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What Paganism Does — And Doesn't — Mean

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What Is Paganism? What Being A Pagan Really Means

The term "Paganism" may conjures up images of witches or other occult practices.

Maybe you’re like me and had only heard Pagans referred to in religious school classes, or perhaps you've been hearing more of Paganism and Pagan practices mentioned on TikTok or in the numerous Viking-themed shows that have recently become popular on Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services, like "The Last Kingdom," "Vikings," and "Vikings: Valhalla."

If so, learning more about the history of Paganism, as well as its modern forms, is probably a good idea right about now.

What is a Pagan and what is Paganism?

A sort of unconventional approach to religion, Pagans believe in several gods and goddesses and the interconnection of nature and human beings. Paganism has a rich history, holidays, and practices proving that being a Pagan is a unique religious experience.

According to the Pagan Federation, Paganism is defined as a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion; therefore, a Pagan is a follower of this religion.

Simply put, Paganism, the Latin word for which is pāgānus, was a term created in the fourth century Roman Empire, used to describe people who practiced a polytheistic religion, or the belief in multiple deities. The Latin pāgānus was originally meant as a term to refer to a "country dweller" or "civilian."

The term was primarily used by Roman soldiers, who thought of themselves as soldiers of Christ in the Christian religion, to describe anyone who wasn't in the army; therefore, Paganism originated as military slang.

Pagans practiced polytheism, the opposite of monotheistic religious practices like Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Early Christians referred to Pagans as heathens or gentiles.

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According to Christianity.com, polytheism is “the belief in and veneration of multiple gods or goddesses... both male and female, who have various associations and embody forces of nature, aspects of culture, and facets of human psychology.”

Considered to be more relatable than the “perfect” higher power of other pre-Christian religions, these deities find wisdom within their human faults. Pagans chose to incorporate this aspect because it allows for expressing humor.

Their other belief of pantheism involves seeing the divinity as inseparable from nature. This shows that Pagans have a holistic worldview that the universe is interconnected, and deities can be found all around us within trees, flowers, water, even the sky.

Due to the manifestation of divinity within nature, Pagans will actively search for answers and signs from their deities. As an example, the Pagan Federation states that Pagans may cast “stones to read the geomantic patterns into which they fall.”

It’s also important to note that while there are ancestral beliefs within Paganism, it tends to take on domestic elements. That being said, it is not so much a public religion, but rather one that is more private and varies from person to person.

How did Paganism come about?

Some forms of Paganism are rooted in the 19th century C.E. European nationalism. However, contemporary Pagans have traced their roots to the 1960s. Modern Paganism focuses on the spiritual interest and connection to nature, and archetypal psychology.

Described as being both a prehistoric and postmodern religion, Paganism has heavy ties to spiritualism.

With the development of science, the Greeks and Babylonians wanted to understand nature and the patterns among it that are hidden from us. With the cultivation of human industry and the well-roundedness of culture, Renaissance thinkers began to write about Pagan ideals.

Many Pagans lived on Mediterranean lands in the countryside. According to the Pagan Federation, "with parks, gardens and even zoos, all re-introduced into modern Europe, not by the religions of the Book, and not by utilitarian atheists, but by the Classically-inspired planners of the Enlightenment."

Their beliefs and ideas were unlike anything that had been seen at the time. In fact, the Pagan religion was one of the first religions to make way for an individual connection with the divine or their deities.

Modern Pagans emphasize the importance of the “individual psyche as it interfaces with a greater power.” They are creative and playful, not tied down by the customs of an established religion.

With respect for all life, Pagans usually desire “to participate with rather than to dominate other beings.” The hope is that all of creation live in harmony with each other.

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Forms of Paganism Throughout History

Norse Paganism

Dating back to the Germanic people of the Iron Age, between 400-550 AD, Norse Paganism was a religion based on polytheism, the worship of ancestors, belief in fate and the afterlife, and that spirits were present in animals and nature.

Norse Pagans held religious festivals that focused on farming and agriculture, and made blood sacrifices timed to the phases of the moon and the seasons.

Viking Paganism

Viking Paganism followed Norse Paganism, beginning around 800 AD and lasting until 1050 AD. In Scandinavia, the Norse Pagan religion was practiced during the Viking Age, until the Vikings converted to Christianity in the 10th or 11th century.

Viking Pagans were polytheistic, and had many groups throughout Northern Europe. It's believed that in order to trade, Vikings, also known as Norsemen, adopted Christianity gradually, as Christians couldn't trade with Pagans.

Celtic Paganism

Celtic Paganism was the religion of the Celts in Western Europe during the Iron Age (500 BCE-500 CE). A polytheistic people, Celtic Pagans believed in the afterlife and practiced rituals like burying their dead with food and weapons.

Their ceremonies were held in forests, rather than churches, which appeared during the Gallo-Roman period (1st century BC to 5th century AD). Celtic Pagans also took part in human sacrifices.

Paganism in Ireland and Scotland

In Ireland and parts of Scotland, Paganism began around the 1st century, until around the 9th century when Vikings invaded and settled in the area, assimilating to Gaelic Ireland. Before Christianity in Ireland, its religious beliefs influenced Scottish Gaelic culture.

Gaelic Ireland was Pagan, had an oral culture to pass down its beliefs, was polytheistic, believed in an afterlife and animism, and celebrated four main festivals yearly.

Modern Paganism

Also referred to as neopaganism or contemporary Paganism, modern Paganism shares similarities to the Pagan religion of the ancient past; however, scholars have equated modern paganism to the New Age movement.

Modern Paganism focuses more on magic and witchcraft rather than the worship of gods and goddesses. Neopaganism centers on celebration of the changing seasons and animism, and are inspired by 19th century Romanticism.

Roman Paganism

Before the collapse of the Roman republic, Roman Pagans were individuals who were said to have lived in the countryside, practicing non-Christian beliefs. However, Roman Pagans worshipped gods, though didn't agree with "other" Pagans on certain practices.

After the collapse, Christianity began to influence the population (30-40 AD), and Emperors condemned any non-Christian beliefs by implementing laws, some of which were punishable by death. Despite this, Paganism continued to be practiced into the 5th century.

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Pagan Holidays and Celebrations

It makes sense that with a high importance of nature within Paganism, their holidays and celebrations center around solar and seasonal change.

The Wheel of the Year is a symbol of the eight religious festivals that Pagans celebrate.

According to the World History Encyclopedia, Pagans noticed that “the seasons changed, people died, but nothing was ever finally lost because everything returned again — in one way or another — in a repeating natural cycle.”

Their appreciation for nature’s predictability is observed eight times a year. These festivals are “designed to draw one’s attention to what one has gained and lost in the cyclical turn of the year.”

The Wheel of the Year includes eight holidays celebrated by Pagans:

1. Samhain: October 31

Marking the beginning of the year’s cycle, Samhain means “summer’s end” and commences the season of darkness.

As you’ve probably noticed, this festival takes place on Halloween. It is a Pagan belief that during this time, the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest.

2. Yule: December 20-25

Yule celebrates the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, where the days grow longer. It symbolizes rebirth, growth, rejuvenation, and the renewal of life cycles.

At Yule, a tree is decorated to honor the home of deities. It also commemorates the birth of the new sun god.

3. Imbolc: February 1-2

Meaning “in the belly,” Imbolc celebrates rebirth and purification between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.

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As it references pregnancy, this festival is linked to fertility, hope, and the promise of the future.

4. Ostara: March 20-23

The Spring Equinox, or Vernal Equinox, is observed with celebrations and feasts, often involving flowers, rabbits, chicks and colored eggs.

A time of birth and renewal, the goddess Ostara is believed to re-emerge from beneath the earth and become pregnant with the sun god who will be born the next Yule.

5. Beltane: April 30-May 1

Bonfires, dancing, and colorful strands of ribbon are used to observe the coming of summer.

Beltrane represents light and fertility, while Pagans show their passion and set aside inhibitions in order to indulge their desires.

6. Litha: June 20-22

The days become shorter during the celebration of the Summer Solstice at Litha.

It acknowledges “the triumph of light over darkness,” and involves fresh fruits, honey cakes, and feasting.

7. Lughnasadh: August 1

Lughnasadh is named after the Celtic hero-god Lugh who is linked to order and truth. It is also known as Lammas.

This is a harvest festival that ceremonializes the transition from summer into autumn with a harvest of fruits offered to the gods and goddesses.

8. Mabon: September 20-23

Celebrating the Autumn Equinox, Mabon is the beginning of the second harvest, focusing mostly on grains, specifically wheat. Mabon is the day when darkness reigns over light until springtime.

Mabon is named after the son of the Earth Mother Goddess. The belief is that the Earth Mother Goddess will eventually return, bringing life and prosperity to humanity.

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Books That Explore Paganism

If Pagan ideals are something that interest you, it might be beneficial to do some research. Anyone can become a Pagan and begin to practice their rituals.

Soe great books to start with include these:

1. "Paganism: A Beginner’s Guide to Paganism" by Sarah Owen

2. "Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions" by Joyce and River Higginbothom

3. "The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice" by John Beckett

4. "Pagan Planet: Being, Believing & Belonging in the 21 Century" by Nimue Brown

However you decide to take in this information and potentially follow Pagan ideals, you will become closer to nature and see the importance of individualism.

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Isabella Pacinelli is a writer who covers relationships, self-love, spirituality, and entertainment.

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