A Non-Pagan’s Guide to Understanding Modern Paganism

So I’m a pagan.

Yes, you read that right. No, it’s not devil worship.

Pagan is a very loaded term. And its definition has change a lot over time. It comes from the Latin paganus, which means something like ‘villager’ or ‘rural person.’ Then the term was used by the Church to distinguish people in the countryside of what we call Europe who still practiced non-Christian forms of religion. Then — with colonialism — any non-Abrahamic religious practice around the globe was seen as ‘pagan’ or ‘not Christian.’ In more recent times, it came to mean someone who was essentially a rural hick with outdated and ridiculous folk traditions.

In the last hundred years or so, this definition evolved again. Pagans are religious and/or spiritual people who worship Indo-European deities and/or hold nature as sacred. This is a specific definition that I am using intentionally.

Defining Modern Paganism

This is important. Indo-Europeans are a pre-historic group of peoples who lived (probably) in the Caucus region of Eurasia and moved southward and westward over time. The polytheistic Indo-Europeans span from Vedic India to Gaelic Ireland. These religions ended or morphed centuries ago and are not considered “living traditions.”

There are many other polytheistic religions and/or non-Abrahamic spiritualities that are not ‘pagan.’ I make this distinction because of the impact colonialism had — and still has — on the world. The modern worship of the Nigerian Orisha or Voodoo practices or Hinduism or Native American practices or Shinto are, generally, polytheistic. They are also from living traditions. They are also primarily non-white, because, again, colonialism.

I tip my hat to these global non-Abrahamic living traditions for their endurance, survival, and individual forms of practice and belief. However, I don’t group them with modern paganism, as such. And I make this clear distinction so that we modern pagans do not appropriate living traditions. While I would like to find an appropriate term that encompasses all non-Abrahamic forms of religious and spiritual practice, that is not the purpose of this article.

Modern paganism is a very new spiritual and religious movement. When I say “modern” or “neo” paganism, I generally mean people who have revived a ‘dead tradition,’ necessarily adding some level of modern values and thought to that tradition. Again, we are back to the Indo-European traditions that were mostly wiped out by Christianity from it’s inception to the medieval ages. The last non-Abrahamic polytheists in (what is today) Europe were probably the Vikings. Scandinavian countries became Christianized from around 900 to 1100 AD. As with other Christianized countries in Europe, polytheistic religious traditions slowly morphed into folklore and cultural practices.

Arguably, some folk practices are still ‘alive.’ My Oma danced around a Maypole in her tiny German village, and my German cousins still make large bonfires featuring the burning of a scarecrow at Christmas (akin to a Wicker Man) in that tiny village. These are still a far cry from a living religious tradition, but they fascinate and entertain a pagan such as myself.

So then, if we are up to speed, this article is about Neo-pagan practices, that is: non-Abrahamic forms of worship generally stemming from ancient to medieval Indo-European polytheistic religions. I like to explain these groups, or ‘denominations,’ if you will, in terms of a spectrum.

The Spectrum of Modern Paganism

The revival of European paganisms is generally attributed to Gerald Gardner of the UK in the 1940s. He founded what is broadly known as Wicca. This practice was not so much based on our knowledge of exactly how ancient people practiced, as it was based on occult practices (from the previous century) combined with the worship of two deities. At the time, Wicca and witchcraft were almost synonymous, but witchcraft has a long tradition of use within (and outside of) many different religious practices. Wicca is theologically centered around a universal Goddess deity, as well as a universal God. And once Wicca moved to the US, it became entangled with eco- and women’s rights movements.

Overtime, Wicca has split into several different sub-groups and it has also grown enough to be recognized by the general public. It is generally seen as part of the New Age movement, or, an alternative movement in Western culture with an interest in spirituality, mysticism, and environmentalism. I also consider modern pagans who aren’t Wiccan, but also not Reconstructionist, fall into this New Age category for me. (See Example 5 and 6.)

In the 1970s and 1980s, the first Reconstructionists came around. These were neo-pagans who felt compelled to look at the historical and archeological record in order to deepen their religious practice. This can be tied to specific times and places. For example, you may have Hellenic pagans who specifically focus on Greek history and religion from a certain time period, such as 200 AD to 400 AD. Within Heathenry, there are pagans who focus on Anglo-Saxon polytheism in England and there are pagans who focus on Deitsch tradition in America (Urglaawe). Essentially, what you need to remember is that these groups reconstruct  what ancient to medieval polytheists actually did in their worship of their gods.

These are the two ends of the spectrum. One is tied to many other modern, or New Age, ideas and the other is tied to literary history and the archeological record. While there are a countless number of neo-pagan organizations, as well as loosely defined groups who hold more similar beliefs, they all fall somewhere on the line between extremely New Age and extremely ‘Recon.’ Neither is better than another, simply different pagans find their fit somewhere on the line between modern and historical practice.

Et volia! That’s the basis for what you need to know.

How to Navigate a Conversation with a Pagan: Examples

Let’s say you’re talking to a self-identified pagan about what is often called “their path.”

Example 1: They say they are Wiccan, and perhaps they specify that they are also a Kitchen Witch. You know Wicca is on the New Age side of the spectrum. You know witchcraft has something to do with spells. Ergo, much of their path is spellwork in the kitchen or garden. Because they are Wiccan, you also know that they might believe in the Goddess and the God. And you know Wicca generally incorporates feminism and environmentalism. That’s a good start to continue your conversation.

Example 2: They say that are Alexandarian Wicca. You have no idea who the heck that is, but you don’t really have to. Again, like the last example, you know it is more New Age on our spectrum, there is probably one to two deities, and there is some form of ritual spellwork. There is one important thing to know: traditional Wicca was founded by specific people, and then took on that person’s name. The two most common forms of tradtional Wicca are Gardnerian Wicca and Alexandarian Wicca. Both were found in the UK and are very focused on spellwork and have ties to occult practice. These forms of Wicca have a lot of structure and hierarchy, they are also the oldest forms of Wicca. Therefore I consider them less on the New Age side of the spectrum than Example 1.

Example 3: They say they are a Druid or a Heathen and that they are polytheist. Since modern paganism is culturally Euro-centric, you at least know these terms related to somewhere in Europe. Druidry generally has to do with the Celtic culture. And Heathenry is generally focused on Germanic cultures. And you know they are polytheist, or believe in many gods. So they are probably on the Reconstructionist side of the spectrum that we discussed. However, this person may talk about ‘Personal Gnosis’ (a personally held belief about a deity that is not found in historical record), in which case they are not as far Recon on the spectrum as other Recon pagans.

Example 4: They say they are a Celtic (or Baltic or Greck) Reconstructionist. You know Recon: that means trying to revive a dead tradition as much as possible. They might throw a bunch of old books and historical names at you in your conversation. Don’t get muddled by the specifics, just try to understand what from those historical sources motivates or influences them. Reconstructionists pagans’ paths can be very different depending on the culture they work in. Think about the show Vikings and compare that to what you know about the ancient Romans from your high school history.

Example 5: They say they are a member of a UU Church (a Universalist Unitarian Church) and believe nature, perhaps they called it Gaia, is sacred. This is a little tricky because you have to know about UU’s. Essentially UU’s believe in some form of Higher Power, and that, really, all religions are a way to that Higher Power. It’s a very open-minded community that is based more on good values than a specific belief system. UU Churches even have a recognized pagan chapter called CUUPs (Covenant of Universalist Unitarian Pagans). The second thing was that nature was sacred. This could mean that the Higher Power, for this pagan, is nature. They are describing a fairly New Age perspective on both nature and religion. After all, the UU Church was established in the 1900s, and its view of religion is fairly modern.

Example 6: They call themselves non-theist or atheist, or else they use terms like animist or panentheist. These are all very specific terms with specific definitions. However, just know that while many pagans believe nature is sacred in some way, some pagans primarily focus their practice on the sacredness of nature. Sometimes, this means that nature is an entity or a deity, like in Example 5, but sometimes that means that nature is just a force or energy. Some pagans do not believe in any deity, but still hold nature itself as extremely sacred. This is certainly on the New Age side of our spectrum because nature-as-religion is a very modern concept. However, there were ancient Greek philosophers who were probably atheist and ancient polytheists certainly worshipped spirits in nature. Scholars generally believe that animism was the first type of belief system for humans. However, an atheist pagan is probably influenced by modern ideas of the sacredness of nature and the absence of divine entities.

Concluding Thoughts

If you are brand-new to the statement: “I am a pagan.” I hope this article has been helpful and insightful. I realize it is a complex topic, but I hope this article breaks down what paganism is and isn’t, as well as how you might identify key concepts in different forms of paganism.

That being said, there are a lot of terms out there, and you can’t know them all. When you meet a pagan, I suggest you be as polite as you can and ask as many questions as you can think of. If you keep in mind the New Age to Recon spectrum, it will help you place this person more firmly in the larger context of neo-paganism.

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