This piece will try to speak about many Pagans; we, its authors, do not try to speak for anyone other than ourselves as individuals with any sense of authority. We do make some attempts at describing others, but these are not applicable to all Pagans and are definitely not prescriptive in any sense. Paganism as a general category has no hierarchy or centralized authority, and many sub-groups prefer to work through consensus, which makes it even more difficult to make accurate broad statements. Each one of us contributing will use her own situation and experience and beliefs as examples; we will try to differentiate between that and any statements about broader Paganism. Please do not take our positions to be authoritative or normative for anyone else. Here, we use the term Paganism to refer to the new religious movement(s) that scholars have mostly dubbed neo-paganism. The common usage among people who are part of that movement drops the prefix and adds a capital, so we follow that practice.
Paganism is better understood as a sheaf of religions with various similarities rather than a single religion or group of religions that branched off from a single source. It would be more appropriate to compare Paganism to Abrahamic monotheism in general, rather than to a single group of religions like Christianity. There are many types of Pagans, some of whom are as different from each other as Jews are from Muslims. Different Pagans draw on different cultural sources, and have widely varying types of observance; one Pagan may not have the first idea what to do at another Pagan’s ritual or observance.
And those practices are important. To people raised in a culture where Christianity’s forms are largely dominant, it is easy to get the idea that a religion is defined by its beliefs. Like many other non-Christian religions, Paganism is much more practice-centered than belief-centered. This may make it seem more like a way of life or philosophy than a religion, but it is similar to other non-monotheistic approaches. As an example, a Pagan whose practice is based on reconstruction of ancient Egyptian religion and a Wiccan who works with the Egyptian deities may both venerate Isis, but they will generally understand themselves to be practicing different forms of religion due to the substantial difference in how they approach her. Conversely, Mary Kaye belonged to a group in which theist views of Isis as a literal goddess and atheist views of her as an archetype or symbol coexisted amiably, held together by commonality of ritual practice.
Scholar of religion Stephen Prothero uses a four-part model to talk about the basics of religions. He says that most religions identify a problem, offer a solution which is also the religious goal, provide techniques for achieving that goal, and have exemplars of people who have achieved that goal. (God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter, HarperCollins, 2010, p 3.) In most forms of Paganism, we might apply that model in the following way: the problem is isolation, the solution is living in relationship with people and the world around us, the techniques provided are a vast array of means for connecting and fostering relationships, and the exemplars are our companions, especially those who are successfully living in healthy relationships with their world, including non humans and possibly forces, powers, and deity or deities.
Not all Pagans have earth-based practices and beliefs, but this is the most common factor among most people who label themselves Pagan. There are many other groups who identify or are identified by others (accurately or not) as Pagan or quasi-Pagan because of their similarities to other common features or practices of Paganism. For most of this 101, though, we’ll be talking about the most common types of Paganism in the English-speaking world today, grouped into three very loose categories: people who identify as primarily Pagans; Wiccans, and Witches and varieties thereof; and Druids, Heathens, and other people whose practices are largely shaped by inheritances from or reconstructions of particular cultures.
There can be a lot of overlap between these approaches and their practices. They tend to share the approach of building relationships outlined above, and share many techniques, but the types of relationships they seek to build may be influenced by their stance within one or more of these approaches. Pagans who don’t see themselves as Wiccans may use Wiccan rituals or ideas but not be particularly concerned with building relationships with deity in the way Wiccans usually do; Heathens often look to build particular relationships with family and with creatures such as land-wights, while Druids and people focusing on reconstructing ancient practices may be more concerned with historical and archaeological evidence about previous practices.
Laiima on being a Pagan
Currently I am a hard polytheistic Pagan and an animist. When I began having relationships with deities, I first experienced them as archetypes within me. Some of them now manifest in some fashion outside my head. Some are female, some are male, and I'm not sure what Medeine is, although I use female pronouns for hir. I'm drawn to prime numbers of three and above. I don't like polarities, and unitary ideas squick me. I'm all about multiplicity, complexity, and nuances.
Paganism fits me because it encourages experimentation, innovation, and evolution. Tradition and dogma don't constrain my choices, but my ethics are rigorous about respecting the rights of others, no matter who they are. I'm aware that I act at various scales, and that my boundaries at each scale may differ. My community is the whole world.
Many people describe their approach to the environment as stewardship, but I find that viewpoint problematic because it takes for granted that humans know best, and should be running everything. My guiding principle is neighborliness, and I consider everyone I meet -- rocky, wispy, leafy, scaly, feathery, slimy, furry, hairy -- to be my neighbor. My body is a neighborhood where most of its cells are not human, so cooperation, respect, and pluralism begin at home. My religious practice, such as it is, revolves around asking questions like: What can I create with my neighbors that they could not do alone? What can I do for my neighbors that they cannot do for themselves? How can I appreciate and respect my habitat, and perhaps enhance it? How can I make the best use of what my body can do? How can I respect, honor, and celebrate life, death, and mystery?
Literata on Wicca
Wicca, to me, is distinguished from other forms of Paganism mostly by particular worship practices like casting a Circle and calling the Quarters/Elements, and usually an emphasis on deity having both masculine and feminine forms, or other types of polarities, whose interaction and intercourse creates the world. The most straightforward way that this is usually interpreted is as a solar and lunar deity pairing. Wiccans who believe in gods in some sense vary between soft and hard polytheism. Soft polytheists see these figures as “the” God and Goddess, making them syncretic figures that nearly all mythological deities can be understood as aspects or avatars of. Hard polytheists hold that all deities have independent existences and should not be treated as aspects of each other. As Mary Kaye pointed out, it is also perfectly possible to be an atheist Wiccan and to understand deities as metaphors or as Jungian archetypes or aspects of the self.
I am a panentheist. I think that there is one Spirit and many deities. My understanding is a sort of middle polytheism. In practice, I work with both the syncretic God and Goddess and with historical or invented (“found”) deities, and treat them, especially long-established historical ones, as independent. I’ve been known to say that I emphatically do not want to be the person to tell Kali she’s “just” an aspect of the one Goddess. My personal metaphor is that Spirit is an ocean, in which we all exist, and specific deities are currents.
Wiccans may share a ritual meal and make offerings like food, drink, flowers, or incense to their deities. Many Wiccans worship around the time of the full moon, and at the eight Sabbats that make up the Wheel of the Year. I practice daily devotion and other regular rituals; that varies tremendously from person to person. I also make it a practice to connect with the world around me and to celebrate it and my body; since I live in a densely urban area, I have to go to a nearby park to do this, but I dream of the day I’ll be able to have a little patch of a garden for my own worship space. Many Wiccans have a deep relationship with their setting and its natural cycles. Some of what I love best about Wicca is that it helps me value and celebrate the world and my body.
Some Wiccans do magic. Many who do construct their own spells using bits and pieces from others’ magic, from medieval to early Renaissance ceremonial magic, and from folk magic. Many Wiccans pray, as well, and prayer and magic can coexist and even be used cooperatively. One way to think about magic is as a prayer that is acted out in ritual drama. On the other hand, a pantheist or panentheist who sees all consciousness as connected (as most Wiccans seem to, at least to some degree) might do magic by using the connection that all consciousness has within itself to affect a situation, rather than by working through a divine intermediary. I have compared this to “dialing direct” rather than making a phone call relayed through a satellite; I apologize if anyone finds that metaphor trivializing.
Starhawk, a famous Wiccan author, wrote that she could use the phrase “sophisticated non-mechanistic psychology” as equivalent with magic, but she prefers the implications of the word magic. (The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature, HarperCollins 2005, p 26.) There is some cross-fertilization between Paganism and the New Age, parapsychology, and New Thought movements, but many Wiccans would agree with Starhawk and understand magic in more psychological and religious terms.
Wiccans also do a lot of work with divination and healing. Many Wiccans see themselves as primarily healers. That can take lots of forms, from gardening, to herb craft, to massage, to Reiki. Divination may or may not be understood as magic, but it is common for Wiccans to have tried one or two or several forms. Tarot is very popular, but other methods include rune casting, scrying, using pendulums or dowsing rods, and more.
Wiccan ethics emphasize individual responsibility and choice. Although it is not well articulated, many Wiccans believe in something loosely described as karma, and may believe in reincarnations that are affected by one’s karma, as well as events in this life. (Some, if not many, Wiccans draw on Eastern religious concepts with varying fidelity to the original ideas.) The most common statement of ethics quoted in Wicca is the Wiccan Rede, which says “An it harm none, do as ye will,” meaning that if an action causes no harm it is up to the individual’s discretion. The vague phrasing of this leads to a wide range of opinion about harm and permissibility, causing many individuals to develop their own elaborations.
Mary Kaye on Wicca
A common though far from universal practice among Wiccans is “drawing down” or “invoking” a deity, spirit, or archetype into a practicioner. For example, in a ritual for the feast of the dead Mary Kaye's public-ritual group generally invoked a chthonic (underworld-associated) goddess such as Hecate or Ereshkigal into a senior ritualist who would then officiate at the ritual. As usual among Pagans, views on the meaning of this ritual element vary: it can be seen as mainly symbolic, as literal spirit possession, or (perhaps most commonly) as something in between. My own experience as a practicioner is that (in contrast to Vodoun practices) there is no interruption of consciousness or memory, but there is a definitely altered state of consciousness.
The examples above reflect another aspect of Wicca, which is that it often works with deities from a variety of religious traditions, in contrast to reconstruction-based groups which generally consider only the deities of their own region or tradition. A single Wiccan group may well invoke the Greek goddess Hecate at one ritual and the Sumerian goddess Ereshkigal at the next, though the deities invoked in a single ritual are more often drawn from the same tradition. They may or may not consider Hecate and Ereshkigal to be manifestations of a singular Goddess; individuals in the same ritual group may in fact disagree on this point, reflecting the lesser importance of theology compared to ritual practice common in Paganism. Wicca as a whole is thus a radically syncretistic religion, freely incorporating elements from almost any available source, though not all individuals or groups are syncretistic.
Alsafi on a druidic path
"Druid" comes from roots meaning "wood wise." For my purposes, I try and look back to what is known and (more often) what can be inferred regarding the religious framework of the ancient Celtic peoples--in my case, specifically the pre-Christian, and where possible the pre-Roman, Welsh. (My maternal ancestry is mainly Welsh.) These bronze- and iron-age people had a tightly woven social fabric, and the druids were an essential part of that. Roman writers described the druids as being both priests and natural philosophers--to me, this indicates an understanding of religion as not only important in fostering community, but also in nurturing education and understanding of the natural world. For me, druidism is a means for bringing people into (to borrow the language of Buddhism) right relationship, not only with each other, but also with nature and the ecological systems of the planet we all share. I think of this as the "wood" part of being "wood wise."
This right relationship has to start with understanding, and so education, observation, and compassionate open-mindedness are necessarily a part of druidic philosophy. No one can be wise who is not willing to learn. As our ancestors did, modern druids must look to the natural world, as well as to the stories that we humans tell each other, for wisdom. I seek, in my practice, to reclaim the closeness that everyone once had (whether they wanted to or not) with the cycles of nature. As I learn more, I find that I see these cycles echoed over and over again; not only in the seasons, or the life-cycles of plants and of animals, but even in our behaviour--the actions we repeat in our lives until we learn a new way to approach a problem, or the ways in which we interact with one another.
Animism and ancestor veneration are part of my druidic beliefs and practices as well. For me, all things have a spirit of their own, which is both unique to them and yet a part of a larger whole, which encompasses the universe and disregards time. That I don't fully understand how this works is something I struggle with, but on good days I'm perfectly okay with the knowledge that I can't understand it, because it's so much bigger than I am. One of the results is that I believe (in a soft way) in a spirit world that is probably unreachable from where I am, and may only exist through the memories of the living, but that is very close to us, and closer at some times than at others. So offerings, especially of food, to the dead and to the other spirits that share the world with us, are a part of my spiritual practice.
For me, it can be hard to look into my life and say, "This thing that I do is a practice of my druidism. This is a ritual I perform," mainly because of the way I approach being wood wise as a life practice, rather than a religious framework. I mark and keep the four Celtic fire festivals (in Welsh tradition, Calan Gaeaf, Gŵyl y Canhwyllau, Calan Mai, and Calan Awst--the probably more familiar Irish names are Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh), usually with food and fellowship. And I am mindful of the seasons. The way the light falls, and the feel of the wind on my skin are as different from midsummer to late summer as they are from summer to winter, but noticing the difference requires us to slow down and give nature our full attention. I sing, I spin fibre into thread, I make stories, I plant seeds, I cook, and where I can, I heal. I notice, I honour, I remember, I learn, and if I'm asked, I teach. For me, all these things are at the heart of druidism. Where it brings us into right relationship with each other and the world, it works. And where it works, it's magic.
Where do you find Pagans? You might be surprised: they may be hiding in plain sight in the parks and gardens, at the “New Age” bookstore or just about any bookstore for that matter, at the bead shop, the rock shop, and the craft shop, at the Renaissance Faire and in the bar and leading the PTA. We can assure you that Pagans aren't hiding under your bed and there's not a Witch squashed under your house, but they might be just about anywhere else.
Most Pagans may be “hiding in plain sight” for a couple of reasons. Sadly, it’s still not safe to identify as Pagan in many settings. Pagans borrowed the idea of being “in the closet” about one’s identity from the QUILTBAG community, except we refer to it as being “in the broom closet.” Legal recognition for Paganism, especially in America, is advancing, but very slowly. Paganism’s lack of central organization and almost inherent dislike for hierarchy make this more challenging, and laws against religious discrimination don’t protect people who aren’t recognized as part of a “real” religion. Mary Kaye and her spouse, Wiccans in the US, were delayed for over a year in their attempts to adopt a child by institutional unease about their religion.
The other reason is that Paganism generally does not encourage evangelism. Paganism’s inherently pluralistic nature (many deities, many relationships, many areas of the world) means that many Pagans think of religion as a very personal journey, and therefore they do not assume their approach or practices are appropriate for everyone or even accessible to everyone.
Although we’ve described contemporary Paganism as largely earth-centered, there are other groups who are not earth-focused who are often self-identified as Pagans or lumped in, accurately or not, by others. Usually these groups are Pagan in that they draw on one or more of the same strands: the Golden Dawn and its offshoots are descended from ceremonial magic and the Western esoteric tradition, for example. Followers of Thelema draw heavily on that tradition as adapted by Aleister Crowley, and some of Crowley’s ideas have influenced some forms of Wicca, in turn. Postmodern ideas of experimenting with magic and psychology are at the root of Discordianism and chaos magic(k), so practitioners of those approaches are philosophically more similar to Pagans than just about any other tradition.
There are also long-established religious traditions like Hinduism and indigenous Native American systems that may see Paganism, with its polytheism, pantheism, and panoply of practices, as a natural ally. Many Pagans reciprocate that feeling, and Pagans have often stood in solidarity with such groups to help defend and expand the rights of religious minorities, especially ones that don’t fit easily into the expectations of mainly monotheistic cultures. Afro-Caribbean religions like Santeria, Vodoun, and Candomble also have commonalities with European-based Neo-Paganism, and some of them identify as Pagan. Some groups also work with Pagans to protect religious liberties, as they are some of the most often misunderstood religions active in the Western Hemisphere today. These groups, especially Native Americans and First Nations, also have disagreements with Pagans whose careless syncretism becomes cultural appropriation or misrepresentation of the original traditions, especially since Pagans tend to be relatively privileged in non-religious ways.
If you want to learn more about Paganism, we’ll be discussing recommended resources in the thread and will add them to this piece in its semi-stable form, but the biggest recommendation we can make is to go straight to the source! Go outside, get to know your corner of the world. Connect with plants and animals, with your land and sea and sky. Go inside: meditate, and reflect on your beliefs, feelings, and memories. Read mythology, remember old wives’ tales and good luck charms, and most of all, live in loving relationships with yourself, others, and your surroundings.
--Co-authored by Literata, Laiima, Mary Kaye, and Alsafi, with Lonespark's advice
The Board Administration Team
(hapax, Kit Whitfield and mmy)
(hapax, Kit Whitfield and mmy)