The word ‘pagan’ tends to evoke thoughts of witchcraft and spell-casting. However, this is not what true Paganism is about. Paganism is possibly the world’s oldest religion and most of the more prominent and accepted religions have their roots in Pagan practices. Hallowe’en and Christmas are two celebrations that have been adopted by branches of the Christian faith and are now indelibly linked with their beliefs. However, their beginnings have far more to do with Paganism than anything else. As a result, many Pagan celebrations and rituals are being upheld by people, who may believe that they are marking something else entirely. But what of Paganism itself? Is the world’s oldest religion making a comeback?
What is Paganism?
When people think of Pagans, they tend to think of the theatrical and atmospheric rituals and attire favoured by Wiccans. However, Paganism is a broad spectrum that covers many belief systems - faiths upheld by the Heathens, Druids, Wiccans, Odinists, Shamans and the Sacred Ecologists are all held under the umbrella of Paganism. However, Paganism began as a practical religion, rather than one developed to explain life’s mysteries.
Around 10,000BC man was still fairly primitive and, because they had to follow herds of animals to sustain their food supply, tribes were very nomadic. It is during this time that the men folk began to worship the sun. Its light allowed them to hunt their prey and its warmth sustained them. In addition, they will have been aware that the animals they hunted followed the sun, lending it special significance. The sun also came to be represented by the stag; a symbol of power and dominance. By contrast, the women worshipped the moon, realising that their menstrual cycles were somehow influenced by lunar phases. The moon became associated with the secrets of fertility and the mysteries of darkness.
Paganism and Christianity
Once man uncovered the secrets of farming and agriculture, he realised that he no longer had to be nomadic. Tribes found favourable places to live and settled there. However, many decided to travel farther afield and took their beliefs with them. Paganism spread across Europe, finding its way to Rome and Greece. The spread of Christianity was also happening around this time, intent on making itself the dominant religion in the world. The early Christians began by converting the rulers to their faith, setting them up as examples for the common folk to follow.
However, when some refused to follow, churches were built on sacred Pagan sites – often with Pagans forced to become part of the labour force. It is because of this that many Pagan symbols were worked into churches, as Pagans fought to keep their religion alive. The symbol of the fish, for example, so strongly associated with the story of Christ feeding the 5,000, is actually thought to have its roots as a representation of the womb or as a symbol of two overlapping crescent moons, representing a woman’s monthly cycle.
After the bloody witch-hunts of the Dark Ages, Paganism all but disappeared. With practitioners reviled as servants of the Devil and archaic laws outlawing Pagan practice well into the 20th Century, Pagans had to be very secretive in what they were seen to do and heard to say.
20th Century and Beyond
However, in the UK, when the witchcraft laws were finally repealed in 1951, a book was published that many believe opened the gates for Pagans. Gerald Gardner published his first book, ‘High Magick’s Aid,’ sparking a renewed interest in the belief. Such was the response that he released another, ‘Witchcraft Today,’ which exposed the myths and revealed the truth about Paganism in all its forms. With Paganists free to carry out their rituals wherever and whenever they liked, those who had kept their faith quiet slowly began to practice with greater freedom.
The Guardian newspaper estimates that, today, “there are more than a million people in the UK who share pagan beliefs, in one form or another, and there could be up to 60,000 druids.” With figures like that and people freely admitting their belief in this ancient religion, it is fairly safe to assume that Paganism is making a comeback.
A study in 1997 revealed that there were only 100,000 Pagans in the UK. However, in the 21st Century, The Pagan Federation has revealed that it is getting over 100 enquiries a month from potential new recruits. Kate West of the Federation believes that the rise in numbers is due to a different attitude towards religion as a whole. She says that: “Spiritually, people want more than the paternalistic ‘I will tell you what to think and what to do’ attitude. As a race, we are maturing. We want to make our own decisions about our own morality. We don’t believe in indoctrination.”
Paganism and Modern Issues
Kate’s words seem to have some substance; take a walk round any town in the UK and you’ll find a shop dedicated to Paganism. Often, these appear little more than shops where you can buy crystals and incense burners, but take the time to browse and you may find books on the subject and ritual paraphernalia, such as coloured candles, dried herbs, cauldrons and even hand-crafted wands.
Ronald Hutton, professor of history at the University of Bristol and acknowledged UK expert on Paganism believes that the religion is growing on popularity, because it addresses modern issues: “It gives a sense of connectiveness to the land and to our remote ancestors, both of which we lack in modern life. It is also feminist, in that it gives women at least an equal role, unlike most other religions. It is environmentally friendly and regards the natural environment as sacred. It has a powerful personal ethic, which could be described as individualism. It suits the free-spirited in that you don’t have to do much; it is a back-garden religion.”
Whatever the reasons may be, it is undeniable that people are swelling the Pagans’ ranks on a daily basis. Along with a return to old traditions and rituals, does this hint at a greater need for man to return to a simpler way of life, free from the shackles of the 21st Century?