What do Pagans/Wiccans believe?

I am not trying to start an argument or debate here, which is why I’m posting this in GQ rather than GD or the Pit. But it occurred to me the other day that I have very little good information about what Pagans and/or Wiccans believe. So I have a few questions if someone in the know would be kind enough to answer, or you may volunteer information if I’m not asking the right questions. I’ll number my questions for easy reference.

  1. Belief in a supreme being: Is there a concept of God, similar to the biblical concept (an omniscient, omnipotent, jealous being) but differing in detail (e.g. female)? Or are there a number of gods and demi-gods? Or is God a concept, a way of looking at the world and not a personal being at all? Or something entirely different again?

  2. Differences among sects: I’m guessing I’m already in trouble for lumping Paganism and Wicca together. I’m assuming there are different interpretations on what these terms mean. Are these variations on similar beliefs? Totally different? Minor differences exist but are well-tolerated?

  3. Historicity: Where did these beliefs arise? I’ve heard claims of connections to Druidism, Baal, Native American and other early religions. Is there agreement on these sources? How do they account for the different sources leading to a common endpoint? Or do they?

  4. Rites, rituals, ordinances: Are these present? Are they considered necessary, like baptism for Christians? Are they viewed as exercises that enhance spirituality?

  5. Literature: Many religions have scriptures or sacred texts. Do these exist?

  6. Other metaphysical concepts: Heaven? Hell? Afterlife? Spirits?

Forgive me in advance if you find these questions intrusive or insulting. I’m not trying to be confrontational – I’d just like to hear from believers what it is they believe. I’ve framed the questions in terms of my admittedly limited understanding. If they are better expressed another way don’t stand on ceremony.


Pluto (now that’s a nice Pagan name, eh?)

Before this gets hijacked into another Great Debate, check out the best online source for information about the basic beliefs of any faith group: religioustolerance.org

Scroll down to the section on Neopagan Religious Faiths and all your questions should be answered.

While I may not be the greatest expert on the boards, I am a Neopagan (solitary eclectic Wiccan, semiagnostic). I’ll take a stab at your questions, at least until someone better comes along. I’ll be answering mainly from the Wiccan viewpoint; other Neopagans, like Druids and Asatru, are very different in many ways.

Warning: Many vague and heavily qualified statements ahead.

Sort of. Maybe. Some of us, anyway. Some Neopagans believe in an entire pantheon of deities, like the Asatru (who follow the old Norse gods). Others believe in a male and female pair who represent the life-bringing and life-nurturing aspects of the world, as well as the cycle of life. Many of the latter regard the God and Goddess as representing aspects of a truly supreme being that is entirely beyond our comprehension–sort of an embodiment of the universe as a whole. (Many Wiccans subscribe to the latter belief.) Others do not believe in any living, personal deity at all, preferring to contemplate the ineffable wholeness of everything (this is a little to abstruse for most). As with most things Neopagan, there are no hard and fast rules–everyone decides what to believe for themselves.

The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind. There are not only differences among sects (“Traditions”) within each religion, there are major differences between individuals. It’s rare to see any two individuals with identical beliefs. As a general rule, we all get along despite the differences–one of the things that most of us do share is the belief that everyone has a right to make his or her own way.

Anywhere. Everywhere. Some of them, particularly Native American Spirituality (not Neopagan, but somewhat similar shamanic Earth Religions), are continuations of ancient ways in an unbroken line. Others, like Wicca (and I may catch some flak for this), were largely recreated from whole cloth. Historical sources for Wiccan and Druidic practices are few and unreliable; while we try to maintain the general philosophy of the parent religions, our rituals and practices have largely been constructed according to our needs and personal quirks since the revival of these religions.

Again, there is no one answer. I’m a solitary eclectic Wiccan; my rites seldom consist of more than quiet meditation. There are rites for ceremonial occasions–births, weddings, funerals, etc–among most (if not all) Neopagan religions, but they vary widely, and are often redesigned to fit the occasion. One-size-fits-all rituals don’t really suit the rabidly independent among us. Wiccans record their rituals, insights, changes in belief, and other matters of faith in a sort of religious diary, called a “Book of Shadows”. It often works as a reference for later rituals and questions, and the Books of particularly insightful teachers are often copied for reference by others.

As a side note: Some Neopagans, Wiccans among them, do cast spells and work magick (that extra “k” still strikes me as pretentious, though). These aren’t what the general public usually thinks of as spells–they’re more like prayers for help in particular things. The main difference is that Wiccans attempt to put more energy and effort in to the spell than most others put into a prayer; it’s not enough to mouth the words or to burn the candle–the God and Goddess help those who help themselves.

There is a lot of literature out there, but little if any is regarded as sacred–most of it is more like philosophy texts and cookbooks. We’re stuck with finding the answers for ourselves, rather than referring to scriptures. This varies from religion to religion of course; I suppose the closest Wiccans come to “scripture” are passages from the books of particularly insightful teachers (as mentioned above).

Afterlife? Heh…every variation under the sun–Valhalla, reincarnation, the Summerlands, the “other world” (much like this one, sort of a variation on reincarnation), merging with the universe/God/Goddess/whatever. I can’t think of any group that believes in a place of eternal punishment, but that’s about the only thing missing from the list. I don’t know about the rest of them, but I’m prepared to wait and see.

As for spirits…it depends on the religion and the individual. Some people believe in spirits everywhere, some engage in something like ancestor worship (or at least propitiation), and others don’t even remotely believe in ghosts. Personally, I’m withholding judgement until I see evidence (told you I was a bit agnostic).

Questions are how we learn. Yours are certainly far better than what we usually get, and more politely phrased. You’ll seldom find one of taking offense at an honest question (though there are exceptions, YMMV). I hope my answers help.

(Previewing shows SpoilerVirgin’s link to the OCRT page–that’s an excellent site, well worth reading in its entirety when you have time. It’s one my favorite bookmarks.)

Yet another Neo-Pagan wading into the morass…

BTW - I don’t think I’d describe myself as “Wiccan”. I’m an Ecclectic Solitaire for the most part, although I have been part of a group from time to time.

Yes and no.

OK, that was the short answer, which didn’t really answer anything, did it? “Pagan” encompasses a wide range of religous beliefs and practices. You’ve got belief systems where there is Supreme Deity, but said Deity may be unapproachable and we lesser creatures have to work through intermediaries. Or you have pantheons - which may or may not have a leader. Or a more “animist” belief in everything having a spirit, even what non-Pagans would describe as inanimate objects. Some have a supreme God, some a supreme Goddess, some have a God/Goddess duality that share power and duties. So, really the best way to know with an individual Pagan is to ask “Could you please outline your Deity beliefs - one, two, several, many?”

To make it even more confusing - some of us use more than one system, so if you ask us in the morning we may be operating with a dualistic Deity, at noon we’ll be invoking a pantheon, and by evening we’ll be communing with all the little spirits in the rocks and trees. Alright, we don’t usually swap back and forth that quick, but many systems are not exclusive - you aren’t limited to the One True Path but are allowed more than one way up the mountain.

You betcha, although most of us will cut some slack to the newcomers who don’t know better. Best way to ask an individual: “What term do you use for your belief system?” and then ask for clarification from there. “Wicca” is a sect of Neo-Paganism. Gerald Gardner of the UK popularized the term several decades back, although it never caught on in a big way until the 1960’s. Mr. Gardner got involved back around WWII and claimed ancient roots in Great Britain. Yes, there probably some bits that do go back quite far, but also quite a bit invented in the 20th century.

“Pagan” can mean a few different things. Some people use it to mean “non-Christian”. Others use it to mean “multiple Deities”. “Neo-Pagan” means (very simplified) either invented, resurrected, or syncretized in the 20th century. “Pagan” may be used in reference to “Neo-Pagans” -OR- it might refer to a genuinely ancient form of “Paganism”.

In addition to Wiccans, Neo-Pagans can encompass Asatru (resurrected Norse practices); Dianics (female-based, frequently a Maiden/Mother/Crone triumvirate); Druids; there’s a group of Ancient Egyptian reconstructionists in Illinois; or a number of other groups. Wiccans, however, are probably the best known of these groups, which might be why many in the public confuse all the Neos with them.

Older Pagan groups could encompass such things as Vodoun (aka “voodoo”); Santeria; Strega (an Italian cult, with Diana as supreme Deity); genuine Native American groups; native Hawaiian practitioners; and various traditions passed down that may or may not be “pure” or heavily influenced by Christianity.

I think by now you’re getting the picture that “Pagan” refers to a very wide range of belief systems. It’s akin to the term “monotheism”, which can encompass Hassidic Jews, Jews for Jesus, Mormons, all the stripes of Christianity, all the variations on Islam, and many Protestant sects ranging from ho-hum to extremely weird. So there are actually a lot of different sources and a lot of different endpoints. And frequent disagreement. But, fortunately, Pagans as a whole are very hard to organize so it’s not likely we’ll be hosting a Crusade or Inquisition over any of this, just some vigorous yelling at a local coffee shop.

Well, gosh, that’s all over the map, too. Some groups have very set and precise practices. Others are anything goes. Some invest the ritual trappings with great meaning. Others are ad hoc and improvisational.

My personal belief system takes the theory that ritual is a means to focus concentration and will, much as a lens focuses light energy or makes vision clearer. But your mileage may vary.

Yes, but usually not in the sense of Holy Writ. Sacred texts may or may not (usually not) be seen as infallible. Many groups borrow freely. And many of the older (non-Neo) Pagan groups come from a strictly oral tradition and so have no “writ” at all.

You name it, someone somewhere believes in it. Most groups don’t have the heaven/hell dichotomy but there is usually some concept of punishment for Bad People and reward for Good People. Except for those who believe we wind up dissolved in Nirvana.

The only “wrong” with your questions (and questions are seldom ever wrong) is that I think they’re extremely broad in scope, probably more so than you intended. If you have more specific questions fire away.