I see people — including pagans — ask some form of this question regularly. So, if you’re a pagan…what are you supposed to DO?
It’s easier if you are part of an organized religion. Most of us know someone who goes to church/temple/mosque. They know to pray at certain times of the day, to celebrate certain holidays, fast at certain times, and so on. These are living traditions that people grow up in, so it’s easy to know what to ‘do.’
Neo-pagans, however, come from dead traditions. Our traditions have been formed or revitalized in the last hundred years. We are often the first in our families to choose this path, and we are often physically isolated from other pagans.
It is a dream of mine: going to a place of worship with others for a major holiday, spending the day not at work, but cooking a huge meal for friends and family, then celebrating into the later hours of the night.
In reality, I often spend my holidays working running errands. I light my candles at my altar and make a few quick offerings before bed. While I do attend public rituals on a weekend around that holiday, the actual holy day is spent in mundane isolation.
I know this story is similar to others, and that I’m lucky I can attend public rituals with other pagans. But I feel I need to say all this for two reasons: 1) to non-pagans, please know your pagan friends do not enjoy the same privileges as you do regarding religion, and 2) to other pagans: you may be isolated, but you are not alone.
Back to Basics
One of the oldest parts of neo-pagan traditions is one of the most fundamental parts of any religion: holidays. The pagan calendar has 8 High Days in it: Winter Solstice, February Cross Quarter, Spring Equinox, May Cross Quarter, Summer Solstice, August Cross Quarter, Autumn Equinox, and November Cross Quarter.
(I have used the most generic version of the holidays that ADF uses. However, the Wiccan names are more common: Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltaine, Midsummer, Lughnasadh, Mabon, and Samhain.)
However you call them, and whatever tradition you’re in, these eight days are one of the most common traditions throughout neo-paganism. Ergo, the simplest way to DO paganism is to celebrate these holidays.
This could be as simple as sitting or standing at your altar space and giving offerings. Ideally there will be a candle involved, but I have also used essential oils when I could not light anything. And all you really need to say is: “I have come here to honor the Old Ways. I give these offerings in thanks.”
If you are a baby pagan and really don’t know where to start, this is honestly all you need to do. A bowl, a candle, an offering, and your words of praise. That’s it. That’s what pagans do.
Hanging Out at Your Altar
Maybe you’ve got the 8 High Days down pat, but you don’t know what else to do at your altar. In reality, there’s a lot you can do.
You can retell lore on a holiday or family tales on an ancestor’s birthday. You can recite poetry in a deity’s praise. You can give thanks for something specifically that happened to you. You can give thanks just to give thanks. You can bless items. You can ask specific spirits to help you in something. You can do magic. You can swear oaths. You can go into trance to speak with the spirits more clearly. I could go on, but I’m not here just to write a list.
There’s a whole lot you could do at your altar. Don’t take on more than you feel ready for. I suggest always coming with an offering, even if it’s just praise or water. You can also try meditation.
Most importantly, what you want to do is grow in relationship with the spirits. Sit a while and talk to your ancestors about how you’re doing or something that happened that week. Praise the land spirits for their beauty — maybe even pick up litter in their honor. Try to speak with specific deities and see what they ask of you. In fact, you can do this ‘speaking’ with any spirit. Treat these spirits like you would a friend, and over time you will develop a relationship.
Deepening Your Practice
Maybe you want to get fancy with ritual scripts or build up a more consistent practice than one ritual every six weeks.
Many pagans worship at monthly lunar holidays. I know lots of people who worship on Druid Moons (the first quarter moon), full moons, ‘dark’ moons (the new moon when there is no moon in the sky), or new moons (when the new crescent appears in the sky again.)
I’d particularly like to showcase ADF’s Hearth Keeper’s Way for a monthly lunar practice. While it is intended for people who practice in an ADF style, you don’t need to be a member. You can take what you like from it and leave the rest. It’s helped me deepen my relationship to my hearth goddess and to the spirits in my home.
With time you will also learn more about the lore associated with each of the 8 High Days. This is easiest for Wiccans and Celtic pagans. If you are of another path, you will still find similar holidays and you can adjust your holiday calendar accordingly. (If you’re a Roman pagan however…you just got a lot of holidays!)
The most important thing is to keep up a consistent practice. And if you miss a week, or a month, try your best to get back in the saddle. And remember, this is all about deepening your relationship to the spirits.
Research, Research, Research
An important part of deepening your relationship to the spirits is to learn more about them.
As you continue your practice, your knowledge will deepen. You can spend lots of time learning on the internet (journals, Google Books, etc), but I highly recommend reading books, particularly books by pagan authors. You can use your local library for the expensive text-book-like research volumes…Just me? Oh, ok.
But seriously, you will have to do research depending on what kind of pagan you are, and the internet will only help so much. Even seasoned Wiccans may benefit from reading more Buckland or Crowley or Gardner. And if you are a reconstructionist for the Baltic or Gaulish or Hittite pantheon and culture…you will need to sift through textbooks if you want to learn how our ancestors and ancient polytheists did things.
I don’t want to scare anyone away, but this research is invaluable. If you are a solitary, it may seem overwhelming, but try to find various pagan organizations or pagan blogs or Facebook groups — access to group resources (and more knowledgable people) is also invaluable.
Take your time in learning. Follow what interests you. At the end of the day, this is your practice and you are your own priest/ess.
You are Your own Priest/ess
Can you mix pantheons? What offerings does ‘x’ deity/ancestor/spirit prefer? Should you decorate your altar seasonally? All these things are up to you.
Whether you are a solitary or part of a larger pagan organization, you are your own priest or priestess at your personal altar. You make the rules regarding how and who you worship. If there is a specific deity outside your normal pantheon that you want to worship, go for it. If you have one altar to worship at, or a separate place for each being, it’s your choice. And your decorations are your own to choose. While pagans have general ‘rules’ — like the ‘rule’ that when you approach a deity or other being, you should give an offering — there is no ‘one right way’ to do things in paganism.
Paganism is about your relationship to the otherworldly beings — ancestors, spirits, and deities. Look to them for their offering preferences or if they want their space to be next to another being’s space on your altar. You do not *have* to answer to any other pagan about those choices. What works, works.
The Problem of Isolation
While developing your personal practice is great and necessary, I strongly recommend pagans try to combat isolation. Look for local groups that meet regularly. Hang out with other pagans. Find them on the internet and in online groups.
I may never be able to invite you to that all-day feast to celebrate a holiday on which work is magically cancelled. But community is still possible for pagans and it will help us build other traditions. These traditions will foster more community and that greater community will foster other traditions.
Community is also fulfilling. Even introverts (and yes I count myself in your number) need some level of belonging. Personally, joining a larger pagan organization has given me an international community and a few decades worth of intentional tradition-making.
My personal practice may be varied, but my communities give me strength. They can for you, too.