You just found out that someone you know practices a religion that you may not be familiar with. What should you do?
The best thing to do is take time to learn a little bit about their beliefs.
For those who are open to it, this short essay gives some basic information about Paganism that can help you support and embrace your differences.
What is a Pagan likely to practice and believe?
Because Pagans generally follow a non-creedal, non-dogmatic spirituality, there may be even more variants between Pagan religious beliefs than there are between denominations of Christianity. The most commonly practiced types of Paganism are Wicca, Asatru, Druidry, or simply Paganism, just as a Christian can be Catholic, Presbyterian, or simply Christian. All of these are somewhat different from each other. Because of this, the following statements may not be true for every Pagan you encounter; however, there are some practices that are generally common among Pagans; the person will tell you if their practices differ significantly from the following:
- A Pagan is likely to celebrate a nature-based, polytheistic religion (keep in mind that some Pagans do not worship deities, so it is best to ask)
- A Pagan may honor Divinity as both God and Goddess, sometimes with a feminist emphasis on the Goddess. One effect of this is that the person is likely to treat gender equality as an assumption.
- A Pagan will celebrate religious ceremonies with small groups on Full Moons and at the beginning and midpoint of each season, rather than with large congregations or at a set weekly schedule. These celebrations are often called “rituals” or “circles,” and the congregations called “covens,” “groves,” “hearths,” or “circles.”
- Some of the items commonly found on the altar in a Pagan ceremony are statues of the Goddess or God; candles; crystals; wands; the athame, a blunt-edged dagger used as a symbol and not as a tool with which to cut; cups; cauldrons; incense; and a five-pointed star called the pentagram or pentacle.
- A Pagan may wear a symbol of his or her religion as an item of jewelry. The most common symbol is the pentacle, a five-pointed star in a circle. The misconception of the pentagram as a satanic symbol is based upon its inverted use by those groups, in the same manner in which devil-worshippers may use the Christian cross inverted. The meaning of the pentacle as worn by Pagans is rooted in the beliefs of the Greek Pythagoreans, for whom the pentagram embodied perfect balance and wisdom; inserting the star in the circle adds the symbol of eternity and unity.
- Other jewelry that may be worn includes Triple Goddess symbol, Celtic knotwork; crosses; triskelions; Thor’s hammer; the labrys, a double-headed axe used as a symbol by Greco-Roman worship of Cybele; Goddess figurines; crescent and/or full Moon symbols; the Yin-Yang symbol; or the eye of Horus, or horns of Isis from Egyptian mythology.
- A Pagan will view Divinity as immanent in Nature and humanity, and view all things as interconnected.
- Pagans are concerned with ecology and the environment and believe it is their duty to nurture and protect wildlife and our Planet. Pagans are knowledgeable about and respect the cycle of life.
- A Pagan is likely to believe in magic and may spell it ‘magick’ to differentiate it from stage illusions. This may include belief in personal energy fields like the Chinese concept of chi, and may also include the use of rituals and tools to dramatize and focus positive energy and visualization techniques. It does not mean that the person is taught that he can wiggle his nose to clean his room, summon spirits or demons, or do anything else that breaks natural laws.
- Some Pagans do not hex or curse; their belief system tells them that such actions rebound on the sender, and therefore are proscribed. Other Pagans feel that this is a throwback to Christianity’s “turn the other cheek” conditioning. These Pagans believe that it is the right of the practitioner to hex in order to receive justice for harm done to them based on the deliberate actions of the recipient. Because cursing can last for generations and affect innocent people, it is generally frowned upon. In no case do Pagans take hexing and cursing lightly and only do so when necessary.
- A Pagan may believe in reincarnation. It is the most common eschatological belief held among Pagans but is not universal. However, a Pagan is unlikely to believe in either Heaven or Hell; she may believe in the Celtic Summerland, a place of rest between incarnations, or Valhalla, a realm of honor in Norse religions.
- A Pagan may call her/himself a Witch, a Wiccan, a Pagan or Neo-Pagan, a Goddess-worshipper, a Druid, an Asatruer, or a Heathen. A male witch is unlikely to call himself a Warlock, as that is believed to come from the Scottish word for “oathbreaker.” And while a Pagan may or may not be offended by the stereotype, she is likely to quickly inform you that the green-skinned, warty-nosed caricature displayed at Halloween bears no relation to her religion.
Ethics and rules of behavior
A Pagan will be taught ethics emphasizing both personal freedom and personal responsibility. Pagan ethics allow personal freedom within a framework of personal responsibility. The primary basis for Pagan ethics is the understanding that everything is interconnected, that nothing exists without affecting others, and that every action has a consequence.
There is no concept of forgiveness for sin in the Pagan ethical system; the consequences of one’s actions must be faced and reparations made as necessary against anyone who has been harmed.
There are no arbitrary rules about moral issues; instead, every action must be weighed against the awareness of what harm it could cause. Thus, for example, consensual homosexuality would be a null issue morally because it harms no one, but cheating would be wrong because it harms one’s self, one’s intellect, one’s integrity, and takes unfair advantage of the person being cheated.
The most common forms in which these ethics are stated are:
- The Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do as thou wilt.“
- The Threefold Law, “Whatsoever you do returns to you threefold.“
A Pagan will hold a paradigm that embraces plurality.
Because Pagan religious systems hold that theirs is a way among many, not the only road to truth, and because Pagans explore a variety of Deities among their pantheons, both male and female, a Pagan will be brought up in an atmosphere that discourages discrimination based on differences such as race or gender, and encourages individuality, self-discovery and independent thought.
A Pagan is also likely to be taught comparative religions. Most Pagans are adamant about not forcing their beliefs on their children but rather teaching them many spiritual systems and letting the child decide when he is of age. However, a Pagan is unlikely to have an emotional concept of Heaven, Hell, or salvation as taught by Christian religions, though he may know about them intellectually. And a Pagan will be taught to respect the sacred texts of other religions, but is unlikely to believe them literally where they conflict with scientific theory or purport to be the only truth. Pagans understand scriptures and sacred texts to likely be allegories as opposed to historical events.
A Pagan is likely to enjoy reading, science, and helping professions. Margot Adler, National Public Radio journalist, reported the results of a survey of Pagans in the 1989 edition of her book, Drawing Down the Moon.1 The results showed that the one thing Pagans hold in common despite their differences is a voracious appetite for reading and learning. Pagans also seem to be represented strongly in the computer and health-care fields.
Despite their sometimes misunderstood beliefs, earth-based religions have grown steadily throughout the past several decades, and provide a satisfying spirituality to their practitioners. With the current appreciation of diversity and tolerance, more people now understand that different cultural backgrounds bring perspectives that can be valued instead of feared. It is hoped that this information will facilitate understanding and acceptance.
- Margot Adler, “Drawing down the moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess worshipers and other Pagans in America today,” Penguin USA, (1997)
Adapted from the essay “You have a Pagan in your classroom,” Cecylyna Dewr, 1989