An Introduction to Paganism

Before Christianity became the most widely practiced religion in the world, many people across the globe believed not in just one God, but in many, and often worshiped outside in nature as opposed to within the walls of churches. As Christians sought to spread their beliefs everywhere they went, they developed a slew of words for those who continued to practice their native traditions. One of these terms, “pagan,” eventually came to represent a vast group of people who consider themselves followers of “the old ways,” before Abrahamic monotheism came to dominate the religious sphere. 

What is a pagan?

The term “pagan” is an extremely broad one, covering a wide swath of different religions. As one pagan community organizer put it, “Ask twelve pagans what paganism is, and you’ll get thirteen answers.” Derived from the Latin paganus, meaning people who live in rural areas, the title was used to refer to all non-Christian faiths, with a heavy implication that such people worshiped “false gods.” As early as the nineteenth century, the label was purposefully adopted by people who chose to identify as pagans, and has since been applied to a diverse spectrum of faiths that have their roots in pre-Christian forms of worship.

What do the pagans believe in? What are the most important beliefs in Paganism?

Pagans are often polytheistic, meaning they believe in many deities. Some pagans choose to focus on the deity pantheons and religious practices of their personal ancestors, while others take a more eclectic approach, drawing from a variety of traditions that they feel most connected to. Almost universally, pagans also tend toward a deep connection to nature and the cycles of life, considering all parts of it sacred

Many pagans seek to emulate ancient pre-Christian practices, either keeping them exactly as they were recorded in history or updating them for modern use. For instance, a common practice among many types of pagans is the observance of the Wheel of the Year, which is a calendar of eight yearly festivals, or sabbats. Four of these sabbats coincide with the solstices and equinoxes, while the other four are spaced evenly between those events. Each sabbat’s significance is tied to the season of nature in which it’s celebrated, and has its origins in historical practices, though some have been altered from their original format.

Another large part of pagan faith is ritual. These rituals are frequently tied to the seasons of the year as well, but there are also rituals associated with birth, death, marriage, entering adulthood, and other rites of passage. Other rituals exist to call on certain deities, to ask for healing, wisdom, or strength. The witchcraft and spellwork of some forms of Paganism typically follow a ritualistic framework as well.

Are pagans atheist? How many gods are there in Paganism?

The majority of pagans are very much the opposite of atheists, as they believe in the existence of multiple gods and goddesses. Some pagans do consider themselves atheists (or non-theists), preferring to pay homage to nature itself instead of a deity. 

Each individual pagan faith typically has a wide array of different gods and goddesses, with one or two main deities attracting the largest number of followers. A prominent proportion of pagans consider themselves devotees of the Goddess, or the Divine Feminine; often this is part of a shift toward a more feminine-centric form of worship, as opposed to the masculine-dominant religions of Abrahamic monotheism.

What is the largest pagan religion? What are the different types of Paganism?

Wicca is currently considered the largest pagan religion. Other popular forms include Druidry, a Celtic-based spirituality; Ásatrú or heathenry, both of which are traditions of Norse paganism; Kemetism, an Egyptian neopaganism; eco-paganism; and various forms of Polytheistic Reconstructionism, which seek to revive ancient polytheistic traditions. In its many forms, Paganism is definitely on the rise: a 2014 Pew survey found that 1 million to 1.5 million Americans identified as Wiccan or pagan, which is slightly more than mainline Presbyterians in the same year.

Are Christmas and Easter originally pagan holidays?

It depends on who you ask. Both of the primary Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, coincide with celestial events that were very important to the pre-Christian faiths: the winter solstice and the spring equinox, respectively. Ancient civilizations across the globe celebrated the winter solstice as a sign that the worst of winter was now behind them, whereas the spring equinox represented the balance of night and day as well as the appearance of new life. 

In the case of Christmas, while many scholars attest that Jesus was probably not born in the winter, due to an ancient belief that great men died on the same date as that of their birth, the calculation for the date of Jesus’s birth (or at least his conception) was based on his death during the time of the Jewish festival of Passover, approximately nine months before December 25th. Easter, meanwhile, is connected to the Jewish Passover because of Jesus’s death, and Passover has always been celebrated at the beginning of spring. So, while there is evidence that both holidays were not deliberate attempts to co-opt pagan celebrations, it is also true that having such important holidays at the same time as important pagan festivals probably made it much easier to make Christianity more palatable to potential converts.

All this being said, both holidays contain many traditions that have their origins in pagan observances, and were essentially absorbed as Christianity became more prominent. Christmas traditions including tree decoration, the yule log, mistletoe, decking the halls, and even gift giving are all derivatives of pagan customs. Similarly, the word “Easter” is a derivative of Ēostre or Ostara, who was a Germanic goddess of spring and whose symbol was the rabbit (representing fertility), and who was also associated with eggs (a symbol of new life). 

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