Paganism Contemporary Earth-based spiritual traditions and paths blending elements of pre-Christian, Christian and non-Christian religions. The PAgAn FederAtIon defines Paganism as a “polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.”

Paganism is one of the fastest-growing new religions. A 2007 report in the United Kingdom estimated the number of Pagans in Britain at approximately 43,000, with approximately 2,000 in Scotland. Dozens of Pagan paths exist all over the world, and new ones are always in creation. Witchcraft comprises the largest segment of Paganism.

Pagan is a Latin term meaning “country-dweller.” In the early days of Christianity, which was largely a religion of cities, “pagan” was applied to those who adhered to their old religious beliefs. As the Christian Church grew in strength and eradicated and absorbed old religions and rival sects, pagan became a derogatory term. It implied that one was unsophisticated and uneducated and worshipped false gods.

In contemporary times, Pagan as a proper noun refers primarily to practitioners of traditions reconstructed from early classical and European roots and also to traditions created from shamanic and tribal traditions. Some practitioners prefer the term “Neo-Pagan,” first used in the United States by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, a principal founder of the Church and School of Wicca.

Paganism flowered in the 1960s as an outgrowth of the new Witchcraft founded by Gerald B. Gardner, aided by liberal interests in feminism, Goddess spirituality, ecology, Gaia, New Age spirituality and a desire for personal direct and transcendent experience of the Divine. A connection to and reverence for Nature is common to all of the diverse traditions within Paganism. At its core, Paganism emphasizes direct experience of the divine of a mystical or magical nature.

Paganism has three central characteristics. It is polytheistic and recognizes a plurality of divine beings. It views the material world as a theophany, a manifestation of divinity. It recognizes the divine feminine.

Paganism means different things to different followers: it is a religion, a philosophy and a way of life. As a movement, it is not unified, centralized, structured or highly organized, which is one of its key appeals. There is no bureaucracy, dogma or orthodoxy. There are few “churches” and paid clergy. Practitioners are free to design and follow their own unique ways of experiencing and worshipping the divine. Some Pagans belong to groups, but the majority prefer to practice as solItArIes.

Paganism appeals primarily to white middle-class individuals. many are attracted to it because of deeply moving or mystical experiences they had involving Nature. They also may find the Judeo-Christian God remote, inaccessible and intangible. They may have become alienated over dogma and orthodoxy and institutional insistence that clergy must mediate between them and the divine.

Others find Paganism through a study of religions, philosophy, folklore, archaeology, mythology or the classics or through environmental concerns and politics. One does not “become” a Pagan so much as “come home to” Paganism.

Scholar Ronald Hutton identifies four “direct lines of connection” between the paganism of the past and the Paganism of the present: 1) high ritual magic; 2) “hedge,” or folk, witchcraft; 3) the general and continuing interest in the art and literature of the ancient world; and 4) folk rites, such as those observed at seasonal festivals.

In his study of the pagan religions of the British Isles, Hutton observes that contemporary people know very little about the old pagan religions of the ancient British Isles (which are looked to as sources for much of modern Paganism). much information has been Demonstrated to be wrong or cannot be proved.

Contemporary Paganism makes little or no claim to represent ancient religions. rather, Pagans draw upon a heritage of history, folklore, mythology, literature, art, archaeology and even science fiction and fantasy to reconstruct the essence of ancient Paganism for contemporary interests and needs.

Three principles reflect the core beliefs of many Pagans:

Love for and kinship with Nature.

Pagans do not seek to dominate Nature, but live in harmony with it, revering the life force and the eternal cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Divinity is immanent in the realm of Nature, as it is in all things in creation. The planet has its own living consciousness. The cycles of Nature are celebrated in seasonal festivals (see Wheel of the Year) and Rituals are observed around the phases of the moon. many Pagans are environmental activists.

The Pagan Ethic.

“Do what thou wilt but harm none” is the same ethic as the Wiccan Rede. It places responsibility on the individual to develop self-knowledge and truth and express it in harmony with all things.

The Divine Masculine and Feminine.

Divine Oneness is expressed in the divine feminine and masculine, which engage in an eternal cosmic dance of creation. Pagans honours the “totality of divine reality,” which transcends gender and does not suppress either the male or female aspect of Deity. The aspects of Deity, expressed through many gods and goddesses, are for many practitioners real beings who share the world with human beings. The divine is also expressed in the forces of nature and within individuals.

Most Pagans believe in the “threefold effect,” which, like the Witches’ Threefold Law of Return, holds that an individual’s actions are returned to him or her magnified three times. Rites of Passage are an important part of Paganism. most believe in some form of Reincarnation.

There are dominant traditions within Paganism, but as a whole the movement has grown increasingly eclectic. As mentioned earlier, Witchcraft is the largest tradition. Among others are:


The second largest tradition within Paganism, Druidry is oriented around the Sun, as opposed to the moon for Witchcraft. Little is known about the Druids of antiquity, who apparently were the priestly caste of the Celts. The romans annihilated them. In the 18th century in Britain, a revival of interest in Druids produced various ceremonial orders that purported to reconstruct Druidic rites. Contemporary Druidry is also a reconstruction.

Some orders of contemporary Druids are divided into the three orders of antiquity: the Bards, or poets; the Ovates, or seers: and the Druids, or priestly politicians. The tradition is reconstructed from Celtic rites and the ancient bardic tradition of preserving laws, myth and culture in poetry and storytelling.

Contemporary Druidry is both esoteric and exoteric. It does not recognize a creator; P. E. I. Isaac Bonewits observes that the universe “just is,” and no one know where it came from or why. One of the primary purposes of Druidry, and of Paganism in general, says Bonewits, is to save the planet by making people more ecologically responsible.

Not all Druids consider themselves Pagan; some are decidedly Christian and see Druidry more as a philosophy and way of life rather than a religion. Non-Celtic traditions have been absorbed into Druidry (as well as other Pagan traditions), such as Native American sweat lodges, shamanic journeying, Eastern meditation and kabbalistic teachings.


A group of traditions identified particularly with Germanic and Scandinavian traditions. Among the best-known are Odinism, Northern Tradition, Asatru and Vanatru. Deity is recognized in its personifications from northern mythologies. The Aesir are the deities of the sky and the Vanir are the deities of the Earth. The runes are an important tool for accessing the mysteries. Some Heathens prefer not to blend elements of other traditions with the Northern cosmology.

Men’s and women’s mystery traditions.

Numerous groups pursue self-knowledge through the mysteries surrounding the Goddess and Horned God. They offer initiations drawn from antiquity, such as the rites of Mithras or the rites of Isis, perhaps combined with magic. The most prominent of the women’s groups are Dianic, named after the independent goddess Diana. They are inspired by the ideas of matriarchy and feminism.


Shamanic traditions and paths are attracting increasing numbers of Pagans who desire direct contact with the spirit world achieved through altered states of consciousness. Healing is especially important in Pagan Shamanism.

Though diverse, Pagan traditions share many common values and practices. Diversity is important, and Pagans tend to be more open-minded than the general public on such topics as gay, lesbian, bisexual and group marriage lifestyles. Pagans value sensuality and sexuality as part of their spiritual experience.

Pagans are more open to paranormal experience, and more likely to have paranormal experiences than the general public. For Pagans, all things are interconnected; there is no such thing as random coincidence.

Freedom of choice in spiritual pursuits is highly valued. many Pagans are ambivalent about Paganism becoming more socially acceptable in the mainstream. On one hand, it means less prejudice and harassment. However, many Pagans feel that mainstream acceptance will dilute Paganism.

Magic is not practiced by all Pagans, but when it is, it is emphasized as a force for healing and benefit, not for harm. much of the magic practiced emphasizes self-realization rather than spell-casting.

Rituals vary, but share some common elements drawn from English-based magical practices, such as the uses of ritual tools, the casting of MagicAl Circles, the drawing down or evocation of spiritual power, and so forth.

Paganism continues to flourish, as first-generation Pagans have children who opt also for Pagan paths. As in Witchcraft, there are tensions and debates over such issues as to how much institutionalization and structure are desirable; whether or not a professional priesthood should be created; whether or not it is appropriate for spiritual teachers and students to engage in sex; and how to raise Pagan children. Many Pagans see Paganism as “the” religious calling for the 21st century. Most mainsteam people, however, prefer religion with structure and orthodoxy—the very antithesis of Paganism.

Trends include

• An increase in the visibility and social acceptance of Paganism

• An increase in Pagan scholarship and academic studies

• An increase in high-profile Pagan professionals and artisans, who are creating a substantial body of Pagan literature, art, film, performing arts and music with mainstream appeal

• An increase in Pagan journals, books and information (including on the Internet) for dissemination to the public

• An increase in social services tailored especially for Pagans

• An increasing willingness to legally fight discrimination and harassment

• The development of a body of standard Pagan rituals and rites of passage

• An increase in religious freedom networking and interfaith dialogue

• An increase in the number of cross-tradition Pagan festival gatherings and Pagan representation at international congresses of religions.

See Also :


  • Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1986.
  • Berger, Helen A., Evan A. Leach, and Leigh Shaffer. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Crowley, Vivianne. Phoenix from the Flame: Pagan Spirituality in the Western World. London: Aquarian, 1994.
    ———. Principles of Paganism. London: Thorsons/HarperCollins, 1996.
  • Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
  • Harvey, Graham, and Charlotte Hardman, eds. Paganism Today. London: Thorsons/HarperCollins, 1996.
  • Hopman, Ellen Evert, and Lawrence Bond. Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans and Witches Today. rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 2002.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991.
  • Kemp, Anthony. Witchcraft and Paganism Today. London: Michael O’mara Books, Ltd., 1993.


The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.