‘Our true purpose is to live in harmony with Nature’
Zeno of Citium, c.300BCE.
There are some hundreds of thousands of Pagans in the modern world, most of them in Europe and North
Paganism is a very diverse religion with roots in the indigenous, pre-Christian faiths of Europe, evolved and
adapted to the circumstances of modern life. Pagans are predominantly polytheists, pantheists and
animists. There are many distinct paths or traditions within Paganism, of which the largest are Wicca,
Druidry, Heathenry and Shamanism.
According to the 2001 Census there are approximately 44,000 Pagans in the UK, around 2,000 of them in
Scotland. This makes Paganism the seventh largest religion in the UK.
Paganism is not a religion ‘of the book’ and has no central core of scriptures accepted as authoritative by all
Pagans. The approach is mythopoeic and experiential rather than doctrinal. Most Pagans believe that
spiritual truths are best communicated in the form of symbols and myths, and emphasise observation of
Nature as a means to spiritual understanding.
Pagans venerate Nature, seeing it as the visible part of the Divine world, and recognise many deities, both
goddesses and gods. Goddess-worship is one of the most distinctive characteristics of modern Paganism.
Human beings are seen as very much a part of Nature, along with other animals, trees, stones, plants and
everything else that makes up the living world.
Pagan ethics emphasise the responsible exercise of personal freedom in trying to live in harmony with
others, and with Nature. Many Pagans use the phrase – ‘If it harm none, do what you will’ – to summarise
this. Personal responsibility is also reflected in the decentralised and non-hierarchical structures of many
Paganism strongly upholds equality of the sexes and priestesses officiate at most Pagan ceremonies.
Most Pagans believe in some form of reincarnation, viewing death as a transition within a continuing
process of existence.
Paganism actively celebrates diversity and Pagans take it for granted that different people will experience
the divine in different ways. It is thus very tolerant of other life-affirming religious beliefs, and regards
proselytising as offensive and ill-mannered. As the Pagan philosopher Symmachus wrote some 1600 years
“We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe encompasses us. What does it
matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at
so tremendous a secret.”
Pagans have no buildings dedicated as places of public worship. Instead
religious ceremonies are held in woods, on hilltops, along the seashore, at
standing stones, in parks, gardens and private homes. Many Pagan homes include small house-shrines or
altars with candles, pictures, statuettes, incense, shells, stones and/or other artefacts of religious
significance. Many Pagans carry out private devotions daily. Most also celebrate acts of collective worship at
the seasonal festivals and, in some traditions, at points on the lunar cycle.
Pagan ceremonies usually begin with the marking out of sacred space within a symbolic boundary and the
blessing of those within. Rituals may involve meditation, chanting, music, prayer, dance, recitations of
poetry and/or the performance of symbolic drama, and usually include the sharing of food and drink. At the
outer, exoteric, level, such ceremonies express the faith community’s commitment to marking the seasonal
transitions of the year, and the rites of passage of its members’ lives. At the inner, spiritual, level they are a
means by which Pagans enhance their awareness of the divine presence in nature, and commune with their
Pagan religious festivals mark the turning of the seasons and honour Pagan deities. Nearly all Pagans
celebrate a cycle of eight seasonal festivals which are sometimes called the ‘Wheel of the Year’ :
Samhain (31 Oct)
Midwinter or Yule (21 Dec)
Imbolc (2 Feb)
Spring Equinox (21 Mar)
Beltane (30 Apr/1 May)
Midsummer (21 June)
Lughnasadh (1 Aug)
Autumn Equinox (21 Sept).