Samain Joe and SeoAh Moon
Mountain spirit in velvet
Pagan. I call myself a pagan mostly to say I draw my religious content from the world around me, including other humans, rather than the texts held close to the heart by so many different world religions. Recently though I’ve come to think that the word might obscure more than it reveals, so I’m hunting for another one. Pagan, which simply means, in the same manner as heathen, someone living in the countryside, took on the coloration that it has now gradually.
Sophisticated theological thinkers tended to cluster in cities or in monastic settings while the peasants, those who had to live off the land, close to the land because their lives allowed no other way, held on to the traditions and rituals of their ancestors. The gap between the advancing dogma of the Roman Catholic church and the folkways of the countryside grew larger and larger over time. This was long before the majority of people lived in cities, so there was a numerical imbalance between the pagan rural and the educated elite in London or Paris or Rome. This meant that an institution that prided itself on knowing the truth had a problem.
predates the ancient Celts
Far more people, especially those in the woods and fields outside the urban centers, practiced a syncretic religion, a merging of folk beliefs and a limited understanding of Catholic dogma. The day of the dead, being celebrated now in Latin America, illustrates that this dilemma for the Roman Catholic’s extends into our time. Most of the Great Wheel holidays got Christianized at one point or another, with All Souls Day taking the place of Samain, Lammas taking the place of Lughnasa, Easter the place of Ostara, Christmas the place of the Saturnalia, at least in the hearts and especially the mind of the church.
In other words pagans are not at all uniform in their beliefs. Hardly. The Celts had their Great Wheel holidays, their pantheon of gods and goddesses like Lugh, Arawn, Bridgit, the Morrigan. The Norse had their bards who sang the songs of Odin and Thor and Sleipner and Fenrir. Go around the world and you will find a similar struggle between those who clung to the local deities and local traditions and the prevailing institutional power of, say, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity. Even Taoism and Confucianism in China faced similar, usually passive, resistance when they institutionalized.
So when I say pagan it may conjure in your mind Wicca or witches or maybe the Norse Asatru. But that’s not what I’m trying to convey. I say pagan and mean over against ossified and ossifying dogma. I say pagan and mean over against institutional power trying to determine the inner life. I say pagan and mean pay attention to the natural world, close attention. Learn how you are in it. I say pagan and I mean think for yourself, don’t spend all your time interpreting the words of others, speak your own words, name your own experience.
This is not what pagan meant in its original context. In the days of medieval Europe the pagan was an unlettered serf, a person so consumed with bare survival that the subtlety of Aquinas or Augustine cluttered up their lives. They resisted not out of intention, but with a passive insistence on the value of their passed down ways of seeing, of knowing.
I say pagan, too, to mean that I’m not agnostic or atheist in identification. The result of my thought might seem to place me in those categories, but they are categories defined in relation to monotheism. So you might be a Christian agnostic or atheist, that is, you doubt or don’t believe in the Christian god. Or, a Jewish agnostic or atheist. Or, a Muslim. Or, a Hindu agnostic or atheist. Agnostic or atheist is really a place holder for something you define yourself against, the a meaning not, not known or knowable, not theist.
Black Mountain, September, 2017
I don’t care what you don’t believe in. I want to know what you do believe. What moves you? What shapes your heart? Unlike the original pagans, I want to intentionally resist the clouding of our perception by powerful institutions, be they political, economic, educational, or religious. I have no new dogma to offer. I like the Great Wheel because it allows a useful frame for seeing ourselves in the cyclical turn of the seasons, not because it is a new dogma. I like Judaism, at least that of the Reconstructionist sort, because it acknowledges the metaphorical nature of religious texts and rituals, does not give them ontological power.
Bull and doe, Evergreen Lake, 2015
Most of all though I like the coming of night and day, fall and winter, dry and wet. I like the lick of a dog’s tongue, the kiss of my wife, the hugs of my grandchildren. I like the mountains and their streams, their wildlife, their majesty. Seen from within these precious realities the political is incidental, the religious suggestive not prescriptive, the economic a tool and education an unveiling.
Maybe I’m not a pagan, maybe I’m a human, living this life on my own terms. So, maybe humanist?