The Difficulty with Pagan Taxonomies

Dividing the Pagan umbrella into different categories is a rather difficult thing to do, and many people have tried before me to do so. I have no intention of reinventing the wheel, and the combined version of Halsted and Beckett’s four pillars of Paganism work incredibly well.

In his Patheos article, “The Three (or more?) ‘Centers of Paganism,’” John Halstead attempted to divide Paganism into three broad categories. In his view, Paganism itself holds at least three – if not more – particular centers that a Pagan may focus on in their practice. The three approaches to Paganism he describes are “Earth-centric,” “Self-centric,” and “Deity-centric.”[1]

When Halstead speaks of Earth-centric Paganism, he denotes the difficulty with referring to religions as Earth-centric as “earth is a cultural construct and means different things to different people.” Instead of trying to define Earth, Halstead instead suggests that Earth-centric Pagans are those who focus primarily on ecological concerns and define their practice by their relationship to the natural environment.[2]

Though he refers to the second approach as “self-centric,” Halstead is careful to point out that he does not mean that Pagans that define themselves this way are inherently selfish but that they focus on the innermost Self that transcends the ego and the individual entirely. He states that “Self-centered Paganism includes Jungian Neopaganism, many forms of Wicca and feminist witchcraft, and more ceremonial or esoteric forms of Paganism.” Halstead suggests that a Pagan who falls into the “Self-centric” approach to Paganism use the practices of Paganism to facilitate their own individual growth.[3]

Halstead’s third category, “Deity-centric,” is one that he adopted from Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone, as he freely admits. He states that “Deity-centered Paganism includes many forms of polytheistic worship, many Reconstructionist or Revivalist forms of Paganism, including those which are closer to Heathenry, an those which borrow techniques from African-diasporic religions.” Halstead explains that those who take a Deity-centered approach to Paganism define their religion by their relationships to the gods.[4]

John Beckett, a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, adopted Halstead’s centered approach in his first book, The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice, although he added a fourth center – community.

However, he approached these centers differently from Halstead, who seemed to draw the three approaches as if they were completely separate from each other. In contrast, Beckett states, “These aren’t rings you’re either inside or outside of – these are poles you’re closer to or farther away from. Some Pagans are so close to one pole (center), they’re hugging them – they don’t care about the other three centers. Others are close to two to three or even all four centers.”[5]

Beckett explains that those who fall more into the community-centric approach are the Pagans who “find the divine within the family and the tribe – however they choose to define those groups.”[6] These are the Pagans whose practice is centered around the communities they live in, rather than being centered on the Earth, self-growth, or deity-relationships. It is important to remember, however, that any Pagan can take all of these approaches or only a few of them.[7]

Each one of those Pillars – Earth-centric, Self-centric, Deity-Centric, and Community-Centric – have their own subcategories. One of the most frequently made errors is when a person attempts to define Paganism as a set of Earth-based religions. While many religions that fall under the Pagan umbrella are Earth-centric, not all of them are, and this is a grievous error to make.

The other grievous error made by many, scholars included, is that Wicca and Neopagan religions are synonymous. In, A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States, H.A. Berger quotes Andras Corban Athern as saying, “Neo-Pagans are just witches who haven’t come out of the broom closet yet.”[8]

Wicca, however, can be seen as an Earth-centric religion, as that is one of the central tenets of many – if not all – of the Wiccan traditions. For Wiccans, “The ‘Pagan’ element is emphasized in the form of worshipping nature and the Earth, with the consequent duty of the individual not to defile it by pollution and excessive usage of natural resources leading to their depletion.”[9] Many forms of Wicca can be seen as Earth-centric religions, so the connection between Wicca and Earth spirituality is an easy one to see.

The second pillar mentioned – Self-centric – applies mostly to Jungian archetypalism, although Halstead insists that some forms of ceremonial magic also belong in this category. The issue with that, however, is that magic is not religion. Religion can contain magical practices – in fact, many do. Magical traditions, however, rarely require the practitioner to follow any particular religious path and are entirely secular in nature. For more information about Jungian archetypalism, consult John Halstead’s blog, The Allergic Pagan, on Patheos.

The third pillar mentioned – Deity centric – is the one that I am most interested in focusing on here. Over the twenty years I’ve been practicing, I have seen a handful of different ways that Deity-centered Pagans related to the gods. These are my own personal demarcations based on years of observing people within the wider Pagan community.

In terms of how people relate to the gods, there are those who view the gods as either individual beings that possess their own agency (hard polytheists) or those who view the gods as all part of one singular overarching entity (soft polytheists). This demarcation can also be referred to as the one between Reconstructionists and Universalists.[10]

Nearly all of the Neopagan Reconstructionist religions hold Hard Polytheistic views. This includes Hellenismos and Heathenry – Greek and Norse – Reconstructionists. It also includes Solntsa Roshcha/Rodnovery, Slavic Reconstructionism.[11]

While Kemeticism – Egyptian Reconstructionism – holds hard polytheist views, it is NOT a Pagan religion, as it does not classify itself that way. The Kemetic Orthodoxy states: “While Kemetic Orthodoxy might be understood as a ‘Pagan’ religion in the context of the Roman Catholic Church, we do not currently classify ourselves as Pagan, as we neither follow the spiritual teachings of the Holy See, nor do our spiritual practices derive from the same sources, or even the general structure, of groups that currently refer to themselves as Pagan or Neo-Pagan. We do recognize ourselves as polytheists…”[12]

Because there are so many Reconstructionist religions in the world today, it is incredibly important to determine whether a religion you assume is Pagan classifies itself as Pagan. I see many people refer to practices such as Voodoo, Lucumi (Santeria), and the African Diasporic religions as Pagan – they are not. Voodoo is not a polytheistic religion either – it is monotheistic – and Lucumi and the other diasporic religions come from unbroken traditions. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of African diasporic religions, and I highly encourage people to do more research into them. I took a class in my undergrad years on Afro-Atlantic Material Culture where we focused almost exclusively on discussing Yoruba, Santeria, and the Orishas, which is where my understanding of those religions originates.[13]

Within Heathenry, which is the main Reconstructionist religion I practice, I have noticed two very different approaches within the community. There are those I consider strict Reconstructionists who require everything to be done exactly as the lore says with no room for interpretation outside of it, and there are those who I consider recon-derived practitioners who use the lore as their foundation but allow room for personal gnosis and innovation.

Those who stick too closely to the lore, who cannot see past it, are those who I fear are stuck too much in the baggage of the monotheistic society of the United States. Abrahamic religions, Christianity included, are all “religions of the book.” Growing up in a society where the main religion is a book-based religion may make it more difficult for some within the Heathen community to allow themselves to move away from the books into a more substantial and rewarding relationship with the living gods.

When it comes to soft polytheism, there are really two versions – the Universalist approach as previously mentioned, and the Duotheistic approach that religions like Wicca use. Wicca holds that there are two main gods – the God and the Goddess – and that all gods exist within the God and all goddesses within the Goddess. Wiccans introduce a gender polarity that is not found in more traditional soft polytheistic (more properly called polymorphism) religions like Hinduism and Kemeticism (ah, but weren’t they hard polytheists? And thus, the confusion continues – some are, some aren’t).

Though I have never seen anyone else speculate on this, it is something that I have reflected on quite often. The United States is a monotheistic society, and Wicca is generally the first Pagan religion that religious seekers stumble upon if they end up pursuing the Pagan paths. Learning how to think like a polytheist is an incredibly challenging task when you are faced with the reality that your society is monotheistic and that has greatly impacted the way you think.

Wicca, to me, seems almost like a bridge across that gap. There are two gods rather than one, which allows a person to adjust to the idea of the divine being many rather than one. Then, once a person can think of there being two gods, they learn to think of a multiplicity of gods. That often – from what I have seen – leads people away from Wicca and to a more structured Reconstructionist religion. That isn’t always true – some people stay Wiccan forever, and some Wiccans adopt a hard polytheistic mindset.

That said, the community Pillar is the last one to discuss, and Beckett clearly stated that what he meant by community was whatever the person who focused on community defined it to be. For some Pagans, that may mean their immediate family. For others, it may mean their particular Pagan group or their friend group. For others, it may mean their online communities.

The reality of Paganism is that it is varied and diverse, and there is no way to cover all the potential subdivisions of each of the four pillars established by Halstead and Beckett. People define themselves using their own labels, which is what makes an attempt to classify people pretty much impossible from the outset. It is, therefore, of vital importance that we learn how people classify themselves and how the practitioners of a religion define that religion. Despite all our best intentions, the attempt to create a Pagan Taxonomy can never be complete – people are too complex to be classified.

Perhaps the real lesson we need to take away from all of this is the understanding that we group people in our own ways through our own experiences, rather than how they would classify themselves. There are people who view themselves as polytheists who I would argue do not fit that definition, but at the end of the day, who is right? Me, as the person attempting to force them away from a label they wish to use, or them, the person who may use the labels they choose as the stepping stones of the path in front of them?

That’s the danger of classification – we risk to lose too much by trying to force definitions on people who know themselves and what they mean by the labels they choose to wear than we can ever hope to gain. It is only in realizing that exercises like this – attempting to classify others – is something we do only for our own benefit, and the labels we choose for others are rarely the labels they would choose to wear.

[1] John Halstead, “The Three (or more?) ‘Centers of Paganism,” The Allergic Pagan, Patheos, May 23, 2012. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2012/05/23/the-three-or-more-centers-of-paganism/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Beckett, The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice, (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2017), 36.

[6] Ibid, 48.

[7] Ibid, 48.

[8] Berger as quoted in Gary F. Jensen and Ashley Thompson,  “Out of the Broom Closet”: The Social Ecology of American Wicca,” Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 47, No 4 (Dec 2008): 755.

[9] Sam Cameron, “Wiccanomics?” Review of Social Economy, Vol. 63, No. 1 (March 2005): 92.

[10] Neokoroi, “Hard vs. Soft Polytheism,” Neokoroi: The Temple Keepers, 2003. http://www.neokoroi.org/religion/articles/hard-vs-soft-polytheism/

[11] Neokoroi, “Hard vs. Soft Polytheism,” Neokoroi: The Temple Keepers, 2003; BBC, “Heathenry,” BBC, 2003. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/subdivisions/heathenry_1.shtml; Solntsa Roschcha, “What is Slavic Reconstructionism?” Solntsa Roschcha, https://solntsaroshcha.wordpress.com/

[12] Kemetic Orthodoxy, “Frequently Asked Questions,” Kemetic Orthodoxy, http://www.kemet.org/faq

[13] I spent many weeks in a classroom learning from Dr. Antonio Bly about these religions, so the only source I have for this information is the voluminous lecture notes I took in his classes.

© Kyaza 2019

One comment

  1. the #1 Itinerary · June 20

    Great post 🙂

    Like

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