Recently, blogger, Star Foster, announced that she no longer defined herself as a ‘pagan’ in large part, she says, because of the community itself. Star’s announcement was met with horror by some, celebration by others, and the odd shrugs of indifference. Really, why would anyone care whether or not someone chose to call themselves a “Pagan” or a “hard polytheist” or soft- polytheist?
This sort of running away from the word ‘Pagan'” seems to be, I believe, a gut reaction to the trend to either embrace or eschew certain labels when they are applied to who we are and what we believe.. This is especially true when the labels do not seem to fit. An example I would use is the realm of Witchcraft. To some, Witchcraft, goes back to the Anglo-Saxon word, ‘wicce’, meaning ‘to bend’. This, word, courtesy of Gerald Gardener and later adherents of the religion he publicised, goes now, by the name, Wicca. There are a few very formal, specific Initiatory groups, namely Gardnerian (named after the founder and the lineage that goes straight back to Uncle Gerald) and Alexandrian, founded by Alex Sanders, who founded it, rather than after the Ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria, where some of the most ignorant of Wicca’s adherents erroneously like to claim their religion came from.
In these groups, there are specific things that are done – the casting of Circles, the worship or honouring of a Goddess and/or God, etc. It is a lovely system to those who are a part of it. It can be “pagan” or some even insist that they are Christo-Wiccans – Witches that see Jesus as the male “God” figure, and perhaps Mary Magdalene or Mary the Mother as the “Goddess” figure. That’s fine. Call yourself what you like, do as you wish. It’s all good if it works for you.
Others who practice Witchcraft, do come from family traditions which are handed down generation after generation. To them, it is a “craft”, not a religion, and is not unlike practicing herbalism, midwifery, embroidery, growing your own food, etc. In fact, many of these things may play a part in any individual’s “Craft” that have nothing to do a religious undertaking at all. They may or may not have a patron deity or saint. Some of them couch their practices well within the Christian bible and are for all outward appearances, Christian. Indeed, if you look in some of the old grimmoires, you see, several instances invoking Jesus, YHWH, the archangels, etc. in order to help effect a spell or magical undertaking. I would certainly put many British Traditional Witches under this heading who are neither Alexandrian or Gardnerian or anything other than their own insular tradition that uses whatever elements that work for them as either individuals and/or groups. They may or may not call themselves “pagan”. Again, it is all very personal and it’s all good.
The problem comes largely from those who are not a part of either of the aforementioned groups who like to assume that all Witches are “just like them”. To these, if you call yourself a Witch (Capital or lower case “w”), then you must be Wiccan. No. There are many who practice witchcraft who would be extremely upset at the ‘Wiccan’ label and there are still others that would waste no time in correcting you if you were to assume that they are pagan. They eschew the very idea, and they want no part of that definition, or the people who wield it and apply it so liberally to anyone and everyone who is not J, C, or I. It is uncertain as to whether this trend is because of the mass marketing of Wicca by authors and publishers in the effort to sell to mostly dissatisfied, do-it-yourselfers who don’t know any better than to just lump everyone together or it goes even deeper than just commercial interests. The assumption on the part of many of these types of folks is that anyone who is not Jewish, Christian or Muslim, is indeed therefore a “pagan”. Is it because of the human need to define who makes up the “Us” and who is “Them”? It is human nature to desire a sort of “assumed commaraderie” with those who are “other” or those who are “just like us”. In the end it tends to feed into victim mentality that so many cloak themselves in when they leave one of the Big Three monotheistic religions. They seem to want constant reassurance that their choice is the right one, yet never themselves being strong enough to stare down anyone who would dare put their personal beliefs under scrutiny.
I am absolutely not a Pagan. I am proudly and unapologeticaly Kemetic Orthodox. That makes me a decided monolatrist, much in the same way that specific sects of Hindus are. It was Roman paganism that destroyed the religion of ancient Kemet by outlawing it because it undermined the absolute authority of the Emperor. It was the pagans of the ancient world who did not understand either the indigenous religious views or the Egyptian / Kemetic culture. Look at the discrepencies between Pharaonic Kemet and after Ptolomaic and Roman rule. It is a striking contrast.
This declaration on my part does not mean I am a henotheist, a “soft” polytheist, a “hard” polytheist or anything other than what I just said. I expect and demand that my self-definition will be honoured and that no one would have the temerity to try to correct me about it. I will accord anyone else with that same privilege. This definition means I practice the ancient Egyptian religion in a way that I interpret to be as close, or at least a derivative of what was practiced in antiquity. Thankfully, with Champollion’s deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, the improvements over the last two centuries in ancient Egyptian translation and philology, we can read the inscriptions on the actual temple walls. This more or less provides us with the “crib notes” on how it was all done. Fathoming the 400+ symbols, seventeen tenses, double, triple and even quadruple entendre’s as well as the symbolic meaning of what is being read, can be another matter, and we who practice this way of doing things do disagree quite often.
For the record, most legitimate Egyptologists, do not ever acknowledge that they honour the old gods and the ancestors, nor do they ever even remotely infer that they actually “believe in any of this stuff”. To do so, can very well be the death of a professional career. Professional scholars tend to be rather ruthless about things like that. Personally, I don’t have to worry about it. The scholarly community views folks like me with a sort of amused disdain and the unfulfilled desire to hand us a cookie, pat us on our rumps, and send us out of the room with explicit instructions to quit bothering the adults. To the academic scholars, it makes no difference that the person may have written very well researched papers and books on the subject, or even acquired the relevant degrees to call themselves an Egyptologist, or are professors in their own right. The bias against believing is quite palpably there. I personally know of many within the field who do practice, or it is obvious that they do – but in the interests of professional courtesy or self-preservation, no one breathes a word
This sort of bias can definitely backfire for them, too. Afrocentrist scholar, Professor Maulana Karenga wrote probably the most comprehensive, well-researched book on the ancient Egyptian concept of ma’at ever published. He wrote it according to Egyptology’s own rules. Karenga’s research and referencing are impeccable – there are few, if any who can find fault with his work. Personally, other than the minor detail that he does not put an accent mark between the “A’s” on, Ma’at, I am quite impressed.
What are the benefits of “pagans” – neo or otherwise, even having a community? Even by the loosest of definitions, this so-called “community” is more along the lines of a tenuous peace between tribes that tend to squabble endlessly over the most petty details. Otherwise, they’d have precious little good to say about one another at all. I saw this behaviour years ago within the Indigenous community for decades, and unless there is a concerted effort toward real respect amongst each other, then there is no “community” to speak of at all.
It all boils down to the respect of an individual to allow them to decide for themselves what they personally believe. It’s human nature to want to put the people with whom we identify under the same big tent that we are under in a sense of community. For whatever reason, for some, it is not enough that we are members of the human race, or that we are spiritual beings, but rather it has to be parsed down to a simple either / or dilemma. Either you are Pagan or Not Pagan. Either you are one of “Us” or you are one of “Them”. Respect can consist of simply being a good guest at religious ceremonies and rituals and not necessarily being a member. Respect is about shutting up and listening to how someone speaks of their beliefs without the need to apply any other descriptive other than the one that the individual or group of individuals defines for themselves. To my mind it is such a simple thing, but all too often it just gets lost in the dialogue.