I was in high school when I started to seriously study and practice any form of Paganism. I was solitary except for a few experiments with an equally curious friend. I didn’t meet any other Pagans in person until college. The introductory books did not prepare me for the diversity in our community. I remember an elder looking down his nose at me when I blurted out a socially awkward “Blessed be!” in the local metaphysical store after I heard what he was talking about. (We later had a very positive relationship.) I vividly remember the first time I met a self-proclaimed Vampire. (It was really uncomfortable.)
Although I never experienced witch wars or anything like that, I occasionally butt heads with people in the eclectic group I belonged to in Utica. I came to realize Wicca did not resonate with me, but many people in the group embraced it or its teachings. I realized I was a polytheist, a liberal reconstructionist with a blossoming interest (calling? obsession?) in Irish culture. I no longer embraced the Law of Three or the Rede. Fueled by youthful passion, I wanted to remind everyone, whenever I could, that I didn’t always share their perspectives. While I seldom work a curse, studying Irish (and other Indo-European lore) revealed that it was part of those cultures and not demonized in any way. Indeed, some of the earliest Irish curses are against inhospitable rulers who were not treating their people with dignity.
The moment you admit any of that, the moment you dismiss the Law of Three, the moment you stand in contrast to Wicca (by your ethics, your tools, your methods, etc), lines form. I don’t always mean for that to happen, but it’s been part of my learning curve. It became painfully divisive whenever I shared my concerns of cultural appropriation when we planned eclectic rituals. It was exhausting, but I loved everyone I worked with. They were patient with me, encouraged me to share my own interests, and we always strove to be respectful, even when things became heated. I’m really lucky that my first foray into the Pagan community was like that. It could have been worse. I know many people who refuse to celebrate with others because of really bad experiences.
Now that I’m a little older, I hope that I’m a little wiser. I realize there is strength in our diversity. It forces us to think and not become mired in tradition. It’s good to see things from other perspectives. Although I prefer to work with and learn from fellow Druids, polytheists, and traditional witches, some of the kindest, smartest, and most talented ritualists I know are Wiccan or influenced by those teachings. While I find the sacred in the forests and rivers, I now understand that many find it in city streets. I may be a vegetarian, but I know many who very respectfully hunt or lovingly raise animals, then offer some of the flesh. I may lean towards hard polytheism, but I understand and appreciate that others see all gods as aspects of one spirit.
If you haven’t already, you should read “Undoing the Hard Work of Pagan Pioneers” by Bekah Evie Bel. (Fair warning – it’s a Patheos blog update. They always slow my browser.) The author explores a topic that I and others sometimes think about. How society sees us, and how we see each other, play a role in the novel I’ve been writing. More people are talking about “rewilding” our traditions. Some are calling anew to Aradia. In our fight for rights and recognition in larger society, many worry that we have declawed ourselves in the process. Why is it somehow possible for Western people to accept that cultures in other countries make offerings, revere their ancestors, talk to plants, or dance while their gods ride them? When it happens in other countries, it’s interesting, entertaining, it’s so weird you can’t look away, it’s exotic. When it happens in a Western country, especially in your own backyard, it’s suddenly alarming to many. (Obviously, indigenous people live here, but the dominant culture tends to treat their traditions as exotic, too.) Within our own Pagan community, certain practices will draw ire – you may even be ostracized. Most people regard Paganism as a monoculture. Heck, many people within our own community still view it that way, leading to culture shock and conflict upon encountering different traditions.
I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this… just that I’ve been thinking about these topics. I seem to come back to them every once in awhile as I reflect on my growth. While there are definitely certain practices that must stay in the past based on laws and evolved perceptions of human decency, I think it’s important that individuals within the Pagan community continue to grow in a spirit of mutual respect. We don’t have to agree all the time, but recognizing that not everyone will embrace the same practices or traditions is important to our preservation. It’s important that we continue to learn about each other and come together to celebrate our diversity. When we can do that, we’re better able to brainstorm and ameliorate issues concerning race, gender identity, cultural appropriation, elder care, and others challenging our growth. It’s part of why I’m involved in my local FAE Fest and enthusiastically attend PPD – to promote education so we learn about each other, celebrate our similarities and differences, and support each other.
I’m thankful to our Neo-Pagan elders and all they did to help us get where we are today, but I’m ready for certain stigmas to go away within our own diverse community. The greater misconceptions are more likely to vanish from public opinion when we ourselves stop perpetuating the falsehood that we all believe or practice the same way.