Words are fugitive viral things, prone to shift about and change their meanings unless there is great institutional force keeping them pinned in one position. Pagan is a word with many meanings and is again caught up in controversy, as many readers will have seen in the pagan blogosphere recently. Most readers will think of it as a religious or spiritual designation; yet occasionally, I come across someone who is completely unfamiliar with modern paganisms and think of it as a word meaning simply hedonistic. For my grandparents’ generation it meant someone simply who was not a good Christian or at least a member of an Abrahamic faith. So it’s always a contested word, some pulling it this way, some in that direction. Keeping to its modern more focused usage to designate members of non-Abrahamic religions that have some connections (or at least imagined) to those of Europe and the Middle East before the advent of Christianity and Islam, it has origins especially in the counter-traditions that Ronald Hutton showed to have roots in late 18th century romanticism (Triumph of the Moon). The tree of paganism has been pretty successful in its revival, and has borne so many branches. The question now is whether pagan works as an umbrella term for Wiccans, Thelemites, Druidists, Celtic Reconstructionists, Asatruar, Hellenics, Kemetics, and other assorted folk.
Unsurprisingly, I find myself somewhere in the betwixt and between of the two camps that are asserting themselves. I have a strong emotional resonance with the word and have had so since childhood, reading about the ancient cultures of Europe, and also the sense of a magical natural world described as pagan in many stories. It’s a word commonly used by scholars when writing of the pre-Christian religions and practices of Europe, and pagan is certainly preferable to the term pre-Christians with its foregrounding of the Nazarene religion. At any rate, I am certainly not a Christian soldier, and am a person who identifies with the local and the local units of government (the pagus), the most likely meaning of the word at the time it became used to describe members of the old religions in antiquity*.
Yet for purposes of clear communication, I often think polytheist tells more about my practices, and of course is more specific. And there’s that whole other area where I feel that Ruby Sara and others have a valid point: many people do have a connotation for pagan of a certain vaguely hippie type of person with a certain aesthetic not at all my own—and I do think aesthetics is an important aspect of religion. I know a lot of people who say they have felt put off when attending general pagan gatherings like the Pagan Pride days, feeling these are spaces also not particularly welcoming to gay men, transgendered persons, people of color, and even those whose styles are urban. Recently, I shared that I was pagan with a young woman at work, and she replied that her dad had explored Neopaganism before becoming Buddhist, but she thought it was for all the half naked women (now half naked or fully naked women aren’t a bad thing, but I think this is a fairly tawdry association within a contemporary American context).
Words are situational. Definitions are provisional. In different contexts I use different words for aspects of myself. How much common ground do I sense? Can I get into specifics or is something broad required?
I often do not participate in general pagan community events, especially if they are ritual oriented, because they do often seem so Wiccan dominated or at least Wiccanate. But I think it’s important to insist that pagan does not equal Wiccan. The word is useful in a general sense. There are enormous theological differences between Wicca and IndoEuropean reconstructed religions, but still they have arisen in the modern world through a lot of the same forces, and scholars do group them together. Sure there will be disagreements, dissension; some Asatruar and Religio Romano people will stomp off and have nothing to do with the rest of us, but that is nothing new (though why so many wish to write at pagan blog sites while protesting they are not pagan remains puzzling). People will shout down others’ definitions. So be it, that is the way of things in a universe governed by multiple forces. I will end with my own: there is dirt in pagan; pagans are earth -based and green, and if you have a problem with my definition, that is not my problem. Pagan: soil blood leaves bone must rock sap… It is a strong word, flavorful, not for the bland.
*Many believe that the word originally meant ‘country dweller’ in Latin, yet it did not have that meaning at the time it was first used to distinguish worshipers of the old gods from the ‘soldiers of God’. Most city dwellers were pagan at that time. See Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon (4) for a discussion, or the less accessible but fascinating, Pierre Chuvin’s Chronicles of the Last Pagans.