Normally, questions come in from my Mailing List or YouTube comments, and I’ll answer them in blogs or videos, but I was a little unprepared to be asked the question: “What are Pagan beliefs?” while attending a recent Irish activism event.
Caught on the hop, I guess, would be a better description, as it was out of the usual context in which I answer questions on Paganism. Really, I have been preparing for questions like this since I picked up my first book on Paganism in 1994, at the age of 16.
That was a wonderful start actually: Vivianne Crowley’s excellent title “Phoenix From the Flame: Living as a Pagan in the 21st Century”.
[Get your Copy Here – https://amzn.to/2WsxzAg]
This book was lauded as ‘a fresh look at the most ancient religion – Paganism – the vital, widely practiced alternative to mainstream religion that heralds a return to ritual and reverence for the earth’.
It certainly opened my eyes to a whole new world, as I now had a name for the unusual beliefs and inclinations I’d had all my life, even while mired in the very mainstream religious practices and beliefs of (then) Catholic Ireland.
I’d been carrying Pagan beliefs in my heart and in my soul, without even knowing what they were.
The top 3 basics, the things most Pagan Beliefs will align on, are Polytheism, Pantheism, and Reverence for Nature or Nature Worshipping. We’ll get into what these mean specifically, in just a minute.
Because first, it’s important to say that not all Pagan Beliefs do align, or even look remotely similar, in some cases. There are many traditions, and many different ways to be Pagan, and some Pagans don’t follow any tradition or any set way at all.
I shouldn’t have to say it, but sadly – it needs saying again – I do not here, nor do I ever attempt or presume to, speak for ALL Pagans, Irish or otherwise. This blog, as with all my writing and educational materials, are an expression of my own understanding and experience on a given topic.
Historically speaking, all of our ancestors were Pagan, as we understand it. It’s an umbrella term that we now use for basically anything non-monotheistic – ie, belief in more than one, or multiple Gods.
When the big ‘belief in one God’ religions started coming in, humanity moved away from pretty much everyone being Pagan. Before the Abrahamic religions came along, our Gods were many.
Which gives us the definition for the first term we used up there, Polytheism.
Polytheism is the worship of or belief in multiple deities, which are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals.
The definition of our second basic Pagan Belief – Pantheism – is a little trickier. This one is not specific to Paganism per se, so while many/most Pagans are Pantheists, not all Pantheists are Pagan.
Stick with me here.
Pantheism is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing, immanent deity or Universal consciousness. All forms of reality and things within reality are then seen either modes of that Being, or identical with it.
What this means, practically, is that Pantheists see ‘God’ in everything – every rock, every river, every cloud, every insect, every elephant, every human.
The essence of all things IS divinity.
Pagans are pretty much down with this view in a majority, and it ties very well with the third of our basic Pagan Beliefs – reverence for Nature.
There are also some of those who follow the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) who may hold Pantheistic views… it all depends how you define God, right?!
Again, this varies, but there are a couple of mainstays.
Pagans will follow and attune to the natural year through both lunar and solar cycles. That is, the moon cycles – New, Waxing, Full, Waning, and Dark. And the sun cycles – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.
Depending on tradition and personal practice, there may be specific festivals, rituals, and observances that happen through these cycles.
Sometimes these cycles correspond with Deity, and a God or Goddess will be venerated or acknowledged as part of the celebration or observance.
[For example, many people work with the Mórrígan at Samhain (Hallowe’en). You can learn more about the Mórrígan at Samhain Here]
Another commonly held Pagan Belief is that the earth herself is sentient, and sacred, as well as all that lives upon her. The spirit of place is highly regarded to, with a particular reverence for certain ancient sites being widespread.
Perhaps the first thing that those only familiar with modern mainstream religions will find odd, or even unsettling, is the Pagan Belief in both Gods and Goddesses. There is a diversity and openness to deity in any form, or none, that is just not what many folk are used to any more.
Pagans can be members of traditions that venerate within certain cultural parameters. We see followers of Irish (most often spoken of as ‘Celtic’, even though this term is a little more complicated than they may understand), Norse, Egyptian, Greek/Hellenistic historic spiritual cultures or pantheons of Gods. As well as many others.
The questions of authentic connection to these cultures, and cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation, I have addressed elsewhere – please do go and find an awareness/understanding around these issues for yourself.
[Cultural Appreciation vs Cultural Appropriation on YouTube – https://youtu.be/8oC3dUqEXaY]
Some Pagans prefer to keep things much more open and unspecified, with beliefs in non personified or unnamed God and/or Goddess energies. We may see veneration of a ‘Great Goddess of All’, or a ‘Great Mother’, perhaps with a partner/consort ‘Great God’.
Many Pagans work with both Gods, and UnGods (though they may not call them exactly this name!).
These beings and entities that don’t quite fall into the Deity categories may include our own particular ancestor spirits, the dead in general, fairies or ‘Otherworld’ folk of many cultures, and the personification or anthropomorphisation of natural features.
That’s a long word.
It means attributing human characteristics, behaviour or personalities to natural elements; such as geographical locations (a river, a mountain, an ocean even a city), or broad spirit types (fire spirit, wolf spirit, death spirit).
Those are the most basic Pagan Beliefs, in my experience, which may or may not apply to ALL Pagans, but will be held sacred by most of us, most of the time, in some form or another.
And if you have any questions, I’ll be prepared for them in the comments below 😉
New Pagan Interview Series: I’m talking to people from international Pagan communities about their spiritual path, and the Facebook groups they help to organise and run.
When and where did your interest in Pagan/Earth based Spirituality begin?
Whilst my vocabulary and intellectual understanding did not go far till I was twelve I would say it was present from my earliest memories. This came through in my interest and love of myths and faerie tales, which I still have. I give talks on this subject and perform storytelling to this day.
I talked to everything: trees, toys and animals and loved films that involved magic, witches and wizards. I always wanted to be one.
With this I also had psychic experiences, some I interpreted as evil or dangerous which I have learnt as I matured were not. I would see and speak with faerie and other beings and in some ways it held such a common place I didn’t realise it was magical though I still wanted magic.
How did you practically go about getting started, and what resources did you have available to you – eg. books, teaching courses, events, people you met?
I wanted to explore all this more and when I was 12, an esoteric shop opened in my local high street. I can’t recall how but I had funds for some books and used my local library to take on as many books as I could on magic, paganism and divination.
I met some pagans early on but they wore glittery robes and to my mind were more style over substance, this made me keep my distance.
As I got older I tried again and found some intelligent, interesting and wonderful people.
Additionally I joined a spiritualist circle which allowed me to practice my communication with spirits as well as divination and healing.
What does being Pagan mean to you? (or your term of choice, please explain!)
Pagan to me today is an umbrella term for those practicing earth based spirituality, often reinvented or restructured, which is good as a religion of the earth should evolve, which a religion of the book tends to struggle with. I am more inclined to use the term witch or magician as my focus is on magical work. To me these are working titles, I am not interested in hierarchical titles or being called adept etc (which I am not) simply I work with various powers and in doing so these terms are titles of that.
Some see more in them and that is fine and some romanticise the terms and I am not sure how I feel about that. For me I have simply answered a calling but I still have to clean the kitchen and iron my clothes.
To me a Pagan path is essentially, a narrative of the earth, within various traditions are its own nuances.
What sort of things do you do on a daily/weekly, monthly or seasonal basis to explore or express your Spirituality?
I do daily meditations and simple rituals of stillness. Seasonally I perform basic rituals to bring in the power of the season to flow through myself, home and land. Or I just walk amongst nature and let myself connect. On Spring Equinox I like to go to Kew Garden for example. I like to walk in my local woods and see how things are growing and how it feels.
What advice do you wish someone had given you, that you would like to give people starting out on this path?
I realise that magic is in all things. It is in ritual and conversation it is in the kabbalah and the sun, the moon and the rain. It is all around us all the time and in our childhoods. I realised one day I knew more than I realised and that the bible I was raised in (not fundamentally) was full of magic, along with the faerie tales I grew up with.
It may seem obvious that faerie tales are full of magic, but getting at the patterns within them and the magical messages took me time. When we mature we think magic isn’t faerie tales, we know it as something practical and powerful. In being mature we let go of Childish things, but there is a difference being childish and being childlike and being childlike. Being childlike is a gift.
I think mystery is in that we know more than we are aware of and that awareness comes from experience.
What is the name of the Facebook Group you admin, and how did you get involved there? (please feel free to provide group details eg. member numbers or general guidelines, and a link to group)
The Centre of Pagan Studies has been going on for some time. I got involved last year after reading Philip Heselton’s biography of Doreen Valiente. I had been looking to give back to the Pagan community and found Doreen to be an inspiration person who had been involved so decided to offer to help. [The Centre for Pagan Studies FB Group is Here.]
What is the most frustrating thing for you about being involved with that group?
I think it can be frustrating to find the right vocabulary. In magic and Paganism we do not really have our own language so we have to work quite philosophically to communicate effectively. I have seen people essentially agree with each other but end up arguing as their words are interpreted differently. Ultimately it is not really a problem just a shame it’s hard to bypass.
What is the most satisfying thing for you about being involved with that group?
The fact that we remember those who came before us who made strides for Paganism. We have set up blue plaques for people like Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente. Also people involved are very engaged in the subject matter and we discuss often some ancient practices which some people still practice or have come across. We attempt to provide both an educational resource (giving talks for example) and discussing these subject matters keeping it organic and shifting.
If you could guarantee that each group member had read AT LEAST one book before joining, what book would that be?
I think it would be hard to pin point one book but I would go back to faerie tales. To have read some of the Grimm brothers work and look into the early stories as well as the colour books (The yellow fairy book, red fairy book etc compiled by Andrew Lang).
There are some great occult books out there and some bad ones, though I found all of those helped me develop a magical vocabulary.
Further to this I would encourage to read history and anthropology as well as classical texts.
Anything else you’d like to share?!
Whilst books are great the essence of magic is doing it and living it. The essence of paganism is in practicing it and living it. Keep it simple and embrace the stories you were told growing up and the cartoons you may have seen (often based on these books). When you have conversations remember language is insufficient to express magic and spirituality. So take care. When I talk to magical practitioners of various traditions if you work to find a common language, we find we have a lot in common.
I would encourage people to tread lightly and to take their time and to listen.
Richard Levy works with the Centre for Pagan Studies and the Doreen Valiente Foundation.
BIO: I began my pagan path at a young age but and magic is something I feel was always a part of my life. But with time I learned how to nourish this part of myself. I feel today we are encouraged to ignore these parts of who we are and it is something we re-learn. It is in many ways learning to do what breeze and river and bird do naturally. I studied philosophy and theology at university and whilst I did not have formal training I learned a lot from people I met along my path from Children to adults. Should people want to contact me about the interview they can contact me on: firstname.lastname@example.org