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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Steven Posch

Steven Posch

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.

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Ásatrú is much in the news these days. So how do you pronounce it?

Well, let me give you the pagan answer: it depends.

Ásatrú = ása, “of the æsir” + trú, “trust, faith, belief.” (Trust, true, and the archaic verb trow—as in I trow, meaning “I trust”—are English cognates of the second element.)

That Ásatrú is both an Old Norse and a Modern Icelandic word tells you a lot about Iceland. The language has changed so little that these days kids in elementary school can still read sagas written 1000 years ago with just a few footnotes per page.

Old Norse Ásatrú: AH-sa-tru. (That's AH as in “Open your mouth and say—.”)

Modern Icelandic Ásatrú: OW-sa-tru. (OW as in “How now, brown cow?”)

So you can take your pick. Me, I learned my Icelandic from the redoubtable Anatoly Lieberman, whose informed opinion was that, Icelandic being a living language, we might as well pronounce it as current speakers do.

For me, it's also a matter of the kind of pagans/heathens that we want to be. Are we a museum exhibit, the ancestors fossilized, or are we the living heathens/pagans of our own day?

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It doesn't take much reading in ethnology to notice that many tribal ethnonyms—the names by which a people knows itself—tend to mean “the People,” with an extended sense of the “Real People,” the “True People,” the “Original People."

Well, that's how I see pagans.

Pagans are the Original People, by definition. Up until a few thousand years ago, we were all there were. Until recently, all non-pagan religions grew out of pagan soil. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, it's pagans all the way down.

(Of course, back in pagan times, we didn't know that we were pagan; we just were. In this, we're like Native Americans. Encounter with others always imbues a new sense of self.)

Now there are more non-pagans in the world than pagans, but that doesn't change history. We were here first; we're still here; we'll always be here.

Savor this delicious corollary: human beings are inherently, instinctively pagan. Left to our own devices to figure the world out for ourselves, what we come up with is (by definition) pagan. To be human is to be born pagan; anything else you have to be made into.

Therefore, even those of us who (like myself) were raised in the ways of the un-Original people, by our embrace of the Old Ways, thereby rejoin our birthright status of being one of the Original People.

The implications here are dizzying, paradoxical. No matter how much paganisms may change, they're still Original.

A danger inherent in this way of looking at things, of course, is the potential to view non-pagans as somehow less than human. That way always lies danger.

But non-pagans were born pagan too, just like us; they've just, in a sense, forgotten who they are.

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