At its most basic, the term Paganism, is an umbrella term covering all religions that are not related to the Judeo-Christian family of religions. This would include all "Primitive" animist and polytheistic religions that are common among native groups as well as Hinduism, Buddhism and, of course the Classical religions of ancient Greece and Rome. It would also exclude all religions relating to Judeo-Christianity, including those syncretic religions popular in South America and Satanism. However, when most people say the word "Pagan", they really mean "Neo-Pagan". Neo-paganism is really a subset of the larger term "Pagan" and is itself an umbrella term covering a wide range of beliefs.
Now that I have thoroughly confused you, I will attempt to unravel my meaning into something that makes sense.
Neo-paganism is a form of paganism, and there are many forms of Neo-paganism. Neo-paganism is either the modern practice and adaptation of an ancient religion, or a new religion based on either ancient or new religious concepts. Neo-paganism means simply modern or contemporary paganism and there are many varieties, although they do tend to share some characteristics.
Most Neo-Pagan religions share a combination of one or more of the following characteristics:
A belief in multiple deities, including male and female deities. Sometimes the female is dominant, sometimes male and female deities carry equal status, but only rarely does a female deity carry lesser importance to a male deity. More rarely, there is a single deity who is quite often female or a main deity (usually female) with one or more helpers of somewhat lesser importance, usually a male consort. Often, the deities are seen as part of a single deity which contains both male and female aspects.
Pagans with predominantly female deities may tend to be more feminist, but this is not always the case. Some are proponents of 'traditional' gender roles and have strong beliefs that a woman's place is in the home. Perhaps surprisingly often, there is a combination of the two.
A revival of ancient or ancestral beliefs. Many modern Pagans strive to rekindle the beliefs of their ancestors or of an ancient (non-Abrahamic) culture to which they feel an attraction. Their beliefs and practices may be shaped by the oral tradition of their families, archaeological evidence, scholarly research, the myths and legends of their chosen culture or a combination of any of these. Some strive to keep their beliefs as close to those of their ancient forbearers as possible while others blend these practices with modern ones. Some may combine the beliefs of different cultures or study many cultures and select common threads on which to base their religious observances.
Animism and a belief in spirits. Quite often a Pagan faith will include the belief that spirits inhabit natural objects, plants and animals and these things will be treated accordingly. There may also be a belief in free roaming nature spirits and house spirits as well as the belief in the presence of spirits of the dead, especially ancestors. These spirits may be helpful or harmful and people are usually able to communicate with them in one way or another, usually through some sort of ritual, to appease them or ask for their aid. Offerings may be left for them. Often Gods or other spirits are believed to inhabit, or be represented by certain things in nature such as the sun, moon, sea, rivers, springs, lakes, mountains, forests, etc. or certain places.
A belief in the soul. Most pagans believe in a soul and some believe in a large collective soul that all beings are a part of. Thus, many pagan religions have a firm belief in either an afterlife or reincarnation, or both. Your behavior in this life may or may not affect what comes after, depending on the specific path.
Exactly who has a soul may differ. Many Pagans believe that plants, animals and sometimes even inanimate objects have souls. Others may believe that only humans have souls.
Note however, that there are rare groups who do not believe in the soul at all. In which case, returning to the Earth, decaying and returning to the bottom of the food chain may take on a mysticism of its own. (This mysticism does exist among many who believe in the soul as well.)
A sense of equality or brotherhood with other living things. Most modern pagans believe that all people, animals, plants and even some inanimate objects possess a soul, and a specific place in the world, that is, we all exist for a reason. Some may not take the belief so far, but may still believe that every living thing is just as important as any other. As such, all people, animals, plants, etc. are created equal and must be afforded respect. Because of this, you may see pagans performing such odd (to the outsider) behaviors as asking a tree for permission to pick a fruit, or apologizing for uprooting an herb they grew themselves, or thanking their food for allowing them to eat it.
Pagans with political activist tendencies may be more likely to support programs that align with this belief and oppose policies that do not. For example, many Pagans are environmentalists, human rights activists, or animal rights activists.
A belief that your actions will return to you in kind. There are many versions of this. Karma (in a new westernized form), the Wiccan Rede, etc. are some examples. Most Pagans generally believe it is not their place to pass judgment on others, that the natural results of their choices will afford the proper reward or punishment through the natural progression of time. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?
This is often, however, dichotomized by the belief that allowing a wrong to go unanswered is dangerous. After all, if someone hurts you, they could hurt someone else. The action of natural reward or punishment may take a very long time, and often may not even manifest in this lifetime. Therefore, many Pagans may feel morally obligated to enact revenge for a wrong done to themselves or, more often, a loved one, especially if they are responsible for the victim through familial or friendship ties.
An observance of the cycles of Nature. Many pagans time their religious observances to coordinate with the phases of the moon. Also, many of our holidays are associated with seasonal changes and are calculated astrologically, though many people have established fixed dates on the modern calendar for these holidays. Much of our myth and folklore has to do with the changing of seasons and other natural events. In addition, those cycles that mirror the cycles of Nature which take place within the human body may be more carefully observed and revered than they would be among other groups.
I would like to qualify these statements by stressing that not all of these features are found in all NeoPagan religions. Usually you will find a combination of two or more. Thus, one cannot accurately state that a NeoPagan religion is always an Earth based or Goddess centered one. Nor can one state that NeoPagan religion is always based on ancient religion.
NeoPagan religions include Wicca, Modern Druidry, Hellenism, Asatru, NeoShamanism, Gegene, and others. Similarities between these religions are cosmetic and their differences become more pronounced the more you learn about them. For instance, there are, in my opinion, more similarities between the morality and practices of Islam and Judaism than between Wicca and Asatru.
About the author: Dawn Black is an up-and-coming Pagan author featured at MotorCityPagans.net and at The Sacred Hearth. Dawn can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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