You may notice that I have been using Pagan with a capital P. It’s an umbrella term for a lot of different paths in modern spirituality and there’s a lot of controversy and disagreement over what exactly falls into that definition or whether it even makes sense to use that word. The diversity of beliefs has been something of a surprise to me as I have learned more about this community. There are many advocates of the use of “Pagan” as an umbrella term, since it has the benefit of increased recognition of the various faith practices and traditions in the larger community of religions.
This post is an exercise in defining what I mean when I use certain terms, but also acknowledging that not everyone will use these terms in the exact same way.
“Pagan” was a derogatory term from the late Roman imperial period. It means a person from the country – a rustic, a bumpkin. When polytheist practices were the dominant form of religion before Christian domination, the term was unknown. The more sophisticated city people were thoroughly Christianized, but the simple folk of the country held onto traditional practices far longer. In the medieval and renaissance periods in Europe, the term came to mean everyone other than Christians, Jews and Muslims (including Hinduism, Buddhism, and all traditional religions of various parts of the world. In modern times, it has been reclaimed to have a range of meanings, the narrowest of which is the revival of pre-Christian practices from the areas formerly in the Roman Empire to the broadest meaning of including all of the different definitions I am listing below and a number of others.
Heathen has a similar derivation to Pagan, but from an Old English source, instead of Latin. It too was a derogatory term for a country dweller that came to mean nearly everyone who was non-Christian. Today it is typically used to denote people who follow a specific path of pre-Christian Germanic, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon religions. Ásatrú is another term for Scandinavian/Norse tradition, and some practitioners use names associated with specific gods, such as Odinism.
Along with Norse traditions, there are other Reconstructionist traditions in a number of other pre-Christian traditions – Hellenic (Greek), Religio Romana (Roman), Kemetic (Egyptian) Celtic, Romuva (Baltic), and others. These traditions reach back to texts, archaeology, and folk traditions to recreate the practices that have been forgotten for centuries.
Wicca, whose practitioners are called Wiccans (and sometimes Witches), is one of the most common types of Paganism in modern America. It was founded in the early 20th century in England and combined a number of traditional practices and more modern interpretations. There are wide variations in the beliefs and practices of the adherents, but common features are the use of magical/witchcraft practices in rituals, a duotheistic veneration of the Goddess and the God, and fertility emphasis. Reclaiming is an offshoot of Wicca that developed in the 1970’s and embraces feminism, environmentalism and social justice causes.
The Feri tradition was a tradition that developed in the United States at the same time and also uses magical/witchcraft traditions. They have a more ecstatic focus and follow a unique brand of polytheism.
Druids, in the ancient sense, were the priests of the ancient people of Celtic Gaul and the British Isles during the Iron Age. Evidence of their beliefs and practices is scarce and the written sources are often hostile, so most of the modern recreations and revivals of this movement are based on modern interpretations. A Druidic revival began in the early 18th century in England, but the 18th and 19th century scholarship was often more creative than rigorous. Various organizations call themselves Druids today, and they are particularly popular in the UK. Some are explicitly Christian, while others like The Order of Bard, Ovates & Druids are Pagan in their outlook.
There are many religious traditions that are often included in Paganism, but there can be a tension because sometimes practitioners of these traditions don’t want identification with a movement that they see as too modern, Western, and/or syncretistic for their taste. This is true of traditional Native American, African, and certain Asian traditions, where the traditional practices have survived largely intact. I just recently learned that the term “shaman” refers to a specific type of spiritual practitioner in Siberian culture, and some of them find it disrespectful that the term is used so liberally today referring to practices that have nothing to do with that tradition.
Spiritual practices like magical rituals, tarot cards, kabbalah studies, astrology and meditation are often considered central to the spiritual practices of Pagans, but all of these may be embraced by non-Pagans as well. Even the term “witch”, which is used to identify certain Pagan practitioners (especially Wiccans), can be used by people who are Christian or who adhere to other faiths.
There are also syncretistic traditions such as Voodoo/Voudou and Santeria that combine aspects of Christianity and pre-Christian traditions such as West African religious practices. It’s unclear if these practices fall into the definition of Paganism, but certain Pagans do feel a kinship with these practices and look to them for inspiration.
There are also many people who identify as Pagan who are eclectic practitioners, or who participate in small local groups with a particular focus. Many people are also initiated into multiple traditions. Rarely do any of Pagan groups have a requirement in terms of specific beliefs or dogma. The requirement for being part of the community is typically to share an experience – of a ritual or sometimes to take a class. Often there is a formal initiation or different levels of initiation.
Then there are the many Pagans who are not associated with any groups at all, and are typically called solitary. Sometimes their interest or reading lists may align with one of the groups above and they just have not made the connection with a physical gathering of like-minded people, or they may be on a solitary quest to read about and explore many different traditions. They may practice rituals, meditation or worship on their own or with small groups of friends.
Paganism is quite a melting pot. The diversity is a benefit and a challenge. It can cause people to wonder what they actually have in common with other Pagans and why they need to work together. But it also allows people with diverse traditions to get along relatively well in broader Pagan gatherings, since that none of them want to convert anyone to their particular path, and typically most people respect the right of others to pursue their own way. There are shared practical interests to be pursued, especially viewing Paganism as a minority religion in a Christian-dominated society. But there are also shared spiritual lessons to be learned from people pursuing different paths for those who are open to hear them.