Some Reflections on Being Second-Gen Pagan/Polytheist

On the Noumenia, I started a journaling project. While I prayed to Apollon for inspiration before I touched nib to page, the core goal of the journaling project has not been religious devotion.

As the ink pours out, I have had a lot of time to think. I can remember vividly the bullying I endured growing up — along with the all-out war between my parents while they stayed together “for the kids” — but it’s taken some time to get that out through the prompts to think about what remains. It’s also given me a tremendous opportunity to reflect on my childhood and the specific circumstances in which I grew up.

Much of the perspective I have within the community comes from me being part of a small, yet growing, number of second-generation pagans and polytheists. By second-generation, I mean that our parents were involved in polytheistic revivals, and they brought us kids along to Circles and events to grow up in the wonderful and confusing world that is everything from Wicca-informed Neopaganism to Hellenic polytheism.

I grew up both Neopagan and UU. I view my conversion to Hellenism at twenty as a continuation and mild disruption in something that started when I commenced worshipping Bastet in fourth grade — I was nine. My family gave up on Christianity and started attending the Unitarian Universalist church across the river a year later. Once we joined that congregation, we started going to Neopagan rituals in Hannibal, MO. By the time I was in my teens, I was actively participating in calling Quarters and doing ritual work in group settings and alone at home. I do just calculate my time in Hellenism as ten years, which is when I adopted the ritual style and started studying Hellenism seriously.

This post is going to get into a lot of issues that I see with being second-generation, or 1.5-generation, or whatever it is that I am — I was baptized Christian, but apostatized at a young age with almost full support of my parents. I have worshipped many gods ever since and technically was eight years in by the time I turned eighteen. (I don’t count when I was nine because I had no adult direction and was basically using picture books about mummies and The Egypt Game to try to figure things out.) One of the most resonant pieces of Gore Vidal’s Julian was the statement in the work that Julian had always been purifying to get rid of the taint of baptism.

Most of the issues boil down to how different it is to grow up within something versus convert to it. Unlike many adult converts, I had to deal with religious bullying in the rural Midwest as a child.

Once my family was outed by our neighbors, religious antagonism in my public school included:

  • Shouts of “Satanist!” in hallways between classes.
  • Attempts at converting me during things like sleepovers.
  • Extended discussions about my eternal damnation among students.
  • Teachers forcing a younger sibling to remove religious jewelry.
  • Biblical history sections in our World History class that were breezed over because our teachers assumed that we’d had all of it in our Sunday school classes.
  • Church-sponsored donations of New Testaments to our classrooms.
  • Threatening calls to my dad’s work phone.

I don’t know what the exact impact of my mother having contacts at the Missouri ACLU was, but beyond the things mentioned above, she actually did have to remind them about that on several occasions. (Note: That list doesn’t include non-religious bullying or the sexual harassment incidents in full view of teachers.)

My mother did once force me to go to Christian Bible Camp (the day version) as a teen because she realized that I didn’t know any Biblical cultural references. She nearly had to pull me out for my poor behavior because I refused to say prayers or sing hymns or do anything but be antagonistic to the teacher in the hopes that I would get kicked out. (Yup. I was a teenager, so it was mostly me being argumentative and noncompliant.) It was a recap for her of what happened in the Unitarian youth education when the ex-Catholic got ahold of the RE program and decided to teach us “our Christian heritage” — where I was worse. If you have ever attempted to get an angry middle schooler to do something le doesn’t want to do, you can fill in the blanks — I knew that nothing I did there would end up on my permanent record. I’m not proud of the behavior, but it is what it is.

One side effect of this environment was what it did to my sisters. My middle sister eventually converted to spiritual Satanism and is now trapped in Christianity, but longing for the Neopagan community — her boyfriend with whom she has a child is Catholic and required that the child be baptized. My youngest sister decided that she wanted to be normal and Methodist (her friends’ church), and so she became an extremely devout Christian who studied the Bible extensively. She’s now a vegan Atheist. My mother sometimes asks me to come to my middle sister’s church, which “is great and very warm,” and is confused that I refuse.

My staunch position on proselytism — that it’s an abuse of human rights in all cases and that organizations swaying the UN so they can do it with impunity are the abusers requesting the right to abuse — is predominantly based on my experience growing up as a member of a religious minority. The religious bias that adults experience is equally intense, but very different. Now that I’m 30, I’ve experienced both.

On the blogosphere, I see polytheists over a decade my senior come to terms with what Christian privilege and bias mean. I’ve had deep experience with this since my childhood. I don’t engage in interfaith dialogue with members of proselytizing, exclusivist religions — it’s a waste of my time. We had a staff member last year who learned I was a polytheist (who was Catholic), and le kept pressing me to meet for coffee to have religious “discussions.” During ler attempts at persuasion, it was clear that le didn’t think of my religion as real. There can be no equality in a conversation when one of the participants believes that if le debates you well, you will see the error of your ways and convert instantly. Without mutual respect, one cannot have a friendship or real religious dialogue. Debate is supposed to be enriching for both parties.

With all that was messy around me, Circle was one of the few places in my childhood where I had a sense of self-agency and self-efficacy. We’d go down to Hannibal, MO, for all of the major Wheel of the Year holidays — and increasingly into my teen years, we’d attend the full moon or new moon Circles. I progressed from fluffier Neopagan religious books to things like Penczak, which seemed more rigorous and my style as I started to differentiate between my wanton youth explorations of the spiritual range of polytheistic NRMs and maturing in the practice within which I’d grown up. I studied hard.

Our community had a lot of good things. There was always drumming after ritual, which I did with enthusiasm in multiple senses of the word. I learned a lot of chants. We started an internal newsletter (that’s still miraculously in my old Yahoo email inbox, I think?) that I contributed to on a semi-regular basis.

We had a grape stomp at Mabon, where our hosts would fill up their reclaimed bathtub with grapes to make the Triple Goddess Wine we used in religious rituals and at the post-ritual potluck. Only women stomped, separated into Maidens, Mothers, and Crones. Men washed our feet before we stomped and massaged them afterward. I still remember the gritty seeds that dug into my soles and the skins that caught between my toes.

Our grapes at home came earlier and earlier due to climate change, and I remember one particular year that they were so early that my mother froze them so they’d be good for the stomp. She took them out a day early and put them in a bucket. They still hadn’t thawed by the time we started the grape stomp. The grapes were so cold that I couldn’t feel my feet. Girls and women gasped (and sometimes screamed) as they stepped in. The massage after that was divine.

The people shifted as I got older. Some went off to jobs in trucking, others to new places, and new pagans came in. There were bigger groups in the cities with initiatory traditions. Most of the kids were younger than me. A woman came into the community who was getting an initiatory certificate and real degrees, and she started doing rituals. The first time she did one for the full group, she didn’t close the Quarters, and one of the extremely pious people I looked up to stayed behind to pray and apologize to the Quarters — discreetly — because it should never have happened.

The person who stayed behind was the man who taught me how to smile during a procession. This happened at Beltane one year. We carried offerings of food and drink to the hole where we erected the maypole. I’ve been in maypole dances since and have always been disappointed with the haphazard and disorganized way others seem to do it. They’ve never had sacrifices.

We started going to an orchard for house get-togethers in my teens, most of which were secular gatherings. There was a night that I remembered only this past weekend while apple-picking and watching the trees droop low with fruit as I hunted for Cortlands: The one who kept the orchard had a wife or unmarried partner who danced professionally and academically, and she had a dance that night for Pomona to bless the orchard. We went through the orchard with drums, bowing low beneath the trees in the semi-darkness. I was worried about spiders in the trees, but we danced for Pomona, drummed, and went back to the house.

I’ve grasped at those experiences because they are the most vivid, and I haven’t had anything like that since. I went to Smith College in part because they had the Association of Smith Pagans (ASP), a ritual group and spiritual community — and I wanted to make sure that there would be a place with others because I didn’t want to be alone in college. The group fell apart due to interpersonal drama among the leadership late sophomore year, and I was left trying to pick up the pieces with those who remained.

There were a lot of solitary practitioners around campus who didn’t join the group because they didn’t want to commit to an organization they couldn’t write on their resumes for fear of job discrimination (or they were busy; probably just busy). Then there were the others — ones who had converted to polytheism or paganism as part of their teenage self-discovery process who had no genuine commitment to it, most of whom would become atheists once they left college and entered the working world. Some had heard of the drama and didn’t want to be involved. Finally, on the matriculation forms, the religious information looked multi-choice, but wasn’t. If someone checked multiple religions — like how I checked UU and Pagan — they’d be assigned to one of the faiths selected. I was assigned to UU despite the fact that there was a Pagan group on campus, but not a UU one, so the decision process was arbitrary and (I think) based on a religion’s respectability. There is no pagan group at Smith now.

Hellenism happened to me halfway through college as a natural progression of how I grew up and the gods I worshipped by the time I entered my late teens, all of whom were Greek. I’ve said before that Sallustius’ On the Gods and the World/Cosmos was the linchpin for me. I still had responsibilities as a leader of ASP who was trying desperately to advocate for paganism and explain to the Neopagan solitaries on campus that the Smith College Chapel would actually subsidize ritual supplies if they joined in because that was the point of the sponsored group. I had a semester abroad when I actually converted to Hellenismos and started studying its ritual language and practices.

At some point while I was in charge of the group, I tried to put together a panel with local pagan leaders for students that failed utterly for a lot of reasons that still embarrass me, and to this day I think that Andras Corban-Arthen thinks that I’m a conceited idiot even though he probably has no reason to remember an awkward and stressed-out twenty-one-year-old. (He wasn’t the only person on the panel. I noticed his body language the most.) I’ll admit that 90% of the awkwardness beyond only 4 people showing up for that panel or some number like that was that I didn’t know of any recons in that area and thus was in the position of (a) moderating and (b) being a recon perspective at the same time and (c) completely aware that I was overstepping because I was so young and (d) waffling through anxiety. This is one of those embarrassing memories that to this day floods my cheeks with shame and makes me want to barricade the door and disappear into the floor.

Organizing that panel in the real world, leading that group that was falling apart after the interpersonal drama, and dealing with the Timothy J. Alexander situation on the Internet made me realize precisely why I was uncomfortable when someone on the blogosphere called me a young leader. I realized in that second that I was in no way qualified to do much more than relate my own experience. Online, I also had to minimize that I had real-world experience because I was aware that being candid about my background would open me up to personal attacks beyond just “you’re a feminist infiltrator destroying Hellenism from the inside.”

Senior year of college was also when I learned about Drum & Dance, paradoxically, and started going. It was exactly what it sounds like — a community event with drumming and dancing, followed by late-night coffee and tea at an occult shop. That experience was amazing and good because I had grown up drumming and really missed it. If I remember correctly, there was also a really amazing prayer shrine in the drumming/dancing space, too. It filled me with regret that I’d only learned about it when I was months away from graduating. Each time I went, I felt both happiness and loss.

I haven’t truly participated in any real-world polytheistic or pagan groups since college beyond attending the Polytheist Leadership Conference and a Hellenic polytheist thing or two in NYC (a few years ago). The Meetup I have made in New Haven is a really big step.

So. I’m going to close with a summary of some of the challenges I see, but other second-gens might disagree about, regarding growing up in the community.

First, we’re assumed to have less experience than we do. One of the things I found profoundly frustrating as a teen in Neopaganism was that all of the 201- and 301-level stuff focused on spells or assumed that I was an adult. It might be different now within Neopaganism, as I’m a Hellenist now and not in that age demographic — but here’s some stuff based on my observations and 20/20 hindsight needs.

There wasn’t advanced content being written that addressed the real problems I had as a teenager — confronting proselytism at school and effectively using apologia; navigating college when you want to be in pagan groups but know that including your hard-earned experience on your resume means it goes in the trash during screenings; being a peer mentor to recent converts; and understanding theogony and polytheistic philosophy.

Those are things that youth in polytheism actually need. If you’re liaising to a college group, actually ask if there are young adults in the group who grew up in paganism or polytheism. Again, I had eight years of experience when I was eighteen and would have needed very different mentorship from someone just starting out. It probably would have made a real difference to have an experienced adult mentor when I was in college. Addressing these issues will increase religious retention dramatically.

Second, many of our peers are converts, not other second-gen — and that doesn’t matter except when it does. It means that the majority of people reading this don’t actually know what it’s like to grow up in polytheism with mostly-supportive parents. Some things I emphasize in my practice are a product of this upbringing. There are also a lot of things about Christianity (beyond my research into Late Antiquity heretical Christianity) that are completely alien to me. It means that I hear the word martyr being glorified in polytheism nowadays, wince, and go, “We don’t have martyrs. We have the restless dead who fuck people up.” Or I think of that song from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The reason for my reaction is that martyrdom comes with the idea that it’s an aspirational achievement for the living. And that’s just one of many examples.

Finally, I have a comment that’s important. Many of us second-gens choose to be involved in our religious communities as leaders. Others of us will be religious, but pursue secular careers, and you might hear less from us. Stop equating having high levels of religious knowledge with being a mystic, religious officiant, or very intense devotee. I have a career that I approach with religious care. I pray to the patrons of my profession, and while I do have some mystical experiences, they’re not the dominant lens through which I live my faith. Equating mysticism or intense devotion with spiritual maturity is wrong-headed, and it’s really alienating. Sometimes spiritual maturity means doing what you’re doing now, only more mindfully. People grow in different directions, not just along a narrow trajectory into mysticism or intense and time-consuming devotional practices.

That’s all I have to say for now. If there are other second-generation pagans/polytheists out there, I’m curious to hear your take on all of this — because our experiences must vary quite a lot — and if you decide to respond elsewhere, please let me know so I can link out to you.

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7 thoughts on “Some Reflections on Being Second-Gen Pagan/Polytheist

  1. As a mother who is raising my child in my religion (hooray, fellow Hellenic polytheist!), THANK YOU ESPECIALLY for the info on what she’ll need to learn / what I need to help teach her.

    Also: I laughed when I read “the Timothy Jay Alexander situation on the internet.” Accurate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for taking so long to approve! I didn’t see a notification. You’re welcome — I had hopes that this would be helpful to people raising second gens, too. ^___^

      And yeah, that was such a situation. I still think about it to this day.

      Like

  2. I am not second gen but I was raised irreligiously, never baptized and my parents never took me to church ever and I have always been grateful that the miasmic filth of baptism hasn’t clung to me since infanthood. I agree with you about interfaith being useless to polytheists. We’re not on equal footing with these imperialist monotheisms who by their nature do not recognize other gods and other ways. I cringe at the word martyr too and am similarly alien with a lot of Christian terms and concepts society expects us to know. I’ve considered myself privileged to not be raised by Christians but the only better way to grow up is being raised into polytheism or paganism from the start. Not only would you be free from the taint of monotheism but you would cultivate an intentional relationship with the gods and spirits earlier and from the unique perspective of childhood.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, it’s not even the idea of martyrs bothering me, it’s more that I find the concept to be pointless. I don’t have a problem with the Bible, I just found it boring and a waste of time.

      My friend finds Tarot pointless because her mom does it. However my parents weren’t into that so maybe that’s why I find it to be cool. A lot of my friends are saved and I’m cool with it, they’re cool with me.

      I don’t believe that Christianity is toxic or bad, it’s just another belief system, like Islam, that doesn’t appeal to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I relate to this article somewhat. I was raised atheist and a lot of the material available in paganism assumes that you have a problem with Christianity or Islam. But some of my close friends adhered to these religions, especially during the tumult of high school and college.

    The fact that my dad doesn’t have a problem with my atheopaganism and Wicca, is completely alien to most witches my age because it’s supposed to be this huge rebellion. I’ve also dealt with my friends dabbling in the craft and then going back to the church.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It must have been pretty cool to grow up like that. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family that is still so except for me. I know they don’t really accept who I am and what I believe now, especially if they knew the extent of it which is sad.

    Like

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