Defining Pagan

I am a big fan of language and definitions. How we speak and write matters, and how we use words is important. On this blog there’s no word more important to define than Pagan. I wish that were easy, but “pagan” has a multitude of meanings depending on the specific context.

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, it’s nearly 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 gods. 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 because of those differences. Contrast that 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.

Even when someone is a theistic or atheist Pagan they use the language of polytheism. “We call to the Goddess and God” is an example of this. If you didn’t know anything about Paganism and stumbled upon a group of people doing ritual you’d probably call it polytheism because of the words being used.

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. In the majority of Modern Pagan Traditions women are of equal or higher standing with men. Being married I can tell you who runs our household, and it’s not me or our cats.

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.

A lot of today’s Pagans have adopted the word NeoPagan (sometimes spelled Neo-Pagan) to signify the difference between themselves and our ancient pagan ancestors. Personally I prefer the terms Modern or Contemporary Pagan. We’re about one hundred years in at this point and I’m not sure we are still the “New Pagans.” In a world with Pagan Parents and Grandparents we’ve got generations now, Neo-Pagan no longer seems to fit. It’s not a horrible turn of phrase, I’m just not a big fan of it.

Those four things are generally found in most Western Pagan Traditions. 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. Personally, I think that represents academia at its most lazy, all of those traditions have a name; find it and use it.

In my own writing I often use the word pagan to refer to the 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. 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 thing that often gets labeled as pagan because it feels and looks pagan. If there’s a folk custom out there with dubious origins it’s probably going to end up being called 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 Turning of the Wheel, 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 should 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, even though some of them lived like monks. Ancient paganisms were not a monolith, and encompassed a broad spectrum of moral values. Modern Paganism is a sexually charged religion, but that doesn’t mean everyone who engages in it is polyamorous and going to engage in “great golden copulations,” though I’d be down with that if it was 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. You could look at Mardi Gras the same way, or any other riotous party or religious celebration.

Bigots 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. There are many gay Pagans, and even a lot of lesbian and homosexual Pagans, but being gay is not a pagan practice, it’s a natural one.

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.