If you don’t know, Paganism is a group of religions based partly on ancient myth and largely on late medieval folk practices, with a fair dose of contemporary innovation thrown in.
During these discussions a lot of people assumed I must be Pagan myself. It’s understandable; I’m a priest at a temple for the ancient Gaelic gods. I have a lot of Pagan friends and I do a column about the Heroic Life at the Patheos Pagan portal.
Pretty fair mix up, really.
But when I clarified it left some folks scratching their heads. Blogger Teo Bishop asked me if I could explain how exactly I’m not Pagan, since I follow the same gods that many Pagans do. So let’s do this.
Starting Off Young
When I was 14 I chose not to get confirmed. Confirmation is like pledging a fraternity, except instead of a fraternity it’s the Catholic Church and instead of four years it’s for life. But the parties are about as good.
I received my parents’ blessing on this choice, and launched a half-hearted search for a new spirituality. I had pretty much given up and stopped looking when, by pure chance, I picked up a book about Druidism.
Druidism is a modern Pagan religion that takes some inspiration from the religion of the ancient Celts. What hooked me was the teaching that nature is sacred. I had only ever felt spiritual when out in nature so I decided to read up.
Within a month I decided that was my religion. And so, at age 14, I was indeed a Pagan.
It Didn’t Stick
I realized pretty quickly that I felt disconnected from my new religion. The practices themselves—making offerings outdoors, building a shrine to my gods—were very fulfilling. But as I read more literature from leaders in the movement, I realized something.
They didn’t know what the ancient Celts did.
I was only 14, but when Egyptian gods, Christian liturgy or Indian chakras were thrown in the pot I could tell what I was reading was not pre-Christian and Celtic. More alarming, I had no idea where to look for accurate information.
This lead to years of personal research and a shift toward a different, more historically based branch of Paganism, called Reconstructionism.
Founding a Temple
By the the early Oughts I was a priest with students of my own. My first student sought me out because of my emphasis on learning and restoring the ancient traditions. By 2004, we were ready to launch our very own temple.
Temple of the River comprised an ambitious project: combine all of the historically accurate teachings of Reconstructionism with Druidism’s focus on rich spiritual practice and community. Rather than giving people a reading list or a history lesson, we wanted to give people the experience of a working religion based on all the research we (and others) had done.
When we launched Temple of the River we still considered ourselves Pagan. But that was going to change.
Where Do You Fit In?
Despite the hard work we put into opening the Temple, my students and I found that we elicited relatively little interest from the Pagan community. We attended Pagan events and made use of Pagan networks to announce our Temple’s programs, but saw low attendance and few repeat visitors.
We hadn’t considered that what we were doing, while rooted in the same ancient traditions that Pagans admire, was completely different from what’s done in any Pagan group. A few examples:
- We expect our clergy to go through a full 14-20 years of training before calling themselves druids, as is traditional
- We use traditional etiquette around the altar
- We don’t stand in a circle or cast a circle during ceremony
- We don’t make any mention of the four Greek elements, because they aren’t Celtic
- We don’t invoke the four cardinal directions
- We don’t believe in mixing things from other cultures or traditions into our Celtic practices
- We don’t celebrate “Sabbats,” “Esbats” or non-traditional holidays like Mabon
- We use a large number of terms and phrases from Irish Gaelic
I could go on with dozens more. When Pagans visited the Temple they felt a little confused and out of place.
It went both ways. Members of our Temple felt awkward going to Pagan events. They got along fine with everyone there, but felt no connection to the typical talk about ley lines, auras, witchcraft and astrology.
We decided to start outreach in different kinds of venues. We had a table at the Minnesota Irish Fair, increased our participation at Irish dances and other cultural events, and held ceremonies and public events that were not aimed at the Pagan crowd. That was when the floodgate opened.
In less than six months we shifted from a small clique-like organization with no public presence to a bustling, dynamic community. We routinely had 40 people at a time cramming enthusiastically into the small one-room temple space. They enjoyed a mixture of cultural customs, like carving turnip lanterns in the fall, and spiritual practices, like offering ceremonies with singing and dancing.
Most of these newcomers had no idea what Paganism was, so we didn’t talk to them about that. We talked to them about Irish traditions, the sacred myths, and our spiritual practices and what they mean. This spoke to people. It was because of this surge of enthusiasm and interest—from a primarily non-Pagan crowd—that we were able to finally realize a dream of seeing ancient Irish religion alive and practiced as closely as possible to its original form.
We also made more contact with other spiritual communities. I found that Hindus, Native Americans, Tibetan Buddhists, and Vodouisants had no difficulty understanding what we did at Temple of the River. Our traditions and structure looked familiar to them. It became clear that the brand of polytheism we practiced was not Pagan at all—it was a religion in its own right, deeply rooted in a living culture with a long history, like Hinduism or Shinto.
The Usefulness of Labels
This realization made a difference. A lot of people don’t like labels. But labels have a lot of power. The labels you choose can instantly form connections to millions of people—or they can put up a wall and hold you back.
I haven’t referred to myself as Pagan in at least four years. I use the word polytheist instead, if I need to; it usually garners a lot of questions and those conversations lead to understanding. When I called myself Pagan people assumed they knew what I meant, and we ended up talking past each other.
Don’t Worry, I Still Love Pagans
Recently I’ve heard grumblings. Grumblings from longtime Pagans about how the young ones don’t call themselves Pagan anymore. There’s talk that people are embarrassed to be called Pagan.
Maybe that’s true for some people. For my own part, I will never be embarrassed of my Pagan friends and roots.
Paganism is a powerhouse movement that was the fastest growing religion in the United States for fifteen years and may still be today. In this country it rivals atheism for the number of people it helps recuperate from damaging religious experiences in Christian churches. It has a beautiful love for life, a strong emphasis on personal ritual, and its most dearly held beliefs improve our world. It is the only major religion I can name that is primarily pro-GLBT, pro-feminist and pro-science.
I will never have anything but pride for my time spent as a Pagan.
But if I said I am Pagan, I’d be lying. That term just isn’t accurate: it doesn’t speak to my beliefs, my practices, or my community. I am a priest of the Old Belief, a polytheist through and through, and more than anything else the Heroic Life is my religion.
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I’m writing my first novella. It has magic spells, happy corn, sad farmers, and desperate fucking. Lúnasa Days.