June 19, 2009

First acquaintance

This is an introduction.

I hope to cover both what prompted me to begin this blog, its goals and some basic information about me.

(And I promise that my writing is not always this stilted; now though, my goal is clarity, not elegance).

Hello, diminutive, hoped for audience. Welcome!

I intend to use this space to talk about my religion, which is Slavic paganism. This is not to say that I am thoroughly versed in my theology- not even close. I am just a common devotee, with an uncommon set of Gods and rituals to which I am devoted. I would not be opening up my thoughts to the world if I had found an abundance of other English speaking Slavic pagans casting their spirituality out into the convoluted world of blogging.

Yet there is no abundance. There is an absence. If I want honest, applicable, dedicated Slavic theology that is compassionate towards other spiritualities, well, I suppose I have to write it. I hope to fill a niche with this space; I hope to fill it well.

So, I am going to talk about all this here…but the thing is, I already talk about my religion. I am not secretive. While I intend to write here about expanded topics in Slavic Paganism, it is sensible to go back to the basics and answer the question I get most about my religion:

What IS Slavic Paganism?

(In fact, the question I get most often is “So what is a pagan?” because I have learned to drop the word Slavic altogether when answering casual questioners. As it turns out, many people have no idea who the Slavs are. It gets complicated explaining that one of the words defines religion and the other generally covers linguistics and culture, but in this case specifies pantheon/rituals, all while the person I’m talking is generally wondering if I think I’m a witch à la Buffy The Vampire Slayer.)

Here are a couple good but basic definitions of paganism:
Religious Tolerance’s Definition
Wikipedia Article on Paganism
Michael York’s More Complex Definition

Etymologically “pagan” derives from the Latin paganus, meaning a country dweller. Rural Roman populations retained their folk rituals and religion after the urban population’s conversion to Christianity. Used by Christians after that time, it meant simply “non-Christian” or applied to those who did not adhere to any Abrahamic religion. It has got a lot of pejorative echoes that still resonate true for some folks. In the current, Western world, it is used as a blanket term to cover pretty much anything with a polytheistic, animistic or shamanic bent, including folk religion, historical polytheistic or neopagan religions.

Paganism is a religious term, not a religion. Many religions fall under the pagan label. Among these is Slavic paganism. The “Slavic” part denotes what pantheon, rituals, beliefs, morals and such a pagan follows. Slavic paganism and Slavic reconstruction in particular is the modern derivation of the pre-Christian religion in the Slavic regions, reconstructed through the surviving mythology, rituals and archeology.

Slavic paganism is different from other historic paths like, for example ancient Egyptian religion or more modern movements like Wicca (which emerged in the 1950s). Like the pagan paths I have just mentioned, Slavic paganism is its own religion, not a denomination of a greater set of beliefs.

“Pagan” is a messy descriptor that was originally used to shove together and malign a great number of separate religions that were not really that similar. Yet the name stuck and has even become a word that is claimed by many believers. It functions somewhat like the phrase “People of Color (POC)” in that it is used by those who undergo certain similar experiences. POC may experience a sense of community by the shared experience of living in a world dominated by white culture and under the control of racist social systems. Pagans may experience a sense of community by the shared experience of living in a world dominated by majority, mostly monotheist religions and the difficulties this can create.

There’s the definition. Now let’s get back to question that I am asked and which I answer.

What IS Slavic Paganism?

Naming oneself matters. When a person identifies as something unknown, something off in uncharted waters and the vast majority of the world has no idea what that part of a person is, a questioner asks for more than a description. They touch on the fact that a name is not a dead word, not a still image. A name is alive, subtle, carried in the connections and language of individuals and the summary of those ideas into one. In my path, saying a God’s true name is to call that God (thus, many false names arose for conversational use). So, to give a name? That is powerful action.

What are you? is the same as asking: Create yourself.

It is not easy to do this. I fumble my explanations. My audience is often unfamiliar with the basics of paganism and thus easily tripped up by concepts like polytheism or animism.

I was about fourteen when I was first asked about my paganism. At the time, I had been shimmying closer to spirituality in general and pagan paths especially. This was after a childhood void of religion apart from secular Christmas and Easter celebrations and the States’ general monotheism. My parents are irreligious.

The topic of religion came up and I made my beliefs public. As I remember, a teacher asked me to clarify. The situation was a relaxed, hanging-out-after-class-and-chatting. There was no pressure. Yet I found I could not manage a good explanation: “Paganism is nature based. There’s more than one god. It’s like Wicca, but I don’t do magic.”

I learned that what appears to occupy a clear space in my head sometimes translates into a muddle when said aloud. Being public about my spirituality is hard, not because of hostility (which I rarely encounter) but because clarity demands thought and effort. Religion is like art; what comes naturally is a nice start, but what comes of real effort is precious. So, I had to seize my spirituality and start refining.

My next confrontation with my spiritual ills came in the form of a kind, interested, devoted Christian girl. This girl was curious about paganism, but when I met her eyes, I stumbled. I barely answered her question and we both returned to schoolwork.

I learned that fear of exposure, especially exposure to religions perceived as hostile to paganism (mostly Christianity and monotheism), is harmful to pagans and questioners alike. There is a certain culture among pagans that over emphasizes the pagan oppression. It is not that this does not occur, but expecting to be attacked leads to “explanations” that are more like defensive walls. Stereotyping religious attitudes because one is afraid of having their religion stereotyped? That’s hypocrisy. Do not make a puppet show out of an interfaith dialogue. Either the show runs its inevitable, unimaginative course (the downtrodden pagan attempts to reach out but is fended off by the mainstream religious person’s ignorance! The Punch and Judy plot runs its course! Yawn.) Or sometimes, wonderfully, honest communication happens.

Arriving at college, I became more loud about my religion. My college is more religious and more Christian than my hometown. It is a tough place to find polytheists of any sort. I felt I had to burn brighter: my flame was suddenly alone and mostly ignored.

Although, overwhelmingly, people did not know anything about my religion, occasionally, they just have not known much. Responses from people who are familiar with the word “pagan” will vary from amusing (being asked if paganism is, “like out of the Da Vinci Code?”) to broadly inaccurate to upsetting for me.

It is the people who have previous assumptions about paganism who are often the most difficult to speak with. A person who knows that they know nothing is open to new information; a person with a bit of knowledge will cling to it doggedly. Contrary to stereotypes, it is often the Christians who fall into the “unaware and open” category, while the hippies languor in smugness over how accepting they are to their misinterpretation of my religion. I have been told that there is no point to being pagan if I do not practice magic and have been told that paganism is matriarchal and feminist (my ancestors? Sometimes when a woman’s husband died, she threw herself on the pyre because her life was not worth living without a husband). And of course, there are always people who think I must be Wiccan.

I have learned to value, not shared ideologies and strangeness, but shared compassion. And to smile politely for those who insist on plastering a person with their own assumptions. I learned to love those who listen and listen myself.

Early in my first semester, I was part of a shared fast for Ramadan. It was a relaxed, insightful, hungry day. As we sat in a circle in the grass, the picture of an interfaith liberal arts ideal (here were all the major religions and enough people of color to make us worthy of a college brochure cover), we talked about fasting and our particular religions. The chaplain asked me to define paganism. The group’s attention focused in on me. I was able to say, concisely but without feeling rushed, a definition of paganism that touched on the reality of that branch of spirituality, instead of trying to make false metaphors to ‘dumb down’ the definition. I sang some truth. I felt welcomed. I was understood.

I learned to say thank you.

Name oneself. Then arise.

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