I discriminate with candid fervor. I like labels so much my totem animal must be a label maker. The spices in my cupboard are arranged with tags facing forward, alphabetically. My computer folders are given appropriate and helpful designations. I give my gaming avatars names that would earn a nod of approval from Tolkien, rather than names like Ikillu or Oompriest. Like most people, I have a need to categorize the world around me, to make sense of the many shades of grey, and to orient myself in relation to everything else.
Chair. I can sit on that.
Meat. Beef. I won’t eat that.
Wine. Red. Dry. I could drink that.
Movie. Romance. Vampire. Sparkles. I won’t watch that.
People. Games. Cards. D20s. Fantasy. I could play with them.
Person. Blonde. Leggy. Smile. Cute. Smoker. I won’t ask out.
We discriminate all the time. We assess, analyze and judge everything, and everyone, around us. If we’re wise we limit the judgment to how it affects us and not make gross generalizations, but… Bottom line is we spend a lot of brain power putting labels on things. Some things are faster to label than others, as the above example shows. Judging people is usually a complicated task that requires several steps, and that’s just to get a general sense of someone.
That’s a problem we have with the label “pagan” or “Pagan”. It’s only a single word that means different things to different people. I don’t want to engage in the logomachy of who should use what labels in the pagan/Pagan/Neopagan community, but I did want to disclose a little about myself. It’s spring, a time when new growth often leads to new things that need names, and I wanted to explain some of the names I use to describe my religious orientation.
This is a relatively new activity for me, because I don’t have many opportunities to talk about me and religion to others. Most of my friends are atheists. My family is Catholic. The atheists are uninterested in the subject of religion, and the Catholics get a little riled up during discussions. Thus, in the past I have only talked about my own religion in the broadest of terms, since my audience has been uninformed not to know the difference, and disinclined to ask for clarification.
So why start self-labeling? Well, such words help me understand myself better. Words aid us in keeping track of our running autobiographies, recording our own experiences in our minds even if we never bother jotting it down. I was this. I am this. Again, these labels help orient us to everything else, including ourselves. As we transform through life we can monitor what labels we apply to ourselves to check up on our progress, like looking back and reviewing the stepping stones of our life.
Labels help me find others who apply similar labels to themselves, and ultimately identify those people who do not. This is important in forging relationships. Labels also allow me to seek out material I can relate to better. A Google search with certain labels I apply to myself are more likely to take me to Witchvox than to Pope Francis’ Facebook page.
Most importantly, applying labels to my self means I’m in charge of how I want to see myself and have others see me. If I’m vague about myself to others, I’ve left the door wide open for others to (mis)interpret me. 20 years after striking out on my own path and I still get accused by relatives that don’t really know who I am spiritually with gross labels because I don’t know what to call myself. While this summation of where I stand spiritually is fueled by their own agendas to return me to The Fold, it is true that I have been resistant to calling myself by some of the more popularized names. MacMorgan, in her book Wicca 333, discusses the importance of being specific when disclosing one’s religion. To be vague is to be nonsensical; you can’t have a discussion about something, especially religion, if you don’t understand the terms involved. Vague terms lead to a vague understanding. And vague understandings lead to misunderstandings, assumptions and accusations, which can result in trouble.
“Narrowing the field, and narrowing it again, as often as possible, is the only way to speak coherently about one’s religion. It’s not about making boxes and putting people into them, but about not allowing people to put you into the boxes they’ve designed.” (MacMorgan, 2003)
I am spiritual. I differentiate spiritual from religious as a personal need to connect or transcend to something greater than myself; a personal awe or fear of something greater than myself. I am religious because I am spiritual plus I identify with a larger community—the pagan community.
I am a pagan. This is an umbrella term. I am not a Neopagan, because there was no previous religion that identified as Pagan so I don’t see myself as being part of the newer version of that non-existent religion. Knowing that others can define paganism differently, I am pagan because I harbor a sense of wonder for nature/Nature, I utilize magic, and I practice rituals that are oft recognized as being pagan in nature, circular as that sounds.
I am a humanistic pagan. There are four elements I use to define myself as a humanist pagan: meditation (to learn about myself), relationships with mythology (to learn about my past), responsible action (to better my present and future), and naturalism (as a reflection of my view and position in the cosmos).
I am a pantheist. The universe/multiverse is greater than our imagination or knowledge. I am in awe and fear of it. We are all cells of this vast system, and if the cells behave wholesomely, then the system as a whole chugs along. When the cells act against the overall health of the system, cause and effect dictate a response of some kind. I see myself and everything within this system as connected and invested in keeping the system healthy. Including the gods.
I am a polytheist. The gods are part of the multiverse. Perhaps a greater part than myself. (Or perhaps a part of my psyche. The jury is still out on that.) They are distinct, though interconnected, as you and I are distinct and interconnected. And as part of the system they have a natural interest in keeping the system healthy. They can choose to use us as a means of attaining this goal. Really, I’m a detached polytheist. Without truly knowing whether gods are real I maintain respect for them, though I am not a devotee. I am not asked to perform for anyone, and I ask for nothing.
I am solitary. I am uninitiated. I do not worship with others. On a personal level I am independent, though my connections to the greater pagan community remains via blogs and vlogs, forums, reading material, personal correspondence, workshops, etc. Hence, I do not call myself Wiccan, though as a self-taught pagan from the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, my rituals could easily be described as Wiccan-esque in appearance. I see Wicca as a religion of the initiated. Maybe someday I will be Wiccan after the proper steps have been taken, but I can’t simply call myself such now.
I am a… witch? A shaman? That’s complicated. It’s a descriptor I’ve been battling with for years. I see witches and shamans sharing much, as they would with other magical practitioners. Without cultural context these labels can mean several things. I perform magic. I have had experiences with the deceased. I push for protection, prosperity and health, but can expand beyond that when motivated. I work with what I consider spirits, and with elemental forces. I engage in ecstatic ritual to alter my mind. These practices are familiar when describing what a witch/shaman would do, but separate from culture or community I am hesitant to announce myself as such.
Yet, I would call myself by the colloquial term of kitchen witch. I enjoy cooking, both for my health and my happiness. People seem to enjoy my meals and I make a point to shop and prepare the foods I use mindfully. Even magically. I cross-reference herbs I want to include. I’m aware of the colors invested in the presentation. I sometimes even take care to stir the pot deosil.
Finally, I call myself a shapeshifter. Shapes can be anything. Shapes could be things, myself included. I can shift into animal shape when I journey/meditate. I can shape my physical body to resemble someone more confident by keeping my chin up and making eye contact. I can shape others by how I relate to them; if I mirror them I can encourage them to open up to me. I can shape fortune with irrational spells coupled with rational steps; a talisman in my pocket and a vigilant attitude means I’m less likely to get mugged in Los Angeles. I can shape my body/health with irrational chants and rational diets/exercises. I shape my mind when I cast circle, shifting consciousness from mundane life to the sacred space. I can shape how I and others perceive me by shifting how I label myself.
All these labels fall short without the adjoining paragraphs because most of these terms lack concise definitions. And even if they did I could be share this about myself to someone who’s unfamiliar with these words and then proceed into explanations.. I’m learning that regardless of the flaws, I have to start somewhere, mostly just for myself. The power to choose my own boxes gives me a lot of advantages in how I relate to others, and how I relate to my present, past and future selves. Maybe in the future I can call myself something more specific, like Wiccan, but in the interim it’s important that I approach every existing label respectfully rather than as a conqueror.
MacMorgan, K. (2003). Wicca 333: Advanced Topics in Wiccan Belief. (p. 137). Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc.