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Useful Notes / Neo-Paganism

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The Wheel of the Year, depicting the Sabbats.

"If you leave the Bible out in the wind and rain eventually all of its teachings and lessons wash away. Our Bible IS the wind and rain."
A version of the famous quote told to an author by an unknown Native American woman.

With increased tolerance of other faiths in the West, several movements have appeared to restore the long-dead polytheistic faiths that had been banned (or faded) since late antiquity. Of course, reconstructing these religions accurately is next to impossible because there are very few non-biased historical accounts of them and practically no first-hand written descriptions of the religions by its worshipers (mostly because these religions mostly existed in oral traditions—the Jewish idea of writing down the words of God—and then the oral tradition around the words of God—was very innovative for its time) although archaeological records have provided some clues. As a result, Neo-Pagan movements tend to be vague and non-dogmatic versions of the original belief systems. There's debate (particularly with Christianity, Judaism, etc.) whether these could be considered "true" faiths (such as regarding their origins), but that's another story.

To most people in North America, Neo-Pagans are targets of mockery because of their allegiance to long-abandoned beliefs. At best, they are seen as harmless Cloudcuckoolanders and at worst, they are associated with evil cults and neo-Nazi/white nationalist groups (possibly thanks to Varg Vikernes). Usually, they are lumped together with New Agers. However, active discrimination has decreased in recent years.

Currently, the number of Neo-Pagans (collectively) is around 3,000,000 and is still growing. Many prefer to be simply called "Pagans," even though the term is considered to be ambiguous by religious scholars. Today, there are many Neo-Pagan movements through the Western world. Their most common elements are respect for nature and opposition to religious dogmatism.

  • The largest and most well-known Neo-Pagan group is Wicca, an orthopraxic, oathbound religion believed by most historians of religion to have founded by Gerald Gardner around 1954, although he claimed to have been part of a secret movement dating to ancient times. Some (but nowhere near all) Wiccans consider themselves practitioners of witchcraft. Their God and Goddess are separate and unique deities, not aspects of a universal god and goddess as some claim - I.E., the Lady is the Lady, not Nuith, Athena, etc. Due to their conflicts with Christianity and their use of pentagram symbols, many Wiccans have been accused of Satanism. It should also be pointed out that pretty much any book that claims to teach the reader Wicca is either bunk or is actually teaching something called Eclectic Neopaganism, which is a blanket term for general Neopagan beliefs and practices, but does not actually contain the Mysteries central and vital to practice the orthopraxic religion created by Gardner.
    • Neo-Wicca is a path inspired by the outer court teachings of Wicca, followed by those who believe Gerald Gardner's ruling that Wiccan identity can only be passed down by initiation is very out-dated, especially considering many Wiccans are "solitary" rather than working in groups known as covens. Also, many Neo-Wiccans believe that other deities are aspects or different versions of the God and Goddess, some believe that the Goddess and God are universal, and some believe that the God and Goddess are not separate but rather personified entities which together are part of a universal life force. Hence, Neo-Wicca can and in many cases has been combined with any of the polytheistic faiths listed below.
  • Modern Druidism has originated in the 18th century and is based on the practices of the Celtic Druids in Britain and Ireland. Much of their religion is based on belief that dead souls are reincarnated in the Otherworld and stay there until they are reborn in our plane of existence. This cycle continues until a soul is able to reach the "highest realm." They also celebrate holidays every four months by having bonfires on top of hills.
    • Reincarnation is just one part of a complex belief system and isn't even accepted by all Druids. Much more focus is put on becoming in tune with the four Western elements, with the natural passage of time and with oneself. It's also important to note that there are several branches of Druidry all over the world and their practices differ from one another while their core beliefs are largely the same. There are also 8 holidays in the Druid calendar, although bonfires are optional.
    • Druidism has been granted official recognition as a Religion in the UK.
  • Witchcraft, though not a religion but a metaphysical path is one of these many beliefs. A Witch is different from a Wiccan, for Wicca has a general set of rules. Witches make their own rules and follow them. Any person can practice witchcraft. You can be a witch but still be a Catholic. Many believe that Wicca and witchcraft are one in the same, which isn't true. However that doesn't stop people who didn't do the research from complaining.
  • Celtic Reconstruction is a more recent movement. Most of its adherents follow the Irish pantheon, but as the name implies, followers of other "Celtic" traditions (Welsh, Scottish, Manx, Cornish, Breton) can fall into this category. Though it overlaps somewhat with druidism, it is distinct in that Celtic Reconstructionism has a greater emphasis on historical documents, analyzing surviving mythology, and looking towards archaeology for clues; eschewing the 18th century roots of modern Druidism. The process is somewhat complicated in that the ancient Celts would not write down anything related to their religion. Much of what survives is in the form of mythology written down by monks following the coming of Christianity.
  • Ásatrú (ancient Norse Mythology) is based on the old religion of Germanic Northern Europe and is popular in Scandinavia and Germany. They believe in two groups of gods: the Æsir (associated with kingdom, order, and craft), the Vanir (associated with nature and fertility), opposed by the land of giants. The Æsir or Asa gods are the by far most prominent group, with the Vana gods, stemming from even earlier polytheism, being absorbed into their realm. You are probably familiar with many of their deities, such as Odin (king of the gods, god of wisdom and death), Thor (god of thunder and warriors), Frey (nature) and Freya (fertility). The 12th-13th-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson wrote extensively about the mythology in the Prose Edda, which made it possible to preserve a wealth of information to the present day.
    • Regrettably, a number of white supremacist prison gangs have decided to "adopt" a racist form of Asatru as their religion, and it is these groups that are more likely to be written about - even though the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that no more than 15% of Asatruers as a whole fall into this category. It should be noted that there is no real support in the Norse lore for the idea of "racial purity" even among the Gods, several of whom married or mated with Giants - their traditional enemies.
    • In recent years, Asatru has become something of a subset of Heathenry, which is often used as an umbrella term to cover the various Norse/Icelandic/Saxon-based faiths. These include Odinism, Theodism, Vanatru, and Forn Sed among others.
  • Romuva (Lithuanian Neo-paganism) benefits from the fact that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to adopt Christianity, and, unsurprisingly, has extensive written records of their pantheon. The practice of Romuva was suppressed during the Soviet era.
    • Close, as Lithuanians and Latvians are the last of the Baltic peoples, yet not identical is Latvian Dievturiba. It retains many pantheistic traits in the form of Mates (Mothers), which personify nature, like Jūras māte, the personification of the sea.
  • Rodnovery (Slavic Neo-paganism) is notable for its heavy emphasis on nationalism and belief in a Slavic Golden Age before the rise of Christianity. One problem that it faces is that there are virtually no records of the original Slavic religion, so practitioners rely heavily on 19th-century folklore, artistic invention, and the occasional divine revelation. One work, called the Book of Veles, was allegedly discovered in 1919 and lost in 1941 (although transcripts and translations of it are still widely available). The book is believed by many Slavic neo-pagans to be an accurate depiction of Slavic pagan beliefs, but mainstream linguists and historians consider it a forgery, as the historical events it describes are unsupported by any other historical data, and the language of the book is a chaotic mishmash of words from known ancient and modern Slavic languages, along with made-up As Long as It Sounds Foreign words, all with extremely inconsistent grammar.
  • There are currently many Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionists, who benefit from the relatively vast number of records of ancient Greek religion. Many ancient Greek writings, including those by, Homer, Plato and Aristotle, are considered to be their sacred texts. They do not have an official name for their religion, although Hellenismos is the most popular. Most of them worship the traditional twelve Olympian gods, along with underworld deities and the heroes of Classical Mythology. Although they do perform traditional sacrifices, they do not use animals killed for that purpose and sometimes include fruits and vegetables. The Greeks themselves, however, are less partial with them, at best seeing them as "quirky." Though an Orthodox clergyman in Athens once commented on them as "deluded."
    • Like Druidism in UK, however, Hellenism has been granted official recognition as a religion in Greece.
    • Naturally, there are many Roman Polytheistic Reconstructionists as well, who actually go the whole hog and try to reconstruct the culture of The Roman Empire as well as reconstructing the Roman gods. They do get a bit offended if you just call their gods the Greek gods with a name change, though. Most live in Italy.
  • Jewitchery, or Jewish paganism, may seem like an oxymoron considering the First Commandment, but its practitioners actually worship Pagan Canaanite Gods such as Ba'al and Molok. Most of them are ethnic Jews who believe that they are following the religion of the pre-rabbinical Hebrews. Their forms of worship are actually divided, ranging from traditional polytheism to nature worship (not to be confused with the practitioners of Kabbalah, or Jewish Mysticism). Jewish paganism is not specifically limited to cultural Jews who are polytheists. There are Jewish pagans who are monotheist, pantheistic, or panentheistic. (Although Judaism is often thought of as strictly monotheistic, older schools of mystical thought did discuss pantheism and panentheism, and it’s hardly heresy.) Rather, they identify as religiously Jewish and consider themselves "pagan" in the sense that they interact with Divinity in ways that are not currently mainstream within Judaism, such as chanting, meditation, thinking of the Deity as not-strictly-male, doing magic, connecting to nature, and so on. Many of the ways that this subset of Jewish pagans connect spiritually aren't "new" to Judaism so much as no longer commonly used in mainstream, congregational Judaism. Much of this intersects well with Renewal or Reconstructionist Judaism.
  • Kemeticism is the worship of the ancient Egyptian Gods and comes in many forms, largely because there was no single dogma practiced in ancient Egypt. However, many practitioners believe that to truly understand the spiritualism of the ancient Egyptians requires careful study of their various beliefs. Important rules include upholding Ma'at (the divine law), belief in the Supreme Being, ancestor worship, and respect for the community. The system is split on the need of a Pharaoh, one person sent to Earth who is the embodiment of the gods, though most followers have done away with this aspect of Egyptian religion (because having a pharaoh is when it starts to get more scary and cult-like). That said, the number of Kemeticists in Egypt is sufficiently small that you could probably hold a national conference in a motel room. The religion is more popular in Europe and North America, where the most popular deity seems to be Isis.note 
    • A large sect of this religion put an Afro-centric spin on it, and it became a part of the Black Power movement alongside Islam. Though questions have been raised by scholars on exactly what race the ancient Egyptians technically were, this is a touchy subject for Afro-centric Kemetic pagans and is best avoided.
    • Kemetic Orthodoxy is an organized, officially recognizednote  take on this, who have their own rituals alongside things taken from antiquity. They are led by Tamara Siuda who acts as the "Nisut" (or pharaoh) and head of the religion.note  Kemetic Orthodoxy also takes some influence from Vodoun and other African traditional religions, such as the throwing of cowrie shells as a form of divination.
  • Gnosticism is an ancient splinter of the Christian tradition before orthodoxy was defined. However, it shares a lot in common with modern Neo-Pagan traditions, including a conception of the Divine Feminine as a natural complement to the Divine Masculinity of God/Jesus, a pantheon of quasi-gods known as aeons, and a very syncreticist worldview. Some were strict ascetics who would put the most orthodox to shame, others were libertine antinomians. Naturally, Christianity at large considers this as heretical.
    • One important aspect of Gnosticism was the belief that the Creator in the Bible is not the real God, but rather the Demiurge, a being created by God, but unaware of God's existence. Unable to percieve anything but itself, it falsely assumed to be God itself. The reactions of other Christian sects could be expected.
  • While not nearly as popular as the above, the anthropological writings of Laurette Sejourne and Leon Portilla and religious books by Antonio Velasco Piña inspired a neo-pagan religious movement known as "Mexicanista", based on Aztec spirituality, other Mesoamerican belief systems, and a bit of Hindu esotericism for some reason. It bears little resemblance to actual Aztec rituals and practices, focusing more on the cosmology and pantheon. This is probably good, considering that one of the most famous practices of ancient Aztec religion was Human Sacrifice.
  • In Armenia a neo-pagan sect calling themselves hetanos (sharing a common root word with the English 'heathen') has been slowly growing since the Soviet Union collapsed and the ban on religion was lifted. Although most Armenians either began following Christianity more freely than before (Armenia was the earliest country to officially adopt Christianity after all) or continued being atheists, some decided to go completely back to their roots (current estimates are that there's about 200 to 300 of them, in a country of around 3 million, though some go as high as 1,000). The movement was founded by revolutionary Garegin Nzhdeh. Hetanos follow reconstructed ancient Armenian polytheistic traditions, which borrow some from ancient Greek and Zoroastrian traditions but also contain deities uniquely Armenian. Interestingly, the Armenian Apostolic Church is not outspoken against them, choosing to instead be outspoken against the Evangelical and Protestant movements growing in the country. Their base of operations is the Temple of Garni, the only pagan temple not destroyed when Armenia's King Trdat III converted to Christianity in the 300's.
  • Thelema is a smaller sect, but is nontheless notable, largely owing to the fact it was founded by Aleister Crowley. Thelema comes from the Greek word for 'Will' and the core principle of Thelema (dubbed 'the Law of Thelema' by Crowley in The Book of the Law) is 'Do What Thou Wilt.' By this, it is meant one should determine one's deepest, truest desires and focus on pursuing them, discarding distractions. The core purpose of ceremonial magic in Thelema is as a tool for making contact with one's individual Holy Guardian Angel (which may simply be one aspect of a person or a separate entity, depending on interpretation), which is regarded as a key step realizing one's True Will. Those familiar with the tenets of Wicca may notice the Law of Thelema sounds similar to the Wiccan Rede-this is no coincidence as Wicca's founder Gerald Gardner was very well-acquainted with Crowley and Thelema. Besides the focus on True Will, many practices of the faith incorporate elements of other religions including Kemeticism (the source of the main Thelemite deities of Nuit, Hadit and Ra-Hoor-Kut), Gnosticism (Hermeticism heavily influenced Crowley and he dubbed one Thelema ritual the Gnostic Mass), Judaism (Kabbalah's Tree of Life is very significant to Thelema) and Hinduism (practice of yoga is a part of Thelema). Thelema is overall rather individualistic in nature, but there are some larger organizations dedicated to Thelema-the largest and most notable being the Ordo Templi Ordis which operates globally.