In everyday discourse, Paganism is associated with witchcraft and religious rituals that most people perceive to be ancient and unscientific. The history of Paganism is important because it tells us about the ritualistic practices; and belief systems of people in the past, especially Christianity; which led to a widespread dismissal of such ways of thinking about the world. Paganism is a complicated and widespread belief system – the central tenets of Paganism revolve around nature worship; and mythologies that animated the world.
It is common in popular culture to perceive Pagans as people who were simply in awe of the world because; they did not have a rational scientific understanding. In this article; we will go beyond such simplistic perceptions to help you to study what Paganism was all about, what the common practices of the people were; and how you can learn from them in today’s world. This article will focus on what Paganism means, how it has changed throughout history, and what modern Paganism entails.
Paganism, as a term, came into existence only after the development of Christianity. For the Christians, these belief systems represented a problem; because they did not conform to the Christian belief of a single God. Different religions existing before Christianity; including Roman and Greek mythologies, were termed “Pagan;” and slowly eroded in conversion and various conquests in the name of Christianity.
The class dynamics of those who believed in Paganism are also essential to understand its growth; and origins – most Pagan belief systems were rural and were commonly practiced by the provincial peasantry.
The term “Pagan” carried certain negative connotations; and was used as a pejorative term for alternative faiths and the country dwellers who believed in them. The modern Pagan movement has worked hard to change these preconceived notions about Paganism; and to establish it as a legitimate religion that deserves respect.
The backbone of the modern movement is witchcraft or the “Wicca” movement; that continues to believe in medieval practices of witchcraft while pushing the message that witches are not followers of Satan; or evil forces as had been publicized in popular culture. Instead; they aim to recognize witchcraft as a legitimate form of belief – one that is essential for their identity, history, and sense of being.
Many movements even want to move beyond the title of being merely a religious group; and recognize themselves as spiritual groups. One example of this is Druidism. Druids were priests who carried out religious practices of pre-Christian Celtic followers. Their religion is based on a reverence for nature; and a denial of any codification since they followed no single sacred text that could be considered the final authority on all matters. Their belief systems are also likely to change based on the interaction; and interpretations of new believers who join the system. All these modern movements; including new wave, urban shamanism; etc., are considered Neo-Pagan movements with medieval Paganism as their source and inspiration.
Paganism has been increasingly popular because of people’s disillusionment with popular belief systems that seem too didactic. For many, it is a way of going back to belief systems whose nearness; and connection to the world reveals the hidden, vivifying essence of nature. The return of Paganism to parts of Europe occurred in the 19th century; and many disparate groups slowly adopted it as a way of life in the 20th century, leading to the formation of modern; and Neo-Pagan movements.
Too many scholars, the term “Pagan” is inadequate to describe the diversity and complexity of the pre-Christian belief systems. What does that mean?
The term carries on these negative connotations; and it’s important to understand the history to make sure you do not fall back on the simplistic views of Paganism as it was used then.
The term Paganism was made popular during the Renaissance; by many Christian writers trying to create a new Christian faith different from the supposedly barbaric and heathen practices of the Middle Ages; and Classical antiquity. The term is derived from the Latin word “Paganus;” which means a “country dweller or a rustic” – this etymology of the term tells us how Paganism; and especially the religious conflicts surrounding it were not merely about faith but also land and locality.
Pagan Belief Systems
For most people who followed Pagan belief systems, self-identification mostly took the form of ethnicity, which is why they referred to themselves as simply Romans, Egyptians, Celts, etc. The lumping of multiple belief systems into the umbrella term “Pagan” had many ramifications because it allowed those who created such labels to build an identity of Paganism without getting into specifics. The term became popular because of its convenience, while accuracy and respect of the different forms of Paganism became seemingly less important.
For most, the term “religion” itself would have been strange because they did not identify with such a conceptualization of their customs and traditions. Christian authors who heavily edited and censored their customs wrote all the recordings and the texts related to them, biased toward Christian belief.
Though paganism is vast and varies from culture to culture, there are noticeable similarities, especially related to beliefs and rituals present across all pagan cultures. We will extrapolate on some of the overarching beliefs, rituals, and festivities of pagan faiths.
Polytheism is the most commonly found; belief system across the pagan religions. Polytheism refers to religious worship that; extends to multiple deities. Greek, Roman, Canaanite, Germanic, Celtic, and Egyptian religions are all polytheist religions. These deities are both masculine and feminine. Pagan gods and goddesses often represent aspects of nature or abstract concepts within the natural world.
For example, the Celtic god Dagda is the god of agriculture, farming, and masculinity. Sculptures and statues also depict the gods in human forms. The Athena Parthenos is a famous example.
Henotheism is a branch of Paganism. It refers to a divine hierarchy within a pantheon of gods. Some pagan religions are henotheistic as they worship one god as a primary deity and minor gods as secondary deities.
Monolatrism is a type of polytheism that believes in multiple gods but worships only one. This is more strict than henotheism as Monolatrists believe staunchly in the sanctity of their primary god, only. Canaanite paganism is monolatristic as the pagans worship “El” as the chief god.
Deism, or “Duotheism;” is a type of polytheistic worship. Deism means to worship two chief gods. These dual deities can also exist in opposition, such as god (good) and satan (evil). Wicca is an example of a deistic pagan faith as Wiccans worship a triple goddess and a horned god.
Paganism appeals most to neopagans because it presents a more tolerant contrast to monotheistic Abrahamic religions. Paganism’s “unity in diversity” mindset allows every individual to co-exist peacefully with other individuals even if they have different beliefs. Pagan’s approach to deities as wise but ultimately flawed serves to remind us that everything in the Universe is similar and connected. Even gods make mistakes, but they are ultimately worthy of love and reverence.
The worship of female deities that precedes most Abrahamic religions also exhibits the idea that the world was not always patriarchal. Unlike most mainstream religions today, Pagans have always worshipped goddesses as well as gods.
Pantheism is an overarching concept; among most pagan religions. Simply put, pantheists believe that we all have a piece of God in ourselves, and we are all divine. Pantheism also means that God manifests in everything around us, especially nature. This imposes a sense of accountability and responsibility on each individual in the universe to do their best for everyone and everything they encounter. This is why a lot of Pagan faiths put particular emphasis on environmentalism.
Animism believes that everything in the universe has a spirit or spiritual energy. Animists believe that seemingly inanimate things, bodies of water, rocks, trees, and mountains all contain distinct spiritual essences.
While mainstream in popular culture, the concept of a spirit animal is traced back to sacred belief in pagan cultures.Spirit animals or power animals are specific to each individual.
Nature worship is shared across all known pagan faiths. Pagans believe that nature is a divine extension of god, like us, and needs to be protected and preserved.
Nature is also a mode of god’s will, maintaining balance and order in the universe. The concept of “Mother Earth” has pagan origins.
For pagans, nature is a place of worship. Many ancient pagan faiths, such as the Celts, did not construct temples but chose to worship outside in a natural environment.
This is most prominently prevalent in Wiccan and Thelemic religions that define magic as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will” (Aleister Crowley). Pagans use “white magic” in the spirit of good.
While the nature of rituals varies among pagan religions, their rituals usually follow the “Wheel of the Year.” The Wheel of the Year is an annual calendar, marking different seasons and important days. Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate these days about six months after pagans in the Northern Hemisphere. Pagans’ relationship to nature makes the solar and lunar cycles significant symbols of the cyclical nature of life and balance in nature. The Wheel is divided by solstices and equinoxes into eight sections:
1. Yule (20th-23rd December)
Yule, also known as the winter solstice or “midwinter,” marks the rebirth of the god of the sun in Pagan cultures. After midwinter is when days begin to get longer and nights become shorter. Pagan holiday traditions inspire many Christian holiday traditions. “Yule singing” was a common practice in which celebrants went from door-to-door singing hymns. Ritual neopagan practices during this time include feasts and sacrificial rituals. Celebrants mark the occasion by hanging greenery such as pine or mistletoe around their houses and places of worship.
2. Imbolc (1st February)
While some observe Imbolc on the 1st day of February, others begin celebrations on 3rd or 4th February at the midpoint of the winter solstice and spring equinox. Celtic reconstructionists celebrate the Celtic goddess of farm animals and springtime “Brigid.” For Dianic Wicca adherents, this is the time for initiating pledges.
3. Ostara (19th-22nd March)
Ancient Romans celebrated “Hilaria” and “Liberalia” during this time of the year. Celebrations on Ostara include feasts, prayer circles, and burning sage.
4. Beltane (1st May)
Ancient Roman pagans used to honor the goddess “Flora” during this time. For most pagans, Celtic neopagans celebrate by performing bonfire rituals and hanging branches of Hawthorne around their houses and temples. Wiccan neopagans honor the Great God and Great Goddess by reenacting their union and dancing around the maypole.
5. Litha (19th-23rd June)
Litha, also known as “midsummer,” is the summer solstice. Druids celebrate midsummer as “Alban Hefin” and celebrants put on floral garments and flower wreaths and dance in nature.
6. Lughnasadh (1st August)
Celtic neopagans begin celebrations on the full moon when they honor and thank the gods for a successful harvest. Celtics especially honor the ancient god “Lugh” or the goddess “Tailtiu” during this time. Lughnasadh is also one of the Wiccan sabbats. Wiccans celebrate by baking bread in the shape of the “corn god.” They proceed to eat the bread in honor of the plentiful harvest of the year.
7. Mabon (21st-24th September)
Mabon is observed; on the autumn equinox. “Mabon ap Modron.” Neodruidists celebrate the day; as “Alban Elfed;” It is a day of giving thanks to the gods and goddesses. Pagans celebrate by feasting.
8. Samhain (1st November)
Samhain is the “festival of darkness,” contrasted; by the festival of light and life “Beltane.” On Samhain; pagans honor the lives of those who died. Samhain coincides with the Mexican Dia de los Muertos; and Halloween. Celtic reconstructionists celebrate Samhain by blessing their homes and making bonfires. Sometimes, celebrants will walk through the bonfire as a gesture of purification.
Celebrants often engage in divination. Wiccans celebrate in similar ways, using this time to communicate with the dead.
While ancient pagan rituals included animal and human sacrifices, it is important to note that neopagan rituals do not engage in the ritual sacrifice of living things. Pagans make offerings to their deities and ancestors by casting them into bonfires.
Since paganism is such a vast term that includes hundreds of religions, this article took a brief and general look at pagan rituals and beliefs.
Though rituals of neopagan holidays have been modified to be feasible in the modern world, the essence and overarching belief system among reconstructionists remain the same.