“The Dark Arts are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal. Fighting them is like fighting a many-headed monster, which, every time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before. You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible.”—Professor Snape, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Ok, so Paganism is not the Dark Arts; and as yet I make no claims to be “She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named”. But sometimes providing a definition for what exactly Paganism is, and who and how you practice it seems exactly like that quote—defining that which is unfixed, mutating, and ever-changing. However, I’m going to do my best. Mainly because every Pagan blogger tackles this question at some point, and also because I’m doing a presentation on it in February, and I need a place to get all my thoughts in some semblance of order. So, here goes. I promise, I won’t be cursing spiders.
Since this will be the first of posts on this topic, let’s start with definitions. For the grammar geeks, capitalization is super important for this discussion. “Pagan” and “pagan” have very different meanings, as you’ll see soon. Bear in mind that these definitions are not gospel truth, and someone else in the wide world may very well have set of definitions that works better for you. This is merely a starting place for conversation.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “pagan” as a follower of a polytheistic religion. Which is a huge set of religions, and breaks down into three sub groups: paleopagan religions, mesopagan religions, and neopagan religions. Paleopagan religions began in the period of pre-history to the Dark Ages; mesopagan religions began between the Dark Ages and 1900; and neopagan religions started after 1930. The kinds of religions you’ll most often see in the day-to-day are the paleopagan and the neopagan ones. Paleopagan religions have a strong sense of identity (they would have to survive this long), and typically don’t identify as “Pagan”, if at all. If you want to find out more about paleopagan religions such as Hinduism and the religions indigenous to your area I suggest going straight to the source.
The neopagan religions include Wicca, Thelema, and the various forms of reconstructionism. The practitioners of these tend to identify as Pagan or Heathen. See where the capitalizations start to come in handy? It’s a great opportunity to be Grammar-Nazi.
Thus ends the first point in “definition of paganism” series. “Pagan” is not the same as “pagan”, and it’s the best stopping point before jumping into what Paganism actually is. Odds are, no matter how I define this, someone somewhere will be offended or disagree with me. Which is totally cool, everyone can self-identify; this is just my take on it.