Everybody Likes Labels, Right?

Everybody Likes Labels, Right? October 6, 2015

Landscape with Dancing Satyrs and Nymphs by Claude Gellee, 1646
Landscape with Dancing Satyrs and Nymphs
by Claude Gellee, 1646

I’ve been thinking a lot about labels lately, the things that we choose to call ourselves and our practices – and the names that others choose to give them. I’m working on writing a little brochure about Vanatru for the Troth, though I don’t exactly identify as a Vanatruar. I’m pouring energy into building up an ADF Grove, and writing kids rituals for the ADF Parenting SIG, though I don’t identify as a Druid. I even *gasp* wrote a ritual for the local Wiccan coven that went over really well this past weekend, and I’m pretty much as far from Wiccan as a Pagan can be.

At what point do our actions define us, rather than what we choose to identify as? In my own practice, I primarily honor the Vanic deities; or at least the Anglo-Saxon deities that most would label as Vanic. Does that make me Vanatru, even if I don’t love the Norse-centric sound of the name? As Pagans and Heathens, many of us tend to love our labels, often with lots of hyphens and endless explanations of sub-categories!

But I find that at a certain point it becomes wearying. When a Pagan asks me how I identify or what tradition I follow, I could probably answer that question in a hundred different ways, some of which aren’t exactly enlightening for the questioner. Even worse, when a non-Pagan asks me what my religion is, there’s several more layers added on top of that! Is it still acceptable to simply say “I am a Pagan” or “I am a Heathen”, without immediately adding in what deities you are closest to, what path you identify with, or even your personal theological outlook?

Because sometimes I’m just not interested in discussing those things. Sometimes, things are in flux and feel very personal; other times, it’s been a long day and I’ve spent a lot of energy getting a ritual ready, and I’m just not ready to talk about whether I am a Polytheist or just a polytheist.

I’m also not interested in being limited by labels. I am so thankful that my local Pagan community is not the sort to let labels divide it – be you Druid, Heathen, or Kemetic, you are welcome just about anywhere you show up (and your help is always appreciated)! There are several members of the local Wiccan coven that don’t identify as Wiccan, primarily or at all; and yet they still put on fantastic ritual and are wonderful people to talk religion with. I know many members of ADF who aren’t in love with the ‘Druid’ label, but put tons of themselves into the organization nonetheless, because they believe in its goals.

I understand the desire to sub-divide, to want to spend time with those who have similar religious experiences or goals or worldviews; finding space with people who are most like ourselves seems to be an in-born human trait. In some places, there simply isn’t the population for it – my local groups would all be awfully tiny if there was no cross-pollination. But even when you have ten or twelve Hellenics willing to get together, it’s my contention that those Hellenics might benefit from venturing outside their group every once in awhile, even just to socialize with other Pagans.

In many cases, labels bring us together and bind us in community. But they can also be very divisive, and it’s this that hurts my heart. When a fellow Heathen comes to me talking about their devotion to Odhinn, it can be easy for me to dismiss them as a person simply because I have little experience with Him. When a fellow Pagan comes to me with a pantheistic outlook, bright-eyed and excited to discuss, I sometimes want to just say “oh, but I’m a hard polytheist”. But these are not healthy attitudes.

Our community is built on diversity, and needs it to thrive: diversity of outlook, of pantheon, of theology. Long labels with their endless hyphens may be really helpful to those looking to pinpoint their practice, and I absolutely do this on occasion – but when engaging with others in community, might it not be better to start with our similarities?

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