American Pagan Identity

My first exposure to neo-paganism was when I was about 14, so say about 1969. Fifty years ago. I read Evangeline Walton’s re-telling of the Mabinogion. Of course, I already knew quite a bit of Greco-Roman and Scandinavian mythology, but it wasn’t until I read Walton that I truly understood how the old myths could form the core of a modern religion.

(A word of caution—if you’re not familiar with these books, don’t rush out to read them thinking you’re going to get a special template for modern paganism. It was my reaction that led to my epiphany. It wasn’t anything special that Walton says.)

The Mabinogion led to me becoming interested in Wicca (1971), joining a coven (1977), wandering off to join Stephen McNallen’s Asatrú Free Assembly (1978), and on and on through a cascade of neo-paganisms. (Maybe even as far as buying Shining Lotus Metaphysical Bookstore (2008), although that really had more to do with my husband. I wasn’t ready for retirement.)

But here’s a problem I’ve had almost from the beginning. As an American, how is it right for me to claim an national identity that belongs to another culture? That is, in what way am I Welsh or Swedish or anything else except American?

Think about it. If you’re Welsh, the Welsh myths are part of your national history, as much as part of your ethnic identity. You learn about them in school. The names and places are part of the background of your life. The holy days might even survive as national holidays.

But if you’re American, your national history and probably also your ethnic identity are American. If you know about the pagan religion of your European ancestors it’s probably because you’ve chosen to make a special study.

Over the years I’ve had a chance to pose this question hundreds of times, and always with one of two results. Either it’s ancestry that matters or the only thing that matters is what you feel like doing. That is, one side says you can be a Welsh pagan if you have (any) Welsh ancestry. The other side says you can be a Welsh pagan if that’s what pleases you.

Sounds like the choices are (a) racialism, which perhaps would be just a relatively innocuous nationalism if you happened actually to be Welsh, not just Welsh-American, or (b) cultural appropriation, if you’re not Welsh.

Tom Rowsell at Survive the Jive is thinking along the same lines. He assumes there is no conflict between personal and national identity. He says “The main meaning of paganism is an identity.” (Jive Talk 03: About my life and why I became pagan.) That’s a pithy insight by itself, and shows his command of the subject. A minute or two later he cautions, “Paganism can be a component of your British identity but paganism is ultimately a path to understanding, something a bit more than being British, something a bit bigger.”

R. J. Stewart frequently touches on this point then glides off without real explanation. It’s his idea that the ancestral religion is the individual’s past, and the place of birth is the starting place for the future.

This is an example: “As we shall see in a later chapter, much of UnderWorld experience is influenced by an apparent contact with the Traveller’s ancestors. If these ancestors are from a radically different environment to that of the candidate’s physical birth, a choice is presented. The choice is not a matter of race but one of Paths. To a certain extent, the Ancestors represent the individual and collective past, whereas the point-of-environment holds the present and future within its heart. Ideally, these must be merged as one. (The Underworld Initiation (1990, 1998), 41).

And more directly: “Astrology has always held the indicators of this instruction, for it is the physical land of your birth that indicates the Inner Way which you should follow.” (The Underworld Initiation, 86).

So, these are signs the pagan community in Europe sees the fundamental tie between their cultural heritage and their paganism. But no American response. Until recently. The first glimmer I’ve had that the American neo-pagan community might be maturing is an article I found a few weeks ago. American Folkloric Paganism: Embracing Your American Roots by Kitty Fields (Nov. 23, 2017). I predict this article will become a milestone. Update July 11, 2020: Far from becoming a milestone, the article has been yanked down and seemingly repudiated by the author.

Her advice: “If you are American and practice mostly your ancestors’ form of paganism from old world countries, why not embrace your modern American roots and incorporate American history, folklore, traditions into your practice as-is? Don’t be ashamed to honor American holidays. Don’t be ashamed to learn and use American folklore in your practice. Honor the indigenous peoples by learning their history and beliefs (without stealing/dishonoring their beliefs by using it to your own advantage).”

That’s a step forward, I think.

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