Pagan Politics, Part Whatever

John Beckett asks an interesting question: Must Paganism be Transgressive?

Do we lose something when a radical spiritual movement starts to be accepted by the mainstream? Or is it more complicated than that?

Beckett looks at a few other discussions going on in the Pagan blogosphere in examining this question. I saw a few themes that I’ve talked and thought about before, so I felt the need to open my big mouth.

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Witches in Popular Culture

Steven Posch has a brief article on what he calls witchsploitation.

You know the genre. Wicker Man I (“the one without Nicholas Cage,” as a local movie marquee put it during the midnight Samhain run last year), To the Devil a Daughter…so many to choose from. Somewhere off in the sticks there are (bwa-ha-ha) still real, live witches (or left-over pagans) and they still practice…(shudder)…human sacrifice. Whoa, dude, way scary.

A coven-sib recently confessed to me that her bookshelves are filled with trashy novels with the word “witch” in the title. Magenta, you’re not alone. I resemble that remark myself, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The most amusing are the ones written by people who have done just a little research. Remember that 1964 cauldron-boiler Book of Shadows? In the opening scene, police are called to a gruesome murder in NYC’s Central Park. A man has had his belly ripped open, his guts nailed to a tree, and he’s been forced to walk around and around the tree wrapping a grim maypole with his own intestines.

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Understanding Paganism

A while ago Teo Bishop wrote this post about what kind of pagan he is.

It’s a very powerful piece, and I recommend that you take the time to read it.

Really, read it.

First, I’d like to note that in many ways, I am not the same kind of Pagan Teo is.

I’d also like to note that in many ways, I am.

But what gets me is the unspoken question: “Why do you have to elaborate on what kind of Pagan you are?”

The obvious answer is that someone has questioned him about his Paganism. I know it’s happened to me, and it has probably happened to many of you.  I’ve been accused of being a closet Christian, of being a bad Pagan for not following the Wiccan Rede, of being a Black Magician, and even of being a pretender because men can’t do magic. That, and when you consider that Paganism isn’t really a readily definable thing, it doesn’t seem that unusual that many Pagans feel they have to describe, define, or even defend what it is that they do.

I’m honestly not sure that Teo is really describing who he is as a Pagan. I think he’s describing who he is as a person.

And perhaps that’s why we have such a hard time describing or defining Paganism. Because we all consider it to be the thing that we do.

And Paganism tends to be negatively defined. As in, it is defined by what it isn’t. And when we start defining it by what it is, people feel left out. (Nature Religion!! Goddess Worship!! Social Justice!!)

I know this is kinda rambly, so let me get where I’m going.

I think that Paganism itself is an identity crisis.

I think that defining as Pagan implies a desire to be fluid and free of certain restrictions and definitions, and simply go our own way.

This can cause problems, because we don’t like to be alone, and so we seek others going the same way as we are. And this can lead to groups that establish new restrictions and definitions. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because we are free to associate with whomever we wish, and a lot of people do want and need those definitions — they just want to be free to pick their own.

But I think that ultimately, the path of Paganism is one of self-discovery and self-invention. And that can be very hard, but it can also be very worth it.

Rethinking Pagan Reconstructionism

I’m planning on attending the local Pagan Pride Day this month, and I want to wear my Toga.

But I don’t want to wear my tunica. So we have a problem.

I’m not officially a member of Nova Roma, so I don’t have to abide by their rules. For that matter, I’m not sure what their rules regarding wearing the toga are. But I’m pretty sure that if you wear a toga, you are supposed to wear a tunica under it.

So I’ve been thinking about the nature of a reconstructionist religious movement, and how far we should take it.

The toga wasn’t necessarily a religious garment as much as a cultural one. When in prayer you wore a nice one and covered your head with it. But you know who else wears nice clothes and cover their heads during prayer? Lots of people.

I want to revive the worship of ancient gods. I want to honor them in appropriate ways that they will respond positively to. I do not want to live as a Roman did 2000 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, my tunica is really comfy and I love wearing the thing. But I don’t have the desire to wear it in public for that particular event. It’s more of an after-work sweatpants substitute than something I am willing to wear at a high-profile event. I’d wear it to an event like Heartland Pagan Festival, but there is a far different social system in play; besides, half the people there are naked anyway.

But the toga demonstrates a cultural identification I want to represent.

Here’s my quandary.

As a reconstructionist, it is implied that I should desire to completely and accurately duplicate all aspects of the culture I am reviving. But in practice, no one expects that. I wear glasses, I don’t slaughter cattle to Iuppater, and I don’t own slaves.

So why should I wear 2000 year old fashion?

And here’s my thought: This isn’t the SCA. This is my effort to reconnect with gods I know to be there that speak to how I function in the world. What am I reconstructing exactly? The glory of a culture long past? Religious practices and cultural traditions that modern society would cringe at?

And that’s why I will often say that my religion is a modern adaptation of the ancient one. My goal is not to recreate the ancient practices exactingly. My goal is to approximate what those practices could have developed into had they not been interrupted, appropriated, and repressed by Christianity.

How would the Roman culture have changed over the centuries? Well, let’s look at where it was and at how it did change, and where it is now, and then reintroduce some elements of the old religion in. We find that family and hospitality are still important, that people are still “superstitious” and respect and honor the dead. We find that many traditions are still extant in some form, and others can be readopted with little adjustment. And other changes are strong and should not be messed with.

Fashion, however, is something that changed greatly and probably would have changed anyway. The Toga was the ancient equivalent of a nice suit jacket. I see no problem with wearing it as if it were one, over normal dress clothes. The toga was abandoned on its own, although I think it’s a great identifier to readopt. But like the kilt, it can be modernized and adapted.

Just like we’re doing to every other aspect of that society.

And to be fair, I think for certain events or positions its just fine to wear a tunica. Just as a Catholic priest wears ritual garments hundreds of years out of place. But for non-ritual events, I don’t see it as necessary.

So my religion is more like science fiction that I’d like to admit (as the Chaoist in me giggles). What would a non-Christian Rome have turned into? How can I flavor my worship with that?

I’ve got a lot of thinking on this to do.

Passing Paganism On

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus has a very thoughtful post about pagans teaching paganism to their children.

This, however, raises a lot of questions about how many Pagans and polytheists (though more the former than the latter) are actually treating the topic of religion with their children. I’ve heard far too many Pagans, almost in the manner of bragging, say that they have not “forced” their religion on their children, while I’ve also recently heard of others who have made it a point to teach their children about “all religions” as objectively as possible so that they can choose one later in life. I even heard of a Pagan parent recently who was making their child read the entirety of the Christian Bible—something that I suspect many Christian parents have not made their children do.

I understand that many Pagans, in adopting this approach, are attempting to not recreate the situations of their own childhood, where a repressive compulsory Christianity was something that they did not enjoy and over which there still may be lingering issues with their parents and extended families. Nonetheless, it would be a good test of “truth of concept” for Paganism as a viable religion for one to raise a child in it, while also giving them a good background in other religious traditions (in a manner that is neither relativist nor condemnatory, and is as informed as possible). If one’s religion is good enough for oneself, why isn’t it good enough to teach to one’s own children? It is perfectly possible to raise a child in a given religion without “indoctrinating” them into it or in any way coercing them. Even pious adults sometimes skive when they are adults; children and teenagers, likewise, might do this as well, and there’s no reason not to let them in many cases.

There is a lot of fear of indoctrinating children into a religion they don’t want among many pagans. I can see a few problems with this thought process, though. Continue reading

Defining Paganism

Chas Clifton presents three posts discussing more comprehensive and technical efforts to define “paganism.”

One.

Two.

Three.

I’m hopeful about this because my own efforts to define paganism have come up flat and dismal. As best as I’ve been able to tell, paganism has pretty much been defined by not being Christian and by deciding to hang out with other people who call themselves pagans. That’s not much to work with, and I’m ever increasingly disappointed by the fact that pagans seem to relish defining themselves against Christianity instead of on their own terms.

I’m pagan!

So we have two definitions of paganism to consider:

I offered the broad, relationship-focused definition that Michel York offered a few years ago in Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion.

An affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by the individual or community with the tangible, sentient and/or nonempirical.”

[…]“An affirmation” — Not a “belief” or a “creed,” but just an understanding by practitioners that this sacred relationship exists.

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Naked Pagans

I’m not a nudist. I burn too easily. I blame my Celtic heritage.

But there seems to be an expectation among pagans that by nature of being pagan, you shun clothing. At the clothing-optional pagan events I have been to, I have encountered the expectation that I remove my clothing, and even had to defend my decision not to against accusations of sexual repression, bad body image, and the like.

Wiccan covens that engage in skyclad ritual aside, there really isn’t anything about being pagan that equates to being a nudist. So where does that expectation come from?

Sounds like an excuse for a video!