Why I call Myself Pagan

for Macha, because she asked

by Sam Webster ©1999


I call myself Pagan. Pagans are people of a new religion that gets started in about 1850, though we could assign that date as early as the Florentine Renaissance. What has historically been called “pagan” have been the non-Christian religions of the world. Originally pagan referred to those folk of the Italian part of Rome that did not participate in the Roman State Cult worshipping variations of the Greek Olympian gods. Essentially it meant the same as calling one unsophisticated, or less politely, a ‘hick’. Later when Christianity became the Roman State religion, this term was transferred to anyone not participating in the Roman State religion now Christianity.

Yet this term was not used by the people to which it was applied, thus it is not a valid term. They were Norse, Celt, Briton, German, Greek, Egyptian and so forth and their religions varied widely. They can not functionally be lumped under a single term. They self-identified as members of those cultures, not as pagans.

My theoretical preference here is to let people self-identify, and honor their names for themselves. Also, I prefer to deal with the actual phenomenon, rather than indirectly through ideas about it in order to let it self define. Thus when I turn to what is happening today certain characteristics come to the foreground:

  1. What we do today draws on a variety of cultures and does not match any single culture of the past. Thus we can not claim to be the inheritors of any single culturally bound religions tradition. We are not Greek, Roman, Celt or what ever.

  2. We participate in the post classical world-view begun in the Renaissance, and to day most of us are steeped in the Modern world-view and some of us actually participate in the Post-Modern world-view, which has still to fully define itself, but who’s principal characteristic is disenchantment with the rationalistic and mechanistic Modernist world-view’s claims to adequacy. For instance, who believes the Earth is the center of the Universe? Or that the Sun orbits around the Earth? Or that any material can be composed by combining proportions of Earth, Air, Fire and Water?

  3. We arose not out of the original culture of some place, out of some tribal heritage. Rather we arose in reaction to a culture we either rejected or sought to reform. In the Renaissance, our forebears reclaimed the Platonic, Hermetic and Orphic traditions in an effort to reform a corrupt Christianity, who’s hegemony would fall one hundred years later to Luther’s hammer blow. In the French occult revival of the 1850s stifled bureaucrats sought something satisfying beyond the horizon of the Industrial Revolution by turning to occult practices. And when, during this time Eastern holy texts were first being translated into Western tongues, it awoke two contrary impulses; appropriation, which in literature is seen as the Transcendentalist and German Romantic movements and in religion we see the forming of the Theosophical society; and rejection, in which the participants essentially declared that the West possessed the same depth of material and so turned to native resources and began to recompose the Western esoteric tradition. Eliphas Levi, the Golden Dawn, and Dion Fortune are examples of this across three generations. We Pagans are the inheritors of the work of both the appropriators and the rejecters. The material we use is a new synthesis of what they acquired, discovered and created. But what we have today never existed before this process of reclamation began.

And so what is this new thing to be called? I would not use Neo-Pagan, because it has no predecessor. And to speak of us, who gather in living rooms and back yards, at festivals and workshops; this odd collection of people practicing this wildly polyphonic way, I would call them by the name of disgrace with which they were labeled. And I would now insist that it be capitalized, since it is a proper noun and a name. We have become what our detractors feared us to become. We, the inheritors of the traditional cultures of the past, have become a single, though not united, heterogeneous religion. We are Pagan.

E-mail the author at webster@concrescent.net.

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