As Paganism and Neo-Paganism are ‘umbrella’ terms for many different religious paths, from Asatru to Druidism to Hellenic Reconstructionism to Wicca and everything in between, it’s difficult to pinpoint and define what it is a Pagan believes in.
I think deo (from the now-defunct podcast deo’s Shadow) hit the nail on the head with what he believed to be the main indicators of Pagan belief. They are:
- Cycles are sacred. The kinds of cycles that are sacred are the cycles of life, the cycles of the seasons, the moon cycles, cycle of life and death, etc.
- The body is sacred. This doesn’t mean that one worships the body, although this can be true, but the body is treated as natural and sacred in Paganism. In Christianity, the body is sometimes treated as sinful, and a vessel for the soul; in Buddhism, the body is treated as a ‘trap for the mind’ which ought to be transcended. Paganism is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t have a low regard for the body like many other religions.
So in terms of beliefs and practices (which can sometimes also be difficult to pinpoint as there are so many different types of Paganism), generally speaking, it is usually a nature-based religious path, recently revived and re-popularised in the early 20th century by people like as Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner, and Doreen Valiente (that list is far, far, far from exhaustive; I’m just pulling some names off the top of my head). many forms of Paganism include witchcraft as a practice, which of course has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years – a fact which cannot be argued.
If I were to put Paganism into one sentence, it would be: “Paganism is a term for a number of religions that include, but are not limited to, practices such as a reverence of nature, polytheism, an honouring of cycles and a constant seeking for understanding, and which seek equality, balance, and achieving positive change in one’s life.”
To define what a Pagan is, and to differentiate between a Pagan and a Witch, my general explanation of witchcraft is something along the lines of:
An artform and practice originating thousands of years ago. A Witch can be a Pagan and embrace the beliefs and ethical views of any branch of Paganism, but some choose to practise solely as a Witch. Witches are not bound, unless they choose to be, to any specific ethical or moral doctrine.
In 1974, a group called the Council of American Witches formed. Unfortunately, they also disbanded in the same year, but were together long enough to put together an outline of beliefs. Now, this is very Wicca-specific but as many different Wiccan traditions have differing beliefs, this cannot be all-encompassing, but I felt it does sum up rather nicely the beliefs in general of most Pagans I have come to know.
In seeking to be inclusive, we do not wish to open ourselves to the destruction of our group by those on self-serving power trips, or to philosophies and practices contradictory to those principles. In seeking to exclude those whose ways are contradictory to ours, we do not want to deny participation with us to any who are sincerely interested in our knowledge and beliefs, regardless of race, color, sex, age, national or cultural origins, or sexual preference.
We practice rites to attune ourselves with the natural rhythm of life forces marked by the phases of the Moon and the seasonal Quarters and Cross Quarters. We recognize that our intelligence gives us a unique responsibility towards our environment. We seek to live in harmony with Nature, in ecological balance offering fulfilment to life and consciousness within an evolutionary concept.
We acknowledge a depth of power far greater than that apparent to the average person. Because it is far greater than ordinary it is sometimes called ‘supernatural’, but we see it as lying within that which is naturally potential to all. We conceive of the Creative Power in the universe as manifesting through polarity-as masculine and feminine-and that this same Creative Power lies in all people, and functions through the interaction of the masculine and feminine. We value neither above the other, knowing each to be supportive of the other. We value sex as pleasure, as the symbol and embodiment of life, and as one of the sources of energies used in magickal practice and religious worship.
We recognize both outer and inner, or psychological, worlds – sometimes known as the Spiritual World, the Collective Unconscious, Inner Planes, etc. – and we see in the interaction of these two dimensions the basis for paranormal phenomena and magickal exercises. We neglect neither dimension for the other, seeing both as necessary for our fulfilment.
We do not recognise any authoritarian hierarchy, but do honor those who teach, respect those who share their greater knowledge and wisdom, and acknowledge those who have courageously given of themselves in leadership. We see religion, magick and wisdom-in-living as being united in the same way one views the world and lives within it – a world view and philosophy of life which we identify as Witchcraft, the Wiccan way.
Calling oneself ‘Witch’ does not make a Witch – but neither does heredity itself, nor the collecting of titles, degrees and initiations. A Witch seeks to control the forces within her/himself that make life possible in order to live wisely and well without harm to others and in harmony with Nature. We believe in the affirmation and fulfilment of life in a continuation of evolution and development of consciousness, that gives meaning to the Universe we know, and our personal role within it. Our only animosity towards Christianity, or toward any other religion or philosophy of life, is to the extent that its institutions have claimed to be ‘the only way’, and have sought to deny freedom to others and to suppress other ways of religious practice and belief.
As [American] Witches, we are not threatened by debates on the history of the Craft, the origins of various terms, the origins of various aspects of different traditions. We are concerned with our present and our future. We do not accept the concept of absolute evil, nor do we worship any entity known as ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’, as defined by Christian tradition. We do not seek power through the suffering of others, nor do we accept that personal benefit can be derived only by denial to another.
We believe that we should seek within Nature that which is contributory to our health and well-being.Council of American Witches, 1974
In addition to the above points, the following can also be descriptive of Pagan beliefs:
Beliefs can differ when it comes to deity. Most believe that a creative force exists in the Universe, which is sometimes called “The One” or “The All”. Little can be known of this force. Most regard the Goddess and the God as representing the female and male aspects of The All. These deities are not “out there somewhere”; they are imminent in the world.
Many regard various pagan Gods and Goddesses (Pan, Athena, Diana, Brigit, Zeus, Odin, etc.) as representing various aspects of the God and Goddess. Specifically to Wicca, the term itself normally implies that the person’s religion is based upon Celtic spiritual concepts, deities and seasonal days of celebration. While the holidays (Sabbats) are Celtic concepts, not all Pagan practice is based on Celtic spirituality. Some Pagans include beliefs, practices, and symbols from ancient Pagan religions (e.g. Egyptian, Greek, various mystery religions, Roman, Sumerian), or upon Aboriginal religions (Native American Spirituality, Shamanism). Some are actually agnostics, who take no position on the existence of a supreme being or beings. They look upon the Goddess and God as archetypes, based on myth. It cannot be stressed enough that Pagans have no supernatural being in their pantheon of deities who resembles Satan in trait and characteristics.
Respect for Nature
Paganism covers a variety of natural religions, grounded in the earth. All living things, including stars, planets, humans, animals, plants, etc. are regarded as having a spirit. Many rituals deal with bringing harmony and healing to nature. Pagans tend to share a great concern for the environment.
We celebrate the sexual polarity of nature. For example, the fertilising rain is one manifestation of the male principle; the nurturing earth symbolises the female. Females are respected as equal (and sometimes at a slightly higher rank) to males. A priestess is often the most senior person among a coven, a local group of Witches. They aim for a female-male balance in most of their covens, although men are typically the minority – a dynamic that is slowly changing as well.
Sexuality is valued, and regarded as a gift of the Goddess and God, to be engaged in with joy and responsibility, and without manipulation. Pagans generally accept the findings of human sexuality researchers that there are normal, natural and unchosen sexual orientations such as heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality, and all the in-betweens. Some Pagans celebrate “The Great Rite” which can involve ritual sexual intercourse. However, it is consensually performed by a couple in private.
Pagans have a wide range of beliefs when it comes to the Afterlife. Some believe in ancient legends of a Summerland, where souls go after death. Here, they meet with others who have gone before, review and integrate their previous lives on earth, and are eventually reincarnated into the body of a newborn. Some believe that after many such cycles – perhaps some as female and others as male; some lives with a high standard of living and others in poverty; some in positions of power and others suffering oppression – that the individual accumulates sufficient experience to go on to another level of existence about which we know nothing.
Some see an individual’s personality, memory, abilities, talents, etc. as functions of the human brain, which degrades and disintegrates at death. They do not anticipate any form of continuity after death.
Other Pagans anticipate continuity after death in some very narrow senses – either that the molecules that go to make up our bodies may in turn be incorporated into other living entities, or that our influences on children, friends, and society in general will continue to have influences on the next generations.
Three-fold Law, Law of Return or Karmic Law
Some Pagans, usually Wiccans, believe in this law – whether it be three-fold, seven-fold, etc. or simply give and you shall receive.
The Three-fold Law states that “All good that a person does to another returns three-fold in this life; harm is also returned three fold.”
The Law of Return, or Karmic Law, is simply “What you put out, you will receive back”. The reason for some Pagans preferring this law over the Three-fold Law is their belief that it would be unfair of the universe to give you something back threefold when you’ve only put it out the once.
If you have any questions regarding anything written here, feel free to contact me for clarification or elaboration.