A Pagan Reality
- In Our Time
As our ancestors developed into the humans of today, they created various constructs for spiritual support, community continuity, and understanding of a strange and dangerous world - what are known today as "mythology, or "religion" (depending on if it's yours or not).
It is important to understand that the humans of our historical past were just as smart as people are today, possibly smarter than many people today, because they had to be smart to survive. They were, however, working with a lot less accumulated knowledge and in a largely illiterate community. They had to find ways to work around those limitations, and did.
While each region has its own format, there is considerable consistency in structure. They included many gods, goddesses and spirits representing natural forces and the structures of human society, and how they interact. Personalizing natural and social forces was a powerful tool, and still is.
In some regions this structure eventually became subverted by reduction of the broad pantheon to a single authoritarian and rather violent and intolerant father figure, patterned after the kings of the regions. This expressed the absolute "God given" authority of the king, demanded absolute obedience, and supported war against and slaughter of all others, for appropriation of their lands and wealth. This authority extends to destruction of nature, and balance in the world.
The monotheistic format has progressed into absurdity. Further travel
along this path threatens destruction of humanity itself. This has
influenced many people to reject this "divine authority" and search for
some more gentle, egalitarian and more ecologically realistic structure.
This page provides a quick look at basic concepts of Pagan philosophies and their current expression. We hope this will be useful for persons unfamiliar with or confused by them.
We take a fairly Eurocentric view, which includes non-native Paganism in North America, Australia and New Zealand. While there are significant parallels with native religions worldwide, it is best to consider them separately, as their environments and history are so dissimilar.
What Does Paganism Offer?
Paganism offers a spiritual path that is softer, gentler and more satisfying than any offered by the Abrahamic religions or Secular Materialism. It is not a path you must blaze alone, because it is the path of your ancestors, and it is a path being turned to by a growing number of people around the world.
Paganism offers freedom from belief - in exchange for understanding. Belief cripples the mind, as psychologists and philosophers well understand. People choose belief so they can be absolutely certain they are right, without bothering with any thinking, and no matter how wrong they may be. Believers are easily manipulated by demagogues and rabble rousers, many of whom make a very good living today doing just that.
Paganism is about connectivity. You are the center of your universe, but that is meaningless without context. Paganism promotes communion with the Earth and all it's living beings, large and small, with the Elemental Realms, with our ancestors, and with people living today.
Paganism is not at all at odds with Science, but complimentary to it. This is especially clear with classical physics having reached its limits - yet there is still obviously much beyond those limits.
Just beyond those limits is Quantum Physics, sailing perilously close to magic. There's a famous statement, given in many wordings and attributed to various physicists (earliest attribution is to Niels Bohr), but basically, "If you think you understand quantum physics, you are wrong". Nonetheless, quantum physics has much useful to offer, and so has Paganism, though it is easier to understand.
The Abrahamic religions disparage the world in which we live, and our lives in this world. They ask for mindless belief in exchange for promise of a far better afterlife, an afterlife they actually know nothing about and can offer no evidence for. Pagans consider the world we live in to be sacred, and all lives within it to be sacred. This is reality, not empty promises in turn for obedience.
One thing that Paganism does not offer you is promise of forgiveness in the afterlife. As a Pagan you are totally responsible for you actions, and, as they say, Karma can be a bitch. Of course, the monotheists are just as bound to responsibility. They just imagine they have a way to escape it - through mindless belief.
A sceptic may think this is all just self manipulation and delusion, a sort of mental placebo. Well, the things being manipulated are all real elements of a person's real and perceived world. Anyway, recent research has shown that placebos work even if the person taking them knows they are placebos.
Besides that, a Pagan lifestyle is a lot more fun than scepticism, and the parties are better. Give it a try, you may like it. Just start introducing a few little elements, a few gentle rituals, and let it grow. I knew a couple of hard core atheists who gave it a try through mock rituals - and ended up as Pagan priests.
In the beginning, there was Nothing - but Nothing is simultaneous with Everything. Nothing is the mutual negation of Positive and Negative. Nothing has the potential to express itself as Everything, by bursting into an infinitely fine haze of Positive and Negative. Aspects of this haze are then capable of recombining in an infinite number of ways, to form stars, planets, all we can see and feel, and much more besides.
You must be clear that of Positive and Negative, neither is "good" nor the other "evil". Good and Evil are purely constructs of human understanding, and have no place outside of human protocols. Within the realm of human protocols, however, concepts of Good and Evil are extremely important for progress along the infinite path of becoming.
The basic error of the Abrahamic Religions is found in the story of the Garden of Eden. Humans have eaten of the fruit of The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "Behold, he has become as we, knowing the difference between Good and Evil".
This is a triumphant step for humanity on the path of becoming. It is a huge step beyond the animal state. Problem: it brings with it responsibility. Each man and each woman, knowing the difference between Good and Evil, is responsible for his or her actions. Accepting this, and acting in accordance, is essential to personal progress, and the progress of humanity as a whole.
Yet, these "revealed religions" blame this advancement on "sin", and seek a return to the "state of grace", to the animal state, where God is responsible for everything. They hold that all sins are forgiven by simply believing in God (or his incarnation as Jesus), or by submission as obedient property of Allah. This forgiveness is promised by the priesthoods, without fear of ever having to deliver.
This isn't going to happen - there is no going back. Pandora's Jar has been opened. You must accept responsibility for your own actions, or you fall into the realm of the subhuman. That is a basic tenant of Paganism.
First lets clear up a misconception promoted by churches and the popular media. Pagans are not at all related to Satanists. Satanism is a "reversal" child of Christianity and Judaism, and has nothing to do with pre-Christian religions or with modern Paganism.
Let's also clear up another misconception, that Paganism is a religion of country bumpkins. This was promulgated by Baroque and Victorian romantic notions. Paganism has always been at its height in the urban centers where the arts and commerce flourished. This remains true today, as the Pagan revival is centered in the costal cities that are the centers of the arts, science and commerce.
On the whole, the question of who Pagans are isn't an easy one to answer, and varies with region. Significant research has been done on this subject in English speaking countries. The prominent social polling organization, Pew Research, calculates there are over 1 million Pagans in the United States alone. In some European countries, including in the Baltic and Caucasus, Pagan movements are officially recognized and accepted by governments.
Back in the "Teen Witch" era of the 1970s, the average age of folks declaring themselves Pagan was about 16. A study that closed in 2014 found it was now older than 26. That study group is currently working on a re-run which will probably push the average age higher. Of course there are many Pagans today who are well over 26 - those who have paved the way for the younger set.
A study conducted in the West Coast States of the United States found Pagans were generally very well educated, including many professionals, and tended to be avid readers, much more so than the general population. In North America, Pagan communities are most dense on the East and West coasts of the United States, the commercial and cultural centers.
Pagans are found in many walks of life, but some are rather secretive about it. This is particularly true of teachers, as some have been fired, in both the UK and the US, when school administrators found they were Pagans. In some regions, like the US "Bible Belt", other careers are also at risk, and In Islamic regions, lives are at serious risk.
All gods and goddesses are defined and named by humans - for the purposes of human communities and human understanding. That includes the gods of the monotheistic religions. Think about it - what self defined god would have the slightest interest in being worshiped by mere humans?
The monotheistic gods were patterned after human kings, to justify the actions of human kings. All other aspects of nature and human society are subservient to the king. Since God is designed by His worshipful community, the design has had to change with changes in that community. Once jealous and vengeful, we now have a "patient, loving God", somewhat at odds with His original purposes. Yes, a single all encompassing god is powerful for promoting centralized government and wars of aggression, but by necessity contains many inescapable conflicts and inconsistencies.
"If God is so good, and all powerful, why do such bad things happen to so many good people?" Because of such conflicts and inconsistencies monotheistic churches have had to appoint another being with God-like powers, such as Satan, but just not call him a god, because there can be only one, they say. This leads to further inconsistencies. "It's hard to believe in God when certain people are never smitten."
Most Pagan communities are polytheistic, pantheistic or animistic, or some combination of these, but there are a few that consider themselves monotheistic, and even some that consider themselves atheistic, but respect for life and the natural world is characteristic of all.
Pagan gods and goddesses have been defined as humanly understandable personifications of the forces of nature, and aspects of human personality and culture. This imagery was particularly helpful for explaining complex interactions in a pre-literate society, but is still powerful for cultural and personal purposes today.
Observe how great temples are no longer built to the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, but how important they remain in literature and art. These are powerful images that are still relevant today.
Gods and goddesses can be entirely personal, but they do gain power and relevance with acceptance by a community. It matters not that they are named and defined by humans, they personify real powers that affect our lives, and are part of the coherence and understanding of human community. They are to be respected.
Many Pagans concentrate entirely on a single god or goddess, while accepting there being many others. This is called "Henotheism". Some people have said they have been "serially monotheistic", changing focus to a different single deity as their lives changed. This is called Kathenotheism, worshiping one deity at a time, each in turn as the supreme deity.
The most important thing is Understanding. You must understand the powers and influences that compose a deity that interests you, and for what purpose those powers and influences were assembled and personified. You must understand how you desire to interact with that deity and act consistently with that understanding.
Was Jesus a real physical person? This is, to this day, very much unproven, but whether or not he was is a relatively modern concern. In the days of early Christianity the people were quite accustomed to purposefully composed deities. It didn't matter at all if he was a physical person or not, so, if he was, there wasn't any effort to preserve evidence. Like other deities, he has a name, definition and story.
Are gods and goddesses to be worshiped? They are very much to be respected for the forces they personify. They may be consulted, and some may try to propitiate them, or even threaten them (dangerous). Community defined deities may have priests to explain them and interface with them, but do they have any need worship?
As with other forms of magic, worship works mainly on the self. Formal worship serves, often quite powerfully, to reinforce the connection between the person or community and the deity subject to the worship, and to reinforce the definition of that deity in the minds and lives of the worshipers. For these reasons, worship is not to be disparaged, it can be very important to a person's Pagan practice, or to the adhesion of a community.
Ritual is very important in our lives to promote focus and stability. It is a repeated act that may be of a religious nature, or may not. Most Pagans have a home altar, which may be extremely simple or fairly elaborate. A daily ritual of addressing the subject of the altar is very common and serves to initiate the day in a familiar way.
The importance of ritual is very much appreciated by mainstream religions, though they demand control of those rituals and their performance. Such public offerings are called "Liturgy". Standard liturgy for particular stages of life, such as birth, marriage, coming of age, death, etc. is a way the priesthoods maintain control over the lives of their congregations.
Pagan organizations may also have standard liturgy, but it is seldom as control oriented as that of the mainstream religions.
Prayer is a light form of Magic, usually applied to affect the physical world. It usually doesn't change anything, but when what was prayed actually comes about, it is pronounced "a miracle of prayer" and proof that prayer is effective. In general, the effectiveness of prayer seems unimpressive - perhaps it is not being approached correctly.
The success rate of the more complex workings of ceremonial magic on the physical world is similar to that of prayer. We live in a physical world, and it is most successfully influenced by physical means. When such means are available, that's what should be applied.
Operations of magic are most effectively used to influence the internal state of the person, or of the community if performed together. So used, such operations can be quite effective. Accepting this is a key to learning to use magic to advantage. On the other hand, a skilled practitioner can definitely use magical workings to influence and encourage changes in another person who is present in the session. Affecting people remotely is a much more difficult matter.
That magic will influence outside things, events and people is problematical. Can magic have an influence in planes other than the physical? Are there such planes? It seems pretty certain there are realms unknown to physics, and I say that from personal experience, as well as the experience of others.
The problem is, we know too little about such planes to understand how to operate within them, or what, or how strong their effect is on the physical world. What we have is mostly poorly supported conjecture, which is why these concepts vary so from one community to another.
This is not to say that exploration of realms outside the physical is invalid or futile, but it must be based on careful consideration, not on wild conjecture. Attempts to force the evidence to support pre-conceived structures, as has so often been done in the past, must be carefully avoided.
Of course, some of these opinions may not be shared by all Pagan groups, particularly those based on Witchcraft and Magic. Even there I see quite a lot of understanding that magic works mainly on the self, or on a person the magic is performed for, and may aid the self or that person in affecting physical reality.
Many Pagans at least dabble in Divination, and some are very serious about it, while rationalists may scoff. Those who have worked with divination know it can't predict the future, it is a tool for the here and now. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, it can be especially valuable as a counceling tool.
Any Pagan who is interested in divination does hundreds of divinations on themselves, but that doesn't usually work well - the desires and expectations of reader are too close and interfere with the reading. This is, however, necessary to learn the chosen method, to become comfortable with it and develop a personal style. Then the reader can become helpful to others.
As with Psychologists, there are very good readers, and not so good readers. Essentials of the good reader are detachment from the reading, and empathy for the client - and a method appropriate to the reader. The magic is in the reader, not the method.
I prefer tarot, because all the cards have deep, complex meanings, but the whole deck cannot quite be completely reconciled. Formulating a coherent system has always squirmed away from they who try. This forces the reader to think along unaccustomed paths during a reading, and the results can be surprising.
Astrology was similarly effective, until it got computerized. Again, the magic is in the reader, and computers aren't magical.
Most Pagan belief systems include concepts of an afterlife, however, details are unclear. An afterlife can not at all resemble the kindergarten version promoted by the Christians, or the "gentlemen's club" pattern of Islam. It cannot be anything like life in this world, as all the physical infrastructure that supports our form of existence will have been returned to the Earth from which it came. The Tibetan Buddhists are the ones that have intensively studied the after death experience, so should be the ones consulted on these matters.
Reincarnation is included in many Pagan belief systems, and should be mandatory for any that claim heritage from the Druids. That they believed in indestructibility of the human soul and reincarnation is among the very few things we actually know about the ancient Druids.
"We might say that Reconstructionist Pagans romanticize the past, while Eclectic Pagans idealize the future. In the first case, there is a deeply felt need to connect with the past as a source of spiritual strength and wisdom; in the second case, there is the idealistic hope that a spirituality of nature can be gleaned from ancient sources and shared with all humanity." - Religious studies scholar Michael Strmiska.
These two approaches are complimentary and I expect they will gradually move closer to each other. The Reconstructionists work hard to analyze and recreate the past religions accurately, though they may have little to work from. Some of what they find is not suited to the modern world. The Eclectics should incorporate more actual historical Paganism, which they can get from the Reconstructionists, and can in turn help the Reconstructionists adjust to the modern world.
The most successful reconstructionist groups are from regions that have very strong folk traditions. These include the Baltic countries and Russia. In Abkhazia, which has broken away from Georgia, the Pagan traditions did not completely die out. Sacred sites were preserved, and the priesthood persisted to a degree. The Christian churches are increasingly seen there as tools of the oppressor, with a growing portion of the population adopting the old religion.
Some reconstructionist groups try to limit their membership to people of a particular ethnicity, at the risk of being called racist. Due to rapid transportation and migration in the modern world, this is becoming increasingly less viable. What if your father was Lithuanian and you mother was Greek? Clearly, these groups will have to institute flexibility, or they're going to go extinct again.
Some established reconstructionist groups are resentful of ongoing religious studies and archaeology, which have provided new understandings that conflict with their established reconstruction. This has caused some angry exchanges on the Internet. Reconstructionists should be fully prepared to adapt to new knowledge.
Ossetia, in southern Russia and north central Georgia, is a good source for Pagan material, as it was never successfully converted to either Christianity or Islam, and about a third of the people still adhere to an unbroken native tradition.
Some Pagan groups maintain close relations with Hindu groups. The unbroken Hindu tradition is particularly relative to Pagan revivals in Europe, because it is an Indo-European religion, though one that has a very different history and been very much elaborated.
There are reconstructionist groups working to reconstruct the native religions of the Near and Middle East, but these groups exist almost entirely in North America. Neither Israel nor the Arab regions are hotbeds of religious tolerance.
There is even a reconstructionist group in Mexico, working with the Aztec religion and philosophy. I am presuming they will not be trying to reinstate the mass human sacrifice the Aztecs thought necessary to support the continued existence of the world. That has proven unneeded, as the world is still here, more or less.
The religion of Ancient Egypt is a special case. Here we have an intensely Pagan religion with over 3000 years of detailed documentation, a good amount of which is available in English, German and French. There isn't a lot to reconstruct here, the main task is to adapt it to the modern world. This religion has shown adequate adaptability over those 3000 years, so that isn't going to anger the gods and goddesses if done with care.
Kemetism is also the form of Paganism easiest to adapt to a modern,
literate, urban society, because that's the kind of society it lived in
for most of those 3000 years, a society in many respects much like our
own. Further, there are gods and goddesses to fill almost any need or
preference, and a tradition of appointing new ones as needed.
They are also free of attachment - nobody today has a valid claim
to ancient Egyptian heritage - not even the lady who claims to have
been crowned 196th Pharaoh. This is definitely a path a person
contemplating Paganism should have a look into. There are a number of
Kemetic groups in North America, any number of solo practitioners,
and huge amounts of historical data to work with.
The most prominent examples of eclectic Paganism are Wicca and Druidry, as they are the largest and most long established groups, but there are others, such as the Goddess Movement and Thelema. There is also the category of New Age / Syncretic groups, which blend features of two or more loosely related traditions. Reconstructionists consider syncretic groups "impure", even if the traditions are legitimately ancient.
It should not be thought that Eclectic Paganism is somehow less legitimate than Reconstructed Paganism. While it is a very different viewpoint, it serves the needs of its practitioners by building its own mythos, and can have a broader appeal than many specific reconstructions. Both have much to offer each other.
Modern Druidism (Druidry) originated in the 18th century in England, and is made almost completely from new material. Almost nothing was recorded about the ancient Druids, and what little exists is at least partially suspect, written by persons not friendly to the Druids. Modern Druidry was originally a monotheistic movement based loosely on Freemasonry. This changed radically in the 20th century, strongly influenced by various Pagan revivals. Efforts began to reconcile Druidry with what has been learned about Iron Age Celtic culture.
While there is no central authority, and various Druidry groups follow somewhat different paths, it is now a largely polytheistic nature based philosophy / religion with strong ecological tendencies. Fortunately, the attested practices of animal and human sacrifice have not been incorporated, but a belief in reincarnation has been. A belief in the indestructibility of the human soul and reincarnation is one of the very few things we can be certain of from the ancient Druids.
Druid groups like to have ceremonies at Stonehenge in England, but Stonehenge was built about 2000 years before the first Druids appeared, by a people almost nothing is known about, except they were very good at astronomical mathematics, and at moving rocks.
Wicca, the largest Pagan movement in England and the United States, is compiled from various sources, with a considerable element of reinterpretation and conjecture. It began development in England in the early 20th century as a revival of Celtic Witchcraft, derived from various folk traditions, many of them far more recent than presumed.
The core beliefs of Traditional British Wicca were set down by Gerald Gardener and Doreen Valiente in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Gardener claimed initiation by a secret coven of Celtic witches, but that has never been verified and seems rather unlikely. Wicca has a much stronger belief in magic than other Pagan practices, most of which do not use the term "witch", except to describe a former wife or girlfriend.
Most Wiccan groups are still very feminist, having been established as a political counter to patriarchal oppression and suppression from the monotheists, in some cases with intense paranoia. At root, the Horned God is is of far less importance than the Moon Goddess. Some men get along with the feminism, others consider it excessive, but the majority of Wiccan membership are women, and some circles, like in Dianic Wicca, are exclusive to women and may be predominantly Lesbian.
Wicca has no central authority, and different branches now vary considerably, though most recognize and participate in the seasonal celebrations. Most also adhere to the Moon Goddess and the Horned God, but in some branches they are called the Great Goddess and the Great Horned God, because they are held to have many aspects that can appear as separate gods and goddesses. This is similar to concepts in Hinduism.
Wicca is divided into two general categories. British Traditional Wicca consists of Gardenarian (founded by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente) and Alexandrian (founded by Alex and Maxine Sanders). Other circles have been founded by people not initiated into British Traditional Wicca.
By 2010 there was some backlash against Wicca from other Pagan communities, because in Gardnarian and Alexandrian Wicca the thoughts of the founders had become calcified doctrine. By then, however, a good number of circles had been established far removed from British Traditional, with more flexible and diverse attitudes.
A large portion of the Pagan community admits to finding Paganism largely by accident, often by reading or being exposed to unusual material. More than half settle in as solo practitioners rather than joining a Pagan community, not because they reject community, but that's just what they are comfortable with. They do, however, tend to keep in communication with other Pagans. The solo practitioners are a sort of cloud in which the Pagan communities are embedded.
Pagans generally do not proselytize, but are happy to make information available to anyone interested. Most Pagan groups will gladly welcome persons who are curious about their beliefs and practices (which never include baby eating). Most groups don't advertise, and are found by accident, or through friends.
To join a Pagan community, there are usually some simple qualifications. Usually they include respect for the natural world and environment, acceptance of both the masculine and feminine in Divinity, and a high standard of morality, particularly in the desire to avoid harming others. Acceptance of folks of all nations, races and sexual orientation is almost always included.
Becoming a Pagan does not require cutting off your familiar community "cold turkey". You are entering a larger realm, which envelopes many viewpoints and practices. You will realize the religion from which you come is a sect of more limited understanding, but probably not completely wrong.
Taking a broad view, there is only one reality, thus all religions are aspects of the one. Unfortunately, some of these aspects consider themselves to be the "One and Only True Way", thus all others are wrong and need to be "corrected", by conversion or death. This has caused an inordinate amount of human suffering.
Some Pagans take a "mix and match" attitude, drawing from more than one path. This is like many ethnic groups that cheerfully mix their native beliefs and practices with Christianity or Buddhism after conversion.
Accepting Paganism can be easier for Christians than for some religions, because there is so much that will seem familiar. The New Testament embodies concepts that appear influenced by Pagan movements of the time, particularly Roman Mithraism (not closely related to Persian Mithraism) and the cult of Isis and Osiris.
The early Christian churches absorbed a great deal of material from the Pagans. Some local gods and goddesses were adopted as saints, and the system of saints roughly followed the Pagan format. The Pagan festivals were adopted with some adjustments. With Easter, they didn't even bother to change the name or remove the symbols of the fertility goddess, the bunny and the egg. Christmas has now reverted to something similar to the Roman Saturnalia it replaced. Of course, the Christians got some of the dates a little off, but, whatever.
One path within contemporary Paganism is "ChristoPagan", where the person's primary deity is Jesus, but practices and attitude are similar to other Pagan paths. Their Jesus has a name, definition and story, just like other deities. Some Pagans have a bad reaction to this, but Jesus is not the problem. The problem is the churches, most of which are Christian in name only. If the legitimacy of other deities and other practices are fully accepted, this Jesus has a legitimate place within the Pagan pantheon.
Paganism is closely tied to the Earth, and to the cycles of nature, thus it is very seasonal. This cyclic nature is carried forward to many other aspects of nature and human life. Most early Pagan cultures had major celebrations at solstices and equinoxes, and some of the cross-quarter days between, but none are known to have celebrated all of them.
The wheel below (to the left or top) represents the seasonal festivals established by the 20th century Wiccan and Druidry movements in England. The names are from Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, but the modern celebrations may not follow actual practices of those peoples. This wheel has been widely accepted, with names in different languages, by other Pagan groups across Europe, promoting some consistency among different practices.
For Wiccans, the cross-quarter celebrations are the "Greater Sabbats", which follows from Samhain being the Celtic New Year. Note that the Wiccan day starts at sundown of the previous day, so May 1st starts on the evening of April 30th, but for convenience, most Wiccans use the Gregorian calendar dates. It should be noted that Wiccans also have a lunar schedule of less formal Esbat gatherings, but these are not included by Pagan groups less attuned to the Lunar cycle.
Pagan communities in different regions also have their own special festivals scattered about the year. The second wheel (right or bottom), showing some additional festivals, is from the Heathenism movement in German speaking regions of Europe. For Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere (particularly Australia and New Zealand) the seasonal wheel is rotated 6 months so it coincides with the actual seasons in that region.
The traditional four elements are unrelated to the "elements" of Science. They are, however, valid and useful concepts, particularly for personal rituals and magic. They are all considered supportive, transformative and essential to life itself, and central to most Pagan rituals and celebrations.
Fires, ranging from candles to bonfires, are almost universal in Pagan practices. The smoke from fires is expected to carry prayers to the gods. Fire alters are common in a number of traditions, and are important in the seasonal celebrations.
This is a natural thing, given the central place of fire in the development of humanity. Paleoanthropologists have found evidence that fire was already in use by our last pre-human ancestors. They believe the use of fire to cook foods was what enabled development of the large brains we enjoy today. Brains are very energy costly and difficult to maintain on a raw foods diet.
Fire was also critical for protection from predators, for keeping warm during ice ages, and for crafts. Very early humans were already using fire to condition flint to make better, sharper blades. Later it was used to fire pottery and melt metals. Most Pagan rituals and ceremonies use Fire as a tool.
In Magic, fire is usually represented by, well, fire, but in the Tarot it is Wands, perhaps originally representing a torch. In Gardenarian Wicca, fire is represented by the Sword or Athame (ceremonial knife), used for Air in other practices.
All life on Earth originated in the sea, and in most Pagan traditions the world started with a rising of land from a primodial sea, by one means or another. We are all still creatures of the sea, but carry the salt sea within us - our blood and other fluids.
In Magic and the Tarot, the symbol for Water is the cup, chalace or caldron. Water is considered very transfomative and important in cleansing and initiations (for instance, Christian baptism). Bodies of water have always been associated with important spirits, gods and goddesses, and magical workings.
Aside from its use in almost all cleansing and transformation rituals, Water is also a carrier for the ingredients in potions of all sorts, magical and other.
Air is the very breath of life, without which our lives and the lives of all the creatures of the Earth would be impossible. Even the creatures of the sea depend on air dissolved in the water.
In the cycle of Air, plants take in carbon dioxide, break it down, and breath out oxygen. Animals take in oxygen, combine it with fuels and breath out carbon dioxide. The process is far more complex, but that will suffice to show the interdependency of plants and animals.
In Magic, and the Tarot, the symbol for Air is the sword. Another working tool in the realm of air is feathers, or even whole wings - gifts from the creatures of air. The exception is Gardenarian Wicca, where the Sword represents Fire, so they use incense as the symbol for Air.
Air represents intellect, observation, analysis and the scientific method, thus the sword image. It also represents communication, between people and to the other entities - hopefully not with an actual sword.
Earth is the mother of all living things. We are born from the Earth and to the earth we will return, despite attempts at preserving the dead - the Earth abides, and will claim them at last.
Earth nourishes all living things. Even creatures of the sea depend on nourishment washed down from the land. The progression of seasons is of vital importance - though many in North America are removed from it, it is nonetheless critical to their survival.
In earlier times, people were much closer to the seasons and their effect on life - thus the extreme importance of the seasonal celebrations and rituals in all Pagan practices. A poor harvest was a disaster - even conquering armies could not march if the harvest had not been good. Most Pagan rituals and celebrations involving Earth are in the nature of giving thanks.
In Magic Earth is represented by salt, crystals or stones. In tarot, Pentacles is the suite of Earth, or in some decks, coins.
Natural mind altering substances have been used in religious practices since the beginning of humanity, usually to provide a gateway into other realms. Use of the stronger substances was generally by shamanic specialists, but sometimes within larger groups.
Due to location and dating of recent finds, archaeologists have come to suspect the first settled agricultural communities were established at ceremonial sites, to provide a reliable supply of beer and wine for the seasonal rituals and celebrations. A 6100 year old wine making operation recently found in Armenia is of such sophistication as to clearly show it was not a new invention. It is associated with a burial ground.
Today, natural psychedelics are used mainly by non-European native practices, and still usually by specialists or under their supervision. Beer, and particularly wine, are quite common enhancements to ritual and celebration for nearly all Pagan practices of European descent, and wine is even important to some Christian practices.
Sexual reproduction is critically important to the evolution of living beings, including animals, plants, fungus, algae, and others. Evolution was extremely slow until sexual reproduction developed - then it took off like gang busters. In advanced beings, asexual reproduction is a one-way street to oblivion. Even with sexual reproduction, an insufficiently diverse gene pool is a severe disadvantage.
The mechanisms of sexual reproduction are very complex, even among plants and animals, but within humanity they are an order of magnitude more complex. Sexuality has been put to service far beyond simple reproduction, and is a major factor in family and community cohesiveness and organization. Naturally, sexuality is prominent in Pagan practices, appearing in various forms, especially in the progression of the seasons.
Human sexuality is very powerful, and rather erratic. Given its complexity, there are lots of ways for it to go awry, and we see that even among animals. There are many variations, and these variations are built into a person's gene structure. They are not by choice, and they are not something that can be changed by "reeducation". Pagan communities have been in the forefront of accepting the LGBT for what they are, people as worthy as any other. Some circles In Dianic Wicca are entirely Lesbian, and the all male Radical Faeries are considered to fall within the realm of modern Paganism.
Pagan communities tend also to be liberal in regard to normal heterosexual activity. On the other hand, Pagans are serious about the world's natural environment, and the most pervasive destroyer of that environment is overpopulation, so birth control is a serious issue - also, there's always that little matter of personal responsibility to contend with, and in developed countries, the horrifying expense.
Sexual variations that harm others are in violation of important Pagan principles and are intolerable. Sexual behavior between (or among) people must be consensual, with all parties aware of how it will go, and all with the ability to say "stop". Because human development is very slow, we have the concept of "age of consent". Persons below that age do not fully comprehend the consequences, so cannot give consent, and older guardians are not authorized to speak for them in these matters. It's strictly "hands off".
Despite continuous attacks from Christian organizations and popular media equating Paganism with Satanism, Pagan communities are growing in size and numbers. In no way can they be characterized as "Satanic". Satanic cults are "reversal" offshoots of Christianity and Judaism, not at all related to the indigenous pre-Christian religions or to modern Paganism.
Few Pagan groups ever proselytize for new members, but are welcoming to people who find a home in them. They are usually low key and a little difficult for interested people to find. People who have studied Pagan communities have noted the membership is generally well educated and avid readers, and often find artistic inspiration from Paganism.
It is rather difficult to get good statistics on the number of people who consider themselves Pagan, especially since organizations are so decentralized, and well over half of Pagans are lone practitioners. There is also fear of extreme prejudice from Christians, and even death threats (sometimes carried out) from Muslims. Some numbers have been compiled for English speaking regions:
Wikipedia maintains a List of Neopagan Movements with links briefly describing well known organizations. Of course, for such a decentralized movement there are a great many small groups which may or may not be associated with the listed groups.
Nearly all Pagan communities are peaceful, entirely harmless and welcoming, but there are a few exceptions. In German speaking Europe there is some revival of the German Occultism that contributed to Nazi mythology and anti-semitism, and there are some Neo-Nazi groups that hide themselves by pretending to be Heathen religious groups. There is also Wotanism (Wotansvolk) in North America, which is very popular among White Supremacists in prison populations. These are dangerous groups to be avoided.
The Pagan Federation (PF) was started in the UK in 1971 to
distribute information and protect the rights of Pagans. It was primarily
of Wiccan origin. Some members were in other countries, so the Pagan
Federation International was eventually formed to better serve them.
This organization was greatly enabled by the rise of the Internet, and
broadened to cover many forms of Paganism. In 2006 PFI became the
foundation "Stichting Pagan Federation International", registered in
The Hague, Netherlands, #27282660. Legal Separation from PF was complete
and the two are now "affiliate organizations". PFI has branches in at
least 35 countries and all permanently inhabited continents. The PF has
been freed to retain its very UK and Wicca orientation. It publishes a
substantial quarterly magazine, Pagan Dawn, now in its 45th year,
which the PFI makes available to members at additional cost.
The mission of PFI is simple:
The principles of the organization are:
Where the PFI is quite liberal, as you would expect from it's Wiccan roots, the ECER is hard core reconstructionist. This organization was formed in 1998 in Vilnius, Lithuania as the "World Congress of Ethnic Religions". Founding organizations were from Lithuania, Poland, Denmark and Belgium. The name was changed in 2010 to "European Congress of Ethnic Religions" to reflect reality, though it does maintain ties to Hinduism and has held two annual meetings in India.
Devoted to reconstruction of the Ancient Egyptian religion, CES is the oldest non-profit Kemetic organization. Established in California in 1970 and granted non-profit status in 1971, it describes itself as a "A Federation of Neo-Egyptian Reconstruction Temples".
After the last of the founders died in 2010, the Church went dormant through a period of evaluation and reconsideration. As of August 2017 it has returned to the public realm. Under the guidance of Dr. Michael Poe, it plans to post about 1800 documents regarding Egyptian religion on its Web sites, and to begin an on-line religious training program. Disclaimer: Andrew Grygus, writer of this document and publisher of Clovegarden.com is a member of this organization.
This extremely important organization was founded in 1974 by Celina Fox. While sometimes classed as Wiccan, it has a much broader appeal and describes itself as a Nature Spirituality church. It has been at the very forefront of the struggle to preserve the rights of Pagans and end discrimination, through political and legal means, including a long battle to get the Veterans Administration to approve the Pentacle symbol for veteran grave markers. The group is based in a 200 acre nature preserve in southwest Wiconsin, USA. It holds festivals and produces a magazine and other publications. Definitely worth supporting.
Witches & Pagans - "Earthwise Spirituality for Today"
I strongly recommend this quarterly magazine for people who would like to delve more deeply into these subjects. It serves two communities that don't always see exactly eye to eye, but remain largely compatible. This is the result of merging two magazines for better resource allocation.
Each issue focuses on a single subject, but has plenty of other material as well. The columnists and contributors are excellent, and even the letters column is amazing. Much serious philosophy here.
BBI Media also publishes two other magazines, Sage Woman "Celebrating the Goddess in every Woman" and Crone "Women coming of Age".