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Paganism 101: Finding Our Religion
"OK," she asks herself, "I'm interested in becoming a Pagan. But where do I go?" If you're like me and accept "Pagan" as a term defining ethnic religion, our girl is already in trouble. Because more than likely, that's not what she's going to find if she goes looking at the bookstore or on What she is going to find instead is a modern religious construct built around a Goddess and spell-casting. That's not exactly the same thing. And it's not how the ancient Pagans viewed religion.

For our ancestors, religion meant showing proper devotion to the Gods. Casting a love spell hardly qualifies. Neither did ancient religion revolve around Tarot cards, scrying or astral travel, but these are the elements of Paganism our girl will be introduced to if she looks for books on Paganism. I am not saying that Joyce and River Higgenbotham's book Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions might not have some useful information in it, only that ritual tools for your personal altar was probably not a major concern for most ancient Pagans. And the authors even refer to Paganism as a modern religion. Links to the past are tenuous; it borrows "concepts and practices from any spirituality."1 And we speak now of "traditions" or "flavors" of Paganism, as though there is a general "Vanilla" Paganism which we can then color to suit our personal tastes. The general mechanics are the same but we can mix and match Gods and Goddesses to have Egyptian Paganism or Celtic Paganism or Norse Paganism (the infamous Wiccatru) or what have you.

But this is not what I'm talking about when I think of Paganism. And it is not what our ancestors would have thought about when reflecting on the customs and traditions of their ancestors. Obviously, we must make a distinction between modern Paganism and revivals of ancient Paganism. I would say that this sort of modern Paganism we have been introduced to above, and found in numerous modern books, should be labeled "inspired by" or "based upon" as are films based on books. At the other end of the spectrum would be "reconstructionists" who are busily trying to bring back to life the actual ancient religion, piece by piece, by sifting through the historical record. Clearly, we have two completely different conceptions of Paganism here. One is centered around the modern world and current realities. The other can lead people to live in the past, to try to resurrect a religion that no longer quite fits into the modern world. I'm not quite comfortable with either approach.

I've always argued that some of the customs and traditions of our ancestors are no longer relevant. For better or worse, their world is gone. Still, there are Saxon Pagans who attempt to retreat into the past and honor kings and lords and who use an archaic language to communicate and for titles, much as does the Roman Catholic Church. And of course, there are those who think that all our ancestors flipped Tarot cards, stared into crystals and cast spells and worshiped skyclad (naked). I prefer a middle approach to the problem of being Pagan. I would not go so far as to say either of the extremes I've mentioned are wrong. There are different ways of honoring the Gods and the forms of Paganism most often described in modern works on the subject favor a modern approach. And I should note here that there are levels of modernism, from people who think they are wizards out of a D&D universe and those who think walking around with a crystal slung around their neck, a ritual dagger (athame) slung to their waist and calling themselves "Moonbeam" but with no knowledge at all of historical Paganism make them Pagan (I'd say it makes them kooks) to those who take very seriously their devotion to the Gods and Goddesses of old but who simply have a different, more modern, more eclectic way of going about showing it.

I think one problem anyone is going to have in finding ancient religion is the preponderance in modern literature of references to Wicca. Wicca is the largest Pagan "tradition" recognized by the US Government, and for many people, Wicca IS Paganism. But this is simply not true and is a gross misrepresentation of our ancestral customs and traditions. Wicca might be considered a Pagan movement or tradition in that it appeals to different ethnic traditions, but it is not ALL Paganism is. Wicca is not an ancient religion, it is a modern religion. I have the same problems with Wicca that I do with some Asatru groups and that is the claim that what they teach is what our ancestors believed. They make this claim on some very tenuous grounds, but of course, it's in print so its believed. And since the evidence available is weighted in favor of Wicca with its spell books and "Books of Shadow" and ritual implements for the home altar, our girl is not likely to find ancient Paganism behind the modern framework. That's not to say that the ancient people didn't believe in magick and spells. The common folk most certainly did, as archaeology has demonstrated. But their religion and their practice of it did not come down to getting together and forming a circle, summoning the watchtowers of the four cardinal directions and dancing widdershins. Religion and magic are not identical; they do not have identical goals. Religion relies on prayer and sacrifice whereas magic is manipulative and "applies means to specific ends."2

This sounds more like how we think of early Christianity, a few believers gathering in somebody's house. And it sounds as strange today to Christians as Christian practice did to Pagans back then. Now part of this is out of necessity. Modern Pagans are reduced to being a sort of counter-culture group, practicing their religion outside the norm, facing persecution if they do so publicly. We no longer have access to temples, sacred groves and public spaces. This is one of the ways in which our modern world has changed and is no longer conducive to ancient practice. I think we have to be reasonable and accept that there have to be some adjustments made. I do not think we should accept that it must always be this way, and I do not think we should come to believe this is all our religion is.

For myself, I want to know what my ancestors believed and I want to know what forms their devotion to the Gods took. And I want to adapt those beliefs and those practices to the modern world. Yes, I'm leery of ritual magick, or "High Magick" or what have you, with wands and staves and robes and inscribed floors. Too much of this stinks of the Christian Middle Ages and of the 19th century. I don't know of archaeologists finding any floors inscribed with magick circles in the Theban alphabet. I would suggest instead, if somebody is interested in magick as it was practiced in the ancient world, to refer not to the Rosicrucians, who sometimes pass themselves off as descended from the ancient Egyptian priesthood, or the Golden Dawn, a truly eclectic group who were influenced by Christian mysticism, Qabalah, Hermeticism, the religion of Ancient Egypt, Theurgy, Freemasonry, Alchemy, Theosophy, Eliphas Levi, Papus, Enochian magic, and Renaissance grimoires. Obviously, the Golden Dawn was not Pagan and not descended directly or indirectly from ancient Paganism. Yet it is the Golden Dawn's magic and ritual that became core elements of many other traditions, including Wicca. Wicca, therefore, borrowed not directly from our ancient past, but from a syncretistic development of the 19th century.

It seems to me if we want to get back to the beliefs of our ancestors and not the beliefs of some 19th century occultists, that we ought to pay more attention to ancient sources, and if magick must play a role in your religion, to books like Georg Luck's Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006 [1985]). This is a translated collection of ancient texts on magic. Isn't this a better source than the 19th century hodge-podge of the Golden Dawn? Why not go directly to the source instead of to a modern syncretistic corruption of it?concepts of magic and ritual that became core elements of many other traditions, including Wicca. Wicca, therefore, borrowed not directly from our ancient past, but from a syncretistic development of the 19th century.

It seems to me if we want to get back to the beliefs of our ancestors and not the beliefs of some 19th century occultists, that we ought to pay more attention to ancient sources, and if magick must play a role in your religion, to books like Georg Luck's Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006 [1985]). This is a translated collection of ancient texts on magic. Isn't this a better source than the 19th century hodge-podge of the Golden Dawn? Why not go directly to the source instead of to a modern syncretistic corruption of it?

I personally think "magick" has assumed a more prominent role in Paganism than it possessed historically. Yes, people believed in it. Yes, they wore charms and yes they believed in curses. But this was not part of religion but outside of it, more "in addition to" than a necessary component. They worshiped the Gods without recourse to magic, by sacrificing animals or incense or cakes or by participating in the large public rituals. But rituals today are often "magic" rather than religious. Certainly you can find books of rituals that include weddings and funerals and handfastings but you'll also find completely non-ancient elements.

One of my favorite books of the late 70s when I was introducing myself to Paganism was The Book of Pagan Rituals by Herman Slater which includes chapters on celebrating various festivals but also things you don't find mentioned in our ancient sources: meditating, rhythmic breathing and "The Circle." My ancestors did not need to cast a circle to honor their Gods, and they did not need to meditate or to practice rhythmic breathing. Probably most common people of the ancient world would be mystified if they were introduced to some of our modern Pagan ideas about what properly constitutes religion.

What I'm saying is, all this is well and fine if that's what you're interested in, but it's not necessary and it's not historical. I can't say one approach is right and one approach is wrong because religion is showing proper devotion to the Gods and if that's what you're doing through your breathing and meditating, who am I to criticize? But then these things should not be passed off as ancient wisdom or ancient practice and modern Paganism should not pose as ancient, as it so often does. One would get the mistaken idea that all ancient Pagans were witches. They were not. In point of fact, witches were as distrusted then as now, as were magicians. Roman religion, being very conservative, had no time for such things and more than once witches and the sort found themselves given the boot. The problem was not their beliefs but simply the fact that then, as now, there were a lot of charlatans floating around and they tended to create unrest. The Romans were generally tolerant and pragmatic. They didn't care what you did or what you believed as long as you didn't create a disturbance and upset the peace of the province.

I think perhaps we need to escape from the idea that there was some universal matriarchal society filled with peace and "brotherhood" until the nasty male patriarchal types came along and ruined everything.4 That's not history; it has been debunked. But it is still contained as "fact" in modern books about Paganism. Obviously, if our point of departure is flawed, all that flows from it will likewise be flawed. Our basic premise must be founded more firmly on fact, and not fancy. We must take a realistic appraisal of our Pagan past and recognize that there was no golden age, no time pre-Christianity when all were happy and content. There has always been strife and Pagan societies produced criminals and charlatans just as frequently as do Christian or Jewish or Islamic or any other. The basic nature of humanity hasn't changed over the centuries. While I think the world would be a better place without monotheism, I recognize that it would not be perfect.

I would argue for moderation and for a degree of realism and pragmatism in our thinking. I would argue that we have to show the same tolerance for different beliefs as our Pagan ancestors did and not fall into petty bickering. We can recognize that we might find fault with the practices of others but that they have the right to believe and practice what they will. Dislike or lack of understanding does not have to translate into intolerance and oppression. I have seen things that left me shaking my head, but the people involved were probably sincere in what they were doing. Doubtless our ancestors also shook their heads at some of their fellow Pagans or at the practices of Pagans from other lands. The difference for us has to be that we must be more accepting of innovation than our ancestors were. Partly, as I have said, this is out of necessity. We can't recapture the past in its entirety with all its beliefs and practices, and translate them wholesale into the present. We have to make do with what we have, and this will include introduction of some things our ancestors were unfamiliar with and adoption of others so that they fit into the modern world. For example, we will see very little animal sacrifice today. We simply haven't the means to carry on with this ancient practice.

We also have to be careful not to let our own values and modern worldview transpose itself on our understanding of the past and on the practices and beliefs of our ancestors. We have our Paganism; they have theirs. Archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly warns against letting our perceptions be colored by "late twentieth-century political sensibilities." She takes issue with positions that equate adoption of a priesthood by an ancient woman as a form of escape: "The equation of priesthood with independence suffers from the distorting effects of modern feminist hindsight." She is also critical of the view that "the dominant patriarchal ideology manipulated a supposed female aptitude for making contact with things drity, dark, and polluted by assigning to women ritual presidency over transitional experiences, such as mourning and death" by pointing out that "while corpses were certainly considered polluting, women themselves were not at all regarded as dirty. This Greek attitude stands in contrast to how women were viewed within some Jewish and Christian traditions."[4]

So while we can call our religion(s) Paganism, we must be careful not to make too strong a claim on the past unless that claim can be substantiated with some proofs. We can say "this is what we believe" but we should not transpose those beliefs onto those of our ancestors and claim that we are accurately reviving ancient religious practices, because we are not. We are some of us doing the best we can with what we have in the way of source material (which ranges in general from scant to non-existent) or we are making it up as we go along. As I said, that's fine, but lets at least represent ourselves and our beliefs accurately and not pretend to be something we're not. And let's do away with the pseudo-scholarship that so pervades modern Pagan "scholarship."

I think that we owe it to our ancestors to try to "get it right," particularly if we are going to make any claims with regards to ancient and original Paganism. In other words, I can't adopt a Wiccan template, superimpose Norse Gods over the identities of the Celtic Gods, throw in a little ritual magic and say I'm a Heathen. I wouldn't be. I would be something, but not a Heathen, at least how my ancestors understood it. If we don't at least accept the basic beliefs of the ancient Pagans then we are not Pagan at all, but rather creators of our own new and unique religions. The names of the Gods and Goddesses would be the same, but very little else. If we're going to change them that much, we might as well invent new names for our deities while we're at it, because they certainly won't recognize that we are addressing them when we offer prayer and sacrifice.

Finally, since monotheists are so quick (and eager) to distort the true record of the past it is imperative that we, at least, as Pagans, attempt to preserve something of the historical record and the truth of our origins. We should not be content with reading a Llewellyn book or two and imagining from this that we are Pagan scholars or even know the first thing about ancient Pagan customs and traditions. In any case, Llewellyn will only publish books with a magical theme and I have already noted my objection to magic being a necessary component of religion. Sadly, it is difficult to find more scholarly works on the subject. They are hard to find and they tend to be more expensive.

But again, I think we owe it to our ancestors and to the Gods themselves to make an attempt. There is a historical template we can build upon and I think that route is far superior to simply making it up as we go along, or accepting shoddy "scholarship" and false claims of continuity when it is relatively easy to expose those claims as false. Let's not be lazy. Our Gods deserve better than that, and our ancestors would expect better. And just as importantly, we owe it to our children if we are to send them into the future as Pagans, into a hostile world filled with lies and misinformation.

1 Joyce Higgenbotham; River Higgenbotham, Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2002), 4.

2 Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2006 [1985]), 3.

3 Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), 19. In reference to M. Gimbutas, The Godesses and Gods of Old Europe 6500-3500 BC: Myth and Cult Images (Berkeley, 1982) Connelly observes that "Any leap froimn Greek female priesthood to contemporary claims regarding ancient matriarchy or "Goddess cult" is off the mark and not founded upon hard evidence."

4 Connelly, 9-22.

Sidebar Notes

Wicca is not the "Old" Religion - it's a new one

If we want to revive ancient religion, we need to go further back in time than the 19th century for examples