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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Is Paganism an -Ism?

Hey, Pagan Pride: I've got a suggestion.

A web-search for Twin Cities Pagan Pride turned up (in more than one location) the following lead sentence.

"Pagan Pride is a free fall event, open to the public, that offers education about Paganism to the larger community."

With all due praise to the local Pride committee—who work their butts off every year to offer to pagan and cowan alike a beautiful event in a sacred place, an event that we can truly be proud of—I'd like to suggest a gentle rewrite.

Whether or not such a thing as a unified “Paganism” ever existed anywhere but in the minds of those who hated the Old Ways, I very much doubt. It didn't exist then, it doesn't exist now, and (thank gods), it never will exist. This fact is encoded, genetic: the very nature of the “pagan” religions, new and old alike, militates against such a unity.

“Paganism” isn't an “-ism.” “Pagan” is a descriptor, an identity perhaps: a way of talking about something that already exists, not a thing in and of itself.

So here's my suggestion for an opening that's truer to lived Pagan reality:

"Pagan Pride is a free fall event, open to the public, that offers education about the New Pagan religions to the larger community."

My thanks and praise to the Pride committee both here in the Twin Cities and everywhere else for all the hard and (pagans being pagans) vastly under-appreciated work that you do. Truly, you're an inspiration to us all.

Let me just mention that at the last few Prides down at Minnehaha Falls, I've noticed something interesting: with lots of pagans and cowans (that's Pagan for “non-pagans”) walking around, there's no trouble at all to tell which is which. Even the cowans (you can tell) notice. You can see them thinking: Who are these people?

It isn't just the beards, the tee-shirts, or the jewelry. There's something indefinably different about us. The style? The way we carry ourselves? Our very "thereness"?

I'm still trying to figure it out.

See you at Paganicon.








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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.


  • Murphy Pizza
    Murphy Pizza Friday, 18 January 2019

    Re: your observations about how we know who we are in anthropology, it's called habitus, which refers to those learned cultural subtleties that to spot each other. I was told when I went to.Italy back in 1996 by our professor that theres no point thinking you can blend in - Italians can spot an American 200 yards away. Same thing.

    I always, based on my research, caution Pagans and Heathens to get out of the habit of separating ourselves into categories and focusing on our differences all the time. We are more United than we believe, and this irritating need to set up camps.across from each other keeps important work around rights fro.getting done. We can be the example to the rest of society of how groups that have their differences can live together as a community. We've done it better before.

    A social science experiment: what if Paganish folks got in the habit of looking at their fellow travellers of different paths as their people too, not as another subgroup so different from them? Pagans have always prayed to who they want, that's their business - but if we start think in terms of "I'm Wiccan, they're Druids, they're Heathen, but we're all the same Pagan people" .. how would that change things for us?

    It would break this damned Western habit of pushing difference away and instead do the subversive work of really embracing it...?

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 19 January 2019

    I'm not much one for Bumpersticker Philosophy, but Embrace Difference sure sounds good to me.

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Friday, 18 January 2019

    In October I gave a talk about us to all the chaplains in the State of California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation for their annual two-day CEU. I titled it "Contemporary American Paganisms." I've been using the plural for some time now, and emphasizing that we come in myriad flavors.

  • Murphy Pizza
    Murphy Pizza Friday, 18 January 2019

    Oh, I have too, Macha -- my talk at a university here recently was called "Encountering Paganisms." The emphasis on the plural and the different movements is necessary, but...

    ... when Q&A time hits, what people outside our community want to know is the stuff we believe and do that we share. What do we do? What do we all agree on? What creeds and practices do we share? They aren't interested in the hairsplitting we can't seem to stop doing... they want to know what keeps us hanging together. I just propose an exercise that more Paganish folks give holding that perspective a try... and see how it changes us in a positive way.

    As I said, regardless of different paths, we are way more alike than not...

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Friday, 18 January 2019

    We are way more alike than not, and that's why I get so demoralized when I see the internal bullying that's been fracturing our communities and the movement.

    In the case of prison chaplains, what they see is stuff like white supremacism in the name of religion. I give them such things as the Nine Noble Virtues, the 32 Ideals of Ma'at, some of the influences that have been synchretized into Pagan practices (Western Ceremonial Magic, Freemasonry, disillusionment with organized Abrahamic religions, feminism, environmentalism, Graves, Leland, Apuleius, et al.), but really emphasize that it is not necessarily about shared beliefs so much as it is about shared practices. I discount orthodoxy, which is what they're used to.

    There's more to say but I'm hustling to finish a paper for the Claremont Conference on Current Pagan Studies in LA next weekend.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 19 January 2019

    Yes, it seems to me that one of the most important things that we have to bring to the table (to invoke a much overworked phrase) is precisely that we are People of the Many, and that for us Manyness is an inherent good. That's certainly something that the Abrahamic world needs to hear.

    Then, of course, we need to look to our own behavior and make it so.

    Best of luck with the paper. What's it about?

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Saturday, 19 January 2019

    "Has Paganism Gone Mainstream?" Using the singular here because, for one thing, it sounds wrong to use plural here, and two, because I'll be talking to Pagans of various stripes and they already know.

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Saturday, 19 January 2019

    While I was out driving on interstate 95 this morning I was wondering if Christo-Pagans stand out as a separate group when the idea popped into my head that they are the "Two Loaves of Bread People" one pagan loaf and one Christian loaf.

  • Murphy Pizza
    Murphy Pizza Saturday, 19 January 2019

    Depends. I've argued since the start of my research that Paganism isn't about *who* you worship, but *how*. The Pagans I have encountered that are into Jesus have a very different relationship with divinity than Christians do. I put them under the Paganism umbrella for that reason...

  • Virginia Carper
    Virginia Carper Monday, 21 January 2019

    As a Polytheist, I don't identify as Pagan. From the outside, it does seem that Pagans do have things in common, but closer up, I wonder. This particular website divides Witches from Pagans, so I guess there are natural divides.

  • Murphy Pizza
    Murphy Pizza Monday, 21 January 2019

    I'm interested, you you as a non-Pagan polytheistic Witch experience your relationship with the divine? How is it different from Pagan approaches?

    I'm a s scholar and genuinely interested in this sort of thing...:)

  • Virginia Carper
    Virginia Carper Tuesday, 22 January 2019

    For starters, I am not a witch. Many polytheists generally bristle at that. I believe in many Gods. Not archetypes, not multiple aspects of one God or Goddess. Not a Lord and Lady. Just distinctive individual Gods.

    What usually happens when I do discuss theology with Pagans and Witches is that they assume that I believe some of the things that I have listed not-believing in. Beyond that, they assume we have to have circles and watchtowers for rituals. We have to have an eight-fold year. We have to be involved with nature in some way. We follow the Wiccan Rede or the Charge of the Goddess, etc.

    As a Roman Polytheist, I follow the rituals of Rome and their Gods. I employ the Roman public and private virtues.

  • Ian Phanes
    Ian Phanes Tuesday, 22 January 2019

    Virginia wrote:
    "What usually happens when I do discuss theology with Pagans and Witches is that they assume that I believe some of the things that I have listed not-believing in..."

    From my perspective, the problem here is that they assume, not the differences themselves. All of who practice minority religions know that mainstream people make incorrect assumptions about our religions, and we find that frustrating. We all want to be seen for who we are, not others' projections.

    We all, no matter where we fall in the complexity of modern paganisms, need to strive to listen well to each other, asking questions rather than making assumptions. If we treat each other with respect, we can see each other as part of one community that includes multiple distinct practices.

  • Murphy Pizza
    Murphy Pizza Tuesday, 22 January 2019

    So, distinctions in praxis for sure. Is that the way you perceive difference between Pagans and Polytheists - practices?

    Heres where the weeds start to get tall. There are Pagans who are polytheists and not; there are polytheists that Pagan and not. It appears that Pagans work the sanctity of the planet into whatever cosmology they adopt.. do non Pagan Polytheists focus exclusively on the gods? Or is there a place for the planet and relationship with it?
    Just asking for clarification's sake, thanks! :-)

  • Virginia Carper
    Virginia Carper Tuesday, 22 January 2019

    First you have to define what you mean by polytheism. The belief in many discrete Gods, is my working definition. Some Pagans are soft polytheists in that the Gods tend merge into one entity.

    Define sanctity of the planet. There are the revealed religions such as Monotheism. And there are the natural religions such as Taoism which arise from interaction with the natural world. If you are asking is nature sacred, you have to define nature. Yes, numa inhabit trees, etc but they are more than a tree. They are spirits of the land, home, crossroads, pantries, etc. The Ancestors are also important in ritual and worship.

    Religion which is taught in academic settings such as what you are saying you study is taught in the monotheistic mode or at least from the monotheistic mindset. If you want to know more, read "The Deities are Many: A Polytheistic Theology" by Jordan Paper.

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Tuesday, 22 January 2019

    Sounds good to me, Virginia. I've read the Jordan Paper's book, John Michael Greer's A World Full of Gods as well.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 22 January 2019

    In the old days, of course, Religio Romana would have been an important part of one's Romanitas. Virginia, do you have a sense of belonging to a particular people or peoples? Other polytheists? Other Roman polytheists? Modern Italians?

    Or is this an un-question from where you stand?

  • Murphy Pizza
    Murphy Pizza Tuesday, 22 January 2019

    Hi again Virginia ,
    I was a practicing Pagan before I became an academic. My dissertation and subsequent book is original research on the Pagan community in the Twin Cities. Please dont make assumptions about me and my work, as I am working not to make any about you. :)

    More general question to who ever cares: ..Again, all I'm hearing in these definitions is people talking about how they are different from all those others out there, comsologically or in praxis. I'm again left with this question...why is this so bloody important? Why not reach for the similarities?

    How are Polytheists and Pagans kin? Or fellow villagers? Community?...why are we so focused on our differences? Why not just come to the party (fest) as you are? It's not like we cant all learn a thing or two for.each other. I kinda miss those days...
    Ok rant resting...sorry Steven, for blustering up.your comment feed...

  • Virginia Carper
    Virginia Carper Tuesday, 22 January 2019

    I didn't assume anything. Sorry if it came across that way.
    I have always identified with other Polytheists. I have never identified as Pagan.
    I am curious as why the finding of common ground or unity is important? It seems as long as I have known about Paganism, it is an important issue.

  • Ian Phanes
    Ian Phanes Tuesday, 22 January 2019


    I don't think the majority of people within the umbrella of paganisms identify primarily as "pagan". For example, I identify primarily as a witch. But just because I've never practiced any form of heathenry or Kemeticism, that doesn't mean that I exclude heathens or Kemetics from my larger community.

    I see it much the same way I see the queer community. Most people in the LGBT community identify as lesbian or gay or bisexual and/or trans (I'm bi and trans), not as LGBT, but we acknowledge that we are all part of a larger community/movement.

    I may be misunderstanding you, but I'm reading your comments--starting with "As a Polytheist, I don't identify as Pagan."--as saying that your polytheism is outside of paganism, and that you don't want to be in community with those who identify as within paganism. Is that your intent?

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