Defining “Pagan”: Coming Together as a Community

Within Paganism we have a seemingly endless list of traditions – and within those traditions, endless variation of practices. Paganism is a living dynamic spiritual path and this can make it very challenging to craft a definition of Paganism people can agree on. Many pagans would even challenge the idea that we need a definition. But I think we can craft a definition and that there is value in doing so. So here goes…

Why bother?

In my work as a priest I have been deeply involved in Pagan prison ministry. Over the past decade, I have written hundreds of pagans in prisons across the country. While some states are much more supportive than others, there is a definite prejudice against pagans of all traditions in our prison system. I hear the same stories of blatant discrimination over and over again. While it is no easy thing to be a Christian, Jew or Muslim in prison, it is doubly difficult if you are Pagan.  Pagans are routinely refused a place of worship, the ability to gather as a group, allotted time slots for gathering, books, materials, visitors, and the right to wear a necklace or symbol from their tradition. There is an ongoing struggle for Paganism to find legitimacy in this country. This is especially apparent within the US prison system.

The purpose of this article however is not the issue of pagan prison ministry. I use it as an example of consequence. It is the consequence of our disconnection as a religious community.  Most institutions have little to no knowledge of paganism, especially given our many traditions and the solitary nature of the majority of pagans. We are an unknown. And the consequence of being unknown is very apparent when we try to exercise our religious traditions within established institutions: national, state and local.

What continually affects the few, eventually affects the many. I still see people in this country hiding their pagan beliefs out of fear. I hope that as a community, we can evolve past this. There is strength in numbers and it is important that Pagans of all traditions come together as a whole and help assure our religious freedoms are being respected.

As part of the Maine Pagan Clergy Association, I know from experience that getting people from our many traditions to agree on a definition of “paganism” is a real challenge. While I may have a completely different theological view of paganism than other pagans, I think we can find common bonds and core principles that we embrace in our spiritual life. I think we can all agree on the following:

1. All of Nature is sacred

2. We seek direct relationship and communion with the Divine

3. Self-responsibility and living with honor are at the core of our pagan values

In my definition of Pagan, the community expands greatly. I see Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto, Santeria, basically all nature-based indigenous religions around the globe sharing these common ideals. I see these as great pagan traditions. And I think it good to have an expansive rather than limiting view of Paganism. I think reaching for the common ground is much more effective than emphasizing the differences.

When I work within the prison system, I don’t feel any need to explain the principles of Druidry to people. I say I am a pagan and then if there is sufficient interest, I may go deeper. But I always go back to these three core ideals and it usually suffices. I think most people can identify with them. They aren’t hidden, occult, mysterious or dangerous. And while I could write an entire book on the nature of each ideal, they really don’t require much in the way of further explanation to give someone an idea of where I am coming from.

We all have aspects in our traditions and practices that are unique. And I think this very beautiful and powerful. But the differences are often used to draw divisions.

There is inherent disdain within the pagan community for institutions and organizations trying to define Paganism; to speak for the greater community; to make a judgment call on what defines a pagan or which tradition is legitimate. I love that this is the case. Nature isn’t filled with hierarchy and neither should religious traditions based on Nature be so. Our ideal of equality is one that makes paganism work for people. It is a key principle that attracted many us to paganism. My point in this essay isn’t to try to get all pagans involved with prison ministry or greater local, state or national organizations. It is only to get people to embrace the word “Pagan” and to reach for the common ground. If the word “Pagan” brought to the mind of the average American an image or understanding that encompassed the three principles I’ve mentioned, I think would see less discrimination towards pagans within our institutions and within our culture. It would dissipate a lot of the fear people have when they hear the word “pagan.”

Personally, I think one of the core strengths of paganism is the celebration of diversity. Finding a greater umbrella for the outside world is very helpful though, and I am hopeful we can all embrace the label of “Pagan.” Each tradition struggling individually simply isn’t working. I have encountered many prisons where “Wiccans” can have a group but “Druids” can’t. “Druid” groups can gather but “witches” can’t. These labels divide us. And division isn’t helpful. If we all claim the label of Pagan first and then state our tradition, I think this would make a significant difference.  It is my opinion that the common threads can bind us together as a community. If we can make progress here, its reverberations will hum with power and beauty throughout many aspects of our lives as Pagans here in the States.

Peace, beauty and inspiration,

Snowhawke /|\

About The Author
Snowhawke

Snowhawke is a druid priest and a native of Maine. He is a student and colleague of Emma Restall Orr, completing her year-long Living Druidry course in the Cotswolds, England in 2006. In his role as a druid priest he is actively involved with pagan prison ministry and is on the Board of the Maine Pagan Clergy Association. He is also the co-founder of the Druid College - A Center for Nature-based Spirituality.

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  1. Laura

    I just happened across your article this morning. I found it timely, given that I am working my way through the choice of labels for my own path. While I am most drawn to labeling myself as a witch, I am very aware of the connotations most people have with this label. I am working to identify the middle ground–the compromise between being true to my own identity and having a label that allows rooms for discussion with those unfamiliar with earth based religious paths. I strive to be “out” about my faith. A wonderful article. Pagan, first, it is.

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