Paganism Basic FAQ
What is a Pagan?
If you’re here, you likely already have something of an idea. “Paganism” is an umbrella term. That means it’s a term that applies to many religions, rather than a religion in and of itself. At it’s most basic, a Pagan (common and irritating misspellings are “Pegan” and “Pagen”) is simply an adherent of a religion that is not Abrahamic (meaning not Christian, Jewish, or Islamic). A tighter definition (which is the one we tend to use here) excludes excludes Eastern and Dharmic religions as well (such as Shinto and Hinduism). While they are technically Pagan, often they prefer not to be placed under the Pagan umbrella. In general practice, the word Pagan tends to refer to members of a Neo-Pagan religion more than anything else.
So what’s a Neo-Pagan?
Neo-Paganism is another, somewhat smaller, umbrella term. It applies to any religion that is new and not Abrahamic, and primarily to those religions that are inspired by, derived from, or reconstructed forms of pre-Christian polytheisms of Europe and the Near East.
Are all Pagan religions Polytheistic?
No. Polytheism – for those unaware – refers to religions that worship three or more deities. Some Pagan religions are ditheistic, some are more henotheistic, some pantheistic, some are monotheistic. “Monotheistic?” I hear you ask. “I thought that was limited to Abrahamic religions?” Not so! Behold: Tengriism. (I reckon it counts.) Some Pagan religions are even atheistic, or non-theistic. Some are simply animistic.
But what do all those terms mean?
- Polytheism: the belief and worship of many gods.
- Ditheism: the worship of two gods.
- Henotheism: the belief in many gods, but the worship of only one.
- Pantheism: “all is deity”, the belief that everything/the universe/the world is god.
- Panentheism: the belief that deity is both immanent and transcendent.
- Monolatrism: the belief in many deities, but the belief that only one is worthy of worship.
- Monism: the belief that all deities share a source.
- Monotheism: the belief in and worship of one god.
- Atheism: the lack of belief in a deity.
- Animism: the belief that all things have a spirit.
Polytheism is further divided into soft polytheism – the belief that all deities are aspects or forms of one or two overarching deities – and hard polytheism – the belief in multiple deities as separate, distinct entities.
What are some of the Pagan religions?
I’m happy to give you a list. Please keep in mind while reading that a couple of the definitions I prefer, and agree with, are controversial. Know this before telling me that druidism is a religion or that Wicca is “anything you want it to be”. I stand by my definitions for the most part. Having said that, there are a few religions that my information on is sketchy, and if you are a practitioner I welcome your input so that I can perfect the definitions I have here.
A coven-based fertility religion. Wiccans are initiates of groups called “covens”, all of which are lineaged through initiation to the creator of the religion, Gerald Gardner. Wiccans worship two deities, known to non-initiates as “the Lord and Lady of the Isles” and known by name only to Wiccans themselves. Wicca is fertility based, and its rites involve sexual elements. It is a priesthood, and this, as well as the sexual aspects, are why minors are not initiated by the vast majority of covens. Wicca was described by its founder as a “witchcult”, meaning both that it is a religion that places great import oncultus (that is, physical and “observable” elements of a religion) and is a religion of witches that involves witchcraft and the practice of magic. It is an orthopraxy, placing its emphasis on “correct practice” rather than correct belief.
Witchcraft is not a religion, and in itself is not Pagan. It is a craft, and as such can be practiced by individuals of many religions, including Abrahamic ones, and by those who consider themselves non-religious. There are forms of religious witchcraft, however, such as Wicca. Some people, usually Pagans, may describe their primary spirituality as a form of religious witchcraft and may self-define primarily as, for example, a Green witch or an eclectic witch. That’s fine. It should be understood, however, that witchcraft itself is not religious.
- Recon Religions
Reconstructionist or “recon” religions are attempts to reconstruct the Pagan religions of pre-Christian cultures. If there’s a pre-Christian religion we know about, there can be a recon form of it, essentially, but this is easier or more difficult for the practitioner based on how much lore (the myths and legends of the religion) survives and how much historical and archaeological information we have. Members of recon religions attempt to practice the religion as it was practiced, but recognize that they live here and now, and as such it’s not possible to practice the religion exactly as it was practiced. (For example, it is no longer considered appropriate to sacrifice slaves and criminals to Odin.)
I will touch on some major Recon religions of note, but others include (and are not limited to):
Various Celtic Recons (no, they are not all the same)
Religio Romana (Roman recon)
- Heathenry (and Asatru)
Asatru is a reconstructionist religion. Asatru itself is part of a small umbrella called “Heathenry” that includes all Teutonic and Nordic recons and recon-inspired paths. Asatru is the most popular, but there are other terms like “Theodism” and “Forn Sed” ( “Old Tradition” ) that have different slants and focuses. Odinism is also a term used but in some areas it is associated with racism, so tends to be avoided. Many, particularly if they don’t identify with a specific Heathen culture, choose simply to refer to themselves as Heathens. Heathenry is polytheistic, and focuses on the worship of Aesir and Vanir (two tribes of gods), a handful of Jotnar, ancestors, and land-wights (or spirits). They draw their beliefs and practices from the Eddas and Sagas as well as archaeological and historical evidence. The text Havamal is the basis for ethical guidelines.
- Slavic Recon
Slavic Reconstructionism is a polytheistic religion seeking to reconstruct the ancient ethnic religion of the Slavic peoples, a diverse group of people including Russians, Ukrainians, Bielorussians, Poles, Slovaks, Rusyns, Kashubs, Sorbs, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Bulgarians among others that are united by their shared language, culture, and customs. In ancient times, religion among these different groups varied wildly, even between individual villages, though in modern times it is dominated by East Slavic thought and sources. Traditional folklore and customs are highly regarded and form the basis of material. Dualism is an important and permeating concept, though not necessarily in the Western sense of it, as are nature spirits and gods.
As a sub-concept – there is Double Faith (Dvoje Vierie, or Dve Viere) – a syncretic Slavic religion that arose as a result of forceful conversions that survives in traditional culture in the villages. It combines Orthodox and Catholic practices with heathen ones, syncretizing old gods with Christian saints and blending heathen stories into Christian folklore.
Hellenism is a form of reconstructionism focused on Greek pre-Christian religion. Hellenics have the largest bulk of myth and lore to draw from, but it tends to be Athens-focused; different city-states in Greece did things in different ways and so did people in the countryside. Homer, Hesiod, and the Homeric and Orphic hymns are notable. Hellenics value piety among other things, and some may eschew the practice of magic as impious. The holiday calendar is extensive, based on time of year and of month. The monthly calendar is Greek and based on the phases of the moon.
Egyptian reconstructionist religion. Some groups interpret the Egyptian gods, the Netjer, in a largely monistic sense, though this is hardly the only interpretation (indeed, it may not be historically supported). (See above.) The Laws of Ma’at are of note as moral guides.
Shamanism is not a religion. It’s a tradition of other-world travel and spiritual techniques specific to particular peoples of Siberia. Other cultures may have corresponding techniques and traditions, but it is proper to call those by their culturally relevant titles – for example, seidhr in Heathenry – rather than appropriating a term from a different tradition. However, it is often used for all such animistic, spirit-travelling traditions in anthropology.
Druidism is technically not a religion. Though many people identify religiously as “druids”, the ancient Druids were the priests, doctors, teachers and law-givers in Celtic cultures. They were wiped out by the Romans, and living Celtic cultures no longer have a use for them; that is, their place in the cultures has been replaced by modern doctors, teachers, and law-givers. The teachings of the Druids have been lost, and imo it is inappropriate to nick off with this title. It’s like plundering of a culture’s history. There are certainly religious groups that use the word “druid”, like OBOD and ADF, but they have failed to define the title as applies to all druids; often how they use the word wouldn’t apply to other people who call themselves “druid’, so what does the word mean, and what distinguishes “druidry” from “generic neo-Paganism”? I can’t see anything that does, and I haven’t met a self-defined druid who has given me an answer.
- Vodou and Santeria
Vodou (also Voudon, Voodoo) and Santeria are Diaspora religions, meaning religions that came out of the mass enslavement and forced transportation mostly of African peoples. Because of the penalties for keeping pagan worship as slaves, it became fused with Catholicism. While there is one overarching God, there are several spirits that are called on for intercession and aid. Both are initiation religions that include three stages of clergy as well as lay people. While Vodou and Santeria are very different- they also have a lot in common because of their roots.
- Eclectic Neo-Paganism
The most popular form of Neo-Pagan religion. Not a religion in itself, it’s a phrase that describes what may be the majority of Pagans. Eclecticism is the practice of taking what one considers the best of beliefs and practices from a variety of religions and cultures and creates one’s own religion from these. It is very hard to do well, as there are many things – runes, for example – that cannot be removed from their cultural settings, lest they lose all meaning. So the ethical ENP must make sure that in their studies they are not appropriating things that cannot be removed from their cultural context, and that they are respectful to the gods involved and the cultures and religions they are taking from.
Feri, sometimes called Anderson Feri, is a tradition of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft, emerging from the work and teaching of the late Victor Anderson and his wife Cora. It is semi-initiatory: one can practice the religion alone, but one can only reach a certain point in one’s studies without gaining initiation and introduction to its mysteries. The Feri Tradition is polytheistic, recognizing many manifestations of the Divine from many different places and times, but it is primarily a Goddess-centered religion, worshiping an androgynous deity referred to as “God Herself” or the Goddess. It is gender-equal and open to those of any sexual orientation. Training and magical practices place a strong emphasis on the importance of fully realizing the male and female principles within oneself. Other teachings include the three souls and the iron and pearl pentacle.
Founded by Starhawk and Diane Baker, Reclaiming is essentially a monotheistic religion. It is a form of Goddess Worship, the Goddess of the religion considered to be an immanent life force. It was formed by combining elements of Dianic witchcraft with elements of Feri. While Goddess- and feminist-focused, it does initiate men, in comparison to Dianic witchcraft. Reclaiming works with fiction and fairy tales as a form of teaching and has a great stress on political activism, particularly feminism and environmentalism. Reclaiming’s chants are popular throughout Neo-Paganism, for example “We All Come from the Goddess”.
- Standing Stone
Scott Cunningham’s form of Neo-Pagan witchcraft, the basis of many others’ eclecticisms and mistaken by many to be Wicca (which is fair enough given the titles of some of his books). The religion is based on his books “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner” and “Living Wicca” (both misnomers), personal work and introspection, and his recently published Book of Shadows. Cunningham was initiated into Wicca, but left shortly after his first-degree initiation. He draws inspiration from Wicca in creating his own religious witchcraft, but they don’t share much in common. Standing Stone is light-slanted and soft polytheistic, worshiping a largely genial Goddess and God.
- Dianic Witchcraft
Never a part of Wicca, although it referred to itself as such for quite a long time. Created by Zsuzanna Budapest, it is a form of feminist witchcraft worshiping a single Goddess. It’s largely coven-based, although there can be solitary practitioners. It is also nearly entirely woman-only, and most covens will not initiate men. It focuses on women’s mysteries and considers itself an earth- or nature-based religion. It took some inspiration from Wicca and as such its coven-based rituals tend to be quite ceremonial in nature. Despite the name, it is not connected to Roman religion or the Roman goddess Diana. Some Dianics recognize the existence of a God, but do not worship him, at least not to the extent they do their Goddess.
Created by Ray Buckland, it nonetheless does not contain any of the mysteries of Wicca and is not a Wiccan tradition. While it does place an emphasis on coven work, one can dedicate oneself to the religion and its gods alone and practice solitary. The gods of Seax are the Anglo-Saxon deities Woden and Freya. The name is taken from the Scottish knife, the seax, which is also a primary ritual tool. It is loosely Wicca-based and as such rituals are fairly ceremonial, although not as ceremonial as some.
How do I become a Pagan?
That very much depends on which religion you’re interested in. People who are interested in Paganism, or even practising Pagans, but haven’t found a particular religion or path that they are happy following are often called “seekers”. In particular, people who are wishing to become Wiccan but haven’t yet been initiated into a coven are called “Seekers” (often with that capital letter). As for simply being a Neo-Pagan, under that wide umbrella, I recommend starting a journal to write down what you believe and what you want, or sitting quietly and considering what it is you believe. You may already technically fall under that umbrella. Generally, I recommend you read. Read a whole lot. Look into cultures and pantheons that interest you. Establish for yourself what you’re looking for in a religion, and reconsider that all the time as you’re seeking, as your beliefs can change as you go along, discover more options, talk to other Pagans and work out what different ideas mean to you.
What does “New Age” mean? Is it the same thing as Neo-Pagan?
They are different things. In fact, some Neo-Pagans get very upset when you associate them with New Ageism! New Age is a non-religious movement that plunders various cultures and religions for metaphysical and spiritual ideas and repackages them in a middle-class Western-hemisphere packaging. Often this is inappropriate – these concepts might mean nothing when removed from their original context, for example angels and karma. The New Age Movement is often closely related to particular forms of Neo-Paganism, often Eclectic forms, that show a tendency toward misappropriation, a lack of particular depth and a layer of “self help” type motivationals.
There are some major issues with the movement, including materialism, outright lies and the shallow repackaging of concepts from other cultures and religions and marketing them to disenfranchised people searching for meaning. Because of these issues much of the Pagan world wishes to distance themselves from New Ageism – and besides, much of Paganism thinks of itself as “Old Age”, or at least having roots in and drawing from ancient religions and concepts.
What do Pagans believe happens to us after we die?
There’s a great variety of beliefs within Paganism. Pagan beliefs on what happens after we die include, but are not limited to:
Ascension (becoming a deity or similar)
Haunting the world as a ghost
Remaining in the world in a barrow mound or mountain
An afterlife, or period of rest between incarnations, in an Underworld or Summerland
Rotting in the ground (i.e., nothing)
What holidays to Pagans celebrate?
A great number, if we’re talking about Paganism as a whole. Different religions celebrate different holidays. The Hellenic ritual calendar, for example, is particularly crowded and a bit overwhelming! But a great deal of Pagans celebrate eight holidays referred to by many as “Sabbats”, which are drawn from both Celtic and Nordic holiday calendars and are traditional dates of celebration in various places in Europe, particularly England.
Do Pagans pray?
Prayer is simply communication with deity. Most theistic Pagans will pray.
Do Pagans believe in the Christian god?
In a sense. Many do, anyway. But the Abrahamic god YHWH is not viewed as all-knowing or all-powerful by most Pagans who do acknowledge that he exists, and in particular he is not the only god. There is a basic acknowledgement that if one does not follow YHWH, one is not subject to the rules he imposes on his people.
Can I be a Christian and a Pagan at the same time?
This is largely a problem of definition. If Paganism means “not Abrahamic”, and you follow an Abrahamic religion and the Abrahamic deity, you cannot also be Pagan, if that makes sense. You’d be Abrahamic and Not-Abrahamic at the same time. In particular, the god of Abraham made it pretty clear that he wanted to be the only god worshiped by his people, so if you are a Christian and want to worship other gods as well, that is something you will have to talk to your deity about.
Having said that, there are, as listed in the Big List, a few Catholic syncretic religions floating about, like Santeria and Double-Faith. You may want to look further into those for advice. Additionally, there’s nothing to stop you incorporating, for example, the belief in magic or value of nature or similar into your spiritual structure.
I heard all Pagans have a patron god and a matron goddess.
No. Firstly, it would be a “patron goddess”, as the words “patron” and “matron” are not male and female versions of the same word. They mean different things. Secondly, not everyone has a patron deity – not everyone is cut out for or wants to serve in so direct a way. And if you do have a patron deity, there’s no particular reason you would have two, or one of each gender.
The concept of patronage is rather classical, and involves working for someone in return for favors. I think different Pagan religions would have different ideas about this and close relationships with deities would work in different ways, because of cultural distinctions. For example, in Heathenry there are “fulltrui”, a word meaning “fully loyal” or similar, and indicating close friendship with a deity.
Do all Pagans practice magic?
No. In fact, some Pagans view it as impious and feel that people following their religious tradition should avoid the use of magic.