What Is Pagan?
Not all Pagans are the same. This should go without saying, but there is a extant and prevalent belief that Paganism is somehow a single organism, a unified faith that believes the same and practices the same. And it’s not true.
'Pagan' is an umbrella term. It means 'non-Abrahamic'. That's it. It doesn't serve as anything other than a very broad category. If it's not Judaic, Christian, or Islamic, it's Pagan (roughly speaking).
Under the term Pagan you’re going to find many different religions. There’s not so much common ground between Pagan religions that you can consider all Pagan religions to be branches or parts of an overarching faith. There’s more than a few where their ideas about what is holy and what is not completely oppose one another.
You have a top-level label: Paganism. It’s the umbrella.
Then underneath that, you have a first level of sub-divisions. It’s generally agreed that there are three types of paganism.
- Paleo-paganism is paganism untouched by another culture, still practiced in its’ original form by its’ original culture.
- Meso-paganism is paganism that’s come into contact with another culture or cultures. The meso-pagan culture may be an independent culture, or it may have been absorbed into another culture. Meso-paganism has been influenced by said culture, but still maintains an independent religious practice.
- Neo-paganism, which the majority of modern pagan practice fall under, is paganism that is inspired by or draws from ancient sources and cultures but adjusted for the lives of modern people.
Most people’s practices will fall under Neo-paganism.
Each of the three types of paganism breaks down further into types of associated religions. You have the various syncretic Yoruban religions of the Caribbean and South America, reconstructionism of various kinds (Hellenic, Roman, Norse, Gallic, etc.), Heathenry, various kinds of European religious witchcraft, Goddess traditions like Reclaiming…and there are still many different Native peoples who have meso-pagan paths around the world. I couldn’t possibly list them all.
Underneath those associated religions you can break each down to individual traditions of those religions. And sometimes you can get several traditions under those traditions.
I’ve made a graphic, to provide you a more visual example of what I’m talking about. It’s very (very) rough but gives you a better idea of the way things tend to break down.
Looking for things Pagan:
Many people set out to research ‘Paganism’ and hit a wall. Sometimes it’s that they don’t know that pagan history is really the history of many different nations, peoples, and pantheons, and so end in finding little. Sometimes all searching for ‘pagan’ will bring you is to the New Age shelf in the bookstore, which doesn’t really represent the wide variety of Pagan religions, or offer any depth in the materials presented. And though we’d like to think otherwise, some writers are more motivated by selling books, than being diligent and accurate with the information they present seekers.
Because of that, someone just starting out might be forgiven for thinking that Paganism is one big thing. The easiest source materials to find, in chain bookstores, and online, make it look that way because they only represent one specific type of paganism: eclectic neo-pagan witchcraft. It’s not a newbie’s imagination: the sources they’re often handed to get going with imply that all pagans are witches, all witches are Pagan, everything’s soft poly, witchcraft and paganism is about affirming the self (the New-Age ‘me’ syndrome) and that all paganism is Wicca-based. The research in many of these books is wibbly, because the authors have revised history or fact to suit their own purposes, or have done their research out of the same genre of neo-pagan books.
So what do you do? Start at the source - history. Neo-pagans are just that - new. We draw our inspirations, beliefs, and practices from older sources - the paleo-pagans of ancient days - and adapt them to our modern lives. It can’t and doesn’t make what we do ancient - but it only makes sense for us to use what materials we can from their own era.
Essentially you’ll be looking at the history and mythology of different peoples around the world - each civilization had its’ own pantheon of deities and set of religious practices. Typically people look to the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons to start, to name only a few of the most popular and well-recorded. Other pantheons and mythologies may not be so well-known or easy to uncover, particularly if they kept an oral tradition.
Be patient. Keep an eye out for primary source materials from the peoples who worshiped the Gods you seek. Myth and legend can give you a really good idea of how ancient peoples perceived, and interacted with, their deities. What’s been recorded by those peoples is sometimes called ‘lore’ - and lore is an important guide for pagans of any stripe.
Sometimes with primary or secondary sources, you’ll have to work with materials written by outsiders or conquerors, whose works carry a bias concerning the pagan history they’ve put to paper. This is ok - you just need to remember the bias is present. For example, if you’re reading Caesar’s words about the Druids, remember that the Romans hated the druids and hunted them to extinction - what Caesar reports will always be coloured with that hatred. There’s a level of reasonable doubt involved with all such things.
In modern papers and books, look for a good bibliography, one that sources books outside the neo-pagan genre. Avoid sources that seem skimpy on actual fact, or have revised history - history isn’t always straight-forward, but the truth shouldn’t be inconvenient. Also watch out for books that jump to huge conclusions based on the idea that ‘similar=same’. It doesn’t, and it’s a huge logical fault to connect everything together in this manner. And if the author is encouraging their reader to do unethical or illegal things, put the book back on the shelf and walk away.
It’s easy to get confused when you’re still learning. It’s a warm fuzzy thought, that we’re all together and you’re not alone when you’re starting out. For some people being alone is very uncomfortable, and they really want the reassurance that there are others out there like them.
But you wouldn’t stand at the bus stop, with a crowd of people, and assume that they’re all just like you, would you? Just remember: Paganism is the a big, wide umbrella. All the word ‘pagan’ does is separate us from the Abrahamic faiths - it’s nearly meaningless otherwise. Many people stand under that umbrella, but it does not assure us that the person standing next to us believes or practices as we do, shares the same Gods, or respects the same values. Don’t assume or take for granted that your path is everyone else’s.
I sat down with a cup of tea this morning, and sorted through some of my posts. Well, I say sorted - I got Virgo-obsessive about the whole thing, really. So there’s some new links down the left hand side of my Tumblr.
The ‘Altar And Shrine Index' is just a linked list to pictures I've posted. It's mostly just for reference.
‘The Author' is some personal information, and a list of personal posts I've made here. I don't think I'm that interesting, but if you're curious about me, there's stuff there.
‘Links and Post Directory' is a list of links to other sites I maintain on the Web, and a list of informational posts about witchcraft and paganism I've made here.
And as always, there’s the Ask page. You can -always- ask me questions. I’ve been exploring, learning, and practicing various forms of paganism and witchcraft for 20 years. I do know things, or at least usually know where other people know better than I might.
We have more snow now than we have all winter. Oh March, ye olde lion ye. Or, as the Simpsons put it, “Lousy Smarch weather!” One hopes that winter has not decided to come now and remain until well after Beltane, as it has for several years now. I am practical (if not a little cynical) and not as hopeful as I should be, perhaps. But I hope a little, for the little green shoots of my tiger lilies in the garden now buried under 2 feet of the white stuff, and the birds who have come back from winter roosts already.