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A Basic Introduction to Paganism

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Pagans are generally people who have decided that the religion (or lack thereof) they were brought up with was not for them and have actively sought out an alternative, often researching many religious belief systems before settling into Paganism1. Because Pagans are an individualistic and independent bunch, a working definition of the term Paganism can be difficult to achieve, and there will always be those who identify as Pagans but don't fit the description. This, then, is an attempt at a basic definition of Paganism for those unfamiliar with the term.

Oxford English Dictionary Definition of Paganism

Paganism - noun. a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. Dated, derogatory: a non-Christian. An adherent of neopaganism.
Neopaganism - noun [mass noun] a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or ritual practices from traditions outside the main world religions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe and North America.

Practical Definition of Paganism

Paganism is an umbrella term for an aggregate of religious beliefs that are typically:

  • Ecocentric
  • Eurocentric
  • Non-monotheistic
  • Autonomous

Ecocentric - Pagans revere the Earth. Some see the Earth as a living system to be taken care of; some see the Earth as a living deity to be worshiped; some see the Earth as Spirit made manifest; some see the Earth as a combination of the three. Most Pagans engage in celebrations of the changing seasons, and see time in cyclical rather than linear terms.

Eurocentric - Most Pagan traditions2 are rooted in European folklore, customs, and traditions, though some take their inspiration from North American, African, or other cultures. Many Pagan traditions incorporate elements from a variety of pre-Christian or non-Christian belief and practice, borrowing those known practices that fit with the tradition's principles and beliefs. People of non-European heritage are in no way discouraged from Neopaganism; often, they have also researched and practise the religious traditions of their non-European ancestors, and bring this valuable experience to the Pagan community.

Non-monotheistic - While monotheism is the belief in and worship of only one deity, Pagans are generally pantheists (believing that the universe is the manifestation of deity, and that deity is therefore found in all things), polytheists (believing in many discrete deities), duotheists (believing in and worshiping only two deities, usually a god and goddess3, or monists (believing that all deities are part of a supreme deity) - or some combination of some or all. Some Pagans do not believe in deities, or see them as archetypes4 but revere Nature. Further, most Pagans accept and acknowledge the existence of Nature spirits and ancestral spirits; these beings may be central to a tradition or personal belief system or not, but are widely accepted and often engaged with through prayer and propitiation.

Autonomous - There are many regional, national, and international Pagan organisations but membership is typically on an individual basis. Pagans generally do not like being told what to do or how to think, and have often come to Paganism partly out of a desire to remove themselves from centrally-organised religion. Most organisations are created as networking systems, allowing Pagans from varying traditions to keep in touch, or members of particular traditions to co-ordinate their activities. Others have been created to allow Pagans from all paths to make their voices heard politically - anti-defamation organisations and those providing networking resources and help in obtaining recognised status as members of the clergy are prime examples. Many Pagans do not belong to any particular Pagan tradition or any organisation, but choose to identify as Pagans because they find enough overlaps between their beliefs, practices, and cosmologies and those of the various Pagan religions to be comfortable choosing this label for their worldview and practices. These solitary practitioners are not considered to be any more or less Pagan than Pagans who are members of specific traditions.

Pagan Religious Traditions

There are many Pagan religious traditions, but best known are Wicca, Druidism, and Asatru/Heathenry. Many Pagans are unhappy with or ambivalent about the co-option of the terms 'Wicca' and 'Wiccan' by television series and films to describe magical practitioners who apparently have no connection with Pagan beliefs. As the terms have become well-known, the Pagan Federation has reported a massive upsurge in requests for information from teenagers who have seen the TV series' Charmed, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer; however, most appear to lose interest when they discover that Wicca is a religion, and not a quick trip to supernatural power.

A further bone of contention is that because Wicca is the best known Pagan religion, non-Pagans (and sometimes new Pagans) tend to believe that all Pagans are Wiccans. Wicca is a distinct Pagan religion, a variety of Wiccan traditions5 exist, and there are many solitary Wiccans who either practise a specific tradition alone or belong to none but still follow the principles of Wicca. Alongside Wicca there are many Pagan religious traditions, and it is no more true that all Pagans are Wiccans than it is true that all Christians are Baptists .


Most Pagans accept or embrace the possibility of magic, though not all Pagans believe in or are comfortable with the concept. Many solitaries may practise magic, and many Pagan traditions make use of magic in their religious rituals. In these cases, the traditions or practices are defined as magical belief systems. The magic practised by Pagans may range from simple folk magic (such as burning a green candle to bring good luck and money) to complex spells involving a group of people in carefully choreographed rituals, to anywhere in between. The results of such spells are arguable - sceptics are unlikely to be convinced and believers are unlikely be dissuaded, just as is the case with the subject of the power of prayer. Interestingly, prayer, magic, and a variety of alternative and complementary therapies are now being studied by scientists under the umbrella term 'frontier medicine', and some 80 medical schools in the USA currently offer courses on the effects of such activities on recovery.

What is highly unlikely to occur, sadly, is the kind of special-effects magic one sees in films. Many is the Pagan who has longed at some point to turn an objectionable acquaintance into a newt - even if they were to end up getting better.


Many Pagans engage in ritual sacrifice to their gods and ancestral or nature spirits. Whilst sacrifice has, in western culture, taken on connotations of pain, suffering, and denial, the term comes from the root 'to make sacred'; thus a sacrifice is a sacred offering. Sacrifices typically take the form of food, drink, flowers, incenses, handmade items, and personal items of jewellery. Sacrifice is generally conceived of as a gift to a particular entity made in order to create and maintain a reciprocal relationship. Such gifts may be made as a matter of course during or after rituals or worship, for a specific purpose (ie, to seek or show thanks for spiritual help), or simply because the Pagan believes the entity will appreciate it. The more specific the purpose, especially when seeking help, the more important the sacrifice may be - it is often important to Pagans to give up something they hold especially dear, such as a beloved item of jewellery or an item they made for the occasion. Some Pagans may make sacrifices of a few strands of hair or a few drops of their blood - typically by pricking their thumbs.

In some Pagan traditions it may be acceptable to sacrifice an animal that will be then eaten by the group (eg, a pig may be slaughtered and then roasted to feed a large gathering. This can only be done where local laws allow). In these cases, though relatively rare, it must be noted that it is important to the Pagans carrying out such a sacrifice that the animal concerned be humanely reared and humanely slaughtered, as opposed to the often appalling conditions in intensive livestock farming and transportation, and in commercial abattoirs. The animal's spirit is then thanked and honoured by the group, and many would argue that this is evidence of a far more respectful attitude towards animals than simply going to the butcher's, picking up a cut of meat, and consuming it without considering its origin. Attitudes to this form of sacrifice differ greatly amongst the Pagan community.

Altar-ed States

Many, though not all, Pagans are fond of altars and shrines. These may be as simple as a couple of feathers and a stone on a bookshelf or a collection of stickers on a fridge door, or they may be wildly elaborate, heavily decorated, and take up an enormous amount of space. Altars and shrines are found in every religious and spiritual tradition in the world, and serve as a focus for personal or group devotions. They may best be described as gates between the worlds, conduits of energy and power from the individual or group to the entity or idea represented and back. Altars may be dedicated to a particular deity, ancestor, or spirit; to a group of such entities; or to every entity being revered. For example, a woman desiring physical and psychological strength might fill an altar with symbols of such strength - a small labrys (double-headed axe associated with goddess worship), a picture of an Amazon, a dumbbell, a stone, an ode to strength, the tarot card 'Strength', a statue of a god/dess associated with health or power, and anything else she might associate with the concept. An altar to someone's ancestors might include photos, birth certificates, personal items of the deceased, or if they have no such items or do not know their biological family, objects they associate with family and ancestry, such as statues of family groups, a piece of paper with a prayer to their ancestors written on it, and so on. A shrine to the Norse goddess Frigga might include a drop-spindle, yarn, keys, and a statue of Her. Popular items on Pagan altars include candles, incense, bowls of water and salt, feathers, stones, souvenirs from trips to beaches and forests, handmade items, statuary, and jewellery. Sometimes, Pagans make offerings of food and drink to their gods, Ancestors, or Spirits by placing them on the appropriate altar, and then disposing of them later. Some altars are permanent, others are set up only for specific rituals or during particular events.

The maintenance of altars and shrines is considered important, from simply keeping them clean to regular personal devotions, such as prayer and offerings. Those who make altars and shrines often speak of experiencing a greater sense of purpose and energy when their altars are properly maintained.

The Sacred Land

Regardless of their political leanings, Pagans are typically deeply concerned about the environment. Given their reverence for the Earth, it is not surprising that Pagans feel very strongly about this and about the preservation of ancient sites. Pagans often feel moved to visit sacred sites such as standing stones, barrows, and tumuli. Sadly, some visitors do not understand that burning candles and incense at such sites and taking souvenirs can cause irreparable damage. The Ancient Sacred Landscape Network exists to educate visitors to ancient sites. This article deals with the same issue.

While most Pagans feel attracted to ancient sacred sites, a growing number feel strongly about nurturing the Land Spirits of urban areas, arguing that the sense of alienation and disconnection felt by many people in urban environments can be ameliorated by building stronger connections with the sadly neglected spirits of these areas. It is felt that by affirming the sacredness of all places, including places one might not immediately think of as 'special', a healthier attitude to the Earth as a whole may result. It does, indeed, seem ironic that some Pagans who claim to revere the Sacred Land apparently don't pay the areas they live in much spiritual attention. Local environmental clean-ups, picking up litter, and involvement in local environmental and social justice issues are all ways of connecting with and showing respect for one's local Land Spirits.

Misconceptions And Stereotypes

As is the case with any minority, Pagans often find themselves combating misconceptions and stereotypes. The most persistent misconception is that Paganism is the same as Satanism, and/or is a 'cult'.

Typically, Pagans and religious Satanists do not share the same belief systems, though they may have some common ground in that most religious Satanists do not accept the Christian view of Satan, but see Satan as a powerful archetype of vigorous life-force demonised by the Church, whereas Pagans view their gods as powerful pre-Christian deities demonised by the Church. Neither group practises human sacrifice or 'ritual abuse', but both are forced to defend themselves from such accusations made by those ignorant of their actual beliefs. 'Satanic Panic' reached its apogee in the 1980s, but it's not entirely dead in the USA, even though FBI investigations have never found any evidence to substantiate these claims.

Someone once said that 'A cult is any religion lacking political power.' However much truth there may be in that, the word 'cult' as applied to minority faiths is known as a 'snarl word' - a term deliberately used to raise the hackles and set off warning bells. Technically, a cult is a system of veneration and religious devotion. All religions are, by definition, cults. In this sense, Paganism is an umbrella term for ecocentric cults. However, in general usage, 'cult' has gained negative connotations, especially of fanaticism and the control of adherents by a charismatic leader or highly authoritarian doctrine. In actual fact, Paganism is so decentralised, so diverse, so experiential, so fundamentally opposed to proselytising6 and so lacking in formal doctrine that it is almost impossible to accurately describe it as a 'cult' in this manner. Of course, in any religion or walk of life there are unstable and/or dangerous individuals, some of enough personal charm to gather vulnerable people around them in a 'cultish' organisation. Groups which do practise mind-control techniques, encourage fanaticism, and isolate adherents from those outside the group tend to be highly structured, centrally organised, authoritarian in nature, and have rigid doctrines. Isaac Bonewits, a well-known American Pagan, came up with the ingenious 'Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame' (praised by the Institute for Social Inventions) as a tool for practically assessing the dangers any given religious group might pose. Checking out any group you may care to join (religious or otherwise) is always a good idea.

Recommended Reading

There are many books currently available on the subject of Paganism. Only a handful are presented here:

  • Prof Ronald Hutton - The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain - Oxford University Press. The most comprehensive survey of British seasonal customs available. An invaluable resource.

  • Prof Ronald Hutton - The Triumph of the Moon - Oxford University Press. A 'must-have' history of Wicca, placing it in historical context, and thoroughly detailing the documented evidence for its creation and growth.

  • Dr Graham Harvey - Contemporary Paganism - New York University Press. Excellent survey of the contemporary British Pagan community.

  • Vivianne Crowley - Principles of Paganism - Harper Collins. No-nonsense guide to the basics of Pagansim.

  • Dr Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman, eds. - Paganism Today - Harper Collins. A collection of essays by British Pagans, exploring their religious beliefs.

The following books, published in the 1920s-1940s, were very influential in the early years of the Pagan movement, and extremely popular with the public. They are deeply flawed and should not be read or cited as factual sources, but they give an insight into the backdrop against which Paganism grew:

  • Robert Graves - The White Goddess - Faber and Faber. Graves intended this as a serious 'mythopoetic' book, not to be taken as historical fact. Its popularity with the growing Pagan movement, many of whom took it as an historical document, led him to publicly wish he'd never written it. Well worth it for the ideas, but certainly not as history.

  • Dr Margaret Murray - The God of the Witches - Senate Books. This extremely flawed book by a highly respected academic used problematic methodology to create the idea that medieval 'witches' were actually the remnants of a pre-Christian 'fertility cult' being oppressed by the Church. Gerald Gardner, a member of the British Folklore Society and founder of Wicca, was very influenced by it (and Murray, who was president of the Society, in general); however, academics immediately trashed its methodology, immense leaps in logic, and dubious conclusions. Fascinating as a document that helped shape Wicca.

  • Sir James George Frazer - The Golden Bough - Wordsworth Editions Ltd. Intended to demonstrate the superiority of monotheism over polytheism and pantheism, Frazer's 'Golden Bough' became immediately popular for its Romantic vision of pre-Christian beliefs, and helped prepare the ground for a Pagan 'revival'. An absolute tour-de-force of Victorian-style antiquarianism, completely ripped to shreds by contemporary scholars, this book is still sometimes cited as a factual source. The problems with this series have tended to overshadow Frazer's important contributions to the field.

Online Resources

  • The Pagan Federation is a UK-based organisation seeking to represent Pagans of all paths. The PF has regional representatives across the country, organises local and national gatherings, and provides media liaison. Their magazine, Pagan Dawn, is available online and in print.

  • UK Pagan is a British Pagan online community resource.

  • White Dragon is a highly regarded online and print British Pagan magazine; the online version contains a plethora of resources, links, and searchable articles and book reviews.

  • The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance provide excellent detailed information about every religion you can think of, and some you can't.

  • The homepage of Jenny Blain, an anthropologist, author, Heathen, and practitioner of seidhr,a form of oracular divination based on ancient Norse practices, often referred to as a kind of Norse shamanism.

  • The UK Pagan Links page is self-explanatory.

  • Kerr Cuhulain is a seasoned Canadian police officer and an 'out' Pagan. His series of in-depth articles on false accusations against Pagans and Satanists is extremely useful.

  • The Witches' Voice is a large US-based online resource, providing news, media liaison, essays, web links, and message boards.

  • 1This is gradually changing as Pagans become parents and grandparents; however, the bulk of the Pagan movement is made up of those who identified as Pagans in adulthood.2Pagans refer to sects or groups within Paganism as 'traditions'.3Most duotheists see all gods as 'aspects' of one god, and all all goddesses as 'aspects' of one goddess (ie, 'Kali, Innana, Venus, and Diana are all aspects of The Goddess; Apollo, Jove, Thor, and Mithras are all aspects of The God').4A Jungian concept of mental image of primal forces found in the collective unconscious.5Such as Gardnerian Wicca, Alexandrian Wicca, Blue Star Wicca, and so on.6Proselytising is the conversion of another, usually into one's own religious group. Pagans find this intrusive and offensive. It is believed that anyone who becomes a Pagan should do so under their own steam.

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