Be (Neo)Pagan Once Again

Another day, another tempest in our corner of the blogosphere.

Any of you old timers remember the debates in the letters columns of Pagan magazines? One letter would spark a reply in the next issue, and the next. Our best and brightest writers would carefully craft replies and the editors would weigh in as the issues of our emerging community were hashed out. The Legendary Green Egg Forum was arguably more anticipated than the rest of the magazine.

These were rarely monthly, more likely quarterly or eightly (I just made that up) magazines, so a good controversy could go for the better part of a year, or sometimes even more. Now, that timeline has sped up just a bit.

Put up blog post. Tweet that you put up blog post. Followers read post, tweet their reactions. Comments get posted. Reply-to blog posts get posted and tweeted. Comments get posted to those blogs. Facebook updates get commented, and more blogs ping back. And on the end of the First Day, the Internet rests, until the next dawning when Jason over at the Wild Hunt includes it in a link round-up and it starts all over again. By day three-four, everyone is kinda exhausted. If you were away for the weekend, you might never know it happened.

I haven’t been away, but I have had a Legendary Head Cold, the kind that keeps you out of your brain and present in your body as only the constant friction of Kleenex on schnozz skin can do. So although I tweeted some at the beginning of this one, I’ve kept to the sidelines as it grew. Which is good, because it’s let me do some of the crafting that our elders (OK, maybe your elders but mostly my contemporaries) used to do before shooting off letters to GE.

Our topic today is the word Pagan, or, more accurately, the category Pagan. As in, who’s Pagan and who’s not? Drew Jacobs over at Rogue Priest started it up with an explanation of why he is a polytheist but not a pagan, followed by a slew of blogs going pro and con.

Drew’s point, and that of a few others, is that the designation Pagan has been, willy-nilly, co-opted by Wiccan-style practitioners, that presenting ritual or teachings that do not include casting circles or calling quarters is not received well in nominally “Pagan” venues, and that restricting activities (and recruitment) to “Pagan” environments has proven, for them, to be limiting and unproductive.

This is an argument I personally first heard from the Egyptian revivalists, Kemetic Orthodoxy, nearly twenty years ago, and one that those who call themselves Heathen and Asatru have also been expressing for if not that long, nearly that long. Plenty others have spoken to the same frustrations, including those following Hellenic, Caanan, Rom, Celtic Reconstructionist and Druid paths. Heck, the main ritual at the Florida Pagan Gathering I attended earlier this month included a little skit written by the presenting Druid grove where they were embraced despite the fact that their ritual was not going to look like a typical post-Gardnerian Neopagan rite. And at least one influential blogger spoke to the fact that such pre-judgments were as much based in the startling success of Wicca and its clones as to any deliberate plot to crowd other players out of the tent.

In addition, possibly more sad and troubling, was the assertion that the Pagan-named community was just too flaky to associate with.

Neopagan has also been discarded by many of these players. For some, the word is still too linked to “Pagan.” And I’ve heard many folk tell me, including many for whom have the greatest respect, that their is nothing “neo-” about what they are doing.

I doubt if anything I can say here will get any of these people to change their minds. But I think it’s important to state why I will continue to use Pagan, and especially Neopagan.

There have been lots of dictionary definitions tossed around in the debate. It doesn’t feel useful to add to that. But as a rough working definition of the “Pagan,” as it exists in my head and my working vocabulary, I’d probably go with something like thist:

    – not Christian, Jewish, or Islamic;
    – having historical roots in its cultures preceding the arrival of the above- mentioned monothestic religions
    – if not polytheistic, at least henotheistic
    – meets at least two of the three points above

This is not rigid. As I typed, I realized I had to throw in the last point to account for religions like Church of All Worlds, because CAW doesn’t have roots older than Stranger in a Strange Land. And some practitioners of Ifa will tell you they are really monotheistic; all those Orisa are really more like the Catholic saints than they are gods. Oh, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses say it’s all those saints that make Catholics pagans…and my head hurts.

Let me try again.

    – not Christian, Jewish, or Islamic;
    – may have historical roots in its culture preceding the arrival of the above- mentioned monothestic religions
    – appears to be if not polytheistic, at least henotheistic
    – looks like a duck, walks like a duck, sounds like a duck
    – meets at least two of the three points above

(Which reminds me that I have in a crate in my living room an injured duck who was almost pecked to death by a Jersey Giant hen who apparently thought he was looking a little too ducky to be hanging out with the chickens. All barnyard fowl do not flock together, as do not, apparently, Pagans.)

As for Neopagan, I gotta go with my late husband Isaac’s definitions. After all, he was instrumental in popularizing it, so if you are dictionary-definition fixated, here are some definitions by a pioneering neoligist himself:

Pagan, Paganism:
Originally from the Latin “paganus,” meaning “villager,” “country dweller,” or “hick.” The Roman army used it to refer to civilians. Early Roman Christians used “pagan” to refer to everyone who preferred to worship pre-Christian divinities and who were unwilling to enroll in “the Army of the Lord.” Eventually, “pagan” became simply an insult, with the connotation of “a false religion and its followers.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, the word’s primary meanings became a blend of “atheist,” “agnostic,” “hedonist,” “religionless,” etc., (when referring to an educated, white, male, heterosexual, non-Celtic European) and “ignorant savage and/or pervert” (when referring to everyone else on the planet). “Paganism” is now a general term for polytheistic, nature-centered religions, old and new, with “Pagan” used as the adjective as well as the membership term. It should always be capitalized just as other religious noun/adjective combinations are, such as “Buddhist,” “Hindu,” “Christian,” etc.

Paleopaganism or Paleo-Paganism:
A general term for the original polytheistic, nature-centered faiths of tribal Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceania and Australia, when they were (or in some rare cases, still are) practiced as intact belief systems. Of the so-called “Great Religions of the World,” Hinduism (prior to the influx of Islam into India), Taoism and Shinto, for example, fall under this category, though many members of these faiths might be reluctant to use the term. Some Paleopagan belief systems may be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. There are billions of Paleopagans living and worshiping their deities today.

Mesopaganism or Meso-Paganism:
A general term for a variety of movements both organized and nonorganized, started as attempts to recreate, revive or continue what their founders thought were the best aspects of the Paleopagan ways of their ancestors (or predecessors), but which were heavily influenced (accidentally, deliberately and/or involuntarily) by concepts and practices from the monotheistic, dualistic, or nontheistic worldviews of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or early Buddhism. Examples of Mesopagan belief systems would include Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Spiritualism, etc., as well as those forms of Druidism influenced by those movements, the many Afro-Diasporatic faiths (such as Voudoun, Santeria, Candomble, etc.), Sikhism, several sects of Hinduism that have been influenced by Islam and Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, Aleister Crowley’s religion/philosophy of Thelema, Odinism (most Norse Paganism), most “Family Traditions” of Witchcraft (those that aren’t completely fake), and most orthodox (aka “British Traditionalist”) denominations of Wicca. Some Mesopagan belief systems may be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. There are at least a billion Mesopagans living and worshiping their deities today.

Neopaganism or Neo-Paganism:
A general term for a variety of movements both organized and (usually) nonorganized, started since 1960 c.e. or so (though they had literary roots going back to the mid-1800’s), as attempts to recreate, revive or continue what their founders thought were the best aspects of the Paleopagan ways of their ancestors (or predecessors), blended with modern humanistic, pluralist and inclusionary ideals, while consciously striving to eliminate as much as possible of the traditional Western monotheism, dualism, and puritanism. The core Neopagan beliefs include a multiplicity of deities of all genders, a perception of those deities as both immanent and transcendent, a commitment to environmental awareness, and a willingness to perform magical as well as spiritual rituals to help both ourselves and others. Examples of Neopaganism would include the Church of All Worlds, most heterodox Wiccan traditions, Druidism as practiced by Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Henge of Keltria, some Norse Paganism, and some modern forms of Buddhism whose members refer to themselves as “Buddheo-Pagans.” Neopagan belief systems are not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. There are hundreds of thousands of Neopagans living and worshiping their deities today. As “Neo-Paganism,” this term was popularized in the 1960’s and 1970’s by Oberon Zell, a founder of the Church of All Worlds.

These three prefixed terms do not delineate clear-cut categories. Historically, there is often a period, whether of decades or centuries, when Paleopaganism is blending into Mesopaganism, or Mesopaganism into Neopaganism. Furthermore, the founders and members of Mesopagan and Neopagan groups frequently prefer to believe (or at least declare) that they are genuinely Paleopagan in beliefs and practices. This “myth of continuity” is in keeping with the habits of most creators and members of new religions throughout human existence, and should not be taken too seriously.

Now, if you really can’t see yourself in any of those definitions, just don’t go there. I’m not going to worry about it too much. I may, if I hear quacking, call out “duck!” but you don’t need to if you don’t want to.

But somehow I keep being reminded of that poor, bloody-headed duck out in the living room. The chickens and ducks are expert at finding the fine differences between one another, but from the fox’s perspective, they’re all barnyard birds and they’re all lunch. Maybe we ought to give that metaphor some thought.

(If you don’t get the joke in the post title, see this.)

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8 Responses to Be (Neo)Pagan Once Again

  1. Excellent post. I think it is very important to recognize the profundity of your final points: from the outside looking in, people will lump us all together even if we don’t do so ourselves. I know that I can’t tell the difference between an evangelical, pentecostal, or orthodox Christian without a little bit more information about their practices. Similarly, how many out there truly understand the differences between the conservative and reformed Jews? Suni and Shi’ite Muslims? Even within the “big-three” monotheistic faiths, there are internal divisions that are largely invisible to outsiders.

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  3. Phaedra:

    Thank you for this. I’m a youngster, but I embrace the “Neo-” prefix. I believe there are good reasons for reviving this term. For one, it may allow the more general term “Pagan” to become more acceptable to people like Drew Jacobs and other Recons, if Neopagans are distinguished as a subcategory of Pagans.

    The use of the prefix “Neo-“ distinguishes the forms Neopaganism which arose out of the American counterculture in the 1960’s and 70’s both from modern indigenous forms of paganism (which include Hinduism, Voudun, and others) and from modern reconstructions of ancient paganisms (both of which I believe Isaac defined as “Meso-Pagans” — a term which probably will not catch on). Unlike Reconstructionism and indigenous forms of paganism, Neopaganism is inherently and intentionally eclectic. It draws on sources both ancient and modern largely without regard for historical accuracy. It is a modern religion intended to meet modern spiritual needs.

    As David Waldron, in “Sign of the Witch” observes, its focus is not on historical authenticity to an ideal pagan past, but on creating a “Pagan consciousness”, which defines as a belief (1) that divinity is immanent, (2) that divinity manifests itself as masculine and feminine, (3) that we should live in concert with nature and (4) that we should individually and together pursue personal growth and spiritual fulfillment.

    I think it would be a good idea to embrace the term “Neopaganism” to describe what Waldron describes (which includes me) and then Drew and his folks might feel better about coming back under the “Pagan” umbrella.

  4. Pagan Princess suggests a the umbrella term “Pagan” be divided between “Neo-Pagans” (including but not limited to Wiccans) and “Retro-Pagans” (including Polytheists and Recons).

  5. Drew Jacob says:

    Hi Phaedra, I have to corrections for you.

    First, my last name is just “Jacob” with no “s” 🙂

    Second, I absolutely never said “the designation Pagan has been, willy-nilly, co-opted by Wiccan-style practitioners.” That was never my point at all.

    The reason we are not Pagan is because a) our practices are different from any Pagan practices, including Reconstructionist, ADF or other non-Wiccan practices; and b) our members do not (for the most part, with some exceptions) *feel* like part of the Pagan community.

    We’ve chosen to refer to ourselves in a way that is honest and feels true to what we do. It has nothing to do with how Wiccan or un-Wiccan anyone in the Pagan community is.

  6. Drew, my apologies on mangling your name. As someone who is constantly “Bonewitz”-ed, I should be more careful. I’d fire my fact checker, but I need the job.

    Secondly, to, (yeah, I know you meant “two” and not “to;” it’s just too much fun to tease on the typo), I am sorry if I misspoke your position. It had been several days since I read your inital post, so I imagine I was conflating many statements from the many(!) blog posts on the subject. From what I have gleaned of your practices, they seem more than worthy of respect. You still seem a bit ducky to me, but that and four bucks will get me a cup of coffee in Seattle. Y’all keep doin’ whatever makes it work for you!

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