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What’s a Pagan?

Is it someone who worships nature, is it someone immoral or uncivilised, is it someone to be afraid of? What’s a Pagan, in the 21st Century, really?

Definition of Pagan

Most simply: a Pagan is someone who practices the religion (or spirituality, if you prefer that word) of Paganism.

In brief, Paganism is a belief system based upon nature worship and ancestor veneration. Pagans believe that the natural world is sacred and that humans are part of it.

We do not worship one God over another; rather we believe in many Gods (polytheism). A Pagan might revere the sun, moon, trees, rivers, mountains, animals, birds, wind, fire, water, earth, plants, or the stars.

In classical antiquity, the term referred to those living outside the city walls of Rome. Today, the word can refer to anyone who adheres to an earth based spiritual belief or practice.

Historical Paganism

The word Pagan derives from the Greek pagōnótos, meaning “a foreigner”, literally meaning “one without God”. In Ancient Rome, the cognate Latin word pāgēns became popular among Christians to refer to those who had rejected Christianity. Early Romans may have referred to those they viewed as uncivilised using the term pagani, meaning “country dweller”.

When we ask “what’s a Pagan?”, we have to note that classical usage was picked up by the Early Modern English language, where the word Pagan came to mean “an outsider, especially a heathen”. The earliest known use of the word in this sense dates from 1590.

There are many cultures globally which have not historically, or still do not, conform to the colonising Christian worldview of ‘civilisation’, and practice animistic forms of spirituality which could be viewed as Pagan. We do note however, that they probably wouldn’t use the term Pagan to describe themselves. 

Do Pagans Still Exist?

In modern times, the word Pagan has been adopted by some spiritual groups, particularly Heathens, Wiccans, Druids, and other New Agers, to refer to members of their respective traditions.

For example, the word is commonly employed by practitioners of Neo-Pagan religions to identify themselves as opposed to adherents of more mainstream Western religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism.

However, many Pagans do not consider themselves part of a Neo-Pagan movement, and prefer to be called simply Wiccan, Heathen, Druid, etc., rather than Neo-Pagan.

Neo-Paganism is often associated with organisations and groups that formed from romanticised notions of a rosy distant past, with very little grounding in actual history or the cultural traditions often still in use by the people of the Gods they claim to worship. There is a rather glaring issue with cultural appropriation bedded in to many Neo-Pagan practices. When asking “what’s a Pagan” there is perhaps a distinction to be made between these Neo-Pagan groups or individuals, and other contemporary Pagans who may be working to reconstruct or revive a practice more closely aligned to authentic native traditions, respectfully.

There are modern Pagans who do not class themselves as part of the Neo-Pagan movement for this reason, rather seeing their practice as connected to, if not descended from, their own ancestral cultural and spiritual traditions from pre-Christian times. Examples would include Native American Pagans, Irish Pagans, Hellenistic Pagans, and those of Slavic Native Faith, among others.

(The Irish Pagan School is an example of this.)

Is Pagan a Derogatory Term?

The perception of Pagans as hedonists and materialists was largely due to Christian attitudes toward Paganism, which had been influenced by the early church fathers. Colonial mindset also had a very large part to play in branding native religious beliefs and practices as ‘savage’, ‘immoral’, or ‘uncivilised’.

Christianity was often presented as a religion of morality and asceticism, while Paganism was seen as immoral and focused on pleasure. This view was expressed most clearly by Augustine of Hippo, who wrote against Pagan practices such as gluttony, drunkenness, lust, and gambling.

In addition to being viewed as morally corrupting, Pagan practices were also considered dangerous because they could lead people astray and away from ‘the one true God’. For example, it was believed that the worship of nature gods led to idolatry.

In later centuries, however, Paganism began to gain respectability. Many scholars now believe that most ancient cultures practiced forms of animism, polytheism or Paganism, without necessarily identifying themselves as such.

In Ireland, those who remain influenced by the teachings of the Catholic Church may still use the word pagan as a derogatory term, often in ignorance and spite. There are also those of us who grew up hearing the representatives of that church vehemently decrying those who didn’t attend mass, or were acting in ways they viewed as immoral, as ‘pagans’… and now find it quite funny to use the term pagan ironically.

Either way, asking an average Irish person today “what’s a Pagan?” will garner you some odd looks.

What Do the Pagans Believe In?

Many Pagans today have no interest in reviving ancient polytheistic religions, but instead focus on developing their own unique spiritual path. So, some Pagans see their spirituality as a continuation of their ancestors’ traditional beliefs, while others see it as something entirely new.

Regardless of how one defines Paganism, there are certain commonalities between most, if not all, who identify as Pagan:

  • We believe that there is more than just our physical reality; that there is a spiritual realm where everything exists.
  • We believe in the existence of spirits or entities, both those who might be defined as ‘good’ in modern human terms, and those who would not.
  • Some of these entities are known as Gods and Goddesses, though many other types of spirits and entities exist too.
  • We believe that these entities can be contacted through prayer, meditation, ritual, and other means.
  • We believe that our ancestral past has left gifts and wisdom for us to rediscover, and we honour them when we can.
  • We believe that the world around us has its own spirit, and that we should live in harmony with it.
  • We believe that we are all connected to each other, that life is sacred, and that we should take care of ourselves, our communities, and the environment.
  • We believe that the universe is cyclical, and hope that things will eventually return to balance.
  • We honour the cycles of the seasons and the earth, of humanity and our human existence, of the sun, moon, and stars.
  • We believe that death is not the end, but rather a transition into another state of consciousness, form of energy, or rebirth to a new physical existence (transmigration of the soul).
  • We believe that magic is real, an energetic force, and that it is possible to harness and utilise this power for change.
  • We believe that we need to work together to make the world a better place.

Do Pagans Believe in a God?

The concept of the Divine is central to most modern Pagan belief. In some ways it is the core of what we call religion; it is the ultimate source of meaning and purpose. 

In the ancient world people believed in spirit beings called ancestors, spirits of nature like trees and rivers, entities which inhabited another realm but often crossed into ours (what we may know commonly as Fairies, though the terminology and forms varied significantly between cultures), and deities – the Gods and Goddesses. These were all seen as being separate from humans, existing independently of us, and having power over us.

Contemporary Pagans believe in much the same things, generally.

Belief in the existence of many Gods is called polytheism, and a group of Gods and Goddesses can be called a pantheon of gods, usually with each representing a different aspect of the divine.

Some Pagans believe that the Gods live in physical bodies, others view them as abstractions or archetypal concepts created and sustained by humans, while still others engage with them as autonomous non-corporeal spiritual forces or entities.

In short, yes, modern Pagans do believe in a god, or more often multiple gods, and may work with the deities of a particular culture or tradition such as the Norse Gods, or the Tuatha Dé Danann for Irish or Celtic Paganism. 

(More in our Article on Pagan Gods Here)

What Does Being a Pagan Mean?

Honestly, this is going to vary wildly from person to person, even those who generally follow the same type or path of Paganism.

Pagan traditions and practices vary greatly, as there is no central doctrine as such, and may include attending communal outdoor rituals, solitary meditations or contemplation, seasonal observations and alignment, building relationship with the ancestors or certain Gods and Goddesses, or the use of symbolism, talismans, and altars.

Pagan magic is not practiced by all who call themselves Pagan, but when it is done is aimed primarily at creating change within an individual and in the wider world through prayer, ritual, spells, and/or physical action.

To clarify a common confusion, the word Witch is often used to describe someone who has a magical practice, usually involving the casting of spells, to achieve specific goals. It does not necessarily mean that the practitioner is malevolent, nor does it imply that they are evil. Some Witches do indeed practice what is known as ‘black magic’, but many (or even most, in modern terms) do not. 

Paganism and Witchcraft are not the same thing: though many Pagans believe in and perform magic, it is not a requirement. Witchcraft is exactly that, a Craft, a practical skill set, and a Witch can be any religion, or none.  

What Does it Mean to be Pagan in the 21st Century?

Modern Paganism is one of the fastest growing religious movements today. In fact, some estimates suggest that there are over 10 million people worldwide identifying themselves as part of this movement.

While many Pagan groups tend to focus on celebrating nature and the Earth, others take their beliefs much further, focusing on spirituality, ethics, politics, philosophy and even economics.

Many Pagans reject all forms of organised religion, choosing instead to follow a personal path based on their own values. Still, many Pagans find common ground with those who choose to follow a different faith, as we do not proselytise or wish to convince anyone that our own beliefs are the ‘one true way’.

The diversity within the Pagan movement is vast. There are many different ways to practice Paganism. Some use rituals, spells and divination tools; others prefer to meditate, chant or dance. Some embrace nature and the Earth, while others focus on the spiritual side of life.

Those of us who publicly practice Paganism, or educate about modern Paganism, often feel we have a responsibility to our geographic communities, the countries we live in, and the world in general, to help make things better. Hence, conscientious activism, political education, and awareness of social issues, is relatively high among Pagans. 

There is a lot that is imbalanced, short-sighted, and unjust, about our world in the 21st Century, and many modern Pagans are doing what we can to correct that.

What’s a Pagan To Do Now?!

If you think that Paganism is interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always:

Visit the Irish Pagan School YouTube Channel

Or… Take a Free Class to Learn More!

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10 thoughts on “What’s a Pagan?

  1. I enjoyed this article very much. It can be confusing, often, as to “what’s what”. This article explains very well and concise, without being burdensome. Good writing!

  2. For me, this post is brilliant because I’ve always struggled to define what I’ve known intuitively. When I speak with my family or other non-pagans, I stumble over what it is and how it’s practiced; I don’t seem to be able to convey a cohesive understanding of what it is to be pagan. Thank you so much for providing me the tools to articulate this!

  3. I have to say what I think and feel. I’m against Traditional reconstructionsim, every Culture is a process, including stimuli, ideas and others elements, even people (by marriage, but not only). I live in Italy, Traditional reconstructionism in our country is involved with Nationalism and Fascism, and this is the main risk for each Traditional reconstructionism.
    So we should be able to distinguish, to separate new age light soup, in which everything is good for everything (….where yggdrasil can be a druidic symbol…..) yes, very well, …from the desire of purity (a false myth in human culture), of being in our own ‘pale’, stake, palisade. Lore grews in relationship -between past and present, here and beyond the water, Pre-celtic, Celts, Celti-iberians, Greeks, Roman, Scoti- Western Scoti, Christianity. We can chose to have a mixed spirituality, I’m afraid of walls, and National walls above all. The main issue is Respect. Respect the origin of what you chose to include in your ritual, or practice, respect the Lore you are using; know the God or Goddess you are calling. I know for experience what OBOD did to celtic lore…. not only cultural appropriation… it is academic falsification. But for this reason we should do not renounce to our cultural exchanges, which build traditions: not far from where I live there is a cave of Morgana (Morgan le fay), and it has been there for centuries, the minstrels sang Arthurian stories in Italy as elsewhere, and it has been there for centuries, country people simple believed it was real, it was their own. It is now part of our Lore.
    So, May our borders always be open to Lore, People, Ideas. Respectfully. Thank you.

    1. Nobody at IPS is renouncing cultural exchanges though. Everything we do is to open the door for those exchanges to happen respectfully, in a space that’s safe and protective for the native voices who want to have those conversations… so I’m a little unclear as to what what your point is?

  4. […] The Celtic Cross (sometimes called a Gaelic cross) is a powerful symbol that has been used for centuries, but its origin and meaning are often misunderstood, especially when it comes to the crossover of Christianity and Paganism in Ireland. In this blog post, we will explore the history of the Celtic Cross and try to answer the question: Is the Celtic Cross Pagan? […]

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