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Old People, New People

by Selena Fox

"We are an Old People. We are a New People.
We are the Same People, Wiser than Before."

American Pagan culture today blends together the old and the new, as depicted in the above version of a chant created by Morningfeather at the first Pagan Spirit Gathering in 1981. Our wisdom journey as a people creating culture is ongoing.

We are an Old People because we draw upon the ancient wisdoms and folk ways of our ancestors as part of our cultural experience. In our rituals and festivals, our dreams and trancework, our writings and readings, and our daily life, we discover and keep open the gateways of our ancient human heritage. We experience ourselves not only as individuals living in the late twentieth century, but as part of the intuitive Nature mystic pulse that has been part of "Western Civilization" since antiquity. Our Pagan cultural journey values the past and the timelessness of Nature's rhythms and teachings. Each time we kindle bonfires at Midsummer, honor loved ones in the Spirit World at Samhain, and dance the Maypole at Beltane, we keep alive the Old Ways and we experience ourselves as an Old People.

We are a New People because we are weaving a new form of Pagan culture from the threads of past and present. Our culture, in all of its diversity, is vibrant, changing, growing, and alive. We are creating Pagan culture in ways that fit our present era and global information age context. Greek, Roman, Pictish, Egyptian, Celtic, Teutonic, Minoan, and other ancient Pagan cultures no longer exist as they once did, and it is not possible, nor necessary, to resurrect and replicate old Pagan cultural patterns exactly as they were in order to connect with their wisdoms spiritually. By studying past expressions of Paganism, we can learn ancient teachings that are timeless and can incorporate these into our present culture. The myths, symbols, customs, sites, and other legacies of the ancients can inspire us and enrich our New Paganism in the making.

Contemporary American Paganism not only weaves together threads of the ancient past in its tapestry, but also those of major social movements in the second half of this century. Perhaps the single greatest influence in the development of Pagan culture, as it exists in the United States today, is its integration of the social change legacies of the 1960's and 1970's. The egalitarianism of the civil rights movement and feminism, the emergence of the new environmentalism, and the paradigm shift involving holistic thinking, human potentials, and postmodern philosophy all are components of Pagan culture today. Paganism not only has been influenced by these social movements, but it also has been a strong influence upon them as they continue to be forces at work in dominant culture. Many of Paganism's most visible leaders, teachers, writers, and networkers also have been and are active in one or more of these social change movements.

American Paganism is characterized by much diversity, due to its grass roots nature. However, it does have several commonalties which distinguish it from some other religions and cultures. I draw upon my twenty-five years of experience of national networking and priestess service in sharing these overview observations.

  • Circle. Throughout Paganism today, the predominant ritual and social space form is the circle. As in ancient times, the circle represents many concepts, including wholeness, balance, the cycles of Nature, continuity, partnership, and interconnectedness. The circle is used by individuals in personal rituals as well as by large and small groups for group rituals and festivals. The circle form facilitates shared experience and encourages participation. In contrast, non-interactive rectangular theater patterns predominate in many other religions and cultural settings.
  • Nature. Attunement to and communion with Nature are central to Paganism today as in the past. Humans are viewed as part of Nature, not as dominators or as owners of Nature as is prevalent in some other cultures. Furthermore, in Paganism, creatures, plants, and other lifeforms in Nature are viewed as allies, not as underlings or subhuman. Nature imagery is prevalent in Pagan households, rituals, and art forms. In addition to connecting with Nature ritually, Pagans care for the environment as part of daily life, and many are active in environmental preservation organizations. Paganism is a strong force in ecospirituality, and ministers and practitioners of other religions often import Pagan symbology, chants, and other practices into their own communities and liturgies in order to make them more ecofriendly.
  • Divine Diversity. In contrast to the singular worship of a transcendent father God of some religions and cultures, the Divine has a wider range of forms in Paganism today. Most Pagans conceptualize both a unifying Divine force as well as multiple forms. Some Pagans view the Divine unity as an all-Goddess, from which a variety of Goddesses and Gods come, while others view Divine unity as androgynous. Many connect with the Divine unity through honoring both Goddess and God. Some honor multiple aspects, such as in Wiccan spirituality with a Triple Goddess and Dual God. On the other hand, some Pagans do not relate to the Divine in anthropomorphic forms at all, but as a vibratory pattern that is the interconnecting force in Nature. In contrast to transcendence being central to many religions, immanence is central to Paganism. The Divine is viewed as being indwelling within the self, plants, creatures, and all of Nature. Animism, the concept that a soul or spirit is within all life forms, and Pantheism, the view that the Divine is everywhere and everything is imbued with the Divine, are ancient Pagan worldviews that are part of Paganism today.
  • Practice. In some religions, it is necessary to be a member of a religious institution in order to be considered a practitioner. Not so in Paganism, where there is a range of options. Some Pagans practice independently as "solitaries" and never become members of any group. Other Pagans are part of spiritual support groups, circles, groves, or covens. Some are associated with larger Pagan communities, which range from church communities that meet face-to-face to networks that exist through cyberspace, newsletters, and other ways. Pagans who are part of groups typically also do personal spiritual practice outside of groups. Many solitaries, groups, and communities come together at large festivals, conferences, and other cultural gatherings which bring together Pagans from many paths.
  • Group Structure. Pagan groups vary greatly in structure and leadership styles. This contrasts with many other religions where a top-down, power-over hierarchy prevails. Pagan groups range from unstructured to structured. Some groups are free-form anarchistic collectives where no one is designated as leader and all decisions are made by consensus. Structured groups vary from informal to formal in form. Leadership in structured groups may be rotating, fixed, or by election, and leadership style ranges from laissez faire to directive. In Pagan groups of many types, majority as well as minority perspectives are valued and generally both kinds of perspectives are considered in decision making.

Some Pagan groups include both females and males, while others are all female or all male in composition. Most structured mixed groups have both a female and a male serving in leadership positions. Like many religions, there are more women than men in Paganism. However, unlike religions in which most, if not all, leaders are men, there are more women in leadership roles than men in Paganism, in part due to the large number of women only groups with rotating leadership.

Paganism differs from most other religions also in leadership function. In contrast to religions that emphasize the role of minister as mediator between deity and congregation, in Paganism, ritual participants serve as their own mediators and ritual leaders serve to facilitate the framework in which this can happen.

  • Spiritual Calendar. Pagan sacred times are based upon the cycles of Nature, rather than linked to human history, such as events in a prophet's or hero's life, as is common in some religions and cultures. Most contemporary Pagans celebrate eight ancient seasonal holidays: the solstices, the equinoxes, and the midpoints between. Wiccans and some other Pagans also celebrate the lunar cycle, with rituals at full and/or new moon times.
  • Innovation. The spirit of innovation and creativity is strong within Paganism today. Because of this, Paganism is more flexible than religions that emphasize the use of set prayers and ceremonies. In Paganism, there is an ongoing process of creating new rituals, chants, meditations, and other forms of spiritual practice. Some Pagans never perform the same ritual twice. Many Pagans create their own rituals for celebrating Nature's cycles, often incorporating ancient Pagan folk customs, songs, and poetry. Some adapt rituals created by others, while others draw more on personal inspiration. Many group rituals are created collectively by a group during a planning session and/or during the ritual itself. Pagan rituals designed to encourage creative expression of those that take part can be viewed as forms of participatory performance art.
  • Music. In some religions, ritual music consists primarily of performances of songs by a choir/soloist, hymn singing by the congregation, and instrumental organ music. In Paganism, there is more diversity in ritual music. Although there may be musical performance by a soloist or chorus during a ritual, the most common practice is music making done by everyone. Singing includes not only songs, but also repetitive chants and free-form toning. Sometimes a new song or chant arises out of free form chanting done in a ritual. In addition, rhythm making may be done instead of chanting or in conjunction with it. Tambourines, drums, sistrums, rattles, and other rhythm instruments may be played. Many outdoor Pagan rituals include periods of human silence during which participants listen to the sounds made by birds, winds, and other parts of Nature around them.
  • Movement. Pagan rituals usually include different forms of movement. In addition to sitting and standing which are common in other religions, Pagan rituals often feature dancing and an assortment of ritual postures and gestures. Dancing may be ecstatic free style with each participant moving in her/his own way, or it may be a new or traditional group folk dance, with a circle, spiral, or other pattern. Ritual postures and gestures often include the use of the hands and arms to create sacred shapes, such as a crescent, and sometimes involve the entire body, such as lying down on the earth.
  • Knowledge. Most Pagans are avid readers and have more than a high school education. Many are college educated. Intellectual development and critical thinking are highly valued, while unquestioned blind faith is not. Also, Paganism is more science friendly than many religions. Pagans learn about Paganism through reading books and articles, through classes and workshops, and, most importantly, through direct experience. Paganism is based on Nature wisdom experiences rather than on the teachings of a prophet. There is no standard holy book of doctrine in Paganism as there is in many religions. Instead, Pagans usually create their own. In their spiritual journals, Pagans may include a variety of material such as transcripts of rituals; accounts of dreams, meditations, and inner journeys; chants and songs; information learned from others; and personal observations thoughts, feelings, insights, and ideas.
  • Inner Life. Pagans value intuition and most seek to develop their psychic perception skills. Most Pagans do some forms of creative visualization, dreamwork, and meditation. Some do shamanic journeying or astral projection using drumming, guided meditation, and/or ecstatic dance. Many Pagans work with at least one system of divination and use intuitive information obtained from divination in combination with rational analysis in making important life decisions. Spiritual healing work is commonplace in Paganism. Learning to develop magical skills, working with the spiritual powers of the mind, not only is accepted, but typically encouraged in Paganism, but forbidden or discounted by many other philosophies and faith traditions.
  • Ethics. The Wiccan Rede, "And it harm none, do what you will," is the central ethical code of contemporary Paganism. Related to this is the Law of Return, the concept that whatever you do comes back to you. Pagans seek to live in harmony not only with other humans but with Nature as a whole. Responsibility to care for others, the planet, and oneself is also part of Pagan philosophy and ethics. Diversity is celebrated and personal choice, privacy, integrity, and freedom are valued.

Paganism differs from some religions and cultures on a number of gender and sexuality issues. Although some religions view abortion, sex outside of marriage, divorce, the use of birth control devices, and homosexuality as unethical, this is not the case with Paganism. Sex between consenting adults is considered a personal and private matter by Pagans. While Pagans may have different attitudes about abortion and birth control, the prevalent view is pro-choice and that the government should not be involved in these spiritual matters. Marriage is not a prerequisite for sex, although safety and responsibility in sexual activity is emphasized. Neither celibacy nor marriage is mandated for Pagan group leaders. Many lesbians, gays, and bisexuals are Pagan because there is widespread acceptance of diversity in sexual orientation within Paganism today, just as was the case in some ancient Pagan cultures. Pagan weddings, sometimes known as handfastings, are performed for heterosexual as well as same sex couples. Marriage commitment may be for a year and a day, for life, or for as long as love shall last depending on what a couple chooses to vow to each other. Not only is divorce not forbidden, Pagans have divorce rituals, usually called handpartings. Furthermore, Pagans do not view women as subordinate to men, nor proclaim that wives must obey their husbands as is part of some religio-cultural doctrine. Child abuse, spouse beating, rape, and other forms of domination which are tolerated or ignored, and often shrouded in secrecy, in some patriarchal cultures are not acceptable within contemporary Paganism. Many Pagan leaders, groups, and individuals have taken public stands against such atrocities.

  • Conversion. Proselytizing is central to many religions, but not to Paganism. In fact, those interested in being part of a Pagan group may actually have to go through a long search process in order to connect, since most groups are private rather than public due to the climate of intolerance toward alternative spiritualities that persists in dominant society. If Pagans speak in public about their religion, it is usually to dispel misconceptions and to build bridges of understanding and peaceful coexistence with those of other viewpoints. Most Pagans did not "convert" to Paganism, but first developed Pagan worldviews on their own and then discovered that there was a whole culture of people that shared their perspectives. The prevalent view within Paganism is that there are many paths to spiritual well-being. This is in sharp contrast to religions and societies that proclaim their way is the only way and that those that do not comply with it are eternally damned. This clash in worldviews between the pluralism of Paganism and the one-wayism of fundamentalism has led to considerable antipathy between them. Despite the lack of recruiting campaigns, the number of Pagans continues to grow, not only in the United States, but elsewhere in the world. This trend has intrigued religious scholars and alarmed chauvinistic fundamentalists.
  • Religious Freedom. Concern about religious freedom issues is an important dynamic among Pagans today. Although religious freedom is supposed to be guaranteed as part of American society, this is not automatically the case for Pagans. Sometimes Pagans are harassed and experience discrimination because of their spiritual and cultural orientation. Some have been driven from their homes. Others have lost jobs. Lies about Pagans and Paganism have been disseminated under the guises of "education" and "entertainment." Ritual places have been desecrated and rituals disrupted by bigots. Attacks on Pagans have ranged from verbal slurs to physical violence. Some right wing religious extremists have made extermination of Paganism part of their political agenda and are actively engaged in anti-Pagan campaigns. Some left wing extremists also have condemned and ridiculed Paganism because of its value of spirituality and inner life.

Although attacks on Paganism have been on the rise in the past decade as Paganism has grown and become more visible, so has acceptance for Paganism in society as a whole. Both trends are occurring simultaneously. Wiccans and other Pagans are winning religious freedom battles in the courts. More Pagans are willing to be openly Pagan. Accurate, positive images and depictions of Pagans are appearing in the media, which help counter the false, negative ones. Major publishing companies are publishing and distributing a variety of books on Paganism. Wiccans and other Pagans have been included in interfaith groups and conferences. Pagan culture is now being examined as part of multicultural studies at colleges, universities, and other schools. Pagan paintings, music, and other artforms are becoming more visible in the art world. Paganism is increasingly being viewed as a positive spiritual alternative and cultural force.

Although we have experienced much growth in the past thirty years, our new Pagan culture is still in its formative stages. We are in the process of defining ourselves as a people. We are just beginning to establish institutions that will transmit our stories, art, music, teachings, and history to future generations. We continually debate and struggle with cultural process issues, including defining our ethics and values, finding ways to have cohesiveness in the midst of so much diversity, and developing bicultural competence that can allow us to be personally integrated while coexisting in the Pagan world and the larger dominant society. We even debate whether or not we should capitalize "Pagan," our identity word for our religion and culture just as is done for Buddhists, Hmong, Jews, Hispanics, Tsalagi, and other peoples.

What is the future of Paganism? It depends upon the choices we make individually and collectively. May we keep in mind our commonalties and recognize we are part of a growing Pagan culture. May our diversity enrich rather than divide us. May we strengthen our connections with each other and Nature as a whole. May we continue our weaving together of the old and new and our process of growing wiser than before. So Mote It Be.

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