The Pagan umbrella is leaking

In two posts back in January, Jason at Raise the Horns discussed the pros and cons of the word Pagan being used to include polytheist reconstructionist traditions, Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, Humanist and Naturalist Pagans. The first post had 198 comments; the second had 62 comments. This is clearly a hot topic.

In a previous post, I answered “five questions about Paganism“, despite my discomfort with talking about Paganism as a single tradition (I usually refer to ‘Pagan traditions’ in my posts, to try to emphasise their diversity and distinctness), and someone understandably complained that, as a polytheist, she didn’t identify with what I had characterised as Pagan ideas. In that particular instance, I knew that lots of people were responding to the survey, so the resulting picture would be suitably nuanced and multi-faceted, so I was not too worried if I only presented my own perspective. I am not trying to present my perspective as authoritative, despite the fact that I sometimes come across as “laying down the law” in what I write; I am just presenting my perspective, and people can take it or leave it. If it works for you, great; if not, post comments with constructive criticism of what I have said so that I can hone my ideas.

In another post, Values, beliefs, practices, I explored some of the common features that might be used to describe (but not define) traditions as Pagan. There were some useful suggestions in the comments – Katy Jennison suggested using fuzzy boundaries and identifying a list of features common to most Pagan traditions, so that the more of these features a tradition has, the more Pagan it is. John Beckett suggested having a core and a periphery, and talking about ‘the Pagan movement’ being headed in a general direction.

Many of the people who don’t want to identify as Pagan complain about the dominance of watered-down Wicca style rituals and ideas. They also assume that the simplistic version of Wicca presented by many 101 books is what initiated Wiccans practice. This situation is often exacerbated by Wiccans who try to speak for other traditions that get included in the Pagan umbrella, and getting it wrong. Just like, if a Heathen went to an interfaith gathering and started trying to describe Wicca, he or she would probably describe it as duotheist, and would thereby be getting it wrong.

The solution to this is for polytheists, Heathens etc to get involved in interfaith dialogue. And we should all try to learn more about each others’ traditions, so that we are not misrepresenting each other when we try to describe what we have in common.

As a polytheist, initiated, Gardnerian Wiccan, I would really like it if eclectic Paganism was not “watered-down Wicca”. Create your own rituals; don’t bastardize ours. And please don’t assume that I am a duotheist, or a “soft” polytheist. I once spent some months on a polytheist mailing list, and was amazed by the hostility to Wicca. Just because some Wiccans have misrepresented your tradition, don’t assume that we’re all going to do so.

I would really like it if “hard” polytheists didn’t automatically assume that all “soft” polytheists are really monotheists in disguise. (I think that deities are distinct but not discrete, and emerge from the substrate of energy in the universe; but that substrate doesn’t have a personality. That probably makes me a squidgy polytheist.)

I am a devotee of a selection of different deities from different pantheons, because they have called to me over the years.

I don’t base my rituals on a duotheistic paradigm.

I have had trouble with identifying as a Pagan because of some of the sheer rubbish talked by some Pagans. However, most people assume that I am a Pagan, and in the sense of what I originally meant by the term when I identified as such, I am one. In the sense that some people are using it these days, I am probably not one.

I don’t want watered-down Wicca to be the dominant paradigm in the “Pagan umbrella”, because watered-down Wicca is usually a misrepresentation of real Wicca, and is usually duotheist. I also want the voices of polytheists, Heathens, occultists, etc to be included in the conversation, whatever name we give to that conversation.

I think we are probably stuck with the label, but I respect the right of Heathens, polytheists, etc to not use the label to identify themselves, and can understand why they feel that way. Just as I would not include Hinduism or indigenous American religions under the Pagan umbrella, because they disavow that label, and because colonialists tried to label them as “pagan” in a pejorative way; so if polytheists and Heathens don’t want the label “Pagan” then I respect that.

It is also almost impossible to identify any one feature that all of us agree on. Reverence for Nature? Nope, you can find some people who are not into that.  Belief in the immanence of the divine / deities? Nope, because of humanist and naturalist Pagans; and also I once came across a Heathen who believed that deities were transcendent. We all honour the same deities? Nope, because different people honour different pantheons.

About the only thing that can be said is that it’s not against our religions to take part in each others’ rituals.

So yes, the “Pagan umbrella” is leaking, but I think we need to look at ways to ensure that we don’t misrepresent each other’s traditions, and that we don’t assume that everyone else shares our values and perspectives. And maybe we need to change the metaphor from an umbrella to a big tent, or a party, or a movement, or perhaps a (slightly dysfunctional) family, or something. And if someone could come up with a name that wasn’t applied to us from outside, maybe that would help too.

However, if you look at Hinduism, which is not really a single religion, but a collection of traditions devoted to different deities, pantheons, gurus, and practices, and includes monotheists, monists, polytheists, and pantheists, but still manages to cohere as a body for the purposes of interaction with the outside world, I think it is quite a helpful model.


30 thoughts on “The Pagan umbrella is leaking

  1. “The solution to this is for polytheists, Heathens etc to get involved in interfaith dialogue. ”

    The question becomes, why should I, as a Heathen, want to engage in interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan or watered-down-Wiccan as opposed to, say, a Hindu or an Episcopalian? Is there some commonality that makes such interfaith works easier or offers more to be gained between those commonly placed under the “Pagan” umbrella? Given the vast variety of theologies, ideologies, etc., it’s sometimes the case that different “Pagan” faiths have no more in common than they do with Christians.


    • Sorry, perhaps I did not make myself clear there. I meant that Heathens, polytheists etc should get involved with interfaith dialogue with non-Pagan faiths, so that they are not being (mis)represented by Wiccans, eclectic Pagans, or whatever.


      • “I meant that Heathens, polytheists etc should get involved with interfaith dialogue with non-Pagan faiths, so that they are not being (mis)represented by Wiccans, eclectic Pagans, or whatever.”

        You are making a great case that Heathens SHOULD NOT be under the same umbrella as other pagans, since others will misrepresent what they are about as opposed to not attempting to say anything at all if they don’t know what they are talking about…


      • I disagree. I think the solution is for practitioners of one faith to stop pretending they know about other faiths, and stick to what they do know. If Heathens want to participate in interfaith efforts, that’s up to them. If they choose not to, it should not be seen as an opening for an eclectic Wiccan-type to step in and try to fill the gap with less-than-accurate information.

        The onus is on those who would try to represent others to stop doing so, rather than those who choose not to be involved in the first place to change that decision simply so the first group doesn’t feel compelled to fill the opening.


  2. I’ve never understood the battle over “watered down Wicca,” which is a theme that pops up in your writings from time to time. While I respect where you are coming from (I too am a Gard initiate), I think you are fighting a hopeless battle with no chance of victory. Definitions change, and in many forums “Wicca” no longer refers to an initiatory tradition/faith. If you have thirty books in your house with “Wicca” on the spine, it’s pretty insulting to hear “You aren’t a real Wiccan” or “what you are practicing is watered down.” Religions and faiths change, and as much as we might want to control the definition of a word, it’s just impossible to do so.

    In addition, I think it’s safe to say that there are just people out there who don’t want to be a part of an initiatory practice. They read rituals in books and choose to do them. They have no desire to be a High Priest or a High Priestess other than to themselves, and that should be perfectly fine. As long as that spiritual practice is meaningful to them I don’t think it’s fair to call it “watered down,” it’s just different from what you practice.

    In the States especially (I realize it’s a bit different over in the UK) there has been a major split in the road when it comes to “Wicca.” I’d even go so far as to argue that there are “two Wiccas;” the eclectic kind as articulated in many 101-type books, and the initiatory tradition. Depending on circumstances one version tends to trump the other version. If you are a part of an initiates-only list certainly you are going to use Wicca to refer only to those who have been initiated. If you go to PantheaCon (or any other large gathering of the tribes) and try to dictate the definition of Wicca you are going to run into trouble. People come to both “versions” for different reasons, but I don’t think one is better than the other, they both just serve different needs and wants. When asked what I practice I often discard the term Wiccan and go straight for BTW-British Traditional Witchcraft, which is a far more accurate description.

    Even the mini-umbrellas inside of the greater Pagan Umbrella are changing. In many ways I completely agree with you, and I don’t think you mean to be insulting, but it can certainly come across as such.


    • That whole concept is an unfortunate carryover from Christianity, which Wicca aped in some ways (there, I said it!). It’s the same game of who has the real apostolic lineage and valid ordination etc. I don’t have a problem calling out people who obviously wear Wicca as just a lifestyle ornament and who show an obvious disrespect for it as a system of spirituality or depth.

      Beyond that, the effort to enforce orthodoxy is just a one-up game, the same game hipsters play to put up the velvet rope for who is in the “in-crowd” that day or week. If you self-initiated as Wiccan or just identify with that practice, you’re not cool because you didn’t read the books. If you read the books, you didn’t read the books that were dark and heavy and old enough, and anyway, none of that is the “real” Wicca. Those of us who got real initiation learned secrets that would make your bones melt if we so much as whispered it in your ear. But if we did that, we’d have to be drawn and quartered and fed to were-rabbits on the dark of the moon. Don’t laugh. We’ve seen it happen! So you got an initiation? Too bad kid. You got it from an un-serious trad who can’t prove unbroken lineage to Stonehenge’s grand opening.

      Oh, you just took initiation into MY trad? Well, that’s cool and all, but it’s still not the real thing. The priestesses today are cream puffs. In MY day, we didn’t have the Internet, so we had to quest for five years just to find the group, and I had to sit at the feet of the priestess for a year and a day before I’d even be allowed to dedicate for a year and a day. And I had to carry her to ritual barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways, and be flogged raw before I’d even be considered for a real initiatory ordeal. And then, I had to hand-copy my Book of Shadows in my own blood…..


  3. This is just one of those issues I can’t get all torn up about. It’s just a term/conceptual label. If it doesn’t fit, don’t wear it. To the extent I do interfaith work or relate to outsiders, I never hold myself to be representative of pagans generally nor even of Wicca as a whole. I don’t think the pagan community is being solely represented by “Wicca Lite” (which usually means “any trad but mine”). I think that may have been true in the early part of this decade, but at least online, I hear a wide variety of voices these days, and scarcely a week goes by that I don’t read a piece by an author in some tradition I’ve never even heard of. It’s a very interesting time to be a pagan.

    If people don’t want to use any umbrella term, that’s fine, but I think it’s an absolute waste of time to search for a replacement, because the term isn’t what we’re fighting over. The underlying fight is over who shall be considered “pagan enough to stand next to us”, which is the same stupid and fruitless battle now as it was when Sanders and Gardnerians argued over who had the “real lineage” 50 years ago.


    • You don’t think the community is Wicca-centric, then conclude your comments with a purely Wiccan analogy. I’m sorry, neither Sanders nor Gardner have anything to do with my faith, and I understand your analogy only in as far as those names are dragged into EVERY debate on the larger issue of paganism at some point. Funny how the disparate ideologies of other faiths don’t get nearly as much mention.

      It would be nice if it were as easy as “don’t like it, don’t wear it,” but that’s not how the world works. Read a few mainstream articles on Dan Halloran if you don’t understand why. There’s still a large contingent in this world who equate non-Abrahamic to Satan worship, and all non-Abrahamic to pagan. A sizable number of them will happily throw Islam on the pagan side, as well.

      We are, for the short term at least, stuck with the label as a concept, whether it is wanted or not, so at least acknowledge that those upon whom it is forced should have some say in how it is defined.


      • It’s much less Wicca-centric, and I only use the analogy because I see the rest of the pagan/polytheistic community repeating the same mistakes that Wiccans made with the “I’m more authentic than you” dynamic. Whether Gardner or Sanders have any meaning for you or not, the underlying mistake is self-defeating for whoever repeats it. The problem of perception of what “pagan” is in the wider world falls to all of us to correct as we relate to outsiders and media. It will not be fixed easily, and not all of that is due to Wicca’s “head start” in public profile. The mainstream media doesn’t devote a lot of time and scholarship to teasing out the fine points of theology and practice in its articles and newscasts. Your religion will get defined by one very over-generalized sentence, or maybe two. All we can do is our best to get our meaning across and to support our own media outlets. This is not a problem unique to pagans either. Catholics and Mormons complain that their beliefs get distorted in the media, and not infrequently by reporters of the same religions.


      • “There’s still a large contingent in this world who equate non-Abrahamic to Satan worship, and all non-Abrahamic to pagan.”

        Sure, and they’re the same lot who think that LGBT people are going to hell, that the earth is 6,000 years old and that Jesus will return soon. Why care what they think about you?


  4. Yeah, not really feeling this one. It’s been a few decades, and the dominant strains in Pagandom have shown that they’ll pay lip service to learning about less dominant types of Paganism and polytheist, but that’s it. They’ll continue to speak over us and try to speak FOR us even after we’ve yelled at them to stop.

    So the hostility – it’s kinda deserved at this point. It’s on /you/ to show that you’re not going to pull the same erasing, borg-behavior that most of Pagandom engages in.

    I’m also bothered by your whole thing about ‘watered-down Wicca’ – it seems more like you’re refusing to take responsibility for the problem. And yeah, if you’re speaking over polytheists or other pagans that aren’t part of well-known traditions or religions, you’re part of the problem. If you’re asking us to get involved in interfaith so you don’t ‘misrepresent’ us, you’re part of the problem – you shouldn’t be representing us in the first place.

    It is /not/ that hard to say, “I don’t know a lot about that religion, so I can’t educate you on it/speak on it.”

    And on the whole ‘create your own rituals, don’t basterdize ours’ – well, it’d be easier if Pagandom wasn’t drowning in the same ol’ same ol’ and actually had broader ideas of what ritual can look like. We /are/ doing our own rituals, but dominant Pagandom sees them as ‘too alien’, ‘too religious’, ‘ too formal’.


    • If I am the only Pagan at an interfaith event, and I am presenting about the different Pagan traditions that exist, are you saying that I should not research and speak about Heathenry, Religio Romana etc? If I omit them from my presentation, aren’t I erasing their existence? If I source anything that I say about them from websites written by Heathens, Religio Romana etc, and check back with members of those traditions that I am not misrepresenting them, what’s wrong with that?


      • Why must it be all or nothing? I would not expect a Shiite to teach me Catholicism, or a Mennonite to instruct on the traditions of Hasidic Judaism. I would expect them to acknowledge their existence, but I wouldn’t rely on them for details, any more than I would rely on a Wiccan for an accurate representation of what the runes mean. (I use this example based on the gross misinformation available about them online, especially where they’ve been appropriated for other traditions to use).

        It seems to me, if the entirety of “pagandom” is being represented by a single person, the real question that should be presented to people is why has only one faith been included to begin with?


  5. My husband follows a Germanic path, and I follow a family tradition of Witchcraft. Neither one of us are Wiccan and we consider ourselves Pagan. I’m almost fifty years old, and I’d like to know when Wicca began being what Paganism is all about? As long as I’ve been on this planet it’s been my understanding that Wicca is included under the roof of Paganism. I’ve been told by a few Wiccans that due to the way the law is laid out in the USA that Paganism is included under the roof of Wicca. I beg to differ. I recall a church founded by Oberon Zell, a man who most people know as a Wizard, founded the Church of all Worlds LONG before Witchcraft was protected as a religion in the United States of America, and long before the first Wiccan church was founded. Perhaps people should take a look at those who blazed the trails that everyone so happily fights about. To each his or her own, that’s always been a given, but people need to realize that not everything is Wiccan, and Witchcraft doesn’t mean Wiccan. Not all Witches are Wiccan. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with Wicca or Wiccans. It is to say that a look back to recent history could well be worth the effort.

    With that said, I don’t feel it’s nice to refer to anyones belief as “watered down.” People believe as they do for personal reasons and one of the common tenets, as far as I know, of all Pagans is that one can believe as they will. For years I was shouted down because I didn’t speak out against what was called dark magick, that eeeevil magick as people called it. If you weren’t a White Witch then you condone harm. It’s my personal belief that magick is neither black nor white, good nor evil because it’s just like nature. There’s light and dark in both. Watch the eastern sky and the sun will rise and give light, keep watching and it will bring darkness. Neither one is good nor evil. That resides in the heart of the Pagan, what ever path they trod. I would never be so presumptuous as to write about much less speak about traditions that I know nothing about. Perhaps each individual should ask themselves before they speak, write a book, hold a workshop, make a video, etc …. “Am I doing this because I have walked the walk? Or am I indulging in hyperbole that people will take seriously to make a dollar or two?” Most importantly, “do I care?” If you can say in all honesty that you don’t care because you’re wanting to make money, feed your ego or looking to be popular — well, I think you get what I’m saying. It seems to me that personal responsibility should be a top priority and it’s obvious that the human condition always wins in circumstances such as this. I’m very human and boy do I make mistakes! BUT! I hope with each day that I can overcome my own human condition.


  6. “However, if you look at Hinduism, which is not really a single religion, but a collection of traditions devoted to different deities, pantheons, gurus, and practices, and includes monotheists, monists, polytheists, and pantheists, but still manages to cohere as a body for the purposes of interaction with the outside world, I think it is quite a helpful model.”

    Hinduism coheres due in part to the set of texts that pretty much all Hindus agree is sacred (the Vedas). Does “Paganism” have such a set of texts?


  7. “I think that deities are distinct but not discrete, and emerge from the substrate of energy in the universe; but that substrate doesn’t have a personality. That probably makes me a squidgy polytheist.”

    I think you just described by theological outlook to a T, with the exception that I call myself a “squishy” polytheist, rather than a “spuidgy” polytheist. 😉


  8. in reply to all the people who complained about the comment about watered-down Wicca…

    I am not talking about self-initiated people who got their Wicca from 101 books, or their beliefs.

    I was talking about public ritual that is Wicca lite, and makes polytheists and others feel uncomfortable, excluded, etc.


  9. But all “soft” polytheists ARE prey to monotheist ideas. It’s not necessarily being a hidden monotheist. I don’t expect you to proselytize me suddenly. But you work from monotheist accultured assumptions and follow their expectations. The common desire to find some sort of unity, or to impose some sort of unified framework comes out of those assumptions. That’s monotheist to it’s core.

    Soft polytheists frame their polytheism in monotheistic thought, ideas, assumptions, and terms. Some “hard” polytheists like me completely reject that. If you don’t reject those assumptions, I find it hard to call you polytheist in any meaningful way. You’re simply creating a more diverse framework for monotheist style assumptions.

    Which is your right if you want to. I just don’t want to be associated with it.

    Also, I’m sorry, but I’m not sure it’s possible for any Wiccan not to bastardize traditional holidays. ALL forms of Wicca do it. How can you be faithful to Lughnasadh if you talk about “the God”? It runs counter to the entire idea of the holiday. Or Beltaine. While using the ancient names you can’t help but misrepresent them.

    I also must disagree with your Hinduism analogy. Hinduism springs from a common source, and has a long and shared history. “Pagans” can’t even agree on our history, as is clear with the surprisingly prevelance of Gimbutas reading neophytes screaming about an ancient Goddess worshiping Europe and similar nonsense. Let alone that our modern history is full of some of the bad blood you allude to (I’ll admit I’m guilty of some harshness towards Wiccans, I rarely receive harshness back. Such is the power of even the small modicum of privilege Wiccans hold over other traditions within the umbrella, we can be ignored the same way Christians can ignore Wiccans). We don’t share a common source. If not for the new-age “neo-pagan” designations, there would be no reason to connect Wicca and reconstructionist traditions. We don’t share the circumstances ,or geographical continuity, Hinduism has. Nor do we have the safe space as a majority to innovate in that way.

    The group is simply too large. Eclectic pagans are too distinct from magick-oriented practices from Wicca from reconstructionist paths. The theologies and underlying assumptions are completely different. This ship can only sink. I just hope that what follows it is better for everyone involved.


    • Hi Gearoid, thanks for your comment.

      I think you are confusing monism and monotheism. Monism is the assumption of an underlying divine energy. Monotheism is the assumption that that energy has a personality.

      I personally do not ever talk about “the God” and “the Goddess”. Sure, lots of Wiccans do, and I am not claiming that they are polytheists. As I am sure you are aware, Wicca is not a creedal tradition (though there are some people who seem to want to impose some kind of orthodoxy on it), so I don’t have to conform to a norm.

      I can understand the disgruntlement of other traditions under the Pagan “big tent” at the privilege of Wicca by analogy with being a bisexual in the LGBT “big tent”, where norms coming from the gay community often subsume and erase the identity of bisexuals.


      • I don’t see much distinction between the two in practice. Monism and Monotheist assumptions go hand in hand. Occasionally that is not true, but generally they seem to be connected. The assertion of personality seems to be a modern phenomenon, it’s very similar to pantheism which is also a modern creation. If you know of an ancient example I’d be curious to hear it, the closest I could think of is Ma’at in Egypt, but that is both a Goddess and a concept. That is why I expect the divine energy without personality thing to be a New Age invention.

        How can it be any sort of tradition without any norms?

        Moreover, you have completely ignored that is is impossible for Wiccans not to bastardize ancient holidays. Even if you do not follow these norms, you are not a German or Celtic polytheist, yet your holidays are.


  10. Tell me more about Wicca not being necessarily duotheist. The Alexandrian coven I’m studying with now is, as are most of the BTW-identified books I’ve read (the Farrars, for example).


    • If you ask most Wiccans (especially in the UK), they are polytheist rather than duotheist. The way I do Wicca is polytheist.


      • *nod* I think my Wiccan family of covens has a mix of polytheists, duotheists, and humanists. I wondered if you were going to say Wicca is monist (wrt to the androgynous original deity/creatie force described in key Wiccan prayers that you talked about in that queer spiritualities article).


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