Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Is Paganism a "Nature Religion"?

It may seem odd to even ask the question, but it occurs to me that the answer to the question might not be as obvious and universal as it might seem at first. First, of course, we must define our terms. Paganism, as I've discussed in earlier posts, is a slippery entity indeed to define. Any single definition is inadequate, unless it is then burdened with so many arbitrary special cases to shoehorn in particular groups and paths that it becomes little more than a directory. For purposes of this discussion, I will settle for paraphrase of Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know Paganism when I see it (and so do most of us).

That leaves us with the question of what is a Nature religion (or Earth religion, or any similar turn of phrase). Wikipedia tells us that it "is an academic term used to refer to those religious movements which believe that the natural world is an embodiment of divinity, sacredness or spiritual power."

Other sources generally agree with that definition:
"The term nature religion or the plural nature religions most commonly is used as an umbrella term for religious perceptions and practices that despite substantial diversity are characterized by a reverence for nature and consider nature sacred."(Encyclopedia of Religion, “Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Nature Religions”)
Now, bearing in mind that Paganism, as such, extends well beyond the boundaries of Wicca, it is clear that to many Pagans (and Wiccans) their particular take on Paganism does indeed qualify as a nature religion. They see nature itself as sacred, strive to live in harmony with it, and in many cases see attempts anthropocentrism as being inimical to this relationship.

But is that a defining quality of all Pagans? Does the vast amorphous Pagan kulturgeist contain within it a different way of defining the sacred? Is there a sacrality found within Paganism that is not based entirely on nature?

There is indeed.

Many Pagans (and, I would argue, the majority of Heathens) find sacredness not in "nature" as a whole, but within the interpersonal, family, and tribal structure.

Naturally, this is not necessarily an either-or proposition. It’s perfectly possible to revere the Earth as well as one’s family or tribe. But it is also possible to revere one’s tribe and the Gods that exist in the world without feeling a concomitant feeling of sacredness for "nature" as a whole.

Indeed, this attitude seems to be the norm for the historical pre-Christian Pagan civilizations of Europe and the Middle East. While the mythologies of those peoples do contain what might be called "fertility deities" or "Earth deities", those attributes are very often focused on their impact to human endeavors. Votive tablets implore the Great Mother for help in conceiving a child. Offerings are made to ensure the fecundity of the fields.

This should come as no surprise, as the very concept of Deep Ecology and even species extinction itself was foreign to them; the world and its resources were there, and they saw no reason not to mine its treasures, turn its forests into fields, tame its rivers, and hunt or exterminate those animals which were either needed for survival or were a nuisance to farmers and others. To a pre-industrial society, the world is infinite and so are its treasures.

It is, however, in the central importance of interpersonal relationships that these faiths hold that we see the real alternative to nature religion in a Pagan/Heathen context. Hávamál, the collection of gnomic wisdom from the Poetic Edda, is replete with advice for dealing with others:
Oft, though their hearts lean towards one another,
friends are divided at table;
ever the source of strife 'twill be,
that guest will anger guest.
(Hávamál 32)
I found none so noble or free with his food,
who was not gladdened with a gift,
nor one who gave of his gifts such store
but he loved reward, could he win it.
(Hávamál 39)
Young was I once, I walked alone,
and bewildered seemed in the way;
then I found me another and rich I thought me,
for man is the joy of man.
(Hávamál 47)
There are, of course, many more such examples, but that will suffice to present the idea that the text is concerned mostly with the relations between people, rather than enjoinders to maintain some sort of ecological balance, or tread lightly while taking from the Earth that which men need to live. What we do see over and over again are the sacredness instead of honor and the virtues of warriorship. From the Greeks to the Sumerians to the Celts to the Norse, heroes are extolled who slay their enemies, protect their own folk, and strive to leave an ever-greater mark on the world, both figuratively and literally.

It is here that many contemporary Pagans and Heathens find their sacrality. Those who form modern tribes, and who forge oath-bonds to make those tribes what they are, hold those oaths and those connections sacred in the most deep and profound way possible. Most on the reconstructionist end of the Pagan/Heathen spectrum make offerings to their Gods and Goddesses in return for gain; this is expressed throughout Indo-European culture but has its sharpest definition in the Germanic gift-cycle.

In Heathenry and in more tribalist forms of Pagan reconstructionism, this sacrality is felt in the hall. There is a palpable feeling when a group of people who are bound together by shared oaths into a tribe, come together to worship their Gods and seek Their blessings, that the sacred is here and now. When I hold my daughter in my arms, that is sacred. When I hold high a horn of blessed mead and toast to an ancestors, that is sacred. When I grasp the oath-ring and swear an oath to do something on behalf of my family or my tribe, that is sacred. When I make offerings to the landvættir in thanks for all they have done and continue to do for myself, my family, and my tribe; that is sacred. The bonds between members of a tribe are real in a way that is quite literally inexplicable to those who do not share those bonds, and it is here that the sacral nature of faith can be felt. The sacred bonds between the tribe of the Gods and the tribes of men, and those between the men and women of a tribe, are palpable.

And those relationships between the Gods and men, and between members of a tribe (or kindred, or civitatum, or clann, or whatever) are no less sacred to those who value them than the balance that others feel between themselves and nature. Vastly different in form and function, but intensely sacred nevertheless. So, while I think it’s entirely proper and fair to say that Paganism can be a nature religion, it is certainly not proper to say that it must be so.


  1. I would actually go slightly further with this. Back in "the old days", anything that was not part of the tribe was the enemy, nature included. There's a reason that someone cast out was called a "wolf" after all. If there was no link to establish good will, then there was no expectation of help, but every expectation of hinderence. That's why explorers and settlers to new lands made such a point of getting the wights of that land on their side ASAP.

    The saying "If you're not with us, you're against us" was very true, especially back when all you had to depend on was your tribe. And nature can be one fierce enemy if you don't have anyone to help you.

  2. Love this essay. Have you seen Gus DiZerega's response to this wherein he basically just says you're wrong? Oy vey.