Twenty Questions About Paganism
Disclaimer - Throughout this document, you will find the words "usually", "often", and other disclaimers; this is because Paganism is not a rigid, structured belief system.
- What is paganism/a pagan?
- What is Paganism? How is it different from paganism?
- What are some different types of paganism?
- What is Witchcraft/Wicca?
- Why do some of you use the word Witch? Wiccan?
- What are some of the different traditions in the Craft?
- Are pagans Witches?
- Are you Satanists?
- What kinds of people are pagans?
- What holidays do you celebrate?
- What god(s) do you believe in?
- Can one be both Christian and pagan?
- What were the Burning Times?
- How many pagans/Witches are there today?
- How does one/do I become a pagan?
- What books/magazines should I read?
- How do I find pagans/Witches/covens/teachers in my area?
- What's a coven really like? How do I form a coven?
- Can/will you cast me a love spell/curse my enemies?
- What one thing would most pagans probably want the world to know about them?
1) What is paganism/a pagan?
The words paganism and pagan come from the Latin "paganus", meaning "country dweller". Neopagans hold a reverence for the Earth and all its creatures, generally see all life as interconnected, and tend to strive to attune one's self to the manifestation of this belief as seen in the cycles of nature. Pagans are usually polytheistic (believing in more than god), and they usually believe in immanance, or the concept of divinity residing in all things. Many pagans, though polytheistic, see all things as being part of one Great Mystery.
Some people believe paganism to be a religion within itself, others see it as a belief system (such as monotheism) that can be incorporated into religions like Wicca or Druidism; others see it as a broad category including many religions. The fact that we are re-creating religion for ourselves after centuries of suppression makes us very eclectic and very concerned with the "rightness" of a particular thing for the individual. So when you see some people calling it a religion and others not, when you see it capitalized in some sentences and not in others, don't be confused -- we're all still basically talking about the same thing.
2) What is Paganism? How is it different from paganism?
Paganism (with a capital "P") is one strand of neopaganism which strives to allow each person to draw from whatever religious and cultural traditions are meaningful for the individual. The practices of Paganism derive from those of Wicca, but are not identical to those of Wicca.
3) What are some different types of paganism?
Neopaganism is the attempt of modern people to reconnect with nature, using imagery and forms from older forms of paganism, but adjusting them to the needs of modern people.
- Wicca -- in all its many forms
- neo-Native American practices
- the Sabaean Religious Order
- certain people within Thelema and hedonistic Satanism
- and last, but not least, Paganism
- Asatru and other Norse neopaganism
- "Women's Spirituality"
- Church of All Worlds
- Radical Faeries and other "Men's Spirituality" movements
- some of eco-feminism
4) What is Witchcraft/Wicca?
Wicca was the first (or at least one of the first) of the neopagan religions. As a result, it is the best known, and tends to overshadow its younger, smaller siblings. This does not mean that Wicca is more valid than other neopagan religions -- just larger and louder.
Wicca, however, is only one of the things called W/witchcraft (or sometimes, the Craft, a term also applied to Masonary). There is a whole range of folk-magick around the world called witchcraft in English. There are also Witches who practice religions called Witchcraft which are not Wicca. These religions tend to be more folk-pagan than Wicca, drawing on the heritage of a specific culture or religion. Wicca itself is a new religion, drawing strongly on the practices of Ceremonial Magic. However, Wicca has developed in many directions and should not be seen as a unified whole, eventhough it is fairly new. Rituals and beliefs varywidely among Witches. Unlike most of the neopagan religions, Wicca is an initiatory religion, that is, people who choose to practice Wicca believe that the commitment to this path set changes in motion in their lives. Many Traditions (sects) of Wicca formalize this with a ritual (or series of rituals) of initiation. Others, especially Solitary Witches, trust that the Gods will do the initiating of the Witch.
5) Why do some of you use the word Witch? Wiccan?
Witch is a very old word meaning "magic-maker", from a root which meant "bending" and "shaping". For many of us, the word Witch is a powerful reclaiming of that inherent human power to make changes around us. For others, including some of the people within Wicca, that word is not their word. Some people within Wicca take the adjective "Wiccan" and use it as a noun.
6) What are some of the different traditions in the Craft?
Different traditions in the Craft include Gardnerian Wicca, Alexandrian Wicca, Dianic Wicca, the Faery tradition, many branches of Celtic-based Wicca, and many other forms of Wicca often called eclectic, since they draw their practices and liturgy from many different sources. There is no way to include all traditions because the new ones are being created every day by the practioners themselves.
7) Are pagans Witches?
The question, "Are pagans Witches?" is about the same as the question, "Are Christians Catholics?" (or Methodists, Baptists or whatever). Most Witches are pagans, but not all pagans are Witches.
8) Are you Satanists?
This is a bit of a loaded question, since there are several different conceptions of what Satanism really is. If what you're really wanting to know is - do we sacrifice babies and worship evil incarnate, the answer is NO!
9) What kinds of people are pagans?
People from all walks of life are pagans -- computer programmers, artists, police officers, journalists, university professors -- the list is endless. Many people, no matter what their mundane occupation, find solace in the life-affirming aspects of paganism.
10) What holidays do you celebrate?
Because neopaganism follows so many different traditions from many different parts of the world, there is no single set of holidays that all neopagans celebrate. The names that are generally used to denote the Wiccan sabbats (as well as the festivals of many pagan traditions) come from Gaelic (both Scots and Irish), Welsh, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon.
Samhain (31 October) -- Irish Gaelic for "summer's end". The Irish pronunciation is either "SOW-in" with the "ow" like in "cow", or SAH-win". When in doubt just say "Hallows" or even "Hallowe'en".
Yule (21 December) -- Norse for "wheel". Its pronounced just like it looks. The winter solstice.
Imbolc (1 February) -- Irish Gaelic for "in the belly". Pronounced "IM-bulk" with a gutural "k" on the end. Other names include Candlemas; Brighid (pronounced "breed"), who is the Irish goddess whose festival this is; and Oimelc (pronounced "EE-mulk"), which means "ewes milk" in Scots Gaelic.
Ostara (21 March) -- Saxon name for a maiden goddess of spring, loosely connected to Astarte and Ishtar. This one's easy -- "o-STAHR-uh". Other names include Eostre (say "OHS-truh" or "EST-truh"). This is the spring equinox.
Beltane (30 April) -- Irish Gaelic for either "fires of Bel" or "bright fires", pronounced like it looks "BELL-tane". Other names are Walpurgisnacht (vahl-PUR-gis-nahkt) and May Day.
Litha (21 June) -- Norse or Anglo-Saxon for "longest day". Say this one just like it looks. This is the summer solstice.
Lammas (1 August) -- The first harvest festival. Lammas is just like looks, "LAH-mus".
MABON (21 September) -- The second harvest festival. Most Wiccans and pagans say "MAY-bon". This is the autumn equinox.
11) What god(s) do you believe in?
Neopagans believe in a great many goddesses and gods. However, not all neopagans believe in the same ones. Many neopagans believe in a Goddess and a God that are manifest in all things. Some follow particular pantheons (e.g. Greek, Irish, Norse, Yoruban, Welsh), others don't stick to any one culture, and still others see the Divine in more symbolic terms. Many ascribe certain qualities to different goddesses such as Athena as the goddess of wisdom; Aphrodite as the goddess of love; Artemis as the goddess of the hunt, and so on. Many pagans and Witches see the Goddess in three aspects, those of Maiden, Mother and Crone, and the God in two, The Young God and the Old God.
12) Can one be both Christian and pagan?
There is much dissention on this particular topic, with both Pagans and Christians taking both stances. There are many brands of Christian mysticism, some more similar to the aspects of paganism than others. But some Pagans who dance outside to the light of the moon and praise the Goddess in Her aspect of Diana see and feel no contradiction to going inside and lighting candles to Mary, Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God, the next day. And those same pagans see the same sacrificial king motif in Jesus as they do in Osiris. Many people might find it difficult to reconcile the two paths; others see a successful integration possible. It depends on what is right for the individual.
13) What were the Burning Times?
The Burning Times is the name many modern Witches and pagans have given to the time of the Inquisition, and of the other witch hunts (including Salem) which sprang from it. During that time, many women and men were persecuted for practices objectionable to the Church, especially witchcraft.
As is often the case, this horror sprang from fear and misinformation -- most people who were arrested, tortured and killed were not Witches (or witches) of any sort, but simply people who had gotten on the wrong side of someone who had the local magistrate's ear, or who somehow didn't fit in (particularly beautiful or ugly women, widows who had wealth or owned land, handicapped and retarded, and even overly intelligent people are all examples of those who became primary targets of this persecution).
The Burning Times is considered by many Witches and pagans to be comparable to the atrocities and devastation perpetrated during the Holocaust, and a time that should never be forgotten. Many do active public education work to assure as best they can it will never happen again.
14) How many pagans/Witches are there today?
Although many people have given estimates, it's impossible to know this due to the number of people "in the broom closet". However, all branches of the neopagan movement are steadily growing. Even opponents of neopagan religions acknowledge that they are the fastest-growing religions in North America.
15) How does one/do I become a pagan?
Most followers of pagan beliefs feel that, if someone is meant to find the pagan path, s/he will eventually. Usually, it is not a case so much of "becoming" a pagan as it is of finding a vocabulary for ideas and beliefs that you have always held. Good ways of investigating if this path is for you is to frequent pagan or new age bookstores, attend open pagan gatherings when the opportunity arises, and look for contacts. Most importantly, read read read! There are plenty of good books out there, as well as periodicals. The later especially might be useful in the way of making contacts in your area.
16) What books/magazines should I read?
There are many, many good books on this subject (and quite a few bad ones). But the best book to read is "Drawing Down The Moon" by Margot Adler. This is not a how-to book; it is a comprehensive study of the neopagan movement in America, and the author is a journalist, a reporter for National Public Radio, and a pagan.
Also, to get started contacting other pagans, a good place to write is Circle Network, P O Box 219, Mt Horeb, WI 53572. Circle is the largest pagan network in the country and publishes a guide to pagan groups around the United States, Canada, and overseas. They also have an extensive list of available publications.
17) How do I find pagans/Witches/covens/teachers in my area?
Some of your best contacts may come from your local new age, pagan or occult bookstores. Check their bulletin boards for notices, or ask the staff. Also many periodicals frequently allow people to advertise for contacts in their particular area. Circle Network, based in Wisconsin, has recently come out with an updated guide to pagan groups; it is available by mail-order or through certain new age stores. Locally the Pagan Community Council Of Ohio has a large membership and holds open events throughout the year.
Don't be in a hurry to find a teacher. "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear" is a popular saying in most pagan and Craft communities. Frustrating as that may sound, it's really a sensible way to think. Neopaganism, like any esoteric movement, attracts its share of unsavory characters. When you do meet people, use your intuition. If they seem somehow "off" to you, then they're probably not for you. If o one seems like someone you think you'd like to be with, then you're probably better off working solitary, at least for such time as you find no compatible people.
And by no means should you infer from this that all solitaries are "pagans-in-waiting". Many people are quite happy to work alone, and in fact prefer it. There is nothing wrong with working on your own as long as you like -- even if that turns out to be a lifetime. In fact, there are several people who highly recommend that you study on your own for a while before looking for others to work with. This gives you a chance to get started figuring out what feels right for you without having pressure from others to conform to their beliefs and dogmas.
18) What's a coven really like? How do I form a coven?
Well, if you're expecting to hear about sex and blood magic, animal sacrifice, and ritual cruelty, then you'll be disappointed. Forming or joining a coven is a spiritual commitment (the words coven and covenant are related) that is entered into advisedly. Once that bond is made, though, you find yourself in a spiritual community of people who have roughly the same theology, getting together to celebrate the passing of the seasons and cycles of the moon, providing support and comfort to its members -- a lot like a small spiritual community of any faith. Another common saying in the Craft is "In perfect love perfect trust", and that sums up the relationship among coveners pretty well.
Another kind of group for like minded pagans to gather in is called a circle. The ties between coven members are as close as those between members of a family, and in some cases, closer. A circle is similar to a group of friends -- you like to do things together, but the bonds between members are not as serious as between coven-members.
Just as you shouldn't be in a big rush to find a teacher, you probably shouldn't set right out to form a coven. Most Witches believe the coven bond to be a very intense and serious one, one that applies on the Karmic as well as mundane levels. Think of it as getting married -- you wouldn't marry the first people you met who are interested in getting married too, would you?
Forming a circle, or magical study group, is perhaps a better first step. It can be on a relatively informal basis, and you and the other participants can get to know each other while learning about the Craft together (as a matter of fact, many covens are from study groups). The fun of this is that you can meet more people who are interested in what you're interested in, and you can all learn together, and maybe even develop a tradition from the results of your studies. (You can do this as a solitary, of course, but some people do take more enjoyment in working with others. Once again, do what's right for you.)
The steps for contacting people to form a coven are much the same as finding other pagans and Witches in your area. A word of advice, though: You may want to leave your last name off, or get a P. O. Box. Don't give out your number (unless you have an answering machine). Advertising yourself as being interested in this sort of thing might attract, shall we say, undesireables. Try writing such a notice so that those who are probably interested in similar ideals will know what you're talking about without attracting the attention people who aren't. Remember that words like "witchcraft", "pagan" and "coven" mean many different things to many different people.
19) Can/will you cast me a love spell/curse my enemies?
Can we? Probably (Whether it might yield the desired result is something else). Will we? Not on your life, bucko.
Pagans and Witches usually believe in some form of what's called the Witches Rede: "An it harm none, do as thou will." That isn't as easy as it might sound. That means whatever action you undertake, it can't harm anyone, including yourself. Witches and pagans also believe in some form of the Law Of Return: "Everything that you do (magically or otherwise), will come back to you." And it does.
Most of us believe that it is wrong to use magical power to coerce someone into doing something against his or her free will. Curses and love spells are the most prevalent examples of manipulative magic. Some Witches and pagans do believe that using one's powers in defense (say, to assure a rapist's getting caught) is all right; others do not. Those who do choose to work that kind of magic do so knowing that it will come back to them, and are making an informed choice when they decide to do so.
This makes it sound as if we spend our lives deciding whether to curse or hex someone, when that's not true. Our spells and magical workings are for such things as healing the planet, getting a job (or otherwise bringing prosperiety into our lives), healing (both ourselves and others), and spiritual empowerment. Spells are really quite similar to prayer -- they just have more hollywood hoopla attached to them. Besides, anything you do for yourself will work much better than a spell or a magical working done by someone else.
20) What one thing would most pagans probably want the world to know about them?
The answer comes from Margot Adler's excellent book "Drawing Down The Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today" (the revised edition). If you want to learn even more about modern paganism, we highly recommend this book. It is available in most bookstores and in many libraries.
"We are not evil. We don't harm or seduce people. We are not dangerous. We are ordainary people like you. We have families, jobs, hopes, and dreams. We are not a cult. This religion is not a joke. We are not what you think we are from looking at T.V. We are real. We laugh, we cry. We are serious. We have a sense of humor. You don't have to be affraid of us. We don't want to convert you. And please don't try to convert us. Just give us the same right we give you -- to live in peace. We are much more similar to you than you think."
-- Margot Adler, "Drawing Down the Moon", page 453.
"Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler, Beacon Press.