Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

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Why I am Not a Neo-Pagan

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

Neo-Nazi. Neo-Confederate. Neo-Conservative.

Or, to choose some less loaded examples: Neo-Classical. Neo-Romantic. Neo-Primitive.

Whoever it was that decided to call people like us “neo-pagans” (there are several contenders for the dubious distinction), he was certainly no poet.


Poets care about words. Poets pay close attention to things like beauty, precision, and connotation.

Look again at the above examples. In non-scientific usage, neo- is not merely a synonym for new. Its implications are subtly but deeply different.

Neo- is a prefix of condescension. To dub something neo- is to define it as derivative, as less than, as not to be taken entirely seriously. To be neo-X is not to be a new X; it is, by definition, to be not really X. A Neo- is, by definition, a Wannabe.

And this we call ourselves?

Pagan is who we are. Pagan is who we've always been. Whenever people are left alone to suss things for themselves, they are, pretty much by definition, pagan. To be human is to be pagan. Pagan isn't something we have to be made into; pagan is what we already are. Pagans are born, not made, and we're all born pagan.

No, we're not the same pagans that the ancestors were, and there's no point in trying to be. They were the pagans for their time and place. Our responsibility, both to them and to ourselves, is to be the pagans for our own time and place, just like they were. It's the only kind of pagan we can be honestly be.

Like the ancestors, we new pagans live by three great truths: by the truth of our own experience, by the truth of the Received Tradition (the collective corpus of inherited ancestral lore), and by that ultimate source of authority in all pagan traditions, the truth of the world itself. Where's the neo- in any of that?

If one must needs distinguish, then by all means let us be the new pagans. Let us be modern pagans. Let us be contemporary pagans.

But for gods' sakes, let us lose the neo-.








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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 12 February 2014

    Good rant. I've never been a "Neo" anything either. "Neo-pagan" is just an insult.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Wednesday, 12 February 2014

    I've never preferred the term, but after reading your excellent points, I definitely think it doesn't suit me.

  • Neroli
    Neroli Wednesday, 12 February 2014

    I never thought of the idea of Neo Pagan. I'm Pagan . The end.

  • Chris B
    Chris B Wednesday, 12 February 2014

    I do not think we ought to be "neo-pagan", but I am afraid that most of us are in fact "neo-pagan".

    Neo does not only imply "new", its meaning is more nuanced than that. Neo means that something is reformed; removed from its original context; recreated in a similar spirit for new conditions. In this sense using the word "pagan" at all--by definition--makes us "neo-pagans". We are not iron-age peasant-class worshipers of nature religions. We are contemporary-cosmopolitan nature worshipers.

    I agree that what we ought to be is something like a natural religion that is novel to our history and geography. But so much of what paganism today is is reconstruction, which makes it inherently "reformed" (i.e. neo-). That doesn't make it bad, in fact there is a lot that is neat about "celtic-reconstructionism" and the like; however, most of what paganism is neo, so I think that whoever came up with the word was spot-on.


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Thursday, 13 February 2014

    I like both the points that Steven made and the points that Chris made; each is right according to the orientation from whence his observations came. Being of a romantical poetic bent myself, I wish our society still cared about the subtleties of language valued by Steven. But I've lived long enough in this sad world to realize that it does not. Bottom line, I guess, is that each of us must find the designation that makes us most comfortable.

  • Lance Moore
    Lance Moore Thursday, 13 February 2014

    The phrase 'neo-pagan' originally came with pride. Back in the '80s when most of us were first finding we weren't alone, forming groups and the first festivals, 'neo-pagan' was how we acknowledged we were pagans *today.* It was a way of making ourselves real, of pointing out that we didn't belong just in history books. We were real people living our lives right there in the cities and on the farms like everyone else.

    It was also meant to be an acknowledgement that we weren't claiming to practice our spirituality(ies) in the same way as our far-far-far back ancestors. There's no way to do so (and even if there were, we live in today's techy society - hence the techno-pagan phrase, too).

    The phrase has mostly fallen out of usage, at least here on the west coast; people would look at me funny if I said that (and I'm a Feri, which is as neo as it gets :-D ). We no longer have to prove we exist (ok, that's not as true as I might wish ;-) ). Any how, what you're reading into the phrase is not at all how it was originally intended or used (doesn't mean some folks don't use it that way today).

  • Larry Copeland
    Larry Copeland Tuesday, 13 May 2014

    First of all, the term "pagan" is an archaic term. It may be likened to an automobile being called a horse-less carriage. So, maybe some prefer anachronisms. It's a matter of choice.

    Second, most ancient societies practiced four major types of cosmology or a mixture of them. These are:
    A) Polytheism, the worship of or belief in multiple deities usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals. This type is found in many "classical" cultures from Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Greco-Roman as well as parts of the Norse and Celtic cultures. These rituals were fairly consistent much as modern Christian rituals are consistent but assume the local "flavor".

    B) Pantheism, the belief that the universe (or nature as the totality of everything) is identical with divinity or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent God. Pantheists thus do not believe in a distinct personal or anthropomorphic god. Some Eastern religions are considered to be pantheistically inclined.

    C) Animism, (from Latin animus, -i "soul, life") the worldview that non-human entities (animals, plants, and inanimate objects or phenomena) possess a spiritual essence. Specifically, animism is used in the anthropology of religion as a term for the belief system or cosmology of some indigenous tribal peoples, especially prior to the development and/or infiltration of colonialism and organized religion. Although each culture has its own different mythologies and rituals, "animism" is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples' "spiritual" or "supernatural" perspectives.

    D) Shamanism, a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world. A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.

    Thirdly, the inclusive term "pagan" was first used as an umbrella at the insistence of the early Christian Church. Under it's original edict, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism as well as the expressions of the classical cultures were all labeled as "pagan" faiths. If a people choose to accept the appellation given by an organization they eschew, that, once more, becomes their choice.

    Fourthly, I have had the distinct privilege of being given an oral tradition that has been traced back to the 1700's where it's track becomes muddled. What I was given was more in line with indigenous peoples' views. This is so much the fact that a Philippine mumbaki in a long line of mumbakis from the Ifugao region presented me with an atlatl adorned with my totemic animal so it can be used as both a weapon and a connection to the other world. In his words, " I respect your knowledge and teaching. This is an atlatl of a shaman."

    Fifthly, "pagans" honored their ancestors. This is evident in the burial rituals of the Celts and Norse that survive. The Tomb of the Eagles in Scotland is an example of neolithic ancestor worship. Archaeologist M. Parker Pearson's work at Stonehenge points to that as a "home" for ancestral spirits. Sadly, this seems wholly absent from the contemporary "pagans" world view.

    Sixthly, I travelled in the "neo-pagan" or "contemporary pagan" circle. What I saw was a stitched together montage of beliefs acquired from any region with an attempt at utilization. One lady told me she was a shaman and "we believe life is in everything" so she walked tenderly through the grass. No doubt to her mind, the ancients would have hugged Bambi rather than hunted her. I can see ancient faiths thanking the deer for giving up it's life before letting loose the arrow or spear. The horned "god of the hunt" figure is a motif found globally with a similar head being found in a mid-western Hopewell mound ( see Hero, Hawk and Hand ).
    Furthermore, I've heard more quotes by A. Crowley than I care to mention as well as seen rituals originally designed by The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn. One priest assured me that " such things has it's place in the pagan faith". Really? Historically, do tell. The foundations of those are found in Jewish mysticism primarily The Kabballah.

    As indigenous person explained " a horse may be called a cow, but it remains a horse". What we call ourselves whether it is "pagan", "neo-pagan" or "contemporary pagan" becomes irrelevant. The modern expression bears no semblance whether in practice or principle to the original. Until we choose to walk in our ancestral ways, it will remain a fabric of sewn together concepts and structures designed for the ease of the practitioner.
    I do, however, suggest the viewing of Richard Rudgley's BBC series Pagans as a quick overview, It can be found on YouTube.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Tuesday, 13 May 2014

    Bambi was a he, not a her. And the possessive form of "its" does not take an apostrophe.

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