Paganism is the oldest religion known to humankind. Its origins are obscure, but it is thought to have arisen with humanity’s desire to explore the unknown and seek unity with the divine force. Therefore Paganism has no founders, no earthly leaders, no prophets, no messiahs and no saints.
The word Pagan is derived from the Latin Paganus, meaning “a civilian”, and Pagus meaning “a village”, and it was the term the Romans used for the village or country dwellers whom they found when they invaded Britain. Likewise, Heathen was the term used for those living in the heath lands.
Modern Pagans follow a religion that is as old as humanity, but whose practices have been adapted to suit life in the modern world. The concepts which are vital to sustain life in the by-gone days, are revered and their principles have been retained. The term “Pagan” describes the Pagan heritage, and the affinity that modern Pagans feel with nature.
Pagans see divinity expressed in every part of the universe. The Earth, the plants, the stars, and the void are all part of one great, divine source to the Pagan. Pagans do not “worship” trees or rocks, however they do revere the divine life force which is contained within every part of the universe. Many religions teach that divinity is present everywhere - in ourselves, in animals, plants, rocks, the oceans, and can easily be seen in the phases of the Moon and changing seasons. It is not something which is abstract and aloof - divinity is a part of the very fabric of our being.
Because divinity to Pagans is a reality, not an abstract concept, it is perceived in many forms, but primarily as a Goddess and God, who have many names and aspects.
There are many different paths of Paganism, just as there are many different traditions within Christianity, Islam etc. Pagan religions include Hinduism, Wicca, Shinto, Druidry, Asatru and Witchcraft. Paganism is a valid and spiritually fulfilling path for many thousands of people, from all over the world.
Paganism does not claim to be the “one true way”, nor does it suggest that other religions are somehow wrong, or misguided, or inappropriate in today’s world. All spiritual paths lead to the divine source - Paganism is but one way.
Examples of Pagan Traditions
There are numerous traditions under the generic classification of Paganism. Whilst they all share a common thread, their individual practices and beliefs may differ greatly. Most traditions emphasise the equality of men and women. However, some traditions are more specifically geared towards exploring either the male, or the female, mysteries. A brief summary of the Pagan traditions most commonly practised today follows. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, simply a guide to the more well-known paths within the religion.
Asatru / Norse Paganism
With its origin in Northern Europe, this tradition is practised today by those who feel an affinity with their Nordic and Teutonic ancestors, and who wish to study the Sagas, Eddas and Runes. Asatru and Norse Paganism encourages a sense of responsibility and spiritual growth, often within the context of noble warrior traditions.
This is native to the Celtic and Gaelic races, and is practised by a great many people in Australia and New Zealand today, who still feel a strong connection to their Celtic-Gaelic roots. The essence and the teachings of the Celtic religion were encoded into the ancient legends, which were transmitted orally by the bards to the people. Modern Celtic Pagans are seeking to re-introduce this wealth of myth and knowledge into our modern world. (With thanks to Clan Dalriada)
A tradition which honours and celebrates the feminine aspects of divinity. Women are accorded great respect, and rituals are often designed to empower women with a sense of their own inherent spirituality and value.
The modern tradition of Druidry emphasises artistic skills such as poetry and music, and often encourages its members to undertake a study programme in these, and other more academic disciplines.
Many Pagans today do not follow, a specific tradition, but actively work to save the Earth from further desecration, and honour the land upon which we live as a sacred representation of the Earth Mother. This style of religion often has no formal rites or methods of worship, but encourages each individual to honour divinity by caring for the Earth and all its creatures.
Many modern Pagan traditions are based upon the practices of a particular ethnic group, some modern, some ancient. In this category would come traditions such as Hellenic, Roman or Egyptian Paganism, as well as modern traditions continued by their ethnic groups; for example, voodoo, Santeria and Native American Indian traditions. This would also include the native Pagan traditions of the Pacific, and Australia’s Aboriginal people.
A collection of practices which have become popular with modern male Pagans, seeking to explore their own sacred manhood. Different to patriarchal religions, these mysteries are focused towards spiritual growth gained through solitary or small group practice.
Shamanism utilises skills and practices such as travelling in the spirit realms, tree lore, herb lore, and the use of totem animals. The tribal shaman was often responsible for spiritual matters within the tribe, and also for matters connected with birth, death and healing. Shamans are able to speak with the tribal ancestors and gain knowledge for the use of the tribe. These same practices are used in non-tribal societies today by many modern Pagan men and women.
This is a modern revival of the ancient folkloric and magical practices of Europe. Wiccans generally perceive divinity in the form of a Goddess and a God, who have many different aspects. Most Wiccans celebrate eight Festivals each year, and hold meetings in accordance with the phases of the Moon. There are several traditions within Wicca, and each has its own set of rituals and practices.
The popular revival of European Witchcraft (an ancient fertility religion) honours the Horned God and Goddess. Also called The Old Religion, its modern practitioners are often skilled herbalists and healers; their practices and techniques are similar in many ways to those of the tribal shaman, the village Wise-woman and Cunning-man.
The spiritual or religious beliefs of Pagans are that deity is both imminent and transcendent. Deity is therefore a part of the fabric of our being, of our environment, and of that which is beyond anything we can imagine.
Deity is perceived as both male and female. God is seen in many ways, and expressed in our worship as the male principle; all of the male Pagan deities are accepted as aspects of God. Goddess is seen in many ways, and expresses the female principle. All of the female Pagan deities are accepted as aspects of Goddess.
Pagans do not believe in a dualistic viewpoint of absolute opposites; of “good versus evil”. Pagans believe that all things exist in their own place, and that we should strive for dynamic balance and harmony. Extremism of any form does not have a place within the Pagan philosophy.
Most Pagans believe in reincarnation. There is a strong affinity with the idea of cyclical life patterns, which do not cease with the death of the physical body. Most Pagans have no concept which could be described as heaven or hell in the commonly-used Christian sense. However, Northern Pagan traditions encompass both a heaven and a hell, with a sophisticated philosophy which describes the operation of these realms. Briefly, Heaven (Asgard) is a final resting place, and Hell (Hel) is a place of rest, from where souls may chose to be re-born. In the Northern Traditions, Hel is not a place of damnation or torture.
The Wiccan religion has what is called “The Summerlands”; a place where souls find rest before being re-born into the physical world. The Druid belief in reincarnation is confirmed many times in classical sources; e.g. Posidonius (quoted by Diodorus): writes that the Druids believe that “...the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years they live a second life when the soul passes to another body.” Julius Caesar wrote: “The cardinal doctrine which they seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another; and this belief, as the fear of death is thereby cast aside, they hold to be the greatest invective to valour.”
Each Pagan religion has its own philosophy about the afterlife, and about reincarnation. Individual Pagans may also have their own philosophy about these subjects, for the Pagan religions do not have a dogma, or strict set of teachings, which all Pagans must follow.
Paganism is one of the so-called “Mystery Paths”, where each individual has direct experience of divinity. Although it is becoming more common for Pagan Priests and Priestesses to administer rites to a group of people, individual experience of divinity remains the primary objective for most practising Pagans. This differs significantly from most State religions, where a figure of authority performs rites, and mediates the divine force, on behalf of a congregation. In most Pagan religions, each individual is a Priest or Priestess in his or her own right.
Pagans do not “worship” trees or rocks; however, they do revere the divine force which is contained within trees, rocks, and within every part of the universe. Pagans do not worship a saviour, or other spiritual leader. The emphasis is upon each individual’s spiritual enlightenment, and responsibility for this is not abdicated to another person. The practice of Paganism is a voyage of self-discovery, and the discovery of one’s own place within the divine realm. Paganism is not, therefore, a cult, for a cult has a leader, and Paganism has none. Individual groups will often be led by one or two people who are experienced in the practice of the religion, but such people have no influence outside of their own group or tradition.
Religious Practices: Worship
Pagans believe that each individual has the right to worship in their own way; there is no legislation that requires Pagans to follow any prescribed manner of worship. Some Pagans worship in a formal manner; others have a more instinctive and unconscious mode of acknowledging and communicating with Goddess and God. Some Pagans prefer to make their worship a private affair; others gather in groups and make their worship a communion with each other, as well as with Goddess and God.
Like most religions, Paganism has Rites of Passage, with some traditions having a formal set of rituals for birth, marriage and death. Those Pagan religions which adhere most closely to the “Mystery Path” will also have rites of initiation. These are designed to effect a spiritual awakening within the initiate, and do not include such practices as animal or human sacrifice, nor any activity which is against the wishes or ethics of the initiate.
Rituals to celebrate a birth, which often include a naming ceremony, do not promise the child to the religion, in the way of a Christian baptism. The parents of the child will often ask for divine guidance and protection for their child, but will not make any promises about bringing the child up in a particular faith.
It is a strong Pagan belief that each individual must follow his or her own path. Children are taught to honour their family and friends; to have integrity, honesty and loyalty; to treat the Earth as sacred, and to love and respect all forms of life. Other than these basic teachings, children are encouraged to question, and to find their own spiritual path. Many Pagan parents will ensure that their children are exposed to the teachings of a number of religions, so that the child receives a well-balanced spiritual education.
Religious Practices: Holy Days
To Pagans, every day is a holy day, but there are a number of Festival celebrations which are held throughout the year. The Festivals, and the time on which they are celebrated, varies. Within each tradition, there are commonalities, but these are by no means definitive across the whole religion. Perhaps the best known is the cycle of Festivals celebrated by many Pagans, including the Wiccan tradition, and modern Druids. There are eight Festivals, being Samhain, Yule, Imbolg (also known as Candlemas), Spring Equinox (also known as Eostre), Beltane, Litha (Midsummer), and the Autumn Equinox (also known as Mabon). These festivals are derived from Celtic and Saxon sources, and their essence has remained in modern society through folk memory, and in many rural traditions. Other Pagan traditions celebrate the turning of the seasons with four Festivals to mark Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. As always with Paganism, the emphasis is upon what is meaningful for each individual, rather than a strict adherence to a rigid doctrine.
Paganism in Australia
The earliest incidence of revived European Paganism in Australia is unknown, but there are reports of witches meeting in Canberra, ACT, during the 1920’s. Many immigrants brought their own traditions and practices with them, and since the 1970’s, numerous books have been published about the revived Pagan religions and their practices.
Although laws against “the pretence of witchcraft” remain on the statute books in a few places, the modern Pagan in Australia can practice his or her religion without fear. Pagans remain the target of mainstream fundamentalist fanatics, but thankfully, fewer and fewer rational people are taking fundamentalist absurdities seriously. However, for this reason, and because bigotry still exists in many places, some Pagans practise their religion privately, and prefer not to make their beliefs public.
Some Pagans are prepared to be public spokespersons for their religion, and through the Pagan Alliance, and other similar organisations, have provided accurate and sensible information to the media, police forces, local government organisations, child care agencies, health centres, and so on.
Because Paganism stresses the importance of individuality, there are few, if any, widespread customs. A sense of the sanctity of the natural world, concern for the environment, and acceptance that we are socially responsible to our fellow-creatures, dictates the kind of customs which most Pagans follow.
There are no dietary requirements, or any prohibitions within the Pagan philosophy. Those who follow a vegan / vegetarian diet, or who abstain from alcohol, tobacco, etc., do so out of choice, not tenets of faith. There are no laws of blasphemy, and conflict between individuals remains the responsibility and concern of those who are involved. There are no penances, or any other form of religious punishments.
Paganism does not legislate where matters of morality and ethics are concerned. It is up to each individual to be responsible for their own viewpoints and decisions. The religion itself does not promote nor condemn practices related to sexual activity, procreation, use of alcohol and other mind altering substances. Individual Pagans may hold viewpoints on one or more of these issues, however, they are PERSONAL viewpoints, and not the considered opinion of the religion per se.
Pagans have a high regard for the equality of the sexes, and do not suppress the feminine principle in the way that many other religions seem to do. Pagan Priestesses have the same status as Priests; in some traditions, they have primacy in leading the religious practices.
Many Pagans acknowledge the concept of “Elders”; those from the community who, by virtue of their training or experience, have a greater understanding of social, moral and practical matters. Pagans who gather together (either formally or informally) as a group, will often look to those who lead the group for guidance on moral issues and socially accepted behaviour. However, it is a fundamental aspect of Paganism that each individual must accept full responsibility for their own actions. There is no “confession” or other absolution to devolve responsibility to another person, or to God and/or Goddess.
Pagans are not concerned with perverting the sacred symbols, beliefs, or practices, of any other religion.
Pagans do not perform sacrifices (other than of their own energy and time), and are not opposed to any other religious beliefs.
Pagans do not sexually abuse children; quite the contrary. Despite many hysterical claims of sexual abuse by witches and other occultists, none has ever been proven to be true. For a Pagan to abuse a child is total anathema. It is contrary to everything that we hold close to our hearts. Our children are our future, and a part of the ultimate divine source. Pagan children are born in love and unity; they are sacred, and are treated as such.