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Into the Green
Pagan/Gaian 101
A compilation of articles that first appeared in SageWoman.
By Elizabeth Barrette
(Used with permission)


Where does it begin? The fall of a golden leaf in a green forest. The sound of a waterfall calling your name. A meteor shower. A classmate's comment. Stonehenge. An invitation to attend a friend's ritual. The search for a truly distinctive term paper topic. A book that catches your hand as you trail your fingers along a library shelf ...

Something led you to the rambling path we call Paganism. Something prompted you to surf this Website, to read this article, to think about the choices you make. You wonder where to begin, but you have already begun. By allowing your curiosity to bring you here, you have taken the first step. To study the gods and goddesses of your ancestors is to set out on a journey that will unfold in front of you, endlessly rewarding.

Many Pagans today practice more than one tradition, or blend ideas from several origins into their own unique tradition. This flexibility strengthens modern Paganism, which tends to be more eclectic than its historic origins. On the down side, we lack "hard and fast" meanings for words, which can make it challenging to discuss matters of interest such as magic and spirituality. Therefore, you might want to investigate our =glossary= so you’ll understand how we use common terms. Whenever you read about these topics, check the author's definitions. They may make a difference in how you react to the ideas presented.

Don't feel overwhelmed by the diversity of Paganism. You don't need to dedicate yourself to a specific path right away. If you feel called to a particular system, fine; follow your instincts. If not, study a variety of cultures and their religions. Some people believe that you can choose your religion and patrons, while others believe the interested entities will choose you. You might begin with a culture that piques your curiosity, or one belonging to your ancestors. Find out what the people and their deities were like. Also, think about what you want and need in a religion. Keep this in mind as you read on.

Basic Skills

Certain techniques – many of which are common not only to Pagan systems but other systems as well – can help you to maintain a sense of self, explore your options, and keep you from feeling overwhelmed. They are simply the basic abilities needed to deal with the people, concepts, and challenges you encounter while searching for your spiritual path.

Grounding is a form of energy balance; you connect yourself to a stable outside energy source so that you have neither too much nor too little energy held in yourself. Most people ground down, into the Earth. Centering is an internal process in which you collect your energy. Grounding puts the amount in balance; centering puts it in the right place. This makes it difficult to "push you around" by any means. Shielding is just what it sounds like: creating a barrier so that unwanted influences cannot affect you. This helps keep outside irritants, such as other people’s emotions or the unpleasant past of a historical site, from making you feel uncomfortable.

In meditation, you seek to calm your mind and achieve a state of restful tranquility. Some people prefer to use meditation only to relax, while others find it an ideal state for solving problems, exploring choices, or contemplating new concepts. Visualization takes place inside your mind and forms the basis of many spells. It involves imagining something intensely through all your senses, not just sight. Together, all these skills keep you safe and balanced, while allowing you to work changes through magic.

Not everyone learns these skills with equal speed or aptitude. For some, they come easily, automatically, without effort; for others, they require much practice and remain a long-term challenge. Nor do they all necessarily go together – one skill may develop into full strength overnight while others elude you for years. However, all of these skills are things you can learn; no matter how well or poorly you do, practice can improve your abilities. Believe in yourself. Thus, you acquire extra "handles" on reality, inner and outer. Even if the magic side of Paganism doesn’t interest you, these skills are worth your while to learn: exploring spiritualities can feel like being turned upside down and shaken till the change falls out of your pockets. It helps to have a stable base from which to work.

Basic Tools

So you want to be a Witch -- or you want to explore Witchcraft, at least a little -- and you find yourself slightly bewildered by the pictures or descriptions of altars. What is all that stuff, anyway? Don't worry; it isn't as complicated as it looks.

The first thing you should realize is that all of this paraphernalia merely serves to set the mood and focus the energy. We use signs, symbols, and tools to fine-tune our attention but they aren't essential -- a skilled Witch or sufficiently motivated beginner can work magic with her mind alone. The next thing to consider is how you feel about your "working" tools. A "Kitchen Witch" feels that since everything is sacred, using her athame to slice carrots does not diminish the power of her blade but instead adds extra sanctity to the carrots. On the other hand, an "Altar Witch" feels that in order to concentrate the power of her tools, they should be reserved for strictly magical or sacred purposes and never used for anything else. Finally, you can acquire your tools four main ways: make them yourself, buy them, receive them as gifts, or find them.

The four main tools of Wicca are the athame, the wand, the chalice, and the pentacle. The athame is a knife, usually but not necessarily with a black hilt. In most traditions, this tool represents the element Air, in others, Fire; you use it to divide and defend. To create sacred space, we usually draw a Circle with an athame. The wand can be made of almost any material; it is long and thin, often with a crystal at the point and other decorations along its length. Typically, this tool represents Fire or Air; you use it to focus and direct. When we cast a spell, we often use a wand to point at the object of our desire or a symbol for that object. The chalice is a cup or goblet, occasionally a cauldron (which can range from a few inches to several feet across). This tool represents Water; you use it to contain and cleanse. The pentacle or stone is also flexible in form; you can pick up a rock that feels right, or buy an engraved chunk of semi-precious stone in a metaphysical shop. This tool represents the element of Earth; you use it to protect and stabilize.

Other Pagan religions have their own set of basic tools, but Wicca is such a common choice that this set has spread widely, especially among Eclectics. It is also a very adaptable and practical set with which you can do many things. Additional equipment includes such things as candles and candle-holders, pictures, shells and other natural objects, deity figures, incense and incense burners, crystals, and altar cloths. Finally, you should consecrate all your "working" tools; that is, purify and dedicate them for sacred use, charge them with energy, and form a personal connection with them.

Choosing A Tradition

First, consider the culture from which each religion or belief system springs. What challenges did the people face? To whom did these people turn in times of need: deities, animal or plant spirits, their own ancestors, others? How did these entities aid and comfort their faithful followers? Does any of this match your circumstances? Next, think about what you want and need from your spiritual life. How many patrons do you want? Do you prefer to work in a group or by yourself? Clothed or unclothed? Indoors or outside? What kind of help do you want? Keep these questions in mind as you consider the following traditions:

Afro-Caribbean spirituality frequently centers on ancestor worship and may include honoring plant and animal spirits as well. If you want an intimate, energetic, intense experience you might try this route, particularly if the idea of maintaining contact with deceased relatives and friends appeals to you.

Celtic Systems include several Druid and Faerie systems along with many others. They feature large pantheons of specialized Gods, Goddesses, and mythic figures plus a deep respect for plants and trees in particular. If you love the woods and moors or have strong social-service inclinations, try these on for size.

Greek and Roman mythology introduce us to a number of highly specialized Goddesses, Gods, Demi-gods, and other figures. If you want a patron for a specific skill or practice, this is a good place to look.

Native American systems vary widely from tribe to tribe. Common elements include a reverence for all of nature and all life, emphasis on personal honor and devotion to the tribe, and spiritual growth. If you are searching for an animal guide, you may find one here.

Nordic systems tend to be rather rough and uncompromising, but reward loyalty and courage well. For the more physically-active seeker, or one who works in law enforcement or military venues, this path can bring great support and satisfaction.

Stregheria; an ancient Italian system, offers rich legends and ritual. The Gods and Goddesses come in matched pairs according to their spheres of influence. If you want tradition and structure without dogma, this may be the one for you.

Wicca or Witchcraft consists of many branches including Alexandrian, Dianic, Gardnerian, and modern adaptations. If you need to break away from patriarchal influences, try Dianic; for tradition and structure, consider Gardnerian or Alexandrian. For more flexibility, go modern.

Eclectic Paganism or Witchcraft is simply an amalgamation of other systems. An eclectic draws useful practices, philosophies, and other elements from a variety of sources. For a custom-tailored fit, try this route, especially recommended for folks who like to cook without recipes.

Now that you know what to look for, you need to go out and do some serious research. Pick up magazines from diverse traditions. Attend Pagan events where you can explore unfamiliar systems. In order to function well in the Pagan community, you need a basic understanding of what other folks are doing.


As you continue to explore your spirituality, you may decide that you want to formalize your relationship to a given tradition or patron. Before you do so, you should spend a significant amount of time – a year and a day is traditional – in study. Typically, entry into a tradition (and often a specific coven or group) takes the form of an initiation; entry into the service of a goddess, god, or other entity takes the form of a dedication. The exact details vary widely according to the cultures and traditions involved, as well as the tastes and means of the people present.

Certain elements and ideas appear frequently in these rituals. Most incorporate imagery of death/rebirth such as crossing a threshold or passing through a portal. The celebrant accepts obligations and responsibilities in exchange for privileges, power, and knowledge. Therefore, most rituals include some elements which honor the celebrant's new station and others which remind the celebrant of her new duties. Decorations and preparations may be simple or elaborate, solemn or festive, again according to tradition and taste. Symbols represent the tradition and/or sacred entities invoked, such as candles for the Goddess and the God (Wicca), the Cauldron of Transformation (Celtic), chalk diagrams (Voudoun), drums (Native American), and so forth.

Most texts cover individual and group commitments. An individual ritual consists solely of the celebrant and her chosen goddesses, gods, or other patrons. A group ritual involves the celebrant plus some other people, often an existing coven which the celebrant wishes to enter. You can modify these to allow for friends of different traditions to witness your individual dedication, if you cannot find a group you’d like to join. Since most group initiations and dedications involve a high degree of trust on the celebrant's part, you must approach with caution; the other members probably won't tell you exactly what to expect, so select people worthy of your trust.

Some Pagan traditions have several layers through which members progress. Each initiation allows members to learn more of their tradition's mysteries, to take more responsibility in rituals, to exercise new privileges, and so forth. Other traditions have only one initiation. You need to find a place, inside or outside a hierarchy, where you can feel comfortable. In the end, your relationship with your path and patron remains a personal one, but takes on new depth and meaning after a formal acknowledgment.

Privacy Issues

Most Pagans start off "in the broom closet" as the saying goes: they begin by reading or exploring on their own. Probably you have not yet told anyone about your interest in alternative religions; or perhaps a few close friends or family members know. This is a comparatively safe but lonely position, which you may choose to maintain or change.

In the beginning, a fair amount of discretion usually works best. First, it takes time to determine which path and patron(s) to follow. Trying to explain beliefs or customs to someone else before you fully grasp them yourself can prove frustrating. Second, you can always choose to tell someone later, but once you have revealed your interests you can't undo that revelation. Third, as you grow into your new path, you enhance your abilities to assess not only reading material but also people and their attitudes.

Why is discretion important? Unfortunately, the American society does not live up very well to its ideals. Modern Pagans have lost their jobs, homes, children, and even their lives simply because of their beliefs. Discretion is important not just for your own protection but for other people's comfort. Not everyone wants to hear about last night's fabulous ritual! It might create negative feelings which can raise resentment or aggression. A little mutual consideration spares everyone’s feelings.

On the other hand, lying about your beliefs can cause endless problems. First, it undercuts your power -- if you shape the world through your words, the repercussions are obvious! Second, sooner or later you could let something slip. Third, someone could find out on their own. So the best course involves a selection of tactful withdrawals and non-inflammatory truths such as "I study mythology and ancient religions," "Right now I am pursuing my own spirituality," or even "I would rather not discuss my beliefs with you."

If you decide that you can't afford or don't want to broadcast your beliefs, you can take some simple steps to protect your privacy. First, use a "craft name" like Bluebell or Gwynhwyfar for any Pagan activities. Second, rent a post office box. Third, use an alias or an anonymous server for online networking. People can't pester you if they don't know who or where you are! Finally, if you wear a pentacle or other religious symbol, keep it next to your skin; this both enhances the contact and shields it from casual view.

Privacy-advocation organizations often advertise in newspapers, libraries, and online venues. They can teach you all sorts of creative ways to shield your beliefs and habits from prying eyes. In America, privacy protection lags woefully behind European standards, but you can help change that if you wish. As you continue to explore alternative religions, pause from time to time to assess your needs and desires in this area. Often people become progressively more and more "out" about their beliefs as time goes on. Just make sure that you control the flow of information.


Being "out" has advantages and disadvantages. Advantages include greater opportunities to mingle with other Pagans, more contact with the Pagan community, the chance to show that Pagans are decent people, and no longer having to hide your beliefs. Some of the disadvantages include harassment, discrimination, rejection by family and friends, conversion attempts, and fear of the preceding difficulties. You should weigh the options and possible results carefully before deciding.

Think about the effects on your life and property, as well as other people. Do you live in a tolerant or intolerant area? If you own your house, you don't have to worry about a landlord evicting you – but if the situation gets really tense, you would have a harder time leaving the area. If you have a family, you must consider their needs as well as your own: your partner could face job harassment, or your children could face teasing at school. What about your own work situation? Finally, can you count on the support of other Pagans in your area? Doing it alone is much harder, particularly if you are the first open Pagan in your area.

Pagans decide to "come out" for various reasons. They may feel uncomfortable or even dishonest about concealing their beliefs; they may want to share their "true selves" openly. Some feel a calling to serve their community. Some want to prove that Paganism does not equal "devil worship" but rather constitutes a positive value system. Others want a degree of contact with the Pagan community which would make secrecy hard to maintain. A few come out to avoid surprise discovery.

If you do decide to make your beliefs known, draw on the experience of others to choose an appropriate time and manner of revelation. The alternative sexuality community has dealt with issues of "coming out" for many years. You might ask Gay or Lesbian friends about their coming-out experiences or read books on that subject.

You can reduce the chance of a major blow-up by taking some basic precautions. First, test the waters before you tell someone; ask a few hypothetical or general questions to sketch out their attitudes towards alternative religions. Avoid making announcements in an already-stressful situation. Try to find a quiet time when you can catch your audience in a calm mood. Also emphasize your wish for open and honest communication rather than confrontation.

Spend some time thinking about possible reactions and how you would respond to each. You can expect one of four basic reactions: 1) Nothing. The listener ignores your announcement. 2) Positive response. The listener supports your ability to make your own decisions and may ask questions. 3) Neutral response. The listener does not really support your decisions, but avoids interfering with your life. 4) Negative response. The listener completely rejects your choice and may spout mainstream religious rhetoric or ultimatums. Prepare yourself to deal with any of these results. A calm demeanor and factual information always work better than losing your cool.

If you decide to come out Pagan, expect some relationships to chill, others to end, and some to deepen and improve. Respect yourself and your choices; do what feels right for you, not what other people want or expect. Ultimately, following your own path will bring you greater happiness and success.

Pagan Holidays

Festivals honor deities, mark anniversaries, and celebrate special people. In modern Pagan culture, we recognize the eight "sabbats" or seasonal holy days observed widely by European cultures: Samhain (October 31), Yule (December 22), Imbolc (February 2), Ostara (March 20), Beltane (May 1), Litha (June 21), Lammas (August 1), and Mabon (September 23). In addition to the sabbats, many Pagans also celebrate "esbats" or lunar rites.

However, modern Paganism draws from African, Native American, Australian, Oriental, and other cultures too. You can find unique holidays from these traditions mentioned in books on individual cultures; or look in the SageWoman calendar. Still, the eight sabbats give a good overview of Pagan festivals, so let’s take a look at those:

This holiday begins the Pagan year. Popular motifs include costumes, skeletons, pumpkins, bonfires, and scary games. The colors black and orange dominate as do deities associated with old age/death. Festival foods include candy, apples, pomegranate, and hot mulled cider. In Samhain rituals, Pagans often seek to explore death or honor those who have passed on.

This holiday marks the longest night of the year. Popular motifs include evergreen trees, mistletoe, gifts, reindeer, and bells. The colors green and red dominate as do deities associated with the sun/rebirth. Festival foods include Yule log cakes, wassail, goose, and cookies. In Pagan rituals, people may honor the Goddess and Her Son, or the Oak King and Holly King.

This festival celebrates conception/inspiration. Popular motifs include candles, wheat sheaves or crosses, and flowers. The colors yellow, white, and light green dominate as do Maiden Goddesses, Brigid. Festival foods include bread and candied flowers. Pagan rituals often focus on the lengthening days, quickening, and creative pursuits.

This holiday highlights the balance between day and night. Popular motifs include rabbits, baskets, spring flowers, and games with children. Pastel colors dominate as do Gods and Goddesses in youthful aspects. Festival foods include eggs, fluffy cakes, roasted rabbit or hare, and fresh greens. Pagans often work with fertility magic at this time.

This festival celebrates warming weather and romance. Popular motifs include the May Pole, dancing, ribbons, and general revelry. Bright colors like sunshine yellow and apple green dominate, along with young Goddesses and Gods in courtship. Festival foods include May Wine, dark oatmeal cookies, and all types of fruit. In this festival Pagans celebrate the courtship of Goddess and God, and consider the delights of polarity.

This holiday glorifies in ascendant light. Popular motifs include sun discs, summer flowers, and marriage rings. Summer colors like turquoise and hot pink dominate as do solar/sexual deities. Festival foods include melons, fruit drinks, and destiny cakes. Here Pagan rituals may focus on solar or sexual elements, or both, with an emphasis on consummation.

This solemn occasion falls at a time when the fields are reaped but the entire harvest is not secured. Popular motifs include grain, cords, ears of corn, and scythes. Dark autumn colors like rust and pine green dominate; the principal divinity is the dying Corn God. Festival foods include bread, beer, and current harvests. Most Pagan rituals mourn the God's death and prepare for his later rebirth.

This compliment to Ostara marks the balance of light and dark with lengthening nights. Popular motifs include fallen leaves, balance scales, and gourds. More festive autumn colors like saffron, orange, and chocolate dominate along with various herd/harvest deities. Festival foods include sausages, breads, and squash pies. Now Pagans typically give thanks for what they received or accomplished during the year.


All of you have probably heard the silly stereotype about a witch turning someone into a toad. In the real world, magic doesn't work like that; it is a subtle but emphatic force rather like gravity and it comes with natural laws of its own. So what is magic? I sometimes describe it as "the art and science of perceiving current circumstances and possible alterations, then influencing internal or external reality according to the practitioner's wishes." Basically, you manipulate symbolic gestures, objects, or images in order to make desired changes. Types of magic include spells, charms, talismans, invocations, and much more.

Each magical tradition has its own rules by which magic functions, and some systems easily achieve results which prove difficult or impossible in other systems. Certain rules apply to magic across the lines of tradition. These include the Law of Similarity, which allows a symbol (like a candle) to stand for something else (like the Sun God), and the Law of Returns, which states that everything you send out returns to you multiplied.

When practicing magic, you should keep a record. Write down what you did, what you expected, and what actually happened. This helps you figure out what works for you and why; you can spot subtle variables which affect your spells and then compensate for them. Without records, you have no way of identifying flaws or duplicating successes.

What can you do with magic? You can use it to further your personal growth, enhance your connection with your patron deities, find a better job, etc. Most traditions frown on casting spells for or upon other people without their permission. Practitioners often include a catchphrase in every spell, such as: "I ask for this, its equivalent, or better in accordance with free will and for the good of all." This prevents you from restricting your own possibilities, and also prevents magical backlash from a miscast spell.

Methods of spellcasting also vary according to tradition. Some people simply state their intentions aloud. Asatru and other Nordic systems use rune magic for divination, protection, binding, and empowering objects. Wicca and other European systems use altar tools to manipulate events. Many different traditions use candles. You may need to experiment with several magical disciplines before finding one that feels comfortable.

In general, think carefully about what you want before you begin any spell. When you set up your altar, arrange items so you won't knock anything over. Phrase everything in positive terms. Focus your energy intensely on what you do want. Allow for alternatives. Express your thanks with the understanding that your request is already being fulfilled. Avoid telling people about your spell, as this may diffuse the energy. Follow through on a material level in support of your magical effort.

Finally, remember that it takes time to learn any new skill! Practice may not always make perfect, but it certainly makes improvement. Give yourself the chance to adapt and grow; your magical abilities will increase over time.

Ethical Concerns

All religions include a set of expectations -- things to do and avoid doing. Most also include a set of benefits which followers receive for adhering to these guidelines. Religions explain, often through myth and legend, which qualities are valued and which are condemned. In selecting a tradition, take great care to find one whose ethics and expectations closely match your own personality or ideals. You may set yourself a goal of significant improvement, but don't get involved with a system whose values and ethics conflict with your own. Any deities you worship should exhibit what you consider exemplary behavior, so that you may look up to them as role models. There is nothing worse than entering a crisis with your personal instincts and your religious obligations at odds!

Some systems allow actions which other systems prohibit. In general, the more stringent and positive the code of ethics, the less likely you are to create a disaster while following it. Systems which allow more aggressive acts typically demand much more in the way of knowledge and responsibility from practitioners. Thus, many Pagans prefer to follow the "harm none" rule.

Explore different traditions to see what you think of their ethics. Many Pagans find certain actions attributed to Jehovah quite objectionable. Others feel the same way towards the Greek and Roman deities. Some consider the Norse pantheon too bloodthirsty. To some extent, one must take these deities on their own grounds, but objective standards also apply.

A simple and safe set of Pagan ethics, assembled from a variety of systems, might go something like this: Study widely. Think before you act. Respect the free will of others. Work magic only for the good of all; this often calls for rephrasing a negative working (such as a banishment) into a positive one (such as creating an enticement far away to draw someone out of your sphere). Work only with a clear head and open heart, never when tired or intoxicated. Practice love and other positive emotions.

Discussions about ethics tend to center around magic and spellcasting. However, many other important ethical considerations arise in the Pagan community. Most traditions describe ideal family relationships, for example, and acceptable ways of doing business. They cover the giving and keeping of one's word, matters of loyalty and honor, responsibilities to the community, respect for animals, requirements for taking care of the Earth, and so forth. These parameters match the environment, needs, and temperament of the culture from which they arise.

Learning to make good decisions is an important part of Paganism. Ethical behavior necessarily includes honoring the different choices of other people. Stand up for your beliefs, but don't try to force them on anyone else. Worship skyclad (naked) if you wish, but respect other people's nudity taboos in mixed company. Always remember that you may be the only Pagan someone knows; your conduct may represent the entire community in someone's eyes.

Elemental Correspondences

The Elements typify certain states of matter, but also certain emotional and magical qualities. There are two basic Elemental systems, one from Western culture and one from Eastern culture. The Western set features four primary Elements – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water – plus an optional fifth, Spirit. The Eastern set features five Elements – Fire, Earth, Water, Wood, and Metal. These systems match the myths and magic of their founding cultures, so if you have a strong attachment to either Eastern or Western traditions then you should work with the appropriate set of Elements. If you are still exploring, you may wish to experiment with both to determine which works best for you. Let's take a quick look at these Elements now:

Earth corresponds to North and Winter. Its colors include black, green, brown, and of course all the "earth tones" as well. Associated animals include bulls, toads, bears, and burrowing creatures. This Element offers stability, security, abundance. Earth magic covers financial and fertility spells, herbalism, stone magic, grounding and shielding, hunting magic, and protection spells.

Air corresponds to East and Spring according to the Western system, although in the Eastern system "Wind" relates to the Southwest. Its colors include white, crystal clear, blue, and sometimes yellow. Associated animals include birds, butterflies, squirrels – any flying or arboreal creature. This Element offers clarity, mental acuity, and psychic talents. Air magic covers aromatherapy, feather magic, augury, the summoning of wind, and spells for learning or knowledge.

Fire corresponds to South and Summer according to the Western system, but appears in East according to the Eastern system. Its colors include shades of red and orange. Associated animals include salamanders, lions, and creatures whose lifecycles depend on fire. This Element offers passion, inspiration, and transformation. Applications of Fire magic include love spells, the control of fire, all types of candle magic, most men's magic, and any spell that involves burning something.

Water corresponds to West and Autumn. Its colors include blue, green, crystal clear, and black. Associated animals include fish, water snakes, cetaceans, waterfowl, frogs, and all aquatic creatures. This Element offers intuition, wisdom, and patience. Water magic covers some kinds of healing, fishing spells, most women's magic, the summoning of rain, and some forms of divination.

Spirit goes by many names, with alternates like Void, Akasha, and the Unseen. It corresponds to the direction within and to intercalary or "between" days. Its colors include black, white, and purple. Associated animals include eagles, snakes and other skin-shedding creatures, hummingbirds, butterflies and other metamorphosing creatures, owls, and mythical creatures like the sphinx and the unicorn. This Element offers mystery, power, enlightenment, and other subtleties. Spirit magic covers divination, communication with the dead, interaction with discorporeal beings, personal transformation, and energy manipulation.

Metal corresponds to Southeast and late Spring/early Summer. Its colors include red, white, and of course metallics. Its properties include discrimination, organization, and precision.

Wood corresponds to the Northeast and to late Winter or early Spring. Its colors include green, black, and brown. Its properties include expansion, purpose, and activity.

In order to study the Elements, you should spend time getting to know them. One of the best ways to do this is to make a small shrine, such as a garden outdoors or a shelf full of symbolic items indoors. Spend a few minutes daily sitting in front of your Elemental shrine; meditate on the Element and its properties. If you discover a special affinity for Elemental magic, you can then pursue it in greater depth.


As you explore your interest in Pagan traditions, you will probably develop a desire to meet other Pagans and work together. This provides an opportunity to make new friends, discover fascinating facts about ancient cultures and religions, network, learn new skills, listen to more experienced practitioners, and celebrate the Old Ways with people of a like mind. So how do you make the connection?

First, think about where you might run into other Pagans: libraries, flea markets, food co-ops and organic markets, garden centers, New Age and occult supply shops, community centers, etc. Look for fellow Pagans at events with an Earth-friendly theme, too: Arbor Day and Earth Day festivals, craft fairs in the park, presentations on mythology, rallies of all kinds. You’ll also find Pagans among historical re-enactors, science fiction/fantasy fans, Queer activists, feminists, eco-warriors, and so forth. Don't overlook us in our day jobs, either; you never know when you might spot a pentacle around a cashier's neck!

Recognition symbols range from dramatic to discreet. Just about everyone knows the encircled five-pointed star of the pentacle, used most often by followers of Wicca/Witchcraft but widespread in the modern Pagan movement in general. Somewhat obscure symbols include like Thor's Hammer and the Horns of Isis. Subtler still are semi-abstract God or Goddess images, ethnic patterns like Celtic knotwork, and geometric figures such as triangles or crescents. Buttons with Pagan slogans like "Witches Heal!" are a dead giveaway. Please be discreet; you can easily open conversation with something like, "What a lovely necklace. I have one just like it at home." If you feel safe doing so, wear a symbol of your own tradition, because somebody else could be looking for company too.

On the whole, Pagans tend to be friendly and open among ourselves. Many, though by no means all, are willing to answer honest questions. Some experienced Pagans also take students. You can make a dozen friends at once by contacting any nearby Pagan organization and volunteering your skills; even something as simple as stuffing envelopes can work wonders. At a festival, tell the folks in charge that you're new to the community, and ask if they need an extra hand. Spiritual supply shops, libraries, and community centers often hold classes where you can learn everything from astrology to finger-weaving to Greek mythology to practical candle magic. Pagan magazines also advertise various events.

Perhaps the best way to find other Pagans is to search for them online. We have a thriving community in cyberspace including numerous mailing lists, newsgroups, e-zines and webzines, chat rooms, and much more. Check out our =link list= or use a search engine. You can easily find your favorite cause or tradition in cyberspace.

Collecting References

Today you can choose from thousands of books about Witchcraft, Asatru, Druidry, Santeria, Native American traditions, and much more. The question is, which of these many titles should a beginner buy, and why? Not everyone has an unlimited budget to spend on new books -- or a place to put them once purchased. Here, then, are some guidelines for developing a solid Pagan reference library.

First consider the issue of balance. You want your library to cover as many topics as practical, yet emphasize the ones which interest you the most. You also need your library to grow with you, so over time expect that it will accrue a selection of beginning, intermediate, and advanced texts in your favorite subject area(s). Your library should contain a healthy mix of opinions, because authors don't always agree with each other.

At minimum you need a general guide to Pagan history and religions, and a guide specializing in your own religion. A good collection should also include manuals for a few of your favorite disciplines, like herbalism or candle magic; an encyclopedia of deities or symbols; and a sampling of related subjects such as Science, History, Mythology, Women's Studies, Archaeology, Anthropology, and Art. Unless you decide to take up writing in the Pagan field, or found a coven, you won't need a whole bookcase of Pagan titles. One shelf of Pagan books (about three dozen assorted volumes) is a reasonable average for the beginning or intermediate student. See our =recommended reading list= for ideas.

When selecting books, scan through them and see if they make sense to you. If the material seems disorganized, ludicrous, or downright wrong – buy something else. You will probably wind up with a combination of serious works and lighter reading, which is also good. Trust your instincts. Shop around. Once you become familiar with the kind of material offered and the topics you like, it will be easier to fill in the gaps in your collection. Watch for authors (like Starhawk or Scott Cunningham) and publishers (like Harper or Inner Traditions) who consistently produce accurate, engrossing books so that you can look for their titles first. You might want to try researching Pagan books through interlibrary loan programs; then you can go buy your own copies of favorite titles. Used bookstores offer wonderful opportunities. Bibliographies at the end of good books or articles can give you ideas for books to track down, too.

Choosing Specialties

By practicing a chosen technique or developing a new skill, you not only learn more about yourself and your tradition, you grow in other ways as well, which can help you become a vital part of the Pagan community. How can you learn about specialties? The most traditional method involves a close working relationship between teacher and student(s), either in a coven context or between solitaries. Pagan gatherings offer workshops, seminars, open rituals, drum jams, and other presentations. Many also host a "merchants' row" where you can shop for ritual supplies and chat with crafters. All of these methods give the student a chance to ask questions and receive feedback, which makes learning faster and easier. Finally, you may turn to other resources if you can't find someone to teach you in person; experiment with books, magazines, mailing lists or newsgroups, Websites, and other distance-learning methods. Here are some popular specialties to get you started:

Aromatherapy is the art and science of using fragrance to affect mood, physical well-being, and spiritual awareness. This delightful skill comes in handy when you need a special dressing-oil for candles or annointing oil dedicated to a certain Goddess in ritual. For this discipline you need a sensitive nose.

Divination makes it possible to discern information not readily available through the physical senses; it does not predict an unchangeable future, but it can clarify the most likely outcomes of several different choices. Tarot cards, runes, scrying, and pendulum dowsing are all respected methods. Try divination if you are good at seeing many possibilities.

Energy manipulation involves raising, monitoring, directing, and dispersing all kinds of energy. If you have a good sense of rhythm and a ready understanding of how other people feel, this could be a good specialty for you.

Herbalism includes three main branches and concerns the use of plants for culinary, medicinal, or magical purposes. You may study any or all of these. This is a good discipline for anyone with a green thumb.

Music creates a fun and effective background for ritual, meditation, and other activities. Whether you sing or play an instrument, you can raise a lot of energy. If you are blessed with perfect pitch or a lovely voice, show thanks by developing your gift; even without such gifts, however, you can pursue music in other ways by working with something simple like a rattle.

Ritual and liturgy design encompasses several related abilities, all of which pertain to creating sacred ceremonies. Someone must write the invocations, chants, and songs used; develop the spells; and plan the sequence of actions which make up the ritual. Consider this course of study if you possess strong organizational skills or a gift with words.

Stone magic refers to the use of gemstones and minerals for ritual purposes. This typically appeals to people who have a strong connection with Earth and an eye for color so they can identify the individual rock types.

Levels of Experience

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a novice, just beginning your exploration of alternative religions. What does it mean to be a beginner? The beginner has little or no experience and much curiosity. As a beginner, you see many exciting and unfamiliar things. Expect to spend a lot of time thinking about what you believe and what you want to believe, what you have experienced and how you have interpreted it. During this stage, you explore widely, sample the scenery, dabble at this and that. You may start a journal or a Book of Shadows. You ask questions. You listen to more experienced practitioners and read books. You learn. All of this is part of the process of spiritual seeking.

Here I have presented the basics of contemporary Pagan culture, spirituality, and magic in terms accessible to the beginning practitioner. Only you can know what you need and want from a religion, so I have tried to open doors and support you in making an informed decision. However, you won’t remain a novice forever – and it can prove challenging to tell when you have crossed that threshold.

What, then distinguishes an intermediate practitioner from a beginner? An intermediate practitioner has somewhat different concerns than a beginner, but a change of focus from seeking to developing is the key. If you have attained the intermediate level, you have made some basic decisions about your spirituality. You have chosen to pursue some things and pass by others, at least for now. You understand the basic vocabulary and concepts commonly used in Pagan spirituality and magic, especially those from your favorite tradition(s). You know a little bit about how to find and relate to other Pagans both individually and as a community; you also know how to deal with non-Pagans. Looking back over recent months or years, you can see definite progress you have made in these areas, although you understand that you still have much to learn.

How long does a spiritual seeker usually spend as a beginner before moving to the intermediate level? This varies, but traditionally the minimum time is a year and a day. Nobody becomes accomplished at anything overnight. However, some people learn faster than others, and some enjoy better opportunities. That said, most people pass into the intermediate stage by their fifth year of practice. An average span as a beginner would probably run two or three years, for a seeker with intermittent access to Pagan resources and limited free time for practice, both common considerations in today's busy world. Don't feel inadequate if you take a long time to make up your mind; this is a very important decision and you don't want to rush yourself.

Advanced practitioners have years or even decades of experience. They are skilled in many techniques and knowledgeable in many fields. They may serve as Pagan clergy, host events, lead groups, write books, or perform other community services. Some experts prefer to live private lives instead. Detailed coverage of expert-level material is beyond the scope of this discussion, but this is a taste.

As you continue your studies, don’t worry too much about what other people think. Always trust your instincts – I can’t repeat that often enough. Explore widely, figure out what you like and what works for you, then focus on that. I wish you well on your spiritual journey wherever it may take you.


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This page last updated March 10, 2004