My home Reclaiming community has launched a series of meetings to try to define ourselves as a community. What is our history? What are our values? What is our power structure, and how do we make decisions? Who, exactly, are "we" in the first place?
I have written much about my feelings of the word "pagan" on my primary religious blog, Of Thespiae. I've written about how the use of the word in the pagan community has become so loose that it's meaningless for all practical purposes. I've written about how, in spite of regular protests from the pagan community, the implicit "positive definition" of "paganism" ("positive definition" meaning "defining what something is"; whereas "negative definitions" define by what a word is not) is incredibly Eurocentric . I've even mentioned how the "negative definition" of the word "pagan" isn't necessarily true, as the tradition of Christopaganism certainly makes it hard to say where the Christianity ends and the paganism begins. I've written about the incredibly secular climate of the pagan community in current culture.
The word "pagan" is not one I've been terribly fond of. Early on in my spiritual journey, earliest possible point being around either 1989 (when a nun at my old Catholic school gave me a copy of D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths and, I swear, I felt touched by Apollon in ways that Jesus and El Shaddai just never really could) or 1993 (when I first really started exploring ostensibly "pagan" paths), the word "pagan" was practically interchangeable with "Wiccan" or "witchcraft", or so it seemed when trying to find any books on the topic; there was a minority of books about Heathenry, Celtic polytheism, and neo-Druidry, but there was no uncertainty to the dominance of witchcraft-based paganism, and frankly, that only barely interested me, and not enough to really look too deeply into it. For a very brief time in high school, I practised a hodgepodge "Celtic reconstruction" of my own design, but I eschewed the word "pagan" because this didn't fit the common idea that most people had of "pagans" in the modern days, which was pretty much synonymous with "witchcraft", even if one knew that religious witchcraft wasn't as phantasmagorical as scenes from The Craft or even Practical Magic, they didn't really conceptualise it as simply "worshipping the gods of the British Isles", which is what I did, then. Toward the end of high school, I just gave up on my self-made Panceltic religion, cos most of those gods barely seemed "real" to me, and I joined the Church of Satan briefly, which is adamantly not pagan, in its self-definition, and though most members describe Satanism under the definition of Anton LaVey as "atheistic", further reading into LaVey's later essays, and not to mention certain interpretations of passages in The Satanic Bible and The Satanic Rituals, suggest that he himself was better defined as Maltheistic (a word of earliest use in print traced to Usenet in 1985, and defining one who ostensibly believes in one or more gods, but deems It/(S)He/Them as unfit for human worship; see LaVey's "God of the Assholes", which appears in Satan Speaks! ©1997, for the most clear evidence of LaVey's maltheistic, rather than atheistic beliefs). I was never a good atheist, somewhere in my head, I always believed in the gods of Hellas, and I was never maltheistic, either, because even if some deities don't want, need, or even deserve my worship, there are others that do, and by the time I was twenty-two, I basically outgrew the need for LaVey's church that I briefly had. But pagan? To see if that word fit, I put a toe in the on-line pagan community for the first time in six years when I was about twenty-four, and at that time, I'd discovered a vibrant and thriving community of Hellenic reconstructionists, most of whom had mixed feelings about the word "pagan". I pretty much only interacted with other recons for about another two or three years, and though I forget what ultimately teased me out, I had never really fully embraced "pagan" as a part of my religious identity.
Now, I say "religious identity". This is important. Though there are certainly a handful of people who describe their religion as simply "pagan" or "paganism", there is no single, positively-defined religion called "paganism". The word "pagan" is generally assumed to be a collection of religions, generally of European or Mediterranean (including the Near and Middle east and Northern Africa, specifically countried along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea) origin, that either a) pre-date Christianity, b) attempt to reconstruct or revive said, or c) are newer religions that are at least somewhat influenced or inspired by said (like Wicca or Feri). Prior Christianity, none of the local religions of Europe and the Mediterranean called themselves "pagan"; indeed, one's religion was usually just a part of the local lifestyle and was, at most, simply the way of worshipping the local gods --the ancient Greek dialects don't even have a word for "religion", the closest being "ta hiera", which is often translated as "the sacred" or "sacred things". "Pagan" is a thoroughly modern religious identity; similarly, "gay" is a thoroughly modern sexual identity, as in ancient times, most cultures didn't compartmentalise human sexuality with terms like "heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual" and sexuality certainly had less to do with the gender ofthe person one was attracted to than it had to do with the activities one engaged their sexual partners with. These identities certainly exist, but they lose all meaning outside a modern context, and even within that context, are subject to change in their subtlety of meaning due to many factors, including time, location, implications by the speaker, and inference of the listener....
In my previous post, I discussed why I thought identity was an essential principle of magic and explored what magic as an ontological practice might look like. In this post, I want to unpack identity further so that we can learn what makes up identity and how we can work with it as a magical principle. Some of what I discuss below can also be found in my book Magical Identity.
Your Family is one of the foundational elements of your identity. Your mother and father, and siblings (if you have any) provide you the initial experience of the world, as well as modeling behaviors about how to interact with the world. They pass down both their functional and dysfunctional behaviors, both in terms of how they interact with you and around you. It's fair to say that your identity is shaped by them for your entire life. I'd argue that your family is one of the more influential elements of identity and one that needs to be carefully explored in order to change a lot of your own behaviors. Your family also models financial and health skills to you. Even if they never explicitly discuss finances or health, they nonetheless provide you with standards that impact how you handle both throughout your life.
Your Genetics are another element of identity. Your health is determined in part by your genetics and knowing your family's health history can help you plan accordingly. Many of the diseases we deal with seem to have a genetic component, which can also shape your identity and how you prepare to deal with those diseases. But beyond health, your genetics also plays a role in your overall appearance, which also creates a sense of identity that shapes your life....
I join the chorus of voices reporting on the general wonderfulness of the 9th Annual Claremont Pagan Studies Conference.1 I found the overall quality of presentations exceptionally high, as they were the last time I attended two years ago.
I arrived Friday night after a long solo drive from the SF Bay Area to Los Angeles, through rain and the hairy Grapevine Canyon through the Tehachapi Mountains, stressed and with intense pain between my shoulders. Cranky, in other words. Soon Lauren cheered me up.
Saturday morning's first session consisted of four speakers. Joseph Nichter, an Iraq war veteran, spoke of using Tarot in healing PTSD. I loved his ideas about what he calls "peripheral exploration," wherein the querent draws a single card, places it on a larger sheet of paper, and draws a scene that embeds the image in the card in a larger picture.
Last year a young man approached me at a sabbat and told me he was "of my line." Huh? I didn't know I had a line. Then he told me he'd recently been initiated and one of his initiators was an initiate of one of my initiates. My initiate had been a student of mine (and of others) for some years before any oaths were sworn.
This incident brings up lots of questions, especially since it arises from a tradition (Reclaiming) that requires no initiation in order for people to participate as fully and completely, prominently and authoritatively (teaching, public priest/essing, et al.) as they choose. An obvious concern in this scenario is accountability -- to students, to community, to tradition. Another is whether, or how, one can assume a shared knowledge and capability. Those are questions for another rumination; for now, let's stick with lines and lineage.
What do we mean by lineage? Why is it important to us? Or to those of us who may think it is important? Or to anyone?
On the last episode of the radio show I co-host with my partner, the popular topic of labels within Paganism came up and we spent a few minutes talking about what we thought of it all. Although neither of us seemed to care much about using singular labels for our path, it did prompt us to think about labels in terms of percentages. What started as a funny way to talk about self-identification turned into some pretty deep introspection for me.
The thing is, human beings are very complex. Although we might resonate with one philosophy or practice, I don't know of very many people who follow just that one thing and only that one thing. This fact can bring about a good sense of personal satisfaction, knowing that we don't have to strive to fit into the boxes set before us. But it also challenges us to look deeper at what we believe and why we believe it. Even if we feel we fit within one system entirely, there are still aspects of culture and upbringing that shape us into very unique individuals.
I'll use myself as an example. Growing up Wiccan for most of my life, I've always been pretty comfortable with that term. In the areas I've lived its always been a fairly friendly term socially. I never received that much persecution because of it. It described my belief system as well as my personal practice quite nicely....
This is part two of a two-part blog that tries to move beyond the binary distinction of life and death. Please read the first part if you have not as you will get more out of this post if you do. To break out of the dichotomy of life and death we need to introduce identity as another measure of the attributes of existence. In order to explore how identity helps us to expand our understanding of life and death, let's start with the very large and then move down into the very small.