by Natalie Winter
About the Author
I am a practicing Pagan Priestess and Hereditary Witch, now living in Devon and practicing the Craft with my handfasted life partner Heather. I have been involved with a number of organisations including inter-faith groups and Pagan conventions, and have often given talks to interested groups of non-Pagans. For many years I have studied and taught various aspects of the Craft including Earth, Healing and Prognostic Magic.
I am of Romani race and culture, and the female line of my family, from whom I inherit the Craft, are specifically Irish Romani, my ancestors having spent about 500 years in Ireland; therefore the Pagan path that I follow is essentially traditional Romani with a strong Celtic influence. In Romani cultural terms, I am what is known as a Chovahàni -- a hereditary witch, healer, practitioner of prognostic magic, wise-woman, tribal historian and folklorist, and my maternal-line ancestors have been Chovahània for many centuries.
What Paganism Isn't
Paganism is not Satanism, nor does it involve black mass, Devil worship, human or animal sacrifice or any of the other lurid but totally misleading images portrayed in the tabloids. The Devil, Satan and Hell are inventions of the Judaeo-Christian faiths, and Pagans do not believe in such entities. But Paganism has suffered from an 'image problem' for a long time, originally because early Christian missionaries deliberately discredited the old ways in order to push people towards their own ways, and this is the source of the confusion between Paganism and devil-worship and the totally false belief that Paganism and Witchcraft are evil. This belief was later reinforced both by sadistic 'witchfinders' during the Burning Times, for their own perverted pleasure as well as to make money (as they were paid by results) and then later by hellfire-and-damnation Christian preachers, and finally by sensationalist mass media. The overall result was a fog of misinformation and prejudice, plus the criminalisation of witchcraft, which was only repealed in 1951. As a result, Paganism and Witchcraft were kept hidden by their adherents for many years, and indeed, in the early years of the Pagan Federation, new members had to be vouched-for by established members and all meetings were held under cover identities such as folklore groups. More recently, attitudes have fortunately improved and it is now possible to be open about following a Pagan faith.
I would also argue that Paganism isn't really a 'religion' in the conventional sense -- I prefer to describe it as a 'moral philosophy'. I feel that this distinction is important: conventional religions tend to make the mistake of being highly prescriptive, telling their followers what to believe in a literalistic and rigid way that discourages people from thinking for themselves, causes moral and social stagnation, and presents mythology (which at best was allegory aimed at explaining the ineffable to pre-scientific people) as being the incontrovertible 'word of God'. Paganism is not prescriptive in this way.
Instead, Pagan morality is based on personal responsibility, free thought, and a duty to think for yourself within a basic moral framework. Pagan mythology is explicitly labelled as mythology, and never attempts to masquerade as literal truth. And above all, there is no formal 'church' or other authority to define what is or isn't official doctrine; it is often said that there are as many versions of Pagan belief as there are Pagans -- and I think that's the way it should be.
What Paganism Is
Pagans are followers of the ancient Earth-based faiths that existed long before Christianity. There are many branches of Pagan faith in existence, all with their own deities, rituals and principles; Pagan faiths are generally polytheistic (they recognise many deities) and are based around the cycle of the year. A common feature is a great respect for Nature and the Earth: in a very real sense, we were the first environmentalists.
Some Paths are truly ancient and have continued unbroken for 1000 years or more (examples include the Irish Pagan tradition, which descended ultimately from Celtic Paganism, continued unbroken in many parts of Ireland through the Burning Times, and which is now enjoying a new period of growth with the declining dominance of Christianity; also the Romani Pagan tradition that I follow, which evolved out of the Hindu faith that my ancestors brought with them from India some 1400 years ago into something uniquely Romani because of our experiences as a marginalised, nomadic people); others are basically reconstructionist, and are based on attempts to reconstruct old beliefs as faithfully as possible from what is known historically, and still others are syncretic, combining influences from many traditions and often with more modern ideas as well on freedom, morality and the environment. There has been a massive upsurge in the diversity and visibility of Paganism since the mid 20th century, with the decline of dominance of Christianity and people increasingly feeling alienated from capitalist-materialist society and feeling a need to reconnect with something deeper and more spiritual.
A key difference between Pagan faiths and many others is the concept of immanent deity: to Pagans, the Deities are not some unreachable, intangible and judgmental entities in some far-off 'heaven'; instead, they are immanent in Nature, that is to say they are part and parcel of the Universe, the Earth, its life and ourselves, and we are part of them, they are all around us and very much a tangible part of everyday life. Although Pagans generally do believe in a non-material or spirit world, it is not considered to be remote from the everyday material world but instead to be directly in contact with it, overlapping with it, and strongly influencing it.
Paganism as a whole is a very inclusive faith: within its many paths, there is something to suit almost everyone. Being a traditional faith, Pagan paths tend to be tied to their places of origin. So traditional Celtic and Saxon Paganism is very widespread in the British Isles, as is the Norse tradition brought by the Vikings, but many other paths flourish here also, as diverse as Isian (an Ancient Egyptian based path) and Native American.
Many Pagans practice their faith alone, as solitary practitioners, or with their partner or family, or in small groups (covens); some follow Hereditary (family) paths, a few of which, as my own has, have survived for many centuries.
The following, more detailed, description of Pagan beliefs aims to be as independent of Path as possible, so I'll use the most common names for festivals found in the British Isles -- but obviously there are variations between Paths.
There are two basic commandments or concepts to establish the moral framework of Paganism and Witchcraft, which are nevertheless very comprehensive. The first, which I will call the Law of Witchcraft, a fairly literal translation of the Romanes term chovahàniaki liri, but is often called the Wiccan Rede in English (literally the governance of the Witches), can be best stated as "Do no harm to anyone; do good where you can; and beyond that, do what you will"; the second, the Law of Karma, simply says that anything you do, good or bad, will come back to you; in some traditions this is expressed as the “Threefold Law”, saying that any good or bad you do will come back to you three times over.
Footnote 1: “Ownership” of the term "Wiccan Rede" is often claimed by the followers of Alexandrian or Gardnerian Wicca or their offshoots; however, these Paths were only established in the 20th century, and the phrase pre-dates them by many centuries. Wicca is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning witchcraft and dating back well over 1000 years, while rede is likewise Anglo-Saxon and simply means governance or rules; therefore I do not feel that it is reasonable for a 20th-century path to claim exclusivity of usage of such long-established terms.
I should stress that in at least some cultures, my own (i.e. Romani) for example, that the general guiding principle of “if it does no harm, do what seems right to you” only applies to witchcraft, not to life in general -- there may well be other cultural rules that apply, and my own culture, being Indic in origin, is actually rather conservative and strict in many ways compared to more typical liberal Western Pagan ways.
All Pagans recognise two principal deities, the God (Father Sun) and the Goddess (Mother Earth); they are known by many names in different traditions, but they are considered equal in status: Paganism respects the balance of the sexes and the importance of the feminine principle, unlike the more conventional religions which are mostly very patriarchal.
The Goddess has three aspects, or faces: the Maiden (youth, growth and the promise of fertility to come); the Mother (fertility, the giver of life; also, in many traditions, a protectress) and the Crone (wisdom and maturity). The God, likewise, can be seen in different aspects: the hunter, or the hunted; the giver of strength, or of death. Throughout Pagan belief, the balance between positive and negative, life and death, masculine and feminine, is fundamental. This is known as the Principle of Duality (or Polarity).
Most Pagan traditions believe in reincarnation, with a purpose to each lifetime. Respect for all living things is also a prominent feature -- different paths carry this to different levels; for example, I am a strict vegetarian but many Pagans are not.
We also use magic of various sorts quite routinely, both in our rituals and as part of our everyday lives. Many of us have psychic gifts, for example being able to see and talk to spirits, seeing auras, healing, predicting the future and so on. In Paganism, direct contact with Deity and the non-material world is considered quite normal; we do not need a hierarchy of priests to communicate with our deities (this is to a large extent a consequence of the immanence of deity in Nature).
Paganism is traditionally strictly non-hierarchical and, as a rule, the passing-on of knowledge is done informally rather than by progression through a formal series of grades or levels. Since the mid-twentieth century, some non-traditional variants of Paganism have arisen which seek to emulate a Christian-style formal hierarchy of levels and progression, but to me (and most other traditional Pagans) this approach loses the very liberalism and the intimate personal relationship with the transcendent that sets Paganism apart from other faiths.
Paganism and Witchcraft
There is often some confusion between Paganism and Witchcraft. Many, but not all, Pagans are also Witches. Witches may not necessarily be Pagan, but most commonly are. Anyone who shares the basic beliefs of Paganism is considered to be Pagan, whether or not they practice Magic (often known as The Craft). A Witch (who may be male or female) is a practitioner of Magic, which has been described as "the art of changing consciousness at will".
Part of Magic is indeed changing one's own consciousness. At a very simple level this may simply involve 'switching on' one's natural ability to perceive auras, spirits and the like. On a more sophisticated level, a Witch might connect her consciousness with that of a wild or domestic animal in order to see what it sees and go where it goes, or to 'read' another person's emotional state or even thoughts. And consciousness has the ability to subtly mould reality. It is entirely possible for a Witch to affect the weather, other people's moods or state of health (the basis of Healing Magic), or to divine or even to influence the most likely course of the future.
With experience, a Witch can tap into Mother Earth's own magical energy, the combined life-force of every living thing on the planet, and use this as she sees fit. Groups of Witches may well come together to multiply the effect of their Magic; a particularly good example of this is the annual Earth Healing Day, where Witches and Pagans all over the world come together in groups to use Magic and prayer to try to heal the Earth's environment from the damage caused by humankind's excesses.
The Right-Hand and Left-Hand Paths
The popular concept of Black or White magic is very misleading, and Witches and Pagans avoid using those terms -- especially as the vast majority of Magic is, in itself, morally neutral, like electricity. Just as electricity can be used to run a life-support machine or an electric chair, so Magic can be used for good or evil.
So we refer to morally-correct, 'good', use of magic as the Right-Hand Path, and to morally-reprehensible use of magic as the Left-Hand Path. Any true Witch will, of course, hold strictly to the Right-Hand Path and use Magic with the greatest care and in accordance with the Law of Witchcraft; and the Law of Karma ensures that any Left-Hand Path use of Magic comes back very heavily upon the practitioner.
Although most types of Magic are basically morally neutral and it's how the magic is used that matters, there are a few types of Magic that are intrinsically 'Left-Hand' and have no place in the Craft: these include coercive magics and especially death magic (such as so-called 'sacrifices', and magics aimed at causing death), which have no use other than for doing harm.
I have just occasionally heard it claimed that, because of the Principle of Duality, it is appropriate to study and practice Left-Hand as well as Right-Hand uses of Magic. This is simply not so, is directly in conflict with both the Law of Witchcraft and the Law of Karma, and anyone making such an assertion does not deserve to be called a Pagan.
Footnote 2: Note: I should stress that the meanings of the terms left-hand and right-hand used here are not the same as the meanings that those terms have in the Tantric and Dharmic traditions, and this has sometimes caused confusion. In the context of my own Path, the problem is largely a linguistic one: in the Romanes language, the term tatcho drom (right-hand path) has the same ambiguity as the word "right" in English does, in that tatcho can mean "right" as in "right hand" or "right" as in "correct"; but worse, bango drom (left-hand path) has exactly the same ambiguity because in Romanes, bango can mean either "left" or "wrong" -- so arguably, the Romanes terms have nothing to do with "handedness", merely with right and wrong. Since there has historically been a great deal of Romani influence on Western Paganism (for instance the entire practice of Handfasting as well as specific rituals such as jumping the broomstick and tying the wrists all came into Western Paganism from Romani culture), it seems likely that the peculiarities of my native language are the source of this usage, which is practically universal amongst Western Pagans.
Paganism and Sex
This is an area where misunderstanding of Pagan beliefs has always been particularly prevalent. Since Paganism is a nature-based faith, based around the cycles of Nature, fertility and reproduction (whether of crops, animals or humans) are important. Paganism regards sex and reproduction as a natural part of the great cycle of life, and as such it is sacred and joyful, not something dirty or shameful.
This does not mean wild orgies, sexual abuse or anything else of the sort. Sexual abuse of any sort is a most fundamental violation of the basic morality of Paganism and would never be tolerated. But a joyful act of love between two consenting adults is a celebration of Nature and of the Goddess. And similarly, the birth of a child is cause for great joy and happiness.
Pagans practice marriage, which we call Handfasting. Traditionally, a couple are initially handfasted for a year and a day, as a sort of trial period to ensure that they are compatible. At the end of that time, they may renew their vows, or may dissolve the union with no guilt attached. The renewal might be for life, or even for 'this life and all future lives', but many traditions also allow a further fixed period, or the option of 'as long as love shall last'. This means that the marriage can be dissolved by mutual consent, a much more civilised alternative to a possibly acrimonious divorce.
Almost all paths accept lesbian or gay relationships on an equal footing to heterosexual ones, and allow handfasting. Mutual love between two people is sacred, irrespective of the sex of the people.
The Elements, the Pentacle and the Circle
In addition to the Goddess and the God, the five classical Elements (Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Spirit) play a major role in Pagan ritual practice -- to the extent that the Pentacle, the universal symbol of Pagan faith (illustrated above), is a representation of them. The Pentacle is always displayed 'point upwards', denoting the supremacy of Spirit over the four material Elements; displaying it 'point downwards' would represent a negation of all that Paganism stands for and a triumph of materialism over spirituality, in a similar way that an inverted crucifix is taken to denote a complete negation of Christian values.
The five Elements are each considered to bring specific attributes to magical practice, and are used together to cast and protect a sacred Circle for ritual and Craft work. Because the four material Elements correspond to the four points of the compass when casting a Circle (Air at East, Fire at South, Water at West and Earth at North), while Spirit is placed in the centre of the Circle since Spirit is at the centre of all Pagan practice, the practice of invoking the Elements is sometimes known as "calling the Quarters" -- even though there are five of them.
A Circle is always cast in a clockwise direction (sunwise, or deosil in Celtic traditions) and dispelled in an anticlockwise direction (counter-sunwise, or tuathal in Celtic traditions).
A sacred Circle provides a safe and protected space in which to conduct ritual or magic, and is not merely symbolic; a properly-performed Circle casting is an act of the Craft in its own right, and if serious Craft work is to be performed then it is vital that the Circle be constructed properly for the safety of the practitioners. Protection, whether of a Circle, oneself, one's home or anything or anyone else, is one of the most fundamental and important skills of the Craft, and it is vital to learn how to apply protection properly in different situations before moving on to any more advanced forms of witchcraft.
The eight main festivals of the year are generally called Sabbats in English. Each one celebrates a particular phase in the annual cycle of Nature. They fall naturally into two groups of four, the Astronomical Quarters, defined by the solstices and equinoxes, and the Cross (or Fire) Quarters which fall between (or cross) each pair of Astronomical Quarters.
The Astronomical Quarters fall on essentially fixed dates each year, though due to the vagaries of the calendar the precise date of the relevant solstice or equinox may vary by a day or so either way.
The Cross Quarters were traditionally held when key events happened in Nature, and celebrated by the lighting of large fires, hence the alternative name of Fire Quarters -- though many traditions also light celebratory fires on the Astronomical Quarters! Modern, urban Pagans usually assign a nominal date to the Cross Quarters; in ancient times they would vary from place to place and year to year as weather conditions varied; some modern traditions now also define the Cross Quarters astronomically, typically as the midpoints between the adjacent Astronomical Quarters, just to maximise confusion!
The names given to the Sabbats vary somewhat between paths, but the meanings ascribed to them vary only little.
Samhain (Cross Quarter, Pagan new year), 31 October
Samhain traditionally marked the time when animal herders brought their livestock down for the winter, commonly at the time of the first frost. It was adopted as Hallowe'en or All Saints Eve in Christianity, and is the Pagan festival of the dead, the end of the year's life. It is emphatically not a time of horrors, but a joyous celebration of our Beloved Dead, our ancestors and departed friends. It is the day on which the Veil between the mundane and spirit worlds is particularly thin, and many practitioners receive visits from the spirits of the Dead and new spiritual insights from the Deities. It is also a celebration of rebirth that is to come, both in Nature and for spirits to be reincarnated. Samhain is both the end, and the beginning. It also marks the beginning of the Dark Time, the final stage of the Sun's descent into Winter; in many traditions, Witches born during the Dark Time (as the present author was) are considered likely to have particular gifts, generally in the more esoteric skills such as communicating with the dead and divination.
Yule (Winter Solstice), 21 December
Yule celebrates the rebirth of the Sun God, the ending of the Dark Time, as the Sun ends its descent and starts climbing again. The early Christians, of course, adopted it as the "birth of the Son of God", not very far removed from its original meaning. Christmas traditions such as decorating a tree, the Yule Log, kissing under the mistletoe and exchanging presents are in fact ancient Pagan Yule traditions, 'borrowed' into Christianity, as is the traditional Yuletide greeting of 'peace on Earth and goodwill to all'. Yule is a celebration of the new light of the reborn Sun.
Imbolc (Cross Quarter), 2 February
Traditionally marking either the birth of the first lambs or the flowering of the blackthorn, the name Imbolc probably derives from the Old Gaelic phrase i mbolc meaning 'in the belly' (i.e. pregnancy), though it may derive from a similar-sounding Celtic root word that means 'ritual cleaning' since Imbolc has a strong association with 'clearing out the old' and is even the origin of the secular British practice of 'spring cleaning' one's house. Imbolc celebrates the first shoots of new life, the beginning of Spring. It is also traditionally a time of making fresh starts, of sweeping out the old, in mundane or spiritual life. It also usually marks the time of sowing of grain, and some traditions will burn the corn dolly made the preceding Lughnasadh in the Imbolc fire, to release the spirit of the Corn King to inhabit the newly-sown crop. Another Imbolc tradition is the lighting of candles, each being dedicated to a particular spell or prayer, which was adopted into Christianity as Candlemas.
Eostra (Spring Equinox), 21 March
The Spring festival, celebrating the burgeoning life of the year as the days lengthen. The ancient Pagan tradition of exchanging decorated eggs at Eostra, as symbols of new life, has of course been adopted by Christianity in the form of Easter Eggs. Eostra has a traditional association with the hare, since hares appear in the countryside at this time of year, and this has become the 'Easter Bunny' of popular culture. Eostra is often used as a time to invoke magical healing to help the Earth and all its life, and to call for greater enlightenment for those members of the human race who fail to respect our planet sufficiently. Eostra is sometimes referred to as 'Ostara', though this name was constructed by the German writer Grimm in the 1840s and is not historically authentic.
Beltane (Cross Quarter), 1 May
Traditionally marking the blossoming of the hawthorn and the time at which animal herders take their livestock up to summer pastures, Beltane is a celebration of fertility and also of love, symbolising the culmination of the union of the Mother Goddess and the Sun God, which will bring forth the fruits of the year's harvest. Many present-day Mayday traditions, such as dancing around maypoles, have ancient Pagan roots. The maypole itself is, of course, an obvious fertility symbol. Beltane is the one Pagan festival not wholeheartedly adopted by Christianity, because its connotations of fertility and reproduction were considered improper.
Litha (Summer Solstice), 21 June
Litha celebrates the Sun God at the peak of his power, the culmination of his union with the Mother Goddess, and the anticipation of the year's fruitfulness to come. But Litha is not purely a time of fulfillment; at the same time, it is also a turning-point: from here on, the Sun God's energy is waning as the days start becoming shorter again, and foreshadows the autumn that is to come. It was Christianised into Saint John's Eve, mainly practiced in Scandinavia, although in this case the Christian disguise is very thin indeed, and the celebrations are still very obviously those of a Pagan fire festival.
Lughnasadh or Lammas (Cross Quarter), 31 July or 1 August
This festival has two common names: Lughnasadh means 'mourning for Lugh' (the Celtic Sun God), while Lammas (a more recent, Christianised name) derives from 'loaf-mass', meaning a celebration of the first bread baked with grain from the new harvest. These two names capture the meaning of the festival between them: a celebration of the beginning of harvest, and a mourning for the 'beginning of the end' of summer, as the Sun declines. Many traditions, especially in the eastern UK, take the first bunch of wheat harvested and make it into a corn dolly, which houses the spirit of the Corn King until the next crop is sown at Imbolc. The well-known folk song 'John Barleycorn' is a musical representation of this tradition, with fairly obvious and very ancient Pagan roots.
Modron or Mabon (Autumn Equinox), 21 September
This is the celebration of the completion of the harvest, and the origin of the Christian harvest festival. It is a time to give thanks for the fruitfulness of the season just ended, but it also represents a point of perfect balance between summer and winter and is therefore also a time of rebalancing in both mundane and spiritual life, of recognising that death must follow fruitfulness before life can begin again. It is also a time of thanksgiving for the spiritual advancement that we have received in the course of the year.
There are thirteen complete lunar cycles in a year. Many practitioners of the Craft perform Moon magic; the Moon is a powerful embodiment of the Feminine, partly because of her connection with the human menstrual cycle, and her phases are also seen to represent the three aspects of the Goddess, and can be used appropriately in Magic. Celebrations of the full moon are typically known as Esbats in English.
Moon Magic is a specialised branch of the Craft in its own right and some practitioners devote themselves almost entirely to its study and practice. Because the Moon has phases, Moon Magic is quite different to Earth Magic, giving the Moon a very different magical 'feel' and facilitating different types of Magic at different points in her cycle. For example, any Magic that is aimed at increasing or facilitating something is best performed when the Moon is waxing; any Magic aimed at banishing or removing a negative influence needs to be done when she is waning; while a Dark Moon works well for new beginnings' or cleansing, and a Full Moon works well for 'balancing at the point of power' or a power invocation such as an Initiation.
There is much more to Paganism and Witchcraft than can be covered in a brief article, and I have not even touched upon ritual tools, lesser deities, divinatory and predictive magics (which of course are traditionally closely associated with Romani practitioners such as myself) and many other topics.
Those interested in learning more would be well advised to contact the
, or to read Pagan Dawn,
the Pagan Federation's quarterly magazine. Many larger towns and cities have local
Pagan groups, many of whom hold open and informal get-togethers known as Moots (an Old
English word for 'meeting') on a regular basis, and of course there are now numerous
websites and Facebook groups as well.