Thursday, November 2, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 2: Establishing Terms

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash.

In Part 1 of my NaBloWriMo adventure, I told you that I'm going to try to devote 50,000 words in November to talking about my pursuit of the pagan path. This is not an unexplored area for me. At one point many years ago, I'd assembled an altar full of goddesses from pagan traditions all over the world. In my current attic space -- which, as part reading room and part meditation area, I think of as sort of a Dad Loft, as opposed to the typical Man Cave full of beer cans and sports paraphernalia -- I have a table where the pagan goddesses who've remained a part of my eclectic spiritual thought processes hang out. Athena, Brigid, and Hekate are among the names you might recognize. And as I mentioned last time, our family observes the Wheel of the Year, a creation of a dedicated group of 20th-century pagan revivalists who wanted to recapture a sense of how our pagan ancestors would have marked the changing of the seasons.   

But what really is a pagan? What does it mean to be one?

Well, in broad terms, paganism refers to a broad group of nature-based and usually polytheistic religious traditions. The word "pagan" comes from the Latin term paganus, which meant something like a country dweller. Early Christians used the term to refer to people who dwelled in the rural parts of the Roman Empire, where the old pagan traditions held sway even after Christianity became the official religion of Rome. By the Middle Ages, the term had expanded to refer to pretty much any religious practitioner who wasn't part of one of the Abrahamic traditions. 

Today, we might think of the old Greek and Roman religions as examples of classical paganism, and it wouldn't be wrong to do so. But those are just the best-known examples. There are Slavic pagan mythologies, Germanic ones, Egyptian ones, Mesoamerican ones -- the list goes on. Even animist traditions like Shinto in Japan would reasonably fall under the "pagan" umbrella. (Animism is the belief that all things, even natural objects like trees and rocks, are imbued with spirit. Animist traditions may or may not also hold a belief in gods and goddesses.)

It's important to bear in mind, though, that "pagan" is a label that's historically been applied from without. People who've practiced non-Abrahamic traditions down through the ages haven't historically thought of themselves as pagans. It hasn't been until modern times that pagans themselves have embraced the term for themselves, and even then it's mostly among pagan revivalists who've attempted to reconstruct the religious and spiritual practices of pre-Christian Europe.

Piecing things together has been no easy task, because in many cases the historical record of what those ancient pagan religions might have looked like is meager to virtually nonexistent. In the case of groups like the Druids, it's believed that traditions were handed down orally from teacher to student, for the purposes of guarding secrets and traditions. In other cases, it's possible that certain groups were mostly illiterate and therefore couldn't write anything down. In still other cases, it's likely that Christian missionaries either destroyed any written records or absorbed local traditions to the point that the dividing line between pagan and Christian eventually became impossible to pinpoint.

The trend toward building alternative spiritualities gained steam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with groups such as the Theosophical Society and way-outside-the-box thinkers like Aleister Crowley, who began his own religion called Thelema. But a massive amount of what we call paganism today comes to us courtesy of two men: Gerald Gardner, considered the father of the modern Wicca movement, and Ross Nichols, who brought Druidry back to life. Gardner and Nichols, in turn, drew on information from earlier researchers and writers who themselves were quite often working from very scant information. They might have had a vague idea of a Point A and a Point C, for example, but no idea what Point B might have been, so in many instances they had to take literary license or rely on their intuition to connect the dots. 

In some cases, alas, it was later discovered that certain "historians" were getting a little too creative and just making everything up as they went, without any actual reference to historical sources. Welsh writer Iolo Morganwg serves as the most infamous example: He claimed to have discovered a book of ancient Druidic lore that was later revealed to be a complete fabrication, mostly written by the Morganwg himself. His work did, however, serve to revive interest in Druidry, and people like Nichols picked up where their unreliable predecessors left off and carried on the hard work of constructing practices for modern people that do have a legitimate connection to the past.   

Margaret Murray, Robert Graves, and James George Fraser were among the more reliable authors whose findings Gardner, Nichols, and their contemporaries turned to as they worked to piece together a modern pagan movement. And those authors looked even further back to the likes of the Venerable Bede, an English monk and historian from the seventh and eighth centuries who left us some clues about how Anglo-Saxon society functioned, and Jacob Grimm, he of the Brothers Grimm, who took an interest in Germanic mythology. 

But what triggered this modern interest in paganism? I think it's fair to say we can trace its origins to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. As people moved to the cities and took jobs in the factories, they lost the intimate connection with the earth that their ancestors working the soil would have had. The spiritual traditions of the ancestors likewise faded away, replaced by a religion whose sole deity was not only distant and removed from the world but also in an adversarial relationship with the people who inhabited that world.

We've all felt the sting of the emptiness and stress of modern society. If all you do is work yourself to death to accumulate stuff you don't need, what really is the point of our existence? More and more people began asking themselves that very question, and for many of them, Christianity just didn't offer any satisfactory answers. And so people who craved a simpler and more meaningful life and wanted to feel a deeper connection to the planet began to look back to the ways of the ancestors. It's been said that these were the modern people who wanted to re-enchant the earth. Out of that desire, the modern pagan revival movement began to take shape.

Now that it's had several decades to take shape, we can make some general observations about modern paganism. One is that some pagan groups take a more eclectic approach to their practices, while others seek to create practices that are as authentic and true to history as they can be -- not always an easy task, of course, given the limitations of what we know about the old pagan ways. It's also fair to say that some pagans are more focused on theoretical spiritual concerns and the harnessing of natural energies to bring about desired changes, while others tend to have more practical concerns, like ecological conservation or the pursuit of political solutions to pressing social matters. There is some overlap -- we're not talking about a stark dichotomy here -- but in general terms, this is what we see today. In broad brushstrokes, we can characterize one group as pursuing primarily spiritual interests, while the other has more contemporary material concerns. 

Wiccans tend to make up the former group, and they often receive criticism for their eclecticism and their blurring of the lines of pagan ideas, such as collapsing pantheons of deities into just two entities -- the male God and the female Goddess. Wiccans also are often accused of possessing a shallow understanding of the pagan practices they draw from and for using their spells and rituals for personal gain and fulfillment rather than for a greater good. In a lot of cases, they throw off an air of roleplaying, as if they aren't really too serious about their practice. Some of the criticisms, I think, are warranted, but at the same time it's both impossible and unfair to say these things are true of everyone who practices Wicca. And there's something to be said about the personal sense of empowerment that surely results from feeling you've gained some sense of control over your natural environment through the use of spells and incantations.

The same goes for New Age practitioners. You know the ones. They're sort of a continuation of the popular conception of the free-spirited hippie. They have an affinity for things like crystals and gemstones and the burning of sage, all in the pursuit of cleansing the bad energies and harnessing the good vibrations. Some of them seem to treat their religion like a fashion accessory, or just as a way to advertise to the world that they're so much cooler, progressive, and open-minded than those stodgy old Christians. Not a lot of depth, in many cases. For whatever reason, there seems to be a fair amount of immaturity and self-absorption among the people in this subset of paganism. 

But again, it can't be fairly said that this generalization applies to everyone. This is, after all, where you'll also find people who delve into time-honored practices like tarot and astrology, whose proper application can yield deep psychological benefits even for those who may not believe in their mystical properties. This is also where you'll find people doing helpful things like harnessing energy for physical and mental healing and well-being, such as in Reiki. And, of course, these are often the folks who learn how to penetrate through to the other side and talk to the dead. I'm showing my bias, but I've had enough weird and unexplainable experiences in my lifetime to believe that this ability is nothing to be laughed at.

That's the more eclectic and more spiritually minded side of modern paganism. On the more practical side you have folks like the Druids, yet they're not entirely different from the Wiccans and New Agers. In some ways, they straddle the line. They're the ones who show up at Stonehenge on the equinoxes and draw on the energies of the earth to promote an ethos of environmental protection and healing. But they also take their concern for the natural world into everyday life, often raising awareness of ecological concerns and advocating for political solutions to environmental and other related problems. Their work is at once symbolic, spiritual, and pragmatic, and there's something to be said for that. And of course there's also a deep historical element to what they do, inasmuch as their rituals attempt to replicate and honor the work of the original Druids of centuries past.      

Finally, you have the hardcore revivalists, the ones who focus on trying to reconstruct, with as much accuracy as possible, the ways of the ancient cultures. These are the folks who tend to embrace particular ethnic traditions, like the Asatru, many of whom fully and enthusiastically immerse themselves in Viking culture. They're less into potions and spells and more into actually living out the ethical lives of their forebears, pursuing things like honesty, integrity, bravery, honor, and hard work and incorporating those values into their everyday lives to the greatest extent possible. They do these things both to honor their ancestors who survived by living out those same values and to try to create a better world in the here and now. Some members of this subculture go so far as to worship the old deities like Thor and Odin, while others think of those gods as more like archetypes and examples -- and sometimes counterexamples, depending on the deity in question. Who would want to be like Loki, after all?

Accusations of racism sometimes get hurled at members of these groups. That's a complicated subject, and I'll visit it in a future post. But to a large extent, I think the accusations tend to get overblown. You know how it goes for white people trying to navigate woke culture. I'll just leave it at that for now.

I'm writing this on All Souls' Day, a day when we're called to remember our ancestors. That's a significant part of paganism, especially for those whose practice involves honoring the customs and traditions of cultures past. My wife took the occasion of the day to put together a memorial shelf for her dead ancestors -- what Latin American culture would call an ofrenda. (Go watch the movie Coco if you want to have fun learning more about it, and about the Day of the Dead.) Even though she complained about the family members who made her life difficult even as she was printing out and framing their pictures, the fact remains that we wouldn't be here without our ancestors. For better or worse, they're necessary to our existence. I mentioned in my previous post that if I'm going to more thoroughly pursue a pagan path, it has to have some kind of practical real-world application, and I think this would be one of those areas for me. I have a strained relationship with my family, and I can see immersing myself in pagan practice as being a useful tool in finding peace with those who came before me and were responsible for giving me life. 

I don't need pie-in-the-sky stuff. I could get that by just going back to Christianity. But at the same time, there is something charming and appealing about the old pagan deities. For now, I'll keep an open mind about them and reserve the right to take my time figuring out my relationship with them, if I develop any kind of relationship at all. Time will tell. 

[WC: 2,299 / TWC: 4,081]

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