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What Does it Mean to be Pagan in America?

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

Rewilding a Colonized Mind


Origins


At a young age, my uncle died tragically and unexpectedly. Shortly after, I remember the priest at my school took me out of class to talk in his office. Perhaps I had been showing signs of grief, or perhaps he only meant to give his condolences, but what I remember most is sobbing before returning to class. I began questioning what kind of god could allow such cruelty to exist.


Of course, no explanation could answer that for me; although, by an odd coincidence, my uncle had given me a book as a gift before his death that showed me a completely different view of everything. I think it was called The Big Book of Questions and Answers, and for me it was so much more inspiring than the Bible.


For a while, modern science helped me understand that people die, diseases exist, and that history and human evolution are vastly more interesting than the stories of Genesis. Something was missing though. It appeared that many scientists behave like religious figures with their own set of dogma as well. My language arts teacher at the time recommended a collection of works by Edgar Allan Poe, which for some reason had a place in the Christian school library, and that began to open up my entire worldview.


So I turned to the darkness, until the blue light of the Internet led me down another path. Websites like Wikipedia and books like Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and other Pagans in America expanded my education outside of school and helped me develop my own personal mythos, introducing me to ideas about witchcraft and Paganism I had never learned from my family or especially from my Christian school.



Drawing Down the Moon. Margot Adler.  2006 Revision. Penguin Books.
Drawing Down the Moon. Margot Adler. 2006 Revision. Penguin Books.

Over the years I have come to realize that Pagan perspectives rest nearly unseen on the surface of mainstream American society. I had grown up around spirits and magick in popular media; one of my earliest childhood memories is watching the Disney animated film Hercules. Even the school that ushered me and the other students to church services multiple times every week made the decision to include Pagan mythology in our education, and so did my public high school in Florida.


Looking back it becomes crystal clear why I embraced Paganism as a religion, a philosophy, and a way of life. Instead of wondering if my uncle would burn in Hell or rest in Paradise—or if he would decompose into the soil and fade into memory—in death I saw his enduring presence in my life and his newfound place among the ancestors in the tangled forest of our family trees. At times I have wandered off trail, but I have kept on this path ever since.

Growing up in the South, I never questioned the presence of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology in my studies because it felt more familiar to me than the Bible. In this way, Paganism can be a slippery slope towards ethnocentrism by rejecting perceived foreign influences and constructing a worldview based on genealogy. Nazis have appropriated and grossly distorted Pagan symbols, most notably with their use of the swastika, attempting to justify a horrendous ideology.


More recently in the United States, millions of people saw the Hammer of Thor, the Tree of Life, and the Valknut inked on the skin of the self-professed QAnon Shaman as he led throngs of pillaging fascists into the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Although the gentleman in question seems to represent the brawny side of the far right more than the academic, anyone who adopts such iconography to support a racist agenda not only has a misconstrued understanding of history, they also have no right to claim part of this movement or to profane our symbols. By nature, Pagan perspectives embrace multiplicity, diversity, migration, interconnectedness, and resistance to empire.



Court of Neptune Fountain, United States Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Court of Neptune Fountain, United States Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

What even is a Pagan?


Paganism and witchcraft are complicated words with their own distinct but interwoven backgrounds. Ancient Romans referred to folks living in the countryside as paganus; after the empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, it shifted to mean folks who still practice the old ways. With the Roman Empire extending into Europe, Asia, and Africa, this included a diverse range of cultures from the start. Linguists trace the term witchcraft back to medieval English society after the Romans retreated from the island of Britain, in reference to the practices of magick that were then starting to become taboo under Christianity.


In both etymologies, people ascribed these derogatory labels to ostracize members of their community seen as outsiders. Christianization of Indigenous people was a defining aspect of the medieval era, and this continued with European colonization of the Americas. Christianity assimilated the ideologies of its converts, but often violently persecuted those who still held on to the old ways. Indigenous folk religions and magick remain controversial and dangerous in many parts of the world, but practitioners in the so-called United States no longer face the same risks they did in the Salem Witch Trials.


Over the last century, these terms have further evolved as people reclaimed different traditions. Pagans distinguish themselves by embracing any combination of polytheism, pantheism, and/or animism. Polytheists believe in many gods who govern everything imaginable. Pantheists believe that everything is god, and that the entire universe is a divine entity. Animists believe that everything has a spirit, which may or may not be a deity or divine.


Veneration of nature lies at the foundation of Pagan thought and practice around the world, with the definitions of nature as varied as the number of people. Hinduism, Shinto, Vodun, and folk religions on every continent align with Pagan perspectives, whether or not they fall under its broad umbrella. Adler wrote about similarities to Native American religions in her book, especially in terms of their diversity and traumas. Navajo author Lou Cornum wrote a relevant review of the 2015 film The VVitch, in which they call out the growing numbers of white folks interested in Native American spirituality behind a Pagan veneer.



Book of Invasions


Even though Romans never crossed the Atlantic Ocean (at least not enough to leave evidence), the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English eventually did, and the US government celebrates this history of invading and occupying the land from sea to shining sea. Norse settlers in Greenland and Iceland had made expeditions west around a thousand years ago, trading with Indigenous communities along the eastern coast of Canada and into what is now called the Saint Lawrence River—and likely even beyond that.


For about five hundred years these societies interacted, but their relationship is now mostly forgotten. Shortly before the departure of Christopher Columbus from Spain, a country which had just undergone a Reconquista from Islamic rule, the Catholic Church lost contact with their last outpost on the west coast of Greenland. Around the same time, the Arctic-dwelling Thule people arrived in the region. All of this creates further complexity in looking at what it means to be Pagan in America today.



Skálholt Map. Sigurd Stéfansson, 1570.  Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Denmark.
Skálholt Map. Sigurd Stéfansson, 1570. Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Denmark.


According to Lebor Gabála Érenn, also known as the Book of Invasions, the island of Ireland underwent six invasions by the time the text was written down in the 11th century. Despite being not at all historically accurate, and corrupted by Christian parables, this work provides a glimpse at how Irish people understood the concept of Indigeneity before their own colonization by England. As the ancestors of Indo-European farmers who likely migrated from western Asia at some point, the Gaels are not exactly the first humans to live there.


Long before them, the Neanderthal people also inhabited what is now Europe and western Asia. Archaeological evidence reveals shifting narratives, like any scientific endeavor; so much uncertainty remains about how people migrated inside and out of Africa, and especially about how people came to Turtle Island. While anthropological research might reveal some some truths about humanity, the quest to discover the first peoples anywhere only reveals deeper mystery and multiplicity.


As a descendent of Welsh, Irish, and French immigrants, I initially became drawn to ancient Celtic traditions. Nobody in my immediate family retains connections with relatives across the Atlantic Ocean, likely because our ancestors left under harsh circumstances centuries ago. Visiting my grandparents in Jacksonville, or my extended family in New Orleans, all I knew about were my Southern roots. Europe was a distant, almost imaginary place. Back home in Loxahatchee, the swamps around my childhood home cried out to me. Florida became my homeland, with its own magick and mystery.


For those who identify as Pagan in America, there might be shared perspectives around the world with Indigenous communities; however, the dynamic between colonizers and colonized people, as well as enslaved people and refugees, presents another dimension. For the last five centuries, Turtle Island has become mired in religious, political, economic, and environmental turmoil. American Pagans must recognize that we live within an empire at war against nature and its inhabitants, not unlike some of our ancestors who lived under occupation by Rome and others.



Nacoochee Mound, Georgia.
Nacoochee Mound, Georgia.

American Pagans


Paganism and witchcraft continue to gain more interest in America and elsewhere for a multitude of reasons, yet their presence here predates national boundaries. European invaders often referred to Native Americans as Pagans, savages, and heathens because their worldviews reminded them of their own internal struggles against the wilderness back in the Old World. Native American cultures are still diverse and complex, with religious beliefs evolving over time with the land and the course of history.


Even though many European colonizers came to America with Christ on their minds, evidence suggests that many others also brought the old ways with them. After all, the first permanent English colonies in America were founded during the reign of the witch-hunting King James. Cities like Salem and New Orleans preserve their reputations for having long-standing occult traditions, but in the last few decades Paganism and witchcraft have become a visible part of mainstream society around the country.


American history presents conflicting narratives of immigrants escaping religious persecution in Britain, only to hang their neighbors and weaponize disease against those already living here. In the events of the Salem Witch Trials, the accusations initially focused around an enslaved Indigenous woman named Tituba, who threatened their sense of social purity. This exemplifies how Paganism and witchcraft lay at the crossroads of race, gender, class, religion, and nationality.



The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, Massachusetts.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, Massachusetts.

As a result of the Atlantic slave trade, different people taken from West Africa formed spiritual combinations between their existing beliefs and Christianity. African diasporic religions like Hoodoo, Voodoo, and Santería, along with Appalachian folk magick and other regional traditions, show the power of syncretism and how to live in harmony with the landscape while respecting the wisdom of those who came before.


Many people in America who look into their own ancestry would find a mixed background. Archaeology and genealogy prove that racial purity is a fictional construct. Myths have more basis in reality than white supremacy. Paganism and witchcraft are open to everyone regardless of their background. Recognizing the history of colonization and ethnic cleansing, all Pagans and witches must acknowledge and stand with Indigenous, Black, and Asian relatives.


America was never a Christian country, and it was never meant to be a Christian country. Perhaps it should not even be a country at all, but that is another conversation. What drew me to Paganism was a more holistic, inclusive, and empowering perspective, and witchcraft provides the tools to manifest a better world.



Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Witchcraft is not a trend. Pagan worldviews are the past, present, and future. So many talented folks continue redefining what it means to be Pagan in America and around the world, and no single path is the right way. As people who worship nature, the environmental crisis presents a transformational journey into the unknown. Political figures invoke the witch hunts so they can play the victim instead of the Inquisitor, often to uphold patriarchial society. Living among many of the powers responsible for this catastrophe, Pagans and witches in America must speak out and act in solidarity with divine allies.


There are many answers to the question of what it means to be Pagan in America, at least one for every person who sees themselves as part of this community.


I've barely scratched the surface in this little essay. Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comment section. If you want to read more posts like this in the future, sign up for my email list below.



Merry Meet!




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