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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Four years and some changes

Today is a special day because it marks the 4 year “birthday” of this blog. I started the blog in June 2012 as a way to document my spiritual journey and it has been a very interesting ride.

As time has gone by, my spiritual path has changed. I went from being a Christian to an Atheist (prior to starting the blog), to a Naturalistic Pantheist and then to a Pagan. I still consider myself a Pantheist and a Pagan. In particular my interest has been in Druidry and I have joined ADF, the British Druid Order and the New Order of Druids. Over the past few years I have also become interested in Heathenry and I now call myself an Anglo-Saxon Druid, because I combine elements of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry with Celtic Animistic Druidry to create my path. I honour my ancestors, the spirits of nature and the Anglo-Saxon gods.

For a long time I have been a naturalist, viewing the gods as archetypes rather than real distinct beings, but recently I came to the realisation that I fall better into the agnostic camp. I can’t tell you I’ve had religious experiences nor seen scientific evidence to convince me of the reality of the gods, so I can’t say I’m a firm believer in deity. But neither can I dismiss the religious experiences of millions of people around the world, even if science suggests that we should be careful about arguments from personal experience. Therefore I feel it better to simply say, I just don’t know. However, I am going to start acting like they do exist. Why? Because I want to, because I like doing so and because I think it will make me a better person.

Over the next few months you will notice changes to my blog as I move to make it more reflective of my Anglo-Saxon Druid  stance. I’m also still traveling so new blog posts are likely to be intermittent. I have a few blog posts planned including one on Daoism and at least one more on Monasticism which I will hopefully get around to writing soon.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.

What Pagan Monasticism could look like!

In my last post, I talked about the fact that I think Paganism needs a Monasticism. I talked about the New Monasticism movement that has inspired me with their dual commitment to a life of disciplined contemplative spiritual practice and radical service to the poor and needy in society. A vision I believe should be the foundation of any Pagan Monasticism. In this post I want to explore what some Pagans are currently doing, as well as outline some of my initial thoughts about how such a Monasticism could work.

Perhaps the most advanced work currently undertaken by Pagans in this area is the work of the Order of the Horae. They have produced a Book of Prayer so members can pray the daily office (set hours and prayers each day), a set of Prayer Beads, A Rule of Life based around 12 principles and more. This is the sort of thing any Pagan monastic group needs to have in place. Less advanced are groups like the Order of the Sacred Nemeton, Druid group AODA’s Gnostic Celtic Church and the outgoing ArchDruid of ADF who has been working towards developing a monasticism there too. There is also some interesting work going on by an OBOD member. All these attempts show there is a hunger and a drive to create a more monastic and contemplative space within Paganism. But there is one area these groups have not yet built into their vision – social justice and service to the poor and needy.

For me, Paganism has got to matter in the real world too. It can’t just be about our personal spiritual practices, it has got to have positive effects on the world around us. If we want to see Paganism grow, be accepted by society as a legitimate religious option and, importantly, be able to challenge those aspects of society which need changing, then a Pagan Monasticism can’t be about withdrawing from the world, it needs to be about engaging with it, showing the world a better way of life, and making it a better place. This means a Pagan Monasticism needs both elements of the vision – the disciplined contemplative spiritual practice and the radical service to the poor and needy. This is why Pagan monasteries should not be out in the countryside but should be deliberately placed in run down urban areas and communities. And if we want access to greenery, then maybe teaching local people guerilla gardening might be a way forward.

So let’s move on to considering some elements of how this Pagan Monasticism could work. For that I will look to the book by Greywind, The Voice within the Wind. In this book he sets out 9 strands of the Druidic identity and I believe these strands can help us to form a vision of what a Pagan Monasticism might look like.

druidThe first aspect is history and culture. The ancient Bards were historians, the keepers of the lore and culture, of story, of genealogy. A Pagan Monasticism should offer access to and study in the lore and aspects of Pagan culture. Pagan monasticism should make study an important element of their practice. They should learn and share the stories of ancient times. Genealogy is also important, the Pagan monks should research their own ancestry and offer services for others who want to do the same. Related to this is the importance of honouring ancestors and Pagan monks should set an example by doing this..

Secondly is Art. Bards were not just historians, they were musicians, poets, storytellers, actors and more. A Pagan monastery is the perfect place for a Pagan culture of art to flourish, and for the artists within the Pagan community and community at large to find a place to fit in and grow in their talents and abilities. Pagan monasteries could have rooms dedicated to art and music, a place for local young people to hang out and learn new skills, a place for performances to the community. Perhaps this would evolve into a way to help make the monastery financially sustainable too.

Third is healing, the realm of the Ovate. Ancient Ovates would have been skilled in herbalism and healing, and perhaps modern Pagan monasteries could offer the same – healing for both physical and psychological issues through herbalism, counseling and so on (assuming the right skills and training were in place). Another important aspect of this healing would be healing with the “more-than-human” world – healing the abandoned and forgotten places, showing people how to regenerate the land and honour the spirits of the land.

Fourth is metaphysics – studying the spiritual aspects of the cosmos and the inner self. This includes learning about how the ancient Pagans viewed their universe e.g the three realms.

Fifth is Seership – studying and offering divination services.

Sixth we move on to the realm of the Druids. The were the Ritualists. A Pagan monasticism needs to celebrate rituals, whether the eight high days, the phases of the moon or rites of passage. Monks would follow a rhythm of life set by nature and the cycles of the year. The monks would become skilled in the art and practice of ritual and celebrate regularly. Rituals must be public and open to the community, although personal ones such as for weddings/ funerals e.t.c could be offered to select groups of people. Related to this is the importance of regular daily practice. A Pagan monasticism would be committed to regular disciplined and communal ritual, prayer and meditation at set points each day.

Seventh is the study of natural philosophy. Druids and other Pagans studied nature. They studied philosophy and they were committed to finding truth and wisdom. The same should be true of modern Pagan monks. They should study the external world – the nature around them (including a practice of spending a regular daily period of direct contact with nature so they develop a bio-regional outlook) and philosophical wisdom from a variety of sources.

Eighth is Teaching. The ancient Druids were teachers. They taught their societies moral, wisdom and more. They were often the school teachers. Modern Pagan monks can also teach others whether through conversations, writing or formal teaching. They can teach people old skills (re-skilling), they can teach people the wisdom and stories of the ancient world and they can teach people how to live sustainably on the earth.

Finally, we come to service. The ancient Druids served their communities, as lawyers, doctors, political advisors and more. They were known as peacemakers who could walk between armies and stop battles. They believed in service and making the world a better place. Like the ancients, modern Pagan monastics can serve their communities too, committed to nonviolence and working to effect peacemaking and conflict resolution in society. Or inspired by the ancient legal roles, offer advice and help to those who need to access services of debt relief, social benefits and so on. Or inspired by the ancients role as political advisors, they can speak truth to power and offer a prophetic voice against those in power.
I hope this gives some idea of the type of Monasticism I want to see Pagans develop – one in which people are committed to a disciplined lifestyle of daily regular contemplation, ritual, offerings and prayer to the gods and ancestors. A lifestyle committed to following a rhythm of the year based around times of celebration but also fasting. A lifestyle studying nature, wisdom, philosophy and lore, and then teaching that to others. A lifestyle of creativity in art and poetry. A lifestyle of living in bioregional harmony with the earth. And a lifestyle committed to service to the community, whether through offering ritual, divination, conflict resolution, advice, counseling and fighting for social justice. In our next post we will explore this issue of service, and particularly peacemaking in more detail.

I want a Pagan Monasticism

Please note that this will be a series of articles exploring the theme of Pagan Monasticism. In this first one I want to simply set out the foundation stones of my thinking.

monk1Today I want to write about a dream of mine, I’ve had for a long time, and it started back when I was a Christian. It is monasticism. From the age of 16 I started questioning Christianity and it led me through various different denominations and ideas until eventually I left Christianity completely 6 years later. However, some things stuck with me during that journey. I was a very conservative Christian for a long time, but as I started to research I became more and more liberal, both theologically and socially. I read books like “God’s Politics” by Jim Wallis, which opened my eyes to the fact that that Jesus wasn’t an arch-conservative but that his words in the Sermon on the Mount and parable of the sheep and goats were the heart of his message (obvious I know, but much of the time we only see what we want to in religious books).

Jim Wallis was involved with a movement called “Sojourners” which was essentially the “Christian Left.” And within that movement is a man called Shaine Claiborne. And he set up an intentional community in the USA called “The Simple Way” dedicated to living a “contemplative and prophetic life.” In other words, they are committed to two things – living a life of committed regular spiritual practice and living a life of radical service to the poor and needy in their communities (old testament style meaning of prophetic – calling people to live a better way through example). It was a vision that caught my imagination. It was the vision of a new movement called “New Monasticism.” Although protestant, it’s spiritual practices like praying the daily office, using a liturgy and following a rule of life, were inspired by Catholicism and Celtic Christianity. Shane wrote a book called “The Irresistible Revolution” talking about applying Jesus sermon on the mount to our lives and how this New Monasticism fitted into it. He was very clear in the book about the importance of people creating the Kingdom of God in the world here and now. This New Monasticism was not about withdrawing from life, but deliberately going into the most broken parts of society, places ravished by poverty and racism, and offering healing.

The members of the Christian New Monasticism movement dedicated themselves to 12 “marks” –

  1. Relocation to the “abandoned places of Empire” [at the margins of society].
  2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
  3. Hospitality to the stranger.
  4. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
  5. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the Church.
  6. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
  7. Nurturing common life among members of an intentional community.
  8. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
  9. Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
  10. Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
  11. Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
  12. Commitment to a discipline contemplative life.

In other words, it was a community committed to working for peace and social justice while living a disciplined contemplative life.

The Simple Way is an intentional community, that is, “A community that is a planned residential community designed from the start to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common, social, political, religious, or spiritual vision and often follow an alternative lifestyle. They typically share responsibilities and resources.”

Recently I have come across another development within the New Monasticism movement – an inter-religious New Monasticism which has similar aims but is not limited to one religion but is open to the wisdom of many traditions. There is a strong influence of Buddhism in there too. It was inspired by a book by Raimon Pannikar called “Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype” which talked about how the “monk” is an archetype that we can all have access to. This inter-religious New Monasticism has the following vows –

  1. I vow to actualize and live according to my full moral and ethical capacity.
    2. I vow to live in solidarity with the cosmos and all living beings.
    3. I vow to live in deep nonviolence.
    4. I vow to live in humility and to remember the many teachers and guides who assisted me on my spiritual path.
    5. I vow to embrace a daily spiritual practice.
    6. I vow to cultivate mature self-knowledge.
    7. I vow to live a life of simplicity.
    8. I vow to live a life of selfless service and compassionate action.
    9. I vow to be a prophetic voice as I work for justice, compassion and world transformation.

Wow. What a vision! Is there any reason this could not form the basis of a Pagan Monasticism?

I’m not sure traditional monasticism of withdrawing from the world fits particularly well with Paganism, but the world-affirming nature of these New Monasticism movements can and do fit well with Paganism.

If we look at history, it is likely that the famous Druid teaching schools of Britain and Ireland were almost certainly turned into the first monasteries and Druid’s probably became some of the first monks. It is interesting to note that Celtic Christianity primarily spread through a “monastic model” rather than a traditional Rome-inspired parish model. And eventually it came to dominate the faith of the people of Britain and Ireland.

If we look further afield to India, the home of the largest and oldest Pagan Polytheist religion in the world, Hinduism, we see that monasteries play a very important part in the faith and the daily lives of people. It is the same with the Pagan Polytheist religion of Daoism in China. So Monasticism can clearly work in Pagan religions. In fact, some Pagans have been beginning to do just that but we’ll talk more about that in my next post.