The meaning of “paganism” is highly misunderstood — it has changed throughout time, and to this day still remains unclear to many.
“Pagan” used to be a derogatory term
Paganism, today, refers to ancient religions that revolved around polytheism and the interconnectedness of nature. But long, long ago, while these ancient practices were set in place, nobody actually called themselves “pagan.”
The term “pagan” was first introduced in the dark ages, in the early medieval years, after the spread of Christianity to refer to non-Christians. Basically, the term could refer to basically any type of non-denominational religion, or any religion outside of Christian, Islam, or Judaism culture. At the time, it was essentially a derogatory word, to imply that any religion outside of Christianity is wrong, that all non-Christians are “pagans” who must be converted. This word was especially disrespectful towards indigenous people, ethnic religions, and many people of color.
In modern times, the term “pagan” has been reclaimed. Modern people who practice pre-Christian, ancient religions that are based on the spiritual affinity for nature, typically refer to themselves as “neo-pagan” — or “new pagan” — the modern reconstruction of ancient practices.
When modern society looks back on ancient religions based on nature, such as Druidism or Shamanism, we call it “paganism.” But remember, during that time, none of those people actually called themselves that term. Rather, this is a way of bringing back respect to a term that was originally created to imply disrespect.
Reconstructing ancient practices
It is important to remember that, even though these ancient religions are being brought back to life, they can never be 100% authentic to their original form. This is because of two reasons:
- These ancient religions were taught by spoken word rather than written word, so there are no books or reliable resources.
- The spread of Christianity wiped out these religions and made them unknown for a very long time. It was not until recent research, that they began to uncover it again. (Another possibility that there used to be written text, but the evidence was destroyed during religious warfare.)
Technically, both “pagan” and “neo-pagan” are interchangable terms. By calling oneself “neo-pagan,” you simply emphasize the fact that the religion is reconstructed. But considering that ancient pagans never actually called themselves pagan, the word itself “pagan” is also a modern term.
It is a Neo-pagan’s goal to reconstruct religious practices as close to the ancient ways as possible. Meanwhile, it is also acknowledged that ancient and modern will always be very different.
Although this term is slowly regaining respect, many modern people still fear the word “pagan” with disgust and judgement. What first comes to mind, for many, is the thought of a cult dancing around naked, slaughtering innocent animals, and drinking the blood of children. This is beyond completely inaccurate.
Another misconception is that paganism is completely set apart from any aspect of Christianity. Several centuries ago, “paganism” was specifically used to distinguish Christians from non-Christians — however, as the modern meaning of the word has changed completely, this is not necessarily true. Some pagans today, will argue that Paganism is completely opposite from Christianity, and cannot have anything to do with one another. However, personally, I would argue that some aspects of Christianity can certainly be incorporated into Neo-paganism.
Types of Paganism
Just like Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, “Paganism” is an umbrella term for so many specific types, with their own special rules and practices. Just to name a few…
- Wicca — Formed in the 20th century England, worship or working with Male/Female God/Goddess, the Horned God and Triple Goddess. Separate from witchcraft itself (witchcraft is a practice, not a religion) but typically includes this in practice. Most popular form of Neo-paganism.
- Shamanism — The use of entheogens (plant spirit medicine) or other trance-inducing techniques (dance, meditation, breath-work, prayer, etc.) in order to induce a higher state of consciousness — typically guided by a “Shaman.”
- Eclectic — Combining paganism with other practices — a Pagan who also holds Christian beliefs would fall into this category.
- Celtic — the re-creation of pre-Christian, Gaelic religion and society.
- Druidism — the re-creation of ancient Druidism from Celtic societies.
- Santeria and Voudon — African traditions from Haiti, Santeria (Central America), South America, Puerto Rico, and some parts of North America.
- Ancient societies — taking mythology and rituals from ancient societies such as Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germanic, Norse, Scandinavian, etc. The re-creation of mystery schools.
- Family tradition — incorporating traditions directly descended from your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.
- Solitary — choosing to practice alone.
Symbol: Pentagram (or pentacle)
While it depends on the type of Paganism, the pentagram (or pentacle) is typically the symbol. The four points of the star represent each element (fire, earth, air, water) along with the top of the star representing the Spirit.
The pentagram acknowledges that the four key elements make up all aspects of life. However, it also proclaims that Spirit is above all four elements — that the spiritual world is more important and powerful than the material/physical world.
Egyptian Pagans (or Kemetic Pagans) typically use the Ankh as their symbol. (Produced like “anchor.”)
Basic beliefs of the modern Pagan
Freedom and responsibility to explore your own path
With no central dogma or church, there is so much freedom to explore your own path and determine which beliefs fit you best. With freedom, also comes great responsibility. You must hold yourself accountable. You may find a group, or specific church or meeting place, to involve yourself in — which could have its own rules and structure. Or you could be solitary, in which you would have to create your own structure.
Respecting your environment, belief that nature is sacred
It’s not so much worshipping nature, but having a deep respect for the spirituality behind nature. The trees, plants, flowers, and stones all have consciousness. There is a magical force behind the growth, formation, and creation of all these things. We must live sustainable lives, avoid pollution and littering, and keep the world green and blue.
Re-creating ancient practices
Although much of it is lost, you can still find prayers and rituals, and recreate them. You can still piece together the stories of mythology.
Most polytheists believe in one true creator (Source, the Universe, Spirit, God, Goddess, etc.) with the addition of (slightly lesser-than) gods and goddesses, who are closer to the true creator than humans, but also flawed and less-than-perfect, similarly to humanity. Some pagans may not necessarily believe in gods/goddesses, but spirits, faeries, etc. who provide assistance and protection.
Live & let live
Pagans live peaceful lives. There is no forced conversion, no right vs. wrong without shades of grey in between. By letting others live their truth, you hope that others will also let you live your own, unique truth. When you wish someone wrong, those ill intentions come right back to you.
Holidays & the wheel of the year
Holidays are a fun way to both enjoy yourself and celebrate while also maintaining a spiritual awareness. Most (not all) Neo-pagans call holidays “Sabbats” and celebrate “The Wheel of the Year.”
The wheel of the year follows the rotation of the sun. You’d be surprised how many similarities some of them have with both Christian and secular holidays. The names are based on Celtic tradition and followed by most Pagans. However, depending on your branch of Paganism, you may have different names for these holidays, or celebrate entirely different holidays completely.
Winter solstice (Yule)
December 21 — The start of a new year, when the sun is reborn. This is an extremely hopeful time full of miracles. In some traditions, a Yule log is burned to represent light among the darkness. Druids kiss under the mistletoe to encourage fertility.
February 2 — The return of spring, lighting of candles.
Spring equinox (Ostara)
March 21 — A time of fertility. Symbols include eggs, highly fertile animals such as rabbits.
Beltane (May Day)
May 1 — The celebration of spring, symbolized by flowers. Traditionally, marriages/weddings are discouraged until June, which makes May the ultimate month to honor divine marriage and the start of new love.
Summer solstice (Litha / midsummer)
June 21 — The sun reaches maximum power, longest day of the year. It is believed that all the faeries come out and play.
August 1 — Harvest first begins, a focus on beer and bread.
Fall equinox (Mabon)
September 21 — A peak time of harvest.
Samhain (All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween)
October 31 — When the veil between life and death is at its thinnest, when spirit communication is at its strongest.
The original “Pagans” never called themselves pagans, for that word did not exist. It came to use in the dark ages, after the spread of Christianity, to disrespect those of non-denominational religions.
In more recent times, with the rediscovery of lost practices and beliefs, along with a widespread growing interest, “Pagan” has a whole new definition. It now refers to ancient religions from the pre-Christian era who believed in sacredness and interconnectedness between humans, animals, and the entire natural world.
“Modern pagans,” or “Neo-pagans” may simply refer to themselves as “Pagans.” This is done to show a connection between ancient times and modern times, while also acknowledging the differences. Unless we can uncover far more concrete evidence from ancient religions, as well as change the way we live entirely and disregard all technological progression, we will never be able to replicate these ancient religions authentically. However, what we can do, is try our best to replicate ancient religions while also remaining a part of modern society — finding ways to balance the old with the new.
It is likely that these ancient religions and mystery schools, that we currently refer to as “paganism,” very much did have a strict dogma and structure. But when it comes to Neo-paganism, with all of these dogmas lost, we have the freedom to choose what fits us best. Consequently, most Neo-pagans find themselves drawn to multiple types and cultures. Neo-paganism combines the discipline of traditional religion with the freedom of independence.