Pagan worshipAs Paganism is a very diverse religion with many distinct though related traditions, the forms of Pagan worship vary widely. It may be collective or solitary. It may consist of informal prayer or meditation, or of formal, structured rituals through which the participants affirm their deep spiritual connection with nature, honour their Gods and Goddesses, and celebrate the seasonal festivals of the turning year and the rites of passage of human life.
As Pagans have no public buildings specifically set aside for worship, and most believe that religious ceremonies are best conducted out of doors, rituals often take place in woods or caves, on hilltops, or along the seashore. To Pagans the finest places of worship are those not built by human hands - as well as at stone circles, in parks, and private homes and gardens. Women and men almost always worship together and Paganism generally emphasises equality of the sexes. In certain paths, however, women may take the leading role as representative of the pre-eminence of the female principle.
Ceremonies usually begin with the marking out of a ritual circle, a symbol of sacred space which has neither beginning nor end, and within which all stand as equals. At the quarter-points, the four directions and the corresponding elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water will be acknowledged and bid welcome.
There may follow, according to the purpose of the rite, any or all of meditation, chanting, music, prayer, dance, the pouring of libations, recitations of poetry and/or the performance of sacred drama, and the sharing of food and drink. Lastly the circle will be formally unmade, the directions, elements, and all the forms of divinity that have been called upon thanked, as the rite ends.
Pagans do not believe that they are set above, or apart from, the rest of nature. They understand divinity to be immanent, woven through every aspect of the living earth. Thus, Pagan worship is mainly concerned with connection to, and the honouring of, immanent divinity. The rituals are akin to a symbolic language of communication between the human and the divine: one which speaks not to the intellect alone but also to the body, the emotions, and the depths of the unconscious mind, allowing Pagans to experience the sacred as whole people within the act of worship. The approach is primarily mythopoeic, recognising that spiritual truths are better understood by means of allusion and symbol rather than through doctrine.
Pagan weddingsPagan wedding ceremonies are called handfastings and mark the coming together of two people in a formal, loving and equal sexual partnership.
Pagans take the swearing of oaths very seriously indeed and believe it important that they articulate the sincere, considered intentions of the individuals concerned rather than merely repeating a standard formula.
Accordingly, the vows a couple will swear to each other before their Gods and Goddesses during a handfasting will be carefully discussed and decided upon by them beforehand, in consultation with the Priestess and/or Priest who will officiate at the ceremony.
While all couples will vow to love, honour, respect and protect both each other and their children, the responsibility for the form of the committed relationship they are undertaking ultimately lies with them.
A couple may choose to handfast for the traditional period of a year and a day, and it is not uncommon for Pagans in long-term relationships to renew their vows after each year and a day has passed so that neither comes to take the other for granted. Others vow to handfast for life while a few, in accordance with Pagan beliefs in reincarnation, do so for all their future lives as well.
As with all other Pagan ceremonies, there is considerable variation in the precise form an individual handfasting rite will take, but some parts are all but universal.
The ceremony will be held out of doors if at all possible, and will begin with the marking out of sacred space (usually in the form of a circle), the honouring of the Four Elements, and a welcome for all who are present.
The Gods and Goddesses will be called upon to bless the future life of the couple. The couples' right hands will be bound together (hence 'handfasting'), they will swear the oaths that will henceforth define their relationship, and their hands will then be unbound in token that they remain together of their own free will.
Rings will be exchanged and the ceremony will conclude with 'jumping the broomstick' - the couple leaping hand in hand over a broom held horizontally before them, thus crossing the symbolic boundary between their old lives and their new, shared, one. As with most Pagan rituals, a handfasting will be followed by feasting and celebration by the company.
Pagan pathsPaganism has absorbed influences from around the world and some Pagans choose to specialise in one of these traditions, or paths as they are often known.
Some groups take influences from a particular part of the world. The Heathen path follows ancient Scandinavian, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon belief systems. Other traditions are defined by elements of their practice. For instance, Wiccans use magical techniques in worship, Druids emphasise arts and philosophy, and Shamans employ spirit-journeying for healing.
In recent years teenage Witches have attracted a great deal of attention. This group of youths has shunned the common trend towards secularism and become a Pagan group in their own right.
These descriptions are very flexible and a Pagan is free to change how they describe themselves. A Pagan may also combine a number of these different elements, in fact this is very common. Magic, philosophy, art and healing may all be practised by the same person.