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What is modern paganism?

Wicker Man in Sękowa Wola at FestFeuer by Silar

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Modern world goes farther and farther back into its past instead of evolving. Or so the rapid growth of modern paganism (or neopaganism) may suggest, as it is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world.

It is an umbrella term for different nature and earth-based religions, spiritualities and philosophies, such as witchcraft and Wicca, Druidry and Heathenry. But not all witches are pagans and not all pagans are wizards. Pagans share a magical world view filled with fairies, spirits and deities; they are pantheists, animists and polytheists. Some occultists do not share these ideas, hence they are not pagans and we will not deal with them right now.

Neopagans draw inspiration from ancient folk beliefs and fit modern culture into a romantic vision of ancient, pre-industrial life. They think they can learn something about being in tune with the environment and the whole world from their forefathers. It certainly can be an enticing for all those souls lost in the spider’s web of modern day world. And so they gather in Wiccan covens or Druidist groves and perform their mystical rituals. But they certainly do not worship the devil, as many have suggested. They don’t even have a concept of such a being, as it is a Judaeo-Christian construct.

Nonetheless, many countries, especially European, have a long history of witches and druids, where e.g. in the medieval United Kingdom the cunning-folk cast spells to heal and repair. And modern paganism itself is very British, as its history can tell.

The romantic dawn of neopaganism

Modern paganism was born in the 18th century romantic and national liberation movements. More and more people moved to the cities, but some of them looked back to the rural way of life, so idyllic for them, and expressed those longings through art, literature and spirituality. Romanticists also re-discovered Old Gaelic and Norse literature and culture.

The first Druid Order can be traced back to 1717 and the 19th century brought with it a fascination with Germanic paganism in continental Europe and with Vikings in the Victorian United Kingdom. These were a good complement to the romantic fascination of all things obscure, dark, folklore or occult.

Victorian Britain with its fascination with mystical things like mediums, seances and supernatural phenomena was a great environment for many occult groups to emerge and thrive. They mixed things like Kabbalah, African tribal practices and Egyptian cosmology to create their beliefs. The work of the greatest Victorian mystic, Aleister Crowley, built what is now considered occult.

Gerald Gardner, the Father of Wicca

Gerald Gardner, who spent his youth Madeira, Ceylon and Malaya, became fascinated with anthropology thanks to the possibility of observing tribes native to those parts of the world. Most of all, he was interested in the magic rituals he witnessed.

When he came back to Europe he made contact with other occultists and Freemasons – they were similarly-minded and shared his interests, but in an Anglicized way. Many of the rituals and symbols he learned from them, along with elements of old British faerie magick and modern shamanism, was put into his life’s work: Wicca, the largest neopagan religion in the world.

In the 1920s Margaret Murray put forward a hypothesis stating that witchcraft religion survived prosecutions of an era then passed underground and in secret, passing secrets to a chosen few. In the 1940s Gardner claimed to have been initiated in the New Forest coven of witches, where he learned the mysterious craft.

In a ripe age, he directed all of his energy to passing along his secret knowledge of the Craft and became an interview-giving and book-writing celebrity. Thanks to all the media attention he’s been given, people started to contact him and he could grow his own coven.

With this coven he cast, what is claimed to be, a powerful spell that helped to save the United Kingdom from Nazi aggression. They danced around a great fire, directing all of their life force and energy on one command, “You cannot cross the sea,” directed towards the Third Reich High Command and Adolf Hitler himself. Many of the participants of this event were exhausted after it ended and some have died shortly after. Gardner was a patriot and a member of the Home Guard and this act was dictated by his sense of duty.

What does paganism look today?

With the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951 in the United Kingdom, pagans were given an opportunity to talk openly about their beliefs and who they are. For the first time books about witchcraft and paganism did not have to hide their messages and teach rituals and spells undercover.

The social revolution of the 1960s admired the strong message of gender equality, being in touch with nature and keeping the peace of the pagan religions. This resonated with hippies and they happily enlisted as new pagans.

Publication of the groundbreaking book, Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, as well as The Spiral Dance by Starhawk, created a new era in public understanding and awareness of paganism. In the 1980s many pagan groups were thriving and dividing into further sub-denominations. The diversity of these groups was seen at many festivals and events now in existence. New groups often borrowed ideas from New Age movements and became much more loose and open than traditional and very much exclusive, Gardenian Wicca.

What do pagans believe in?

The divisions created in paganism can be put on a spectrum with eclectic, New-Age influenced, very flexible and open groups on one end and reconstructionist, traditional, exclusive groups on the other. Nonetheless, any clear-cut distinctions between pagan religions are virtually impossible, as these groups, or denominations, often draw from each other and sometimes grant its followers a great amount of flexibility in their world view (what is very much the case among solitary practitioners, who draw their knowledge of their religion mostly from books and the Internet).

But the key belief of all pagan religions is the interconnectedness of everything in the universe: “divinity is inseparable from nature and that deity is immanent in nature.” This is a holistic concept. They may also claim to feel a universal order of the world.

Most pagan believe in gods and goddesses – Wiccans worship mainly the Triple Goddess and the Horned God, other pagans may adopt some ancient pantheons they feel connected to or the local deities. Some create their own gods. All those gods will usually take on a human form with human traits. But different pagans may perceive their gods in different ways: some will see them as physical beings, some as metaphysical concepts and other still will see them as Jungian psychological constructs.

The key aspect of the diving spectrum explained above is that some will be drawn to preserving the purity of the old faith based on folklore and historical sources, sharing their practices only with a chosen few while other will freely pick and choose from a grand buffet of pagan religions.

How do pagans perform their rituals and cast spells?

Pagan rituals are varied. Usually they will involve worship of a particular deity, meditation or chanting. Many such rituals will involve triggering altered states of consciousness by using drums, incense or visualisation. Often there will be dancing and singing. Usually, being connected to nature will play a great role. Those rituals can be performed by a solitary practitioner or in a group.

Casting spells will usually use herbs and candles, as well as magickal instruments like wands, athames (ceremonial knives) and cauldrons. The witch will concentrate on their will to make something happen by using those tools.

Some witches will perform rituals naked, this is common especially in Gardenian Wicca (on a side note, Gerald Gardner was an avid nudist). But being nude in this context has nothing to do with sex, as this is done to ensure pure connection with nature and the world, as well as being completely yourself before your gods.

On the other hand, many pagans perform their rituals in ceremonial robes and dresses, wearing pendants and jewellery with a spiritual meaning. Some pagans will also make some body modifications like tattoos, that will have a role or meaning in their rituals.

Pagan celebrations are centred around the solar year, and their most important holidays are celebrated on Winter solstice, Spring equinox, Summer solstice and Autumn equinox. Some pagan religions observe additional holidays.

Witch’s cauldron

The term “paganism” is not popular among all pagans because of its Christian roots – many prefer to use the name of their religion (like Wicca or Heathen) and Slavic pagans often use the term “Native Faith” (Polish rodzimowierstwo). This is just yet another sign of how diverse modern paganism is. With more than a million followers in the world (a number which is rapidly rising), modern paganism is a boiling cauldron of ideas, beliefs and practices, which draws from the past and tries to revive the old ways.

Author

Bartosz Makuch

Blogger. Publicist. Translator.
Book lover and pizza enthusiast.
You can find him at prowriter.biz or follow him on twitter @b_makuch.

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