Monday, 22 October 2012

Accepting Paganism

"A Priestess of Apollo" by Alma-Tadema (1888)
pagan (say 'payguhn)
 noun 1. a follower of an ancient polytheistic or pantheistic religion or set of beliefs.
 2. a. one of a people or community professing some other than the Christian religion (applied to the ancient Romans, Greeks, etc., and sometimes the Jewish people).
b.  (derogatory) someone who is not an adherent of one of the world's major religions.
 3. an irreligious or heathenish person.
 4. a person who follows a contemporary set of beliefs modelled on the ancient pagan religions.
–adjective 5. relating to the worship or worshippers of any religion which is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim.
 6. of, relating to, or characteristic of pagans.
 7. heathen; irreligious. [Middle English, from Late Latin pāgānus pagan, from Latin pāgānus villager, peasant, civilian; used to refer to noncombatants by the Roman military, and later by Christians to refer to those not enlisted in the Church military] 
–paganish, adjective [Macquarie Dictionary]
Within some polytheistic communities there are individuals who lament the term “Pagan” being applied to them. One concern is that it is suggested that the term “Pagan” has become more or less synonymous with “Wiccan” and as they do not identify with this belief system they prefer the less loaded and more accurate term “polytheist”. Regardless, I continue to identify with the term “Pagan”, while also acknowledging that “polytheistic” may be an alternate, and in some instances more accurate, descriptor. This is because “Paganism” is a catchall term and I like the fact that it suggests diversity of belief. This is generally how polytheism/Paganism operated in the ancient world too. 

Another charge against the term “Pagan” is that the word was coined, more or less, by Christians, perhaps as an insult, and that it is therefore better to avoid it as a descriptor (initially it appears to have referred to "country bumpkins", mostly from the western part of the Roman empire, who were loyal to the old ways). I think, however, that the reality is that the vast majority of people who identify as Pagans are in fact descended from Christians (or Muslims). We do not generally refer to those adhering to Hinduism as Pagans (I have tried to do this and was accused, by a Indian woman, of racism). I have never met a Chinese polytheist who self identified as a Pagan but I have come across many polytheistic Chinese who adhere, to varying degrees, to Taoism mixed with Buddhism (which some call Chinese folk religion). Likewise I have never met a Japanese Pagan but have known plenty of Japanese who respect their polytheistic, indigenous religion (Shintoism blended with Buddhism). Regardless of the insulting and belittling way the term “Pagan” has been used in the past, in the 21st century “Pagan” usually suggests a polytheistic belief system cultivated by people in a post-Christian world and, relatedly, tends to suggest a revival of pre-Christian spirituality. Thus it is a post- and pre-Christian (or post- and pre-Abrahamic thing in the case of pre/post-Islamic polytheism), so it is not really surprising that a term coined by Christians comes to be used to describe post-Abrahamic spirituality (cultivating pre-Abrahamic spirituality).

The upshot of all of this is that I am happy to identify as Pagan but I acknowledge that the term means different things to different people. It is an ambiguous term insofar as some associate it with the pentagram and Wicca, though many Pagans (myself included) have no interest in witchcraft and do not relate to the worthy pentagram – but as the term "Pagan" was originally associated with the old Gods, so it generally is today. While it is annoying that Christianity helps define what Paganism is, I think, given the widespread practice and historical pervasiveness of Abrahamic religions, it is inevitable … and I’m not sure that it is such a bad thing, given the wide disparity of beliefs which fall under the Pagan umbrella, and the knowledge that there are literally billions of followers of the Abrahamic religions worldwide, perhaps there is safety in numbers.

Postscript (Sept 2014): for an articulate blogpost on the same topic see What I mean when I say 'Pagan' by Dini Pantheacraft, in which she writes:
"when I talk about 'Pagan', I mean the native indigenous cultural-religious traditions prior to the rise of the Abrahamic religions … Neo-Paganism then is the restoration and revival of the Pagan traditions. And to answer the follow-up question I can just imagine i.e. why using the derogative term 'pagan' when indigenous people didn't call themselves that? Well, Germanic people didn't call themselves Germanic, Hindus didn't – and many still don't – call themselves Hindus … see what I mean? And yet, with the rise of the "Christliche Sitte" (the Christian way), Germanic and Norse Pagans started to call their way the "Heidnische Sitte" (the Heathen way), so I find it perfectly acceptable to refer to myself as Heathen and to my way as Heathenry – even though in the English speaking Christian world Heathen came to be even more of an intended insult than Pagan. (Note: In the German language there are no two names, respectively there's no term for pagan – anything not Christian was simply called 'heidnisch' – heathen.) … So no, I won't give up the label Pagan … Paganism – then and now – [just as "Hinduism"] is not one monolithic religious tradition with a set of rules and headed by an organised leadership".

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook

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