This is the second part of an introduction to basic Neopaganism. In Part I, I discussed an overview of what constitutes a Neopagan faith path, and the incredible variation of these religions. In this section, beliefs/ethics are discussed.
First, let restate that Paganism refers to an old and ancient number of religions predating Christianity for thousands of years that have not survived in their original form. Neo-paganism refers to a group of modern revivalist religions and religious practices based on those ancient faiths that include Druidism, Wicca, Santeria, Voudun, Christo-Paganism, Dianic Wicca, and many others.
As with almost everything related to these faith paths, Neo-Pagan ethics can also vary substantially. But most and believe in living an active, rather than passive life, and treading lightly on each other and the planet. To most Neo-Pagans, they believe that they can effect the energies around them to better themselves, and improve our world.
In Wicca, followers have no central doctrine, except the fundamental principle that they express as: “An ye harm none, do as ye will.” This means that a Wiccan can do as he or she pleases, provided it does no harm to themselves or others. This honors the freedom of individual, while stressing the responsibility for choices and actions made willingly. Being individuals, each Wiccan decides for him or herself what exactly 'harm' means. As a consequence, Wiccans have very different opinions when it comes to many issues, including abortion, war, vegetarianism, and capital punishment.
In general, Neo-Pagans do not worship Satan, nor do they believe that an "Evil" entity even exists. Most Neo-Pagans see evil as imbalance, and the result of people making mistakes and choices that lead to their suffering, and the suffering of others.
Wrongdoing occurs when people forget, or sever, their connection with the universal spirit, most Neo-Pagans believe.
Wicca is an official religion in the U.S., just like Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic faiths.
Specifically, Wicca is an earth-based Neo-Pagan religion. Like its African counterparts, Wicca incorporates a magical (not necessarily supernatural) system into its beliefs, but performing magic is not a requirement.
In general, magic refers to “ceremonial” or non-religious acts, also including slight of hand or other stage productions. Magick, on the other hand, has to do with rituals performed by practitioners in a religious context to move or effect energy.
In Wicca, magick has a very specific role: to improve member’s lives, develop a relationship with the Goddess and the God, and to return energy to the earth, which sustains all life. The ways in which this can be accomplished are many and varied, and each practitioner interprets these purposes for themselves.
Wicca is one of the newest religions, and is currently the fastest growing religion in the world. Its origin was in the late 1930's and was begun by Gerald Gardner (1884 – 1964). Gardner, a retired British civil servant, launched Wicca shortly after the end of World War II, and went public with his coven following the repeal of England’s Witchcraft Laws in the early 1950’s.
He claimed that the religion, of which he was an initiate, was a modern survival of an old witchcraft religion, which had existed in secret for hundreds of years, originating in the pre-Christian Paganism of Europe. Wicca is thus sometimes referred to as the Old Religion. The veracity of Gardner's claims cannot be independently proven, and it is thought that Wiccan theology began to be compiled no earlier than the 1920’s.
Various related Wiccan traditions have since evolved or been adapted from the form established by Gardner, which came to be called Gardnerian Wicca. These other traditions of Wicca each have distinctive beliefs, rituals, and practices. Many traditions of Wicca remain secretive and require that members be initiated. There is also a movement of Eclectic Wiccans who do not believe that any doctrine or traditional initiation is necessary in order to practice Wicca.
There is a good deal of debate within the Wiccan community as to whether the Gardnerian path is the only “true” Wiccan tradition, but the point remains that it was certainly the first. Gardnerian covens require initiation, and work on a degree system. As a result, much of their information is initiatory and oathbound, which means it can never be shared with those outside the coven.
Since then, it has branched out into a wide range of beliefs and practices. Solitary Practitioners, who belong to no organized group, also comprise a vibrant, active branch of Wiccan faithful across the globe.
The most neutral definition of Wicca that I could find comes from the official printing of the Army Chaplain's Handbook, which describes the religion as follows:
Wiccans worship the sacred as immanent in Nature, often personified as Mother Earth and Father Sky. As polytheists, they may use many other names for Deity. Individuals will often choose Goddesses or Gods from any of the world's pantheons whose stories are particularly inspiring and use those Deities as a focus for personal devotions. Similarly, covens will use particular Deity names as a group focus, and the groups often hold these secret.
It is very important to be aware that Wiccans do not in any way worship or believe in "Satan," "the Devil," or any similar entities. They point out that "Satan" is a symbol of rebellion against and inversion of the Christian and Jewish traditions. Wiccans do not revile the Bible. They simply regard it as one among many of the world's mythic systems, less applicable than some to their core values, but still deserving just as much respect as any of the others.
Most Wiccan groups also practice magic, by which they mean the direction and use of "psychic energy," those natural but invisible forces which surround all living things. Some members spell the word "magick," to distinguish it from sleight of hand entertainment.
Wiccans employ such means as dance, chant, creative visualization and hypnosis to focus and direct psychic energy for the purpose of healing, protecting and aiding members in various endeavors. Such assistance is also extended to nonmembers upon request.
Many, but not all, Wiccans believe in reincarnation. Some take this as a literal description of what happens to people when they die. For others, it is a symbolic model that helps them deal with the cycles and changes within this life. Neither Reincarnation nor any other literal belief can be used as a test of an individual's validity as a member of the Old Religion.
Most groups have a handwritten collection of rituals and lore, known as a Book of Shadows. Part of the religious education of a new member will be to hand copy this book for him or herself. Over they years, as inspiration provides, new material will be added. Normally, access to these books is limited to the initiated members of the religion.
Doreen Valiente: (1922-1999), born Doreen Edith Dominy, became one of the first of Gardner’s initiates, and eventually his High Priestess. In this role she was able to influence many of the writings that became the bedrock for modern Witchcraft. Her most well-known writing is, “The Charge of the Goddess,” which is still widely used by many covens and Solitary Practitioners today.
Gardner was an educated folklorist and occultist, and claimed to have been initiated himself into a coven of New Forest witches by a woman named Dorothy Clutterbuck, whom some have claimed was a fabrication. When England repealed the last of its witchcraft laws in 1951, Gardner went public with his coven, much to the consternation of many other witches in England. His active courting of publicity led to a rift between him and Valiente. Gardner formed a series of covens throughout England prior to his death in 1964.
Thus, Wiccan spiritual practices are a combination of ancient and modern techniques to shift states of consciousness at will in order to achieve many different, positive ends. Sometimes these techniques are used for purposes such as divination, blessing, healing, and other uses that involve the raising of energy. The specific techniques are many and varied. It takes a lot of practice, study, patience, and faith to be successful in performing these rituals. Wiccans may perform spiritual work for others, such as healing or divination, but only with their expressed and informed consent.
In general, all Neo-Pagans value and support religious freedom; have a deep reverence for nature and the planet; honor equality between people regardless of race, ethnicity, religious belief, gender or sexual orientation; favor openness to forms of sexuality; and believe that the religion should be celebrated with profound emotional joy.
At the core of Neo-Paganism are four basic tenants that most paths share:
• The Divine manifests through many deities in different places and at different times. No one deity can express the totality of the Divine. (Generally, this is referred to as polytheism – many different Gods; while monotheism refers to a single God.)
• The Divine is present in Nature, and is also in each one of us. (Generally, this is referred to as pantheism – the Divine is everywhere.)
• The Divine is represented as both female and male. In Wicca, the two primary aspects of the Divine are the Goddess and the God, although the Divine is beyond limitations of gender.
• Neopagans share the same basic ethical precept to do no harm, also referred to as The Pagan Ethic.
• There are many paths to God, among which Neopaganism is only one. As a result, those following Pagan paths do not seek to convert others – EVER. A Norse priestess known as “Sigrid the Proud” explained to the Christian missionaries who tried to convince her to renounce her Pagan path: “I must not depart from the faith which I have held and my ancestors before me; on the other hand, I shall make no objection to your believing in the God that pleases you best.”
Wiccan morality is ruled according to the Wiccan Rede, which states in part: "An it harm none, do what thou wilt." ("An" in this instance represents an archaic word meaning "if.")
Others follow the slightly adapted Rede of: "An it harm none, do what ye will; if harm it does, do what ye must." Either way, the Rede is central to the understanding that personal responsibility, rather than a religious authority, is where moral structure resides.
One of the major differences between Wiccans and other types of witchcraft is the Rede. Many "traditional" witches or witches that follow other paths, do not believe in the Rede. This is a major topic of controversy within the Wiccan and Pagan communities, the so-called white or black art practitioners.
As previously mentioned, most Wiccans also believe that no spiritual work can be performed on any other person without that person's direct permission (excepting pets and young children who can be protected by parents and owners). Sometimes when permission is expected but not yet attained magical energy will be placed on the astral plane for the receiver to gather if and when he/she is ready.
Many Wiccans also promote the Law of Threefold Return, or the idea that anything that one does may be returned to them, but three times as strong. Similar to karma, but in this belief good deeds are magnified back to the doer, as are harmful deeds. The Threefold Law is sometimes referred as:
Ever Mind The Rule Of Three,
Three Times Your Acts Return To Thee.
This Lesson Well, Thou Must Learn,
Thou Only Gets What Thee Dost Earn.
A few Wiccans also follow, or at least consider, a set of 161 Laws often referred to as Lady Sheba's Laws. They are based in large part on Gerald Gardner's Old Laws, which he attributed to his New Forest coven and first came to light in 1957.
Some Wiccans find these rules to be outdated and counterproductive. One Wiccan has said, "I find much of this document, regardless of origins, to be outdated and unnecessary. It is at points sexist and ageist, and it is saturated with the paranoia associated with the myth of the Burning Times."
Most Wiccans also seek to cultivate the Eight Wiccan Virtues. These may have been derived from earlier Virtue ethics, but were first formulated by Valiente in her aforementioned The Charge of the Goddess. They are Mirth, Reverence, Honor, Humility, Strength, Beauty, Power, and Compassion. They are represented in paired opposites, which are perceived as providing balance to each other.
Wicca has a close association with feminism, and many women Wiccans say they are attracted to Wicca in large part because of its emphasis on female equality, divinity and power. In addition to the emphasis on the Goddess, an attractive aspect of Wicca for feminists is the ability to identify with powerful women from history, sadly who were persecuted by the male-dominated Christian church.
Dianic Wicca is the most feminist-oriented tradition of Wicca, in that it emphasizes the Goddess Diana alone and excludes men from covens. Other traditions, however, believe that this approach is improper and interferes with the balance of masculine and feminine in nature, so men are just as welcome to practice as women.
Throughout most of Wicca and Neopaganism, all sexual orientations are considered healthy and positive, provided that individual sexual relationships are healthy and loving. Sexual orientation is therefore not considered an issue. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are almost always welcomed in individual communities, covens, glens, study groups, and circles. Many homosexual Neopagans were initially attracted to Neopagan religions because of this inclusion, in which their relationships are seen on an equal footing with heterosexual, or traditional couples.
In support of this philosophy, many Neopagans cite the The Charge of the Goddess, which says in part, "All acts of Love and Pleasure are Her rituals." Therefore all forms and expressions of sexuality, as long as they are otherwise healthy, generally between adults, and consensual, are accepted. Thus, many Wiccans believe that sexuality is a direct expression of the divine.
Most traditional Wiccans worship the God and Goddess. Traditional Wiccan covens aspire to having equal numbers of men and women, to embody their belief in the importance of balance between the male and female (which extends sexually). This, and the imbalance of female and male practitioners, can sometimes be a practical obstacle to homosexuals and women who wish to join traditional circles, an obstacle often shared by single people. The actual sexual orientation of the individual is not an issue.
Kemetic Ethics are based in the Egyptian concept of Ma'at, which is truth, justice, order, and "that which is right." In addition, Kemetics look to ancient Egyptian law texts such as the Declaration of Innocence (also called the "Negative Confessions"), which contain a list of 42 sins a deceased person claims not to have done, and the Wisdom Texts, which are pieces of advice written by Ancient Egyptians.
The Declaration of Innocence includes such sins as murder, muddying the rivers of the Nile river, adultery, theft, eavesdropping, and sexual perversion. This last sin is often translated in older texts as committing homosexuality, but Kemetic Reconstructionists consider this a mistranslation and are open to homosexual members. A common theory is that the prohibition refers to child prostitution.
Neo-Pagans, primarily Wiccans, often follow a specific pantheon such as Celtic, Norse, Greek, etc. Some Neo-Pagans worship the whole pantheon while others choose to direct their worship to a few or even one of the deities. Some Neo-Pagans consider the deities to be aspects of reality or universal personality, which helps them to focus on improving their own lives and behavior. Other Neo-Pagans consider the deities to be external beings who embody certain traits like strength, learning, or love. Neo-Pagans have very personal relationships with the deities, so their perceptions of them are equally personal and individualistic.
Like the rituals in most non-Pagan religions, Neo-Pagan rituals mark changes and events in human life: Birth, death, marriage – but also chronicle the change of the seasons. Ritual can be a ceremony of celebration (as in the holy days) or a way of honoring the Gods and Goddesses and thanking them for their blessings. Offerings made to the Gods and Goddesses often include natural things of beauty, flowers, art, stones, crystals, or items created by the practitioner including, poems, songs, and dance. These offerings demonstrate the level of dedication and devotion of Neo-Pagan worshipers.
The following is a great article by Vivianne Crowley describing Neo-Paganism:
“Pagan religion is based on teachings handed down through myth and sage over thousands of years. Some Pagans worship the Gods of their ancestors or of the land in which they live. Still others worship the Gods and Goddesses that resonate with them, whether or not they have a tie to the particular area of the world those Gods and Goddesses originally appeared. Many people all over the world are drawn to the Egyptian deities, for example. Some Pagans draw on a number of different religious traditions. Many worship the Great Mother Goddess, seeing all the different forms in which She has been worshiped as a number of aspects of Her – that all are in fact Her. There are many traditions within Paganism. Paganism is an umbrella term that encompasses several Earth-based religions, including Wicca, Druidry, followers of Odin, Asatru, Native American religion, and others.
Pagans believe that spiritual knowledge unfolds from within ourselves. Pagans believe that there is a collective human memory. It has been shown that animals have a collective memory – when elephants are born, they have "memories" of up to 1,000 species of plants that are eaten to cure different illnesses. Pagans believe that humans, with training, can access that deeper layer of the mind that contains the full repository of all human knowledge – past, present, and future. The psychologist Carl Jung has called this the "collective unconscious." This can explain why scientists in different areas of the world will come to the same realization at the same time.”
(Next: Your God, Part III Wicca and More Magick)
— Danu’s Daughter