Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Do You Speak Pagan?

Paganism is a language.

It is, for many of us, a language that we are still learning to speak. We may have been speaking this tongue for many years--decades, in some cases--but it is still, nonetheless, not our mother tongue.

This fact has implications. We may have mastered the grammar and have a large vocabulary. We may, over the years, have become fluent speakers of Pagan. But we are still not native speakers, and we never will be.

Primarily what this means is that we need to listen, and listen carefully.

We need to listen to ourselves, and notice when we’re speaking Pagan and when we’ve lapsed back into whatever language it was that we originally grew up speaking.

We need to listen to the fluent speakers of the past. The ancestors continue to speak to us in many ways, literature and archaeology among them. Pagan was their mother tongue, and we will learn from them idioms and nuances that it would be difficult to learn elsewhere.

We need to listen to the fluent speakers of the future. For many of our youth, Pagan is their mother tongue, and they have profound insights to offer us, though they learned the language from us; the fact that we’ve spoken the language longer than they have notwithstanding.

We also need to listen to native speakers of other dialects of Pagan: the indigenous religions of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, Shinto, Voudun, Santeria, even Hindu. (I don't regard the Hinduisms as pagan per se, but insofar as they are polytheisms they represent a related—shall we say, cousin—group of languages.) From them we can learn how Pagan languages work. 

The point is that we must never assume that we know everything there is to know about the language, or that everything we say is thereby automatically correct. Learning a language is hard work, and it isn’t always fun. We’re going to make mistakes along the way, and when we hear those mistakes we need to be patient and correct one another, and try hard not to get defensive. Even native speakers of languages make mistakes sometimes.

But the most important thing when learning to speak a new language is not to be paralyzed by fear of the mistakes we will make. At some point one just has to say: Damn the mistakes: full speed ahead.

And that’s how we’ll learn: success by success, mistake by mistake.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Gregory Elliott
    Gregory Elliott Tuesday, 14 October 2014

    I realize this could get into the thorny issue of defining 'Paganism', but as briefly as possible why do you not 'regard the Hinduisms as pagan per se'? Just curious.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 14 October 2014

    Thorny the question may be, Gregory, but well worth the asking. There's certainly much about Hinduism (I'll use this as shorthand for what would better be termed the "Hinduisms") that looks, sounds, and feels pagan.

    It's conventional to view the Dharmic religions—Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism—as members of their own family, and this seems to me well-advised.

    Vedic religion was certainly pagan by anyone's definition, and was indubitably ancestral to modern Hinduism. This, however, constitutes a reformation of Vedic religion which arose largely out its encounter with (and absorption of) Buddhism, in which the external, nature focus of the old Indo-Iranian worldview became the internal, psychologizing focus of the Upanishadic period.

    Certainly Shinto seems pagan to me in a way that much of modern Hinduism does not, and that difference, it seems to me, lies in Shinto's ongoing engagement with the natural world.

    So let me say that, in my opinion, Hinduism is not entirely pagan. Though I'm still trying to wrap my head around the concept of a non-pagan polytheism. Hmm.

  • Gregory Elliott
    Gregory Elliott Wednesday, 15 October 2014

    Being primarily of an Indo-European slant, I feel compelled to listen to Hinduism to help me 'speak Pagan', but I will agree that one must listen discerningly, to everything I suppose, but particularly to Hinduism in this case. It has much to teach Pagans, but aspects of it (e.g. the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta) could lead one to speaking a whole different language entirely, possibly without realizing it.

    As far as Hinduism as a 'non-pagan polytheism' goes, perhaps both its pagan aspects and its polytheism are on a parallel continuum. To the extent that it is polytheistic, which in practice is a fairly large extent actually, it is informative for pagans, and can itself be considered pagan as well (e.g. the Śrauta tradition that is still practiced). To the extent that Hinduism, or indeed we should say some of the 'Hindusisms', is/are monistic and 'psychologizing', the prevalent Buddhist inspired elements, then there is a diversion, if you will, from the language of paganism (though interestingly something similar occurs in Greek Paganism with the neo-Platonists). Some Hinduisms are pagan-polytheistic-nature centered, some are non-pagan-monistic-psychologistic, tread lightly when discerning which teachings are which, but it's worth working through.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 20 October 2014

    Egyptologist Jan Assmann says (in his Price of Monotheism) that (in effect) paganisms can be polytheist, monotheist, monist, or (for that matter) atheist. (I call myself a "polyatheist" in my more "in your face" moments.) It's never a mere numbers game.

    What is it about Advaita that renders it un-pagan? Is it the turning away from this world, or am I thinking in Neo-Pagan here?

  • Mariah Sheehy
    Mariah Sheehy Thursday, 23 October 2014

    A problem I've noticed among Pagans is a tendency for individuals to want to idiosyncratically define words their own way, and then get mad when they are misunderstood. Words may evolve in their meaning, but they evolve collectively, if one person's whim is involved, others need to accept the meaning.
    Personally I limit the use of Pagan to modern Western religions, there's a little too much touchiness with non-European indigenous cultures and histories with missionaries using it in a derogatory manner, I understand you're using it in a broader sense here with the lowercase p, but once again no offense it seems to be your own personal definition.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 24 October 2014

    I see your point, Mariah, but it seems to me that there's a danger in self-defining ourselves away from indigenous and tribal religion. I was writing as a pagan to other pagans, and I think that the collective decision to embrace the derogatory term "pagan" was a brilliant one, because it gives us a larger people to be part of, instead of being isolated little groups here and there.

    It also seems to me that as we seek to define ourselves and our ways, we've too often attempted to articulate "anthropological" definitions that fit all possible examples. I think this is a mistake, because we inevitably end up with definitions so broad as to be virtually meaningless. It seems to me that pagans are better served by defining things as specifically to ourselves as possible. It makes more sense to ask "what is [pagan] ritual?" than it does to ask "What is ritual?"

    It's certainly understandable that tribal peoples find "pagan" offensive. But if my tribe is "Pagan," then for me to extend that name to someone else is an act of hospitality. And bear in mind that (here in the US, anyway) many indigenous traditions also have broken lines of tradition, and a lot of young folks are going back, reading anthropological articles from the 1890s, and comparing that to what grandma told them.

    Just like we do.

  • Gregory Elliott
    Gregory Elliott Thursday, 23 October 2014

    Yeah, the 'what is paganism?' can of worms has been opened. If you go with a simple 'paganism is nature reverence and this worldly' definition, then yeah, I guess it can be monotheistic or monist or atheistic (personally I think those three terms are more or less synonymous actually in their strictest understandings, but yet another can of worms!). If you take a 'traditional' approach to things that are uncontroversially pagan (Greek and Roman polytheism, pre-Christian Celtic and Norse approaches, etc., etc.) two things they all share is their polytheism, and that they are explicitly otherworldly (which does not imply that they shun this world, just that they are significantly interested in the existence and goings on of other worlds too), and also they may or may not incorporate nature reverence. So the clear characteristics of certain paganisms are almost the opposite of the above definition where polytheism and other worldliness are crucial and nature reverence is possible, but neither necessary nor sufficient. Long story short, I consider Advaita un-pagan because of it's monism because I consider some kind of polytheism essential to defining paganism. Not everyone does I realize, and that's okay, but at least now we have our assumptions out on the table.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 24 October 2014

    Your definition of paganism has the advantage of being clear and testable. Assmann (who doesn't use the term "paganism") prefers to speak of "primary" and "secondary" religions: religions that arise out of humanity's religious instinct and its interaction with the world, and the religions that arise out of protest against them, the former being what we (or I, anyway) would call "pagan." (The latter being the religions that come with an enemy included: hence the mothoisms' propensity for violence). I've just begun to read him and haven't thought it all through thoroughly yet, but this strikes me as "insider-looking-out" pagan thinking.

    Myself, I seem to be moving towards a "pagans are a people" definition, which I'm still trying to articulate fully. Damn, I wish we were sitting at that campfire having this conversation, Gregory. (Passes bottle of wine.)

  • Gregory Elliott
    Gregory Elliott Friday, 24 October 2014

    "...religions that arise out of humanity's religious instinct and its interaction with the world, and the religions that arise out of protest against them,..."

    Now that's an interesting and useful distinction to make. Now I'm tempted to read this Assmann gent.

    I do very much agree with your original thesis that 'Paganism is a language', and find that a very helpful way to think about it. I'm just still working through it not being my native language (though it should have been!), and figuring out who is really speaking it to learn from them, though I'm getting it narrowed down over time and figuring it out. Your suggestions of the ancestors, our children, and other indigenous folk are about the best places to look as possible, and I also agree with your comment above that separating ourselves from indigenous people is a mistake. We all came from somewhere, and we're just trying to find our way back home.

    Unfortunately the first world has produced a lot of 'learn to speak Pagan in ten easy steps' programs that are clearly not even offering a pidgin dialect of paganism, so I can see why the indigenous want to shy away from the pagan identifier from that angle too. Some of my fellow European religion reclaimers (ya know reconstructionists of various sorts) want to move away from the term for similar reasons. Myself, though also among that camp, I just can't shake the thought and feeling that I am a Pagan and there is something right about that term and all that it entails, despite it's uses and abuses from several positions. It is a language and it is a people, and yeah we need more actual campfire talks to learn how to speak and live it. (Accepts bottle of wine out of a sense of decency and manners to be a good guest, but breaks out beer instead and passes that in return. :-) )

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 25 October 2014

    "Pidgin Pagan"! Gregory, I rarely belly-laugh before noon. Modern English having started out as essentially an Anglo-Norse Trading Jargon that made good (that being where we shed Old English's inflections and--hurrah--grammatical gender), I live in hope.

    Let it be beer, by all means. I've stocked up on some Dark Island Ale from Orkney. (I'm a sucker for anything with a stone circle on the label.) Here's to you and PIE!

  • Mariah Sheehy
    Mariah Sheehy Thursday, 23 October 2014

    Yes, I think if you're talking about (Neo) Paganism it can be very broad theologically- we have the tradition-minded polytheists, the All One Goddess-worshippers, the symbolic/archetypal naturalists/humanists, and so forth. It's more of a sociological concept reflective of the cultural context- modern industrialized Western culture, hence the nostalgic emphasis on nature. If you're talking about the whole planet, it makes more sense to say things like polytheism, animism, tribal/indigenous (as in relatively unbroken traditions) If individual Shintoists, Hindus, Native Americans etc want to self-identify & jump on the Pagan bandwagon, more power to 'em, we just may have to explain things like "why are all these white people belly-dancing, why is that guy worshipping Hello Kitty, what is polyamory" and other fun stuff.

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