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Paganism 101

As part of working with a group of others on a "Paganism 101" course, I came up with what I felt were a simple set of questions that most people unfamiliar with pagans or neo-pagans might ask.  Call it a Pagan FAQ, or whatever.  Of course, these are only my opinions and interpretations.  The truth is out there...

What is a pagan?

Where did paganism come from?

What do pagans believe?

How do pagans act?

How do pagans celebrate?

What do pagans practice?

What is magick?

What is a pagan?  A pagan is a follower of an earth-based spiritual path.  What this means, generally, is that a pagan tries to align themselves with the natural world by recognizing their inter-relation with it, their dependence upon it, and in essence, their responsibility for on-going co-creation of that natural world with other seen and unseen beings, forces and events.

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Where did paganism come from?  Generally, paganism has its source in the pre-Christian religious practices of humankind.  Some of the modern pagan practices are direct descendents of pre-Judeo-Christian religions. Others are recreations of pre-modern age religions where the advance of monotheistic, non-holistic, and/or patriarchal worldviews resulted in the total or major elimination of the prevalent pantheistic, polytheistic, duotheistic or animistic religions.  Some are completely modern creations, based on philosophical ideas introduced as alternatives to modern constructs or paradigms for society.  Still others are a combination of parts of each of these sources.

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What do pagans believe?  As a religious practice, paganism has many different paths.  Four tenets, however, seem to be present in most (if not all) pagan practices.  These are reverence for the earth, personal responsibility for one’s own actions, some type or level of reincarnation of the individual, a recognition of a life energy that imbues all living things, an acknowledgment that that energy is either sexless or embodies both of what we perceive as masculine and feminine energy, and some variation on the belief that law of cause and effect is true and provable.  An example of cause and effect would be karmic law, or “the law of three” – where the law of three indicates that whatever you do comes back to you three fold, karmic law simply states that there is a “cosmic responsibility” for your actions (or, you reap what you sow).  This belief varies among traditions.  The life energy may manifest itself as actual physical beings that reside in or vitalize natural forces or as god/dess(es) that exist to control, create or channel the energy of life either external or internal to the individual.  Typically, in the case of god/dess(es), these entities are not “supreme” beings, but rather are seen as either higher forms of being, or as manifestations of the latent energy within the individual.  In most cases, pagans do not believe in absolutes, be they good and evil, black and white, light and darkness.  They see themselves and the world around them as an integrally combined palette where these concepts lose their “separateness” as part of a unified and undivided whole.

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How do pagans act?  Acceptance of our role in co-creation and maintenance of the universe is a solemn responsibility.  If we are in fact equals with other beings on this planet, it behooves us to act accordingly.  Various pagan traditions have codified this belief into words (i.e., “An it harm none, do what you will”), while others follow a more or less unwritten code of behavior that encompasses such things as wisdom, piety, vision, courage, integrity, perseverance, hospitality, moderation and fertility.  How pagans embrace and embody these “virtues” varies among traditions, but in general, most try to live their lives in harmony with others and the world around them.  The solemnity of responsibility does not mean that pagans are a dour, somber folk, however.  The fact that we are part of a larger whole (seen or unseen), that we recognize the importance of all life and share equally in the bounty of creation is cause for great joy and celebration.

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How do pagans celebrate?  Most major pagan celebrations are tied to seasonal, natural changes and events – the coming of spring, the height of summer, the fall harvest, the middle of winter, the times when daylight and moonlight hours are in balance.  The pagan calendar is for the most part tied to the lunar cycle and its waxing and waning, which in combination with the reliable rising of the sun was the original method for calculating the passing of time.  The pagan celebrations generally include Samhain (October 31/November 1), Yule/Winter Solstice (December 20-22), Imbolc (February 2), Ostara/Spring Equinox (March 20-22), Beltane (May 1), Litha/Summer Solstice (June 21), Lughnasadh/Lammas (August 1) and Mabon/Fall Equinox (September 20-22), in addition to new and full moon celebrations.  The pagan tradition dictates the names given to these times/festivals and identifies the focus activities, god/desses, and nature of celebration for each.  Pagans also celebrate and recognize the milestones that separate human life into distinct segments – infant to child, child to adult, adult to elder, solitary to mate, corporeal to spirit.

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What do pagans practice?  While many pagans simply seek to live in harmony with the world as it exists, and consider the events of their lives in a spirit of harmonious acceptance with the natural cycle of rebirth, life and death, others take a more active role in the determination of that existence.  The former may use meditation or communion with other forms of life (i.e., animals, trees, etc.) as a tool for understanding their role in the cosmic tapestry, may use various devices to determine the proper course to follow to maintain or restore that harmonious relationship (i.e., divination, dream interpretation, astral travel, etc.), or may use a knowledge of the properties of natural substances such as plants or minerals to affect that re-harmonization.  The latter may use these techniques and supplement them with efforts to modify or direct the path that this harmonious acceptance will take.  That active participation is often referred to as magic, or magick.

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What is magick?  Magick has been defined by some as “the act of causing change to occur in accordance with will.”  In essence, it is manipulation of a natural cause or manifestation of a cause to achieve the desired effect.  The belief of many pagans that natural entities have their own types and quantities of energy lends itself to this manipulation.  The use of specific tools and rituals to focus these energies and the energy of the individual comprise what is known as magickal action.  Magickal action can be oversimplified and broken down into three basic types – ceremonial, astral, and natural.  Ceremonial magic generally involves the use and participation of various symbols, tools, planetary alignments, spirits/gods/goddesses, invocations and locations to achieve either an imitative reaction (i.e., as above, so below) or to produce an effect itself.  Astral magick generally involves the use and participation of altered states of consciousness, out of body experience and interaction with the spirits of natural entities to produce an effect.  Natural magick generally involves using the spiritual, medicinal, or physical properties of natural entities or items to influence the outcome of an event.  Most magickal practice involves a combination of each of these three types to varying degrees, and each tradition uses its own variation of tools and methods.  In any case, most pagan traditions agree that the most important element of any magickal practice is the latent power of the human mind. 

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This site last updated:  21 Aug 2003 12:05 PM -0500