So earlier today I posted a post about Wicca and polytheism. I personally maintain that Wicca, at least as first designed and implemented by Gerald Gardener, is only giving lip-service to polytheism — even so called “soft” polytheism — and is essentially monotheistic, with any gods and goddesses given lip service to seen as archetypal aspects of the Divine Creative Source, whatever That may be. That is not to say that all people who identify as Wiccan hold this view, but that the original format of Wicca and the ritual structure that supports it has this assumption built into it. And I believe that this is one of the factors that is causing what I perceive as a rift between Wicca and other forms of Paganism.
But I may have spouted off rashly, and some of my own biases have shown through.
It seems to make sense to assume that, since one of the traditional definitions of the term “pagan” is centers on polytheism. And really, I don’t know that I have met a Pagan who did not at least believe in other gods, even if they didn’t worship them.
You see, I am conflating polytheism with Paganism, and that may not be valid.
What it comes down to is the fact that there is still a debate in the Pagan community about what it means to be Pagan. And I’ve kind of been sitting it out.
In my own case, I have pretty much regarded three groups as comprising paganism. The first would be the Reconstructionists, or the hard polytheists, who seek to worship the old gods in ways that are as similar to the ancient ways as practical or possible. (“Gods” in this case does not have to mean gods in a pantheon, but can also refer to any other type of divine critter running around.) The second would be what I call Neo-Wiccans, the eclectic types that build off a basic Wiccan framework but aren’t really Wiccan in any sense that Gardener or Alexander would recognize. This encompasses a lot of the soft polytheism out there, the belief some gods/goddesses are aspects of others, or manifestations of natural forces. Then there are those that I consider the Outlyers, the magic-users or mystics that are ignored or rejected by other religious groups, but that Pagans don’t have a problem including. Satanists, Chaos Magicians, Ceremonial Magicians, and whatever else fits.
This has worked for me, but looking about at some other models, it seems a bit inadequate. So I must engage the debate.
Let’s start with this article by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, on hard polytheism in Paganism.
What I am noticing more and more recently, however, is that modern Paganism is being purposefully defined so as to not include the gods. In recent weeks alone: Jonathan Korman has defined “the pagan sensibility” as not necessarily needing to include the gods; John Halstead has discussed the four centers of modern Paganism, but has portrayed the deity-centric forms of Paganism as inherently creedal; and here at Patheos’ Pagan Portal, Yvonne Aburrow has defined “theology” as “reasoning about the Divine” rather than “reasoning about the gods,” which is not remotely the same thing (on which more will be said in a moment).
I have studies religion and history for some time. One thing that I have noticed is that in almost all cultures, a sophisticated and intellectual elite emerges in any religious tradition and abstracts that religion away from worship of deities. In some cases, they deny it happens at all, although the practices of the “common folk” usually belie this. History records this phenomenon in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, in China, in India, and even in Judaism and Christianity. The underlying assumption is that believe in specific gods with personalities is primitive superstition, and that abstract forms of interacting with the divine are more evolved and enlightened. (And we know how much I love evolving to more enlightened forms.)
Contemporary Paganism has a curious history, since it actually began among the enlightened elites as a more abstract form, and “devolved” into a more concrete and hard polytheistic practice. Such a development easily accounts for the reason that the gods are absent from many discussions about paganism. And it must also be said that much contemporary Pagan thought is often influenced by or a response to Christian thought. (The very act of referring to a religion as a “faith” or “creed” is a very Christian thing. Orthodoxy is extremely difficult to find among pagan religions — practice usually trumps belief.)
For a long time now, I’ve been hearing modern Paganism characterized as a “nature religion” or an “earth-based religion.” That is true to an extent (and in some cases, far less true than others—and not necessarily in a negative sense). However, I suspect a huge reason that it is characterized that way—especially to non-Pagans—is because of fear of being thought foolish or “primitive” for recognizing the gods. We have then internalized that dialogue and have spent lots of virtual and actual ink on determining whether or not one group or another is truly “earth-based,” when in fact that understanding in itself might be more of a problem than an accurate portrayal.
This touches on what I said earlier, as well as hitting the “nature religion” point. The concept of Paganism as a “nature religion” is a very modern understanding, and assumes a very romantic worldview relating to worshiping nature. I have found little to suggest that ancient pagans were “nature worshipers” as we conceive the term — most of them sought to placate the gods and spirits of nature to preserve order from chaos. It is far more accurate to say our pagan forebears were “order worshipers.” My own Roman ancestors did not worship nature in any meaningful sense, and in fact celebrated their grand civilization and the order it brought to people’s lives as having divine origins.
The idea of Pagans as “nature worshippers” fits in perfectly with the Christian conception (and, as in my case, misconception) of ancient polytheists as unsophisticated bumpkins with no place in civilized society, and therefore no business doing their rituals indoors.
In additions, it also fits perfectly with the romanticism of the politics embraced by the counter-culture that embraced early neopaganism. The emphasis on environmentalism contrasted with the exploitative stewardship model of Christianity, and the notion of free-flowing outdoor worship contrasted with the Christians hiding from the “real world” in their little boxes. Or something like that.
I am beginning to understand, more and more, the reason why many modern polytheists have chosen to distance themselves from the term “Pagan,” since polytheism most certainly involves gods (and lots of them!), whereas many modern forms of Paganism seem bound and determined to define their religiosity in every way apart from honoring, reverencing, or (horror of horrors!) worshipping a number of gods.
I think that this touches on some of my frustration with Wicca. (And indeed, in my last post I was implying that Wicca may not be properly “Pagan” because of its insistence on cramming all of the gods into two molds.) What it really comes down to for me is that I don’t like being told that the gods and goddesses I revere and interact with on a daily basis are just archetypes, or figments of the imagination of some Great God who Himself is an impersonal abstract expression of somethingorother. I see little difference between this and Christian telling me all of my gods are deceptions from Satan, or Hindus telling me that Jove is really an incarnation of Vishnu. Yes, I will desire to distance myself from anyone who condescends me like that.
Pagan or polytheist practice that emphasizes cultus presupposes a definite being with volition and consciousness on the other end of the interaction. (Cultus, for the present purpose, is active and deliberate interaction with divine beings.) Thus, when I hear Pagans being described or self-defining as “nature worshippers,” I wonder how interaction can take place at all. “Nature” doesn’t care if you make offerings, hold festivals, or sing its praises and dance and feast with your friends. Dancing at Lughnasadh will not avert global warming; singing a hymn won’t stop an earthquake; pouring a libation won’t prevent it from raining. The best way to “honor” nature is to do things like recycle, not drive, reduce one’s carbon footprint, and so forth.
But, if one (for good or ill, depending on who one asks) personifies nature to some extent as genii loci, land wights, and other spirits of nature and place, then one can usefully interact with these things even if it still might rain, have earthquakes, or get warmer. The more ecologically-conscious one’s religiosity is, the more scientifically-informed it tends to be; and if that’s the case, then the utter irrelevance of “nature worship” in any cultic fashion should become all the more obvious. Nature—and the wider cosmos more generally, with its colliding asteroids and exploding stars—is utterly indifferent to human existence at this stage, and likely will be so forever.
And this is another thing that bothers me about Wicca. If your gods are so abstract, then what are they? I interact with the gods because I can, because while they may embody cosmic forces, they do so in a way that my puny human brain can comprehend and handle dealing with. And when it comes down to it, they have their own moods and tendencies, their own preferences. Nature has no such compunctions. Which leads me to respect the gods much more than nature. The gods can be angered and placated — nature is just an environmental setting and can be manipulated as such. Regarding nature as an abstract offers no reason for not developing a forest other than aesthetics — regarding that forest as a home to spirits that will fuck you up if you mess with it will.
Christine Kraemer responded to Lupus’ article with one of her own, offering a template for Paganism that helps explain why some Pagans may feel a bit left out from the mix.
Today, in 2013, I think the three legs of the contemporary Pagan cauldron are these: polytheism, Goddess worship,* and earth-based spirituality. These three focuses for belief and practice have all contributed to what we think of as Paganism. Within the movement, a great many practitioners embrace all three perspectives, and many also engage two of the three.
A Venn Diagram is included.
Because this makes for a diverse set of attitudes, beliefs, and concerns, though, the outliers in this Venn diagram tend to struggle with the idea of “Pagan” identity. Pagan identity is most stable where the three categories overlap. Polytheists who aren’t particularly earth-based or interested in gender politics may feel marginalized, as may indoor worshippers of “the Goddess.” Those practicing “deep ecology” — a nature-based spirituality that has little to do with deities at all — may also feel out of place in the Pagan midst.
There is a lot to his, and I think it helps out. My biggest problem with this model, however, is that fact that two of the three categories are not religious elements, but political ones. “Earth-Based Spirituality” is romantic environmentalism under a spiritual sheen; “Goddess worship” in many cases is radical feminist similarly wrapped in a spiritual coating. (I would suggest something more like “Holism” for the environmental category and something more like “Monism” in the place of goddess worship, as the former includes the inter-connectivity of all things in a system, and the latter considers that the divine essentially underlies all things, in my mind embracing the divine feminine as well as the masculine. But I’m not too good at philosophy, so I may have that off …)
Some of the most potent practitioners I’ve known have been non-theist animists, urban polytheists, and Jungian spiritual feminists — and I was lucky enough to meet them because we gathered under a “Pagan” umbrella.
Agreed. And this is where I was previously unfair. In my grudge against Wicca, I was excluding a good number of pagans that are not polytheists but are still very pagan.
I’m not sure how we’ll solve this dilemma of who is Pagan and who isn’t. And maybe we shouldn’t. I think that Kraemer is on to something, but it still needs some work, especially since it reeks of the conflation of political and religious ideals that permeates so much of contemporary Paganism. It’s a good start, though, in that it allows some consideration of what does constitute Paganism, yet still allows room for those on the edges.
This need to define Paganism doesn’t seem to be waning, although the underlying issue in the above debate doesn’t seem to be so much as defining Paganism, but as defining one’s own type of Paganism as distinct from others. Paganism is such a broad term that until definitive categories are established within it, people will worry about being confused with other types that are far different from their own. (Lupus described this in an interaction with a Church and the assumption that all Pagans worship outside, which isn’t very Hellenistic. My gods had Really Big Temples back in the day.) I don’t want to be mistaken for a Wiccan, or an Asatru or a Druid, or even a Hellenic. I want to be recognized as legitimate in the bounds of Religio Romana, which is Pagan, yes, but is also its own very unique thing. And I think that is the conversation that is really going on here.
I don’t think Paganism is fracturing or imploding or fundamentalizing. I think that we’re just a bunch of people who have moved into a really big house and are making sure everyone knows where their rooms are.