What is “Paganism”?


ancient-greek-gods“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” 

-Aristotle

Recently I’ve had the thought cross my mind as to how to define particular spiritual paths or more precisely, my own. It was spurred by reading an article on the Patheos site that talked about whether Pagans were actually worshiping anything in their practice or whether the concept of being Pagan isn’t really just a watering down of different beliefs to make them ‘soft’ for the mainstream. I was really undecided about how I personally feel about the topics raised. I mean, I agree and disagree with different points that are brought up and one of the things that came to my mind after reading the article was a particular part of the novel American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which if you haven’t read, you really should.

The story really seems to fit what is being talked about here, but this particular bit really struck me. So I’m going to share it here on the recommendation that you read the book because it is amazing.

Three characters are in the scene, Wednesday (who is actually the god Odin), Easter (who is actually the goddess Eostre) and Shadow, who is the protagonist. They walked into a coffee shop after Wednesday asked Easter to join with him in his quest to gather the gods who have been forgotten and are losing themselves and their power in this modern world of ours. Easter argues that she has no reason to concern herself with such things, because things are just “fine” for her. Wednesday asks the waitress for her input and some revealing dialog follows:

Easter put her slim hand on the back of Wednesday’s square gray hand. “I’m telling you,” she said, “I’m doing fine. On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name. More and more of them every year. In my name, old wolf.”

“And you wax fat and affluent on their worship and their love?” he said, dryly.

“Don’t be an asshole.” Suddenly she sounded very tired. She sipped her mochaccino.

“Serious question, m’dear. Certainly I would agree that millions upon millions of them give each other tokens in your name, and that they still practice all the rites of your festival, even down to hunting for hidden eggs. But how many of them know who you are? Eh? Excuse me, miss?” This said to their waitress.

She said, “You need another espresso?”

“No, my dear. I was just wondering if you could solve a little argument we were having over here. My friend and I were disagreeing over what the word ‘Easter’ means. Would you happen to know?”

The girl stared at him as if green toads had begun to push their way between his lips. Then she said, “I don’t know about any of that Christian stuff. I’m a pagan.”

The woman behind the counter said, “I think it’s like Latin or something for ‘Christ has risen,’ maybe.”

“Really?” said Wednesday.

“Yeah, sure,” said the woman. “Easter. Just like the sun rises in the east, you know.”

“The risen son. Of course — a most logical supposition.”

The woman smiled and returned to her coffee grinder. Wednesday looked up at their waitress.” I think I shall have another espresso, if you do not mind. And tell me, as a pagan, who do you worship?”

“Worship?”

“That’s right. I imagine you must have a pretty wide-open field. So to whom do you set up your household altar? To whom do you bow down? To whom do you pray at dawn and at dusk?”

Her lips described several shapes without saying anything before she said, “The female principle. It’s an empowerment thing. You know?”

“Indeed. And this female principle of yours. Does she have a name?”

“She’s the goddess within us all,” said the girl with the eyebrow ring, color rising to her cheek.” She doesn’t need a name.”

“Ah,” said Wednesday, with a wide monkey grin, “so do you have mighty bacchanals in her honor? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon while scarlet candles burn in silver candleholders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstatically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?”

“You’re making fun of me,” she said. “We don’t do any of that stuff you were saying.” She took a deep breath. Shadow suspected she was counting to ten. “Any more coffees here? Another mochaccino for you, ma’am?” Her smile was a lot like the one she had greeted them with when they had entered.

They shook their heads, and the waitress turned to greet another customer.

“There,” said Wednesday, “is one who ‘does not have the faith and will not have the fun,’ Chesterton. Pagan indeed. So. Shall we go out onto the street, Easter my dear, and repeat the exercise? Find out how many passersby know that their Easter festival takes its name from Eostre of the Dawn? Let’s see– I have it. We shall ask a hundred people. For every one that knows the truth, you may cut off one of my fingers, and when I run out of them, toes; for every twenty who don’t know, you spend a night making love to me. And the odds are certainly in your favor here–this is San Francisco, after all. There are heathens and pagans and Wiccans aplenty on these precipitous streets.”

It goes on, and of course, the banter continues to make points that are actually relevant when considering what it means to define oneself as Pagan.

So the point that really strikes me is what does it mean to use the word ‘Pagan’ to define a system of belief or a religion if it doesn’t actually mean the same thing to everyone who uses it? In general, Pagan is understood to mean something having to do with the Earth in terms of modern usage. People who align their spiritual or religious practices to thinking of the Earth as a sentient, divine being of whom we are children. But people also define themselves as Pagan to mean they practice a reconstruction or even a recreation of one of the ancient pre-Christian religions of the world. Or, they take on more of a meaning like the coffee shop waitress and think of it in terms of a nameless divine force within herself that leads to empowerment, but only in principle.

The word itself comes from Latin: Paganus/Pagani and meant ‘from the country’ similar to our terms ‘hillbilly’ or ‘hick’. When Christianity began to rise in power and popularity, it was first done in the cities. Those who clung to their rustic, folksy practices lived in the ‘boonies’ and were called Pagani for it. It wasn’t a term a Pagan used to describe themselves, necessarily. I mean, in many ways it could be considered rude. It just meant they weren’t Urbanum/Urbani or ‘from the city’, much like we use the word urbane now to denote someone of sophistication and class. The practices of the Pagani were things like farming, herbalism, folk magic, talking to spirits, and worshiping the old gods. So in that way, modern folk are seeking to reclaim those acts and using the word Pagan to describe such.

The issue is that we don’t really live in that world any longer and our sensibilities reflect that. So, like many things do, the definition takes on different meanings and that’s where the trouble and confusion come in. Are you a Pagan if you live in the city? By the clearest definition of the word, no. You are Urban. Are you a Pagan if you don’t do what Wednesday asked and set up altars and worship the gods? Are you Pagan if you practice more along the lines of the waitress and see Divinity as some nameless force within yourself that might be divine if you want it to be? Should the waitress call herself something else? Should we?

For myself personally, I use the word Pagan to help describe my beliefs but I don’t know if I would go so far as to claim it as a definition for them. When offering an explanation to someone who asks if I’m a Pagan/Witch/Wiccan my first response to that is:

“What does that word mean to you?”

I’ve learned that by asking them to define what they take the word to mean greatly improves the chance for me to not only clearly explain myself but to offer general knowledge and correct a lot of misinformation.

If someone says they think Pagan means ___, I can then say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘partly’ or ‘I don’t use the word in that way. For me, it’s more like __’. Which would alleviate a lot of the issue talked about in the Patheos article. I have altars. I worship gods and goddesses, as well as connect with the divine within myself. I do a lot and sometimes it seems weird that I can syncretize so many different systems together in a way that makes sense to me. I think because of that, I really gel with what Aristotle said. I define my path as Pan-panen-poly-heno-katheno-moni-duo-monolatri-theistic Witchcraft.

Sometimes Pagan fits as well.

Depending on how you define it.

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2 thoughts on “What is “Paganism”?

    1. Thanks Owyl,

      That is definitely a true statement and one of the big reasons I enjoy blogging and reading blogs and websites. Thank you for applying it to mine. This was inspired by having read another article, which got me thinking, which made me want to write, and so the sharing and expressing of thoughts goes on.

      Like

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