Pagan or polytheist – let’s get practical

At the risk of repeating myself, but also wishing to make my point clearer, I compiled a list of real-life examples of the usage of the labels Pagan and polytheist, with a few final notes on the subject. At Patheos and across the blogosphere, the debate rages on, so instead of adding a few more things in a theoretical way, I’m going to go straight to the point with a few practical examples out of my personal experience.

So I said I was a Pagan and…

1. Happy Equinox!
Because there are hundreds of books that speak of “the Pagan religion”, easily accessible and read by thousands who them reproduce the information, there’s a general perception that Pagans celebrate the eight festivals of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. And this is true both for people within modern Paganism and the general public outside the communities. In this case, the well-wishes were given by a friend of mine who assumed I celebrated the equinoxes simply because I said I was a Pagan. Words change meaning: if in the past it meant merely a non-Christian/Jew/Muslim, in the present the term has gained a specific meaning derived from an abundant literature and pop culture which no one can stop immediately, if at all.

2. A Pagan can’t defend gays rights, ’cause he believes in a male/female balance
Yes, it’s a double misconception: not only don’t I have a male/female ritual framework, it’s also false that Wiccans and assorted groups are socially conservative (they actually are famed for being liberal), so you can imagine the amount of correcting I had to do in this case. All because I said I was a Pagan and that instantly caused that person to think of magic circles and rituals where the God and Goddess are worshipped, which in turn generated the argument that I can’t be a Pagan and a gays rights advocate. Regardless of what people argue by reading from a dictionary, the term has gained a specific meaning.

3. Pagans have no god!
This was told to me by a Catholic priest several years ago. He was naturally taking pagan in the broadest sense of ungodly and he seemingly had no knowledge of Wicca and other modern earth-based religions. Explaining him what I meant called for telling him the meaning of the word as simply being a non-Christian/Jew/Muslim, which doesn’t really say what I am, just what I’m not as opposed to three religions out of dozens of possibilities. Not really enlightening, is it? It doesn’t even say if I’m a monotheist at all, as there are non-Abrahamic monotheisms.

4. Even Pagans believe there is one divine source for the several gods
I got this one also from a Catholic priest. This one had some knowledge of Wicca or derived groups, in as much as he assumed that all Pagans believe in the common Wiccan idea that all gods are one God and all goddesses are one Goddess. Again, baggage! And, in this case, one that allows participants in interfaith dialogue to maintain a semblance of unity in diversity by means of a semi-official monism or outright monotheism.

So I said I was a (Roman) polytheist and…

1. (laughter) Are you serious?
Yes, I’ve been laughed at and, in this case, by one of my best friends back in the days when we were still getting to know each other. Polytheist also carries assumptions (it’s ancient History, no one believes in that anymore, etc.), but it’s the kind of misconceptions that work almost like a clean slate: you don’t have to be deconstructing the ideas of a religion that’s assumed to be your own, but actually explain our beliefs and practices from scratch. And while it’s true that the process implies refuting common monotheistic bias on polytheism, once you say you’re the latter no one assumes you’re the former.

2. At least I don’t have to kill Christians!
This was the result of a discussion on emperor Theodosius and the persecution of ancient polytheists. Which in turn generated a good conversation on Ancient Roman religions. There is misconception here, too, and one that could easily affect people’s perception of my own beliefs and practices; but it’s also an opportunity, for since I draw a lot of what I do from pre-Christian Rome, explaining things about the cults of the ancient city gives the chance to explain my own and the difference between old and modern Roman polytheism (because they are, in many ways, different religions).

3. Which gods do you believe in?
This question originated this post and I wonder how different it would have been if, instead of a polytheist, that friend of mine would have known me to be a Pagan. Maybe he wouldn’t even have asked me, but instead assumed that I worship a divine couple.

Tying a few loose ends

Why not address the misconceptions instead of moving away from the pagan label? Firstly, because saying that I’m something other than a Christian/Jew/Muslim says little about me: it’s like asking me what is my nationality and the answer being a non-Chinese. How useful is that? Secondly, to give a more specific meaning to the term Pagan (capitalized, a religious group and not a general category) begs for the question of which one. Earth-based? Not universal. Polytheistic? Some Pagans are monists or bitheists. This is the problem with narrowing the meaning of a word: it will also narrows the number of people that can relate to it. Why not fight the Wiccan baggage and educate people on the meaning of the word? To what end? To have a vague category? And, even I if tried to educate, I’d be going against a well established culture supported by a large bibliography for sale just around the corner and quoted in courses, workshops, websites, and even the mainstream media that gets a hold of any of those books. You’d need to stop their sale, plus a new and huge injection of mass culture to start changing things.

In the end, the best label I can find is Roman polytheist. It doesn’t say it all, but it does the essential: a believer in many gods and in a Roman cultural and ritual framework. It does the same as the old sense of pagan (not a Christian/Jew/Muslim) and then some more.

3 thoughts on “Pagan or polytheist – let’s get practical

  1. I think this is a very important issue for “paganism” today: how are we going to call ourselves? I would like to translate your article in Italian for my blog and facebook for every Italian pagan/polytheist to see and discuss. Can I?
    Manuela Simeoni

  2. I find so much of your experience (and thinking) in line with my own, there really is little else to add.

    I do think there you raise a very practical point: while “polytheist” at first glance says little about specifics, it says far more (which is more broadly understood) than using “Pagan”. Doubly so when the odds of conversation being between oneself and some kind of monotheist (or someone heavily influenced by the monotheist perspective).

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