For those of you who follow, the February installment of ‘A Year And A Day’ on Pagan Pages Ezine is out.
Below is the Pagan Pages article with a few tweaks to represent changes in my understanding of these groups. For a discussion on the usage of the terms Pagan and Neopagan, see my Paganism page.
Definitions of paganism are difficult because most Pagans do not operate within a centralised religious body or follow a standard set of rules. However, there are similarities between the various Pagan and Neopagan traditions, including reverence for the Earth and nature. Many Pagans share common beliefs with indigenous traditions including pantheism, polytheism, and animism.
Below are examples of some of the largest groups within the Pagan movement. However given Paganism’s eclectic nature, these are purely generalizations and there are many variations and interpretations!
Wicca is the largest of the Pagan religious groups, thought to be started in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner in the UK. Basic Wiccan tenets include duotheistic worship of the Goddess and God, practice of magic and altered realities, and belief in reincarnation and karma. They celebrate the eight-fold Wheel of the Year through their Sabbats, and celebrate the Full (and sometimes New) Moon during Esbats. Wicca has no central hierarchy or dogma, however many Wiccans follow a set of moral codes such as the Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law (The Law of Return). Wiccan groups are divided into ‘traditions’ such as Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Georgian or Dianic Wicca, with many Wiccans following an eclectic mix of cultural influences, either working in covens or solitary.
The first neo-Druid order was formed back in 1717, and since then, several other groups have formed including the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (1964) and Ár nDraíocht Féin (1983). These groups are inspired by the pre-Christian Druids, and its adherents are often well-read in the history, mythology and spirituality of the pagan Celts. They follow the Celtic Wheel of the Year, as well as have reverence for the three realms of Land, Sea and Sky. Neo-Druids are often divided into Bards (storytellers, singers, poets), Ovates (seers, diviners, healers), and Druids (teachers, shamans).
Polytheistic Reconstructionism (Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Kemetic)
Reconstructionists attempt to revive culturally-specific ethnic traditions and practices based on surviving folklore, which is in contrast to eclectic groups which mix facets from different cultural sources. Popular reconstructionist groups include Celtic, Germanic (including Nordic and Saxon), Hellenic (Greek), Roman, and Kemetic (Egyptian) cultural backgrounds. These groups rely more on historical evidence and surviving folk traditions as a base for their practices, as opposed to piecing together different aspects from different sources, which was prevalent during the Romanticism of 19th century Europe.
Ásatrú or Heathenism
Ásatrú is a modern tradition focused on Nordic mythology and culture (specifically, the Aesir pantheon). Heathenry can be thought to include those who practice Germanic paganism, including Norse or Anglo-Saxon culture and mythology. These groups are thought to be reconstructionist in their view, in that they attempt to recreate the pagan practices of ancient Germanic people exclusively. Most follow the mythology from the Norse and Icelandic Eddas and Sagas, in which the World Tree Yggdrasil is the home of the Nine Worlds. Their deities include the All Father Odin as well as Thor, Frigg and Freyja. Heathens believe in Wyrd and ørlög, which is similar to Karma and Fate, as well as the Nine Noble Virtues. Their celebrations involve the Blót, a blessing ceremony historically involving ritual sacrifice, and the Sumbel, a feast or gathering.
Ceremonial Magick, Occultism and Thelema
Ceremonial Magick, or High Magic, describes a practice that uses specific sequences of words and tools in their rituals. It became popular in the 19th century with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was a huge influence on Western Occultism. Thelema was developed by Aleister Crowley, the 20th century Occultist and Ceremonial Magician. He coined the term ‘magick’ to differentiate from the magic performed as ‘stage tricks’. The core tenet in Thelema is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Western Occultism, Ceremonial Magick and their traditions follow closely the esoteric principles of Eastern and Western mysticism, Qabalah, Hermeticism, Enochian magic, Alchemy, divination and metaphysics for their spiritual development.
Shamans use altered states of consciousness and contact with the spirit world, often by using drumming, dance or entheogens, to perform healing, divination or other work. Shamanism was present in many pre-Christian cultures around the world, such as Native American and other indigenous traditions. However Neo-shamans attempt to revive these ancient practices that may or may not have been wiped out by periods of conquest and colonization.
Santería and Voudon/Voodoo are derived from the West African Yorùbá religion and Fon and Ewe cultures, later spreading into Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. It is thought that practitioners fused their beliefs with Roman Catholic ones in order to appear converted and avoid persecution. Both religions usually involve communication with ancestors, drumming and dance, and animal sacrifice. Santería mixes Spanish Catholicism with Yorùbá beliefs, and has a heavy presence in Cuba. Voudon is influenced by French Catholicism, and is prevalent in Haiti and also New Orleans.
Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions by Joyce & River Higginbotham