Pagans are among the newest and oldest of religions. The earliest Pagans were among the hunting and gathering peoples at the dawn of history, while today’s NeoPagans arose within the modern world and work within cutting edge businesses and sciences. If what you think you know about Pagans stems from Hollywood, sermons, or fragmentary news reports, most of what you know is probably wrong. With that in mind, here are twelve things most people don’t know about Pagans.
Most Pagans’ Beliefs About God Will Surprise You
Pagans do not believe is in some single personality that created and controls the world, communicating through a series of prophets or other source of divine commandments. We view such an entity as one deity among others, and not as all powerful. However once they started writing down their thoughts, historically most Pagans believed there is one source from which everything, including the Gods, emanates.
Some Wiccans call this Source the Dryghton. Our view closely resembles descriptions of the Godhead as reported by many mystics. While many Pagan traditions honor it, all focus mostly on “intermediate” spiritual powers, the Gods, elements, spirits of place, and ancestors, most closely involved with this world wherein we live.
Most Pagans are Not Witches
“Pagan” is an all embracing term, like “monotheist.” Just as monotheists include Jews, Christians, and Muslims, so the term “Pagan” includes both Traditional and NeoPagans, (who differ from Pagans in the broader sense in that we have arisen within the context of the modern world, in societies where the traditional Pagan religions have been outlawed for nearly 1500 years). Hindus are also often included as Pagans. We NeoPagans reflect this modern heritage in ways Pagans with more unbroken roots to Pagan times do not.
Think of Wiccans, Witches, Druids, Celtic Reconstructionists, and others as one complex NeoPagan subspecies, and contemporary Pagans with relatively unbroken roots such as Traditional Native Americans, Shinto, and the African Diasporic traditions as another. Both fit into a larger Pagan category that includes the religions of Classical Greece and Rome, ancient Egypt, Tibetan Bon, Chinese Naxi, hunting and gathering religions and many others. So all Witches are Pagans, but not all Pagans are Witches.
Pagans Are Not Out to Convert You
Most Pagans do not want to convert you. Almost all Neopagans do not. Neopagans do not believe any particular religion is necessary for someone’s well-being, let alone their salvation. Therefore we feel no urge to make the rest of the world Pagan. Today, when we are not threatened with death or violence, we like to make information available to those who are interested, and often open our Sabbats to interested people, but the initiative must always be theirs.
We have no missionaries. Future Neopagans must ask to join us, and even then there is no guarantee the group asked will agree to admit or even to teach every seeker. Some groups are even closed to new members. Period.
Most NeoPagans Do Not Sacrifice Animals
Sacrifice is a long spiritual tradition in both Pagan and monotheistic traditions. Ancient Jews sacrificed animals to their God before the Romans destroyed their temple in Jerusalem, and ancient Pagans performed similar sacrifices. In both cases sacrificial animals were usually eaten, as they normally continue to be where sacrifice persists. Modern Jews do not sacrifice animals, and most NeoPagans do not either.
In over twenty five years of practice, I have never heard of animal sacrifice among NeoPagans. Pagan traditions with stronger roots to earlier times usually continue animal sacrifice, such as Santeria and practitioners of Voudon. But exceptions exist, such as a Voudon Priestess who is a vegetarian and so does not conduct sacrifice. The Gods come anyway.
Wiccans Are Witches, But Not Like You Think
Wiccan is often used as a synonym for Witch. The original Wiccans are followers of the Pagan traditions that Gerald Gardner made public after England abolished its anti-Witchcraft laws in 1951, and in some cases of those who taught Gardner.
Wiccans have always called themselves Witches, but as the number of NeoPagans has increased and become more accepted publicly, even earlier practices have become public and many other NeoPagans have started their own traditions. In both cases they also call usually call themselves Witches and Wiccans. Despite these differences, these varied groups generally respect one another as fellow Witches and NeoPagans.
Sabbats Are Sacred Days that Celebrate the “Wheel of the Year”
Wiccans and many other Pagans celebrate the “Wheel of the Year” which progresses through the seasons as life progresses from birth, through youth, adulthood, and finally death. We think of this cycle as a wheel because it continually repeats itself in nature and, many of us believe, for people.
Among NeoPagans there are usually eight Sabbats honored, though some celebrate fewer. Samhain, Oct 31- Nov 1, marks the beginning of the Wiccan year, and is followed by Yule, Imbolc or Brigit, Ostara, Beltane, Midsummer, Lughnasadh or Lammas, Mabon, and back around to Samhain. Some groups might begin with Yule, the Winter Solstice. All these sacred days are called Sabbats. In this way we honor the sacredness of all necessary aspects of physical existence, from birth to death. Among many NeoPagans, especially Wiccans, a similar cycle is honored through
“Esbats” which are keyed to the phases of the moon, which undergoes a similar cycle of waxing, fullness, waning, and darkness. Most Esbats are celebrated on the Full Moon, or close to it. Groups that gather for these celebrations are usually smaller, often a coven or equivalent group.
A Coven Is Like a Congregation
A coven is the Wiccan and many other Witches’ equivalent of a congregation. It is the traditional group that meets together on a regular basis to honor the Gods and to work magick together. Most other Pagan groups have equivalent groups. For example, Druids have Groves. On the other hand, many Pagans do not work in and through covens, and may gather together only for Sabbats and festivals. These Pagans are often called “solitaries.”
“Drawing Down the Moon” Is a Powerful Ritual
‘Drawing Down the Moon’ is a ritual central to Wiccans and has equivalents in a great many other Pagan and NeoPagan traditions. Through it we encounter our Gods directly, without either scripture or sermon. The Goddess is invoked into the High Priestess.
When She comes, the Priestess enters into trance, and the Goddess gives teachings, advice, and blessings to coven members through her. Then She departs. Less often the Wiccan God enters into the High Priest. The opportunity to experience such close communion with our deities is perhaps the greatest blessing in Wiccan and similar Pagan practice.
Pagans Do Not Hate Jesus
In fact, most respect him and regard him as an important spiritual teacher. This was true for Pagan oracles in Classical times and remains true today. Pagans do not interpret his teachings in the way that Christian do, however. We do not believe he was the only begotten son of God, nor that believing in him is necessary for the remission of sins, nor do we believe in sins in the ways many Christians think of the term.
To us, it makes no more sense to say that this respectful lack of involvement is “hate” than to say that because I am not interested in becoming involved with someone, that means I “hate” them. No, I wish them well on their life journey, but theirs is not my journey. A far more interesting question is to why so many Christians persist in hating Pagans.
There’s Not a ‘Pagan Bible’ But There are Important Books
Witches often have a “Book of Shadows” or similar text, but we do not regard these as inerrant, and most of their contents are of rituals and other practices that have worked for us or others in the past. A Book of Shadows is more like a cookbook of recipes combined with a collection of inherited teachings than a source for sacred dogma. Pagans find their main teachings in the Sacred as it manifests in this world, because we focus on Spirit is immanent rather than transcendent.
We find wisdom in the cycles of our lives and in the seasons, and in the many other ways that Spirit manifests in this world. Because our world is so varied, different Pagan practices focus on the Sacred through different aspects of our world, but all regard spiritual experiences of and in our world, as well as through our Gods, as our chief source of spiritual knowledge.
Pagans Don’t Worship Satan. They Don’t Even Believe Satan Exists.
Pagans do not believe in Satan, let alone worship such a being. Pagans believe our world is a manifestation of the Sacred, and is not fallen. As a consequence, its spiritual powers are worthy of veneration and honor. While because in human beings freedom and ignorance exist together bad things inevitably happen, Pagans do not think there is any need to posit an ultimate source of evil, or even that such an idea makes much sense.
Magick Is Not What You See in Vegas
Many modern Pagans spell magick with a ‘k’ to distinguish it from stage magic. Pagans use magick primarily for healing work, but it is also used to provide protection for people and places, helping someone get a job or place to live, and even for finding parking places. The skeptic will say magick is simply a fancy name given to coincidences. This leads to my personal favorite description of how magick works: the non-coincidental accumulation of meaningful ‘coincidences.’
Gus diZerega blogs for Beliefnet at A Pagan’s Blog. He is a political scientist/theorist with a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience, (Llewellyn, 2001) and (with Philip Johnson), Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion Hudson, 2008) While living and working as an artist and craftsperson to finance his degree, he met and later studied with teachers in NeoPaganism, the earth religions more generally, and shamanic healing.