Paganism for Beginners – Overview

I am Pagan. I am a part of the whole of Nature. The Rocks, the Animals, the Plants, the Elements, and Stars are my relatives. Other humans are my sisters and brothers, whatever their races, colors, genders, sexual orientations, ages, nationalities, religions, lifestyles. Planet Earth is my home. I am a part of this large family of Nature, not the master of it. I have my own special part to play and I seek to discover and play that part to the best of my ability. I seek to live in harmony with others in the family of Nature, treating others with respect. – Selena Fox

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania [free image from Pixabay]

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania [free image from Pixabay]

So, you have realised that you are a Pagan. You feel connected to Nature, or you read a book, or went to a Pagan festival, or went to a pub moot, and now you want to explore further. But where to start? Which are the best books, websites, organisations? How to find a reliable source of information?

I have realised that, despite all the many wonderful articles out there about Paganism, many of them assume a basic level of knowledge about Paganism, and if you don’t have that basic knowledge, it can be very difficult to know where to find it. What is self-initiation and why are so many people dismissive about it? What do Pagans believe? What is orthopraxy?

Add to that the fact that there are so many people on the internet who are willing to dismiss your hard-won insights, peddle pseudo-history, and claim that theirs is the One True Way, and it becomes very hard to sift reality from fantasy and find some people you might actually want to celebrate with. Plus the fact that we all spout jargon – though this is inevitable when we have a different way of looking at the world, and need the vocabulary to describe it.

So, this series will aim to provide a basic introduction to the Pagan movement and the various traditions within it, with links to resources, organisations, books, blogs, and websites. I will also provide a glossary of terms.

What is Paganism?

Many people have tried and failed to come up with a comprehensive definition of Paganism that includes everyone who identifies as Pagan – so the simplest explanation is ‘you are a Pagan if you think you are one’.

However, that is not very helpful if you are trying to work out whether you are one or not. You might be a Pagan if you agree with one or more of the following statements:

  • Deity
    • the nature of deity is unknowable
    • there are many gods
    • there’s a divine feminine and a divine masculine
    • there’s one god or goddess with many aspects
    • deity or deities is/are immanent in the world
    • there are many beings and spirits/wights
    • deities are archetypes (yes, it is possible to be an atheist and a Pagan);
  • The world
    • the physical world (this life) is just as good (or better than) the other planes of existence
    • the physical world is the the only plane of existence so let’s celebrate it;
  • The body
    • pleasure (sex/food/being alive/general pleasure) is good or sacred or life-enhancing;
    • the body is sacred;
    • same-sex relationships are just as valid as opposite-sex ones;
  • Nature
    • Nature / the Earth / the land is sacred;
    • life is less enjoyable if you don’t get a regular experience of nature in some form
    • darkness and death are not seen as negative, but part of the natural cycle
  • Magic
    • positive attitude to magic & ritual & arcane knowledge
  • The soul
    • reincarnation exists;
    • original sin (or similar concepts) does not exist.

Not all Pagans will agree on all of the above; that does not make them any less Pagan. Paganism is more of an attitude of mind than a fixed creed. It is always tempting to ask, “what do Pagans believe?” but a better question is “what do Pagans do?” That’s not to say we don’t need theology – of course we need theory to explain and underpin what we do – but we definitely don’t need dogma.

Paganism is an umbrella term for several different traditions, some of whose members identify as Pagan, and some of whom identify solely as a member of that tradition. It is also possible to be a Pagan without belonging to any particular tradition. However, most people find they want to meet other Pagans to bounce ideas off, and to celebrate the seasonal festivals with.

In future posts, I will look at the different Pagan traditions, Pagan values, and Pagan concepts. I will also do requests, so if you have a question or an idea for a topic, please leave a comment.

Further reading

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.  

A Dance of Impermanence: Introducing Myself in Two Chapters (Otherwise Titled, Why Am I Here and Who Am I, Anyway?)

“Theology, at the core, is an expression of our holiest experiences and our deepest knowing, integrated with the clarity and eloquence of the rational mind.”

Christine Hoff Kraemer, “Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue,”
Sermons from the Mound blog, Dec. 7, ‘12

 

Chapter One

I have described myself as “pagan” for years without really knowing what I meant. Or what the word meant. It occurred to me recently I should maybe learn a little more. So, this past semester I went back to school and took an introductory class on Pagan Theologies at Cherry Hill Seminary, taught by Christine Hoff Kraemer. I went into the class defining myself as a loose-ish, pagan-ish follower-ish of an undefined goddess figure, and I more or less believed that all the gods and goddesses are really archetypes—representing facets of the human experience, common to us all whether or not we are aware of them.

I changed my mind pretty quick when I was approached by Wayland the Smith, a more-than-mortal figure about whom I knew nothing.

*****

The dark river unloosed.
The bright-eyed bird sought rest
in pine trees full of a broken clock
music of grackles, ditches full
of the chonk-a-ree of redwings.
It’s a birdy world, a pratfall
of lost, pit of resist, as rinky-tink
meets honky-tonk, minister
meets medicine show meets last
night in the eyes and tempest
tossed. Comical and sad,
that glottal halt, salt water
taffy and the smell of lilac.
Listen. You can’t go back.
Fallen and falling like a waterfall,
the music that cracks
the sturdy little egg of the world.

(“Autobiographies”)

Raven Kaldera, shaman, priest and author, says, “You get the god you call.” Maybe, but I think I placed the call in my sleep. So now I’m learning as much as I can about polytheism and the Norse, or Northern, as I prefer, traditions that Wayland is part of, reading books and searching websites and trying to memorize the runes. Occasionally Wayland himself chimes in, telling me what he wants or giving me advice. He can be quite specific. Recently, he asked me to keep my eye out for a ceramic grail or goblet, bone-colored.

**

No, you know that’s not it. I want a goblet made of bone.

But where on earth will I find something like that? We’re at Sears. I see a white coffee mug and pick it up.

It’s $3.49, on sale, mass produced. This is Sears. Put it down.

I look sideways at him. You’re not going to be a cheap date, are you.

You have no idea.

*****

I could be more worried about undertaking a theological life journey with a largely forgotten deity who wants to wake up again, but I’m a poet. I figure it comes with the territory.

Who am I? Why am I here? Big questions—but inserting myself into an established blog space seems to demand some account of myself. My life, like this essay, is a patchwork of prose, poetry, daily life, spiritual musings, occasional interruptions and eruptions. Intro to Pagan Theologies brought me full circle to my life twenty years ago, an undergraduate majoring in Religion. I loved every minute of the Cherry Hill class. When it ended, I grieved a little and wrote in my journal, “I need community. I need adventure. I need a way to sink my teeth into life and not let go.”

And then Christine emailed, asking if I wanted to write for Patheos.

 

Chapter Two

 Okay, that’s a wrap. I think you’re in, kid.

But—

 No buts. You can do this. I could point to poems where you already have.
Write the shadows. Write the taboos. Write me.

 But—I’ll sound like I’m crazy.

Oh come on. Where’s your courage? Where’s your sense of adventure?

 Right. “Fear nothing.”

Fear nothing. Including ridicule. Remember, they laughed at me.

 Yes. Yes, I –I know that story.

I know you do.

 Your story. Wayland, lord, I—

Enough.

 

*****

 There’s one very, very old, relatively well-known story about Wayland from the source materials that have survived. As a writer, I can’t wait to wrestle it down onto the page in my own language. But before I tell someone else’s story, I need to be honest about my own. Who am I, then?

Self in the world is a kind of performance, an interpretive dance of at times painfully mundane movements. When I walk out my front door and wave to the neighbors, there I am: wife, mother of two, school and church and community volunteer. I have a book of poems, Somewhere Piano, published by Mayapple Press, a couple of smaller chapbooks. You can look me up any day of the week.

But that would be too simple, wouldn’t it. Shortly after Somewhere Piano was published, it became clear to me that my domestic and domesticated self had said all she had to say. She no longer held the pencil. I needed to find wilder fingers.

So, like Albus Dumbledore drawing his silver memories down into a pensieve, I turned myself inside out and drew out a new self:

Shadow, Sad Eye, Said I, Sadie
Daisy
Dicey, Doosie, Do See, Do Say, Ducet

I turned myself into a pun, a smile. A way to breathe underwater, created of shadow and possibility. I set myself dancing on the page.

***** 

Career suicide, conventional wisdom argued, aghast. Changing your name midstream.

I’m exploring unconventional wisdom. It’s my hope to touch in here every once in a while, to explore the connections between poetry, myth, Wayland’s story and my own wanderings and wonderings, and how it all relates to current events, life in this twenty-first century. Just like my favorite bread-and-butter pickle recipe, the Journey is “good alone or with somebody,” but I think it’s best when shared with others.

Unconventional wisdom keeps me in motion, dancing in the spaces between Sarah and Sadie, able to change, to disappear and then reappear, eyes a slightly different color than they were. Unconventional wisdom encourages me to imagine a person can be verb instead of noun. Truth lies somewhere between fictions. I would not posit this essay as truth.

*****

A book is a basket of deaths. Small ones.
A web with no spider (hide
her), this is the secret dilation,
the interior shore, a little
lagniappe, something more,
a dance for the sake of dancing.
Verse. Reverse. Press in, be pressed
upon and disappear. Address,
redress and put your clothes on, honey.
Embrace arrest. Treat and retreat. Flight
does not equal resist. This is
the walled garden, the invitation,
an intimate penetration.
Let’s not lie or cover over.
It’s sexy as hell, what’s going on.

(“Riff on the Definition of Poem”)

*****

This is the path I’m on, maybe not quite so rational in my approach as the epigraph by Christine would suggest—more of a perceived glimmer, a scent I follow down the road, trusting peripheral vision, sideways, sidewise.

The eyes in the greenery, wild, watching, just out of reach. Meet me there.

 

*All poems in these entries written by Sadie Ducet unless noted otherwise. “Riff on the Definition of Poem” is included, with a whole bunch of other lovely poems by many, many poets, in the 2015 Wisconsin Poets’ calendar, which is available for sale at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets website. 

A patchwork of ideas: introducing myself

img_1692

Photo by Bob

I have been a Pagan since 1985, when I realised that the various philosophical perspectives I had cobbled together for myself could be described as Pagan. This was a bit scary at the time, because I thought I was the only Pagan in existence; this was pre-internet and before I met other Pagans.

The philosophy I had patched together for myself was this.  I had decided that there was no external deity outside the universe, controlling it – how could there be when there was so much wrong with the world? I had decided that sexuality and the body are sacred. I had realised that Nature is full of divinity. And I had realised that if the world is going to get any better, it’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and do the work ourselves, not wait for some deity or deities to do it for us.

These realisations have formed the basis of my Paganism ever since. My emphases have shifted and changed from time to time, but these are my core values. I realised that the label “Pagan” best described my philosophy because I had read Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling.  It’s still one of my favourite books.

I also believe that we are not here to serve deities; we are here to work with them as allies to make the world a better place (for all its denizens, human and non-human). The deities need our finite, time-bound and local perspectives as much as we need their infinite, eternal and non-local perspectives.

In 1991, I became a Wiccan, and in 2007, I also joined the Unitarians. However, I have realised that it is too hard to follow two paths and do them both justice. I can only be fully part of one sangha (spiritual community), in one dharma (model of how the universe works), and in one tribe. Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, my tribe. I have learnt much of value from Unitarianism and will always value it. But I need the wildness and eros of Wiccan spirituality; it’s in my soul.

One of the reasons I looked elsewhere was the way in which much of the Pagan community is fixated on a binary gender model; a model into which I do not fit, and which makes me profoundly uncomfortable. The Pagan community is certainly not homophobic, but it can be decidedly heterocentric at times. However, this does seem to be changing – albeit with the slowness of glaciers.

I also affirm the idea that all religions are looking at the same underlying  phenomenon from different perspectives; and that includes Christianity. There is much that we can learn from Christian spirituality, even though we reject most of the theology. There are plenty of heretical and mystical ideas that have come out of that tradition which are worth investigating. Many Christians are now interested in these ideas, and in Pagan ideas too. It’s time for dialogue, not flinging stereotypes at each other.

My approach to Wicca (and that of many other Wiccans in the UK) is experimental and fluid. I think that every witch should build up their own Book of Shadows, not regard the text inherited from Gerald Gardner as some kind of holy writ. Wicca is not a religion of the book, and should not become one. Our “holy book” is Nature, not the Book of Shadows. I have other “heretical” ideas about Wicca, which will probably appear in subsequent posts.

And finally, I think that the basis of theology is relationships – our relationships with each other and the world around us.

Introducing “Sermons from the Mound”

In the summer of 2011, I visited the Irish passage tombs at Knowth and Newgrange. These enormous construction projects are over five thousand years old, older even than the Egyptian pyramids, and they most likely took several generations to build. Each tomb is a mound of earth supported by massive stones. In the largest mounds, a passage penetrating the side leads to an inner chamber, where the cremains of the dead were once laid. Mysteriously, around four thousand years ago, the builders of these mounds sealed the passages up and left the area.* In Irish legend, the mounds became passages between worlds, places where one could enter the realm of Faery.

Knowth - image by Günter Claßen. Image via Wikimedia Commons, CC license 3.0

Knowth – image by Günter Claßen

I love the idea of discussing Pagan theology at (or in, or on) a mound. For contemporary Pagans, the idea of entering a faery mound calls up the search for inner wisdom or communion with the primal powers of the land. The interior of a mound is a liminal and sometimes dangerous place to which one may return many times: either in search of new knowledge, or to make or strengthen relationships with spirits or deities. Yet the purpose of entering the mound is not to remain, but to return to the surface changed.

Interestingly, mounds are also places from which to survey the human realm. Atop the passage tomb at Newgrange, the view extends for miles: rolling hills, vividly green grass, the occasional sheep, and in this day and age, knots of colorfully dressed tourists. The mound provides a place of slight remove from the bustle of daily life, a windy perch from which one can gain perspective. The value of the mound is not just the chthonic journey below, but also the climb to the high places, places of clarity from which one might begin to speak.

In naming this blog “Sermons from the Mound,” I have all the puns you can think of in mind (yes, even that one). But I also want to invoke the idea of oral culture, in which knowledge was performed rather than simply being written down. Many Pagans dislike the entire idea of religiously-oriented public speaking because the word “sermon” is associated with a certain kind of Christian speech act:  an exposition of dogma, given one-to-many. Yet discussion and argument are key parts of speechmaking in oral cultures. Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” would have been a collective exploration of religious understanding facilitated by a knowledgeable teacher. That’s the kind of environment I hope to create, both here and in every classroom (in-person or virtual) where I gather with people earnestly seeking understanding.

It has often been said, usually by Pagans themselves, that there is little in the way of contemporary Pagan theology. Our theology is in a nascent stage, it’s true; and it’s also true that contemporary Pagans tend to emphasize practice over belief. But we are not entirely lacking in theology, nor is theology inappropriate to Paganism.

Theology arises at the interface of belief and practice, where belief informs practice and practice in turn inspires belief. Theologizing is an active process, something that every practitioner does, consciously or otherwise. Although many Pagans may be inclined, as Craft teacher Victor Anderson said, to “perceive first, then believe,” we do indeed have beliefs: models of ourselves, the world, and divinity in many forms. These models influence how we live our lives.

Eastern Passage, Knowth by Przemysław Sakrajda. Image via Wikimedia Commons, CC license 3.0

Eastern Passage, Knowth – image by Przemysław Sakrajda

This blog will explore contemporary Pagan theologies (because in such a diverse movement, how could there be just one?), as well as related views such as queer, feminist, and ecological theologies from other religious traditions. Along the way, I will also review books and essays on Pagan theology and scholarship and respond to literature and current events from a body-centered, Pagan theological perspective.

For me, the mound is an image that potentially unites two expressions of Paganism: both the inner journey into the dark, and also the story of that journey, shared with like-minded others as we sit in the sun-warmed grass. And though I would much rather have you join me physically on an Irish mound, I invite you to stop here a while to discuss your travels, to speak of practice and belief and the process that joins them.

Welcome!

 

 

* This departure may have coincided with an event, perhaps a volcano eruption or similar, that dimmed the light of the sun and stunted plant life for about a decade. From what I understood from my tour guide at Newgrange, researchers have based this theory on evidence from the fossil record.