Paganism is any of a very broad set of religious beliefs and practices characterized by polytheism and less commonly animism. Many pagan religions are based on nature, and these are also called nature-based religions. Paganism predates modern monotheism, although its origins are lost in prehistory. Ancient paganism tended in many cases to be a deification of the political process, with "state divinities" assigned to various localities (Athena in Athens, for example). Many ancient regimes would claim to be the representative on earth of these gods, and would depend on more or less elaborate bureaucracies of state-supported priests and scribes to lend public support to their claims. In one well-established sense, paganism is the belief in any non-monotheistic religion.
The term is often used pejoratively by adherents of monotheistic religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to indicate a person who doesn't believe in their religion. "Paganism" is also sometimes used to mean the lack of (an accepted monotheistic) religion, and therefore sometimes means essentially the same as atheism. "Paganism" frequently refers to the religions of classical antiquity, most notably Greek mythology or Roman religion, and can be used neutrally or admiringly by those who refer to those complexes of belief. However, until the rise of Romanticism and the general acceptance of freedom of religion in Western civilization, "paganism" was almost always used disparagingly of someone else's beliefs. It has more recently been used admiringly by those who find the monotheistic religions confining or colourless. Especially since Romanticism, there have been increasing numbers of people who agree with William Wordsworth, that:
. . . I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn . . .
In another sense, as used by modern practitioners, paganism is a polytheistic, panentheistic or pantheistic often nature-based religious practice. This includes reconstructed religions such as Asatru as well as more recently founded religions such as Wicca, and these are normally categorised as "Neopaganism". Although Neopagans often refer to themselves simply as "Pagan", for purposes of clarity this article will focus on the primitive religion, while Neopaganism is discussed in its own article.
This also includes religions such as Forn Sed and Romuva that claim to revive traditional religion rather than reconstruct it, though in general the difference is not absolutely fixed. Practitioners of these tend to object to the term "Neopaganism" for their religion as they consider what they are doing not to be a new thing.
Origins and meanings of the term
The Latin word paganus is an adjective meaning "rural", "rustic" or "of the country" and in the 4th century AD had developed a negative connotation of "rustically unsophisticated" ie "country bumpkin" in line with Classical civilization's high valuation on urban life. In the 5th century as Christianity began to take hold in the cities for example in ancient Gaul the phagani, were as yet untouched by this new religion, and so the negative connotation of the word combined with the religious difference to give the then-new meaning to the word pagan.
Christianity also became a major religion in the Roman army. Here "pagani" has meanings of non-combatant, pacifist, with attendant derision. From the widespread popularity of Christianity among slaves, the most numerous class in the Roman Empire, by contrast "pagani" acquired connotations of "uppity", "dissident" and so on to "heretic."
Certain scholarly fashions from the medieval period onwards, attempted to assert the value of sophisticated Pagans such as Aristotle and Plato and Ovid. This had some influence among upper class educated people but did little to counter a more general prejudice.
Anthropological terms for Pagan
Paleo-Paganism: A Pagan culture that has not been disrupted by other civilizations or other cultures. This does not include any known cultures.
Meso-Paganism: A group, which is, or has been, influenced by a conquering culture, but has been able to maintain an independence of religious practices. This includes Native Americans and Australian Aborigine Bushmen.
Syncreto-Paganism: A culture, which has been conquered but adopts and merges the conquering culture's religious practices with their own. This includes Haitian Vodou, and Santeria.
Neo-Paganism: An attempt to by modern people to reconnect with nature, pre-Christian religions, or other nature-based spiritual paths. This definition includes Asatru and Neo-Druidism.
Neopaganism (sometimes Neo-Paganism) is a heterogeneous group of religions which claim to be a revival of mainly European Paganism. It is called Neopaganism by academics and many adherents to distinguish it from earlier forms of Paganism, from which it differs in many significant ways. Some adherents detest the term Neopagan, finding it deeply insulting, while some see it as representing what they feel to be a changing, vital nature of Neopaganism.
Neopaganism is a very diverse collection of beliefs. It has been said that there are as many Neopagan belief systems as there are Neopagans. However, while Neopagans do establish their own personal belief system, they also share some common precepts, although the younger generation of Neopagans especially can be highly resistant to such profiling. Common themes include the reverence for nature or active ecology, Goddess (or Horned God) veneration, use of ancient mythologies, the belief in "magick," and often the belief in reincarnation.
History of Neopaganism
The late 19th century saw a renewal of interest in various forms of Western occultism, particularly in England. During this period several occultist societies were formed such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis. Several prominent writers and artists were involved in these organizations, including William Butler Yeats and Arthur Edward Waite, and Aleister Crowley.
Along with these occult organizations, there were other social phenomena such as the interest in mediumship, which suggest that interest in magic and other supernatural beliefs were at an all time high in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Some evidence suggests that returning colonials and missionaries brought ideas from native traditions home to Britain. In particular the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (1900) was influential.
In the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the religious persecutions and Inquisitions of the medieval Church. Most historians reject Murray's theory, while accepting some parts of it. Although there were undoubtedly still some pockets of Pagan worship, it is highly unlikely to have existed on as wide a scale as Murray proposed.
This sparked interest reflected in novels by Mitchison ("The Corn King and the Spring Queen") and covens were created along Murrayite lines.
It is likely that this general atmosphere created the circumstances which were necessary for the rise of Wicca. At the very least, it was fertile ground for its introduction.
In the 1940s Gerald Gardner was initiated into a New Forest coven led by ex-colonial women returned from India. Gardner had already written about Malay native customs and now wrote books about Wicca. The term "Wicca" is still used to refer to the traditions of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, or direct offshoots such as the teachings of Alex Sanders. In the USA Wicca is used loosely to equate with any form of Neopaganism, but British based Neopaganism used to use the term 'Wicca' much more narrowly, as Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca. However, in Britain today, the term is used in a widespread way if predominantly for the Celtic path. Indeed, Wicca in Britain is now so widespread that the two forms of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca have been submerged in a wave of modern offshoots, much of it from the United States.
Wicca has been arguably the most well organised and influential form of Neopaganism until the mid '80s, perhaps justifying a tendency by some Wiccans to claim for themselves the priesthood of the Neopagan community. Other Neopagan traditions do not see it so.
Mythological and religious sources
The sources from whence most Neopagan reconstructionists adapt their beliefs and practices are usually ancient mythologies. Wicca in particular is sometimes referred to by its proponents as the "Old Religion", a term popularised by Margaret Murray in the 1920s. Its use until the 1990s drew on a perceived underground European Paganism and supposed ancient "Goddess religions." These models are now largely discredited, notably by Ronald Hutton, Bristol, UK, and allusions are now more cautiously made to local folk healers/small groups, and a plurality of ancient "Goddess traditions," among others. However, while Neopagans draw from old religious traditions, they also adapt them. The mythologies of the ancient civilizations are not generally considered to be literally factual or historical in the sense that the Bible is claimed historical by fundamentalists. Nor are they considered to be scripture, as most Neopagans are resistant to the concept of scripture.
The mythological sources of Neopaganism are many, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian and others. There is probably no widely known mythology or religious tradition that has not been used as a source by some group at some time. Some groups focus on one tradition; others draw from several or many. All mythologies are believed to contain truth, seen from different perspectives. Neopagans seemingly borrow or adapt from any tradition they find useful. For example, the Charge of the Goddess, a text by Doreen Valiente, used materials from the Gospel of Aradia' by Charles Leland (1901), and Aleister Crowley's writings. It is commonly used to invoke the "Goddess," beginning with the words: "Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arionrhod, Brigid, and by many other names", showing a glimpse of Neopagan eclectism.
Some Neopagans also draw inspiration from living traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism and others. Since most Neopaganism does not demand exclusivity, Neopagans can and do sometimes practice other faiths in parallel.
An Earth-based religion
Neopaganism is considered an "Earth-based" or "Nature-based" religion because it holds the Earth and all of Nature to be sacred. Some Neopagans draw on more current religions that are also nature-based such as those of Native Americans and Africans.
The Divine nature of the Earth is recognized in the form of the Goddess by many names, among them Gaia (ref. the Gaia Hypothesis), and the Great Mother of classical anthropology.
Witchcraft is one specific Neopagan tradition often referred to by its members simply as The Craft. Both women and men are titled as witches. Confusingly, the American usage makes Neopaganism and Wicca witchcraft broadly similar. British usage restricts Wicca to one form of witchcraft, the Craft as one among many forms of Neopaganism.
Number of adherents
Adherents.com estimates there are one million Neopagans. It is necessary to define clearly who is included in any estimate, as Neopagan could mean active initiates, or anyone who likes Tarot! Also there is a difference between Western (Neo) Paganism, (technically a New Religious Movement), and worldwide traditional Neopagan faiths. It is possible, however, to consider these varied and diverse indigenous religions, generically referred to as "pagan" by monotheistic faiths, as having enough in common to warrant grouping them together as a single denomination. This would raise the number of adherents to many millions.
Most Neopagans do not have distinct temples, usually holding rituals in private homes or "sacred" groves and other outdoor locations. Many adherents keep their faith secret for fear of repercussions. Many also practice their faith as "solitaries", and work within no fixed spiritual community.
A UK study by Prof. Hutton compared a number of different sources (including membership lists of major organisations, attendance at major events, subscriptions to magazines, etc.) and used standard models for extrapolating likely numbers. This has to estimate multiple membership overlap and number of persons represented by each person attending an event. This concluded at adherence of 250,000, roughly equivalent to the national Hindu community.
The Covenant of the Goddess conducted a poll of U.S. and Canadian Neopagans in 1999 that estimated the population in those countries at 768,400. This would seem to support the view that there are at least one million worldwide. This poll was not scientific and represents a self selected subset of all Neopagans, but it does provide some interesting insights that confirm what many Neopagans have observed anecdotally. Some other statistics from this poll are:
Concepts of Divinity
While today's Neopaganism does continue many beliefs and practices of historical Paganism, including many of their Gods and Goddesses, it is in many ways very different. Many Neopagans believe that there is a single Divinity, a life force of the universe, who is immanent in the world. The various names and archetypes which they worship are seen not as truly separate individuals, but as facets, or faces, of something that is far beyond our human abilities to see, know, or understand. Rather than attempt to describe the indescribable, they approach the Divine through one of its many aspects. This is claimed to be a genuinely new theology (although it is a common concept epecially in Eastern religions), Hutton considers ancient Pagans did not see "All Goddesses as one Goddess; all Gods as one God" and as such some more traditional approaches to paganism are polytheistic not pantheistic, and worship their pantheon while acknowledging others that do not affect their lives. Ancient paganism tended in many cases to be a deification of the political process, with "state divinities" assigned to various localities (Athena in Athens, for example). Even if value systems which put material comfort over ethical concerns are common in modern society, the practice of worshipping governments as direct representatives of the gods has not survived into the modern period outside of a few rare instances.
For Wiccans, divinity is bipolar as two bodies dominate: Goddess and God, with many lesser aspects. For Heathens, (Nordics, Celtics, Egyptians, and Greeks), divinity is polytheistic. For Druids and High Magicians there is an overall One but other divinities are also recognised. For Goddess people there is Goddess, occasionally monotheistic, but often one and many which can be simultaneous.
Different Neopagan groups celebrate different holidays. Wiccans have eight Sabbats which correspond to old pagan celebrations supposedly appropriated by Christianity (especially Roman Catholicism), Hellenists have multiple observances each month.
A sect within Neopaganism is sometimes referred to as a "tradition." There are many traditions within the larger world of Neopaganism, most of which are identified according to the pantheon they work with, or the founder of the tradition.
Some of the larger traditions of Neopaganism include:
Wicca is a recently created Neopagan tradition, with various branches of Wicca that can be traced back to Gardnerian Witchcraft which was founded in the UK during the late 1940s. Wicca is based on the symbols, seasonal days of celebration, beliefs and deities of ancient Celtic society. Added to this material were Masonic and ceremonial magical components from recent centuries. Wicca has several branches, which emphasize polarity, or working with both masculine and feminine forces. See the Wicca article for more details of these.
Since Wicca is so flexible and syncretic (some have gone so far as to be Christian Wiccan) it could be considered a New Age spirituality.
Asatru/Odinism is frequently regarded as one of the Neopagan family of religions. However, many Asatruers prefer the term Heathen to Neopagan and look upon their tradition as "not just a branch on the Neopagan tree" but as a different tree. Unlike Wicca, which has gradually evolved into many different traditions, the reconstruction of Asatru has been based on the surviving historical record; it has been maintained as closely as possible to the original religion of the Norse people.
Most Slavic neopagans follow customs of old Slavic religion, revere Slavic gods and use Book of Veles as their sacred text.
Ancient Near East-based
Judeo-Paganism, which celebrates the old religions of the ancient Near East, including the Canaanite-Ugarit religion.
Neopagans claim to have experienced discrimination in the United States based on misunderstanding of their faith, and in some cases this is certainly true. However, the rumor-mill works as well among Neopagans as in any other community, and reports are sometimes exaggerated. Neopagans as a faith community have occasionally retaliated with half serious language games such as the Wiccan terms "cowan" and "mundane"--the latter originally and correctly a term from science fiction fandom--(not to mention growing use of the word "muggle"...) to describe a non-Wiccan. In addition, some who practice Neopaganism look down upon "fluffy bunny" Neopagans, who are seen as diluting the faith by making it too "mainstream" and New Age. Terms like "fluffy bunny" or "elves and strawberries Pagan" are used to denote with a certain degree of contempt people whose commitment to their Neopaganism is seen as shallow and less than serious. Such vilification of "casual" worshippers is common in almost all religious movements, as older members fear the loss of their influence as newer members contribute mainstream ideas. (Early Christian sects dealt with this regularly, and to a certain extent many in the Catholic church still do, considering the backlash against the Second Vatican Council.)
Terms for kinds of Neopagan worship
Most Neopagans worship various Gods and Goddesses; some of them stick to one culture and others are not, while others believe in the deity within. The terms for worship are: animism, dualism, henotheism, monotheism, pantheism, polytheism, and autotheism.