Every thirty-seven seconds, a Wiccanate Monist kicks a puppy. Please think of the puppies.

I have to say, I’ve been just flabbergasted by all the people, most of whom ostensibly claim to be “Wiccan” of some variety or at least some sort of magic-worker, who are saying words aren’t important, or don’t matter, or barely mean anything.

“Why are we arguing about WORDS?”, they cry out. “This isn’t important, it’s JUST WORDS!”

Oh really now?

When I was a junior high kid and looking through books about Pop Wicca (before I lost interest and put them down), one of the first things in those books I remember reading, and one of the few things in those tomes I took seriously enough to be a lesson, was this: Words and names are powerful, and intent alone only goes so far when one uses the wrong words.

I wish I remember what book I read that in, or at least what the exact words were so I could try searching the library on Google. I seem to recall it was a popular author, though, which just makes me wonder how nobody else seems to remember that lesson. If you believe in magic,truly believe it is real and works, then you believe in words and you believe that they mean things and that the words we use are important and should be chosen carefully. Hell, one of the most common forms of sympathetic magic is carefully choosing a child’s name, in hopes of that child carrying the best qualities of what that name means, or who the child was named after –because names are another kind of word, and words mean things and have power. That’s why changing one’s name is often a crucial step in conversion in many religions, because names are words, and words mean things and have power.

This is Magic 101, kids! If you don’t believe that words mean things and have power beyond your intent, then you don’t believe in magic. If it’s all “just words”, then why not call oneself a Christian or Muslim? I mean, it’s *just words*, so why not? Remember kids, intent alone isn’t magical –if the social justice fandom on Tumblr1 can figure out that much, then what’s the problem with people who claim to practise actual magic? I’m sure people like Margot Adler believe in all their hearts that they’re polytheists, but when she has said that she always wanted less to worship the gods and more to aspire to be what they represent, then that’s not polytheism, that’s either archetypalism or something else that is not polytheism.

Think of words like channels: You can intend to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race all you like, but if you don’t have the proper cable package to get the LOGO Channel, you can’t watch it (entertain me for a sec and pretend that you can’t download television on iTunes, OK? of course, that’s assuming it’s even available in the current season via iTunes). Intent alone won’t let you watch it.

Words are another tool –sometimes you can get by with a large shard of broken glass in place of a blade, but not every time. Sure, you can make due with only frankincense and myrrh for a while, but eventually you’re going to need other incenses because the ritual you’re doing or the deity you’re supplicating finds those scents completely inappropriate. Furthermore, one may be perfectly able to get by with a limited vocabulary, but certain avenues will be closed off unless one does the work to increase the words one knows. (Yeah, that means some people just can’t do certain things, but it’s even harder to find people who can’t develop other talents. If that still bothers you, well, as my father used to say “want in one hand and shit in the other, let’s see which one fills up fastest”.)

Hell, you can ask your Aunt Fran to pass you the “peanut butter” until you’re blue in the face, she won’t know your intent is for the pepper grinder until you make your intent clear in some other way, and even then, she’s probably going to think there’s something wrong with your head.

Maybe being trans puts me at this uncommon position in the pagan community, where I have an innate understanding of how much power and meaning words actually have? (Or at least gives me a higher possibility of understanding this shit, cos let me tell you, Internet…) When someone uses the wrong pronouns, even if they didn’t intend to, even if it doesn’t necessarily “out” me to others, I still feel it –yeah, at this point I’ve kind of built up a callus to it, but the fact that I’ve had to build up a callus to it speaks volumes about the impact and power of just the word tiny, three-letters of “she” and “her”, and I still feel it. I also know (cos people have asked me or otherwise said things that indicate they heard it) that this makes a lot of people suddenly question my gender and essentially the very essence of who I am and what I’m about. “Oh, I thought you were a man?” –cutting, powerful, and dare I say hurtful words, even if the intent was an innocent question, and especially when I have to respond “no, you were right, I am –the other person is wrong”. Intent alone makes for shitty magic without the proper tools to support it.

Because words mean things. Words have power. Words are tools that carry more magic than intent alone. Yes, the colloquial meaning of any particular words can be fluid and malleable, but the meaning is still there, and charged with the roots and etymologies the word carries.

I wouldn’t say “useless” when I mean something is “unnecessary”. I wouldn’t say “androgynous” when I mean “effeminate”. The roots and nuance are just different enough to make these words mean different things.

I dare say, it’s a by-product of Christianisation, and a mighty flaw in monism as a whole, that leaves many people with the mistaken impression that certain words “mean essentially the same thing” when they don’t, and it’s not too far a leap to get on the slippery slope of “words mean whatever one intends them to mean”. As I’ve said before, words don’t exist for us as as individuals, they exist so that we can have the ability to communicate complex statements, thoughts, ideas, directions, and requests. Our own ideas about ourselves and other, these ideas that we have essentially for ourselves, will still exist, even if we lack the words to express them to others. When the Theoi gave us words, They gave us another tool to communicate with both Them and with each-other, and we can either use that tool carefully or carelessly; words are a tool that have the power to build and to destroy.

When the Assyrian sage Ahqar first stated (around 500BCE) “The word is mightier than the sword,” he clearly understood the powerful magic of words and what they mean not just to individuals, but to whole peoples.

But hey, if you still contend that “it’s just words” and that they only mean as much you you intend them to, then put your money where your mouth is: Stop calling yourself a “polytheist” or even “pagan” –after all, it’s just words! Stop claiming you honour Hekate –after all, names are just another kind of word! Hell, stop blogging and stop commenting on others’ blogs –you’re just giving form to these stupid, meaningless words! Change your name to an unpronounceable symbol and communicate with smells and gestures and vocalisations –but be careful not to form anything too close to words (including Sign Language). If you refuse to do that, then you concede that words mean things and are powerful.


1: I refuse to entertain those kids’ delusions that they’re “activists”, especially when they don’t treat those issues with actual thought, but the unquestioning ravings of a rabid fankid.

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.

Why “Queer”, but not “Pagan”?

I love etymology, and this leads me to often thinking of the words I use very carefully before using them. I don’t call heterosexual “straight” by default, because “straight” in this use does not simply mean heterosexual: It means “normal”, “not a criminal”, “sober”, and it evolved from criminal and drug subcultures. As homosexuality is no longer criminalised in the First World, to call heterosexuals “straight” is to reinforce homophobia, I dare say it is even an act of homophobia.

…but I digress.

First off, while I dislike the term “pagan” based on a loaded etymology, and I absolutely do not feel like it is the best word to describe my religion, I do occasionally resign to it out of convenience and knowing full well that even though it may be one of those instances where it’s simply easier than going on a long discussion I don’t want to be in (or I would have made that discussion happen and not said “I’m pagan”), I do so with the knowledge that I’m inviting in all of these assumptions people are going to make about me that are, by and large, not an accurate way to describe me or my religion at all.

While there is certainly a reinforcing etymology to these assumptions of others’, the major reason for these assumptions is the self-reinforcing stereotyping that runs rampant in the community of self-identified pagans. The fact of the matter is, the “mainstream” idea that pagans are nature-worshipping hippies dancing barefoot in the woods is because an overwhelming majority of self-identified pagans fit that description, and tend to be a bit less-than-accepting of anybody under the “pagan umbrella” who doesn’t fit that description. This is the primary reason for such a rift between the pagan community and polytheists of the recon method: A majority of “recons” are urban or at least non-rural in that they neither naturally feel nor feel any desire to need an especial spiritual connection with the rustic or even wild lands to properly practise their religion, whose who may identify as urban tend to have an especially spiritual connection to cities. A lot of “recons” are centrist, conservative, or are urban liberals who recognise that sustainable living is that of either the farm or the metropolis, the suburbs where many self-identified “pagans” actually live being an abomination.

I definitely see an emerging “post-reconstructionism” movement in the polytheist community, wherein people realise that the reconstructionist method, when applied strictly, can be limiting and allow for little (if anything) in the way of spirituality in tune with modern realities, but that does not necessarily mean that the community of self-identified “pagans” is necessarily going to be the best place for such people, especially those of us who neither have nor want nor need to have a deep spiritual void filled with the kind of minor (or major) woo that can only be found tilling the land of a homestead farm or deep in the woods and miles from civilisation.

Personally? I’ve had times where I’ve tried to get that, but I’m physically, emotionally, and spiritually allergic to the woods. One cannot make that connection happen if it’s not meant to, no matter how much one tries, no matter how much one has to fill oneself with antihistamine just to be clear-headed enough to not only be perceptive of that connection, if it’s to come, but make sure it’s meaningful. I mean, who knows? For all I know, maybe all that Zyrtec and Zatador drops and nasal sprays and various creams block that connection —but if being without all that antihistamine makes it hard to breathe in a rural place, then maybe I’m just not meant to have that sort of connection to nature? Maybe I really am better off without it, and the Theoi are just fine with that?

…but some-one recently asked me why I liberally self-aply the term “Queer”, but not pagan —after all, these two words both have virtually the same histories! Well, except that they don’t.

No, really. They don’t.

The word “queer” comes from German (versus “paganus” coming from Latin), meaning “oblique, off-centre” and has a possible relation to “quer”, meaning “odd”. The first recorded use of “queer” relating to homosexuality only dates to 1922 after the word “queer” was introduced to English around 1500, when “paganus” was first adopted as a slur against non-Christians during the Holy Roman empire!

Then there’s the fact that, based on etymology alone, I’m very Queer. Even amongst the subcultures I’ve found myself at home in, I’ve never epitomised any of them: Too dark for most Mods, too polished and classic for most Goths, too erudite for most punks, and too modern and urban for the overwhelming majority of pagans and polytheists. Even as a gay man, well, I’m of TS history, which makes me the sort of potential sexual partner many other gay men want nothing to do with. As a man of TS hostory, I’m enough of an effete that most of them will still call me “ma’am”, even after told that’s inappropriate. How any of this makes me unstrange, unqueer, seems rather, well, queer to me. If any-one has a right to re-claim “queer” from a status of slur (and a relatively new one —the term was rather benign prior to it’s GBLT associations), I think I can objectively say that I sure as hell do.

On the other hand, what right do I have to “pagan”? If this is a term that evolved from the Latin equivalent of “redneck” or “hillbilly” and now possesses a baggage that includes a highly implict and (very easily argued) enforced community meaning of “nature-worshipping”, then no, it doesn’t fit me in the slightest. A Google Image search for “pagan” or a perusal of Wikipedia’s article on Neopaganism and its contemporary photos reveals how deeply “nature religion” is synonymous with the contemporary pagan community, to the point that “urban paganism” is such a tiny niche market that only three books have ever been published on the suvject —one currently out-of-print (Patricia Telesco’s The Urban Pagan), and one is so lousy with a strong and unapologetic rural bias that, as I know my own spiritual realities, it’s riddled with fallacious misinformation (pretty much the entire Introduction to R. Kaldera & T. Schwartzstein’s The Urban Primitive is a biased screed hailing the woodlands and damning the urban lands as a bringer of doom and ailments both physical and spiritual, though it gets a little better, it’s not by much). I don’t even think the pagan community thinks they’re being as unwelcoming and prejudiced as, in practise, they really are, but when the reality of this not merely ostensible, but blatant and celebrated bias is something that one must deal with at every venture into the “pagan community”, hoping to touch based with co-religionists, other devotees of one’s patron, and those walking an otherwise similar spiritual path, then not only is it apparent that one’s spirituality is regarded as “queer and perverse” in the pre1922 sense, but also one that’s regarded as lesser and hollow, false and silly, then yes, I think I can say that I don’t have any incentive to try and rationalise any claim to the term “pagan”, as it’s being made abundantly clear that I only barely qualify —like the cisgender gay man who likes to make it perfectly clear that he’s normal, and not one of those icky fem gays or trannies, that he was in a fraternity in uni and captain of the gridiron team, and his name is Cleancut McNormaldude and just happens to be somehow “queer”. R~i~g~h~t…..

In fact, I roll my eyes at Cleancut McNormaldude attempting to claim he’s “queer” rather than “gay“, if not “homosexual” or “bisexual” are words he feels suit him, because that’s not a word that gives any accurate nuances that describe him outside of only one of the implied meanings, at best, that he’s practically watered-down the meaning of “queer” to strip it of all nuance and render it nothing more than a meaningless synonym.

When one truly loves vocabulary, it becomes apparent that even words that seem synonymous have these nuances that make their meanings truly different, even if in seemingly minor ways. These numances are important, as any Paganism & Witchcraft 101 book worth the paper they’re printed on have said before me. To say “crone” when “hag” is best can render a ritual or spell useless or change it completely, so why call myself “pagan” when it carries with it not only an etymology but a common, every-day use that implies so many things that I am not and only one thing that I am (polytheist, practising a pre-Christian religion)? Why should I not use Queer when it can easily cover all sorts of nuances about my personality and character in addition to my sexual predilections?

If you’re going to say anything at all, say it the best way that you can.

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.