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Paganism is a very diverse belief system. It has been said that there are as many Pagan belief systems are there are Pagans, and there is some truth to that. However, while Pagans do establish their own personal belief system, they also share some common precepts, although the younger generation of Pagans especially can be highly resistant to such profiling. Common themes include the reverence for nature or active ecology, Goddess veneration, use of ancient mythologies, the belief in magick, and often the belief in reincarnation.
The late 19th century saw a renewal of interest in various forms of Western occultism, particularly in England. During this period several occultist societies were formed such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis. Several prominent writers and artists were involved in these organizations, including William Butler Yeats and Arthur Edward Waite, and the famous (or infamous) Aleister Crowley.
Along with these occult organizations, there were other social phenomena such as the interest in mediumship[?], which suggest that interest in magic and other supernatural beliefs were at an all time high in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Some evidence suggests that returning colonials and missionaries brought ideas from native traditions home to Britain. In particular the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer[?]'s The Golden Bough (1900) was influential.
In the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the religious persecutions and Inquisitions of the medieval Church. Most historians reject Murray's theory, while accepting some parts of it. Although there were undoubtedly still some pockets of Pagan worship, it is highly unlikely to have existed on as wide a scale as Murray proposed.
This sparked interest reflected in novels by Mitchison ("The Corn King and the Spring Queen") and covens were created along Murrayite lines.
It is likely that this general atmosphere created the circumstances which were necessary for the rise of Wicca. At the very least, it was fertile ground for its introduction.
In the 1940s Gerald Gardner initiated into a New Forest coven led by ex-colonial women returned from India. Gardner had already written about Malay native customs and now wrote books about Wicca. The term "Wicca" is still used to refer to the traditions of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, or direct offshoots such as the teachings of Alex Sanders. In the USA Wicca is used loosely to equate with any form of Paganism, but British based Paganism uses Wicca much more narrowly, as Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca.
Wicca has been arguably the most well organised and influential form of Paganism until the mid '80s, justifying a tendency by some Wiccans to arrogance, expressed as claims to be the priesthood of the Pagan community. Other Pagan traditions do not see it so.
Paganism is sometimes referred to as the "Old Religion", a term popularised by Margaret Murray in the 1920s. Its use until the 90s drew on a dreamtime of underground European Paganism, and ancient Goddess religions. These models are now largely discredited, notably by Ronald Hutton, Bristol, UK, and claims are now more cautiously made to local folk healers/ small groups, and a plurality of ancient Goddess traditions among others, that served many social aims. However, while Pagans draw enthusiastically from old religious traditions, they also adapt them. The mythologies of the ancient civilizations are not generally considered to be literally factual or historical in the sense that the Bible is claimed historical by fundamentalists. Nor are they considered to be scripture, as Paganism specifically rejects the concept of scripture: they are not "People of the Book," and value oral and custom-based traditions.
The mythological sources of Paganism are many, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian and others. There is probably no significant mythology or religious tradition that has not been used as a source by some group at some time. Some groups focus on one tradition; others draw from several or many. All mythologies are believed to contain truth, seen from different perspectives, and most Pagans feel free to borrow or adapt from any tradition where they find it useful. For example, the Charge of the Goddess, a widely loved inspirational text by Doreen Valiente[?] used materials from the Gospel of Aradia' by Charles Leland (1901) , and Aleister Crowley's writings. It is commonly used to invoke[?] the Goddess, beginning with the words: "Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine[?], Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arionrhod, Brigid, and by many other names", showing a glimpse of Pagan eclectism.
Some Pagans also draw inspiration from external traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism and others. Since Paganism does not demand absolute loyalty or exclusivity, Pagans can and do practice other faiths in parallel.
Paganism is considered an "Earth-based" or "Nature-based" religion because it holds the Earth and all of Nature to be sacred. Some Pagans draw on more modern, or at least less ancient, religions that are also nature-based such as those of Native Americans and Africans.
Witchcraft is one specific Pagan tradition often referred to by its members simply as The Craft. Both women and men are titled as witches. Confusingly, the American usage makes Paganism and Wicca witchcraft broadly similar. British usage restricts Wicca to one form of witchcraft, the Craft as one among many forms of Paganism.
Adherents.com (http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents) estimates there are one million Pagans. It is necessary to define clearly who is included in any estimate, as Pagan could mean active initiates, or anyone who likes Tarot! Also there is a difference between Western (Neo) Paganism, technically a New Religious Movement (NRM), and worldwide Paganisms and neoPaganisms including all Native Traditions. This would be many millions, the vast majority of peoples, especially as it is only in Western and monotheist cultures that priests insist on an exclusive loyalty so multiple practice is elsewhere commonplace.
Most Pagans do not have distinct temples per se, usually holding rituals in private homes or sacred groves and other outdoor locations. There are no membership lists to consult, no formal records. Many adherents keep their faith secret for fear of repercussions. Many also practice their faith as "solitaries", and work within no fixed spiritual community.
However a UK study by Prof Hutton, Bristol compared numbers on membership lists of major organisations, attendance at major events, subscriptions to magazines etc and used standard models for extrapolating likely numbers. This has to estimate multiple membership overlap and number of persons represented by each person attending an event. This concluded at adherence of 250,000, roughly equivalent to the national Hindu community.
The Covenant of the Goddess (http://www.cog.org) conducted a poll of U.S. and Canadian Pagans in 1999 that estimated the population in those countries at 768,400 (see http://www.cog.org/cogpoll_final ). This would seem to support the view that there are at least one million worldwide. This poll was not scientific and represents a self selected subset of all Pagans, but it does provide some interesting insights that confirm what many Pagans have observed anecdotally. Some other statistics from this poll are:
While today's Paganism does continue many beliefs and practices of historical Paganism, including many of their Gods and Goddesses, it is in other ways different. Many Pagans believe that there is a single Divinity, a life force of the universe, who is immanent in the world. The various names and archetypes which they worship are seen not as truly separate individuals, but as facets, or faces, of something that is far beyond our human abilities to see, know, or understand. Rather than attempt to describe the indescribable, they approach the Divine through one of Her many aspects. This appears to be a genuinely new Pagan thealogy, as Hutton considers ancient Pagans did not see "All Goddesses as one Goddess; all Gods as one God."
For Wiccans, Divinity is definitely bipolar, Goddess and God, with many lesser aspects. For Heathens, Nordics, Celtics, Egyptians, and Greeks, divinity is polytheistic. For Druids and High Magicians there is an overall One but other divities are also recognised. For Goddess people there is Goddess, occasionally monotheistic, but often one and many which can be simultaneous.
Pagans celebrate eight major seasonal festivals, based on a fairly modern construction of the Celtic Year. Wiccans call them Sabbats. Each year's festivals are together called the Wheel of the Year. They are:
Please note: the above dates are specifically for the Northern Hemisphere - Southern-hemisphere wheels are generally moved 6 months along so the festivals remain consistent with the seasons.
Spellings differ slightly and most Pagans are becoming more flexible about dates, tending to celebrate at the nearest weekend for convenience. Christmas is usually celebrated in addition as a secular family festival, as is the calendar new year December 31 as a traditional party night. Druid and Heathen festivals have different names entirely. (Druids only name the "fire festivals" differently - i.e., all the equinoxes/solstices. The rest are the same.)
Most witches also hold smaller rituals, alone or with a coven, Lodge, or Circle, monthly, often at each full moon. Wiccans call these Esbats. Sometimes rituals are held at the dark moon as well. Moon meetings are working or study meetings as opposed to the festivals. Druids do not order their meetings by the moon but also hold regular working and study meetings.
A sect within Paganism is referred to as a tradition. There are many traditions within the larger world of Paganism, most of which are identified according to the pantheon they work with, or the founder of the tradition.
Some of the larger traditions of Paganism include:Wicca has several branches, which emphasize polarity, or working with both masculine and feminine forces. These are but a few of the many branches of Wicca.
Heathen to Neopagan and look upon their tradition as "not just a branch on the Neopagan tree" but as a different tree. Unlike Wicca, which has gradually evolved into many different traditions, the reconstruction of Asatru has been based on the surviving historical record; it has been maintained as closely as possible to the original religion of the Norse people.
Neopagans claim to have experienced discrimination in the United States based on misunderstanding of their faith. Neopagans as a faith community have occasionally retaliated with half serious language games such as the Wiccan terms "cowan" and "mundane" (not to mention growing use of the word "muggle"...) to describe a non-Wiccan, but generally, since the aim of their faith is not to displace or destroy others' faith, the attempt to derogate has not been established. It may also fail due to the unpleasant experience many Pagans well know of suffering social discrimination and risk due to frequent Christian construction of Paganism as evil, and there is little desire to copy that.
Most Pagans worship various Gods and Goddesses; some of them are from the same culture and others are not, while others believe in the deity within. The terms for worship are: animism, dualism, henotheism, monotheism, pantheism, polytheism, and autotheism.