Pagan Identity, Pagan Peace
Discovering Pagan Identity
The question of Pagan identity is one that comes up over and over again.
We find our way to Paganism, or the Goddess Movement, or any of the Wiccan
traditions, and at first we take what we're told at face value. Ours is
the Old Religion, the pre-Christian religion of Europe. At some point,
however, we take a second or third look at the myths and histories we
claim as ours. We discover that Wicca is not the revelation of an ancient
system of belief and practice handed down intact over centuries, but rather
a 20th-century creation with roots in various folk religions, indigenous
cultures and practices, and sophisticated systems of esoteric belief and
ceremonial magic. As we study, it becomes clear that there was, indeed,
no single religious system for all pre-Christian Europe. The differences
between Roman religion and Celtic religion, for example, are striking.
In fact, the Romans and Celts were enemies.
Most of us would say that Paganism as we know it includes various spiritual
practices and belief systems. We name as Pagan the religions of ancient
Egypt and classical antiquity (especially Greek mythology and Roman religion),
the practices and cosmologies of indigenous people past and present, and
our own contemporary reconstructions of these (sometimes called Neopaganism).
I like Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick's assessment of Paganism as "Nature-mysticism"
and their claim that it refers to:
Nature-venerating indigenous spiritual traditions generally,
and in particular to that of Europe, which has been specifically reaffirmed
by its contemporary adherents under that name. Pagan religions, in this
sense, have the following characteristics in common:
- They are polytheistic, recognising a plurality of divine beings,
which may or may not be avatars or other aspects of an underlying
- They view Nature as a theophany, a manifestation of divinity, not
as a 'fallen' creation of the latter.
- They recognize the female divine principle, called the Goddess (with
a capital 'G', to distinguish her from the many particular goddesses),
as well as, or instead of, the male divine principle, the God.
In this sense, all native animistic religions worldwide are Pagan,
fulfilling all three characteristics."
This differs substantially from the clearly outdated definitions that
greet most of us when we turn to the dictionary: Pagan any
religious faith outside Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (According to
this view, if Yahweh/Jehovah/Allah isn't your god, you're Pagan.)
Looking to the academy, we find that we've been left out completely.
We don't belong in any of the three major religious families studied in
Comparative Religions programs: the Abrahamic family (Judaism, Christianity,
Islam); the Dharmic family (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism);
or the Taoic family (Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and others).
Even among the academics who do study and write about Paganism we find
great tension about what is legitimate Paganism and which are the legitimate
Pagan voices. Their work is inevitably biased by the conservative environment
in which they work. They're constrained to rely on scientifically rigorous
research, institutionally-condoned methodologies, and the peer-review
system with its own biases and blind spots. We non-academics can and do
feel free to make connections based on insight and intuition.
Some of us think that Pagan is a good way to capture a fourth religious
family. There is no consensus, however, about (religious) family ties
among indigenous people (Native American and otherwise), shamans, witches,
pantheists, and neopagans. Quite the contrary. Hinduism, though pantheist,
is considered to be one of the Dharmic religions. Most Native Americans
claim no affinity with contemporary Paganism, something they see rightly
as a movement of sons and daughters of white European imperialists/colonialists
groping toward a post-Christian identity crafted from a distant, pre-Christian
past. First-nation peoples would be hard-pressed to see connections between
their traditional spiritual practices and the ceremonial circles we neopagans
cast, and ethnologists (the academics who study indigenous people and
cultures) "avoid the term 'Paganism', with its uncertain and varied
meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more
precise categories such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism."
Crafting a consensual Pagan identity among those of us who call ourselves
Pagan is no easy task, given the many differences among us. As a Goddess-identified
Pagan, for example, I'm left out of the circle according to some of the
What Does Etymology Tell Us About Pagan identity?
According to Wikipedia, "The term "Pagan" is a Christian
adaptation of the 'Gentile' of Judaism, and as such has an inherent Christian
or Abrahamic bias
Yes, the early Christians and the Roman military played a role
in crafting the name we now use for ourselves.
The word Pagan is derived from the Latin paganus, meaning
"an old country dweller, rustic" essentially a hick,
a hillbilly, a rube. Paganus was early established as a bit of
Roman military jargon, used as an "opposite of urbanus, someone
who lived in a town
For the urban Roman, paganus had much
the same undertones as peasant has for us now."
The early Christians embroidered on this military theme, using paganus
to refer to those who were not "milites, 'enrolled soldiers'
of Christ, members of his militant church...."
The etymological record indicates that 2,000 years ago or so, pagans
were people who lived in the sticks, who were neither members of the Roman
military machine nor converts to early Christianity
But we can take this etymological excursion another two steps into the
past. Paganus itself is derived from the Latin pagus, "province,
countryside." Pagus, in its turn, is derived from the even
earlier Proto-Indo-European root pag, meaning "something stuck
in the ground," a landmark, a marker, something "fixed."
From pag also comes the word pole, and a few others I'll
be discussing shortly
And here's where insight and intuition come in. In the distant past,
our spiritual ancestors were the outlanders and idolaters, those who gathered
around a stick or pole or (later?) a living tree or a standing stone
a landmark, something fixed in the ground. This makes sense of the Asherah
poles of the Israelites and Canaanites, acknowledged by most scholars
as planks or groves that were objects and/or places of worship. Likewise,
images of other goddesses such as Hera (a plank at Samos and a pillar
at Argos) and Aphrodite (a meteorite at Paphos); the sacred tree/altar
of Athena (the olive tree); the nemetons (sacred groves) of Diana; and
the sacred trees, groves, and standing stones of the Celts.
The Proto-Indo-European root pag is the source of our words Pagan
and pole, but it's also the source of our words pact and
If you let that sink in for a minute, a picture starts to reveal itself.
If we allow intuition as a legitimate way of knowing, then we can see
at the roots of Paganism the sacred trees, groves, and standing stones
of our pastoral and nomadic ancestors (all of whom pre-date the settled
agriculturalists of the Neolithic revolution; some of whom continue into
the Neolithic period). These ancestors, who followed the herds and the
waves of natural vegetation that fed animal and human alike, came together
periodically, almost certainly seasonally, for social, spiritual, and
economic reasons. Spread out in small (non-nuclear) family groups,
they knew where to find each other at the pag that
defined, in some communal, non-proprietary sense, their land. My guess
is that those meetings tended to happen at the times of year we now call
Beltane and Samhain, ancient Ireland's festivals of fire associated with
cattle herding and the beginnings of summer and winter, respectively.
As I follow my intuition, I see our ancestors gathering to exchange news,
trade goods, possibly look for mating opportunities outside their small
and something more: they made pacts to settle disputes and establish
peace among themselves.
Yes, pact and peace are derived from the same root as Pagan
and are as much a part of our heritage as is the Maypole, a probable remnant
of this ancient reality. Can't you see it? We spent summers in the mountains
with our herds where they fed off the rich highland pastures. We wintered
with them in the lowlands where the temperatures were warmer and snow
didn't completely cover the grasses the animals fed on. And when we passed
from one landscape to the next, we met at the well-known spot, the place
where a pole was stuck in the ground and there we partook
of social and economic opportunities before we split up again into our
small groups and went on to our various destinations.
I'm remembering something I read some years ago and haven't found again
for citation purposes. The ancient, farming Celts had a pre-planting ritual
(at Beltane, as I remember it). To ensure the abundance of the coming
year's crop and the fertility of the land, they gathered in the field,
ceremonially burying an axe. With it, they let go of the conflicts and
resentments of the past year before ploughing the fields and planting
the coming year's crop. They reasoned that the future communal good depended
on the harmony of those involved in planting, weeding, cultivating, harvesting,
and sharing the crops.
This is an editorial, not an academic paper, so I'm not obliged to prove
the literal truth of these scenarios. As a visionary, though, I can claim
their power for contemporary Pagans. Why can't we reclaim "peace
in our communities" alongside celebration of sacred sexuality for
our Maypole-dancing? Is it such a stretch to add peace-making to the symbology
of fertility and world tree that are already encoded in the Maypole and
the season? What if, when we dance together in circle or whatever
we do to celebrate the season we included some time, energy,
and magic for creating peace among us by burying a symbol of conflict,
metaphorically if not literally?
Here in southern Wisconsin we have several national and regional headquarters
of various Pagan traditions. Among them, as in our Madison-area Pagan
Unity Council, conflicts run so deep as to be ridiculous. We split off
from each other regularly. We form new groups or walk away from community
entirely. We hurt each other; dissipate our strength; lose opportunities
to change the world.
We'll always have conflicts, personal and social. Conflict is a basic
form of communication. But without transforming it into growth and action,
conflict is nothing more than a vicious circle. If we must be the peace
we want to see in the world (to misquote Martin Luther King, Jr.), then
we must take the next step with our own conflicts and adopt an intention
of peace among us as part of our spiritual practice. Most of us are against
the War in Iraq if not war in general. Most of us want to change the world,
to clean up the environment, to live where a deep appreciation of nature
is fundamental. We all know, though, that Peace begins at home. For many
of us, that home is Paganism.
- Jones, Prudence and Nigel
Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe. 1999 Barnes & Nobles Books.
- "Pagan", World
Wide Words, http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-pag1.htm
- Aniconic is a word that
has several meanings and uses, specifically in religious vocabulary.
For today's purposes, we'll stick with this one the non-anthropomorphic,
non-representational image of a deity.
- These inferences are drawn
from genetic studies of human migration, especially "A recent
shift from polygyny to monogamy in humans is suggested by the analysis
of worldwide Y-chromosome diversity", Genetic Chaos http://vetinarilord.blogspot.com/2004/09/recent-shift-from-polygyny-to-monogamy.html
(accessed most recently on 4/30/2007)
- pole, courtesy of Jose Ignacio
- field, courtesy of Ronnie Bergeron