Neo-paganism is either the modern practice and adaptation of an ancient religion, or a new religion based on either ancient or new religious concepts, but usually based on a combination of these. Neo-paganism means simply modern, or contemporary paganism and there are many varieties, although they do tend to share some characteristics.
Most Neo-Pagan religions share a combination of one or more of the following characteristics, but none have them all:
- A belief in multiple deities, including male and female deities. Polytheism is a common characteristic of many NeoPagan faiths and dualism is also seen, though the duality is rarely one of competition but rather of cooperation of complementary opposites. Sometimes the female is dominant, sometimes male and female deities carry equal status, but only rarely does a female deity carry lesser importance to a male deity. More rarely, there is a single deity who is quite often female or a main deity (usually female) with one or more helpers of somewhat lesser importance and often a male consort. In those cases where a single deity is honored, it is often either sexless or androgynous; made up of both male and female aspects. A notable exception to this is Zoroastrianism.
Pagans with predominantly female deities may tend to be more feminist, and occasionally may even seem to be somewhat anti-male, but this is not always the case. Some, on the other hand, are proponents of ‘traditional’ gender roles and have strong beliefs that a woman’s place is in the home, particularly if she is a mother. Perhaps surprisingly often, there is a combination of the two seemingly opposing views in the same ethos.
- The view of deity as both imminent and transcendent. That is, rather than just looking down on us from above, our Gods are part of the world we live in and, in many cases put of ourselves as illustrated in the phrases “Thou art God” and “Thou art Goddess”. Pantheist, Panenthiest, Monist and animist groups will have these attitudes, but so too in many cases with Polytheist and Duotheist groups.
- A revival of ancient or ancestral beliefs. Many modern Pagans strive to rekindle the beliefs of their ancestors or of an ancient (non-Abrahamic) culture to which they feel an attraction. Their beliefs and practices may be shaped by the oral tradition of their families, archaeological evidence, scholarly research, the myths and legends of their chosen culture or a combination of any of these. Some strive to keep their beliefs as close to those of their ancient forbearers as possible while others blend these practices with modern ones. Some may combine the beliefs of different cultures or study many cultures and select common threads on which to base their religious observances.
- Animism and a belief in spirit creatures. Quite often a Pagan faith will include the belief that spirits inhabit natural objects, plants and animals and these things will be treated accordingly. There may also be a belief in free-roaming nature spirits and place spirits as well as the belief in the presence of spirits of the dead, especially ancestors. These spirits may be helpful or harmful and people are usually able to communicate with them in one way or another, usually through some sort of ritual, to appease them or ask for their aid. Offerings may be left for them. Often Gods or other spirits are believed to inhabit or are represented by certain things in nature such as the sun, moon, bodies of water, mountains, trees, etc. or certain places.
- A sense of respectful cooperation with spirits and/or Gods Many Pagan and Heathen doctrines reject the idea of subservience to Gods. Generally, they do not “grovel” or “worship” so much as establish friendly relationships with Gods and spirits based on the idea of reciprocity. The human followers are respectful of the Gods and spirits and partake of their blessings and wisdom and in return provide said Gods and/or spirits with offerings that may take the form of food, works of art, poetry, song or other acts that honor them.
- A belief in the soul. Most pagans believe in a soul and some believe in a large collective soul that all beings are a part of (see The All. Thus, many pagan religions have a firm belief in either an afterlife or reincarnation or both. Your behavior in this life may or may not affect what comes after, depending on the specific path.
Exactly who has a soul may differ. Many Pagan believe that plants, animals and sometimes even inanimate objects have souls. Others may believe that only humans have souls, but this seems to be rare.
Note, however, that there are rare groups who do not believe in the soul at all. In which case, returning to the earth, decaying and returning to the bottom of the food chain may take on a mysticism of its own. This same type of mysticism exists among many who believe in the soul as well.
- A sense of equality or brotherhood with other living things. Many modern pagans believe that all people, animals, plants and even some inanimate objects possess a soul and a specific place in the world. That is; we all exist for a reason. Some may not take the belief so far, but may still believe that every living thing is just as important as any other. As such, all people, animals, plants, etc. are created equal and must be afforded respect. Because of this, you may see pagans performing such odd (to the outsider) behaviors as asking a tree for permission to pick fruit, or apologizing for uprooting an herb they grew themselves or thanking their food for allowing them to eat it.
Pagans with political activist tendencies may be more likely to support programs that align with this belief and oppose policies that do not. For example, many Pagans are environmentalists, human rights activists, or animal rights activists. Some are also vegetarians, but again, many are not. The very act of eating places one in the food chain, the natural order of things, and this is also part of Pagan mysticism. Likewise, if plants have souls as well as animals, and are just as important, how do we choose which we eat and which we don’t?
- A belief that your actions will return to you in kind. There are many versions of this. Karma (in its new westernized form), the Wiccan Rede, ect. are some examples. This is not usually an idea that you will be punished or rewarded after death, but rather that whatever you have coming to you will likely come to you in this lifetime. Most Pagans generally believe it is not their place to pass judgment on others, that the natural results of their choices will afford the proper reward or punishment through the natural progression of time. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction?
This is often, however, dichotomized by the belief that allowing a wrong to go unanswered is dangerous. After all, if someone hurts you they could hurt someone else and then you would be responsible. The action of natural reward or punishment may take a very long time, and often may not even manifest in this lifetime. Therefore, many Pagans may feel morally obligated to enact revenge for a wrong done to themselves or, more often, a loved one; especially if they are responsible for the victim through familial ties.
- Observance of the cycles of Nature Many pagans time their religious observances to coordinate with the phases of the moon. Also, many of our feast days are associated with seasonal changes and are calculated astrologically, though many people have established fixed dates on the modern calendar for these holidays. Much of our myth and folklore has to do with the changing of seasons and other natural events. In addition, those cycles that mirror the cycles of Nature which take place within the human body may be more carefully observed and revered than they would be among other groups.
I would like to qualify these statements by stressing once again that not all of these features are found in all NeoPagan religions. Usually, you will find a combination of two or more. Thus, one cannot accurately state that a NeoPagan religion is always an Earth-based or Goddess-centered one. Nor can one state that NeoPagan religion is always based on ancient religion.
NeoPagan religions include Wicca, Modern Druidry, Hellenismos and Neo-Hellenism, NeoShamanism, and others. Heathenry, including Odinism and Asatru, is often placed in a separate category. Although many will agree that they are in the same religious family as Pagananism, many Heathens will balk at being referred to as NeoPagan and only a few of the generalizations I have made for NeoPaganism will apply to Heathenry.
Similarities between NeoPagan religions are cosmetic and their differences become more pronounced the more you learn about them. For instance, there are, in my opinion, more similarities between the morality and practices of Islam and Judaism than between Wicca and Neo-Hellenism, even though both are modernized versions of ancient practices.