Pagan beliefs: nature, druids and witches
Almost 57,000 people in England and Wales identify themselves as Pagan, according to the 2011 census, making Paganism the largest non-mainstream religion. In addition there were nearly 18,000 Druids, Heathens and Wiccans – all groups which are identified as Pagan.
Paganism is best described as a group of religions and spiritual traditions based on a reverence for nature.
Like Hinduism, there is no single founder, scripture or religious philosophy. Most Pagans, however, believe in the divine character of the natural world and Paganism is often described as an “Earth religion”.
“Paganism is a spiritual path to some, a religion to others, that helps people to reconnect with the natural world, their ancestors, and the Otherworlds of myth and folklore,” said Damh the Bard, of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (Obad) – one of the UK’s largest organised Pagan groups.
“Many people currently feel disconnected from the natural world and are seeking spiritual paths that help to bridge that disconnection,” he added.
Druidry is just one tradition in a religion which covers many different beliefs. The neo-Pagan community encompasses Shamans, Sacred Ecologists, Odinists, Heathens and Wiccans – or Witches.
And it is perhaps this final group, with its strong imagery and practice of witchcraft, which explains why Paganism is often identified with the so-called “dark side” of the occult.
‘Good’ v ‘bad’ spells
“Paganism has nothing to do with dark magic rituals or sacrifices – it’s a faith in nature-based deities,” said David Spofforth of the Pagan Federation, a group which aims to promote accurate information about their beliefs.
“They [Wiccans] do things like spells and collecting herbs – but these things are not much different from prayers. The occult is kind of like witchcraft, but the issue is the connotation that you place on it.”
There is often a difference in people’s minds between so-called good and bad witchcraft. Part of the federation’s work is to counter “sensationalist” stories of the occult, said Mr Spofforth.
“A good spell or ritual is a spell or ritual that has an effect on yourself, while a bad spell affects someone else. However, intention is the key. If another person specifically requests a spell, it’s OK.
“Uninvited witchcraft is generally frowned upon.”
In around the 16th and 17th century, a period of religious upheaval, a belief in witchcraft was widespread and equated with evil and black magic, notably the Pendle Witch trial.
Wicca, Witches and Witchcraft
Wicca honours the Divine in the forms of the Triple Goddess, whose aspects of Virgin, Mother, and Wise Woman or Crone are associated with the waxing, full and waning phases of the Moon, and as the Horned God.
The origins of religious Witchcraft lie in pre-Christian religious traditions, folklore, folk witchcraft and ritual magic.
Most modern witches, however, draw their inspiration from the “Book of Shadows”, a book of rituals and spells compiled by of one of Wicca’s major figures Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964).
Gardner met and was in part influenced by the controversial and well-known British occultist Aleister Crowley (pictured), who is however associated with the darker side of witchcraft, having mixed the occult with drug-taking and sexual practices.
Accusations of witch-craft in this period of time were often associated with devil-worship and Satanism. Witch-hunts were used to target any heretical (non-mainstream Christian) beliefs. Victims were often accused of debauched practices and transformation (turning into animals) as well as communion with evil spirits.
As late as the early 18th century, there were cases of people being tried and executed. But the era of witch trials ended with the Witchcraft Act (1735) which made it illegal to claim magical powers or to accuse anybody of being a witch.
This was superseded by the Fraudulent Mediums Act (1951) which made making money from claims of magical powers illegal except for entertainment.
Wiccans are a distinct religious group who do not practice black magic or devil worship.
Ancient roots, modern philosophies
The word pagan has meant many different things to many different people throughout history.
Before the advent of the neo-pagan movement, it was used to describe the usually polytheistic (belief in many gods) pre-Christian folk religions of Europe and the Middle East.
It was often used as an insult and a catch-all term for those who did not follow the three main Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) throughout the medieval and renaissance periods.
The modern pagan movement has its roots in the early and mid 20th Century and came on the back of a wider interest in occult theology and spiritualism.
But despite its ancient origins, the Pagan community has historically struggled to get religious recognition. A turning point came in 2010 when Druidry, part of the Pagan community, was officially recognised as a religion by the Charity Commission.
“The Druid Network getting charitable status was a big step in the right direction as far as that recognition is concerned,” according to Damh the Bard.
Established in 1964 by Cambridge academic Ross Nichols, the Obad movement now has 5,000 members and has been key in the revival of interest in Celtic Spirituality and Druidry in modern times.
Diverse faith and worship
While not all Pagans worship in the same way, many observe key festivals associated with the seasons. The most important are the shortest day of the year – the Winter Solstice in December – and the longest – the Summer Solstice in June.
Pagan ritual and ceremony
- Pagan ceremonies are usually outdoors and begin with the marking out of a ritual circle – a sacred space symbolising equality and eternity
- A Pagan wedding is called a Handfasting.During the ceremony the couple’s right hands are bound together before swearing their oaths
- Wiccan rites usually take place at night. The ritual circle is first swept with a broomstick or besom to purify it
- Wiccans also use a wooden wand or a black-handled knife known as an athame to symbolically seal the space
- Among the main Heathen rites are symbels, a ritual drinking ceremony in which one or more drinking horns are filled with mead.
Despite the diverse range of beliefs, connection with the natural world is a key, uniting theme, among most Pagans. Ritual is designed to make contact with the divine in the world that surrounds them.
There are no modern Pagan buildings and most Pagan rituals – collective and solitary – are conducted outdoors.
Some ancient sites, like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, are important gathering points for many Pagans at important festivals like the Solstices.
But, according to Damh the Bard, Pagans do not consider this lack of central meeting place a problem.
“As well as monuments built by our Pagan ancestors like Stone Circles and Long Barrows, Pagan temples are places of natural beauty – woodlands, the seashore, the high mountain.”