As stated earlier, ‘Paganism’ is an umbrella term covering many different groups as well as non-aligned individuals. Major traditions include Wicca, Druidry, Heathens, Shamans and Goddess devotees.
Wicca refers primarily to the initiatory tradition of witchcraft founded by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, which focuses on the Goddess and the God, although there are polytheist practitioners. There are however other forms of Wicca, such as ‘Alexandrian’ Wicca, which refers to followers of Alex Sanders who were separate from Gardnerian tradition, or Dianic Wicca which is usually for women only. ‘Wicca’ is also used in a more generalised way to mean any contemporary practitioners of Pagan witchcraft, who may prefer the term ‘wiccan’ to that of ‘witch’ in order to avoid negative associations of that word. It also refers to those who have developed their tradition by drawing upon published works about Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca.
There are several different Druid groups, the most well-known in the UK being the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), the British Druid Order (BDO) and the Druid Network. There are also more political groups such as the Loyal Arthurian Warband, and the Secular Order of Druids, as well as non-Pagan Druids who are connected with Welsh cultural identity. Druids draw upon Celtic traditions, and celebrate nature, especially the local landscape and the sun. Some Druids focus on solar festivals. Most have a broader focus, picking up on the Wheel of the Year, which includes four solar festivals. Indeed, it could be argued that Druids and Wiccans both work with solar and lunar calendars, and have done so for some time.
The term ‘Heathen‘ applies to groups focused on the Germanic gods and mythology, which are sometimes called ‘Northern’ traditions, or Asatru. Again, there are several different Heathen groups. Heathenism differs from other forms of Paganism in that there is more evidence for the old tradition which was still practised in some countries into the second millennium – for example Lithuania was only converted to Christianity in the fourteenth century, and in that it is based on a distinctive pantheon of polytheistic deities. It is recognised as a state religion in Iceland. Heathenism is sometimes seen as coming under the umbrella of ‘Paganism’ as being nature-worshipping and polytheistic, although as Heathenry has a largely different origin and content from modern Paganism, around half of modern Heathens do not identify as Pagan, nor prioritise involvement in Pagan socialising over others.
Heathen movements started independently in England, Iceland, and the USA during the 1970s. The small population of Iceland has enabled the maintenance of a largely centralised Heathen community, but in the UK and USA there are a number of communities, based on geographical distribution and/or particular approaches.
Most communities are aware of the breadth of source material, but tend to focus on one cultural instance, such as the Norse or Anglo-Saxon. Ultimately these are jumping off points, as the aim is not static re-enactment, but a living and vibrant religious and cultural stream.
Like Pagans, Heathens are generally strongly in favour of protecting the environment and supporting healthy ecosystems, though otherwise they come in all political flavours.
Shamanism, in the contemporary ‘Western’ sense, often refers to those who explore ways to interact with the realm of spirit through one of a variety of indigenous traditions such as ‘Native American’, Buryat, Huichol or Sami, or drawing on Michael Harner’s contemporary ‘Core Shamanism’, which identified common practice among many of the world’s shamanic cultures. Others might draw on the Celtic Shamanism identified in the work of John Matthews. The term shamanism is an anthropologists’ term for a wide range of indigenous cultural traditions from around the world involving trance like states to interact with spirits. The word has its origins with the Evenki in the Tungus region of Northern Asia and Siberia whose word saman is used to identify their ‘shaman’.
The purposes for entering into a trance like state in order to ‘journey’ to the spirit realm or the otherworlds are many, and may include seeking personal revelation, guidance for healing the self and others, a means to combat possible spiritual attack, or guidance on potential courses of action. A shamanic worldview incorporates concepts of animism and shamanic journeys will usually include working with plant or animal spirit allies.
There has been criticism of some ‘Western’ shamanism, arguing that it is cultural appropriation. However, many indigenous shamanic cultures have also acknowledged and respected the work of Western shamanic practitioners in their use of shamanic techniques from other cultures as a means of identifying potential elements for a reconstructed shamanic tradition such as Celtic shamanism.
Goddess spirituality celebrates the divine feminine. Goddesses from ancient traditions such as the Egyptian Isis, the Babylonian Ishtar, the Sumerian Inanna, the Roman Diana, the Phrygian Cybele/Artemis, or the Welsh Rhiannon and Ceridwen, are worshipped but generally seen as different forms of the one Great Goddess, Mother of all. It is argued from the archaeological evidence in places like Turkey that Goddess worship is the oldest form of religion, and this is often connected with the idea of a golden age of peace and harmony under a matriarchal society. Although there is little evidence for this lost paradise, the myth can act as inspiration for a better future. Goddess spirituality is empowering for women, but there are also male followers. The Goddess is not just a female version of the God of theism, in that the Goddess is not a transcendent deity but immanent in nature, indeed, the Goddess IS nature (see Reid-Bowen, 2007). The physical body is valued as is everything connected with female sexuality. Adherents of Goddess spirituality celebrate the Wheel of the Year and rituals very similar to Wiccans and Druids, and there is quite an overlap between feminist Wicca and Goddess spirituality, as can be seen for example in the writings of Starhawk.
Although there have been disagreements and schisms, generally there is little tension between different forms of Paganism as it tends to be seen as up to the individual to choose the tradition that most suits them. There is a very positive attitude to plurality, not just toleration, but a positive welcoming of diversity that Prudence Jones (1996) calls ‘strong pluralism’.