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Sunday, December 19, 2010

re: "13 Things I LOVE About Pagans!"

This post is in response to Star Foster's post "13 Things I LOVE About Pagans!" at Pantheon, the Pagan Blog at Patheos.

The post was a fun romp, but I admit to heartily disagreeing with the inferences made in her #2 favorite thing. She says:

"We have a long and illustrious history. The Great Pyramid, the Parthenon, Stonehenge, Teotihuacan and many other wonders were built by Pagans. Philosophy, astronomy, chemistry and mathematics all have Pagan foundations. Story goes, even NASA rockets have been shaped by Pagan culture!"

There is so much going on in that small paragraph that I have trouble with. Teotihuacan and Aztec religion, for instance, have virtually nothing to do with our community. In all the history of the modern pagan movement, indigenous traditions from this hemisphere have had an extremely low impact on who we are today. Our traditions were imported from Europe in the middle of the last century. Insinuating that these native traditions are a part of our history is extremely misleading.

I believe that the confusion and disconnection is in the usage of the word "pagan" in her context above. To say that all of those different historical cultures were "pagan" is, at best, a misnomer. At worst it is a rude and inconsiderate response to the self-identity of religions worldwide, past and present.

"Pagan" is a term originally coined by Christians, historically referring to rural Europeans but eventually being used to mean any non-Christian religious tradition. The history of the word is vitally important, hailing from the period when Christianity began to grow in Europe. At the time its Latin derivative was almost synonymous with "hick" or "hillbilly", indicating that the person being called pagan was from a rural area, and generally unlearned or unsophisticated. Keep in mind that Christianity was growing mainly in the cities, and so those outside of the cities were quite likely still practicing their indigenous traditions.

We as a Neopagan community have accepted the pagan label, but it's important to remember that this label is Christian-given. As a community that has embraced the word and made it our own identity, we need to recognize that both in ancient history and in modern times the term has not been accepted by most other non-Christian traditions. Scholars today are moving towards a pagan definition that does not automatically equate it with any and all polytheisms worldwide, and modern pagans should be encouraging this change.

We self identify as Pagan, and I encourage it. I can promise you, though, that Hinduism doesn't. Nor do Shinto, Voudou, or Native American traditions. Nor did, as far as history tells, the Egyptians, Aztecs, or even the Romans accept the word Pagan as their own label. Self-identification should be something that our community is supporting, not negating.

In short I can't consider "The Great Pyramid, the Parthenon, Stonehenge, Teotihuacan and many other wonders" to be a part of a single community's history. The history of Neopaganism as it is practiced in the West is distinctly European in origin, influenced of course by ceremonial magical practice which was in turn interpreted from sources such as Jewish Kabbalah and Ancient Egyptian religion.

We need to be mindful of the history of our own name, and be careful in recklessly applying that name to others who may not care for it. It is very true that we have a long and illustrious history, but it is not the same history as that of Egypt or Mexico. They intersect, perhaps, but they are not the same. There are many different polytheisms, and it is irresponsible to call them all pagan.

Always, please remember: Polytheistic ≠ Pagan.



  1. True, but not true. First of all, "pagan" was originally coined by Romans, not Christians, to refer to those people who lived in rural areas, as you describe. Christians, when they overtook the Roman Empire, adopted the term to refer to everyone who wasn't of their faith.

    It's true that we should respect the ability of others to self-identify as they wish, but what exactly does "pagan" mean, then, besides non-Christian? The only definition that it has is that which we give it and simply being not Christian is not much of a definition. Many of us have taken it to mean those who follow the cycles of the Earth and of nature, and are animistic and polytheistic to varying degrees. In this sense, then, Pagan reflects the very real kinship that we bear in spirit and methodology to those polytheistic traditions past and present. Not everyone will recogonize that kinship, but you can't please everyone.

    The best option that I've seen came from the Parlament of World Religions from last year, when someone suggested that we adopt the term to mean those who practice indigenous European religions which, if the line wasn't broken, we would.

    We come across the same problem in the gay community when we try to try to project the terms "gay" and "queer" onto those in other cultures in the past and present. Oh, the fun of identity politics!

  2. Paganism, both modern and ancient, is indigenous culture. I see no disrespect in embracing the indigenous cultures of the world as my cousins.

  3. @ Jay: Thanks for your clarification! My fault there.

    It's true that there isn't a completely agreed upon, final definition of Pagan. That doesn't mean to me, however, that we should roll over and accept "non-Christian" as the standard definition. I'm familiar with Andras's arguments from the Parliament, and I agree with them. The word Pagan has distinctly European ties that I think should be encouraged. When trying to show the similarities between worldwide traditions, words that you used above such as "polytheistic" or "animistic" should serve just fine. In my opinion =D

    @ Star: Paganism is certainly an indigenous tradition, I agree. I disagree that all indigenous traditions are Pagan, however. I agree with your sentiment completely, but I think that our community needs to take a leadership role in clarifying the language used to describe religions, and replacing the ever-ambiguous “pagan” in broad contexts with properly objective language is an important step to take.