There is no holy book that sets out how to live, and there are many different ways of living a Pagan life, which is seen as the choice of the individual. Nevertheless, some generalisations can be made. Contemporary Pagans tend to have a life-affirming attitude, life as something to be enjoyed rather than endured. The body and sexuality are viewed positively, and there is little talk of renunciation or asceticism, although in practice Pagans may endure hardships as a necessary part of something that needs to be achieved, for example sleeping outside as part of a protest against ecologically damaging ‘development’. Pagans seek to live in harmony with the rest of nature, and may choose lifestyles that minimise their use of natural resources and harm done to other beings and the natural environment. Thus in practice they may live lives of simplicity resembling those of renunciates in other traditions, but with different motivations. In general there is a love of freedom, respect for plurality and a non-judgemental approach to individual ways of living, so that people with less conventional lifestyles feel welcome in Pagan communities. There is a strong connection between Paganism and various ‘countercultural’ movements such as the ‘hippies’ of the 1960s, and later anti-war and environmental protestors, though there are also Pagans within ‘mainstream’ occupations such as schoolteachers or the police force.
With regard to modern Heathenry, to be Heathen you simply need to endeavour to adopt the worldview and do Heathen things. There is no limitation based on origin or background, all heathens will give worth to their ancestors, wherever they come from. There is also room to manoeuvre. Whilst most Heathens are polytheists, some are pantheist, or even atheist, and belief can happily remain a personal matter, with priority given to custom.
The central concept is reciprocity, or fair exchange for mutual benefit. Heathens will tend to be active in their community, even if it isn’t a Heathen one per se. Reciprocity is not solely important for family and community matters, but extends to other-than-human persons as well. Heathenry is embedded in a mythopoeic view which places importance on ancestors, landwights (spirits of the land), and gods, usually in that order. Ancestors are generally understood to come in three types, which may overlap: genetic, cultural, and those humans who dwelt on the land in past times, yet about whom we know little (prehistoric mound dwellers, for instance).
One way or another, ancestors, landwights, and gods are all worshipped. The first two groupings tend to be addressed as personal or family matters, the last more as a community matter, but there are no fixed distinctions. Worship tends to focus around the making of appropriate offerings in a sacred space. For ancestors and housewights the home itself is sacred, whereas landwights are understood to dwell at particular features of the landscape. The gods are the most widely known amongst Heathen communities, and the major ones and their iconography will be recognised everywhere, though there is yet no network of community temples for their worship.
Some Heathens will endeavour to work ‘magic’ for spiritual development or material effect, though this is a minority endeavour, generally not as high profile as such practices are in Paganism.
Pagans and Heathens are aware that there are always some people in every community who might try to take advantage of others sexually or in other ways. To that end, Pagan and Heathen organisations who are members of the Pagan and Heathen symposium have drawn up a code of conduct for use at events that outline what they collectively feel constitutes unacceptable behaviour and give some guidance on how they might address issues. It would be important to note that, whilst there is a great deal of freedom within Pagan traditions, this comes with the requirement of personal responsibility to act within a self-defining level of personal ethics that might also be judged by one’s peers within the Pagan community: http://pagansymposium.org/code.html
Ritual or ceremony is an important part of Pagan practice, and varies depending on the particular tradition of Paganism followed. Some forms of Paganism have rituals that are only shared with those who have reached a particular level of their path, and so are not disclosed to outsiders. This requirement for initiation they have in common with other esoteric traditions, such as the mystery religions of the Graeco-Roman world, or Tibetan Buddhist tantric practices. There are even echoes of such requirement for initiation in Christian practice, such as the ancient instruction for the ‘catechumens’ or the not yet baptised to leave the ceremony before the Eucharist, which has survived in the Christian Orthodox liturgy. One problem for esoteric traditions is that secrecy gives rise to rumour, and Pagans are keen to emphasise that they do not sacrifice babies and very few would say they worship Satan.
A particularly important part of this aspect of the mystery/esoteric traditions, is that the nature of the mystery is a personally revelatory one. Therefore, the nature of the revelations will vary from person to person, but also depending on the ‘level’ of revelation the person has experienced. So the ‘secrets’ are not something that can be shared due to the personal nature of the revelations gained.
Some Pagan ritual is described as ‘magic’ (spelt ‘magick’ by those who wish to distinguish it from stage magicians who perform tricks for entertainment). ‘Magic’ is a word that has many meanings, but the best way of understanding its meaning in this context is the use of symbolic action to bring about change or transformation.
Many contemporary Pagans tend to stress that the desired transformation is in ourselves, in our consciousness, giving magic a spiritual or psychological meaning. Some may believe that there is a power or powers in nature and/or ourselves that can actually bring about change in external reality such as healing. Roderick Main defines magic as ‘ritual activity intended to produce results without using the recognised causal processes of the physical world’ (2002:220), suggesting a contrast with scientific ways of achieving change. Some definitions of magic stress the imposition of the practitioner’s will upon events, and since the time of James Fraser (the beginning of the twentieth century) ‘magic’ has tended to be distinguished from ‘religion’ by the idea that in magic humans aim to control ‘supernatural’ forces, whereas in religion humans can only petition such forces for assistance. This is less of a modern Pagan perspective and more of a ‘High Magick’, occultist perspective.
It is difficult today with developments in the natural sciences and psychology as well as in religious and philosophical thinking to maintain such clear distinctions between magic and religion and even science. All three expect results of some kind and involve human interpretations. Understanding of how magic works depends upon prior metaphysical assumptions, as does understanding how prayer works. An interesting point made by Ronald Hutton (1999) is that magical practice may well be the one aspect of contemporary Paganism that can claim a continuity with the past, as some features such as the use of circles, pentagrams, the elements and the points of the compass, may indeed go back to Greco-Roman/Egyptian customs, filtered down the centuries through medieval Jewish and Christian practitioners of magic, and modern occultists.
However it is understood, ritual is an important part of many Pagan lives. Pagans may engage in rituals privately or in groups. It can take place indoors or outside to be closer to nature, perhaps in an ancient sacred site such as a stone circle or in a favourite place such as a wood or on the seashore, or much less commonly in a dedicated temple such as the Goddess temple in Glastonbury.
Ritual both expresses and establishes relationships between humans and the natural world, including any deities or spirits that may be recognised. Common features often include the casting of a circle, which establishes the sacred space and provides protection, or can be seen as symbolising eternity and equality.
Rituals often include invitations to ‘spirits of place’ and ancestors of blood (genetic) and of spirit (with whom members of the group identify). The four points of the compass and the four/five traditional elements may be marked. Often food and drink will be shared. What happens within the ritual can be simple or complicated, scripted or spontaneous.
Examples of some ‘open’ Pagan rituals can be found described by Viannah Rain (2015). She stresses the importance of casting the circle, of everyone involved participating, and the influence of mythology. One ritual she describes involves dressing up as and performing the part of a deity, symbolically ‘becoming’ the deity for the duration of the ritual. ‘Cakes and ale’, or the offering and sharing of food expresses our dependence on the earth and each other.
An important feature of contemporary Pagan ritual is that the individual or group can design the ritual themselves, to suit the occasion, or use or adapt something from an existing source. One interesting example of adaptation is that words from a ceremony composed by Philip Shallcrass and Emma Restall Orr for an inter-faith gathering at Avebury in 1993 were used for the closing ceremony of the Paralympics in 2012.
This ritual framework is not consistent in all Pagan traditions, and ritual can be markedly different in some.
It seems to be a common human desire to use ritual to mark important stages in life, and life-cycle rites tend to be found in most religions. Pagan rituals may include those for new babies, ‘handfasting’ for couples who want to publically acknowledge their partnership, and funerals. In addition, there may, especially in Goddess spirituality, be ceremonies to mark stages in women’s lives such as first menstruation and its cessation.
For those traditions that have different degrees or levels of attainment, there will be ceremonies to mark those stages. A local Pagan priestess commented that she is often called upon to celebrate weddings and welcome babies, even by those who do not call themselves Pagan, an attraction of a Pagan ceremony being that it can be customised to suit those involved. See, e.g., http://www.liferites.org.uk/ and http://www.pagan-transitions.org.uk/
One thing that unites many contemporary Pagans (excepting reconstructionist traditions) is celebrating the Wheel of the Year, eight festivals that mark the changing seasons. Although some of the individual festivals are ancient Celtic/Irish in origin, the current combination of four Celtic festivals with the two solstices and two equinoxes (these events celebrated in many pagan and other religions worldwide) into a pattern of eight equally important festivals does not seem to be traceable back earlier than the 1950s, when put together by Gardner and adopted by Nichols in 1964 (Hutton, 1999). Wiccans, Druids and Goddess devotees all celebrate the Wheel of the Year.
The year begins with the Celtic New Year of Samhain, ‘summer’s end’, (31st Oct/1st November), a time when the veil between the human world and the other world of the spirits is said to be thin. It is a time to remember the dead. It may have been adopted for the Christian celebrations of All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November). It has also mutated into contemporary celebrations of Halloween (which means the night before All Saints Day) and Pagan, Christian and secular/commercial elements are now very hard to disentangle, as they are in many of the seasonal festivals. Bonfires (perhaps Bonfire night is older than Guy Fawkes) are lit to remind the sun to return, and apple-bobbing may symbolise death and rebirth or may be just a fun folk custom.
Yule, or the winter solstice (21st December) marks the rebirth of the sun. Candles, lights, round sun-shaped decorations and evergreen plants remind people in mid-winter that warmth and life will return. It seems a highly appropriate time of year for Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus, with similar symbolism.
Imbolc, 1st February, marks the very beginning of spring, when snowdrops and early lambs appear. Candles are lit to strengthen the lengthening days. The Christian festival of Candlemas on the same day celebrates the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple. The goddess Brighid, or Christian St. Bridget is also celebrated at this time.
The Spring Equinox or Ostara (c.21st March), when day and night are equal, celebrates the new life of spring, symbolised by spring flowers like daffodils, eggs and rabbits or hares. This is close in time to the Christian celebration of Easter, the new life of the resurrection of Jesus. Some Pagans believe that Eostre was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility, and that her name preserved in the English name for the Christian festival. However, there is some debate about the accuracy of that claim within the Pagan community.
Beltane (30th April/1st May) celebrates the beginning of summer and fertility. The choosing of May Queens in folk tradition may symbolise the goddess, and in Roman Catholic tradition Mary is celebrated a ‘Queen of the May’.
The Summer Solstice or Litha (c. 21st June) marks the longest day, and is celebrated notably at Stonehenge. This festival is celebrated either on the actual longest day (usually 21st or 22nd June) or on 24th June which was the date of midsummer in earlier times and is favoured by the British Druid Order (see, e.g., http://greywolf.druidry.co.uk/2015/06/merry-midsummer/). In Christian tradition 24th June is St. John’s Day (John the Baptist), not so much noticed in England, but very important in Scandinavian countries where midsummer bonfires are lit.
Lughnasadh (31st July/1st August), named after the Irish god Lugh, is the beginning of the harvest, with a theme of the death and rebirth of crops. The equivalent Christian festival is Lammas. The Autumn Equinox marks the turn to the dark half of the year.
Many of the Pagan festivals coincide with Christian ones as noted above, and this seems in part due to deliberate policy on the part of Christian authorities to ‘baptise’ existing celebrations and make use of the seasonal symbolism. However, the story is a complex one and influences may have worked both ways, remembering that the pattern of eight festivals is recent rather than ancient. Some customs may be Pagan adaptations of Christian ones, rather than the other way round.
Many seasonal folk traditions around the country are based on (or possibly more likely, given their often relatively recent origins) have gained a Pagan element in contemporary practice, examples being the ‘Jack in the Green’ celebrations for May day in Hastings, Rochester Sweeps, and wassailing the cider apple trees in Somerset.
As stated above, Paganism is not a revealed religion ‘of the book’ and there are no sacred scriptures as such. Perhaps the natural world could be said to be the sacred text. Some writings from the founders of contemporary Paganism have become well-known, with Doreen Valiente’s ‘Charge of the Goddess’ having become something of a sacred text for Wiccans. The following quotation gives a flavour of the language:
I, who am the beauty of the green Earth, and the white Moon amongst the stars, and the mystery of the waters, and the desire of the heart of man, call unto thy soul, arise and come to me.
For I am the soul of Nature who giveth life to the universe; from me all things proceed, and unto me all things must return.
Modern Heathens often draw on the prose and poetic Eddas (medieval Icelandic manuscripts), and reconstructionist eclectics might draw on other texts contemporary with their origins.