An Introduction to Paganism
The terms ‘pagan’ and ‘paganism’ cover a vast array of beliefs and world-views, but one thing they all have in common is a reverence for, and honour of nature. The words originally come from a Latin word that simply mean ‘country-dweller’; a ‘heathen’ was once simply someone who lived on or near a heath.
The word ‘paganism’ could be said to loosely cover all the ancient belief systems that pre-date the major world religions of today – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc – particularly in the Western world. However, it is not strictly speaking a religion as such – it is neither hierarchical nor particularly organised, except in relatively small groups. Pagans have a wide range of beliefs and ways of expressing those beliefs, though there is generally a majority agreement these days around opposition to man’s exploitation of nature – mining, fracking, building on green-field sites, etc, and you will find a high proportion of pagans within many conservation and environmental groups.
In fact, you will find pagans in every walk of life; some are quite open about it, others less so. It is becoming much more widespread and acceptable, but there are still many people whose first question about paganism is, ‘do you dance naked in the woods or sacrifice virgins or animals?’ The answer is that no, most of us would not even consider doing any of those things! The idea of sacrifice in any form is not at the centre of paganism, though we often leave small offerings of food and drink for the goddess and god, particularly at the end of a ceremony. And although some people do prefer to work ‘skyclad’ (naked), they generally do it in private, or cover themselves with a cloak. Nor do we worship the devil – that’s a Christian idea, and most pagans don’t even believe in Satan. Most pagans also don’t believe in worshipping anything. Many believe that the very idea of a horned demon was simply a Christian attempt to turn people away from the veneration of nature, as one of the most prominent god figures in paganism is Pan or Herne (he goes by a number of other names as well, including The Horned God) – who wears antlers on his head and has hooves for feet.
One of the things that many pagans agree on is the Rule of Three (or a similar idea). This states that anything you give out – whether that be love or hate, tolerance or aggression, etc – will come back to you threefold – or perhaps many times over. This is why most pagans will never knowingly cause harm to another. Many live by the last line of the Wiccan Rede (Wicca is the modern-day name for what has always been known as Witchcraft), which says, ‘An it harm none, do as ye will.’ What that means is that we can do whatever we like, as long as it causes no harm to others. Some people like to call this concept ‘white witchcraft’. However, what some pagans also realise is that there are many definitions of ‘harm’, and it is not always possible for our human minds to know what may cause harm to others.
Perhaps because of this, about half of the pagan community are also vegetarian or even vegan – ‘harming none’ doesn’t necessarily just cover humans, after all. Even if they still eat meat, many prefer to source their food from ethical and/or organic suppliers.
It is important to recognise that, as with any belief system, what you put into paganism will affect what you get out of it. If you simply turn up to moots (meetings) and perhaps a few organised rituals (ceremonies) during the year, and do nothing pagan-related in between, it will have less effect on your life than if you try to live by its principles. Paganism is a way of life, and at its best, it is lived, and shows through in pretty much everything we do. A lot of people who are not consciously pagan live by similar life principles these days.
Most pagans are very tolerant of others’ beliefs, opinions and difficulties, partly because we would like others to treat us that way, and partly because we recognise that everyone is different, and we are all treading different paths. As with any belief system, you will occasionally find a pagan whose views are black and white, and who will tell you that everyone else is doing it wrong, but they are, thankfully, few and far between. Many pagans believe that if someone is seeking to find a path that works for them, it is our duty and our privilege to help them on their journey – wherever that leads them.
In fact, tolerance and helping others are at the root of much of pagan belief. Most of us accept that our view of the universe is incomplete and may have flaws, so we are always willing to listen to others who have different views, and if appropriate, to modify our own accordingly. But we don’t bow to every wind that blows – pagans are usually deep thinkers, and will question everything! What draws many of us to this path is the fact that we find other, like-minded people here, who also question everything and take an interest in the way things work at a deep level. Ask a group of pagans how the world works, and you will get as many different answers as there are people in the group (or more) – but they will all be fascinating viewpoints, and no-one will make fun of anyone else’s opinion – they are more likely to debate the topic with great interest.
Being pagan doesn’t even exclude the possibility of working within other religions. Some people happily combine paganism with Christian beliefs, for instance, perhaps through seeing the ‘small gods’ of nature as being aspects of the One God, or emanations of the Divine.
To many, the goddess and the god (who may be particular, named deities, particular pantheons of deities, or a select few they like to work with) are central to their beliefs, and they will honour and revere them, but most modern pagans would shy away from using the word ‘worship’. To many, nature is certainly to be respected, but so is everything and everyone we encounter. We are all part of nature, part of the natural world, and as such, we each have as much value as any other part of creation. That means me, you, your neighbours, friends, family – and your enemies, if you have any. Some of us simply see others we don’t get on with as being people with a different viewpoint, rather than taking that difference personally. We may consider others to be misguided, or lacking insight or understanding, but we know that in other lives, we were in that position once, and we also understand that everyone takes a different path to the truth.
Most of us believe in reincarnation, and understand that having many lives gives us the opportunity to learn more about the universe and how it works, over much longer than one human lifetime, and from many different perspectives. We do not believe that the soul goes to hell or heaven at the end of a human life, according to how well we have lived, but most have an opinion. Some believe we go to the Summerlands, some to the Isle of the Ever Young, some to Valhalla or even to Hel (note the spelling, with only one ‘l’). Different traditions within paganism have their own ideas of the life between our lives on earth, which may or may not equate to something like ‘heaven’.
British Paganism covers a wide range of traditions, including the Norse (aka Heathen or Odinic), Celtic (mainly the Welsh and Irish traditions). Some work with deities from elsewhere, either instead of or as well as the Celtic. Within the Celtic tradition, the main forms are Druidism – with three branches called Bards, Ovates and Druids, and Wicca (also known as Witchcraft). This comes in three main forms – Traditional, Gardnerian and Alexandrian, though many these days would call themselves Hedge Witches, or Solitary Witches and often work alone. Some describe themselves as Eclectic, taking what works for them from several different traditions and creating their own unique blend of pagan beliefs. A few have been taught by someone from a long line of hereditary witches, where the knowledge and beliefs have been passed down the family line for many generations.
Wicca tends to have more formal, organised and set ritual practices than Druidism, though these can still be varied within the basic format, and is more often performed indoors. Druids like to practice in a natural environment, and will often go to groves, woods or meadows, ancient sacred places, or even a back garden or public park, for their ceremonies. Another major difference is that one would usually belong to, or at least practice within, only one Wiccan tradition, while Druidism offers training in all three of its branches to those who are interested. Witchcraft can also have a more organised hierarchy than most Druidic groups, especially if you belong to a coven.
Many pagans also practice various forms of ‘magic’ – though not the kind you’ll see in a magic show or in Harry Potter! Some use wands, which they may have made themselves, and the woods, crystals and decorations may be carefully chosen for the particular qualities they bring to the item. In many ways, magick, as it often spelled (to distinguish it from other kinds of magic) is similar to some of the practices in other religions. For instance, the bread and wine in a Christian Mass or communion are taken as representing the body and blood of Christ. Basically, magick is a special, focused, form of intent, or the exercise of one’s will – some pagans call it ‘wishcraft’ – and it is often similar to praying. It can also involve special ceremonies and rituals, often with dedicated tools or particular ingredients, which help to focus your intent. Some practice simple spellcraft or candle magic, while others invoke the help of deities, nature spirits, faeries, elementals, or other supernatural beings. However, as mentioned above, all sensible pagans try to avoid harming others and many include the words ‘an it harm none, so mote [may] it be’, or other similar wording, at the end of their working.
The purpose of ritual is to help with focusing the mind, for an individual or a group, on the spell, wish, or intent, to improve the chances of its success. It is said that the adverse wind that drove off the Spanish Armada was caused by a group of Traditional Witches, and there are many stories from the medieval period of spells being cast – for both good and ill – and the amazing effects they had on the world or the people around them. At its simplest level, however, paganism can involve little more than what the village wise woman or healer would have done throughout history – the use of will and intent to create a desired outcome, perhaps together with a knowledge of herbs, simples and, today, essential oils and other healing methods, to help people live happier and healthier lives.