I’ve long believed in the idea of innate Paganism. It goes like this. The realities of life – the weather, seasons, agricultural cycle, and landscape – they all impact us, if we’re paying any kind of attention. When we respond to those things, we often end up doing the same things that other people do – it’s not like there are an infinite number of potential responses. Get to the cold, dark time of the year and a desire for warm fires and a bit of colour is pretty natural. Get the main harvest in, whatever it is in your part of the world, and some celebrating is called for. Music, dancing, and drinking tend to feature because these are the happy things we’ve had widest access to for the longest amount of time.
You don’t need any shared origins or much beyond the whole ‘being human’ thing to get to the cold, dark, damp days and think, ‘Bloody hell, I could use cheering up.’ And so we invent stories and rituals, celebrations, costumes, colourful things and happy music, reasons to feast and special cakes to feast upon, to cheer ourselves up. It is an innately human response to an innately natural experience.
For me, that’s the absolute essence of what Paganism means. It responds to the intrinsic parts of life – sex and death, food and farming, the wheel of the year, the cycles of our lives, the mysteries of existence as we experience it, the wonder of sun, moon and stars, the power of water, the secrets of soil. It recognises these essential, life-giving things and wants to respond to them. The Pagans of old may well have been seeking control over a hostile world. We still try and do that with science but may have to learn it won’t work either. Where we seek to understand, to honour, and celebrate, what we get is going to look a lot like Paganism.
You do not need insight into the thinking of the ancients for this. You don’t even need to know that there is such a thing as Paganism, or have any kind of conscious creed. You just need to be living on the earth with awareness and, as Mary Oliver puts it, ‘Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’
The body doesn’t always give us the same “right” answer. If you get to midwinter and, like the bear, want to embrace the darkness, go into the cave, and dream the long dream of winter, then fine. If, like the tree, you are bare and still, waiting for the spring, so be it. If you are struggling to survive, hunting and foraging and trying to keep warm, it’s a grim season. If you need the camp fire and the story teller to get you through the long nights, that’s a perfectly natural reaction too. Even the people who head off to warmer climes are enacting something natural enough, migrating like the swallows. We are natural. What we do comes from our own natures. The only time we get this ‘wrong’ is when we’re so busy trying to be modern and separate that we ignore what our own natures are telling us, and so disconnect ourselves from the rest of nature too.
Be alive. Be human. Be present in the world. If you respond to that experience with love and gratitude, with respect and honour, then what comes will be Pagan, and it will probably have more in common with what other Pagans do than not.