The Three Centers of Paganism

The Three Centers of Paganism

The Three Centers of Paganism

There is much debate within the Pagan community about how to define Paganism. This is due, in part, to the fact that Paganism has at least three “centers” or sacred foci. Each of these “centers” defines Pagan identity and Pagan authenticity differently. Each of these groups has a unique way of defining and relating to that “something” greater than ourselves. This makes defining Paganism in terms of a single set of principles impossible.

Earth-Centered Paganism

Earth-centered Paganism includes those forms of Paganism concerned primarily with nature and ecology, the more local forms of Paganism, and the many forms of Neo-Animism which view humans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-human community of beings. The Pagan identity of earth-centered Pagans is defined by their relationship to their natural environment. Authenticity for these Pagans is defined by one’s ability to connect with the more-than-human world.

For earth-centered Pagans, the earth or nature is that which transcends the individual. Earth-centered Pagans seek to enter into a relationship with the nature, and a sense of wonder is what primarily characterizes that relationship. An experience of interconnectedness with the non-human or more-than-human world is a core virtue of earth-centered Paganism. This sense of interconnectedness is sometimes called “re-enchantment”, and it refers to an expanded awareness of the nature of reality and of our participation in the natural world.

Neo-Paganism exists in the overlap with earth-centered and Self-centric Paganism.

Self-Centric Paganism

As it is used here, “Self-centric”is not meant the pejorative sense of ego-centrism. “Self” (which is always capitalized) here refers to that larger sense of Self which extends beyond the boundaries of the individual ego, the wholeness which gives rise to, but is more capacious than, the normal waking conscious identity we commonly call our “self”. This is sometimes called the “Deep Self” or the “Larger Self”. Edward Whitmont calls it “the non-I in the depth within”. Self-centric Paganism includes Jungian Neo-Pagans and “soft” polytheists, many Wiccans and feminist witches, and many of the more esoterically inclined Pagans. The Pagan identity of Self-centric Pagans is defined by spiritual practices which aim at development of the individual, spiritually or psychologically. Paganism is, for some Self-centric Pagans, a form of therapy or self-help. Authenticity is determined by one’s relationship with one’s Self. To put it another way, Pagan authenticity for this group is measured in terms of personal growth, whether that growth be toward psychological wholeness or ecstatic union with the larger Self.

For Self-centric Pagans, the “Self” is that which transcends the individual. Self-centric Pagans seek to enter into relationship with the Self by disassociating from the ego-self and identifying with the larger Self. Insight is a core virtue for Self-centric Pagans, because insight is what enables us to distinguish the ego from the Self.

Neo-Paganism exists in the overlap with earth-centered and Self-centric Paganism.

Deity-centered Paganism

The term “deity-centered” is borrowed from Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone’s book Progressive Witchcraft. Deity-centered Paganism includes many forms of devotional polytheism and “hard” polytheism, many reconstructionist or revivalist forms of Paganism, including some which are closer to Heathenry. The Pagan identity of deity-centered Pagans is defined by a dedication to one or more pagan deities. Authenticity is determined by one’s relationship with those deities.

In some ways, deity-centered Paganism resembles other theisms, including charismatic forms of Christianity and the bhakti cults of Hinduism. For deity-centered Pagans, the gods are that which transcends the individual. Deity-centered Pagans seek to enter into relationship with the gods. Passionate devotion is what primarily characterizes that relationship. Faith and devotion are core virtues for deity-centered Pagans.

The Three Centers of Paganism

These categories are not exclusive. They share overlapping circumferences. The green shaded area in the diagram above represents contemporary Paganism. There is often tension between these three centers in Paganism. Neo-Paganism overlaps with both earth-centered and Self-centric Paganism and stands in some tension with more deity-centered forms of Paganism. Individuals who gravitate toward different centers may have widely different understandings of concepts like “god”, “spirit”, “magic”, “worship”, etc.

Some people who might otherwise fall into one or more of these three categories have rejected the label “Pagan”, often because they perceive the label as having been co-opted by one of the other “centers” with which the do not identify. Thus, some polytheistic deity-centered practitioners may eschew the Pagan label because, for them, it is associated with Self-centric or earth-centered forms of Paganism.

Three Classical Paganisms

It is perhaps not coincidental that the three centers of contemporary Paganism correspond to different ways in which the term “pagan” is used by scholars of classical paganism. When earth-centered practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often the ancient pagans of the countryside that they imagine, the people who worshiped the gods and spirits of the local landscape where they lived (many of the names of which have now been forgotten). In contrast, when deity-centered practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often with the worshipers of the more well-known gods and goddesses of the poets and the state cults that they identify. The reason for this may be purely practical. In order to reconstruct an ancient pagan religion, one must have sources. Folk religions leave little trace. In contrast, the cults of the gods of the poets and the state were more well-documented. Finally, when Self-centric practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often with the participants in the ancient pagan mysteries that they identify. In fact, many Self-centric Pagans attempt to draw historical and conceptual links between the Classical mysteries and their present-day rituals.

Three Pagan Reactions to Monotheism

The term “pagan” has also been used historically to mean “non-Christian”. To a certain extent, contemporary Paganism is a reaction to Christianity, or more accurately, Judeo-Christian-Islamic (JCI) monotheism. To the extent that this is true, each of the three “centers” of Paganism represents a different reaction to monotheism. Earth-centered Pagans reject the “other-worldly” focus of JCI eschatology and the dualistic separation of matter and spirit. They reject the transcendent conception of divinity and the notion that nature is fallen. And they reject the anthropocentrism of the JCI narrative. Self-centric Pagans, on the other hand, reject the JCI condemnation of the body, of sex, and of the feminine. The seek to reclaim all those aspects of the Self that have been repressed by JCI morality. Finally, deity-centered Pagans, who value pluralism, reject monotheism and all it implies, including the notion that there is only one path to the divine.

A Fourth Center?

In contrast to Paganism, Heathenry tends to be community-centered. In recent years there has been greater interaction between the Pagan and Heathen communities, which grew up alongside each other, but held different values. As the two communities begin to blend somewhat, a fourth center of Paganism may be discerned. Community-centered Pagans define their Pagan identity by belonging to the group which calls itself “Pagan”. Pagan authenticity is defined in terms of conformity to communal norms and participation in group rituals. For community-centered Pagans, the community is that which transcends the individual. The relationship between community-centered Pagans and the community is ideally characterized by mutual fidelity. Like earth-centered Pagans, what community-centered Pagans get out of the relationship is a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.


3 thoughts on “The Three Centers of Paganism

  1. Pingback: Which Witch Blog Hop | The Rose Laden Magdalene

  2. Pingback: “John Muir, ‘Prophet of the Wilderness’” by John Halstead | Humanistic Paganism

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