Paganism is a blanket term covering a broad array of beliefs, from ancient practices down to modern traditions. It comes to us from a Roman word for the rural, unsophisticated folk who still worshipped nature, rather than the Emperors. Paganism therefore covers, sometimes, witchcraft, druidry, heathenry, shamanism, Hellenic groups, Romano religio, and a great many others. However, not all folk in any of these traditions see themselves as pagan nature worshippers. Some Druids are Christian, many magical practitioners are not ‘religious’ in the same way. There are also folk who have no specific tradition within paganism and for whom ‘pagan’ is a useful term of self identification, and there are folk who do not want to be labelled.
When it comes to talking to the rest of the world, to government and official bodies, to interfaith gatherings and the media, ‘pagan’ has been a useful term. You might be the only priestess of Vesta for miles. You might be the only Alexandrian witch in the village, the only Kemeticist in the state, but the odds are good you aren’t the only pagan. As a lone practitioner, officialdom will see no reason to bother with you, but will blithely give you a hard time. As one of a body of voters, consumers, readers… you may have a voice. The trouble is in practice we don’t do a great job of speaking for each other. Even in groups where people make a point of trying to learn about other paths for the express purpose of good representation in the wider world, it’s very hard to represent something you don’t personally believe in.
Paganism as a term can give us a sense of togetherness. Many moots are ‘pagan’ as opposed to path specific. I’ve been to a fair few over the years, and met many interesting people, but I’ve never found the term ‘pagan’ bound me very closely to any other pagan. Compared to the sense of connection and belonging I usually feel with other druids, it’s not in the running. But there was a time when I didn’t have a designated path and ‘pagan’ was the only word I could use to describe myself. Had it not been for those broader, more generic pagan groups and gatherings, I would not have met the people who helped me go on to self identify as a druid.
On getting more involved with the life of a tradition, it can be tempting to move away from the ‘general eclectic’ spaces. The New Age fringe, the dabblers, the wannabies, all seem at odds with the good thing now discovered. Except that we too were dabblers and wannabies not so very long ago. I think it’s vitally important to hold the doors open, and have places where people who want to learn and explore, can do so in a supportive environment. Not everyone knows automatically where they fit, and not everyone finds a tradition they readily belong to. This is how new traditions and groups come into being, and is a necessary part of the process.
While it is possible to learn alone, from books, the internet, experimentation, trees and a whole host of other sources, it can be lonely. It can feel a bit mad at times. It can get a bit mad. People are meant to be social creatures, and that’s a part of our spiritual lives too. So while I have doubts at how useful ‘pagan’ is as a word for describing us in our many paths, I’m convinced it has a function as a doorway. It’s an easy thing to find and a place to jump off from. But sometimes it makes for peculiar bedfellows, and throws people together who have very little in common with each other. Being all lumped together like one homogenous gloop probably isn’t in our interests much of the time, but it does have its uses.