The Heroic Life
Making Paganism Competitive
Perhaps, in a different world, the European religions would have produced something comparable. Left to themselves, maybe Roman syncretism would have gone from a tool of horrible imperialism to a lens for universal tolerance. Or perhaps among the barbarians of Europe, culture-torn by Rome and its allies, some traveling teacher would have spread a new doctrine that consolidated everything we love about Germanic and Celtic religion.
But that didn't happen.
So the project remains. What are the essential teachings of Paganism? Can they be distilled to something that intuitively rings true—true to the majority of Pagans, but true also to a typical outsider? To universalize something it must: be useful to the average person, make good sense, and be easy to explain.
Wicca presents one option. I've joked that Wicca is the perfect tribal religion for the United States-it takes whatever it likes from other cultures. Yet that itself is a real contender. The idea that all myths and religions have value, or that one can be a student of them all and get something meaningful, has appeal. But not all Pagans are eclectic, and calling that the essence of Paganism rings false. And world myth is more of a niche interest. If you're poor or unhappy, Christianity and Buddhism have solutions for you, respectively. If you want to combine Kenyan ghost stories with British elf stories I guess Wicca has a solution for you, but it's not a big market.
But Paganism does have something universal to offer.
One of the most common problems today is that people don't feel in control of their lives. And two elements that unite almost all Pagan traditions directly address that: individualism and heroic myth.
Campbell, who so eloquently explains the difference between world religions and ethnic religions above, also talks of the beautiful sense of individualism, of "a very strong individualistic tradition that goes back certainly to the Greeks and is to be identified also in the north European pagan traditions of the Celts and the Germans."
What if that brave individualism was given the soil to bloom again?
This individualistic tradition reaches its greatest expression in the hero myths. The heroes of Pagan tradition will literally face down the gods themselves. They will go gladly to their doom, if it means accomplishing their goal: they have a cheerful love of life with its pains and joys alike. They revel in the world, knowing there are no absolutes but their own honor.
This spirit was not only for warriors. It was celebrated among great and small, among men and women. It doesn't always lead to a happy outcome, but it leads to no regrets. It is a rugged affirmation of I choose for myself.
If this one idea, this heroic virtue, could be distilled, taught, and lived, would human lives be improved? Could unnecessary apologies go un-uttered, and meek heads lift up a little with confidence? Would children follow their dreams, and adults speak up when no one else will?
What would happen to the world if the message of Pagans was: follow your personal legend?
Drew Jacob is a rogue priest, a philosopher and a writer. He follows the Heroic Path: the idea that the highest goal is to live gloriously, to distinguish yourself through your deeds, to be clever and brave and become known for it - to use the moments of your life to leave a lasting and worthy impression on the world.
In the pursuit of that ideal he is walking across two continents from the United States to Brazil. His goal: to meet the gods.