PaganismPaganism is an umbrella term for a broad range of spiritual paths and religious practices from all cultures and all periods of history underpinned by a broad animistic belief that all things have a non-physical aspect to their nature through which they are connected and can communicate. Paganism is not a single religion or belief and is therefore difficult to define or even describe unilaterally, however, within Paganism there are many threads with commonality such as those which acknowledge a divine or creative force that is immanent within the universe (pantheism), often personified as a goddess rather than a god and often both or even many (polytheism). Divinity is often seen as immanent in nature (including animals, plants, landscapes, places and, of course, human beings) - one Pagan path sums this up as "There is no part of us which is not divine". Many modern western Pagans see the celebration of nature and their place in it as representative of a deep connection to the divine and attune themselves intimately to the natural world and its seasonal cycles (the solar equinoxes and solstices, the moon's phases and other annual festivals such as May Day and Halloween) by way of festivals and ceremonies to mark these points on the turning wheel of the year.
Paganism often sees itself as the ancestral spirituality and religion of the whole of humanity. Its ancient outlook remains active throughout much of the world today, both in complex civilisations such as Japan and India, and in less complex tribal societies worldwide. It was the outlook of the European religions of classical antiquity - Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome - as well as of their "barbarian" neighbours on the northern fringes, and its European form is re-emerging as part survival and part revival into explicit awareness in the modern West as an articulation of urgent contemporary religious priorities.
Characteristics of Paganism
Veneration of NatureThe spirit of place is recognised in Pagan religions, whether as a personified natural feature such as a mountain, lake or spring, or as a fully articulated guardian divinity such as, for example, Athena, the goddess of Athens. The cycle of the natural year, with the different emphasis brought by its different seasons, is seen by most Pagans as a model of spiritual growth and renewal, and as a sequence marked by festivals which offer access to different divinities according to their affinity with different times of year. Many Pagans see the Earth itself as sacred: in ancient Greece the Earth was always offered the first libation of wine, although She had no priesthood and no temple. One consequence of the veneration of Nature, the outlook which sees Nature as a manifestation of immanent divinity rather than as a neutral or inanimate object, is that divination and magic are accepted parts of life. Augury, divination by interpreting the flight of birds, was widespread in the ancient world, as was extispicy (divination by reading the entrails of the sacrificed animal) though in modern western Paganism practices such as divination by reading the tea-leaves left in a teacup are modern extensions of these practices. As well as reading the signs already given by deities, diviners may also actively ask the universe to send a sign, e.g. by casting stones to read the geomantic patterns into which they fall, by casting runes or the yarrow stalks of the I Ching. Pagans usually believe that the divine will answer a genuine request for information. Trance seership and mediumship are also used to communicate with the Otherworld.
Polytheism: Pluralism and DiversityThe many deities of Paganism are a recognition of the diversity of Nature. Some Pagans see the goddesses and gods as a community of individuals much like the diverse human community. Others, such as followers of Isis and Osiris from ancient times onwards, and Wiccan-based Pagans in the modern world, see all the goddesses personified as one Great Goddess, and all the gods as one Great God, whose polarity and harmonious and balanced interaction is one of the secrets of the universe. Yet others think there is a supreme divine principle, that "both wants and does not want to be called Zeus", as Heraclitus wrote in the fifth century BCE, or which is the Great Goddess and Mother of All Things, as Isis was to the first century CE novelist Apuleius and as she is to many Western Pagans nowadays. Yet others, such as the Emperor Julian, the great restorer of Paganism in Christian antiquity, believe in an abstract Supreme Principle who is the origin and source of all things. But even these Pagans recognise that other spiritual beings, although perhaps one in essence with a greater being, are themselves divine, and are not false or partial divinities. Pagans who worship the One are described as henotheists, believers in a supreme divine principle, rather than monotheists, believers in one true deity beside which all other deities are false.
The Goddess and the Divine FemininePagan religions all recognise the feminine face of divinity. A religion without goddesses can hardly be classified as Pagan. Some Pagan paths, such as the cult of Odin or of Mithras, offer exclusive allegiance to one male god. But they do not deny the reality of other gods and goddesses, as monotheists do. (The word 'cult' has always meant the specialised veneration of one particular deity or pantheon, and has only recently been extended to mean the worship of a deified or semi-divine human leader.)
Other CharacteristicsNot all Pagan religion is public religion, much is domestic and much is private, anonymous or even secret. Not all Pagan deities are seen as humanoid super-persons, many are elemental or collective. For Pagans, religion and spirituality pervade the whole of everyday and domestic life.
The many divinities of Pagan religion often include ancestral deities. The Anglo-Saxon royal houses of England traced their ancestry back to a god, usually Woden, and the Celtic kings of Cumbria traced their descent from the god Beli and the goddess Anna. Local and national heroes and heroines may be deified, as was Julius Caesar, and in all Pagan societies the deities of the household are venerated. These may include revered ancestors and, for a while, the newly dead, who may or may not choose to leave the world of the living for good. They may include local spirits of place, either as personified individuals such as the spirit of a spring or the house's guardian spirit, or as group spirits such as "Elves" in England, the "Little People" in Ireland, "Kobolds" in Germany, "Barstuccae" in Lithuania, "Lares" and "Penates" in ancient Rome, and so on. A household shrine focuses the cult of these deities, and there is usually an annual ritual to honour them. The spirit of the hearth is often venerated, sometimes with a daily offering of food and drink, sometimes with an annual ritual of extinguishing and relighting the fire. Through ancestral and domestic ritual a spirit of continuity is preserved, and by the transmission of characteristics and purposes from the past, the future is assured of meaning.
Magic, the deliberate production of physical results by non-physical or spiritual means, is generally accepted as a feasible activity in Pagan societies, since the two worlds are thought to be in constant communication. In ancient Rome a new bride would ceremonially anoint the doorposts of her new home with wolf's fat to keep famine from the household, and her new-born child would be given a consecrated amulet to wear as a protection against harmful spirits. The Norse warriors of the Viking age would cast the magical 'war fetter' upon their enemies to paralyse them, and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts record spells to bring healing and fertility. Specialist magical technologists such as horse-whisperers and healers are common throughout Pagan societies, but mostly the practice of magic for unfair personal gain or for harm to another is forbidden, exactly as physical extortion and assault are forbidden everywhere.
Modern PaganismWith its respect for plurality, a refusal to judge other ways of life as wrong simply because they are different from one's own, with its veneration of an animistic natural world from which Westerners in the age of technology have become increasingly isolated, with its respect for women and the feminine principle as embodied in the many goddesses of the various pantheons and with a non-dogmatic and non-proselytising approach Paganism appears to have much to offer people of European background today hence it is being taken up by them in droves. When they come to believe that it is in fact their ancestral heritage, its attraction grows. Democracy, for example, was pioneered by the ancient Athenians and much later reinvented by the Pagan colonisers of Iceland, home of Europe's oldest parliament. Our modern love of the arts was fostered in Pagan antiquity, with its pageants and its temples and the development of science as we know it began in the desire of the Greeks and Babylonians to understand the hidden patterns of Nature, and the cultivation of humane urbanity, the ideal of the well-rounded, cultured personality, was imported by Renaissance thinkers from the writings of Cicero. In the Pagan cities of the Mediterranean the countryside was never far from people's awareness, with parks, gardens and even zoos, all re-introduced into modern Europe by the classically-inspired planners of the Enlightenment.
In the present day, the Pagan traditions manifest both as communities reclaiming their ancient sites and ceremonies (especially in Eastern Europe), to put humankind back in harmony with the Earth, and as individuals pursuing a personal spiritual path alone or in small groups (especially in Western Europe and the European-settled countries abroad), under the tutelage of the Pagan divinities. To most modern Pagans in the West, the whole of life is to be affirmed joyfully and without shame, as long as other people are not harmed by one's own tastes and actions. Modern Pagans tend to be relaxed and at ease with themselves and others, and women in particular have a dignity which is not always found in broader society.
Modern Pagans often feel emancipated from the customs of an established cultural religion or the dogmas of a revealed one and are often creative, playful and individualistic, affirming the importance of the individual psyche as it interfaces with a greater power. There is a respect for all of life and usually a desire to participate with rather than to dominate other beings. What playwright Eugene O'Neil called "the creative Pagan acceptance of life" is at the forefront of the modern Pagan movement and it is bringing something new to religious life and to social behaviour for many people, a way for pluralism to flourish without fragmentation, or creativity without anarchy. Pagan commentators believe this is an age-old current surfacing in a new form suited to the needs of the present day and it is being taken up readily and increasingly by a western population seeking to find their own place in the cosmos.
Pagans in NottinghamNational and international organisations such as the Pagan Federation, The Centre For Pagan Studies, The Children of Artemis, OBOD and the Druid Network have some very strong local connections in Nottingham, while the internet and the "mind, body, spirit" section of any bookshop can provide rich sources of further information. On a local level there are many smaller groups often hosting social gatherings (sometimes called "moots") which are an excellent place to talk and learn about Paganism and meet Pagans and most are very conscious of being inclusive so are open to non-pagans with a definite prohibition on proselytism. Here in Nottingham we have Nottingham Pagan Network, Nottingham Empyrean and Pagan Pride itself:
National & International Pagan Organisations:
www.witchcraft.org (Children of Artemis)