It is not a surprise that as it was being founded, Neopaganism looked to an imagined pastoral and pre-industrial way of life as an inspiration.
Modern Paganism’s inaugural moment in the United States, about 50 years ago in the late 1960s into the mid-1970s, occurred at the same time that the Romantic idealizations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dungeons and Dragons and Renaissance Faires and the newly created fantasy genre and the rosy aspirations of the “back to the land” movement were taking over the aesthetic and emotional landscape of young people: particularly smart, geeky college students of the exact demographic which eventually became the Neopagan base.
After all, so much of the ecological crisis we face can be put down to the damage caused by industry. Why not harken back to a time before it existed?
Especially when you can throw in fairies and elves?
Thus, the standard “Pagan look”—at least in the U.S., but I think it has become international—became that of an idealized Jolly Olde Englande of flowing medieval velvets and loose pants, kilts and leather corsets and peasant shirts and various equipment slung about the waist.
What we think of as “Pagan attire” hasn’t changed all that much since then, though the palette has added quite a bit of piercing and tattoos and wildly colored hair and Gothy and BDSMy and even Steampunky qualities to the original Renfaire aesthetic.
These clothes—many of them, anyway—feel delicious to wear and touch, make you feel pretty and…noble, somehow. Regal.
I mean…look at these beautiful people:
Personally, I love this stuff. I’m a costuming and living history geek, so I will joyfully dive into the fun of Pagan dress-up when a suitable opportunity presents itself. A festival, say, or a convention, or a ritual.
That said, I think that while there are times for us to express ourselves through our clothing and adornment, there are also times for us to strategically present ourselves to the surrounding culture in a manner which will be more apt to achieve our goals.
This raises the much-maligned (in Pagan circles) spectre of respectability politics: a concept which has been criticized as being a surrender of who we are and what we stand for. Critics argue that to present as anything other than exactly who we are, in all our colorful creativity and diversity, all the time, no matter the context, is a betrayal of that diversity.
For some, this may be true. I’m not going to tell you otherwise, if you feel very strongly about looking exactly as you choose to look, all the time. Go ahead, with my full support.
But I think we should acknowledge the fact that each of us isn’t a single person who interacts with everyone in the same way. We don’t interact with our lovers as we do with our mothers or our employers. We show different facets of ourselves depending on context. And we have the power to do that in relation to the powerful and influential, too.
More broadly, let us acknowledge that we cannot disentangle ourselves from the systems that run our culture. Much as we might wish to, we are a part of the societies and economies we occupy (or, as some might say, which occupy us).
And that gives us a responsibility to try to influence them.
So let me suggest some thoughts about ways that—for those of us willing to do so—toning down our difference and meeting the surrounding culture where it lives may help us.
The first is that Pagans desperately need some credibility. Whenever the mainstream press wants to do a story on us—which thus far is pretty much always at Halloween—the same faces are generally featured and the stories tend to be laughing up their sleeves at us.
That frames how most people see us. When I tell people in my professional circles that I’m a Pagan—pretty rare, given how it lands—the response is often amusement, not curiosity. Much less respect.
I would like Pagans to be a part of conversations about how we relate to our world and one another. I would like for our visions, however radical, at least to be in the mix of ideas discussed, instead of living in our little blogosphere bubble.
We cannot transform a society we do not engage. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can.
It’s unfortunate, and speaks to the dreary conformity of our culture, but the price of being taken seriously is that in those contexts, we have to not look like Legolas or Gandalf. We have to look like serious-minded people whose opinions are thoughtful and whose values and practices carry weight.
Now, I’m the first one to grant that this is easy for me to say, as a cis white male. I can shave and get a business haircut and take out my earring and put on a suit and fit right in at a legislator’s office. And I do, when I go lobbying (actually, I leave the earring in, but that’s pretty ho-hum these days).
I think of it as slipping on a disguise and infiltrating the houses of power. I don’t forget who I am. I use my ability to “pass” to get before people who can make important decisions impacting the Earth and our communities.
To my knowledge, I’ve never seen another Pagan at the State Capitol. I wish more of us were there, speaking up for our values.
I don’t lead with my religious identity when I engage decision makers, because I know it will undermine my credibility. Most religious representatives don’t have to do that, and that bothers me. Christians and Jews and even Muslims and Hindus can march right in, announce themselves and their communities, and expect a respectful reception from most listeners.
After 50 years of modern Paganism, I think we should be able to command some respect, too.
It’s a problem to me that we don’t. Because what we have to say as a community about values, about policies, and about the Sacred Earth is critically important at this time.
So I’m going to make a change. When I engage community and political leadership, I’m going to wear my Atheopagan lapel pin. If I’m asked about it, I will briefly describe what it means. If that means that my credibility drops, well, so be it. Maybe people like me have to be the thin edge of the wedge.
We have wise people in this community: people of heart and intellect and compassion and courage. Their voices should be heard by those who make decisions on behalf of all of us.
And we have to start somewhere.