Bringing Race to the Neopagan Table: an exploration of a taboo subject

The Neopagan community today is an odd combination of a publisher’s Summerland and a publisher’s Hel. There are wildly popular markets and bewildering hundreds upon thousands of books on some Pagan topics—cookbook-style spell books, books promising an instant cool factor and a good many serious books on specific gods, goddesses, methods and re-constructionist traditions. But there are some areas of great interest and concern that are untouchable, effectively off-limits to most publishers.

Creative Commons image by Debs of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Debs of Flickr.com

One of those issues is the quagmire of Neopagan race politics. It’s a scary swamp of murky definitions, guilt, fear, hate and accusations—cultural appropriation, stifled multiculturalism, isolated Santerians, Neo-Nazis masquerading as re-constructionist Heathens and lots and lots of white people confused about the concept of being a “minority” versus having “privilege.”

There is no conceivable way to enter this swamp without being criticized from one quarter or another (or all at once). It reminds me of writing articles from the interethnic war zones of the former Yugoslavia. The only way I knew I was even slightly on track was when I worked very hard to understand every side and then everyone was angry when I went to press. When one side was totally happy with me, I worried. 

That makes me think the book Bringing Race to the Table, which tackles the issue of race in the Neopagan community is doing a damned good job in a difficult crossfire. There is no way that anyone will be 100 percent happy with all of the opinions expressed in this anthology, because the authors don’t all agree with one another on all issues.

I would give this book top marks, five stars or whatever the equivalent, not because I agree with everything in the book. I have some quibbles. But because it does an excellent job of tackling such an incredibly difficult issue. And my quibbles are all on matters in which I agree with some of the authors but not others. I learned a massive amount by reading this book.

Being white, I learned fast and hard during the first half of the book, which reflects more the perspectives of people of color in Neopagan communities and I squirmed uncomfortably at times in the second half which reflects more the perspectives of white people. But this anthology represents most essentially an act of great courage both by the publisher and the authors, treading into a minefield and making a blessed good stab a very hard task.  

As a white Pagan who is part of a racially mixed family, I have become convinced over the past five years that the issue of race is the Achilles heel of the Euro-centric Neopagan movement. I believe that we either solve this problem, clean the skeletons out of our closets and lay them to rest or our movement will go the way of the Flower Children, to be remembered by future generations as a short fling with reinvigorating ancient Paganism, an attempt that was doomed by deficits in spiritual depth and inclusivity. 

Is Paganism a fashion statement or a religion? That is the question and oddly enough race is at the core of it. Many Neopagans have been hiding from the issue of race, pretending that “European Paganism,” which somehow ended up including Egyptian, Romani (Gypsy), Middle Eastern, Classical, Celtic and Heathen Paganism but nothing else is somehow distinct as a “religion” and that we can clearly identify a tradition, a goddess, a culture or an individual as “European” or not. In this paradigm race becomes a non-issue because the nature of this “religion” is that it originated in Europe. 

Creative Commons image by Duncan Price

Creative Commons image by Duncan Price

I hate to break it to those folks, but Egypt is not in Europe anymore than Nigeria is. And there is nothing all that unique or unified about European Pagan traditions. Celtic traditions share a lot of similarity with Native American beliefs. Most Pagan traditions worldwide share many similar tenants and often eerily similar details in mythology. Any line we draw around one continent’s Paganism is an arbitrary line and thus a line that cuts open the can of worms called “race,” no matter how hard we try to hold it closed.

The trouble Neopagans have with race begins with the fact that we don’t talk about race. When Moon Books sought to create an anthology of Pagan thought in the 21st century and titled it Pagan Planet (not Pagan Anglo-Empire), they forgot to include anything about non-European Pagans. It’s an all too common pitfall. 

But worse than that, some Pagans do talk about race—just carefully and when it is about the white race. During recent racially charged incidents in the United States and Europe, I have seen several news items posted on Pagan forums with emotive posts in support of white parties in the conflicts, but I have not seen Pagan posts sympathetic to victims of crime who are people of color. 

When I recently posted a news item critical of white supremacist groups in the United States on my own page (and thus not intruding on specifically Pagan forums) I was insulted and shamed by several members of Neopagan groups to which I belong who noticed my page. This may seem little different from the regular verbal sparring over political and social issues that goes on every day on social media, but after long observation on Pagan forums, a pattern emerges in which most members of Neopagan groups are silent about injustices against people of color. 

A vocal minority in the Neopagan on-line community shames and attacks those who speak up for people of color while posting their own racially charged items that favor people of white appearance. No one in turn shames or insults these white-favorable posts in Neopagan forums. Those of us who dislike such posts generally want to keep the peace and we hope the racist end of the Neopagan community will somehow just go away. In the end, there is an atmosphere where discussions of racial tensions in society is taboo with the exception of posts favorable to white-supremacist and European-heritage-only Pagan groups. It is difficult to imagine that people of color could feel comfortable in such a community. 

The lack of a non-European perspective in the book Pagan Planet is a clear symptom of the problem. A book that references the whole planet, that is supposed to take a broad look at Paganism in the twenty-first century, published by a respected Pagan publisher—one of the most up-to-date books of its type—contains almost no mention on race. That’s why we needed Bringing Race to the Table, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood and Brandy Williams.
Crystal Blanton describes some of the things that people of color encounter when attending Neopagan meetings and events: “From strange, questioning looks when someone walks into circle to asking a Hispanic practitioner if she is the maid at a Pagan event, all of these types of interactions happen within our community.” 

There is a difficult interethnic tension in the very term “Pagan.” Many non-European indigenous religions that would otherwise fit the definition of an earth-based polytheistic spirituality, are not considered Pagan either because their adherents vocally reject the Pagan label or because European Neopagans fear that they might be offended. Thus Hindus, Native American spiritual practitioners, Santerians and many others are often not considered “Pagan,” despite fitting all of the definition except the “European” part. 

Blanton theorizes that the root cause of incidents that are unwelcoming of people of color is inherent in this assumption that European Paganism is the norm in the Neopagan definition: “The fundamental assumption that we are attempting to integrate into a community that is not ours is the root of all these microaggressions. The Eurocentric construction of the Pagan community lends to a structure that coincides with greater society, making Caucasian the default, the overculture. This structure automatically “others” people of color.”

Creative Commons image by Porter Rockwell

Creative Commons image by Porter Rockwell

There are some corners of the Neopagan community where groups openly state that they are only open to those of European heritage, justifying themselves by saying that there are groups which are only open to those of Native American or African heritage and insisting that they wish to have an authentic Re-constructionist experience of their ancestral spirituality. 

Blanton explains, “I was recently told that I could not join a specific group of Heathen practitioners because I was not of European descent. When I challenged that, and actually concluded that I was [of European descent], I was told I still could not participate because I was not of ‘primary European descent.’ When I asked how that was measured, I was not given an answer that was consistent among those who would apply. In the end, I concluded that looks would be the determining factor of whether someone was of primary European descent, and although I would not qualify, my son would because of his sandy hair and blue eyes.”

I personally have encountered a related problem. As an obviously white person with light-colored hair, I was allowed to attend several Neopagan events in Central Europe until local groups met my children, who have darker skin and hair. Then I was given the cold shoulder and told that only European practices and deities were acceptable, even as organizers of the event held a large ritual honoring Egyptian gods. Somehow European Neopagans have decided that Egypt is part of European, not African, heritage.

Genetic exclusivity is a thorny issue, because there are indigenous spiritual groups from many continents who maintain genetic exclusivity as a means of protecting their cultural and spiritual treasures from continued exploitation and colonization by those in possession of greater wealth and power. This is one of the areas where I disagree with some authors in Bringing Race to the Table.  I understand that there are good reasons people of color must protect indigenous traditions and European Neopagans don’t encounter the same pressures. 

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

However, the world is now full of racially mixed individuals such as Blanton as well as the descendants of indigenous individuals who were removed from their culture of origin and either adopted or “reeducated” in boarding schools and other institutions. These individuals, both mixed race and those whose cultural heritage has been stolen or hidden from them (and thus who may not even know of their genetic background) are harmed most by genetic exclusivity. Beyond that, many people of European heritage now live on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples many generations before. While wallowing in guilt over what one’s distant ancestors did helps no one, to simply transplant European Neopagan traditions to these lands and utterly ignore the indigenous traditions of the land on which one lives feels callus and simply spiritually wrong.

The issue of cultural appropriation is related, however, and it causes significant confusion in Neopagan communities. Unlike the few genetically exclusive groups, most Neopagans insist that they want more people of color in their circles and that because they embrace various parts of Native American, Asian or African cultures or spiritual teachings, they are multicultural and welcoming of people of different races. The problem is that this very adoption of bits and pieces from other cultures (and most often the adoption of the titles of spiritual leaders such as “Shaman” or “Medicine Woman” and identifying one’s self as one of these without clear knowledge of even which culture the term belongs to) is often felt as a slap in the face by people of color. It can feel like the flaunting of the spoils of colonialism and when those from outside the culture set up shop as teachers of an indigenous culture in order to profit from their incomplete knowledge, it adds insult to injury.

Neopagans often struggle with these issues, trying to be sensitive to indigenous cultures but feeling the need to connect beyond cultural boundaries. Yvonne Ryves writes about her shamanic practice that is guided by spirit allies of various cultures: “My guides are also not Celtic, nor is the shamanism I practice. In fact my shamanism still doesn’t link to any particular culture, but this no longer concerns me. As I am taught by my guides I may learn something that links to the culture they are from, for example early on, my Native American guide taught me how to make an offering to bird spirits with sage and feathers. This doesn’t make my shamanism Native American in any way though, especially as I make my own sage bundles from the sage I have growing in my garden, working with the spirit of that which is native to where I live.” 

While such practices are well-meant and authentic to the practitioner, adopting a term such as “Shaman” and using it out of context—Shamanism technically is Central Asian and does not refer to all out-of-body journeying techniques—can make people from indigenous cultures mentioned uncomfortable and thus alienate them from Pagan circles, where they might otherwise find an appropriate umbrella for their spirituality. 

As a result, some among both whites and people of color insist that cultural appropriation occurs when those not born to or given primary access to a certain tradition use the symbols, teachings, terminology or practices of that tradition.  However, this is another area where the authors of Bringing Race to the Table don’t have consensus. Reluctant Spider, a writer of African heritage, rejects the rigid genetic/ethnic measurement of cultural appropriation. She points out that unbiased application is impossible when some Greek myths have African origins and even Thor has ties to Ethiopia. 

Several authors of Bringing Race to the Table struggle to define the exact boundaries of cultural appropriation. Is it a question of power imbalance, when those with greater access to education, wealth and leisure time take what they want from those with less resources for spiritual study? Is it the cherry picking of only some terms, images or misrepresented concepts from other cultures and interpreting them through the lens of one’s own culture? Is it when the mystery of another culture is used for gain, whether to sell something or to claim titles and positions of spiritual authority? There is no easy answer but the common theme seems to be the attitude and respect with which we interact with other cultures. Neopagans do often give that respect when taking from other sources but sometimes they don’t.

Paradoxically, the final reason that people of color often don’t feel welcome in Neopagan communities is a lack of respectful and culturally sensitive inclusion of the deities, terms and practices of non-European earth-based traditions. Essentially, there must be some respectful cultural integration in order for Neopaganism to become inclusive. 

For instance, most encyclopedias of deities popular in the Neopagan community either put the vast majority of their focus on European and classical deities or include deities of various continents with the conspicuous exception of sub-Saharan Africa. Naming the Goddess, edited by Trevor Greenfield is an example. The latest edition of the Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines by Patricia Monagham  includes some African deities but they are only either Egyptian or African diaspora deities and this is the far progressive end of the spectrum with countless books entirely devoted to northern European and classical deities.

Reluctant Spider, one of the authors of Bringing Race to the Table, set up an objective experiment to determine the acceptance and placement of non-European deities and images in the Neopagan community. Because so much of the community is on-line, the on-line reflection of the community can be assumed to be fairly true of overall attitudes. And because the rankings of Google searches are based primarily on popularity statistics, such searches can accurately reflect what is appreciated in a community, as well as what has the backing of major organizations and funders. Therefore, Reluctant Spider used Google Image searches as an objective measure of the prevalence of images of non-European deities in 2014. She searched for specific terms and then counted the number of images of Caucasian deities one had to pass by in order to reach a single image of a non-European deity. 

First she simply entered the term “Goddess.” After 21 images of European goddesses, she encountered one Native American goddess. After two more, at number 23, she encountered a Hindi image. There were 35 images before she found a goddess image with skin dark enough to be conceivably African, although the image had European nose and lip features as well as bright green eyes. After 65 images she finally encountered a tree nymph with a green leafy afro. There were occasionally other Hindu images as well as Egyptian iconography, but there were no other black African goddess images. She stopped counting at 200.  

While a Google Image search is a reasonably objective tool Reluctant Spider’s first search was simply the term “Goddess” and it would not only produce results from Neopagan sites or forums. It would produce all images associated with the term “Goddess.” She also entered the search terms “Black Goddess,” “African Goddess,” “African American Goddess,” and “Latina Goddess.” Instead of resulting in a flood of more culturally diverse goddess images, these terms resulted in lists of images featuring secular celebrities and sexualized models. Then she tried “White Goddess” and she was returned to actual goddess images, primarily those of the Neopagan community with a scattering of historical sites. But of course the real test was when she put in the term “Pagan Goddess.” In this case there were no results showing a goddess resembling an African within 200 results. (Reluctant Spider 2015, 8-9%)

Kids cellebrating Samhain - CC image by Steven Depolo - all good.jpg

Clearly, filtering the original search for Neopagan sites resulted in an even more extreme lack of multicultural images. I have unintentionally replicated these experiments many times while searching for appropriate Goddess images for my racially mixed family and coming up frustrated. It is important to remember that it is the actions and preferences of millions of Google users—what they share and pay attention to—that is reflected in such a Google Images search. This makes these results all the more troubling. We have no one to blame it on and it is very likely to be a true reflection of the aesthetics preferred by most English-speaking Pagans today. 

After reading Bringing Race to the Table, I must conclude that the Neopagan community falls woefully short of meaningful inclusivity at the present time. While the authors sometimes don’t agree with one another, their differences are invariably about details, such as the exact definition of “cultural appropriation.” 

Blanton argues that this unfortunate state of affairs will not change until Neopagans openly take action for racial inclusivity: “We cannot pretend that our spirituality makes us decent people if we are not out there fighting to make things right in areas of inequity for people of color. We justify away what makes us uncomfortable. We also excuse rules, prejudices and guidelines that eliminate the participation of people of color. Then the community ignores the lack of black and brown faces in our circles or conventions, excusing it away instead of exploring it.”

Bringing Race to the Table is the best source of material for investigating these issues at present. I wish it could be required reading for all Neopagans. Given that that won’t happen, I hope that Neopagans who do care about these issues will read it and be vocal about the problems. Our future depends on it.

“The road forward in an inclusive community would have to start with an honest evaluation of how our actions are causing intentional and often unintentional harm by setting a culture that is not welcoming or embracing of those who do not fall within the walls of our Euro-centric overculture,” Blanton writes.

Pagan Book Review: Pagan Planet looks at how modern Pagans live and act on their beliefs in the twenty-first century

What are the diverse experiences of contemporary Pagans of an indigenous European bent? What are the challenges of reclaiming and integrating ancient beliefs in the twenty-first century?  What are our values and how do we act on them?

There may be some blogs and other online sites that discuss these intense and complex issues that take the Pagan community beyond romantic ideas of candles, crystals and witchy hats, but they are scattered and often jumbled in with other things. Getting a balanced view of where the Pagan community really stands by skimming such websites would be a daunting task. That’s where the book Pagan Planet (edited by Nimue Brown of Moon Books) comes in. 

This is an anthology that sets out to chart the breadth and depth of the contemporary Pagan community. The subtitle Being, Believing and Belonging in the 21st Century brings issues of identity, faith and ethics to mind. Here at last is a credible attempt to take a serious look at Neopaganism without any delusions or fetishes, simply as a contemporary way of life. For that, it is most welcome.

The list of authors and topics in the anthology is delightful and intriguing. There are essays on specific issues and musings on life as a modern Pagan, even a poetic or fictional bit or two for added flavor. All around, I was not bored reading this. The writing is varied, and professional--the cream of the Neopagan community. I found a few of the insights particularly gripping, especially when they had to do with how Pagans act on the values promoted in our teachings, such as honoring elders and ancestors, helping those in desperate poverty to gain self-reliance through Pagan Aid and protecting the earth in many valuable ways. As a Pagan parent I found the pieces on Pagan parenting entertaining and the entry on Authentic Shamanism was fascinating. All this is contained in the book.

At the same time, many of the authors were clearly aware of the eyes of history reading their words as well as today’s readers. They were not only setting out to reflect our community back to us. They were also attempting to document a moment in the development of Neopaganism to say essentially: “Here in 2016, this is where we stand. These are our struggles, concerns and achievements. Let it be remembered.” That too is a good and honorable task.

Because of these goals, this anthology is almost too broad. In trying to look at all the diverse aspects of Pagan life, it is limited in its ability to explore in great depth. That isn’t a serious flaw because we need a book that takes into account many different issues. There are already books on many of the specifics. And at the same time, I was disappointed in one aspect of this book--its focus not just on indigenous European traditions but the heavy emphasis on the British Isles in particular. This is a more serious limitation because it purports to give a global perspective. While there is a southern hemisphere piece and a few North American entries, most of those that mention place are in the UK or Ireland. 

It is beyond sensitive to tread on the borderlines between European Pagan traditions and other indigenous and earth-based traditions that have mostly not adopted the word “Pagan” though they essentially fit the description aside from not being European. I recognize the difficulty of forming bridges to other earth-based cultures because of the issues of cultural appropriation and historical colonialism, However there are so many of us who dwell in the borderlands between European and non-European ancestry, lands and cultures (whether we like it or not) that we ignore this aspect at our peril.

This book shies away from earth-centered traditions of non-European in origin with only the briefest mentions of trading vague comments with a fellow Shaman in Africa and one author who admits to mixing in some Native American ideas with a careful caveat against usurping Native American culture. However, this last was another case of someone living in Ireland, not dealing with Native American culture because of proximity or the ancestry of one’s land, but because it is personally interesting. 

I offer that as a critique not in order to tear down a good and much-needed book, but to ask for our community to stretch even further in the issues we dare to talk about publicly. I grew up on a plot of land that tangibly spoke of fairly recent Native American ancestry and this influenced my understanding of the world, history and spirituality. I am now raising two children of mixed ancestry, who will have to bridge the gaps between Europe and other continents. I would like them to grow up into a Pagan community that is more inclusive of those who are not all European. Globally as well, the issue of race cannot and should not be ignored. 

Another enormous issue that is barely touched in this book is climate change. Many of the authors in this anthology are active in the anti-fracking movement, an extremely important part of the environmental struggle. And yet there was almost no mention of climate change and the challenges the next generation will face, including ethical issues when faced with massive waves of refugees and real hardship encroaching on the edges of our community. Our children will struggle with these and other heavy issues. Can we give no sign posts or explanation to the next generation who will have to struggle with issues so painful that we barely dare to touch them? 

All in all, Pagan Planet is a good book discussing issues important to the Neopagan community with some geographical and cultural emphasis on one area. It should be included in comparative religion and multicultural courses, studied by those beginning a Pagan path and discussed with passion and gusto by experienced Pagans. 

Reclaiming Pagan identity

"I'm not a Gypsy!" a thirteen-year-old boy in a Romani (otherwise known as Gypsy) settlement in Eastern Europe once told me. "Do I look like I have some kind of free and easy life? I don't have a wagon or one of those funny round guitars."

I was a journalist at the time--supposed to be impartial and not interfere with the natural course of events--so I didn't do what I wanted to do. I have since regretted that I didn't put an arm around the kid's shoulders and say, "I hear ya, brother. I know what it's like to have your identity usurped and dragged around to serve various fashion trends and self-indulgent subcultures. Don't let that stop you from knowing who you are." 

I do know because my identity is bound up with similarly loaded words. And when I first started writing Pagan children's books that was the greatest obstacle I faced. Many people who I expected to be supportive (because I grew up with their earth-centered spirituality) were skeptical and even resistant to the idea. 

A Pagan symbol from Latvian mythology of the Sun Tree -- Creative Commons image by Inga Vitola

A Pagan symbol from Latvian mythology of the Sun Tree -- Creative Commons image by Inga Vitola

"If you use words like 'Pagan' or 'magic' or 'witch,' you're going to limit the types of people who will read the book," one critic told me in no uncertain terms. "And a cauldron?  I mean seriously! I can't believe you called it a 'cauldron.'" 

Other times I've heard people who clearly practice earth-centered spirituality say essentially the same thing that the Romani boy told me.  "I'm not Pagan," one said. "When people hear 'Pagan' they think about immature mind games, hedonism and irresponsibility. It's the sort of thing that teenagers play around with just to annoy their parents. It's not a serious earth-centered spirituality." 

There are always tough decisions to make when presenting a book to the world and foremost among them is "Who am I writing this for?" I had to keep that question firmly in mind as I navigated the publishing process for Shanna and the Raven

The answer is that I wrote it for Pagan and earth-centered families. I want people who share these beliefs to be able to find the book using those search terms. And I'm not as interested in what everyone else in society thinks those terms mean. 

And moreover, I have two children myself and I think about what it meant to me to grow up with an identity that had no socially acceptable name.

Why "Pagan?"

I know there are a good number of people in the United States, Europe and Australia who accept the term "Pagan" readily. However, the fact is that there are many more people (possibly several times our number) who share our essential beliefs yet don't accept that term. That's why it's worth addressing the issue of why I use the specific term "Pagan."

I grew up with earth-centered spirituality but I didn't adopt the term "Pagan" until I was about thirty. That was mostly because I spent many years looking for a word that could accurately convey my meaning. Over the past twenty years many terms have become well-known--some ultra specific like "Wiccan," "Druid," "Asatru" or "Reconstructionalist." Some vague or only used by some, such as "New Age" or "goddess culture."

I chose the term "Pagan" for one simple reason. It is broad enough, yet to those who accept it, it means what I am trying to express. Thus if I find someone who identifies as Pagan and I say that I am Pagan, we both have a rough idea of what that means. Not perfect, no. But look at the wild diversity of Christianity or Islam. We're hardly alone in not being uniform. 

The term "Pagan" is also used in a specific way by serious news media. In the code of newspaper journalism, one should call a group "Pagan," if it represents an indigenous belief system with strong ties to nature and probably several gods or goddesses. Recently I have seen newspapers refer to tribes enslaved by ISIS as "Pagan" because they fit those criteria. Thus the term "Pagan" Is not exclusive to indigenous European religions, although it is most often used that way.

I know I'm treading on dangerous ground among fellow Pagans, asserting that I have a firm definition for the term "Pagan." But it isn't so much that I have that definition myself. It is that I accept and identify with the standard definition of the term. I don't fight the meanings of words because the most popular definitions of words will prevail in over time and resistance in this case really is futile. If I had come of age and discovered that most people called the beliefs I hold "gobbledygook" I would have identified with that term and fought for its correct interpretation and positive identity. Thus I don't fight against the term but rather for its clearer understanding. 

Get the Pagan children's book  Shanna and the Raven here.

Get the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Raven here.

That is why I use the term "Pagan" both for myself and to my children and in my children's books. Yes, "Pagan" originally meant something like country bumpkin and it wasn't specific to a religious path. But it is now. It has a commonly accepted definition, whether we like it or not.

Gay used to mean happy. American Indian and Gypsy were both terms assigned to (and largely accepted by) whole nations of people based on someone else's poor grasp of geography. (Gypsy comes from the incorrect belief that the Roma came from Egypt.)

Seriously, we need to stop whining and be glad for the identity we have. Show me a better or more understood term, and I'll seriously consider it.  But for now "Pagan" is the term we have. The term "Witch" is in a similar category, though the road to the broader understanding of that term will be even more rocky.

Why do we need an identity term?

There is another argument I encounter in the community discussion on this issue and that is that some people strongly believe that we don't need terms of identity at all, that these are just "labels" and actually potentially damaging. I do understand the idealistic and positive intention behind these concerns. We should all be human beings first--dwellers of this earth and universe, in kinship with every being. 

But... you knew that was coming, didn't you? But we don't live in an ideal universe and neither do our children. The concept of rejecting all labels and merging into one big happy identity is akin to the argument for "colorblindness" among many white people in the United States or Western Europe. The lack of identity works just fine if there are truly no distinctions or problems between people in society. However, if there is any measure of tension, lack of identity works in favor of those associated with the largest and most privileged group and to the detriment of minority groups. 

Get the Pagan children's book   Shanna and the Raven  here.

Get the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Raven here.

Many of those who embrace earth-based spirituality today grew up in another religion with a very distinct name, and part of their change is to release themselves from names and labels, so our community members often balk at terms such as "Pagan" or even "earth-centered."

It's understandable. However, there is an issue here that goes beyond the desires of individual spiritual development. These first-generation Pagans did grow up with an identity, one they could understand, make decisions about and even reject because it had a name. And they also grew up in the majority culture.

Children raised in earth-centered families are not fully in the majority culture and they often lack the words needed to make their own decisions about their beliefs. That was why out of all the worthy topics for children's books, I chose to devote my first books to stories of contemporary Pagan children.

As I write the second book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series I note that the only times identity labels are needed or even arise in these stories are when the characters encounter hostility from the majority culture. We could live happily without labels, if we lived in isolation. But we don't and our children don't. If you send a child out into the world after teaching them values and stories that are very different from those of the majority but give that child no words with which to think consciously about such things, you send the child into inevitable confusion and pain and cut the child off from a sense of belonging. 

Psychologist Abraham Maslow defined a hierarchy of needs, beginning with physical needs for food, shelter and safety and culminating in self-actualization. The theory, which is used widely by psychologists, is that one cannot progress to higher levels without fulfilling the lower needs on the hierarchy. Thus to reach self-actualization an individual must have basic physical needs met. And directly above the basic needs of the body and safety is the need for belonging. 

For children to fulfill the need for belonging in the majority culture, they must  feel that their ideas, values and beliefs are supported and shared by others at least to some degree. The facts of today's world are that many Pagan children encounter not a world where labels don't matter but a world where their beliefs are disregarded or rejected and their celebrations are unknown or mocked. In such a world, children must still have belonging in order to reach self-actualization and that belonging comes from the understanding is that there is a community out there--though scattered--that shares and honors their values and stories.

That is why we need a Pagan identity.

Book Review: The Other Side of Virtue and a vessel with which to drink the good life

"Pagan is a negative term," I was told. "It means wanton, imature snotty, rebellious and without morals." 

And this was not said by someone ideologically opposed to earth spirituality. Quite the opposite. It was said by one who taught me much of my spirituality and who finds spirit in nature and in authenticity and compassion. But the term "Pagan" has become negative for this person, through media messages, the words of critics and the words and deeds of some visible Pagans as well. 

And I while I vehemently disagree with that negative definition of the word "Pagan," I can't entirely refute the connotations of the social movement that has grown around the word in pop culture. Google it and you'll get endless pictures of objectified women in slinky black clothing with ugly makeup and suggestive poses. I have found spiritual sisters and brothers among Pagans, but I also often find a lot of nihilism and immature rebel-without-a-cause mentality. I find a subculture where many proudly claim that morals are for brainwashed idiots and that they have no spiritual obligation to do anything but satisfy their own desires as long as there isn't obvious harm done to someone else. And if there is harm done, well then "that so-and-so shouldn't have gotten in the way."

The most popular thread in one of the largest Facebook groups for Pagans for the past year has been one about how sick of "nice Pagans all full of light" the members are. These posts are full of adolescent self-righteousness, denial of spiritual meaning and flaunt-your-sex-because-it-annoys-Christians messages. By contrast, when I posted about my personal struggles around responding to climate change as a Pagan, I was met with several angry responses that demanded, "How dare you suggest that Pagans should be specifically concerned about climate change?" and "I'm so sick of Pagan popes."  

The person who told me that "Pagan" is a negative term has glimpsed this side of the Pagan community and been repelled with disgust, even though her spirituality is not far from true Pagan roots at all. And I struggle because I want to cry that there is no truth at all in the lies of the church-influenced media. Because this has nothing to do with the spirituality I know and love. But I do know that it isn't entirely a figment of evangelical propaganda. There are Pagans who say these things and openly espouse the values of wanton, immature, rebellious nihilism.

And I have searched for a coherent answer, a common definition or even a code of ethics broad enough and yet specific enough to be called "the Pagan way." And I've been told again and again that we are too broad, that nothing but external trappings connect us. And perhaps that is true, if you count everyone who ever used the word Pagan.

But today I've found a surprising spark of hope in this search.

It comes from Brendan Myers, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and writes extensively on environmental ethics and Neopagan topics. Many of Myers books may be too specific to one path or another but in The Other Side of Virtue (first published in 2008) he makes a credible, scholarly study of ethics and the meaning of a virtuous life, from ancient times to Harry Potter. Every other philosopher I have read and in fact my entire university philosophy program where I read Plato and the other thinkers that have shaped western society limited their study to the classical Roman and Greek period onward. Myers does what has been taboo and reaches beyond that boundary to explore the definition of "virtue" apparent in the remnants of ancient "heroic societies," the term he gives to pre-classical European tribal civilizations. 

Myers does not say in his book that he is defining indigenous-European Pagan ethics. It would be a very controversial claim. But he does it without the fanfare nonetheless. 

It is true that his entire study is limited to European thought, but the vast majority of those who self-identify as "Pagan" today do so in reference to spiritual paths that are at least inspired by indigenous European ideas. Even Wicca, which is so clearly not reconstructing a pre-Christian European Pagan faith, uses terms and concepts that are a clear reflection of its European roots. While I and many others may believe that Native American, Hindu, African and other earth-centered spiritual traditions are also "Pagan" in that they are non-Judeo-Christian and nature-based and involve similar ideas of deities, these communities generally do not use the term "Pagan" to describe themselves and thus they have to at least be given their own categories. Myers speaks specifically, though perhaps not exclusively, about indigenous-European Paganism--whether it be reconstructionist Celtic, Nordic, Slavic or Hellenistic or Wiccan, non-reconstructionalist Druidic or eclectic. He doesn't claim to speak to or for all these groups himself, but I assert that he makes a very good stab at it. 

The first half of The Other Side of Virtue is primarily a scholarly treatise on the development of European thought about what constitutes "virtue" and "the good way to live" since ancient times. Rather than glossing over the ancient Pagan era, Myers devotes the most pages and detail to that period and from what I have read of reconstructionist literature, his general conclusions easily apply to Celtic, Nordic (Germanic), Roman and Slavic belief systems of the times. This part of the book then presents today's Pagans with at the very least an interpretation of what ancient Eujropean Pagan ethics and philosophy was like.

And it is not a view without its uncomfortable corners. According to Myers the highest virtue for these "heroic societies was "honor" and that honor was something seen through a social lens. Those who were held in high esteem were truly believed to be good. The fact that a person was born with strength and physical beauty made them virtuous, as did their deeds. Virtue, including honor, meant being a strong chieftain or being the supporter of a strong chieftain. Those who won gained honor and those who lost were bereft. Honor can thus be seen in this ethos as more important than life and thus the focus in so many ancient tales such as Beowolf on saving honor even when it means giving up one's own life. And yet the way in which Myers shows the development and application of these ideas makes it eminently useful for modern life. 

Honor in Myers's study becomes the living of a life that is worthy of being told as a story. Honor and thus a large part of virtue can be attained by being an excellent craftsperson, a skilled and ethical businessperson, a leader who makes difficult decision, a soldier who thinks while also working within a team, an artist who creates something great. Honor is in the worthy use of the gifts one is given by "fate," whether they be physical attributes, wealth, position or internal talents. Thus while some honor may be due to a person who is famous for great beauty or success in business in their own right, far greater honor comes to those who have these gifts and use them for a great purpose. It is more in what you do with your blessings than what blessings you acquired. It is more in the sacrifice offered than in the size of what was horded. 

The second half of the book deals with a logical, philosophical argument, presented in clear, lay terms that are easy for those without a doctorate in philosophy to follow. Myers's thesis attempts to show what he believes can be proven based on natural objective principles to be the basis for living a good life, defined as a life of virtue or excellence. The ultimate measure of virtue in Myers's thinking is not what is applauded by others or what stands up to the laws of gods or human beings, but what way of life allows the individual to flourish and find greatest happiness and fulfillment. And so while Myers admits that there are unflattering strains of European thought, such as Nietzsche's concept of the ubermensch, which use the same ideas of honor to create great suffering, he shows where their logical pitfalls lie. And he does this without preaching about what is morally or ethically necessary by any law or teaching of society or gods. Instead he shows how living a life that can be told as a story of excellence is also to live the good life for one's self. 

The end of The Other Side of Virtue presents a deceptively simple test by which a person can determine--very individually and without the judgment of others--how to live with virtue and honor.

Because the underpinnings of the historical study and the logical argumentation are both sound and rooted in diverse Pagan philosophies, I would argue that Myers has a great deal to say about how one can find a moral compass for Neopaganism. It is true that such a compass may be different for different people. Myers doesn't offer any fully baked answers that don't come from within the individual, but he does give the raw materials by which a compass can be constructed.  

The Other Side of Virtue is both well written and readable but it is also groundbreaking in its gathering of today's Pagan movement. Certainly there will be those who continue to claim that we need no moral compass or even that such a thing is antithetical to the broad scope of modern Paganism, but I believe that if one reads Myers with an understanding that his descriptions of various historical beliefs do not mean that he sees them as any sort of law for how we should behave but simply a historical study and if one employs the objective tools he provides to look at one's own life, there can be some real conclusions drawn about what is true to Pagan beliefs and what is a pop-culture picture based on what Myers would term "modern malaise." No one is going to make that distinction for the individual but if individuals  pour their life into this vessel and look at the reflection, they may find their own definitions of what a life of great spirit and excellence looks like.