What is a Pagan?

This is an argument I’ve been following and I thought I would wade in because I have a different perspective. As a former classics student, my starting point with this question would not be to consult Google or a dictionary, but instead my Wheelock’s Latin textbook, where the word “paganus” is described as “a countryman, peasant.” It is also used as an adjective to mean someone that is from the country.

And this is where the word “pagan” comes from. But what did it actually mean? Like any language, words have connotations as well as denotations, and the connotation of “paganus” was more akin to “bumpkin” than simply “someone who happens to live outside the city.” Pagani were differentiated from the urban elites who considered themselves more intelligent, more educated, more cultured, and more worthy, and therefore when urban Romans referred to a “paganus,” it was not a complimentary word. And when they used the word to refer to religious worship, they likely referred to specific deities or epithets that were honored more by the country folk than by those in the cities, or specific practices and rites that differed from the “proper” urban practice.

So saying that “pagans” are defined by a nature-based religion isn’t exactly correct because by most modern definitions, they were all pagans before the 4th century CE. Of course, when Emperor Constantine began the process of legitimizing Christianity and pulling it into mainstream Roman society, and later Theodosius made it the official religion of the Empire, “pagan” would refer to anyone who wasn’t Christian, which was mostly outlying rural areas and those areas newly conquered by Rome. It more akin to the difference between Episcopalians and Baptists than Christians and polytheists.

But this word “paganus” didn’t refer to Jews, not because the Roman Christians felt any kinship with the Jews — in fact, most of Constantine’s contribution to the early Christian church was to explicitly separate it from Jewish tradition. It was simply that Judaism predates the founding of Rome by a thousand years (at least) and therefore was just considered separate from the issues related to Romans. Jews weren’t considered Romans, so it didn’t make sense to divide them into urban or pagan. And, of course, the word “paganus” didn’t include Muslims because they wouldn’t exist for another couple hundred years after the adoption of Christianity as the official Roman religion. So the distinction of “pagan” as “non-Abrahamic” is meaningless in the context of the original word, since there was no such thing (and really, still isn’t) a concept of unified “Abrahamic” religions. There were the ruling Christians and the peasant or conquered Christians.

Then, there is the fact that using the word “pagan,” which derives from an empire that primarily focused its rule on modern-day Europe, western Asia, and a little bit of northern Africa does not take into account a large swath of the earth’s population. The word “paganus” didn’t refer to Hindus, Buddhists, or Taoists, despite the fact that they absolutely existed at the same time as the Roman Empire because they were never conquered by the Romans, and so were not part of the dichotomy of ruling urban elites vs. country bumpkins. It didn’t include a large portion of traditional African religions, and it certainly wouldn’t include any of the practices of what we now call the Americas. So why do we cling to a naming convention that is defined in relation to an empire that fell over a thousand years before the modern pagan revival?

Well, a lot of that has to do with the European Enlightenment era idolization of classical Rome, and by extension classical Greece. Because they grew disillusioned with medieval Church domination of knowledge and philosophy, they sought to return to pre-Christian traditions, and of course looked to ancient Rome and Greece for philosophical guidance. And in their minds, reclaiming the word “pagan” further separated them from medieval Christianity, which had stuck to its Roman roots by using the word “pagan” pejoratively to refer to any non-Christian.

So where does that leave us with the word today? Dictionaries will say that “pagan” is anyone who holds beliefs “outside those of the main world religions,” which is a laughably broad definition, since there is no indication what constitutes a “major” world religion. Many define it as Abrahamic religions, which is both a false conflation of three religions that have historically been at odds, as well as inappropriate on a strictly statistical level, since there are more Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs than Jews in the world. Plus, there are many religions with non-European origins that would be frankly offended to be called “pagan.”

Here is my suggestion: a pagan is someone who identifies as a pagan.

I see no reason to insist upon labeling someone else’s religion in a way that is contrary to how they label themselves. If someone wants to call themselves an animist, but not a pagan, that is their business. And, after all, this was originally used as a pejorative, and reclamation of a pejorative should be up to the population reclaiming it. We don’t insist women appreciate being called bimbos simply because some women have reclaimed the word. And we should not insist on calling others pagans who haven’t claimed that word for themselves.

And if you meet someone who seems to have the exact same worship as you, but doesn’t want to be called a pagan when you do? That isn’t your problem, or theirs. In fact, it isn’t a problem. Their identification has nothing to do with you. So, while it may differ from the dictionary and many “official” sources, there is my definition of a pagn.

But am I a pagan? I call myself that, as it suits me. I call myself witch as it suits me. I call myself animist as it suits me. Honestly, in my personal belief system, spirituality is something personal, a relationship between myself and the powers I believe in and honor. I hope that satisfies you, but if it doesn’t, I don’t know what to tell you.

Thoughts on The Triple Goddess

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When I first discovered paganism and witchcraft, like many children in the ’90s, I first found Wicca. There, I learned of the divine feminine and the Triple Goddess of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, which represented the three phases of a woman’s life. Since then, I’ve experienced living as a woman, for nearly forty years, and I realize that this framework is needlessly reductive.

Wicca grew out of the neopagan revival of the 19th century, and with that, Victorian-era gender politics bled in. It was in the mid-19th century that “The Angel in the House” was published and popularized the ideal of the woman as ruler of the domestic sphere. The Triple Goddess, while created in an attempt to subvert patriarchal Christian Trinity, actually reinforces the idea that women are defined by their relationship to their reproductive system.

As I grew up and grew older, I realized there was more to it than that. It was many years before I decided I even wanted to have children, so I spent over a decade in a liminal space where I was neither Maiden, nor ever likely (in my mind) to become the Mother. What is a woman in between?

Since then, I’ve turned to more folkloric-driven paganism and witchcraft and have found that the neopagan idea of the Triple Goddess is new indeed. There are three-part or three-fold deities in folklore, but they rarely follow the archetypes of Maiden-Mother-Crone. One that comes to mind readily is Hekate, who is a goddess of liminal spaces and crossroads, symbolized by a three-faced form, with a face to watch each of the roads at a three-way crossroads.

In Celtic folklore, the Morrigan is often used as the example of a “triple goddess,” because she is often described as a composite goddess, made up of three sisters. But this might have less to do with an inherent three-fold nature and more to do with the fact that “Mor Rigan” is a title, not a name, and the various deities that are considered “part of the Morrigan” are simply those who have held this title, similarly to how the Cailleach is often considered a title that has been variously associated with different deities.

Brigid is another who has been considered to fit the mold of Triple Goddess, with various aspects of Brigid associated with various things that she is supposed to rule. But those aspects don’t follow the Maiden-Mother-Crone model of the neopagan Triple Goddess. Instead, they give a picture of Brigid as a well-rounded deity of many interests — poetry, smithing, midwifery — rather than reducing her to her biological functions.

And that is the trouble with the neopagan Triple Goddess: it is exclusionary and reductive. It not only reduces women to their biological functioning, but it excludes those women who don’t necessarily have those functions inherent in their bodies. Trans women, nonbinary people who wish to interact with their goddess nature, women who don’t have a reproductive system at all. And women who don’t find fulfillment in the Victorian ideal of womanhood.

But Trinity is something that exists cross-culturally. Not all trinity is the Holy Trinity of Son, Father, and Spirit (which the neopagan trinity mirrors). In many cultures, there is an idea of the trinity being male, female, and neutral. In many cultures, the first three colors named are black, white, and red, usually representing dark, light, and blood, or birth, death, and life.

So in that vein, I like to think of trinity as the necessary result of trying to define a binary. Two points define a line, but in between is the line. And so, rather than trying to explicitly define three points or three phases, that trinity becomes the two points and the infinite possibility in between.

In my own practice, this comes up primarily in my own form of candle magic. I generally use three colors of candles: white (or raw beeswax), black, and red. While there are rough correspondences to the three main deities I honor currently, these are also colors that, to me, can represent any goal I might have in my magic or prayer. White for healing and nurture, red for action, black for internal work. These do not have to correspond to any particular phase of my life. And they go beyond the Maiden-Mother-Crone framework.

If you identify with the neopagan Triple Goddess, that is wonderful. But if you’ve ever felt like there was some disconnect, I encourage you to explore the idea of trinity outside of the rigidly defined rules of neopaganism. Because, honestly, trinity is simply the recognition of a world outside the binary.

Imbolc and the Cailleach

Imbolc, or Brigid’s Day, was traditionally the beginning of the spring season in the ancient world. It was largely marked by the beginning of lambing, the return of milk from dairy livestock, and the blooming of the blackthorn. But it is still the dark half of the year and the time of the Cailleach, and there is a lot of folklore connecting Imbolc and the Cailleach.

In one of the most well-known, the Cailleach is associated with the Winter Queen Beira, who ages throughout the year and then bathes in a magical spring once a year to restore her youth. It is said that the spring’s magic is at its most potent on the first day of spring, or Imbolc, which is when the aged hag of winter bathes in the waters and transforms into the spring maiden. As the year once again progresses, she ages, until by Samhain she is once again the hag of winter, ruling the dark half of the year.

But in other versions of this story, Beira captures the Summer Queen Bride (associated with Brigid), and keeps her as a drudge. But on the first day of spring, the Summer King Angus rescues her and names the day “Bride’s Day,” which is how the day is known in Scottish folk tradition. This struggle of Angus against Beira, and the liberation of Bride, represents the cycle of the seasons, with Beira representing the stormy time of winter and early spring, while Bride represents the calm times of summer and autumn.

One of the aspects I find so fascinating about this tale is the seeming inversion of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. Now, many modern enthusiasts and folklorists have taken another look at the myth of Persephone and Hades with the question of whether Persephone really was abducted, or if she was honestly in love with Hades and sought to escape an overbearing mother. In the same way, I like to take a second look at the story of Bride and the Cailleach and wonder if there is some other tale that has faded into the recesses of unrecorded history.

Finally, my favorite story of the Cailleach at Imbolc is the inspiration for a beloved American tradition. It was said that each year at Imbolc, the Cailleach gathers the rest of the kindling and wood she will need to keep warm until the storms of winter pass and spring and summer return. Because she controls the weather, she makes the day fair if she needs to be out for a long time to gather a lot of wood, but if she doesn’t make nice weather, it is because she doesn’t need much more wood because she foresees a short rest of winter. Now, this story has been change in the States and the wizened figure of the hag of winter has morphed into another familiar creature that is consulted as a weather augury around the beginning of February: a groundhog.

Blessed Imbolc and may the winter end soon!

[NB: You can find the stories of Beira, Bride, and Angus in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie]

Brigid: The Healer

Content warning: Mention of pregnancy loss.

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As January reaches its apex and slides into February, I can feel the influence of Brigid more strongly in my life again. We are nearing her feast day, La Fheile Bride, Imbolc, Candlemas. She has been a healing presence in my life since the loss of my first pregnancy over three years ago and her celebration, and the traditional beginning of spring, is always a bright spot in my year.

Brigid, or Bride, is one of the few pre-Christian goddesses who has been syncretized explicitly into Scottish folk practice, appearing in the Carmina Gadelica as the midwife of Mary, foster-mother to Jesus. The songs make it clear that this is not really a fifth-century Irish saint, but instead a goddess-like figure who appeared at the Nativity in a radiant golden light. She is invoked as an equal to Mary and is often associated with midwifery and fire, like the pre-Christian Brigid.

My experience with Brigid began about three years ago as I was trying to heal after losing my first pregnancy. Brigid is associated with grief and the loss of a child and so she was one of the goddesses I invoked to aid me. While her gentle presence was a balm to my grief, I found her most powerful when I invoked her on behalf of another. Shortly after my loss, a dear friend fell dangerously ill, and I was so worried for her that I prayed to Brigid to please protect her and help her heal. She made an astonishing recovery after that, faster than anyone expected. From then on, I knew that, while An Cailleach is my primary focus, Brigid would be a part of my life for good.

I associate Brigid with fire and water, so I invoked and honor her with a candle and either an offering of clean, consecrated water, or else a tea session with my favorite Baozhong oolong, which holds a deep association with water for me. Her presence is soothing, like a mother’s embrace, and as her feast day approaches, I feel the dark and cold of winter shaking loose from my bones and the warm hope of spring kindling in me.

In folklore, Brigid is the daughter of the Dagda, a goddess of poetic inspiration, healing, and smithing. She is honored with perpetual flames as well as holy springs and wells. This trinity is sometimes made explicit, with Brigid having two sisters, also named Brigid, making her a sort of triple goddess. In some folklore, she is associated with tricolor animals, such as calico cats. During the first battle of Magh Tuireadh, her son is killed and it was from her wailing in grief that the practice of keening was brought into the world. She is both revered as a spring or summer maiden, as in the stories of Bride in Scottish folklore, as well as a mother and midwife, in the stories of her grief and the syncretic practices of honoring her connection with Jesus.

Having felt her warm, gentle presence, I understand why the Irish and Scots wished to keep her in their traditions, despite the incursion of Christianity. And, perhaps, this benevolent presence is why the early Christian missionaries accepted her into their traditions, even going so far as to rewrite the Nativity for her.

Meet the Cailleach

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It is that pre-dawn time and I lay in bed, half-waking, half-dreaming. In my half-dream, I am in a wide field. Around me stands a ring of stones and I stand in front of one, much larger, and polished like a dark mirror. Beside it is an old woman. Her silver-grey hair spreads out in wild waves, spilling over her plaid-covered shoulders, and the dim light of twilight gives her skin a bluish cast. She has a wolf by her side and a feral grin as she beckons me to her…

Perhaps this would have been a natural first post in this space, but the temptation of launching the blog on Samhain was just too great. And the whole of the dark half the year is the time of the Cailleach, while Samhain is just one day. But who is the Cailleach?

The Cailleach is an ancient deity of the British Isles. The word “cailleach” simply means “old woman” or “veiled woman,” and there are stories that refer to several specific figures as an cailleach in Celtic folklore. At her core, the Cailleach represents the crone phase of the triple goddess cycle, but is also associated with midwifery and birth. She is seen as frightening and fierce, but not necessarily an evil or bad figure. Similar to the Baba Yaga of Russian folklore, the Cailleach is a figure who appears both as a force of natural balance and as an antagonist.

In a similar story to the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, one story of the Cailleach says that she captured the young and beautiful goddess Brigid, and that Brigid must escape to bring the Spring. But in other tellings of that tale, Brigid and the Cailleach are two aspects of the same person, with the Cailleach either shedding her crone appearance to become the maiden of spring, or else turning into a stone for the summer while Brigid reigns during the light half of the year.

My personal connection to the Cailleach started years ago when I was learning about chthonic goddesses like Hecate of the Greek tradition. The Cailleach struck me as a peculiar blend of an earth goddess, as she was said to predate even the Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles, and a death goddess. She was not necessarily associated with war, like the Morrigan, or the earth itself, like Danu, but was instead the personification of the cycle of living and dying. I’ve written before about her association with predicting the coming of spring and modern traditions around Imbolc, but never really gone into what she means to me personally.

The Cailleach is a goddess who exists at liminal places in the world, like older women often find themselves. They are neither given importance or power, nor are they entirely ignored, and are often feared because of the unknown they represent. The Cailleach is both a goddess of birth, because of her associations with midwifery and Brigid, but also very much a goddess of death. As such, she has been a comfort to me during my own periods of grief in my life. I plan to write more about this in my upcoming book, The Grief Cleanse, in which I’ll chronicle my dealings with grief around a very specific period in my life, but suffice to say that the concept of a woman who is not defined either by youth or fertility intrigues me as a woman. Particularly a woman who is creeping closer and closer to cronehood myself.

The Cailleach is also a wise woman. She knows the cycle of the world. She is said to have control over the weather, or at least over the winter. In my piece on Groundhog Day, I wrote about the tradition of judging the length of the remaining winter by the weather on the day when the Cailleach is supposed to gather firewood for the rest of the winter. And another legend says that at the beginning of winter, she takes her plaid (or shawl) to the river to wash and when she is done, it stretches out pure white and covers the land in the first snowfall.

As the hag of winter, she is depicted with grey or white hair, blue skin, and hooded, often with only one eye. I find that intriguing, as she is almost a sort of Odinic character, with her associations with divination, magic, death, and hidden secrets. And Norse folklore tells of many of those deities not sticking strictly to one gender.

So I have chosen to depict the Cailleach in my own tribute as a woman with one eye veiled with a plaid that has not yet been washed clean. While I am not quite a crone yet, I feel the influence of the Cailleach in my life and heed her call as the wheel of the year turns to her time.