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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The Christian Pagan

An old boyfriend of mine actually became pagan because of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

His mom never read any of the “literature” that they dropped off for her, but he did. It talked about paganism a lot.

Don't dye Easter eggs, they're pagan, it said. Don't have a Christmas tree, it's pagan. Don't celebrate Halloween, it's pagan.

“This pagan stuff sounds pretty good,” he thought.


The single most fascinating chapter in Michael Dowden's book European Paganism is the one titled “The Christian Pagan.”

“Pagan,” of course, is a category created by Christians. Before Christianity, we didn't know that we were pagans. Before Columbus, Native Americans didn't know that they were Native Americans either. Instead, they thought of themselves as Anishinabe, Lakota, Ho-Chunk, etc. It takes an outsider to lump us all together.

So the Christian Pagan is a category created to distinguish Them from Us.

What does the Christian Pagan look like? (Bear in mind, of course, that descriptions of the Christian Pagan are strongly prescriptive: i.e., they articulate what the Church fathers didn't want their people to be like.)

Well, we're promiscuous.

We have lots of sex.

We party a lot.

We're immoral.

We run around naked.

We don't have much of a sense of shame.

We've venal.

We eat too much and get drunk a lot.

We worship “idols.”

We sacrifice animals, and (sometimes) people.

We dance.

French pagan and Nouvelle Droite theorist Alain de Benoist criticizes much contemporary paganism on the grounds that it bases itself, not on what pagans really were, but on what Christians thought that we were. It's as if one were to reconstruct Jewish identity on the basis of Nazi propaganda.

One has to admit that there's a certain justice to this charge. We've all known “party pagans” who do their best to embody the stereotypes.

But of course, there's a certain justice to the stereotype of the Christian Pagan as well.

Thank Goddess.

Historian Sam Webster has remarked that, in the history of Western thought, paganism has always been the shadow-side of Christianity. In fact, nostalgia for Ye Olde Pagan Days began even before the church's triumph was complete, and has been a constituent (and defining) part of the Western psyche ever since.

That's the problem of defining yourself against the Other. There's really something rather appealing about those poor, benighted, naked, sex-crazed pagans.

And they sure do sound like they're having a lot more fun than we are.

This is not to deny the trenchancy of de Benoist's critique. As the new paganisms of the modern world deepen and mature, it's well worth pondering our collective identity and direction.

As for the stereotypes, we claim them and we own them. They're ours now, to do with as we please.

The stereotypes about us held by those who hated us may well not be where we want to end up.

But at least they're a place to start.




Ken Dowden, European Paganism: The Realities of Cult from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (2000). Routledge.




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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.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Tuesday, 05 December 2017

    Easter Eggs, Christmas trees, and Halloween, all the fun bits of the year I enjoyed growing up and someone frowns on them for being pagan. Yeah, I guess I really am a pagan after all and always have and will be. I like my Christmas, Easter and Halloween stuff.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 11 December 2017

    We are called NeoPagans for a reason. This rather central distinction appears lost on the author.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 12 December 2017

    If you mean Dowden, Gus, I think that that's very much his point: that there are more differences than similarities between the old and the new pagans.
    Myself, I think that there are more similarities than differences. It seems to me than in most ways--especially the deep ones--we contemporary pagans are very much pagan in the same way that the old ones were.
    That's why (except when I'm being snarky) I don't generally use the term "NeoPagan." (A friend of mine calls it "the other N-word.")
    Oh, I'd check the box if that were the only option. But it's not how I self-identify.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Tuesday, 12 December 2017

    I han't read Dowden, but you have convinced me to do so. However, if i understand you, I find myself between the two of you.

    I think Paganism, as an umbrella term, is not what we do but what we believe- and beliefs then sort themselves into patterns of actions. Thus, Pagans as a whole share a belief in the inspiritedness of the world, and of the potential for us to enter into beneficial relationships with at least a part of it, including parts that are in some sense more than human. The forms these take as actions reflect geography and history at the least. Thus, African diasporic Pagan practices differ from those of pre-Christan Northern Europe while sharing common deeper beliefs.

    As pagans, we NeoPagans are different from our European Pagan ancestors in part because the modern world is profoundly different from the pre-modern one, even as it shares some important traits in common. In addition, we lack an unbroken tradition of practice that built, bit by bit, on the world that was emerging and in which we now live. Practices such as Voudon did, whereas practices such as Wicca could not. We not only reflect on and respond to the same basic beliefs in an inspirited world from a very different context than our spiritual ancestors did, we do so with minimal guidance from a past where most knowledge in these matters was transmitted orally and by direct experience.

    Practitioners of Voudon are not "NeoVoudonists" because of this unbroken connection. Not having such a connection, we are NeoPagans. But I think the core spiritual beliefs are the same.

    If I read you correctly, one place where you and I differ fundamentally is that I know from repeated personal encounter that the Gods are real. What they really are- that I do not know. But that they are, I most definitely do know. You appear to deny their existence. Perhaps that is why I emphasize beliefs lying below practices whereas you appear not to. Yet because you are at ease with some Pagan practices, and because Pagans rarely care that much about matters of theology, at a practical level of celebration and etiquette that normally doesn't matter much.

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