“This solitary work we cannot do alone.”
Those who claim the title of “pagan” use it most often to mean that they believe in and actively relate with a multitude of gods and goddesses, as distinct from one who believes in only one god or perhaps none at all. As with all identities, there are layers of subtleties in each individual who claims it, making each use of the word unique, and the term has some fluidity. It may or may not involve one supreme god above them all. It may or may not include a perspective on animism, where everyday creatures and objects are seen as having a spirit which one can commune with. It may or may not include past lives, afterlives, and other dimensions of experience. In general, however, it means that one believes in many gods.
While the common understanding of the word, as outlined above, is a beautiful expression of one’s psychic relationship with diversity, there is a tandem, even possibly more profound, understanding that can be gleaned from this title. It has been left by the wayside, for it first appears as purely mundane, even as being nothing more than linguistic practicality. But it is a vital side of the word that indicates something deep and pragmatic and that our world is desperately missing. This other meaning is one of the oldest meanings of the word Pagan as well. Simply put, pagan means “of the village” or “a villager.”
Of the Village
It was, at least at times, a derogatory term used to discriminate that one was not of the palace, or the city, or of the main cultural religions, but instead was a resident of the rural areas, where old ways were still followed. As a slur, it indicated that one had not come to an understanding of the one true god and, therefore, was a lesser being for having the wrong spiritual views.
Those who take this term for themselves, of course, are often unaware that they are re-appropriating a slur and transmuting it into an image of pride. Similarly, the term “witch” is an example that sits very close to the word pagan in more ways than just thematic. As a word, it seems to have originated not from those who practiced something called witchcraft and called themselves witches but rather as a slur invented by those who hunted down the wise, who sought to destroy the elder culture. To take on the title “witch” is similar to taking on the title pagan, for they both are attempted transmutations of slurs into a reclaiming of the dignity that was beaten out of our ancestors, driven from our lands, and has left us all mal-raised and treating ourselves and one another quite poorly.
Returning to the Village
In the sense of one who is “of the village,” we can find a profoundly deep indicator of what it means to take on such a word for oneself. The village is the collective of extended relations within which we reside and exchange energy, which is held in the wisdom container of the culture of elders. The culture of elders is the subculture within the village of those who are old in years and soul and rooted in the wisdom of direct experience, as has been passed to them from their ancestors and lived by them through their trials and errors. They tend the paths of initiation for the generations to come after them, bringing each unique being forth into their power and tempering that power into something that serves both the individual and the whole in harmony.
As you may discern, such a village is almost non-existent in our present-day world of speed in spite of connection, dissociation as a means of progress, and adolescent hero worship. The initiating energies that were once tended by wise elders, that were once crafted into being vital bringers of the sacred marriage of maturity and certainty, now run wildly rampant in our psyches and in our relational landscapes. These forces are not human-generated; they are not optional but are simple facts of life. Destroying the elder culture that once saw to their wise usage did not remove the energies from play. It simply left us the victims of the energies rather than their harnessers.
While there is much to be said about the myriad types of initiation containers, the different needs they may fulfill, and the many stages within them, the most missing aspect due to their absence is what occurs at the end of initiation: the return to the village. This is where an initiated is welcomed back as both a new person and the bearer of essential gifts they have wrestled forth from their passage. This is where the village embraces the returning initiate with the profound sentiment of “thank you… we see what you have done for us.” Without this step on the path, our initiations remain incomplete and unintegrated and give rise to a deep feeling within the soul of not having a place or meaningful purpose in life.
The village is the missing piece in so many of our puzzles. The “return” is considered an afterthought within the hero’s journey. Sadly, one does not become an actual hero until they have made the return. Heroic deeds do not make a hero. Becoming a hero to others is where the only hero can be found. In the absence of a fully integrated village to both depart from and return to, the incomplete initiate often feels that they must proclaim themselves a hero instead of finding that validation in the penetrating eyes of those they should be returning to.
A Plague of Spiritual Rockstars
We see this self-inflation in the absence of an integrated village in spiritual practitioners of all walks. The meditator returns from a silent retreat with a sense of specialness for who they now wish to be seen as. The plant medicine journeyer returns from their soul-forge into a disconnected context and seeks aggrandizement for their efforts. In the absence of our village valuing and integrating our soul service, we attempt to be seen as spiritual rockstars (even taking on false humility in a caricature of what we wish we had become), to attempt to draw to ourselves the heartfelt respect we should have gotten from our village. But it does not come, for only the village can give the kind of attention that completes and empowers us into soul embodiment.
And so, where does this leave us? In a crisis, no doubt. An age of soul desperation. We cannot simply return to some old model of the village, for our needs have continued to grow and change as they always will. The old models of the village reflected old needs and so cannot simply be brought back in the forms they once held. But we can look to the past, study the old ways, and, with an eye for the principles at play, begin to discern the elements essential to the deep rooting of our individual and collective soul into the wisdom of Earth. The village reflects the soul embodied by the one and the many and is the skillful and loving container for the dance between them. As we learn to connect again into the soul of the world, we will find each other there, and with deep time and the processes of trials and errors, we can grow forth a living world of such heart that from our current understandings, we can only guess at.