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Paganism

Paganism is a group of semi-religious traditions that developed over the Classical Period in various parts of the world. In recent times, paganism has been attributed to any non-classical or non-European religion. The main philosophy behind paganism is the worship of nature, and this, accompanied by a set of traditions and rites were the basis of classical paganism which has paved the way for its contemporary counterparts today. Paganism does not refer to a single religion, but rather to a group of religions and cults that believed in the worship and reverence of nature and the earth. Pagan symbols have been found in the most ancient of cultures, though contemporary paganism has seen a revival in the past century. The gods and goddesses of paganism are often represented as spirits of nature and the elements, and this contrasts strongly with other religions that proclaim the omnipotence of a supreme, or divine being. Though paganism is strongly rooted in the principles of nature worship, its non-Catholic beliefs, ritualistic practices and many sub-cults have led to it being viewed and reviled as a form of Satan worship. However, in spite of these stereotypes, paganism has resurfaced over the years and seen a sort of modern revival, with many of its old principles still set firmly in place.

Pagan religious symbols.

Definition of Paganism

In the early days of the predominantly Christian Roman Empire, the word “Hellene” was used to describe people who practiced polytheism, the worship of several gods. Hellene, which comes from the Roman word for Greeks, ceased to have the geographical connotation, and rather developed cultural overtones, and was used to describe pagans, rather than the Greek people. Hellenic culture was the predominant pagan culture in ancient Rome, and the term slowly spread in use, even by the pagans themselves. The Latin word “paganus” which meant “related to the countryside”, by the late 4th century, acquired religious overtones, coming to mean people who did not belong to the Christian community. It was often used synonymously with the terms heathen, infidel, and heretic, even though these were often meant in a negative sense. Paganism itself was not an organized religion, but rather a set of beliefs, rites, and culture that came to exist under various influences in the 2nd – 3rd century A.D. A group of cults developed within paganism, not all of which held the same beliefs. For example, while polytheism was a common theme within the pagan community, not all pagans believed in it, and some often worshiped a single deity instead. The definition of a pagan then came to mean all those who did not worship what was known as the “One True God”. Pagans were considered self-indulgent and sinful pleasure seekers by practitioners of traditional religions. However, it not only gained a considerable following in the Greco-Roman empire, but also in other parts of the world, including the Celtic, Slavic, and other empires.

Influence and Founders

The primary influence behind paganism was nature. Nature was considered the primary force of life, and the order of nature was respected and revered. The other influences of paganism were cultural and mythological, encompassing a variety of beliefs that are mirrored in contemporary forms of paganism. The adoration of nature through art, poetry and literature was one of its central pillars. However, other influences, such as primitive religious practices, like herbal healing, fortune telling and divination, and ritualistic celebrations also played a big role in defining paganism as it is today. Another major influence in the development of paganism was the ideal of a mother Goddess, rather than a patriarchal figure of God, as was widely proclaimed by other religions. The mother goddess not only represented a divine being but also a part of the earth and nature itself. The persecution of witchcraft and supernatural practices also formed one of the bases of paganism as more and more people became interested in the suppression of these practices and began to explore their true pre-Christian roots. These were the factors that contributed to a revival of interest in paganism, especially in the 18th century, and gave rise to the Romanticism movement, a great impetus to contemporary paganism. Though the different cults of paganism make it difficult to define one founder or central figure, there were several offshoots and cults that achieved a much larger following, whose founders can be traced back in history. Gerald Gardner, for example, a scholar whose work revived much of the interest in paganism in the late 19th century is credited as being the founder of Wicca, a form of British witchcraft. Another famous figure known as Starhawk was influential in the creation of what was called the Reclaiming Coven in San Francisco around the 1980s.

The pagan goddess symbol.

Early History of Paganism

Elements of paganism can be traced back to pre-Christian history, even to the age of the Indus Valley, one of the world’s most ancient civilizations. The worship of a central figure who was surrounded by different forms of nature, known as “Pashupati” was used often in seals, stamps and other motifs in this civilization. Similar and more widely cited as an early pagan relic was the cauldron of Gundestrup, which dated back from the early Iron Age, which also depicts a similar motif. Almost every culture in the world has some form of paganism in its heritage, either in the form of its ancient deities who represent the elements and nature (like the Greek Gods), relics of ancient rituals and practices (like Stonehenge in Great Britain), or even in its scriptures. Such evidence clearly indicates that even in ancient cultures, nature and the divine were a recurring theme, and could be clearly identified as the founding pillars of paganism across different cultures and regions. In fact, there are many theories today about how well known festivals like Easter and Christmas derive from pagan roots. Christian and pagan philosophy grew together, with both having influences on the other. However, while Christianity was recognized as a protected and legitimate religion, paganism was too broad and diverse to be recognized as a religion, and with no formal, united leaders, beliefs or religious texts, became a term to encompass all forms of worship that were not mainstream, or did not adhere to the philosophies of Christianity, Islam, or any other major world religion.

Expansion and Exploration Phase

Unlike many other religions of the day, paganism did not seek to convert individuals to the pagan way of life. Paganism was not governed by doctrines of good or evil, and was more concerned with the reverence of nature. The ideal of polytheism, a modern belief in itself, emphasized these qualities of acceptance and religious tolerance. The different sub-sects of paganism developed with their own sets of beliefs and rituals, heavily influenced by their regional differences, and co-existed as different entities sharing some common beliefs. However, all these sub-sects developed as a result of evolution rather than as separate independent forms of paganism. For example, the early Egyptian gods, who represented different emotions and facets of life were replicated in Norse and Greco-Roman mythology. Over time, as the Roman Empire begin to spread over Europe, the differences between these figures began to get more blurry over time, and sometimes merged together to create entirely new entities. For example, though the Roman conquest of Great Britain suppressed the local influence of the predominant Druidic cult at the time, there are elements of Roman paganism on Celtic paganism that are visible in the names of its deities, its architecture, and other relics. For example, the temple of Aquae Sulis in Bath illustrates the joining of the Roman word “Aqua” with “Sulis”, a Celtic goddess. However, as Christianity began to garner more support, paganism began to be viewed with more fear and cynicism due to its more liberal nature. Paganism never really died, but lived on in ancient folklore and rituals. Christianity itself drew a number of influences from early paganism, including the dates of some of its important observances and festivals.

A pagan goddess celebration in the Ukraine.

Revival and Modern Age

Towards the end of the 18th century, paganism began to see a revival in the form of the Romantic Movement, which embraced emotion as a source of beauty, especially in the veneration of nature and the elements. Romanticism elevated folk culture to an art form, and depended heavily on elements on imagination, fantasy, and the exotic. Many famous works of literature, including the works of the Brothers Grimm, were influential in the revival of interest in paganism. There was a lot more conversation about the pagan roots of mainstream religions such as Christianity, as scholars and literary pioneers began to explore these themes at depth. As eminent members of society began to publicize their trysts with the occult and the few existing covens and cults that remained of early paganism began to garner more support, their influence grew stronger. The result was the development of several new sects that idolized pagan beliefs, and the emergence of modern day witchcraft and occult spirituality. Other forms of paganism emerged in different regions that drew their influence from various sources, including ancient Greco-Roman, Native American and Celtic paganism. The biggest breakthrough, however, proved to be the growing popularity of the internet, which gave pagans the opportunity to long address issues and questions that had been associated with their beliefs, which helped to foster a growing online community that did not fear, but was curious about pagan beliefs and culture.

Pagan Beliefs and Symbolism

The strongest pillar of paganism is its association with nature. Nature is considered a divine theme, and is worshiped in the forms of gods and goddesses, through literature and art, and rituals and practices. However, in many forms of paganism, nature as an entity in itself is worshiped, without any underlying deity or divine influence. Pagans believe in the existence of a soul or spirit for every form of material, irrespective of life. Though some of these may be at a lower level of consciousness, each and every part of this world deserves to be treated with respect, including plants, animals, or even stones. Nature is also considered to be a strong influence on the personality and actions of a human being. Since human beings share so much physical matter with nature, the latter governs every aspect both physical, and psychological of an individual’s life. Similarly the pagan concepts of suffering and evil differ in that while the former is an inevitable result of human beings’ strong relationship to nature, the latter is more conceptual in nature, and not a central ideology of paganism, but better suited to traditional religion. While paganism does, to some extent, believe in death and reincarnation, the way in which it differs from other religions is that in paganism, reincarnation is not seen as a punishment for past actions, but rather as a new phase of life. Another central ideology of paganism is its belief in polytheism, or multiple gods. Though this was not a belief common to some cults, it was definitely a recurring motif in many of the early pagan cults, with different gods and goddesses representing various aspects of life or one’s personality. Magic, or Magick, was another practice that stated that every human being was born with the innate ability to create change. Pagan magick harnessed the forces of nature and energy, along with practice and learning to enable people to inspire positive change. Other rich themes of paganism include femininity, which can be seen in its idea of the mother goddess, the creator of the world and the living embodiment of nature.

Pagan Rituals and Rites

Drawing upon nature as its primary influence, pagan rituals are often deeply rooted in the natural phenomena. The calendars of different cults, for example, observe lunar and solar movement. Pagan temples and constructions are built in architectural styles that showcase and align themselves with nature. The Stonehenge in England, for example, aligns itself with the stars. Festivals and celebrations often coincide with different seasons and phases of nature. The summer solstice, spring equinox, nights of the full moon, and other such instances are causes for celebration in many pagan cults. Many of these occurrences are also observed as different festivals in other more mainstream religions. Agricultural and folk festivals are also commonly celebrated. Religious sites include man-made structures, such as the Pyramids of Giza, Machhu Picchu, and Angkor Wat, as well as natural sites like waterfalls and ancient trees. Paganism can also be embraced as an individual lifestyle, by choosing to work with organizations that commit to environmental sustainability, setting up natural spaces around one’s home, or constantly attempting to learn more about nature. Practitioners of paganism set up shrines and altars at home with statues of pagan deities as well as natural relics, such as plants, seashells, and rocks. Common practices include meditation and introspection as forms of prayer, and free individual forms of religious expression, like yoga, focused breathing, and exercise. Many pagans practice magick, which involves concentrating on and harnessing the power of energy. More mystical elements of paganism involve fortune telling, the reading of rune stones, and astrology.

pagan_sun_worship.jpg

Pagan mediation and sun worship.

Criticism and Misconceptions

Though many aspects of paganism are harmless, the fact that it is a diversion from traditional religions has led to many misconceptions about pagan practices and ideologies, and to its dismissal as a form of Satan-worship. The liberal nature of paganism in the aspects of sexual orientation, freedom of religious belief and self-expression are alien to religions that tend to follow set scriptures and beliefs, which is part of the reason why there is still so much uncertainty around it. Others mistake rituals such as magic for witchcraft and devilry, whereas it really is just a form of meditation and the reinforcement of positive energy. Paganism does not seek to convert people, but allows them to choose their own deities and spiritual figures. Though many of them worship several gods, it is no different from several modern religions, like Hinduism, or even ancient Greek or Norse mythological beliefs. Paganism is often confounded with Satanism, even though the Christian concepts of hell, heaven, good and evil are in no way associated with paganism. Animal sacrifices and other primitive rituals are often associated to paganism, though true pagan ideologies have nothing but the highest regard for all forms of nature. The fear and cynicism around paganism led to several attempts over the course of history to suppress it, such as Julius Caesar’s conquest of the Gallic druids, and the burning of witches at the stake in the history of Great Britain. However, with a little bit of knowledge about the true ideals of paganism, it can be seen that it is a harmless belief, and truly gives its followers the chance to choose their own faith.

Paganism Today

The increasing public awareness of paganism has been manifested through forums, websites, and online communities, which has helped in clearing many of the common questions and criticisms. Modern day paganism is a merging of ancient and contemporary customs, all with the underlying philosophy of nature worship, polytheism and animism, which have endured over the ages. Many modern pagan celebrations are now conducted in public, and celebrated by thousands of followers in different cults. Many new cults and theories have arisen as a result of this renaissance, which have garnered several followers over the years, such as the Goddess Movement, Wicca, and humanistic paganism. Due to the fear of persecution, many of these cults remain secret, so it is hard to establish the exact number of practitioners of paganism. However, it has seen a great revival in parts of Europe and North America, with a lot of organizations and educational institutions attempting to increase the base of knowledge on the subject. Paganism remains to this day one of the most diverse and liberal religious movements around the world, and continues to embrace the ideals on which it was first founded.

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