andred/herne symbol - pentacle on hexagram gods' names in runes
Paganism has been described as one of the fastest growing spiritualities in the western world, but it would also be fair to say it is also one of the most misunderstood. So what is Paganism?

Simply put Paganism is a term applied to a group of religious or spiritual belief systems which are derived from or influenced by the older religions practiced before the arrival of Christianity. The term 'pagan' is derived from a Roman word for which the normal given derivation is 'rustic' or 'country dweller' although others attribute the meaning as 'civilian' as these people would have been outside 'God's army'. A third, and to my mind more likely origination is in 'local' as the people would be worshiping local gods and a similar word is thought to refer to local councils. Whatever the original meaning with the mass conversion to Christianity the term began to be used in a derogatory manner.

The term 'Neo-Paganism' was coined to differentiate the modern revival of these ancient religions from the original practice, though most neo-Pagans tend to drop the 'neo'. In truth all 'native' spiritualities, such as Native American, African, Maori and Aboriginal Australian are also pagan as are Hinduism, Shinto and Buddhism though in the case of the latter three, at least, they tend to be referred to by their proper names.

Modern paganism may therefore be described as the practice of a faith or spirituality based upon or inspired by these ancient beliefs and applied to life in modern society.

Although the many faiths that comprise paganism have significant differences they may be generally classed as 'Earth based religions' and their features may in many cases be summed up as follows.
  • Nature itself is held in reverence, and to some, both it and its component features may be seen as 'alive'.
  • Relationship with the Divine may be through one deity, many deities (either as discrete individuals or as component parts of a single or dualistic deity or force), or even through direct contact with divine forces (no deities).
  • Both the Male and the Female aspects of life and the divine are recognised as equally important.
  • All paths/faiths are equally valid there is no exclusive path.
  • There is no written dogma/holy book-Pagans decide their own path based on historical texts and folk tales/myths/legends. Pagans therefore work to gain an understanding of their path and tend to validate their beliefs before accepting them.
  • Generally Pagans do not seek to impose their beliefs on others, but are usually more than happy to explain them if asked.
  • Pagans may celebrate their faith singularly or in groups.
  • Festivals tend to follow the traditional agricultural year, solar and/or lunar events.
  • Pagan paths are life affirming and foster development of the self. They are concerned with honesty and responsibility.  They do not promote negative or self destructive actions.
  • Some, but not all, Pagans may practice magic, either alone or in groups. Magic is defined as the shaping and channelling of energies to a specific end. This is done by force of will and any actions or equipment used are to focus the mind. This has more in common with the concept of prayer, especially when deities or spiritual entities are invoked, than to the 'magic' of stage illusionists or works of fiction.

Of course the above are generalisations and it is likely that plenty of Pagans would disagree with some of them at least: as a wise one once said: "Ask 5 Pagans a simple question and you will get 7 answers."

One thing that I can try to do is lay to rest some of the misconceptions that the public at large (often fed by the 'popular' press and/or deep seated prejudices) believe are part and parcel of Paganism...

Pagans do not:

Worship the devil - while there are some Satanists around they either belong to the loose collection of Christian faiths or they regard Satan as an ethical construct and instead live by an ethical code based on the belief that each person is at the centre, and the universe should move around them. This later type of Satanists (also known as Le Vay Satanists) may be classed as Pagans, but their beliefs are more a philosophy and about the only thing they have in common with supposed 'Devil Worship' is that they use the term 'Satanist' to describe themselves. One must not forget though that the Christian conception of the Devil was based in part on the physical description of some of the pre-existing pagan gods and designed to demonise the older beliefs. Of course there are also people who declare themselves as devil worshippers for no reason other than to cause disruption.

Sacrifice animals/babies - Pagans revere life, all life, and many live by a code of 'harm none'. It is normal for offerings to be made during rituals but these usually consist of food & drink (often shared with those present), tobacco, incense, handcrafted gifts, rhyme & verse or just time and effort (doing charity work for example.) Pagans do not mutilate animals either.

Recruit people - Pagans mostly believe that all people should find the path best suited to them and that a person's path may evolve or even change completely over time. It is therefore hard for a pagan to recruit another person, as to do so would contravene this core belief. Pagans also tend to be tolerant of other faiths for this same reason, though this tolerance can be quickly eroded when other faiths are preached to them.

Practice black magic - magic is simply the application of the will to effect a desired change, and is comparable with prayer or blessing. As such it is neither black nor white. The intent is purely dependent on those working the 'spell', though it must be remembered that Pagans believe in responsibility for their actions and many, particularly Wiccans, abide by the rule of causing no harm.

Hold naked orgies in the woods at night - it is true that many Pagans prefer to hold rituals in the open air and some are best performed when the Moon is up. It is even true that some prefer to hold rituals skyclad (without clothes) and, as many paths are fertility based, some may, at times, even include consensual ceremonial sex in particular rituals. However just as many prefer to remain dressed (especially in cold climates), even donning special clothing in some cases, and for many the ceremonial sex is enacted quite figuratively using an athame and a chalice.

Who are we?

Who are we who walk this earth?
Seeking freedom from others' lies.
We who see Nature's worth?
A living soul, ancient and wise.

We that live by myth and fable.
With gods, many, two, or none.
What's in a name? What's in a label?
Linking paths of many and one.

While no single song we sing
Nor to one faith do we all hold.
Fellowship is a blessed thing,
And all our stories can be told.

Shaman, witch, druid, heathen,
Though of many paths, not one.
Eclectic, recon or neo-, even,
Pagans, when all is said and done.

© Kev the Cosmic Fool 2/2005
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  What is Paganism?