Pagan or polytheist?

At the Rogue Priest, Drew Jacob posted this text on why he’s not a Pagan. It’s a topic that’s often present in religious meetings and discussions, though usually not explicitly so; but when it surfaces, as in the case of Drew’s post, it tends to generate a lot of debate on identity, labelling, and practice. And I have to admit that I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the term pagan and more at ease using polytheist. Experience has brought me to the current state, as several years of conversations on religion in everyday situations have made me realize that the usage of the latter can be much more enlightening than the former.

If I say I’m a Pagan, chances are that people will assume that my religious calendar revolves around eight yearly festivals and the moon phases, that I cast a magic circle, use the four elements and a male/female duality as a framework, and practice an earth-based religion which is in some way Celtic or maybe Norse. Even if I add a cultural element and say that I’m a Roman Pagan, the common assumption will then be that I worship the Roman Gods in a wiccan ritual structure of some sort: still an eightfold Wheel of the Year, a gender duality, and earth-based. And while it is true that I do have a personal devotion for a particular group of Norse Gods and some of the traditional festivals of Ancient Rome were based on the agricultural cycle, that doesn’t sum up the full range of my beliefs and practices.

Some will say that, regardless of the specifics of what I do, technically I’m still a Pagan, because the word implies someone who’s not of an Abrahamic faith. But that argument has two problems: being something other than X is a very poor definition that says more about others’ religion(s) than my own, in that, for instance, a non-Christian/Jew/Muslim can still be a monotheist; and, secondly, the term pagan has gained a specific meaning, too, something of which the Pagan Federation is a prime example. Actually, a look at the organization’s definition of Paganism will give you an idea of what the term means to them, specifically: Wheel of the Year, Male and Female Spirit, a Worship and Rite section with sentences such as “for Pagans, all rituals are acts of magic and celebration”, and a book list that includes bibliography that perpetuates the same misconceptions on what I do and believe in.

To many, including the general public and mainstream media that happens to make a quick research, these things are what Paganism is all about, and that means that every time I call myself a Pagan I’m likely to have to correct people every few sentences or completely deconstruct a series of preconceived notions.

If I say I’m a polytheist, I’m already setting a non-monotheistic tone, which at the same time also says that I’m not a Christian/Jew/Muslim. So it means more than the vague definition of pagan and, because it makes it easier to relate to better known polytheistic religions, such as Shinto and even pre-Christian European, African, and Middle-Eastern ones, it is likelier to avoid the Wiccan baggage that comes with the modern and specific sense of Pagan. Add Roman to it and suddenly it gets culturally specific. Of course, there will still be questions and a lot of misconceptions: people with a sarcastic look when you say you’re a polytheist or like a friend of mine who once assumed that it was a sort of Roman “commandment” to kill Christians (or all unbelievers).

But there are advantages even in these seemingly disadvantages: because I state that I’m a polytheistic, I’m immediately breaking with the false notion, so commonly held in interfaith dialogue, that everyone’s a monotheist or monist (as seen here), whereas if I’m taken as a sort of Wiccan I’d risk remaining in the monistic note of all gods being one God and all goddesses being one Goddess; and while people can have misconceptions about the Ancient Romans, the fact that they’re thinking about them allows for a conversation about my beliefs and practices to be generated in connection with an historical period from which I actually draw a lot of what I do (as opposed to correcting people about a definition of pagan from which I take little).

What’s in a word?
Some will say that this a discussion on semantics and not practice, which is what really matters, and I agree with the last part! But precisely because practice defines what kind of pagan or polytheist I am, I’d like the point to get across every time I’m asked what’s my religion, which means that I should use the terminology that best describes it. This isn’t just about semantics: it’s about the practices implied by particular words, which is why people chose to use one term instead of others. Labels matter because they carry assumptions and Wiccans understand that, for they cry “foul!” every time they’re called Satanists by Christians who argue that, regardless of the Wiccan specifics, technically they’re still Satan worshippers.

5 thoughts on “Pagan or polytheist?

  1. People often forget that words have meaning… That labels have certain connotations, even if these connotations aren’t specifically stated. When I hear “pagan” even I think of a Wiccan-style ritual, and all the other parameters you summed up. That’s not who I am or what I do.

    Therefore I call myself Hellenist, or Hellenic polytheists, as you would call yourself Roman polytheist. It better describes who I am and what I do, without those “Wiccanoid” assumptions surrounding the term “pagan”.

    • It’s kind of annoying when you hear people saying that it’s just words and then some of them go back to their communities and say that words have power.

  2. The term polytheist might not scare the Christians so much. They have a knee-jerk reaction to the word pagan. With polytheist, they have to think for a minute what that might mean. In that pause we would hope that a mind might open.

    • That’s true, Moon. I once had the experience of telling a Catholic priest I was a pagan, to which he immediatelly reacted by saying that pagans have no gods (i.e., in his eyes I was an atheist). Polytheist may well get laughters and looks of disaproval, but the word already sets the tone on the right note: belief in not one, but many gods; neither a monotheist nor an atheist! And that is a good starting point if you’re going to have to tackle misconceptions anyway.

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