Help! I'm Clueless About Paganism

Page One




Spiritual Reflections

Pagan Witchcraft


Who Is Starweaver?

Archive of Past Issues

Site Index

Blog: Starweaver's Corner



If you've been curious about modern Paganism, but have never known where to begin to help make sense of it all, I hope this tutorial will be some help. It may not make you an expert, but it should leave you with a good "big picture" view of things and enough lingo to talk with people or do some more studying on your own.

Before I say any more, one thing needs to be made clear: Paganism is not a single thing, but many. There are many different spiritual practices, belief systems, religions, and traditions that fall under the Pagan umbrella, and there is no consensus about what makes them "Pagan". For this reason, almost everything you will read in this tutorial is a generalization. There are exceptions to everything. The point of this tutorial is not to be comprehensive and perfectly accurate, but just to provide a starting place.

What Paganism Is

When I speak of Paganism, I'm referring to a contemporary religious/spiritual orientation. Modern Paganism has its roots in the nature romanticism of the late 19th century. At a time when the rationalism of the Enlightenment era was beginning to seem rather cold and soulless to many people, and when European Christianity seemed to be more about the rigid maintenance of tradition than nourishing the human spirit, some people looked back upon the pre-Christian religions of Europe for their spiritual inspiration. Perhaps those earlier times, when people lived in closer contact with nature, when enchantment clung to every well and patch of woods, and when gods and goddesses presided over moonlit revels, offered a cure for the ailments of modern times. The sentiment is expressed quite wonderfully in a classic poem by Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune,
It moves us not.--Great God! 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;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Rather than simply musing wistfully on a romanticized vision of ancient paganism, modern Pagans actively create a spiritual life for themselves that is infused with the love of nature, the use of myth and symbolism to feed the imagination, and the experience of direct spiritual connection, unmediated by the power hierarchies of traditional religion.

There are many approaches to this. Some groups work very diligently to actually reconstruct an ancient religion, perhaps Greek, Celtic, Norse, or Egyptian. Others borrow eclectically from ancient religions, mysticism, philosophy, and non-European sources such as eastern religions or the beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, or other locales. Furthermore, some modern Pagans simply invent new approaches to spirituality, embracing whatever works for them.

What qualities does one usually find in the many varied forms of modern Paganism? Here are a few qualities I find to be rather widespread in modern Paganism, although these are not by any means universal constants.

Nature symbolism. Pagans often view the natural world as a rich source of symbolism and wisdom. The cycles of the Sun and Moon, the motions of water and wind, the plants and animals that live in the wild - all these things inspire and teach us.

Polytheism and Goddess Worship. Most Pagans step outside the Judeo-Christian concept of God, replacing the patriarchial image of deity with something more organic and fluid, such as the idea of the Earth as a mother goddess, or a pantheon of deities with different personalities and areas of activity.

Magical Living. Many Pagans view the world as rich in possibilities and responsive to our own creative impulses and desires. We see the practice of magic in myths and folktales as a kind of model for reshaping our own reality today. Rather than living in a world that is bound by the laws of nature or by the will of an omnipotent deity, Pagans live in a world in which we are all co-creators, moment by moment.

The Authority of Personal Experience. In many of the traditional religions, the ultimate authority about what is true or what is moral resides in a sacred text or an institution. Pagans seldom give much credence to ancient texts or authority figures; our sense of what is true and right comes from our own personal experience. Although we happily share our perspectives with each other, we recognize that one's spiritual life is a deeply personal matter, and do not seek to impose a single belief system on everyone.

Next Steps

Now that you have a general idea of what modern Paganism is about, it's time to take a closer look at what Pagans actually do!

Go to Page Two.

Copyright © 2008 Tom Waters

Resources for this Page

The Witch's Voice is the largest Pagan networking site on the web, and contains a great deal of introductory information and outreach materials.