Elemental: Why We Are All Pagan

by Elizabeth Cunningham

“My family is Jewish,” he said.

“My family is Protestant,” she said.

“But we’re pagan,” he continued, “and we want our wedding to have some pagan element.”

“Only we want it to be subtle,” she added. “We don’t want our families to feel uncomfortable.”

That was back in the day when I used to officiate at weddings as an interfaith minister. (For why I no longer do see “Mixed Marriage”)

“That’s simple,” I answered. “We’ll honor the elements.” A feature of most contemporary pagan rituals. “We all have to breathe. We all need light and warmth. We all stand on the earth that feeds and shelters us. We all need water to stay alive, whatever else we believe or don’t believe.”

The word pagan simply means country dweller, though many contemporary neo-pagans are urban dwellers as were many pagans in classical times. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, the designation came to describe anyone who was not a monotheist. Paganism isn’t really an “ism” at all. Pagan practices are specific to a time, place, and culture. Though Isis was at one time worshipped all over the Mediterranean world, and the Rites of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis drew pilgrims from everywhere, no pagan community or practice (to avoid the charged word cult) has ever been hailed as a world religion. Yet all so-called world religions have pagan roots and practices that vary from one region to another. All the world religions have splintered into sometimes violently opposing sects. They also continue to make war against each other, or their more extreme practitioners do.

So who needs religion? you might wonder, as you hum John Lennon’s “Imagine” under your breath. I am not going to answer that question beyond muttering: “Religions! Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.”

Paradoxically in its particularity, attention to the local—this mountain, this river, this cycle of seasons—the pagan approach offers a way to recognize our commonality, not just with our fellow human beings but with all the life on this planet. For most of human existence, religious practice had to do with ensuring that there would be enough food, that resources would be preserved, that the gods (source) in the form of rivers, springs, mountains, soil would be honored and fed, replenished, so that the people would continue to thrive.

Whatever our religious beliefs, we know that we are made of the same elements as this planet. The sea is in our blood, the air is our breath, are bones are crystalline, the sun’s fire (in whatever form) warms us and fuels. Climate change, in which we play a role, has shifted the balance of the elements. Whether or not human agency is clear in every instance, we can’t help but be aware of elemental upheaval: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, the devastating flooding in Pakistan, fires in the Western United States. We have put diverse ecologies at risk as we compulsively drill for what is in effect ancient sunlight. A huge glacier just broke away from Greenland, and the seas are rising.

Instead of regarding the elements as our enemies, something to harness, subdue, exploit or escape, maybe it is time to start honoring them again, restoring them, learning from them, aligning with them, recognizing that all life, not just our own, is sustained by the elements, of one substance with them. Maybe we all are pagan, urban and rural dwellers on this earth.

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Elizabeth Cunningham August 25, 2010 - 12:49 am

Maeve speaking: This post is very elementary but it took Eliz a long time to write and still does not say what she wants it to say. Look for a post soon on creator and creation. But not too soon. No more blog posts till she finishes the draft of Red-Robed Priestess. I have spoken!

Unknown August 25, 2010 - 2:36 pm

I'd say the post is elemental rather than elementary. I no longer know how many elements the Chemistry dons have cooked up–new ones keep popping up in their cyclotrons–but reducing them to Earth, Air, Fire and Water does simplify things and put them in a more earthy perspective.

Yes, to honor them rather than simply exploit them might help cure the disease we call Modern Civilization.

Tim Dillinger August 25, 2010 - 11:13 pm

All I can really say is thank you for this. I find myself surrounded by people who are frightened by and offended by the usage of this word. Now instead of having to explain it to them, I can simply tell them to read this. Thank goddess.

Brooke August 28, 2010 - 1:19 am

Finally something we could all agree on: the elements. Great place to focus. I like what you said about aligning and learning from them, as just tuning into them I find myself slowed down and paying more attention. Thank you. Oh, and I love you demystifying the term 'pagan'for me.

Janet August 28, 2010 - 2:45 am


Neferhuri August 28, 2010 - 3:43 pm

What an interesting view from a "minority" viewpoint in Elizabeth's circle of friends. Really enjoyed this! I wish the world at large could read it.

I find this particularly inspiring: "Whatever our religious beliefs, we know that we are made of the same elements as this planet. The sea is in our blood, the air is our breath, are bones are crystalline, the sun’s fire (in whatever form) warms us and fuels."


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