Column: Convention Season and a Question of Pagan Identity

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befunky-design2As winter gives way to spring, we are in the midst of, what I term, “awards season” for Pagans, in other words convention season. Every year, the number of Pagans who attend Pantheacon, Paganicon, ConVocationSacred Space or others rises. We go to meet, to see, to be seen, and to discover. We step outside our comfort zone. We observe and participate in rituals that we might not otherwise experience, hear opinions during discussions that reinforce our own core beliefs, and even, if we so dare, discover what repels us. For the curious, this annual convention season is one-stop shopping for the many varieties of Pagan thought and practice.

conferencesFor some people, convention season is the opportunity to be as religiously-oriented as desired. For others, it is just a social event with those people we only get to see once a year or every two years. For still others, it’s both. If we are publishing in the community, we can interact with readers and fellow writers who might like to continue a discussion, which mentally began on the page, over a meal, coffee, or in the hallway. Like an awards show, the Pagan convention circuit also showcases current celebrities, honors those who are no longer among the living, and highlights the relevant political issues of the day.

These events also allow some people, who perhaps are not quite ready to identify as “Pagan” or associate with a particular  tradition, to see how others choose to present themselves publicly.

But what exactly is a “Pagan” identity? What does it mean to self-identify as Pagan? This might seem to be a straightforward question, but I find lately during these uncertain times that meaning has become a bit murky. Is being Pagan a strictly social identity, dependent upon one’s immediate and present choice of community, family members, and friends in social situations? Or, does being Pagan mean that you live a certain lifestyle 24/7?  Are you Pagan if you only come out during “awards” season when it is cold or during the summer’s festival season in your area?

The decision behind one’s choice to identify as “Witch” or “polytheist” or “Heathen” or any of the various methods of publicly aligning with the Pagan community is complicated for one reason: our name implies meaning.

Recently, I have been listening to conversations in which the Pagan identity of an individual or of a group was defined by what someone would or would not do. For example, if you are defined as being “rainbows and light,” does this mean that you will not do any spell work that might harm someone? If you are a Pagan who has no qualms regarding using spells to improve your life, does this only extend to defense and protection, or does this include going on the offensive in order get what you want, when you want it, and how you want it?

Ethically, does identifying as a certain type of Pagan mean you will use spell work only for the protection of your immediate family and no one else? Or does it mean that others, such as your religious family, your closest neighbors, your friends, or your larger community are included automatically? Where do you draw the line as a Pagan? How is your identity reflected in the rest of your life?

This is a subtle and often unspoken, but very real part of being Pagan. When I first came into the craft, one question I was asked by my various trainers was whether I was Pagan by Nature or Pagan by Choice? At the time, I did not fully understand the question. Weren’t they both the same? Didn’t the individual make the choice to embrace the community and to join with free will or by their nature? Whether someone embraces the full earth-based religious aspects, the ethics found in any one particular community, or the social ties formed among Pagans, we have until very recently been strictly a community of converts. To convert implies a choice of leaving one’s religious or social origins for a different path.

[Pixabay / Public Domain]

[Pixabay / Public Domain]

However, after a few years, I began to see the potential deeper meanings in the original question about nature and choice. There are Pagans who have known from childhood that the religion or social community in which they were raised was not for them. They might have embraced no God at all, or an impression of God in the plural, or God in a feminine form, or something else that they just could not put into words. When they found Paganism, they found a home and a level of comfort. For them, it was not really a choice: it was the only option to stay sane or to live fully as a person. It was as though finding some aspect of Paganism was actually a means of understanding the self.  In that way, Paganism is not a choice, but an internal reality. This is Pagan by Nature.

On the hand, living in a land where Paganism flourishes, such as in the Twin Cities, makes it easy to choose Paganism. In other words, you can choose when and where to don a Pagan identity. In the Twin Cities, for example, there are several metaphysical bookstores, or the gatekeepers of information about the community. There is a major convention, Paganicon, that welcomes all in mid-March. There is also a large Pagan Pride six months later in September, held in a space where the purpose is to be “out” to celebrate who we are as a community in one of the most popular parks in the area.

It is easy to choose to be Pagan when you are in an area where many welcome religious diversity, talk openly about metaphysical subjects, and rarely blink at the sight of someone who wears Pagan religious jewelry. Then, you can set that identity aside or leave it behind in other settings. This is Pagan by Choice.

Unfortunately, not all parts of the country are the same. Pagan by Nature in some locations is very difficult. Think of how often on Facebook or other sites that you read about vandalism, discrimination, or violence by those who dislike or hate others  who are not a part of the cultural or religious majority. Pagan by Nature folks stand out as those who are visibly “different” in attitude, dress, manner, or calling. If you own a store and you are Pagan, there is always a risk that someone will attempt to destroy what you have built as a businessperson just because you represent what is not clearly understood. If you are visibly LGBT*, non-white, or with some type of impairment on any level (physical or mental), then you are even more at risk; therefore, you are more of a target.

In short, in some places, it costs to be Pagan by Nature, and it is safer to be Pagan by Choice. With that said, there are spaces in Minnesota where Pagan by Nature is also hidden for good reason. Despite the perception of openness, discrimination knows no barrier or no list of who “not” to attack. Pagans, even politically conservative Pagans, may live in areas where beige means not having your house robbed or having your person attacked.

Even for Pagans by Nature, choices are made regarding how “out” to be at work, with the neighbors, or at social events held in more conservative areas.

Other areas and events are known to be more accepting of all, and the more outrageous the dress or behavior, the better. Conveniently located in certain parts of a city or a business area, the unspoken rule is that Pagans are welcome to spend money and to support certain causes because that fits a sense of “identity”. When the event or the cause is over, or outside of these areas, the risk to being a Pagan by Nature rises.

We don’t speak much about Pagan by Nature versus Pagan by Choice when it comes to self-identification, and perhaps we should – if only to ourselves. Some time ago, I read a blog post by Diana Rajchel in which she mentioned the difference between the types of Pagans in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota and the types of Pagans found on the West Coast, specifically, the Bay Area. As a Midwestern transplant from the East Coast, I found myself agreeing with the characterization that the weather, namely our sometimes harsh winters, permitted a breathing space for Pagans to consider and re-consider choices made.

Experiencing minus twenty degree Fahrenheit temperatures over a period of time, even for just a few days each winter, changes how one approaches the Pagan path. Although there are individuals and groups that love outdoor ritual year-round, regardless of the weather, most winter rituals are indoors. We’re just practical that way. This is one of the reasons why Paganicon has grown. March is a brutal month for weather in Minnesota. We could have a blizzard just as soon as we have pleasant sunny days in the 30s or 40s.

When I moved here, I quickly learned not to put my boots away until at least April, and I have seen snow in May. It makes ritual planning a challenge, since the desire is chiefly to be outdoors in nature and to worship the Gods freely in that environment. Doing so while freezing or worse is not exactly helpful.

Human step on frosted ground

[Public Domain]

So the question of Pagan by Nature versus Pagan by Choice as a reflection of Pagan identity matters. If the only time someone is a part of the Pagan community is when that individual can do so anonymously, or without consequence, does that make the person just a Pagan by Choice? For those who publicly proclaim their social standing, their friends, their favorite causes, their views on spell casting, and their opinions on what Pagans should be doing, are they more right than those who say nothing? Are the former Pagan by Choice and the latter Pagan by Nature?

Or is this designation as slippery as the discussion about when it is okay to banish versus to curse or hex someone?

Adding to this discussion, there are those who will not ever see themselves under the title “Pagan,” but who will live a type of lifestyle that embraces things like loving and protecting the Earth through recycling, through composting, through worshiping the Gods in private before a household shrine or altar or in the woods just beyond the backyard. There are those who may show up to a convention or a festival, enjoy everything, yet if you saw them on the street, they would remain invisible as Pagans.

I have seen others who will wear every pentacle, Thor’s Hammer, ankh, or other religious item possible during a certain period of time before returning to a larger, non-Pagan, community. Were they Pagan by Choice until it was no longer convenient? Do they remain Pagan in secret, and are then Pagan by Nature and just not comfortable with the larger mainstream community?

These are not simple, nor comfortable questions. Issues of identity, especially within a community formed in part by public self-identification, rarely are convenient and easy. Do we wear the label “Pagan” to include not just who we worship and how we worship, but who is permitted into our lives as friends, lovers, co-workers, employers, neighbors, and causes? Or do we bifurcate: are we self-identified Pagans during a certain period of the year or of our lives, and a part of the larger non-Pagan society the rest of the time?

As we attend conventions and festivals throughout the year, we proclaim publicly what we know of ourselves as Pagan. Do we maintain that sense of community, ethics, and value choices when we leave these events? Or do we make the choice as to when to identify as Pagan or when not?

I truly believe that the answers to these questions are on a spectrum and shift at various times in our lives. We are a community because “Pagan Identity”spans the gamut from those who choose to unfriend others whose public statements and ethics do not align with formerly mutual Pagan values to those who are closeted, solitary, and only present at the occasional Pride festival or outdoor public ritual in the park. It is up to the individual to search for themselves and to find the “X” on the spectrum that fits.

What I do know is that our “awards season,” is a chance to experience, to embrace, and to extend our individual definitions of what it means to be Pagan and how we define ourselves. The convention is a time of renewal in the arms of the Gods and those who are like us – on some level. We share, we grow, we cry, we learn, and we love. It’s a reminder that to be Pagan is to be human and to be on the journey.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.