What is Paganism?

Today I want to take a brief break from the “Through The Books” series to write a post on “What is Paganism?” I had planned to do this a long time ago  and make a Youtube video too but I never got round to making the video so I never wrote this post. Today I am going to do so.

So what is Paganism? How can we define it? 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. In my opinion, Paganism is based around five key areas – Pantheism, Polytheism, Animism, Ancestor Veneration and Localism. Not all Pagans will adopt all of these, but most will adopt most of them.

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.

Polytheism
paganPolytheism 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. 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 polytheists talk of their 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. Polytheists also tend to be more tolerant than monotheists due to their ability to acknowledge the existence of other people’s gods without worshipping them.

Animism
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-spirits, elves, dwarves, fairies and the Sidhe. Modern Pagans also honour these spirits.

Ancestor Devotion
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. It teaches us important values, like familial piety, gratefulness and respect for others. Modern Pagans particularly honour their ancestors during the winter period. Our ancestors can also include all life forms back through time to the first living thing. 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). Pagans today research our ancestry, have ancestral altars, and pray to them when we need help. 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.

Localism
Finally we have localism. One thing I have discovered over the past 18 months of traveling is how difficult it is to practice Paganism when you are on the move.
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, some one 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.

So these things define how I see Paganism and all are important elements to my practice and worldview as a Pagan.

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What Pagans can learn from Asia

Since February 2015, I have been in Asia. I spent a year teaching English is Korea and since then I’ve been to Japan and Thailand, with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on the itinerary for the next few months. While I’ve been here I’ve had the chance to visit lots of religious establishments like temples or shrines and to observe the religious beliefs and practices of Asia. I’ve even had a chance to do a 24 hour stay at a Buddhist temple. And throughout this, I’ve learned some interesting things which I think we could learn from and possibly apply to our Pagan practices at home.

Korea

CAM00741Korea has a variety of religions practiced – from Shamanism to Buddhism to Confucianism. It also has a large, very powerful and very right wing, Christian community – I still struggle to understand why people with such a rich cultural heritage would throw it away to become Christian but there we go. For today I want to focus on the traditional Korean religions. First Shamanism. Korean shamanism has some interesting elements. First is the fact that as Korea is such a mountainous country, their mountain spirit, the Sanshin, is a very important spirit still honoured in the country. In fact because many Buddhist temples are built in the mountains, they usually have their own building and altar dedicated to the mountain spirit. Originally the spirit was personified as a female but Confucian influence has changed it to male. Interestingly, the Koreans also have a folk festival called Daeboreum on the first full moon after the lunar new year in which they build a large bonfire for the village and do special shamanic dances and prayers around it. The purpose is to get good luck and fortune for the year ahead and frighten away bad spirits.

ancestor1

Korean ancestor veneration – not my picture.

Confucianism is probably the number one ideology in Korea and it affects all aspects of their lives. One thing Confucianism emphasises is the importance of ancestor veneration. Koreans honour their ancestors at two big events during the year, as well as on anniversaries of the deceased. The two big events are the Lunar New Year (what the west calls the Chinese New Year), and the Harvest Festival (Chuseok) at the September full moon. At these times families return to their hometowns, set out massive tables of food and drink for ancestors, and perform a ceremony including lots of bowing to the ancestral spirits. For those Pagans interested in detailed ceremonies for ancestral veneration I think we have something to learn from contemporary practices in Korea. It’s also interesting to note the similarities of the time periods with old western Paganisms – like the Anglo Saxons who honoured their ancestors at Modranicht (new year time) and at Winter Nights (the end of the harvest). Similar practices take part in Japan at these two times. Maybe our Pagan practices should include ancestral veneration at harvest and new year?

CAM01902Finally, Buddhism plays a huge role in Korea. Buddhist temples tend to be built in the mountains and the natural world is an important aspect of Korean Buddhism. Korean Buddhism is primarily Seon (Zen) Buddhism. While in Korea, I had the chance to do a 24 hour stay at a Buddhist temple (Beomeosa) and it was a very interesting experience. One of the things they teach is how to bow before the buddha images correctly. This is not bowing to Buddha but rather to the Buddha nature within yourself. It is also acknowledging respect for the three “jewels” of Buddhism – the Buddha, the Dharma (his teaching) and the Sangha (the community). In most forms of Buddhism, you begin most ceremonies with three bows to these three Jewels. They are usually full prostrations to the floor. (In fact I did a 108 prostrations ceremony which was strangely calming and meditative). It made me think about the way we approach the Three Kindreds in Paganism. Since then I have added three full prostrations into my rituals at the point where I welcome and say goodbye to the Three Kindreds in order to show them respect. I think this is a practice western Pagans could add to their practice too.

Japan

CameraZOOM-20160321134007981You can’t mention Japanese religion without talking about Shinto – their native animistic faith. Shinto worships many many spirits called Kami. When I was in Japan I visited quite a few shrines, learned how to do the proper washing hands and worship procedure, and saw a Matsuri (festival). It illustrated for me how a Pagan faith could look in a modern technologically advanced country. One interesting aspects of Shinto is that the centre piece of their altars is a mirror. This is where the spirit of the Kami is enshrined. I think it is seen as a gateway for the spirit to come through to our world from theirs. I’ve also read elsewhere that it’s almost like you are looking back and realising the Kami within yourself. Perhaps having a mirror on the altar is something for Pagans in the west to consider. I had an interesting experience when I went to one out the way quiet shrine in Kyoto where I did the normal procedure and prayer and suddenly felt like all was right with the world, like this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. It is hard to explain but it was a moment of “something.”

CAM06917.jpgIn all the Asian countries I’ve visited so far, their native animistic traditions have said that spirits or goddesses dwell in trees. In Korea I visited a folk village which had at it’s centre an old tree where people would leave an offering at an altar next to the tree, while tying prayers to a sacred rope around the tree. This is something I saw repeated on a much larger scale in Japan, especially at Shinto shrines. For pagans who believe in spirits inhabiting trees, this seems a great practice to adopt. This could also take place at sacred springs/ wells too.

CAM01236Just as in Korea, Japan is also a predominantly Buddhist country. One of their biggest Buddhist sects is Shingon (esoteric) Buddhism which honours many buddha’s and other deities. One of these is Fudo Myo-o, and they hold a fire ritual called Goma in which a fire is lit by a monk and various chants are said throughout the ritual invoking the deity. It is performed to destroy negative energies, bad thoughts and to make requests for blessings. It is interesting to see the similarities with Druid fire rituals.

P_20160403_135240_1Finally, Japan might be a reserved culture in some respects, but the shinto faith has it’s own penis festival. One where they parade down the street holding up a massive penis enshrined in a wooden house structure. They sell penis shaped lollies and it is a very fun festival. Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that we make a giant penis and parade it down the street like the Japanese do, but perhaps there is something Pagans in the west can find inspiration from here.

Thailand

P_20160429_112513Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, however, animism still runs deep through the culture. Outside every home, shop, village, hotel and business are small raised houses that look like mini temples. These are spirit houses that house the spirit of the house and the spirit of the garden. They are the spirits of place. Offerings (often the Fanta drink) are made every morning to the spirits in the hopes for their help, protection or to appease them so they won’t cause mischief. There are also spirit houses in rice fields for rice field guardian spirits, in forests for forest guardian spirits and in remote villages there will be large spirit houses for the spirit of the village. The tiny houses are very elaborately decorated and beautiful. I think it would be wonderful for western Pagans to do something similar but in a western style.

loi

loi krathong – not my picture

Thailand has an interesting festival in November called Loi Krathony in which they float beautifully decorated baskets with candles, incense, coins and other offerings in them down a river to honour the spirits of the water. Perhaps Pagans who want to honour their local water spirits can learn something from  this.

Finally, in both Japan and Thailand, there is an interesting fortune telling tradition. This involves shaking a tube with wooden sticks inside until one falls out a small hole in the bottom. On the stick is written a number related to a particular fortune. The person then compares that number with a piece of text somewhere to determine their fortune. It is a very simple method of fortune telling which I can see fitting quite well in western Paganism too.

In my opinion there is a lot that can be learned from other traditions around the world. While we must be careful not to culturally appropriate things, there are still elements in other religions that we can learn from, particularly those who are trying to rebuild a western animism and I hope this blog post has given you some ideas.

In Praise of Ancestors

This is only going to be a short post but I feel I need to write it. As you know, ancestor veneration is an important part of my paganism. Over the past year or so, I’ve started to pray to my ancestors when I have problems or an issue I want help with. And what’s become very surprising to me is that every single time the prayers have been answered. Maybe it’s just coincidences…it’s usually for little things like a safe flight, or today – a room being available for us six hours before the official check in time at the hotel, rather than big things like winning a lottery or whatever…but many coincidences in a row – that starts to raise questions about whether there’s something more going on. And if there is, well it’s only right to give thanks. And so that’s what I’m doing with my post today. Thanks ancestors.

Can Pagans honour Jesus?

jesusSo recently I’ve been thinking about honouring ancestors of culture and how some pagans honour “heroes”, rather than just honouring my ancestors of blood. I have come up with a few that I think I want to honour (by lighting a candle on the date of their death to them) like King Alfred the Great who made England and King Penda who was the last Pagan king in England. I’ve also been thinking about honouring Jesus.

Why honour Jesus? Well there are many reasons. Some personal and some cultural. For 10 years as a teenager I was a Christian. As much as I try to run from the person I was at that time, Christianity still has a hold on me and that decade was still an important part of who I am. Despite the fact that I cannot believe in the god of the Bible anymore, I still admire Jesus and his teachings. In fact my political-economic philosophy of Distributism (the “small is beautiful” ideal) is based on Catholic social teaching and the Bible. And since I left Christianity, I think my ethics have become more influenced by Jesus words. Many Pagans have a past in Christianity which is difficult to escape from. Both western culture and those who have spent time in Churches have been heavily influenced by Christianity whether we like to admit it or not, but perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a way to better come to terms with our past and move on, to be healed of the emotional and mental damage caused by monotheism’s influence, to accept a past part of our identity, by embracing Jesus as cultural ancestor. At least that’s my current thinking.

There is no doubt that for anyone born in the west, Jesus is a cultural ancestor. Whether he actually said or did the things in the Bible is irrelevant. The almost certainly was a man called Jesus who’s influence has in so many ways created the world we live in today through his followers. In fact, he has probably been the single most important influence on the western world. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that he deserves respect and honour as an ancestor.

Interestingly in the ancient world, pagan cultures would often “deify” those they considered cultural heroes (such as Hercules) and honour them. Pagans who believe in literal gods probably already acknowledge that Yahweh is a god who exists, but isn’t the way the Bible portrays him and they don’t worship him (except Canaanite Reconstructionists). They might even agree that while Jesus was just a man, his spirit has now received so much praise and worship over the past two thousand years that he has been deified and turned into a real god too. But even from a naturalistic perspective, it’s quite clear that Jesus’ has as much influence, if not more, than the archetypes we honour that are part of the collective unconscious.

So basically my argument is that honouring Jesus is both something Pagans should seriously consider because of his influence and as a way to acknowledge and perhaps heal the effects of Christianity on our lives.

In terms of how to do it? Well I think Good Friday is the perfect day for this.One day a year, the date of his death, consider lighting a candle for Jesus, thinking about the influence of Christianity on our culture and lives. Consider even having a statue of Jesus on your altar for that day. And maybe even attending a Church to pray to him. What do you think?

Samhain and Ritual 2014

On Friday it is the great feast of Samhain, the start of winter. I am again using a ritual from ADF Solitary Druid Fellowship. A Naturalistic Pantheist ritual can be found on my ritual page here. I will be using the following in the “explanation” part of the ADF ritual but this can also be used for the Naturalistic Pantheist one too.

Say: “As I stand here on this celebration of Samhain, the sacred wheel of the year continues to turn. As my ancestors did in times before and my descendants may do in times to come, I honour the old ways. The harvest is in from the fields and they lie empty. The livestock has been brought down from the pastures and the people return to their homes for feasting. The leaves have changed colour and are falling from the trees. All is at an end. Summer is gone, winter is coming, the frosts and cold nights wait on the other side. It is the time of rest, of contemplation, of death. It is the time of liminality and transition as tonight the veil between worlds is thinnest. It is the night of the ancestors, a time to remember, honour and feast to those who have died, our loved ones and all life throughout vast history. They are not gone but live on within me and I will remember them. Just as they have become one with the earth again, so too will I someday. I thank the earth mother for all she has given me this season and for the abundance of the harvest. I celebrate the new year and look forward to winter, a time of sacred darkness, a time to meditate on the cycle of death and rebirth.”

Halloween-pumpkins

Celebrating Samhain

Happy Samhain everyone. Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, this is the festival on which the ancient Celts celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter. It also marks the Celtic new year. For the ancient Irish, days always began at sunset and Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) celebrations would therefore start on the eve of 31st October.

Alfablot at boulder without flash

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this time the earth appears to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves are changing colour and falling from the trees. The harvest has been collected from the fields and they lie empty. The livestock have been brought down from the pastures, the weak ones have been culled for food and people return to their homes for feasting. Summer is over (Samhain means “Summers end”) and winter begins. The days are getting much shorter and colder, the frosts have begun and animals are busy making final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities or nature spirits.

For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. At this time, the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and the human world could interact. Many of the modern practices of Halloween have roots in this belief – whether putting lights in carved pumpkins (originally turnips) to scare off evil spirits or giving out treats to those dressed as devils and ghosts to bribe them not to cause trouble to the family. It was also a time for divination and for honouring the dead, who were thought to return to their homes on this night. Traditionally, it is also a time for protective rites like lighting bonfires, walking the boundaries of your property with fire or making charms of Rowan.

With the revival of Paganism, the practice of ancestor veneration, a practice of the ancient Celts once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. As Naturalistic Pantheists, this practice should also be a part of our lives. Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Samhain reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid.

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, nuts, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It is also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. This year I have managed to get a few more mementos to add to the altar. I also put up my family tree. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. I am also having a party with friends, decorating the house and eating traditional foods like mashed potato, gingerbread and cabbage.

A is for Ancestors

Today is the first in a new series of posts on Fridays using the letters of the alphabet for inspiration. The first post begins with the letter A and therefore today’s topic shall be Ancestors. I have done previous posts on Ancestry here, here and here, but as I have said before, honouring those who came before is a very important part of my spirituality because it helps me to develop reverence and respect for others, to remember with gratitude those whom I have loved and lost, and to help ground me, giving me a sense of identity and history.

Over the past few months, I have done a lot of research into my family tree, discovering lots of interesting things. Just before Yule, I managed to get some information from a distant relative which took one line in my family tree right back to 1650. I am really chuffed about this, and I’m hoping to do more over the coming year. I think researching our family tree is a very important spiritual exercise and is one very important way of honouring our ancestors. It allows us to find out who they were, where they came from and even stories about their lives. It is a way to remember them and to develop within ourselves a sense of appreciation and connection towards them.

As I have said before, having a shrine or altar to Ancestors is another way to honour them, and I am trying this year to develop a daily spiritual practice of honouring my Ancestors at an altar. If anyone follows the Atheist Witch Blog, today she included a prayer that can be said each day to our Ancestors. Though our Ancestors may be dead and so unable to hear our prayers, praying to them is still important for what it does for us, the character traits it develops within us, and the spiritual mindset we develop. It allows us to reach across the expanses of time and build a connection with those who have come before. There is also something special about addressing our Ancestors directly rather than in a third person sense.

English: The Chinese Ancestor altar in my sino...

Chinese Ancestor altar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Using both the prayer from Atheist Witch and the one I previously wrote for rituals, I have created the following prayer which I will be saying daily to my ancestors….

Dear Ancestors, known and unknown to me,

From my closest blood relatives and all those of my genetic inheritance,

Through the ever rotating circle of life and evolution, to abiogenesis.

To my intellectual idols, and all who’ve influenced and inspired my culture and my life.

To you whose feet trod this sacred land before me,

And to you who gave your lives that I might eat and live.

Thank you for giving me the gift of existence.

Thank you for the examples of your lives.

Thank you for the love shown by those of you who shared your life with mine.

I light this candle now, an offering to honour you all.

May my memory of you live ever on.”

(light candle and spend 30 seconds in silence)