What Is Paganism?

A Basic Description of Paganism & Pagan Metaphysics

PaganismWhat is Paganism? What does Pagan mean? How is Pagan Metaphysics different from Witchcraft? With the growing popularity in Paganism, many people who have never heard the word before, or people who don’t know what it is are looking for some basic understanding and knowledge about the beliefs and practices. Many wonder if it’s a religion or something else. Is it evil or bad? What’s real and what’s made up in Hollywood?

Of course anyone could write an entire book on these subjects. Well, actually I have with Pagan Metaphysics 101, the first book in a series to explain these questions in more detail. But for those who are looking for a short general version for their own understanding, I offer the following brief explanation.

The Word ‘Pagan’
Many beginners confuse the translation of the word pagan with its meaning. Pagan translates to “country dweller”, but that’s not the definition of the word. It’s just the translation. In the old days a country dweller was someone who lived off the land and depended on nature to survive. They were typically practitioners of some form of nature or earth based religion.

 
The definition of Pagan means any religion that does not follow the doctrines of Christianity, Muslim or Jewish faiths, or any faiths based on Abrahamic teachings. These religions share a common history, and are therefore lumped together as non-pagan. Many people add Buddhism to that list; but it’s highly inaccurate. Buddhism is totally different from the others and has no historical correlation in its creation as a belief system. So as a label, Pagan is a huge category of religions that would include Witchcraft, Shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American beliefs and so on.

Witchcraft / Pagan Metaphysics
Recently practitioners are becoming less comfortable with the label “Witchcraft” and it’s centuries of propaganda. Others don’t like the label “neo-pagan” because they believe the “neo” part shows disrespect to the centuries of history held within the religion. We use the label “Witchcraft” because over the 1000s of years of persecution, this was the label associated with our beliefs by the Catholic Church. It’s just a word, but one many have taken with honor and respect to those who lost their lives for freely practicing their spiritual path.

Today the label Pagan Metaphysics isn’t trying to get away from this history, but rather trying to escape the controversy of the “Witchcraft” label and the thousand years of propaganda. A new movement to rename the religion to Pagan Metaphysics has started up and taken hold mostly in academic realms. The label distinguishes Pagan Metaphysics from common Metaphysics which most practitioners associate with New Agers. And it allows for the indo-European Pagan Shamanistic paths to be part of a religion they have long practiced as well. It also maintains the connection with its “pagan” roots of the Country Dweller who relied on Mother Nature for every aspect of life.

The Religion Is and Isn’t
Pagan Metaphysics as a religion, is not about spells or potions, or even psychic gifts and abilities. There is a difference between Spellcraft and Witchcraft. Though many practitioners do practice the science of magik (spell casting), it’s not a major focus of the belief system. If spells are the only thing a person is interested in, the spiritual path of Pagan Metaphysics or Shamanism is not the path to take. Pagan Metaphysics utilizes a great deal of spiritual belief and ‘Divine’ connection when casting energy. It is this Divine connection that is vital to our approach of Magik. Whatever form that ‘Divine’ aspect means to the practitioner. Using magik without spiritual belief or a Divine connection is called Ceremonial Magik which focuses on only the energy and it’s outcome.

 
Many people argue that Witchcraft is a craft of magik and not a religion. It’s an argument that will never be resolved as opinions greatly vary even within the craft community itself. A religion is any specific system of belief, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy. By this definition ‘Witchcraft’ is indeed a religion. But this is another reason that many are evolving to a new label for their spiritual practice and gravitating to Pagan Metaphysics as the label of belief.

In addition, it’s also important to note that Pagan Metaphysics (or Witchcraft) is not about devil worship. The devil is a non-pagan concept and not part of our theology. We don’t believe in the existence of the devil. Therefore it’s a little hard to worship something you don’t recognize. Satanism or Devil worship is based on Hebrew/Christian/Muslim theology, albeit the dark or negative side of their history.

Pagan Metaphysics is not LeVey Satanism or Settist. While all three are in the category of Pagan religions, they are very different religions and approach the concept of the Divine Universe differently.

Pagan Metaphysics (or Witchcraft) is also a recognized religion in many countries. Practitioners are also still persecuted in many others. Recognized by the United States in 1975, it was added to the U.S. Army’s Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains. While the information is not totally accurate, this section of the book refers to the religion as Wicca, Witchcraft; Goddess worshipers; Neo-Paganism, Paganism, Norse (or any other ethnic designation) Paganism, Earth Religion, Old Religion, Druidism, Shamanism.

Basically, Pagan Metaphysics is a religion of Indo-European origins based in the foundation of  “I alone am not the Goddess, you alone are not the God. But you and I and all things seen and unseen make up the interconnected Divine Universe”. From this approach “God” is not a being outside of our existence, rather we are part of what make up the Divine “God”. Without us, the Divine is not complete. With us, the Divine is all things; female, male, human, plant, animal, spirit, the All, the Everything.

It is a religion that strives for balance in all things, respecting all aspects of the Divine Universe and believing that enlightenment is achieved through free will and choice in both spirit and body.

Polytheistic or non-Polytheistic
It’s really important to remember that not all who follow this path are Polytheistic. While many gravitate toward Pantheon groups and choose specific Goddesses and Gods to honor, there is a distinction to be made between their practices and monotheistic religions. Specifically Pagans generally don’t ‘worship’ a deity as this sets the Divine force outside oneself. Instead a deity is honored as the representation of a certain or specific type of energy that helps the practitioner focus the efforts on a specific issue. For instance, a practitioner might honor Eir who is the Goddess or Valkyrie of medicine if they are sick or need Divine healing. There are many pantheon groups (Norse, Celtic, Greek, Roman etc) and each practitioner typically chooses which group they feel an affinity with and wish to honor.

Some denominations, specifically those that follow a Shamanistic path, see the Divine as a single all inclusive source which is often referred to as the Universal Spirit, the Divine Spirit, the Great Spirit and a variety of other titles including God or Goddess. Most of these groups don’t consider their path to be monotheistic as this label suggest a singularity. Rather they gravitate to the concept of non-polytheistic meaning not multiple deities, but rather an all encompassing Divine consciousness that encompasses the polarity of all energies together.

It’s really up to the individual and what label or approach best fits their personal view of the Divine force.

My tradition follows the path of non-Polytheistic. Where some traditions see the Divine as a tree whose branches are represented by different Gods and Goddesses, we see the Divine as the entire Tree. Why work with just one or two aspects of the branches, when you can work with the entire Tree? We put an emphasis on the plural “GreatSpirits” meaning the Divine is made up of all things. I alone am not the goddess, you alone are not the god, but you and I and all things seen and unseen make up the Divine Consciousness of the Universe.

To Witch or Not to Witch
Not all who practice this path call themselves a witch. I don’t for instance. I practice a form of Celtic Shamanism. I am not a Druid. Druidism and Celtic Shamanism are similar, but not the same; but that’s a different topic. My tradition is a combination of Celtic shamanism and Cherokee beliefs and practices.  I do not call myself a witch, but do say I practice a form of Shamanistic Witchcraft. I am not now, nor have I ever been Wiccan.  In the long winded version; I am a Celtic Shaman following a Shamanistic path of Celtic Metaphysics.

So what is a witch? A Witch is nothing more than a person who practices energy manipulation. This practice can be accomplished on or with any religious belief system. There are Christian Witches just as there are Pagan Witches. The most common example of a Christian witch can be found throughout central and south American countries. Voodoun practitioners (a combination of Christian and Haitian beliefs) also use the label witch.

Why do you use ‘magik’ instead of magic? The alternative spelling to magic is common amongst practitioners to differentiate between stage magic or slight of hand illusions and the science of energy manipulation. Other spellings are also used, such as magick, magique and similar variations with using a j in place of the g, ie: majick or majik.
 
Sects or Traditions
Within Pagan Metaphysics we are a religion with many different sects or denominations. We call these Traditions or Trads which denotes the tradition of, or the handing down of knowledge and practices from one generation to the next. One of the biggest traditions found around the world are simple Family traditions. These are specific to each practicing family unit, which may or may not have a name or label.

The most commonly used label here in the U.S. is Wicca. However, Wicca is a tradition and not a religion unto itself. Think of it this way; Wicca is to Witchcraft what Baptist is to Christianity. Not everyone who practices the religion is Wiccan, but all Wiccans are practitioners of Witchcraft. Simply put, Pagan Metaphysics (Witchcraft) sets the foundation of our beliefs, and the traditions put those beliefs into practice and sometime further define or clarify those beliefs.  There are a great many traditions within the religion that were established long before Wicca and that still exist today.

In the early 1950s Gerald Gardner pulled from his experiences with other pagan traditions and developed what he called Wica, which has become the modern tradition of Wicca. Along with the support and contributions of his first initiate, Doreen Valiente, this tradition was created with specific rituals, learning criteria and initiation tests for his new denomination of the Craft. In 1953 he initiated Doreen Valiente into his coven. The two collaborated on writing ritual and non-ritual material, a body of work which continues to stand as the authority for what became known as the Gardnerian tradition of Witchcraft or Wicca. 

From Oxford Dictionary Online:
The religious cult of modern witchcraft, especially an initiatory tradition founded in England in the mid 20th century and claiming its origins in pre-Christian pagan religions.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
English folklorist Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), who is said to have joined circa 1939 an occult group in New Forest, Hampshire, England, for which he claimed an unbroken tradition to medieval times. In published and unpublished material, he apparently only ever used the word as a mass noun referring to adherents of the practice and not as the name of the practice itself.

Many people have claimed that Gardner said this is the original name of the religion in his writings, when in fact he never did. It’s an assumption by modern practitioners who want to claim they are following “an unbroken tradition to medieval times“. The problem is this claim is false. There are no records, no writings, no documentation that traces to medieval practices with our modern practices. More over, there is no evidence throughout history that can trace the many hundreds of thousands traditions of today with an original practice of the past. Paganism did not begin in medieval times, it was part of cultural societies back to antiquity. Sociology and Archeology have proven the existence of pagan type practices all around the world. This question was answered long ago.

But ask yourself why would you want to practice a spiritual belief system from the long ago past? One that was built from a lack of understanding surrounding the world and how we relate to the grander Divine Universe. One of the greatest things about modern Pagan Metaphysics is that we’re not afraid to learn and evolve our understanding of nature and the universe.

Thus the age of a tradition does not make that group more or less valid than any other. Most organized traditions have a code of ethics, a foundation of belief, specific rituals, learning criteria and an initiation process. There are many traditions older than Gardner’s Wicca have been practiced and put into place long before his creation and formation of Wicca.

Metaphysics and Physics are not at odds with each other. They never have been since Aristotle wrote about them. As a Pagan Greek, most of the Great Thinkers like Plato, Aristotle and others understood these studies were linked. Where Physics is the study of the observed world, Metaphysics is the study of the unseen world. The more we learn the more we’re able to apply our new knowledge to expand our perspectives, deepen our understandings and evolve our thoughts forward toward enlightenment. This is the focus of Pagan Metaphysics and it has been for centuries.

There are three major categories of craft traditions.
1. Classical
Early Nordic which included the Germanic languages, Dutch, Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish people.

2. Gothic
Celtic, Anglo-Saxon which includes Druid, Irish, Scottish, and English, as well as, many of the French, and Italian sects.

3. Neo-Pagan
Modern sects which have primarily been influenced by the melding of all previous traditions through evolution and expansion of those historical practices.

Pagan Metaphysics would fall into the Neo-Pagan category because it strives to merge the old ways with modern science and understanding. It is a belief system that is built on the approach of evolution. The more we learn, the more we grow and the more our beliefs evolve. Because of this new Traditions are formed each year.

This is not unlike the evolution of many new Christian denominations that have formed over the modern era. If you’d like a quick example, take a look at the approved list of Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on U.S. Government Headstones and Markers from the Veterans Administration. Here you can see a few of the denominations that are formally recognized by the U.S. government, including Wicca/Witchcraft. 

Gatherings
Pagans gather in groups which maybe called Covens (indo-European), Clans (Celtic) or Groves (Norse/Germanic); the three most common terms. Each group defines how the members function in its hierarchy and practice, which are generally based on the parent group they hived from. Many of these new groups will incorporate their own ideas and expand their spiritual understandings based on their own experiences, study and research. In this way, the elders of the religion hope that each new generation improves the beliefs and practices and continues the evolution of understanding.

Because of this approach, many new traditions have implemented knowledge and wisdom from other religions and practices that are seen as a hybrid of spiritual understanding. This isn’t a bad thing as it does allow the beliefs to evolve. Some purists see this as degrading the beliefs of the Old Ways and losing touch with history and what came before. I believe that if our religion is to survive, it must grow as we grow. We’ve seen the destructive nature of other religions that remain stagnant and refuse to change.  We face the same issues, if we insist on remaining true to the past.

You can also read more about Traditions and Gatherings on my original website Pagan’s Path.

Persecution and the Inquisition
Many groups have held this information secret not necessarily because of some need to be elusive or mystical, but rather out of a need for security and to avoid persecution. 

With the increasing persecution, the Inquisition and witch-hunts, it is understandable why practitioners of the Old Religion eventually went underground and remained anonymous until the coming of” the modern era. As stated by the University of Virginia’s Religious Movements study on Witchcraft/Wicca.

The study continues.. “Witchcraft and Wicca, in all its incarnations, is probably one of the longest and most persecuted religions in history. With the coming of Christianity in Europe, the Old Religion was almost immediately opposed.”…  …”Eventually during the 15th century, what became known as “The Burning Times” came to pass. As the Church spread lies about the Wiccan tradition and accused female practitioners of being handmaidens of Satan, Wiccans were increasingly persecuted as the hysteria increased. With the aid of witch-hunting manuals such as the Malleus Maleficarum , thousands of accused witches across Europe, a large portion of which were not even practitioners of the Old Religion, were hunted down and killed well into the 18th century in Europe. Even today, the actual number of people who died during that time is unknown.”

The persecution of practitioners didn’t end with the Burning Times, they simply migrated to new lands. As the Inquisitions slowly diminished in Europe a new colony in the new world known as Salem began with its own slaughter of innocent women and men. Even today many practitioners face ridicule and attack from religious extremists who believe in the depictions of pagans from Hollywood and the propaganda from Christian organizations.

In spite of the misconceptions, Paganism not only has survived, but it thrives and is growing around the world in leaps and bounds. In 2006 the Washington Post published an article on “U.S. Snapshot: Pagans, Marriage and TV”, the article states: “Membership in Wiccan, Deity, Druid and Pagan (U.S. Census data – PDF) sects has been skyrocketing — up from an unregistered blip in 1990 to more than 350,000 as of 2001“. 

In the past 10 years, this number is expected to increase exponentially as modern culture changes it’s view on Pagans and their practices. From popular movies such as Harry Potter, to TV shows about witches and wizards appearing on the Disney Channel, many practitioners have felt less afraid of bigotry and have been coming out of the broom closets in droves. Sadly, however persecution and bigotry over our religion still exists, even here in the U.S.
 
Expansion or Hiving
Today when a Pagan Metaphysical group spins off from another group, we call it a new Hive. This relates to the nature based view of when a colony becomes too large or fractured, a new hive or multiple new hives are created to expand the colony for survival. When a new group is formed, it typically takes on a new name, but this is a new coven name, not a new founded Tradition.

It’s important to keep in mind therefore that people who practice other traditions not associated with Wicca, and that were established through different traditions or through traditions that are older than those which were used to build Wicca, get a little annoyed with being called Wiccans. It’s similar to calling a Baptist a Catholic. Or vice versa.

Standards of Belief
There is no one set or specific standard of belief in Pagan Metaphysics. There’s no right or wrong way. What matters on any spiritual journey is what you believe, what’s true to your soul and what fits within your perspective of the Divine force in your life. Religion is a very personal thing and none of the foundational information is new. It has been around for eons, built upon and advanced through both understanding of the Universe from a scientific perspective and through personal experiences and perspectives.

We believe in reincarnation and that we have all lived through lifetimes in the past that have brought us understanding and knowledge of spirit and the Divine. Because of this we believe the answers to our existence, our spirit and our connection to the Divine is already within the self. How we put those beliefs into practice is all up to each person individually.

There are common or general understandings that establish the foundation of our faith. We believe in:

  • A Divine Universe
  • Reincarnation
  • Karma, also called The Law of Accountability or The 3-fold Law
  • Spirit / Souls
  • Ghosts
  • Animal Spirits / Totems
  • Spiritual or Ethereal Energy
  • Magik or the Science of Energy Manipulation
  • Sixth Senses and Divination
  • Evolution & Science
  • All things are connected, seen and unseen through out the multi-verse of life

You might be interested in reading a couple of additional articles I have written on this subject that can give you a little more insight into our approach to the world.
~ What is Pagan Metaphysics
~ Pagans & Politics

 

© 2012-2014 This material is the intellectual property of Author Springwolf - Springwolf's Hanko
Initially released 02.28.2012; Last Updated 09.29.2014
© 2012-2014 Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. Springwolf Reflections / Spring’s Haven, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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6 thoughts on “What Is Paganism?

  1. Great article with good historical and foundational information. Interesting choice of wolf. Green eyes?

    • Hello Galvin. Thank you for the kind words. The wolf image actually had very beautiful blue eyes. However my eyes are green. As my husband calls them, I have alien eyes. So I tend to alter images now and then to represent my green reflection.

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