Paganism is an umbrella term for a range of traditions, often rooted in ancient European sources. They are related to the landscape and climate of their origin and have been reconstructed or recreated for the modern world, using archaeological discoveries, folklore and any still existing contemporary texts. Paganisms are often polytheistic or pantheistic and frequently associated with encountering the sacred in nature, although not in all cases.
A convention has grown up to use Paganism with a capital P for contemporary ‘Western’ Paganism seen as a current religion, and paganism with a small p for the various traditions so labelled in the past. It is important to distinguish between Paganism as considered here and other uses of the word, such as the pejorative use found in Abrahamic traditions with overtones of idolatry, immorality and meaningless ritual. Sometimes ‘pagan’ is used to mean any religion other than Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
Paganisms include Druidry, Wicca, Goddess spirituality, as well as those traditions which seek to reconstruct ancient paganisms such as modern Heathenry and Asatru (Norse traditions), Religio-Romano (Roman), Helenismos (Greek), Kemeticism (Egyptian) and contemporary forms of animism and shamanism.
The following takes the view that Paganism, although drawing upon elements of what is known about ancient paganisms, is basically of recent, recreated or reconstructed origin rather than being ‘the old religion’, predating Christianity, as sometimes claimed. Historians, notably Ronald Hutton, have shown that the there is little or no evidence for the idea of a continuing tradition, surviving underground during the Christian centuries of Europe.
In addition, Paganism is typical of a new form of contemporary religiosity that is different from the format of traditional ‘religions’ that have existed for thousands of years, especially from the concept of ‘religion’ derived from Christianity. So Paganism is not centrally about ‘beliefs’ or ‘faith’ except in the case of some reconstructed Pagan traditions, but is based on personal experience and a general outlook on life. There are aspects of ancient European traditions that would now be rejected such as animal sacrifice.
With regard to Heathenry, Ancient Heathenry refers to the way of life of the pre-Christian Germanic-speaking peoples of much of North and Western Europe, from the Iron Age through until the conversion; such as the Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Goths, and Norse. These ancient Heathen cultures died out, so there are no ethnic Heathens today. The ways are slowly being reconstructed by small communities of enthusiasts from what can be known of the originals, and it may be that within a few generations there will be living Heathen communities again.
There is no list of doctrines that must be assented to, and Pagans may have a variety of beliefs. It is up to the individual. This new form of religiosity has been described by Paul Heelas and others as the ‘spiritual revolution’, a ‘subjective turn’ from organised religion, external authorities, a theistic deity ‘out there’ to a looser form of spirituality which is personal and undogmatic. The individual can take elements from a variety of traditions eclectically, and one does sometimes hear Pagans talk about, for example, ‘karma’. It could be described as ‘i-religion’, where ‘i’ stands for individual, interactive, information and internet. Having said that, there are generalisations that can be made about beliefs, and organisations that have meetings and websites. Paganisms are living traditions that are constantly evolving through the input and expression of the individuals following Pagan traditions, remembering the core of those traditions. It will be interesting to see if Paganism becomes more ‘organised’ as it develops or whether this is a permanent alteration to our concept of ‘religion’.
A fundamental tenet of much of Paganism is the sacredness of nature. Paganism has been jokingly described as ‘the Green Party at prayer’ and certainly the Pagan worldview generally fits very well with environmentalist and ecological concerns. The divine is often seen as immanent in nature, rather than transcendent. This may be expressed in a variety of ways – pantheistically as the creative life force or energy within all things, animistically as respecting all ‘other-than-human-lives’ as sacred, polytheistically as different deities being responsible for different aspects of life, or seeing the whole of nature as the Goddess. However expressed, it is an affirmation of the physical, often a denial of a spirit/matter dichotomy and a celebration of the interdependence of all things.
When it comes to deity or deities, Pagans differ. Some may use polytheistic language, referring to ancient deities such as Isis from Egypt, Diana from Rome, and Rhiannon from Wales. Some may prioritise ‘The Goddess’. Wiccans may speak of the God and the Goddess, but may also speak of the universal energy behind both, which is neither male nor female. Occasionally a Pagan might accept the concept of God, but a deity understood as immanent rather than the transcendent deity of Abrahamic traditions. There is a tendency, also found in Hinduism, of reconciling polytheism and pantheism through an idea of levels of truth – thus for example, followers of Goddess spirituality may name many goddesses, but at a deeper level all are aspects of the one Goddess with a capital G. ‘Hard’ polytheists would disagree, believing in a pantheon of deities, each with their own, individual existences. Kemetics, who are reconstructing Egyptian polytheism, may see deities as individuals that also merge together.
There is also something of a spectrum of belief as to how ‘real’ Deity or deities are. The spectrum is partly because Paganisms draw from a variety of ancient traditions, which varied in landscape and climate and therefore distinctiveness of deities, and also from a variety of factors in our contemporary culture. There is a growing number of Pagan atheists, for example.
Heathenry is a modern religion reconstructed from an ancient one. Reconstruction is a methodology, and varies in application. At root it simply involves looking at sources to learn about the ways of the heathens of old, and then implementing elements of that in the here and now. It may just mean learning the names of the gods from ancient poems and writings, such as the Edda, but in the main it means studying all relevant sources from which an underlying ancient worldview can be discerned (explaining *why* actions were taken), and then endeavouring to live that worldview in the most practical and effective sense in the here and now. Different Heathen communities will lay different emphasis on different elements of the ancient worldview, and live them differently, creating communities with recognisable similarities and variations, much as would have been found in pre-Christian Europe.
However ‘real’ the deities are perceived to be, there is a strong commitment to the power of myth to express truth, and many Pagans interpret the language of gods and goddesses, spirits and fairies as poetic, metaphorical, psychological or other non-realist ways of expressing important truths about life. Others may have a more realist approach, with various in-between or agnostic positions.
Paganism tends to focus on living this life rather than speculating about life after death. However, many Pagans believe in some form of reincarnation, as the ancient Druids did, according to Roman writers. Others have a more humanist approach, seeing death as our return to the earth, our physical body returning to the elements and any continuation being through the memories of those who loved us and the influence of our achievements. There is also the concept of the Summerlands as a destination after death in some traditions, which could be compared with an “Elysian fields” final destination as found in Greek mythology. There are a range of perspectives and beliefs about death and what comes next, varying from Pagan tradition to Pagan tradition.
One notable side of a Pagan outlook, especially animistic Paganism, is that humans take less of a central role in the universe, but are seen as equal partners in an interdependent ecology with other life-forms such as animals and plants.
The main source of authority in Paganism is experience, personal and shared. The ultimate authority is yourself and your own experience of life, rather than a deity that demands obedience, a definitive holy book, a divinely appointed leader, or hierarchy of priests. In traditional religions most of the founders, leaders, and composers of texts tend to be male, so the prioritising of experience is particularly attractive to women and those whose views lean more towards equality of genders. Feminist writers have emphasised the importance of women’s experience, both individual and shared, as authoritative. Paganism thus generally reflects the assumptions of democracy and equality in contemporary thought, though of course not in all manifestations. Some Reconstructionist traditions, for example, have very specific views on gender roles.
Paganism is not a ‘religion of the book’ and there is no holy book. If revelation – as Harvey points out, not a central concept in Paganism – is said to occur, it is not in the form of sacred text revealed to prophets and messengers but insights granted from observing nature or interacting with deities, animals, plants, mountains and rivers. The word ‘inspiration’ is more commonly found, and Druid bards speak of accessing ‘awen’, the creative force flowing through all nature.
Nevertheless, some authority may be given to leaders and authors within particular traditions of Paganism who are respected because of their long experience and ability to teach and/or take leadership roles, and there are people recognised as High Priestesses and High Priests within Wicca, Archdruids within Druid orders, or priestesses within Goddess spirituality. Books and articles, as well as blogs and internet sites, or distance learning courses, authored by respected Pagans may also be said to have a certain authority.
Unlike some other forms of Paganism, there is relevant source material available for Heathen study drawn from historical texts and inscriptions, archaeology, linguistics, comparative religion and mythology, folklore researches and so on. From this, the following are commonly understood as important elements of the Heathen worldview:
If Paganism is seen as the ancient human response to the sacredness of nature then it is as old as humanity and no founder can be identified. However, contemporary Paganism, or at least strands within it, can point to people who could be seen as founders, for example Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) is often seen as the founder of Wicca in the 1950s, although he himself claimed to be publicising an ancient tradition, and Ross Nichols (1902-1975) founded the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids in 1964. Gardner and Nichols were friends, which to some extent helps to justify linking Wicca and Druidry together in the category of contemporary Paganism. Both men were drawing on earlier groups and traditions, such as the 18th century romantic revival of Druidry, secret societies such as Freemasonry, and the esoteric practice of magic within Christian and Jewish cultures. Doreen Valiente (1922-1999), another younger companion of Gardner, is sometimes seen as ‘the Mother of Witchcraft’.
In the present, although it unlikely that they would claim to be exemplars, well-known Pagans in Britain include Philip Carr-Gomm, leader of the worldwide Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids; Philip Shallcrass (Greywolf), chief of the British Druid Order; Vivianne Crowley, who has written many books on Wicca; Kathy Jones, co-founder of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple; and Emma Restall-Orr, who founded the Druid Network (although on her current website she states that she no longer identifies as Druid). Prudence Jones, who was President of the Pagan Federation from 1979-91, is an important spokesperson for Paganism. In the USA, Starhawk, Wiccan and founder of the Reclaiming Collective, has been very influential with her feminist, environmentalist and politically activist form of Wiccan Paganism. Other influential spokespersons for Pagan traditions in the USA might include Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary and Isaac Bonewits. It is perhaps significant that these leading figures are all authors. Books, and to a lesser but increasing extent websites, are important ways in which Pagan ideas are spread. There are also several academics who both write about and would identify as or in some way sympathise with Paganism, such as Ronald Hutton, Graham Harvey, Michael York and Joanne Pearson and there are authors including Philip Heselton, who has researched and written biographies of both Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente.
In addition to the UK and the US, mention should be made of the Wiccan organisation, “Silver Circle”, founded in 1979 in the Netherlands, by Merlin & Morgana, who have been producing the magazine Wiccan Rede. Silver Circle and Pagan Federation International have been supporting the spread and growth of Pagan traditions in Europe and further afield. They have been producing the magazine Wiccan Rede www.wiccanrede.org since 1980, which presents articles that are now translated into German, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Russian and Turkish.