What Is Traditional Paganism?

Ní h-ansae: Traditional paganism is the collective commonalities between the many forms of religious practice prior to their eclipsing by monotheistic religions, particularly the Religions of the Book, viz. Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

N.B. This post comes at the half-wane. If I post at these times it is because there is some idea or general comment I feel should be said, but it is not one of the major feasts or events. These are, quite literally, a matter of (lunar) course.

Traditional paganism may be recognized by these traits:

  • polytheism, i.e. believing that there is a plurality of distinct beings with varying degrees of agency and intelligibility by humanity who are essentially connected with natural forces and processes in the world;
  • ritualism, i.e. believing in a permeable boundary (to put it simply) between the divine and the mundane through which human and divine agency could communicate usually through formulaic practice;
  • localization, i.e. they occupied a landscape which was imbued with sacred but not necessarily religious or liturgical significance;
  • tribalism, i.e. the family plays a significant if not central role, usually venerating their ancestors in some way.

Most forms of traditional paganism also venerate or at least honour generosity, hospitality, strength, beauty, wealth and power, and if we look at most people in our world these basic values still come through no matter how much someone believes that they ascribe to the dominant orthodox religions of our day, including Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. The reason for this is simple: traditional paganism represents the first and, in my opinion, best religious impulse of humanity.

Because traditional paganism was ferociously localized and tribal, each community had its own practices and beliefs. By extension they each had their own ways of looking at and teaching about the world within this common framework. From an orthodox point of view this plurality of perspectives is essentially heretical, the word heresy coming from the Greek heterodoxos meaning ‘other-opinion’ or ‘other-teaching.’ Orthodoxy’s defining characteristic is that there is only one correct teaching, only one way of looking at the world. The defining terms for orthodoxy are ‘correct,’ ‘right,’ and ‘the truth,’ although truth is a term that really originates in paganism and has been unfortunately coopted by orthodoxy — like so many things.

If you’ve been reading carefully you may have noticed that our world is actually far more pagan than orthodox. Genuinely orthodox believers are few and far between, though most will adhere to the orthodox party line when pressed. I think this is because the natural urge toward tribalism prompts people to adhere to the teaching of their immediate community since straying from their community’s teaching feels like courting disaster.

These days paganism is considered a fringe religion, but my statement that it was the first religious impulse is born out by research. In our modern context, what I call paganism is usually referred to as ‘folk religion,’ but the terms are interchangeable accepting my criteria above, viz. polytheism, ritualism, localization and tribalism. Compare Chinese folk religion to Cherokee beliefs to the religious spectrum of the Central Bantu peoples of Africa. All of these are considered folk religions, but according to my definition they are essentially pagan and have direct commonalities with the European paganisms of the Celts, Germans, Romans, Greeks, etc.

Accepting that the terms folk and pagan religions are synonymous, consider the general age of the major world religions. Orthodox Christianity is about 1700 years old (dating from the Council of Nicea). The present form of Judaism is just over 1900 years old though it claims a 3000 year-old continuity. Islam is just under 1400 years old. Buddhism and Taoism are by far the older of the so-called ‘mainstream’ religions; the former dating back almost 2500 years to the life of Siddhartha Gautama and the latter dating back at least 2200 years (though earlier forms certainly existed). Compare this with the continuities present in Celtic tradition in spite of the intrusion of Christianity — continuities that arguably span more than two thousand years and were only broken through the deliberate dismantlement undertaken by the English crown during the three centuries of the early modern period. Strong similarities between early Celtic and Vedic culture of early India and Iran suggest a religious continuity that spans more than three thousand years. To formulate this visually, the accompanying table below shows the relative persistence of these various religions.


This is not to say that great age alone makes something ontologically or epistemically sound, but the fact that the basic religious sensibilities that informed our ancestors for millennia still inform the self-styled orthodox religions of today imply a common experience and reality. The only difference now is that these basic impulses are considered aberrations of whatever true faith is in question just as secular humanists and scientific positivists consider any ritualistic belief to be an aberration against rationality.

From a traditional pagan viewpoint, each of these perspectives has some degree of truth and some degree of falsity in them — as does any perspective. The question for a traditional pagan is not whether or not our beliefs are right or true but how we navigate our lives in the context of all these different perspectives, beliefs and practices. What works for us and our tribe? As they said in early Ireland: tongu na-dtongad mo thuath … “I swear by that which my people swear by …”

One point that I should make is that the term traditional pagan, like folk religion, is to a certain degree tautological; it’s just how religion works. If a group of people have a religion it is by definition the religion of the folk, so why call out ‘traditional paganism?’ The answer is quite complicated but entirely bound up in our current global discourse. The simplest way to put it is that every writer and speaker, every person, takes a stance. There is no person who writes from the omniscient perspective of the All, however much they may try. Under the influence of orthodoxy, whether religious or secular, there are many who attempt a voice of universal truth, particularly in the context of what we can call the Establishment (current governments, their educators, scientists, orthodox religious leaders etc.). I wish to position this blog differently, and that wish is manifested in the name. To understand more about that, you will have to read my posts.

In our modern context there is unprecedented opportunity for the sharing of ideas, but its purpose is not to decide what is right and what is wrong, even as we discover what is right and wrong for us as individuals. In fact I would go further to say that this opportunity has no express purpose. It simply is, just as the world around us simply is. The best use of religion is to help us engage in this strange and wondrous panoply in which we find ourselves. Let us find our tribe, find our place, find the Things that Work, and find those beings, ideas, and Goods that best manifest who we most truly are.

It is a dream I have …

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