Paganism is the oldest religion known to humanity. Its origins are obscure, but conjectured to have arisen with humanity’s own desire to explore the unknown, and seek unity with the divine force (however that may be perceived). Therefore, Paganism has no founder or founders, no earthly leaders, no prophets, no messiahs, and no saints.
The word Pagan is derived from the Latin Paganus, “a civilian”, and from Pagus, “a village”. This delineates Pagans as those who are from a village, or more commonly, simply country-dwellers. Whilst the majority of Pagans today – like the majority of the population – live in towns or cities, this term accurately describes the Pagan heritage, and the affinity which modern Pagans feel with the natural environment.
Thus modern Pagans follow a religion which is as old as humanity itself, but whose practices have been adapted to suit life in the modern world. The concepts which were vital to sustaining life in bygone times – as in the hunter-gatherer, or agricultural, societies – are revered, and their principles have been retained; however, we accept that in practice, our modern lives are sustained in very different ways.
Who are Modern Pagans?
Modern Pagans are people who have made a positive choice to follow a path of individual spiritual growth that is in harmony with the Earth upon which we live. Many people have become aware of a spiritual void in their lives, and have discovered, in Paganism, a religion of joy and love, which allows self-expression, but also encourages social and environmental responsibility.
Modern Pagans are drawn from all walks of life, and at the time of writing, members of the Pagan Alliance include scientists, solicitors, health care professionals, teachers, farmers, information technology specialists, industrial relation specialists, graphic designers, engineers, members of the Defence Force, Project Managers, members of the Public Service, Librarians, psychologists, artists, and research assistants, to name but a few. The one thing they all have in common is a desire to follow a spiritual path which is in harmony with the Earth, and which encourages self-discovery, and individual responsibility.
There are numerous traditions under the generic classification of Paganism. Whilst they all share a common thread, their individual practices and beliefs may differ greatly. Most traditions emphasise the equality of men and women. However, some traditions are more specifically geared towards exploring either the male, or the female, mysteries. A brief summary of the Pagan traditions most commonly practiced today follows. Please note: this is not an exhaustive list, simply a basic guide to the more popular paths within the religion. Omission of any particular path does not imply it is non-Pagan, or unacceptable as a Pagan religion. The Internet carries discussion groups for most of the traditions listed here.
With its origin in northern Europe, this tradition is practiced today by those who feel an affinity with their Nordic and Teutonic ancestors, and who wish to study the Sagas, Eddas and Runes. Asatru and Norse Paganism encourages a sense of responsibility and spiritual growth, sometimes within the context of noble warrior traditions.
This is native to the Celtic and Gaelic races, and is practiced by a great many people in Australia today, who feel a strong connection to their Celtic-Gaelic roots. The essence and the teachings of the Celtic religion were encoded into the ancient legends, which were transmitted orally by the bards to the people. Modern Celtic Pagans are seeking to re-introduce this wealth of myth and knowledge into our modern world. (With thanks to Clan Dalriada)
A tradition which honours and celebrates the feminine aspects of divinity. Women are accorded great respect, and rituals are often designed to empower women with a sense of their own inherent spirituality and value.
The modern tradition of Druidry emphasises artistic skills such as poetry and music, and often encourages its members to undertake a study programme in these, and other more academic, disciplines. Most modern Druids follow a seasonal cycle of celebrations.
Many Pagans today do not follow a specific tradition, but actively work to save the Earth from further desecration, and honour the land upon which we live as a sacred representation of the Earth Mother. This style of religion often has no formal rites or methods of worship, but encourages each individual to honour divinity by caring for the Earth and all its creatures.
Many modern Pagan traditions are based upon the practices of a particular ethnic group, some modern, some ancient. In this category would come traditions such as Hellenic, Roman or Egyptian Paganism, as well as modern traditions continued by their ethnic groups; for example, voodoo, Santeria and Native American Indian traditions. This would also include the native Pagan traditions of the Pacific, and Australia’s Aboriginal people. Unfortunately a great many myths and traditions, and tribal lore, has been lost as a result of the uncompromising practices of missionaries and settlers.
Shamanism utilises skills and practices such as travelling in the spirit realms, tree lore, herb lore, and the use of totem animals. The tribal shaman was often responsible for spiritual matters within the tribe, and also for matters connected with birth, death and healing. Shamans are able to speak with the tribal ancestors and gain knowledge for the use of the tribe. These same practices are used in non-tribal societies today by many modern Pagan men and women.
This is a modern revival of the ancient folkloric and magical practices of Europe. Wiccans generally perceive divinity in the form of a Goddess and a God, who have several different aspects. Most Wiccans celebrate eight Festivals each year, and hold meetings in accordance with the phases of the Moon. There are several traditions within Wicca, and each has its own set of rituals and practices.
The popular revival of European Witchcraft (believed to be an ancient fertility religion). Also called The Old Religion, its modern practitioners are often skilled herbalists and healers; their practices and techniques are similar in many ways to those of the tribal shaman, the village Wisewoman and Cunningman. Whilst some Wiccans describe themselves (accurately) as Witches, there are a number of Witches who are not Wiccan. The two traditions are not mutually exclusive, but a Witch of the Northern tradition (for example) would have little in common with modern Wiccan practices.
The spiritual or religious beliefs of Pagans are that deity is both imminent and transcendent. Deity is therefore a part of the fabric of our being, of our environment, and of that which is beyond anything we can imagine.
Deity is perceived as male, female and androgynous, depending upon the tradition. God is seen in many ways, and expressed as the male principle; Goddess is seen in many ways, and expresses the female principle. Some Pagans perceive a deity which is both male and female. All of these expressions of deity are acceptable within the broad parameters of Paganism.
Pagans do not believe in a dualistic viewpoint of absolute opposites; of “good versus evil”. Pagans believe that all things exist in their own place, and that we should strive for dynamic balance and harmony. Extremism of any form does not have a place within the Pagan philosophy.
Most Pagans believe in reincarnation. There is a strong affinity with the idea of cyclical life patterns, which do not cease with the death of the physical body. Most Pagans have no concept which could be described as heaven or hell in the commonly used Christian sense. However, Northern Pagan traditions encompass both a heaven and a hell, with a sophisticated philosophy which describes the operation of these realms. Unlike Christianity though, in the Northern Traditions, Hel is not a place of damnation or torture.
The Wiccan religion has what is called “The Summerlands”; a place where souls find rest before being re-born into the physical world.
The Druid belief in reincarnation is confirmed many times in classical sources; e.g. Posidonius (quoted by Diodorus): “… [Druids believe that] the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years they live a second life when the soul passes to another body.” Julius Caesar: “The cardinal doctrine which they seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another; and this belief, as the fear of death is thereby cast aside, they hold to be the greatest invective to valour.”
Each Pagan religion has its own philosophy about the afterlife, and about reincarnation. Individual Pagans may also have their own philosophy about these subjects, for the Pagan religions do not have a dogma, or strict set of teachings, which all Pagans must follow.
Paganism is one of the so-called “Mystery Paths”, where each individual has direct experience of divinity. Although it is becoming more common for Pagan Priests and Priestesses to administer rites to a group of people, individual experience of divinity remains the primary objective for most practicing Pagans. This differs significantly from most State religions, where a figure of authority performs rites, and mediates the divine force, on behalf of a congregation. In most Pagan religions, each individual is a Priest or Priestess in his or her own right.
Pagans do not “worship” trees or rocks; however, they do revere the divine force which is contained within trees and rocks; indeed, is contained within every part of the universe.
Pagans do not worship a saviour, or other spiritual leader. The emphasis is upon each individual’s spiritual enlightenment, and responsibility for this is not abdicated to another person. The practice of Paganism is a voyage of self-discovery, and the discovery of one’s own place within the divine realm. Paganism is not, therefore, a cult, for a cult has a leader, and Paganism has none. Individual groups will often be led by one or two people who are experienced in the practice of the religion, but such people have no influence outside of their own group or tradition.
Pagans believe that each individual has the right to worship in their own way; there is no legislation that requires Pagans to follow any prescribed manner of worship. Some Pagans worship in a formal manner; others have a more instinctive and unconscious mode of acknowledging and communicating with Goddess and God. Some Pagans prefer to make their worship a private affair; others gather in groups and make their worship a communion with each other, as well as with Goddess and God.
Like most religions, Paganism has Rites of Passage, with some traditions having a formal set of rituals for birth, marriage and death. Those Pagan religions which adhere most closely to the “Mystery Path” will also have rites of initiation. These are designed to effect a spiritual awakening within the initiate, and do not include such practices as animal or human sacrifice, nor any activity which is against the wishes or ethics of the initiate.
Rituals to celebrate a birth, which often include a naming ceremony, do not promise the child to the religion, in the way of a Christian baptism. The parents of the child will often ask for divine guidance and protection for their child, but do not make any promises about bringing the child up in a particular faith.
It is a strong Pagan belief that each individual must follow his or her own path. Children are taught to honour their family and friends; to have integrity, honesty and loyalty; to treat the Earth as sacred, and to love and respect all forms of life. Other than these basic teachings, children are encouraged to question, and to find their own spiritual path. Many Pagan parents will ensure that their children are exposed to the teachings of a number of religions, so that the child receives a well-balanced spiritual education.
To Pagans, every day is a holy day, but there are a number of Festival celebrations which are held throughout the year. The Festivals, and the time on which they are celebrated, varies. Within each tradition, there are commonalities, but these are by no means definitive across the whole religion.
Perhaps the best known is the cycle of Festivals celebrated by many Pagans, including the Wiccan tradition, and modern Druids. There are eight Festivals, being Samhain, Yule, Imbolg (also known as Candlemas), Spring Equinox (also known as Eostre), Beltane, Litha (Midsummer), Lugnassadh (Lammas) and the Autumn Equinox (also known as Mabon). These Festivals are derived from variously, Celtic and Saxon sources, and their essence has remained in modern society through folk memory, and in many rural traditions.
Other Pagan traditions celebrate the turning of the seasons with four Festivals to mark Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. As always with Paganism, the emphasis is upon what is meaningful for each individual, rather than a strict adherence to a rigid doctrine.
Paganism in Australia
The history of Paganism in Australia is lengthy, for the indigenous people were Pagan, before the arrival of colonisation and its attendant Christian missionaries. The conversion of the native people to Christianity was uncompromising.
The earliest incidence of revived European Paganism in Australia is unknown, but there are reports of witches meeting in Canberra, ACT during the 1920s. Many immigrants brought their own traditions and practices with them, and since the 1970s, numerous books have been published about the revived Pagan religions and their practices.
Pagans remain the target of fundamentalist fanatics, but thankfully, fewer and fewer rational people are taking fundamentalist absurdities seriously. However, for this reason, and because bigotry still exists in many places, some Pagans practice their religion privately, and prefer not to make their beliefs public.
Some Pagans are prepared to be public spokespeople for their religion, and through the Pagan Alliance (which no longer exists in Australia), and other similar organisations (such as the Pagan Awareness Network Inc.), have provided accurate and sensible information to the media, police forces, local government organisations, child care agencies, health centres, and so on. That we have been so successful in our attempt to inform society of the truth of our religion is a testament to those Pagans who live and work in Australia.
Because Paganism stresses the importance of individuality, there are few, if any, widespread customs. A sense of the sanctity of the natural world, concern for the environment, and acceptance that we are socially responsible to our fellow-creatures, dictates the kind of customs which most Pagans follow.
There are no dietary requirements, or any prohibitions within the Pagan philosophy. Those who follow a vegan/vegetarian diet, or who abstain from alcohol, tobacco, etc., do so out of choice, not tenets of faith.
There are no laws of blasphemy, and conflict between individuals remains the responsibility and concern of those who are involved. There are no penances, or any other form of religious punishments.
Paganism does not legislate where matters of morality and ethics are concerned. It is up to each individual to be responsible for their own viewpoints and decisions. The religion itself does not promote nor condemn practices related to sexual activity, procreation, use of alcohol and other mind altering substances. Individual Pagans may hold viewpoints on one or more of these issues, however, they are PERSONAL viewpoints, and not the considered opinion of the religion per se.
Pagans have a high regard for the equality of the sexes, and do not suppress the feminine principle in the way that many other religions seem to do. Pagan Priestesses have the same status as Priests; in some traditions, they have primacy in leading the religious practices.
Many Pagans acknowledge the concept of “Elders”; those from the community who, by virtue of their training or experience, have a greater understanding of social, moral and practical matters. Pagans who gather together (either formally or informally) as a group, will often look to those who lead the group for guidance on moral issues and socially accepted behaviour. However, it is a fundamental aspect of Paganism that each individual must accept full responsibility for their own actions. There is no “confession” or other absolution to devolve responsibility to another person, or to God/dess.
Brief Pagan Reading List
This is a very short list of those books which can be recommended to provide information about the Pagan religions. It is NOT an exhaustive list, and there are many excellent books which have not been included, for the sake of brevity.
Drawing Down The Moon
A look at the Neo-Pagan movement in the USA, but is also relevant for Australia and New Zealand, as many traditions are common to all three countries.
Margot Adler, Beacon Press, 1986
Leaves of Yggdrasil
An inspired, and highly regarded, book about the runes and Northern Pagan traditions.
Freya Aswynn, Llewellyn, 1990
A solitary path, based upon the seasons and natural cycle.
Rae Beth Robert, Hale Ltd, 1990
The Elements of the Druid Tradition
An introduction to the beliefs of one of Europe’s oldest Druid traditions.
Philip Carr-Gomm, Element Books, 1991
The Elements of the Aborigine Tradition
A brief overview of some of the beliefs and practices of Australia’s Aboriginal people.
James G Cowan, Element Books, 1992
The Norse Myths
A classic book, which re-tells the myths and legends of the northern Gods.
Kevin Crossley-Holland, Penguin, 1983
Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age
Excellent introduction to the beliefs and practices of Wicca.
Vivianne Crowley, Aquarian, 1989
Wicca: A Guide For the Solitary Practitioner
Practical guide to an eclectic Wiccan tradition.
Scott Cunningham, Llewellyn, 1988
A scholarly examination, by a world-renowned authority.
Mircea Eliade, Arkana, 1989
The Witches’ Way
Beliefs and practices of a typical English modern coven.
Janet and Stewart Farrar, Robert Hale Ltd, 1984
Original Blessing: a primer in Creation Spirituality
The classic work by Matthew Fox, which explains Creation Spirituality
Bear & Co, 1983
Choirs of the God
A collection of essays which examines the divine male, and the masculine image of Deity.
John Matthews (Editor), Mandala, 1991
Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition
Practical guide to the author’s Northern Pagan tradition.
Nigel Pennick, Aquarian, 1989
The Witches of Oz
Practical guide to Gardnerian/Alexandrian tradition Wicca, with detailed information about working in the southern hemisphere.
Matthew and Julia Phillips, Capall Bann, 1994 (2nd edition)
A History of Witchcraft
A short examination of the history of witchcraft, and the origins of the revival movement.
Jeffrey B Russell, Thames & Hudson, 1983
The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the religion of the Earth
An examination of the power of the Goddess, and Earth-centred spirituality.
Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, Harper & Row, 1987
The Practice of Witchcraft Today
Practical guide to traditional Witchcraft.
Robin Skelton, Robert Hale Ltd, 1992
The Spiral Dance
A classic, which describes the practices and beliefs of a modern neo-Pagan Witch.
Starhawk, Harper & Row, 1979
A practical guide to contacting and exploring the energies of the Earth, and the Goddess.
R J Stewart, Element Books, 1992
Witchcraft for Tomorrow
A traditional Wiccan writing about her practices and beliefs.
Doreen Valiente, Robert Hale Ltd, 1983
Copyright Pagan Alliance Inc. 2001 – 2007