Video Review: Why Are We Afraid to be Pagan?
Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathenry, Heathen worldview, Updates
Wes hal!1 An ally recently posted^4 a video to her YouTube channel entitled Why Are We Afraid to be Pagan? She poses some interesting questions, in an attempt to start a conversation on the matters in the video. Before getting into the video itself, though, let’s talk about the author a little bit.
As a Hellenist, Aliakai bases her spirituality mainly upon the practices and gods of ancient Greece. She runs a discord server called the Xenia Bridge that focuses on pagan allyship. Her server is allied with our Fyrnsidu server, and she’s one of the few pagan YouTubers that hasn’t, in my opinion, become a sellout. Her videos are a great resource. Even as a practitioner of Fyrnsidu, I’ve found her videos helpful. Since Hellenism is also Proto-Indo-European derived, most of the big idea concepts would apply to my praxis (for example, ritual cleanliness), whereas the details (which are generally historically derived) give me ideas on how to implement those concepts.
In her latest video, she explores three different paradigms that are common in modern paganism, and are generally meant to be an aid in developing one’s praxis. However, as Aliakai points out in her video, they tend to do more harm than good, and do more to hold us back than to move forward in our praxis, when too much emphasis is placed on them. These paradigms are that of personal gnosis (UPG, SPG, and VPG), methodology as an identifier (reconstructionist vs eclecticism), and pantheon puritanism (insisting that all one’s gods must be from a single pantheon). Let’s take a look at each of these paradigms individually.
I’m going to let Aliakai handle the definitions here:
For those unfamiliar, UPG, SPG, and VPG tend to have extremely variable and personal definitions, but the one quality they all share in common is they have something to do with divine experience. They are, respectively, acronyms for unverified, shared, and verified personal gnosis. One very common definition places them all as various categories of divine experience, though the wording can make it difficult to tell if the interpretation of the divine experience is the gnosis, which in Greek means knowledge gleaned through a spiritual experience, or if the experience itself is the gnosis, as many communities will claim. Unverified means the experience has yet to have found a parallel in lore for the historical tradition that first came into contact with the the entities involved in the experience, or the collective experiences of the community it is shared in. Shared means other folks in the community where said experience was shared have some variation of that experience, though sometimes it can also mean that many folks in the community came to the same conclusion based on completely different experiences. And verified is probably the simplest, in that some aspect of either the interpretation or the experience can be found in surviving evidence from the culture or tradition most associated with the involved entities.
As Aliakai points here, these terms are pretty vague in spite of their very common usage. I generally take it to mean the knowledge that is derived from personal experiences with divine beings (gnosis, after all, derives from a term for knowledge). But the fact that you either need to assume that you know what the terms mean or ask for clarification when starting a conversation about it is part of the drawbacks of this paradigm. When I first got into Heathenry, I thought it simply meant beliefs that couldn’t be verified by the lore and there are plenty of people who use it with this meaning. There are others who use it for the experiences themselves.
This paradigm was originally useful when it was introduced. It was a way to distinguish between what was historically attested and what was more modern. But it started doing more harm than good when self identified reconstructions started using the terms to judge the validity of ideas. “That UPG is nowhere to be found in the lore, so it’s just a bunch of made up crap. This VPG can be found in the lore, so it’s true. This SPG can’t be found in the lore, but it seems to be pretty common so maybe there’s some validity to it.”
Maybe it’s because I’m in a tradition that has very little lore to begin with, but I don’t think the lore should ever be considered on the level that the world religions hold their holy scriptures to. Paganism is meant to be a living spirituality, so it’s going to evolve and change over time. This is perfectly historical, as we see this happening in all living religions. The lore should be the starting point, not the supreme authority. Even in traditions that teach that their lore is divinely inspired and contains essential truths, it must be kept in mind that they were recorded 1000-2500 years ago. Things change over time, and we humans have definitely changed over that time. Our relationships with the gods are bound to change due to that.
Recon vs Eclecticism
For the first couple years of my Heathenry, I considered myself a Reconstructionist. But I began to notice the same problems that Aliakai points out in these videos. I’m going to be looking at this problem from the angle of one whose main methodology is reconstructionism, since that’s where I come from. I know people who use eclecticism, but I don’t have a whole lot of experience in that department so I can’t really speak on it from that angle.
Let’s define terms first. Reconstructionism is a methodology of starting with what we know about how a specific people in ancient times worshipped their gods, and building upon that to build one’s spirituality. Eclecticism, on the other hand, freely borrows from many different cultures to build their spirituality.
As Aliakai points out in her video, the problem arises when someone’s chosen methodology begins to hold them back. There is only so much we can know about how our ancient predecessors did their spirituality. Our practice will naturally evolve as we grow, and we will naturally grow beyond what the sources can tell us. Someone who is deeply committed to being a reconstructionist will likely resist going beyond this point. And that can be a problem.
In essence, it’s okay to rely mostly on one methodology or the other. What’s not okay is holding yourself back out of fear of leaving that methodology.
There are those who are greatly opposed to people mixing gods of different pantheons together. This viewpoint ignores the fact that this was a common practice in the ancient world. The Romans adopted gods from several different pantheons, including the Greeks, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians.
Even the Heathens of ancient times did so. Ignoring the fact that some scholars speculate that the vanir were originally the gods of the pre-Indo-European peoples that the Germanics displaced2, we have more concrete examples. A really good example is Hercules. We have evidence of Germanic tribes along the Rhine adopting Hercules under the name Hercules-Magusanus3. It could be argued that the Old English name for Hercules (Ercol) shows enough corruption from the Latin to show frequent enough usage to suggest that Hercules may have been worshipped by the Anglo-Saxon Heathens of ancient times.
The fact that Saturday in Old English maintains Saturn’s name rather than taking the name of an Anglo-Saxon deity such as Ingui might indicate that the Anglo-Saxons worshipped Saturn. The Old English work(s) Solomon and Saturn might have been trying to pit the new god (championed by Solomon) against one of the old Anglo-Saxon gods.
So pantheon puritanism was not historical, but how can it be a problem? The biggest problem is that people who practice it often use it as a litmus test against other pagans. They usually not only discourage it but often also denounce it. “He’s not a true Heathen because he worships Hercules!” is something I’ve heard about a friend of mine who has syncretized Hercules into his practice.
Another danger can be the same as with the other two subjects this video talks about: it can hold the worshipper back. What if a deity approached them that could be extremely helpful to them, but they reject that god on no other grounds but that he is from the wrong people’s pantheon? Granted, consent is fundamental in any relationship. But if a deity is compatible with you in every other aspect except he’s the wrong nationality, that can cause you to miss out on so much.
This video really caused me to think. Mainly because the kind of pagan that Aliakai is discussing in this video used to be me. By the grace of the gods and the guidance of my ancestors, I seem to have fallen into a group of friends and allies that caused me to grow beyond these paradigms because they really were holding me back.
What were your thoughts on the video? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, but more importantly you should share those thoughts with others in your pagan communities. Whether your agree or not on every point, I think this is a conversation worth having.
Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩ ↩2
I prefer Alaric Hall’s theory that the Vanir were originally the elves. With the more natural aspects that one seems to get from both the Vanir gods in the lore and the elves in folklore, it makes much more sense to me. ↩
According to Rudolf Simek and Lauren Toorians, dedications to Hercules-Magusanus is found in not only lower Germania but also even in Britain. ↩