Introducing people to Paganism is not a new task for me. Over the past 11 years, I have helped a number of friends navigate the unfamiliar waters of polytheistic faith, usually by providing the resources but letting them swim on their own. But I have grown, too. Looking back, I don’t think I would tell someone brand new what I used to tell people in the past. These days, I have a clearer understanding of unhelpful thinking within Greater Pagandom™ that I would want to excise from beginners right away — the sooner, the better.
These are the things I would do differently now:
I have always been deity-oriented in my practice. When I helped beginners in the past, I always gave them homework: to consciously look for the Gods in the world around them. The goal is to start seeing mundane, everyday things as containing a spiritual, mythic component as well. This practice is good, and I will keep it. However, I have never asked a beginner to tell me what they think about the nature of the Gods. I have never had a discussion with them about basic theological and philosophical concepts. What are the Gods? What is the nature of Their relationship with humankind? Why do we give offerings to Them?
For homework, I would ask the beginner to read Martiana’s translation of Sallustius’ On the Gods and the World. I’d schedule a future date when we can talk about it together. In addition, I’d recommend reading A World Full of Gods by John M. Greer on their own, when they get the chance. I would emphasize that I do not expect the beginner to blindly accept Sallustius’ beliefs or Greer’s arguments, but that they should contemplate them and come to their own conclusions. I’d give an example of how I would not have agreed with Sallustius’ views when I first started out, but I definitely agree with him now, after learning as much as I have on my own.
I want to target the horribly pervasive belief that the Gods are flawed or “like humans.” Specifically, I want to address the issue of flawed Gods being a big draw of Paganism. For people interested in Heathenry, I want to prevent the nonsense that praying to the wights and ancestors is fine, but that it is dangerous to pray to the Gods. Moreover, I would impress on the beginner that modern scholarship has diminished the power of some types of Gods, such as the nymphs of Greek myth, who are powerful Goddesses in Their own right. I’ll stress how some religions do have different categorizations of beings, but we humans should not try to impose our own categorizations upon divinities.
Simple ritual, performed together
Many Modern Pagan religions share common features of their basic home rituals. A beginner can learn a basic format, based on the three-part prayer: greeting the God(s), extolling Their deeds, then making a petition. Then they give an offering. A beginner can make changes to this format later, once they decide which religion they wish to practice.
Therefore, I would guide them through a simple ritual they can do every day. First, I would show them my shrine and demonstrate (or explain) what I do. Then we would do a ritual together for whichever God they wish to honor (or to all the Gods if they haven’t decided yet). We would not ask for anything; we’d just give thanks.
After performing the ritual, we’d discuss the different parts of it, why we did them, and how they felt during it. We’d set expectations for rituals: that the beginner may not feel the presence of the Gods often or at all. That it might feel like a chore sometimes. That they should experiment with different aspects of the ritual until it “feels right.” I’d give the beginner the basic ritual in a written format, including what to say if they wish, so they can continue to do it at home.
With this, I want to prevent any apprehension surrounding ritual. I want to eliminate the “armchair Paganism” born from the anxiety of “doing it wrong.” A beginner can worship through ritual and learn from reading at the same time. I want to show them that’s possible, and that ritual is never set in stone; it will naturally change and evolve as the worshiper does.
Elimination of “the pantheon”
I am not Heathen because I worship Heathen Gods. I am Heathen because I live according to a Heathen worldview. The Gods I worship were also worshiped by the ancient Goths, ancient Greeks, ancient Gauls, and ancient Romans. And so I would tell the beginner about how the strict pantheons we all know from school are modern inventions. That people worshiped all kinds of deities in antiquity, based on who they came into contact with. I would provide examples: a temple of Isis in ancient Britain and the votive inscription dedicated to Vernostonus Cocidius. This, I would say to them, is a kind of syncretism.
A beginner should explore various faiths until they find the one that suits them best. So until then, I would encourage praying to a variety of different Gods as part of that exploration. But the beginner should not try to choose a religion solely because of the Gods and myths. Worldview is what’s most important here. Once they adopt a worldview that complements their existing beliefs — or one they would happily replace their existing worldview with — that is what makes them part of a specific religion.
I know many Pagans who do not have a cohesive worldview rooted in an existing Contemporary Pagan faith. They might pull from many different sources without using any one of them as a foundation. If they are happy that way, then who am I to tell them to do otherwise? But I personally find that “nondenominational rootlessness” — what others might call eclecticism, perhaps — unfulfilling. The beginner can decide what to do for themselves, in the end, but I want to encourage them to find a home for their faith. From there, they can personalize the details (such as which Gods to worship regularly) for their own practice.
Religious integration made easy
My friend Bruniāχildis shared the following excerpt with me recently. It comes from the book The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship by Karen A. Smyers:
The eight staff members of an upscale beauty salon in Roppongi arrive at work by 9:00 and are busily sweeping, dusting, and polishing every surface inside and outside the shop. The space is rather small, but well-designed, decorated in elegant high-tech style. The workers are all young and fashionably attired. When the owner arrives at 10:15, the cleaning stops, and the group lines up behind her under the Inari altar high up on the wall just inside the entrance to the shop, complete with fox statues and a tiny offering box. She clasps her hands (glittering with tiny diamonds set into long red nails) in prayer, and all follow suit. One of her male assistants stands directly under the altar and formally leads the prayers. They all chant a Shinto norito prayer, the Buddhist Heart Sutra, then clap and bow twice, and turn and bow to the east, in gratitude to the sun. Private prayers are murmured, and the day begins.
I would share this excerpt with the beginner and explain how it is an example of a religious practice fully integrated into everyday life. Specifically, this is an example of the ideal, since Shinto and Buddhism are part and parcel of Japanese society. This should prompt a discussion of the separation between the religious and the secular in our modern, Western societies. There are even Pagans who maintain that separation, even though they’ve been practicing for many years. Instead of integrating their religions into their work, hobbies, sports, etc., they will engage with those activities without their beliefs and practices even crossing their minds.
I would ask the beginner to come up with one thing they can do everyday, as part of their regular routine, to which they can add a religious element. The point is to show how every aspect of regular, mundane life can have a spiritual meaning and relate to the Gods. It can be very small — lighting incense and saying thanks after driving through traffic to get home from work, for example. The eventual goal is to tear down that barrier [modern, Western] society tells us we should put up between our “secular lives” and our “religious lives.”
- Discussion of the nature of the divine, Their relationships with humans, and how to recognize Them in the world around us
- Homework: On the Gods and the World by Sallustius (Martiana’s translation); A World Full of Gods by John M. Greer
- Demonstration of a simple ritual, then performing one together
- Homework: Do ritual at home
- Discussion of historic syncretism of the divine and how pantheons are largely unhelpful categorizations
- Homework: Research the different Contemporary Pagan religions over time, to find a worldview that makes sense
- Discussion of the separation between secular life and religious life, how to eliminate that barrier, and what it might look like when we do
- Homework: Add a religious element to one small thing done everyday