(RNS) — On Sunday (May 1), some localities erected a traditional maypole, named a may queen and made wreaths. Many modern pagans have also celebrated the height of spring.
But the vernal frolic of one community is the religious rite of another. “The life force is in everything,” explained Reverend Wendy Van Allen, spiritual counselor and Wiccan. “Nature is the holy book.”
May Day in Wiccan and Pagan religions is celebrated as Beltane, a fertility festival that originated in Celtic culture before Christianity.
And for some pagans, honoring nature is enough. “In atheopaganism,” said author Mark Green approaching Beltane this year, “we just say, here’s the environment of planet Earth, and that’s sacred, and we’re going to dedicate ourselves directly to that.”
RELATED: How Some “Witches” Embrace Both Judaism and Witchcraft
But Earth-centric celebrations of the seasons often lead to a misunderstanding in the wider culture that all pagan religions are pantheistic – the belief that a faceless divine spirit lives within all living things. In most Wiccan traditions, Beltane marks the union of god and goddess, the religion’s two primary deities. The Maypole dance itself is symbolic of their union.
For many, the two divine beings are not entirely separate. Van Allen believes that the god and goddess are two aspects of a single, genderless creator, much like the Eastern concept of yin and yang. All other gods that Wiccans can call upon in their rituals and spells serve as aspects of these two, she said.
Indeed, in addition to Wicca, Van Allen practices Lucumi, a tradition also known as Santeria, and is a priest of Obatala. Lucumi is not generally referred to as paganism, but is an Afro-Caribbean religion. Lucumi’s spirit beings, the Orisha, are not gods per se, but “forces of nature emanating from the divine”, Van Allen said. But they are beings with whom believers can align themselves and find help.
Other pagans identify as true polytheists – believers in multiple gods – and have relationships with different deities from other pre-Christian belief systems. Reverend Clio Ajana, archiereia, or priest, in a Hellenic tradition, has relations with the goddess Hecate and the Greek muses, among other gods. “If you are open to the gods and they come to you, then you have a responsibility” to respond, she explained. “It’s like any relationship.” For polytheistic pagans, gods are not archetypes or aspects of a single creator.
Ajana, Minnesota’s minister of prisons, said the Pagans she counsels are mostly Wiccans who are duotheists, with faith in a god and goddess. “Some of the most devout religious people I know are pagans,” Ajana added.
Holli S. Emore, executive director of Cherry Hill Pagan Seminary, practices a religion based on ancient Egyptian spirituality. Sekhmet was the first pagan god she encountered. “Paganism is mysticism, and the classic definition of that has to do with personal relationship,” Emore said. Like most polytheists, Emore maintains altars in her home and has a daily ritual practice honoring her gods.
There is even a small subset of the pagan community that combines Christian belief with modern paganism. Lisa Frideborg, blogger and ChristoPagan, has defined her practice as “the experiential fusion of a devotion to the person Jesus Christ and his teachings with experiences of a spiritual nature that emanate from mother nature.”
So where does the idea that paganism is just a pantheistic creed come from?
On the one hand, modern Druidism, a pagan religion which, along with Wicca, emerged from the cultural movements of the 1960s, has long captured the imagination of the media and is linked to visible landmarks such as Stonehenge. Druidism places nature at the center of its theology. “Most druids tend to be pantheistic or naturalistic, focusing on self-development and relating to nature in a way often described as spiritual but not religious,” said author and druid John Beckett. Druidry and Wicca, two of the best-known pagan religions, center their theology on natural cycles.
While in the 1990s “belief (in a deity) became the litmus test of paganism”, according to Mark Green, atheopagan and non-theistic paganism is now a growing segment of the community. He attributes this in part to the rise of “nones” – those who do not adhere to any religious belief. He also pointed to popular online communities, such as SASS—Skeptics Agnostic/Atheist Science Seeking Witches.
However, Beckett believes that polytheism is “humanity’s default religious position.” Left alone, even Christians will start talking about “weather gods” or “baseball gods” and the like. Monotheism requires continuous reinforcement. Polytheism also gained popularity among pagans.
Joyce Higginbotham, a former Mormon and Catholic who wrote a book on Christopaganism with her husband, River Higginbotham, had a different view. She said bringing the divine into a theistic or non-theistic presence is wasted energy: “My religious experiences have shown me how great the mystery is and how big the human heart is to be able to contain all these expressions mystery,” Higginbotham said. “It also taught me that whatever the divine is or isn’t is greater than anything I can grasp.”
Van Allen expressed a similar view. “The Creator is beyond human conceptualization and understanding,” she said. “There are many different paths to the divine, as many as there are people.”
RELATED: Witches remember those lost to COVID-19 among Samhain deaths
What seems common to all pagans is the acceptance of their diversity. In a sincere passion for community, rather than a common belief or practice, a holiday celebration like Beltane requires only a basic respect for nature and an open-minded commitment to coming together.
“If anyone pays an offering to Brighid,” said Beckett, the Druid, “it does not matter whether it is an offering to the (Celtic) goddess, (Christian) saint, or to the personification of the poetry and blacksmithing. What matters is that they make an offering to Brighid,” Beckett said.
“As I like to say, there is no creed test to dancing the Maypole.”