Paganism describes a group of contemporary religions based on a reverence for nature. These faiths draw on the traditional religions of indigenous peoples throughout the world.
Paganism encompasses a diverse community. Wiccans, Druids, Shamans, Sacred Ecologists, Odinists and Heathens all make up parts of the Pagan community. Some groups concentrate on specific traditions or practices such as ecology, witchcraft, Celtic traditions or certain gods.
Most modern pagans see the celebration of the natural world and its changing seasons as representative of the changing aspects of the divine and attune themselves intimately to the natural world and its seasonal cycles
Due to persecution and misrepresentation it is necessary to define what Pagans are not as well as what they are. Pagans are not sexual deviants, do not worship the devil, are not evil, do not practice ‘black magic’ and their practices do not involve harming people or animals.
As far as ancient sources can tell, it wasn’t until the Late Roman Empire that the term “pagan” began to be used, as it was an easy way to lump all the non-Christians together in conversation, decrees, etc. It rose to popularity as a matter of convenience rather than of accuracy and respect.
The term “paganism” was revived during the Renaissance when writers were trying to differentiate the old traditions from their contemporary Christian faith. The term itself stems from the Latin paganus translated loosely along the lines of “country dweller” or “rustic”; thus it was initially a word describing a person of locality rather than a religion. However, because of its usage in ancient texts, medieval authors mistakenly believed it referenced a religious sect and thereby gave it the corresponding connotation.
Paganism is a widely diverse religion with many different traditions and beliefs, but all are based on a few basic but fundamental principles that have been its foundations for centuries:
An unadulterated respect for nature – to establish, and constantly deepen the spiritual connection with nature and all living creatures. It is the Pagan belief that we must live in harmony with our animal and nature, they have as much right to be here as we do.
Respect and Honour the Gods and Goddesses – Pagan worship is mainly concerned with the connection to, and the honouring of immanent divinity. Pagans believe that divine is in all things, from the smallest pebble to the tallest tree. Pagans recognise multiple varieties of Goddesses and Gods whose combined divine force represents a whole unity. The divine, in line with nature, is viewed as a balance of male and female and the combined divine unity is also viewed as androgynous. Many Pagans worship and connect to one specific God or Goddess aspect of the divine, but still recognise that God or Goddess to be part of a greater unity, while other Pagans do not relate to the divine in anthropomorphic forms at all, but just see the divine as an interconnecting driving force interwoven throughout the whole of the cosmos. and inside us.
Acknowledgement and celebration of the turning of the wheel – The acknowledgement and celebration of the seasonal cycle. This is known as The Turning of the Wheel.
Follow a moral code or ethic – It is important to Pagans to practice the faith and carry their lives with love, light and truth at the heart of everything they do. To this end within their core beliefs is a strict moral compass.
The idea that final or absolute truth could be contained within a written text or series of texts has no support within the Pagan community. This is not to say that the written word is always rejected out of hand; some writings are held in esteem by various groups. However, no text has any sort of “canonical” status; in other words, no text is regarded as authoritative or absolute. Inspired writings, like all other forms of human culture, are regarded by Pagans as expressions of humanity’s experience as part of the overall cosmos, and therefore may have relative merit, but not absolute authority.
Generally speaking, Pagans treat all sacred writings from other religious traditions in a similar way: no text is above criticism, but any text may be respected or even revered for whatever wisdom it might contain.
Worship, prayer & meditation
Many Pagans choose to integrate Pagan traditions into their daily life by setting up one or more personal shrines or altars in their home or garden. The personal altar can be simple or elaborate; it can be set up according to traditional parameters as established by one’s community, or it can be an innovative, individual expression of faith and devotion.
Since the purpose behind a shrine is to foster a sense of devotion or daily connection with one’s deities, anything that contributes to such a purpose would be acceptable. One’s shrine might include statues of gods and/or goddesses; symbols of nature, particularly of the elements of air, water, fire, and earth; candles and/or incense; meaningful objects from the natural world (such as crystals, feathers, seashells, or water from a holy well), and any other item that might have particular religious or spiritual significance. The shrine can function as a focal point for personal meditation, or as a devotional “offering” to one’s gods or goddesses, or as a working altar, which can be used in rituals or ceremonies. As in the design of a shrine or altar, the ways in which it is used are subject to each person’s preferences.
Pagans have a variety of attitudes toward prayer. Some feel that prayer is meaningless, since it implies an external deity “out there” or “up there” to whom one addresses one’s petitions. Others think of prayer as an appropriate activity, even if belief is placed in a god or goddess who is found within.
Pagans regard death as simply part of life, and therefore nothing to be feared. Beyond death lies either some form of paradise or reincarnation (or both)
Most Pagans would regard concepts such as salvation or justification as meaningless to their spiritual path. With no transcendent deity who acts as judge and no concept of sin, logically no need for salvation or atonement exists. Incentives to live a good life do not involve pleasing a god or goddess who is exterior to one’s self; rather, virtue and honour are their own rewards and one engages in such behaviour out of a sense of love and personal pride.
Some Pagans accept a simple concept of karma as a way of affirming that a person’s behaviour, whether good or ill, will ultimately shape his or her future destiny, whether in this life or a future life.
Closely aligned to belief in karma is belief in reincarnation, or the recycling of souls. Since the body is “recycled” by decay and decomposition after death, so the soul can be recycled by taking birth in a new form. As a metaphysical belief, not all Pagans accept reincarnation, but many do; those who do, point to ancient Pagan beliefs (for example, Julius Caesar wrote about how the ancient Celtic Druids believed in the transmigration of souls), to the widespread belief in reincarnation within occult and eastern spirituality, and finally to the anecdotal evidence of many individuals who claim to have past-life memories.
Paganism is not based on liturgy and many pagans believe ‘if it harms none, do what you will’ and will incorporate this code along with the fundamental principles of
- An unadulterated respect for nature,
- Respect and Honour the Gods and Goddesses,
- Acknowledgement and celebration of the turning of the wheel,
- Follow a moral code or ethic
It is important to Pagans to practice the faith and carry their lives with love, light and truth at the heart of everything they do. To this end within their core beliefs is a strict moral compass.
As practiced in the English-speaking world, Paganism in the 21st century is decentralised and diverse. Unlike other religions where organisation at the community level often means owning and maintaining a community building (a church, synagogue, mosque, or meditation centre), nearly all Pagan groups meet in people’s homes or in accessible outdoor settings (such as parks or state forests). Some groups, however, do own and manage their own nature preserves.
Because Paganism involves the experience of mystical communion with, or devotion to, nature and/or Pagan deities, it is entirely possible to be a solitary practitioner of the Pagan path. As a spirituality devoid of dogma, there is no mandate to organise. Many people may engage in Pagan spirituality as a purely private and personal pursuit. While solitary practice is acceptable, many Pagans do affiliate with others, typically in small groups that are either governed by consensus or some form of democratic process. These groups are known as circles, groves, tribes, or covens (a term used mostly by Wiccans and witches). Groups typically engage in educational and ritual work: elders teach younger and newer members the theology and spirituality of Pagan religion in general and of their tradition in particular; communal rituals help the group members to put their spirituality into practice. Groups also often will engage in fellowship and community-building activities, as well as service projects, often oriented toward environmental preservation.
The Pagan seasonal cycle is often called the Wheel of the Year. Almost all Pagans celebrate a cycle of eight festivals, which are spaced every six or seven weeks through the year and divide the wheel into eight segments – four solar festivals (the equinoxes and solstices) and four cross-quarter festivals in between.
Four of the festivals have Celtic origins and are known by their Celtic names, Imbolc (Brigid’s day), Beltane (May day), Lughnasadh (start of Harvest season) and Samhain (Halloween). The other four are points in the solar calendar. These are Spring and Autumn Equinox (when the length of the day is exactly equal to the night), Summer and Winter Solstice (longest and shortest days of the year). Neolithic sites such as Stonehenge act as gigantic solar calendars which marked the solstices and equinoxes and show that solar festivals have been significant dates for hundreds of thousands of years.
(The seasonal differences between the hemispheres mean solar festivals are celebrated opposite different dates in the southern hemisphere.)
The first Pagan tradition to be restored was that of the Druids in Britain. In the mid-1600s stone circles and other monuments built four and a half thousand years previously began to interest scholars. Some thought that the original Druids (pre-historic tribal people of Europe) had built them.
By the 19th Century a new outlook was evident as people searched for the fundamental principles of religion by looking at the faiths of different places and times.
Across Europe people were rediscovering their indigenous cultures. In northern Europe there was a growing interest in Saxon and Norse traditions. In England, William Morris translated the Icelandic sagas and Cecil Sharp collected village dances and songs. In Germany Schlegel and Schelling in particular were attracted to the nature religion which they saw behind traditional folk customs. In north-east Europe, particularly Lithuania, nationalist movements spread and indigenous languages were reclaimed, traditional tales recorded and the old festivals celebrated.
Pagans in Britain
The Pagan Federation of Great Britain have no precise figures but estimate that the number of Pagans in the British Isles is between 50,000 and 200,000 (2002).
Pagans in Leicester
According to the East Midlands Pagan Federation, Leicester and Leicestershire are home to several Pagan moots, though exact numbers are unrecorded.