Wanted: A Contemporary Pagan Culture

Contemporary Paganism lacks a unified culture and without this Pagans may never really succeed in developing as a stand-alone spiritual or religious tradition.

Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning to cultivate) is a term that has different meanings, two of which are:

• An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning,

• The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.

Paganism especially fails in the second definition of culture, as its has no true set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.

 

Culture is based on community and communities have been said to be groups founded on unitive stories. A unitive story is the animating force behind any group of people that moves that group in an unanimous direction. These stories take many forms, but the most well-known ones flow from a recognized source of authority, such as the founding prophets, texts and laws of the Abrahamic faiths. One might say that the unitive story of Islam, for example, might be the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad. The crucifixion might serve as a simple rendering of Christianity’s unitive story. And this is something contemporary Pagans do not have, for if religion and culture are linked, then Pagan individuals and existing groups are much too small to create a true Contemporary Pagan Culture on their own.

A religious tradition can not exist or flourish without being rooted in a unifying culture for if religious endeavour is to grow in complexity beyond the ability of an individual it will require that the endeavour be taken up by communities, all of whom work from uniting blueprints.

Pagans gathering in community

Paganism is often described as unorganized traditions. In actuality, Paganism is something that does not exist as a single tradition. Paganism is merely a term used to describe and collect a set of disparate movements that are generally thought of as being earth-based and pre-Christian in nature and these various movements must all be organized in their own way, or else they would not exist as such.

Wicca (I am not referring to neo-Wicca here but more to traditional Wicca), for example, is organized and has at least the beginnings of a culture and that is thanks partly to the existence of a Wiccan unitive story. Wicca is, among others, typically a duotheistic religion, worshiping a Goddess and a God as complementary polarities in the universe that balance one another out; it involves the ritual practice of magic, it has the Wiccan Rede and it celebrates seasonally-based festivals known as Sabbats.

I would venture to say that the practice of magic and the seasonally based festivals are probably the two most powerful uniting factors in Wicca, factors which identify the Wiccan Culture, and these factors are even a shared commonality with the less traditional Wiccan paths.

Heathens are also organized and the same can be said of Druid groups. In fact one can say that Heathens and Druids started this process by distancing themselves from Paganism in such a way that they were able to give themselves room to unite around stories, ethics, rituals, etc. Nonetheless, most Pagans continue to identify as Pagans. Why? Perhaps because there is strength in numbers, but surely this is not enough for this common thread is essentially based on fear and distrust of other religions and religious cultures.

So, either we as Pagans decide to work towards the cultivation of a Pagan religious experience, or the various traditions currently identified under the umbrella of Paganism go their separate ways and devote their time developing separate unitive stories. Otherwise there is no hope of any of us experiencing a Pagan Spiritual Culture within our lifetime nor within the lifetime of our children.

We are an Old People. We are a New People. We are the Same People, Wiser than Before.

Morningfeather at the first Pagan Spirit Gathering in 1981, written with Will Shepardson.

A unitive story that could encompass all Pagans in fact already exists and it can be found in our definitions of Paganism. For example, Paganism is polytheistic, earth-centered, for many Divinity is not only plural but immanent, the annual cycle of the Earth’s seasons, and Paganism is a non-Christian spirituality. Perhaps these points could be the cornerstones for a contemporary Pagan cultural blueprint?

Obviously this will not unify several paths of Paganism. Many people who might now identify as Pagan would be forced to found their own unified communities, ones which would support their particular spiritual inclinations, such as Ceremonial Magicians, Thelemites and perhaps even Wiccans, given for example that the (Wiccan) Craft has very little to do with Witchcraft and quite a lot to do with post-Crowley occultism.

Earth-centered spirituality does not mean a poorly defined veneration for the Earth, which is the norm among many Pagans today. Earth-centered spirituality should be a spirituality that is fundamentally oriented toward the ecological health of the actual living planet, not the kind of Earth spirituality which is nothing more than a fashionable pop-culture.

By non-Christian I mean that Pagans practice and cultivate beliefs held by peoples predating the advent of Christianity, or those practices which existed in Christian lands but which existed, and still exist, outside of the Christian sphere; Witchcraft as the child of pre-Christian elements which then syncretised with Christianity while maintaining a primarily extra-Christian theology is such an example. But though based on pre-Christian philosophy and practice, Ceremonial Magic adapted from a primarily Kabbalistic worldview (which is based on Judeo-Christian ideas involving a separation between the divine and the mundane world) can not be counted as non-Christian or Pagan.

Reconstructionist Pagans probably come the closest to this New Paganism, although as it exists today it is still highly fractious and this is a weakness, unless these groups were to unify under the New Paganism by shifting their efforts toward a living syncretic revivalism, and not an overly academic reconstruction of pre-Christian practices and beliefs.

This revivalism would have to acknowledge the fluidity of ancient beliefs both in time and in space. Revivalism depends not upon the static re-doing of past practices, but the re-application of fundamental religious concepts. The new Pagan Revivalism should be syncretic and polytheistic, allowing for reinterpretation of ancient practices in a modern context while remaining in accordance with the general nature of pagan syncretism in the past.

Paganism seems to more and more be distancing itself from the earth-centered definition and moving towards an understanding of itself as an aggregate of culturally specific (Recons and others) and sometimes syncretic (Wicca and others), polytheistic religions (many of which are based on pre-Christian European traditions). Polytheist may be becoming the first thing people say when confronted with the task of defining Paganism to non-Pagans, rather than earth-centered. In fact it may be more accurate and encompassing, but what it still is not however, is meaningfully descriptive. Why should we even bother with an umbrella term at all?

Most definitions of Paganism that come anywhere close to being fully inclusive of most groups using the term become so vague that they are pretty much meaningless. If one already has a community within a specific context, such as Asatru or Druidry or British Traditionalist Wicca, what is the use of identifying further under the banner of Pagan when individual groups have extremely little in common with each other?

The word Pagan seems to mean a lot of different, sometimes completely opposing, things to a lot of people and as such it has no concrete meaning as a religious identifier. Some Pagans say it is a set of religions, an umbrella term, but we still use the term to refer to a specific religion or as a religious identifier. I believe that the word Pagan is really more of a placeholder rather than any kind of substantive religious designation or identity. The word may still be useful as a reference to a group of people or communities, but not necessarily to a group of ideas, such as theologies or even values.

Given the decentralized and often contradictory nature of existing Pagan paths, it is probably not possible to talk about Pagan values, Pagan ethics, or Pagan theologies. Yes, we agree on some basic ethical principles, but there are many more examples of disparity; our ideas about divinity, monotheism, pantheism, panentheism, polytheism, positions on personal lifestyle, politics, ethics, cultural traditions, rituals, and Divinity.

We may also loosely occupy the same fringe space and identity as a group opposing mainstream religious and certain cultural norms, but our ethics, values and theologies can often be so deeply different and are even sometimes so completely at odds with each other, that I am at times baffled as to how we can consider each other members of the same spirituality or religion.

Paganism, one of the fastest growing spiritual groupings, has become and is still becoming a widespread cultural phenomenon, but although anchored in the paganisms of ancient people and cultures and with more recent roots in the romantic literary movement in Victorian England and classical mythology, contemporary Paganism has not yet managed to provide a pliable, culturally rich united spiritual / religious system.

It has been said that the most significant ideological contributors to Paganism are feminism, pluralism, self-determination, holism and ecological awareness and post-modernism. In its own way, each of these ideologies and movements has added its own flavour and texture to Paganism as a whole, but Pagan paths have not responded equally to all of these, and a unified contemporary Pagan Culture has failed to materialize.

The decentralization of Pagan paths has kept the personal spiritual search highly personal in nature. Each individual has to find his own motivation, his own truth, and his own method for walking his path and keeping his faith, and as long as this continues, a true Pagan Spiritual Culture can not emerge. But it is still early days in the development of contemporary Paganism. Though it has its roots in the distance and not-so-distant past, Paganism is a new spiritual construct and the creativity of spirit and self determination encouraged in Pagan thought will continue to flourish.

 

Flame of remembrance

I hope that it will start moving towards producing vivid practices that will serve the Pagan community as a whole so that we do not remain a scattered collection of individuals and small groups. It is obvious that our spiritual journey towards creating culture is an ongoing process. We, the contemporary Pagans are also, as Morningfeather said, an “Old People” because we draw upon the ancient wisdoms and ways of our ancestors as part of our cultural experience. We keep the Old Ways alive and we experience ourselves as an Old People through our connection with the past. But we are also the New People because we are weaving a new form of Pagan culture from the threads of past, present and, yes, the future.

Paganism in all of its diversity is vibrant, changing and alive. We should be creating our contemporary culture in ways that fit our present era and meet our present needs. Ancient Pagan cultures no longer exist, and it is not possible, nor necessary, to replicate old Pagan cultural patterns exactly as they were in order to connect with their spirituality and wisdoms. We can however revive, not necessarily reconstruct, the Ways of the Ancients. This can be done by studying past expressions of paganisms; we can learn timeless ancient teachings and we can incorporate these into our present culture. The myths, symbols, and customs of the ancients can inspire us and enrich our Paganism. It is up to us to create a Contemporary Pagan Culture.

This article was published on the website of
the South African Pagan Council on 27 June 2010.

References:

[1] Our missing mythology and why we need to find it by Hrafnkell
[2] Toward A New Paganism by Makarios
[3] Neo-Paganism in the Post-Modern Age by Amber Laine Fisher
Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition – No.6. Vol. 1, Vernal Equinox 2004
[4] Commentary on Temple Chants and Songs
[5] Old People, New People by Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary
[6] What is Paganism
[7] Wikipedia

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