Paganism is a nature based religion. Pagans see the divine in all things be they an animal, plant, stone or person. They understand the duality of life – the dark and the light, life and death, the magickal and the mundane, the male, and the female. They believe in the cycle of life and though they might celebrate it differently they acknowledge it and revere it. Paganism has developed over thousands of years. Cultures have come and gone bringing changes in traditions and practices, but the roots have maintained their integrity. Paganism celebrates life in all its forms.
According to written history, Paganism’s roots began in the Paleolithic age approximately 10,000 BCE (before the current era.) The people of this age were itinerant and primitive. Their concerns in life were survival; which consisted of hunting for sustenance. Hunting and fishing were the primary sources of food and it was likely this continual focus on the hunt that brought about the appearance of the “God of the Hunt.” The God of the Hunt was portrayed as the horned god, a stag. It was this God of the Hunt – the Stag God that these early people called upon to give the guidance for the hunts and strength to kill their prey. The men being physically stronger and more inclined to the hunt worshiped the sun, the horned god and also paid special reverence to the animals that they hunted.
During this time, women were the caretakers of the tribes. They prepared the food, cared for the children, elderly, wounded and sick. Women were understood to have a different power about them. They dealt with a different magick. Whereas the men dealt with the sun and the horned God the women, due to their own natural cycles, were very aware of the lunar phases and the numerous aspects of the Goddess. In the tribes, it was the women who were given the responsibility of preparing and leading rituals and worship.
As the cultures progressed agriculture became a viable means of sustaining the food stores of the tribes. The people found that they could grow food and hunting became a way of supplementing their food stores. This gave them a wider variety of food, keeping them healthier and engaging them in different activities. The focus at this time became the cycle of life and the mysteries of fertility. This new focus brought into consideration that the assumption that Goddess had been responsible for the birth and continuation of life was not entirely correct. An acceptance and understanding of the need for and role of the male and female was developed.
The change from solely hunting to agriculture brought change to the people. They were finally able to make permanent settlements as they were no long required to follow the herds and the animals that they hunted. Hunting was still a vital part of their culture, but they were able to sustain themselves easier and with less travelling. Thus, the people became “country dwellers” which is the definition of pagan. This change in their mobility and the no longer transitory nature of the people allowed them to begin exploring and studying the mysteries of the cycle of life – death – and rebirth.
Thought there was a definite change in the mobility of the tribes migration still occurred. Many tribes and peoples migrated and settled in areas such as Rome. It was in these places that the diversity of the beliefs of the different tribes began to appear. The Romans worshiped different Gods and Goddesses than the Greeks though they had similarities. The Etruscans migrated from Asia Minor and they focused on divinatory arts and magick. The Celts brought their own set of beliefs and deities. There were groups of people coming from all over that changed the landscape of pagan beliefs.
It was at this time that a new group of Celtic origin, predominately men migrated. These were the druids. The Druids came with a great deal of knowledge and wisdom and were eventually chosen to watch over the rights and concerns of the pagan people. Through this time (6500-4500 BCE) the solar and lunar religions/cults continued to exist and focused on learning the mysteries and magick of animals, herb lore, and the solar and lunar mysteries but they gradually intermingled with the pagan communities. These people were sometimes referred to as the “wice” and known to be the keepers of mysteries. Of this group, it was largely the woman that developed understandings of the mysteries of the cycle of life and Earth. It was during this time that it again began to be popular to move about – this enabled the sharing of wisdom and traditions.
The world began to change drastically starting around 0 AC. The death of Jesus Christ was the precursor to the advancement of the Christian religion. Starting in the Middles East Christianity began to move across the continents and of course to the center of civilization at the time – Rome. With that Christianization of Rome, the ruling class made it difficult for the commoner and pagans to continue to practice their faith. Pagan temples and places of worship were destroyed and replaced by Christian Churches. Knowing that survival was often dependent on the whim and generosity of the ruling class.
The Christians forced the pagans off of their sacred lands and replaced not only their buildings and temples but their holidays and celebrations with Christianize versions that have continued on to this day. With the change in the dominating religion, the pagans were now forced into hiding.
This change was the precursor of the Dark Ages which began about 1100 AC. This was particularly difficult time for pagans as a lot of their writings were replaced or destroyed by the Christians and the “holy wars” followed quickly. It was during this time that Christian leaders began the inquisitions based on the premise that the pagans were devil worshipers.
Shortly after the “burning times” began. Prompted by a text called the Malleus Malleficarnum (the Witches Hammer) written in 1494 by two Dominican monks, the persecution of pagans and non-Christian believers began. It is estimated that during this time over nine million people were held prisoner and tortured in order to obtain confessions of their participation in witchcraft. When these people were tortured into confession they were brutally killed often by burning at the stake. The laws that were writing during this time continued to be in effect for many years and the last accused witch to be executed was in 1747.
It is not surprising that after so much persecution that most of the pagans who still continued to practice did so as solitaries or in hiding. This practice of hiding pagan beliefs continued until the witchcraft laws were repealed in England in 1951. With this change in the laws came an opportunity for pagans to start to practice their beliefs openly. However the was still a great deal of secrecy knowing what people had endured in the past and the fear that it could happen again.
After the change in the witchcraft laws, one of the foundational characters in bring paganism out into the open was Gerald Gardner. In the early to mid 1959s. His books High Magick’s Aid and Witchcraft Today ushered in a time of freedom for pagans. The result of this new freedom was the development of what is know commonly as Wicca and the availability of mystical and pagan literature. Gardner’s books also made way for a greater number of people to read, learn, and explore faith other than traditional branches of Christianity.
Paganism is not a new faith structure. It has been around for thousands of years and encompassed numerous different belief systems and ways of practicing ones faith. Many of the modern day Christian celebrations have their origins in the pagan celebrations that they tried to subvert. We only need to look deep enough to find that many of the Christian traditions have pagan roots that have been twisted to conform to Christian dogma and theology.
One of the greatest losses due to Christianization was the loss of connection to the natural world. We have lost touch with or awareness of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. We have lost our wonder at the beauty in the world. We have lost our sense of responsibility for our natural world and humanity. This connection with the natural world was the common thread between all the different aspects of pagan tradition throughout history. It is something that only now are we reconnecting with and restoring to its proper place in our lives and our consciousness. Modern pagans are now rediscovering the melodies of our pagan history and are slowly learning to twine that into a symphony of peace, recovery, and celebration.