Saturday, May 8, 2010

What is a Pagan?

A hot button of contention within the Pagan (or Neo-Pagan) Community is...just what the hell are we?  The world has labels.  We all love labels.  We know what Christians are, Muslims, Jews, Communists, Liberals, Republicans, Democrats, African-Americans, etc.  The lists go on and on (Carl Linnaeus would be proud).  Still, our Community is difficult to define, if only because none of us agree on just what the hell each of us is!

For example, according to those of the Abrahamic Faith (Christians, Jews and Muslims along with any close cousins of theirs), a pagan is someone who is not like them.  Therefore, that leaves a pretty wide umbrella.  Personally, I think Buddhists and Shintoists would vehemently disagree on being labeled such a negative connotation as "pagan."  It makes them sound so inferior as compared to the major Western religions.  So, perhaps a bit of "what saith the almight Webster" is in toll order here.

Pagan - (Lat. paganus, country-dweller). Pagan properly means "belonging to a village." The Christian Church fixed itself first in cities, the centres of intelligence. Long after it had been established in towns, idolatrous practices continued to be observed in rural districts and villages, so pagan and villager came to mean the same thing.

So the city folk came up with their terms for the rustic folks in the Latin vernacular of the time and called these backwards people, "pagans."  In other words, "hicks."  Country folk, farmers and those whose lives were simpler.  While Christianity spread in the Cities during the first 500 years following the debated borth of Christ, the country-dwellers retained their pre-Christian past and continued honoring the gods of field and forest. 

However, the country-folk have always been looked down on.  Hesiod in his "Theogony," a Greek prose dating from as early as the 8th century BCE wrote:

"So said the [Muses] of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last. To wit my theme is not of oak and stone." (Theogony, translated by H.G. Evelyn-White, 1914). 
According to his own Theogony Hesiod was a shephard and the Muses appeared to him.  Ah, Hesiod.  You were so bored that the Muses inspired you with a virtual Cosmology of the world.  Sounds a bit like King David to me.  Shepherd it me or have you noticed a self-esteem issue with shephard boys?  Hesiod, King David, the Boy who cried Wolf...I digress...

Back to Pagans.  The term "pagan" has such an anti-Abrahamic, negative connotation that ethnologists now use terms like "shamanic," "polytheistic," "animistic" or "pantheistic."  For Westerners researching their pre-Christian European past, Pagan has become something of a proud word.  We have taken this word and literally are using it to push forward a movement that refuses to be defined within any parameters.  And this is the way we like it.

You see, unlike Christians, Muslims and Jews who continue infighting over who is "orthodox" and who isn't, we don't give two sheisters.  We have a very much "live and let live" policy.  Some Pagans are monotheistic, others are polytheistic (believe in the existence of many gods and spirits), approach religion from a Jungian archetypal POV, an Divinity-is-transcendentalist POV, or are even atheist or agnostic.  We cannot even define our own Traditions (subsects of Paganism that emphasize a particular Path: Wicca, Druid, Asatru, Eclectic, Strix, Strega, Folk Magick, etc.).  A joke in the Pagan Community goes something like, "Ask 3 Pagans the same question and you'll get 3 different answers."

That's not to say we haven't tried.  And ooh boy has that caused some arguments let me tell you!  Isaac Bonewits, when he was Arch-Druid of ADF (a North American Druid organization) has been accused of using his organization to proliferate a "Pagan Catholic Church."  Wicans were accused of attempting to define Pagans (all those Pagans outside of Wicca) as "congregation."  Perhaps the most famous fiasco was the much-failed 1974 Council of American Witches that Carl Weschke (of Llewellyn Publications) tried putting together in an attempt to define just what Wicca/Paganism was.  The "Council" later disbanded a year later due to infighting and political disagreement.  His publication company has made famous through a couple of authors the "13 Principles of Wicca" which, erroneously, do not at all define Wica.  Instead it defines what Carl defines as Wica. 

Rather than a religion to be defined, my approach has been to look at Paganism as a philosophy that has to be explored.  I suppose the most unifying factor for Pagans, no matter what we follow, is the feeling of kinship with the earth at some level.  How radical or soft that eco-spiritualism goes is up for each individual to decide for themselves. Some, like Starhawk, are avid political green warriors.  Others are just happy to recycle.  Some grow their own gardens.  Others walk more in Nature. At the risk of attempting to fail at a definition, I would like to find out how this might work.  Because maybe, just maybe, if we define ourselves as Pagan (an ecological philosophy), then that philosophy has more freedom to be defined.  Philosophy means "Lover of Wisdom."  Witchcraft, another positive connotation within Paganism, means "Craft of the Wise."  So perhaps there may be a relative kinship after all?

My definition:

Paganism - A Naturalist philosophy advocating ecological awareness.

Naturalism advocates an approach of questioning the basis of what knowledge is and how that knowledge can be addressed to morals, ethics, beliefs and justifications.  As a philosophy we are always questioning what we have learned and what we know.  We have mystics and scientists within the Pagan Community that attempt to answer some of our most fundamental questions from both side of the spectrum.  However, all in all, Nature is our blueprint, our guide and our "Bible."  Nature in some form and fashion is the yardstick that we measure ourselves by...individually and communally.  Nature is pure Truth.  You cannot decry Hurricanes, Drought, Monsoons, the seasonal cycles, local ecology, etc.  We as humans have a very real impact on our society, and it is time Pagans stop infighting and begin to rise up to speak out against the materialist governments and imperialist religions that want to annhilate us into Armeggedon.

Our earth is precious.  It is our spaceship and the only one we have that we currently know of.  Even if we discovered another one, we won't have the technology to bon voyage and escape the responsibility we have to this planet for another few thousand years.  Our philosophy of ecological awareness advocates a stance of personal responsibility to ourselves and the planet we live on.  This is our planet, our land and our home.  We are not trying to escape it for some better Enlightenment of Nothingness.  We are not trying to destroy it because a desert god a few thousand years ago is upset that he lost a paradise to his creations and now wants the rest of the world to feel his pain.  No, we are trying to save it! We need to save it!  We need to wake-up and begin paying attention to what is happening around us and become involved in the political process.  As philosophers, don't wait for CNN, FOX or MSNBC to deliver the news to you.  Search it out.  Read all you can.  Debate with others.  Fight for what is right.  And then maybe, just maybe, we will have found ourselves at last understanding something: we are a Family. 

Let's be Pagans.

1 comment:

  1. Merry meet,

    Oracle you have delivered a fine article, and I believe I am not being presumptuous when I say what a genius way to present Pagans. Truly, a philosophy is very freeing and allows me to stand united with others in a way I didn't think possible.

    Thank you for your thoughts, courage and resilience.

    Blessed be,
    Ellen ~(@