Pagans make great use of stories and myths, particularly from sources such as the Welsh Mabinogion, or classical Rome and Greece, but also from the heritage of the whole world. A myth in this context is a significant story, often ancient, which deals with ultimate issues in life such as how the universe arose and why things are as they are. Such stories explore deep feelings and express important truths. Whether the story ‘really happened’ is not important and indeed asking such a question is missing the point. Some Pagan stories or motifs turn out not to be ancient myths but taken from nineteenth or twentieth century literature, such as Leland’s Aradia or Robert Graves The White Goddess or even novels. This is not seen as a problem, and some younger Pagans are happy to draw upon images and storylines from film, television, and digital media.
One popular story for Druids is the tale of Ceridwen’s cauldron from the Mabinogion. This explains how the Bard Taliesen gained poetic inspiration and magical powers by ingesting three drops from a potion brewed by Ceridwen meant for her own son. Symbolically the cauldron stands for the source of all poetic and artistic inspiration (awen) which often seems to come from somewhere outside of ourselves and/or deep inside us. The cauldron is also a symbol of the womb and thus of birth and new life. Druids and other Pagans seek to be open to this fount of creativity.
Ancient Druids left no written texts but Hellenics and followers of Religio-Romano might draw upon classical Greek or Roman authors and Kemetics can draw on archaeological research material for their myths.
With both ritual and myth being so important in Paganism, symbolic artefacts, actions and persons also feature largely. A symbol in a religious context is something that stands for or points to something else, but often a ‘something else’ which cannot easily be expressed in non-symbolic language, being profound and ineffable. Symbol, myth and ritual help to ‘express the inexpressible’. Often symbols are not arbitrarily chosen, but seem to have some innate or perhaps psychologically powerful connection with the truth symbolised.
Many symbols used by Pagans, especially Wiccans, are taken from the history of magical practice. The importance of the circle has already been mentioned. Circles were cast in traditional magic to protect the practitioner from negative forces while engaging in ritual, but the circle also symbolises eternity and the cycle of the seasons or birth and death. A modern interpretation adds that when people stand in a circle they are all equal. The four directions – north, south, east, west – and the four elements earth, fire, air and water – have importance in ritual and are given a variety of meanings, but link human ritual clearly to the physical world. Candles and incense are used in rituals, again different flavours of incense may be used for different purposes.
Wiccans use a ritual knife or athame, not to sacrifice anything, indeed, it is not meant to cut anything in the physical world, but to direct energy, such as when casting the circle, and cutting a portal in the circle to allow admission or exit during ritual, thereby retaining the sacred nature of the space. It also symbolises the masculine in relation to the chalice or cup which symbolises the feminine.
The five-pointed star or pentagram is an ancient symbol identifying the human (four limbs and the head) with the universe (the five elements, adding ‘ether’ to the four). It was also a symbol of the star Venus. If within a circle, the star is usually called a pentacle. The pentacle is often worn as a pendant or earrings or on a bracelet by Pagans to announce their identity. Sun, moon and stars, flowers, trees, animals and birds are also important in expressing the connections between the human and the rest of nature.
Symbols for other Pagan and Heathen traditions might include: Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer), the Awen symbol in Druidry, and the double-headed axe symbolising the Goddess. The Egyptian Ankh is a very popular symbol, among Pagans and non-Pagans, although it rarely means that the wearer practises Kemeticism.
Creativity is very important to Pagans, as a general approach to life as well as ritual and story. Many Pagans are poets, artists and musicians and use these skills in Pagan ceremonies. Pagan ritual is a form of dramatic performance, often using scripts, costumes and ‘props’. Drumming is a very important part of Pagan practice when influenced by Shamanic practice (a ‘shaman’ is a general term used by scholars of religion to indicate a person, originally from an ‘indigenous’ society, who is able to reach altered states of consciousness, and for example discover the cause of an illness or communicate with spirits). Dancing is often a part of Pagan ceremony. Artefacts from ancient pagan societies such as copies of goddess figurines discovered by archaeologists may be collected. Art from ‘indigenous’ culture such as native Americans or Australian aboriginal people and Celtic and Germanic art forms may be admired. All the arts are used to stimulate emotion and inspiration, and ultimately bring about change and transformation in the individual, the community and the wider world.
Contemporary Pagans, unlike ancient pagans, tend not to have temples or dedicated places of worship, but conduct rituals wherever seems appropriate. This could be in a favourite woodland or (for individuals) your own bedroom. Sites associated with the ancient pre-Christian past, such as stone circles or hilltops with a local legend may be favoured. One exception to the rule is the Goddess Temple in Glastonbury. This was the first new temple to the Goddess in Europe, but there are now several more. The temple has many statues and paintings of goddesses and is decorated in different colours to reflect the Wheel of the Year (for example, Green and Yellow for the Spring Equinox and Red for Beltane).
The concept of pilgrimage as such is not really developed in Paganism, though Pagans may well visit places associated with Pagan practice such as Stonehenge, Avebury, or Glastonbury, especially at festival times.
The British Druid Order (BDO) promotes pilgrimage in their courses. Philip Carr-Gomm’s book, ‘The Druid Way’, also promotes the concept of pilgrimage. Some Pagans who visit Stonehenge for the solstice will engage in a pilgrims’ walk from Avebury to Stonehenge. With the placing of blue plaques on the homes of Doreen Valiente in Brighton and Gerald Gardner in Dorset, there is the possibility of pilgrimages to visit those sites.