The Limitations of Labels and Pagan Identity Crises

The letter ‘I’ kind of snuck up on me this week.  I’m going to blame the fact that I actually wrote two entries for ‘H’, and not the abundance of other blog prompts I seem to have piled on my plate recently 😉

I mentioned in a previous article that the concept of word ownership is something that really bothers me.  For the most part, I find it a sort of blasphemy.  I believe that the voicing of thought is inherently magical, and those who think that they can own magic like they own their car are just begging for a lightening bolt in the butt.

It may sound superstitious, but if you take a look at the traditions within many Pagan religions, you will find similar beliefs.  Words have power, that’s why they need to be chosen carefully when writing a spell or invocation.  Names also have power, thus the secretiveness of many traditional Wiccan covens with the true names of their god and goddess.

This belief in sacred speech has been twisted by modern society into a concept of word ownership.  You can’t use the term ‘shaman’ unless you follow ‘this specific definition’. You can’t call yourself ‘Wiccan’ unless you fit ‘this random arbitrary definition’ (often decided by those who are not themselves Wiccan).  Facebook has even somehow managed to trademark the word ‘Face’.

White liberal guilt runs rampant within the Pagan community as so many seem to be scrambling to be ‘more politically correct than thou’.  And as everyone is twisting themselves in knots to keep from offending anyone, a vast and gaping hole has sprung up around us.  The hole is where the answer to ‘What is a Pagan?’ should be.

With the vast eclectic population reverting back to the label of ‘Pagan’, the word itself has lost all meaning.  It’s become defined by what it is not rather than by what it is. It’s lost its power.

Wiccan altar
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many would claim that the same will happen to the word ‘Wicca‘ if any Witch is allowed to use it to describe hir path.  Further, there are those who would claim that being Wiccan doesn’t necessarily mean that one is a Witch (which is bs if you ask me).

The label nazis scream at us from their high horses ‘Get your own name! Be creative!’  This is fine if you have or are creating a tradition that you plan on teaching to someone.  But what if your path is meant to be your own?  What if you believe that each must find their own way?  Are you doomed forever to a non-label?  Or do you live with an hour-long description of what you believe and what you do?

Do you think that the mainstream public knows what ‘initiatory mystery tradition’ means?  Do you think that they care?  Your average joe on the street thinks that Wiccan = tree hugging hippie who thinks s/he’s a witch (or angsty goth teenager seeking to freak out hir parents) – assuming that they know that Wicca exists at all.

So then, who are we – we Pagans of varied belief and practise, we herd of cats, we who can never and will never agree on a positive definition of ourselves?  At the end of the day, in front of the altar, it doesn’t really matter.  The gods don’t care if you call yourself Wiccan, hedgewitch, kitchen witch, traditional witch, wicked witch or bubble gum rainbow pony.  They know you without names or labels.

Language evolves, the meanings of words change and evolve as well.  I don’t have an answer to the identity crisis the Pagan community finds itself in.  A big part of me thinks that we are all too different to be united, and that we should give up on defining Pagan.  And yet again and again, we band together as ‘the Other’ for the protection that can only be achieved in numbers.

What I do know is that just as giving voice to a thought has power, so too does keeping silent.  There is power in the unnaming, in the thought that cannot be described in simple words.

I am many things.  I wear many labels.  But, my faith – my spirituality?  I choose for it to be unnamed.

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3 thoughts on “The Limitations of Labels and Pagan Identity Crises”

  1. But the problem is, most of the time, they are not random arbitrary definitions. Maybe, from an outsider (non-Pagan perspective) they are and to an outsider, it doesn’t matter at all. But I think its a big problem when the Pagan community itself can’t agree on the different definitions of the labels that we use. I feel like this causes a great deal of harm to the overall community. When we can’t agree on our identity, we have an issue of strife that tears us apart and just causes argument between us when we should be gathering together as a larger community that supports everyone within it. You’re right, words have power, shouldn’t we then use these terms respectfully?

    1. There is no single Pagan identity. That’s kind of the point. Even among those who use the label ‘Eclectic’ there is no single definition that will cover everyone.

      I’ve thought that the arguments over who gets to call who what is ridiculous for a long time. As I mentioned in the article, those who decide the definitions that exclude most are often not of the tradition/practise/faith they are claiming to protect. I’ve watched the ‘you can’t call yourself [whatever]’ arguments for years. All it serves to do is alienate people. That’s where the harm comes from.

      Words have power because they are a creative force. They bring thought into the material world. Arguments bring strife.

      You can’t offend a word. It’s people who need the respect. If we’re all a little more mindful of the power of our words, then maybe we’ll remember what sorts of things are worth fighting for.

      1. I think there is a definition of Pagan we fall outside of and one that we will wear no matter if we agree or not. Pagan is defined in an English speaking culture as anything which fall outside of the Judeo-Christian worship accepted norms. Now, I think many folks would like to have some other defining things there but the word “Pagan” that’s what it means and some Abrahamic groups put other meanings into it: dirty, less than, wrong, etc.

        The Pagan community takes a great risk in allowing others to define us: we have little control over our own identities.

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