The Pagan Federation (which you should consider supporting by becoming a member!) informally defines pagans as “followers of a Polytheistic or Pantheistic nature-worshipping religion” – a somewhat vague but accurate description of a large spectrum of people.
The word pagan itself is somewhat vague, entering English in the 14th century from the Latin paganus – originally meaning a villager or rural / country person, later used for non-Christians. Indeed, even our own Germanic word in English – heathen – is thought to have meant someone who dwells on the heath, and has been reclaimed by Germanic reconstructionist pagans.
Academics often refer to pagans as ‘neopagans’, considering us followers of ‘new religious movements’ – this came about because many of our beliefs and practices have been lost over the years since the Christianisation of Europe – often through destruction, but many have been cunningly preserved in the way of songs, stories, and poetry – passed down orally.
Perhaps the best known polytheistic pagans who aren’t classed as ‘neopagans’ (despite their practices and beliefs having changed considerably since early times) are the Hindus, whom early Europeans have a shared linguistic history and even spiritual – there are many overlaps of Indo-European and the Vedic religion. Modern European pagan religions such as Wicca have particularly visible similarities to Vedic religion – the use of coloured wool or string, fire, other elements, etc.
Pagans today are on such a diverse spectrum there’s no limit to the eclectic, often syncretic, possibilities.
Wicca & Modern Witchcraft
In its modern form of Wicca, devised by Gerald Gardner (of blessed memory) in the mid-20th century, modern Witchcraft is itself a subcategory of paganism with a number of traditions, each taking a different approach to this blend of reconstructed Witchcraft and Western Occultism / Esotericism.
Among the various traditions, there are core beliefs and practises – including the use of different forms of magic (or magick), morality of causing harm to no one (as per The Wiccan Rede) – followed by the majority of Wiccans, a karma system (The Threefold Law of Return), belief in the power of 5 classical elements (which the points on the pentagram star represents), and observance of 8 seasonal festivals (called Sabbats).
- Gardnerian Wicca – known as the first form of Wicca or Modern Witchcraft, founded by Gerald Gardner. Organised around covens; three grades of initiation; worship primarily of the Mother Goddess & Horned God; Has a moral/ethical code known as The Wiccan Rede.
- Alexandrian Wicca – Established in the 1960s by Alex and Maxine sanders, largely based on Gardnerian Wicca – but with a greater level of eclecticism. Ceremonial, Hermetic-Kabbalistic (often referred to as High Magick) rituals are used more in the Alexandrian tradition.
- Dianic Wicca – founded in the 1960s by Zsuzsanna Budapest. Dianic Wicca differs from the first two in that only the Goddess is worshipped, and combines Traditional British and Italian Witchcraft. Dianic Wicca is a feminist tradition, and the lineage from Zsuzsanna Budapest is exclusively female.
- Seax-Wicca – founded in 1973 by Raymond Buckland (himself a Gardnerian initiate), Seax-Wicca is a Wiccan tradition inspired (but is not a reconstruction of) Anglo-Saxon religion. Seax-Wicca allows and encourages self-initiation, and adopts Frīg, Gefn (Freja), Tíw, Þunor, and Wōden as deities for God and Goddess.
There are of course many others, potentially hundreds if not thousands of variant traditions as each person or covent syncretises different practices, beliefs, and deities – but these are the primary forms of Wicca that grew from Traditional British Witchcraft.
Folk religions which have been reconstructed through songs, hymns, poems, stories, cultural practices, and archaeologically recovered information.
The Greeks have revived Hellenism, the Egyptians – Kemeticism, there’s Germanic (including Anglo-Saxon) Heathenry, Celtic, Baltic, and Slavic reconstructed pagan religions to name a few. These are polytheistic pre-Christian, indigenous folk religions which have been reconstructed.
There has even been efforts to reconstructed the common Proto-Indo-European Religion which preceded Celtic/Slavic/Germanic/Hellenic/etc religions.
As for Heathenry, I’m not sure if it should be considered a reconstructed religion or a ‘new religious movement’ like Wicca. Probably the latter.
Similar to Wicca in that it is a modern interpretation of Druidry – the indigenous Brythonic religion – as Wicca is an interpretation of Witchcraft. Modern Druidry has formally existed since the 18th century, predating Wicca. Drawing on Brythonic folk tales & poems, it is a nature-focused religion and is split into three grades – bard, ovate, and druid.
There is a degree of crossover between Druidry and Wicca, and a spiritual connection between followers of each. Art, music, and meditative rituals are central to Druidry.
Occultism & Western Mysticism
While not necessarily pagan in nature by traditional definition, occultism & western mysticism / esotericism is a large part of the ritual, philosophies, and belief systems of many ‘pagans’. Features such as correspondences between elements, planets, herbs, etc; theurgy; alchemy; astrology;
Notable movements & systems include Hermeticism (popularised by the Golden Dawn), Thelema (Crowley), Theosophy, Gnosticism, Kabbalah (both Jewish and Hermetic forms), Freemasonry, etc.
This page is a work in progress! Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions :).