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Guest Post: Pagan is as Pagan Does


Originally published in Provokator Magazine, December 2007, Prague.

What is Paganism? The word paganus from Latin was originally a term that referred to country people, villagers, and the like. Somewhere along the way, it was transformed by the violent Christianising project of the Catholic Church into a word that meant heathen (interestingly enough, a term that previously only meant non-Christian or non-Jewish). Native American and other indigenous peoples’ rituals were considered pagan by the colonisers of those lands and they were forbidden to perform them. Nowadays, anthropologists think of Paganism as the folk belief systems that had to do with rituals around nature as well as the mythologies and stories that came with them. In actuality, who is really to judge what is or isn’t “pagan”?

Candle Magic  – This is known as one of the simplest forms of the magic practised by Wiccans – modern day witches and wizards. Candles represent the wholeness of the divine spectrum: the body of the candle itself is made from the elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The wick represents your Spirit, and with it the flame of your intent will catch on. Candles help you focus on your wishes and assist in making your heart’s desires come true. Didn’t you ever wonder why there are candles on a birthday cake? It’s one of the many pagan rituals that have made their way into daily activities.

 Lapidation – In many Middle Eastern countries, under Islamic Sharia law, it is an acceptable practice to stone to death a woman who is considered an adulteress. Usually, this happens not because a woman has actually committed an extramarital affair, but because she was raped, something that is still considered to be cheating on one’s spouse. I would consider this to be pagan in the negative sense of the word: a backwards, violent and outdated ritual that persists even today and takes women’s lives year after year.

Semana Santa, Sevilla – To the unwitting viewer, there is nothing more pagan than the Sevillian Easter ritual of carrying statues of The Virgin Mary and Jesus from church to church. Huge altars are constructed to hold life-size gold and silver icons, and these are carried on the backs of a dozen men who crouch underneath the altar and carry it on its cross-town journey. Women cry, people pray, they light candles, and drink beer, following in the wake of the Procession as it quite literally inches its way across the city. Oddly enough, the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of witches continued in Sevilla until the 1850s, long after other countries had stopped. Isn’t it ironic that for a place so hell-bent on wiping out witches they would persist with a very obvious goddess-worshipping ceremony?

The Sweat Lodge – A cleansing ritual performed by indigenous people of North and South America, the Sweat Lodge is much better known as it’s third cousin four times removed; the sauna. A small tent is constructed out of tree branches that are then covered with skins and blankets. Special stones are placed in a roaring fire for hours until they are red hot. Stone-by-stone they are moved into the Lodge where water and healing herbs are placed on them. The steam is overwhelming, thick and billowing, and forces you to confront the very things that you fear in your deepest of secret hearts. The Sweat Lodge is a place for healing and prayer; to cleanse your body, mind, and spirit of negative emotions and illness; and to emerge as a lighter person, less bogged down with the pains of life. For decades, indigenous people were forbidden from practising what their colonisers called a ‘pagan practice,’ thus disrupting the continuity of thousands of years of practice.

©2007 Sezin Koehler, image via Anglo-Saxon Literature