Nearly every book on the subject, nearly ever person asked, has a different idea of what defines "Pagan." Of course the word is derivative of "pāgānus," old Latin for "Country Dweller" and Church Latin for non-Christian. We need, though, an agreed upon definition that is suited to the modern nomenclature, to the current cultural phenomenon and to the family of faiths that have been gaining momentum in the Western world for more than a half century.
Through the decades, a number of individuals and organizations have, in mission statements, in charters, in workshops and in craft publications offered a myriad of definitions of the word "Pagan." Though I confess these explanations are so prolific that I cannot have read them all, most that I have read seem inelegant or incomplete. Many are phrased in opaque language, full of empty signifiers. Many are addressed to those already familiar with the Pagan community, family of faiths and way of thinking. Many are lists of grievances against more populous religions. Many are constructed expressly to separate one Pagan sect from another rather than to define the community as a whole.
While I understand that we are a spiritually amorphous lot, often seeming to defy definition entirely, and that not every single practitioner's beliefs will fall perfectly within, I propose the following.
A Pagan faith will generally have four characteristics:
There must be a plurality of deity or spirit. This can take many forms, as a literal cadre of Gods, as multiple but distinct aspects to a single being, as an ephemeral essence that manifests in many ways.
2. Pantheism &/or Animism
Those plural deities must be deities of something. Again, this can take many forms, literal Gods of fire, war and harvest, in deification of the life cycle, spirits that dwell within object and creatures.
3. Attention to the Earth or to a natural cycle.
We are embedded in the world, part of it, made of it, rather than masters of it. Again, this belief has many incarnations but the moral and philosophical ramifications of this truth are never far from mind.
I understand that this final tenet is debatable, but it seems important that a faith define itself as Pagan in order to be thus. This is first because we cherish self-determination and second because it delineates us from some other world faiths that would generally not be regarded as Pagan in this sense, Hinduism and Shinto as examples.
I confess that I have some issues with the language. Abrahamian monotheism is so ingrained in Western culture that it can be difficult to talk about modern Paganism without resorting to oppositional terminology, without explaining ourselves based on what we are not rather than what we are. I ask my fellow Pagans to help me make the verbiage more precise.
While I would never suggest any sort of canonicity, the above is, to my mind, the simplest definition that addresses the largest segment of the community while being easily explainable to non-Pagans.
I invite criticism, suggestion and discussion.
I've been told that I don't update the blog often enough and I can't argue with that. In a vain and probably foolish attempt to keep my handful of readers happy by offering some meager pitch at content, I'm now going to fall back on some of my least favorite blogger tropes, just to keep the posts coming despite my seventy-hour work weeks. I'm posting a link.
It's content and it's good.
What else do you want.
It's content and it's good.
What else do you want.
Years ago, my sister had a friend named "Thunder." I was in a theatre troupe for some time with a guy named "Sundance," and I had a friend in college named "Seven." These were not nicknames; these were the words on their birth certificates. Of course, we all know of someone who has christened their child with some invented combination of phonemes that isn't a recognized word at all. Such cases not withstanding, almost all common names have some legacy meaning that is no longer in popular use.
For instance, my name, Thomas, is derivative of the Aramaic word for "Twin," and it is from this that the Biblical character gets his name. It's foreshortening "Tom" means "honest" in old Hebrew. I'm also told that, in the Latin of the early Catholic Church, "Toma" was occasionally a synonym for "Infidel."
My recent breakup from a five year relationship and subsequent re-admission to the dating world has made me realize how difficult it is to really get to know a stranger. (This connects, I promise). One can simply not trust their first-blush assumptions about another person. We are such protean creatures, easily tailoring our behavior and choosing or words to create the desired impression in eager and unsuspecting strangers. Who hasn't met someone in a bar or at a party, someone full of charm and disarm who, down the line turns out to be a complete jack hole. Who hasn't had a devoted friend who, even after years, exposes a personality defect so egregious that, long after abandoning the friendship, leaves us wondering how we ever missed it in them. Wouldn't have been great if we could have known these things all along?
Psychologists tell us that we make assumptions based on others' names but I consistently find that the nominative stereotype is rarely correct. Ryan is probably not rugged or daring. Pheobe is probably not bookish. Gabriel is probably not sensitive or artistic. Jackie is probably not carefree and Edgar is probably not keeping a gimp-slave in his basement.
I think we need a new system both for getting to know people and for identifying them.
As such, I suggest doing away with names altogether. At least, I suggest doing away with the Biblically or historically inspired words that we tend to use simply to identify individuals and not for any other purpose, words like William, Olivia, Sara, Michael, Ben, Miriam and, yes, Thomas. I think we should return to descriptive, tribal-style names that identify us by some meaningful aspect of ourselves.
I don't mean that we should go back to having names like "Little Tiger," "Fleet as the Wind," or "Sits in Silence." And, I don't mean that we should somehow update such a system for a modern and industrialized world. We could hardly take each other seriously with names like, "Drives Real Fast" or "Immaculate Hairdo."
I think that one's name should be one's single worst quality. That thing, that one overriding personality trait that invariably leads a person to be palatable to certain folks but not to most others, that should be the way we identify ourselves to one another. That way, when you meet someone for the first time, you already know the worst and, if you can accept that, everything else about them is, by contrast, a pleasant surprise. Contrawise, you know from the first introduction whether this person has some deal-breaking part of themself that you would otherwise discovered only after devoting emotional energy in the befriending.
This cold be tremendously illuminating:
"Hey, do you know what Can't Keep it in His Pants and Never Shuts Up are doing tonight?"
"Yeah, those two, Thinks He's Elvis, Indeterminate Gender and Drowns Kittens for Fun are all going to a Fellated a Record Executive concert."
It would make the interactions between persons that are somehow so opaque much easier to understand:
"Did you hear that Always Compensating, Condescendingly Erudite and Never Been Wrong got in a big fight at the bar last night?"
"Smells Funny, and Always Flirting broke up because he caught her talking to Date Rapist. On the other hand, I think Beats His Kids is going to pop the question to Daddy Issues."
This system is not perfect, of course. One can always just lie about their name. I suspect we would all learn to be suspicious of those strangers with innocuous-sounding signifiers like, "Doesn't Use His Blinker," "Coffee Snob" or "Hugs too Hard." There are also some insidious and life-destroying character faults that large numbers of people have so there would be a lot of people named "Alcoholic," "Compulsive Materialist" and "Desperate to be Loved." We'd also have to get pretty creative or a third of everyone would be named "Ugly," "Asshole," "Dickhead" or "Bitch." Finally, it's likely that individuals' names would changes several times through their lives so I'm not sure what this would to do to tax collection but none of these things are insurmountable in the face of the benefits to our psychic wellbeing.
All that said, I've got to go. Speaks in Movie Quotes, Always Asks if She's Fat and No Tact at All asked me to go to see Can't Keep a Job's band. Be good to yourselves.
Legend in His Own Mind