The Pagan Federation Information Pack
ISBN/ 0-951-8493-3-6, 4th Edition 1996, Copyright Pagan Federation
- General information
- Traditions of the Pagan Religion
- Women’s spirituality
- Men’s Traditions
- Worship and Rites
- Seasonal Festivals
- The Wheel of the Year
- Recommended reading
Paganism has its roots in the ancient Nature religions of Europe. Pagans reverence the sanctity of the Earth, its peoples and other life forms. Paganism is a vital and living religion, main forms of which include Wicca (Witchcraft), Druidry, Heathenry and Shamanism. Every year all over the world more and more men and women are choosing to embrace the Pagan path as their chosen way to commune with the divine.
The Pagan Federation was founded in 1971 to provide information and to counter misconceptions about Paganism. Its aims are to provide contact between Pagan groups and genuine seekers of the Old Ways; to promote contact and dialogue between various branches of European Paganism and other Pagan organizations worldwide; and to provide practical and effective information on Paganism to members of the public, the media, public bodies and the Administration.
The Pagan Federation works for the rights of Pagans to worship freely and without censure. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Britain is a signatory, states:
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice worship and observance.’
The Pagan Federation publishes a quarterly journal, Pagan Dawn, formerly The Wiccan (founded in 1968), and other publications. It arranges members-only and public events, and maintains personal contact by letter with individual members and with the wider Pagan community. There is an annual conference and there are regional gatherings throughout the year. Membership is open to those 18 years of age and over who agree with the following three principles:
- Love for and kinship with Nature: reverence for the life force and its ever-renewing cycles of life and death.
- A Positive Morality, in which the individual is responsible for the discovery and development of their true nature in harmony with the outer world and community. This is often expressed as: Do what you will, as long as it harms none.
- Recognition of the Divine, which transcends gender, acknowledging both the female and male aspect of Deity.
Traditions of the Pagan Religion
The Pagan outlook is both new and old. New, because its respect for individual spiritual experience is unfamiliar to dogmatic religions and atheists alike; old, because apart from the more recent monotheistic religions it is the universal religion of humanity
The age-old Pagan principles of reverence for Nature, recognition of many divinities, and insistence on the importance of the Goddess, the female divine principle, as well as the God, the male divine principle, are found throughout the world. In the indigenous religions of Europe, those of the ancient Celts, Greeks and Romans for example, and in modern religions such as Hinduism and Shinto, the Pagan outlook can be seen.
Paganism has re-emerged in the modem west to fulfil some urgent contemporary needs. The presence of the Goddess and her priestesses has inspired many and reassured others in a world dominated only by masculine images of power and authority. Respect for the ways of Nature leads us not only to natural medicine and ecological awareness but to recognition of the many spirits of place and of the Earth itself seen as a single living organism, the goddess Gaia. Unity is seen in diversity, the responsible exercise of personal freedom and trust in the whole, allows us to recognize many divinities just as we recognize many people, each with their unique talents and liabilities, within the broad fellowship of humanity. Since there are many people and many deities, so there are many spiritual paths. As the Pagan senator Symmachus observed to the Christian Roman emperor: “One road alone cannot lead to so great a mystery.”
Modem Paganism is a religion of celebration rather than obedience; of joy rather than duty. We revel in the adventures of life and the challenges of the physical world. Paganism is not a religion of belief but of action and participation, from joyful communal festivals to the inner discipline of personal meditation. It is also a viable religion for a pluralist, multicultural society, and in this way it can lead us into the future. Paganism has become more self-confident and more self-aware over the 30 years of the Pagan Federation’s existence.
Pagans may be trained in particular traditions or they may follow their own inspiration. Paganism is not dogmatic. Pagans pursue their own vision of the Divine as a direct and personal experience.
The Pagan Federation recognizes the rich diversity of traditions that form the body of modem Paganism. In a brief introduction such as this, it is impossible to describe each and every one. Rather than attempt this, below you’ll find an introduction to six Pagan traditions:
- Wiccan / Witch
- Heathen: Norse, Northern Tradition, Odinism, Asatru and Vanatru
- Woman’s Spirituality
- Men’s Traditions
This is not an exhaustive list, but these six traditions provide a good overview of modern Pagan practice. Most Pagans call themselves simply: Pagans or Neopagans. Those whose orientation is towards the Great Earth Mother and the preservation of Her kingdom, our planet, may call themselves Ecopagans. Others may define themselves as followers of a particular Pagan tradition. Some may call themselves pantheists, meaning that they believe the Divine is immanent or in-dwelling in Nature.
People come to Paganism in many ways: through reading the myths of our ancestors; through experiencing a sense of the Divine in Nature – a feeling that spiritual forces inhabit the trees, forests, fields and hills; through an awareness that their inner response to the Divine is not to a male God but to a female deity the Great Goddess; or through participating, sometimes purely by chance, in a Pagan festival, ceremony, conference or workshop. This may be at some gathering formally designated as Pagan, or at some other event where Pagan celebration may arise spontaneously, such as at folk festivals.
There are no particular admission ceremonies which make people Pagans. People consider themselves Pagans if their beliefs match those of Pagan thought. Particular Pagan denominations may have entry through a ceremony of dedication, profession or initiation, but people can be Pagans without any formal rite.
Paganism is not administered by a hierarchical bureaucracy. The Pagan movement is made up of individuals and small autonomous groups linked by common traditions. Organizations such as the Pagan Federation serve to provide networking and contacts between individuals and groups and to organize larger events such regional and national conferences. At local level, “moots” have developed, which are meetings of Pagans in pubs or private houses for debate and socializing. There are also organizations which cater for particular Pagan paths; their addresses are included under relevant chapters. However, the PF does not undertake to recommend other organizations, but rather to act as a contact point.
Wicca, is also called Witchcraft, began to emerge publicly in its modern form in the late 1940s. It is an initiatory path, mystery tradition that guides its initiates to a deep communion with the powers of Nature and of the human psyche, leading to a spiritual transformation of the self. Women who follow this path are initiated as Priestesses and men are initiated as Priests.
‘Wicca is both a religion and a Craft. … As a religion – like any other religion – its purpose is to put the individual and the group in harmony with the divine creative principal of the Cosmos, and its manifestation at all levels. As a Craft, its purpose is to achieve practical ends by psychic means, for good, useful and healing purposes. In both aspects, the distinguishing characteristics of Wicca are its Nature-based attitude, its small group autonomy with no gulf between priesthood and congregation, and its philosophy of creative polarity at all levels, from Goddess and God to Priestess and Priest’
(Janet and Stewart Farrar, Eight Sabbats For Witches, Robert Hale publisher, London, 1981)
Wicca is sometimes called the Craft of the Wise, or, more commonly, The Craft. Those wishing to be initiated must be at least 18 years of age. Wicca does not seek converts and initiation is never offered. Initiation must be asked for and is only given to those who have proved themselves suitable. It is traditional to wait a year and a day before being accepted into the Craft, although in practice this varies.
In Britain, there are four main traditions of the Craft: Gardnerian Wicca, Alexandrian Wicca, Hereditary and Traditional Craft. In other countries, other traditions have evolved based on these four branches. Gardnerians claim lineage from Gerald Gardner, who was most responsible for the revival of the modem Craft. Alexandrians descend from Alex and Maxine Sanders, who developed Gardner’s ideas. Traditionalists claim their methods pre-date the modem revival and have been passed down from generation to generation. Hereditaries claim their traditions have been passed on by particular families through relations of blood and marriage. There are also those Witches who follow a solitary path, and may choose to call themselves Hedge Witches.
Wiccans celebrate eight seasonal festivals called Sabbats. Wiccan rituals, like all Pagan rites, are often conducted out of doors and involve simple rites to celebrate the seasons and the gift of life. Wiccan ritual is a means of contacting the Divine beyond our individual lives, but also a way of understanding our inner psyche and contacting the Divine within.
The Wiccan way is a path of magic and love, the movement of a deep poetry of the soul, a sharing and joining with the mysteries of Nature and the Old Gods.
Pagan Druid orders draw their inspiration from Celtic traditions, working with the Gods and Goddesses of the Celtic Pagan past. Druidry stresses the mystery of poetic inspiration and explores healing, divination and sacred mythology. However, not all Druid orders are Pagan. Some are charitable organizations. Others follow particular esoteric teachings not necessarily sympathetic to Pagan beliefs, and some Druid orders are of an artistic or Christian nature.
Following the problems at Stonehenge in 1988, The Council of British Druid Orders was founded as a focus for communication between the various different groups. Some Pagan-sympathetic member orders are: The British Druid Order founded in 1979, which is both Pagan and Goddess orientated; The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which has both Christian and Pagan members; The Glastonbury Order of Druids, which works with the Glastonbury mythos; and The London Druid group, founded in 1986 which has associated Celtic and magical groups.
A Druid explains: ‘Druidry has no book of law, the only lessons being those learnt from nature. There are no gurus and hierarchy is kept to a working minimum. Central to Druidic belief is a love of nature combined with the pragmatic view that spiritual insight should be expressed in daily life. Druidry stresses the importance of working as a part of a group and working as an individual to develop the spiritual life. Druidry is especially concerned with the ecological crisis faced by the modern world, and works in many ways for the healing of the Earth.’
Druidry represents another branch of the flourishing tree of Pagan spirituality. Druidry grows from strength to strength, answering in its own voice the call of the Divine.
(Norse, Northern Odinism, Asatru and Vanatru)
Heathenry is a modern revival of the pre-Christian Pagan traditions of Northern Europe. These Traditions take many forms, but are centered around two distinctive groups of divinities – the Aesir and the Vanir. The Northern Tradition draws upon both the Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, from various sources including Iceland.
The Aesir as described in Scandinavian myths, are sky Gods and include Odin, often seen as the High God or All-Father principle, his wife Frigga, and Thor, Tyr, and Balder, amongst others. The Vanir are Gods of the Earth, agriculture and fertility. The best-known Vanir deities are Frey and Freya.
Today, Heathens following the Northern Tradition often worship Gods from both the Vanir and Aesir, although some specialize in working with one or the other. Some Heathens practicing the Northern Traditions prefer to use the word Asatru to Odinist. Asatru, meaning belief in the Gods or loyalty to the Aesir, is a more general term and also more accurate, given that Odinists do not only worship the God Odin.
Modern practice of the Northern Tradition is rapidly evolving. It explores the mythologies of Northern Europe and the mysteries of the runes. It is a way of life embracing values of loyalty, honor, courage and good fellowship. It emphasizes communing with the Divine as well as embracing the practice of magic for healing and spiritual development. Followers of Asatru celebrate seasonal festivals and are deeply concerned with environmental issues.
In the past, the role of women has been less well-developed in Asatru than in other Pagan traditions. This should not be surprising given the strong influence of Odin, often seen as the most important of the Gods. The predominantly male orientation is now being remedied by the work of a number of women and men taking their inspiration from the Goddesses of Northern mythology and the role of women in Old Northern society. The work of Freya Aswynn is particularly valuable (see reading list) and gives a clear account of the role of the Volva or Seidkona who were the Priestess-practitioners of magic and divination in the Northern Tradition.
Followers of Asatru organize themselves into small groups and form a community of their own which interacts with other parts of the wider Pagan movement.
‘Well-being I won, and wisdom too.
From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a deed to another deed.’
From the Old Norse, The Poetic Edda, (ca. AD 1200)
Modern Shamanism is perhaps the most diverse of all the forms of Pagan practice and is less clearly defined as a tradition than other Pagan paths. Shamanic practices are an underlying aspect of all expressions of Pagan religion and there are those who would describe themselves as Wiccan, Druidic or Women’s Mystery Shamans. Bearing this in mind, there are, however, a growing number of men and women who see themselves on a specifically Shamanic path.
Those who see themselves as Shamans place great emphasis upon individual experience. Shamans may sometimes work together in groups, but the ethos of this way of working is more of a solitary path. Shamanic practice is characterized by seeking vision in solitude and is deeply rooted in the mysteries of Nature.
Shamanism is an ecstatic religion with an essential belief in the reality of the spirit world. The Shaman, through training or calling, is one who is able to enter that world and work with the unseen powers. The Shaman acts as an intermediary between the spirit world and the everyday lives of men and women. He or she may also guide others to experience the spirit world for themselves and so deepen their spiritual lives. Through contact with the spirits, the Shaman can work acts of healing, divination and magic – revealing by way of vision, poetry and myth the deeper reaches of the human spirit.
‘Shamans are healers, seers, and visionaries. .. they are in communication with the world of gods and spirits. Their bodies can be left behind while they fly to unearthly realms. They are poets and singers. They dance and create works of art. .. they are familiar with cosmic as well as physical geography; the ways of plants, animals, and the elements are known to them. They are psychologists, entertainers, and food finders. Above all, however, shamans are technicians of the sacred and masters of ecstasy.’
Joan Halifax, Shamanic Voices, E P Duffon, NY, 1979.
The Shamanic practice of today ranges from those trained in the paths of traditional societies such as the Native American tribes, to those reconstructing Shamanic practice from historical accounts and from their own experience. Shamanism in its pure form, as practised in tribal society as a part of tribal religion, is less accessible than other Pagan paths, but modern reconstructions are growing in popularity.
Women’s spirituality is one of the richest and most dynamic forces in modern Paganism. Women are respected in all Pagan traditions and have enriched Paganism with a powerful vision of the Goddess – the long-ignored feminine aspect of the Divine. In Paganism, women are Priestesses in their own right, strong and proud, with their own vision.
As well as working in the various traditions of Paganism, women have established their own traditions. These traditions have many forms and are often deeply entwined with the aspirations of the Women’s Movement.
Drawing upon the inspiration of the image of the Goddess, women explore their own feminine mysteries. For some women, this involves a denial of all things seen as patriarchal; for others it is a spiritual calling to throw off the conditioning chains of society’s stereotypes of women. These women see themselves as reclaiming or creating a new understanding of what it is to be female. They explore the mythologies of the world to discover the deeper meaning of what it is to be a woman. They seek to bring their discoveries to life in their own lives, sharing this new found knowledge by way of myth, song, dance and, where needed, political action.
Women’s traditions are often eclectic and loosely-structured. They tend to be highly creative with many spontaneous elements. Some women’s traditions are modeled on Wiccan practice and use rituals and celebrate seasonal festivals in a similar way. Other groups are more Shamanic. Others have blended aspects of different traditions to create new unique pathways.
Women’s traditions have an especially powerful vision of the Earth as the Goddess and are deeply involved with caring for the Earth and protecting her from the rape of modem civilization. They are concerned with the healing of the Earth and with the healing of the image of women.
‘The Goddess awakens in infinite forms and a thousand disguises.
She is found where She is least expected, appears out of nowhere and everywhere to illumine the open heart.’
(Spiral Dance, by Starhawk, Harper and Row publishers, NY, 1989 edition)
The male mysteries have always had their place in the many expressions of the Pagan religion. For a Pagan, male spirituality is honored as an expression of the God in his many forms. Pagan men seek inspiration from the Homed God and other aspects of the male Deity; reaching within to embrace a vision of wisdom, strength, and love. The Men’s Movement is a gathering force world-wide and is a more general expression of a newly-awakening male spirituality. Men are questioning the roles given them by society and are looking within for a new understanding of the male spirit.
In searching for a deeper male spirituality, men’s traditions of spiritual expression take many forms. Some men work in the established Pagan traditions, while others have created specific male mystery groups dedicated to exploring men’s relationship with the Divine. Some male mystery groups have turned to the ancient myths and traditions of tribal society and others to the ancient Pagan initiatory cults such as those of Mithras, the God of the Roman legions. Some other groups base their work on the literature of R J ‘Bob’ Stewart.
Two men who have had a strong influence on how men are seeking to find themselves are psychologist John Rowan in his book The Horned God and poet and author Robert Bly in his best selling book Iron John. They are both contributors to Choirs of the God, a book exploring male spirituality.
The search for alternative images of male divinity begins for many men with the pagan gods and mythical figures suppressed by Christianity. Celtic mythology and Western occultism underlie several recent attempt to re-vision masculinity. To sense ‘Male Power on Earth’ or contact ‘The God Within’ brings home the reality of maleness in the modern world, while giving us the visions – from the past, the unconscious, or the realm of the gods – of a different way of being men.
John Matthews ed, Choirs of the God: Revisioning Masculinity, Mandala, 1991.
For a Pagan, the masculine is essentially beautiful, lithe, strong, burning with a deep passion calling out in the joy of creation.
‘I am a stag of seven tines,
I am a wild flood on the plain,
I am a wind on the deep waters,
I am a tear the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk above the cliff,
I am a salmon in the pool,
I am a battle-waging spear,
I am a wave of the sea,
Who but I knows the mystery of the unhewn dolmen?’
(From The Song of Amergin, Celtic Traditional.)
Worship and Rites
It is a fundamental need of the human condition that we express by way of sacred or secular ritual those moments which have greatest meaning and influence upon our lives. Like all religions, Paganism uses ritual in the celebration of its mysteries. Ritual is used to commune ever more deeply with the wisdom and love of the Old Gods and the Divine forces of Nature.
Rituals take many forms in the different expressions of Pagan tradition and are the least understood aspect of the Pagan religion. Below are described three main expressions of ritual practice employed by Pagans.
Celebrations of Nature: Paganism sees the Divine as manifest in all Nature. For Pagans, the turning pattern of the seasons is a mirror in which to see reflections of the many changing faces of the Old Gods. Pagans celebrate seasonal festivals to commune with Nature’s mysteries. By way of myth, poetry and ritual drama, Pagans enact simple rituals as acts of worship and joyful celebration.
Magical Rites: Rituals used to create magic are a means of contacting the deeper powers of consciousness and wider spiritual powers that may assist in resolving life crises or in working acts of healing. All magical work is guided by a fundamental ethic that it should in no way be of harm to others. Rituals with a more magical intent will usually be held to coincide with particular phases of the Lunar cycle.
Rites of Passage: Rites of passage form an important part of the ritual practice of the Pagan religion. There are rituals for marriage, for blessing new born children and requiem rites for those who have died. Rituals of initiation are another example of a rite of passage used by Pagans and often those who join a tradition will pass through such a ceremony. Not all Pagan traditions practice initiation; but those which do may also give further initiations to mark new stages in spiritual growth.
These three strands of ritual practice are often woven together. For Pagans, all rituals are acts of magic and celebration; rites of passage leading to ever deeper communion with the mysteries of Nature and of the Divine. Each of the Pagan traditions uses particular symbolism and has its own preferred methods of working ritual. However, Pagans are highly creative and ritual forms are often changed to reflect personal needs and a deepening understanding of the natural world. Paganism is not dogmatic and sees ritual as a means to an end and not an end in itself.
All Pagan traditions are founded upon a vision of Deity manifest in Nature. Drawing upon the traditions of our Pagan ancestors, Pagans celebrate this vision in seasonal festivals. Nature is the key stone of an understanding of the seasonal rites, which are times of joy and celebration and deep communion with the powers of natural forces.
The turning pattern of the seasons is seen as a wheel. Bach aspect of seasonal change is understood as a mystery of the Divine. As the wheel turns, so Nature reveals the many faces of the Gods. Pagans shape rituals to express what they see and feel in Nature. In doing so, they share in the mystery of the turning cycle and join more closely with the vision of their Gods.
Paganism sees humanity and the seasons as part of a single whole. Paganism teaches that true well-being for ourselves and for the world in which we live can only be achieved by understanding our relationship with Nature. The rape of the Earth’s resources, the devastation of the rain forests & the exploitation of the Earth’s natural wealth – these to Pagans are acts of madness.
In their seasonal rites, Pagans pass on a deep vision of human life as part of the natural cycle. Pagans take delight in their vision and reach out to embrace ever more deeply that whole of which they are a part.
Just as Nature is both male and female, so the seasonal celebrations describe the dance between Goddess and God throughout the Wheel of the Year. Paganism celebrates what is natural. Birth, life and death are a pattern of which all are a part. Just as great empires rise and fall, just as Spring gives way to Summer, so men and women are born then die. So the wheel turns, a dance of light and dark and of God and Goddess throughout the wheel of the seasons.
Pagans celebrate the cycles of sowing and reaping, the passage from Winter to Spring then to Summer and Autumn. Pagans learn to accept that there are times of growth, but also times of old age and death. In all things, there are wisdoms to be learned, not just in what is bright and new: there is also deep knowledge and vision in those things old and dark.
The seasonal festivals are mysteries, yet they are so simple a child might understand. They are times when Pagans remember the cycle of life of which they are a part and touch a simple Pagan truth that humanity and the world are one – part of a whole bound in love.
The Wheel of the Year is celebrated in a myriad of forms in the different Pagan traditions. Pagans of nearly all Traditions celebrate at least the 2 solstices and the 2 equinoxes, but there are variations between traditions and between geographical regions with different climatic conditions.
It is not possible to look at all these variations, but some idea of the underlying themes celebrated during seasonal rites can be described. If we look at the cycle of eight seasonal festivals below, which is based mostly on the Celtic & Wiccan Traditions, we can see that four are marked by the equinoxes and solstices while four are Celtic festivals: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. The dates given are those for the Northern hemisphere.
The Wheel of the Year
Samhain – 31st October (pronounced Sow-in):
The wheel of the Yew is seen to begin at Samhain, which is also known as Hallowe’en or All Hallows Eve. This is the Celtic New Year, when the veil between the worlds of life and death stands open. Samhain is a festival of the dead, when Pagans remember those who have gone before and acknowledge the mystery of death.
Yule – 21st December:
Yule is the time of the winter solstice, when the sun child is reborn, an image of the return of all new life born through the love of the Gods. The Norse had a God called Ullr, and within the Northern Tradition, Yule is regarded as the New Year.
Imbolc – 2nd February:
Imbolc, also called Oimelc and Candlemas, celebrates the awakening of the land and the growing power of the Sun. Often, the Goddess is venerated in her aspect as the Virgin of Light and her altar is decked with snowdrops, the heralds of spring.
Spring Equinox – 21st March:
Now night and day stand equal. The Sun grows in power and the land begins to bloom. By Spring Equinox, the powers of the gathering year are equal to the darkness of winter and death. For many Pagans, the youthful God with his hunting call leads the way in dance and celebration. Others dedicate this time to Eostre the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of fertility.
Beltane – 30th April:
The powers of light and new life now dance and move through all creation. The Wheel continues to turn. Spring gives way to Summer’s first bloom and Pagans celebrate Beltane with maypole dances, symbolizing the mystery of the Sacred Marriage of Goddess and God.
Midsummer – 21st June:
At summer solstice is the festival of Midsummer, sometimes called Litha. The God in his light aspect is at the height of his power and is crowned Lord of Light. It is a time of plenty and celebration.
Lughnasadh – 1st August:
Lughnasadh, otherwise called Lammas, is the time of the corn harvest, when Pagans reap those things they have sown; when they celebrate the fruits of the mystery of Nature. At Lughnasadh, Pagans give thanks for the bounty of the Goddess as Queen of the Land.
Autumn Equinox – 21st September:
Also called Mabon in some traditions. Day and night stand hand in hand as equals. As the shadows lengthen, Pagans see the darker faces of the God and Goddess. For many Pagans, this rite honours old age and the approach of Winter.
Samhain – 31st October:
The wheel turns and returns to Samhain, the festival of the dead, when we face the Gods in their most awesome forms. This is not a time of fear, but a time to understand more deeply that life and death are part of a sacred whole. As Pagans we celebrate death as part of life.
Recommended Books on Paganism
- Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick: A HISTORY OF PAGAN EUROPE , (Routeledge, 1995)
- Ronald Hutton: PAGAN RELIGIONS OF THE BRITISH ISLES, (Blackwell, 1993)
- Vivianne Crowley: PHOENIX FROM THE FLAMES, (Aquarian 1994)
- Vivianne Crowley: PRINCIPLES OF PAGANISM(THORSON, 1996)
- Marian Green: ELEMENTS OF NATURAL MAGICK, (Element Books, 1989)
- Michael Howard: THE SACRED RING – PAGAN ORIGINS OF BRITISH FOLK FESTIVALS AND CUSTOMS, (Capal Bann, 1995)
- Graham Harvey & Charlotte Hardman: PAGANISM TODAY, (Thorson, 1996)