My Initial Thoughts About Paganism
“There is something pagan in me that I cannot shake off. In short, I deny nothing, but doubt everything.” - George Gordon Byron
“A priest, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk walk into a …” No, this is not the start of a possibly lousy joke. It is what my wedding could have been almost twenty-five years ago. You see, the religious heritage of my family is quite diverse. My father’s family heritage is Catholic, my mother’s is Jewish, and my wife’s is Buddhist. We ended up having a non-religious officiant marry us. We didn’t want our wedding to be the start of an actual joke!
So, I was raised Catholic. It was what it was. My grandmother had two friends who were nuns, so I was the “cool kid” who had his own personal nuns come to his communion. I will say that the local church which my family attended committed war crimes against the children of the church. They did the most heinous thing, and had Sunday School on Saturday mornings!
As anybody who grew up in the 1980s knows, there were not multiple twenty-four-hour cartoon channels available. No Netflix, no YouTube, no other streaming services. So what was the cartoon-craving kid to do? From my personal experience, we had seven television channels available to us. There would usually be cartoons on one of the channels from 6 am to 7 am and 4 pm to 5 pm during the week. Not enough for the average cartoon-seeking kid. Our holy time of cartoons was Saturday mornings. There would be three hours of cartoons on multiple channels. It was glorious! Imagine it, not only three hours of cartoons, but we could pick from a few different channels.
But then horror struck, Saturday morning religion classes. It was horrible. Not only did we have to get up early on a Saturday morning, but we also had to go to additional school and miss our cartoons. It was not a pretty picture, for sure. Half-asleep kids were sitting in a classroom while the poor volunteer teachers droned on and on about this or that.
It wasn’t long before the neighborhood children started developing withdrawal symptoms. Once we began to froth from the mouth, the school bus ride to and from school became our “Church of the Holy Cartoon.” I personally subscribed to the Loony Toons denomination. We had the gospels, according to Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and Foghorn Leghorn, among others. We ended our prayer sessions with a synchronized Woody Woodpecker laugh instead of an “amen.” After years of devoted worship, the Holy Walt Disney granted our prayers, and religion class was moved to Thursday nights. Thus ended our horror.
By the time I was a teenager, I had become an agnostic. The “Great Cartoon Travesty” had permanently scarred me, and there were certain things I found off-putting. But to be crystal clear, I am fine with all religions. Catholicism just wasn’t right for me, but I am happy for the people who find it suits them. To me, faith of any kind is a gift. Throughout history, people have been able to do amazing things because of their faith.
So by now, I am sure you are wondering what all this has to do with Paganism. As I previously mentioned, I have been an agnostic for most of my life. When I had this epiphany about the ancient ways of Druids, Celts, and Pagans possibly providing relief to mental illness, I obviously had to do a deep dive into Paganism. Even though I have barely scratched the surface, I would like to share with you my initial impressions.
When I was growing up, the terms Pagan and Paganism had a very negative connotation. We learned explicitly and implicitly that Paganism was very bad. Being involved with it would give you an express ticket to hell. It was group knowledge that Pagans were evil and conducted horrible practices, both religious and secular.
These thoughts did not magically appear in the heads of us kids. They came from someplace. Perhaps church teachings, perhaps well-meaning, but off the mark adults. Who knows? What I have learned so far is that Paganism is something drastically different.
First, the etymology of the word pagan is not what most people probably think. The Latin word “pagus” means a county district. That led to another Latin word, “paganus,” which means a rustic villager. That became the Christian Latin word “pagan,” meaning a heathen (not part of the army of Christ). So if you think about it, what areas would Christianity be the last to reach when it was spreading? And what people would be the most likely to resist it? It would be those rustic villagers in the countryside. I think they would be more set in their ways and beliefs.
So the word “pagan” is actually derived from non-religious and benign sources. In modern times, Paganism is more closely defined and associated with people who do not subscribe to any Abrahamic religions and typically believe in multiple gods or god forms.
In the end, the word “pagan,” that I feared as a child, was taken out of context and propagated fear. It reminds me of a phrase that is taken out of context and makes a good thing bad. The phrase is “beyond the pale.”
If you look up “beyond the pale” on google, you will get results like “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior” (merriam-webster.com). But that is using the “Pale” out of context. In brief, the “Pale” was a stretch of land around Dublin that the invading English controlled. It was a safe place for the English people. If they went beyond the “Pale,” they might encounter native Irish people. A fate worse than death, apparently.
So why is “beyond the pale” a bad thing? I would think being within the pale would be very negative. That is where an invading army conquered the land of a sovereign nation. Whenever I hear “beyond the pale” in a negative context, I think, “no, no, you mean within the pale!”
Right, so back to Paganism. Another thing I learned is that there are numerous forms of Paganism, just like there are multiple forms of Christianity. To name just a few, there is Celtic Paganism, Norse Paganism, Hellenic Paganism, Heathen Paganism, etc.
I have also joined various Reddit pagan communities. One general impression from reading posts and communicating with actual pagans is that they are very knowledgeable and thoughtful. It is obvious that they do considerable research and learning for their religious practices. Paganism is effectively a sandbox religion and is not a simple path to follow. There is no specific dogma to follow. Each individual pagan must design their own practice through research and trial and error.
I look forward to continuing my research and study of Paganism, especially ways and practices that might benefit those with mental illness challenges.
Have a great weekend!
My name is Mike, and I am a skeptic and recovering accountant just starting to make my way through the world of the Druids, Celts, and Pagans.
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Title Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash.