Why I’m Not Pagan

So here’s something interesting. My article on expostmodernism and subsequent discussion of expostmodern religion triggered a huge response in the Pagan community.

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.

A boat full of offerings being launched by Temple of the River, May 2009.

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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238 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Pagan

  1. So you’re not Wicca-centric. It’s a shame, really, that most things Pagan have become conflated with Wicca. It does the wide diverse body of Pagan traditions no good, and it does Wicca even less good.

    If you think people talk past you, make assumptions and dismiss you over the word Pagan, just try Wiccan.

    • Hi Star. Actually I’m talking just as much about Druidism or Neo-Druidry. Or even Reconstructionism.

      The fact is that anytime we talked about what we do as Pagan, it would leave people feeling confused or even misled. People who wanted ADF didn’t have an interest in us, and vice versa. It just seemed more honest not to use a label that is misleading.

      • Right, I’ve spoken to a lot of Reconstructionists who feel they are totally separate from the Pagan community. It is a strange situation, and mostly the difficulty lies in education. People simply aren’t receiving a proper religious education in Paganism. What education they do receive seems to give the impression that what they are doing is what everyone does, and when borrowing isn’t acknowledged it compounds confusion.

        • Education might help non-Pagans understand Pagans, but I don’t think that’s the issue here.

          The people I’m talking about who didn’t understand us were themselves Pagan. They knew very well that there are a multitude of different paths within Paganism. In our case, we don’t even mesh that well with Reconstructionists.

          When the majority of our community feels perfectly at home with Hindus (no education needed), yet disconnected from Pagans (regardless of how much education is done), I think it’s fair to say we’re just a different type of religion. Unless I’m misreading your comment about education?

        • Jae Woyfln says:

          You can’t properly educate someone in the old ways unless you are born into a familial circle that didn’t have the old ways entirely beaten out of them by religious creeds and other wacky ideas.

          Ever heard of folk religions? Chinese are well known for it. Folk religions still are very much alive in certain areas of the UK & in Europe. They just don’t like outsiders “pagans” or otherwise because why would they bother opening themselves to ridicule and arguments to those that wouldn’t know the more unique and not recorded old ways – due to “pagan leaders” that are making “beliefs” out of mud – if the old ways could grow teeth and chew their backside.

          For example, I got into an argument with some nit of a “Hellenistic pagan” that thought the ancient greeks did this & that because they had “learnt” it through whatever circle or books they’d read. Unfortunately, for the nit that is, half my family is not just Italian but Greek, very old at that. What we were arguing about was the use of women’s blood. The nit believed that women’s blood is miasma, a concept birthed by the nit’s Christian mentality. Too bad the nit never really bothered finding out what miasma really is and the concept of blood period wouldn’t apply as real miasma in any form. The greek gods want you to be clean so if you forget to wash your hands after gardening you are more of an insult to them than women’s blood.

  2. nikki says:

    I am new to the community, and even tho I practice what people would call Wicca I call myself a Pagan. I think that by definition a Pagan is: “a member of a group professing a polytheistic religion or any religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam”. I can see your point that when most people think of Pagan they think of Wicca or Occult even tho it a very wide and diverse group of religions. I have met people who are Druids or Buddhists or have Native American beliefs, but I guess in my head they all are under the large umbrella of Pagan. I enjoy reading about your journey, I just think that Pagan is not really a religion, but a group of religions that are not based on the Christian/Judaism/Islam God?

    • Hi Nikki, thanks for the comment. One gentle word of warning – I wouldn’t try calling Native Americans “pagans.” It is likely to get a strong negative reaction.

      What’s at stake is that there are two different definitions of pagan. For most of history it did indeed mean “anyone who is not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim” and it also meant backwards, idolatrous and even demonic practices. It was a term of derision and not a name for a proper religion. Just a catch-all term for anyone who was “godless.”

      Thus, most cultures and religions of the world will really reject being called that. A lot of Native American beliefs were labeled as pagan and evil by Christian missionaries, so even today, it can be taken as an insult to be called that. The same is true in many other communities that experienced colonization.

      In the recent past, Wiccans and Neo-Druids reclaimed the term and changed it to mean a polytheistic, nature-based religion. But Neo-Druids and Wiccans are just about the only religions who use it that way. Most of the older polytheistic religions don’t use the term. You’ll probably never here a Hindu or Shinto practitioner call themselves a Pagan, at least not in that sense.

      A few polytheistic traditions, like Vodou, will sometimes flirt with the term but even they are not technically part of the Pagan movement.

      So I guess I would say that Paganism is one of many types of polytheistic nature religion. It’s not a term that covers them all.

      • aimee says:

        I had the same thought as Nikki – though I feel that the term Pagan has been appropriated by Wiccan and other similar traditions, it is meant to refer to any nature-based belief system. In that sense, it is meant to be a term that covers them all, but in recent times has come to be associated with something more specific. Sort of like how the word catholic means universal, but people use it almost exclusively to refer to the Catholic church. Language is a funny thing…

      • Sara says:

        Catholic is Universal. Christianity is an offshoot of Catholicism, and Catholicism is an off shoot of Judaism.

        These Christian based religions all started in Catholicism. Just as Jesus Christ was a Jew, I think what Drew is saying is, his faith is not Pagan based so why would he deem himself Pagan.

        The use of the term Catholic for those of the Non Jewish/Muslim faith. Is very accurate, since all branches originally derived from the Roman Orthodox Church. It’s less about Language and more about knowing where your faith is truly based.

        I myself am what I would call a ” non denominational Pagan ” Being I do not have set Ideology.

        • You got it backwards here. Catholicism is an off-shot of Christianity. See the council of Nicea, where Christianity in Europe was divided in Catholic (West) and Eastern Orthodox (East).

      • Kerry W. says:

        Fascinating. I would have called Hinduism, Native American religions, etc. Pagan, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the term really is Western-centric. Huh.

        I like it.

        • Denis says:

          Generally I use the “everything non-Abrahamic” definition for “pagan”, but even if you specify down to “Western-centric” Hinduism should still count so long as you count the Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic &c as pagan as they all originate from the same religion. The only difference between them is that the European religions were wiped out between the 4th and 11th century while what is now Hinduism continued on as a living changing religion.

          • There are a lot more differences than that, but fair enough.

            The point is that the common usage of Pagan (with a capital P) among Pagans describes something I’m not, and causes confusion. That remains the case however you or I would prefer to use “pagan.”

      • Bari Mandelbaum, CHN, NC says:

        Fascinating and well thought out article. Thank you! I’ve had a similar journey as yours actually, and have ended up primarily landing in Norse Reconstructionist and Santeria (though I still think of myself as pagan in some specific ways and for a variety of reasons).

        I did want to just point out that most Voodoo practitioners (like all of the African Diasporic traditions) are not polytheistic at all. ADTs are actually fiercely monotheistic – the Powers (Orixa, Lwa, or other names depending on the tradition) are basically a spirit/guardian “middle layer” between humans and the one true god (Bondye in Vodun, Olofi or other names in Santeria, Candomble or others) is present but considered too large and too distant for humans to have much relationship with that being. It’s a technicality, but an important one given that most African Diasporic Trad practitioners really don’t see themselves as pagan or as polytheistic in my experience

        • Excellent, important points Bari. Thank you for adding that!

          We see the same thing in Hinduism and, I tend to assume, in ancient Celtic religion once upon a time. Most polytheistic religions have gradations of monism or “one god with many intermediaries.” Different groups within those traditions focus to different degrees on either the multitude or unity of the gods.

      • What’s at stake is that there are two different definitions of pagan. For most of history it did indeed mean “anyone who is not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim” and it also meant backwards, idolatrous and even demonic practices. It was a term of derision and not a name for a proper religion. Just a catch-all term for anyone who was “godless.”


        As a Hellenist, I often feel like I’ve simply “conceded” to the “pan-Pagan” community in the last couple years. I don’t have much in common with them, and what I do has often seemed foreign. I’m not completely “at home” with reconstructionists, either, but usually this is a difference of perspective — where most Hellenic recons focus on Attika, Boeotia feels more “at home” to me.

        I’m also an English language major — I understand etymologies and while I understand linguistic drift, some etymologies are just too loaded, and carry too many implications.

        It’s also especially hard for me, cos I’d like to see a community built up around the traditions I hold dear, and frankly, I have to admit that the Pagan community just isn’t the greatest place to build that.

        My feelings on all of this are very mixed, and your post just kind of stirred some of them up a little more. Like you, I’ve also noticed that I seem to have a firmer sense of commonality discussing practise and approach to religion with Hindus than I do with most pagans and recons — hell, most HR people seem confused or offended that I’d say so.

        • I’ve talked to so many people who, as you say, simply “conceded” to the term Pagan. Thank you for commenting Ruadhan–I wonder, what do you think makes the Pagan community not the best place to build a community around your own traditions?

      • I’ve talked to so many people who, as you say, simply “conceded” to the term Pagan. Thank you for commenting Ruadhan–I wonder, what do you think makes the Pagan community not the best place to build a community around your own traditions?

        I think a lot of it just has to do with a different kind of thinking. Amerikan “individual-focused” pagans are just that: Even the communities that they tend to build are about turning any sense of community into an experience that enriches the individual rather than genuinely builds a community. Communities are supposed to be collective-focused; even “community oddities” (unmarried men and women, mystics, pharmakos [ritual scapegoats] and later pharmakoussi [herbalists]) of ancient Hellas still had a place in the community that benefited the community.

        And frankly, I see too may people adopt the “Hellenic recon” label and advocate a sort of separatism that seems to cut off anything after an arbitrary pre-Alexander point in history, or will superficially extol “the Hellenismos of [Roman] Emperor Julian”, joyfully ignoring the fact that Julian gave cultus to all manner of Mediterranean and Near Eastern deities. I freely admit that I’m “recon in method only, the ‘Recon community’ can toss my salad” — basically, I see a lot of lip-service from North Amerikan “Hellenic Recons” about “proper practise” and sometimes even “cultural traditions” (though not nearly as much) and far too much whinging about vocabulary and “who’s REALLY a Recon — we must police what those filthy Neopagans are doing! They can’t even call themselves Hellenic-influenced — **WE OWN WORDS!!!** RAWR!” I don’t see nearly enough, you know, *genuine community building*, save for perhaps Hellenion, which has always been pretty small and spread-out.

    • NicoleK says:

      I tend to define “Paganism” as derived from pre-Christian European practices, or those of European neighbors such as Egypt. Maybe “pre-Abrahamic” would be better. I wouldn’t call Native Americans or Hindus pagans.

      I would call what you are describing as “Ecclectic Wiccan derived Neopaganism”. Taking ecclectic Wiccan structure and adding “insert culture here”, the do-it-yourself create a religion buffet. Nothing wrong with it, of course, providing you don’t step on the toes of people with strong historic ties and practices. Not for me, but hey whatever.

      I think there is a definite clash between people with clearly defined traditions, be they Wiccan or Reconstructionist or other, and people who are more freeform, the former often being accused of being too rigid and the latter often being accused of being too flaky.

      • Denis says:

        Why would you call the ancient Egyptian religion “Pagan” but not the modern Hinduism not “Pagan”. The religions of the Celtic, Germanic and Hellenic people can all be traced back to the same proto-Indo European religion that Hinduism can be traced back to, whereas the Eqyptian religion comes from a completely different group of people.

        • Jae Woyfln says:

          Denis – would you like it if you were called a pagan despite believing in an ancient well established religion that never required “revival”? Because revival means that “religion” / paganism is warped by everyone impression unless you know… you can magically revive a Viking and ask how they practiced.

          But if had history been a little different Christians would just be nothing more than godless backwards ‘pagans’.

  3. Cara says:

    Many fellow Polytheists have this same feeling. They see Paganism (Contemporary) firming up to mean primarily Wiccan or Wicca-influenced (casting circles and all that) and they have little to nothing in common with them – so they feel they are outside of Paganism and rarely refer to themselves as Pagan, if at all.

    For the sake of simplicity I’m OK with people identifying me as Pagan and I am active in the greater Pagan community. I think we need to band together to accomplish some of the goals we all have in common (like civil rights, etc) but I do foresee a day when the split between Wicca and Wicca influenced Paganism and Polytheism becomes pronounced enough that the two groups no longer interact much. Of course, many Polytheists already don’t interact with Pagans and I don’t think Pagans realize how fast polytheism has been growing.

    When asked what my religion is, I say Hellenion, which is like a combination of how Catholics worship with multiple Gods like Hindus have. Most people then go “Oh, OK” because I explained it in a way they can reference.

    • That’s a brilliant insight Cara. I know exactly what you mean. Your definition of Hellenion makes me smile :)

      I use the term Old Belief in the same way. “What religion are you?” “The Old Belief.” I would say Seancreideamh (the Irish word for Old Belief) but no one can pronounce or spell it so it just complicates things :)

      Though now I suppose that’s less accurate. The Heroic Life is my religion, and that’s it.

      • I use the term Pagan out of convenience because it is the one that seems to fit the most what I do. I could also be more specific by calling it Finnish Paganism. There is a Finnish term being used in Finland: Suomenusko (which translates as Finnish belief/ faith) but it’s not a term I can easily identify with when living in America where most people just wouldn’t recognize the term. At least among Pagans terms like Hellenismos or Asatru are recognized, but if I went around saying I practiced Suomenusko I’d probably get strange looks.

    • Cara said, “For the sake of simplicity I’m OK with people identifying me as Pagan and I am active in the greater Pagan community. I think we need to band together to accomplish some of the goals we all have in common (like civil rights, etc)”

      I see all your points, Drew, and respect your choice. By your definitions, I’m not a Pagan, either.

      I choose to still use the label personally, though, for the reasons Cara gives. IMO polytheists of whatever stripe are stronger together than dispersed into subsets. If “Pagan” is coming to equate to “Wiccan” in the popular imagination, the only way to reverse that trend is for people who are not Wiccan to say “I’m Pagan too, but do things entirely differently, we are a diverse group”.

      I think we have more in common than we don’t; this opinion is shaped by having lived in some relatively conservative places in the South and discovering how valuable the term “Pagan” could be in bringing allies together, however different their practices.

      • I think that’s an excellent point. In our own experience here in Minnesota, we found that we have allies in both the Pagan community and the broader Interfaith community, even though we are all different religions. In a more conservative setting such as you describe I can imagine that might not be the case, but I would still be hesitant to use a term that inaccurately describes my religion. It seems like a high price to pay in order to secure an alliance or partnership with other groups.

  4. apollodorosh says:

    A great read. I myself am a Hellenic recon and rarely refer to myself or to any recon religion as “pagan”. I use that word mostly when I include pagans, neopagans, Wiccans, Satanists, etc. And even then I sometimes prefer non-Abrahamic religion…

    • Thanks Apollo. I’ve noticed that trend among Reconstructionists. Seems fair to me, since none of the ancient religions would have used the word “pagan” (except the Romans as an insult, I suppose), so there’s no reason to include it when reconstructing them.

  5. Daisy says:

    Awesome blog post! Resonates with me, as I’m sure it does for many others branded with the umbrella term “pagan” for not practising an Abrahamic faith.

      • Daisy says:

        Hellenic Polytheism :)My story is similar to yours though, used the term “pagan” at first but it really doesn’t fit. I went with recon for a while after but found it a bit stagnated. If I have to impose a label on myself I think Polytheism fits best.

        Also, to the point about any non-Abrahamic faith falling under the umbrella of “pagan”…word of advice, I recommend not saying that to a Hindu either!

  6. Soliwo says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. At the one hand, I completely share your position. It is often assumed that because I call myself pagan and also a fantasy geek, I must also at least be open to astrology, tarot, astral projections, magic etc. And I don’t. The few Dutch pagans I know than look at me confused. If I say I don’t belief in some of that stuff, they just walk away or are offended.

    I guess it is really dependent on your local community, whether you can easily associate yourself with a particular label.

    Online however, there exist much more interpretations of paganism. I have no problem with identifying as pagan here. I just associate myself with the blogs and people that make sense to me. Like you and your blog for example. Plus there isn’t much of community out here in the Low Countries anyway.

    I also agree with Cara that we all share some objectives. Though the civil rights movements doesn’t really form a part of it up here. I get that you can get fired in the US or loose custody. But here in Europe this problem doesn’t really exist to that extent.

    You and your organisation are located in a local community where it is more useful to use different labels. But if your blog wasn’t mentioned ‘pagan’ patheos, I would never have known about your and your blog’s existence. I only could find this self-identified non-pagan blog, because someone else put a pagan label onto it!

    Apparantly many people DO get what you are doing, aren’t that confused at all.

      • Soliwo says:

        ;) It is only half a joke. But yes I do understand your reservations. Perhaps the label comforts me by giving me an abstract community, in the lack of a physical one. And you have a more real community, so you are no longer dependent on the label to provide it for you.

  7. Excellent piece Drew. I’m part of the Hellenic polytheist community and am working with a few others to bring an authentic practce here in Los Angeles. I especially liked how you described your community expanded once you went outside the pagan community, via Irish faires, etc..Unfortunately, the Greek community here in Los Angeles is deeply Orthodox in it’s orientation and I’m not sure how Hellenic polytheism would be recieved in that community. However, that approach is definitely worth looking into. I hope you don’t mind if I link this piece to our website’s blog. Despite the difference in traditions between us, I think it has a lot to offer our community. Thanks!

    • We had some similar problems because the Irish community is so staunchly Catholic. But we also found that many of the individuals are very open and love their heritage enough to have an interest despite religious differences.

      In your case, I wonder if outreach at universities or doing something through the theater community would be a good fit.

  8. Branwen says:

    Well flat out fascinating. I have to say that I did read your expostmodernism entry and just completely disagreed with it. Yet here it is revealed that in fact your Temple would be where I would flock to and serve joyfully.

    Yet I do consider myself Pagan and am involved in the greater Pagan community. A large part of that is due to being unhappy with being solitary. Being a Gaelic Polytheist it felt wholly unnatural to me to be without a community of people to serve with and for. But my time and situation lead me to a open ecceltic Pagan group that did not care and in fact delighted in having someone who did things so wholly different from them. I learned much about “Paganism” and about Wicca.

    I did not have the gumption or the drive as you did to go out looking for others who believed and worshiped as I do and build a community from scratch. And it does look and sound to be a beautiful community. Instead I learned how I could be helpful to the people I’d come to know and provide service to community while keeping my personal practices growing.

    It is just interesting how the different roads make so many different shapes. Thank you for sharing this it has been very insightful and inspiring to see that what I cherish is cherished elsewhere.

    • Wow, really powerful response Branwen. I admire that you were able to find a place within that community and maintain both your private path and participation in the larger group. That’s a vital part of spirituality.

      Thanks for sharing this.

      Here’s something interesting. It sounds like your religious community has strongly supported you in pursuing your spirituality as a personal journey. That is the main thing I said religions will need to be successful with en expostmodern audience. Since you’ve experiences that firsthand I would’ve expected you to agree with that – so out of curiosity, what made you disagree with the ExPoMod piece?

      • Branwen says:

        I think the key here in my experience is that my work with my community is for the community. Because my faith is important to me, I continued my personal practice and have as a byproduct of honoring the Gods and beliefs I hold dear, have grown. My community in no way hinders that.

        But the growth and transformation found within my personal faith and my work with my community, are byproducts not the end goal. My personal faith has shown me ways to be a better leader and supporter of the community that I hold dear. But that is not why I continue my faith. My community with it’s vast diversity (and truly it is a grab bag of diversity) has helped solidify my personal beliefs through comparison and understanding of others paths. But that is not why I am part of the community nor why the community exists.

        My disagreement with the ExPoMod Religion piece starts with the idea of digital participation and not making meeting in person a priority. On the first I have an abject base distaste for the idea of ritual being video taped or recorded or really any digital anything entering into the sacred space of that sort of moment. Now this is admittedly a completely personal and bias emotional response but is a strong one that I would not be willing to budge on. For me those sacred acts, are in part sacred to me because they take me away from the digital age of the now and reconnect me to the spirit of the world around me. I am for there being extra that is brought to the digital age, groups that have podcasts, blogs etc. I see that as a good expressive creative tool but there is a line, where something must be experienced in person.

        The second about not making meeting in person priority, ties into that. Currently our group consists of 30-ish clergy members on various councils, planning and organizing 7 different public ritual circles on going throughout the year. It is HARD to get the people that need to meet into a room together, and thus when we have to we rely on the methods you mentioned. But it is everyones preference to meet in person and we do make it a priority to do so. It helps keep the connective tissue of our community alive and in the present.

        But the overall that puts me not in favor of ExPoMod Religion is the continued focus on self that I am wary of. Certainly self is important, and without a strong understanding a foundation of self moving forward in life and community is hard and stunted. But we already live in a culture that had become self obsessed. And even in the Pagan community there is a prevalence for what the “universe can do for you” that just does not work for me. So the idea that in the future for religions to thrive they must make the self the priority of their purpose seems dangerous. Too many times have I seen other people caught up in their own spiritual transformation that they reek havoc on those around them, absorbing resources and demanding more because their priority is self and not community.

        For me the purpose of faith and religion will always be to honor the beliefs, Gods and traditions that ring true and hold dear to you. Your personal growth and transformation is likely to happen in the process of that honoring but it is not the priority.

        And religious communities, are about communities. Gathering together with people that you can bond with, helping them make connections with the divine, creating space in the world for values to flourish.

        In the end I am a very what works for you kinda gal. Other people’s chosen paths and systems very rarely have an effect on my faith. But it does mean were the trends you describe to take place within my own community that I would have to look and go elsewhere.

  9. Syna says:

    The “Pagan” identifier, being an umbrella term, could only ever be useful, and so what interests me the most about this is the fact that your group gained so much by striking out on their own. I see two important facets of your story:

    1) The word “Pagan” is culturally loaded in a way that is preventing otherwise sympathetic people from finding a home within Pagan organizations. “Polytheist” is, possibly, much more resonant. (Perhaps just being specific; helps I know there are plenty of Thelemites that would have never joined the OTO if they thought it was a Pagan group.)
    2) Individual Pagan groups should strike out on their own, as yours did, and not restrict their activities to other Pagan groups! Culture fairs, interfaith work, anything: it does us no good for Paganism to be thought of in terms of a unity. It’s misrepresentative and invites people to dismiss Paganism as a whole based on their impressions of one group.

    From what you say, these are powerful, compelling reasons not to speak of yourself as Pagan.

    That said, I take the “walks like a duck, quacks like a duck” approach to labels. I’m of the feeling that regardless of one’s identification, if you deserve it, you are rightly called such. The poster who mentioned that this gained notoriety through Patheos has a fair point. ;) In my case, then, I’m with Cara; if the context suits it and it will help others to do so, I take a “sure I’m Pagan!” approach to things (if I have reason to believe it will be understood in an accurate way, anyhow). At other times, I may become more specific, or even say I have my own sort of religion (which is actually the most accurate of all the answers I could give; I need a pithy title like The Heroic Life!).

    Thank you for speaking of this in such a calm, reasonable, insightful way. A lot of Reconstructionists are incredibly dogmatic and stingy about this — your post was contrariwise thought-provoking and productive.

    • “The word “Pagan” is culturally loaded in a way that is preventing otherwise sympathetic people from finding a home within Pagan organizations. “Polytheist” is, possibly, much more resonant. ”

      Aye, and there’s the rub. Not all Pagans are polytheists. Hard, squishy or even on St Paddy’s Day.

      Some seem to characterize this as a theological split, polytheists VS Pagans-who-may-be-duotheists-atheists-or-monotheists.

      • Syna says:

        That’s definitely true. I do believe that describing what you are in specific terms may help for certain people, however. Unfortunately, Wiccans will get the short end of the stick in that respect because Wiccans get saddled with so many of the negative stereotypes of Pagans as a whole, but what can you do.

        If indeed this is a theological split, I will be highly disappointed. That is not in the truly inclusive spirit of polytheism that we like to laud. I understand that for a lot of polytheists the idea of gods as independent, autonomous agents is important, and I will even grant that they may have good reason for thinking this is not Missing the Point pretty spectacularly (as I do), but losing sight of the fact that we still have quite a bit in common does nobody any favors, imho.

      • AMH says:

        I do think it’s a theological spit. I would say that I am a recovering or reformed pagan in teh sense that I am not Judeo Christian, Christian, Jewish or Muslim religiously. Before this, I was ecelectic in the extreme but never felt a resonance with any particular pantheon. I found my way to politics and civil rights thru the Orisha but they separate from their religious foundations which is another way of saying that I am not ethnically African and there is only so much I can know in their system, if I am to leave it intact and as it was presented naturally. Part of what attracted me to it was the monnotheism as I grew up in this faith path. polytheism has never really taken hold for me though and this seems to be the opposite of what your suggesting. Duotheism is well, dualism and comes with some side effects philosophically that I haven’t quite come to terms with. I stopped seeking a religious answer to dualism and headed for philosophy and was no happier with what I found in the way of naturalism. It was just another ontology and still is to me. So in that respect, I left naturalism behind as well. And yet I still use teh word pagan for lack of an alternative.

    • Soliwo says:

      2) Individual Pagan groups should strike out on their own, as yours did, and not restrict their activities to other Pagan groups! Culture fairs, interfaith work, anything: it does us no good for Paganism to be thought of in terms of a unity. It’s misrepresentative and invites people to dismiss Paganism as a whole based on their impressions of one group. >

      I find this a very interesting position and very … unorthodox. A lot of people state the problem and solution as the exact opposite: due to a lack of unity we are not taken seriously. I really think you are onto something here, though it makes me feel really uncomfortable.

      • Syna says:

        I think that’s why the piece struck me so much. Because so many of us began this journey with Wicca in our teens, it hadn’t occurred to me to think that people at an Irish culture fair might be interested, and I found that incredibly exciting.

        Don’t get me wrong, though, organization is very helpful sometimes. I totally support what Jason Pitzl-Waters says about unity, most of the time. It’s just that we shouldn’t be afraid to act on our own, as our own entities, as well.

  10. Drew wrote: “We had some similar problems because the Irish community is so staunchly Catholic. But we also found that many of the individuals are very open and love their heritage enough to have an interest despite religious differences.

    In your case, I wonder if outreach at universities or doing something through the theater community would be a good fit.”

    You may be right in terms of finding individuals who are open to their heritage. It’s also interesting that you suggested universities and theatre, because two of our current community members are from both of those fields, respectively. In fact, my own initial experience with the tradition in Greece was through an individual who was involved in theatre and many of my close contacts today are scholars in their own right.

  11. Aisling Kelledia says:

    Being both a member of ADF and a Celtic Reconstructionist, I can’t help but feel that however unwieldy the term Pagan may be, the benefits it provides outweigh any loss of precision that might occur. It was lack of a unified front that caused the downfall of so many past cultures; I would personally not wish to make the same choice, now.

  12. Mark says:

    Actually, yes, you are a Pagan, whether or not you choose to embrace the label. Paganism is a word that has a *definition*, and your practice meets it in spades. If you are a practitioner of a pre-Christian (ESPECIALLY European pre-Christian), polytheistic, ritual-based indigenous religious practice, you’re a Pagan. Kudos for trying to weed out the modern fluff–that doesn’t matter to me, as all religion is invented anyway, but if it works for you, congratulations on the effort–but what you describe here is still absolutely Pagan.

  13. @ Mark, I think Drew’s point is that ‘pagan’ is a term used by X-tians to describe those outside of their faith. Those of traditional faiths do not call themselves as such..i.e. Hindus, Shintoists, Native Americans, etc…etc… They have specific identities and use them as such. As you know, the term pagan originally had negative connotations (akin to ‘hill-billy’) that some of us prefer not to associate with. Also, simply because the term has been ‘reclaimed’ today, doesn’t mean we feel that it accurately describes us either. Why not use the proper identifier rather than a term that had to be reclaimed from our ancestor’s oppressors? Celts are Celts, Hellenes are Hellenes, Hindus are Hindus, it’s just more accurate and it is ultimately more proper.

    • Mark says:

      My point is simply that in the modern day, the word has come to have functional definitions, and his practices meet them. I don’t have a dog in the hunt of what term is “better”, and personally, I’ve always thought that the idea of “reclaiming” words like pagan and witch was a really dumb idea. But Pagan is a *category*, within which fit multiple traditions. That’s what it means now.

      All of this is beside the point that there is actually very little surviving actual knowledge of “what the Celts did”, so this “reconstruction” is a guess, too.

      • William Hood says:

        Yes, because words are given one, absolute meaning that never changes. By writ of the Almighty Definition Committee. “Pagan” was given the definition you cite because a bunch of people *decided* to give it that definition. It really isn’t uncommon through human history for a different group of people to come along and decide that a word means something different than what the first group decided. Take “gay” for instance.

        Even your claim to “functional definitions” contradicts your point. “Functionally” “Pagan” has come to encompass all of the problematic meanings that have been mentioned, BY the people who actually use the word MOST OFTEN. All of those problematic associations have seeped into mainstream use of the word as well. And it has “functioned” that way for quite a long time, actually.

        You also mention that the definition of “Pagan” is as “a *category*, within which fit multiple traditions.” So I have to ask, do you go around insisting that Christians, Muslims, and Jews refer to themselves as “Abrahamic” instead of their individual religions’ names? Because that’s pretty much the equivalent of what you’re doing. Most Christians view their identity as Christian, regardless of how academically true it may be that they are Abrahamic. The exact same dynamic applies here. Who are you to insist how a group you aren’t even a part of defines their identity?

      • Mark says:

        You’re completely misconstruing my argument.

        This isn’t about Evil Fascist Dictionarism. It’s about the nature of language: words have definitions. Which may evolve, but that doesn’t happen because one dude decides to call himself “purple” when he isn’t.

        No one can stop him from calling himself “purple”, so he isn’t being “oppressed” by the idea that he doesn’t meet the definition. But when he–like the diarist–claims he’s “not a Pagan”, when he very clearly is one, it’s just silly. It’s yet another tail-chase in a community that has plenty of them.

      • William Hood says:

        I wasn’t able to reply to your reply, for some reason. So anyway…

        “This isn’t about Evil Fascist Dictionarism.”

        You do a damn good impression.

        “It’s about the nature of language: words have definitions. Which may evolve, but that doesn’t happen because one dude decides to call himself “purple” when he isn’t.”

        Exactly, and what I’m trying to explain to you is that it isn’t just some random wacky individual trying to change the meaning of the term. Anyone with the least bit of experience with the word, or even anyone who does a cursory search of the mainstream news items on it, would realize that the connotations that are WIDELY applied to it are problematic for those who do not fit those connotations. What freaking good does the *technical* definition do me when the image that is conjured up in many strangers’ minds is one of a 60s counter-cultural crystal waver? (No offense meant to 60s counter-cultural crystal wavers, it just doesn’t apply to me) Those types of assumptions are common enough for it to be a problem, otherwise people from various locations around the world wouldn’t be sharing similar experiences.

        “It’s yet another tail-chase in a community that has plenty of them.”

        You know, I’m really curious as to why you even care so damn much? If you’re so above it all why waste your time with our petty problems? Why not mind your own business? Because, to be blunt, I would much rather discuss this with those who actually have experience within Paganism and know what they’re talking about, even if I disagree with them, than with some pedantic non-Pagan, non-polytheist with an arrogant attitude towards us. Sorry to be rude, but that’s how you come off.

        • Mark and William:

          As the host of this blog I believe in respectful language and making people feel welcome. I also value vigorous debate, but not as much as I value seeing people respect one another.

          I’ll ask you both to change your tone if you comment further.

      • William Hood says:


        I apologize for overstepping the bound of respect on your blog. I’ve said my piece on this specific comment at this point, and will respectfully discontinue. To Mark, I hold you no ill will and wish you well.

  14. Reminds me of a philosophy of science course I took thirty years ago. When you ask, “What is water?” answers can vary from “Oxygen with two hydrogens bonded to it,” to “The stuff in the blue glass,” to “Wet.” Words, questions, and answers have meaning only in a context.

    Am I Pagan? Depends on who’s asking, and why. And how much time I have to respond, and my mood.

    We have an annual “Pagan” gathering in the Denver area with roughly a thousand participants, and if you were to ask all one thousand of them what they believe or practice, I’d estimate you’d get at least two thousand different answers. I don’t think I’ve ever had a firelight conversation with Pagans about beliefs and practices and gotten the same answers from any two people. The same is true of Christians, actually, but it’s better-hidden under formulaic creeds.

    • “Am I Pagan? Depends on who’s asking, and why. And how much time I have to respond, and my mood.”

      I understand that feeling. I have lately been especially ambivalent about calling myself “Pagan”. I can’t think of a better term, but so much is assumed by the term that I do not relate to — not only the Wiccan ritual format, but also a belief in “magic” or energy working. “Pagan” has the benefit of being recognizable by (many) non-Pagans, but like so many labels it can be very misleading.

  15. Dr. Wendi D. Wilkerson says:


    For quite some time I had pulled away from self-identifying as Pagan, and have for a while now considered myself to be a polythiest. This, along with conversations I have had with friends and colleagues has led to my current research. I am currently conducting an ethnographic research project about polytheism and faith. Out of all my interviewees thus far, most feel the same way about their practices as you do. This is a definite theological shift that is being felt by many. Would you be willing to speak with me on this subject?

  16. johnny dee says:

    religions are exclusionary, spirituality is inclusionary. labels are not an attempt at self definition so much as they are an attempt at other-negation.its become more and more impossible for me to claim adherence to a dogma as i see that all spiritual paths arise from the same human yearning. eventually one must embrace all or reject all, and what we reject always swallows us up in the end.

  17. Drew — I’m still confused about your tradition. What is it about your tradition that makes it difficult to relate to Recons? If you had not said otherwise, I would have assumed, based on your description, that you are Recon. I am fascinated by the diversity of our movement (whatever we all are) and where everyone draws their lines.

  18. Guest says:

    A couple of opening points:

    Hinduism, an over-arching umbrella term, is largely a monistic religion with only a few individual sects being polytheist in the sense we’re talking about (That the gods are metaphysically individual, i.e. that they exist unto themselves).

    Shinto likewise is animistic rather than polytheistic in my experience. They don’t make the clear distinction between gods and so-called lesser spirits that many polytheists seem to think is important (The usual difference, at least within an Indo-European framework, being that the gods are beings who’s will and actions are totally in harmony with the unfolding pattern of the cosmos whereas the rest of us are still working on it).

    Satanism, any philosophy/religion that incorporates imagery related to Satan at the core of it’s identity, is fundamentally Judeo-Christian-Islamic (possibly Zoroastrian too, but usually Christian) at it’s core and thus not at all in the ball park of what most Pagans (in the modern sense) believe.

    That having been said I don’t find the label Pagan useful either. Here’s why:

    It fails to accurately describe my practice either historically for several reasons. For one thing my religion may be “nature-based” in the sense of incorporating animistic/pantheistic elements but Pagans seem to take it a step farther and worship nature as a Supreme Goddess, usually as the “Earth Mother” or “Mother of All”. I don’t have any belief in a supreme being and I don’t believe the ancients did either, at least not in my neck of the woods.

    The term also comes with both ancient and modern cultural baggage: ancient Christians thought we were devil worshiping idiots (at best) and most modern Christians think we are imaginary friend worshiping idiots (at best). That’s setting aside the association with New Agers, Hippies, drug addicts, Satanists, and the inherent Wiccan-centric bias. It’s not that any of that is unmanageable or outweighs the benefits of the Pagan label for the people for whom it is accurate, I’m just not one of those people.

    Also, just because I’m filling in some gaps with modern insight doesn’t mean I’m inventing a new religion. Modern Pagans of whatever stripe aren’t necessarily inventing new religions either, but so much of what they tend to do (in Wicca, Neo-Druidry, and the like) is so different even from what we know about how the ancients looked at the world it doesn’t feel right to call myself Pagan.

    I also find it interesting that many Pagans believe being sufficiently Pagan has more to do with dressing casually, being poor, and being a far left political activist than anything resembling any religion. And gods help you if you “work for the man”, “dress in a monkey suit”, or have never “been out there on the front lines of change”; all of which have been said to me to indicate I couldn’t possibly be Pagan.

    And speaking of political activism: I personally find the idea of “Pagan coming out” deeply counter-intuitive. Maybe my European roots are showing here but I keep my religion to myself, outside of the proper contexts obviously, and I prefer when others do likewise. I understand in America why it is necessary and I support it in that context but I’m uncomfortable with the idea on an emotional level. And the idea that I should identify as Pagan, something I’m not, for political expediency? Please. That’s like saying you have to be gay or trans to support LGBT rights. I sure hope not! Political solidarity doesn’t have to mean giving up your own identity.

    Finally, as regards the idea that if I worship what have historically been called pagan gods I must therefore be Pagan: what the ancients did was specific to their cultural and historical contexts. Likewise Modern Paganism has a cultural and historical context too. The two do not match up (read Drew’s experience at Pagan events vs. Irish events) and if worshiping the same gods made you the same religion there would be no differentiation between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    Great post Drew. Very interesting and I very much agree.

  19. Well, what I find interesting is that most other traditions identify themselves by their identities, rather than their category. For example, they are Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc… They don’t call themselves ‘Abrahamic religions’ or even monotheists for that matter. In fact, those are labels I use to describe them when I want to refer to them as a collective, but again, they do not do that themselves. Why is it any different for us? Using Broad categories as labels is useful for comparitive religion classes and convenience, but I think that it does us and others a disservice to refer to ourselves in that way because it robs us of the uniqueness of our traditions.

  20. I think that there is a tendency, particularly in American culture, to want to use broad categories when describing things, think of the issue of race for example: who is actually Black, White, Yellow, Brown, etc..etc..? It’s simply more convienient and easier to concieve of things that way but the problem is that it’s not very accurate nor is it realistic in nature.

    • Guest says:

      I agree with you Eric. That’s why I prefer the term Rіdnovіry (meaning Native Faith). I use the Ukrainian form to be even more specific. When people ask what that means I explain to them that I am a polytheist and worship as close as possible to how my ancestors did. Being that I’m Ukrainian myself I feel most Americans chalk it up to being a weird Eastern European “thing” and are (sometimes admittedly which is hilarious) just glad I’m not a pinko/commie.

  21. Sara says:

    I found this to be so enlightening. I myself have been a ” Pagan ” since Wicca no longer fit me. I also get odd looks and the occasional laugh when I tell people I am a non denominational pagan. I am what I consider myself to be a Faith based person, I have been open to every nook and cranny of almost every religion or ideal that has piqued my interest. My faith is based on My life more than on the teachings or followings of one sect or belief system… lol I have a hard time describing what I am because it’s very in depth and I would assume I could call myself a poly-theorist? lol I am not sure… but your article was very good and it has sparked my need to research more “old” religions. Thank you!

  22. Pingback: That Troublesome Term…Again « Pagan Godspell

  23. Wendy Blackheart says:

    I’ve been on the fence with the term pagan myself – I currently use it, because its often the easiest way to explain it to people, but its never been quite accurate.

    I started out studying Wicca, but found most of the Wiccans I met (at the time, anyway, I know many lovely Wiccans now who I like quite a bit) to be boorish, fluffy bunnies who only focused on the mother goddess/consort, and were often just as dogmatic in their own way as the Roman Catholics I was drifting away from.

    Eventually, I came to the personal realization that, at least to me, deities were all manifestations of nature’s duality, and ultimately reflections/manifestations of a universal energy. Since my mind (and perhaps, many minds) find this energy awesome and hard to understand, we break it down to bit that are easier to deal with (in my case, deities and spirits)

    As such, I tend to gravitate towards deities who resonate with me, or who call to me, and worship them in a way that feels right to me. As such, I’m more likely to improvise than to try and copy any particular religion/reconstruction/tradition/whatnot. For me, my spirituality is very personal.

    I have attended pagan/pagan influenced educational events, and I feel fairly comfortable there, having started my exploration there – I understand what they are talking about – but generally find my bliss where I find it. Some of the most deep and intense spiritual experiences I have had took place during Native American ritual hook pulls that I took part of. Go figure.

    In my work as an LMT, I study and use shiatsu and Traditional Chinese and Classical Chinese theory, which also jibes well with me – they too reflect the duality of the world in yin/yang, and our relationship to nature in the Five Element Theory, but this of course, is not a religion or religious practice. It makes up a big part of what I believe about human wellness and functionability though, and since it does make so much sense to me, it is part of what I believe. (Interestingly, one of my Senseis is an Avalonian High Priestess, and another is half Native American and has trained with his tribes Shaman, and many other teachers, so perhaps this is not an uncommon trend)

    So, while the term isn’t accurate, its the only thing I personally found that can reflect what it is I am, at least, without going into a monologue when talking to strangers.

    I do see how trying to reclaim ‘pagan’ for many doesn’t work well – I’ve had this conversation with older generation gay men about the younger generation using ‘queer’ as an identifier. Something that for years has been used as an insult doesn’t sit well with those for whom it *was* an insult. Yet, I’m not so sure polytheist works so well for me either. My husband identifies as a Lightworker, and says that I am one as well, by way of what I do with my life, but I’m not so sure that term brings andmore clarity to the situation. (My aunt and uncle, raised R.C. and still pretty down with Jesus, but who are now in to the woo and New Age ideas now identify as Lightworkers too. So, yeah.)

    • Wendy, use whatever term you think best identifies what it is you do or who you are. I think that’s really one of the most significant things that we can all take away from Drew’s piece here no matter what tradition we might come from.

      • Wendy Blackheart says:

        I’ve adopted pagan when I need it as my term for now, until something more comfortable comes along. Actually, I prefer ‘woo’ to just about anything, but that doesn’t really make sense to anyone who isn’t woo (plus, it was another term that started out as an insult, as in ‘oh, that woo-woo stuff’, though many I know personally like it, since its both broad and playful). I figure, if someone wants me to box everything up in one term, I’m probably not going to be having a long intense conversation with them anyway, so, there it is.

  24. Liudy says:

    I am so glad that my friend brought this article to my attention. Just the other day, my oldest son and I were out for a ride and he asked me “Mom, what do we call ourselves? What is our religion called?” When he asked me, I was stumped. At one point, we called ourselves Theodish, but that term no longer fits. I admit, I miss the nice, safe boundaries of a label. I have staunchly avoided labels like “pagan” for many years owing to bad experiences in my youth. I would occasionally use it for lack of a better term, but since leaving Theodism, it’s been a hard fit. I usually fall back on “heathen” since it lets the average person know I am not a Christian and lets people within the pagan community know more or less where I stand. I’m not crazy about using the term heathen either, but for lack of a better word I fall on it a lot. I do often tell people I am polytheistic, but that usually leads to a long conversation about just what that means.
    Really, the labels aren’t that important. Just handy.

  25. Pete says:

    Did the same thing but from an Orthodox Christian POV into Ceremonial Magick/Angelic Magic end. It all applies to me with the “other Religions” in the spiritual construction since it’s all under 1 flag from what I’ve seen.

    Just replace how “Saints work” with “How deities work” and it corresponds a lot better.

    I just say I’m spiritual and handle questions from there.

  26. I have been using the term pagan for myself, but I am one of those who doesn’t really care about labels. Words are ultimately only signposts and not my actual identity- to identify with words too heavily detracts from spiritual living. I call myself Catholic because I was confirmed, and for the same reason I occasionally call myself “monotheist” or some such. I call myself pagan or occasionally “polytheist” or some such because I worship traditionally “pagan” gods. I call myself a wizard because I practice goetia. I call myself a cleric because I practice healing spells. I call myself a yogi because I practice yoga. I also worship many of the Hindu gods, although I have never really called myself Hindu- nor have I called myself anything specific like “Hellenistic polytheist” when Catholic works just as well. But to be perfectly honest, as I once told my friend, these labels mean nothing and there’s no use getting caught in them. I call myself a wizard, but you could call me anything- even hot dog- and so he called me “hot dog” the rest of the evening.

  27. Pingback: The Term Pagan « Sarenth Odinsson's Blog

  28. I’d say that what makes a person Pagan is greatly in part to that person *claiming* to be Pagan. I think sometimes maybe people put a little too much worry into labels and what others call themselves. So much more important to just be good people and accept others for what they are.

    Good luck to you and yours, Drew! It sounds as if you have a wonderful organization that’s really involved in your community. How wonderful!

  29. I was determined to be offended.

    You, sir, present a wonderful argument. I found myself agreeing with you on many points, and you are correct, you are no longer Pagan.

    I truly with the best for you and yours at the Temple of the River. :)


  30. AlanHeartsong says:

    What a great article! I have a fairly “traditional” Wiccan background, having begun practicing my faith in the days before the Internet and before Llewellyn became the giant it is today, and I’m increasingly uncomfortable with what today’s Wiccan community has become. It’s got me re-thinking my own labels and re-evaluating my own morals and practices. (Can we say mid-life crisis?) You have definitely given me some delightful food for thought, Drew.

    Bright Blessings to you and yours :)

  31. Kevin "Fionn" Murphy says:

    Good article. I would remind Drew of a few facts, however. The Druids were insatiable “borrowers” of other philosophies. One Roman writer called them “Pythagoreans” from their propensity to absorb concepts from that Greek school of thought…. “The Cauldron of Poesy” indicates the Druids had at least a rudimentary understanding of chakras. Bottom line, spirituality takes whatever it needs, from whatever source, to pursue its path. There is no “pure” or unadulterated religious belief.

    • I’d have to kick those “facts” back at you Kevin :)

      The druids were never called Pythagoreans. The reason the Classical sources say the two schools are related is because Pythagoras claimed to have been taught by a druid when he was on his travels. So the “borrowing” went the other way.

      The Cauldron of Poesy reflects traditions which are indeed likely related to Hindu yoga practices, but not through “borrowing.” Both cultures came from a shared Indo-European past and the similarities between their separate traditions most likely represent a parallel development. The early artwork of both cultures suggests this. There is no evidence of contact between ancient Celts and Hindus.

      It’s completely fair to say that the Celts picked up beliefs and motifs from other cultures. And it’s completely fair to do that today, too. But it’s disingenuous to do that and then tell people “this is what the Celts did in 300 BC” if you KNOW you just added it in from favorite sources of your own.

      That sort of false history is what unsettled me as a teenager. Syncretism can be beautiful; lying to readers is not.

      • Tom says:

        The Cauldron of Poesy has nothing to do with “chakras.” The cauldrons and their filling and emptying are an elaborate metaphor for the knowledge and skills acquired at different levels in the poet hierarchy. Please see Liam Breatnach’s “The Cauldron of Poesy” in Ériu 32, 1981, pp. 45-93.

    • Kevin "Fionn" Murphy says:

      To Drew: True regarding the idea of thoughts and ideas moving back and forth between cultures. Clement of Alexandria, in his “Stomata” (section describes how Pythagorus studied among the Brahmins and the Gauls). Diodorus Siculus, in “The Historical Library” (section 5.28) said the Druids “…subscribe to the doctrine of Pythagorus…”, so we can assume there was back and forth exchange. The Indo-European connection is obvious, too (see Mallory’s “In Search of the Indo-Europeans”).
      Tom: Take a look at either Erynn Rowan Laurie’s or Caitlin Matthew’s translations and notes on “The Cauldron”. The correspondences between the three cauldrons and the sacral, heart, and head chakras are too obvious to be ignored. Yes, this is a treatise on bardic skills, but may have broader implications.

      • Tom says:

        With all due respect, neither Caitlin Matthew nor Erynn Rowan Laurie are scholars of Irish texts. Both have read into the “Cauldron” text their own “personal intuitions and practical workings,” as Laurie has noted in her own translation.

  32. Wow, quite a response already! I didn’t read all the comments (only so much time in the day!) so I’m not sure if I’m repeating something…

    “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.”

    I’m not sure if I’m misunderstanding you, but that doesn’t seem right to me. For one thing, reconstructionism isn’t a religion itself, it’s a different way of doing things; Asatru (for example) is another reconstructionist religion that has very, very little in common with Wicca-based systems (as are Religio Romana, Hellenismos, Slavic Reconstructionism, etc.). I belong to a heathen fellowship and out of your bullet-point list, with things substituted as necessary, the only one we do during fainings are standing in a circle (around the altar, because it’s convenient ;) ).

    I myself am not a strict reconstructionist (partially because I seriously doubt the ability of anyone to fully reconstruct something with the information & archaeology we have left), but I’m not really eclectic by any means either, and I’m a hard polytheist. If I had to give a semi-accurate label for myself, I’d say I’m a nature honoring, ancestor venerating, hard polytheist witch based mostly in Germanic traditions. Unfortunately that’s rather a mouthful, so “pagan” is usually what makes it out instead! Maybe we can talk about it more at WDS, it’d be interesting ;)

    • Although I guess there are many reconstructionists who refuse to call themselves pagan for the same reasons. Hmm. Either way, interesting discussion (read all the comments now!). Thanks for starting it!

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  34. I’m just a fluffer for the writing, my dialogue isn’t as important to the conversation as others who choose to identify, or choose not to. I’m a Witch, I practice some early tribal like things, I also bring in channeling, lightwork, runes, and hell… whatever pops in my head that my intuition sparks. I do magick and have a personal spiritual practice that doesn’t do well when bound to any one God, one “tradition” or one label.

    *fluff fluff*

    keep up with the good topics. you sparked a wildfire of dialogue, it’s great!

  35. celticscholar says:

    Wow, it was like you were talking about me all the way. I’m curious, do you do online training, well, not online training but do you have a program that someone like me can follow on their own? I live in Kuwait, and your program sounds like something that would interest me. I’m doing a lot of study on my own from myths and history but I would like something structured and people to bounce ideas off…

    • Greetings Celticscholar! I know this isn’t the answer you want to hear but no, I don’t offer training online. We do a very traditional apprenticeship style mentoring system which relies on a close relationship between teacher and student & among the students themselves. That’s not very ExPoMod of me, and I’d like to see that change in the future, but so far we haven’t found the technology that allows the same cultural experience to happen remotely.

      Actually right now is a time of transition at the Temple and I’ll be announcing some changes soon, so for the past year I haven’t accepted new apprentices at all :)

      However I do intend to write a book about Irish meditation, and possibly one about the Old Belief itself. So there will at least be some resources available digitally in the next year!

      • Oh I wasn’t looking for online training, I think I phrased that all wrong because I very much agree, you cannot get the same dynamics as a face to face training. I was however looking for an outline of the what you teach, so I’ll be waiting for those books you’re writing :)

  36. >Syncretism can be beautiful; lying to readers is not.

    I love that line.

    Drew, the experiences of yourself and your temple members reading Pagan authors and going to Pagan events parallels mine. It’s great, but it’s difficult for me to identify with ley lines and crystials. That’s why I’ve taken to “Humanistic Paganism” to differentiate what I practice.

    I may be beating a dead horse, but to tack on to the expomod discussion: perhaps Walter Benjamin’s canonical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” could add some clarity. It’s all about the qualitative difference between an immediate experience and replicated media. Essay is here:

    • Thanks Brandon! I’ll definitely check this out. Though I have to admit, if it was written more than 6 years ago I suspect it will have a very outdated view of experiencing art through technology :)

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  38. Seeker from Aus says:

    I’ve not read all the comments, so I’m not sure if this has been raised or not, but perhaps the best way to define who/what you and your companions are, in terms of Pagan, Heathen, Neo-Wiccan, Poly-feline fry pantheist, would be to say that you are Celts… ‘Cause that would seem to be what and who you are. Just as Hindu/s and Jew/wish are words to describe both people AND a spiritual path, yourself and the people that have become a part of your Temple are Celts/ic.

    • Seeker, that’s one of the coolest responses yet. Good insight.

      We did give this some thought and I think we all refer to ourselves as Celts informally. But as an official name for us we decided it would be a bad idea. Nowadays “Celtic” refers to the six nations that speak (or historically spoke) a Celtic language: Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales and Brittany. Since we are not from one of those regions it would be stepping on toes to proclaim ourselves Celts. None of us were born and raised Celtic though we are all adherents of a Celtic religion.

  39. bearfairie says:

    I’m enjoying the discussion, and I appreciate the blog post. I’ve been chewing on what you wrote all day and wrote my own blog post about why I do continue to use the word “pagan” for myself. Getting more folks to read yer article… hope that’s ok… :) Here’s a link to my reactions and thoughts if you’re interested:

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  41. I was surprised because all along I thought you would say at the end “hey, isn’t that obvious now ? I’m a recon”. But no, only “polytheist”. And then I laughed, because that’s how I define myself exactly, but we are totally different. (since I have no tradition, I just honor and work with Gods in general, with a preference for Celtic pantheons)

    Labels huh ? ^^

  42. morganashearth says:

    Thanks for writing a very thoughtful piece. I am stretching myself beyond the Pagan label right now, so this blog post was timely. Blessing on your journey!

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  44. Emma says:

    But you are pagan!

    The OED states the following definition as Pagan:
    “A person not subscribing to any major or recognized religion, esp. the dominant religion of a particular society; spec. a heathen, a non-Christian, esp. considered as savage, uncivilized, etc. Now chiefly hist.”

    I find it upsetting as an Irish-woman (and I don’t mean diaspora), priestess and guardian of the River Goddess who spills her waters through the soil upon which my hearth is built, that you would a) Assume that tradtional Irish religion doesn’t exist and b) that you refuse to use the honest accurate term because you falsly associate the term which best describes your path with populist new-age ecclectic neo-paganism.
    You are pagan and your path is new. Neo-pagan is a very broad umbrella term, it is not a religion of itself. It never was and never will be.
    As well as being a native Priestess, I am also a HPS and Elder of Wicca. Not this fluffy ecclectic stuff that couldn’t be further from the actual practice of Wicca as assembled and gathered and therefore founded by Gerald Gardner. That couldn’t be further from the true oatbound orthopraxic mystery tradition. Those who pick-and choose their deities, practices and beliefs to suit themselves, who espouse Karma, nature-worship and pacifism mislabel their practice Wicca. It’s none of those things. But does that mean that I should refuse to use the correct word for it? Does that mean that I should allow misconceptions and ignorance to prevail?

    • “The OED states the following definition as Pagan:
      “A person not subscribing to any major or recognized religion, esp. the dominant religion of a particular society; spec. a heathen, a non-Christian, esp. considered as savage, uncivilized, etc. Now chiefly hist.”

      Apart from the old, traditional meaning of pagan, there’s also a modern one that implies the celebration of an eightfold wheel of the year, casting of a magic circle, and an earth-centred religion. Just check the section on Paganism on the Pagan Federation website – itself a prime example of the modern meaning of the term and one with which Drew’s community and other prefer not to use.

      The meaning of words isn’t static and just like they can go from derogative to terms of pride, they can also move from general to specific meanings and at the expense of many would have been included in it otherwise. In this case, from pagan as anything but Christian/Jew/Muslim to a Wiccan or Wiccan-like type of religion.

      • Emma says:

        Ok, essentialy your saying not to challenge misconceptions. To ben over and take it and to allow the multitudes who have pillaged and stolen traditions and even words to suit their own needs.
        Challenge the misinformation!
        Pagan does not, and never has meant or implied eightfold years, circle-casting or nature-worship. If some ignorant people think it does, or by an appeal to numbers it does, then it is something that the minority should fight and educate about.
        The ‘Pagan Federation’ does not represent paganism. It represents populist neo-paganism. It can’t represent paganism. How could it? Can it represent the Elusians? Can it represent the Gael? Can it represent everything that is pagan?
        Drew is Pagan. By definition. If the populist perception of pagan doesn’t fit him thats no reason to go reshaping language to suit himself. Whatsmore, if someone professing to be working an authentic Irsh path doesn’t have the balls to fight it or the intillect to teach the corrections on it, then tough shit if it has negative connotations. If you choose not to worship the Abrahamic God, you choose to be pagan. Now deal with it!

      • Trust me, I’ve tried challenging misconceptions. I’ve been doing it for years, and to no avail, because for every person doing it there are thousands reading the innumerous books on Paganism for sale that pass on the same message as the Pagan Federation. Books that then make up the essential bibliography of courses, workshops, seminars, organizations, websites, and new books on the same topic. This is what has been giving shape to the new definition of pagan and it’s a stream against which, to be honest, I’m tired of rowing against with little or no gains at all.

    • Greetings Emma,

      I never said traditional Irish religion doesn’t exist–Catholicism and Pishoganism are both alive and well. What I practice, however, is as close to Iron Age Irish religion as is possible and appropriate today. I think we can both agree that Iron Age Irish polytheism has not survived to the present day in Ireland :)

      Regarding the term Pagan, there’s almost nothing as insulting as telling someone what they have to call their religious beliefs. The term “pagan” has multiple meanings, it’s not a good fit for our organization, and that’s that. We’re not Pagan.

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  46. I think this analysis suffers from assuming that Paganism and Wicca are the same thing. I’ve found this is common in America. So the author’s wish to be distinct is understandable.

    Separate Paganism and Wicca and it is much clearer.
    There is nothing in the author’s descriptions that is not Pagan. In fact all of it IS Pagan.
    It’s not Wicca though and not Craft. Nor is it the same as most modern forms of Druidry.
    But there’s room in Paganism for more interpretations just because Paganism is so flexible.
    Pint by point:

    * We expect our clergy to go through a full 14-20 years of training before calling themselves druids, as is traditional. /// No problem for Paganism though not ‘traditional’ for either recon Celtic or Druidry. Fine as a variation on either.

    * We use traditional etiquette around the altar
    Without details on what this means I can only say that Pagans do as they wish around an altar, formal, informal whatever.

    * We don’t stand in a circle or cast a circle during ceremony.
    Nor do lots of Pagans. You’re assuming all Pagans are Wiccan.

    * We don’t make any mention of the four Greek elements, because they aren’t Celtic.
    You could find Celtics to disagree there – what of the 4 airts? The Celts certainly worked with a quartered circle. It’s basic to a lot of their artwork.
    Also how purist are you going to be? Celts post Rome had absorbed a lot of Roman or Greek philosophy. They weren’t narrow minded so why should we be?
    I live in Wales as a living Celtic culture. As such I work within its real and living traditions, not a cherry picked portion of its history where it is so scrappy you can say almost anything about it.

    * We don’t invoke the four cardinal directions
    Nor do a great many Pagans. You’re assuming all Pagans are Wiccan.
    But again Celts certainly did acknowledge the power of the 4 directions.

    * We don’t believe in mixing things from other cultures or traditions into our Celtic practices.
    OK, accepted. Though a strange attitude as the Celts were and are enthusiastic eclectics. They were and are coastal people who travelled a lot. The ancient Druids were international scholars whose theology shared much with the Brahmins.
    If you want to select just a portion of Celtic history to be your base do so. But don’t claim that this is all that Celtic culture is.

    * We don’t celebrate “Sabbats,” “Esbats” or non-traditional holidays like Mabon.
    Fair enough. Nor do a lot of Pagans. These are Wiccan festivals.
    But Calan Gaeaf, Canol Gaeaf, Gwyl Ffraid, Calan Haf, Canol Haf, Gwyl Lleuad – these are all good Celtic festivals. They all match Sabbats with only the Equinoxes not having a match.

    * We use a large number of terms and phrases from Irish Gaelic.
    Good for you but this is not uncommon in Paganism to use an ancestral language to enrich practice. Shame you restrict yourself to only one of the living Celtic languages though. Y Cymraeg is just as powerful and arguably more alive – unlike the Gaelic it is widely used in everyday life.

    So to conclude there is nothing in your portrait to distinguish you from Pagans. But that’s because Paganism is very open and flexible.
    If you’d said your tradition has no interest in nature, ignores conservation, fails to respect goddessry even if you don’t practice it, and insists on original sin and sexual guilt – well yes I’d say any of that would put you outside Paganism.

    • Hi Shan,

      I think this analysis suffers from assuming that Paganism and Wicca are the same thing. I’ve found this is common in America.

      No, you have that wrong. I mean I am not any type of Pagan – our community doesn’t feel like we are part of Reconstructionism, Neo-Druidry, or any of the others. Star Foster asked me this same question, so for a more detailed answer as to why we feel we’re different, check out her interview with me.

  47. opinionatedbean says:

    I’ve been trying to find a way to express to my local pagan community why I feel like an outsider looking in and your blog post put it in such a way that I have been pointing to it so others may understand where I’m coming from.

    I am a Romuva (Lithuanian) adherent. I don’t feel comfortable with the term pagan, nor do I feel comfortable with the term reconstructionist. As I don’t believe what I am doing is reconstructing, but just continuing the cultural practices & beliefs of my parents and their parents. There’s a tradition amongst Lithuanians to give their kids a catholic name and a pagan name, which I feel is quite beautiful.

    Much like yourself, I find a greater sense of familiarity when speaking to Hindus or going to a Hindu Temple. There’s something about the western pagan traditions which do not “sing” to me, and I do very much feel like an outsider. Your post makes me feel like I’m not the only one.

    • Hi OB, thank you so much for commenting. I’m glad it could be of use! I find it amazing how many polytheists have had the same experience of speaking with Hindus vs. speaking with Pagans. I always say that if I couldn’t be a Celtic polytheist I would be a Hindu. Though Shinto is pretty high on the list too :)

  48. I really like what you said in the post, and I have had somewhat similar experiences interacting with people in the broader pagan community. From the age of 12, my family was Earth-Based Unitarian, and I was very active in the local community and again in the pagan group during undergrad. I gradually converted to Hellenism at the same time the organization was having typical pagan drama troubles. I eventually became a co-chair after my conversion and one of my greatest regrets is that I don’t think I, as a recent convert from generic paganism to Hellenism, was in the appropriate headspace to meet the needs of the group. It really needed someone who could heal a lot of the drama damage, and I wish that someone else had run for the position so I wouldn’t have had to take charge.

    I absolutely love your layout, btw.

    • Thanks so much Kaye! :) And 95% of the layout is thanks to WordPress, so I can’t take much credit there :P

      You might regret you couldn’t do more in leading your group, but I applaud you for having the bravery to take the reins at all. One of the biggest issues facing polytheists right now is not enough people willing to take on the difficult work of leading and community-building. The best advice I can give you is to carry on and use the lessons you learned from your mistakes to do an even better job leading next time. Achilles wouldn’t stay down. I bet there’s some Achilles in you!

  49. I wanted to thank you for your article, as well as the gentle warning early on in the comments to not relate Native American practices to paganism.

    I found paganism in my mid teens, and foundered though a lot of the paths. I settled on Egyptian for a long time, and still have spider strands linked to it. I was more on the Recon side of things than the neo-pagan or Wiccan side, and even then felt out of place because of how I didn’t cast circles or celebrate the sabbats.

    Over the past few years, I’ve found my Native American roots that I never knew I had. I’ve been learning about the beliefs and culture that is no longer present in my familial line. And I have to say, what I do, does not often feel very pagan.

    I had a wonderful quote where an Ojibwa man was talking to another Ojibwa woman and her child who had converted to Catholicism. The man did not grow up on the rez, but was a sacred pipe carrier and held true to his religious practices. The woman spoke the language of the Ojibwa, knew the traditions, but did not practice the culture. Her stance was that because he did not speak Ojibwa, than he was not Ojibwa. His stance was that she was nothing more than an Ojibwa-speaking Catholic…not of The People.

    My point with all of that is Pagan is more than an umbrella term for non-Abrahamic practitioners. Pagan has started to define a culture of people. Just as in the example, speaking a language doesn’t make you part of the culture…believing in nature doesn’t make you Pagan.

    There is more to a culture than a simple umbrella term that relates to a general washed over definition of what could possibly be religious practice or maybe, possible sort of defining their thoughts on the outside world.

    However, I agree with Cara in the same token that we do need to band together in some fashion when it comes to rights. So I fully respect that while you do not identify as pagan, that you support those that are.

    Perhaps what it comes down to is we need to stop being afraid of not having enough of our tiny groups to be successful and therefor feel a need to cram everyone into our little boxes of terminology? But at the same time be able to sit outside of our personal beliefs enough to truly appreciate the differences in another’s belief system without feeling a need to correct it to make it more accepted.

    Just thinking out loud so to speak

  50. Well, now you’ve gone and done it. :-P I just spent the better part of the day arguing about this on The Wild Hunt.

    I think a lot of us who are somewhat resistant to our fellow Pagan-ish people dropping the label “Pagan” are making crazy assumptions (“O NOES! IF THEY’RE NOT ‘PAGANS’ THEY WON’T HELP US FIGHT THE FUNDIES!”) and coming off as really arrogant.

    I’ve tried to make it clear that my own hesitation stems from my understanding of how language works. Internally, I still tend to think of people such as yourself as “Pagans,” because you fall into what I understand to be the common sense of the word. I do, however, wish you well in changing that common sense.

    • Actually, having had a change to mull over this post, I’m now in favor of what you’re saying here. If this is indeed causing confusion, then it’s prudent to adopt new terminology in the name of clarity.

      In some sense, we’re all part of the “broader Pagan community,” perhaps, in the same way that the “greater Birmingham area” (in Alabama) includes not only Birmingham but several surrounding cities which are not, in fact, Birmingham.

      • Guest says:

        People like you are a breath of fresh air after all of the vitriol from most of the Pagan-identified commentators. I appreciate that you’re able to look around at what’s actually happening and being experienced by others and respond appropriately.

        One of my favorite responses in terms of WTF moment quality was from a notable Wiccan elder who basically said he didn’t care if there were people who he thought of as Pagan who refused the label because the idea, in his opinion, was so stupid that there couldn’t possibly me more than a couple of us and within a minority sub-community anyway (aka recon and poly compared to the numbers of Wiccans/Neo-Druids). In other words the “if you don’t like it go f*** yourself” response.

        Honestly, if my values mean anything at all I can’t stand with a community that produces leaders who think that they can throw folks under the bus for being, according to their assessment, numerically insignificant. I’ll continue to honor my Pagan friends and their ways on an individual basis but after seeing all of the rage, hatred, and arrogant brushing off come from the Pagan community as a whole over something as simple as a name I can’t continue to be any part of it whether that means going to Pagan events or joining in Pagan causes. I don’t want my name dragged through the mud anymore by petty people who only care about me and my gods to the extent they can get something out of us.

  51. Drew I have read the interview you pointed me to but it tells me very little. You just keep saying over and over that you and your people are “not Pagan.”
    Now of course you are perfectly entitled to say that. But if you don’t demonstrate something solid to show why you’re not Pagan, you will continue to be viewed as Pagan – especially by a lot of Pagans.

    In the interview you linked to –

    the only things you say apart from saying simply that you’re not Pagan, are –
    Paganism is very much rooted in a modern worldview.

    Not so. Paganism is modern yes, and it flourishes in the modern world. Some of it is activated by modern needs for example people living in a highly techno society needed closer links with Nature.
    But some of Paganism goes back to very ancient traditions. The Descent for example is 1,000s of years old. So are the sacrificial gods, polytheism etc.

    The only other bit I could find which was specific apart from you repeating simply that you’re not Pagan, was the myth of the Celtic Sun Goddess.

    You’re right that many newcomers to Paganism find this surprising. This is not about Paganism but about the political dominance of Roman/ Greek myths over the centuries of European history since Rome fell. The English, and other imperial cultures which ran Europe adopted Rome as their model, as its heirs. As a result Celtic cultures were suppressed so the idea of Sky God and Earth Mother was dominant.

    What you’re describing is just the surprise of people ignorant of culture outside the Roman Greek traditions and its imperialistic heirs.But this is also a teaching/ learning experience in any Pagan House or Temple that includes Celtic mythos.

    Now I notice that you avoided answering any of the points I made before. I’m not going to insist you try. But let’s at least look at what being Pagan means. That is central.

    Paganism, in terms of its modern, positive, religious or philosophical community meaning, is not complicated. All it means is that a Pagan “loves the Earth.
    Just that.
    To many that means the Earth Mother, or some idea of the feminine principle, or Goddess. But not necessarily. There are Pagan atheists, agnostics. There are Pagans who venerate only a male divinity. Or venerate nature spirits (animism).

    To many Paganism means Green politics. Or it might mean care about picking up litter, or using eco products in the home. Something that recognises that we humans have an impact on the Earth, our planet, and a responsibility about that.

    Now if you say that your people do NOT “love the Earth” in any sense, fair enough. If you are a group who cares nothing for the planet, to whom dropping litter is fine, and eco products are an annoying fuss about nothing, then yes I’d understand you’re not Pagan. If you feel nothing about cutting down trees in a forest, if a tree is nothing but useful wood, then yes I’d see you as not Pagan. Something like that.

    But all you’ve said is that you have formal courtesy about your altar; long apprenticeships; use of a Celtic language; your own interpretation of festivals; rituals not based on the Circle or the quarters; and you try not to mix material from other cultures outside Celtic traditions.
    There is NOTHING there that goes outside Paganism. I can think of plenty of Pagans who fit that portrait, especially Druid orders.

    As I said before if you say that your people are not interested in the wellbeing of the Earth, or else you teach sin and guilt, then yes you’re not Pagan. But being polytheist and Celtic is not the same as “not Pagan.”

    On the other hand you’re certainly not Wicca, and debatable whether you’re Craft. You’d have some arguments with Druids on some points but not so you couldn’t be seen as Druids.

    I’m interested to know why the aversion to being Pagan? It’s such a simple matter, so flexible and inclusive.

    • Hi Shiroise,

      The very first question Star asked is what makes us different from Reconstructionists. I think my answer is pretty specific. In my original post I listed a lot of specific differences between our religion and Wiccan-influenced Neopaganism.

      But you’re focusing entirely on our beliefs. As I’ve said over and over, the reason we’re not Pagan is because our community, collectively, does not identify that way. We don’t feel like part of the Pagan community at all.

      This is not a theory, it’s our heartfelt experience. We have seen firsthand that self-identified Pagans don’t really like what we do or how we do it. People who have never heard of Paganism but love Irish culture tend to love what we do. So, as I’ve said numerous times:

      Calling ourselves Pagan feels like we are lying about who we are.

      There’s no way I can be more specific than that.

    • Drew I have posted twice here (Shan Morgain and Shiroise bit struggling with the system sorry!)

      Both times I write as a Pagan priestess.
      I’m not attacking you and there’s no Pagan vitriol!

      But I AM interested to try to understand. That’s all.

      I have carefully read all you’ve said here and what you said in your interview. Nothing you say falls outside Paganism.

      I gave some clear definitions of what I mean by Paganism and not-Paganism to try to clear this up.

      Now maybe you just have some kind of instinctive discomfort with “Paganism.”
      If you were just a practitioner of your Way I’d accept that. But as you’re a teacher of it, and you’re making a public statement about it, I’m entitled to ask questions of you to get an understanding of what you mean.

      I honestly cannot understand what it is about what you believe or do that isn’t Pagan.
      You haven’t said that the wellbeing of the Earth is irrelevant.
      You haven’t said that you require your followers to suppress and discipline the body to a “higher ideal.”
      You haven’t said that you teach a philosophy of sin and guilt.

      So I still need to ask, what is the difference between you, your people, and the massive variety of Pagans?

      • Okay, I’ll see if I can put it this way. To use a fuzzy word – one that I don’t much like to use – the “vibe” is just different. I could go through an exhaustive list of the things about our tradition that make it different from the religions that adopted the “Pagan” umbrella. But so far that hasn’t seemed to help.

        I think that if you were able to attend one of our events or sit in on a class with my students you would see that what we are doing just *feels* very different from what any neopagan group (that I’ve encountered) does. And, just to say it one more time, I don’t just mean Wicca – I mean it *feels* very different from CR and Neo-Druidism, too.

        It really doesn’t have anything to do with any “bad” associations of the word Pagan. I got over that a long time ago.

        It’s just that the feel of what we do seems to attract and fulfill people who have no connection with or interest in the Pagan community. Our members often feel uncomfortable and out of place at Pagan events. Pagans often feel uncomfortable and out of place at our events.

        So we’re defining our community around what we value, not around an unrelated movement that most of our members don’t participate in.

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  54. Very interesting article, sir. And, I heartily agree. For years I have been trying to come up with some better term to use. Nobody knows what “Theodish” means. In the past we used to use the word “Heathen” but the associations that people have with that cause a great misapprehension of what we are. Pagan is also not accurate for the same reasons that you list. Asatru is right out because many of them dislike us enough to finally admit that we are a different religion…something we have been saying for a decade or more. So, yeah, Polytheist seems to be the best term for some of us. We are also Deconstructionists (my Theod is Anglo Saxon but there are other tribes) but no one seems to know what that means. In the end, though, Pagan and heathen are what they are, pejoratives. Who wants to be called “Hick”, “Redneck”, Hill Billy or Ignoramus? This is essentially what these two words mean.

    • This must be an American thing – that Pagan is a bad word. How sad.

      Here you do get problems among some rubbishy people – social workers come to mind, and drubken stupid blokes in bars perhaps – about Witch. But the general population are pretty well aware that Pagan means simply “nature religion.”

      I think our cousins over the water need to polish off their PR.

      Oh well mystery solved. It’s just fear of being unconventional and weak PR re the term Pagan. Not very interesting after all. I thought it was a genuinely different kind of tradition.

      • That’s not it at all Shan. (If anything, if we were afraid of being unconventional, we would STAY with the Pagan label).

        I just responded to your comment up above – I hope that helps. We are a separate tradition. We do things differently. That’s just the way it is.

      • Actually, the whole “pagan is STILL a bad word” meme is a reality for Hellenists in modern Greece. The term is avoided by Hindus in India because it’s the bad word that British missionaries use for them. To say that idea is an “American thing” is to ignore the rest of the world. There is so much more to this world than the part of it that speaks English as a first language.

  55. Pagan started out as a bad word. It was a word that citified Romans used for people who dwelt in the sticks. Its only just lately come to mean “Nature Religion”. Personally I have problems with being “unconventional”. I don’t even have a real problem with using a pejorative. My problem is that using the word Pagan or Heathen for what I do is incorrect. I am not even remotely Wiccan/Witchcraft oriented and like it or not the Word Pagan has come to be synonymous with Wicca over here.

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  57. It’s so strange to me, I find myself angry at your post for no real reason. You certainly have the right to call yourself anything that you want, but reading your post you sure sound “Pagan” to me. Do you worship “Pagan Gods?” Wouldn’t that alone make you a Pagan?

    Yes, Contemporary Paganism, is full of garbage, and I can understand the desire to distance yourself from horrible “Celtic” books that are just fantasy, but you aren’t alone. There are a lot of intelligent Pagans out there who want a Pagandom full of facts and truths. We need you brother! (And I’ve just figured out why I was angry, I find myself relating to you, and not wanting you to separate yourself from Pagandom.)

      • sportsinhd says:

        Why do you think “Pagan” is a word designed to put people down? Millions of people use it proudly everyday. Sure, it was meant as an insult once, but words, like people, grow and change.

        What’s the point of dividing up the tribe into further bits and pieces? No word is going to make Christians happy because we aren’t Christians.

      • sportsinhd,

        If I wanted to make the Christians happy, I’d gladly accept their designation of my religion as “pagan”. Unlike Christians and people stuck in a very Christian-influenced mindset, I reject such a false dichotomy.

        I hope this helps.

        — Ruadhán

      • Also, It’s really *not* a single tribe. There are Traditional Wiccans, Popular/Eclectic Wiccans, several tribes of Druid/Neo-Druid/Druid revivalist, maybe a dozen or so “recon”-method traditions, and not to mention related traditions that look “recon” but technically aren’t.

        There really is no such real thing as a “pagan religion” because there’s always so much more to a religion than what it is not — and so far, that’s the only real constant I see from people attempting to define what “pagan” is. It’s like trying to define blond or ginger hair by saying it’s “not brunet”, ignoring the fact that both shades have defining characteristics, and also forgetting that black-coloured hair and “African”-textured hair typically aren’t considered “brunet”, either — and also ignoring that auburn hair technically *is* brunet, under strictest definitions.

        “Negative definitions” –like “pagan: a religion that’s not Abrahamic/’Big Three’/etc…”– are ultimately very useless.

        Trust me, I have nothing against the community that defaults to calling itself “pagan” — I enjoy the company of quite a few people who consider themselves “pagan” and some self-defined “pagan writers” have produced work that I find useful to my own religion and practises. Just because I find a community occasionaly inviting and often useful doesn’t mean I don’t still have a bone to pick with the vocabulary the majority of said have chosen to define themselves with.

    • “Yes, Contemporary Paganism, is full of garbage, and I can understand the desire to distance yourself from horrible “Celtic” books that are just fantasy, but you aren’t alone. There are a lot of intelligent Pagans out there who want a Pagandom full of facts and truths. We need you brother!”

      Amen! Please don’t surrender Paganism to the crystal-gazing hippie nudists or the teen goth-witches! There are intelligent Pagans out here and we need to stick together.

    • Hi Panmankey, thank you for commenting. I’ve been busy with a conference but wanted to make sure to respond!

      I don’t think contemporary Paganism is garbage, I think it’s beautiful. It just isn’t what I follow. You are correct that some of the gods I revere are also revered by Neopagans, but that doesn’t make me part of their religion. Muslims worship the same god that Christians worship, but they are a separate religion. Religious identity comes from practices, culture and community as much as belief or worship. In our case our practices are different, we emphasize ancient culture instead of modern, and our community does not feel like part of the Pagan community.

  58. Anon says:

    From what I’ve read above, your group appears to be Celtic Reconstructionists. None of the reasons you gave above (e.g. don’t cast a circle) exclude you from what is widely considered to part of modern paganism and certainly you fall into the neo-pagan category as used in modern academics. Modern paganism is wildly diverse, more so than you appear to acknowledge, which, by the way, appears to be a little irrational. Do you have any other evidence that you are not a modern pagan/neo-pagan. It would be interesting to see.

    • The evidence is that we choose not to identify as Pagan. Bam, that makes us not Pagan.

      I’ve addressed why we’re not CR in multiple places. I’m very familiar with CR as well as ADF and neo-Druidic groups. As I said recently in an interview with PNC:

      “There are many other groups that place emphasis on historical authenticity, but the Old Belief Society has a unique focus on using Celtic social customs to understand Celtic spirituality. For example I’ve never seen another group use the ardartha, the old Irish gesture of respect, to their shrine or altar. I’ve never seen another group use historically accurate ceremonial uniforms, or, most importantly, the altrama method of apprenticeship used by the druidic poets. These things gave Temple of the River an emphasis not just on spirituality, but on acculturation.”

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  60. Dear Jacob,
    I just saw you are giving up your “temple”. You know I read this whole thing you wrote here and I see the loving being that you are. You are kind to Pagans, who might I add we can use all the love and understanding we can get that comes without judgement. We all have the right in our lives to seek truth and allow for our “Source” or Sources to present themselves to us in this lifetime. We have the right to our belief and belief’s so long as it does not hurt or cause harm to another. I see your “temple” as an opportunity for Pagans as well as all people to heal the old wounds of prejudice and to truly give you Blessing. Well I suppose I can not speak for anyone else but myself. You have my blessing to shine whatever love you can into the world. However you feel is necessary. Lastly you can build them a temple, but spiritual change comes from a hearts willingness. It’s not a place or a teaching it is a way of life. In my heart when we all lead with love in our hearts then we truly become the great healers and magic workers of our beloved Earth Mother and each other. Lastly as I am reminded by my “Source” some things in life can not always be defined, they must be felt within the heart.
    Blessed Be.

    • kit says:

      Out of this whole thread this comment resonated with me the most. It’s about that kind of love. And u just displayed it beautifully. I was going to post something but you said everything I was thinking but in better ways than I could have. Thank you. Love and blessings to all of you even the guy that’s really angry and wants to hurt people. We shouldnt alienate people like him..some are further along in spiritual development. We can’t expect to sow hate, anger, war, death, and get good out it. You don’t know his one here knows the others path. We are all human, lables, religion, race…they are just more reasons for people to fight. Why does someone have to be right or wrong? Forgiveness, healing, peace, and most of all Love. I feel we should embrace and celebrate our differences and always remember we all bleed…we all feel..we are all human. Liz- again thank you.

  61. Why? It’s not Iron Age Ireland and hasn’t been for millennium. I can’t do anything but view those who attempt to painstakingly reconstruct the practice of the ancients in this day and age with contempt and scorn.

    It’s NOT the iron age anymore. Do you think the Celtic gods and goddesses are somehow not aware of this? Why would you think that trying to practice what was done thousands of years ago is anything going to be viewed by them as anything other than an insult to them?

    We who have rediscovered and reconnected with our indigenous deities have been given a gift. That gift is the chance to restart our connection with them that was stolen from us at the point of the sword. What you’re doing is spitting upon that gift.

    The people who you’re choosing to emulate were the losers of history. They failed their gods and surrendered their faith, their countries and their freedom to the monotheists. Their method of worship proved insufficient to provide them with the strength to maintain their connection with their gods. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

    So it seems to me you’re not indeed not a Pagan, you can more properly be defined as a Playgan. Play is fine for small children but it’s not always the best thing for adults. You all need to spend less energy and time playing dress-up and let’s pretend and put more time and effort into insuring that what happened to the people of the old gods can never happen again.

    The worship of the old gods and goddesses needs to be new and relevant to the needs of modern people living in this day and age. That’s what the gods want and need for us to do. The last thing they need is a bunch of morons pretending it’s still the first century. All you do in that is turn the old god’s worship in an embarrassment and open it to ridicule. Do you think the gods will look favorably on those to shame them and reduce their worship to a laughingstock?

    We have been given a mission for the twenty first century by the gods. That mission is to make the worship of the old gods strong, attractive and relevant to the people of the modern world. To provide a religion that allows people to reconnect with the world around us. Pretending that iron age ritual and practice has any relevance to the needs of the electronic age laughable. It’s a bad joke that doesn’t serve the needs of the gods nor us.

    We of the old gods need to band together and liberate this planet from the unmitigated evil of universalist monotheism of Islam and Christianity. For they will not be satisfied until they they have converted all to become a cog in their evil faith or exterminated everyone who will not submit.

    Due to this we cannot expect the universalist monotheists to go quietly. They’re have had centuries of smugly congratulating themselves on their total and complete victory of their desert slave god and his mastery over this world. They are shocked and horrified that we have returned and are spreading rapidly.

    As they slide inexorably into the dustbin of history, they will undoubtedly make a desperate attempt to regain their mastery again. We of the old gods must be united and ready for it and make sure they cannot check their slide into oblivion.

    As our forefathers swept their bastard children the spawned; The political systems of fascism and Soviet style communism from Europe. We must do the same on a greater scale. This is because universalist monotheism will never be content to live in peace with us. You can’t have crocodiles in the swimming hole. We owe it to our children and our children’s children to make their future safe for them to worship their indigenous gods. We must achieve total liberation of this planet before they destroy it.

    We disparate polytheists must band together as a coalition with a common shared goal to rid this world of universalist monotheism and create a planet that is safe for polytheists. To do so we must unite under a single banner.

    I think that Pagan is the best, most simple name for us to unite under.

    We are Pagans. We are back. Our gods and goddesses are back. This is our planet. We will liberate it before you (univeralist monotheists) can destroy it.

    To a Pagan planet.

    Eric Wolfsbane

    Drew Jacob wrote:

    “What I practice, however, is as close to Iron Age Irish religion as is possible and appropriate today.”

    • Eric, congratulations on being the first commenter to win the “So Bad It’s Good” award. I laughed out loud. That’s a whole new brand of crazy you’ve got there. Good luck with it and thanks for making my day!

      • Drew,

        I’m deadly serious about this. I think Pagans or whatever you want to call us versus universalist monotheists is a zero sum game due to they way they’re wired up to play it. And it will be fought, they will demand it be so.

        We somehow got a get out of oblivion card handed to us, by virtue of the collective will of our gods perhaps, we need to learn from our mistakes, not repeat them. Unfortunately we have far too many people who are supposed to be on our team gleefully breaking out the old failures that nearly eliminated us and dusting them off while saying, I’m sure this’ll work this time.

        What matters is that we reconnect with our ancestral gods, not how we do it. Times change, needs change, methods change. Our gods are surely flexible and savvy enough to understand this. It’s the connection that matters.

        As a Celtic, I doubt you’re riding around in your chariot with the heads of the vanquished bouncing on it’s side. We’ve collectively given up on the idea of human sacrifice, as much fun as it’d be, recognizing the basic rights of others not to be used in such a way. Since we’ve so easily abandoned that aspect of traditional ritual from the past, we can abandon more or all, if need be. In for a penny, in for a pound.

        As for warring with the universalist monotheists, I don’t advocate going out, declaring war and breaking out rifles. Even if we were willing, we collectively probably don’t have enough money to buy the ammunition needed to get the job done.

        But there are other ways to accomplish the laudable goal of hastening their demise. Sun Tzu wrote that the mark of a skilled commander is that he can create a situation where he can defeat his foe without fighting a single battle. That should be the goal we strive to achieve, but we must prepare for other eventualities as well.

        In my opinion every polytheist should read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, The Thirty-Six Stratagems, Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War, and Mao Zedong’s books, ‘On Guerrilla Warfare’ and ‘On Protracted Warfare.’

        With any luck, the last Muslim will be strangled with the entrails of the last Christian. We can only hope.

        A better solution is to take a more active role in helping those who are Christian in name only find their way back to their indigenous faiths. I think that Pagans should be doing more to unsell, or dissuade cultural Christians of the idea that they are Christians. Much like the ecology movements that convince people not to litter or use pesticides etc, we need to convince people that they don’t really hold Christian values and therefore weren’t really Christians in the first place. We don’t have to try and convert them to a Pagan faith, just de-Christianizing might be sufficient. Or we could direct them towards Pagan faiths. Maybe through an interactive website that allows them to register their ethnic make up and then directs them to sources of information regarding indigenous religions associated with their ethnicity.

        I’d be interested in hearing your ideas of making this world a more accepting place for us.

        • I’d be interested in hearing your ideas of making this world a more accepting place for us.

          The best way would be for polytheists to steer well clear of people with views such as yours.

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  63. It is the only major religion I can name that is primarily pro-GLBT, pro-feminist and pro-science.

    Unitarianism / Unitarian Universalism is pro-LGBT, pro-feminist and pro-science, and has been for last 200 years.

    Thanks for a fascinating article.

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  65. Rain says:

    Well, that article certainly has attracted many readers. I don’t know if another commenter mentioned yet the distinction between “pagan” and “neopagan”, so I’m commenting just to see that it gets mentioned. I see “neopagan” as a fitting term for those religions that have sprung up rather recently, around the same time as Gardner’s and Valiente’s efforts to establish and spread Wicca as a revitalist tradition. It is us, in our modern world, trying to come to terms with the distance that technology has forced between us and our mother earth and nature, and incidentally our inherent spirituality. “Pagan”, however, is a term that was once used to cover any spiritual beliefs or practices that were not of the accepted majority (often non-Christian, non-Muslim, non-Jewish). When people speak of the “pagan” community, I mentally replace that with “neopagan”, because that is really what they’re referencing in my mind. That said, I think there is a definite “polytheist” community as well, but that label has issues as well, because as a neopagan, I am also polytheistic. It is like calling a Mormon a Christian–the label applies, but it isn’t specific enough for anyone’s likings. I think that spirituality is an intensely personal decision and path, and so when people ask me what religion I am, I instead describe to them how I live my life, what gods I worship, and what traditions I follow. Any label would fail utterly to encompass exactly what I am about.
    Now, all of that said, let me put in one last thought: all this pandering about labels is rather silly, I think. Isn’t the idea that we are all human, all with spiritual needs, all with some connection to our ancient pasts and to nature, the one we should be focusing on? I care not if you call a Circle when you worship, or even what gods or holidays you follow. We can all stand alone under our many labels and split hairs until the end of eternity, but I think it would be more constructive to applaud each other instead for cultivating our own individual relationships with our distinctly different practices. If you are a good person, if you won’t force your beliefs on me, if you believe in helping our planet and regaining much of the ancient knowledge and connection to nature that has been lost to us over the years–well, I would rather just call you “friend”.

    • Hi Rain, and thanks for your comment. You make some good points and I admire your attitude. That said, if labels are beside the point, that’s great—but it still sucks to eb called one you don’t agree with. If everyone said, “You know what, we’re not Pagans anymore, we’re all just humans,” I’d join in and say, “Yeah, we’re all just humans.” But when people are telling me I’m Pagan, and I feel like a complete outsider to the Pagan movement, it’s time to define what I actually do.

      It’s possible to all be humans and all get along, but still recognize beautiful and very real differences between our highest dreams, hopes and beliefs. In fact, to me, I feel more respected if we do recognize those wonderful differences (that make us who we are) than if someone tells me we’re all the same.

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  67. tlh215 says:

    With regards to this part:

    •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

    Um, who says that’s what makes “paganism?” I’ve long held the opinion that there’s too much orthdoxy creeping into 21st century neo-paganism, and you’ve hit the nail on the head with these points here. I’d also include this:

    Not all pagans worship the Maid/Mother/Crone Goddess. Not all Goddesses fit that “archetype” (which is a buzzword that gets bandied about all too loosely if you ask me)

    Not all pagans regard the solar deity as masculine and the lunar deity as feminine; in a lot of traditions, it’s quite the opposite

    Not all pagans observe the Wiccanesque holy tides of the eightfold Wheel of the Year

    Not all pagans are “earth centered” – many are deity centered or ancestor centered

    These are the ideas that break up the creeping orthodoxy in the pagan world, that says:

    All pagan religions are always earth centered
    All Gods are solar
    All Goddesses are lunar
    The Wheel of the Year is observed by all pagans
    Samhain is the universal pagan new year
    All Goddesses are Maid/Mother/Crone
    All Gods are the Horned God
    All pagans always cast circle for their rituals

    Et cetera. You get the idea.

    So I think it’s a shame that you won’t use the word “pagan” any more; it almost suggests you were sort of “bullied” out of it, because you didn’t meet the definition of a pagan as put forward by this “orthodox paganism.” Don’t let those who pander to orthodoxy do that to you.

    • Hi TLH. Good points. I wouldn’t say that I felt “bullied,” but there is indeed a common definition of Paganism forming among Pagans and we didn’t feel like part of it.

      I should say though, that you’re focusing on the very Wiccan things, which was only part of my list. Even Reconstructionists don’t use the traditional etiquette and such that I also mentioned in the list. We didn’t feel at home under any part of the Pagan umbrella.

  68. tlh215 says:

    By the way: use of the word “pagan” to describe nature/fertility worship only dates back to the early 1900s. Seriously. To our ancestors, their Way was so much more than simply “nature/fertility worship.” Remember – Socrates could be called a “pagan.” Same with Alexander the Great. Same with Hypatia (so far as I know). They don’t look like ancient Earth Firsters to me. LOL

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  72. Jezabelle_D says:

    I get where you’re coming from. Some of the “pagan” traditions bug me quite a bit. Especially the whole, “oh, so you run around naked in the forrest and go at it like little bunnies in large groups” idea that a lot of Pagans here seem to have. There is so much more to our religion and our worship than that.

    On the other hand, I can’t do the Re-constructionist path. I believe that religions evolve and change over time, so it’s difficult to get into the mindset of a re-constructionist. It’s why my ideas of impiety are completely different then the Ancient Greek impiety. So what are the rest of us? Any ideas?

    • Hi Jezabelle, I agree with you about reconstructionism (mostly). I’m a fan of the adage, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise men of old. Seek what they sought.” I don’t seek to live the way the ancient Celts lives, I see what they sought. It’s this thirst that gives motion to my life.

      In the practice of polytheistic religion, it is completely fair to adapt & evolve. Reconstructionism is extremely valuable, not for re-enactment but for education. Many polytheists do want to maintain elements of continuity with the distant past, but they feel lost & confused trying to find information or, worse, they are shown bad sources that give them misinformation. Reconstructionism helps provide high-quality information about the past with a polytheist lens which is invaluable even for people who want to innovate, change and alter the traditions. Proper reconstruction involves difficult research and a careful eye, but in many ways, I feel it is among the holiest acts a polytheist can commit. It offers nourishment not just to the practitioner and the community, but to the traditions themselves.

      That’s my take. I view reconstructionism as a practice within polytheist religion, not as a religion unto itself. Others disagree :)

      Thanks for posting Jezabelle! I hope we’ll see more of you.

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  74. John H. says:

    I was wondering if you could help me find more information on the ideas you were talking about in the article you wrote because I can’t seem to find much on them and a lot of the writings I do find aren’t what you talk about it’s about all of the pagan beliefs. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi John,

      Unfortunately there are no quality books on Celtic Polytheism by Celtic Polytheist articles. The Old Belief Society, where I taught, closed its temple in June 2011. I hope to write a book with some of the teachings in the future, but for now, the best way to learn about actual Celtic religion would be to read all three of:

      Celtic Heritage by Rees & Rees
      Death, War & Sacrifice by Lincoln
      The Year in Ireland by Danaher

      That will give you a very solid start. If you have specific questions please feel free to contact me at The Old Belief is a beautiful thing when it is lived as a way of life and not just confined to books and ceremonies. Even with the temple closed I am still a priest and happy to help.

      • Dave Scallon says:

        Another Book which may be of use is Liberty, Order and Law under Native Irish Rule – Sophie Bryant – isbn 0781113442703

        And as a rule of thumb I have found that books with Celtic in the title are not helpful for the most part.


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  76. Dave Scallon says:

    Wow, what can I say. I very recently went onto the main British Druid Order site and I was Disgusted with them, and now I have been guided to here. Top Cool page. It is so very right.

    To be fair, I class myself as Pagan to other people, because if I was to say what I am, which is Native Irish, I just get blank looks. It works for me. I do what I want when I want, how I want, and no, I have not cast a circle for many many moons, I take notice of only one of the 8 festivals, 2nd Feb to Brid, Goddess of the Land and Crafts, and I leave food out for the birds, what comes from nature, back to nature.

    And having been on several Pagan sites and joined the groups online, I found that I did not fit very well, and while I am not a very social person I do like your views.

    One other thing, Faith, I know that the Native Gods exist, same as the wind, Things happen, I am guided, I go this way rather than that way. And if I do take notice of this guidence, it works out right for me. This is my Faith, I believe in them, they help and guide me. So what is Faith, Belief in what you know to be true, even if no-one else believes in it. So “how does it feel to see the wind?” great, outstanding.

    And for many years I though I was alone, but they were always there.
    And now you are here as well.


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  79. In recent times, I have found the utilization and application of the word “Pagan” to be a far too limiting term to describe my own Path. I have come to terms with the term that it is too Greco-Roman-Christocentric for me to really find a deep and abiding Indentification with–being Ojibwe, Blackfeet, and Black Irish, the word that came up in many of my dreams, affirmations, and meditations is the word “Indigenous,” in reference to my experiences with the Holy Powers (Ancestors, Gods, Goddesses, Sidhe, elementals, the Other/Spirit-World, The Creating Power, etc).

    My Matron Goddess, Brigid, is especiially at the center and focal point my my orthopraxic spirituality, and the way of the mystic has been my walk since I can ever remember…the walk off the beaten path into the Emerald Mist-Filled Path, as I call it. And I have realized, too, that it is okay to be Indigenously focused. It is okay, in otherwords, to know that my Path isn’t a piece of the Pagan pie Milieu. That is, My pie isn’t a slice, a piece, or a part…it it another one altogether.

    • Well said Daniel. I’ve long had difficulty with the word Pagan just for the reason you describe: it seems like a poor choice of label for one to choose for oneself.

      But I realized I really have no power to tell anyone else what to call themselves, only to choose what I call me.

  80. Very interesting blog post! Personally I find “paganism” a very vague and unhelpful term, and there are stereotypes of pagans who, like you said, celebrate “sabbats” and cast magical circles, but I think this is because of the overwhelming popularity of Wicca among neopagans. To me, a pagan is just someone who is interested in ancient religions and polytheism (which would include Hindus) and does not neccessarily include New Age beliefs. I think this is something self professed pagans need to be more aware of.

    • Thanks for your comment, Annika. You’re hitting the difference between small-P pagan and big-P Pagan. The word pagan, lowercase, is a very old word that’s been used for centuries to describe anyone who isn’t Christian/Jewish/Muslim and especially to mean ancient polytheistic religions. So, it does technically apply to Hindus. It’s also a pejorative and deeply insulting word, and I don’t recommend calling a Hindu pagan. You may lose a friend.

      On the other hand capital-P Pagan refers to a specific group of religions. And my beliefs don’t fit well in that group.

      • I read an article once where a group of Hindus happily accepted the term pagan. I would only call someone pagan if it was something they personally identified with. What exactly is big P Paganism? I think this idea is simply a misconception of what paganism is.

        • Basically, there is paganism, and there is Paganism. “Small-p” paganism is a word of negative definition, in that it’s something defined by what it is not; additionally, that word has been used for centuries in the pejorative and is not necessarily embraced by all who have been defined by others with it.

          Then there is Paganism, which is more like a subculture only loosely associated with polytheistic religions; some Pagans are monotheistic, some Pagans are atheists. All that really seems to define these Pagans are concerns for religious freedom (some are even proudly of Abrahamic religions that the negatively-defined pagans are not, indeed cannot be of) and concerns for environmental issues and (typically) some vaguely-defined reverence of “nature”, which absolutely must be the world outside human influence and absolutely cannot include any sort of urban spirituality that regards the human-shaped portions of the world as no less natural than an ant colony or bee hive. Then there’s the fact that Paganism, in the average person’s, even average Pagan’s mind, is absolutely inseparable from practising something of a Wiccan tradition or a solitary path loosely based on “outer court Wicca”, well, I don’t wonder why polytheists, Buddhists, Hindus, and other groups tend to eschew the term –and just because a handful from one group or another might embrace the Pagan movement doesn’t mean all welcome the association; I mean, if you’re going to indisputably link Hindus and Pagans, why not absolutely link African Amerikans with the hip-hop subculture, even though there is no shortage of African Amerikans who hate hip-hop music and fashion?

          So there are pagans, and then there are Pagans. Since pagans are not defined by what they are, I find the term rather useless to my own purposes and in describing my religion, and only resort to it if I really don’t have the desire to explain my religion to the person I’m talking to. Likewise, there’s not enough defining Paganism to really make it that meaningful to me, and not to mention the fact that, as an urban-spiritual polytheist, I tend to have little common ground with most Hellenic polytheists who do embrace the Pagan subculture.

          • Also, this :)

            Although I find this part too narrow to be accurate: “nature… which [they believe] absolutely must be the world outside human influence and absolutely cannot include any sort of urban spirituality that regards the human-shaped portions of the world as no less natural than an ant colony or bee hive.”

            I know plenty of Pagans who are mischaracterized by this, and who agree with you about human/urban stuff being natural. Including Wiccan author Diana Rajchel.

        • I’m only new to making the distinction myself: I was corrected by readers on the Patheos Pagan Portal when I used “pagan.” They correctly pointed out it should be capitalized when used to refer to a specific religious group, just as Christian or Zen is capitalized. I’m glad they did, because it’s an important distinction.

          Zen is a good example. If you say “the zen of baking,” we know what you mean, but that’s kind of a general concept about being in the moment. If you say, “He practices Zen,” that means he’s a member of a specific sect of Japanese religion.

          Saying “Pagans” means Wiccans, Neodruids, and the like; saying “pagans” means a vague, mildly insulting term for people who have no religion at all, or a religion Christians don’t like.

          It’s confusing and it’s one more reason why Pagan is not my favorite label. But there you have it.

          • I agree that the distinctions can, and often do, lead to a sort of confusion, but even using the word “Pagan” to refer to a religious movement does tend to carry with it certain socio-political connotations, such as what I’ve previously mentioned. But then, in instances where it *can* be safely said that such is the norm for a particular group (and I do tend toward seeing regular evidence that it’s certainly true for most Pagans), it’s clearly not an issue of stereotyping from outside the community, and more an issue of cultural expectations, or even cultural chauvinism from within it.

            • May I ask how it’s misleading?

              Or, to put it another way (since I feel using the word p/Pagan at all immediately confuses the issue) – how is it more misleading than using the same term for both “Wiccans, Witches and Druids” and “nonsense religions”?

    • Hi Libra,

      Since we closed the doors on Temple of the River, we do not have an active teaching presence right now. I’m working to change that by opening a blog on the Old Belief and making learning materials available via ebook, but that won’t be possible till this winter.

      In the meanwhile I can highly recommend a group in Colorado known as Cró Dreolín. You can read about them here. I don’t know if you are near them, or what they offer long-distance, but it’s worth taking a look and at least dropping them a line.

      If you’re a reader, I also recommend three books to start with: Celtic Heritage by Rees & Rees; Death, War and Sacrifice by Lincoln; and The Year in Ireland by Danaher (probably in that order). If you absorb what’s in those three books you will know more about early and recent Celtic lore and religion than most people with “Druid” in their title.

      If you have specific questions I’m happy to do my best to answer them.

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  88. interesting. I am not sure what I am. I know that at the age of 52 I was not a catholic or a christian anymore. I did not fit and was tired of trying to fit. found that I do believe in animism and always have but did not know what it was. the nuns sure did not talk about it.

    I work with gods and goddesses of both irish and welsh. I work with nature. I am not wiccan. I work with 3 elements that just exist. that are not created. I use fire sometimes, but only as a secret that the gods gave to man to be able to create.

    believe in the realms that are not seen. which includes spirits, ancestors, faery (Not the cute victorian type) and nature spirits. divinination by many different ways. work the craft with nature of herbs, stones and not always in a circle but free.

    I search to be a traveler of the ancient path without all of the trappings of the new age. the solitary witch, practitioner, who worked with gods and goddesses .

    I call myself pagan. I call myself a celtic faery elemental witch because people want to know what I am. but those are just words.

    • I think that’s quite beautiful Brianna. Your beliefs are similar to mine in some ways, and similar in other ways to what mine used to be. You certainly fit with polytheism, if you wish to use that word. Animist sounds good too.

  89. Sephiro says:

    Personally I agreed with almost everything you said. I also have trouble with some pagan friends and the major diferences in beliefs and practices. Great blog!

  90. I find this is the same issue that comes up in Heathen/Asatru communities. “I’m not pagan” or “those neo-pagans” while completely ignoring that they are pagan, and in fact neo-pagan themselves. They disagree with many of the same things you discussed here. Maybe there is more diversity now than there was a few years ago when you wrote this. But it’s silly to say you’re not pagan. You’re not a foofy, new-age, Wiccan eclectic who combines all manner of hocus pocus into the mix. But you’re a pagan.

    Maybe the term we need is ancestral paganism. I find reconstructionism to be futile, as it’s impossible to reconstruct something that we are so far removed from, which existed in a different time with a different world view. But what we can do is research and try to understand and practice in a way that respects the ancient culture in a context that fits our modern lives. Which it sounds like you are doing.

    Incidentally, the kind of paganism you lament in this piece was dominant in the UK and West Coast USA for many years. But it is very different than what you see in Scandinavia, the Baltic, German speaking areas, Eastern Europe, and even Greece and Italy. In all those other places ancestral revival paganism takes the lead. We can thank Gerry Gardiner for introducing wonky confused mish mashed paganism to the English speaking world. If you seriously think what you do is NOT paganism, and that paganism = foofy fallerall, then please look into Romuva, Rodnovery, and all the other ancestral forms of pagan religion springing up around the world…

    • Maybe the term we need is ancestral paganism.

      What about those whose ancestry and recon/traditional polytheism differ? I know several Black Hellenists (no, not African Americans; some are British, the only African Americans in the UK are tourists), and while that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have Hellenic ancestry, they certainly are not the first people one may think of if referring to “ancestral Hellenic polytheism”, and if they were to refer to themselves as “ancestral pagans” most people would assume that they practise a native African or African diaspora religion.

      I find reconstructionism to be futile, as it’s impossible to reconstruct something that we are so far removed from, which existed in a different time with a different world view.
      I really do tire of this argument against “redconstruction”; here’s why: A house becomes damaged by fire, and you decide to go to the city and get the blueprints to rebuild, to reconstruct it. If the house was fairly old, say early 1980s or older, you’re not going to be able to build the exact same house, not in any manner that will be up to current housing codes –and what’s the point of building a house that’s unlivable? And say the house is REALLY old, like 1920s or earlier. Maybe you can find reproduction wallpapers for the rooms, but chances are good that you wouldn’t know what the exact original wallpapers were, and on the off chance that you do, hunting down original furnitture is harder, or back again to how the plumbing and electricity are going to be VASTLY different from what was originally laid in the house. The point is, it’ll still be recognisable as the old house, even though it’s technically a new house built to the original blueprints, but there are also several differences —some that may immediately be noticed, some that may not.

      The goal of polytheist reconstruction is not to practise religion exactly as it was done in pre-Christian times, but to build something that ancient people may recognise as something built from their original blueprint, in spite of necessary updates that may take place.

      As an aside, I really don’t see how modern culture is vastly different from ancient. In ancient Greece, vials of sweat from Olympic athletes was permitted as legal tender for debts –and nowadays, if you have a certificate of authenticity, Magic Johnson’s old nasty sweat socks from playing college ball could fetch thousands of dollars at a memorabilia auction. I don’t see how this “world view” is really so different.

      • The goal of polytheist reconstruction is not to practise religion exactly as it was done in pre-Christian times, but to build something that ancient people may recognise as something built from their original blueprint, in spite of necessary updates that may take place.

        Well said.

    • “I’m not pagan”… while completely ignoring that they are pagan, and in fact neo-pagan themselves.

      I find this incredibly belittling. You don’t get to force people to identify with a group just because they look similar to you.

      You’re not a foofy, new-age, Wiccan eclectic who combines all manner of hocus pocus into the mix. But you’re a pagan.

      And I’m sure Christians are secretly Jews, right?

  91. Definitely see where you’re coming from. Terms and labels have consistently frustrated and evaded me. In my spirituality, as a non-theist, I tend to find more connection and useful perspective from Taoism sources than I ever have from Pagan sources.

    Even so, I do find the label of “Pagan” still has its uses for me. It tends to be easier than trying to explain my personal path to every individual I get into religious discussion with, and is a easy enough launching point for a lot of people. Its also served as a generic enough term to use in raising my daughter, since we’re a mixed faith household. Also the Pagan community, for all the nitpicking some can do, at least are open to a lot of concepts many other religious communities would scoff at or ignore, such as magic and spirits.

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  95. Jax says:

    The only thing about this that makes you “not Pagan” is that you don’t identify with the term. And that’s great; I feel Paganism must be first and foremost a personal identity. But nothing you’ve described here actually dissolves your ability to refer to yourself as “Pagan” if you wanted to. The fact that there are Pagans out there who are confused by your practices really means nothing in that regard; that’s a problem of the domination of people who have extremely Wicca-centric, fluffy definitions of the word.

    That said, I think this is a great essay, but by the assertion that you’d somehow be “lying” if you called yourself “Pagan” (quite frankly you meet all the criteria except self-identity) I fear you could be confusing a lot of people.

    • If any “criteria” for being pagan must “be first and foremost a personal identity”, then why any other criteria? Personal identity, first and foremost, tends to imply that any meaning after that is very loosely-applied, at best.

    • Moreover, what is up with you people who insist that others who do NOT self-identify with the term are somehow still “pagan”, whether we like it or not? If self-identity is so important to being “pagan”, then why this vehement denial of another person’s right to self-define as something that simply isn’t pagan? Do you even realise that this is what you’re doing? No-one is saying that being pagan is somehow bad or unworthy, just that it doesn’t fit what they do, because of the easily-observed fact that an overwhelming majority of self-identified pagans a) don’t do with the non-pagan does (an observation that polytheists literally make all the time, and have for at least the thirty-some years that the Heathen community has been splintered off) and b) “paganism”, at this point, is more a social scene than a religious movement.

    • Jax, I appreciate your point, but I think the level of distance between our practices and Pagan practices is a lot deeper than you think.

      Many people who read this piece focused on the non-Wicca-centric parts like not casting a circle. But look at some of the other things I mention. If you think that none of them just profoundly go against core Pagan ideas, then I have a suggestion: next time you run a workshop or public ritual, tell everyone that in your tradition you bow to the altar, and ask them to do the same as they enter the sanctuary as a sign of respect. You’ll clear out the house pretty quickly.

      What we encountered is that the entire project of practicing a tribal polytheistic religion, the project of acculturating to something un-American in its mindset, runs counter to Pagan taste. Not just Wiccan taste: even Celtic Reconstructionist taste. CR’s tend to work in tiny groups or individually, with no temples and organizations that at most facilitate discussion and the rare group ritual. That tendency is party because they’re a niche interest, but only partly – it also reflects their strong dislike of hierarchy, group practices and formal religion. But these things are essential parts of the cultural religions they’re studying.

      We succeeded at building a temple and filling it to capacity in large part because we chose to organize our religion in very traditional ways, with clear community leaders, a few rules, shared practices and shared beliefs. In other words, a (sub)cultural identity. To Pagans, including Reconstructionists, a group identity like that takes a back seat to individualism.

      But there are other religions who do value having a shared cultural identity over almost all else: Hinduism, Shinto, First Nations religions, etc. They understood us immediately even though we have different practices and gods.

      The mistake that I believe you, and many commentators have made is to assume that since some Pagans have the same practices and gods as us, clearly we have no substantive differences with Pagans. But that’s like saying there is no substantive difference between Catholics and Mormons, nor Muslims and Jews. The whole core of how we approach our gods and practices is head-to-toe from how Pagans do so. I think that’s why we couldn’t identify. We tried for many, many years – not just with Wiccans, but with Neo-druids and CR’s and what have you. Time and again, my students would come to me and say they didn’t feel comfortable in those settings, and our regular lay members would kind of shrug and not really “get” the Pagans they met (and vice versa).

      So yeah, I don’t think we have much in common – at least not much that matters.

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  97. I know this is a very old post, but I’m hoping someone can still chime in on this.

    I am an eighteen year old African-American girl, and I have been looking for a nature based faith tradition to follow for about four years. I have looked at the basic tenets of many different major religions as well as Pantheism, which is about as close to atheism as a spiritual tradition can get. I have looked also at the ancient traditional religions that you describe, as well as Paganism/Neopaganism/Wicca. However, one thing that always throws me off in my searches, particularly in Paganism, which resonates a lot with me, is the amount of division that I always find. There is the soft-toned version of Paganism that throws in a lot of rituals from other faith traditions, there is the watered down version of Wicca which focuses a lot on casting spells and crystal healing (I am not putting these things down, but I think a faith tradition should be more about the philosophy than the accoutrements). Then there are the more avid practitioners of these philosophies who shun the popularized versions. And THEN there are those who shun that identity altogether, as you have done here, in favor of a historical reconstruction of ancient cultural traditions. As someone who is outside the loop, I don’t know what to think. Although I would like to be in a tradition-based faith that is not an amalgam of “whatever sounds good,” I feel uncomfortable trying to align myself with a traditionally Celtic or Native American or Japanese belief when I myself am not any of those things. Also, I am not a polytheist. The spiritual tradition that is perhaps closest to me culturally, voudou, does not align with my belief system at all. At the same time, I want a rigorous and enlightening path to follow that demands much of me, not something that allows me to have supposed power or just reinforces my own ideas about Nature. At every camp I feel shut out and articles like this don’t do much to help that, which makes me just abandon the spiritual search.

    Seekers may not be your intended audience but I hope you realize that this type of post just causes more confusion.

    • I’m noticing even among the comments that Neo-Pagan religions such as Wicca are being put down. I don’t get that. I came from the church, where there is constant inter-denominational squabbling. I would really hate to think that that type of petty name calling is universal.

    • Lahiwe, I appreciate your comment. I feel that I went to great lengths to be clear that this is not about polytheism being “better” than Pagan traditions. I was especially careful of this because I found that many interviewers and commentators would bait me by asking what was “wrong” with these other traditions or if I had had a bad experience with them. My experience with Paganism was overall positive and (as I said in this article) I have a great deal of respect for and close ties to Pagans.

      The reason I don’t identify as Pagan is because – as described in detail here – that community doesn’t fit my path. And that’s a fair thing to talk about.

      Just as we need to be respectful of other paths, we also need to be given the respect to determine our own paths. I don’t know how you read my article as putting down Pagan traditions, but that is definitely not where it was coming from.

      I hope you can understand and respect my path, which happens to be different from a Pagan path.

      Unrelated, I’d be interested to hear what aspects of Vodou don’t align with your belief system. I ask this without judgment; I’m simply curious, if you feel like sharing.

  98. Chandi says:

    No religion/spiritual practise should be forced to be labelled as being pagans by either neo-pagans or christians if they don’t want, and these are the two groups that tend to push the pagan term on others. I always found the whole paganism equals all religions outside the Jews, Christians and Muslims a very childish way of looking at the world as a whole. And do people really even believe that monotheist religions out there like Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Yazidi, Mandaeism and many others as also being part of pagan-based religious traditions because they happen to be non-abrahamic?

    if they believe this then that seems to be a very European christian point of view i believe, because I know for a fact that Jews, Muslims and many near-eastern Christians don’t believe this idea of all non-abrahamic faiths being just paganism either. And there was few times looking back in history that Christians have also called their rivals the Jews, Muslims and other christian sects as being pagans too. The fact that neo-pagans go around calling themselves and others as being pagans and then get upset when others start rejecting the pagan label just shows how much similar they are to western Christians(or how deeply influenced they are by christianty). Yes, fundamental Christians also throw a fit when non-abrahamic religions reject the pagan label, because in their mind-set that other person is denying what they really are or what are doing.

    Now The one religion that I find that both neo-pagans and Christians go after the most and want to term pagan real badly is Hinduism. But hindu people don’t view their religion or dharma as being pagan, but instead they have other terms to describe their religion such as Sanātanī(eternal), Apauruṣheyā(without human founder) and Āstika(orthodox). They have their own identity, so why should others people try to over shadow that? And hinduism isn’t strongly related to european pre-christian religions either, only very weakly because it’s has strong dravidian, Munda, tibetian, middleeastern, and other major influence people like to down play. And let’s not forget even to indoeuropean influence did not start from Europe, but it originated from either west asia(near east) or Central Asia.

    • well chandi hinduism does resemble Native american and shinto and early European religions(?) Shinto temple ritual are resembles our agama (they even have bells, Doism resembles Shaiva Siddhanta, the pre islamic arabian goddesses resemble shakti, the sacred grooves and rivers any monistic thought in zeno, stoicism of greek philosophy resembles vedanta… it is to do more with human conscious than any physical relation… a american Inca god resembles a chinese god without having an Inca and Chinese men meeting.. i think this we should understand… Love

  99. SF01 says:

    Very interesting article.
    The thing is that you are Pagan (or Heathen, as some preffer), those you call Pagans are in fact Neopagans.
    Pagans practice religion that is mainly reconstructed.
    Neopaganism is creating new religions from the elements of the older ones, so wicca and christianity are neoreligions.

    Truly pagan are those who reconstruct ancient ethnic religions to practice them and preserve them without adding any elements from foreig religions.

  100. Michael says:

    Don’t know if you still keep tabs on this article of yours, but what you described is everything I’ve been looking for in a religion. After leaving the Catholic Church I spent a long time trying to find somewhere that I fit, and I tried Paganism because of the strong bond I have to my Irish heritage. I never really felt it click though because of, like you described, the lack of historical accuracy and the feeling something was missing because of it. To shorten a long story, where does your community stretch to? I currently live in Alaska and would love to, if possible, learn and experience more from a community such as yours.

    • Michael, sorry for the slow reply—you’re right, I don’t monitor this post often :) Our community is no longer active but try searching for Celtic polytheism or Celtic reconstructionism in your area!

  101. Pratyush Pandey says:

    Really fascinating, i would like people not to use pagan word for ancient traditions as pagan as it was not only outsider’s term but also derogatory, like fag.
    In fact all term for ancient tradition is outsider’s term, Hindu itself is a term for people living along and eastern to river Hindu(Sindhu – Indus) and so every tradition be it atheistic, ritualistic, monistic, folk etc was clubbed into hindu. So anything in India from be it philosophical tradition which is not abrahmic is today religion Hindu.
    I’m from India btw, a hindu and i do find familiarity with shinto, daoism, native american and tribal religion… i don’t know how to describe it… may be human evolved to think in certain way…

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