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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 unity/duality/trinity etc.
  • 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."[1]

This differs substantially from the clearly outdated definitions that greet most of us when we turn to the dictionary: Pagan — any religious faith outside Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.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."[2]

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 duality-identified Pagans.

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…."[3] 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."[4]

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...."[5]

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, the aniconic[6] 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.

Pagan Peace

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 peace.

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[7], 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 family groups[8], 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.


  1. Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe. 1999 Barnes & Nobles Books.
  2. "Paganism", wikipedia (accessed 5/16/2007)
  3. Ibid.
  4. "Pagan", World Wide Words, (accessed 1/5/2007)
  5. "Paganism", wikipedia (accessed 5/16/2007)
  6. 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.
  7. 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 (accessed most recently on 4/30/2007)
  8. Ibid.

Graphics Credits

  • pole, courtesy of Jose Ignacio Simon
  • field, courtesy of Ronnie Bergeron
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