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’.

These days, 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 sometimes also referred to as modern Paganism (to distinguish it from historical practice) or Neo-Paganism (same reason.)

Beginning: leaf on a red background

A movement

There are a lot of ways in which it may be more useful to consider modern Paganism as a socio-cultural movement – individual Pagan religions may not have much at all in common with each other when talking about beliefs, practices or views of how things work (cosmology). My friend Kiya has an excellent starting summary of many of the pieces that went into this socio-cultural movement.

Large grouping of religions

Paganism is not a single religion. You should also be aware that these different paths sometimes use terms differently, or prefer specific terms. When in doubt, ask the person you’re talking to their personal preferences.

This is especially true of someone who identifies their practice as Pagan or eclectic Pagan. If that’s the case, asking them is the only way to get a sense of what they mean, and what they do.

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.

Broad categories

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 and common.)

The main categories arae:

  • Religious witchcraft (includes Wicca)
  • Reconstructionist paths
  • Ceremonial derived religions
  • Other Pagan communities

And there’s a category of paths that may or may not be under the larger Pagan umbrella, but certainly have some things in common.

Consider these categories to be 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.)

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 Kiya (same friend as earlier) did a while back.

I fall into the religious witchcraft category. As I describe elsewhere in these pages, I don’t think what I do fits comfortably into the Wiccan category, even though many people would consider it more or less Wiccan.

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

(These include 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). Many goddess worship and feminist spirituality paths fit in here too. Check out my article on Wicca and religious witchcraft for more about these paths.

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. Learn more about the Rede and other ethical guidance.

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 is generally widely understood, even if it’s not the term 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. We have very few surviving direct sources from the druids. As a result, 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

Beginning with the grimoire traditions of the medieval and Renaissance periods, generations of magicians have developed ceremonial magic traditions rooted in precise ritual acts, often seeking for a particular higher goal or knowledge.

While many of these magical and esoteric practices are not necessarily religions (some were practiced within the context of other religions, others do not necessarily seek to interact with deities, powers, or a greater cosmology of the soul), some have developed a religious aspect. The best known of these is Thelema.

Other possibilities

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.

Outside 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. 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).

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. Many people start out knowing they’re attracted to Paganism in some form. 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.

If you’re one of these people, some of the articles on this site will be useful to you, and others won’t be. I do generally identify where work with deities or other powers is an essential part of a working, and where it isn’t.

Edits to writing and format: July 19, 2020.

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