Discussion Paper

Seeking Identity: A Shared Experience


Louise O'Brien


I spent some time last week in contemplation about what it is that makes me identify with Paganism. I began with the question “What is paganism?” and found the very first hurdle.

At core definition “pagan” comes from the roman word for peasant “paganus” and was used as a derogative way of refering to the un-educated country dwellers. I began a discussion into the term by stating in fact that the word is actually a negative definition. This raised some eyebrows however I explained that in fact the word “pagan” referred to those who did not follow one of the mainstream religions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At a meeting the other week when this was raised I was quickly corrected that common usage of the word provided us with a “new definition” of the word. This definition referred to the adherants following a “nature based religion”. At the time I stated that in this case then the word was an exclusive term as it did not include everyone who sat under the umbrella label.

Once again this got some disagreement until I explained that by that definition a techno pagan would not fit and later a friend mentioned an urban witch would also not fit. These were two that came up very quickly... there are others.

I recently ditched the label pagan. It had become too generalised. The label has so many negative misinterpretations within the wider community. But there is no other term that encompasses it's diversity.

So I began to analyse what it is that makes us the same and realised that in fact the diversity of the community while being one of its greatest strengths is actually one of its weaknesses too. There are very few common themes across all “Pagan” paths.... I know there are some and I am determined to find them but the ones I had thought were there are in fact not.

So in a discussion we would have to start with what makes us the same... at this point a few thoughts get thrown up so I will list the basics and then discuss them and how, although we would like to think these are what we have in common that in actual fact there is still a level of exclusivity if we were to use these as the paramenters of what it means to be PAGAN

* connection to land
* celebrate seasons
* anti-hierarchical
* community based
* community focused
* spiritual
* cultural
* polytheistic
* elements
* embrace diversity
* ancient religion
* reincarnation
* wheel of the year
* deity is both imminent and transcendent
* strive for balance
* interconnectedness
* non-Messianic
* no evil
* belief in magic
* non- intercessionary

So to start the discussion at the top of the list. Having read it you will more than likely agree there are other points, some may not be clear to you but we will head on in to the mine field anyway.

The definition of Pagan as being a collection of earth based religions where the practioners have a strong connection to the land is exclusive in its very wording because it does not include those paths that have no connection to “The land”. These include the aforementioned technopaganism and the urban witch but also include pagans who have an aversion to nature, and they do exist. So at the most we can only say in general terms “A large number of pagans feel a strong connection to the land”

Now on to the seasons... what seasons? Where? Whose are predominant? The nature of the earth is such that from one region to another there are varying degrees of seasonal change/ In the Northern Territory of Australia for vast areas there are only two seasons... wet and dry. In the Northernmost regions of the arctic circle there are only two seasons.... day and night. Then in other regions through Asia there are seven seasons accounting for warmer months and cooler months and wet and dry months and then monsoon season. But even if we look within one region you will find differing attitudes to seasons. From most Wiccans who celebrate the 8 festivals of the Wheel of the year to Celtic Pagans who only celebrate Fire festivals to other pagans who only celebrate the astrological and planetary festival like the solstices and equinoxes. Through Wiccans who follow the esbats of the moon cycle to Fairies Witches who celebrate all kinds of additional festivals. Then you have the festivals of voodun and other indigenous pagan cultures.

So if we look at all that can we even find one festival they all have in common? I have done a lot of analysis of this and have yet to locate one that crosses all spiritual paths under the banner of Paganism. So the best we can say here is “ pagans follow and celebrate a varying array of festivals that mark significant times of the year for them.”

Next is this idea that pagans are anti-hierarchical yet the first aspect that argues this point is the proliferation of courses to achieve varying and ever increasing degrees of initiation or study. If Paganism was truly anti-heirachicla then this method of advertising would not work. Our tendancy too is to hold in high esteem those who have walked the path longer than we have and those that have more experience than we do. If this manner of edification does not fly in the face of the anti-hierarchical argument then I think we need to define what is meant by hierarchy. Leaders, elders and adepts form a hierarchy if only in our attitude to them. So here we are left with “ Pagans are predominantly anti-hierarchical however they hold their elders in high esteem.”

And now to the argument about Pagans being community based and community focused I would draw attention to a number of things. The first point is the large number of solitaries that exist in our “community” and the underlying reason why at least half of these continue to practice as solitaries. As a group we are not politically focused on community. We are a bunch of people having a unique and individual spiritual journey and our focus is predominantly inward. Secondly, I would draw attention to the findings of a poll recently held by Amethyst from the Order of Oak and Mistletoe looking into where pagans would be prepared to “donate” money if they were feeling generous. You would think if we are a community focused bunch we would look after our own or the children but no... Surprisingly to me we prefer to look after the animals. This discovery caused me to do a lot of inner soul searching and I realised that we are not community focused, we are innately selfish and we need to learn the importance of communty and supporting each other. At most here we can say “pagans sometime form communities and support each other but the community itself has a large number of solitary practitioners”

So far this is our working definition:

A large number of pagans feel a strong connection to the land. Pagans follow and celebrate a varying array of festivals that mark significant times of the year for them. Pagans are predominantly anti-hierarchical however they hold their elders in high esteem. Pagans sometimes form communities and support each other but the community itself has a large number of solitary practitioners...

Unclear what we really are isn't it? And we are trying to sell ourselves to the government as an organised religion?

So briefly through a couple more points...

Are we cultural? Not all of us are as some groups follow a set belief with no underlying cultural background. In some regards what appears to be a cultural path is not as there is no real connection to the past. An example here would be an Urban Witch.

Pagans are polytheistic? Well even this is not true. If I ;look just in my own house I see the error in assuming this is truth. One of my sons is a dualist but predominantly worships ONLY the moon as his goddess. One son is an animist and has no deity. My daughter is polytheistic and has always had the more the merrier attitude, the Wayfinder, although accepting all beliefs is personally a monotheist having only Danu as his goddess. So who is right? They all are and they all fall under a pagan umbrella. If we were to delve into pantheons the discussion would get even more complicated.

Pagans believe that the universe is made up of elements? Yes okay we can accept this idea but then we break it down into what elements? Earth Air Fire and water? What about spirit? Not every one includes it? And what about wood, metal and ice? Different pagans believe these are elements too. So who has the right elements? And what about the pagan who only has use for and belief in the spirit?

The catchcry that we embrace diversity can easily be negated as we know that there is a strong racist element in some paths and that there are purists who believe that all adherents to a path should be white. BY the same token there are some paths that are quite exclusive and if you are not from a particular culture you are not welcome. Overall though we are predominantly more tolerant than the general community

The definition used in some places refers to pagans as followers of ancient religions however we know of a number of modern Pagan paths. One example is Wicca and another example is Technopaganism. Even more fringe paths like the Jedi are postmodern in origin.

The description that Pagans strive for balance excludes those who walk the more chaotic paths like Discordians. Using the definition that all pagans believe in magic excludes those whose pagan paths are more mundane or earth based like an eco-pagan, That does not mean that all eco-pagans do not believe in magic because some do. Here is our issue once again. What defines us ALL?

Interconnectedness is a common theme spouted in many definitions however pagan paths like Asatru and Discordians do not accept this tennant. We are each uniquely individual beings causing havoc and disharmony.

If we use the statement that paganism is non-Messianic we exclude the Hindu path who worship Vishnu and Buddhists.

The idea that pagans do not believe in the existence of evil is perhaps shortsighted as both Hell and evil appear in the Chaotic paths as well as some paths like Gnosticism and Dark Paganism. How much of our aversion to the Judeo-Christian concept of evil comes from our labelling by those who see us as evil. Those who because of the teachings of their own leaders and their own ignorance would choose to label something they do not understand or that they fear as evil. Religious Intolerance is becoming less acceptable but there will always be some who hate and condemn just because they do not understand or care to. Do we take this on as a part of who we are?

If we address the belief that pagan practice and worship is non-intercessionary we would be excluding more formal ceremonial magic circles and some wiccan paths to name just two.

Even the simple yet big idea that all pagans have a belief in reincarnation does not suit everyone. Some pagans believe in an afterlife where our souls travel to when we pass yet others believe we become “star stuff”. Some believe we become worm food and others believe in varying degrees of reincarnation. Unity in this regard would be difficult. The most we could specify would be that most pagans have some sort of belief in an ongoing life after death whatever form that may take.

The statement about our relationship with deity that goes something like “deity is both imminent and transcendent” also leaves out the many other forms of deital relationships. Some pagans believe that the God/dess is within them and they are part of the Godhead. Others do not believe in a “God figure at all but embrace the universal energy of the all encompassing spirit. Some Pagans prefer to keep their deities in their Heavens and like Asatru worship from a far. Wiccans who call the deities to attend on them in ritual have a sense of seperateness yet others believe they are right next to them and they just have to reach out and touch their Lord and Lady.

One thought put forward was that all Pagan paths follow some kind of wheel of the year rotation of festivals. While this may be true there are Pagans who do not celebrate festivals but mark life markers instead. There are many different festivals and even those we appear to have in common are not necessarily based on the same ideas. To some extent this was discussed earlier in my article however I will touch on one festival in particular. We recently celebrated MidWinter/ Yule/ Winter Solstice/ Winternights here in Australia. Firstly, it has many names, secondly originates in various cultures, is practiced by many groups, in various ways on numerous dates. Some people identified under the banner Pagan do not even celebrate it. Are there any common themes to the festivals? Well there is the winter thing for starters... but does that make it a solar festival or a seasonal one? How do we mark the date? Does everyone do the Yule thing with trees and presents and feasting? Well okay we do predominantly all enjoy feasting. But is that enough of a crossover.

So let's cut to the chase. What about the definition that Paganism is a spiritual path? Simple you would think but what about those individuals who although they follow a pagan path deemed to be spiritual they themselves do not deem themselves spiritual?

So we are left with a definition that reads something like:

A large number of pagans feel a strong connection to the land. Pagans follow and celebrate a varying array of festivals that mark significant times of the year for them. Pagans celebrate this range of festivals usually with feasting. Pagans are predominantly anti-hierarchical however they hold their elders in high esteem. Pagans sometime form communities and support each other but the community itself has a large number of solitary practitioners. Pagans have various beliefs in deity. Pagans are multi-cultural and usually appreciate diversity. Pagans follow a collection of Spirtual paths, some old some new. Most pagans have some sort of belief in an ongoing life after death whatever form that may take.

Now how is that a definition we can take to the government and be taken seriously.

Paganism is an umbrella term that combines a collection of spiritual paths with similar though not identical beliefs. But does that make us a religion? I dont think so. I think at best we can hope for individual recognition of these spiritual paths as religions and continue using an umbrella term the way Christianity is an umbrella term for a variety of spiritual paths.

Lets be clear we are multicultural, eclectic, following various deities and celebrating a variety of festivals. We have no dogma and no Tome in common. We are unique and intelligent and deserve to have rights to practice and be recognised for what we believe. Can we agree on anything? Just one or two points we ALL hold as truth?

I see it as a big Venn Diagram. Each path is a circle and it overlaps others. Some areas contain many overlapping paths but what I am seeking is that one or two spots in the diagram where every path is present. The concentration of either belief or practice that provides us with the parts that unify us as a spiritual community and help us build a stronger, more accessible foundation for future pagans or whatever they are called in the future.

So Spirituality is the key to what binds us together... where to next?

© July 2009 by Louise O'Brien