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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
The meaning of Pagan

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 [2].  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.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • John Halstead
    John Halstead says #
    I'm not saying Jesus is an archetype to Christians (from an Eric perspective). I'm saying Jesus is *archetypal* to Christians. (
  • John Halstead
    John Halstead says #
    I meant "etic" not Eric -- damn spellcheck.
  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy says #
    You mean autocorrect. Spellcheck just highlights or underlines the misspelled words.

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