Neo-Pagans often speak about Pagan “paths” or “traditions”. Although these words are sometimes used interchangeably, they refer to two different things. Neo-Pagan traditions may very roughly be compared to 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 need not 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 which Neo-Pagans invoke to describe their particular form of Neo-Paganism:
- the Classical pagan
- the medieval witch
- the Celtic druid
- the native 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 archetypal wise woman living on the margins of medieval society who was an herbalist, healer, and midwife, or with the priestly sage, poet, and seer of the ancient Celts, or with the aboriginal medicine man or woman who journeys to other worlds in trance and speaks with spirits, and so on.
Certain self-designations like “Witch” and “Pagan” are provocative terms that may be deliberately chosen as expressions of protest and rejection of traditional values. For example, as 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 Christian attitudes, especially the denigration of this world, of nature, of our bodies, and of sex.
In a 1998 survey conducted at a Pagan gathering, respondents were asked to specify their religious identity. They were allowed to indicate more than one identity and were also allowed to specify an “other”. While most identified as “Pagan” or “Witch” or “Wiccan”, the respondents selected an average of four and a half identities each. And when asked to select their primary religious identity, there were half as many responses as there were survey participants, revealing a remarkable diversity of religious identities in a relatively small religious gathering. It’s also noteworthy a full third indicated they “disliked labels” altogether. While the survey was a very small sampling of the Neo-Pagan community, the diversity of responses was representative of the community at large.