Pagan Studies

An author and editor looks at how we use language to communicate with other Pagans and those outside our community.

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Pagan Culture and Experience: Definitions and Practice

Who gets the right to define you? To label you? Is that right solely your own, or does it belong in some measure to the culture with which you identify? I've considered this question for a long time, and I've concluded that there's no easy answer.

I've long been an advocate for the principle of self-identification: If you choose to identify yourself in specific terms, who are others to challenge it? But things really aren't that simple, are they? What about frauds who have ulterior motives for adopting a label? What about people who don't really understand what the label means?

A Huffington Post article titled "Striking Photos Challenge The Way We See Blackness" recently explored the idea of self-identification in terms of race. The writer interviewed several individuals from diverse backgrounds who identified as black, postulating that "Blackness must be recognized as something other than just skin color and specific physical attributes."

But just what is that something? That's the question, and it's pertinent not just in a racial context, but in any context that involves how we define ourselves and one another. How do we define spirituality? Sexuality? Gender? These are all pertinent questions that have given rise to interesting and sometimes passionate debates about definitions - not just of self, but of the concepts themselves.

In my ongoing quest to answer this question, I've nailed down two key components in the process of identification. The first is cultural; the second is experiential.

I may be attracted to a certain culture because I share its values, beliefs or forms of expression. I may feel as though I "fit" well within the framework it offers, and I may therefore choose to begin identifying with that culture. But unless I also experience some of the same things others within that culture experience, I may be seen as a wannabe, a sycophant or even a fraud.

Kaneesha Parsard, who was interviewed for the Huffington Post article, touched on both these elements when she stated: "I tend to believe that being Black - like choosing to identify as Multiracial - is not about phenotype as much as it's about feelings of belonging and identification. I'm black because I feel the memory of the Middle Passage and slavery most strongly. I'm Black because when I look in the mirror I see my mother, her mother, and my aunts."

Parsard's affinity for her racial group is cultural, but she also refers to her family's experience as an important aspect of her self-identification.

Applications to Paganism

Many people identify as Pagan because they feel a kinship with some form of Paganism. They feel an affinity for the culture. Yet there are those within this group who lack the experience of being Pagan. This creates a tension between the right of individual self-identification on the one hand and the right of the group to maintain its chosen identity on the other. If newcomers are allowed to simply change accepted definitions on a whim, meaning is likely to be diluted, changed or even lost.

This tension can be resolved in a variety of ways. For the purposes of this discussion, I've identified three:

  • Exclusion. Those who self-identify but do not meet others' standards for inclusion not allowed to participate in the group. This may involve formally excluding outsiders from group activities or simply making them feel unwelcome.
  • Initiation. Groups wishing to preserve a strong sense of identity may create a formal system that acknowledges self-identification once certain conditions are met. You must earn the right to the "degree" you claim.
  • Acceptance. Self-identification can be accepted without reference to experience. "You want in? You're in. We'll work out the details later."

None of these methods is perfect. Initiation may work for specific, defined paths, but imagine if an individual sought to require it for Paganism as a whole. It wouldn't work. Paganism is a broad term that encompasses a wide a variety of belief systems, and anyone attempting to define it more narrowly would face challenges on several fronts. (The same is true for other broad terms such as Polytheism, Pantheism and the like, as contrasted with, say, a specific coven or ceremonial tradition.)

Acceptance has the disadvantage of being ill-equipped to weed out the frauds. "Live and let live" is fine until people start identifying themselves as psychics in order to make a buck or call themselves Pagan as a way to meet sex partners. Such actions on the part of a few can hurt the group as a whole by casting a shadow on anyone who identifies as Pagan.

Exclusion preserves a strong identity but often leads to a feeling that those outside the rigid circle are less significant, less worthy or even less human. The most rigidly exclusive communities also tend to be the least tolerant and the least willing to celebrate the lives of others who do not share their identity. Those who are excluded may be assigned labels such as "fluffy bunnies" or worse. 

The approach we take is often determined by what we fear most. If we are most worried about chaos, than we're likely to choose an initiatory system, which offers a sense of order. If we're most concerned about preserving our traditional framework, we're likely to opt for exclusion. If personal freedom is our top priority, we will probably opt for acceptance.

But should we let fear motivate us? Or should we, rather, be guided by respect? Respect of others' traditions. Respect for personal freedom. Respect for the work that others have done to achieve their goals.

The principle is simple, but putting it into practice can be a challenge. It requires an ability to affirm personal choice while still having the courage to face our own prejudices, and it means we must acknowledge the importance of both cultural and experiential identity. How this plays out practically is the tricky part. Not everyone who experiences a ritual (for example) will identify culturally as Pagan, and not everyone who identifies as Pagan will be comfortable with ritual expression. 

This isn't something we can close our eyes and do blindfolded, and the answers won't always fit our expectations. That's why we must remain engaged. We won't always agree on definitions, which like language as a whole, are continually evolving.

In order to keep up with that evolution, we have to keep talking.

And listening.


Last modified on
Stifyn Emrys is an editor and author of eight books. He has worked as a columnist, blogger and educator. He has written both fiction and non-fiction works, including "Identity Break," "Feathercap," "Requiem for a Phantom God" and "The Gospel of the Phoenix."


  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter Monday, 24 February 2014

    This is some of the best work I've seen on the topic.

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Monday, 24 February 2014

    Thanks, Joe. :)

  • Samaire Provost
    Samaire Provost Wednesday, 26 February 2014

    Well isn't this an awkward meeting :o

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Wednesday, 26 February 2014

    Not awkward at all, Samaire. I'm sitting right across the table from you! :p

  • Samaire Provost
    Samaire Provost Wednesday, 26 February 2014

    Nope, not at all awkward, Steve :D

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