What Is Paganism? Some Thoughts

It can be said that modern paganism has its roots in the indigenous, pre-Christian religions of Europe but that it has evolved and adapted to the circumstances of modern life. It couldn’t be proved exactly what those roots are and I can hear all the strict reconstructionists drawing sharp breaths.
Different Pagans tend to mean different things when they describe Paganism as having it’s roots in pre-Christian religions. There are a hard-core few who steadfastly cling to the idea that they are following a path that has been handed down directly for the past thousand years. Most however, admit that oral traditions allow for variation and that proving that direct line is not possible.
Some are re-constructionists, keeping up with academic and archaelogical thought as to how best to reconstruct the paths of their ancestors.
Others still see the links are being of a poetic nature, not a direct or reconstructed route of ceremonies and rituals but a connection that is of the same feeling and spiritual meaning.

The re-emergence of Paganism in the U.K. parallels that observed in other Western countries, where it has been growing rapidly since the 1950’s. The 1950s in the U.K. were certainly important when it came to the emergence of Wicca and Druidry (which were the two religions that provided the initial impetus to the Pagan movement) however you can trace the interest in things Pagan since the end of the 19th century and the movement to gather folklore. The interest that many at the end of the 19th century had in the occult can be regarded as problematic by those Pagans involved in the struggle to have this path taken seriously, but it gave a context within which people could find themselves discovering what today might be recognised as Pagan or New Age paths.
According to the 2001 Census, Paganism is now the seventh largest religion in the United Kingdom (HMSO, 2003). We’re awaiting the latest data of course but given the PaganDash movement to make sure Druids, Wiccans, Heathens et al all had themselves counted under the Pagan banner it seems likely that this will be confirmed.

Paganism is a religion of diversity. Pagans understand the Divine to be manifest within Nature and recognise divinity as taking many forms, often finding expression in Goddesses, Gods, Landwights and other types of Spirit or Energy. There are many paths and traditions within Paganism, though it’s often useful to describe them to people outside of Paganism as being like the “denominations” of other faiths this can actually be quite misleading. After all, with our variety of paths, some worshipping different Goddesses and Gods from utterly different pantheons, some devoted to one particular deity or group of deities, some worshipping Nature or the Life Force and others having a more atheist bent – seeing gods as being part of the poetry of nature, there sometimes seem to be more differences in our paths than similarities.

One of the differences that is sometimes seen as being key between Paganism and the more mainstream UK faiths (based around the Abrahamic religions) is that Goddesses are worshipped and often held to be of particular importance within certain paths (for example Dianic Wicca, named for the Goddess given particular veneration). There are varying reasons which draw people to Paganism and the Goddesses have definitely drawn certain kinds of feminist to the fold. As a result amongst particular groups the feminism and female mysticism which can be found within Paganism is given a great deal of prominence. This is not to disregard other paths found within Paganism which have a dualistic equality to them.

The point I’m trying to make about Paganism is it encompasses a lot of paths; some are formally structured, with membership, initiation and ordination, others are informal and spontaneous, though no less effective in bringing spiritual contact and attunement. Over the years in which Paganism has been a public movement different parts of the whole have been emphasised depending on the media, the people involved and what was important at the time.

Within modern Paganism there are those who are content to define themselves as Pagans, whereas others identify themselves with a specific path within Paganism such as Druidry, Heathenry, Asatru, Wicca, Shamanism, worship of Isis, Witchcraft or Women’s Traditions. Some who claim those particular paths no longer wish to identify as Pagan because of poor experiences or a desire to distance themselves from the Pagan Movement as a whole.

Most pagans see nature as sacred and understand the natural cycles of birth, growth and death observed in the world around us as carrying profoundly spiritual meanings. This is especially evident in the religion of Wicca, which has at it’s centre a cycle of religious festivals known as The Wheel of the Year. Wicca was an especially prominent path during the 20th century rebirth of Paganism on the public conciousness.
In Wicca human beings are seen as part of nature, woven into the great web of life along with other animals, trees, stones, plants and everything else that is of this Earth. This is a common thread held in many pagan paths and many people see it as a key way to define and connect all Pagans.

Paganism includes many Nature-venerating paths and modern Pagans are often at the forefront of ecoawareness. If you see human beings, with their powers of mind and spirit, as a part of Nature then it is not so great a leap to feel a great responsibility for maintaining the balance of the natural world. Local deities and the “spirits of place” (sometimes known as landwights) are traditionally respected in Paganism, a part of fostering good relations with these wights is often maintainence of the land in which they live.

People come to Paganism in a variety of ways. Some come to it through reading the myths of our ancestors. Some through experiencing a sense of the “Divine in Nature” – a feeling that spiritual forces are in the trees, forests, fields and hills. Others arrive at a Pagan outlook through an awareness that their inner response to the divine is through Pagan deities.

As a religion which expresses diversity and has undergone many changes in its long history, Paganism respects all religious paths as manifestations of the human urge to spirituality. Pagans take it for granted that different people will experience the divine in different ways, and are thus very tolerant of other religious beliefs.

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