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Religion Library: Paganism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Carl McColman

In the 1960s, researcher James Lovelock formulated what has come to be known as the Gaia Hypothesis, which holds that the biological and physiological systems throughout the earth function in such a closely interactive and self-regulating way that it is plausible to regard the entire earth ecosystem as a single entity - a "super-organism," as it were. While not universally accepted in the scientific community, this concept - from which it is a short jump to the idea of the earth as a single sentient being - has become one of many stories, both ancient and modern, to be embraced by various elements within the modern Pagan community. For many Pagans, not only is the Gaia Hypothesis a compelling story, but even its name is taken literally: Gaia, Greek Goddess of the Earth, is she whom many Pagans adore when they revere the earth.

Contemporary Paganism, however, is more than just a spiritualized approach to certain scientific theories or hypotheses. Woven throughout the various expressions of magical, polytheistic, nature-centered, and goddess-oriented spiritualities are a rich array of myths, both ancient and modern, that create meaning and spiritual identity for practitioners. Although adherents tend to be sophisticated and recognize myth as a category separate from history, approaches to the sacred stories vary widely in the larger Pagan community. Myth can be understood as meaningful metaphor, as stories imbued with symbolic truth, and even as factual records of the exploits of spiritual heroes and deities. But because Pagans typically reject the idea of prescribed belief or dogma, sacred stories - like all other elements in modern Paganism - may be interpreted by each individual according to her or his own values and worldview.

What do the myths say? Ancient myths, from cultures around the world, tell the stories of gods and goddesses, ancestral heroes and heroines, and other entities (such as friendly or unfriendly spirits, fairies or elves, or animal and plant spirits). While European myths are favored among European and North American Pagans, other sacred stories from around the world are often embraced by various Pagans, instead of or in addition to the European sources; naturally, individuals of a certain ethnicity will often orient the mythic dimension of their practice to the sacred stories of their own ancestors. But many Pagans embrace mythologies for which they may have no ancestral ties whatsoever. In the Celtic community, people of Welsh, Scottish, Irish, or other Celtic heritages may have an ancestral "right" to Celtic mythology, but others - known as "cardiac Celts" (Celts only by virtue of the longing in their hearts) - are just as likely to embrace Celtic myth and make it their own.

While some Pagans insist that mythologies from different cultures should not be mixed in the pursuit of spiritual practice, many others freely integrate myths from around the world into their rituals and devotions. This practice is known as "eclectic" Paganism, and results in a uniquely colorful celebration of various gods and goddesses from all corners of the earth. Thus, it is possible to attend a Wiccan circle where the Hawaiian Goddess Pele is venerated alongside the Roman God Vulcan, or an eclectic Pagan gathering in which the Cherokee Goddess Selu is invoked along with the Irish God Lugh.


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