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Pagans and Labels

I’ve met many people from several different paths in the short time I’ve called myself Pagan. While some have been from groups of people practicing the same or similar path, most have been eclectic gatherings of Pagans from different beliefs for a meetup or to celebrate a Sabbat. At some point, if I haven’t met them before, we talk about our paths, and our beliefs, and how we got there.

Generally speaking, most Pagans I’ve met seem to have at least a basic knowledge of some of the more common belief systems such as Wicca, Druidry, or Asatru. Even if some of that knowledge is wrong much of it is probably right. We generally get our information from the same sources (again, rightly or wrongly), and this makes getting to know each other a little easier.

The difficulty for me, however, is explaining what I believe and practice. There isn’t a name or a label for it other than Eclectic Pagan, and that doesn’t explain anything at all. Although I know what my beliefs are, when I try to articulate them I find I have a hard time explaining them to others. I’m worried that I sound uninformed, I’ll offend someone, or say something wrong. How can I describe something I’m still working to understand myself, something that evolves as I learn?

Sorita d’Este gives this good advice for new Pagans in her book Towards the Wiccan Circle:

“Many newcomers to the world of modern Paganism are faced with the dilemma of what to call themselves, when they are not yet sure which path they wish to take. It can get extremely confusing when there are now so many different traditions, all offering something slightly different. For this reason our advice to newcomers is to describe themselves as someone who is ‘interested in…’ whichever tradition they are exploring, rather than as practitioners of anything.” [1]

I generally take this advice when meeting new people, and simply state that I’m still new to all of this, but have been drawn to this path and am learning my way around. I end up talking about the Deities I’ve gotten to know what I’m working on. Most people at that point are happy to answer questions I have or point me towards a resource they can share.

Many of those with similar belief systems, such as those that practice more common paths, often share a common base set of beliefs and experiences even if they practice them somewhat differently. There are times I’d like that – to be part of a smaller community of Pagans with whom I can share more of my practices. In time, maybe, as I move along my own path I’ll have it.
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Religion is generally a shared experience. Most of the Pagans I know, however, are solitary practitioners.  In this regard, we can be paradoxical – we enjoy the shared experiences of like-minded folks but embrace and take great pride in our individuality.

The signpost for me is I’m probably making much ado about nothing. Being on too specific a path can feel just as limiting as being on a general or eclectic one. While labels help us identify more easily with one another, maybe the time it takes us to talk about our beliefs is time better spent. Even knowing this I still sometimes try to find a label that suits me, or maybe at times I’m simply looking to squeeze into one.

What do you call yourself to other Pagans? How do you describe your beliefs? Is having a label other than Pagan helpful, or do you find it limiting?

[1] Towards the Wiccan Circle by Sorita d’Este