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Paganism and Young People

The term “Pagan” has historically been applied to the animist and polytheist religions of ancient Europe and the Middle East. It has also often been applied to the polytheist and pantheist religions found in other parts of the world (though the indigenous tribes and nations in question may not identify with that label themselves).

Animism is a school of religious thought that perceives virtually every living and inorganic thing in the world as having an animating spirit or sapient presence. Every animal, tree, rock, river etc may be seen as having a soul, and with it a degree of awareness.

Polytheism takes the basic idea of animism but considers some of the spirits inhabiting the universe to be deities. Polytheism, per se, is a belief in these deities as distinct and separate beings. However, quite a few people who label themselves polytheist actually tend more towards inclusive monotheism (an outlook that regards all deities as aspects or facets of a greater whole).

Most people following these spiritual disciplines consider the human spirit to survive the death of the body, and so will incorporate reverence for ancestors in their ceremonies. Indeed some traditions, such as Taoism, consider Gods to be the souls of long-dead ancestors whose honourable deeds have lifted them to a heavenly status. Ancient Romans and Egyptians also felt that some remarkable people could become demigods after death.

Pantheism views the whole universe as sacred, and worthy of reverence. Most pantheists do not consider deities as anything other than human-created symbols and eschew what may loosely be described as supernaturalism. Few pantheists believe in a life beyond the grave (except in the sense of remaining in the memories of loved ones).

Some people who call themselves Pagan will have a strong commitment to a given philosophy, whilst others may be a lot looser in their understanding of the universe.

In Britain the commonest varieties of Paganism that one is likely to encounter include Druidry, Heathenry, and Wicca.

Druidry takes its name from the religious/academic caste of the ancient Celtic tribes of Britain, Ireland, and Gaul etc. The original priesthood dwindled out, due to a variety of factors. From the 16th century onwards new Druid Orders were founded by people such as John Toland and Iolo Morgannwg. Some of these groups were predominantly political-cultural associations, dedicated to the preservation of Celtic arts and languages. Others were more akin to Freemasonry, having a strongly monotheist outlook. A growing number were Pagan in outlook. In the 21st century there are a wide number of Druid Orders and smaller Druid groves. Their precise nature, festival calendar, priesthood structure etc varies widely. The Pagan groups commonly place a strong reverence on nature and seeking spiritual vision within the local landscape; many reverence the Gods associated with the Iron Age Celts (such as Lugus, Danuvia, Cernunnos etc); poetry and storytelling frequently play a strong role in ceremony, embodying the ideal of the Celtic Bard.

Heathenry takes its name from the peoples of the heath, a term often used to refer to tribes of a Scandinavian or Germanic origin. Whilst there are some references to ancient temples with clergy, such as the Temple of Frey in Uppsala, many of the tribes do not seem to have had a specifically religious caste. Many modern Heathens also tend to eschew priesthood in favour of small groups (often called hearths or kindred) where ritual functions are shared. Many Heathens study the ancient system of writing called runes, and may use them in a variety of ways ~ to write, as a decorative art, in chanting (called galdr), in magic, and in divination. Most Heathens tend towards polytheism and will revere the deities associated with the ancient tribes of Northern Europe (such as Thor, Frig, Odin, Freya etc.) Heathens place great value on personal honour, and encourage their fellows to be independent, socially responsible, honest and courageous.

Wicca takes its name from an old Anglo-Saxon word for a wise man (the feminine form being wicce). The term started to be used in its modern context in the 1950’s, following the publication of various books by Gerald Gardner. It was that author’s contention that the old pagan religions had not died out, but simply gone underground during mass Christian conversion, and survived in rural folk magic. Whilst many of Gardner’s claims now look shaky in the light of more recent research, his fundamental idea has remained popular. There are far more books geared to teenage Wiccans than there are to teenage Druids, Heathens, or any other type of Pagan. Chaplains working in FE are perhaps more likely to encounter young people with an interest in Wicca than in other forms of Paganism. Some people use the terms Wicca and Witchcraft interchangeably, though it is worth bearing in mind that the word witchcraft is an emotionally loaded one that can mean widely divergent things according to the cultural background of the speaker. Most Wiccans tend to mark eight main festivals a year, and many also hold rituals geared to the phases of the moon. For many the practice of magic is also important, though normally within the strictures of the Rede ~ a moral code recommending that “if it harm none, do as ye will” (an essentially libertarian approach).


The bodywhilst quite a few Pagans opt for a vegetarian or vegan diet, there is no universal rule on matters of food or drink. There is no prohibition against alcohol, and many rituals will commonly feature the use of ceremonial toasting. Ideally alcohol should be used in a responsible manner, though needless to say not everyone lives up to the ideal! A number of ancient cultures have a history of entheogenic use, and attitudes to drugs vary within modern Paganism. Some individuals refuse to pollute their bodies with illegal substances, whilst others will only use socially and avoid usage during ritual, yet others may engage in use of “natural highs” to induce shamanic experiences. For those taking the latter route, education is to be heartily encouraged.

Sexmost Pagans have a positive regard for sensuality in its broadest sense. Same-sex marriages are quite common within Paganism, and very few people have any issues with homosexuality or bisexuality. There is no great value placed on virginity, so few would have any concerns over pre-marital sex (so long as it is consensual and done responsibly). There are no objections to contraception; indeed, it is often actively encouraged as a means to ensure that parenthood (when it happens) is planned rather than accidental. There are no specific guidelines concerning abortion, and this is a matter for personal morality.



Association of Polytheist Traditions -

World Pantheist Movement -

The Pagan Federation -


©Robin Herne 2008

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