Who are the Pagans amongst us?


By Embreis Oldfather

On Saturday, Oct. 5, Athens Pagan Pride Day will be celebrated in downtown Athens, on College Square from 5-10 pm. This will be the 12th Annual Athens Pagan Pride Day, the 11th organized by Athens Area Pagans, Inc. (AAP), and the third to be held on College Square. AAP was organized in 2005, has held weekly public meetings since, and is a non-profit religious organization recognized by the IRS.

Because not many people know that Pagans exist, we hold Pagan Pride Day to show the community that we exist, and are ordinary people, and are not sinister or scary.

We also hope to explain some of what it means to be Pagan. That’s difficult because Modern Paganism is a religious movement, but it isn’t a single religion. Rather, it is a group of religions, with many differences, united by a history and culture.

The national Pagan Pride Project, which oversees Pagan Pride Day celebrations all over the world, uses this definition:

“A Pagan or NeoPagan is someone who self-identifies as a Pagan, and whose spiritual or religious practice or belief fits into one or more of the following categories:

● Honoring, revering, or worshipping a Deity or Deities found in pre-Christian, classical, aboriginal, or tribal mythology; and/or

● Practicing religion or spirituality based upon shamanism, shamanic, or magickal practices; and/or

● Creating new religion based on past Pagan religions and/or futuristic views of society, community, and/or ecology;

● Focusing religious or spiritual attention primarily on the Divine Feminine; and/or

● Practicing religion that focuses on earth-based spirituality."

The AAP’s semi-official definition is this:

“We are not dogmatic or exclusionist: the founders could fairly be described as Wiccan-influenced Eclectics, but we have or have had Druids, Heathens, Feri, Cabalists and Thelemites among the regulars at different times. The working definition from the beginning was that anyone who felt excluded by the Big Religions and was comfortable with the word ‘Pagan’ was invited.”

Paganism, then, is diverse, and any generalization about what Pagans are or believe will likely make someone angry but, in light of my 35-plus years of practice and study, I will venture a few.

The word “Pagan” derives from a Latin word that originally meant “country people,” but which, for complicated reasons, early Christians adopted as a term of abuse for people who refused to convert to Christianity. From the late Roman era until sometime in the 19th Century, “paganus” and its equivalents in other languages simply meant “not Christian.”

Although European artists and poets had begun using “Pagan” in a more accepting sense earlier, Modern Paganism as a public phenomenon began in 1954 with the publication of Witchcraft Today by Gerald Gardner. Gardner, a British public servant, revealed that he was leading a secret group in a revival of what he called “the Religion of Witchcraft” or “The Craft of the Wise.” According to Gardner, what he was teaching was a system thousands of years old that had been passed down secretly through the centuries.

Gardner’s claims remain controversial, but after the publication of Witchcraft Today, other groups revealed that they were following similar practices, mostly centered on the worship of a Great Mother Goddess, and her consort, often referred to as The Horned God. That is the basis of one of the main branches of modern Paganism, Traditionalist Witchcraft, also called Initiatory Religious Witchcraft.

Other widespread strands of Paganism are Reconstructionism and Eclecticism. Reconstructionists seek to revive the religions of the ancients by studying ancient documents and archaeology. Eclectics, as one might expect, draw on all these approaches along with personal vision, to create a modern and often idiosyncratic practice, and don’t accept that any one tradition or system has a monopoly on the truth.

Other general statements about Pagans, none of which apply to all of us, include the following:

● Most Pagans are not monotheists; that is, most Pagans follow, worship, work with and perhaps believe in goddesses and gods, but not God, singular and capitalized.

● Paganism is often described as a Nature Religion. More accurately, Pagans regard themselves as a part of nature not apart from nature, and value that connection.

● Pagans do not proselytize, meaning we do not actively seek to persuade people to convert to paganism. If you are interested, we’ll gladly explain. If you don’t buy it, that’s okay too.

● Pagans generally do not believe in the concept of “sin” or see any need to be “saved.”

● Pagans generally have a more permissive view of sexuality, gender identity and nudity than is conventional.

It’s probably necessary to say something about The Devil. In popular culture, Paganism is often associated with the worship of the Christian devil, usually named as Satan or Lucifer, because for centuries the Christian churches held that anyone who followed the Old Gods was a devil worshipper. Some people still believe that. Many Pagans regard Satanism or devil worship as a Christian idea and reject the idea that these practices have anything to do with Paganism. Others accept Satan or Lucifer as gods among other gods. There are also Pagans who identify Jesus, Mary and figures from other religious traditions as gods among other gods. The AAP’s expansive definition of Paganism would not necessarily exclude a Satanist, although to my knowledge, no Satanist has ever shown any interest in joining.

Embreis Oldfather is the Pagan name of Athens resident James Grimes

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