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Pagan Studies I: How Should We Define Modern Paganism?

Author: Oracle
Posted: May 12th. 2013
Times Viewed: 5,067

This is the first in a planned five-part series on some topics I believe are pertinent in modern Paganism. If nothing else, I hope it can accomplish the task of prompting further community questions and discussions on these topics and more.

The Debate
It has become somewhat of a proverb in our modern Pagan Community: just what is Paganism? What makes you a Pagan? I read a lot of blogs and occasionally chime in on Facebook feeds where many people debate just what Paganism means to them. Unfortunately, the fights begin when people start pushing their personal definitions onto others and begin using them as a means of comparing who is “more Pagan” than the other. Pagans who are vegetarian begin to condemn Pagans who are meat-eaters for not being Pagan; Pagans who are polytheist begin attacking Pagans with atheist leanings that they are not Pagan; Pagans who perform daily devotions begin chiding other Pagans who don’t for not being Pagan “enough.”

What has happened is that rather than focusing what unites us and having a real discussion, our human propensity for one-upping emerges and it bleeds into spirituality. Ego battles ensue, and very soon we forget what we were discussing in the first place. Then there are the Reconstructionists who eschew the word Pagan because they think of eclectic New Age White-Lighters with crystals chanting “Om, ” or hippies smoking ganja with a “feel good” outlook on life that are anti-authoritarian. While this is certainly an image of some, it’s not everyone. Nonetheless stereotypes emerge and they are construed as negative imagery. It seems that even amongst our own, we have turned the word “Pagan” into a negative term…something that, ironically, our Christian forebears began doing to their non-Christian neighbors.

(For the record: I am not saying anything is wrong with holding crystals and chanting “Om” or to be a hippie that smokes ganja) .

A blogger had recently written about how he doesn’t call himself Pagan anymore. When he started studying Druidry, he found that what he was studying wasn’t historically accurate. He then went on to study Celtic Reconstructionism. Unfortunately, he and his group didn’t find a comfortable welcome at Pagan festivals. While he was focused on historical accuracy, many of the Pagan workshops focused more on what he felt were contemporary New Age concepts such as ley lines, auras, and the like. In addition, many Pagans who were familiar with Wicca felt disconnected to the Reconstructionist methods of performing ceremonies. He states that he and his group seemed to find more common ground with practitioners of other belief systems such as Native Americans and Tibetan Buddhists. He is one of many who have dropped the appellation “Pagan” in favor of “Polytheist.” While that is certainly his right, I personally believe that there were some missed opportunities; opportunities which I will explain later.

It has been noted in a publication that was a collaboration of scholars (many of whom are practitioners) that many dictionaries seem to be responsible for presenting a non-definition of Paganism (2005, Modern Paganism In World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives) . Michael Strmska has done a marvelous job of looking at The Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, The American Heritage Dictionary, and The Scribner-Bantam English Dictionary for how “Pagan” is defined:

1) “One who is not a Christian, Muslim or Jew, ”
2) “Heathen, ”
3) “Idolator, ”
4) “One who has no religious beliefs, ”
5) From Latin paganus rustic, peasant, from pagus rural, the country, originally landmark fixed in the earth, ”

He rightly concludes that hardly anyone can come away with a positive sense of the term Pagan, and thus we in the Community are having a troubling time defining just who and what we are. Many modern Pagans believe in some of these definitions, and will hastily classify Buddhists, Shintoists, and Native Americans as “Pagans” Moreover, an implied conclusion is drawn that since Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are popularly seen as Monotheistic faiths, then “Pagan” should apply to only those who are polytheistic. This presents a problem, as it effectively excludes a growing number of Goddess worshippers who venerate solely the Great Mother Goddess, a monotheistic concept in which the Goddess is All That Exists. She is tangible in everything: the earth, the wind, the fire, the sea, the stars, you and I. While this type of monotheism includes a pantheistic blend, it is nonetheless monotheistic.

What I think happens is that terms are thrown around like everyone knows what they mean, but in the midst of arguing and debating they are lost in visual and word associations that have little to do with the ACTUAL definition. For example, if I say “monotheism” many minds will automatically jump to the Father concept of God in Christianity. Your mind may also link to other word and concept associations such as “exclusionary, ” “Bible, ” and “transcendent.” In other words, your mind comes to terms with how many Christians, Jews and Muslims define monotheism, but not necessarily what the word actually means. Monotheism simply means “One Deity.” That’s it. So if you are a Pagan who believes in the Great Mother Goddess, that She is All and All is She to the exclusion of other Deities, then you are monotheistic. This concept is very popular in a growing number of Dianic and Hekatean circles. In my opinion, the transcendent vs. immanence debate is more a matter of epistemology than theology/thealogy.

But we still haven’t answered where “Pagan” comes from or if the definitions above are valid.

Pagan is Pejorative
The problem is that the negative appellation of “pagan” comes from the Roman Christians themselves who applied the term to others who were not part of their faith. Moreover, as Christianity spread and conversion occurred through war and politics, traditional customs and folk practices among the rural populace were called “pagan.” But country folk had no name for their observances, as they were the result of hundreds and perhaps thousands of years of familial custom and traditions. The religious evolution of the word “Pagan” started becoming more evident away from its original definition of “rural dweller” around the fourth century CE with the changing religious tide. Here we have evidence of the progression of the word as it began to change with the times.

This is where many modern Reconstructionists break with those who call themselves Pagan. For Reconstructionists, they are using historical accuracy and scholarly research in an attempt to bring back the original ritual practices, ethos, and philosophies of their ancestors. This means that many modern Wiccan-inspired Pagan ceremonies that involve cast circles, invocation of the Four (or Five) Elements, and celebration of the Oak and Holly King are nowhere near what they do. In addition, because they include ancestral veneration in their praxis, they feel it was an affront to their ancestors to have their faiths demeaned by the Christian rulers with the negative word “Pagan.” Reconstructionism, in a sense, can be seen as an attempt to reclaim and take pride in one’s ancestral lineage, whether that is ethnic Greek practices, Romanian, Russian, Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Scandinavian, Irish, Nordic or Roman; there is a swell of pride in that one is actually reviving the ceremonies and sacred mythos that was suppressed or altered by Christian conquerors. I for one am glad to know that people are reconnecting and reforging relationships with their ancestors and their cultures.

Medieval Paganism
Shortly after the fourth century CE and at the onset of the Middle Ages, many people in various rural areas in southern, western and northern Europe were amalgamating beliefs from Christianity into their folkloric customs and superstitions (a term applied by Church authorities to what many now refer to as folk magic) . People readily adapted, and there are numerous examples worldwide of ethnic practices that survived – many times with the approval and participation of the local Christian clergy – as syncretic expressions of people’s faiths (2005, Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Customs) . What happened was that the cultural expressions and traditions continued, albeit changed and altered. Sometimes even new rituals and customs were created to fit with new paradigms. According to the literature of the period, “Pagan” was still pejorative. But what we are glimpsing is the adaptation of traditional customs and the development of new ceremonies in the light of the times.

It didn’t just happen in Europe either. The same thing occurred among native populations in the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and India under Islamic rule (2012, Paganism in the Middle Ages: Threat and Fascination) . From reading the Bible, we can also get a glimpse that similar situations had occurred under the rule of the nation of Israel (and even later when the nation split into Israel and Judah) . The native beliefs of the Canaanites, Hittites and Amorites would not be squashed under Jewish rule. They stubbornly clung onto their native traditions, in spite of governmental persecution and ethnic genocide. But evidence is abundant that many practicing Jews also syncretized their faith with that of others. Syncretism is not new, and is a very old practice among humanity. We are always borrowing ideas and norms from other places, because this is what we do. It’s natural behavior. But in this blending of ideas, myths and practices, unique differences were evident depending on the culture, region, town or area you traveled in. This is important to keep in mind, because this format neatly resembles the wide diversity of practices, beliefs and customs found in modern Paganism.

Renaissance Paganism
There is an argument as to whether any Paganism existed during the Renaissance. Keep in mind however that when these arguments are taking place among scholars, they are using the definitions that we had used earlier. The most popular is describing someone who is not a Christian, Jewish or Muslim. The argument goes that the people responsible for reviving Classical Greek and Roman studies (i.e. mythology, imagery, literature, etc.) identified as Christian, and therefore could not be Pagan. Rather some even argue that no one in the Renaissance actually believed in pre-Christian Deities, but rather pretended as if they actually existed (2005, The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance) .

But the revival of pre-Christian philosophies, sacred literature and practices cannot be denied. The translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, The Chaldean Oracles, and The Orphic Hymns served to bring Classical Pagan Neoplatonic thought into a world on the cusp of change. Indeed one of the influences of the Italian Renaissance, Gemistus Pletho (1355 – 1454?) founded a Mystery School in Greece where he taught polytheism and his students prayed to and venerated the Olympian Gods. While modern Reconstructionists may argue if his formats were correct, this is a wonderful example of Pagan thought reviving. Much later the English Platonist Thomas Taylor (1758 – 1835) described himself as a Hellenistic Pagan. Here we have the definition evolving to religious identity.

Modern Paganism
If you remember the definitions of Pagan in the dictionaries, the most common was someone who is not a Christian, Jewish or Muslim. However, without realizing it, during the studies done about the Middle Ages “Pagan” became the appellation attributed to continuations of religious and folk practices that had their roots in the pre-Christian past. During the Renaissance it became applied to people who gathered to study and practice the pre-Christian Hellenistic and Hermetic faith in some way. Whether these roots had different offshoots or made way for new expressions, the commonality between them all was that they had come from a period before the political takeover of Christianity.

The continuation and re-discovery of pre-Christian practices, literature and philosophies throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance and post-Renaissance world opened up new avenues for the fall of political Christianity in Europe, the rise of scientific thinking, the era of the Romantics and Transcendentalists. It also paved for the Occult Revivals – from Italy to England and to the United States – which were all social, political and spiritual grounds that were broken and made possible the 20th century public revival of Paganism beginning with Wicca. Paganism is the newest expression in a long line of movements in which people were desperately trying to break free from a belief system that they did not align with. Many of us use similar practices, philosophies and concepts that were studied during these tumultuous times, no matter what our Group or Tradition is (i.e. ADF, AODA, British Traditional Wicca, British Traditional Witchcraft, Hellenismos, Theodism, Kemetic Orthodoxy, Stregha, Strix Craft, etc.) . Or we have spawned new expressions of celebration that were inspired by these efforts.

Reclaiming the Name
Recall that the Roman Empire had taken over the entirety of Europe, North Africa, and parts of the Near East. As a result in these areas is where we find the term “Pagan” applied to the people and cultures that did not align with Christianity. But as we have also seen, this term evolved from its original meaning of “country dweller” to “non-Christian.” Later the definition expanded to “someone who is not Christian, Jewish or Muslim.” It even meant “idolator” in the sense of someone who honored the Old Gods or were seen as superstitious by the Church. However, I believe the term “Pagan” can continue to evolve in meaning, and we have the opportunity to use it in the present. We have examples in our past of the term being for religious identity.

I mentioned earlier that I believe our blogger missed a valuable opportunity at Pagan festivals. Rather than feeling welcome, he and his group felt like outsiders in a place that promoted many teachings and paradigms akin to New Age. I can’t say I blame the blogger for feeling like an outsider. There are many Pagans who argue about the rightness and trueness of casting a circle, calling the Elements, doing Cakes and Ale, and talking about the Moon Goddess and Sun God. Many, but not all, have and will attack a ritual practice they deem at odds with their own ideology. And many, but not all, have very liberal, Leftist and anti-authoritarian leanings. So much so that if a Pagan were to admit they were Republican, conservative and did not believe in Climate Change I predict a fair share of ostracism. The opportunity I believe that may have been missed was education to introduce the Pagan Community to Reconstructionism. It really was unfortunate that he and his group were belittled for “doing things wrong” because he did not follow Wiccan-inspired formats.

Pagan has become synonymous with Wicca, and that is a definite mistake. But another error is that for too long “Pagan” has adopted rudiments of political and activist thought. This is another weakness in our definition, because it is not accurate. For example, you will not find under the definition of Christianity the word “United States Republican , anti-gay, pro-life and pro-war persons who believe in the literalism of the Bible.” There are many Christians who are Leftist and Democrat in the United States, and there are many who do not believe in the literalism of the Bible. Yet, they identify as Christian nonetheless even though the fringe fundamentalists may not accept them as such. And that’s the problem we’re facing: the difference between practice and belief. Liberal Christians (sometimes called progressive Christians) self-identify as Christian because they share similar practices with their more hardline right-wing contemporaries: they share inspiration from the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. While the interpretations might differ between the camps, nonetheless they have a unifying principle between them.

I believe there is a commonality that many of us – whether Reconstructionist or Eclectic – can share when we designate ourselves “Pagan.” But it will definitely take ongoing dialogue, intellectual discussion, and agreeing to examine ourselves in order to drop unnecessary divisions that cloud our minds rather than free it (e.g. including veganism, peace activism, Goddess monotheism and politically liberal leanings as automatic synonyms of “Pagan”) . In other words, we have to be willing to leave our individual beliefs behind and look at what our practices bring together, as well as where they come from. There is nothing wrong with trying to reconstruct our past, but there is also nothing wrong with creating new celebrations; indeed, that has always been a part of human expression!

A vast scope of diversity and yet shared unity can be seen similarly in modern Hinduism. Many scholars view the striking similarities between many Pagan ideals, ideologies, practices, and divisions with Hinduism. Indeed, some go so far as to say we share a common spiritual (and perhaps genetic) ancestry as Indo-Europeans. This may be our shared commonality: the revival or reconstruction of the pre-Christian religious practices, mythologies and philosophies of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. As I mentioned before, this was the extension of the Roman Empire, and it was in these areas that Classical Pagan thought, philosophy, magic (k) , customs and beliefs that were essential as the inspiration behind the modern practices of what we call Paganism. It is also where we find the word “Pagan” used so much. Beneath this Pagan umbrella we can include ethnic polytheist Reconstructionists, American and European witches, Druid Revivalists, and American and European peoples who practice continuations of folkloric survivals, customs and traditions rooted in our pre-Christian past.

Pagan is a term to be reclaimed to fit with the times. We also should not discount the anti-authoritarianism of our hippie predecessors. Their activism is what made possible the public emergence of Pagan practices. It sowed seeds that have blossomed in many corners as people revive links that were thought lost. While certainly we are far from ending our dialogue, I am hoping that our shared commonalities as peoples who are building bridges to our nearly lost spiritual inheritance can at least open up more avenues to explore what our future means for all of us.

Eirene kai Hugieia!
(Peace and Health!)
Rev. Luis A. Valadez

Jacob, Drew. (26 May 2011) . “Why I’m Not Pagan.” Rogue Priest: I Believe We Can Meet the Gods. Retrieved from:

Strmiska, Michael (2005) . Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. In Michael F. Strmiska (Ed.) , Modern Paganism In World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives (pp. 4-54) . CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Filotas, Bernadette. (2005) . Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Customs. Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaevel Studies.
Steel, C., Marenbon, J., and Verbeke, W. (Eds.) . (2012) . Paganism in the Middle Ages: Threat and Fascination.Belgium: Leuven University Press.

Godwin, Jocelyn. (2005) . The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance. NY: Red Wheel/Weiser.



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