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Paganus - Another Perspective

by Greybeard Dances /|\


(Pa"gan) n. [L. paganus a countryman, peasant, villager, a pagan, fr. paganus of or pertaining to the country, rustic, also, pagan, fr. pagus a district, canton, the country, perh. orig., a district with fixed boundaries: cf. pangere to fasten. Cf. Painim, Peasant, and Pact, also Heathen.] One who worships false gods; an idolater; a heathen; one who is neither a Christian, a Mohammedan, nor a Jew.

Neither having the accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man. = Shakespeare

Syn. - Gentile; heathen; idolater. - Pagan, Gentile, Heathen. Gentile was applied to the other nations of the earth as distinguished from the Jews. Pagan was the name given to idolaters in the early Christian church, because the villagers, being most remote from the centers of instruction, remained for a long time unconverted. Heathen has the same origin. Pagan is now more properly applied to rude and uncivilized idolaters, while heathen embraces all who practice idolatry.

- Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1913.

This essay essay uses the word pagan in two difference senses.  The first sense is “neo-pagan” - a member of a non-pagan culture that practices a reformed, revisited, restored or revitalized pagan religion as an alternative to that non-pagan culture’s mainstream belief structure.  The second is as an individual who lives in a pagan culture and as a matter of course practices the religion indigenous to that culture.

Strictly speaking, this is not an essay about pagan religion, nor a guidebook for becoming a follower of a neo-pagan religion.  Rather, this essay is about creating, or at least visualizing, a pagan culture in which pagan religious practices are a natural exponent or outgrowth. 

The recent resurgence of interest in pagan religions, while encouraging in terms of its search for a balance between nature and man, is flawed, in my opinion, as long as it is attempted within a Christian (or any other “non-pagan”) culture.  And face it – we live in a non-pagan world, all claims that Materialism really is a pagan belief system to the contrary.  So long as we are asked, as standard practice in a court of law, to swear on the Bible when offering testimony (or as an afterthought, to name an alternative method), it will remain so.  There are a myriad of other examples, far too numerous to mention.

To be considered an “alternative” lifestyle infers that there is another, more suitable and universal, path.

Of course, there are many who feel that the mainstream course is fatally flawed.  For myself, I believe that anyone who feels themselves in a position of dominion over the elements of the earth obviously is in need of a salvation from an external source.   They are incapable of providing it themselves, as they have alienated themselves from an unavoidable truth.

I am a Pagan.  Not because I find the idea of a singular, male, omniscient, omnipotent, unseen and totally separated from the world Deity, One who interferes in the world and yet remains untainted by it, so unfathomable.  But because I find it difficult to place my faith in any being that would lead a people to believe that He could be comfortable indoors, in a man-made structure, or that could convince His followers to turn away from their pastoral environment, to abandon being countrymen, peasants, or villagers in favor of the artifice of urban dwelling.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about being a pagan is that I have always known that city living was not a healthy way to survive or to exist as a spiritual being.  Yes, I have spent my fair share of time eking out a wage in Blake’s “Satanic mills,” but in the back of my mind there was ever-present the notion that there was something not quite right about it.  Surely, one might say, that is where the profits are; but I would counter, “for whom”?  There is a great deal of business (or busyness) in our metropolitan centers, and there are a great many flashing lights and sounds and other distractions to keep you from realizing that the oranges don’t grow on the pushcarts, or the roast beef isn’t carved from the innards of a truck that backs up periodically, in gestation, to the rear of the quickie mart.

Most people who are now embracing the “pagan” paths, at least in my experience, are doing so in the framework of their urban prisons.  In that respect, their journeys will always be colored by the same discrepancies that shade the religious traditions they have abandoned.  For an earth-based religion to flourish in a concrete jungle seems highly improbable to me.  It is difficult to understand the true basis (and joy) involved in a harvest celebration if one has never seen the flurry of activity and back-breaking work that goes hand in hand with actually harvesting something on a scale useful to any good-sized group of people.  And no amount of scripted ritual, wherein symbols of a thing are used to represent the thing itself, can take the place of actually seeing, touching, smelling, hearing and getting one’s hands dirty with that thing in person.  Nor does a yearly excursion to an SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) event or renaissance festival lend itself to adopting a reality-based view of being a member of a pagan culture.  But the minute that one begins to actually interact with the natural world, one runs the risk of violating the sensibilities of a Jain-like philosophy that insists on “harming none.”  That is a neo-pagan point of view altogether.  A pagan would cut the grass and be done with it, letting that fauna that requires unkempt flora for its ultimate happiness seek it where it may.  We are but travelers here, it is true – but each traveler changes the path, and cannot truly say whether or not harm was done to none in the process.

Any God that creates followers proud that only five percent of their population need to work with the earth is a strange Creator, indeed.  In the book “Fire in the Belly,” author Sam Keen points out that the earning power of the average man is in direct proportion to the absence of dirt from his hands.  And we say the moneylenders have been expelled from the temple.  Indeed.

Ursula K. LeGuin, in her book “The Left Hand of Darkness,” states something very interesting about male/female pronouns, that I think has some applicability to the Godhead as most people view it.  She says, speaking of a race of beings that are both male and female, “Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as “it.”  They are not neuters.  They are potentials, or integrals...I must say “he,” for the same reason as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god:  it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine.” (The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin, 1969).

Needless to say, this book is bound to raise a few eyebrows, and probably, sadly, more than a few bonfires.  We fear what we do not understand, and the earthly kingdom that was once a simple gathering of believers has encouraged our decline into misunderstanding.  They have much to lose, after all.  And they are us, and we are all together.  It’s like a scoring a fight and saying “You get one point, and everyone gets zero points,” somehow forgetting that everyone includes “you.”

Ultimately, however, in the words of R. D. Laing from his book “The Politics of Experience,” there is 
"Nothing" to be afraid of.  Which is, of course, simultaneously both the most encouraging and terrifying of thoughts.

In the beginning the world was dark, a void without form.  Somewhere along the line, it was deemed expedient to give that darkness a form; after all, without some manner of duality it is impossible to make value judgments.

Have we always been so afraid of shadows?  Is it because, since Petrarch cast his eye forth from the top of Mont Ventoux, we have increasingly become a visual culture and ceased listening to the night except with a fearful hesitance?  How can a culture that relies on salvation from an unseen Deity be so absorbed with what it can see and so readily discount that which it cannot?


LeGuin, Ursula K., “The Left Hand of Darkness”
Laing, R.D., “The Politics of Experience”
Keen, Sam, “Fire in the Belly”
Leek, Sybil, “The Complete Art of Witchcraft”

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This site last updated:  21 Aug 2003 12:05 PM -0500