An Urban Pagan Manifesto (A Rant)
Author: Ruadhan J McElroy
Now I want to make it quite clear that I have nothing against people who get most of their spiritual experiences from nature or the wilderness. I think the Nichols’ Arboretum here in Ann Arbor, Michigan is a great place to take a walk, and as a Hellenic Polytheist I’ve really felt some “nymph presence” there on more than one occasion. Trees are great, as are flowers and open fields and rolling hills.
…but that’s not all that paganism is about. Trust me.
Let us take a moment to look at the etymology of the word “Pagan” for a moment: The English-language word “Pagan” is from the Latin root “paganus” which is often translated as meaning “country dweller.” Now I’ve seen some debate (usually in on-line forums) as to where the original pejorative context of “paganus” began. So far, the argument that seems to hold the most water is that it was pretty much synonymous with “mundane”, “civilian” and “hillbilly” at various points in its history.
In ancient polytheistic Rome, the “paganus” were people who lived in rural areas, generally closer to nature than those who lived in the ancient and considerably high-tech Roman cities. When Rome became Christian, the “paganus” were those who clung to the old “nature spirit” traditions out in rural areas, though it quickly became a term that was synonymous with a pejorative use of “civilian” as it came to mean anybody who was not a part of the Holy Roman army.
Now, over time, the relationship of the word “Pagan” to Christianity came to include anybody who followed a spiritual path that was non-inclusive of the God of Abraham, though typically (and for a long time) the term has generally been reserved to those whose spirituality has been linked to European pre-Christian faiths as well as Atheism and Agnosticism.
While nowadays it’s relatively common to see people refer to Hinduism and Shinto and even Buddhism as “Pagan” spiritual paths, and Atheism and Agnosticism are recognized as being distinctly different from Paganism, I’m going to stick with more traditional use.
Over time, let’s say from the crusades to the pre-Victorian, it came to be that anybody who was distinctly non-Christian and non-Jewish (at one time, Moslems were commonly referred to as “Pagan” by Christians) was called a “Pagan” – be they Atheistic or Agnostic or actually “Pagan” (as we may know it these days).
Some “Pagan” traditions even survived through Catholicism in Ireland, where the church had come to incorporate ancient rituals and deities into Catholicism as prayers and saints (furthermore, there was almost nothing in the way of witch-trials in Ireland) and in rural areas of Greece (where there were absolutely NO witch trials – the Greek Orthodox church has always been skeptical of sorcery, but when the France and Germany were having a collective cow, the Greeks pretty much just didn’t want to get involved) .
Now enter the mid-Victorian and the William Morris school of back-to-nature Romanticism of the “ancient Pagan ways” where everybody who was really spiritual way back then, before industrialization, was living in some simple house out in the woods — and through this Romanticism, cities became the antithesis of spiritual growth. There was a lot of anti-Industrialist sentiment in the Nineteenth Century, and this shows in a lot of the literature of the time.
It therefore makes sense that in that socio-political climate, the idea that “rural” people were somehow more spiritually aware would be well-accepted as fact, no matter what times those rural people depicted actually lived in – it could prove especially popular if those people were ancients and there was no way to back these facts up, since they’re all long-dead at the time of writing, and very few people had access to ancient texts.
Now in this day and age, “Pagan” has become a catch-all term for just about any spiritual person whose spirituality has no connections to the Abrahamic faiths. It’s still considerably rare to see it applied to Hinduism, Tao, Shinto, Buddhism or any other “Far East” spiritual paths, Native American/First Nations/Inuit spirituality or Australian Aboriginal spirituality, and I have never seen it applied to Zoroastrianism but in general, it’s become rather accepted that “Paganism” is more-or-less synonymous with non-Christian beliefs, often of European extraction.
This means it is applied not only to Ancient [Culture] Polytheism Reconstructionist faiths and “new” faiths more loosely based on ancient European polytheism (such as Wicca and Feri), but also to very loosely defined “nature-based” spirituality.
Now there is little, and dubious at best, evidence that ancient polytheists were any more “nature-based” than any other religious paths that have existed since. Indeed, it could be argued that the Amish are a “nature based” Christian sect (or at least “primitivist, ” when compared to the immense sprawling urban Catholic cathedrals), as the Amish have a great respect for the natural world, teach their children knowledge of sustainable crops, “live off the land” and are comparatively more self-sufficient than most of the Pagans who I personally know.
Still, I’ve encountered a high rate of pomposity amongst undoubtedly modern Pagans who continue to self-delude themselves into believing that “Paganism” and “nature-based spirituality” are somehow one-in-the-same. The two concepts are not synonymous, nor was the “Paganism” (as defined by Random House, def 1: one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks) of the ancients any more nature-based then than now.
There were polytheistic city-dwellers whose primary practices were based in urban temples and their own modern (for their time) houses and apartments; they took part in regular festivals to certain deities that were sometimes held out in the woods, but to an ancient urban-dweller, there is no evidence nor any other reasons to believe that their day-to-day religious practices were any more “nature-based” than ours.
And that which we do know of the religious and spiritual practices of the paganus doesn’t show any exceptional reverence toward nature nor any tendencies to gravitate toward “nature-based” deities more than others – in fact, there is evidence that rituals to Apollon (for example) survived longer amongst rural peoples, but He is also a God of Civilization, credited with bringing Man music and literature, he was one of the Gods honored in the theatre and gymnasia (two things you would have had a hard time finding in ancient rural Greece and Rome, but at the same time, in the cities, theatre and gymnasia proved quite popular, and this is where those institutions flourished) .
Does He have His rural and agrarian aspects? Of course you would be hard-pressed to find a member of the Greek pantheon who isn’t at least somewhat important to both urban and rural life.
But to continue spreading the modern-day fallacy of the “ancient nature-based religions” does a disservice to the Pagan community at large.
While it is perfectly acceptable for modern people to find their spirituality in a manner that gives reverence, even an exceptional reverence to the “natural world, ” the dominance of and stress on “nature-based spirituality” in the modern Pagan community can, in fact, turn away many people who feel otherwise called to a polytheistic or rather, a distinctly Pagan spiritual path. Not everybody needs to give an exceptional amount of reverence to nature to be “Pagan” – in fact, the ancient Pagan Romans and Greeks were more than just the paganus — in fact, they built some of the most intricate and well-designed cities that the world has ever seen, and which we moderns still marvel over. And there is no reason to believe that those who lived and worshipped in cities were any less devout than those who maintained more humble dwellings and existences in the countryside.
The modern paganus have their place in our community, but in English, the word “Pagan” has become so much more complex than its Latin root, and that word, Pagan, has come to include a broad spectrum of non-Abrahamic spirituality. I don’t think of one kind of person when I think of “Pagans” – I think of rural moderns who grow their own herbs and grind all of their own spices with mortar and pestle and often dress in patchwork “Gypsy” skirts and peasant blouses who simply honor “Mother Earth”, I think of eclectic suburban Midwestern Wiccans who have the best of the countryside right out their back door and live less than a ten minute drive from a bustling city that gives them so many options at building a true community, and I think of modern urban ecstatic Dionysian performance artists playing the Pan flute in galleries and on busy boulevards.
I also think of Apollonian concert cellists and novelists. I think of ceremonial magicians living in a converted warehouse loft where they also hold ritual. I think of Dianics who give lectures at universities and distribute self-published newsletters from their tiny Manhattan efficiencies and write regular columns for Ms. And Bitch magazines. I think of Fiona Horne in Los Angeles, I think of the band MT-TV from London, and I think of Faith and the Muse, who are from Los Angeles and Washington D.C. respectively, and are currently based in Hollywood, California.
And ultimately, I think of myself: an artist, musician and writer born and raised in metro-Detroit; a modern ecstatic mystic Hellenic Pagan, working with quasi-Reconstructionist principles, who has designated himself a cultist to Apollon, Hermes, Dionysos, Eros, Pan (yes, Pan!) and Hecate (and not to mention possibly the only person in Michigan with a shrine to Narkissos), who has a place in his kitchen with offerings for Hestia, Zeus and Demeter and a hand-painted caduceus to Hermes (appropriately) on his messenger-bag; who maintains wall-shrines to the Dawn, Sun, Moon and Stars, Seasons and Days; and who will never cease being amused at the exclamations made by friends and acquaintances of “oh my, I never would have guessed that you were a Pagan! You’re just so involved in city life!”