If you are looking to learn more about the beliefs, practices, and traditions of Paganism, it can be challenging to know where to start. With so much information readily available on the Web and elsewhere, it can feel overwhelming to even the most practiced of Pagans. If this is the case for you, rest assured – you are not alone! I hope that this guide brings you closer to a fuller understanding of Paganism for beginners so that you may explore any pieces that might align with you.
What is Paganism?
Paganism is an umbrella term that encompasses a vast array of nature-based, polytheistic practices. At its core, all forms of Paganism are generally rooted in the reverence of nature and hold this reverence above all else. However, unlike many other religions, Paganism is both a pre-historic and post-modern form of polytheistic worship. This means that Paganism has ancient roots, many of which are still shrouded in mystery (due to religious persecution and conversion). It also has many modern forms that either bring these age-old beliefs forward or reorient them to the modern world. With such a mixture of belief systems and traditions, the full scope of Paganism can feel a little overwhelming.
When did Paganism start?
Many attribute the first rise of Paganism to the Celts and the ancient Druids of Britain. There is little known about these polytheistic practitioners. Still, most experts agree that Druids surfaced around the 3rd Century B.C.E. They devoted their time to worship many gods and studied philosophy, astronomy, and natural medicine. Meanwhile, the Norse Pagans of early Scandinavia are said to have begun their practices somewhere between 500 and 400 B.C.E.. Like the Druids of ancient Britain, the Norse Pagans worshipped several gods and deities and studied cosmology and the cycles of nature.
In the modern-day, Paganism has evolved to suit the needs of the individual practitioners. Those who seek to reconnect with ancient Pagan practices are called reconstructionist Pagans, while those who have adopted more modern approaches may self-identify as Wiccan, Neopagans, or Witches.
Is Paganism a Religion?
Because Paganism does not have one central religious doctrine, most scholars agree that it cannot be considered a “religion” in the traditional sense. Despite this refusal to acknowledge Paganism as a formal method of religious worship, the modern world still embraces it. Currently, the Ásatrú Temple is under construction in Reykjavik, Iceland – the world’s first temple dedicated to Norse Pagans in over 1,000 years.
Additionally, in 2017, the Greek government has recognized Hellenism as an official protected religion. We are slowly but surely witnessing a resurgence of these ageless practices and experiencing a rise in their popularity.
Are there other movements linked to Paganism?
Different movements linked to Paganism include Norse and Celtic practices, Druidism, Hellenism, Shamanism, Wicca, and even some forms of Witchcraft. These are, of course, only skimming the surface of what this ancient ideology has to offer its practitioners.
Read on as we continue to explore the different parts of Paganism to further orient yourself with the beliefs and practices of these timeless traditions.
What are Pagan Beliefs?
The answer may differ depending on who you ask, as this will always vary from person to person. However, there are a few core Pagan beliefs that most support. Though we cannot universally define the Pagan experience for everyone, the following encompasses much of the ideology central to most practices:
- As briefly mentioned above, Pagans celebrate and revere nature. Nature itself is sacred, while natural cycles such as life and death carry profound spiritual meanings for Pagans. Many Pagans respect all forms of life and work to protect the environment and planet. They also embrace the sometimes brutal and crueler parts of the natural world.
- Because Paganism is considered polytheistic, many practitioners work closely with Gods, Goddesses, or Deities across various pantheons. For example, in Celtic Paganism, it is not uncommon for one to work with the likes of Cernunnos or Epona. In Hellenism, one may opt to spend their time with Aphrodite or Athena. Sometimes practitioners dedicate their altars to one entity, and at other times they may choose to work with many deities.
- The altar is a sacred collection of important ritualistic and magical items. Generally, Pagans will have these altars set up in their homes to practice their ritual work with them. Sometimes they are dedicated to one God, Goddess or Deity, and at other times they are simple workstations for magical practices.
- Many Pagans engage with ritual work or magic through their practice. These rituals vary greatly across practitioners, so it is hard to pinpoint precisely how they may look. For example, a Wiccan may invoke a specific deity to aid them in a protection spell. Or a Pagan Witch may charge her herbal tea with a healing intention. Magic and rituals are deeply personal and rooted in one’s own sacred belief system.
- Pagans typically abide by a strong moral code, either determined by their individual ethics or as a part of a more extensive practice. Wiccans and Neopagans, for example, abide by what is called the “Rule of Three.” This Rule of Three is a karmic relationship between your actions and what will return to you as a result of them – whatever you energetically create will be returned to you threefold. Part of what makes Paganism so beautiful is the power for the individual to determine a set of codes that works for them.
These are just a few of the myriad of possible beliefs a Pagan may adopt. They are not a comprehensive list, nor is it guaranteed that all Pagans will subscribe to any of the above. Instead, it is a simple breakdown of a very complex network of beliefs and ideas. Understand that each Pagan is different and that practices will always vary.
What is the Difference Between a Pagan and a Heathen?
Historically, the terms “Pagan” and “Heathen” were used by Christians to refer to people who practiced non-denominational religions. Pagan refers to the subset of beliefs adopted by those with a genuine reverence for nature. Heathen, meanwhile, simply means “not adhering to an Abrahamic religion.”
Heathenry also happens to be a modern Pagan movement. It closely follows the teachings of the pre-Christian Germanic people of the Early Middle Ages. Heathens are reconstructionists as they work to modernize and rehabilitate these age-old traditions.
In short, Heathens are a subset of Pagan belief systems. Not every Pagan is a Heathen, but all Heathens are Pagan.
What is Modern-Day Paganism?
Modern-day Paganism varies just as much as its ancient predecessors. As briefly touched on earlier, many different sects would call themselves a part of the Pagan tradition. They may range from Green Witches to Wiccans, to Celtic Pagans, to Shamans, and so on. Because of this, modern-day Pagans can look very different from one another. If someone self-identifies their practice as rooted in Paganistic belief, then so it is.
Neopaganism and Wicca are two well-known manifestations of modern-day Paganism:
- Neopaganism, or contemporary Paganism, is considered to be a product of American counterculture. Born out of the influx of Wiccan beliefs into the American continent, it rose to popularity in the 1960s and adheres to no formal governing body. It’s heavily influenced by ancient practices and beliefs and is sometimes associated with the New Age movement. Just like Paganism, Neopaganism encompasses a wide variety of traditions based on the sacredness of nature.
- Wicca is a modern Pagan religion and stems from the occultist Gerald Gardner, who popularized the movement in the first half of the 20th It has traditional core beliefs, values, and practices but is largely decentralized and varied. Wiccans are known to believe and practice magic, engage in sacred rituals, and devote themselves to one or more entities. Some Witches identify as Wiccan, and some do not. Others may identify as Wiccan, but not as Witches.
Paganism practiced today will always differ from practitioner to practitioner. There is no one way of capturing or defining the movement in its entirety. That is the beauty of the tradition – anyone may fit in where they so desire.
What are the Pagan Holidays?
The Wheel of the Year depicts the eight different Pagan holidays, or Sabbats, of the seasonal year. Each holiday is based on the planet’s natural cycles, and therefore, all contain a natural theme. Though not every Pagan participates in these holidays, they are widely celebrated across all belief systems.
1. Yule or Winter Solstice
Typically from December 19th to 23rd, Yule marks the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year. This part of the cycle represents death, the end of the seasonal year, and the dawning of hope and rebirth. It is typically celebrated by burning a Yule log, making wreaths and garlands, and decorating the altar with pinecones, mistletoe, and sage.
2. Imbolc, Imbolg, or Brigid
Usually held on either February 1st or 2nd, Imbolc is a preparation for the spring season to come. Though some places are still snowy, this time is a great chance to clean living spaces, make Brigid’s crosses, and feast with loved ones.
3. Ostara, Eostar, or the Spring Equinox
The day and night are now equal in length, as Ostara reminds us that winter is over and spring has arrived. The snow is starting to melt as signs of fertility and growth blossom around us. To celebrate Ostara, Pagans typically start their flower or vegetable gardens, spring clean their homes and take walks in nature.
4. Beltane or May Day
Beltane, on April 1st, is an ancient celebration of fertility to mark the beginnings of the planting cycle. It welcomes in bountiful crops and promises an abundant harvest. Typically, one celebrating this day would drink May Wine, have a Beltane bonfire, and create flower headbands.
5. Midsummer, Litha, or the Summer Solstice
From around June 20th to the 23rd, Midsummer takes place. It is a celebration of the longest day of the year. Midsummer is an opportune time for Pagans to set up their altars, light a Midsummer’s night fire, and craft tools for magical use.
6. Lughnasadh, Lughnasad, or Lammas
This holiday takes place on August 1st and is all about facing fears. It marks the beginning of the harvest season, and it captures the concerns of ancient Pagans who would worry that their harvest would not be bountiful. Anything centered around the coming of Autumn, such as apple picking, preserving vegetables, or placing grains on your altar, is a great way to celebrate.
7. Mabon or the Fall Equinox
Falling somewhere between September 20-23rd, Mabon marks another day when the length of light in the sky is the same as darkness. It is also a time of the final harvest of the year, celebrating the bounty and beauty of the summer’s end. It is another transition period, great for practicing gratitude, finding balance in your life, and adorning your altar with symbols of the harvest (cornucopias, dry leaves, pumpkins, etc.).
8. Samhain or All Hallow’s Eve
Perhaps the Pagan holiday most are already familiar with, Samhain takes place on October 31st or November 1st. It represents a time to remember and honor your ancestors. It is said that the veil between Earth and the other planes of existence are thin on this day, therefore making it an excellent time for prayer, gratitude, remembrance, and practicing magic.
Though not all Pagans practice each holiday, the Sabbats are sacred times of the year that call for unique and special celebrations.
Is Paganism Right for Me?
Paganism is a highly personal practice. It leaves much of the onus on the practitioners to study, learn, and develop their knowledge and wisdom. If you feel a closeness to the natural world around you and have a deep underlying respect for all natural forces, Paganism might be something you will want to explore. Because there is no governing body or religious doctrine, Paganism is hugely versatile and easily adaptable to whatever you need it to be.