Hi everyone, sorry I haven’t been updating the blog recently, life gets in the way sometimes and I’ve been struggling to find the right way to talk about this topic. Therefore I have slightly changed the title from “Worldview, Animism and Divinity” to “Worldview: The Principles of Paganism”.
What I want to look at here, are what are the defining characteristics of the Pagan, and specifically Heathen religion? How can we define it? What are the key principles that make up the worldview of a Heathen?People say that if you ask 10 pagans to define Paganism you’ll get 11 answers. And anyone who tries to define it will invariably miss someone out. Well probably but I think we should try anyway. In my opinion, the best explanation of Paganism comes from the Pagan Federation. It defines Paganism as:
“A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.”
So a Pagan is someone who follows a pantheistic or polytheistic religion. Someone who honours multiple gods and/or nature.
Paganism (and therefore Heathenry) is based around four key principles that make up it’s worldview. These are – Polytheism, Ancestor Veneration, Local Animism and Pantheism. Over the following weeks we will explore then in more detail but today we will look at a general overview of them.
Polytheism comes from two Greek words “poly” meaning many, and “theos” meaning god. In other words, Polytheists believe in many gods. Polytheism itself can be split into three groups – hard polytheism, soft polytheism and archetypal polytheism. Hard polytheists are those who believe that there are many gods, that the gods are real, existing individuals with their own personalities, thoughts and plans. They are distinct from each other. Most heathens, including myself, would categorise ourselves as Hard Polytheists.
Soft Polytheists are those who see the gods as aspects of one or a few gods. They might agree with the statement “all gods are one god”. Hinduism is a good example of this. Many Wiccans are also soft polytheists (duo-theists) who see the various goddesses across cultures as aspects of the one goddess, and the various gods across cultures as aspects of the one horned god.
Finally Archetypal Polytheists don’t believe that the gods are supernatural existing individuals, but rather that they exist in the collective unconscious, that while they are bigger and more powerful than us, they are not separate from us. It is important to note that archetypal polytheists don’t see the gods as just symbols.
When we polytheists talk of our gods, they are not the same as the monotheistic god. The gods of polytheism are more powerful than humans but they are not all-powerful, all-knowing or benevolent. They are limited, have their own agenda’s (sometimes in conflict with each other) and may have moral flaws just like us. However they are much older and more powerful. One of the best advantages about being a Polytheist is that we tend to be more tolerant of other religions than monotheists due to our ability to acknowledge the existence of other people’s gods without worshipping them. We also don’t have to contend with philosophical problems like the problem of evil as we don’t have a god who is simultaneously all powerful, all good and all knowing (a contradiction in terms).
Ancestor devotion is arguably one of the world’s oldest religious practices and it was important to ancient pagans too. Honouring ones parents, grandparents and ancestors back through time is a vital part of Paganism and Heathenry. It teaches us important values, like filial piety, gratefulness and respect for others. Modern Pagans particularly honour their ancestors during the winter period. There are ancestors of blood (our family), ancestors of place (those who lived in the same area as us in the past) and ancestors of spirit (those who have inspired us or our culture – including honouring heroes such as from the Saga’s). Our ancestors can also include all life forms back through time to the first living thing. Pagans today research our ancestry, have ancestral altars, and pray to them when we need help, giving them offerings of food or drink. For many Pagans, ancestors are the first point of call when we have a need because while gods are mostly interested in the universe and their own plans, the ancestors are much more concerned with their family lines i.e. us and can therefore be powerful sources of help and wisdom. They can help us resolve difficulties, ensure good luck and prosperity in our lives and intercede on our behalf with the gods. If mistreated, it’s important to also acknowledge that they can bring misfortune too.
Traditional animists believe that there is spirit or soul in everything, whether tree or sun, rock or clouds. A modern version, new Animism, interprets things a little differently and talks about “more than human persons”. New animists argue that each thing has person-hood rather than spirit – in other words, there are human persons, rock persons, sun persons, cloud persons, hedgehog persons, oak persons, bee persons and so on. They have an inherent worth and we are naturally in relationship with them. We can build those relationships up. Interestingly some philosophers support a version called “pan-psychism” or “pan-experientialism” which argues that the ability to experience, or even some form of consciousness, exists in everything from the smallest electron to the largest universe. In ancient versions of Paganism we can see animism in their worship of the spirits of trees, plants and animals, in the spirits of home and place, in the belief in land-wights, elves, dwarves, fairies and the Sidhe. Modern Pagans also honour these spirits.
But animism is not usually focused on honouring spirits as a whole, but on local spirits – the spirits who live close to you and often can help you out. One thing I discovered during 18 months of traveling is how difficult it is to practice Paganism when you are on the move. Paganism, Animism, Heathenry – these are all rooted in the local. Graham Harvey, in What Do Pagans Believe, argues that “pagans know their local landscapes and build relationships with it and the spirits who inhabit it. “the original meaning of ‘pagan’ – ‘ an inhabitant of a particular place’ – has encouraged a new focus on locality in modern paganism. A classical pagan was someone who belonged, someone who celebrated where they lived, someone who knew their local shrines, springs, hills, trees and neighbours, and could trace their decent from local ancestors. These pagans lived in both urban and rural places; the important thing was belonging to an area.” Practicing Paganism is about knowing your local area, and connecting with the land and spirits there. It is about celebrating the seasons as they change there. It is about maintaining an altar there.
Finally, we have Pantheism. Pantheism comes from two Greek words “pan” meaning all, and “theos” meaning god. In other words, Pantheists believe that all is god. Pantheists see the earth as sacred and the universe as divine. It is the foundation on which nature worship and veneration is built, and it is an important inspiration for environmentalism. Many scientists are pantheists, as can be seen from James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory. Pantheism can be both “naturalistic” or “supernatural”. It can see deity as personal, but more often views it as impersonal, more akin to a force like the Dao. In modern Paganism we honour the Earth Mother. While this is due to the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960’s, there are lots of traces of worship of an earth mother in ancient times, whether it was the Celts worshipping (and the king marrying) the local goddess of sovereignty represented by the main river in the area, or the Anglo-Saxon Acerbot charm calling on Erce (earth), Tacitus’ writings about the early Germanic people’s worshipping Nerthus who he called Mother Nature, or the existence of Gaia and Terra Mater (earth mother) in ancient Greek and Roman religion, it is clear that honouring the Earth Mother was an important of Ancient Paganism too.
So these four philosophical outlooks help to define the Heathen or Pagan worldview. It is a very different, and much more ancient, way of looking at the world, and over the coming weeks we are going to explore exactly how that manifests itself within the Heathen tradition and how I interpret and practice it from my perspective.