The word ‘pagan’ has a long history, back to the Romans who used it to describe people who lived in the countryside. As the cities became Christian, it came to mean ‘people who aren’t Christian’. Long story short, Paganism with a capital P (and sometimes with a small one) has come to be used for a large grouping of religions that share a few things in common (and many more differences) which are also referred to as modern Paganism (to distinguish it from historical practice) or Neo-Paganism (same reason.)
Large grouping of religions is important. Paganism is not a single religion. You should also be aware that these different paths sometimes use terms differently, or prefer different terms. When in doubt, ask someone their specific preferences.
Before we get into details, a word about ‘magic’. Many people assume this means the stuff they’ve seen in movies. Within the general Pagan community, it’s more generally used to mean ‘change in accordance with Will’ (i.e. a direct focused intention in keeping with our discerned choice), usually with the implication that we’re doing something to help focus that intention.
Chanting a rhyme, lighting a candle, tying knots in a cord, dancing in a circle are all ways to focus that intention – but so are things like sitting quietly and thinking, making art or music, or meditating. Different religious traditions approach these things in different ways, and different methods work better for different people, goals, or practical demands. You can read a lot more on my page about magic.
Magic is also generally described as a tool, much like fire or a car. We can do many wonderful things with tools – cook food, warm our homes, create community, travel to see our friends, help a friend with errands or daily tasks. We can do destructive things with tools, too – burning ourselves, destroying property, car accidents, and so on. Magic’s just the same way.
And, just like fire and cars, the ethical issues are in the hands of the user, not the tool. I wouldn’t go make someone’s life miserable with threats or pranks or invasion of their home physically: I won’t do it magically, either. Same deal with manipulating someone else to do what I want.
On the other hand, I would help a friend with finding a job (checking their resume, helping them practice for an interview, etc.) and I’m open in some cases to helping magically as well (with things that help with confidence, clarity of communication, and putting their best foot forward.)
The first thing to know is that most Pagan religions focus on shared practice more than shared belief. Obviously, the two are connected, but this is a reversal from Christianity (which focuses on shared belief, with much wider variation in practices.) This means that you might have two people in a Pagan group who have quite different ideas about the nature of deity, what happens after death, or any number of other topics, while still getting a lot out of specific rituals, celebrations, or other practices of the path. (This is, in fact really normal.)
Consider the categories below sort of like sticking books on a bookshelf: it is helpful to have some sense of order so you can navigate through and find the things you want, but there are multiple ways to create that order. (Some people sort their books by author, some by genre, some by color, some by size, some by the Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress cataloging.) That said, once you have even a very general structure in place, it’s easier to focus in on the thing you’re looking for.
If you’re new to Paganism, you might find it useful to have an idea what’s out there. As you explore more, you might want to find people who focus in a particular direction, or have extensive experience in it. Or you might end up with a question where someone or a practice from a different category might be very helpful. (For example, if you start feeling drawn to a particular deity, the work of reconstructionist Pagans honoring that culture’s religion can be very informative, even if you are not directly interested in a recon-based path.)
So, what are the broad categories? I like a breakdown a good friend of mine did a while back. (I’ll note here that I’m in the ‘religious witchcraft’ category: my comments on other paths come from fairly extensive conversation and reading with others, but they’re not my path. Adapt your evaluation accordingly.)
Religious witchcraft paths (which includes Wicca, but a number of others as well).
These are paths that combine religion (honoring and working with specific deities) with a particular kind of magical work (witchcraft). I’ve written much more on this over on my page on Wicca and religious witchcraft. Many goddess worship and feminist spirituality paths fit in here too.
Moral, ethical and practical guidance often comes from a focus on the interconnection of the world (that what we do affects others, and affects us), and from various pieces of advice (see my article on the Rede and other pieces of advice for more on this.)
Reconstructionists base their practice on the historical practices of a particular culture. So, for example, Hellenic reconstructionists base their practices on ancient Greek religious practice, understanding, values, and deities.
There is some variation among reconstructionists: some stick purely to what can be historically documented, others fill in practices based on their own experiences or other likely resources. You’ll sometimes see other terms in use, but reconstructionist is generally widely understood, even if it’s not the one someone prefers.
There are sizeable numbers of reconstructionists working with Greek (Hellenic), Roman, Egyptian (Kemetic), Norse, and Celtic reconstructionism, but there are also smaller numbers of people working with Caananite, Mesopotamian, and other cultures. Norse reconstructionists often refer to themselves heathen, not Pagan, as well, and many use the term Asatru.
Druidry is sometimes considered part of the reconstructionist paths, and sometimes in the loose ends, as we have very few surviving direct sources from the druids (and so there’s far more “We think this is what they might have done” going on than with cultures with extensive written documentation.) Druidic organisations also vary: some are very deliberately reconstructionist. Others, like the Ár nDraíocht Féin, have taken historical practices and built modern adaptations and extensions.
Practices in these paths depend both on the culture in question, and adaptations for modern eras. For example, a city-state based religion (as was common in Ancient Greece) has aspects that don’t work in our modern society. However, household practices are a lot more accessible. Moral, ethical, and practical guidance usually come from sources from that culture – Norse sagas, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Greek philosophers, etc.
The ceremonial derived religions.
While some ceremonial magic and esoteric practices are not religions (instead, they’re better described as esoteric orders), a few ceremonial groups have a religious background. The best known of these is Thelema.
These are the religions that clearly have intersection with Paganism in various ways, but which do not fit cleanly in one of the above categories.
- Discordianism is considered by some people to be a Pagan religion.
- Some views of Satanism (where ‘Satanism’ is about empowerment of the self and one’s Will, rather than modern media assumptions about it) also focus on Pagan deities or approaches (such as the Temple of Set)
- There are other religious practices and traditions that clearly intersect with other forms of Paganism, but which are their own distinct thing.
(And, as noted above, some of the religions we’ve talked about already might also fall in here, like some paths within Druidry.)
The complicated bits:
Hinduism, Native American (and other First Peoples practices in other parts of the world), and the African diaspora religions (Voudoun, Candomble, Santeria, etc.) have some specific things in common with modern Pagan religions, but are not generally counted among them. Why? The reasons mostly boil down to “They don’t consider themselves Pagan, thanks”, which is a perfectly good answer. That said, there are places where there’s more cross-religion conversation and interaction than others.
What about the things that aren’t in any of these categories?
There are people out there who are very comfortable with a “I’m Pagan” or “I’m neo-Pagan” without any other specific identifier. If that works for you, great! Just be aware that if you bring it up in conversations with other Pagans, you’re probably going to get asked what you mean by that, since there are so many possible variations and options, and it’s hard to continue a conversation about specific practices, approaches, or interests, without having a bit more idea what we’re talking about.
Most commonly, people seem to mean something that’s Wiccan-influenced to some degree: they often mean that they do something for the 8 Sabbats (solar holidays), maybe for full and new moons if they want to. They may or may not consider themselves to do magic or spellcraft in any form. (See my article on the question of magic for some more on this). And their ethical and practical guidance may come from a variety of sources – perhaps the Rede, perhaps other places. They may honor one or more deities, or they may work solely with the idea of archetypes. (See the essay on Theisms for more)
It’s not uncommon for this to also be a stage in someone’s growth and learning: they know they’re attracted to Paganism in some form, but they need time to figure out which more specific and focused path they’re interested in, or to find a group that they really connect with, or any number of other topics.
There are also people who practice witchcraft without religious aspects, either as a purely magical practice, or in a very general sense of observing cycles and seasons, but not tying them to a particular religious cycle or set of myths or deities.
[last edited October 28, 2011]