I, Pagan

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.


5 thoughts on “I, Pagan

  1. Excellent points!

    I’ve sort of been watching this debate with amusement. After all, it’s an old one for me, it just never got so overblown. I’ve known people arguing against using “Pagan” for years, for many of the same reasons. But I’ve never been one really. I do use “Heathen” largely now simply because we’re syncretic and therefore using “Gaelic” and “Heathen” sort of covers both bases while putting some emphasis on the Gaelic which is dominant in our lives.

    When I started using “Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan,” however, before certain Northern Gods made Their presence known, it was always with the “Pagan” there…I was very annoyed when people started dropping it. We weren’t reconstructing “Celtic” but the Paganism of the Celts, after all.

    There is no denying that these forms of Paganism that are so very different from Wicca are in fact products of the Pagan community. That’s where we who got it started came from. Asatru might, actually, make some claim that it didn’t, as it grew up earlier, but CR and others, those of us who first used those terms actually had been Wiccan. Some of us initiated and everything.

    And for all many seem to be surprised today, I very much came from the aesthetic; very hippie. So while I might no more appear that way now any more than I call Quarters, it’s still part of my past and part of what has put me here.

    I think you make a good point, that academically those whose inspiration we follow are routinely called “pagan” by researchers. So to me it links there too. And because of that I think it’ vital to keep that link…because I certainly do not want to do anything that makes it seem that Wiccans and those using Wiccan form of practice have more right to that link that reconstructionists do. ~;)

    I’ve debated writing something, but I think this response might be it. After all, I none of my blogs are quite right for this sort of topic and I really do not need to start another! ~:/

    1. Thanks. And yes, reconstructing the *paganism*–the polytheistic, animist practices, not trying to reconstruct some earlier form of Christianity within a Gaelic context!
      I think even in Asatru some of the big people started in Wicca; I think that is true of Diana Paxson, though I could be wrong (Folkish Asatru being the exception). I started my formal paganism with the Reclaiming path, for what it’s worth. Hippie aesthetic: I confess I had that for part of high school. 🙂

      1. You’re right, there are definitely some “shakers and movers” in Asatru who have been involved with Wicca and similar paths. I think there’s a different feel due to those, yes, often the Folkish, involved who totally have been separate. There seems a bit of a different dynamic of, um, “factioning” due to that I think. (Not that “Celtic” doesn’t get coopted by racists, as well…so….)

        It just hit me after I posted that my it’s been 20 years, this weekend since my last Rites of Spring, the big New England Pagan gathering. During that one I really was examining my relationship with the general Pagan community, due to all this. I found it social, but avoided all the rituals except an OTO one that the people running it invited me to attend (and I’d never experienced one). There are times I miss that social connect and I’m still friends with many who I’d hang out with there but only see online now. Socially, I still do feel part of that whole, even if sometimes it leads to an awkward “uh, you know I don’t do that (Elementals, circle casting, ….), anymore” moment from time to time. ~;)

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more, my friend.

    Interestingly I just encountered another possible origin for the term Pagan. Apparently when it came into currency it was commonly used by gladiators as a derisive way to refer to spectators, those who just stood around gawking but wouldn’t be able to handle themselves in the arena if it came down to it. Considering how frequently early Christians used athletic metaphors for themselves and their spiritual struggles it’s quite possible that they had this meaning in mind when they coined the term. Of course, that doesn’t preclude any of the others – yokel, uncivilized, civilian, etc. – from also being in their mind (any effective word is liable to have many levels of meaning at a given time) nor is it entirely certain that this was the origin, though apparently a growing number of scholars are coming around to that understanding.

    1. That’s very intriguing about the gladiatorial usage. This also would put it back in an urban context. I’m skeptical of the whole idea that the association was that people in the countryside were the ones keeping the old ways at that time. It seems in Rome that it was the old senatorial families who were most reluctant to give up their ancestral traditions. And there’s that whole thing about the removal of the altar from the Senate and other repressions of traditional piety that some Romans were to blame for the Sack of Rome by Alaric in 410. Of course, as an urban pagan such views appeal to me.

      As you say, most likely the word had various connotations in the Christian rhetoric of the time. Could you share a link or reference to pursue further about the gladiatorial theory?

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