Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: Pagan Identity Page 1 of 2

We’re a different religion

Asatru really is a different religion.

That might seem like a pretty obvious statement on the face of it. Of course we’re different. We’re not Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism. But that’s not really my meaning here. I’m really talking about the neopagan tendency to want to lump everything that isn’t Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism under the “pagan umbrella“. I’ve written about this before, but a couple of things really brought it to mind again lately.

First was a comment by John Michael Greer (former Archdruid of AODA), a fellow who seems nice enough, and certainly thoughtful and intelligent, but with whom I disagree on just about everything, but he encapsulated the thing about Asatru, vis-a-vis the rest of “the neopagan community” perfectly in a comment on one of his recent posts:

As for Asatru – well, basically the thing that makes me think it’s put down deep roots is that the great majority of people who practice it are just ordinary Americans who happen to belong to a different religion. Most of the Neopagan faiths have, if I may be frank, a theatrical air to them – the kind of thing you find in most deliberately alternative subcultures, which exist in large part to display one’s disaffection with the existing order of society – and those don’t keep well, once the shock value wears off people go looking for new ways to be disaffected and edgy.

I think that perfectly states the case. Of course, there are some Asatruar out there, especially the newcomers, who are out to honk people off, but most of them eventually grow out of that phase and become just ordinary folks who happen to worship Odin and Thor rather than Jehovah of Sinai. As another commenter on that same post put it, “On Heathenry — I had not really thought of it that way, but JMGs comments about its less theatrical appeal do ring true. Ever since the Heathens first started appearing in numbers at neopagan gatherings 20 years ago, they have always been a jeans-and-T-shirt crew.”

And that’s really true. We aren’t trying to be deliberately provocative, or counter-cultural. Hel, the political and social conservatism that many Asatruar maintain should be proof enough of that.

You have $10,000 to bet. Is this a Wiccan or
an Asatruar? Think quickly!

But another blogger (to whose blog I’m not going to link, as she regularly posts a lot of ignorant drivel and apparently whenever I link to her, her hits go up exponentially, and, really, just fuck her) recently posted a thing about the definition of Heathenry, and how it really doesn’t mean anything to do with Germanic religion or Asatru, and we’re all a bunch of idjits for thinking it does (and she tosses in a line to the effect that anyone who isn’t a Christian/Muslim/Jew is a Heathen, completely ignoring the negative historical connotations of the label, which I’m sure the Hindus and Amerindians and Yoruba really appreciate).

But in doing so, she also ignores completely the reason that those who self-consciously self-identify as Heathens, as opposed to Pagans, do so.

Yeah, I know the Atheists use “heathen”
too. That’s a subject for a whole other
blog post.

According to the dictionary definition, Heathen and Pagan are pretty much synonyms. “Country dwellers” or “bumkins” or “hillbillies” or something like that, with the added meaning of being non-Christian. So why do Heathens go out of their way to call themselves Heathens, and actively eschew the “Pagan” or “Neopagan” label, do so?

Precisely because there are cultural connotations of the word “Pagan” that go beyond the dictionary definition. Perhaps the dictionary will catch up with culture eventually (as it inevitably does), but in the meantime there are popular usages that have as much validity, precisely because they are how people use the term in real conversation.

And that reason is that those of us who choose to self-identify as Heathens don’t want to be associated with those who self-identify as Pagans. And we choose the word “Heathen” exactly because it is a Germanic word (cognate to ON heiðinn), as opposed to a Latin word like Pagan (cognate to Latin paganus). By choosing to use the Germanic-derived term, we set ourselves apart. It’s a subtle thing, and certainly not a distinction that is recognized by society at large, but it is a conscious choice, and it is done for a reason, even certain bloggers are ignorant of the origin of the usage.

Sometimes popular usage gets ahead of the writers of dictionaries. No, that’s not right. Popular usage invariably gets ahead of the writers of dictionaries. The fact that new words are added, and definitions constantly updated, is the proof of that.

But to get back to the point; Asatru (and Heathenry as a whole) really is it’s own thing. We’re not just another branch of neopaganism, we’re really not just Wicca with Odin and Freyja instead of the Lord and Lady. We have our own unique political and social culture, our own unique theology, and our own unique internal disputes. The fact that we happen to have a couple of things in common with those who self-identify as Pagans (polytheism, magic, and… um… buggered if I can think of anything else).

We’re not part of your umbrella. We’re a unique religion, just like Jainism, or Mormonism, or a hundred others. We attend your events because there are some historical ties, and some commonalities (as mentioned above), but that’s not nearly enough to draw us under your umbrella.

Can’t we be friends without you trying to absorb us, and in the process, feel like you then get to tell us what we can and cannot do?

They have an Umbrella, We have a Hall

The circus sideshow that is the modern neopagan movement continues to whirl at blazing speed. There are accusations of atheist infiltration, Alt-Right infiltration, and even fundamentalist Christian infiltration. There are dire predictions of doom as the “end of the neopagan era” approaches, various neopagan factions tear each other apart with ever-growing invective, as the SJW’s become increasingly less tolerant of dissenting opinions, even to the point of accusing Dianic Wiccans of being transphobic for only wanting biological women in their rituals. Plus there’s the growing child sexual abuse problem within neopaganism, of which I believe only the tip of the iceberg has yet been sighted.

Is it any wonder we Asatruar actively resist being tagged with their “neopagan” or “pagan” labels? Why would anyone in their right mind want to get sucked into that morass of crap, ill luck, and politics?

But the follow-up question then becomes, why do I care? Why do I keep writing about it, and responding to neopagan writers?

The sad truth is that I do so because I must. In their zeal to attack one another, they sometimes splash their mud outside the scope of their precious “umbrella”, and it needs to be cleaned up by those of us outside their community. I try not to respond to their inter-community squabbles. I try to only respond when they feel compelled to attack my religion; Asatru (or Heathenry in general).

I’m quite content to let the monkeys fling their rhetorical shit at one another. When it hits me and mine, though, I’m going to take a rhetorical bat to said monkey’s head.

A lot of this stems from the stubborn insistence of some of them that, because we worship multiple gods, some of whom are also worshiped by some of them, and some of us go to the same events, that we must have more in common than we do differences. So naturally they assume we not only stand under the umbrella they thoughtfully hold out for us, but that we want to. In turn, they think that gives them the right to criticize what we, as Asatruar, do. Because in their mind, Asatru is part of the “greater neopagan community”, and thus, folks within that community have a right to criticize, and ultimately police, the goings-on within that community.

But they are oh so wrong.

Heathenry in general, and Asatru in particular, is, and always has been, its own thing. Founded across the world in the early 1970’s, a few years after modern neopaganism, we’ve developed in parallel with the neopagans. Because of the surface similarities, there’s been more than a little sharing and mutual support over the years. But where the neopagans mistook that for inclusion in a mutual community, the Asatruar couldn’t wait to let go and walk on our own. A few Asatruar continue to make the case for greater cohesion between the two, but they tend to be more inclined to disregard the core principles upon which Asatru in America was founded in the first place, and they might be better labeled as Germanic neopagans anyway. Not always, of course, but on the whole.

Seriously. Keep that thing away
from me, ya freak.

This is not a new argument between the Heathen and neopagan communities. I’ve been making the point since at least 2013, when there was a bit of a far-reaching discussion on the nature of “pagan identity” around the internet.

But the end result is that Heathenry, and Asatru in particular, is doing very well on its own, thank you very much. There are differences between groups, to be sure, and I’m not suggesting that everyone gets along in some idealistic paradise. But Asatru as a whole has matured, and grown, and pretty much maintained its cohesion over the years. We have tight-knit communities. We have international organizations that provide services that one normally associates with “mainstream” religions for their members, like making small loans for members in trouble financially. We are acquiring facilities, not because someone inherited some money, or cashed out a pension, but because our community as a whole stood up and supported the effort. We’re starting to become mainstream, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, some people are still singing the siren song of changing Asatru to be more like eclectic neopaganism. And in the process, they would destroy all of the things that makes Asatru unique. And ultimately, the failure of such a project comes down to the fact that Asatru and eclectic neopaganism are two different things. They’re not “other traditions” alongside Wicca within neopaganism.

Lucius Svartwulf Helsen says people need to just ignore the paganism of others. We Heathens have been doing that for going on forty years now, or at least trying to. Now if we can just get the neopagans to mind their own damn business, we’d all be happier.

The problem with umbrellas is that someone is always trying to grab the handle and move it, so it only covers the people they think should be covered. That’s what Rhyd and his ilk are doing most recently. And they’re able to do so precisely because eclectic neopaganism means something different to each and every eclectic neopagan. There are no guidelines, no standards, no real foundation for community whatsoever. There’s just a thousand different groups doing what feels right at the time, forming, merging, splitting, and reforming like bubbles in a boiling cauldron.

By contrast, Asatru has a hall, built on a solid foundation of a shared cultural tradition, reinforced by an ancestral connection to one another. We’ve had our ups and downs, to be sure, but the line on the chart has always been pointed towards steady growth. We have a built-in resistance to demagogues and fly-by-night pushers of ideology precisely because Asatru has a common basis; the pre-Christian beliefs of the Germanic peoples of Europe. There is allowance for variation within that basis, but take away that core, and what you’re left with just isn’t Asatru any more. It’s… something else.

Neopaganism can keep their rickety umbrella, and keep it far away from us. We’re doing just fine in our hall, thank you very much, and that hall just keeps getting bigger.

You can take your umbrella and…

Not Asatru

Asatru is not the same as, or part of, Neopaganism, period. It’s time to acknowledge that and move on.

There are, to be sure, some similarities, both theological and practical. We’re both polytheistic. We both find ourselves as relatively new religions (at least in a contiguous sense) in a culture that is dominated by Christianity and/or materialistic secularism, depending on who you ask. We’ve come into being and grown up mostly at the same time (in North America, at least). Some Neopagans worship Germanic deities, or at least occasionally include them in their rituals. A lot of newcomers, not knowing any better, find Neopaganism first and then eventually realize that Asatru is an option. Both movements are struggling to gather the resources and numbers necessary to provide the sort of basic infrastructure that even the dirt-poorest Christian church in Appalachia takes for granted. Like a place to meet that’s not someone’s living room or back yard.

But culturally, politically, and on many issues of theology, we’re polar opposites, and it’s high time folks on both sides admit the chasm exists, shake hands, and walk away from a relationship that many on one side never wanted in the first place, and some on the other side are now saying, “wow, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all”.

Sikhs are pagans? That will
come as a shock to them…

Part of the problem stems from Neopaganism’s inherently eclectic nature. Over-enthusiastic Neopagans tend to want to bring everything that’s not Christianity, Islam, or Judaism under their “umbrella”, using the rationale that, since a Neopagan ritual could include Odin, or Kwan Yin, or Coyote, that makes Asatru, traditional Chinese religion, or Native American religion Neopagan, too.

The fact that this is a logical fallacy, and is often done over the strenuous objections of the practitioners of the faiths being dragged under the “Neopagan umbrella”, is irrelevant to the holders of the umbrella. It makes the Neopagans feel better about themselves (because they’re being “inclusive”), and allows them to artificially inflate their numbers. I actually wrote about this several years ago, as part of a larger discussion about pagan identity: Is there a “Pagan community”?, At least we all worship the Goddess, right?, and We’re all in this together.

I came to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as a Pagan community. I stand by that conclusion, and would take it a step further to say, “…and even if there were, Asatru isn’t part of it.”

So when some BNN* says that There are Some People I don’t Want Under the Umbrella, my reaction is, FINALLY! We never wanted to be under your umbrella in the first place! Just because you rip off some deity names, start making up your own runes, and a take few myths from their ethno-cultural context† that we happen to share doesn’t make you us, nor does it make us a subset of you. And fuck you for trying to make us.

Similarly, when another BNN says Racism Cannot Be Tolerated, aside from saying, well, DUH! We’ve been fighting the folkish-vs.-racist fight since the 1970’s, where have you been? We would also say, you don’t really have any standing to tell us what to do, any more than you could assume that lecturing the Mormon Church on aspects of their doctrine would have any meaning to them whatsoever. I’m not the only person to have made this point.

We don’t want to be under your fucking umbrella. We never have before, and we don’t want to now.

Neopagan, you’re an outsider to us, and we value the inangard/utangard distinction. You tend to be overwhelmingly liberal politically, where we tend to be conservative/libertarian (there are exceptions on both sides, of course). You are eclectic to the point of appropriation or even cultural genocide, whereas we stick to our own ethno-cultural heritage. Historically, you’re based on 19th century ceremonial magic and an invented persecution myth, while we’re a reconstructionist faith that values academic rigor and, you know, historical sources.

But more to the point, you feel entitled to tell everyone else, especially those you have dragged under your “Pagan umbrella” or “Big Pagan Tent” or whatever, how they should practice their religion. You think slapping your label on our faith gives you the right to say that merely saying ancestry is relevant to religion is something to be not only condemned, but enough to ostracize people.

Riddle me this: How can you ostracize someone who doesn’t want to be part of your group in the first place?

Kenny Kline. Google him.

You don’t see Asatruar making pearl-clutching posts about the (very real) rampant pedophilia problem within Neopaganism, and demanding that prominent Neopagan leaders who either actively condoned it or turned a blind eye be tossed out. You know why? It’s not our business. It’s not our religion, it’s not our problem. It’s your house, your mess, and it’s up to you to clean it up. We might call out the specific instances as being horrific (which they absolutely are), but as a community, it’s not for us to “tsk-tsk” your community as a whole about it and start demanding outlawry. But Neopagans seem perfectly content to do so to us, and in the process side with SJW fanatics who erroneously conflate being folkish with being racist, making it all the harder for us on the folkish side to combat the real racists.

There are many, many evils in the world being done under the banner of religion, all much worse than saying “you worship the gods of your ancestors, and we’ll worship ours”. Where’s the Neopagan outrage over present-day Islamic slavery? Let’s see the calls from Jason Mankey or John Beckett insisting that king Salman of Saudi Arabia or king Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar be ostracized. Maybe it’s because you haven’t tried to drag them under your umbrella.

We don’t want to be under your umbrella. We never have, and we don’t now. Asatru is one religion, and Neopaganism and Wicca is another (or a whole bunch of others; I really don’t care, any more than I care if Catholicism and Mormonism are different religions).

So please. Take your umbrella and…


* Big Name Neopagan

† Yes, there are some who call themselves Asatru who deny the “ethno-” half of that word. I’ll discuss them in a separate article.

Subverting Paganism


transitive verb
– to secretly try to ruin or destroy a government, political system, etc.
– to make (something) weaker or less effective 
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

To be honest, I was done with the whole atheistic paganism thing, because at the time it seemed like nothing was left to be said. But then something new came up that’s relevant, and I think it deserves some attention and discussion.

Over at Reddit last week, John Halstead, chief voice of the “atheistic Pagans”, agreed with a commenter that atheistic paganism was “subversive”. A couple of days later at Patheos, he expanded on what exactly that subversiveness meant:

“Atheistic Paganism is subversive to the dominant paradigm which teaches us that our only choices are a supernaturalistic worldview or a despiritualized materialism, or between a literalistic theism or a desacralized universe. This paradigm pervades American culture and, disappointingly, has made its way into contemporary Paganism as well. I see it every time someone assumes that, because I am an atheist, that I don’t believe in anything larger than myself. I see it when people [say] one cannot be a Pagan without believing in magic, or gods, or other supernaturalism. There is a third option; reverence for a re-sacralized material universe.”

Now, the other week I caught a bit of flak for suggesting that Atheists could still be valued members of the Heathen and Pagan communities, even if they did not believe in the literal existence of the Gods and the supernatural. I stand by that assessment, based as it is in both history and a sense of confidence in the strength, endurance, and vitality of Heathen society in general (I’ll let the Pagans speak to the state of their own society and community).

But, and this is a vital point, that assessment rests on the assumption that the non-believers in question are not going out of their way to publicly mock and undermine belief in the Gods. That they are “going along to get along”, and enjoying the benefits of belonging to the Heathen or Pagan community, as they perceive those benefits, without abusing the hospitality of their host communities (or sub-cultures).

But when John Halstead says, publicly and seemingly proudly, that he sees atheistic Paganism as being “subversive” (although he quibbles about why that is the case), that tells me he is in no way behaving in accordance with the demands of hospitality. Guests have responsibilities, and not going out of your way to insult or subvert your hosts in their own hall is one of the larger ones.

And when Halstead says he’s being “subversive”, he’s even going beyond merely being insulting, because the very definition of “subvert” includes the connotation that the thing being subverted is going to be destroyed and harmed. He might see it as a beneficial transformation, but any fundamental transformation requires by definition the destruction of the thing being destroyed.

Halstead is fundamentally wrong when he says that “this [supernaturalistic vs. materialistic] paradigm… has made its way into contemporary Paganism”. The fundamental opposition of Paganism to the materialist world-view didn’t “make its way” into anything. It was there from the beginning, whether you place that beginning in the Medieval era, the Romantic era, Aleister Crowley in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Gerald Gardner in the 1930’s and 40’s, or the explosion of neo-Paganism in the 1960’s and 70’s. With the exception of the Medieval era, those expressions of Paganism (and Heathenry) were reactions against the lack of supernaturalism and spirituality that the “modern age” (whatever age that might have been) was imposing on society.

If we are to believe Halstead’s own words, then it is he who is trying to get his materialistic ideology to “make its way” into modern Paganism. Not content with simply enjoying the benefits of the Pagan aesthetic (“I call myself a (Neo-)Pagan, because the image of the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest non-Christian calls to me.”), he must change… dare I say subvert… the dominant world-view within the Pagan community to suit his own.

I think a large part of that attitude is borne of the fact that he honestly, in his heart of hearts, can’t believe that anyone really does believe in the literal existence of the Gods, or the efficacy of magic. He really just can’t conceive that someone can really, sincerely, believe that rubbish. So to him, his is a noble mission; to just give the rest of us the push we need to knock the scales from our eyes and admit that he was right all along, and of course nobody really believed that Odin was talking to them.

So I stand by my assessment. Orthodoxy (correct thinking) is not a requirement for membership in the Pagan or Heathen communities; only orthopraxy (correct action), within the bounds of the reciprocal rules of hospitality. But when someone is deliberately, and self-admittedly, trying to subvert the dominant culture (or in this case, sub-culture), to ruin and destroy it secretly from within (as the dictionary definition of the term reveals), then that person should not be welcome within our halls.

Does this mean that societies never change? Of course not! But their change occurs naturally, within the boundaries of the fundamental ideas that define that society. Once those fundamental boundaries are erased, the society ceases to be, because its defining elements are gone.

Good guests don’t try to destroy or insult the things that their hosts hold sacred. Don’t be a bad guest.

A question for John Halstead

Well, to be honest, I’d welcome some answers from anyone who identifies as a pagan atheist, or humanistic pagan, or religious humanism, or whatever the heck they call themselves.

Why do you include the word “pagan” in your self-identification?

The reason I ask is that Mr. Halstead has been on a bit of a crusade lately, both on Patheos and Pagansquare, beating the drum that Pagans (and, presumably, Heathens) who actually believe in Pagan gods are misguided at best, and actively harmful to his favored causes (which he conflates with his own definition of atheistic paganism) at worst.

So it begs the question, why does he, and why do they, bother to call themselves Pagan in the first place? Why not just call themselves atheists, or humanists, or whatever? What additional value is there in the hyphenated identity for them? I’ve had my own bouts of denial of the divine, and never once was I tempted to undertake some sort of hybrid approach. It’s a mindset outside of my experience.

Is it to mark their belief in the importance of nature? That doesn’t work, because there are plenty of environmentalist atheists. I’d be willing to bet the intersection between those two groups was pretty significant, actually.

Is it a cultural thing? Do they feel an affinity for the neo-Pagan subculture that has evolved since the 1960’s? If so, there are plenty of hippy wannabes who don’t use the Pagan label.

Is it about the rituals? Well, here he might have something, if he’s just looking at rituals as psychodrama (although I’m sure he won’t enjoy being reminded that Anton LaVey got there first in his Satanic Bible and Satanic Rituals). But if it’s about the plain efficacy of ritual, it still doesn’t explain why he doesn’t take the final step and just start his own religion, with its own rituals that hit the psychological buttons he feels are their purpose, but which doesn’t rely on any supernatural agency for its undergirding premise, and thus distance himself from those Gods-believers he seems to despise so much.

So I ask; John Halstead if he happens to read this (which I doubt), or any atheist Pagan who happens across this; why retain the “Pagan” label when all it does is link you with a bunch of people who do (at least on some level), in fact, believe in the existence of our Gods and Goddesses, who believe in the efficacy of our prayers and rituals beyond mere psychological impact, and condemns you to what will surely be a lifetime of writing and talking about the differences between you and us, despite your conscious use of the term, when all that fuss and confusion (and, to be honest, implicit attempts to “convert” Pagans to your purely materialistic point of view) could be avoided by simply dropping the moniker?

Or is that the whole point, on some level? To use the hyphenated term as the camel’s nose to try to bring some self-identified Pagans around to your point of view? Again, I don’t claim to know. And thus I ask.

Is this Pagan? (Part Three)

“They say, ‘I was an Indian in a former life.’
Well…you’re white now!”
– Charlie Hill, Native Comedian

In part one of this series, I discussed the Japanese religion of Shinto, and in part two, I discussed the West African religious complex of Yorùbá. Today I’d like to round out the series with a discussion of Amerindian religion. Four continents down, one to go (sorry, indigenous Australians; while the broad points in this series apply to you, too, I think the point is made without a specific treatment of your situation).

First, it should be pointed out that there is no single “Native American religion.” Each tribe and nation has its own specific system of beliefs and practices. Many tribal beliefs fit in well with an overlay of Christianity, some do not. Some lean more towards polytheism and some more towards monotheism (and some, sad to say, emphasize a more monotheist interpretation of what are, essentially, polytheistic beliefs in order to placate the broader Christian culture).

There are, once again, lots of parallels with contemporary neopaganism. Polytheism, a rich mythology, well-developed rituals and a long tradition of deep spirituality, as well as a robust tradition of what might be called “magical” practices.

Because of those parallels (as well as the phenomenon of the “white savior complex“), Amerindian religion has been used as the buffet for countless appropriations by New Age frauds and well-intentioned but ignorant eclectic neopagans looking to add something novel and (ironically) “authentic” to their own practices.

As a rule, though, Wicca and neopaganism are held to be a very different thing than the various faiths of the Amerindian tribes:

I’ve got nothing against shamanism, paganism, or the New Age, but a cow is not a horse: none of these things are traditionally Native American. Shamanism is a Siberian mystic tradition, Wicca is a religion based in pre-Christian European traditions, Tarot readings are an Indo-European divination method, and the New Age is a syncretic belief system invented, as its name suggests, in the modern era. None of them have anything to do with authentic Indian traditions, and anyone who thinks they do is likely to be wrong about anything else he claims about Native American religions as well. Wiccans and New Agers don’t have any more knowledge about actual American Indian beliefs than you do. 

Some tribes and individuals are fiercely protective of their cultural rights, and some are more open to non-Amerindians participating in sacred rituals. But the existence of the one does not negate the anger, frustration, and pain suffered by the other.

A lot of very prominent people in the Amerindian community want their sacred rituals locked down so that only members of the tribes in question can participate. They aren’t the fringe, either, unless you count a Lakota Chief as “fringe”:

It was decided, from March 9th, 2003 and forward, there will be no non-Natives allowed in our sacred Ho-c’o-ka (our sacred alters) where it involves our Seven Sacred Rites. The only protection with this decision in Government law; is that only enrolled members can carry an eagle feather. In all the Seven Sacred Rites, there has always been the understanding of earning and a requirement of an eagle feather while participating in these Rites. The eagle feather stands for Indigenous knowledge and guidance in our spiritual ways.

And that includes things like Vision Quests, the Sundance Ceremony, and other things that “plastic shamans” tend to mush together and market like they’re selling a cheap used Toyota with a motor from a Hyundai. Sorry, Wiccans, no Vision Quest for you.

Some Amerindians are even more strident:

We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of our Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people. …  We especially urge all our Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people to take action to prevent our own people from contributing to and enabling the abuse of our sacred ceremonies and spiritual practices by outsiders; for, as we all know, there are certain ones among our own people who are prostituting our spiritual ways for their own selfish gain, with no regard for the spiritual well-being of the people as a whole. We assert a posture of zero-tolerance for any “white man’s shaman” who rises from within our own communities to “authorize” the expropriation of our ceremonial ways by non-Indians; all such “plastic medicine men” are enemies of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

A… erm… “sweat lodge”

And the Amerindian tribes are in something of a unique situation vis-a-vis who can and cannot consider themselves a member of the tribe. Unfortunately for many members of the “Wannabe Tribe”, reincarnation doesn’t cut it:

This trivialization of our oppression is compounded by the fact that, nowadays, anyone can be Indian if she wants to be. All that is required is that a white woman be Indian in a former life or that she take part in a sweat lodge or be mentored by a “medicine woman” or read a “how to” book. Since, according to this theory, anyone can now be “Indian,” the term “Indian” no longer refers only to those groups of people who have survived five hundred years of colonization and genocide. This phenomenon furthers the goal of white supremists to abrogate treaty rights and to take away what little we have left by promoting the idea that some Indians need to have their land base protected, but even more Indians [those that are really white] have plenty of land. According to this logic, “Indians” as a whole do not need treaty rights. When everyone becomes “Indian” it is easy to lose sight of the specificity of oppression faced by those who are Indian in this life. It is no wonder we have such a difficult time getting non-Indians to support our struggles when the New Age movement has completely disguised our oppression.

There is actually a whole body of law, much of it derived from and administered by the tribes themselves, regarding the standards that must be met to consider oneself a member of a tribe:

Tribal enrollment criteria are set forth in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances. … Two common requirements for membership are lineal decendency from someone named on the tribe’s base roll or relationship to a tribal member who descended from someone named on the base roll. (A “base roll” is the original list of members as designated in a tribal constitution or other document specifying enrollment criteria.) Other conditions such as tribal blood quantum, tribal residency, or continued contact with the tribe are common.

Once more, I pose the question. Should a group of faiths that holds itself as something unique unto themselves be forced under the “neopagan” umbrella? Should a constellation of cultures, with proud histories spanning back centuries or even millennia, be forced to give up the final aspect of their uniqueness to accommodate the fleeting desires of a bunch of “wannabes” and spiritual-salad-bar dilettantes?

Or do they have the right to retain a unique label for themselves, or rather a hundred or more unique labels, and to hold the bar for entry into their most sacred of rituals (and their very tribes themselves) as high as they want to hold it? After all that has been done to them, don’t they have the right to hold on to those things which allow them to maintain their own unique identity and proudly proclaim, “this is who we are!”?

Is this Pagan? (Part Two)

In the first part of this series, I discussed the Japanese religion of Shinto. A lot of contemporary neopagans like to bring Shinto under the “Pagan umbrella,” but the followers of Shinto certainly don’t consider themselves to be Pagans. Shinto is is rooted in ancient Japanese culture, and converts (especially non-Japanese converts) are rare.

Today I’d like to discuss another religion, or rather a constellation of religions, called Yorùbá. The name comes from the Yorùbá people of west Africa, who had a very successful empire between the 16th and 18th centuries, and whose cultural and tribal stamp remains strong today. It’s strongly related to both Voodoo (Voudou, Vodou, etc.) and Santeria and its cousins, through what is known as the New World African Diaspora (particularly due to the importation of black slaves into the Caribbean and South America).

On the surface, Yorùbá seems like a perfect candidate to fall into the “Pagan umbrella.” It’s polytheistic, has a well-developed theology, mythology, features ancestor worship and an involved set of ritual, and even has a robust magical tradition, Ifá.

And yet… among the followers of the Yorùbá faith(s), the term “pagan” is associated with the worst histories of the campaigns of extermination and conversion by both Islam and Christianity. Whenever the term “pagan” is used in connection with Yorùbá, it is invariably in a derogatory manner.

It is also the case that Yorùbá is seen as an extension of the native west African tribal culture. Especially when it is self-consciously adopted by blacks here in the United States, it is linked specifically to those of African descent:

About two years ago, he found a home in one of Yoruba’s esoteric branches, called Ifa.

“What brought me to Ifa is that how close this tradition is linked to us as African-Americans in this country,” he says.

This feeling is familiar to many black Americans who practice Yoruba today, just as it did with those who have been practicing for years. In New York City in the 1950s, African-American Yoruba communities began to grow alongside a surging black nationalist movement.

Tracey Hucks, chairwoman of the religion department at Haverford College, says, “for so many African-Americans, this tradition has been a space of freedom and a space of home.”

She says blacks in America have been drawn to Yoruba for more than a half-century because it offers them an ancient spiritual heritage, one that predates slavery in the United States. At the same time, she adds, it helps them affirm their racial identities in this new world.

“And it also allows them to be able to affirm their black physicality, in a place that has said that, ‘You represent anti-beauty in this culture,’ ” she says. “It is this religion that comes and says, ‘No, you look like the gods of Africa.’ “

Doing rituals for those gods, dancing for them, and finding fellowship with her community, Profit says Ifa just feels right to her. (NPR, August 2013)

To be fair, there are organizations, like the Ifa Foundation International, that consciously try to push a more inclusive vision of the Yorùbá faith. However, their authenticity is questioned in some quarters, being seen as outsiders trying to “infiltrate, hijack and pervert” what should be an authentic ancestral African faith. Others maintain that one of the criteria for being a “devotee of Obatala” is to be a direct descendant of him, and that lineage is meant literally.

So, again, I ask the question. Should Yorùbá, which has a lot of similarities to modern neopaganism, count as “Pagan” even though they don’t want to be so counted? Is it to be held under the same umbrella as Wicca and Druidry, even though they eschew such associations? Should a faith that was born in Africa, and followed by Africans, be opened to “caucasoid interlopers“, or does it have the right to pass along its traditions, which stretch back far beyond the era of colonialism, to those who wish to recover the “light of the Elder Ancestors“?

Is this Pagan? (Part One)

As many regular readers will know, the question of how we define “Paganism” is something that I find fascinating. On a practical level, the definition of contemporary Paganism (or Neopaganism) has implications in academia, the law, and how those under the “Pagan” umbrella are viewed by society at large.

One of the great failings of many attempts to come up with a definition of Paganism is that the definition is too broad. Like some vast spiritual fishing trawler, such definitions snatch up faiths and practices whose adherents would find the notion that they were being called Pagan not only inaccurate but insulting, as the word has definite negative connotations. While many within the contemporary “Pagan community” use the term deliberately as a way of reclaiming it, these other faith, ethnic, and cultural groups are not invested at all in such an enterprise, and resist such labels vehemently.

Take, for example, the Japanese religion of Shinto.

Shinto, the traditional faith of the Japanese people, certainly fulfills many of the criteria of the various definition of “Pagan” religions that have been advanced. It is both polytheistic and animistic, with both Gods and place-spirits abounding. It predates Christianity (stretching back to at least the 8th century CE). There are rituals and shrines. It grows and evolves, morphing in response to the needs of the Japanese who still follow it, many of whom practice a sort of mixture of Taoism, Buddhism, and Shinto, which most forms of Shinto fully allow and embrace. It forms a basis by which its adherents can relate not only to one another but to the world around them, with healing traditions, rituals of purification, and worship of spirits of place such as Mount Fuji.

Shinto is incredibly diverse, with hundreds of different sects. There is a regular calendar of festivals. There’s even a Koshinto (“Old Shinto”) movement that attempts to “reconstruct” pre-Buddhist Japanese religious beliefs and practices in much the same way that modern “Pagan Reconstructionists” attempt to reconstruct pre-Christian Pagan religious beliefs and practices. It’s like modern Paganism looking in a mirror at times.

But do Shintoists consider themselves Pagan? The answer is no.

The term “Pagan” was used as a derogatory term by Christian missionaries in Japan, as it was in most other places. Pagans were, in Japan as elsewhere, poor benighted fools who were in need of the Good News of the Gospel.

In fact, the Encyclopedia of Shinto actually refers to Christianity itself as “Pagan”, in the sense of “any religion that isn’t my own.”

It is very easy to find interest in Shinto from the (Neo)Pagan side. Contemporary Pagans and Heathens are very fond of using Shinto as an example of a successful, contemporary polytheistic faith in the modern world. But the love is one-sided. In researching this article, I was unable to find a single Shinto organization that embraces the term Pagan to describe themselves and their beliefs and practices. They are not interested in being brought under any sort of “Pagan” umbrella. They are Shinto, and prefer to be dealt with on those terms and using that label.

It is also a fact that the overwhelming majority of Shinto practitioners are themselves Japanese. While it is not impossible to find Shinto shrines outside of Japan (Hawaii, for example, has no fewer than seven such shrines), they are almost exclusively attended by people of Japanese descent. Indeed, only seven non-Japanese Shinto priests had been ordained as of 2011. It takes more than just self-initiating after reading a Llewellyn book.

So does Shinto, which has a lot of similarities to modern (Neo)Paganism, count as “Pagan” even though they don’t want to be so counted? Is it to be held under the same umbrella as Wicca and Druidry, even though they eschew such associations? Is a faith that is almost exclusively the province of Japanese people open to gate-crashing anime fans, or does it have the right to set its own bar so high that only the most serious of converts, a total of seven, are ordained in the tradition?

I submit that any definition of Paganism that is so broad as to include a faith that doesn’t want to be called Pagan, fails. More examples and analysis to come.

Pagan Identity, Part 3: We’re All in This Together!

Some individuals during the current wide-ranging discussion on Pagan identity make the argument that, even if there is no consensus as to what Paganism is, all Pagans should stick together for the sake of solidarity. Let us first ask the question, how should that solidarity, if it exists, be expressed?

If all “Pagans” are supposed to feel some level of solidarity with one another, then some level of support should be expected. But what sort of support? Good wishes? Signing a petition? Letters to the editor? Picketing the business? Paying the rent of the Dianic Wiccan until she can find another job?

Expressions and expectations of solidarity can take many forms. Just where are we supposed to draw the line?

There are other examples of instances where solidarity might imply the expectation of action, not in a reactionary way to right an injustice, but in a positive way to advance “Paganism” in general. We do this all the time by buying books that don’t directly relate to our own specific faith, but there are many other ways in which this could be done. Attending a class, or a ritual, presented by a “Pagan” group that has nothing much in common with one’s own. Contributing to a land fund, or a temple fund, to help another group take the next step into respectability and stability. Even joining umbrella groups that don’t really meet our specific needs or match our specific religious concerns, for the sole purposes of expressing solidarity with them and their goals.

But expecting solidarity-for-solidarity’s sake is arbitrary and senseless. Surely solidarity should be based on some commonality. The question then becomes, solidarity in the pursuit of what goal?

The most obvious answer is the freedom to practice one’s Pagan religion. However, as I hope I’ve shown in the previous two installments of this series, coming up with a definition of what Paganism is, that manages to include all of the various specific faiths and paths that are usually lumped in under the Pagan umbrella without so many qualifiers that the definition becomes a meaningless, is a very difficult, perhaps impossible, task. It ain’t all Wicca.

Just what interest does a Celtic Reconstructionist have in helping a Dianic Wiccan who has been fired from a job because of her religion? More to the point, should that Celtic Reconstructionist feel any more responsibility for helping that Dianic Wiccan than, say, a Vodouist or Jehovah’s Witness who has been fired because of their faith? They might have just about as much in common, from a religious point of view.

In other words, why stop at solidarity with “Pagans”?

Do I, as a Théodsman, really have anything more in common with a Gardnerian Wiccan than I do with, say, a Shintoist? I might argue that I have more in common, on a religious level, with the Shintoist than I do with the Wiccan. Why, then, should I be expected to show some sort of solidarity with the Wiccan, because someone else decided we both fall under the arbitrary label “Pagan”?

Now, this also brings up the divide between Pagans and Heathens, which I touched on in the second installment of this series.

Most Ásatrúar, Théodsmen, Anglo-Saxon Heathens, Fyrn Sidu, Odinists, Urglaawe (Pennsylvania Dutch Heathens; it’s actually quite fascinating), and some Celtic Reconstructionists and Druids specifically eschew the label “Pagan” in favor of “Heathen”. There are linguistic reasons for this (the word heathen comes from the Old Norse word heiðínn, which is consistent with the Heathen approach to limit their synceticism to things Germanic), but chiefly many Heathens do so to consciously distance themselves from self-identified “Pagans”. Many don’t want to be associated with a lot of the very eclectic, counter-cultural, less-than-academically-rigorous, and (from their perspective) oddball things that some prominent “Pagans” indulge in. (Note that this is, of course, a huge generalization on both ends, and I do not speak for all Heathens, but rather base my generalization on nearly a quarter century of being a Heathen myself.)

And, boy, do those Heathens love it when Pagans try to say they’re just a path or tradition within Paganism.

So are Heathens to be brought into this solidarity with Pagans, even though many of them consciously choose a different label specifically to avoid such associations? If so, does Pagan/Heathen solidarity extend to a Blue Star Wiccan coven showing up at a town hall meeting to speak up for the rights of Théodsmen who want to perform a swínblót but are facing obstacles from the local police? When it comes to solidarity, just how much do we get to pick and choose who and what we’re in solidarity with?

Perhaps the goal should not be Pagan solidarity after all. Many disparate “Pagan” groups have nothing at all in common, and may even be quite at odds in terms of theology, ideology, and goals. Perhaps a more effective route, rather than trying to lump scores if not hundreds of “Pagan” groups and faiths under an umbrella already straining to contain them all, we might instead move towards focused interfaith outreach.

In fact, I would argue that attempts to create Pagan solidarity are just that, but without conscious acknowledgement of that term and thus lacking in the awareness needed to make it effective. If we shed the “Pagan” label, and do not insist on “solidarity” with faiths and individuals with whom we have little if anything in common other than a mutual desire to practice our faith in peace, we can open up a world of possibilities.

Rather than trying to force some sort of solidarity with Ásatrúar, Dianic Wiccans might find it more effective to reach out to Quakers, or Disciples of Christ, or Episcopalians on some issues, and Seax Wiccans or Reclaiming Tradition for other issues. Ásatrúar might find more in common with Mormons on issues that are near and dear to their hearts, and Druids or Hellenes on others. Reclaiming Tradition Wiccans might make common cause with Deep Ecology Catholics in some instances, and Blue Star Wiccans in others. Much like Patrick McCollum has done with Hindus in India (among many other such initiatives).

That’s when they feel the need to do so, of course; one of the great things about interfaith dialogue is that it doesn’t necessarily carry with it the expectation that just because two groups are talking on civil terms that they will necessarily some to each others’ rescue when one of them runs into trouble. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, depending on how their mutual interests align. But attempting to force members of faiths that really have little beyond a few God and Goddess names in common (and in many cases, not even that!) in the name of “Pagan Solidarity” is ultimately a losing proposition, as there is no commonality upon which to base that solidarity.

I think interfaith dialogue that extends both within and without what is now called “Paganism”, targeted on specific issues and with specific groups, makes a lot more sense than some ill-fitting “Pagan solidarity” that, in some cases, makes for some very odd bedfellows indeed.

Pagan Identity, Part 2: At Least We All Worship the Goddess, Right?

Many people have expressed some trepidation that we, collectively, are even having the conversation about what it means to be “Pagan”. I think that part of the angst comes from the fact that many people who self-identify as “Pagan”, or who place others under the “Pagan” umbrella, don’t realize just how much diversity there is under that umbrella. They are familiar with their own way of doing things, and “all the other Pagans I know do it this way”, so they assume that everyone else does it that way, too. One finds this most often among Wiccans, and it’s difficult to fault them for the attitude, since Wicca casts such a large shadow. But it is most certainly not the only game in town.

First, to answer the rhetorical question posed in the title of this post, no, we don’t all worship the Goddess. Many of us, particularly historical reconstructionists and hard polytheists, don’t have a single “Goddess” or “God” in our cosmology. Freyja is Freyja, Isis is Isis, and Ceres is Ceres. They are not “aspects of the Goddess”, or “emanations of the ultimate female life-force” or anything like that. To us, they are distinct and unique beings with their own personalities, qualities, and complex natures. Still others see the Gods as Jungian archetypes, or merely as useful mythological creations with no objective reality.

Does this mean that dualists, or Goddess-worshippers, are “wrong”? Not at all. It merely means that there is no consensus among those often found under the “Pagan” umbrella as to the nature or number of the Gods, and thus it is insufficient to form a definition of “Pagan” on that basis.

So, too, mere polytheism is not enough to call someone a “Pagan”, either. Many religions are polytheist in nature to one degree or another; Shinto, Hinduism, and even Mormonism have been thus described, but most people would never think to include them in any contemporary definition of “Pagan”.

So just having more than one deity isn’t enough. We must perforce look elsewhere for some sort of commonalities that could be used to come up with a definition of “Pagan”.

Is it a lifestyle choice? Again, while it may be for some people, it’s definitely not for all. Some “Pagans” wear pentagrams and Ren Faire garb, are vegetarians who belong to a food co-op, and flit from barista to bookstore cashier to au pair to pay the bills, but others wear suits to their corporate jobs and come home and grill a t-bone while watching football. (Many don’t even use the pentagram as a symbol!) The “Pagan” tent admits people from all lifestyles, and many of those people don’t feel particularly comfortable around people who don’t share their own particular lifestyle. You don’t get to say “you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable around people who go skyclad” (or who are polyamorous, or who are omnivorous, or who hunt, or who drive SUV’s, or whatever it happens to be). Some people are, and that attitude needs to be recognized as a legitimate choice.

Is there some sort of commonality in ritual, perhaps? Again, the answer is a resounding “no”. Many people follow a calendar based on the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. Many others follow a lunar calendar, doing ritual on the full or new moons (or both). Still others follow an historical calendar, only doing major rituals three or four times a year, at the beginning of winter, in the middle of winter, and at the beginning of spring, as recorded in the Heimskringla and other sources. Still others follow the ritual calendar of ancient Athens, or Rome, or Canaan.

As for the content of the rituals, that forms an even greater tangle. Some “Pagans” form a circle, invoke the guardians of the cardinal directions, and raise energy in ritual. Others invoke Gods and Goddesses directly, sometimes even inviting spirit possession as an integral part of ritual. Still others don’t involve “magic” at all in their rituals; they are purely votive offerings made to the Gods or land-spirits. Some have lengthy rituals with multiple parts, scripts, and elaborate props. Others do their rituals off the cuff. Some do ritual dramas. Some dance. Some share sacred meals, or drinking, as ritual, while others have a more symbolic sharing of food and drink, while others don’t have anything of the sort in ritual. Some use the four elements, some five, some two, and many don’t invoke any elements at all. Some perform animal sacrifices, and others vehemently oppose the practice. It’s the Wild West when it comes to ritual.

Organizationally, the question is just as open. There are formal covens whose members are bound by oaths, there are less formal covens, study groups, individuals (often called “solitaries”), Druid groves, Ásatrú kindreds, fellowships, etc. There’s no common structure; some have strong leaders, some practice pure democracy, some require consensus, others elect leaders. So there’s nothing organizationally that makes a group “Pagan”.

We’re starting to run out of possibilities.

If the definition of “Pagan” isn’t based on cosmology or theology (or theology), it’s not based on specific lifestyle choices, it’s not based on the ritual activities or calendars, it’s not based on organization, what the heck is it based on?

Or, to ask the question another way, what do a Druid, an Ásatrúar, a Dianic Wiccan, a practitioner of the Religio Romana, and a Gardnerian Wiccan have in common? If all they have in common is that “they’re all Pagan”, then the term itself becomes meaningless, as it describes nothing more than an arbitrary grouping of individuals and faiths that would otherwise have nothing in common.

Many have already realized this, and have moved to distance themselves from the “Pagan” label, as it carries with it all sorts of connotations that they don’t want to be associated with. Most Ásatrúar, Théodsmen, etc. consciously use the term “Heathen” rather than “Pagan” precisely to avoid association with people whom they see as very different from themselves. Others avoid such umbrella terminology altogether and simply use a more specific label; they are not “Pagan”, but Khemetic Orthodox, or Théodish, or Religio Romana, or Celtic Reconstructionist, or Druid, or whatever.

And, given the lack of commonality to define what it means to be “Pagan”, perhaps they’re onto something.

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