Neo-Pagans often speak about Pagan “paths” or “traditions.” Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they refer to two different things. Neo-Pagan traditions may be roughly compared to other religious denominations. In contrast, Neo-Pagan paths are more like religious styles. For example, Druidry is a path, but the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids is a Druid tradition. Some Neo-Pagan traditions are closed and require initiation, but a Neo-Pagan does not need to belong to any tradition in order to choose a path.
Neo-Pagans use many different names to describe their various paths. They may call themselves “Pagans” or “Witches” or “Druids” or other names. (Not all Witches, Druids, etc. are Neo-Pagan, however.) In general, there are four historical archetypes that Neo-Pagans invoke to describe their style of Neo-Paganism:
- the Classical pagan
- the medieval witch
- the Celtic druid
- the indigenous shaman
Whether a particular Neo-Pagan calls themselves a “Witch” or a “Druid” or a “Shaman” may depend less on their specific beliefs or practices, and more on whether they identify more closely with:
- the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest Christian heretic
- the wise woman living on the margins of medieval society who was an herbalist, healer, and midwife
- the priestly sage, poet, and seer of the ancient European tribes
- the indigenous medicine man or woman who journeys to other worlds in trance and speaks with spirits
Certain self-designations like “Witch” and “Pagan” are provocative terms that may be deliberately chosen as expressions of protest and rejection of Abrahamic values. As religious studies scholar, Cynthia Eller, has explained:
“Saying one is a Witch, is most often a feminist statement, the symbolic encapsulation of a feminist political program. The Witch is the powerful outsider, the despised and excluded person who is threatening the established order. All women are Witches, according to some spiritual feminists, [because] they are therefore compelled to be outsiders to a male-dominant society.”
Similarly, saying one is a “Pagan” can be a statement about one’s rejection of certain Abrahamic attitudes, especially the denigration of this world, of nature, of our bodies, and of sexuality.
Those who identify as “Pagan” without any other qualifiers are sometimes called “generic Pagans” by other Pagans, though there is nothing “generic” about their religious practice. “Generic Pagan” is an unhelpful (and vaguely insulting) term. In contrast, there are many non-denominational Christians who identify primarily as “Christian,” and only secondarily with the congregation to which they belong—but they are not referred to by anyone as “generic Christians.” That being said, a term is needed to distinguish Paganism as a specific path from Paganism as an umbrella term. The term, “Neo-Pagan,” fulfills this function.