Defining paganism as a “thing” — I like the term “movement” — is quite difficult. You get easily caught in a vicious circle of needing a definition so you and other people know what you and they hold dear and have in common, and at the same time of shying away from any definition at all to keep paganism as inclusive as it understood these days. And with this vicious circle often enough come vicious arguments on social media.
One step towards a better understanding could be that we all stop using “paganism” interchangeably with all the paths this umbrella term encompasses. Druidry, Wicca, Asatru, Heathenry and so on and so forth are all paths. I typically capitalize them to emphasize that these are names for particular paths. As paganism is general and the path is specific, so is what one does as a pagan more generic while the activities as a follower of a particular path are much more narrowly defined.
One of the beauties of paganism is that there is no rule, within the umbrella, which of the paths one should walk, or that one can only walk one path. You are entirely free to choose. But this is also the end of the no-rule — uhm — rule. Unfortunately, a lot of fake-lore has crept up over time, blowing that no rule idea completely out of proportion. And so there are some today who think that they are not bound to any guidelines of decency, honor, morality, or even positive law (written down or precedence law). Ignoring these rules doesn’t make you pagan.
So what does?
I stumbled upon a blog post by a certain Anna Walker recently, that, in a very simple but insightful way hints at what it actually means to be pagan, completely independent from your path. She writes in her blog:
As an animistic pagan, my most sacred practice involves neither cauldron nor athame, although I own both. My most sacred practice is walking daily through my neighborhood with my dog, Poe. Because I walk with Poe, I know–from bodily experience, not from faith nor from reason–that the moon was full two nights ago and that Orion is still visible in the night sky. I know that the days are lengthening, and that the first of this season’s mountain laurel blooms opened early this year,
This resonated deeply with me. Not only because I did something similar when we still had our beautiful Golden Retriever, our most lovely Vienna: I would take her out for her last pottyround for the night, and scan the dark sky for the Moon and the planets, was thrilled when I saw the Pleiades, and spotted Sirius following Orion like my dog followed me. I looked out and listened to owls, and every now and we even heard coyotes yapping — in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, mind you.
I didn’t even notice how much this routine has become a part of my life until she suddenly died from a gruesome, aggressive cancer. First I didn’t notice, then I began missing it, and now I step outside before locking up the house. Winter, spring, summer, and fall.
This, and growing healing herbs in the yard, or having a deal with one of my neighbors, who only mows the lawn twice a year, that he would tell me before he starts cutting, so that I can harvest St. John’s Wort, Yarrow, and Plantain growing in abundance there, and making my own incense and tinctures, this is all embracing a pagan life. As much as I, a husband, father, director of program evaluation in a homeless service agency in an urban setting can do. Would love to do more, but there are people depending on me.
As Anna Walther says, I don’t need a cauldron or athame to pagan. I, too have that. And a Viking axe, a cloak, and a copper sickle. These are my Druidry things, though, (except the Viking axe, I just like it), the tools for my path.
Talking about which.
The path is where I worship a particular pantheon, tell specific lore to an audience, and devote time and energy to celebrate changes in the season and so on. I selected that path because, under the umbrella of paganism, I was free to do so. And I would be free to leave that path if I so decided. There is no rule telling me otherwise. There are rules within the path, though. Not many. But there always are.
The path is my specific spiritual expression within my pagan lifestyle. I some sense, they are two different things, but the are unbreakably interwoven with one another.
And it’s the latter why it is so difficult to find consensus within the pagan community. Because sometimes people say pagan but are talking about their path, and at other times people talk about paganism but use the perimeters of their path to describe it.
Being clear about the difference helps, though.