The Pagan Knot: Why ‘Pagan’ Is The Perfect Name For Us

Scott Reimers over at Patheos wrote a fascinating post recently suggesting that ‘Pagan’ was an unfortunate name for our religion (or family of religions) and that we should change it. Why? Because, according to Reimers, it’s not really a word for what we are so much as a word for what we’re not:

The ONE defining universal trait among Pagans is that WE ARE NOT CHRISTIANS… If you think about it, the major reason that “Pagans” hang together is because it’s so nice to interact with people who don’t assume that we should act a certain way to be the right flavor of Jewish, Christian or Islamic.

He goes on to argue that this is unhealthy for our community:

Our very title pushes us toward fear and separation.  Christians verses Pagans.  Us verses Them… It is time to change this.  It is time to intentionally adopt values that are universal, re-title ourselves and grow past identifying ourselves as Pagan.

He suggests instead inventing a term — “PagAND” — which emphasizes the value of tolerance among all pagan branches and other religions:

Rather than trying to figure out what we all share, I advocate that in tolerance, we agree to celebrate NOT SHARING. Let’s make the conscious decision to defend everyone’s right to practice our own weird faith… this time including the Christians… [This would be] the difference between focusing on excluding others and declaring that we are a part of a group with an intentional focus on living the wonderful principle of tolerance.

PagAND?

But is this really what we’re about? Do Wiccans gather in their covens and praise the God and Goddess of Tolerance? Do Druids in their sacred groves perform the ancient Celtic rites of tolerance? Which Earth spirits bestow tolerance upon us?…

Tolerance is a magnificent thing, as far as it goes; but it’s only a tiny part of who we are.

In fact, who we are is a lot more — a whole hell of a lot more — than not being Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. To be Pagan is something profoundly different than being Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic. It is not defined by what it is not! It is its own thing. It has its own aesthetic, its own soul, its own calling. “Pagan” does not mean “not Christian”; it has a core essence of its own.

And in fact it’s the perfect name for us. Why? First, because we, as a community, reclaimed the word Pagan and made it our own; and second, because we have already given Pagan a new meaning — a meaning which reflects perfectly our ethos, beliefs, and practice in a profound, organic way, and which lends itself to the strengthening of our community.

Reclaiming Pagan

Pagan did indeed start with negative connotations. There are a few possible origins of the term, but in the beginning it meant “denizen of the countryside” (i.e. “hillbilly”), and came to be used as slang in the Roman military for “civilian”, i.e. someone not in the military. Most likely when the first Christians took up the term, they were using it to call attention to their own status as “Christian soldiers”: a pagan was a civilian, someone not (yet) in the Christian army.

But this is not how we use the word today. We, the community of Pagans, took the old word and gave it a new meaning. How did we do this? Did the Secret Elders gather at Stonehenge sometime in the 1980’s and lay down a new definition? Of course not. We did it the proper way, the old fashioned way, the way languages have forged words for tens of thousands of years. Regular people, talking together, passed the word around in conversation, using it naturally, as people will. They used it sometimes one way, sometimes another. And over time, a new meaning began to converge from this usage — a meaning created organically, by the community.

But like all things organic, it’s not a simple thing to pin down.

The Forest of Meaning

Word meaning isn’t really like how you were taught in school. The edges of words are not rigidly defined. Dictionary definitions are, at best, signposts in a tangled wood with overgrown paths.

Take something simple, like game. What is a game, really? Anyone can name examples of games — poker, Monopoly, Pac Man, baseball. But what do they all have in common? What is the core essence of gameness? It isn’t competition — consider solitaire. It’s not recreation — professional players aren’t out there to relax.

Really, there is no core essence of game. Instead, the meaning is composed of a set of prototypical games — card game and board game and computer game and ball game. These prototypical games have some things in common — they are usually done for recreation, they often involve more than one person in competition, using some sort of plaything, etc. — but these things are not enough for a necessary and sufficient definition of the word.

Given an activity like solitaire, we judge that it to be a game without much difficulty, even though it involves just one person and no competition. It’s close enough to the prototypical card game that we can easily stretch the game concept to accommodate it. Similarly, patty-cake is also called a game, even though there is no competition and there are no cards, balls, computers, or boards involved. The fact that there are two players and it’s done for recreation is enough for us to draw the association.

So in natural, organic human language, we should not expect words to have simple, clear definitions. A word is a knot, a tangle of prototypes in the forest of meaning.

The Pagan Knot

Like game, the meaning of Pagan is composed of a tangle of related prototypes. You know what they are:

  • Witch (female, works with herbs, magic, and the moon, individualist, holds hidden power)
  • Druid (religious and political leader of the ancient Celtic religion, associated with the sun, trees, and standing stones)
  • Shaman (associated with the spirit journey, communing with animals and ancestors, powers of healing and divination)
  • Indigene (endangered by European and Christian expansion, with rich cultural and spiritual life, passed down for untold generations)
  • Earth-Centered (reveres the Earth, or Nature, as divine)
  • Local (sees spirit in the local landscape — mountains, fountains, rivers or trees)

The point is that there is no central defining trait of Pagan; it is an organic knot of interrelated prototypes. Any individual Pagan will match some of these prototypes, and not others, to various degrees.

In fact, the desire to hammer down the meanings of words, to draw sharp lines around concepts and say for sure who belongs in the club and who doesn’t, is antithetical to the Pagan aesthetic. The very idea that a “religion” is defined by what you believe is a concept borrowed from Christianity. Leave the hard-and-fast black-and-white definitions to the dogmatic monotheists and church authorities. The tangled, organic nature of the meaning of Pagan reflects our worldview better than any other word could.

Pagan arose naturally within our community, and its meaning reflects that source. That’s why it’s perfect for us. Let it remain organic; let it remain a tangle of brambled semantics. Let the central meaning, the core essence, woven through these knotted prototypes, remain a Mystery.

Oddments

  • “What we see is the emergence of a genuine religious tradition.” The Singularity: will robots save our souls? (Personally I don’t think so. I think the brain is more like a radio than a computer.)
  • I got tremendous help with Mere America from Kara-Leah, who is starting a writing mentoring program. Bad news: rewrites ahead.Good news: rewrites ahead!
  • A neat article full of good environmental news from the past year. I only partially agree with the slams on Earth Day that open the article, but the good news is good indeed.
  • Thoughts on forgiveness from White Cat Grove.

Comments

  1. Though I don’t agree with your religion, you’re quite well-informed on linguistics. This was a pleasant read, and your argument was quite convincing. I agree that people miss the point when they argue that religion ought to be about tolerance; it’s not that tolerance is unimportant, but that there are far more important issues afoot.

    Best,
    Thomas

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks, Thomas. I am a professional linguist, in fact, so I’d better be well-informed about it. 😉 . What is your background? I see from your site that you do world building? I love that stuff!

  3. I, personally, NEED the word “Pagan.” It’s meaning may be a cluster of loosely related ideas, but that’s exactly why I need it–because my own religious identity is complex enough that less complex words distort it.

    Should I say that I am Wiccan, because I have trained in two Wiccan traditions? While my Wiccan roots matter a lot to me, so do the bits and pieces of idiosyncratic ritual and lore I’ve accreted over the years–stray bits of shamanic practice, Hellenic traditions, rituals created by people I love, and insights gleaned directly from gods and spirits I’ve encountered in trance. None of that is recognizably Wiccan to an outsider, but it’s as important to me as my starting point.

    Should I describe myself as a Druid, because my current theological and philosophical leanings are in that direction? But I’ve never formally trained as a Druid, and I am, frankly, unwilling (at my age, but more importantly, at my level of experience) to go back to the beginning and train again in a new tradition, just to say I belong to it.

    Should I simply call myself a Quaker, and be done with it? But I’m a Quaker who celebrates each full moon and the turning tide of every season, who leaves offering to her ancestors and to the spirits of the local woods. However many meetings for business I attend, committees I serve on, or Quaker journals I read, is it enough to call a follower of Herne and the Lady of the Well “a Quaker”?

    I need the word “Pagan” the way my friend R., who married a man who later transitioned to life as a woman, needs the word “queer.” R. isn’t lesbian; R. isn’t trans. But her life isn’t summed up well by describing her a cis-female and straight, either.

    Paths are sometimes convoluted, when you bother to explore them and follow where they lead, instead of sit down comfortably by the signs that mark them.

  4. I found myself thinking and feeling more on this after I’d commented, so I posted that more, together with the comment I left here, over at Quaker Pagan Reflections, if you’re interested, Jeff. (With links to this post and to Scotts, of course.)

  5. Hi Jeff – nice post! I wondered where “Heathen” would fit here hehe! Perhaps under Indigenous practice, in that it is considered regional? Of course then it opens everything up for needing to list ALL Indigenous practices, and that could prove difficult! 😉 Also – I think the term “Witch” can also cover males if they so choose. Some males like the terms wizard and even some like warlock – and I am guessing that ALL of these would be included in the “Pagan Knot” you have here, right? While I liked the term Pagan (or NeoPagan) awhile ago, it has seemingly evolved into many things that I am not. For instance, there is an assumption that Pagans are all polyamorous and into liberal, progressive politics. However, I don’t take offense to the use of the term alone, I just don’t use it myself. Just some thoughts – thanks for your post Jeff! We do need more unification than separation – but not the kind of unification that assumes too much, right? 😉

  6. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Cat. You’re a perfect example of the kind of person the word ‘Pagan’ was meant for — you embody, by yourself, most of the core attributes of these pagan prototypes. And they mix well! 🙂

  7. Jeff Lilly says:

    AstroHerbalist, thanks for commenting! I think that some of your points may be answered better in my older series of posts about defining paganism (of which this is really just a summary). The list of prototypes here are not definitive, cut-and-dried dictionary definitions, but prototypical examples of a type. As you say, not all witches are female, but the prototypical witch is. (This is why male witches sometimes use terms like wizard or warlock. Compare this to druid, which has a much weaker association with the male gender; you’ll sometimes hear druidess but it’s rare.) As for pagans being polyamorous or liberal, I haven’t seen much of that personally; I’m certainly not either one. Nothing in these prototypes suggests polyamory or liberality, as far as I can see.

    As for Heathens or Asatru: it’s a fair point that the tangle of prototypes here doesn’t nail them precisely. As you say, the indigene prototype does fit them fairly well; and I’d say the shaman prototype does, too (especially followers of Odin like myself). But I deliberately did not try to fit them in as solidly as Wiccans and Druids, because many Heathens / Asatru would rather not be associated with the term. They’re a rather borderline case. That doesn’t mean that ‘Pagan’ is defined poorly, or anything like that; it just means the boundaries of ‘Pagan’ are rather fuzzy. As they should be. 🙂

  8. Hi, Jeff:

    I agree, the ‘core virtue’ of tolerance is not and should not be the definition of Pagan. Flying by the seat of my pants, I’d say the core value is appreciation of immanence, and holism. That shows up as love of nature, the body, and (yes) sexuality.

    I don’t believe it possible to accommodate Christianity in the One Big Tent of Tolerance. When one group of people gives a big !Yes! to all that Nature brings us, and the other is into Manichean dualism and transcending the material world – well, the party just breaks down.

    We do better to focus and promote our own core values.

    Best,

    -Karen-

  9. Jeff Lilly says:

    Karen, good answer! And I broadly agree. I’d just be careful about painting all Christians with the same brush — it’s a huge and diverse “religion”, or set of religions, and has room for a lot of different paths, some of which are more Earth-affirming than others.

  10. Jody Mena says:

    This is well said, and I really agree with you, Pagan is the perfect word for us!

    My personal view on a name change is that Pagans are very tolerant, but that must never mean that, when met with intolerance, we simply bend and change to please others; that is not the meaning of strength, and pagans are not weak. The core of non-violence resistance to aggression and oppression employed by Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi, which brought so much change to the world, is that one does not fight back, but one does not bend either, one stands firmly in place and refuses to budge, thereby displaying strength without displaying aggression or intolerance. The very idea of turning our religion into a cheesy gimmick (PagAND…? No.) in order to make ourselves more palatable to others is unthinkable. Unlike the televangelists and the suicide bombers, we are not out to sell or force our beliefs, just to peacefully coexist and live as we choose. We have the right to be who we are, as we are, and who we are is Pagans.

  11. The “PagAND” writer expressed a disquieting notion:
    “… conscious decision to defend everyone’s right to practice our own weird faith … ” —
    Saying that everyone has a right to practice “OUR own” faith (emphasis mine) — rather than a right to practice “his/her own” faith — is VERY odd in a passage on tolerance!

  12. Very interesting post!

    I’d always wondered why should this term “Pagan” be accepted…(and so widely spread in the late 20th century, as “Paganism”, or “Neopaganism”), — it is definetely a Christian term with pejorative connotations among monotheists, only comparable to heathen and infidel…

    If our believes in this case are outside the Abrahamic religions why not retaining our own Folk/ethnic/Indigenous terms?

    Let’s recall that for these reasons, ethnologists avoid the term “paganism,” with its uncertain and varied meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more precise categories such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism.

  13. Jeff Lilly says:

    Ely – This post about how the community of pagans has adopted the term ‘Pagan’, changed its meaning, and made it their own. Its definitely has a history as a derogatory term among Christians — but that’s the Christians’ problem, not ours. 🙂 Alongside the term ‘Pagan’ we also, of course, use our own folk/ehtnic/indigenous terms — e.g. ‘druid’. But an umbrella term for all these faiths has proven to be useful.

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  1. […] of what I see from those who claim the name. Even within the Pagan community, we continue to have real, serious debate about what the word “Pagan” even means to those of us who identify with […]

  2. […] Jeff Lilly and Cat Chapin-Bishop endorse the term “Pagan” in response to Scott Reimers’ […]

  3. […] a linguist by trade as well as by nature who has nearly two decades of experience in the field, has written on several occasions about how language and labels function and evolve, especially when it comes to […]

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