background – an overview of modern Paganism

Note: These posts were written in the summer of 2009 as an introduction to what my religion’s all about when I moved my personal blogging over to Dreamwidth. There are places where the comments are therefore a little dated, and I have plans to eventually redo these essays to be a little more timeless. Until then, just keep the timing in mind.

Assumptions in this essay
I’m writing here for people who have heard a little bit about Paganism, but don’t know much about any of the details, but who do have some background in another religion (or are at least somewhat familiar with some basic concepts.)

What is Paganism?

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.

The other thing – as I’m sure you know – is that Pagans are all sorts of people. The Pagans I know are librarians and engineers, counsellors and researchers, writers and artists, working in state jobs and for large corporations, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. A lot of Pagan community is undernoticed unless you’re looking for it – we don’t generally have churches you can drive by, or things that are part of general awareness. But we’re around – even in the Bible belt, even in rural communities and small towns, and across much of the world.

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.

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.)

Broad categories

There are some broad categories we can discuss, however. 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). More on this in a bit. Many goddess worship and feminist spirituality paths fit in here too.

Reconstructionist paths 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 seems to be 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.)

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.

The loose ends: 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.

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.

Each of these broad categories includes lots of different specific religions – each with their own practices, beliefs, worldview, and other things. You can see how this gets complicated fast.

You may also sometimes see someone describe their religion as Pagan. In these cases, it’s best to ask what they mean (or look for an explanation) because it varies a lot. Most commonly it means they honor the natural cycles of the year in some way, often have a particular interest/relationship in one or more deities and use some specific energy or magical practices in their personal practice. But not always!

A few things these paths have in common:

No single Book: Unlike Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Pagan religions are not religions of the Book, in the sense of having a universal collected religious text that is the basis for understanding of deity, ethics, morals, teachings, the rituals of the year, etc. Many Pagan paths have some texts they particularly honor and respect (and reconstructionist Pagans work closely with surviving texts from the relevant cultures), but it’s not treated the same as the Bible, Torah, or Koran.

Overall worldview: Most Pagans are not monotheists. Many of us believe that there are many different deities or faces of deity present in the world. Many Pagan paths have practices designed to allow people to interact directly with deity in some form. And many of us believe that magic can change us, and the world we live in, even if we do not do it regularly.

An interest in learning This is certainly true in other religions too – but Pagans as a whole tend to be interested in learning and discussing all sorts of things related to religion. This covers everything from theory and philosophy to designing ritual and practical questions. This is why Pagan forums flourish, even with people from many different paths. Since many Pagans follow their religion on their own or in a small group, it’s also helpful to know at least a little bit about many things.

Legal issues: As smaller, less known religions, Pagan religions are outside the mainstream assumptions in our culture. We have different religious holidays, for one. And we definitely share some practical concerns about legal equality, education, custody hearings, and other social and political issues related to minority religions. In these cases, it can make sense for different Pagan religions to work together rather than separately.

Practical issues: Many Pagan groups that meet in person are small. We don’t generally have established physical spaces like a church, and most groups meet in private homes or rented spaces. These raise some common questions and practical needs, regardless of the religion’s specifics. Likewise, with small groups, people tend to need to have a greater ratio of active participants in planning and running groups than a large congregation might. Paganism as a whole is still trying to figure out how to handle the clergy vs. lay community thing. (More on this in part 2)

… and some things we don’t share

Ritual cycle: While the religious witchcraft paths and Druids often celebrate 8 Sabbats (the solstices, equinoxes, and four agricultural festivals around October 31st, February 2nd, May 1st, and August 2nd) these dates have no particular meaning to other Pagan religions. Reconstructionists might celebrate the flooding of the Nile (for Kemetic recons) or a festival for Apollo (for Greek recons.)

Ritual structure: Religious witchcraft traditions often magically create their ritual space as part of ritual. In other religions, this is not part of the process. Likewise, what a ritual involves, the parts of a ritual, or the order they come in, may vary hugely between different Pagan religions.

Size While witchcraft covens are traditionally small (under 13 people), there are larger communities springing up all over the place. Many reconstructionist groups are associated with larger organisations.

Structure and organisation Many religious witchcraft groups are autonomous: they’re lead by people trained as designated within that group or tradition, who then make their own decisions. Other members of the tradition may disagree with an action (and respond personally to it), but there is no ‘boss’ (like a Pope or Council of Churches) to turn to. On the other hand, some reconstructionist groups are developing a larger heirarchy and structure for their members.

Focus: Some groups focus on self-empowerment or transformation, others on a greater community goal. Some focus on magic, on religious practice, or a combination of both. Some groups might honor or work with different deities at each ritual, others on honoring and working with specific deities all the time.

’Earth centered’: Some paths, like religious witchcraft, pay particular attention to the turning of the seasons. Some, because of the belief that all things are connected, have a particular focus on ecology. While these are common conceptions of Pagan religions, many have a very different take on it. It’s not that they think the earth is bad – but their ritual year is based on other things, or their ritual has a different focus.

A moment about mass media

As I mentioned earlier, media depictions of almost any religion are a bit messed up – you tend to see the extremes, not the middle. It’s even more true of Paganism in some ways, for a wide variety of reasons. Therefore, a few notes:

– People behaving ethically doesn’t make news. We hear about the ones who don’t. News coverage is not always very good at explaining a religion’s ethics, either.

– It’s true that some Pagans have an apparently slim grasp on reality. There’s lots of possible reasons for this. Some are totally functional people who just prefer to focus on a less mundanely practical side of life. Others are people who’ve had to deal with being extremely open to the world around them for a long time, and who have developed sometimes odd-looking coping mechanisms. (For a discussion on sensing energy, see part 2). And yes, just like in other religions and people of no religion, some people are just not living in quite the same reality.

– A lot of Pagans pass under most people’s radar. I get weird looks walking into esoteric stores much of the time because I look … well, like a librarian. Occasionally an eclectic librarian (I like long skirts), but I’m professional and usually not wearing obviously Pagan jewelry. So, again, you see the ones who don’t, or who you know personally who tell you.

– Brooms, frogs, etc. all come out of folk witchcraft traditions, but needless to say, turning someone into a frog or riding on a broom in a way that might make commuting feasible aren’t in the cards. Neither is the stuff in Harry Potter, though a lot of Rowling’s stuff has roots in folklore. You are an intelligent person, so I figured you knew this, but it’s worth being clear.

Places to learn more

Some other sites with general information include:
– A page from Witchvox.com, a major networking site within the Pagan community with an intro to different paths.
– An introduction from Sana, who I’ve known online for years.
– The Cauldron’s Pagan Primer, which includes a lot of information on reconstructionist paths. (I’ve been on their forum for years, also as Jenett.)

The book _Not in Kansas Anymore_ by Christine Wicker is a nice general introduction to a broad swath of Paganism. It won’t give you lots of details, but will show you some of the common variations. (She’s a former religion writer for a Texas newspaper.)

Other parts of this series:

Introduction
Part one: An overview of modern Paganism
Part two: Religious witchcraft and its various definitional issues
Part three: Personal practice