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Subject: Re: general
From: Raymond Turner <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:CELTIC-L - The Celtic Culture List.
Date:Fri, 16 Jun 1995 11:33:41 -0700

text/plain (141 lines)

>         Regarding the word "pagan": I have always viewed it as somone who
> is not a Christian, usually in reference to the olden days.  Today they
> seem to use the word "heathen" in its place.  I looked up both words in
> the dictionary and found this:
> I was not aware that these words were stirring such controversy.  I
> suppose if someone was not a Chrisitan and was called a pagan or heathen,
> that might upset them.  I just wanted to give my comment on that and maybe
> i'll get a responce to it.
> Steve
Hi, Steve,
Just thought I'd provide a bit of recent Celtic-l history here. Clearly,
you weren't signed onto this list for either the Saint Patrick's Day
massacre thread (;-)) or the Nuts thread. Both of which involved
neo-pagans, or modern pagans against their view of Chrisitanity. It got
really ugly for a while there, so ugly that I know of several people who
signed off the list, and I threatened to do so. i don't want to do that
again, so I'm being overly touchy about the word pagan on this list.
My understanding has been that, when I was young, most people in a
Christian culture used pagan and heathen interchangeably. Many people who
still live fairly sheltered lives in the bosom of a Christian community
proabably do. However, the word has a different meaning in historical
terms. For example, when we describe the Romans and Greeks as being
"pagan," we don't simply mean they weren't Christian. We're using it in
both the negative sense as in not Christian, and in a positive
descriptive sense, to describe and define what their religion WAS, not
merely what it wasn't. So Pagan in that context refers to a polytheistic
religion that personified forces of nature and natural phenomena into
gods and godesses. When we use it to describe the Romans or Greeks, the
term "pagan" also imlpies a specific structure and a specific set of gods
and goddess, not nature worship in general.
In medieval terms, the word Pagan is generally used to refer to the
Romans, since the old regime in most of Europe was the Empire of Rome.
For several hundred years, anyone who wanted to start a new government or
a new religion had to contend with the fact of Rome and its old religion.
However, many modern people who describe themsleves as practicing pagans
will use the term "pagan" in discussing the history of Europe to describe
the religions that were present among the indigenous populations before
Christianity was introduced. Generally speaking, historians and scholars
do not use the term "pagan" in this way.
I have seen historians discuss the origins of the word Pagan, which ahs
at least 3 different stories applied to explain that -I- know of, but
they don't use it to describe the indigenous religions of Europe.
Probably it ws decided sometime in the last few decades that since one of
its meanings was "heathen," with a pejorative connotation, using it to
describe a non-Christian religion was unnecessarily pejorative. There is
also the potential for confusion, since the religion practiced by, say,
the Anglo-Saxons or the Danes or the Scots before they ebcame HCrisitan
can be described as "pagan," but it isn't the same religion as that
practiced by the Greeks and ROmans, in historical, ethnological, cultural
or anthropological terms.
However, there is no neat simple way to describe or define the indigenous
religions of Europe that is accepted by everyone.
Even those people who hve made deliberate studies of this area in
scholarly research have no one neat simple word they can use that's
accepted by all scholars everywhere. So every time a reputable scholar
wants to talk about the indigenous religions of Europe, he or she has to
re-invent the wheel, so to speak.
Meanwhile, there are also modern pagans who use the word in a different
way, and it has emotional, political and psychological overtones for them
that it doesn't ahve for scholars (and vice versa). Plus there are people
who, for whatever reasons of their own, have a beef against Chrisitanity,
or many beefs against Christianity. These two groups of people are not
always the same ones, but they're also not mutuallu exclusive
groups,either. Many modern pagans are very polite, and were as upset by
the recent flame wars on this list as I was.
The problem with the word "pagan" is that in the modern world, where
there are practicing druids, practicing goddess worshippers, agnostics,
and a multiplicity of other faiths, the dictionary defintion isn't the
only one. That one littel word has many meanings to different people,
depending on who they are or what they identify with, and many of these
are not defined in articulate terms, but exist on many levels of meaning.
Some of them aren't even conscious.
By this I'm not trying to imply that anyone who identifies with ancient
pagans is inarticulate or unintelligent. I merely wish to point out that
what the dictionary says a word means may not correspond very well to
what you or I feel it means in our hearts. If you truly believe that
ancient pagans were murderd by Christians, and you feel this deeply and
identify with it, words like Pagan and Christian will carry a different
weight of emaning than they will for someone else. For a historian of the
early church in England, those words wil carry a different weight and
meaning entirely.
I think Christian is a term most people generally understand and use more
or less in broadly accepted terms. Pagan is quite different. Even a
phrase like "the Church" is understood differently by differnt people (in
a discussion on the medieval history list, someone suggested that we do
away entirely with the terms "feudalism" and "the Church" in discussing
medieval history, and see how much more people have to think about what
they say before they say it and assume they know what they mean!)
The other problem I see on this list is that we go into this controversy
every few months, or any controversy. And we get it settled, and people
have either signed off or settled down. then a new crop of people sign
on, and unaware of the old wounds, they open up the same topic, or a
related one. And it starts again. the turnover on e-mail lists is part of
why we have to go voer the same ground repeatedly. We also really need a
welcome message, so we can include things like "don't use the term
'pagan' unless you're prepared to define it every time, since it has so
many meanings," or "yes, there are lots of people on this list who are
interested in Celtic mythology. What specifically do you want to know?".
Does anyone know how we would go about setting up such a message and how
we would send it out? Most lists have it built into their listserv
function, so as soon as you're signed up, you get the message.
Anyway, that's the story of why I for one am being so incredibly touchy
about the word pagan. And I really do believe we either need to avoid it,
since many of us ahve such automatic shorthand menaings for it tracked
into our brains that we don't even think about what it means anymore and
whether someone else will read it that way, or we need to define it every
time. We can't define it once and then let it go, since someone who signs
onto the list fifteen minutes later could miss that defintion.
Persoanlly, I think avoiding its use would be a good exercise for the
brain, just as not using the terms feudalism and "the Church" is a good
exercise. Some words you just assume you know hat they mean, and you use
them without really thinking a lot about it. It's possible to get into
sloppy mental habits this way.
Not suing a word that's common easy mental shorthand forces us to think
in new ways. I mean, who was "the Church?" When and where? How many, how
big, how fast? Who says? Based on what evidence?
The word Pagan, though, is not common mental shorthand for many, and can
be easily misunderstood.
So that's my coupla pennies worth on this topic.
All the best,
JoAnn Turner
[log in to unmask]

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