Queer is radical, assimilating and party lines are not

When first published in 1968, The UK’s Gay Times reviewed the first memoir of Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, their reviewer scathingly citing Crisp as a “bad example”, stating the book “should have been published posthumously”.

Crisp’s crime?

He was a high femme gender-bender.

When the UK’s Stonewall group launched in the 1980s, Derek Jarman had some words about its organisers and supporters, folks like Ian McKellan, who kept their sexuality closeted until it couldn’t hurt their careers (I imagine he, like myself, would have made more than a few words about George Takei’s opportunistic reinvention of himself as THE Gay of B-list celebs at a time when it actually could, and did, give his career a boost). In fact, I’ll reprint some:


The queers of the sixties, like those since, have connived with their repression under a veneer of respectability. Good mannered city queers in suits and pinstripes, so busy establishing themselves, were useless at changing anything.

To be Queer was never respectable – even though you wore a suit. The more conventional, the more desperate the hidden life. Pushed to the fringes, our world existed in the twilight of Heterosoc1reality. and if anyone raised their voice in protest they were accused of endangering the peace of anonymity. A demonstration was likely to frighten the closeted, their inactivity reproached.

Stonewall was a RIOT which occurred in the summer of 1969 in Christopher Street, New York, outside a bar of the same name. For the first time Queers fought back with bricks and bottles and empty beer glasses and burned cars. The best fighters were the trannies2 – a dress was a badge of courage. The riot sparked a revolution in our consciousness. A community of interest was established and a debate was entered. The harder it was fought the more our case was furthered.

Everything that made our world visible reproached the closeted. One day it might be as silly as moaning about Quentin Crisp’s blue rinse as a BAD ROLE MODEL, or, on another, complaining of a rowdy Gay Liberation Front meeting. For them, we were not them. They took everything and did nothing, sat in their interior decoration, attended the opera and did fuck all to help change; their minds as starched as their shirts.

Twenty years later, Stonewall – the self-elected and self-congratulating parliamentary lobbying group – have made more than enough compromise with convention. Did those who rioted at the Stonewall bar fightso that we could so easily be co-opted by a gay establishment? Do they represent our best interests in Heterosoc?

Do they represent us?

Why did one man go to Downing Street to put our case? Why were there no women? Weren’t the rest of us acceptable? It was as if no Queer had ever been in number 10 before, the fuss everyone made.


Part of the con was to steal the name Stonewall and turn our riot into their tea party. We are now integrated into the worst form of British hetero politic – the closed room, the gentlemen’s club – where decisions are made undemocratically for an ignorant population which enjoys emasculation.
So they 0 Stonewall – won’t acknowledge this criticism. They’ll pretend there isn’t a debate. The only way that they can succeed in their politics is through the myth of homogenity and the ‘gay community’. But our lives are plural. They always have been – sexuality is a diversity. Every orgasm brings its own liberty.

— Derek Jarman, At Your Own Rish: A Saint’s Testament, 1992

By forcing a homogenous narrative onto the trans community —by insisting that there’s no difference between us and cis people, by discouraging a plurality of thoughts and experiences and ideas of individual trans people— we are expecting anti-radicalism of the worst kind in our community. By telling us, explicitly or even implicitly, that those of us who are simultaneously a binary and non-binary gender that we’re somehow only really the latter is to throw us under the bus for the sake of respectability.

Furthermore, believe it or not, it is entirely possible to say “we have a fundamentally unique experience of our genders as trans women and trans men from that of cis people, but that does not automatically exclude us from deserving the same rights to space.

The fact that I have pretty much always stated that we trans people have a fundamentally different experience from cis people has never been a secret [1], [2], now has it perplexing me that I’ve been implicitly accused of making ideological bedfellows with some of the most despicable characters in the pagan and polytheist communities. Of course, I also really enjoy Raven Kaldera’s Hermaphrodeities, and it is not at all hard to find pseudo-radical assimilationist trans kids on Tumblr bitching about how the regular reminders throughout that, as trans and other gender-variant people, we have spiritual obligations, as least to ourselves, because of this, hurts pweshuss fee-fees because why can’t we all just be the same???

Sexuality is a plurality, and so is gender. Equal rights and equal access does not and should not erase differences for an assimilationist narrative of trans experience.

I’m really tired of white cis people cissplaining my transgender politics to me. This is something I have been working on within myself, constantly evaluating and re-assessing, exploring, debating, and meditating on for going on twenty years!

The fact of the matter is, TERFs are the ones who’ve perverted our celebration of our differences for their own despicable purposes, as an act of terrorism against trans people, effectively forcing an anti-Queer assimilationist narrative onto the “Voices” of trans justice. I’m sorry-not-sorry, but I’m not going to sit on my hands and let those thumping an assimilationist party line at me, be they other trans people or (ostensibly well-meaning) cis people who want an ally badge, scare me into erasing my differences because Ruth Barrett and others can’t handle the existence of a paradox and the simple scientific fact that paradoxes are a part of nature.

1: Heterosexual society
2: At the time Derek Jarman wrote this, “tranny” was an acceptable term in the queer community as a term of camaraderie and empowerment amongst trans folk and gender-bending gays. This is not a slurred usage, this is historical.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Does anyone actually know?

I’m trying to figure out who actually coined the term “devotional polytheism” as it’s been used in polytheist and pagan circles this last five years. In response to Cora Post’s entry he-ah, I have the current comment awaiting moderation:

(such as the one who coined the phrase Devotional Polytheism and those that contributed to the comments on Sannion’s blog post in question).

You’ve found who coined that phrase? Cos it wasn’t who I thought it was, and at least one of the people you implied to have done so (or so I’ve gathered, since you did not actually name a person or people) has clearly stated that he did not do so.

I’m genuinely curious as to who coined the term “devotional polytheism” as it’s used in polytheist & pagan circles, cos I can’t find the culprit.

This is like when people allege that I invented the term “Wiccanate Neopaganism”, in spite of the numerous times that I myself, and others, icluding folks like John Halstead have said, “No, Johnny Rapture did, see?” I picked up the term from (guh) Star Foster, and clearly I had a hand in popularising that term, but I did not invent it.

Similarly, Cora Post implied (she implied all over the place) that Sannion or at least some-one else in these comments “coined the phrase Devotional Polytheism”, when I first remember seeing it from Dver years ago on the Neokoroi elist (and note her absence from that thread allegedly containing people who “coined the phrase”), and she has even said she got it from some-one else. As it’s unlikely that PSVL or Rhyd or TPWard are the person or persons she’s referring to (just based on the favt that people tend to get offended by those two chaps and that Bearer of the Fabulosa Fez considerably less), and I find it at least a tad improbable that the phrase originated with Ganila Krasskova (I think she’d’ve owned it, by now, if it had –she seems to do that sort of thing with frequency), it’s kind of bothering me that this misinformation is continuing, unchallenged and unretracted by those supporting it.

So does anyone actually know who first used it?

Hey, did you stumble upon this non-troversy somehow? Do you just want to stop seeing this thing in the footer? Please at least consider donating to my moving expenses, or my service animal and i will be out on the streets.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

[review] Goth Craft: The magickal side of dark culture by Raven Digitalis

Goth-Craft-Digitalis-Raven-9780738711041Title: Goth Craft: The magickal side of dark culture
Authorship: Raven Digitalis
Publisher: Llewellyn International
Year Published: 2007, First Edition
ISBN-10: 0738711047
ISBN-13: 978-0738711041

This book is pretty much a mixed bag and while I kinda get why some things are said the way they are in this book, my experiences won’t really let me sit on my hands about a few of its problems, which would likely seem relatively minor if I were some-one without my experiences.

First off, this book starts off with a chapter introducing people to the Goth subculture –for those who are very new, those who know some stuff but not a lot, and for nerds like me who fact-check everything like an annoying pedant (by the way –that line is foreshadowing the review: I will be an annoying pedant, for the most part, but I am an annoying pedant because I care). There’s a bit of a history which is mostly correct; I have a feeling that I could nit-pick Digitalis’ etymology lesson (he seems to just gloss over the rich literary “chapter” of the etymology, and subsequent cultural influence of the term “gothic”) and his stylistic choices in the differentiation between the Germanic tribes known as Goths and the current Gothic subculture here or there, but he goes into a fair amount of detail and frankly, he doesn’t just seem to make shit up in this chapter on a factor of “truthiness” or “feels”, like a pretty blatant etymological error in Kaldera & Schwartzstein’s Urban Primitive, which still annoys me that it even got a pass.

While the facts about the etymology and origins of the goth subculture are generally correct, he also falls victim to a LOT of sugar-coating on some of the “ideals” touted by goths for about three decades now (more-or-less) when juxtaposed alongside the reality of the situation. He says about as much as there being no such thing as goths who are sexist, racist, queerphobic, and so on, and let me tell you, Internet: I have been in and out of the goth subculture for nearly twenty years (granted, I could make the argument that I’ve been interested in Mod subculture aspects and tropes for longer, like one of my favourite bands as a small child was The Who, but it’s safe to say I’ve had an active role in both subcultures for literally decades), there are relatively few, still puttering around here and there, who are more “elder” than myself (most of whom, like myself, are no longer limiting themselves to the label of “goth”, except when it seems suiting), and while certain attitudes are prominently frowned upon by many, especially the artists who are often credited with building the subculture (or at least giving it its foundation), there is also no shortage of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and so on within the Gothic subculture. Hell, most of the fashions necessitate either a bourgeoisie income if one lacks some hell of DIY skills. I’ve seen just as many goths (though, to be fair, usually young ‘uns) throw around “The Big N” in Los Angeles as I did in Virginia, a friend of mine who’s a Goth/Industrial DJ semi-recently cross-posted a blog entry from Coilhouse lamenting how the average Industrial music show, and specifically naming Combichrist and their fans as some of the biggest offenders, as little more than a bunch of dudebros in black clobber objectifying women and crying “No homo!” as they smear on marketed-as “guyliner” —after all, can’t use anything with the same debossing on the pencil as your girlfriend uses, lest someone think you’re queer! (as an aside, Digitalis, factually, points out that Industrial is a genre of dark alternative music that evolved alongside and often crossing-over with Gothic rock –something I see very few “purists” who favour deathrock or gothic rock ever acknowledging, though I think it’s more plain ignorance than revisionism — it was certainly a degree of ignorance when I was a dumb kid who insisted that “Industrial and Gothic/deathrock never had anything to do with each-other until some time in the 1990s”), there was once a YouTube account by some relatively popular Denver-area goth-industrial guy who –while his videos were pretty well-made little short films– were steeped in thinly-veiled homophobic commentary, especially his anti-Emokid series in three parts which seriously went so far as to “jokingly” advocate curb-stomping “those fags in Death Cab shirts riding Vespas”, (I don’t know if the account still exists or if the videos are still up anymore, and frankly, I found it so disgusting at the time that I have no interest in looking it up again). If you’ve been reading this shit I write here for forever, then you’re probably aware that when I came out as FTM, every friend I lost was from the Goth scene, and no, not all of them were in or from Michigan, when you have a relative “big name” NYC goth/deathrock DJ telling you “can it, Lady” after you explain in a LiveJournal comment to please use male pronouns, and an ex-friend from an LA band that’s existed in several forms since 1987 is sending you several MySpace nastygrams to tell you that you’re basically garbage over this, and you hear from the grapevine that yes, there’s a certain Midwesterner who decided to try and add that to their smear campaign against you (which few people ever took seriously, but still…), then you start to realise that the goth/industrial/deathrock scenes are NOT wholly anti- all these assorted “-isms” that it’s ideally supposed to be. Hell, I recently found a Tumblr dedicated to calling out shitty behaviour, it’s far from perfect (and arguably “ableist”, seeing as how much of that blog is in text-images that are impossible for someone with computer equipment for the blind and low-vision to read —cos we all know there are never goths with visual impairments, am I right? [coughs]), so clearly I’m not the only ass-hole who recognises this problem.

Frankly, I know the gothic subculture to have some pretty widespread problems that while, ideally, would not go unchecked by anyone in the scene, and would certainly become a big black mark on someone who seemingly has gained such “cred” as to have a recognisable name within the scene, and when I worked my way through that chapter, I couldn’t help but think that Raven Digitalis, as well-meaning as I understand this was intended to be, was just sugar-coating it all for the sake of appearances (like I said, I’ve been into this since the early-mid 1990s, I remember the Columbine shooting [which yes, in reality had nothing to do with Goths, but we sure as hell felt the weight of the world in its aftermath], and Fairuza Balk’s character in The Craft, and I’m conscious enough of current media to acknowledge that the relatively “positive” or at least sympathetic media portrayals of the Gothic subculture from the last twenty years can be counted on one hand, and the negative portrayals still outnumber by several times as many) and thus giving the bad behaviours in the scene a pass to go on as usual, since only maybe a handful of overzealous SJW kids on Tumblr want to even address these problems, and I’ve never seen a single one of them address it in a manner that will actually make the more reasonable people reflect on not just their own potential for bad behaviour, but that which they might’ve let slide for fear of rocking the boat or hoping that some-one else would call it out (don’t confuse this with a “tone argument”; there are seriously ways to say things, even without clear anger, that will absolutely shut down any reasonable discourse with people –like, any “reductio ad Hitlerum” comparison that more often than not paints the speaker as histrionic and simply failing to understand the nuances of human experience). I mean, I guess it’s nice that, as a white, cisgender guy in the goth scene, especially as a relatively prominent DJ and photographer in one of the “flyover states”, he has been the ideal person he expects the scene to be, and presumably to the best of his knowledge, so have others in the scene that he knows, and it’s nice that he’s writing this in hopes of explaining this ideal to people who may be relative nubs, but I dunno, I’m just a little bothered by what I see as a failure to address the fact that there ARE these problems in the scene that need to be called out rather than given a “No true Scotsman” sort of pass that absolves people of the responsibility to calling it out: After all, if Jacob von Eldritch throws around “The Big N” and says that trans people aren’t the gender/s we say we are, then he’s not really a goth, so true goths have no responsibility to call out his bad behaviour —cos that’s how that fallacy is often applied, when you bring up the genocides and conversion by sword commited in the name of Christianity, there are always way more vocal Christians going “oh, well, see, no true Christian would do that sort of thing, so I don’t have to address it!”. We all know that’s BULLSHIT.

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About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

[PBP2013] Words

Words don’t exist for ourselves as individuals. They exist so that we can communicate things, events, and ideas to others. Like it or not, what you think a word should mean is less important than what your audience thinks it means. If your audience is unfamiliar with a word, then sure, you may owe it to them to define it for them, but don’t be surprised if, when you fail to do so, they seek a definition elsewhere and embrace one you dislike, or never intended.

Humans use plenty of words figuratively, metaphorically. When one says “Johnny Depp is a god”, incredibly few literally mean that Johnny Depp stepped down from Olympos to look sexy and act the hell out of whatever character Tim Burton suggests to him; what they mean is “Johnny Depp has qualities that most other people don’t, qualities that are almost or borderline god-like, and is worthy of being looked up to by others in his field”. What a “god” is, in the most literal sense, is an idea that is easily understood by most people –a “god” is a superhuman being that has power over humans and even nature itself and deserves to be worshipped by believers, and so to compare Johnny Depp to a god is generally assumed to be highly flattering. It’s also generally understood that, due to the overwhelming empirical evidence that Johnny Depp is a human being, that to refer to him as a “god” is a use of figurative language –you’re using a word to represent a feeling more than an empirical fact. Figurative language does not change the literal meaning of the words used figuratively; if anything, it reinforces the meanings by making the audience think of what is being figuratively represented in that description of Johnny Depp as a god.

(Of course, Johnny Depp may also be a literal god taking a completely human form and his hypothetical nature as a god may be completely undetectable to modern technology, but that’s irrelevant.)

Now let us take the word “god”. If one would rather un-define “god” not as a superhuman being independent of the human consciousness, but instead as a metaphor itself for an ineffable something within the collective of human experience, one has not eradicated the existence of the gods, nor has one eliminated the idea of what a god is from the human consciousness.

How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg? Four. Calling the tail a leg does not make it so.

(Hypothetically) Un-defining “leg” as “any appendage that is not a head” so as to include the tail (you know, to be more-inclusive, and show the tail that it is welcome amongst the legs, I guess –in spite of the fact that it really was always welcome amongst the legs, the whole time) does not change the characteristics of the tail or any of the legs. The tail is still a tail, and serves the functions and purposes of the tail. It will never become a leg, no matter how little the word “leg” comes to mean. The structure and purpose of a leg and a tail are so different, that to list all the differences is not only an objective fact, it’s an empirical fact –if one lacks sight, one can even feel the differences between a dog’s tail and its legs, so broadening the definition of “leg” to include any appendage that is not a head is not only confusing, but potentially dangerous.

Broadly-defined “umbrella terms” serve no purpose outside of political goals, and even then, the empirical observations of many is that there will always be dissent amongst members of the same political groups –TS/TG people may support the Human Rights Council (HRC) in its current primary goals to forward the agenda of same-sex marriage1, but those TS/TG people may still be quick to point out that the HRC’s advocacy of TS/TG interests is incredibly lacking. “The GBLT community” doesn’t account for the vast differences between the subcultures of drag, Bears, butch/femme, twinks, gym bunnies, and so on, but all are accounted for under the umbrella, and maybe only a handful of individuals from each subculture have any intimate knowledge of any other subculture under the umbrella.

“Pagan” has been so loosely defined for so long that it’s an adequate “umbrella term”. On the other hand, “polytheism” means something because it’s a compound word and its components mean something rather specific, when put together.

1: No matter what you might have read on Tumblr or other such echo-chambers for utterly ridiculous people, same-sex marriage (SSM) rights ARE RELEVANT TO THE TS/TG COMMUNITY. Think about it: Not only are there GBL-identified TS/TG persons, including those who may become both legally recognised as the gender they live as and desirous of marrying a now legally same-sexed partner, but there are also literally hundreds, thousands of TS/TG people who are both heterosexually-identified (trans women who exclusively date men, trans men who exclusively date women), and are unable to have their birth certificates legally amended, or the letter on their driver’s license or state/government-issued-ID changed, in order to meet the requirements of the state in order to marry hetero partners –legally, their state recognises them as a same-sex couple. Maybe they were born in Ohio, or Idaho, or one of the other two States that still won’t let trans people amend our birth certificates, no matter how much surgery is had? Maybe they can’t have “the surgery” (for either financial or medical reasons, or, if you’re Anna-Verney Cantodea, you might have spiritual reasons to abstain from surgery) in order to meet state requirements that would allow for their birth certificates to be amended? Maybe some-one isn’t seeking any medical transition at all, not even hormones, but is still able to live full-time (or most of the time) as their preferred gender, but due to being “non-transitioning”, from a medical standpoint, are thus barred from getting their certificate amended or their ID letter altered? Furthermore, within the United States, marriage rights are determined by each State, individually, and there is seriously not a single married TS/TG person in the entire US who, if they were to move to a state that did not recognise SSM, would not have their marriage questioned, come tax season, cos some States won’t recognise a birth certificate that was amended in another State or other “technicalities” –it happens at an alarmingly regular basis, and is such a common occurrence, it rarely makes the news in even the local gaypers. The most pragmatic way to circumvent these laws is universal recognition of SSM. As a trans man, myself, obviously I think that making strides to loosen up on recognition of genders outside the cisgender binary is a good thing that should be striven for, but we’re a lot closer to achieving SSM rights across the Anglosphere than we are to making sure none of those hoops a trans person has to jump through for an ounce of government recognition have to be on fire. I’m also a bit of an outlier to the community in that I think that some hoops at all aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

[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 about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

[PBP2013] Defining Pagan

Untitled-24As I’ve said before, I have a reluctant relationship with this word, for the simple fact that both within and outside of the “pagan community”, there are so many implications that exclude me and my religion –but at the same time, there are also implications that demand I be included within that term. It’s impossible to completely divorce myself from this word because of a lot of reasons –like how academia defines my religion as “pagan” and how an astonishing number of people outside (and even inside) the “pagan umbrella” just can’t figure out what relatively simple words like “polytheist” are supposed to mean, but “pagan”, to them, often connotes the same thing.

So I’m going to take a stab at defining pagan –and not just for the purposes of this blog, or my life in general. As Pope Sannion I‘s self-appointed bishop in the Great Lakes Dioceses, I shall attempt to define “pagan” and “paganism” in as few words as possible, and encompassing as many people as possible. If you disagree, there are likely plenty of other terms, some of which may better describe what you do –and if there isn’t, you’re free to invent one.

So, here we go:

PAGANISM –a collective of religious and other spiritual practises of, based on, or influenced by those of European and Mediterranean (including North African and Middle Eastern) pre-Christian, non-Abrahamic practises. Pagans place greater emphasis on practices of groups and individuals than the beliefs of individuals. Pagans also generally place importance on community, wisdom, and the environment.

There you go, it is broad, and yet it is definite. Also: It is only fifty-five words! You’re welcome to believe as you like about the nature of the gods, whether this means you’re a staunch polytheist or a secular humanist and the gods are just names for Jungian archetypes for you. You can be a recon, in ADF or some other form of neo-druid, traditional or popular Wiccan, Feri, kitchen witch, some other similar path to the above (including, but not limited to, Italian and British isles witchcraft, and so on…) or just making your own thing that carries influence or inspirtion from any or all of the above methods.

Yes, I’ve excluded Hinduism and East Asian religions, African diaspora religions, and aboriginal religions of the Americas, Australia, and Oceania. My reason for doing so is simple: A great majority of people practising those religions eschew the “pagan” label for themselves. Furthermore, my goal is to define the word “pagan” and have it mean something —Hindus are something, Buddhists are something, Shawnee religion is something, worshippers of Maria Lionza are something, and so is Voudoo, Santeria, and other religions. As it stands, paganism is nothing in that it’s “anything and everything”, meaning it’s undefined. Until now. Does this mean that other non-Abrahamics should be excluded from large, inter/national, “big tent” non-Abrahamic spiritual gatherings, like Pantheacon, that are predominantly populated by Pagans? Of course not, it simply means that perhaps those gatherings, if they intend to include, or at least be welcoming to people of other non-Abrahamic religious groups, then perhaps they should include other terms, as well as “Pagan” in their official literature.

Think about it this way, little SJW’s getting your knickers in a twist because I’m daring to say that “Paganism” should mean something: If a grammar school has a culturally diverse population, that doesn’t mean everybody just magically loses their cultural uniqueness, and students of various cultural backgrounds are going to still have their own concerns that need to be addressed in certain ways. Thus, there are various non-Abrahamic religious groups and particular religions within each group. “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” can easily be argued to be words for religious groups rather than each word representing a single unique religion in and of itself. “Native American spirituality” absolutely represents a group of religions, not a single monolitic set of religious beliefs and practises. “Chinese folk religion” includes both Taoism and Shenism and other practises and philosophies. Thus, “Paganism” means “pre-Christian, non-Abrahamic religions of, based on, or influenced by the religions of Europe and the Mediterranean”.

This also means that you cannot be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Rastefarian, or Baha’i and be a pagan. You cannot just sit around and think the gods are neat and stuff, and do nothing about it, so far as ritual or any other practises are concerned, and be a pagan. Getting a tongue piercing to commemorate the first time you gave a guy a blow-job to climax may be ritualistic in nature, probably inspired by something, but no, it isn’t “pagan enough”, if that’s all you’ve ever done and all you ever intend on doing. “Pagan” is defined by religious practises with a strong implication of religious and general community and environmental responsibility.

There is room for pantheistic nature worship, as there is loads of historical evidence for veneration of local land spirits in the pre-Christian era of Europe and the Mediterranean, a lot of it has even survived Christianity in some form or another. There is also room for urban people, as an urban-based spirituality is not only historical, but it also does not exclude a care or concern for the environment.

There is even room to be the kind of pagan that most Christians in the Anglosphere are Christian —that is, you’re perfectly welcome to only practise at Big Festivals a few times a year, do nothing the rest of the time, and call yourself a pagan —cos at least that few times a year, you’re still doing something, even if you don’t believe the gods (or god and goddess, or goddess) factor into it at all. You’re doing something that is definably pagan; other pagans are also welcome to tell you that you’re missing out on something, and those within your own tradition are welcome to espouse the opinion that you’re doing it wrong by only doing something at a few annual festivals, but that’s something that every individual and tradition has to work out for themselves. You’re also welcome to fit the definition and be a “not pagan, but [something else]”, just as much as TS people are allowed to say that there’s no such thing as biological sex, or whatever nonsense the TS/TG SJW’s are concocting on Tumblurgh this week —only rude people are going to tell you that you’re wrong.

Also, keep in mind, I’m pretty far from the first or only person defining it that way, at this point in time. This is the definition I’ve gathered from many people (including myself, some years ago) who feel that “Paganism” should mean something, and it is only by the duty of my self-appointed office, and with the papal blessing of Sannion I, that I issue this definition.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

[What’s That?] Altars and Shrines

Pagans and polytheists, at least in my experiences, differ in this way (amongst others): The former mostly maintains altars, the latter mostly maintains shrines.



Here’s why:

An altar is a place where you practise your religion; a shrine is where a Deity, or several deities, have Their own space in your home or the community. A shrine is like a permanent or semi-permanent guestroom for a deity, or several deities, where one has created a space in one’s home specifically for Them. For purposes of space, a shrine may have a “threshold” area where one practises rituals, or at least lights a candle and incense daily or weekly (depending on how one’s religion honours the deity in question), but the rest of the area is usually left untouched, save for periodic days during the month or year when you perform maid service (still running with the guest room analogy), or when you get little gifts for the Deity and arrange them artfully in Deity’s space. On the other hand, an altar is assumed to be for you, the whole space is yours, and there is (usually) nothing on there that you don’t use at some point when practising your religion. The two things are very different in intent and purpose, so conflating the two as one in the same is to betray one’s ignorance.

Shrines are often more-or-less “permanent”; if it’s a fixture of the home, its location is often chosen very carefully (usually dependent on deity) and after the location is designated for a shrine, it’s not moved unless special circumstances (like ritual cleaning, or a move) require one to. An altar might require a special location or direction to face, depending n the religion, but it is, at most, assumed to be a “part time” placement, the lease can be cancelled at any time; it can be moved or taken down when not in use (even if one doesn’t, out of convenience or just plain laziness) and I’ve never heard of a religion that requires special reverence for taking down a mere altar that could be easily compared to the treatment of a shrine that needs cleaning or has fallen into disrepair.

Common fixtures of small indoor shrines include a representation of the deity, a dish for offerings like wine, a candle or two, a receptacle for incense, and (depending on how long one has worshipped the deity) lots and lots of items that are gifts for the Deity, such as coins, food items, or just trinkets and baubles made of or bearing images of stones, flora, or fauna sacred to the deity. Common fixtures of altars often include a candle or two, a receptacle for incense, a representation of a deity or two, and various ritual tools —which may be (but may not be limited to) blades/athames, wands, a goblet or chalise, etc…. Large “outdoor” shrines that are basically the size of a tiny house that can have standing or sitting room for a few people tend to have an altar inside them for the placement of offerings and candles and holding small rituals of reverence, but the aura of such an altar is less like leaving gifts at the threshold of a household shrine, and more like bringing a gift into another’s house as a guest; it’s the Deity’s altar at one of their many Earthly homes, not that liminal space at the borderline between your space and Theirs. Because there is some overlap in the characteristics of a small household shrine and a household altar (candles, incense, representations of Deity), people who don’t know or understand the differences between altars and shrines may confuse the two.


Well, aside from my description, I also thought to provide a visual aide. First, a couple photos from a search for “Wiccan Altar” on Bing.com:



There is nothing on either of these altars that is not, or at least cannot be intended to be used in a ritual. Even the statue in the second photo might be ritually turned to face one direction or another, during the course of a ritual, be it before, after, or while all other tools are being used.

So here are now a few images of shrines:

my Eros shrine, 01-08

Dver's "Dionysos shrine" (image links to Flickr gallery)

Dver’s “Dionysos shrine” (image links to Flickr gallery)

Dionysos shrine from Flaming Thrysos

Dionysos shrine from Flaming Thrysos

Very little in these pictures (though one is erroneously referred to as an “altar” by its maintainer) is intended for use by human hands. These are places for their respective Deities to be most-present and welcomed into the household; these are not areas where the primary purpose is for humans doing rituals (though occasionally rituals may take place at the shrine’s threshold).

Similarly, the springs to the city nymphai of Boiotia, and other springs sacred to locally important nymphai, and other parts of the city or villiage considered important to local mythos, would often serve as shrines to the nymph in question. If a traveller wanted the good graces of the local deities, gifts would be left at the city shrine(s) —similar to the continued tradition of dropping a coin in a fountain “for luck”. Then there’s the Greek tradition of roadside shrines:


While some of these shrines are, like the various roadside shrines seem in the American Midwest, created by surviving families at a location near a fatal traffic accident, a lot of times, the Greek roadside shrines are just erected by some-one giving thanks and praise to an Orthodox Saint (and, on occasion, alongside an ancient deity) for some joyous event in one’s life; some of these shrines are said locally to have been standing and maintained since ancient times, perhaps with the pre-Christian commemoration only thinly veiled. Their purpose is for a short prayer and/or reflection, and (as with the roadside shrines around here, which commemorate tragedy) small trinkets and candles may be left by local people. Some Greek roadside shrines are big enough to be miniature chapels, big enough for two or three people to stand in prayer or conduct small ceremonies, but the fact that those shrines can have that function is secondary to the purpose of creating a space sacred to a Deity or Saint, where one is encouraged to pause in reflection of said Divine figure, perhaps have a small prayer or light a candle, and then go about one’s business.

While some shrines maintained by modern polytheists (as those pictured) may take form on and around a table-top out of necessity (like lacking a means of enclosure of the shrine area) or personal preference (as these are indoor shrines, and protection from elements is already taken care of, or so the reasoning may go), the purpose is still clear, often just by looking at it as a person who understands the difference. Some altars may also be set up in a niche in a wall, of on a bookshelf, or perhaps it’s a portable thing barely bigger than a CD jewelcase, but again, the intent is clear of its function simply by its form.

In paths one is unfamiliar with, or deities one has not previously seen a shrine to, the purpose may not be clear. A shrine to Ares may contain a short military dagger, and depending on the age or originating military, it might be indistinguishable from a Pop Wiccan’s athame. One may be practising a self-invented path of lesbian witchcraft that simulates the “great rite” of Wicca by rubbing two cowrie shells together, so the altar might appear more shrine-like, lacking blades and wands. If you know noting about the person’s religion, it never hurts to ask, but at the same time, it’s also perfectly fine to kindly explain that shrines and altars are not one-in-the-same, and that one “preferring” one term over the other doesn’t necessarily make it true.

Apologies to the previous publication of this without the rest. I was touching up the post on the tablet, and well, I’ll add this to my ever-growing list of why touch-screens are the work of Typhoeus.

Also: I do intend on making a series out of these sorts of posts.

(ETA on 27 July 2014)
Cos this has been recently referenced in places, I figured I’d take advantage of this opportunity to inform people reading this for the first time that I’m raising funds for my upcoming move back to the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area.

I’m also giving away Heathen goddess prayer cards.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Polytheism and Retrofuturism

Retrofuturism is, in essence, a philosophy that has been highly influential in late 20th and early 21st Century art, music, design, and (typically underground) fashion. I’d says its beginnings can be traced to the 1960s, when the first conscious revival of a once-popular movement —Art Deco— took place, though the movement really started to take off in the 1970s. While Isadora Duncan was certainly a prototypical and extreme retrofuturist, her influence, during her time, was limited to dance, so clearly while she can be argued to have scattered some seeds for retrofuturism, the movement did not take root with her. Streamline Moderne design, popular in the 1940s, is sometimes erroneously described as an Art Deco revival, but it is, in actuality, merely a continuation of the movement; where Art Nouveau of the 1890s and 1900s can be described as “organic”, Art Deco can be described as “mineral” in its look and feel, especially its penchant for symmetric geometry — Streamline, on the other hand, is organic lines with an Art Deco sensibility, thus it is not a true revival. But I digress.

In simplest terms, Retrofuturism is taking the best of the past and the best of the present and moulding it with a progressive-mindedness that looks toward the future. Steampunk is retrofuturist. By extension, Diesel- and decopunk are retrofuturist, and Atompunk is retrofuturist. While the Mod subculture was initially a very modern-minded subculture, its deep connections to the Phil Spector/Tamla-Motown sound and a 1960s-influenced aesthetic have assured its evolution into a retrofuturist subculture, albeit not the most conscious retrofuturist subculture, when compared to most others. Roxy Music is a retrofuturist group. As is DEVO. As is Joe Jackson. Jim Henson’s life-long love of puppetry and apparent knowledge of its history, and not to mention showing off that knowledge in his abilities to create quality entertainment intended for an adult audience (yet silly enough that children didn’t need to understand The Muppet Show, for example, in order to enjoy it) is inherently retrofuturist. Guy Maddin is retrofuturist, though he prefers “ultra-conformist”, which, to be honest, is actually best at describing his techniques, which are seldom more evolved than the industry standard of 1933. The work of McDermott & McGough is absolutely retrofuturist with an emphasis on the retro. Electroswing is retrofuturist with an emphasis on the future. Neofolk is a genre that is, at its heart, retrofuturist but in practise, some bands identify more closely with certain flavours of Fascism, which is, at its heart, Traditionalist —but in all honesty (and more knowledge of music than most other people who can wear the “Goth DJ” hat), Leonard Cohen and Nico were among the first musicians to be described as “neofolk” or even “dark folk”, and Johnny Indovina of Human Drama considers much of his music to be some form of “neo-folk”, and it would be hard (at the absolute least) to consider any of those musos to be Fascists or Traditionalists.

The modern pagan and polytheist movements are, too, typically retrofuturist with a few exceptions. Chaos magic seems decidedly modernist with some hints of straight-up futurism. There is also a segment of reconstructionist polytheists that are more concerned with an anti-progressive notion of “the ancients” to the point that it’s easy to call them Traditionalist or even Anti-modernist; retrofuturists, by their nature, tend to avoid such types as we find their non-interest in a living society in favour of an arbitrary point in the ancient past (often long pre-dating even a century or two prior Christianity’s birth, much less its rise to prominence) to be rather silly.

If there’s anything that a vast majority of pagans and polytheists have in common, it’s an interest in re-shaping the present and future with knowledge about the past influencing this form. This is a variant on the two major themes of retrofuturist creativity: The first is the “retrofuture purist” form, which is celebrating the past’s idea of the future. The second is to re-imagine the past as seen with eyes of the present that are, at the very least, mindful of the future (though retrofuturist art tends to emphasise the future). The tendencies of pagans and polytheists to take what is known of the ancient past polytheistic religions and adapt them to not only modern life but a future-mindedness makes this the ultimate retrofuturist religious movement; Gnostics probably come in at a close second place.

While an degree of tradition is important in most pagan and polytheist religions, they are not typically defined by their traditions, but by the cultures they sprang from and the communities they are shared by, which essentially creates a vision of the future.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Ruadhan’s Further Adventures in Over-Thinking Pagan Identity Crisis 2011 — NOW WITH GRAPHS!!!

OK, so I was commenting on some-one (even though it’s likely being screened for no reason I can figure out, but whatever), and I realised something: There are two working definitions of “pagan” that most people seem to use to various degrees.

A couple friends of mine use “scene pagan” and “religious pagan”, but on further consideration, I’m not sure this is wholly accurate for how it works In Real Life™. There’s a bit of overlap for a lot of people, and so it may be dismissive of those who are thoroughly entrenched in the “pagan scene” but are deeply religious.

Basically, there’s the Dictionary Definition™ of “pagan religions” — actually, it’s usually two or three definitions, but you understand what I mean— and then there’s the self-defined “pagan community”:

“Pagan” religions (Wiccan, Feri, Asatru, Hellenismos, Paganachd, Yljeeaghys — to name a few) are just that. They’re religions, old or new, that fit a dictionary definition of “pagan”. Often, this extends to Eastern/Asian or Indigenous American religions that tend to eschew the term “pagan” more than those who practise Western/European-based or Mediterranean religions that fall outside the dominance of Abrahamic faiths — certain Abrahamists may also consider other Abrahamic religions “pagan”, like Gnostics for giving reverence to the books of pre-Nicean Christianity that the Nicean council voted out, or Baha’i for its almost pantheistic approach to and taboos against religious fanaticism, or Rastefarianism for… pretty much everything about it while maintaining a reverence for Christian scripture. Certain flavours of Evangelical Protestant Christian may also consider Catholics as “pagan” for Catholicism’s veneration of Mary on a level very similar to many other “Mother Goddesses” and saints in a manner similar to demi-gods. Then there’s Venezuela’s Maria Lionza cult, many of whose members describe themselves as Catholic, but are also clearly a part of a religion that the local Catholic priests and bishops preach against as being “pagan”. As you can see, “pagan” is not merely synonymous with “polytheism” or “nature religion” — it is a bullying word.

What is and is not a pagan religion is largely subjective, but the word’s history as a Christian “not one of us” slur, even against other Christians, makes many who may apply the term to their religion on the basis of the dictionary hesitant. If adopting it as a “reclaimed word” for one’s own religion, this is best left self-applied — in all honesty, you look like a douche-bag when you tell other people what words they “should” use to describe themselves, including their religion.

There is then the Pagan Community.

Not every-one in the Pagan Community is an adherent of a well-defined religion that may be commonly described as “pagan”. Some members of the Pagan Community are self-styled spiritual, agnostic, atheist tree-huggers who commune with nature, Christo-Pagans, or perhaps even Abrahamic astrologers and mystics or mere “spiritual non-denominational Christians” who feel out-of-place within any pre-defined sect of their religion. Or perhaps they’re Abrahamic “dual-trad” or syncretics. They may not even consider themselves especially spiritual, but instead as one who loves the endorphin rush from drum-circles, and so attends as many as one can. Whether they do or do not define their religious practises as “pagan”, a person may still be a part of the pagan community socially or politically and thus may or may not define their public identity as “pagan”.

That said, the “pagan community” tends to have two distinct types with a lot of over-lap: The social scene and political activists. In my experiences, there is a slightly larger overlap between Religious and Political than Religious and Social — so your mileage may vary, when considering the below Venn Diagram:

Now, what can we learn from this graph?

1) there are a lot of religious people who may be considered “pagan”, even if they do not define themselves as such — as has been explained by the above, and on this post, this one, and Kayleigh’s here, “Pagan” is a relatively new self-definition, it is often a “Not One of Us” word used by Abrahamic religionists —in which case, it is a slur, and we must speak out against such use just like we speak out against homophobes calling people “gay” or “faggot”, and just like we speak out against racist slurs. Not every-one who’s religion may be considered “pagan” by others thinks that term is a good self-descriptive; again: Note the rarity with which Hindus, Shintos, and Buddhists use the word to self-define, in spite of The Dictionary Definotion™ that clearly includes their religions amongst “pagan” ones. Those who do use the term with their identification of their religion are but a small part of that whole — probably smaller than my graph implies.
2) there is considerable overlap with those who consider their religion “pagan”, those who consider themselves a part of the “pagan community” and those who believe in related socio-political goals.
…and also:
3) Ruadhán, you really fupped-up some of this here! (and obviously too lazy to draw it again)
4) Ruadhán, you really can’t draw circles (and obviously couldn’t be arsed to get something for a template)
5) Ruadhán, also, you really, seriouslyneed a new purple marker-pen, (yes, I know, I’m going to Staples tomorrow)

Actually, you know, I think the Teal and Pink circles could stand to be re-sized, and I could have probably stood to but I’m going to leave the whole thing as-is. Why? It’s a visual aid, nothing more, to illustrate the layers I see in the Pagan community and the real-life use I’ve seen of the word “Pagan”.

The reality is, when I recently read the comments to Drew Jacob’s first post (that started all this), I saw quite a few people telling him, in no uncertain terms, that whether he likes it, or thinks it fits, or even will concede to it or not, he and his group? They’re pagans, and they ALL better get used to it, and like it, cos not only does the dictionary say so, THEY DO, TOO! This from apparently self-defined “pagans”.

I have to agree with Mr Jacob’s follow-up post: That’s bullying, and in reality it’s no better than the tactics used by Christians to force conversion of those they declare “pagan” — it always starts so seemingly “reasonable” before getting to the physical violence of old and the withholding of medical aid of today. It starts with words: Look, you Pagan, I’m going to tell YOU what YOU are Pagan, and you have two choices: Accept it and the fate that comes with being a Pagan, or give me a reason to stop calling you that, Pagan!

Has anybody who may be reading this ever been called “fatty”? Sure, maybe you really did fit the dictionary definition of a “fat person”, but you’d still call that bullying, because who is some other person to tell you how to feel about yourself. Or maybe you’re an expat who has thoroughly absorbed your now-local culture, even consider yourself a part of it, but those around you insist on maintaining the idea that you’ll never really be one of them, and tell you as much — again, bullying.

I wish I could say that I’m shocked as well as appalled by what I see, but the reality is that I’m really not. And, at this point, I’m so used to seeing such behaviour, that I’m almost too jaded by it to feel appalled.

Conceding to the term “pagan” when it’s useful is a personal choice I’ve made, even though I feel it doesn’t best describe my religion, for a lot of reasons. It’s really not my place to tell others what words to self-apply — I’m sure they know what the dictionary says, and I’m sure they know what Abrahamists may say, so it seems pretty condescending to remind them for no reason. Some forms of Evangelical Christianity also declare any religion but their kind of Christianity to be “Satanism”, so I know I sure don’t put a lot of stock in what people outside my religion have to say about my religion; they can’t describe it with authority for the simple reason that it is not something they do. Thus, no matter how much I may feel some-one else’s religion looks like X, if they say it’s Y, I’ll take them at their word — to tell a Y-religionist that their religion is “really X” is a tad insulting.

I think a lot of this has to do with a bit of retention of a Christian state of mind: You’re either Black or White — Forget Greys, Forget Colours, and Pick A Side. While I acknowledge that there are some Christians who have un-learned that sort of thinking, or perhaps never thought that way at all, they are severely in a minority. The basic teachings of nearly every Christian church teaches that fundamental aspect of Christianity, and in fact is a false dichotomy, where you’re either Christian/Abrahamist or Pagan, Dead or Alive — ignoring the very reality that you may be Something Else, possibly even Dracula. Not even explicitly “fundamentalist” sects teach this sort of thinking, that’s how deeply ingrained this concept is into Christianity.

This is another reason I admit that I concede to the term only as much as it’s useful to me. A large faction of the pagan community still, to me, seems entrenched in this false dichotomy: You’re either an Abrahamist or a Pagan, and if you object to this, then you’re just wrong.

I find this idea troubling, because while everybody in the pagan community who subscribes to this belief has a real easy time describing what makes the Abrahamic religions —Judaism is the cultural monotheistic religion of the Hebrew people and it has a bunch of dietary laws, Christianity is kinda like Judaism but with fewer dietary restrictions and they regard the mythological figure of Jesus Christ as the son of their God, Islam is kinda like Christianity except Jesus is a prophet, and Mohammed is the Final Prophet, and they’ve gotten back in touch with the dietary law— precious few have as easy time describing what the basic outline is for “pagan” religions. While most “pagan religions” are polytheistic or animistic, not all are — some are monotheistic, agnostic, or atheistic. While many religions that may be described as “pagan” are related to an ancient and often somewhat-surviving culture (like Hellenism or Yljeeaghys [“polytheism” in Manx Gaelic]1), there are newer “pagan” religions that may have no clear ties to any one culture. Some self-styled “pagans” may not even consider themselves religious or spiritual. Some who self-identify as “pagans” feel closest to their gods or spirits in woodlands — others in bustling metropoleis, so even declaring “paganism” to be “nature religion” is to basically tell other self-defined “pagans” that their spiritual realities are wrong. To unite under a term that has no positive meaning puzzles me.

Ultimately, “pagan” is a word of “negative definition”: It defines a religion based on what it is not, not based on what a particular religion IS. It is also a word with an etymology linked to the Latin equivalent of “ignorant country bumpkin” and a history of use deeply absorbed in Abrahamic supremacy. Hindus, Shintoists, indigenous American and Australian tribes who practise their ancestral religions, Buddhists, and others have long-eschewed the term “pagan” on the grounds that it is what missionaries have used to define them; that those practising European-based tribal polytheism and newer paths have been dropping the word in recent years is relatively new — indeed, we’re pretty late to that party, all things considered.

Still, as I’ve said before, I keep the few ties I have to the greater “pagan community” that exists in the Anglosphere on political grounds, primarily, and also on a few overlapping social interests. I also have a hard time finding the incenses and herbs I burn in devotional rituals at ordinary bookstores and markets, and it’s really hard to generate interest in divination-for-hire services outside of, well, the sorts of places that self-defined “pagans” usually go.

So am I pagan?

I can’t call my religion “pagan” when no-one seems to have a concrete definition of what “pagan” means — and I refuse to be bullied by dictionary-thumpers telling me that they’re an authority on what my religion is. I definitely have ties to the “pagan community”, but if I were to make a list of everything I do and am interested in, I wouldn’t be surprised if that suggested I have stronger ties to the Mod Revival scene — going on pure numbers of media-items alone, all the records and books and assorted art-items I own, I’m sure that could be enough to say so. While I can’t deny what the dictionary and most people outside my religion may say about it, and I can’t deny some of the things I read and enjoy listening to and looking at, nor some of the little things I do for extra money, to seriously self-define with a word that I have such a low opinion of and less use for than other words seems a bit much. Even at the moments it suits my purposes to be “pagan”, it feels so hollow — less than a joke, except when it explicitly is a joke. So while I have debatable “pagan” attributes, and certainly some portion of my life is spent in a community that has a far more positive attitude toward the word “pagan”, I’m even more hesitant now than ever to self-apply the word.

It’s like putting my feet, a UK5 (US Men’s 6), into my house-mate’s shoes, sized USM14½ (UK13½): In a pinch, I can slip them on and get the mail, but since anything more than that takes so much effort just to keep the bloody things on my feet —hell, even just going out to get the mail with them on takes so much effort, it hardly seems worth it, when I do— it’s clear that the shoes don’t fit me. Indeed, at half the time I don’t feel arsed to go get my own shoes to fetch the mail, I just go barefoot.

So no, while I am supportive of the socio-political goals of the pagan community, and have respect for several self-defined pagans, both as personal friends and as distant figures I read about, I cannot, in good conscience, say that I or what I do is “pagan” any more than I can apply that term to another person or their religion. There is no real such thing as a “pagan religion” beyond the religions that openly embrace the word, and even then, I can’t help but wonder what it is about the word that attracts them —surely not its history as a slur, I presume, and surely there is more to their religion than “not Abrahamic”. No, I am not a “pagan”, I’m a Boeotian polytheist who participates in a social and political community that often defaults to the word “pagan” as its descriptive. Boeotian polytheism isn’t any more “pagan” than polytheistic Hindu or Buddhist sects. The cult of Eros is open to anybody who wishes to worship Him, and so is therefore no more “pagan” than that of Maria Lionza.

I hope this helps. 🙂 It’s surely helped me sort out my own thoughts on this.

2: The main reason I know this? I write fiction, and one of my characters is Manx; in developing her character’s background prior to publishing any stories with her, it became apparent that her family were polytheists.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

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 about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.