In an episode of Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes once described a particular conundrum as a “three-pipe problem,” and then began his silent consideration of the issue as he lit his first pipe; action resumed when he was completing his third one. The matter at hand is probably a thirty-pipe problem, to say the least, but I’m going to at least give it a go here, pipes or no (as I’m a non-smoker, that would be “no” in my case!).
Over at Patheos.com (and elsewhere), a huge discussion is taking place on the viability of the term “pagan,” and a huge number of people are getting into the conversation both at the Patheos.com Pagan Portal and on their own blogs. It’s a perennial question, and in this instance the whole debate was started off by Drew Jacob, and has been taken up by various others, including (but not limited to) Ruby Sara, Tess Dawson, Sannion, and Cara Schulz, amongst several others, and Star Foster (Patheos.com’s Pagan Portal manager) herself. Jason Pitzl-Waters of The Wild Hunt, and T. Thorn Coyle, have also said they’ll be sounding off on this issue in the near future.
Because “Everyone’s doin’ it,” I guess I’d better do it, too–it’s nowhere near as fun if only three lemmings jump off a cliff together, so let’s make it thirty, at least.
Being that I have some devotional connection, whether currently and actively or at some point in the past, with a number of deities who can be considered word- and language-connected–including but not limited to Hermes, Seshat, Thoth, Hanuman, Saraswati, Ganesh, Brigid, Lug, and Ogma–I am not a person who believes that words are only arbitrary and that labels are meaningless. Words are powerful. People who say “Stick and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” (which is usually what a parent tells a child to say and think once they’ve been subjected to verbal abuse and bullying by other children) have no idea what the actual power of words happens to be. In fact, many people (among them Alan Moore) would probably argue–with words, no less!–that words and language are pretty essential to most forms of magic, and with this I have no fundamental disagreement. So, this is not a minor issue, nor an unimportant one.
But, what is my own choice in terms of the words I use to describe my religious outlook, or the names I identify with myself in terms of my religious affiliations? It depends greatly on who is asking. If possible, I say I’m a member of the Ekklesía Antínoou (which usually doesn’t answer their question at all, and provokes more questions); in more general terms, I say I’m a polytheist, or a member of several revived cultus of the ancient Mediterranean as well as a CR practitioner; but, in some cases, I say “I’m a practicing pagan,” or “I have clergy status in a pagan religion.” Because I tend to read people fairly well, and then choose my words carefully, none of these responses have generally received an immediate and overt negative reaction, and in some cases, they’ve prompted a discussion that has been mutually beneficial.
In terms of the discussion elsewhere on the internet at present, though, it seems that a lot of people are fleeing from the term “pagan” for various reasons. And, I should note here, that I do not generally capitalize the term “pagan” in this blog, as you may have noticed previously; but, I do capitalize it when I write for Patheos.com out of respect for their preferences on the matter–it is their “house style,” as it were. I do not capitalize monotheist, or polytheist, or monist, because those are descriptors, not religions. I don’t think of pagan and paganism as a religion, I think of it as a descriptor, and thus I treat it in a similar manner.
It seems to me that much of the discussion elsewhere on the internet over the validity and appeal, or lack thereof, of the term “pagan” is because far too many people are mistaking it for a religion rather than a descriptor. They then feel left out or marginalized or not accurately described by the term because they have conflated the descriptor with another religion–usually Wicca–and then they observe that Wiccan practices and beliefs do not align with their own, and thus don’t apply to them; or, they observe Wiccans have not represented their beliefs in their rituals and presentations and events, and thus they feel excluded because of that, and also feel that there is no interest in other types of paganism within Wiccan contexts. I don’t mean to downplay the experiences or the feelings of the people who have described their approaches to the term in these sorts of ways; indeed, I think that the generic Wiccan assumptions that portray themselves as “Pagan” need to be seriously questioned, and true inclusiveness needs to start happening on a much larger scale than it has previously. But, likewise, I don’t think that any of us should just “let them have the term” either–we need to do everything we can to prove true the phrase that “Not all pagans are Wiccans” (and perhaps later we can also address the fact that “not all Wiccans are pagans” as well…but that’s a side issue for the moment!).
From a non-religious standpoint, I am a pagan through-and-through. I grew up in a rural, marginal community, and when I first went to college in the suburbs of New York City, I was often put in a position of not only feeling, but being, rather unsophisticated in comparison to my other peers who were from urban environments. “You’ll have to excuse him–he’s rural” was something that was said about me pejoratively on several occasions; some who were a bit more endearing used to call me “hayseed,” which I eventually took up as a badge of honor to show that I wasn’t jaded and was benignly naïve about a number of matters. Had we lived in Roman times, and I was trying to make my way in the Urbs Aeterna, I would have been described as a paganus, and the pejorative or merely descriptive sense of it would have been entirely dependent upon context. Indeed, Antinous’ provincial origins would have earned him the same descriptor in Rome, or Athens, or Alexandria, or any urban environment. There was a festival celebrated by the Romans called the Paganalia, and indeed the Ambarvalia (which will happen soon) is a festival that somewhat presupposes that the urbs Romae is entirely dependent upon the surrounding countryside for its own upkeep and success, which is true, and has been true ever since urban life has been possible from the Neolithic onwards. Those who say that the term paganus was invented by Christians as a pejorative for the polytheistic peoples who hadn’t yet converted simply aren’t very well aware of the realities of this terminology. Even when everyone in Greece, Rome, and ancient Europe was pagan, there were still pagani among them. While I love cities, and I love several cities in particular (e.g. Seattle), my heart and soul is always in the islands and the rural regions in which I grew up, and thus I have a pagan heart and soul through and through, no matter how sophisticated I may appear to be after having had years of education and travel. So, from that viewpoint, I really don’t mind being called a “pagan,” because I am.
From the explicitly religious viewpoint, I also don’t mind it, even if it is being said in a pejorative manner from Christians. As I have said in a few cases on this blog, telling Christians that as a pagan I’m not a worshipper of Satan is me trying to tell them how to do theology, and the simple fact remains that no matter how I explain my devotions to various gods like Antinous and Hermes and so forth to them, their theology still tells them that “all the gods of the gentiles are demons.” I’m happy to explain to them that their “One God” is simply one god called Iao Sabaoth in Greek who is one among a huge number of them, and that their Jesus and their Holy Spirit are two other beings (more along the lines of a hero or demigod and a deified abstraction), and from my theological viewpoint as a polytheist I’m entirely correct in that, whether they accept my viewpoint or not. I’m not defining myself in some way that is negative based on someone else’s viewpoint in this use of “pagan”; the common understanding of what it is to be “pagan” from that viewpoint simply fits what I actually am and what I do, and while they may see it as pejorative because I don’t believe in their Trinity and so forth, that doesn’t have to be the case. While I may not choose this understanding of “pagan” as my primary descriptor, it’s also certainly accurate, therefore.
Several of the people named above have stated that they still want to use “pagan” for solidarity purposes. I think that’s an excellent and a noble and wonderful thing, and I’m entirely in favor of it. But, several of them have also expressed how they have felt defined out of existence, or they feel vastly out-of-place, in gatherings with large numbers of pagans, and they don’t see their own beliefs and practices being done at them. I think the very simple solution to that is instead of waiting to see if something will be offered for them at these gatherings, they should start contributing and making their own offerings themselves. If you build it, they may not come; but at least you’ll have something which actually represents YOU, and no one can accuse you of not doing your part to offer what you have and who you are to the wider community so they can have an opportunity to educate themselves. (It’s harder to claim ignorance when there are resources that can be easily accessed!) Ever since the first PantheaCon that I attended in 2007, we have been putting on Antinous-related events, including 101-style informational workshops/lectures that give an overview of the history of the ancient cultus and some of the sources involved with an introduction to what it is we do with all of that, as well as rituals of various sorts. In these, we never present ourselves in a manner that suggests “Here’s how we depart from Wicca” or “You may not be used to thinking in this way, but…”; instead, we simply try to present things in as simple and forthright a manner as possible, and people can draw their own conclusions. I’m certain that no one in the ancient cultus of Antinous–at Lanuvium, in Antinoöpolis, or even at Hadrian’s Villa in Tibur itself–used to invoke the Obelisk of Antinous in the manner that we do in rituals these days in the Ekklesía Antínoou, and yet it has proven to be an effective and useful thing for us to do. No one has come up to us afterwards, however, and said “You’re not casting circles right!” No one has ever come up and critiqued us for not doing something in a manner consonant with generalized Wicca…and rightly so, because we’re not claiming to do Wicca! So, I don’t think there’s any problem with simply doing whatever it is one does best, and calling it whatever one would wish to call it, and then hoping that others might come along and get something out of it. They may not come along, and those who do may not get something out of it; but, you can’t know that until something is at least offered.
When I go to PantheaCon, though, I don’t expect to find my own viewpoints or the theologies and practices of the Ekklesía Antínoou to be reflected in the various sessions or rituals that I attend that aren’t Ekklesía Antínoou-specific, just because I happen to be attending them and the presenters should somehow, with their enhanced psychic abilities, automatically cater to me and my own needs. (If they claim some sort of universalism and some ability to actually read my mind, but then don’t respond in such a manner appropriate to my own wishes, then there is cause for criticism; but, that doesn’t happen that often!) When I go to sessions that are put on by Wiccans and more general types of pagans, I expect for there to be a lot there that won’t particularly interest me or jive with my own thoughts and practices, or their cosmologies and theologies will not appeal to me very much; but I can usually separate that out, and distinguish those non-appealing elements, from other information and techniques that they’re imparting that may end up being useful for me to use. When I go to rituals that are not Ekklesía Antínoou-specific, I expect that there will be parts of the ritual that do nothing for me, and that I may even object to strongly; but, I attend them with the ethics of good hospitality in mind, and go expecting to be a good and respectful guest, and I can opt out of certain matters if they do not appeal to me, or simply not participate as actively as I could if I do not feel that doing so would be useful or enjoyable. With those things in mind, I’ve found that I do tend to get a lot out of what I do attend at PantheaCon. I’ve been to several sessions in which I have no interest in the Wiccan frameworks involved, but the rituals have been enjoyable to be present for, or they’ve been done in a way that is undeniably effective and even transformative, and I can appreciate that. Likewise, when other types of pagans have attended Ekklesía Antínoou rituals, they have often found the general format and some of the ideas unfamiliar, but there has often been something in the proceedings that has proven to be interesting, or powerful, or at very least fun, in what has occurred. And, that’s all that we can expect. When given a chance to contribute to the planning or running of something that is meant to be larger and more inclusive of various types of paganism, I’d be more than willing to participate; that hasn’t happened much yet, but I expect that it eventually will as the Ekklesía Antínoou gets more well known and our activities become more recognized (and perhaps even in-demand!) as time goes on.
Something which Drew brought up in all of this is that once his group dropped the term “pagan,” they in fact grew a great deal more, and it was to their benefit to have done so. Well, good for them! As far as the Ekklesía Antínoou is concerned, we are a niche within a niche within a niche, in terms of being queer-based reconstructionist polytheists with very particular primary dedications. We will never appeal to a huge population of people, but we may end up appealing to a small group with a wide variety of people in it (and we already have succeeded in that!). By not having “pagan” as one of the identifiers in our group’s definition (“queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and related divine figures”), we have been able to attract people who are very particularly looking for something queer in nature, but also something polytheistic, or syncretistic, or reconstructionist, or that is dedicated to Antinous–and more often the last of these than any of the others. By going to pagan gatherings, however, and having contact with various pagan groups and resources, we also end up attracting people who are interested in one or more of those things as well. Many Afro-Diasporic religions don’t identify as “pagan,” and in fact may resent it a great deal if that label is applied to them; and yet, they are often present in significant numbers at pagan events of various sorts, and long may it be so–not only because there are real sympathies between their beliefs and practices and those of pagans of all stripes, but also because many people from within various pagan practices end up finding the Afro-Diasporic religions greatly appealing and useful to them in any number of ways, and they are most happily accepted into and included among those religions (as long as they follow the rules, of course–and who would expect anything otherwise?). So, it’s a useful thing to present ourselves as accurately as possible as ourselves in a primary fashion, but it’s also useful to have the connections to other groups and activities, as these have always enhanced our work, and (I would argue) also enhanced the activities and resources involved through our participation in them.
I’ve written at various points in the past about the need for both interfaith and intrafaith interactions within modern paganism–there is often too much of the former (though there could be more) and not enough of the latter. I’ve even been downplayed or ignored when I’ve suggested to some major pagan interfaith activists that there needs to be more intrafaith activities, as if there has been the assumption that the diversity present isn’t really anything significant, or that they can afford to ignore our smaller groups for the moment. And, of course, the solution to such a situation is not to say “Well, it’s no use interacting with pagans any longer,” but instead to continue doing what we’ve been doing in terms of things like the Communalia ritual. Rather than waiting for permission to engage in intrafaith activities on the occasions and terms set by the “pagan majority” (who have tended to be Wiccan-based), we can and have built the opportunities for these types of interaction ourselves, on our own terms, and have had excellent results with them thus far–and so can anyone else and any other group that is out there. Just because some of these people and groups have afforded to ignore us up to this point doesn’t mean we’ll go away; and if they never show any interest in us or regard for our actions or our existences, all the sadder for them. We do not need to present the united front of paganism that they would advocate silently, as some of them would wish; we can be united in purpose without being united in every possible manner. If the paganism that many of these people have preached about is truly inclusive and pluralistic, then it is our duty to add our distinctiveness into the mix–and not in a manner that ends up with us being assimilated into a Borg-like collective, but instead as what would amount to the United States of Paganism. We in the Ekklesía Antínoou may only end up being the Rhode Island of those United States of Paganism (if that!) in comparison to the Wiccan’s Texas or California, and yet I think it would be a very useful thing to do all the same. If “pagan” itself is used as an inter/intrafaith descriptor, I think it’s much more accurate than using it as being particularly identified with one set of concepts or beliefs or practices or cosmologies within a broad paradigm of religions that are experiential and practical in their basis, and that tend to be polytheistic or animistic to some extent or another.
In these manners, we also have a great deal in common with many forms of Hinduism, and also with religions like Shinto, but we’re also most certainly distinct from both of those (and many others), and thus the “pagan” descriptor can be usefully employed to indicate such. But, I don’t think the term should be used in so broad a way as to include those other religions amongst ourselves without their permission–they’re perfectly all right and have functioned for a very long time without the descriptor “pagan” being added to them, and they should continue to be allowed to do so, while at the same time many of us who are pagan can continue building alliances and having shared practices and events with those religions (and others) as we are able to and are interested in doing so.
Really, what I’m seeing in terms of the general difficulties that are being discussed in relation to the term “pagan” at this point is not anything that is a problem with the term itself, or even necessarily anyone’s varied possible uses of it, but instead with an over-reification and essentialization of what the term means and who it includes or excludes. Oftentimes, the people who feel excluded are accepting definitions of it that would exclude them, or aren’t willing to entertain definitions of it that would include them. I am against this type of over-reification and essentialism in a variety of areas, including in the area of queerness (both in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity), and what it means to be a “gay man” or what it means to be “male” being defined in ways that end up excluding a lot of people, for example. The same thing seems to be happening with the term “reconstructionism,” which is not a religion, it’s a methodology–and, unfortunately, far too many people forget that. (This is why I say I’m a practitioner of CR, and not just “I’m a CR.”) When these general descriptors are used in a manner that can allow for a great deal of diversity, that’s a great thing; however, what must accompany such usages is further and more accurate descriptions, and that’s where particular descriptions of one’s group or tradition can be very useful when employed alongside the more general descriptors.
While I know that many people hate or resent these types of analogies, I’m going to use one anyway just to illustrate the point here. How many people do you know who describe themselves just as “Christians”? I’m betting that most who do, even under further investigation, are part of what is often known as “non-denominational Christianity,” which tends to be very fundamentalist and evangelical in its viewpoint; it also tends to see Catholicism and many of the other major denominations of Christianity as “not real Christians” or not in any way valid. People who are Catholic, or Lutheran, or Methodist, will define themselves as Christians, but with those further group descriptors in mind quite readily, if not in primary position; and some of them will not even use the term “Christian” because they will assume their hearers understand that Catholicism is a form of Christianity, as is Lutheranism or Methodism, etc., and they will often view those types of (so-called) Christians who don’t think that Catholicism is Christianity as severely misinformed, if not outright ignorant.
Now, substitute the term “pagan” for “Christian” here, and let’s assume “non-denominational” refers to genero-Wiccans (though often not actual lineaged Wiccans) who are often not part of covens or who have not been initiated, and then for “Catholic” and so forth we understand “Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Asatru, Hellenic, Kemetic, Druid” (and even “Ekklesía Antínoou”!), and you’ll see what sort of difficulty we have at present. I seriously don’t think too many Catholics would be willing to just let the non-denominational people have the term “Christian”; likewise, I see no reason why those of us who aren’t genero-Wiccans should let them have the term “pagan,” particularly since they have never owned it, nor been the ones to solely define it, nor does it have to be that way in the future.
So, there’s my feelings on the matter, for good or for ill. I’m a member of the Ekklesía Antínoou; I’m a member of Neos Alexandria; I’m a practitioner of Gentlidecht and filidecht within a Celtic Reconstructionist paradigm; I’m a polytheist and a syncretist; and, yes, I’m also a pagan.