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About Paganism

About Paganism: Fast Facts for the Media, Government and the Public

This guide is for journalists and other media industry professionals, public servants and law-makers, school teachers, clergy and chaplains, and the general public: essentially, anyone requiring fast, up-to-date and reliable information on nature-based religions in Australia.

Who are Pagans?

A Pagan is someone who practices a reconstruction, revival, or reinvention of the indigenous spiritual traditions alive in Europe prior to the arrival of Christianity.

The original meaning of the term comes from the Latin, pagus, which was something like a city ward. A paganus was a 'local' in the sense of "an inhabitant of a local place". This contrasted with alienus, "a person from elsewhere" – as Christian missionaries were – and in the sense of a citizen, unlike Christians who saw themselves as soldiers for Christ. The term 'pagan' was initially a label applied by Christians within a specifically European context, and it is one we have reclaimed.

Today, Paganism is an umbrella term that covers a very large range of spiritual beliefs, practices and traditions. There are five broad categories within the Pagan community in Australia:

Earth-centred traditions

This category includes Wicca, Goddess-worship, Druidism, Animism, most forms of modern witchcraft and cunning-craft, and eco-spirituality – this is by far the largest grouping. Practitioners in this category tend to draw upon a wide variety of sources in order to reinvent their beliefs and practices.

Reconstructionist groups

This category includes groups seeking to reconstruct the indigenous religious practices of the pre-Christian era with a degree of historical authenticity – for example, worship of Greek, Roman, Germanic, Celtic or Egyptian gods and goddesses. Many Druid groups can also be placed in this category.

Indigenous European religions

This category includes ethnic spiritual paths that have been revived from existing European folk traditions. Examples include Romuva, which is native to Lithuania, and Asatru, a tradition practiced by people of Nordic ancestry. Some family-based traditions of witchcraft and cunning-craft from remote areas of Cornwall, Scotland and Wales also claim to be centuries old, but the provenance of their traditions is often difficult to verify.

Modern Shamanism

This category includes those who research and practice traditional techniques in order to induce spiritual awakenings via trance and altered states of awareness. Practitioners of modern shamanism can employ imagery and techniques from across the world, but those who work specifically within the indigenous European context are likely to self-identify as Pagan.

Groups that practice Ceremonial Magic

This category includes those who perform ceremonies and rituals derived from the 19th Century Golden Dawn movement, as well as Egyptian, Chaldean and Hebrew recensions of the Kabbalah. Not all who practice this type of spirituality consider themselves Pagan, but many do.

The beliefs and practices of individual Pagans and groups in Australia may overlap into any or all of the above categories.

Please note: Satanism does *not* fall under the modern Pagan umbrella, as it is historically and culturally linked with Abrahamic (Christian/Jewish/Muslim) religions rather than indigenous European traditions. There are distinctly different forms of Satanism and information on these is best sourced from the relevant organisations.

How many Pagans are there?

In the 2006 Census there were approximately 30,000 people following a Pagan or other nature-based religion living in Australia. To place this number in perspective, it is larger than the Australian Sikh community.

Pagan women outnumber Pagan men approximately 2:1. The statistically average Pagan living in Australia is female, in her early 30s, university-educated, living in a de-facto partnership, working, with one child.

Pagans don’t segregate themselves like some small religious communities. Pagans live in all states and capital cities of Australia, and also in rural and regional areas.

Despite repeated requests by the Pagan community, the Australian Bureau of Statistics refuses to change the way it categorises nature-based religions – giving the impression that the overall numbers are smaller than the reality. The true number of Pagan adherents must be calculated by adding together the following ABS-defined categories: Animism, Druidism, Nature religions (nec), Paganism, Pantheism, Wiccan/Witchcraft and Nature religions (nfd). In fact, all of these categories come under the umbrella of Paganism in Australia.

PAN believes that the true number of people who practice a nature-based faith in Australia is under-reported due to fears of discrimination and stereotypes about Pagans.

By contrast, there are believed to be more than 1 million people in the U.S.A who identify as following Wicca or another Pagan spirituality. Some estimates have Paganism as being the 7th largest religion in the U.S.

What do Pagans believe in?

Pagans possess a diverse range of beliefs and practices. However, most tend to identify with the following:

  • A relationship with the Sacred in its many forms that is based upon personal experience rather than on dogma or 'right belief'
  • A veneration or deep respect for Nature and her cycles of birth, growth, dying and renewal
  • An ethic of personal responsibility

In addition, many Pagans place emphasis on one’s relationship with landscape or country, the idea that gods and goddesses personify natural forces, and that the Divine is embodied or immanent within the Universe.

Most Pagans believe that life is sacred, that everything is interconnected and interdependent, and that life-energy can be consciously channelled. The essence of a sacred life is therefore one lived in harmony with the rest of life.

For many Pagans, their belief also includes concern at the way large corporations are exploiting and damaging Mother Earth that feeds and sustains us.

Pagans can be polytheistic, pantheistic, panentheistic, monolatrous, or even (occasionally) atheist.

There is no central authority or hierarchy controlling what Pagans believe or how they should worship, and no accepted sacred text. There is also seldom a division between priesthood and laity – it is widely accepted that each Pagan is a de-facto priest or priestess. Pagans have varying beliefs concerning life after death, although many accept the concept of reincarnation.

By and large, Pagans are tolerant and inclusive of diverse sexualities.

Pagans tend to practice their spirituality either on their own (known as ‘solitaries’) or within small groups. These groups can be known as groves, circles, covens, nests, temples, courts etc. Most Pagans will perform their ceremonies out-of-doors, or in private homes. Groups often meet at the full moon and/or the new moon.

Pagans are generally uninterested in proselytizing (trying to convert others.) Most view this behaviour as intrusive and insulting, and the common attitude is ‘each to their own’.

As people who venerate nature, Pagans do not condone cruelty to animals. They find suggestions that they practice ritual sacrifice or mutilations to be highly offensive.

Most Pagans do not observe dietary restrictions based on religious custom, but many choose to be vegetarian or avoid foods that are ethically compromised (pork, cage-laid eggs etc) or environmentally unsustainable.

The symbol most commonly associated with Paganism is the pentagram, a five-pointed star within a circle. Far from being a sign of Devil-worship, the five points of the star represent the five sacred elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Spirit. Many Pagans will wear a ‘pentacle’ around their necks as others would wear a crucifix, Star of David etc. Other well-known Pagan symbols include the crescent moon, the Triquetra and the Ankh.

Pagan Festivals

The following dates are considered to be common significant festivals within the Pagan calendar, especially for Wiccan and other earth-centred traditions. These sacred days relate to the turning of the seasons, which is an integral part of most Pagan spiritualities. The dates given here are applicable to the Southern Hemisphere.

  • August 1st: Imbolc - First Stirring
  • September 22nd: Ostara - Spring Equinox
  • October 31st: Beltane - The Day of the Goddess and God
  • December 21st: Litha - Summer Solstice
  • February 1st: Lammas/Lughnasadh - Harvest Festival
  • March 22nd: Mabon - Autumn Equinox
  • May 1st: Samhain - The Day of the Ancestors
  • June 21st: Yule - Winter Solstice

A number of public holidays, including Easter and Christmas, have their origins in indigenous European festivals, many of which were later appropriated by Christianity.

Myths, clichés and reporting – a guide for the media

Pagans, especially Wiccans and witches, are often portrayed negatively within the media. This is due to a lack of understanding and poor research, usually, rather than deliberate bias (although we’ve seen plenty of that also.)

We are well aware that journalists are there to report the news, and are NOT there simply to be our mouthpiece. We are also well aware that journalists will prefer to interview Pagans who provide colourful quotes and material for ‘offbeat’ or humour articles. The Pagan Awareness Network exists to educate the broader community about Pagan beliefs and practices, not to entertain or seek attention for attention’s sake. This is the basis upon which we talk to the media.

Here are the top 10 issues we have with poor or inaccurate media coverage:

1. The story refers to Paganism (or its various traditions) as a ‘cult’.

The word 'cult' popularly connotes a religious or quasi-religious group that

  • is usually led by a charismatic figurehead, and that,
  • employs doctrine and practices that erode the personal autonomy of its followers and,
  • tends to isolate them from the mainstream community.

In stark contrast, Pagans do not have a leader or figurehead, or any central organising structure. Pagan beliefs and practices encourage people to think for themselves and do not emphasise 'right beliefs' or adherence to doctrine. Pagans live within the broader community and do not segregate themselves… and we don’t try to convert others. With this in mind Paganism can be viewed as the opposite of a cult, as the term is popularly understood.

2. The story about Pagans includes Satanists.

You’re assuming that the witchcraft practiced by some Pagans is equivalent to the ‘witchcraft’ accusations of the Middle Ages, or the ‘witchcraft’ made popular by Walt Disney. And maybe you are assuming that Satanism is just another version of the same thing. But by associating Pagans with Satanism (directly or indirectly), you are continuing the stereotype that there is something sinister, or even illegal, about our beliefs and practices.

The main reason witches are associated with the Devil in popular culture is that in the 12thCentury the Catholic Church gave descriptions of Satan that closely resembled pagan nature gods such as Pan, Herne and Cernunnos – the horns, the cloven feet, etc. This was intended to (quite literally) demonise the indigenous spiritual traditions of Europe that Christianity was attempting to eradicate. These descriptions have no Biblical basis, but some churches seem happy to keep promoting them.

In fact, Paganism and Satanism are distinct and separate belief systems. It is like doing a story on Buddhism and asking a Scientologist to be involved. The concept of an evil force or presence in the world is Abrahamic (Christian/Jewish/Muslim) in origin. To most Pagans, including witches, the existence of Satan makes no sense in an earth-centred belief-system.

3. The story about Pagans includes comment from Christian clergy.

Unfortunately, there are journalists who seriously think that the Christian clergy are a source for genuine comment about Paganism. Or, they belong to the school of journalism that says: create the controversy, report the backlash, and then editorialise the balanced view.

However we notice that the media doesn’t ordinarily invite church leaders to comment on stories about, for example, the Hindu community or Muslims, even though many good Christians and church leaders disagree with their beliefs and practices also. Paganism is a legitimate spiritual pathway, with many honest, everyday people involved in it. Why not look to members of the Pagan community for comment?

4. The story includes the term ‘white witch’ and/or ‘black witch’.

These are controversial terms and there is disagreement over their use even within the Pagan community. It is like saying there is a ‘good’ Buddhism and an ‘evil’ Buddhism – the distinction makes no sense when applied to an earth-centred tradition.

Due to public misconceptions surrounding witchcraft it has been useful for people to refer to themselves as ‘white witches’, especially those who run a business and want to engage with the general public without accusations of devil-worship. Historically, the reason witches would refer to themselves as ‘white’ was because they were advertising their services as curse-breakers and healers. Sometimes those who are very new to Paganism may identify with the ‘white witch’ stereotype until they come to understand that a person’s actions determine their character and not their spiritual beliefs.

Like the wider community, the Pagan community frowns upon inappropriate, illegal and unethical behaviours. We don’t assume someone is good just because they identify themselves as Pagan. We hope that you won’t assume someone is evil just because they identify themselves as a witch. Every individual should be judged on their own merits.

5. The story mentions bed-knobs, broomsticks, cauldrons, warts, the words ‘ding’ and ‘dong’, ‘bubble’ and ‘trouble’, capes, pointy hats, spells etc.

We are quite capable of having a laugh at ourselves, but our sincerely held beliefs and practices are a different matter. It is upsetting when a Pagan takes time to explain their spirituality to a journalist only to discover the article ends up filled with old clichés and devoid of any comment of real value. It makes many Pagans not want to talk to the media, and that is bad for journalists in the long run.

Also, witchcraft is just one Pagan tradition among many. There is a diverse and colourful community out there brimming with enlightening and interesting stories to share, if you can get past the ‘humorous’ clichés to ask the right questions.

6. The only reason this story is being written is that it is Halloween.

Halloween (properly known as All Hallows Eve) has its origins in the Celtic festival Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. This time of year was considered the most appropriate time to honour one’s ancestors and the spirit world. Few Pagans in Australia are interested in observing Samhain on October 31st (in the late spring) as it doesn’t fit the seasonal cycle that we observe. Most Australian Pagans celebrate Beltane at the end of October, a festival that celebrates fertility and growth. We observe Samhain at the end of April as the days shorten.

By associating Pagans with modern commercial Halloween celebrations, you are implying that we, and our beliefs and traditions, belong in the realm of costumes, monsters and make-believe, rather than being a ‘real’ religion. Come visit at winter solstice instead.

7. The story implies that Pagan rituals involve debauchery.

This is another hangover from centuries ago. The idea that a Pagan ritual is just an excuse for debauchery and ‘sin’, and has no spiritual value, is a leftover from the early Church which sought to demonise the indigenous traditions they replaced.

Most Pagan ceremonies are family-friendly: you could take your own child to them quite happily, and see nothing inappropriate. A few rituals are adults-only because of the overt symbolism they contain – life, love and fertility are important aspects of earth-centred spirituality.

Some adult-only groups deliberately work unclothed, as a way to be free of poor body-image and shame caused by societal pressures, and as a symbolic stripping away of false values within a sacred pace. Experienced Pagans who work in this way find nothing sexual or prurient about doing so.

Most Pagans have ritual clothes that they wear for their ceremonies, and some simply wear ordinary street clothes.

The vast majority of Pagans are monogamous, and take their intimate relationships very seriously. Many are parents themselves. Sexuality is considered sacred by nearly all Pagans, and coercion or abuse of any kind is regarded with universal revulsion.

8. The story implies that Pagan beliefs and practices are ‘dangerous’.

Pagan beliefs and practices are no more dangerous than those of Christians, Jews, Hindus, or Buddhists – or any religion you care to name. The idea that Paganism is 'dangerous' is the result of ignorance and misunderstanding. Certain faith communities, notably evangelical Christian churches, have a vested interest in creating moral panics regarding what they call ‘the Occult’. Occult literally means “hidden” and it is the lack of knowledge about Pagan practices that create misunderstandings.

Pagans may utilise methods such as trance and meditation to enhance their understanding of the Divine. Pagans believe in personal responsibility and in living a balanced life – just as nature is balanced. If you hear about a specific Pagan practice that you believe is dangerous, then we would also like to know about it. We do not condone activities that would cause harm to any individual.

9. The story describes Paganism as a New Age religion.

The New Age movement is an eclectic mix of material drawn from Theosophy and Eastern traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Tantra and Yoga. Paganism, on the other hand, is a reinvention or renewal of indigenous European traditions.

Some pagans practice new-age techniques. Some new-agers engage with earth-centred spirituality. Individuals may overlap, such as a catholic who likes Yoga or Buddhist meditation, but that doesn’t make the pathways the same thing.

10. The story states that modern Paganism was created in the 1950s.

Revived, reconstructed or reinvented? Yes. Created? No.

Interest in survivals of indigenous European spiritual traditions can be traced in the English-speaking world to the Romantic Movement of the 19th Century, and poets such as Keats, Shelley etc. Later, authors such as Charles Godfrey Leland (Aradia, Gospel of the Witches), Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough), Robert Graves (The White Goddess) and Jules Michelet (La Sorciere) all documented – with varying degrees of academic rigour – various aspects of Pagan folklore and spirituality known during that period.

In the non-speaking English world Asatru and other ethnic traditions were quietly practiced as folk traditions even in areas that were nominally Christian. Romuva even survived oppression during the Soviet era.

It is important to remember that the Pagan traditions are diverse in origin. Wicca was made popular in the 1950’s by Gerald Gardner, but many of the other pathways have roots in the beliefs of Germanic and Nordic peoples, Greek and Egyptian peoples, and Celts, all cultures that go back thousands of years.

11. The story refers to witches and warlocks.

This is another Hollywood stereotype. Witches can be male and female.

Authorities disagree as to whether the word was ever used in indigenous Scottish witchcraft traditions. But in Old English the word ‘Waerloga’ meant ‘oath-breaker’ or ‘liar’. Referring to someone as a warlock is unlikely to win you friends in the Pagan community.

12. The story refers to a particular member of our community as a “self-proclaimed witch”.

We’ve saved this for last because we find this error one of the most commonly seen: referring to someone as a “self-proclaimed Pagan Priestess”, “self-styled witch” or similar. Journalists never refer to someone as a “self-proclaimed Christian” (or insert another religion of your choice.) We see this as a big double-standard, and mockery thinly disguised as serious journalism. It is an instant value judgement that our beliefs are not to be taken seriously. But what is the objective difference between a Pagan hand-fasting and a Buddhist festival, or a Catholic Mass? All of them have strange clothing, chanting, candles and incense, and ritual implements. So why treat us any differently?

People who practice a nature-based religion face enough prejudice and ignorance without the media adding to it. All we ask is that you treat us with the same respect afforded to people of other more well-known faiths. Please make the effort to contact us, accurate information is just a mouse-click or a phone call away.

Pagan Awareness Network contact details

Enquiries: Click here to contact PAN
 

For a response to breaking news stories involving Wiccans or other Pagans, call PAN's Media Officer Michelle White, or the National Committee contact phone on 0412 427 343. (Please note that content for early editions or breakfast radio before 9am will need to be arranged in advance.)

 

Contact details for academics in Australia who study Paganism and other alternative religions can be provided upon request.

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