At its broadest, Pagan religion can be defined as any religion that is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim, or even irreligious or hedonistic. (Dictionary.com). However, through common usage, the term has come to mean a practitioner of any earth-based or polytheistic religion. The less used (and marginally more accurate) term for this is "Neopaganism" or the "Neopagan Movement".
"Pagan" is closely associated, and often used interchangeably, with "Wiccan". However, the two words do not have exactly the same meaning. Wicca is a slightly more specific term, and has been in the news and public eye a fair amount in the past several years. Wicca is a somewhat formalized system of religion that follows a Neopagan framework, but not all Pagans are Wiccan.
I define Paganism as a religious or spiritual faith, primarily defined by respect for the Earth and the cycle of nature, with an understanding the mankind is an integral part of the natural order. A Pagan is someone who follows the beliefs of Paganism. These are fairy broad definitions. Each Pagan tradition varies in the way it treats these basic doctrines.
Traditions are the various "churches" of Wicca and may other Pagan religions. Each Tradition has its own rituals, initiations and opinions about how things "should" be done.
The Wiccan religion was first openly practiced in England in the 1954 by Gerald Gardner. It was spread into the US in the 1960s by Raymond Buckland, founder of Seax-Wicca. More details on the history of Wicca can found here.Being Pagan, rather than strictly Wiccan, I wouldn't want to speak too strongly on this matter.
There are two major branches of Wicca: Traditional and Eclectic.Traditional Wicca is a Mystery Religion, meaning that the deeper meaning of rituals and certain practices are hidden from the outside world. Most of the Traditional Wicca groups include a degreed initiation system, perform rituals skyclad, and worship both God and Goddess. Eclectic Wicca is harder to define, since the beliefs and practices are always subject to interpretation and alteration.
The biggest issue early Wiccans faced was a complete lack of knowledge of their faith by the general public. In the western world of the day, it was generally believed you where Christian, or you were wrong. Other faith generally didn't even enter into the equation. Even the Jewish faith was barely tolerated in most communities. The general public not only didn't know about faiths other than their own, they didn't want to know, and weren't given any reason to need to know.
Today's Pagan faces a different challenge. Rather than the uniformed ignorance of years past, today there is a massive amount of false and partly true information about the Pagan Religion in the media. I'm not talking about slanted documentaries that can be found on educational TV, although those can be bad enough. I'm talking about what movies and popular television are "teaching" people about Paganism through movies like The Craft and Practical Magic, and through TV shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I often say the trying to learn Magic or Paganism from these stories is like trying to learn Catholicism from The Exorcist and John Carpenter's Vampires. The image of Magic, Wicca and Paganism presented by Hollywood is very different than the way it is in the real world.
Rather than try to generalize about all Pagan faiths, I would like to tell you about my specific belief system. The system that my wife and I follow is called the Wolf and Raven Path. It is a form of Eclectic Paganism with many different influences. I started by learning about Wicca, but I do not limit myself to any one specific tradition.
I believe in a type of Polytheistic Pantheism. For those who are not aware, Polytheism is the belief in many gods, and Pantheism is the belief that the divine lives in everything. Many of my beliefs are primarily based on Wicca, but there are also many other influences.
I believe that there is a powerful force that exists everywhere in the universe. For the sake of convenience, I call this force the Essence. The essence is such a vast and intense presence that people lack the metal capacity to fully understand it, so they create see the essence in various aspects. These aspects are the Gods and Goddesses of the various religions.
This is not to say that these Gods and Goddesses don't exist. They do. They exist because people can manipulate the essence in order to effect reality. This is commonly called magic. Magic is a real, practical force in the world, and we all use it every day. Pagan Magic is nothing less than beliefs made real. I keep a collection of spells in something very like a Wiccan Book Of Shadows. Each new spell or ritual I perform is recorded there.
I celebrate pagan holidays based on the movements of the Sun and Moon throughout the year. This cycle of holidays is commonly called the Wheel of the Year. The holidays are described using the Wiccan terms Esbat and Sabbat. Esbats are ritual celebrations of the moon phases. These are performed on the nights of the full and, on occasion, the new moon. Sabbats are celebrations of the changing of the seasons. These celebrations happen eight times each year, in the beginning and middle of each season. Because they are based on the movements of the sun and moon, the exact dates of Esbats and Sabbats on the Pagan Calendar shift slightly from year to year
The Ethics of the Wolf and Raven Path include most of the Ethics of Wicca, such as respect for nature and personal responsibility for your own actions. I believe in Karma, the principle that what you do to others comes back to you. This is also sometimes called the Threefold Law. I believe in a modified form of the Wiccan Rede. This Pagan Rede is If you are willing to accept the consequences, do as you will. This is also partly influenced by the Discordian principle that the greatest weapon in the ability to say no and suffer the consequences. There is also an element of "Do no Harm" in the Wolf and Raven Path. This is understood through the principle of "As Above, So Below." This principle shows that everything in the universe is interconnected, so harm to any part of it is harm to all of it, including yourself and those you love.
Prayer in Pagan Religion should resemble a conversation between friends. In addition to prayer, meditation is often used to reach a deeper level of connection with the Earth and deities. Both meditation and prayer should be practiced regularly.
Although I do believe in reincarnation, I also believe that Karma happens here and now, not in some future life. I also believe that reincarnation is only one option after death. The deceased can remain here as earthly spirits (ghosts). There is also the Summerlands, a peaceful home for those who need a break from living. Ghosts and those in Summerland may choose to reincarnate if they so desire.
Please note: a Pagan Religion is not a cult. While some cults may use Pagan religions to draw in followers, NO cult is a religion. A cult is a single group, usually led by a charismatic leader, that acts as a barrier between the group and the outside world. The purpose of a cult is to enhance the leader, while to purpose of a religion is to enhance the individual.
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