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When I see that the next topic for the Pagans Down Under blog extravaganza is “Favourite Craft Tool” I feel a bit cheated. Craft tools, that’s my bag, my thing, and my most favouritest thing to do. It feels like that is all I do a lot of the time, and frustrating when my efforts are thwarted which they have been in recent days. Besides that little insight into my current situation of making, or taking a break from making, is that I realised recently that I don’t like to share the process here on the blog until the process is complete, that is the project I am working on, whatever it might be at the time. As the prospect of new projects approached I thought I would be here on the blog writing in equal measure. Apparently not, because I am a creature. After that, there is nothing I can really add to the plethora of thought bubbles regarding tools that can be found here ‘Ritual Tools‘ if you’re so inclined. I’ve covered the topic, I think. And no doubt, in times to come there will be many more posts regarding the using, loving, crafting and creation of Craft Tools.

So instead, I am going to take my downtime to discuss something a little bit off topic, give myself a free pass for this post, and talk about words, and paganism in relation to, well, everyone else.

Who is Pagan?

PaganPagans are human. That might appear to be obtuse, but I think will be important to remember.

In the first place though, it’s about as helpful as saying all humans are African. Well, at least both statements are true, but such a statement fails to recognise the millennia of hugely diverse human activity that means “African” is now come to be a distinct way of being human, genetically, culturally, religiously, linguistically, artistically, and all the other-ally ways one can be. Woot! Diversity is awesome.

Another true statement and pagans are also very diverse. But there are still a few criteria. As far as I am concerned they look like this:

1. Pagan is a European word. Not Indian, not proto-Indo-European. Not Asian. Not African. Not anything other than Latin. Which I assure you, though a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language, is very strictly European, in the very same way as all human beings are African, and then stopped being so when we got all different on it.

Pagan 1 Pagan 2

Seems legit to me.

2. Let’s pull this apart some more. A European word, defined by what we might call city-dwelling Romans. “Country folk”. This makes sense even in terms of its contemporary usage. Many neo-pagans are aligned philosophically if not physically, to the country, or perhaps better rural / sustainable styles of living, the earth, and often define themselves as “earth-based”. Things become far more specific when Christianity enters the scene.

3. Then pagan comes to mean “non-Christian”. And as the Roman Christianity marched its way across Europe, it became a slur, an insult, an accusation. Still European though. And again, still, for many neo-pagans this rings true. Also, still not Christian. Or, more broadly, outside of state-sanctioned or mainstream, majority religions.

Things get trickier on this score when we consider witchcraft. The obvious in this case is the oft muttered platitude “some pagans are witches, not all witches are pagans”. It is not unreasonable to suggest that modern witches, and as the earliest records we have of modern witchcraft attest to in the most part, were often pagan in the original Roman sense, villagers and country folk, but they were also very much Christian, and not at all pagan until other Christians pointed out they were doing their Christianity wrong. Which is an oversimplification if ever there was one. But, still European, still defined by the dominant, or institutionalised power of the state, in this case, the Papacy and Crown. And most certainly not a self-identifying word. Early modern witches (and many up to last century, and even still) identify themselves as “good Christian folk”.

This is perhaps the most interesting point. Neo-pagans draw on a plethora of sources spanning from pre-Christian periods, through the early modern Christian witch and cunning folk trials, into 19th century occultism and spiritualism, and 20th century revivals. In Europe.

In this way, one could argue that paganism today is not at all perfectly and solely any sort of paganism described at any point on that timeline. It is a new thing. Which is why I have used the word “neo-pagan” to differentiate between the historical state and the contemporary meaning.

So very broadly, both historically and recently, paganism is European, aligned physically or at least philosophically with nature/country/rural/sustainable lifestyles, and outside of state-sanctioned, mainstream, institutionalized religions.

Everyone is Pagan!

Kukeri Bulgaria Photograph by Charles Fréger, part of the Wilder Mann series. On New Year’s Day men cover themselves with goatskins to impersonate the Kukeri, who both embody and chase away evil spirits. In the past they’d brush against women to bestow fertility.

Kukeri Bulgaria Photograph by Charles Fréger, part of the Wilder Mann series.
On New Year’s Day men cover themselves with goatskins to impersonate the Kukeri, who both embody and chase away evil spirits. In the past they’d brush against women to bestow fertility. (Click here)

When Europe had got rid of most of its own pagans, save perhaps those in places too cold to be too properly arsed with, and those awesome enough to endure, they went global. And then everyone was pagan again. See I told you it might turn out to be a salient point

North American Native people were pagan. So to the South American Indigenous peoples. Much of South East Asia were pagan. I think the whole continent of Africa, Australian Aboriginals, South Pacific Islanders. Pagans. Pagans in the “these people are not Christians and need to find the Lord at the end of a sword/whip/club” kind of way, not the “look at these quaint country dwelling civilians, let’s be friends” kind of way.

On the upside, as the pointier end of Christianity was blunted for Europeans and we began to explore various older threads of our own cultural heritage(s), we could draw inspiration from these various people around the world and their earthier pagan ways. Especially since much of their own cultural heritage was now secure in Europe anyway, it seemed only right to use it to fill the gaps. Thankfully, in the 21st century, many neo-pagans display a higher level of sensitivity, elegance and caution in terms of the dreaded appropriation. Eager to find similarities, wax philosophical about how we are alike. On the whole I am no at all inclined to think this is a bad thing.

Except when it is.

And let me tell you when it is. Precisely the moment when contemporary neo-pagans of European descent, impose European terms on people who are not European, don’t live in Europe, who could mostly not give a fig about what Europeans do with their spare time (except when they’re still being colonial, capitalist bastards of environmental destruction or still going about genocidal policies in remote Indigenous communities perhaps), and who do not speak European languages, or practice European religions. That’s when.

Who & What is NOT Pagan?

A list.

All non-European Indigenous People & their Native Religions.
Seriously. No. We may say that we share philosophical and cosmological or theological premises, like animism, polytheism, nature-centric practices, even specific ritual actions. But no. And on that last point, it might serve everyone well to consider what of those ritual practices we share might have been appropriated from one such group of people, a long time ago by some French colonial who liked to drink and hold séances with friends and regale them with stories of the “savages in the colonies”. Actually, in terms of the first point, if you don’t feel comfortable defining terms like animism, pantheism, etc., nor in accurately identifying a philosophical premise (in anything, let alone a religious text, or spiritual path) you should never call anything by a word a practitioner or adherent has not given you express permission to use.

And “All non- European Indigenous People & their Native Religions”
would naturally include Japan & Shinto. 

Many torii line the path to a high mountain shrine just outside the entrance to Koyasan - Mitchell Brooks

Many torii line the path to a high mountain shrine just outside the entrance to Koyasan – Mitchell Brooks

Because they’re Japanese, and they have a word, which for those who do not speak Japanese we say, Shinto. Shinto describes the formalized ritual worship of the Kami; a well documented cosmology, pantheon, mythology, scholarly tradition that is practised by about 80% of the population in contemporary Japan. That majority, and the fact it is in no way strictly rural, outside the state-sanctioned religion, or taboo, means it can be in no way “pagan” even if the word was used as an approximation to describe a similar social, demographic status. Seriously, at various times in Japan’s history, there has literally been A Ministry for Shinto Affairs, Department of Divinities and etc. Japanese Emperors were adherents of Shinto. For it to be alike to European paganism, the British would need to have a Department of Druidry, and the Queen would be required to preside over rituals, probably as the avatar of the Goddess, held on Glastonbury Tor.

Right here actually, I’m going to add ALL Far Eastern religions or Taoic religions. Which just makes that a whole lot easier.

And when we say “All non-European Indigenous People & their Native Religions”, and especially in terms of majority, we naturally include ALL DHARMIC RELIGIONS.
BuddhaYes, heart chakras are breaking all over the joint. But this really could not be simpler. India has by itself about 18% of the world’s population. Hindu, the word that has come to mean the spiritual and religious practices of the people of India, which we will here call the Dharmic religions, comes in at about 15% and third in population size of the religions of the world. And given that Buddhism (also a Dharmic religion) comes in at around 7% and number 4, the Dharmic religions give Islam a good run for second place. (And for change, Sikh is next at less than 1%, and also Dharmic.) 

When you are in a tight race for the second most populous religion in the world, what you are not is quaint country folk a little outside the mainstream. You define mainstream. And in terms of state-sanctioned religions, let us not forget that Buddha was Prince Siddhartha Gautama.

The Abrahamic Religions CLEARLY, being generally the originators of the term “pagan” as an accusation, slur &etc.
(Which is not to say contemporary Christians would use the term as a slur, well, most of them I’m sure are lovely and very inclusive.)
This may seem obvious at this stage, but is not always so clear cut. The Abrahamic religions include all forms of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It is true that all of these religions have a long enough history in, and a long enough history right next door to Europe to be more or less European as well as Middle Eastern, or a sort of both ways situation. But they are a majority (or I should say The Majority), and state-sanctioned religions. Which, theologically are neither here nor there on the matter of city versus country. “But,” you say, “they were not always so, and they are all persecuted groups at one point or another! Outside the ruling classes…” Indeed. And in response I refer you back to the point that all pagans are human and all humans are African. It is a meaningless argument in terms of the application of the word “pagan” in our society and the facticity of the experience of the many people within it.

Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley

It gets tricky I suppose when one considers the deep influence of the Occult on neo-paganism. Both Christian and Jewish Kabbalah inform Occult and esoteric traditions of all sorts. And in this way, it really does depend on the practitioner. I am very fond of all manner of Occultism, as well as Abrahamic religious texts, but as it informs my own practice is not what I would consider foundational. Thus, I am not Christian etc. My witchcraft I would describe as (neo)pagan. But as I’ve said, witchcraft does not need to be pagan at all. Ceremonial witchcraft, mystery and Esoteric traditions and their practitioners can be strictly Abrahamic. Further, a clear distinction is made between “pagan witchcraft” and “Luciferic traditions” or “Sabbatic Craft’. Luciferic is a rather obvious term, and though such traditions are similarly influenced as pagan ones, that is, by both pagan European sources and Abrahamic Esoteric traditions, the emphasis is on the Abrahamic myths of Lucifer, Fallen Angels, Watchers, Lilith, Cain, and often the veneration of Catholic Saints. In this way, essentially, Luciferic Craft, as well as any other Western Left Hand Path, is Abrahamic if not somewhat syncretic. In many ways, these particular traditions are closer to the early modern era accounts of witchcraft in the trial records of Europe.

However, as much as one might find influence or inspiration in both pagan and Abrahamic sources, and as Europeans we almost always do, Christian and pagan are sort of mutually exclusive ways of being. It therefore depends on the individual or individual tradition to define the foundational and primary influences and practices. From the outside perhaps the rule of thumb is the predominant and most obvious myth. Abrahamic myths are such and so well documented one could hardly mistake it as pagan! But in this case it is best to check, many Occultists and Luciferic Crafters might not take kindly to a pagan designation.

African Traditional Religions.
(See All non-European Indigenous People & their Native Religions.)

Bossou - Vodou Flag

Bossou – Vodou Flag

African Diasporic Religions.
No really. African Diasporic Traditions or Afro-American religions are a diverse range of religions that vary even inside religions, house to house, tradition to tradition. Some are extremely syncretic and others less so. There are those that might feature a great amount of European material, like Haitian Vodou. But that material is also mostly Catholic, not pagan, with almost all Vodouists participating in a Christian denomination. And those Vodouists constitute at least half the population. Pagan it is not.

In other traditions like Santería, whilst much has been made of the gloss, or veil of Catholic iconography over the top of criminalized African practices, today, like in Haiti, most santeros are baptised, practising Catholics.

Notable exceptions might be Hoodoo, Louisianan Voodoo and Espiritismo. Which, so heavily influenced by European folk and spiritual traditions, and generally so many other things, including Toaic concepts, Native American, and Christian, they are syncretic religions drawing on syncretic religions. And that sort of defies all categories in many ways. However, whilst at their core they contain the seed of the African Diaspora, no European should be calling them anything other than what they would call themselves, and give you leave to use.

Just Good Manners

Let me first be very clear. This is not about people of any ethnic, cultural, spiritual, geographic background which is not European, not being welcome to join in with say, my particular brand of Norse-British-Australian-Pagan-Witchcraft. Or any European tradition. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t even think the majority of my readers would need to have that pointed out, or would disagree. Such shite is not fit to be included in any tradition. Nor is it a statement that white Europeans can not join in with any part or aspect of the World Religions Awesomesauce. Because my experience with people of all manner of religions, cultures, nationalities and etc., has never been anything but one of welcome, inclusion and hospitality.

This is not a statement that any group of people regardless of whether they’re pagan or something else can’t get together and participate in each other’s rituals and celebrations. That’s up there with the kind of shite that does not belong on my blog, or in my opinion anywhere else. And would render much of my life experience at odds with this post. People of any faith, culture or practice have as much right to have private and exclusive events and practices, as much as they have a right to share it when they want, openly and inclusively. I believe both are necessary, and appreciate both aspects of community, for myself and others.

But, there is something of privilege and a seed of older European supremacy in the application of an historically negative European word, that, may or may not be reclaimed as a positive label by a group to whom the word forms part of their heritage, onto other people who do not partake of that heritage.

Check Your Privilege!

Forget Wiccan Privilege. Next time you are tempted to label any of the groups listed above as pagan, check yours.

Consider the word “nigger”. A heinous word derived from the word negro the Spanish word for black (which is valid and not a heinous word). African American people, and indeed, other black people around the word have reclaimed this word in their own communities. And even then, within those communities are those who do not wish it to be reclaimed, and do not want to be labelled thus, even by other African American people. But this is an issue of self-identity and history inside that community, and no white European person, whose historical and ancestral link to the word is its use as a racist slur against a people who were their slaves, can use this word (and those that do are not people in my book). More to the point, the people who would strive to reclaim the word as part of their own self-identification, do not go about labelling other people who are not linked ancestrally and culturally to slavery and racism, with that word.

Whilst the word pagan might be similar in that it has indeed had negative connotations, and now that we live in worlds and societies where we have religious freedom to explore non-mainstream religions and older (and newer) traditions of Europe, we might wish to emphasise its other, older meanings, or indeed the negative ones in reclamation, it seems that the difference is that such people seem at complete ease in labelling other people not otherwise linked culturally to the word, at their leisure! Apparently, not much has changed…

This leisure is almost perfectly European and is no doubt linked to the complete lack of knowledge regarding the sources of much of their own practices. Much of which was appropriate before we stopped using words like the n-word.

Kali Statue in Singapore photograph by Carl Purcell

Kali Statue in Singapore photograph by Carl Purcell

Just because the Goddess Kali has apparently chosen some European pagan as Her special priestess, it rarely means the pagan identifies as Hindu, nor understands or practices any other aspect of that philosophy. Nor would a Hindu person identify you as Hindu, let alone a priestess of Kali just because a particular aspect of the One God in your practice you call “Kali”. Indeed, it’s regularly Hinduism’s polytheism cited as grounds for the label pagan, which shows a deep lack of understanding of the subtle nature of Dharmic philosophy itself.

The lackadaisical application of pagan in this instance is a symptom, and underlying continuation of heinous ideas that deny other non-European people the right to self-identify. The idea that a word, though ancient, in its current use has been around for but a blink, somehow takes precedence over non-European cultures that are, like Hinduism, continuous, unbroken, and requiring very little reclamation, or help from Europeans in defining themselves.

No amount of Kabbalah in your practice makes you Jewish. Or even Christian. In the first place, many of these words and names, like the words Jew and Jewish, are not solely an indication of religion, but ethnicity, nationality, and cultural heritage. Similarly, how much you might find your fox familiar has in common with Inari Ōkami, the kami of foxes, will not make you an adherent of Shinto. 

Simply put, because you have access to it, because we might find in amongst all our diversity a large amount of similarity, because you might feel free to use it, does not give you the right to place precedence on your tradition over it.

It might be nice to think that pagan constitutes a third of the world, but such a thing diminishes the diversity that pagans would otherwise promote. And more to the point, places a European culture over the top of non-European cultures. Whether or not you think it does. Ignorance is not a defence in this case.

Learn a New Word, Own Your Sources

There is nothing to my mind negative in the learning, and incorporation of other traditions into our own pagan traditions. Obviously, as a person of both British and Norse extraction, there’s a lot of merging that goes on in my practice. Part of that, as my learning increases, I come to understand to be already syncretic, particularly in terms of the British Tradition Craft, and as I’ve gone along, I’ve wanted to deepen my understanding of those small things, by delving deep into the non-European traditions from which they come. Which is why I currently study Vodu. To deepen my understanding of the practices from Afro-American Traditions that informed the British Craft Tradition I learned. As an Australian and an animist deeply interested in the spiritual nature of my home and country, I also learn as much as possible graciously shared by the custodians of that wisdom, Aboriginal Australian storytellers and elders.

But that does not make them pagan because I am. Instead, it makes it more complicated, hyphenated. Syncretism is the nature of all religion, it is the nature of all human thought! We are constantly learning from each other, incorporating new ideas and practices. And we do so when those ideas and practices are better, deeper, more beautiful, fulfilling than the ones we currently have. And if that is true, and I believe it is, we ought to honour those traditions from which we learn. Simply taking what we want and calling it pagan, or worse, deciding that because we can use it, or we like it, makes those traditions pagan, we do not honour, but diminish.

It doesn’t mean I call myself a Scandinavian-British-Indigenous-Voduist Pagan Australian. Not at all! It makes me a Scandinavian-British Australian, who is a Pagan Witch and Voduist, who draws on the Indigenous Wisdom of my land in my practice. It requires more words, deeper thought, but it doesn’t appropriate any one of those things into the label pagan, because simply they are not.

Stay Friendly

Many HandsAs I have stated, this doesn’t mean we can’t share. And even within our own pagan communities we are deeply diverse and different. We come together under a banner, but we are within it Wiccan, Druids, Ásatrú, Hellenic, Rodnovery, Cunning Folk, Spiritualist, Witches, and many others, from traditions and cultures all over Europe, and also draw on many non-European traditions and practices. And it doesn’t mean we can not, as so many pagans do, and certainly I do, continue to participate with other practices, rituals and celebrations in other non-European Traditions, incorporate them, and vice versa. 

It is a deeper sort of inclusion, whereby the individual thing is not subsumed as subordinate, in which diversity and self-identification is encouraged, and a greater level of honour is afforded those different to ourselves. Honour and appreciation for the wisdom we draw on and allow to inform our pagan practices, and those traditions from which that wisdom comes, and proper and correct recognition.