacred texts as justification for their own self-styled brand of “white separatism”. And the Heathen community isn’t alone with that baggage: During my brief interest in CR, I encountered some racist fucks repurposing Lugh for their despicable purposes, and considering the fact that Golden Dawn —a.k.a. the Greek “Nazi party”— once actively engaged the HR movement, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the few people I still see, occasionally, describing Hellenismos as “like Greek Asatru/Heathenism, but without Nazis”. So yeah, needless to say, there’s some… history than can make admitting the fact that “Paganism’ has been implicitly defined by having European and Mediterranean roots for decades a thing many people are rather reluctant to do.

I’ve always had kind of mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I have no problem with being incredibly blunt, when necessary, and it bothers me when people like to tiptoe around uncomfortable truths, as if they’re afraid of waking some slumbering dragon if they say anything too specific about the facts. On the other hand, like any other white person who tries to be decent, especially one who was raised in a predominantly poor and Black neighbourhood (and who honestly feels more comfortable living surrounded by lower working class Black people, or elderly mid-to-low prole English people than any other demographics —why? That’s what I grew up with, poor English grandparents and a neighbourhood filled mostly with poor Black people), it makes me feel like a complete failure at life when someone falsely accuses me of being some kind of racist.

Think about it, though: What religions do you put under the “Pagan” umbrella? Are you careful to point out that most African diaspora religionists, Hindus, Abroiginal religionists, etc…, very seldom call their religion “Pagan”? For extra points, how much first-hand knowledge of that do you have to back it up? (I admit, I don’t have much, most of it is second-hand knowledge, but it’s been from ostensibly well-informed people.) Be completely honest now, looking back to the first question, how many of those religions can be directly traced back to Europe, the British Isles, or the Mediterranean? Of those without a direct link to that area of the globe, is there a clear influence in those religions from that region?

I’m willing to bet $25 that a bare minimum of nineteen out of every twenty people who read this will answer the above questions and realise (or at least confirm) that they have a Euro/Med-focused definition of “Pagan” and “Paganism”. There’s nothing really wrong with that, and no, it’s not “erasing” to refer to other religious groups by their preferred terms. It’s also OK for words to mean things, even if asserting the meaning of that word might invite some baggage, at the current point in time. But a wise man once offered a seeker, when asked, a phrase that would be true at all times, and that phrase was “At some time, this, too, shall pass.” The baggage isn’t going to be around forever.

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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11 Responses to [PBP2013] Europe & Paganism

  1. Oh, this silly insistence that words have actual meanings…when will the madness end/begin? Booball elephant bananahammock.

    I had always been under the impression that “pagan” typically is used in modern day context to refer to European forms of non/pre-Abrahamic religion (with Egyptian and some near-East revivals sometimes included). Is there really that great an outcry from people insisting that to say otherwise is racist? (never mind the fact that Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, and many Afro-diasporic religious adherents don’t classify themselves as pagan, and to force them to do so against their wishes would, in itself, be an example of that same Euro-centric privileged thinking)..

    • Not counting the obnoxious Wiccan-Buddhist-Hellenic “Recon”-Platonist who is Curt / “Apuleuis Platonicus”, I do tend to see most of this insistence on Tumblr, which is probably saying something. When I return to the desktop, I’ll try again to look up the shitfit people were having on The Wild Hunt a few years ago, when that one group posited a European and Mediterranean -focused definition of “pagan” (of course, more than anything else about that, I remember Curt’s several-post diatribe on his own blog that didn’t merely exalt his own personal definition of pagan, but made the claim, and I quote, “Europe is not a continent, look at a map!”) And you’re correct, to tell people from Hindu, Buddhist, Aboriginal, etc… Religions that their religions are “paganism”, end of story, is colonialism, flat out “we’re in charge here, we get to tell you what you are”; it’s a close relative of racism, and no less obnoxious.

      That said, there’s a combined handful of people from those religions who apparently identify as part of the pagan social movement / community, but it’s easily argued that the pagan community has only an overlap on a Venn diagram with Pagan religions. Which is where I see the sense of pagan vs Pagan. It’s also where I see the need for alternative terminology for the pagan community, because it’s probably a big reason why there’s less interfaith dialogue between Pagan religions and Everyone Else, since we do tend to share common social and political goals.

      Still, the cycle of fads for non-Euro/Mediterranean (I’ll bet you $5 that after the African fad is over, people are going to move on to Polynesian, Maori, and Aboriginal Australian religions) religions in the pagan community certainly seems to be the most recent source for “everything non-Abrahamic is Pagan!!”, but then every so often, you run into closet colonialists like Curt, touting their weak linguistic theories and logical contortions in a meagre attempt to assure themselves that they aren’t sitting at the same table as unapologetic casual racism.

      • my definition of “pagan” tends to be somewhere along the lines of “if you’re non-abrahamic, and you want to be called pagan, you are one.” We know that “pagan” was used as a derogatory term by the Christians–ergo, Christian =/= pagan. Other than that, the only person who can say if one is a pagan is oneself.

        (that’s actually how I got on the receiving end of one of Star Foster’s fits a few years ago, dealing with this exact same issue).

        • my definition of “pagan” tends to be somewhere along the lines of “if you’re non-abrahamic, and you want to be called pagan, you are one.” We know that “pagan” was used as a derogatory term by the Christians–ergo, Christian =/= pagan. Other than that, the only person who can say if one is a pagan is oneself.

          Generally speaking, I’m right with you there. Ultimately, it boils down to self-definition in polite conversation —if we’re talking a category of religions, and define “Pagan” religions to be pre-Christian European and Mediterranean, and religions descended from and / or influenced by said, then it’s a legitimate category in the way that “Chinese Folk religion” incorporates Taoism, Confucinism, and Shenism (Chinese polytheism), or “Dharmic religions” includes Hindu paths and Buddhist religions. We could then argue if a religion is Pagan or not because individual practitioners don’t feel it is, in which case, I’d have to ask how many of those who argue that it is not would argue that it’s OK to call Greeks, Greeks, and Greece, Greece, when those who are of that culture identify as Hellenes and their country as Hellas? If it’s a legitimate thing to have one one that one calls oneself, and one name that one is called by outsiders, then it’s nonsense to say that one always has the right to say when that applies.

          Which is not to say that one cannot be a pagan and worship Jesus, IMO. I
          do recognize (and extremely practice) sycretism. It existed in the
          ancient world, and there’s no reason it can’t exist today. But
          *Christians* cannot be pagans.

          Agreed. It’s a legitimate historical thing that certain early forms of Christianity existed as a syncretism with the local traditional religion. n the other hand, if you spend enough time on Tumblr, you begin to realise that some people genuinely are taking that “paganism is whatever you want it to be!” trope and applying it to some of the most extreme logical conclusions that have nothing to do with the spirit in which that quip was first spoken. Like how atheists misunderstood, I believe it was Starhawk’s utterance of “do you believe in a rock?” when asked about belief in deities, and now OMGZ, ATHEISTS ARE PAGAN TOO! There’s a big difference between believing in something because you’ve experienced it, and believing in something because you were simply told that it’s there.

          And if Europe is not a continent, then what is it?

          Hell if I know what he was getting at, with that. Yeah, Europe is part of the Eurasian land mass, and if you want to say that Eurasia is, itself, a continent, I guess that works, too. If you want to define a continent as a land mass specifically aligned to a certain tectonic plate, then yes, Europe is totally its own continent.

  2. I actually wrote a post on my attempt to “define” Paganism.

    Take a gander if you want.


  3. Soliwo says:

    I thought this blog post would be about something complete different, about European vs. American Pagans, about the obvious dominance of American thinking and the English language in the Pagan blogosphere.

    But indirectly at least, it is a related issue. Most of Pagans who are stating that Paganism is European-focussed are Americans. It would be very odd for me, a Dutch person, to say that my Paganism is European-focussed as I am European person, and in that way I will always be a European Pagan as well. Even if an American Pagan would orient himself on Norse culture, his Paganism would still be more American than Norse in a way. And yes, there are also a few Americans who seem to forget that European cultures are still alive, and do not just consist out of ancient traditions nedeing to be preserved. Furthermore, it is usually Americans who talk so much about Europe and describe Paganisms as the European indigenous religions. I really do not know if I have ever heard a European talk about Paganism in this way. So in way, exactly by stressing the European nature of Paganism, it comes across as very American.

    • Ah, yes, how dare we forget that the ECER, European Council of Ethnic Religions (which defines “Paganism” as European-based and the European indigenous / ethnic religions) is an American group. Their HQ is Lithuania —which is the 50th US State.

      My bad. Clearly I was never raised British, but instead am just some backwoods septic who is just making up everything as he goes along, trying to sound smart. Thanks for the reminder, mate.

      • Soliwo says:

        Hahaha. I am sorry but, yes, I wasn’t reacting to what you wrote directly, I merely wanted to add my experiences of some tendencies of some American Pagans. I did not mean to include you amongst them. As I said, due to my own experiences, I expected a different post, and I was happily surprised with yours. I wanted to investigate my expectations and prejudices as much as anyone else’s. I should have made the latter point more clear. I was just thinking aloud, venturing out, wondering why I expected this to be a different post.

        I very well realise that there are European groups who wish to be recognized as indigenous religious groups. And I do members of this group. However, the issue seems to be brought up far more in my conversations with American Pagans, than with European Pagans. For whatever their cultural focus is as a Pagan, they most clearly are Pagan. I am not saying that strengthening indigenous claims are bad. Perhaps that is it, our relationship with ‘European’ is much more direct and thus perhaps we think about it less. The debate on what ‘Pagan’ really means somehow also seems more urgent among my American friends. Furthermore I agree that Paganism is largely focussed on European heritage, All I am saying that in some American Pagan circles this point is far more stressed than in the European groups I know, and usually without reference to any particular European traditions, just Europe, which makes me wonder. And some (again not you) have a rather unified idea of Europe, rather similar as we Europeans sometimes have of the USA.

        And I am not British either …

        • I merely wanted to add my experiences of some tendencies of some American Pagans. I did not mean to include you amongst them.

          You didn’t make that very clear at all.

          All I am saying that in some American Pagan circles this point is far more stressed than in the European groups I know, and usually without reference to any particular European traditions, just Europe, which makes me wonder. And some (again not you) have a rather unified idea of Europe,

          Having lived most of my life in the States, so far, I have plenty of grievances with the culture here, and I’m often the last person to argue against anyone else’s, if I do at all. This time, I think that I am compelled to make an exception, because I feel it is quite likely that I may have a quantity of experiences that you lack, which would mean your generalisation is unfair.

          While I have certainly had experience of the sorts of Americans you speak of, who just put European cultures into one big mash (though typically making an exception for the British Isles), the wealth (a term I use both in its most general appropriate definition, and ironically) of ethnic stereotyping of various cultures native to the European continent is certainly one of the more common evidences that “generalisations of European culture” amongst Americans is typically more nuanced than the literal words of a blanket statement might suggest.

          Furthermore, while I certainly know firsthand that the pagan community, Stateside, has some people who do, indeed, speak of “European indigenous cultures”, as if it’s some fantasy unified conglomerate of culture (though as an aside, that habit of Americans is far more common when they speak of African cultures), those who do go that route tend to be doing so from an angle of thinly veiled racism, which becomes apparent (usually) the moment the person first utters anything along the lines of “I’m just celebrating my culture” while clearly displaying an ignorance of any cultural distinction amongst the cultures of Europe. Considering this, in my own experiences I’ve met an almost equal number of American Pagans and polytheists who have adopted a particular cultural religion –regardless of the arbitrary point in time one may choose to reconstruct from– than I have the eclectic sort who just mash everything together, and many times more than the arguably racist sort who don’t care about genuine respect to the cultures of origin, as long as the eclecticism is only of “white” cultures.

          That said, I can’t deny that there is a uniquely American sort of eclectic paganism, and this may be more influential on some of the more net-savvy young pagans on the continent than I had previously acknowledged (see the anecdote about the French acquaintance), but as a Hellenist who has been in and out of the pagan community since the 1990s, I do observe a relative decline in eclecticism and a rise in acknowledging the ignorance of culture mashing and Campbellist ideas of a “universal mythology. This can be a good thing.

    • Furthermore: Thanks for commenting in a manner which completely ignores the point! :-D

      The point is that, in my own personal experiences, which others i know say they share (others from all over the globe, by the way), the idea that “Pagan” is specifically referring to practises and imagery of European origin is pretty widespread, if only implicit in nature. One need not claim it to be in words, as one’s actions often prove it. Furthermore, the reluctance of non-European cultures to refer to their (pre-Abrahamic) religions as “pagan” is important, and to say that it isn’t is colonialism, and arguably racist.

      Let’s take a French girl I once knew. She initially got into the pagan community for vague reasons, and soon decided her “God and Goddess” were the Chinese Nuwa and Fuxi —this was in the late 1990s / early 2000s, when there was kind of a pagan community fad for East Asian deities. Her worship of them was very Pop Wicca-based, and her entire practises were a mix of Pop Wicca and other folk magic sorts of practises from rural France and the nearest regions to France in Germany, even though she had an almost fetishistic interest in “Chinese versions” of ritual tools, even if it was just your basic English dagger with a generic series of Chinese script on the handle. She eventually dropped the interest in Chinese deities and aesthetics, and “realised [her] calling” was to argueably similar (in the Joseph Campbell sense) Gaulish deities, and all that really changed about her practises was she dropped random Chinese words and the aesthetic reverted back to being more French. This phenomenon is clearly not restricted to “America”.

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