Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Gods My People Swear By

I think it was Judy Harrow that told me this story. If not, apologies to my actual informant, whoever you are. As my father is fond of saying, “Age spares us nothing.”

Dateline: Chicago, 1993: the World Parliament of Religions. (This was the event at which the archbishop of Chicago used his political muscle to get the pagans a permit to do a ritual in a public park. Now that's what I call ecumenism.) It's the main event: religious leaders from all over the world are lined up on stage. The place is packed so full that they have to set up TV screens outside to accommodate everyone that wants to see. The pagans are all outside, watching. (There are, of course, none on stage.)

Some grandee gets up to talk. “Let us all be as one,” he says. “After all, we all worship the same god.” Nods, smiles, and knowing applause from the entire line-up on stage, including (shame on them) the Hindus. The audience eats it up.

The pagans seem to be the only ones that aren't at one with this feel-good moment. They look at each other incredulously. “No we don't,” they say to each other.

But who listens to the pagans?

In Irish epic, the heroes are wont to say: “I swear by the gods my people swear by.” Scholars are divided on whether this is an actual ancient oath or not. It could be that the medieval monks who wrote down the epics quite simply didn't know who the Old Gods were. Another possibility might be that they didn't want to give the opposition any free advertising.

It occurs to me, though, that this is exactly the kind of oath a pagan might swear in the presence of outsiders. “I swear by the gods my people swear by (and Who They are is none of your damn business, dirty cowan).”

When the plumber came over to work on the temple bathroom, before he got here I covered the statue of the Goddess of Witches that graces our altar, before Whom the same flame has burned for nearly 30 years now. The plumber was the friend of a friend, and a very nice guy. But to gaze upon Her is a privileged seeing; nor is it the right of every eye. Some things are only for members of the tribe.

I would contend that the paganisms at their truest are essentially tribal. It's no so much that I'm a pagan because these are my gods as that these are my gods because I'm a pagan. My gods, and my people's gods: the ones we swear by. (And sometimes, pagans being pagans, the ones we swear at.) To draw an overculture analogy, it's much more a Jewish model than a Christian one. A member of the tribe is a member of the tribe; membership is not premised on belief. Even the pagan atheist fits into this model: “These are the gods I don't worship. (But I'm still a pagan, pagans are my community, and these are the pagan gods, all right.)”

Pagans understand that different people worship different gods. To us this seems both natural and reasonable. It's easy to forget that not everyone sees it this way. To every people, its own gods. This is how it always has been and how it always will be. Some of us would even say: This is the nature of the world. This is how it should be.

So no, Mister Speaker at the Parliament of World Religions, in fact we don't all worship the same gods.

So what?


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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.


  • Alison Leigh Lilly
    Alison Leigh Lilly Friday, 22 August 2014

    "Nods, smiles, and knowing applause from the entire line-up on stage, including (shame on them) the Hindus."

    Do you find it at all ironic that you, a white Westerner, feel perfectly comfortable "shaming" a religion of 950 million people following a tradition that stretches back thousands of years and that includes a complex theological history of mysticism that is, arguably, even older than Western monotheism itself....? Do you find it at all ironic that in a post about how we should allow religious practitioners to speak for themselves about their own beliefs and practices and not impose our own personal theology on others, that you have no qualms about treating Hindus as if they were misbehaving children who aren't capable of speaking for themselves about what they do or do not believe? Does it occur to you that some Hindus might actually see your emphasis on cultural differences instead of shared common ground as itself a product of hyper-individualist consumerist Western culture, and that imposing it on others is not automatically the sign of respect you assume, especially when done so with an overtly condescending tone?

    I can't... I can't even.... ::headdesk::

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Sunday, 24 August 2014

    It was certainly not my intent to declare shame on Hinduism or Hindus generally, Allison. During revision, I thought: Maybe I should change that to "the swamis on the stage," but I didn't. One would think that as a writer I'd know that "precise is better."

    Certainly the Hinduisms are as varied as the new paganisms (if not more so), and manage to encompass polytheism, monotheism, atheism, etc., which I can hardly help but admire. I am, nonetheless, disappointed when I hear Hindu religious who aren't willing to speak up for polytheism. Just as it disappoints me when I hear pagans talking about "God" on the supposition that using other peoples' religious vocabulary instead of our own will make us somehow more comprehensible.

  • Lady Pythia
    Lady Pythia Friday, 22 August 2014

    Delighted to share that the Parliament of World Religions returns to the States in 2015! We're not sure where yet. Andras will let me and all know when that is decided.
    And after a few years of Pagan HP's leading the Parliament, I seriously doubt if any attendee has made that statement without an immediate correction. Don, Andras, Rachael, others have been consistent, active, and imho, exceedingly efficacious in representing Pagans, not with any of delusionary "wiccan privilege," but because they have presented Pagan Rites as well, and spoke of various Pagan Religions, including Recon, Heathenry, and have done public work with indigenous Pagan Trads in Meso- & South America and so many other countries.
    Blessings of knowledge, wisdom and Grace

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Sunday, 24 August 2014

    Yeah, this is one story about one incident. Having seen my own thinking change on a number of topics over the course of the years, it seems only right to permit the same latitude to others that I do to myself.

    Interfaith is work I've never felt called to, and the risk of that has always been ghettoization. Blessings on those who do that hard, worthwhile work. In the end, this is something we're all doing together.

  • T-Roy
    T-Roy Monday, 25 August 2014

    I don't name my Gods, they exist as identities, Hearth, Summer, Mother and so on but those aren't names, just labels.

    Not until I started teaching my kid did I realize this. Some of these Gods now have names to make it easier to talk about. But some of them don't.

    Because of this swearing to the Gods one swears by makes sense. especially if said Gods have a physical representation but not names.

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