Don’t Say Pagan

Something last week reminded me of this poem I wrote back in 2017, but didn’t publish because it was right after I watched a blogosphere fight, I was decompressing after thinking about a situation that happened online back in my teens, and I didn’t want to fan flames. This is similar — but not identical — to some of my current thoughts about the way colonialism plays out. A few of my positions have changed.

What isn’t outdated is that I try to avoid the word pagan on its own; you will see me attach the Neo- prefix whenever I want to distance something from the pejorative, and I don’t use the word Neopagan in a negative sense. I am just as horrified by the cultural destruction caused by colonialism carried out by my ancestors as I have been since young childhood.

Thus, it’s a good sense of where I was at the time.

Don’t Say Pagan

In my teens, I saw comments online at
The Wild Hunt, where several talked about
India and Hinduism and wondered why “they” didn’t want
to hear the words pagan and Vishnu
in the same sentence.
They did not believe anyone could hate this word
thrust upon them by us westerners
who went back
relit the fires
prayed to new-loved old Gods
heads raised up high.

These commenters applied that word
again, again, again, again, and its heat singed.
Everyone’s heard it in the public discourse, of course.
Christianity is pagan, say the Muslims.
Islam is pagan, say the Christians.
That news headline that said Trump was pagan
because pagan means having no morality or values.
I’m probably what they really mean by pagan,
and I don’t think that word is funny.

I mean, be honest, here — do we like describing ourselves
using a word that Christians still use as a sword,
that they started using in the days after taking political
power in Rome but before they had the clout to do full
massacres of people in the countryside who hated those politics
and sacrificed goats to the Gods, who told the Christians to go away?
“We don’t know what to call them, so we have to use it,”
the scholars argue, “even if the word is awful.”

Do you like this word that our white ancestors
used as a poisonwood battering ram for colonialism to tell pagans
that they deserved to be ruled,
drowning in baptismal urns?
This doctrine was a disease spreading
mouth to mouth,
sword to throat,
in the congress of illicit desire,
the sweetness of sugar, the sharpness of whips,
built-up city to mass grave.
My DNA says I’m 0.5% Native; it’s from rape
sanctioned by the Doctrine of Discovery.

Our ancestors used pagan to break
Gods’ statues open and tell others that they were lesser
and we were better because our ancestors had left that word
pagan and submitted to an imperialistic kindness
that takes all people as long as you cut the heart out of your
ancestors’ culture and fuse it to something that might
react with a people’s customs in unpredictable ways.

Generations of people have grown up ashamed
that their grandmothers still did puja for Sarasvati
that the smell of wet earth led to prayers to Pachamama
that the Flower Prince in his holiness still compels all with laughter.
Do you really want to give anyone this word
that has already branded hands and hearts like an iron,
that we use without thinking because we do not feel it
singe into us like when the Spanish burned Mayan codices
for being devil-literature or when the British criminalized hijras
or when Ghana now is so bad that Azizaa Mystic makes music videos
about the missionaries assaulting people on the road with bibles?

Do not use pagan, a sword wrapped in pastoral etymology.
We celebrate fertility rituals and our Gods are in the mountains.
We celebrate tilled earth and our Goddesses roam untamed forests.
(If there are any of those left at this point.)
Certainly, there are other words for country-dweller,
and temples have never known boundaries
of city and country; all places are full of Gods.

Passing on the word pagan is a violence
that we committed against so many
and that we took because we didn’t have the words
to say that we are polytheists and that we have mos maiorum
or threskeia and eusebia and who really uses the word
religion unless you want to wall off your God from others
or say that someone is less valuable than you.
Do not give others this word that even we greet with ambivalence
and weeks-long blogosphere feuds
because we still half-remember that perverse history.
Don’t call anyone pagan.

(As you can perhaps tell from the section in the poem about how people hurl the word pagan at one another as an insult, I wrote this back before I learned that most people using the #polytheism hashtag are there attacking other religions as too pagan, and I was shocked by it.)

4 thoughts on “Don’t Say Pagan

  1. What may reassure you, and bring in some fresh pride, is the historical fact that the word “Christian” itself was used as a derogatory term for the first Jesus followers. They eventually accepted the word and turned the connotation upside down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Part of why I take a strong position is that I think a word like that should be opt-in. When the conversation was happening, people were talking over those who are uncomfortable with the term by saying “these other people are fine with it,” which didn’t address that many people are not.

      I think that Frew made some valid points about interfaith work; when people have something like a degree in religious studies or actual religious training, that definitely opens up space to be active. I wouldn’t ever feel comfortable in an interfaith space because I don’t have a degree in religion or an official sanction from an organization that I am qualified and vetted as a good representative of my religion. We don’t have anything like a degree system. (Blogging is a bit different because it’s more clearly my own space, and I’m very up front that I don’t have all of the answers or hold authority status deriving from education or training.) From what I’ve gleaned, non-Wiccan polytheists often get fatigued from having to deal with microaggressions in interfaith work and can quickly experience burnout.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Talking over others and insisting that something is fine when they’re not fine with it is not good.

        As a Wiccan who has done interfaith stuff, I can assure you the obnoxiousness of some participants of a certain other faith is awful. Either Don Frew has a very thick skin or he was lucky.


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