I’ve read a few of the recent posts around the pagan blogosphere on the relevance of the word “pagan” and the “pan-pagan” community. Normally, I try to eschew simply re-stating the thoughts I share with others, especially if they’ve done a perfectly adequate job — and indeed, many already have.
My first forays into “the pagan community” as an adult were very focused: Hellenic polytheism, Hellenismos, the religion of the ancient Hellenes — and about a dozen or so other terms, some of which have been downright goofy (like “gentile Hellenes”, as I noticed a few people tossing around for about ten minutes, in Internet Age™). By and large, it stays that way. I read a few “pan-pagan” blogs, or at least the few I consider intelligent-enough (well, OK, I read The Wild Hunt and it’s “family blogs” and Patheos: Pantheon, and occasionally, I’ll read something else), but I don’t really go to “pan-Pagan” events, and I find most “pan-Pagan” message boards to be equal parts dull and insipid and occasionally incredibly irritating (the primary exception being The Cauldron; The Pagan Forum isn’t bad, but it also is lower in activity than some).
For as much as I find it hard to interact with other Hellenes (I’ll get to that in a mo’), I find it ten times harder to keep my head around most people of other paths, especially very individual-focused paths. The few articles I posted to WitchVox, several responses I got in return, though well-meaning and generally positive, offended me on many deep levels that left me wondering if they’d even read the article, much less the person information I’d posted in my WV profile about my path — one quote that especially sticks out in my mind, in response to an article about Urban Spirituality where I mention the compatibility with my own path, was from a woman and she had congratulated me on “discovering [my] goddess forms in a concrete place” — I had made no mention of such, first of all, and only have the vaguest idea of what that might mean, that I find it hard to imagine why she felt the need to congratulate me on something she had no real idea if I’d ever done.
I have some local friends who some may refer to as “scene pagans” as opposed to “religious pagans”. Before moving to the area, I spent a weekend at the house of one of them and was met with flabbergastion that I’m in an automatic habit of burning incense daily — now, I’ve since re-thought the idea of bringing said into another person’s home before assuming it would be fine-and-dandy, but the feeling of my throat leaping gutward never quite shook, and the tension felt when at first it was assumed by the friend in question that I was somehow just randomly lighting things on fire in the guest room was immediately clear. To me, this is “what pagans are supposed to do” — to them, this was something pretty far “out there”, especially as it was simply a Friday and not a religious festival for either their tradition or mine.
While I clash with other Hellenes, this is usually just personality clashes, or arguments about nuances of belief or interpretation of primary sources — the kinds of arguments that even a lot of people in the same sects of Christianity or Hinduism may have (as a quick example: I’ve met Hare Krishna who advocate veganism, and I’ve met those who prefer to be semi-vegetarian, eating mostly vegetarian, but occasionally having meat, especially if offered some as a guest in another’s home; my father, though generally easily described as Irish Anglo-Catholic had been married four times, including two divorces, and supported abortion in many circumstances that even many other abortion-permitting Catholics would have found excessive). Little, if anything I do, will seem “foreign” to the average Hellenistos or Helleniste. Where we differ is regional focus (I prefer the Boeotian region, while most seem to be focused on Attika, and at least a highly visible minority may be described as “Hellenistic”), semantics, philosophy (Diogenes, FTW!). We don’t tend to differ in what we do, and we don’t tend to differ in the broadest areas of belief. We have a generally shared mythology and religious culture, even if the details may serve as bone-picking moments.
Now obviously, I disagree with the sharp and strict sense of “separatism” that some vocal Hellenists seem to favour — I don’t give honour to Aegyptian deities, and I don’t generally give much thought to Roman deities outside of Britannia, whom I’ve adopted strictly as an ancestral deity or daimon, but I generally don’t mind Hellenic syncretics, and simply regard them as another sect or as giving cultus to deities whom I simply do not. As said Burkert, “Polytheism is an open system” and it’s hard to have contact with so many cultures and their gods without seeing the occasional deity who simply can’t fit into a mould previously set by one’s native pantheon, and thus finding a moment where one may consider that deity’s validity. And, like Sannion, I find it peculiar that so many who seem to give emperor Julian so much regard fail to take into account that the man’s own religious practises would be “eclectic” by the standards said people have established. I can live with where Hellenes and I tend to differ, whether I like said people on a personal level or not, but it becomes harder to find a comfortable area of common ground with the average American individuality-focused pagan.
In theory, I have no real problem with Eclectic practises — again, it’s usually just something that I simply don’t do. I know that Eclectic and other individuality-based pagans can take that approach intelligently, and give some amount of respect to cultural traditions whilst creating something unique and spiritually valid. Where it becomes problematic is when it’s assumed this is the “Gold standard” for the pan-Pagan population — and indeed, every time I’ve ventured into certain more-unsavoury areas of said community, I find people taking things and tossing them together all willy-nilly, a downright perverse sense of pride in collective anti-intellectualism and anti-academia, and an acute lack of self-examination with some ideas that, at best can be a sign of unhealthy narcissism and, at worst a charlatan. The _michigan_pagans e-mail list features people who will mock you for any amount of book-learning (outside certain publishing houses often decried as “fluffy”), and also boasts a moderator who will harass you over personality differences — apparently some find an informed spirituality “incredibly shallow” or one that “can’t possibly be real” and some men in their late forties with have such a downright infantile response to men in their twenties being so flabbergasted at the “enforced fluff” around one that after the latter unsubscribes, the former will forward the latter every single nasty post made by list members to the now-unsubscribed party, requiring one to alert Yahoo to the harassment.
As best as I can tell, once I start travelling outside my own tight-knit community of Hellenes for the “pan-Pagan community”, there is little incentive for establishing common ground. Even “ex-community, please-don’t-call-me-Hellene-I’m-my-own”-types are noticeably different to interact with than the “spiritual anarchists” than dominate, well pan-Paganism, likely because of that commonality of experience, not just with other Hellenes, but with dealing with pagans on the outside of that community — they seem to understand what the other “doin’ my own thing” Pagans are doing wrong when interacting with recons, and so have a relaxed approach to sane recons (and tend to avoid the nutters). Furthermore, I’ve noticed a trend, whether this is relatively new or long-established, I cannot say, of “scene pagans” who tend to be more eclectic and “religious pagans”, who tend to be more recon in practise*. You know what I mean when I say “scene pagan”: They tend to venture out to public rit and maybe even set up a shrine or altar for major festivals, maybe even go to regular pan-Pagan meet-ups, but even on deeper glance, it’s apparent that spirituality and practise are dead last in their approach to religion, behind going to events and conventions, behind “polyamoury” circles, behind organic foods, getting wasted, and so much else. What makes them “pagan” seems rather superficial, and it’s like “pagan” is the new term for “hippie”. This is different from those who may be deeply religious but make efforts to keep different aspects of their lives “superficially separate” — after all, a deeply religious or spiritual person naturally is influenced by their religious culture in all other aspects of their lives; and obviously quite different from those who are deeply religious and very obviously flaunt their religion’s influences on one’s life. I know it’s not my place to judge, but most of the people I tend to designate as “scene pagans” will actively eschew religious or spiritual discussions, even when things are obviously going to remain civil, and give no real signs of even having a religion except a few times a year — and some of these people are quite lovely folk, but I just tend to have even less incentive to look for any religious or spiritual common-ground, and am always left wondering just what got them interested in paganism, anyway.
As for the term “pagan” itself, as I’ve said before, I’m not married to the term at all. I think it’s become a little too “unloaded” in recent years and don’t blame any one pagan grouping more than any other for this. While, ideally, I’d like to retain a “rather Victorian” impression of the word, I lament that I cannot. Perhaps this is due to ultimately coming to paganism as an adult, and an adult long-jaded by a perceived superficiality of the “pagan” community? I know not, and ultimately, it matters not, because even if I came to Paganism in my idyllic youth and stayed pagan through into adulthood, and thus retained a benign mental image, this isn’t the common mental image held by the overculture, and this isn’t the common mental image held by most within the “pagan” umbrella. The cultural drift is, at this point in time, quite deeply rooted — perhaps in time, it will loosen, and perhaps continuing to fiddle with it will loosen, or perhaps the root will react by digging itself deeper, as a means to try and protect itself. I care not for strategies to get rid of this trend, cos I’m not especially bothered by it — after all, “polytheist” means something, and even in ancient times, when “paganus” was especially pejorative, it was vague.
So was there a point to all this? Probably not. This may, in fact, just be another cantankerous polytheist shouting into the cold unforgiving (and not to mention paradoxical) Khaos-Kosmos of the Internet that is both a formless void while being everything and anything, and this shouting is destined to fall on the ears of a few. Perhaps it will be the start of yet another useless bickering. Perhaps I’m just putting too much thought into what’s essentially nothing, what with this widespread meme that somehow words don’t actually mean anything. If anything, I hope that perhaps religious communities are being and will continue to be forged for the better.
*as always, these are not absolute judgements, there are those of each in each group