A Nutshell History of Paganism


In the early life of humankind, spirituality, though a community practice, was no more dogmatic than a belief in something more powerful than either any one person or the entire tribe. It was only natural for ancient peoples to see a powerful, uncontrollable force (god or goddess) in the weather, the sun, the growing fields and the animals they depended upon for clothing and food.

Among these early people, some were more sensitive than others at "reading" the natural signs around them. They knew when animals and birds would be migrating, each animal's body language, and were more receptive to visions and prophetic dreams. These people became known as shamans, "whisperers" or medicine people. These sensitive people became both honored and feared because of a lack of understanding of what they were able to do. This fear and awe set them apart from their other tribe members. They became more recluse and thus, more mysterious. Eventually, these people became the spiritual leaders of their tribes and were depended upon by the tribe to help with their success in finding places to live, gathering food and hunting.

As people became agrarian, they looked toward their spiritual leaders to help them with their crops: when to plant, how to make the plants grow into a harvest that would support the community, when to take that harvest and how to preserve it. As communities grew into walled villages and cities, a separation of society developed. The people in the cities depended upon those outside the city walls to provide them with food. These people outside the city, the herdsmen and farmers were called "paganni" which basically means "country people." It is from the word paganni that the word pagan derives.

These country peoples' lives depended upon the land they worked, whether weather would be good or bad, whether crops were doing well or failing, whether or not animals reproduced and even whether or not they had enough children to help them work the land. Therefore, they kept very much in tune with their environment. They communicated with the land, the animals, weather and crops through a set of local personified archetypes of nature that became known as gods and goddesses.

Because natural forces can sometimes be fickle, they gave these personifications very human characteristics in order to reconcile the sometimes unpredictable aspect of the environment around them. They used simple "organic magic" such as candle-burning, sweeping out their homes of negative energies, pouring blessed water over their crops, chanting rhymes, dancing in the fields, making love on the land, etc. to encourage abundance and prosperity in their environment and to discourage waste and infertility.


As cities grew larger and the social gap between the paganni and the city dwellers grew, so did other forms of spiritual leadership. Some spiritual leaders in the cities began to practice a more formal kind of Magick to match the more formal style of living: "high" or "ceremonial" magick. Rules, rituals, and precise verbiage became the rule for controlling the hard-edge energies with which the ceremonial magicians worked. The energies with which they worked were dangerous and the magician required many years of training in order to be successful.

Other spiritual leaders developed social and spiritual rules or dogma by which "truly spiritual" people should live. These leaders became very powerful, decrying the paganni form of spirituality as evil, demonizing the gods and goddesses honored by the paganni. As Christianity took hold, this attitude became so powerful as to force pagans to go "underground" either consciously or unconsciously until "Gerald Gardner, his High Priestess Doreen Valiente, (1922 - 1999) and others, took the surviving beliefs and practices, and fleshed them out with material from other religious, spiritual and ceremonial magick sources"[1] to become what is known today as Modern Wicca. These other spiritual and ceremonial sources included The Golden Dawn Tradition, Masonry, The Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) and "partly from magickal MSS in my possession." (quotation by Gerald Gardner.)

In the late 1960s, the writings of Gerald Gardner began to be published in the United States. However, it was much later that publications on Paganism and Wicca became abundant enough to inspire the vast movement we now see in Pagan spirituality.

Modern Pagan Society


The most common time for Pagans to hold festivals is at or near the time of Sabbats, the number of sabbats depending upon the local weather conditions, number of active Pagans in the community and the local or regional desire for a festival. Sabbat festivals not only celebrate the current holy day, but often include workshops ranging form basic training in various paths, through craft workshops, to discussions and sharing between clergy.

You may find the sabbat festivals to be the most visible festivals, because they are generally advertised in some way, by word of mouth, flyers in storefronts, or by mail from an organization or e-list of which you are a part. Some of these festivals are free, though most have a nominal fee for attendance. There are a few whose attendance fee is more sizeable. These are often longer in duration may sometimes include a food plan. For the festivals which do not provide a food plan, you will need to bring your own food, store it, and keep it cold. Be sure you are aware of all the expenses involved in any given festival, how much food you will need to bring and what provisions you need to make in order to store it.

Most festivals are camping events. Some are held at sites where there are amenities such as inside plumbing and cabins and some are held on sites that are primarily if not entirely rough camping. Some sites have RV hook-ups, though most do not. If you need special provisions, you will need to check with the organizers or site administrators to find out whether a particular site meets your personal needs.

Sometimes festivals are held at times other than sabbats. These are usually held for the primary purpose of socializing and community-building, though they may also hold workshops. The St. Louis, MO annual Pagan Picnic is a good example. This event is held the last weekend of July in a large city park and attracts over 1,000 people each year. There are workshops held at this event and vendors attend as well, however, it is not a camping event as are most festivals. Historically, most festivals have been held outdoors, limiting them to spring, summer and fall festivals. However, more people are beginning to hold community festivals in the late fall, winter and early spring at indoor facilities.

At any festival, there will be a great deal of energy; energy from many bodies in one place, from rituals, from singing, drumming and chanting, from people discussing the many topics in workshops, etc. The newcomer may find himself riding high on the energy wave, either always in motion or perhaps unable to sleep, if he has not taken the time to learn how to ground out excess energy. Although this may seem like a minor problem, the true impact may hit when he leaves the festival grounds to go home. Having been "living off the energy" while at festival, he will find himself suddenly without that extra source. He may find it very difficult to remain alert enough to drive once the source of energy is gone. This can be very dangerous, so it is imperative that one learn to ground out energy rather than "feed" on it and make sure you get enough sleep at festival, even though there is a great temptation to not miss anything.

The energy level can be especially difficult for small children to deal with. It is up to the parents to assist the child in grounding the unneeded energy, or both the parents and any other caregivers associated with the child(ren) will find it very unpleasant. If a child is extremely fussy or unruly, it is likely he is dealing with more energy than he knows how to handle. Giving the child something to eat, stroking his head and body to "draw off" the excess energy, singing to him, having him lie on a blanket on the ground, etc. can help him drain off energy.

Festivals are more common now than they have been in the past, however, it is likely that sooner or later you will need to travel some distance in order to get to a festival. You may be able to accommodate the distance by flying, however, if it is a camping event, driving to the event allows for the transport of camping gear and supplies. Often people will travel in groups to distant festivals in order to share driving and camaraderie.

Nudity The practice of nudity or "going skyclad" varies from tradition to tradition and from individual to individual. Some traditions require members to practice rituals skyclad, while others do not practice skyclad at all. However, most Pagans practice nudity to one degree or another. Whether or not a tradition or system is one which practices skyclad should be made known to the prospective student from the very beginning. The option to practice skyclad should always be the choice of the individual.

The prospective student should evaluate his own thoughts, feelings and inclinations regarding the practice of nudity, including his reasons for these before determining whether or not to participate in any tradition practicing nudity. If nudity is a requirement for joining the tradition being considered, it might be better for the new student to seek out another tradition or system for learning the basics of paganism before making the decision to join a tradition or system practicing nudity.

Although individuals in the EarthPath Tradition occasionally practice skyclad for personal rituals and may sometimes practice skyclad in groups, there is no requirement to do so. The student is always encouraged to make his own decision in this regard and the student's inclinations and feelings are honored. However, if a group ritual is to be practiced and the student does not wish to participate skyclad, he will have to honor other member(s) decision to practice skyclad and enter the ritual with an attitude of love and trust if he wishes to participate in the ritual. If he cannot accept the nudity, he will be asked not to participate in a ritual where members may be skyclad.


Sexuality, because of its relationship to masculine (projective/positive) and feminine (receptive/negative) energies, is always present in paganism and the ritual processes, even when the participants are of the same sex. Physical sexual interaction, however, once again varies from tradition to tradition and among individuals. Some traditions require physical sexual interaction for elevations (initiations), while other traditions do not practice physical sexual interaction in association with rituals. Again, whether or not to participate in physical sexual interaction is always the decision of the student or member. If a tradition requires physical sexual interaction to become a member, run, don't walk as fast as you can in the other direction! Never allow yourself to be convinced to participate in any tradition or system that will not teach you unless you participate in sex.

Physical sexual interaction is not practiced per se in the EarthPath Tradition, although individuals may, with consent between adults only, participate in private rituals including physical sexual interaction. When this is practiced, it must be with an understanding of the workings and operations of what is known as "sex magick," with honor for each other, and must never be practiced purely as an end to satisfying purely physical desires. Sex magick is very powerful in its potential both to do good and to harm. Like any magick, it is not to be practiced lightly, with intent to change or harm others, or without proper training.

Pagans in Society

Pagans today are taking a more active role in the protection of their spiritual rights. They are going to court to establish their right to wear spiritual jewelry, to be free from social or religious pressures in schools, social groups and armed the forces against Wiccan/Pagan spirituality, to receive tax exempt status for Earth-centered churches and to own pagan-oriented businesses without persecution.

Across the country, Pagans are forming community outreach groups, such as the Council for Alternative Spiritual Traditions (C.A.S.T) in St. Louis, Missouri. C.A.S.T. has an active membership approximating 80-85 individuals who are active in the St. Louis community as group leaders or as solitary practitioners. The group was organized by Omnistic Fellowship (OF) in 1995 by inviting a group of known group and community leaders to an open discussion meeting. The group decided that forming a community group was both viable and beneficial to the community. C.A.S.T.'s organization was a long difficult process, but it brought solidarity to the St. Louis Pagan community and brought paganism to the attention of the general public, allowing for public education and outreach. Money is raised at spring and fall social events to support the other activities sponsored throughout the year.

C.A.S.T. sponsors Open Full Moons, Open New Moons, social event such as "Spring Fling" and "Fall Ball," "Magickal Weekend" and the annual "Pagan Picnic"." The picnic is a two-day event held in a public city park the last Saturday in July. The first picnic was sponsored by Field Star Coven on July 4th 1993. It was so popular among the local community that Yarrow Coven took up the banner in 1994 and continued the tradition, providing the leadership and direction which has made the Pagan Picnic such a tremendous and continued success. The picnic attracts up to 2,000 people from around the country. It has become one of the "things to do" listed in the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

In Texas the Council for Magickal Arts (CMA) is on a similar path. They have purchased a large tract of land and hold spiritual events for the Texas Pagan community. Circle Sanctuary holds the annual Pagan Spirit Gathering in Ohio, which attracts upwards of 700 people every year for a week long Summer Solstice celebration, as well as publishing a quarterly newsletter that keeps Pagans informed of both Circle Sanctuary events as well as current legal issues.

Putting together cooperative and active community groups, running a Pagan church/retreat center, or standing up for Pagan rights is no easy task. It takes a great deal of work, research and effort. but, more than that, it takes a lot of courage when Paganism is not widely accepted in society. It takes considerable courage for individuals to expose themselves to criticism, loss of employment or abandonment by their families in order to bring social freedom to their fellow Pagans.


•Attend at least three organized festivals or major social gatherings (other than coffee at the local "pub").

•Attend at least three meetings of a community group.

•Journal your experiences and discuss with your mentor.

•Write a paper of 350 - 2000 words regarding your personal stand on sexuality and nudity.

Reading and Discussion

•A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States, Helen A. Berger

•People of the Earth: The New Pagans Speak Out, Ellen Evert Hopman and Lawrence Bond

•Secrets of a Witch's Coven, Morwyn; Chapter 1: A concise History of Witchcraft and Magic

•Spiral Dance, Starhawk; chapters 1, Witchcraft as Goddess Religion and 2, The World View of Witchcraft


•[1] http://www.religioustolerance.org/witchcra.htm

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