What Is Pagan Religion?

The Pagan religion of today has roots in antiquity, with connections to nature, pantheism, Druidry, shamanism and witchcraft.

Jul 6, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

 

In recent years there has been a resurgent interest in Pagan Religion, or religious practices that operate outside the monotheistic doctrines of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It can be tricky to define exactly what Pagan religion is, but modern scholars see it as an umbrella term that refers to a series of spiritual practices, including Druidry, Wicca, Goddess spirituality, shamanism and animism, or a combination of these values.

 

Ultimately, Paganism is about reconnecting back to the natural world, and a belief that all living things interact in a natural symbiosis. Professor of comparative religion at California State University says, “Pagans view the natural world as sacred. They celebrate the interconnectedness of all things, seeing humans, nature, and spiritual beings as part of the web of life.”

 

Pagan Religion Has Pre-historic Roots

stonehenge ancient religion
The Stonehenge circle where ancient religious ceremonies once took place

 

The Pagan religious practices of today are linked to ancient cultures who existed in close harmony with the natural world. These ancient Pagans would not have used the term Pagan to describe themselves, but would have developed distinct, indigenous practices related to their own set of circumstances. Many early ‘Pagans’ worshipped more than one god, and performed rituals in natural settings such as stone circles, hilltops, streams, waterfalls and forests. Ruins of today reveal how prehistoric and ancient cultures arranged their places of worship in accordance with the patterns of nature, including the summer and winter solstices.

 

Historically Pagans Practiced Outside Traditional Religion

german pagan religion painting
Wodan Heals Balder’s Wounded Horse, Emil Doepler, 1905

 

The term Pagan first came into use during the fourth century as a pejorative to describe people of the Roman Empire who practiced ethnic religious rituals outside of Judaism and Christianity. Historically as Christianity and Judaism took hold across the Western world, Paganism became a peripheral practice for many centuries, frowned upon by many, and reserved for those existing on the fringes of society. However, the term was, and still is, broadly applied to a variety of religious beliefs and rituals.

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Theosophy in the 19th Century

madame blavatsky pagan religion
Founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, via Lapsham’s Quarterly

 

In 1875, Helena Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society. Theosophy emerged as a sophisticated alternative to dominant Christian beliefs in the western world, in line with rising scholastic understanding of ancient religious practices from both the east and west, including polytheistic indigenous cultures and the veneration of nature. The movement did much to help found a modern understanding of Pagan religion as we understand it today.

 

Pagan Religion and Witchcraft

magic circle john william waterhouse witchcraft
The Magic Circle, by John William Waterhouse, 1886

 

The so-called witches of the 16th and 17th centuries were later recognized by some historians of the 19th century as Pagans. Meanwhile, elements of what was once known as witchcraft have become integrated into Pagan practices since the 1960s, including alternative medicines, holistic healing, crystals, tarot cards and spells. Since the 1990s, the term ‘hedge witches’ became widely used by individuals who practiced herbal healing and spells without allegiance to any particular coven or group. 

 

The Religion Became Mainstream During the 1960s

pagan religion 1960s worship festival
Pagan religious practitioners from the 1960s

 

During the 1960s, Paganism became a widespread and popular practice among the hippie generation, who rejected mainstream society for alternative views. An increasing awareness of past, distant cultures helped in the resurgence of ancient practices such as Druidry and shamanism, and a move away from Christianity. Paganism particularly appealed to feminists as a symbol of defiance in the face of religious oppression, and the celebration of mother nature as a feminine force. Similarly, ecologists saw Paganism as a means of preserving the increasingly fragile planet, and attuning with nature’s needs. 

 

Pagan Religion Has Become Popular in Contemporary Times

modern day pagan festival
A Pagan festival in recent times

 

Pagan religion is still practiced widely throughout the Western world, and today it is more popular than ever. Some focus on specific branches of Paganism, such as Druidry, while the UK’s Pagan Federation, and the Australian Pan-Pacific Pagan Alliance embrace wide schools of religious thought. Meanwhile, important Pagan ceremonies including weddings and funerals continue to be performed on a regular basis across Europe and the US.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.