Guest Post: Jon Hanna says Together we Fall, Divided we Stand

Guest Post: Jon Hanna says Together we Fall, Divided we Stand May 31, 2011

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“There is something pagan in me that I cannot shake off. In short, I deny nothing, but doubt everything.” – Lord Byron

The word pagan has always been of questionable usefulness to anyone who isn’t primarily concerned with Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

Its origins are entirely in contrast to those religions (whether it came directly from country-dweller or via civilian, which while an interesting enough point of etymological history, still speaks of the history of Christianity, not the history of paganism). Being a product of Abrahamic religious history, its applicability declines the further we move from the “known world” of the time – we can use the word with some confidence when it comes to the religious history of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, less when it comes to Asia and Central Africa, and next to none when it comes to the New World.

As such, the first people to find the word lacking, were those who were interested in studying religions other than in terms of Abrahamic bias, and other than those who were known of by Mediæval Christians. To lump Roman state religion, Shinto, Buddhism, Australian Aboriginal religion and the religions indigenous to the Americas under the one label did not serve such attempts well. Tiele’s comparison of religions depended not upon the distinction of whether or not it involved the god of Abraham, as upon a theory of the evolutionary emergence first of “nature religions” (in his phrasing, “in the narrow senses”) a hypothetical beginning that no longer exists, through those that fitted a looser sense of “nature religion” and finally the “ethical religions” in which he included not just Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (though Judaism’s lack of evangelical enthusiasm and continuing connection to the tribe it originated in meant it earned a more grudging inclusion) but also religions that would previously have been labelled pagan, most notably Buddhism. That Tiele was to later re-expound this theory in the Encyclopædia Brittanica,[1] may have made this the accepted wisdom on the matter at the turn of the 20th Century. There was much to criticise in Tiele’s approach and conclusion, but it was a step forward.

At the time when paganism re-emerged (one might be tempted to say, at the time when paganism became Paganism), pagan was therefore increasingly a colloquial term or historical term, rather than one that one of religious scholarship. It was also not one that was grabbed with both hands: Look through Witchcraft Today[2] and see how rarely the term is used (four times by my tallying, and just one of those manages to barely count as something Gardner is identifying himself with). Pagan was seen as a fair description rather than the label most actively claimed.

Those who did identify themselves with paganism were doing so precisely because it was a label of outsiders. The Romantic poets would revel in the term not as much for what it was, as what it was not – in rebellion against the norms of their society they lauded that which their society’s religion excluded. Those to first use the term in relation to the various forms of paganism which proliferate today were also at least partly doing so to actively take on the mantle of the outsider, often in tandem with political support for the marginalised. Even to those who took the term upon themselves, paganism was about what one was not, before it became a term for what one is.

But when it comes to be a term used in a positive sense of inclusion rather than a negative sense of exclusion, its exclusionary origins make all such use fraught. The stance that one is not pagan amongst those who are often labelled such, even by their coreligious, is not novel. It is many years now since Maxine Sanders stated that she was never a pagan. This was not mere evasion or squeamishness, since she did identify Wicca as a fertility cult, a phrase which while a much clearer and more accurate description of what we do, provokes negative responses in many in the wider “pagan community”, including (especially?) those who have borrowed heavily from Wicca.

Those who would define the term in respect to what it is, rather than what it is not, have never had an easy time. Often they’ve given up and preferred less loaded terms though they have been no less problematic: Nature religion has since the 70s come to mean something quite different to the nineteenth century use mentioned above, and this new term’s applicability to some of the older modern pagan traditions is doubtful at best, while earth-based spirituality is either pointless (as opposed to the small minority of religions based on ideas about extra-terrestrials?) or excludes many (the earth is certainly important to Wicca, but I find the idea that we are “earth-based” impossible to credit).

My attitude to the term pagan in response to its difficulties, is a flexible one: In my own use, I define it as a label for the pre-Abrahamic religions of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and those later religions that refer to them in various ways (whether reinvention, revival, or reconstruction, and whether their claim to do so seems strong or weak to me). Still, I maintain flexibility in dealing with the ways that others use it. Jacob is quite clearly pagan by my use, but I would not be vehement in arguing against his rejecting the term. The word simply isn’t of strong or precise enough meaning for me or anyone else to engage in such arguments.

This though is just words. I get quite passionate about words, but I try to have the wisdom to look at where the finger is pointing, rather than the finger (well, as well as the finger, I am free to make the finger an object of private study as long as I remember what is important). What of those that more comfortably fit the term pagan; what of the emerging mainstream within paganism, and their relation to the rest of us?

It is a strange thing to be talking about at all, mainstream paganism. How on earth did we end up with a mainstream in the first place? Not only did we start with paganism meaning that which was not mainstream, but for most of our modern history that was perhaps the one way in which the term suited us well. We now have a mainstream, and very many of us feel excluded from it (sometimes with ire, sometimes with relief). It is easy to find Ásatrúers, Heathens, non-Wiccan witches, and Reconstructionists of just about every sort who do not identify as such (even those reconstructing the European religions which if anything could be said to have the strongest claim on pagan). In some ways the objections of Wiccans and Druids – those who have probably had the strongest influence on the mainstream paganism – are all the stronger, for we find a greater discomfort in the alterations to what was borrowed from us than those to whom those borrowings are foreign. Paganism we are constantly told, is an umbrella term, but in practice we often find that we are not truly welcome under it, except when those who seek to do battle through statistics want us for the numbers.

Often also, we find a phoney welcome: People who do not know the first thing about our practices assume that they are well-versed in it, and similarly assume that we are au fait with all matters of mainstream paganism when very often we are not – there is no reason why we should be. It can often be easier to discuss religion with non-pagans; they make fewer assumptions about what we may have in common. This can be all the more pronounced to people who are not white English-speaking North Americans, as there are further cultural assumptions within mainstream paganism that come from that cultural position.

The problem is not that there is a new trend within paganism that is populous enough to be considered a mainstream. The problem is that the mainstream in population often behaves, well as a mainstream; as the norm by which others are measured. One important historical starting point from this was a conscious attempt to do just that in 1974, though it took some time to gain traction. I would be tempted to call the “Principles of Wiccan Belief” the most damaging document in the history of witchcraft since the Malleus Maleficarum, were it not that on consideration, the damage to witchcraft itself by the Malleus is almost certainly much less.

My problem is not with the 13 principles themselves. I do have problems with them, considerably more than 13 problems; I have minor to major disagreements with 12 of them, because one of them just reads to me as gibberish that I can’t parse well enough to agree or disagree with. But that is just a matter of my disagreeing with people of another religious view. I disagree with them less than Scientology and maybe just a bit more than Anglicans (I own to a bias here; it is my opinion, after some research in the matter, that on average Anglicans make the best cakes in Ireland, and I can forgive a great deal of theological disagreement when people make good cake).

My problem rather is what it pertains to be and how it has been put forward as something that all of us (even those of us who are not American, despite its explicitly only concerning itself with American matters) will at least largely agree with. Now, if someone wants principles of belief then that’s their business; as a Traditional Wiccan I have no need for any such thing, but in Western society at least there are far more religions that take agreement on dogma as their point of continuation than agreement on practice, so I’m fine with that. I’m more than fine; I consider such things very interesting, as it happens.

If however they first define witchcraft on such terms, and then continue to pursue this so that such views become a “mainstream” within paganism, then that is not just another strand in the tapestry. It is not even just a strand of particular significance: It is hegemony, and hegemony is dangerous: If a “return of the Burning Times” did ever happened, it would likely be wrapped in a flag, and carrying a pentagram.

The danger I see is not in the beliefs or practices of people of such religious persuasion (and throughout the rather bloody history of religious difference, they have rarely been the problem), it is the cause of “pagan unity” becoming a cause of pagan hegemony, because in the eyes of the one-catholic-church-of-paganism, an awful lot of us are heretics, and some are increasingly lacking in tolerance of our heresy.

But this danger is not as great as the opportunities. And these opportunities are great for all of us. First, with the right attitude a point of difference is a point of interest. This has been the focus of my own writings to date, and while it is not for me to say how well I may have served my readers, I have certainly found that in examining differences between my path and other pagan practices (not merely in giving a list of “we do not…” as can be found on the web for a great many traditions, but in actually examining those differences and seeking to understand the implications) there is often a deeper understanding on offer than the now well-trod ground of how we differ from the predominant religions of the West.

Perhaps the greatest opportunities available, are available to those who are closer to the mainstream than those of us outside it. Looking at Jacob’s list of some ways in which his practice differs from the mainstream, I was struck by “We don’t celebrate ‘Sabbats,’ ‘Esbats’ or non-traditional holidays like Mabon”. Now, I do celebrate Sabbats, Esbats and I do celebrate the Autumn equinox (though I certainly don’t call it “Mabon”, but it is more the language-nerd in me that objects to the term than the Wiccan in me to whom what it’s called isn’t particularly important). Still, it continues to seem strange to me that the mainstream do: Wicca started with four sabbats and expanded this to include the the solstices and equinoxes[3] partly through less than reverent intent (four more feasts, and we do value mirth as well as reverence), and continued with this cycle of 8 sabbats because it fits our practice exceedingly well. I find it hard to believe that this same cycle (and this invention, considering how often parts of our practice less popular with others are condemned with that word), would be the best suited to so nebulously defined a group as even the mainstream within paganism remains. Where is the revival of ancient feast days? Where is the reclamation of folk holidays? Outside of the mainstream in a different direction to the ways in which we Wiccans are outside of it, that’s where. But I’d give odds of a guinea to a farthing that a great many who are close to the mainstream would find much that is fruitful by pursing that as a line of research.

And that is only the beginning. There is much in what was first called pagan that can inform, there is much in what we have learnt from recent science, in what has bubbled up through Christian tradition (and claims and counter claims about origins is far from the most useful way these can be studied, though often it seems the only aspect most pagans – mainstream and otherwise – will expend effort on), much in the folk practices of different countries that aren’t pagan survivals so much as “just shit that we did growing up” as a friend eloquently put it recently, much in the magical and occult practices both modern and historical that are greatly underrated among the pagan mainstream, that if – and this is a very important if – they can be approached with respect, has the potential to blossom in the practices of many.

Finally, if we can stop seeking to be alike each other, we can obtain a much more powerful form of unity: We can be a confederation of confidently separate paths, traditions and creeds. Confederacy can not just offer more freedom than hegemony, but in its diversity it can offer greater genuine strength and resilience. The lack of descriptive value to the term pagan can be an asset, not something we have to fix through forcing people to adhere to increasingly narrow definitions or else be cast out; a casting out that includes most of the traditions that started this “movement”.

We won’t ever agree entirely on just who is or isn’t pagan, but that can become a linguistic conundrum to throw around over a bottle or wine among friends, not a point of discord.

[1] Tiele, Cornelius Petrus. 1902. “Religion”, Encyclopædia Brittanica, Ninth Edition.

[2] Gardner, Gerald. 2004. Witchcraft Today. New York: Citadel Press. ISBN 0806525932. (First published 1954. London: Rider).

[3] There is some evidence that midwinter was celebrated, and already called Yule, prior to the introduction of Midsummer and the equinoxes. See d,Este, Sorita & Rankine, David. 2008. Wicca: Magickal Beginnings. London : Avalonia. ISBN: 1905297157. p 194.

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