Paganism

What We Label Ourselves

In writing this blog, I’ve necessarily had to label my posts. These labels (called “tags” in blogging) help search engines to pick up on key themes in my posts that, in turn, help readers to find my blog. I’ve had to wrestle with which words best describe my content, what categories people may search for that are relevant to my blog, and what the nuances are between religious terms that individuals may define very differently. It is an interesting microcosm for something we all have to do in our daily lives: label ourselves.

What Is A Label?

For the purposes of this post, I define a label as “a word or phrase that describes key attributes about a person.” Labels serve many purposes – chief among them is the act of classification. If you have a background in science, you know that classification is vital to understanding the world around us. This is a plant and that is an animal. This plant is a grass and that plant is a tree. This tree is a red maple and that tree is a white oak. And so on…

Classification, and the labels with which we classify things, forms our basic understanding of the world. This is just as true for language as it is for how we process information. It’s how we know to call a stove a “stove” and a microwave a “microwave.” Though they may serve similar functions, they are categorically different, and you would definitely get some weird looks if you put a pot to boil on the “microwave” or said you were going to “stove” your leftovers. Labels are an important part of how we navigate the world.

And yet…

Labels can also be detrimental. The labels we assign to others or others assign to us can have devastating consequences. Most of this harm comes from the value judgement we place on each label. Alone, labels are just a form of classification. Labels with value judgements result in prejudice, misinformation, and hatred. And, as much as we like to think we are open-minded spiritual beings, a certain amount of value judgement is inescapable. The best we can do is learn to recognize it, and consciously know that it is influencing our thinking and decision-making.

If you’re like me, perhaps you grew up with a certain distaste for labels. Maybe you were called an unkind name in school, were grouped by your peers with people you’d rather not associate, or felt too confined by a label that didn’t accurately describe your essence. Maybe you experienced prejudice from a label and the value judgement the others around you made about it. Maybe you’ve endured discrimination because of a self-proclaimed label – one which you were proud of, but the value judgements of others ranked you as “undeserving of respect.” These are all very real experiences, and show us the harm that labeling (and subsequent value judgements) by others can bring.

However, I believe that there are some very good motivations for labelling yourself (without any attached value judgements). Labelling yourself serves two main purposes: 1) It allows you to solidify your personal and spiritual identity, and 2) It allows you to communicate this identity to others. Labelling ourselves helps us to know ourselves better, and to find a community of similar people with which to share our experiences.

I am a Pagan

I started calling myself a Pagan around age eleven or twelve. Ever since I learned that there was a group of people who believed that nature was sacred, and it was a real religion, I wanted to be one. I knew I was Pagan in my soul, and once I discovered Paganism, there was no turning back. It felt wonderfully new and old all at the same time.

These days, I identify as Pagan as my main religious/spiritual descriptor – Partly because my particular flavor of Paganism doesn’t have any other nice short words to describe it, but mostly because it is the widest term for a spiritual community with which I have a deep connection. There are so many different aspects of Paganism that we could talk about (I particularly like John Beckett’s Four Centers within the Big Tent of Paganism), but when I say Pagan, I most generally mean:

Pagan – Someone who has a nature-based spirituality

I am a Witch

I’ve identified myself as a witch (with varying degrees of seriousness) since I first learned about witches and magick. A witch was my go-to Halloween costume for most of my childhood, and once I hit puberty and started to discover what “witch” means in a Pagan context, I embraced the label even more.

My interpretation of the essence of a witch has evolved over time. Obviously, my six-year-old conception of a witch was completely different than my current idea of witchhood.  There’s so much to being a witch, but if I had to distill it to one sentence, I would define it thus:

Witch – Someone who works magick with intention and in harmony with nature and the elements

I am a Polytheist

I adopted this label a bit more recently – perhaps late 2016/early 2017. I knew I believed in feminine and masculine aspects of Deity, but my belief of distinct Goddesses and Gods came from my direct experience with them around that time. I lean towards the harder end of polytheism. (I’m sure there’s a sex joke in there somewhere…) I formerly ascribed to the “diamond” philosophy of soft polytheism: that all Goddesses are facets of one Goddess and all Gods are facets of one God. Direct experience with different deities revealed that no, they are not all the same.

Right now, I think I’m more in the “star cluster” philosophy: that there are certain essences of Divinity that expressed themselves differently and by different names across different cultures, but embody the same ideals. Even this, I am a little wishy-washy about. I definitely know that Aphrodite and Cerridwyn are not the same essense of Divinity, but I also know that, while they are similar, Aphrodite and Venus are not the same Goddess. Could they still be the same essence of Divinity, even though they aren’t the same Goddess? I don’t know. I do know that they manifest very differently, and want different things.

Polytheist – Someone who believes in the existence of many Goddesses and Gods

I am Devotional

Devotion to my Goddesses and Gods is a cornerstone of my Paganism. I believe the Divine, and manifestations of the Divine, are worthy of honor, celebration, and worship. My version of worship does not entail debasing myself as unworthy before a superior Divine being. Worship, to me, is the honor and reverence freely given to a Divinity because of your unique relationship with them. I view us as being co-creators with Divinity, and we always retain our own agency (unless you consciously voluntarily surrender it).  

For me, being devotional means expressing honor to my Goddesses and Gods in my daily actions. It’s thinking of them often. It’s making offerings. It’s praying frequently and maintaining an open channel of communication with them. It’s celebrating them every day. It’s all the actions done in love and in loyalty to the Divine. It’s everything that makes my connection to Divinity stronger.

Devotional – Participating in actions done in love to honor, celebrate, and worship a Deity

I am a Priestess

This label made it to the title of my blog. The main reasoning behind this was to put something at the forefront of my blog that would be easily recognizable to serious spiritual seekers of Aphrodite. I have taken a formal oath of service to Her that includes helping others to connect with Her, or on their spiritual path in general.

Being a priestess is something that I take very seriously (though one could argue that I can’t take it too seriously – I do serve a Goddess of Love and Pleasure, after all). I encourage you to read What Does It Mean To Be A Priestess for a full account of how I define priestesshood. The short version is:

Priestess – A woman who has a committed, profound, and reciprocal relationship with a Deity, and who serves that Deity through worship, embodying their virtues, and sharing experiences of that Deity with others

Deciding What to Label Yourself

The process of trying on and identifying yourself with a label is an introspective and exploratory process. It can be a process of trial and error. There may be times in your life where you feel one label fits and other times when it doesn’t. That’s okay. We are constantly evolving beings. While some labels can evolve with us, or develop new meaning to us over time, we can’t expect them all to do so.

We must also be discerning when we choose labels for ourselves. For example, I’m fluent in the Italian language and I’ve lived in Italy, but I would never identify myself as Italian. Why? Because I lack the family heritage that I feel is part of the label’s essence. I will, however, identify myself as an Italian speaker, because through much study and practice, I feel that I have earned that label.

There was a period in my spiritual journey that I wasn’t totally okay with the label “witch” (though I was still very much a witch). I felt like the label carried too much baggage in the popular usage that I didn’t want to bring into my spiritual identity. I didn’t want others placing value judgements on me – getting caught up in the “hocus pocus” part and being unable to see the serious religion that accompanied the magick.

Obviously, my feelings on this have changed, and I identify as a witch today without any hesitation. Part of this was my own taking back of the label and making the decision of “fuck what other people think!” Part of this was also exploring what “witch” meant to me, and evolving my own definition of the label.

Reluctant Labels

We all have parts of our identity that we aren’t as proud of as others. Some of these may come with labels that technically fit us, but that we don’t really want in our lives.

For example: Other than an extreme dislike of cold and an occasional craving for grits, most of the people who encounter me would never guess that I was born and raised in the American South. I have no discernible accent (I actually trained myself out of it when I was young because I had already encountered the stereotype that “Southerners are uneducated” – a label I desperately did not want to be associated with). I don’t like sweet tea. I don’t eat meat. I don’t hunt or fish. I don’t believe in country clubs (even though I took cotillion etiquette classes when I was younger). I don’t believe we fought the Civil War “for state’s rights.” Most importantly, I don’t believe in the racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of prejudice that are so frequently associated with “being a Southerner.”

But I am a Southerner – for all the good and bad that comes with it. That is something that I have to live with. Is it a label I would necessarily chose for myself? Not really. However, the more people that embrace the label that don’t fit the stereotype can evolve the popular meaning of the label and the value judgements associated with it.

I also have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It sucks. It made my life very difficult for a long time. But sharing my own mental health story has helped others to feel okay with sharing theirs. The more people are open about mental health, the less stigma will be attached to it. So, I claim the label OCD. I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I’m not ashamed, either.

The Power of Choosing Your Own Labels

What we decide to call ourselves has immense power. In a spiritual sense, it’s the conscious act of putting yourself out there. Saying “I’m Pagan” has power to it.  Saying “ I am a witch” has power to it. The Divine is listening and the Earth can hear – you may be surprised what comes your way when you make a spiritual declaration of this sort.

Labeling yourself also has social power. It forms a connection between you and others who choose that label. It enables you to more easily find a community. You have an identity, or several parts of an identity, around which to rally, swap stories, celebrate, or worship.
At its essence, labeling yourself requires knowing very intimately who you are. This necessitates a huge amount of introspection and exploration. You’ll never know which identities fit unless you try on several to see how they feel.

It is worth saying that no label can ever completely define who you are. And that’s okay. It shouldn’t stop us from trying to get a close approximation. Knowing deeply and truly who you are is essential to a meaningful spiritual practice. You cannot expect to connect with the Divine unless you are able to connect with yourself. Knowing who you are and standing in your power is a beautiful thing. Have fun exploring!

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