Pagan Identity: Terms to Consider

A while ago, I wrote an article about how a non-Pagan could start to understand different Pagan paths. While I still think my New Age to Reconstructionist spectrum is useful, it’s also limited. One thing I did not cover was Pagan terms for our identities. Most Pagans will argue that Paganism is more concerned with orthopraxy – or accepted conduct – more than orthodoxy – or accepted belief. And I agree. Nonetheless, we have and continue to make a great many terms, and often misuse or despise other terms.

Terms are important. There’s a reason every academic book (and often articles) start be defining terms. We can’t understand what, precisely, we are discussing until we have precisely defined it.

Perhaps you find this boring, but recall the chaos online as Pagans argued about the nature of the deities, ultimately defining the terms “hard polytheist” and “soft polytheist.” So let’s discuss some terms!

Defining Our Terms

Over the last century or so, Pagans have argued and defined our own terms. Any attempt to describe ourselves is important, but we do not have to agree with them. We must further refine our own definitions. While Pagan and Neo-paganism can be found in (non-Pagan) dictionaries, the other terms listed cannot generally be found (although Wiktionary and Wikipedia includes some of them).

Photo by DarksomeMoon on Pexels.com
  • Pagan: member of a modern religious movement that includes beliefs and/or activities not from any main world religion, for example the worship of nature; a neopagan.
  • Neo-paganism: a 20th Century revival of interest and religious movement incorporating beliefs and/or ritual practices from traditions outside the main world religions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe.
    • Contemporary Paganism (per Chas Clifton): a newer term among Pagan scholars for modern Paganism, arguing that modern Paganism is no “new” and should drop the term “neo.”
  • Paleo/Meso/Neo-paganism: (coined by Isaac Bonewits)
    • Paleo-paganism: original tribal religions of the world at the times when they were, or still are, practiced as intact belief systems.
    • Meso-paganism: religions founded as attempts to recreate, revive, or continue what their founders thought of as the Paleo-pagan ways of their predecessors, but were heavily influenced by monotheistic and/or dualistic worldviews.
    • Neo-paganism: refers to those religions created in the 20th century that attempt to blend what their founders perceived as the best aspects of different types of Paleo-paganism with modern ideals, while trying to eliminate monotheistic and dualtheistic worldviews.
  • Classical and related pre-Christian paganisms (per Michael York): groups that include 1) a number of both male and female gods, 2) magical practice, 3) emphasis on ritual efficacy, 4) corpospirituality, and 5) an understanding of gods and humans as codependant and related.
  • Duotheism: the belief in and/or worship of specifically two deities or beings. (This is important for soft polytheists and Wiccans.) Do not confuse with Dualism.
  • Secular Pagan OR Humanist Pagan: upholds the virtues and/or prinicples of Paganism while maintaining a secular worldview; a pagan who might consider divine beings as metaphors and/or magic as a psychological practice.
  • Reconstructionism (Pagan): an approach to Neo-paganism that emphasizes historical accuracy and attempts to recreate a pre-Christian cultural and/or religious traditions within a modern cultural context.
  • Ethnic Reconstructionist OR Ethnic Polytheist: I sometimes hear people use “ethnic” (or “cultural”) combined with other pagan terms. However, these are often redundant because you can name the specific culture. Example: you are a Slavic Reconstructionist, a Slavic Polytheist, a Slavic Pagan, etc. I can say I’m a Gallo-Germanic Polytheist.
  • Hard polytheist vs soft polytheist: Hard polytheists believe that entities (esp deities) are distinct beings with their own agency. Soft polytheists do not believe that entities (esp deities) are distinct beings. Soft polytheists often describe deities as aspects of a universal being(s) (also see: Duotheism) or describe deities as archetypes, similar to Jungian archetypes.
  • Nature religion OR earth-based-religion: often defined as modern religious movement connected to all that is or all that is not made by humans (as in: the outdoors); paganism incorporating the “three natures” (coined by Chas Clifton) as Cosmic Nature (celestial cycles and forms of natural magic), Gaian Nature (Earth as an embodied divinity), and Embodied Nature (the human body).
  • Magick: (coined by Aleister Crowley) the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.

Understanding Related Terms

Of course, there are terms Pagans use, and misuse, all the time that were not coined by Pagans. I have looked at four online dictionaries [Google Dictionary, Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, and Cambridge Dictionary] to synthesize the definitions below. Many of these definitions come from a monotheistic, often Abrahamic view, so I have made my definitions as neutral as possible. Feel free to look up these terms from the dictionaries I used and see how you would define each term.

  • Animism: attribution of a soul, conscious life, or spirit to plants, animals, or inanimate objects.
  • Atheism: disbelief in existence of a deity or deities/beings; lack of belief or strong disbelief in the existence of (a) supernatural being(s).
  • Jungian archetypes: universal, archaic symbols and images that derive from the collective unconscious.
  • Magic: using spells or charms believed to have supernatural power; using special powers to make impossible things happen and/or influence the course of events.
  • Pantheism: the divine and/or sacred exists within everything in the universe and/or nature; the universe and/or its laws are a manifestation of the divine; ALSO worship that admits all deities (ie times during the Roman Empire).
  • Panentheism: belief that the divine is greater than the universe; the world is one part of the divine, but not all of the divine.
  • Polytheism: the belief in and/or worship of more than one deity.
  • Religion: a personal set or an institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and/or practices, often involving devotional and/or ritual observances; belief/worship of a god or gods or any such system of belief and worship; a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.
  • Spirituality: the state of being spiritual; deep feelings and beliefs of a religious nature and/or of the human soul.
    • Spiritual: relating to the human spirit as opposed to material things; relating to religious beliefs; concerned with the soul or the incorporeal.
  • Witchcraft: the use of spells or sorcery; the activity of performing magic to affect the material world.
  • Worship: reverent honor paid to a being(s) or a sacred object; to have or show strong feelings of respect and admiration for a being or beings; to go to a religious ceremony.
Photo by Eternal Happiness on Pexels.com

The wording of these terms as found in dictionaries are set against the polytheistic mindset. For instance, pantheism is often defined as “a doctrine which identifies God with the universe,” which sounds very monotheistic. However, if you look at Merriam Webster’s definition, you will find this:

Pantheistic ideas—and most importantly the belief that God is equal to the universe, its physical matter, and the forces that govern it—are found in the ancient books of Hinduism, in the works of many Greek philosophers, and in later works of philosophy and religion over the centuries. Much modern New Age spirituality is pantheistic. But most Christian thinkers reject pantheism because it makes God too impersonal, doesn’t allow for any difference between the creation and the creator, and doesn’t seem to allow for humans to make meaningful moral choices.”

While a Hellene could have probably told me this, I was unaware that the term came from polytheistic sources. Between Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, anyone can gain a basic understanding of the context, arguments, and authors of pantheism. And I urge Pagans to start looking into these terms, where they came from, and how we might understand them.

Putting It All Together

Some pagans have a problem with words like worship and religion. However, when we look at the definitions of these words, we see that they encompass what we do as pagans. Some pagans like to use words like spirituality, but I find in many cases that they use spiritual when they mean religious, instead of as “concerned with the incorporeal.”

Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

Then again, we must remember these terms were not created by Pagans. General definitions of spiritual are related to the soul. Christians and others are very concerned about the state of the soul; Pagans are not. How should a Pagan define the soul? Does it hurt us when we define Paganism as a “nature spirituality” instead of a nature religion? Does nature have a soul, with which we should be concerned?

While Clifton doesn’t argue about “souls” in his description of the “three natures,” he does argue that Gaian Nature sees the Earth as divine. Is Gaian Nature pantheist? How should a polytheist view Gaian Nature? And how would secular pagans, who often hold environmentalism near to heart, consider the definition of nature religion? How else can we define nature religion?

And, of course, there is the issue of defining “Pagan” as well as peoples I often term “ancient to medieval polytheists.”

We have work to do, my friends! I hope this article has been enlightening. Moreover, I hope this has provided food for thought regarding how we define our beliefs and why specificity is important.

Sources

All websites accessed January 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: