What is Paganism: A Crash Course

I’ll start out with a small(ish) backstory so you can understand where I’m coming from and where I am. I was born and raised Catholic. I attended a Catholic school from age 4 up to age 14. I attended Catholic churches well until I was 20 years old. Events in my life began to stack up and I simply realized that it wasn’t the path for me. I didn’t enjoy the teachings, the belief system, the strict system and more. I was looking for something more flexible and something that empowered me. That is just how I personally feel so that should not in any way, shape or form infringe on your beliefs or opinions of a Catholic/ Christian faith. If you find joy and fulfillment in a Christian religion, that’s amazing and I hope that you hold strong. However, I could not and did not.

For a good six months, I was so lost. I had spent so long convincing myself that this was the faith I always had to keep and the only thing keeping me grounded. My faith became my identity and I actually believed that I was nothing without it. When I lost and abandoned that faith, I was in such a state of loneliness and confusion. I couldn’t force myself to go back because I would be just as unhappy if not more, so I started exploring different paths. I investigated Buddhism, Taoism, generalized polytheism but none of them quite fit. They still felt really restricting and that was exactly what I wanted to steer clear of. Then I stumbled upon Paganism.

Disclaimer: I have only been studying for 1 year and am still very new. I will update overtime, if things that I currently understand turn out to be not exactly correct or if I discover more information. Don’t chastise me for anything incorrect. Also, this is absolutely not meant to bash Christianity. That is the last thing I want to do. These are just historical facts I’ve found over time.

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What is Paganism?

Paganism, as a way of describing a modern religious practice, did not actually start until the 20th century. However, the practice of paganism can be seen in things as early as medieval writing. Now, before you click away while screaming “WITCH”, understand that the actual notion of Paganism and what it is was actually something that created the early Christian Church. Yes, you did read that correctly. Not to mention that most, if not all, of how witchcraft is portrayed in mainstream media is completely false.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Paganism, one of which is the pentacle or as most people think is a pentagram. Believe it or not, the two are different. A pentagram is the five pointed star. A pentacle is the five pointed star with a circle around it. The pentagram is the oldest symbol known to man that goes back to 3000 B.C. For Pagans, the pentagram stands for the five elements: air, earth, fire, water, and spirit. The pentacle, which looks like the pentagram but in a circle, is a symbol for all of those elements coming together. Long story short, not a satanic or evil symbol as many believe.

Paganism and Christianity

Pagans originally celebrated the festival called Saturna (Saturnalia by ancient Romans) or simply winter solstice, which would go on for eight days before the winter solstice. This would eventually become the Christian holiday we all know and love, which is Christmas. For Pagans, winter solstice was a time for celebrating the sun god, Odin. Fun fact, Odin’s physical appearance is seen as a chubby man with a white beard and large coat. Sound familiar? Christians “re-purposed” the celebration of Odin and focused it on Jesus Christ instead. Many Pagan holidays such as the winter solstice were inspiration used for modern day Christian holidays. Other holidays that got their inspiration from Paganism includes Easter, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and many many more.

Going back to the pentagram versus pentacle topic, even early Christians used both symbols. It was an important symbol to the Catholic church for the first 500 years after the death of Jesus. For Christians, it was used as a protective symbol and even represented Jesus himself and his five wounds when he was crucified. However, in 1855, a Catholic deacon named Alphonse Constant was kicked from the Catholic church for his interest in magic. He changed his name to Éliphas Lévi and started writing books like Transcendental Magic, where he convinced people that an upside down pentagram (where there are two points of the star pointing upwards) was a symbol of evil and was what kick started the symbol to be used for the Church of Satan in the 20th century. This inevitably led mainstream media to create what was known as the “Satanic Panic.” Thanks, Alphonse Constant, for making something good into something bad.

Even down to the basic belief system, Paganism had a huge influence on Christianity. The origins of Jesus have roots deeply planted within Paganism, which have records of a deity similar to Jesus that surpass any Biblical record. Babylonian mythology had Ishtar and her son Tammuz. Tammuz would die each year and would be born again during spring. This would later result in what most know as Mary and Jesus. To really understand how Tammuz would later become the Christian Jesus, there is the Chaldean symbol (Chaldean are Easter Rite Catholics which were united with the Roman Catholic Church) which appears as “t” or a cross and later became the cross Jesus died on. (UCG.org)

With so much influence from Pagans, why is there such tension between Christianity and Pagans? In short, Christians wanted their religion to spread and the early targets audience was Pagans in the ancient world due to the fact that everyone except Jews were Pagan. Converting so many people would ensure that Christianity would continue on for many years, so therein lies the persecution of Pagans. The persecution began in the late Roman empire, which included pillaging and anti-pagan laws. Christianity went as far as to claim that their god was superior to any other god(s). In short, a huge power struggle despite the fact that Christianity is based from Paganism. (Culture wars aren’t something that regularly taught, sadly.) (History.com) Now that we’ve got a small history lesson, what exactly do Pagans do?

Paganism, as I understand it, is extremely diverse and differs from person to person. One could be specifically trained in particular traditions of Paganism such as Druidry, non-Wiccan forms of religious witchcraft, Heathenry, Hellenism, and Celtic (all of which will be discussed later). The other side of paganism is up to the individual person, so one could follow their own inspiration. Yet both sides of paganism have some innate characteristics.

Characteristics of Paganism

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A focal point of Paganism is the importance of nature. Pagans recognize the spirit of a place, which involves personifying things like lakes or mountains. One example is Athens, Greece. Athens holds the goddess Athena. Another main point of nature within Paganism is that Pagans acknowledge different seasons throughout the year as a time for spiritual growth and renewal. These periods of growth have festivals for Pagans to have access to different divinities according to the season.

Pagans also believe and recognize deities, making is a polytheistic religion. These deities can range depending on ones beliefs. The main two that I’ve found are Celtic and Norse deities. With deities, there are a god and goddess, and there are literally thousands of them to choose from. The god is the masculine form of divinity, which is opposite yet equal to the goddess. The goddess, of course, is the feminine form of divinity. Choosing a god and goddess is actually a misnomer; a god and goddess actually chooses you.Typically, one would receive “a calling” from a god and/or goddess through dreams, visions, inner voice, gut feeling, etc. These signs are typically associated with a specific image or animal associated with that god or goddess.

Another characteristic is something called The Threefold Law, also called Rule of Three. While this is more specific to Wicca, which lies under the Pagan umbrella, it pretty much means that any and every bit of energy- positive or negative- will be returned to you three times. This is the Pagan version of karma, but is taken much more seriously. This also applies specific to magical work (again, we’ll get to that later).

Pagans also have an ultimate respect for nature and strive to live in harmony with it rather than dominate it. It has basic roots in nature-based deities and there’s even a specific path of paganism that focuses mainly on the earth called neopaganism, which is relatively new. This brings us to the many paths of Paganism and what this umbrella term encompasses.

What paths lie within Paganism?

Wicca

Triple Goddess symbol.

Wicca is probably the most widely known path within Pagan religion. However, Wicca can be a little confusing due in part that many Wiccans only refer to themselves as Witches. In Wicca, one worships a god and goddess. These gods and goddesses that Wiccans worship ranges depending on the person. Some use two deities from different pantheons, such as worshiping a Celtic goddess and a Greek god. Others may choose Wicca specific deities, such as the Horned God and Triple Moon Goddess (symbol above). Believe it or not, Wiccans can also worship deities from other religions. Considering that Christianity, as we’ve learned, has a lot to do with Pagans, you can actually be Wiccan and also worship Jesus Christ (yes, Christian witches are a thing, and there are actually handbooks on it)! Wiccans have an understanding that the energy of the Divine flows within all things and that creation is due to the elements of earth, air, fire and water.

Druidry

Symbol representing the Awen from Celtic beliefs.

Druidry, also called Druidism, lies within Paganism. Their goal is to seek humanity’s “greatest yearnings” and have a worldwide group dedicated to Druidry called The Order of Bards. They define those yearnings to be “fully creative in our lives, to commune deeply with the world of Nature, and to gain access to a source of profound wisdom”, so the three goals are creativity, love, and wisdom. Druids emphasize diversity in tolerance of either a monotheistic belief or polytheistic belief. Regardless, Druids uphold the importance of nature and how sacred it is over all.

Heathenism

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Heathenism symbol.

This path under Paganism is mainly about old Norse beliefs. They believe in the Norse pantheon which includes Odin, Loki, Freya, and Thor. This path focuses more on history, making it the more unusual religion within Paganism. Heathenism is also one of the only paths that truly sticks to its roots. Since I’m desperately trying to make this as short as possible, more info on Heathenism can be found here, because I could seriously make an entire post about just this.

Hellenism

220px-hellenism_symbol.svg_I know what you’re thinking. “It has ‘hell’ in it! That’s bad!” Remember, hell is a Christian concept and this isn’t Christianity. Hellenism is a Greek word, which should give you a good idea that this path is revolved around Greek Gods and mostly the Twelve Olympians. Hellenism also deals with the cosmogonies (origins of the world) and cosmologies (ordering of the world). More in depth can be found here, because it’s a lot to take in and this is just a crash course.

Contemporary Witchcraft

This path is also known as Non-Wiccan Witchcraft and there are various types. Stregheria follows ancient Italian traditions of witchcraft, which can be traced to the 14th century. Feri Tradition is the orgal tradition of modern neopagan witchcraft. It was brought to the United State in the 1960’s. Jewitchery is Jewish witchcraft, where practitioners borrow from existing Jewish magical and Kabbalistic traditions or reconstruct those ritutals based on Judaism and Neopaganism. Reconstructionism, also called Polytheistic Reconstructionism, is a movement to recreate historical forms of witchcraft since the old forms have been lost. This also emerged in the 1960’s.

Hedge witchcraft is based on traditional European witchcraft which has traditions of old wise women and wise men, cunning folk, herbalists, healers and witches. It has an emphasis in solitary work around nature and has many similarities to Wicca, such as the Triple Goddess and Horned God. There’s Kitchen witchcraft, which involves substituting mundane items for magical items. This means subsituting a regular kitchen knife for the sacred ritual athame (double-edged dagger used in traditional witchcraft). Lastly, there’s Ásatrú which is primarily Norse and has records in Scandinavia.

I know this is a lot, but you’ve braved the different paths within the umbrella term “Pagan.” Unfortunately, I can’t really go into spells and traditions or practices too much since there are so many depending on the path, and I don’t want to favor one more than another. Maybe that will make for more installments on this. But what I can tell you is why someone might choose one of these paths.

Why do people choose to become Pagan (or a form of Pagan)?

Like I said, I had an upbringing that involved a Christian belief system. However, there are many Pagans that do not have this upbringing. They aren’t all upset former Christians. Becoming Pagan isn’t a form of running away from anything, it’s actually a way of running toward something. What is that something? Depends on the person and what they hope to find. The reason for becoming Pagan will vary from each person, but there are some common reasons.

One reason is that people like the belief system that had the masculine and feminine deities. Another would be for acceptance, as Pagan beliefs do not condemn anyone from the LGBT+ community. A reason could be that one wants to reconnect with nature and embracing that relationship between humanity and the world around us. One of the most commons reasons is due to how flexible Paganism is, since there’s no set doctrine, no universal book of rules, no hierarchy. Last reason is for personal empowerment. Pagan beliefs put emphasis on ones own responsibility and doesn’t allow for someone to not take self-accountability for their actions by claiming it was the will of God.

While Paganism is very inclusive to everyone, there are some bad reasons for choosing the path. One example is if you just want to cast spells on people (refer to the Threefold Law). Another being that you just want to conjure spirits, which isn’t even something every Pagan does. A terrible reason is because you “want to join a religion that lets me do what I want.” While this may be true to an extent, refer back to the Threefold Law and the concept of taking self-accountability. As long as you have good intent and are actually interested in what Paganism is and you aren’t attempting to go down that path for “bragging rights” or something of that nonsense, you’re pretty much fine. I hope you learned something and maybe had a new understanding.

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