I didn’t start off an eclectic pagan. I started off a Hellene: a reconstructionist of the Greco-Roman religions. I belonged for a time to a reconstructionist group, where I learned a lot and had a good time, until I didn’t.
Then I got into the Cabala, which at least has Greek roots (seriously, I think it does — that’s a matter of another post). And then I got into Chaos Magic. And the reconstructionists did not care for that, because magic wasn’t part of the ancient Greek religion, or rather, wasn’t a valorized part.
But of course that’s not quite true, that little story. Because I didn’t start off as a reconstructionist. I started off as an undifferentiated pagan who prayed to mother earth because that was what I was taught. And then I read on Wicca, and magic, and cobbled stuff together, and had religious experiences that mattered to me. I had visions of gods. Actual, honest to goodness visions. Artemis a hundred feet high, silver bow shining. Eros, dark-eyed force at the center of the universe, turning his infinite gaze on me (and I fell on the floor as if punched). Even earlier, I would read the myths and feel profound — inspiration? — from Dionysus, who overcame the bullies who tried to bind him by the force of his dignity.
In college I decided to become a scholar and started doing research, and got involved in those reconstructionist groups mentioned before and — stopped having visions or feeling inspiration. It started to feel like theater. Interesting, often pleasant theater, but not religion.
I know for a fact this lack of spiritual engagement in reconstruction is not true of everyone, and I don’t mean to claim that this is an invalid path. Lots of people find it more spiritually fulfilling than anything eclectic to as carefully as possible follow the historical sources. I respect that a lot, even if that respect isn’t always returned.
Later, other gods came knocking. First, a couple Egyptian ones — okay, well, there was syncretism between Egyptian and Greek cults in late antiquity. Then Eastern ones. Oh. Well. That’s not historically attested, but I suppose it could work if . . . and then a particular figure from a diaspora religion showed up.
And that’s when I had to face the fact: I had become an eclectic pagan.
So I was determined to do it right. I wasn’t going to disrespect any of these gods by disrespecting the cultures they came from. I wasn’t going to impose my own beliefs on their worship, or try to sacrifice to Ganesha as if he were Hermes with a mask on. I wasn’t going to reduce them to Cabalistic boxes. By the same token, I couldn’t fake a puja, or pretend to an initiation, or wear the necklace of a particular lwa. I could study those cultures and respect them from the outside and hope that the fact that some part of that cultural practice offers me some spiritual nourishment isn’t terribly offensive. But I wasn’t part of those cultures, and I couldn’t pretend.
And that’s the rub: I am not part of the ancient Greek culture, the Roman culture, or even — genetics notwithstanding — the Celtic culture. I’m an American, living in an eclectic postmodern culture that borrows and (yes) steals and mixes and matches. In many ways, I am much like a pagan of the fourth century: I am a cosmopolites: a citizen of the cosmos.