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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Are We Pagans or Neo-Pagans?

Are we pagans or neo-pagans?

Is there an essential difference/are there essential differences between our paganism and that of the old pagans?

If so, what is it/are they?

Is the break in continuity between the old and new paganisms unbridgeable?

If not, how do we bridge it?

Can a neo-pagan become pagan or not?

If so, how?

Is someone who grows up pagan today pagan or neo-pagan?

Can neo-paganism ever become paganism tout court?

If so, how?

If so, how long does it take?

Will pagans 500 years from now still be neo-pagans?

Are contemporary pagans with continuous, unbroken traditions pagans or neo-pagans?

Does it matter?


For Gus diZerega

for getting the wheel turning


Above: Kile Martz, God Pole I

(Sweetwood Temenos, Wisconsin)


Last modified on
Tagged in: neo-pagan neo-paganism
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.


  • Mark Green
    Mark Green Monday, 26 February 2018

    I believe that all Paganism happening today is Neo-Paganism. Even Reconstructionism.

    It isn't possible fully to free yourself from your culture. We have been steeping in the assumptions and framing of postmodern capitalism and Abrahamic religion since we were born...even those of us who grew up as Pagans.

    So I see "Pagan" (with the capital) and "Neo-Pagan" as meaning the same thing. One is just a little longer. Small-p paganism is how I describe the pre-Christian religions of Europe.

    I don't think there is anything wrong or disappointing about this. I find the obsession with being about "Old Ways" or "Ancient Paths" in our community to be kind of silly. I'm about the present and future, not the past.

    So to me, Neo is the same as just plain Pagan. They're both modern inventions. And that's just fine.

  • Mark Green
    Mark Green Monday, 26 February 2018


    I have never heard of a native born to an indigenous spiiritual path *volunteer* to be called "Pagan". I think we declare them under our umbrella at peril of their resentment. If they want to be here, fine, but claiming credit for them is really inappropriate.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 26 February 2018

    Quite so, Mark, and--history having been what it was--I can fully understand why.
    Nonetheless, I would hope that, coming from one who willingly wears the name pagan with pride, I would suspect that it might ring differently.
    Surely it's an act of friendship to extend one's own name to others?

  • Mark Green
    Mark Green Monday, 26 February 2018

    I think they take it in exactly the way the Dine people, for example, resent having been labeled as "Navajo". It's an act of colonialism to ascribe a label to people that they themselves do not use or want. Even if, though lack of cultural understanding, it was meant in friendship.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 27 February 2018

    It's certainly entirely appropriate to ask, "Is 'pagan' a useful term in a non-European context?" and I find your caveat, Mark, entirely well-advised. My use of it in this post was entirely as a term of convenience, meaning "with whom one would identify as a fellow-pagan," no more. Certainly when out of one's own cultural sphere, it's generally best practice to err on the side of politeness.

    That said, I don't want to make any assumptions about how millions and millions of people would feel about any particular matter. The famed Sami poet Nils-Aslak Valkepaa (1943-2001), whom I was fortunate enough to hear reading his work in 1989, gleefully self-identified as pagan. So, in her recent book, does Lakshan Bibi, the first Pakistani woman to become a licensed pilot; her people, the Kalasha, are the only Indo-European-speaking people whose traditional religion was never either stamped out or subsumed into one of the Big Box religions.

    For myself, I'm coming increasingly to define as a pagan one who thinks in Pagan; a neo-pagan would be someone who, while identifying as pagan, thinks in Something Else. By this definition, many of us, while starting off as neo-pagans, manage to learn our way into pagandom.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 27 February 2018

    I'm reminded of the words of my teacher Tony Kelly, who felt that the work of the contemporary pagan movement was to teach us to be the pagans that our ancestors were.

    Having done so, it can then fade away and go back to the womb of the Mother, for we won't need it any more.

    It's from Kelly that I learned to think like a pagan, one of the best gifts that anyone has ever given me. The very notion of a paganism whose purpose is to do its work and then fade away is so profoundly pagan I can scarcely bear the beauty.

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Tuesday, 27 February 2018

    I don't know if this is relevant to your article or not: way back in the 80's I read an article in the local Library about sects. According to that author the 1st generation was all enthusiasm for the new whatever. In the 2nd generation half the people would stay and half would move on to other things. By the third generation the sect had made all it's concessions to main stream society that it was going too and the rest of society would just have to adjust to accommodate them.

    I date the pagan/witchcraft revival to the publication of Aradia gospel of the Witches by Charles G. Leland in 1899. If you count a generation as 30 years we have already made all the concessions to mainstream society that we are going too. If you count a generation as 40 years then next year will mark the end of such compromises and we stop being neopagans and start being "them folks with their folk witchy ways."

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 28 February 2018

    So this would be Year 119 AA: "After Aradia."
    Love it.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 02 March 2018

    On second thought, I think I like AE better: Aradian Era.

  • Dale Wallace
    Dale Wallace Tuesday, 27 February 2018

    This is the response I wrote on M Macha Nightmare's page as she shared the article. she asked me to re-post here.

    Dale Cowley Wallace M M. Macha NightMare, P&W this is an interesting and important conversation. I do, however, have a problem with a line in this article that reads: "Are contemporary pagans with continuous, unbroken traditions (for example, in Africa and the First Nations Americas) pagans or neo-pagans?" Speaking from Africa, my answer is neither. This implies that African traditionalists - and First Nation Americans? - are part of unbroken traditions of contemporary Paganism. Here in Africa the term 'pagan' is part of the colonial history of racial and religious discrimination and is not how African traditionalists choose to define themselves. I fully agree when you say Pagans/NeoPagans have the right to define themselves, but so do Africans. Their right to define their own terms of identity is paramount and here, in South Africa, its certainly not as Pagan. Interesting :)

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 28 February 2018

    Thanks Dale: So mote it be.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 04 March 2018

    The question is a complex one, and I may resurrect and bring up to date a more complete discussion I preseted years ago. Here is the elevator version:

    NeoPagan is a term people, probably mostly Wiccans, adopted to describe their resurrecting old pre-Christian spiritual traditions in the context of modern world views, which were 100% absent in the pre-Christian past. It was a way of identifying similarities (Pagan) while acknowledging dissimilarities (Neo) and recognizing a temporal disjunction. The first generations of Wiccans contained disproportionate numbers of college educated people who were inclined to both practice our religion AND puzzle over how we fit into the spiritual territory of the world's religions. We saw no problem here-it seemed (and seems) entirely reasonable.

    "Pagan," like "Heathen," is a term that originally did not refer to religion, and only over time became so. This happened initially always with negative connotations. Christians taught that pre-Christians, whom they called Pagans, worshiped demons.

    Language is alive and words often change their meanings at the edges, and such was the case here. NeoPagans helped to make "Pagan" a description of pre-Christian European religions WITHOUT negative connotations. It is descriptive, not normative. No demons were involved.

    While some Christians even called Muslims "Pagans," on the whole they applied the term to cover non-Abrahamic religions more generally- sometimes excluding Buddhism. While they intended the term negatively, as NeoPaganism became more legitimate, so also did the term Pagan as a description of our ancestors' practices. But people in other lands still equated Pagan with negative implications because that is how the word had been used by Christian missionaries and the like. They thought pre-Christian European and Mediterranean Pagans worshiped demons.

    Pagan changed its meaning in much of the non-Christian West while not changing its meaning in many other places. Here is where it gets even more interesting...

    From a scientific point of view, classifications are based not on what people want to be called, but on identifying common characteristics that fit them into one group or other, or make them one of a kind. As a social scientist I think this is legitimate although in a nonscientific context I'm largely willing to call people what they call themselves in their own community, unless there are good reasons not to.

    So, if we model "Pagan" scientifically, as based on characteristics common to pre-Christian European religions, how many of these characteristics do OTHER non-Abrahamic or Dharmic religions share? It turns out quite a few: multiplicity of spirit beings and powers, the possibility or relating to these beings, no focus on a single dominant deity, an ethic that emphasizes harmonious relations over commands, no sense of needing salvation, no sense of evil in the Abrahamic sense, and seeing Spirit as entwined with the earth and its processes and inhabitants. This is not an arbitrary list- it hangs together logically.

    Consequently, as a social scientist writing as objective an analysis as possible, in English, I would say a great many religions can be classified as Pagan as the term applies here toda. This includes many Native American and African Diasporic religions - and their practitioners' hostility to the term is based on its centuries of use as negative by Christians.

    In interfaith work Wiccans have found a similar problem with the term "witch" which, until they learn otherwise, indigenous people identify with harmful sorcery and the like. They learned that "witch" was the Western word for whatever they called such people. When they learn what Wiccans actually do, this suspicion falls away and we are invited to their rituals as guests who practice traditions similar to theirs. This is one big advantage of interfaith work.

    Because of the long history of negative connotations with the term, the common interfaith term that now is often encountered is "earth religions" or "people of the earth" (which is a close definition of the original meaning of Paganus). Sometimes we are also called practitioners of indigenous religion who are indigenous people.

    Summing up: NeoPagans are a variety of Pagan, and so are most, if not all, traditional indigenous religions.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 04 March 2018

    Alright- a LONG elevator ride! :)

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 05 March 2018

    I only wish, Gus, it were around a campfire with one of Paganistan's Finest in hand (we do us proud with beers and ciders, wine not so much), instead of the bloody elevator.
    But there we are. We have what they give us. ;-)

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 05 March 2018

    So: Vedic religion could fairly be described as "pagan," using the characteristics you list above. I think most of us would agree that what we call for convenience "Hinduism" is not. Why not, and when did it stop being pagan?

    What about Zoroastrianism? True, it could (by some standards) be defined as monotheist, but I don't see inclusive monotheism (as distinguished from exclusive monotheism, to use Jan Assman's terms) as necessarily non-pagan.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 05 March 2018

    Hinduism is many things- as Classical Paganism was, though the mix of emphases varies. Some Hindus are pretty obviously Pagan in their outlook. I have a friend who is a priest of Hanuman. He sees himself as Pagan. The magazine Hinduism Today has at least on occasion recognized powerful similarities with neoPagans.

    But, as I understand it, Hinduism is an inclusive label outsiders applied to the religious diversity existing in India rather than a label 'Hindus' came up with. In this way the term is like Pagan, which was imposed by critics. Just as Pagan once referred to not only country practices but also the very different perspectives of people like Plotinus and Iamblichus, Hinduism does as well- but perhaps with an even broader net. Here I am guessing a bit, but it seems to me the caste system and the religious hierarchy it justifies focuses ideally on the desirability of getting off the Wheel of Life by knowing your place in relation to others supposedly superior to you. If you accumulate enough good karma you can be just like them and have a chance to leave for good. I find that view antithetical to the the, so far as I know, universal view of indigenous religions about the sacred permeating the world in a way that affirms its worth. This Pagan view implies respect for all things, and so categories such as Untouchables are alien to it.

    I am no expert on Hinduism- far from it - but as a social scientist I am tempted to say Hinduism's identification in the eyes of many with getting off the Wheel is what happens to a Pagan culture after enduring thousands of years of caste hierarchies that unite the interests of the politically powerful with priests claiming superiority over their concerns. To the degree a Hindu focuses on getting off the Wheel, I would place him or her on the outer fringes of what I call Pagan, because escape rather than living in harmony is a major element in their practice.

    But, I emphasize again, I am no expert.

    I think Zoroastrianism is not Pagan. It is monotheistic according to most all I have read about it. I have heard some say it is dualist, but if so spirit as good is most definitely not immanent in the world, which is a battleground. It also has an source of absolute evil as well as good, locked in combat. As soon as you see the world as in a battle between good and evil, toleration for other paths becomes controversial. It is easy to justify their suppression if it is useful to do so.

    Increasingly I am drawn to distinguishing basic spiritual orientations as focused on harmony with the world, salvation from a fallen place, or liberation and identification/union/disappearance into the One - and specific religions that are institutionalizations of these insights in particular contexts. Over time those institutions tend to reinterpret those basic insights to serve institutional interests.

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