International Pagan Coming Out Day has come and gone for another year, and left me with a surprising question: am I a Pagan at all?
This is a tricky question, because “pagan” is such a slippery term. Mostly it’s agreed that the word is an umbrella term to describe a broad array of practices. Exactly what ties those practices together, however, is trickier. Is it
- earth based?
- non-mainstream religious beliefs?
What I have seen as I ponder this question is that the people who cleave to the term tend to hold Wiccan beliefs, or have been influenced by Wiccan practice. I certainly am among that crowd — while I was only a practicing Wiccan for about three years, my early adulthood exposure to Paganism included many conventions that Wicca gave to the world, such as casting a circle for sacred space, associating the four elements with the four directions, and a dualistic worldview.
Others whom I deem Pagan eschew the term: practitioners of indigenous religions like those still found in some Native American tribes, or reconstructed faiths like Heathenry, Hellenismos, and Kemeticism in particular frequently don’t see themselves as Pagan. It could even be most, but it’s certainly not all; I still view myself as Pagan despite my desire to better reconstruct and perpetuate ancient Greek religion, and I am not alone in labeling myself in that manner. So now, I consider whether it’s appropriate to continue.
So we have religious movements in which some members identify as Pagan and others do not, while their practices are largely the same. My sense is that the folks who avoid the term feel like it’s been foisted upon them, and perhaps more importantly, that the word “Pagan” pretty much means Wiccan, which they are not. Depending on the individual’s history, it may even echo the oppression that men, or whites, or some other dominant group imposed upon them or their ancestors.
Wiccans will tell you, almost to a fault, that their religion is but one Pagan path, but is it? Despite the intent of the word, has Pagan largely become a synonym for Wiccan?
What has certainly happened, as is evident at gatherings, is that Wicca has heavily inspired the common language of Pagans. Not every religion uses circles and quarters, but nearly all rituals at festivals do so. Most are not actually Wiccan rituals, but many of the symbols of Wicca are used. It’s kind of like when I was a Boy Scout, and we’d hold a “non-sectarian religious service” on the Sunday morning of a camping trip. The Scoutmaster or other adult would lead us through a series of prayers that honored both Protestant and Catholic belief. If we’d had a Muslim boy in our troop, he may not have seen it as quite as inclusive, but growing up Catholic, I didn’t know any better.
Some of my best friends are Wiccan, to borrow a phrase, but I’m not. I don’t feel like I’m on the outside of the circle when one is cast, but I understand how some people could be. How does it feel to be a member of the minority religion in a gathering of minority religions?
Is it important to include all the worshipers of all the gods under the Pagan umbrella? Well, maybe. Probably. There is safety in numbers, and even together, our numbers are small. It’s illegal to worship Greek gods in Greece. People are still being killed for suspected witchcraft in some parts of the world. A temple in Catskill, New York is being denied tax exemptions that Christian monasteries enjoy all the time. Pagan Living TV, created to advance an accurate perception of that very word, failed in part because of the resistance its organizers have faced to That Word. Oppression is very real, and our voices are small. Despite the fact that our differences are greater than those found among the Abrahamic faiths, which stem from a single patriarch, there remain certain commonalities among our faiths. Finding those common threads strengthens our ability to lift each other up and resist defamation and oppression.
I still consider myself a Pagan. I have been a following of Herne and the Green Man, an initiated Wiccan, a sacred backpacker, and follower of the Greek gods. What stays the same is my Pagan heart, no matter my outward practices.
But still, I think it would be better to see Pagan, not as an umbrella, but as a language. Esperanto was created to be a universal language, but we got stuck with English, which is clunkier, but spoken by far more people. Pagan is like English, but wishes it were Esperanto. The language is sometimes awkward because it has a lot of built-in assumptions, invisible to Wiccans and near-Wiccans, obvious to anyone else. However, it’s a language which is at least passingly familiar to all the polytheists, Hellenes, Kemetics, Heathens, hedge witches, and many others; we may not all identify as Pagan, but Pagan is a better tool for communicating amongst ourselves than has been otherwise adopted.