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The meaning of Pagan

I have written much about my feelings of the word "pagan" on my primary religious blog, Of Thespiae.  I've written about how the use of the word in the pagan community has become so loose that it's meaningless for all practical purposes.  I've written about how, in spite of regular protests from the pagan community, the implicit "positive definition" of "paganism" ("positive definition" meaning "defining what something is"; whereas "negative definitions" define by what a word is not) is incredibly Eurocentric [2].  I've even mentioned how the "negative definition" of the word "pagan" isn't necessarily true, as the tradition of Christopaganism certainly makes it hard to say where the Christianity ends and the paganism begins.  I've written about the incredibly secular climate of the pagan community in current culture.

The word "pagan" is not one I've been terribly fond of.  Early on in my spiritual journey, earliest possible point being around either 1989 (when a nun at my old Catholic school gave me a copy of D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths and, I swear, I felt touched by Apollon in ways that Jesus and El Shaddai just never really could) or 1993 (when I first really started exploring ostensibly "pagan" paths), the word "pagan" was practically interchangeable with "Wiccan" or "witchcraft", or so it seemed  when trying to find any books on the topic; there was a minority of books about Heathenry, Celtic polytheism, and neo-Druidry, but there was no uncertainty to the dominance of witchcraft-based paganism, and frankly, that only barely interested me, and not enough to really look too deeply into it.  For a very brief time in high school, I practised a hodgepodge "Celtic reconstruction" of my own design, but I eschewed the word "pagan" because this didn't fit the common idea that most people had of "pagans" in the modern days, which was pretty much synonymous with "witchcraft", even if one knew that religious witchcraft wasn't as phantasmagorical as scenes from The Craft or even Practical Magic, they didn't really conceptualise it as simply "worshipping the gods of the British Isles", which is what I did, then.  Toward the end of high school, I just gave up on my self-made Panceltic religion, cos most of those gods barely seemed "real" to me, and I joined the Church of Satan briefly, which is adamantly not pagan, in its self-definition, and though most members describe Satanism under the definition of Anton LaVey as "atheistic", further reading into LaVey's later essays, and not to mention certain interpretations of passages in The Satanic Bible and The Satanic Rituals, suggest that he himself was better defined as Maltheistic (a word of earliest use in print traced to Usenet in 1985, and defining one who ostensibly believes in one or more gods, but deems It/(S)He/Them as unfit for human worship; see LaVey's "God of the Assholes", which appears in Satan Speaks! ©1997, for the most clear evidence of LaVey's maltheistic, rather than atheistic beliefs).  I was never a good atheist, somewhere in my head, I always believed in the gods of Hellas, and I was never maltheistic, either, because even if some deities don't want, need, or even deserve my worship, there are others that do, and by the time I was twenty-two, I basically outgrew the need for LaVey's church that I briefly had. But pagan?  To see if that word fit, I put a toe in the on-line pagan community for the first time in six years when I was about twenty-four, and at that time, I'd discovered a vibrant and thriving community of Hellenic reconstructionists, most of whom had mixed feelings about the word "pagan".  I pretty much only interacted with other recons for about another two or three years, and though I forget what ultimately teased me out, I had never really fully embraced "pagan" as a part of my religious identity.

Now, I say "religious identity".  This is important.  Though there are certainly a handful of people who describe their religion as simply "pagan" or "paganism", there is no single, positively-defined religion called "paganism".  The word "pagan" is generally assumed to be a collection of religions, generally of European or Mediterranean (including the Near and Middle east and Northern Africa, specifically countried along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea) origin, that either a) pre-date Christianity, b) attempt to reconstruct or revive said, or c) are newer religions that are at least somewhat influenced or inspired by said (like Wicca or Feri).  Prior Christianity, none of the local religions of Europe and the Mediterranean called themselves "pagan"; indeed, one's religion was usually just a part of the local lifestyle and was, at most, simply the way of worshipping the local gods --the ancient Greek dialects don't even have a word for "religion", the closest being "ta hiera", which is often translated as "the sacred" or "sacred things". "Pagan" is a thoroughly modern religious identity; similarly, "gay" is a thoroughly modern sexual identity, as in ancient times, most cultures didn't compartmentalise human sexuality with terms like "heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual" and sexuality certainly had less to do with the gender ofthe person one was attracted to than it had to do with the activities one engaged their sexual partners with.  These identities certainly exist, but they lose all meaning outside a modern context, and even within that context, are subject to change in their subtlety of meaning due to many factors, including time, location, implications by the speaker, and inference of the listener.

The Roman word "paganus", often translated as "of the countryside", was often a colloquialism roughly equivalent to the modern American English "hillbilly", with connotations of being "backwards" and ignorant.  When early Roman Christianity adopted a militaristic means of enforcement, the "paganus", not necessarily of the countryside any-more, were those who held to the old ways.  (Exactly how long those "old ways" were held to is still debated in some circles, but contrary to what some academic pagans may believe, the witch cult hypothesis hasn't been completely discredited.)

The first appearance of the word "neopagan" actually came in the 19th Century, in a critique of a wave of English poets and writers who were utterly fascinated with Greco-Roman pre-Christian literature, and so Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others were criticised as "neopagans".  I can't think of a single one of those people who identified with the word "pagan"; Shelley described himself as Atheist, Oscar Wilde was a Catholic.

The words "pagan" and "neopagan" came to be reclaimed by the community of Wicca initiates, Dianics, and others by the 1970s.  Then some time in the 1980s, Heathens decided that what they were doing was different enough, and made efforts to divorce their community from the pagan community, and nowadays, most Heathens (at least in my experiences) have nothing to do with the pagan community, no matter how many "pagan 101"-type books include Heathenry in a list of pagan religions.  And that's just fine.  People are certainly welcome to describe themselves in whatever words they like, especially when a community is very small (much smaller than it is today) and only people who are kind of similar are looking for common traits to band together under.

Since then, there have been a great many strides made for the pagan community --socially and legally-- even though there is clearly so much more to be done.  One of the major improvements is that the pagan community no longer encompasses people practising Wicca or something based on it, and even fewer are "starting out Wiccan, first"; at one time, I was the only person I knew in the Hellenic community who was honestly never a Wiccan or something like it prior to Hellenismos, but of the people I actively engage with in the Hellenic community now, I can't think of a single person under the age of thirty who says they were previously practising Wicca.  While Wicca still manages to dominate the mainstream media image of "paganism", it's no longer the unyielding monolith of the pagan community while us chimps standing around it struggle with rocks and sticks just in hopes of being seen.

So what does "pagan" mean, now, given the clear change to the landscape?

As best as I can say, "pagan" is an experience that one practising certain religions may face.  The pagan experience includes, but might not be limited to:

  • fear of losing custody of one's child because of one's religion
  • fear of threats to one's personal safety or property because of one's religion
  • fear of loss of employment because of one's religion
  • fear of losing friends or of becoming estranged from one's family because of one's religion
  • having one's religion unfairly caricatured, ridiculed, or dismissed as something "no-one practises any-more"
  • a gross misunderstanding, from those outside one's religious community, of what one's religion practises
  • inaccurate dismissal by a society of one's religion as "just mythology", indicating a societal ignorance of and disregard to the etymology of "mythology" from the ancient Hellenic meaning "sacred texts".

Since ancient times, the word "pagan" has been used by a mainstream of society to "other" people who were different.  It's been attached by urban and military Romans onto a rural population; it's been attached by Christians onto polytheists (including animists) and atheists alike. It's not our word, it's theirs, some of us have just reclaimed and repurposed it.

The trend to self-identify with the word "pagan" is a very new thing in recent years, and is a practise eschewed by most Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Shenists, Taoists (and others of Chinese religions), Native American / First Nations and Aboriginal Australian, Maori, and people of indigenous Polynesian peoples.  The word has decreased in popularity among reconstructionists practising European and Mediterranean religions because in spite of clear growth in the pagan community, misunderstandings of what makes Eclectic Wiccans and, say, Kemeticists distinct continues to fall on deaf ears both outside and within the pagan community, as some people are still very insistent that the various religions under the alleged "pagan umbrella" share "common roots" when that hasn't been indisputably true since the Indo-European nations deviated from Sanskrit (or perhaps earlier).

I therefore posit that focusing on the idea of "pagan" as a religious grouping is all wrong.  The better idea is to focus on the idea of "pagan" as a social experience, not unlike the social experiences of race, sexuality, and gender.  To be "pagan" is less about how one relates to one's own religious path, and is more about how the ostensibly Judeo-Christian, or more broadly, Abrahamic society relates to religions that it decrees to be "pagan", and if we go to the sources of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, this experience of being "paganised" (to use the modern term) is one that pre-dates Roman dominance, and is as old as proto-Monotheistic/Monolateral Semetic religion.  To be "pagan" is to be the "Other" of a society.

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Ruadhán J McElroy is a Helenic polytheist recon (Boeotian traditions) currently living in Lansing, MI, and maintains a blog focused on Boeotian religion and his own Neo-Cyrenaic Pluralism philosophy that blends the fragments of Cyrenaic Hedonism, the pluralistic philosophy of Empedocles, and some proto-Hedonism from Democritus. He also writes a series of fiction focused on the Mod subculture, has a shop on Etsy, and occasionally works as a DJ of Mod Revival and Ska music.

Comments

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Monday, 03 June 2013

    "It's perfectly fine for you to assert your religious identity, to resist being placed in a tent that you don't want to be in. I respect and honor that. But don't tell us who are already in the tent, building it and tending it, that the tent doesn't really (or shouldn't really) exist."

    Amen!

    It's also interesting that I've never heard Christians saying that the term "Christian" is meaningless, despite the wide diversity of beliefs among the Southern Baptist Convention, Catholics, Mormons, Coptics, Unitarians, the Salvation Army, etc. etc.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Monday, 03 June 2013

    False analogy. "Christian" defines what someone's religion actually is --while the nuances and acceptable range of variables within that belief may differ by sect, the most basic definition of "Christian" is "one whose religion is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ".

    The word "pagan" doesn't have that basic property of a positive definition; quite the contrary, everything from the OED to every major by-and-for-pagans source on the Internet defines "pagan" by what it is not, rendering it a negative definition. There are self-identified pagans who are historically-based, those who practise something that is arguably very new, and those who are just literally making it up as they go along; some practise a religion that has a name, others simply decide their religion is "Paganism" (and yet I've never met a single such person who can define what that "Paganism" is, outside the standard "big tent" definition). The word "pagan", on its own, says literally nothing about what one practises. Some pagans are polytheist, some are monotheist, some are atheist, sometimes pantheist, or panentheist, etc.... Some pagans worship Jesus, others want nothing to do with anything they regard as Christian or Abrahamic. The word "pagan", on its own, says literally nothing about what one believes. Some self-identified pagans just want to get naked in the woods, others prefer to practise in their Chicago Loop-area apartments. Some pagans truly love the earth and are staunch environmentalists, others can't be bothered to even sort out their recycling and may even boast a "black thumb" and really couldn't care less about environmental issues. The word "pagan", on its own, says literally nothing about one's position on environmental issues.

    At best, all the word "pagan" describes is a social experience. That experience is one of being cast as the "other" for what one believes.

    But hey, you're welcome to keep playing.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Monday, 03 June 2013

    P.S. Is the sarcasm and condescending tone a requirement for your religiosity or is it just a bonus?

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Monday, 03 June 2013

    Nope! Just lucky, I guess.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Monday, 03 June 2013

    On the contrary, just as all Christians in some way identify with or or inspired by the figure of Christ, so all Pagans in some way identify or are inspired by those peoples who have been labeled "pagan" over the centuries. For both groups, their identity is formed around an archetypal figure, Christ or the pagan -- however those figures are conceived.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Monday, 03 June 2013

    Wrong.

    To Christianity, the Christ isn’t an archetype. Even in Unitarian Christianity, Jesus is regarded as a prophet rather than a facet of a triune deity. To regard Jesus as an archetype is Jungian, not Christian.

    And pray tell, what is this "pagan archetype" you speak of, cos I'll be damned if I can think of what that might be --the old woman mixing herbs in the woods, or the Roman soldier? The teenager obsessed with The Craft or the feminists dancing naked in the woods? If you say "they all are", then that's not an archetype, that's an individual's role model.

    But hey, feel free to keep playing.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Tuesday, 04 June 2013

    I'm not saying Jesus is an archetype to Christians (from an Eric perspective). I'm saying Jesus is *archetypal* to Christians. (Are you deliberately being obtuse?). From an etic perspective, the archetype of Jesus must be complex and include everything from the sensitive New Age Jesus to the apocalyptic Jesus of the red robe to the Dying God. Likewise the archetype of the Pagan would include everything from the Biblical Canaanites to the post-Christian persecuted Roman pagan to the Romantic poets. See here for the sense in which I am using "archetype": http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/blog-response-pagan-identities/

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Tuesday, 04 June 2013

    So I'm just supposed to ignore the first portion of your comment, cos in juxtaposition with the rest, it clearly means what I inferred from it, which is not what you wanted me to? Your use of language seems incredibly strange.

    Furthermore, I've met and interacted with a great many self-identified pagans who care fuck all for the "pagan archetypes" you describe. They make neither an international attempt to model their lives on those descriptives, nor coincidentally and unintentionally just happen to. Yes they still make claim to the term "pagan" and frankly, there is no logical reason that they can't --if anything, they fit closer to the Latin pejorative use of "paganus" as essentially meaning "ignorant hillbilly" more than you or I ever could.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Tuesday, 04 June 2013

    Surely you will agree that the type you described so lovingly does not represent a majority or even a plurality of self-described Pagans. There will be outliers in every group.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Tuesday, 04 June 2013

    No, I can't do that, because after so many experiences the "outliers" become a significant minority.

    ...and suddenly, I feel like I have the tiniest inkling of what it must be like to try and convince people that, in spite of a Black US president, that racism is still an issue. It's really hard to convey these things to people who both lack the same experience and are also massively dedicated to their own blinders. If you don't want to see it, great, but don't try to convince me I've had different experiences than I have.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Tuesday, 04 June 2013

    Wow! So not only am I ignorant, but I belong in the same group as racists.
    No, I didn't say that.

    No one was trying to invalidate your experience, but when your "experience" is that everyone else is an "ignorant hillbilly",...

    And I never said that, either. But hey, if that's the way you want to twist it to make me out to be the big ol' FMPPH, you can have fun with that. I'm getting kind of bored of your attacks on a month-old post and repeated circular reasoning in a thinly veiled attempt to insult me.

    I simply find it difficult to believe that the majority of self-described Pagans you have encountered "care f*ck all" about ancient pagans. That does not accord with my experience at all.
    Actually, I never said a majority of the self-identified pagans I've interacted with have been that --but then, you seem to make a habit of only reading the parts you want to, and filling in the rest with your own wild imagination.

    I also find it difficult to believe that people can have an entirely "secular paganism", and that apparently it's been around at least as long as I've been alive, but that doesn't mean others are wrong to say that such has been a sizeable minority, in their own experiences, when it's something I've personally only really had recent interaction with. My experience doesn't have to accord with yours, but that doesn't invalidate it at all. Experience is what it is.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Tuesday, 04 June 2013

    Wow! So not only am I ignorant, but I belong in the same group as racists. Way to pile on the ad hominem attacks. I'm surprised to find this level of condescension and intolerance of other viewpoints in a fellow PaganSquare blogger.

    No one was trying to invalidate your experience, but when your "experience" is that everyone else is an "ignorant hillbilly", then I think it's legitimate to call your interpretation of your experience into question. I simply find it difficult to believe that the majority of self-described Pagans you have encountered "care f*ck all" about ancient pagans. That does not accord with my experience at all.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Tuesday, 04 June 2013

    I meant "etic" not Eric -- damn spellcheck.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Tuesday, 04 June 2013

    You mean autocorrect. Spellcheck just highlights or underlines the misspelled words.

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