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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Why Don't You Convert to Islam?

When you're the last surviving pagans of the Hindu Kush, I suppose you get used to the fact that every now and then you're going to be up to your ears in anthropologists.

And sometimes that's a good thing.

Wynne Maggi had come to the three remote valleys in Northwestern Pakistan where the Kalasha, a people some 4000-strong, continue to practice their ancestral religion, in order to study the women of the culture and, in particular, the role of the basháli, the moon-house, in their lives. Generally, when the missionaries come, the moon-house is one of the first institutions to go, and surprisingly little anthropological study has actually been done on the subject as a living concern.

One morning, while she was drinking tea with her hostess Wasiara Aya, two of Wasiara Aya's relatives, both converts to Islam, came to visit.

After some general conversation, one of them asked Wasiara Aya point blank: "Why don't you convert to Islam so you can go to Heaven, and not burn in Hell forever?"

Maggi was horrified, not realizing that most Kalasha deal with this level of proselytizing on virtually a daily basis.

But Wasiara Aya was unflappable.

"Why should we convert?” she asked her guests, “Kalasha is a good religion, a free religion." Turning to Maggi, she added, "Ne bâba [right, sister]?"

She continued. "Everyone comes here to see us....Americans, French, English, Canadians, Japanese—they all like Kalasha."

She paused, then pounced. "Nobody comes to see you."

Triumphantly, she drew her conclusion. "Kalasha religion is good religion. Ne bâba?"

Indeed. In these days, every pagan is a pagan-by-choice, the old with the new: some of whom, in fact, grew up Muslim. We choose the Old Ways anew every day, in the face of everything that stands against us. For all that it might be easier to choose differently, again and again, day after day, we make the decision to choose the Old Ways.

Not just because they are good, although they are.

But because they are better.


Already hard-hit by this summer's unprecedented flooding, the Kalasha valleys were devastated by last month's 7.5 earthquake. Although no Kalasha deaths have been reported, many houses were badly damaged, just as the cold northern winter sets in.

For updates on the situation: The Kalasha Times

To contribute: An Appeal to Restore Normal Life in Kalashadesh


Wynne Maggi, Our Women Are Free: Gender and Ethnicity in the Hindukush (2001). University of Michigan Press. 



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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.


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Monday, 09 November 2015

    Greybeard: as it's obvious that you didn't even *read* this article to the end, I've deleted your Islamaphobic comments YET AGAIN. Steven Posch is in no way suggesting that anyone convert to anything. The headline nicely encapsulates the kind of unwanted pressure that the person in the article gets all the time, and her "thanks but no thanks" response.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 09 November 2015

    On April 13, 2014, a pagan guy gunned down three people on the (mistaken) belief that they were Jewish. Does that (despicable) act have anything to say about paganism at large?

  • Kim
    Kim Tuesday, 10 November 2015

    I think you have your facts wrong.

    The neo-Nazi white supremacist who allegedly gunned down three people outside two Missouri Jewish centers could face the death penalty, prosecutors said Thursday.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 11 November 2015

    My understanding is that the gunman is also heathen (or, at least, claims to be heathen), although the article that you reference doesn't mention it.

    Let us not think that pagans aren't just as capable of misdeeds as anyone else.

  • Elle
    Elle Wednesday, 11 November 2015

    I think, until you can provide some proof that the gunman was "pagan, or a heathen", I will err on the side of the present facts. I am 75 years old. I've been Pagan since 1977 - I have seen Good Pagans and Bad Pagans... but I have honestly never experienced knowing Pagans who Murder. This does not take into account the weird folks who watch too many movies about satan worship etc. and do the odd pet sacrifice (or worse at times) but Pagans do NOT see them as belonging to the Pagan Faith - they are what they are, acting out what they THINK is something a Gothy thrill kill. They Are NOT Pagans. We frankly have no idea what they are except giving the rest of us a black eye.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 11 November 2015

    I honor your many years of experience, Elle; as a community, we are fortunate in our elders.

    Who is a pagan? In the absence of any universal definition or authority, I'm wont to take people at their word, whether or not I like or approve of them or what they do.

    In this particular situation, I found the response of the local heathen community to be instructive. They did not say: This guy is not a heathen. What they said was: This is not heathenry as we see it. This is not how our people should behave. We condemn his actions.

    And then they raised money for the families of the murdered.

    This seems to me a response more honorable and grithful (promoting of peace between communities) than to wash one's hands and to say: This is nothing to do with us.

  • john stitely
    john stitely Thursday, 12 November 2015

    I would like a middle position. I think that steve is right that we can never assume that we are individually morally superior. It is a trap of hubris that will hurt us in the long run. On the otherhand we need to have some boundaries on what we call "pagan", "Witch", etc. for the simple reason that any word that means everything soon communicates nothing. Steve has posted a reasonable post about the powerful but nebulas control that pagan cultures have by the expectation of certain values. We can never have a culture when we accept that all views are part of it. People can believe anything they want. some of these people are not part of my culture -- or I their's. We as a new religious movement should figure out who we are. We will then have a group of religions , many of which have enough in common to seek common cause in desperate times and have out own diverse but shared culture within these practices. This is an exercise that CAN be poisonous, but in proper doses is althouogh capable of restoring health. We understand this about plants and other natural phenomena but reject the same concept in our politics. We need to start to mature and realize that part of accepting differences is to have differences.

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