Defining “pagan”

(Before moving over to Patheos I had a much lower profile blog called “Deep Pagan Thoughts.” I’m not going to move all the stuff from DPT over to Raise the Horns, but a few of those posts are worth the trouble. This post is a favorite because it’s one I reference quite often. I don’t think you can write about “Paganism” without first defining it, what follows is my definition, or definitions.)

While the comments section on DPT is usually pretty quiet, I do get a lot of comments about my blog on Facebook.* Most of those comments are about content too, not the abundance of grammatical errors and misspellings that plague my posts. Monday’s “Jesus Ween” entry garnered quite a few comments, and I found one of them extremely interesting. My friend Cm Barons** made an observation about the following paragraph:

“Yes Halloween is a creepy time of year, death is just in the air. It’s hard to escape dying plants, hibernating animals, frosty nights, falling leaves, and yes the ancients used to slaughter a lot of animals around November 1st. All of those trappings are natural things, and they can’t be escaped. They all fit nicely into a cosmological Pagan worldview, but they are a part of everyone’s experience, they aren’t necessarily Pagan things.***”

He found that last sentence slightly under-thought, and made the argument that paganism is “a popular (democratic) experience?” and went on to say that “Halloween is the mundane celebration preliminary to All Saints Day/All Souls Day- in the same vein as Mardi Gras precedes the austerity of Lent. Both Halloween and Mardi Gras embody worldly, human festivity compared to the solemnity mandated by the church. I see ‘pagan’ with a much wider brush stroke.” Of course this got me to thinking about how exactly to define the word “pagan” and the word “Pagan.”

When I use the word Pagan (capitol P) I’m using it to signify one specific thing: an ambiguous but somewhat unified theory of Western Religious thought. In my mind Modern (or Contemporary or Neo) Pagans generally share three or four characteristics. Some Contemporary Pagans**** practice all of these things I’m going to list, some just one or two, but all are pretty recognizable as facets of today’s Paganism.

Nature Religion Pagans revere nature. Pagan holidays aren’t birthdays or death-days, they are natural times of year determined by the annual “Turn of the Wheel” (changing of the seasons). While the level of “revering nature” varies from Pagan to Pagan; some worship nature while others simply honor yearly cycles, but it’s pretty universal.

Polytheism Calling all Pagans polytheists is rather limited, some are duotheists, and if you believe that “all gods are one god” some people might call you a monotheist, I even know a few atheist Pagans. What makes Paganism unique, and why I use the term polytheist, is that Pagandom will generally support your experience with the gds. If you worship Thor and I worship Pan, we aren’t necessarily adversaries. Your religious experience is just as valid as mine. We may not worship the same gods, and we may have different concepts of what deity is, but as a community we don’t invalidate someone else’s experience as a result. Contrast this with most monotheistic religions where a parishioner acknowledging a moment with deity results in puzzled stares, exile from the group, or a trip to the insane asylum.

The Feminine Principle Most Pagans revere a Goddess, or are open to the idea that deity is not exclusively male. Pagan Goddesses are equal to male deities, not subservient or asexual entities like the Catholic Virgin Mary. In addition to honoring the Divine Feminine, Pagan Circles generally see equality among the sexes. Women can lead rituals (and in many traditions are actually above men) and participate as equals (or superiors) in 99.9% of all “Pagan” traditions.

Western Religious Tradition Just five years ago I wouldn’t have added this fourth caveat, but these days I feel it’s necessary. The majority of the stuff that makes up Modern Pagan Religious practice comes from Western Sources. Most of us tend to worship European and Middle Eastern deities, and the nuts and bolts of ceremony are also generally European. Many Modern Pagans attempt to recreate (or at least re-imagine) Ancient Western Paganisms, whether they are Greek, Roman, Celtic, Egyptian, or Norse. In addition there are several groups out there who would prefer not to be under our umbrella. Labeling Native American Traditions “Pagan” is a recipe for trouble, the same goes with Hindu traditions. That doesn’t mean Modern Pagans ignore ideas, beliefs, and deity from outside of Western Culture, it just means that those impulses are generally filtered through a Western prism. Lots of Pagans I know worship Eastern Gods, and use Native American Ritual Techniques, but if they wanted to focus exclusively on those things they would join a Shinto Temple or petition the Lakota tribe for membership. Paganism is highly adaptable and it’s easy to add things to it, but those things are usually adapted for Contemporary Pagan use.

Those four things are generally found in most Western Pagan Traditions, or “Pagan Religions” as I think of them. The word “pagan” is far more complicated, and can be interpreted several different ways. For a long time the most common definition of the word pagan read something like this “anyone who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew.” This definition is still used by a lot of people, and when those people stumble upon a faith outside of the Abrahamic Tradition they label it “pagan” by default. This definition nearly matches the use of the word pagan in some anthropological circles. Many anthropologists will label native religions as pagan, even if that religious tradition in Africa has nothing in common with one in the Philippines.

In my own writing I often use the word pagan to refer to ancient pagan religions of Europe and the Middle East. Since most of those religions are unique unto themselves, I sometimes call them ancient paganisms. While it’s true that both the Ancient Greeks and the Vikings worshipped a multitude of gods, the similarities mostly stop there. Those paganisms are also filtered through distinct cultural perspectives. As a Modern Hellenic Re-constructionist I can relate to today’s Asatru because we come from the same cultural background and share a common language. Not the case two thousand years ago.

The original meaning of the word pagan means “country dweller,” and comes from the Latin word “paganus.” Whether subconsciously or as a result of the word pagan’s origins, a lot of people refer to old or rustic practices as pagan. I think my friend Cm was referring to something like this. There’s nothing linking the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance explicitly to any ancient pagan religious practice, and many of the people who participate in it are devout Christians, but it’s the type of think that often gets labeled as pagan regardless. Morrison Dancing lacks a true pagan religious pedigree, but it’s the kind of folk custom that people call pagan anyways. Lots of rustic traditions get labeled as pagan even when they aren’t, probably because they feel pagan.

There’s a certain romance to the countryside, and people like to imagine it as an eternal, unchanging place. That means any sort of ritual or practice in it has to come from pre-Christian sources, even if that’s not actually the case. I think as human beings we are naturally attracted to certain types of rituals and to celebrating the change of the seasons. These rituals and acknowledgments do not necessarily have to be religious, but they are the type of thing people like to label as pagan. Regardless of your religion, if you live in a rural area it’s likely that you are going to do something to try and ensure a good harvest. Even if your fertility ritual includes a statue of a saint or a Virgin Mary, people are often going to label it pagan.

Seasonal Celebrations are also thought of as pagan by many. There are good reasons for this, the first holidays might have very well been seasonal celebrations, and therefore pagan ones. Seasonal celebrations also touch on the changing of the seasons, a frequent motif in Western pagan religions. That’s why walking into a craft store in the fall feels so pagan to many of us. Decorating with leaves, pumpkins, and other assorted gourds is not necessarily religious (a wreath made of leaves on the door does not make one a Pagan), but it just feels like it could be. “Her house was decorated in a very pagan way,” because it was covered with signs of autumn.

Pagan is often used in a derogatory way to express displeasure with a person’s morality. If you are a swinger, or in a polyamorous relationship , someone might call you a pagan even if you are a practicing Baptist. For some, paganism is synonymous with hedonism, probably because our pagan ancestors were seen as hedonists, and it’s not hard to picture crazy orgies held in honor of Dionysus and Aphrodite either. Modern Paganism is a sexually charged religion, but that doesn’t mean everyone who engages in it is polyamorous and going to “great golden copulations,” though I’d be down with that if that were the case.

Rituals or celebrations that are high energy, or perhaps full of happy drinking are sometimes called pagan. One of the most influential parties in literature on my psyche is the Christmas Party hosted by Old Fezziwig in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Fezziwig’s party doesn’t really have a religious component, but it features dancing, drinking, flirting (perhaps more?), singing, and general merriment. It’s how I’ve always wanted my own Yule Ritual or Party to feel and look. It’s not pagan in the sense that most of us use the word, but it’s the type of celebration that feels pagan. This is the type of “pagan” my friend was writing about when he wrote “Both Halloween and Mardi Gras embody worldly, human festivity compared to the solemnity mandated by the church.” So in that sense, any celebration of joy could be looked at as pagan.

Bigots like Janet Mefford often link homosexuality to paganism, in attempt to demonize the both of them. To some Christians homosexual relations are “pagan” because they go against the teachings of Yahweh. If close minded people want to call every gay person they meet a pagan I’d be happy to have the whole LGBT Community as a part of our tribe, but that’s probably not fair to my gay Christian, Jewish, and Muslim friends.

So what is going on exactly when we label something or someone P/pagan? We could be talking about an umbrella religious term, or it could signify something sexual, old, seasonal, joyous, or rustic. I kind of like all of these definitions myself, but I try to be careful with my writing and refrain from labeling something Pagan when it’s only pagan. Sure my experiences as a Pagan contain all of those pagan elements, they are sexual, seasonal, joyous, antiquated, and rustic, I hope yours are too.

*If you are just a reader and not a Facebook friend and want to read those comments you can add me on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/jmankey is the profile.

**A writer as well, he has a book out there somewhere if you are interested. For the record, it’s pretty good.

***Really weird to be quoting myself.

****While most of the community probably uses Neo-Pagan, I like to use the term Contemporary Pagan. Neo-Pagan means “New” Pagans, since we are a few generations in now, it doesn’t seem appropriate anymore. In academic circles the term “Contemporary Pagan” is gaining a lot of traction, but do as you will.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.


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