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What is Paganism? an overview

A simple, factual explanation of what Paganism actually is. It is pure information written for anyone who is non Pagan or who is Pagan but wants to know more. It is not meant to impress or proselytise.

NOTE: I have had some letters from Christians who claim this essay is anti-Christian. That is not the case. The comparisons with Christianity are objective and without any harmful intent.

In simplest terms Paganism is a religion of place, or a native religion, for example the Native American's religion is Pagan, Hinduism is a form of Paganism. All Pagan religions are characterised by a connection and reverence for nature, and are usually polytheistic i.e. have many Gods and/or Goddesses.

Modern Paganism as practised in the west is particular to the native peoples of the west and although there are many forms most are descended from Celtic origins. Modern Paganism or 'neo-Paganism' has the following characteristics:

1. Paganism is a religion of nature, in other words Pagans revere Nature. Pagans see the divine as immanent in the whole of life and the universe; in every tree, plant, animal and object, man and woman and in the dark side of life as much as in the light. Pagans live their lives attuned to the cycles of Nature, the seasons, life and death.

2. Unlike the patriarchal religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) the divine is female as well as male and therefore there is a Goddess as well as a God. These deities are within us as well as without us (immanent); they are us. They are not simply substitutes for the Muslim or Judeo-Christian God. This is because the Gods of the major religions tend to be super-natural i.e. above nature whereas Pagan deities are natural, symbolizing aspects of nature or human nature. Having said that God and Goddess are split from the Great Spirit or Akashka which probably equates to the God of the patriarchal religions.

3. The Goddess represents all that is female and the God represents all that is male. But because nature is seen as female the Goddess has a wider meaning. Often called Mother Earth or Gaia she is seen as the creatrix and sustainer of life, the mother of us all which makes all the creatures on the planet our siblings.

4. There are sub-groups of named Gods and Goddesses called Pantheons, drawn from the distant past, for example Isis and Osiris from Egypt or Thor, Odin, Freya et al from Norse religion and mythology. Ancient Pagans would have worshipped one or a small number of Gods and Goddesses, whilst often recognizing the validity of other people's deities. The concept of an overall, un-named Goddess and God, the sum totals of all the others, appears to be a recent one but individual named deities represent particular human qualities or archetypes and are often used as a focus for celebrations and spiritual rites.

5. Paganism has developed alongside mankind for thousands of years; as cultures have changed so has Paganism, yet it is grounded in deep rooted genetic memories that go back to neolithic times and before. Thus Paganism is not just a nature religion but a natural religion.

6. Paganism in the west takes a number of forms including Wicca, Druidism, and Shamanism.

7. To Pagans the four ancient elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water have special significance. The importance of these is hard to define because they have so many correspondences, for example they are associated with the four directions, North, East, South and West. Each element is a kind of spiritual substance from which all things are made especially ourselves and at the same time are Guardians both of ourselves and of the Goddess and God, and guarding the gateways between this world and the other world.

8. Many Pagans believe in reincarnation in some form. It gives Pagans a substantially different view of life. Early Christians saw Karma as a kind of treadmill, trapping people in endless reincarnations, never free. But Pagans see reincarnation as, at best, a chance to improve or to continue unfinished work, and at worst just a simple re-cycling of souls.


The re-emergence of Paganism

The revival of Western Paganism is mainly due to the creation of Wicca, the nice modern name for Witchcraft. However Paganism is not Wicca; Wicca is an Occult form of Paganism.

The old religion was virtually wiped out by the church of Rome using a combination of propaganda, torture and genocide. Some people held on to the old religion. These were often the wisemen and women or Witches, the root 'wit' meaning 'wise'. The church became impatient and began a purge beginning around 1484 involving the burning of Witches and wholesale slaughter of thousands of people across Europe just on suspicion of being Witches. Not surprisingly, in the face of such oppression the old religion went 'underground' and Witches dedicated to preserving the religion formed themselves into secret groups called covens.

Christianity's purge was so successful that the old religion was virtually extinct by the 1900s but in 1899 a book was published by Charles Leland called 'The Gospel of Aradia' about Witches in Northern Italy who practised 'La Vecchia Religione' - the Old Religion. In 1921 an English historian, Margaret Murray published a book, 'The Witch Cult in Western Europe' in which she maintained that Witchcraft had been a religion. A British ex colonial administrator called Gerald Gardner supposedly revived Witchcraft and called it Wicca. In 1951 the laws against Witchcraft in Britain were repealed and he published a milestone book on the subject, 'Witchcraft Today'.

Since that time Wicca has grown in popularity and has encouraged the revival of the original Pagan roots and the re-emergence of other Pagan branches such as the Northern tradition and the modern Druids. Wicca itself has become more eclectic and has absorbed elements of other systems such as the Qabala and elements of Hindu. While Wicca is relatively new, Paganism is as old as mankind and its traditions are still being rediscovered.


What do Pagans do?

Pagans revere the cycles of Nature through rituals or ceremonies of various kinds. Pagans of the western traditions celebrate up to eight festivals or Sabbats each year (not all Pagans celebrate all the Sabbats). They comprise the four solar quarters i.e. the two solstices (longest and shortest days) and the two equinoxes (day and night are the same length) plus four Celtic 'fire' festivals. All these mark important events in the cycle of life and also symbolise changes in the Goddess and God. They are:
Samhain(pronounced "sowain"), 31st October: the feast of the dead; remembrance of ancestors and people, now dead, who were important to us. It marks the end of the Celtic year and the start of the spiritual new year. Also known as All Hallows day, the night before being All Hallows Eve (Halloween) or all souls night.
Yule, the winter solstice, 21st December approx.: rebirth of the sun and the gradual lengthening of the days towards springtime and new life.
Imbolc or Bride's day: start of spring and the return of the Goddess to the land.
Ostara (Easter), the spring equinox, 21st March: Return of the sun from the south, springtime proper. Some celebrate a holy union between God and Goddess.
Beltane (starting on May day): Summertime begins celebrating new life and the holy marriage of God and Goddess.
Midsomer (Midsummer) or Litha, the summer solstice, 21st June approx.: Everything is green thanks to the God of nature, the Green Man.
Lughnasadh or Lammas end of August: the festival of the first (corn) harvest.
Mabon, the Autumn equinox, 21st September approx.: second (fruit) harvest celebration, making plans for the winter months to come.
And finally back to Samhain and another turn of the wheel of the year. or wheel of life

Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lammas are known as fire festivals. Traditionally there was always a fire at these celebrations. These festivals were never held on exact dates for example Lammas would have been celebrated when the barleycorn was harvested. This wheel is sometimes called the Gardnerian Wheel because it is a combination of two ancient wheels (acknowledgements to Kenny Klein). The hunting wheel, the oldest, has two God births: The Oak King is born at midsummer and rules through to Yule when he dies and the Holly King is born. The agricultural wheel has the young God born at Ostara, symbolic of the sun/son rising in the East. He dies in the second harvest, Mabon.

In the different traditions these holidays (holy days) may have different names, for example Imbolc is called the festival of light in the northern tradition.

Western Pagans have no fixed temples in which to worship but instead (usually) make a circle around themselves (or form themselves into a circle) in a room or in a clearing or on a beach or find a naturally ocurring circle such as a grove or use one of the ancient stone circles. Pagans have no hierarchy like the established religions so Pagans are free to follow whatever spiritual path they choose.

Pagans like to celebrate more rites of passage than the prevailing culture. Most people see two rites of passage: coming of age (18 or 21) and marriage. Christians also get a first one, the Christening, though the subject is unable to experience it. The Pagan equivalent of a Christening is a Naming ceremony. Other rites of passage may include Child - celebrating change from baby to child, Puberty and so on. Marriage is called hand-fasting and this may be arranged for eternity or just for a year-and-a-day, renewable. The latter is a great stabiliser against casual relationships and divorces, providing some level of commitment yet recognising that some relationships will not last.


Christianity and Paganism

Although the word Witch is hated the word Pagan still rings alarm bells in the minds of many Christians or people in the sub-Christian culture. Why? Because Paganism was the enemy within. The church of Rome was determined to stamp it out by any means available and successfully built up an image of evil around Pagans so that even today ordinary people think Pagans and/or Witches sacrifice babies, perform evil spells and so on. The church also masked out or absorbed Pagan celebrations, for example Jesus was not born on the 25th December but was more probably born around April in 7 BCE. This was moved to the 6th January (the Eastern Orthodox church still uses that date). Then at the council of Niceae in 325 the western Christian church persuaded Emperor Constantin to move the celebration of the birth of Jesus to that other celebration of the birth of the sun, in Roman times the festival of Mithras, the God of Light at the winter solstice (which was thought to be 25th December).

Some fundamental differences between Christianity and Paganism
It sometimes helps to define Paganism by making comparisons with Christianity:

1. Christianity sees life and the world as linear i.e. having a beginning and an end, creation to the day of judgement. The Pagan view is circular - the endless cycle of the seasons, of death and rebirth. There will be no end of the world or the universe. The big bang was not the moment of creation but the last rebirth of the universe. For example Christmas celebrates an event which happened 2000 years ago. Yule celebrates an annually recurring event, the rebirth of the sun.
2. The bible tells that people were made in the image of God. (Note: this is really a Hebrew concept; the word God in the first chapter of Genesis is a mistranslation of the word Elohim which means Gods, plural and genderless. The creation and fall of Adam comes in chapter 2 and essentially describes the creation of the Hebrew tribe. The old testament is a chronology of the development of the Hebrew nation and the new testament is a continuation of this. Therefore Christians are, in a sense, subscribers to the Semitic lineage.) The Pagan Gods and Goddesses were really made in our image which is the other way round. Pagan deities are images or symbols of deep rooted memories which Jung called archetypes. The more ethereal 'God' and 'Goddess', which relate to Binah and Chokma in the Qabala, or Shakta and Shakti in the Hindu system do not have any particular form. Artists may present them as human but that is personal choice.
3. Pagans have no concept of sin and no Satan. So there is no fiery hell to worry about either. They have their own values and ethics.
4. The bible and gospels are the guiding rules for Christians (though the interpretation varies immensely); Pagans are responsible for their own actions.


The Devil and Satanism

The Pagan view of the universe is one of complemetary opposites - light/dark, yin/yang, earth/sky, male/female, Shakta/Shakti. The major patriarchal religions have a duality of good and evil, God and Satan. The concept of Satan has been around for thousands of years, not only in the Hebrew tradition. The Babylonians, Chaldeans, and Persians believed in a dualism between the forces of darkness and light. Even Paganism has it's Hades and Hel (A Northern Goddess of the underworld), however the concept of Satan was developed by the Church and eventually he was called the Devil, a term meaning 'little God'. While God was originally responsible for good and bad (for example he sent plagues etc. to punish his followers) it was slowly assumed that God did only the good things and the Devil/Satan all the bad things. The Christian church developed the concept of Lucifer, the fallen angel. The Devil was officially adopted by the Christian church in 447 and he was pronounced immortal in 547. Consequently it is impossible for Pagans to adopt the concept of the Devil which is a Judeo-Christian concept. Likewise the Satanists are, in a sense followers of the Judaic/Christian belief system because they worship an anti-god figure which belongs to that system.

Islam

While Christianity can be shown to have been hijacked by the church of Rome to gain power Islam (which means 'obedience') is almost a designer religion, carefully planned by Mohammed around 630 years after Christ. Mohammed drew on the indigenous Pagan religions for many ideas but developed it into an aggressive Patriarchal religion that conquered most of Asia just as Christians conquered all the Pagan West and much of the rest of the world as well. Like Christianity it ruthlessly suppressed the Pagan religions in its own back yard, showing much more tolerance to other patriarchal religions like Christianity.

Sex and nudity

Sex and nakedness are not the taboo subjects that they can be in the major religions. After all they are merely part of nature. In the western tradition the seasons are equated with the relationship of the Goddess and God, for example Beltane, the May Sabbat is a celebration of the Hieros Gamos or holy marriage of the Goddess and her consort, through which the fertility of nature is ensured.

Witchcraft and Wicca

The spiritual path Gardner launched he called Witchcraft but eventually he came up with the name 'Wicca' after the Saxon name for Witch. Its appeal was the mystique of Witchcraft and the elaborate ceremonies, also equality of male and female and freedom from Christian puritan morals. So Wicca is a recent name for Witchcraft. In fact a Witch is simply anyone who has special powers and can be of any religion, for example a Jewish witch. So to be accurate Wicca is not another name for Witchcraft. In fact Wicca is a mix of various practices, ancient and recent put together like a badly fitting jigsaw puzzle by Gerald Gardner; each piece is valid but they didn't fit together right and some pieces were missing. Wiccans are the present-day guardians and priesthood of what is known as the Western Mystery Tradition which has at least some of its roots thousands of years old and many Wiccans spend much time and effort researching the missing pieces. Wicca is now mainly a modern spiritual path geared to today's society and needs, a path to self knowledge and self improvement. Each and every Wiccan is his or her own Priest or Priestess, the implication being there is no intermediary between them and deity - no religious hierarchy.

In the 60s and 70s many people became interested in Eastern esoteric religions and spiritualities such as Krishna Consciousness, completely unaware that we have our own indigenous mystery religion.

Modern Wicca is mostly practised in groups or by solitaries. Some work in small groups called covens. Strictly speaking Wicca is not a religion but the esoteric study of Western Paganism. However Wicca is practised on many levels and the definition of Wicca has become blurred so that Wicca itself is often regarded as a religion. A Wiccan coven is like a religious mystery school.


Children

Generally children do not get involved in esoteric rituals or mystery teachings such as Wicca until at least 16 years old. But the children of Pagan families may well join in simple exoteric rituals such as dancing round the Maypole, or round the bonfire on one of the 'fire festivals' (Beltane, Lammas, Samhain, Imbolc). Pagan children are often very much aware of some differences from the surrounding culture, for example the Goddess. They might have an altar in their home and Pagan artefacts which the other children usually don't have.

At Christmas most Pagan children still get Santa and they usually get drawn into the baby Jesus thing too. They probably know that things like the Christmas tree (Yule tree) are really Pagan things. Yule is, of course, celebrated a few days earlier than Christmas and Pagan families do their best with it in spite of being overshadowed by Christmas. Easter is a lot more Pagan and all the hot cross buns and Easter eggs are all Pagan traditions. Whereas the Christian impacts on children are limited to Christmas and Easter the Pagan children continue to celebrate the natural cycles of God and Goddess all round the year.

Pagan children are occasionally asked not to mention this or that to their friends or teachers or relatives and it becomes quite a task to help children understand this is because some people get upset about other religions, not because Pagans are doing anything wrong. It is hard for them to understand how things like making a corn dolly or lighting candles to Bridget or celebrating Samhain (Halloween) can possibly be wrong in the eyes of others.

There is a movement by the Christian Coalition to bring prayer back into American Schools which now and again gets close to succeeding. This requires amendment to the first amendment to the American constitution which aims to separate church and state. Through this change Christian teachers will be able to teach Christianity to captive audiences in state schools. In the UK, with no written constitution, this is already part of the status quo on the grounds that it is a Christian country.


The U.S.A.

Paganism in the USA is different from that in Europe. Wicca is by far the largest group and the two people credited with its introduction were Zsuzanna Budapest who created a feminist version of Wicca with some Gardnerian principles and Dr. Raymond Buckland who brought in another variant of Gardnerian witchcraft. Having said that there appear to have been some lingering traditions in the US already, notably in Salem, which have emerged on the wave of popularity. The intermingling of these various traditions have evolved some forms of Wicca far removed from the British traditions but since a feature of Paganism is its ability to adapt to contemporary society and culture this is wholly justified. However, Paganism needs roots and the roots tend to be European. Some Americans, seeking roots closer to home have adopted Native American concepts. There are now a number of American 'gurus', people prominent in Wicca, such as Starhawk, whose famous book 'Spiral Dance' hardly mentions the word 'Wicca' and contains a wealth of modern religious philosophy.

Wiccan Paganism is now the fastest growing religion in America currently with half to a million adherents. The USA has a fragmented culture with groups of totally different persuasions apparently living side by side. In some parts of America Pagans have been able to be more open about what they do than in Europe, giving talks on TV, opening shops with neon Pentagram signs etc. yet in others have been subjected to persecution and abuse.


We are a new people
We are an old people
We are the same people
Stronger than before


written by David - Copywrong 1997CE
David@strobotics.com

My apologies and thanks to anyone whose material appears in this essay whom I have not acknowledged. I have trouble remembering where I read things!

Incidentally CE means "common era". AD means Anno Domini (Year of our Lord) which clearly does not apply to non-Christians but the year numbering system is now universal over the planet.

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