A faith with its roots in pre-Christian culture is still attracting converts. Neil Hudson talks to the man behind the country’s oldest Pagan gathering
MENTION the word Paganism to most people and it will probably conjure up images of ancient rituals conducted by people in hoods tramping round the mist-filled fields of pre-Roman Britain.
The reality is that Paganism is very much alive and well and Yorkshire has the longest running Pagan moot in the country.
In Leeds alone there are three active moots and another two in Wakefield, with others in Huddersfield and beyond.
Earlier this month the Wakefield Pagan Moot celebrated its 25th anniversary, making it the longest running in the country, and Steve Jones, who founded the moot, believes for many people Paganism offers an alternative to the mainstream religions.
“The moot is an ancient tradition. It is essentially a meeting. In times gone by, it would be the time when all the people in the village came together to decide how they were going to divide up all the crops and what they were going to spend money on and so on.
“That is why we have things like moot halls, or town halls today,” he says.
“Paganism is an umbrella term, so just like there are different denominations of Christianity, the same applies to Paganism.”
Jones, 56, who works as clerk for the courts and tribunals service in Leeds, points out that the West Yorkshire Pagan Meet-up Group has 256 members.
“I believe this makes it the largest Pagan group in the region and possibly the north of England,” he says.
“The Wakefield Pagan Moot being 25 years continuous is now the longest running moot in the UK still going and the only one with the original organiser.”
He says the Wakefield moot gather on the first Monday of the month in an upstairs bar in the centre of Wakefield. But rather than being a dwindling band, he says numbers are actually on the rise.
“Paganism is the fastest growing religion in the UK although not the world. It is also the only religion Britain gave to the rest of the world, all our other religions are imported or, if like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, originated here are variants on existing ones,” he says.
“It is also a living religion in that it is evolving as it has no set text so can be interpreted in different ways.
“It is also not an evangelical religion in that I don’t knock on doors asking people if they worship the horned god or the goddess, we let people find us.”
The Pagan initiation ceremony bears many similarities with that of freemasonry.
In both cases, the initiate is brought into the sacred place at the north east corner, symbolically representing the so-called “foundation stone”, the central notion here being that the initiate has only just entered an “other” world, one in which the language of myth and metaphor dominate.
“There are many similarities with the rituals practised in freemasonry and some of them are drawn from it. Some of the festivals which we celebrate today and take for granted, like Easter and Christmas, have Pagan roots,” says Jones.
“Religions have borrowed things from each other for millennia, so this is nothing new.”
Paganism encompasses a diverse community, including wiccans, druids, shamans, sacred ecologists, Odinists and heathens, all of whom make up parts of the Pagan community.
Some groups concentrate on specific traditions or practices such as ecology, witchcraft, Celtic traditions or certain gods. Most Pagans share an ecological vision that comes from the Pagan belief in the organic vitality and spirituality of the natural world.
The word “Pagan” comes from Paganus, meaning “country dweller”, and its followers have long been the subject of persecution and ridicule. The Romans, for instance, were said to have a deep distrust of people with these beliefs.
This meant in the past they were forced to defend themselves against false accusations such as devil-worshipping and claims they practice black magic, and that their practices involve harming people or animals.
The Pagan Federation of Great Britain have no precise figures, but it estimates that the number of Pagans in the British Isles is somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000.
Perhaps the most well-known aspect of Paganism is that of wicca. The tradition is often applied to the entire system of Pagan beliefs and practices and is often confused with witchcraft, which has been adapted by the media, particularly in America.
Religious Witchcraft conjures up all kinds of images, not least those propagated by Hollywood blockbusters.
However, in reality it is not merely a system of magic but a Pagan mystery religion worshipping a goddess and god. One of wicca’s major figures was Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964) who was instrumental in bringing the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca to public attention.
In Paganism there are eight major festivals, including Imbolc (also called Candlemas,) which celebrates the awakening of the land and the growing power of the sun.
December 21 sees the winter solstice, a celebration that was held in Roman times and which was later taken over by the Christian Church and which we now recognise as Christmas.
For Pagans it is called Yule and it is a time when the sun is reborn and when, both symbolically and literally, new life emerges from the depths of winter.
Despite its roots in the past Paganism continues to gather interest today.
John Billingsley, from Mytholmroyd, is the author of a magazine called Northern Earth and has studied so-called “earth mysteries” for more than 30 years.
He admits to being a “fringe Pagan” but says it was not something he went looking for. “For me it happened in the 1970s but it’s very much something I do on my own. It’s a way of life, really, there is no definition of Paganism because it’s so wide-ranging. The closest you could come to is that it is a world-wide human response to nature.
“It is certainly a world religion. I have travelled in Japan and it’s obvious that some of the things in the Shinto temples there are the same things which were being worshipped in pre-Roman Britain,” he says.
“I came to it because I realised years ago that the things I was interested in seemed to fit very well with Paganism. The places I felt the deepest spiritual connection were woodlands and earth works and places like that, many of which come under the heading of ‘earth mysteries.’
“Paganism is essentially shorthand for a spiritual version of nature. It is a pre-Christian nature-orientated belief system. It’s a gut feeling more than anything. It doesn’t need any more distinction than that.
“Of course, within Paganism there are all kinds of different beliefs. The Celtic system has different gods to the Anglo-Saxon system and so on.”
He says Paganism focuses more on individuals which a lot of people prefer. “Compared to organised religions, Paganism is very much about the individual and certainly from my point of view, any kind of belief system which puts a priest between you and the thing in which you believe, the spiritual realm, is kind of defeating the object.
“Yes, there are priests in Paganism but they don’t have anything to do with me. No one else can interpret your own spirituality. Paganism is also based very much on one’s own experience, as opposed to faith.”
Key dates of the ancient rituals
Imbolc (also called Candlemas,) celebrates the awakening of the land and the growing power of the sun.
March 20, is the spring equinox (Eoster), which celebrates the renewed life of the earth that comes with the spring.
May 1 is Beltane, when Pagans celebrate with maypole dances, symbolizing the mystery of the sacred marriage of goddesses and gods.
August 1 sees the Lammas or harvest festival, which is of Celtic origin.
October 31 is called Samhain (pronounced ‘sow’inn), which coincides with Hallowe’en. It marks the Feast of the Dead and is also the Celtic New Year.