The Three Centers of Paganism
Author: John Halstead
I have found a useful tool for thinking about the Pagan community. Most attempts to describe contemporary Paganism use lists of beliefs or practices. Some of these lists attempt to be comprehensive, while others do not. One problem with these lists is that they inevitably focus on those elements that the person making the list wants to emphasize. Consequently, large portions of the Pagan community are excluded.
Another common way of understanding the Pagan community is as a metaphorical umbrella. The problem with this metaphor is that the image of an umbrella suggests a single center. And what the “center” represents is a matter of perspective, usually the perspective of the person drawing the umbrella.
Instead of a single circle with a single center, I would describe the Pagan community as three overlapping circles. Each circle has a different center, a different focus that transcends the individual. The three circles of the contemporary Pagan community are: earth, Self, and deity.
Earth-centered Paganism includes those Paganisms concerned primarily with religious ecology, “deep green religion”, animism, and what is sometimes euphemistically called “dirt worship”. For earth-centered Pagans, their relationship to the earth is what defines their Paganism, and connecting to the “more-than-human” natural world is what characterizes their spiritual practice. A sense of wonder or awe often characterizes the religious experience of earth-centered Pagans. Of course, there are those whose spirituality may be described in these terms, but who do not identify with the Pagan community, including some earth-centered Christians.
“Self-centric” is used here, not in pejorative sense of ego-centrism, and for that reason I have capitalized the word “Self”. “Self” here means that larger sense of “self” which transcends the ego and even the individual. It is sometimes called the “Big Self” or “Deep Self”. Self-centric Paganism includes many forms of Neo-Wicca, Jungian Neo-Paganism, feminist witchcraft, and more ceremonial or esoteric forms of Paganism. The goal of Self-centric Pagan practice is personal development, spiritually and/or psychologically, through connecting with the Deep Self. This may be described in terms of psychological wholeness or ecstatic union with a divine “Oneness”. Again, there are those whose spirituality may be described in these terms, but who do not identify with the Pagan community, including many New Age practitioners and ceremonial magicians.
“Deity-centered” is a term which I adopted from Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone’s book, Progressive Witchcraft. Deity-centered Paganism includes many forms of polytheistic worship, some reconstructionist or revivalist forms of Paganism, including those that are closer to Heathenry, and those that borrow techniques from African-diasporic religions. Deity-centered Pagans identify primarily in terms of their dedication to one or more deities. The goal of deity-centered Pagan practice is to develop a relationship with those deities. A sense of passionate devotion is what most characterizes the religious experience of deity-centered Pagans. As with the other two categories mentioned above, there are many people whose spirituality might be called “deity-centered”, but who do not identify as Pagan. They would include some contemporary polytheists who have rejected the Pagan label, many traditional or indigenous (small-p) “pagan” religions, bhakti Hindus, and many Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheists as well, including but not limited to evangelical Christians and Catholic devotee’s of Mary.
Because contemporary Paganism is so diverse, the more inclusive ways of describing Paganism tend to group individual Pagans together with others with whom they share little commonality. This is one reason why there is so much conflict over the definition of “Pagan”. Individuals respond to this by either opting-out and rejecting the Pagan label, or by attempting to define the term in a way that excludes those they are uncomfortable with.
One advantage of the “three centers” approach is that it recognizes both the similarities and the differences among contemporary Pagans. On the one hand, individual Pagans can identify with one or two of the centers, without having to identify with all three centers. On the other hand, the three centers approach also recognizes the overlap between these groups. For example, some feminist Goddess worshippers might overlap with both earth-centered and Self-centric Paganisms. Likewise, some forms of animism might overlap with both earth-centered and deity-centered Paganisms.
“Three Centers” Correspondences
The three centers described above correspond to three chapters in Graham Harvey’s book, What Pagans Believe, which describes Pagan practices in these terms: “Celebrating Nature”, “Working Magic”, and “Honoring Deities”.
In addition, the three centers correspond roughly to three different Classical “paganisms” described by 19th century classicists and philologists: (1) the local cults of the country folk (which corresponds to earth-centric Paganism) (2) the mystery cults (which correspond to Self-centric Paganism) , and (3) the poets and the city state cults (which corresponds to deity-centric Paganism) . Often contemporary Pagans will focus on one of these groups of ancient Pagans when invoking antiquity in support of their claim to the term “Pagan”.
Finally, the three centers correspond to three different reactions to Christianity. Earth-centered Pagans reject the “other-worldly” focus of Christian eschatology and the dualistic separation of matter and spirit, as well as its anthropocentrism. Self-centric Pagans, challenge the Christian condemnation of the body, sex, and the feminine, and seek to reclaim these. And deity-centered Pagans, reject monotheism and all it implies.
Community: 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.