Understanding Paganism

a Guide to the Definition, History, Faiths, and Divinity within Paganism

Defining Paganism

In the language of comparative religious studies, Paganism is an umbrella term encompassing a vast and diverse variety of ancient and modern religious traditions. Historically, all religions are outgrowths of – or reactions to – the original pagan traditions. Pagan traditions are rooted in an organic understanding that is experiential in nature. These traditions value the diversity of human and natural expressions as revealed through the direct, and personal, experience of life and nature itself.

The term Pagan comes from the Latin word Pagi, which were fortified places in the country around Rome where common folk and farmers could flee to avoid hostile invasions. With the coming of Christianity, the folk who believed in and practiced “the old ways” retreated to their insular communities in the country. The urban Christians called these peasants, pagani, or paganus (singular), which translates to “civilian” and, sometimes, “country dweller.” This is opposed to what the Christians called themselves, “soldiers,” meaning the enrolled soldiers of Christ. At the time, paganus was also a derogatory term used similarly to the way we use the word “hick.” Ultimately, pagans were people of a place who sought to preserve their local traditions.

While the term Pagan, or Paganism, is the most common and widely accepted term in use today for the traditions and religions discussed in this article, there is some serious debate on its accuracy and validity. Professor Michael York points out in his book “Pagan Theology” that some scholars believe the term Pagan to be Eurocentric saying that it smacks of imperialism by denying tribal-indigenous peoples their individual terminology and unique identity. These scholars seek to use the word only when referring to pre-Christian European traditions or their modern day reconstructions. However, Indigenous and ethnic religions have overwhelming similarities to European Pagan practices. In fact, it was these similarities in belief and practice that allows Christian missionaries to label various people as pagan, and thus in need of conversion. I have chosen to use the term pagan not to imply that all traditions are the same, but instead to denote religious traditions that share similar worldviews, organizational symbols and structures, and carry earth-based theological constructs at their core. I encourage readers to engage in future research on the unique identities of contempory pagan traditions as well as Indigenous and ethnic religions.

Other scholars define paganism as those faiths that are not based in Judaic, Christian, or Islamic beliefs and practices. This makes it difficult to discuss religions like Buddhism, which is neither Abrahamic nor truly aligned with the most common principles associated with the paganism practiced today.

Professor York points out that the biggest challenge of defining paganism by its geographical origins, or as above, by what it is not, is that there is little room for a real understanding of what these traditions embody. While it is true that definitions like these give obvious points of reference for people raised in other faiths, they do not truly define, or even attempt to define, what paganism really is as a set of faith traditions. The simplest reason these obvious faults have not been overcome by the academic community is that while pagan religions share several common attributes there is no set of qualities which every pagan religion does have, making a simple definition as posited by these scholars unlikely at best. This said, the most common and widespread of pagan attributes are listed here.

  • Divinity is immanent/corpospiritual in nature and inclusive of the physical realm.
  • The divine is found in nature and can be anthropomorphic both as male and female.
  • The range of “cosmic being” is polytheistic in scope, humanistic in essence and subjected to cycles i.e. birth, growth, decline, death.
  • An implicit understanding that the Gods and humanity are linked in a codependent relationship.
  • No historic revelation necessary. Faith is experiential not a religion of creeds and faith affirmations. The divine is experienced directly.
  • Contact with Earth, nature, and cycles provide context for beliefs.
  • Ritual practices involving: worship of deities, ancestor devotion, divination, inspired healings, spirit communication and interaction.
  • Magic or tapping into a beneficial, influencing power for protection of tribe, healing, providing good fortune, etc.

Not every pagan faith tradition or indigenous/ethnic religion will accept all these elements, but the vast majority of them share several of the attributes listed above.

Types of Paganism

Pagan practice has its roots in Paleolithic religion. The most ancient of religious traditions have come down to us in broken fragments like a giant jigsaw puzzle. We can study archeological finds, various ancient pre-Judeo-Christian texts, and learn from oral traditions and folklore, but we will never be able to recreate the entire picture of ancient pagan traditions on the puzzle box.

Western neo-paganism is a new and important development in paganism, but only represents a tiny fraction of paganism at large. In fact, there are many existing religious paths which must be noted and valued for their importance to the global pagan community, and their contributions to our understanding of paganism anthropologically and practically.

The oldest of these living Pagan traditions (in that they probably most closely resemble paleo-paganism) are those among societies that have resisted modernization and haven’t been exposed to a significant Judeo-Christian or Islamic influence. (Note: The history of religious development is too wide a topic to do adequate justice in the space allotted here. Please review the recommended reading list for some more detailed material.) These traditions are often categorized as the “primal tribal religions” and include the oral religious traditions of: Australian “aboriginal” peoples, the Maori of New Zealand, the Melpa and Foe in Papua New Guinea, The Sami (Lapps) of Finland, Samoyeds, Tungus, Chukchees of Siberia, Ainus of Japan, and Inuits Canada/Alaska. South American tribes of the Amazon and Andes, the Konds of India, the Bon tradition of Tibet, the Senoi of Malaysia, native peoples of Sumatra and the Celebes (Indonesia), the Kahuna tradition in Hawaii, the sub-Saharan Africans faiths, as well as forms of Shamanism practiced by many of these tribal peoples. Many of these traditions have or are currently being exposed to the modern world and/or have been altered through time (in some cases hundreds of years) by outside religious influences other than paganism. For example, the paganism of the West African tribes, including the Yorubans, has been syncretized with (or superimposed upon) Catholic practices (see below). These cultures are pre-literate meaning that they exist primarily as oral based traditions and, in most cases, the written word is nearly non- existent in their society. Therefore, they have no concept of a revelation through history. Instead, their history/myths are enacted again and again constantly and cyclically. The past and the future are linked as one in the present. “Reenactment” of a myth is seen as the “first” time it is happening. The emphasis is upon the tribe and not the individual. There is room for individual talents and abilities but personal identity is understood as “the Tribe” and not as an individual.

The next catagory includes the practices of people who have retained some written account of their practices and History. Among them are: Hindus (especially the South Indian variety with the Dravidian foundations), Chinese folk religion (which, due to communism, now only survives in a regulated form in rural areas of China since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949), and Shinto of Japan. We have a great deal of written texts revealing nuances about these faiths, their rituals and beliefs. These forms of paganism still exist though in pace with a modern world. Emphasis here is placed upon the rituals, nature, Gods, and most especially upon the ancestors. These are practical traditions and we can see the emphasis of “Correct ritual execution” to provide the ritual participants with good fortune, especially in Chinese folk religion and Shinto.

Due to the work of missionaries we now have only remnants of pagan faiths of the Indo-European peoples including the Gaelige speaking parts of Ireland and Gallic speaking parts of Scotland. The same can be said of the Baltic, Norse, and Germanic traditions as well as the Russian, and Slavic traditions. A few scholars believe that European witchcraft is a reconstruction of various remnants of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic folk traditions mixed with a bit of Gnosticism from the Middle-East brought back to Europe by the crusaders. One thing is certain, there is no unbroken line going back to pre-history in European paganism. That being said, the Northern European countries were the last to be Christianized and are still very proud of that fact. Therefore the modern reconstruction of their faiths has been a simpler task; Asatru is now an official faith of Iceland and Romuva is thriving in Lithuania. Of course the Native traditions of the Amerindians (First Nations) have suffered greatly due to European imperialism and the influence of Christian Missionaries. Many tribes are currently attempting to reconstruct their religious traditions from existing fragments and by interacting with each other at Pow-wow gatherings.

Contemporary paganism

Contemporary paganism, at its most organic and natural level can be seen as a manifestation of “folk religion” still surviving in the languages and customs of a particular culture or group of people. For instance the act of “knocking on wood” to discourage bad luck for making boastful or overly hopeful statements, toasting and clinking of glasses before drinking, tossing coins into fountains, pools or wells to be granted a wish are all remnants of a pagan past. On another level, a spontaneous “pagan spirit” manifests with the certain awareness that comes from the understanding that we humans are a part of nature itself. This simple spiritual reaction, and deep connection, is expressed when seeing a particularly beautiful landscape, an unusual tree or rock formation, or the power of storms or of wild and untamed nature and manifests itself through an experience of awe and wonder. These simple and organic practices are engaged in spontaneously through an awareness of the sacredness and sanctity of Nature. When these responses are ritualized, it is within the context of a long-standing or continuous tradition pertaining to a particular place within the culture of origin. These impulses are at the core of Contemporary pagan movements which find their central expression in a modern world through the following three catagories: Reconstructionism, Syncretism, and Neo-paganism.

Reconstructionists

Pagan practices which deliberately seek to re-create or reconstruct ancient pagan traditions are called reconstructionist traditions or ethnic religions. These groups are many and their aims are specific. They are almost always polytheistic, and perform elaborate rituals often within the languages and dress of the Culture they are reconstructing. Through their adherence to a scholarly approach these groups hope to construct and practice a religion that more closely resemble the actual ancient practices of those they emulate.

Among these groups are: Classical Greco-Roman religions (recently legalized in Athens Greece), Egyptian traditions, Middle-Eastern paganism, many Druid/Celtic traditions, Dievturi (Latvian) Romuva (Lithuanian), Asatru, Vanatru, Odinism, Seiðr (Northern European traditions), Mayan and Aztec traditions, neo-Shamanism, and Amerindian (First Nations) traditions.

Syncretized Faiths

The import and implantation of the traditional beliefs of the peoples of Yoruba, Edo, Bantu, Dahomey, and Kongolese peoples from Africa to the Americas has given rise to new expressions of the traditional faiths in the “new world”. These traditions are rooted in ancestor worship and have elaborate altars, rituals and costumes. These faiths mixed, in varying degrees, with the beliefs of the Indians (native populations) and the Catholic beliefs of the slaveholders. Like the African faiths, many Central and South American native traditions have also been syncretized with Catholicism including Curanderia (of the Quechua speaking peoples descended from the Maya), and Brujeria. Catholicism –the saints in particular- provided a mask for practitioners to hide their beliefs and their Gods/Ancestors from the eyes of those hostile to these religious traditions. Some Christian concepts and elements have crept into the rituals and practices of these faiths such as “good” and “evil”, devil and god. These elements or distinctions are not necessarily present in the African traditions in their “Old world” home and many practitioners of African descent are removing the Catholic symbols and saints from the traditions. By traveling to Africa to receive initiations and teachings from elders of the faith these practitioners hope create a more “pure” version of the religion in the Americas. This is especially present in the faith known as Ifa.

The Syncretized faiths, of the African Diaspora are known by many names, the most popular among them are: Santeria, Lucumi (United States), Regla de Ocha, Palo monte, Palo mayombe (Cuba), Espiritismo (Puerto Rico), Shango (Trinidad and Granada), Candomble, Umbanda, Macumba and Quimbanda (Brazil), Obeah (Jamaica), and Voudoun (Haiti), Voodoo (United States) and Hoodoo (more of a practice than religion). They are included in the contemporary paganism category in many cases because, modern elements such as masonry, ceremonial magick and the philosophy of Allain Kardec (born: Hypolite Leon Denizard Rivail) called spiritism have mixed with these traditions and significantly contributed to the contemporary evolution of these faiths.

The syncretized faiths now found in Korea, China, Vietnam and Indonesia all fall into this category as well.

Neo-pagans

This leaves the rest of contemporary pagan practice to be placed under the category of Neo-paganism or “new paganism,” which is based upon or inspired by ancient concepts and practices that have been reworked or reinvented by modern people living in a modern world.

This category is the most well known but contains the smallest percentage of pagan practitioners (though the numbers are growing). Many, though not all, of these groups have distinct differences from the categories above.

Many, though by no means all, neo-pagans see the plethora of Gods and Goddesses as faces of one Divine force or source and not as separate entities maintaining an independent existence. This can also be seen as a type of duotheism or bitheitic expression where all the gods are one “great god” and all goddesses are one “great goddess”.

Ceremonial magick elements are used within ritual practice. Sacred space is often created through the drawing (“casting”) of a circle to create a boundary and separate the space from “mundane” energy and surroundings. This concept is foreign to tribal, ethnic, and ancient traditions where all of nature is sacred. The ancient pagans would process to various shrines and sacred spaces to perform their rites. This rarely happens within a neo-pagan context. Eight holidays are celebrated and the circle is marked with the elements and cardinal directions of the compass. The ritual tools, invocations, chants and songs are all similar from one group to the next and easily distinguishable from other forms of paganism as listed above. All of these elements are modern ideas or elaborations upon older themes. Unfortunately, several of these groups are also guilty of appropriating or borrowing rituals, theological and philosophical concepts, tools and practices from indigenous peoples such as the Amerindians (First Nations) without respect to the practitioners of these faiths or permession from tribal elders. This practice has brought negative attention to neo-paganism from native peoples with good reason.

On the more positive side neo-pagan faiths are highly inclusive since many are de-ethnicized, their liturgies are very creative and often pertinent in regards to current issues and modern life. They have great power to inspire their members to focus their creative faculties upon transformation of the self and the community as a whole. There are currently hundreds of neo-pagan traditions with more being created everyday. Some of the more well known movements are: Wicca, non-reconstructionist Druidism/Celtic spirituality, Goddess/Women’s spirituality groups, Men’s groups, Queer spirituality (including the Radical Faeries, Minoan Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood of the Phoenix), Feriferia, the Church of All Worlds, the Sabean Religious Order, Discordianism, Chaos Magick, the Faerie tradition and many Ceremonial magick traditions.

To many outside the neo-pagan movement it seems that there is a thin line between the “new age” spiritual movement and neo-paganism. Most neo-pagans are alarmed when remarks are made that equate the two movements. Neo-paganism is indeed a new religious movement but these faiths are grounded by a set of core spiritual values within a religious context that defines pagan religions as detailed above. New Age spirituality, on the other hand, can be likened to a grab bag of esoteric spiritual techniques which are generally added to supplement one’s religion of origin rather than act as a faith tradition in an of themselves.

The ambiguities of “Satanism”: why Paganism is not Satanism

Throughout history many non-pagan traditions have relegated ideas, rituals, and beliefs that are outside of their own tradition to the realm of evil, of Satan, and damnation. This castigating practice has blurred lines of distinction between various faiths and made it difficult for seekers to determine one set of values from another. This worldview has also created needless violence, hurt, and mistrust in both the past and the present amongst different religious communities and peoples.

Like other any other set of beliefs Satanism has various adherents, a complex history, and a myriad of philosophies and expressions. There as many differences between groups, beliefs, and ritual practices in this particular community as there are in any other religious community and thus such work is beyond the scope of this small article. However, I’ve seen a tendency on other pagan websites to be flippant about the subject of Satanism considering it a distasteful subject perhaps due to fear of persecution by religious conservatives, perhaps due to prejudicial misinformation. Due to the lack of good information on otherwise excellent pagan websites, and it spite of the risks, I will attempt to provide accurate, honest information in as a concise manner as I can.

At a most simplistic understanding, Satanism can be defined as an inversion of Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology and practice. Approaching the subject from this perspective it is clear that paganism, being outside of these three religious traditions, cannot be defined by this definition since they do not share the same theological principles and practices.

The issue is far more complex than the upon argument and leads to grey areas with nebulous boundaries. Many religious traditions fear the humanity’s dark side, what psychologist C.G. Jung would name “the Shadow”. Within a given society there is a hideous tendency to label members of one’s own worldview/tradition/cultural/econonic group as “good” and “right” or “the Good guys”. This labeling, by default, creates a mysterious ‘other’ who is “evil” and “wrong”. Such thinking allows for some truly horrendous behavior on the part of those who subscribe to this “right versus wrong”, “good versus evil”, “us versus them” worldview. Personal traits that are deemed “evil” may be easily externalized and projected upon others who are seen as embodying these undesirable qualities. These “undesirables” can, in turn, be persecuted as an “evil” that must be eradicated. If an individual makes a choice to learn about an idea, behavior, or set of beliefs and practices that is outside of their personal experience/worldview (whether it that be a foreign culture, homosexuality, paganism or any other subject that you might find challenging), they must be willing to transcend these hateful and limiting categories of “right versus wrong”, “good versus evil”, “us versus them” and -as we’ll see below “right versus left”.

Most, though not all, Satanists would be classified as practitioners of the “Left-hand path”. The term itself comes from Hinduism and Tantric practices and is known as “Varma Marga”. In Latin the word for left is sinistrum and is the ancestor to our word sinister. Needless to say, there has been a long bias against things of the left. In the Hindu culture, myriads of paths are accepted and explored. However, the Left-hand path or Varma Marga has at its core the purpose of self-exploration (even self deification) though the systematic breaking of taboos and norms in the quest of liberation of the Self. This is contrasted with the Vama Cara, or the Right-hand path, where symbolic rituals and laws are prescribed in order to transcend Self and seek union with the divine. It is easy to see how practitioners of a religious path that is counter to mainstream society, and that society’s accepted religious teachings ,can be seen as hostile and possibly subversive to the culture where these religious practitioners reside. In India it would be scandalous and unthinkable for a Hindu to eat meat, drink wine, take drugs and have sacred sex with someone from a lower caste seen as “untouchable”. While not harming anyone in any real sense of the word, these practitioners rebel against what a particular society holds as dear and sacred. I would also remind Christian readers that Jesus himself performed similar subversive acts against the teachers and the religious authorities of his time. HIs actions were considered shocking and scandalous at the time yet we accept them today as radically inclusive.

The left-hand path tends to destroy sacred cows. On this whole this path is about advancing the individual and their understanding of Self. I fail to see how this could be considered evil. Rationally speaking this is the mindset that created science, philosophy, pluralism and yes, the freedom of religion. It is Satanic only in the sense of the monotheist (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) mythological concept in the entity of Shaitan being the questioner of God, HE who is never to be questioned.

Arguably what defines the Satanist from other left-hand path practitioners is the acceptance and zealous pursuit of being seen as evil and impure by society at large. This systematic adoption of darkside mythology, dress, and behavior is used to disassociate with society at large. The central goal of the left hand path may be said to be the rejection of an individual from all levels of the host culture in order to pursue the understanding (and deification) of Self by becoming hyper Self-aware and centered-in-Self. To this end Satanists may align themselves with any image, mythos, or symbols that the host society has deemed as unholy and revere it as the Holy of holies.

By this definition most contemporary pagan philosophy and practice cannot be termed Satanic as these elements do not fit into contemporary pagan worldviews. For instance most neo-pagans align themselves to a God or Goddess rather then seeking to become a God themselves. On the whole neo-pagans and contemporary pagans tend to chose life affirming symbols and follow a set of laws, ethics, or values even if it that law is essentially liberating such as “Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the Law, Love under Will.” the law is still a binding stricture from which a true Satanist, or other left hand path practitioner, would seek liberation. For an interesting viewpoint upon this subject I recommend that you forget the musical of the same name and instead read Gregory Maguire’s wonderful novel “Wicked” to see how the “Wicked Witch of the West” became “wicked”.

Christian-Pagan hybrid traditions

This topic is very heated within the Pagan traditions. There are many reasons people convert to neo-paganism, as most are not born into it (this being a rather new path). They may have been hurt by their family’s faith or their “faith of origin”. Often times this “faith of origin” was a form of Christianity or Judaism. These former monotheists try to shrug off the religion that hurt them and see the love of the Goddess and God who are here within everything on the Earth, Sea and Sky and not just up in the Sky looking down at them and judging all their acts. For these people, this particular question brings up a lot of anger and pain. Indeed the act of proselytization -the desire to convert the entire world, to Christianity or Islam, is cited as an example of extreme intolerance of other religions by Christian and Islamic missionaries.

However, those who practice this hybrid of spiritual traditions have said that Christianity is an outgrowth of the original pagan faiths that has developed into specific sects with Pagan principles retained. They remind others to see that the Virgin Mary is the Goddess, Christ is the Sun God who is reborn anew in the winter and slain for the benefit of his tribe (humankind). They have also said that all gods are one part of the one God, that they are just the different faces that the one God shows to humans so that we understand him/her better and come to love her/him in all ways.

They point out that the church adopted pagan symbols for the holidays and that they are very effective, mythologically speaking, within the new structure. (The Goddess Eostre as the Easter bunny and her souls awaiting rebirth as the Easter eggs. Another example is the Winter Sun God (Odin) as Santa Claus and the Christmas Tree brought into the home because it is a symbol of strong and healthy life amidst death like Christ being born to a sin filled world so he could save all from sin.) The most seemingly most effective of these neo-Christo-pagan traditions combine the Grail Symbolism and the Arthurian Mythos which is itself a blend of Pagan and Christian traditions. Another is the modern Celtic Church wherein Christianity is steeped in a strong base in Celtic love of the Land and the Lore of Heroes. Of course there are also the syncretized faiths of the African diaspora such as Lucumi and Vodou. Ultimately the answer is a very personal one. May both faiths learn to heal their faithful and listen to each others wisdom together in a spirit of harmony

Given the understanding of the above section, a seeker might ask the question: “If a Hybrid tradition is possible why doesn’t the Brotherhood incorporate both?”

Many gay men are working within Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions to create change for the LGBTQ community. One of the most successful ventures was the formation of the Metropolitan Community Church or MCC which is a now successful gay denomination within Christianity. From a pagan viewpoint, too much spiritual energy and time is wasted justifying one’s existence to oneself and to the religion to which you belong, not to mention the effort of reconciling this existence to God and wondering if God created you this way or if he loves you despite your sin. If you have a passionate calling to these traditions you should certainly remain within them and work from within to create change. However, if you are staying in your current religion from a place of habit or fear you are now being challenged to examine your motivations in a more profound way. Realize that there are other options for your spiritual growth and support that you may not have been aware of previously.

The Brotherhood is a neo-pagan denomination that sees the divine as being present in everything and everyone. We believe that humankind has always had the choice to manifest divinity within ourselves, and to see the divine in each other every moment that we are alive. Every woman can be a Goddess and every man a God because they have never been separate from the Divine. We also believe in a revealed mystery that gay, bisexual, and transgender men who love men embody a particular aspect of the Divine which manifests within our shared set of life experiences. This divinity has always been present, in every culture and time, wherever men have loved one another. He is particularly aware of himself in our Western culture where we can live more freely as men who love men.

Within the Brotherhood there is no need to explain your gayness. In fact, you never need to justify your existence to anyone ever! You have a right to live fully and openly. There is never a need apologize for being who you are and loving whom you love. You also have a right to unite with divinity and become divine in your own right as you see fit. Within our Order you will find Brothers who will aid you in your spiritual quest and walk the path with you.

References and recommended reading
  • York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. NYU Press. 2003.
  • Jones, Prudence and Pennick, Nigel. A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge. 1998.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford. 1999.
  • Pike, Sarah M. New Age and Neopagan Religions in America. Columbia University Press. 2004.
  • Strmiska, Michael F. Modern Paganism in World Cultures. ABC-CLIO. 2005.
  • Magliocco, Sabina. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2004.

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