Denominations Within Paganism
Dear Witchful Thinking,
So I’ve been into the whole Wicca/witchcraft/Pagan thing for a couple years now, but I’ve always been on the fence about it due to past religious experiences. As of late, I’ve gotten over the fence, onto the believer side. I told my friend this and she mentioned denominations . I Googled ‘wiccan denominations’ (which is how I found you) and there were thousands of things that came up. I don’t understand much of it. So I was wondering if you could give me an overview of the various denominations in plain English?
First off, Welcome home! The wide world of Paganism and Wicca is before you, and your first steps along the path will direct you to where you end up.
It has been pointed out to me that perhaps “denomination” is not quite the right word. The variations between traditions, groups and regions are sometimes vast and sometimes almost insignificant. Perhaps a better word would be “flavor”–except nobody would use that because it sounds like going to the ice cream shop, and not every Pagan likes ice cream… However, finding just the right label for yourself makes it easier for other people to relate to you. If someone tells me they are an Eclectic Dianic Wiccan, it means they probably work with women’s groups and use Wiccan-style rituals, but exclusively worship female deity from lots of different pantheons. If someone tells me they are a Kemetic ceremonialist, I’ll know they use really formalized rituals when approaching Egyptian Gods.
The problem with denominations in Paganism is that there are almost as many different denominations as there are groups! And even individual people within groups think differently and might pass down their knowledge in different ways. It is no wonder you are overwhelmed by all the information out there. I talk about denominations in an article on the definition of Pagan vs. Wiccan, so check that out for some background info. Defining individual traditions is difficult, and I wish I could just lay them all out for you in a simple guide–but there are just too many!
When you first start out, it is easier to identify yourself as “Pagan”, as it is an umbrella word but doesn’t inherently imply anything about your denomination. To find out what you are, you might consider simply reading whatever books interest you. Check out your local chain book store, like Borders or Barnes and Noble. They always have a Pagan/Wiccan section, usually under New Age. You can get a good sense of how big the Pagan community is by how many books they have–if they have a lot of books, it means they are supplying a large community. You can even get a sense of what kind of books they are reading, because the store will order more of what is already selling.
From what I’ve seen on Witchvox and in this book, if you live in a pretty populated area, there is very likely a group working with the same Pagan flavor that you are interested in. Indeed, while your in said chain bookstore, check the inside of some of the books. A few magical traditions will place fliers in books that are most like their brand of magic. That’s happened to me a few times in Seattle bookstores. It’s subtle, but it must work! If you feel brave and sincerely interested, give them a call! Additionally, a bunch of different groups might meet at a Pagan or occult shop, so consider checking that out as well.
Determining Your Denomination
- What pantheon of Gods interests you? Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotemian, Celtic, Scandinavian, European, ancient Briton? Perhaps you are interested only in Goddesses and wish to focus on that. Many of these pantheons have traditional names for their followers: those who follow a Greek pantheon may call themselves “Hellenistic”, and those that follow a Scandanavian path may call themselves “Heathen”, “Asatru” or “Norse”. Consider your ethnicity and your backgrounds. And please don’t try and worship Gods that are still living and have their own religious traditions, like Hindu, Shinto, Native American, or Voudoun, unless that is your background–cultural appropriation is a pet peeve of mine…and it is rude.
- How would you like to worship? If you are attracted to a complete system, with rules that tell you exactly how and when to do something, you might enjoy ceremonial magic. Perhaps you don’t believe real-life and magic are separate, are more inclined towards nature, growing your garden and making your house a magical home, and kitchen witchery is just up your ally. Maybe the idea of dancing naked around a fire and howling at the moon makes your heart beat excitedly, and a more shamanistic approach appeals to you. Some may be interested in trying to recreate ancient religions as best they can, and they are called “Reconstructionists”.
- Alone or with others? For some people, the intimacy of working in a group is very supportive, while others would be held back by the natural politics of the situation. Some people love to work alone, while others can’t think of anything to do when they are. Finding good people to work with is one of the challenges we have in our religion, but there are many towns that have a local discussion meet-and-greet kind of group for socialization. There you might meet people you want to work with. Some groups are even organizing into churches with public ritual. Even if you do work alone, it is wise to know what it available in your local area–there may come a time when you will need to connect with others, or direct someone to another group. If you practice a non-mainstream lifestyle, you may wish to explore that as part of your spirituality, and finding a group open to that might be an additional challenge. However there are many groups that are open to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender/queer/kink/poly and other lifestyles. Remember some groups are more “out” than others…
- What is available? Can you find a group or a series of books that will support you in your journey? If not, you may have to trailblaze!
- What attracted you to Paganism in the first place? Often it is someone we know, or an inexplicable magic experience. Few of us were raised that way. Personally, I was attracted to the Witch archetype, and loved pointy hats and broomsticks as a kid, so a religion of the Witch (that is, Wicca) was very attractive to me. Others are attracted to different aspects. Identifying what brought you here can help you figure out where to go next. Pursue your interests.
The real question is this: what inspires you? What makes you feel close to divinity? What makes you feel more like yourself? What way of working expresses you and challenges you? Your denomination should meet or exceed these needs. Feel free to embark on adventures in different denominations and traditions at the same time, if your group allows for it and you have the time and inclination. There is no one right way to do this.
If you are completely stuck and don’t know what to choose, you can do some divination to help you find your way, or pray to the Gods to send you an opportunity, and join the first group that comes along (and looks safe…don’t put your safety at risk!). Try it out for awhile, and if it rubs you the wrong way, find another group or work by yourself for awhile. Or consider taking some public classes. Many community colleges offer Wicca 101 types classes as continuing education, and occult shops often do as well. There are several good online courses and book courses that can give you some background.
Choosing your denomination and determining your Pagan flavor will come in time.
There is no need to rush this process. When you find something, it will feel right, empower you, and make you excited to be Pagan. For some people, it is an unfolding process that never really ends, and that’s ok too.