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.

The Kinship of Magic and Herbalism

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One of the earliest written accounts of the use of herbs in European history is the Physica of Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval nun, mystic, and scholar of natural science from Germany. From her writings, it is clear that herbal healing and knowledge of natural remedies was intimately linked to concepts of magic and spirituality. From the introduction of her chapter on plant lore, she says that different plants have the ability to not only affect the physical body, but the spiritual one as well.

From there, we can look at Nicholas Culpeper’s English Physician (later retitled The Complete Herbal) and see how, in his descriptions of plants and their preparation and use, he takes into account not only the physical properties of each plant, but the metaphysical. He discusses the astrological correspondences of plants alongside the physical effects in the body.

This is why I am so insistent upon studying the history of my paths. While in the modern day, herbalism has take steps to become “more scientific” in an attempt to gain legitimacy among the world of “modern” medicine, the fact remains that the earliest roots of herbalism are entwined with the roots of magic, witchcraft, and metaphysical study.

And so much of medicine and healing, in any tradition, is intuitive and undefined. When I was being treated for migraine headaches, the doctor told me that there is not as much science behind treating migraines because it’s not entirely known what treatments will work for which people. He started me out with a medication that I knew worked for my mother because those sympathies often exist, but it was a guess. In the same way, how often have you heard a story of a medical issue where the doctor “had a feeling” they should try something, despite not seeing clear signs outwardly in tests?

In the same way, herbalism embraces this vagueness and uncertainty. The herbalist strives to treat the whole person. In a similar way, my experience with acupuncture showed me the benefit of treating the whole person, not just the specific complaint. I had gone to the acupuncturist for help conceiving, but found that the most fruitful sessions we had were those in which he treated my past grief. Medical science is only recently catching up to the ways in which the body is interconnected and seemingly distinct issues are part of a whole.

So in the same way that modern medicine grew out of the herbalism that was intimately interconnected with folk magic, we are still learning and expanding that story in ways that we don’t yet understand. We know these connections are there, but we don’t know exactly what they are. They are like the explanations for the cycles of eclipses or the changing of the seasons before we had observed them through space exploration. The human body will always be that which is most familiar and yet often most foreign to us. And what else is that which we know exists but don’t yet understand but magic?

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.

Red Thread and Fiber Magic

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One of my favorite book series as a girl was Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet. The books follow the life of a young magic-user in a fantasy realm, but one aspect of the story that I always found fascinating was when the main character is teaching a group of young people to act as their village’s magical practitioners and is teaching them the crafts involved in enchanting using household tasks, particularly fiber.

As someone who crochets, spins, and sews, fiber arts are something that intrigue me in the context of my craft, and in the folk practices that call me, thread and string are key players in common charms. So when I saw that my go-to yarn source had come out with a new three-ply wool yarn, I decided to look into string and thread charms more deeply.

My first stop was my book on Scottish charms and the writings of Scott Richardson-Read of Cailleach’s Herbarium. My trusty book of Scottish charms and amulets talks of the “rowan and red thread” charm, where two crossed sticks of rowan wood are tied together with red thread. Incidentally, this charm reminds me a bit of the “god’s eye” charms we made in elementary school. The color red has associations with protection and counteracting harmful magic across cultures. And Scott has written of the snaim, or three-knot charm, using red, three-ply wool string to perform a ritual knotting and chant to banish the evil eye.

Though I have no cattle to be blighted or any mysterious illnesses of my own, the use of folk protections like this appeals to me, especially when it involves a medium that I feel a close connection to. I’ve taken up spinning because I appreciate the meaning and symbolism of both spinning a thread, as well as the focus that goes into it. While my current batch of wool is undyed grey Shetland wool, perhaps I should consider dyeing some red fiber to spin my own thread for protection charms. Even without the threat of baneful practitioners who might curse me, a little protection is never a bad idea.

And this is the philosophy of practice that I find so attractive about traditional folk magic — it is not about large rituals, but about weaving magic in with the mundane. In the same way that the pre-Christian beliefs were intertwined and syncretized with Christian belief, the mundane and the sacred are blended in such a way that the magic imbues all areas of daily life. It isn’t about specific rituals, but about finding the magic in small charms. As I crochet a project, sew an apron, spin a skein, prepare a meal, or simply make a cup of tea, intent and focus lend magic to all of these actions, making them into small workings, even when I am not sitting down to “do magic.” It is all magic.

Eventually perhaps I may need to put some of these ideas together. I’ve thought for a while of creating my own special shawl to wear when I’m doing particular workings. While I had hoped to use my own handspun yarn, I worry that it will not be rugged enough to stand up to near-daily wear, so I have been looking at using commercial yarn. And crochet is similar to a series of knots. Perhaps a three-repeat pattern would be a powerful way to knot intention into the piece. And perhaps I should run a red thread through it to remind me of the protection of mundane crafts.

The Veiled Lady

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Recently, I posted a picture of myself working on my Materia Medica in which I am wearing a head covering. I tried to pre-emptively explain it because in the past, when I’ve covered my head in public, I’ve gotten a fair number of comments or questions about it. But then a friend pointed out that it is only natural that I would feel drawn towards head covering or veiling, as my main deity is known solely as “the veiled one.”

Head covering or veiling exists in many spiritual and religious traditions for many reasons. Sikhs cover their hair to protect their crown chakra; Jewish people cover their head as a representation of their observance of Jewish law and custom; some Christian faiths cover, either all the time or specifically during services; and Muslim women will take the hijab as an expression of their faith. In pagan communities or among other practitioners, veiling is seen as an act of connection with a deity, or else a way to protect spiritual energy that is expressed through the hair or head.

Historically, head coverings also have a long and global history. My own covering is inspired by medieval European coverings, as well as by modern head scarves. I have found myself falling in and out of covering my head for various reasons — for hair protection, to keep things clean, to cover them when they’re not, and as a way to alleviate the pressure of updos on days when I have a headache. It was not until my friend’s comment that I realized that some of this was subconsciously an expression of my connection to a deity who is named for her head covering.

I have always felt the need for a shawl or veil while meditating. In fact, I have one shawl in particular, a black-and-white plaid, that holds a special connection to my spiritual practice and that I often use during my practice. And shawls, scarves, and blankets are a large part of my own personal ability to feel secure in an environment. It probably has a bit to do with why I feel most connected to my spiritual path during the colder months.

So as I found myself deepening my practice and my connection to the Cailleach, I also found myself covering my head more often. And with that, I felt the desire to have a special wrap. So I made it. It is made from unbleached natural linen and hand-sewn, with my intentions and attention sewn into every seam. It is easy for me to tie and secure and washable so I can use it to help keep my hair clean. It is both practical and a wonderful way to feel connected to my practice, even on days I don’t do some kind of formal working.

If you’re interested in more writings about veiling, from the perspective of a Jewish witch who addresses both Jewish and modern witchcraft traditions of veiling, Z from Jewitches has a beautiful post that helped me on my journey. All of her writings are fantastic.

Plants and Ancestors with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms

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I mentioned in passing that I had participated in a class called “Plants and Ancestors” with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms, but I felt compelled to write a post specifically discussing my experiences of the class and how it has deepened my practice over the last week or so. The class was in response to the many Instagram posts and Stories Regina shared over the last several months about cultural appropriation in the herbal community, a topic that interests me greatly, and about which I plan to write in more depth in the near future.

But the essence of this class was learning what ancestral herbalism is and how to connect with your own ancestry, regardless of your knowledge of your specific genealogy or biological heritage. Personally, I have both started working on a genealogy, given that I have the privilege of a white descendent of Europeans, and have had my biological heritage mapped by 23andme (although, I’m planning on testing with another company sometime to explore how the results compare). The results are not surprising. I am completely European, within the limits of accuracy of those tests. The largest percentage is of the British Isles, particularly greater London and some parts of Ireland. Matching up to my genealogy, my Gaelic ancestors likely emigrated from Ireland to Scotland in the Middle Ages, and then later to England, based on surnames.

And yet, even knowing this, Regina’s class was illuminating. It is one thing to know who your ancestors are on paper, but quite another to engage with them through an ancestor-veneration practice. In Celtic paganism and Druidry, ancestor veneration is an integral part of the practice, and one that had eluded me as someone with a complicated family dynamic. Of course, there are others with much less access to information about their heritage. So the class focused more on how to intuitively connect with one’s ancestors.

At the end of the discussion, Regina led us in a guided meditation to meet an ancestor who was particularly in need of attention. Interestingly enough, the ancestor who came to me in this vision was a relative of my only living grandparent, my first-generation American grandmother, born to Magyar immigrants who came from Hungary and Romania in the early 20th century. This also happens to be the side of my ancestry that I ever truly had experience with, as my grandmother tried to maintain this tie to her heritage, and I was the one who chose to learn at least some of it from her, mostly in the form of cooking.

And so, beyond considering how to add regular ancestor veneration to my practice, including blending my very disparate Germanic, Norman, Celtic, and Magyar heritages together, I have been reminded that ancestor veneration is about keeping tradition alive. Sometimes that means setting an altar, lighting a candle, and giving the offering (my grandfathers both love whiskey), and sometimes that means regarding the baking of many rolls of walnut beigli and enjoying it with some Romanian fruit tea as a form of veneration.

Beyond that, it has led me to even further investigate the herbal practices of my ancestors. I know my great-grandmother ran a homestead where they lived in Ohio, and that she came from a small, poor, rural village in Hungary, where it was likely in addition to making all of their food, she likely would have used herbal remedies on her family. My mother has some vague memories of home remedies. But now I can research and find things like nettle and elder on the Magyar side, and linden and blaeberry on the Celtic side.

And so I keep reminders of my particular ancestral heritage close to me. It has become less of an academic exercise, tracing the lines and links, and more personal.

Samhain: Happy New Year

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It is no accident that I chose to launch this space on Samhain. In the pagan world, Samhain represents the end of the old and the beginning of the new. It is the beginning of the cycle of a year that represents death, and the time from Samhain until the Winter Solstice is a liminal time, a time of change and preparation for rebirth.

It is also the time of the Cailleach.

I will pen a proper introduction to the Cailleach later this month, as the first in a series of dives into deity figures, but at Samhain, the Cailleach takes over the influence of the season and brings us into the dark half of the year. Despite the fact that the days have been shortening since the Autumnal Equinox, or Mabon, around the end of October is when I really start to notice the shift. And it is the end of the harvest season, which is why daylight savings time ends around this time, plunging us into every-earlier evening darkness.

And in this time of darkness, we not only look to bring the light to soothe our minds, but we reconnect with the aspects of death. The traditional Jack o’the Lantern was a wandering soul, with an ember in a carved out turnip to light his way, a flickering eerie light, if my experiments with carving turnips are any proof. It is the time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld is the thinnest, and a time for divination, ancestor work, and shadow work. A time to sit and contemplate.

One way that I’ve chosen to mark this holiday is by doing a lot of work to connect with that Otherworld and my ancestors. I’ve taken some courses, about which I will write later this month, that have helped me reconnect both with my personal genealogy journey, as well as my own intuitive understanding of how my ancestry informs my practice. And the Cailleach is the divine representation of that deep, crone ancestor who came with the land. So as I sit in the times of darkness, before sunrise or after sunset, I am sitting with the departed and the deep ancestors.

But it also a celebration. As I said, it is the final harvest festival. We often think of the end of autumn and into winter as the lean and sparse times, the hungry times of the year, but there was an interesting section on a podcast I listen to on the history of Britannia, where the creator talks about harvest practices in the ancient world. Our ancestors were not foolish, and they knew they did not have our robust food supply chain. They knew they had to preserve their food. So the late autumn and winter were the times of plenty. Right after the harvest was brought in, it was prepared for storage and the stores would be full. A wise society with a robust production would have plenty of food to last through the winter and into the spring until the new plantings yielded plenty again.

So while Samhain may have marked the time when our ancestors might have found themselves without the fieldwork that occupied them during much of the rest of the year, they were not starving. In fact, it’s possible that this was the time that they had to create dishes from their stored food. Think about the traditions of baking around Yule and you’ll see that it doesn’t make sense for this to be the entry into the lean times. So Samhain, for me, is an entry into a time of homey cooking, baking, and other around-the-house crafts that keep us cozy as the weather brings in a chill. The world outside might begin to look dead and skeletal, but it is merely resting, in hibernation, conserving its energy to burst forth in the spring.

Blessed Samhain!