An Explanation of Paganism and Its Origins
When European adventurers set out to colonize the world, they found peoples everywhere who had spiritualities vastly different from their own. Instead of respecting them, they scoffed at the beliefs of African tribes, Native North Americans, and Asian clans. They called them heathens, pagans, and unbelievers and set about converting them to Christianity.
But, we should not be too harsh about the lack of sensitivity shown by these colonists. They lived in an entirely different era and to try to judge by today’s standards the actions of people hundreds of years ago is futile.
Those colonizers firmly believed that anybody who didn’t follow the Christian path was going to endure a terrible eternity in Hell. They felt it was their sacred duty to save these people from this dreadful fate.
Today, we have a better understanding of Pagan spirituality. Most people are also more accepting of the beliefs of others.
Paganism pre-dates the Abrahamic religions by thousands of years. The oldest evidence of religious observances so far discovered is from southern Africa. Professor Sheila Coulson, from Oslo University, has discovered that humans worshipped snakes in Botswana about 70,000 years ago.
This find was in the Tsodilo Hills, a place that is still a sacred area to the local San people. The San are likely descendants of the Stone Age inhabitants that Dr. Coulson says carved a python out of rock. The python remains one of the San people’s most revered animals. According to their creation story, humans descended from the python.
What turned up in Botswana is an example of animism and this is probably the earliest form of Paganism. It sprang up in many different parts of the world – Africa, Australasia, Europe, Asia, and America.
Each occurrence of Animism had no connection to the others except for the similarity of their beliefs; this is that spirits dwell in the natural objects around them. There were good spirits who could grant requests. And, there were bad spirits that had to be calmed down, sometimes with offerings of a sacrifice.
“We are the same as plants, as trees, as other people, as the rain that falls. We consist of that which is around us, we are the same as everything.”
What’s in a Name?
There is a bit of a debate about what to call religions other than Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc. The words “Pagan” and “heathen” have some nasty associations, similar to sneering epithets commonly used to describe African-Americans, Jews, and others in the past.
Sensitivity suggests finding something less potentially insulting.
“Pantheism” and “polytheism” are used to describe religions that worship more than one god. “Shamanism” refers to those who seek to communicate with the spirit world. “Animism” describes the belief that souls or spirits exist in plants, animals, rivers, etc. as well as in humans.
However, for many who study these beliefs the word “Paganism” is perfectly acceptable because it covers all aspects of these forms of spirituality. The origin of the word is quite harmless; it comes from the Latin word “Paganus,” meaning “country dweller or rustic.”
In Europe, many Animist beliefs existed, among them those of Druids. Almost everything about the ancient Druids has been lost to time; no Druid writing has survived. It is known they held certain natural features, such as the sea, sky, many plants, and, possibly, even animals to be sacred.
When the Roman legions expanded across Northern Europe they did a good job of suppressing the Druids. Julius Caesar wrote about them: “The principal point of their doctrine is that the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another.” We’ll probably never really know much about Druids because the Roman legions exterminated them.
Druidism was brought back to life in the 17th century, but the modern version is based on guesswork. It has no continuous connection to its ancestor.
Every year, at the Summer solstice, modern Druids gather at Stonehenge in England; this despite the fact that there is no known connection between Stonehenge and the ancient Druids. They also get together at other stone circles in Europe and even in North America. For some, dawn on the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere is a spiritual occasion.
The Druids are closely associated with the Celtic cultures of Northern and Western Europe. The Wicca movement comes out of that tradition also.
There is probably more misinformation available about Wicca than there is truth. It is not about hook-nosed witches covered in warts casting evil spells. This image comes out of medieval Christianity. The church was trying to convert people from traditional, Nature-based faiths and what better way to do that than demonize the old ways?
Here’s how a Wiccan who calls himself Herne describes what he accepts: “Wiccan believe that the spirit of the One, Goddess, and God exist in all things. In the trees, rain, flowers, the sea, in each other, and all of Nature’s creatures. This means that we must treat ‘all things’ of the Earth as aspects of the divine. We attempt to honour and respect life in all its many manifestations both seen and unseen.”
Lots of Pagans believe in reincarnation, that is rebirth after death. It’s probable that early tribal societies believed spirits and souls could move from one body to another. However, writing had not yet developed, so they left few records of their beliefs.
They did leave cave paintings though, some of them 30,000 years old. These often depict hunting scenes but they also include pregnant women, which suggests that they believed in a hunter God and a fertility Goddess.
Among the first to adopt reincarnation of which there is a written record were Hindus in India. That was about 3,000 years ago. And, the concept spread to Buddhists and Chinese Taoists.
Ascending to Heaven
Ancient Greek civilization had a slightly different take. The philosopher Plato taught that human souls existed in a perfect celestial place.
From time to time, he said, the divine love of a soul chilled and it descended to inhabit a human body. Earth is an imperfect place and for the soul to be here was considered punishment for its lack of purity.
The sentence was a long one: Plato said it would take 10,000 years for the soul to cleanse itself on Earth before returning to its celestial dwelling. During that time the soul might pass from human to beast and back again.
Early Christians believed in reincarnation. But, the Council of Constantinople in 533 CE declared it to be heresy. The official teaching of the Christian church henceforth was that each person gets just one shot at life on Earth. How well the individual does during that life determines whether they go to Heaven or Hell. There were no second chances.
However, in a 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, 24 percent of American Christians said they believed in reincarnation.
Egyptian Paganism, called the Kemetic tradition, also has the concept of an afterlife (Kemet is an ancient name for Egypt). Its followers worship one god, but that god may have many different personalities; probably, the best known being Ra (the Sun God) and Asar (the God of the afterlife).
The concept of the afterlife is an important feature of Kemetism as it was to ancient Egyptians. After death the soul must pass through several tests before the weighing of the heart. If the heart is heavier than an ostrich feather it is fed to a monster and the person is destroyed forever. If the heart is light enough to pass the test the person goes on to live with ancestors and can communicate with humans on Earth.
Almost every early form of spirituality marked the summer and winter solstices. In the northern hemisphere, the shortest day and the longest night are on 21st December. For Aboriginal peoples in the north this was a particularly bleak time. It would be a few days before they could detect that the Sun was rising a tiny bit earlier and setting a little later. They would be cheered by the knowledge that the warm season would come back and would celebrate this.
Typically, they chose 25th December or close to it by our calendar as the focus of their festivals.
The Roman Emperor Aurelian (214-275 CE) rolled a bunch of Pagan solstice celebrations into those of some Roman gods. He set up one big festival called the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” for 25th December.
At the time, Christianity and Paganism were in a fierce competition for the hearts and minds of the people. So, Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th December as well. Nobody knows for sure when Jesus was born, but the best guesses from the Scriptures are that the birth actually took place in late September.
The first mention of 25th December as Jesus Christ’s birthday appears to be 354. The first mass to celebrate the birth, the Christ mass, was held by Pope Sixtus III.
Most of the traditions associated with Christmas have Pagan origins. The feasting comes from Saturnalia, one of the celebrations that Aurelian combined with others. When the winter solstice arrived, ancient Egyptians brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life’s triumph over death. This is one of several practices from which the origin of the Christmas tree can be traced. Saturnalia is also the origin of gift giving.
North American Indian Beliefs
Christian as well as Pagan gods played an important role in every aspect of society. They influenced law-making and customs, as well as filling the need for some guidance in finding spirituality.
The Native North American experience was no different. Over a period of thousands of years they developed spiritual beliefs related to the environment in which they lived.
The Earth is seen as having great value and humans are its guardians.
There is an understanding that mankind is not superior to Nature, the Earth, and its creatures: instead, we are simply one of the many parts that combine to make the whole. As with all Animist beliefs, every living thing as well as objects have spirits and must be treated with respect.
Although there are many Native North American cultures, there are a number of similarities in their beliefs. Most of them have a Creator story that involves the Great Spirit, to explain the presence of humans on Earth. Others believe that humans came from a sky-world, that the Earth is the Mother of all life, and that plants and animals have spirits that must be respected. In Native spirituality all things are connected in a “circle of life.”
With its roots in Christianity, Unitarian Universalism now falls more properly into the Pagan category. Its followers accept all faiths as valid and say they are united in a search for spiritual growth. Its membership includes individuals who identify themselves as Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Humanists, Wiccans, or other religious traditions. Major concerns of the Unitarian Universalism spirituality include social justice and service to humanity.
Numerous authorities (Pew Research, Religious Tolerance, Patheos Library of World Faiths & Religions) estimate there are three million Pagans worldwide.
- “Aboriginal Spirituality.” The Faith Project, undated.
- “What is Wicca?” Herne, The Celtic Connection, undated.
- Pagan Traditions.
- Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.