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I think a lot of people overlooked that point. People began to argue semantics, the history and meaning of the term Pagan, the need for solidarity, and what that label means for their personal identity. Few considered what it means that while not changing your beliefs and practices, your spiritual community improves simply by walking away from the Pagan label and community.
I’ve heard this from Hellenics and Heathens alike, but I’d always filed it away in the same part of my brain that processes the “where’s the birth certificate?” kind of statements. It seems so improbable and so against what I’ve truly believed for years about the Pagan community. Then again, some of the most successful lines of Witchcraft have maintained some distance from the Pagan community, my own tradition included.
My elders, almost none of whom identify as Pagan, had some interesting things to say about this. One told me the main problem with interacting with each other and trying to build pan-Pagan solidarity is that “we horrify each other” and I find that a fascinating way to characterize casual Pagan interactions. While we try to be open-minded and tolerant, so often deep inside we’re simply horrified because we secretly believe they’re doing it wrong. Even when we meet in good faith, somewhere deep in our soul we’re gasping and clutching our pearls.
I was given a useful analogy from a Wiccan perspective: on an energetic level pan-Pagan community can be like casual sex. Even though you’re perfectly prepared for this to be a one-time or very occasional event, energies still get mixed, and an egregore, however slight, is formed. Which makes sense when you hear people speak of pan-Pagan interaction as exhausting and frustrating. Even so, my elders were all for the greater Pagan community, even though in practice they keep our tradition quite separate and don’t tend to jump on board many pan-Pagan initiatives. As one of my teachers told me, the only flag we fly is the Wiccan one.
Since my tradition has been going strong since the mid 70’s, I have to say that maybe keeping some distance from Paganism (we participated in PPD for the first time last year) has helped them manage that. The Wiccan law regarding not splitting your energy between two covens might apply here, as Drew and others report limiting their interaction with Paganism, as an identity and community, benefited them. It conserved their energy, resources and thought processes for the very unique thing they are trying to do.
One of the teachings of my tradition is “nothing succeeds like a secret,” or as I like to think of it “you will love those shoes until your sister sneers at them, so don’t show your sister the shoes!” Why open up something that you love and works for you for critique by every Raven, Merlin and Rowan? Your tradition isn’t a dissertation to be challenged by every Pagan that comes along, so why not remain separate?
Of course, it’s not just Witchcraft that advocates smaller congregations, as most Pagans and even emergent Christians are committed to smaller groups. According to Robin Dunbar at Oxford, you can’t truly be friends with more than 50 people, so how many people can you have spiritual kinship with? Just what do you base that spiritual kinship on?
Semantics aren’t the underlying factor in this argument. As a polytheistic Wiccan, I often to find that my values are more often found among folks in other Pagan religions than my own. I generally have little in common with Wiccans outside my tradition, and I think that’s likely because we have a values base. It’s not that we aren’t engaging the Mystery and the Magick, but my experience has been that by emphasizing values the Craft itself thrives. When Drew talks about having more in common with Hindus and Native Americans, I get what he’s saying. I recently had a beer with a friend who is part of a Cherokee community and listening to him talk I heard the same values of my own tradition being expressed in a different language.
I had chatted with Drew awhile back saying I sensed a future schism between values/community based traditions, and those based on individuality/magick. Some of us are looking to create tribes and communities, some of us are looking for occult enlightenment, and some for spiritual anarchy. While there is and always will be overlap, I think that difference in emphasis will define the future of Paganism.
So while values, emphasis and such may help explain why groups do better when separate, it doesn’t address the idea that the very label “Pagan” may have become too charged, too political, too Wiccan or too tarnished. Just because it works “on paper” does that mean it truly works as a unifying and inclusive label in real life? Is it truly useful, or merely nostalgic? I honestly don’t know.
I do know that Paganism described in Wiccanate language bugs me, but I am honestly in love with the word. For me it evokes Cicero, Julian, Sappho and Hypatia. My vision of the word “pagan” is very Victorian, and probably not reflective of it’s modern reality. My vision of the Pagan community is “festival culture” where Pagans create a common reality for a few days of sweet harmony, or positive and supportive projects like IPCOD or PAGANdash. I know when I get to Pagan Spirit Gathering in a few weeks I will be engulfed in a truly supportive and inclusive pan-Pagan community.
Yet I don’t have any real answers to the experiences of those who’ve found life outside of Paganism a little greener. If Pagan has ceased to be a useful umbrella term, and if the Pagan community has become a stumbling block, then what next? How do we work together? How do we support each other?