Years ago, I read somewhere that “a Pagan is someone who worships what they can actually see.” To this day, this is one of my favourite definitions of the word “Pagan.”
We worship all those things that are very familiar to us – the sun and moon above us, the ground beneath our feet, the trees, plants and animals around us. I think that this reverence for these every day things is extremely important to being a Pagan – it reminds us that everything, everything, is sacred in its own way, and deserves respect in its own right.
Sometimes it isn’t as simple as worshipping these things as they are. Using our imagination, humans have assigned deities to many of these things, and in these rituals we may invoke the deities rather than the thing itself. But still, whenever we call upon Apollo or Diana or Gaia or Pan, we are still evoking those very basic forces of the sun, the moon, the earth and living things.
Contradictory as it may seem, Paganism may involve the worshipping of unseen forces as well. This is very much the case in Shinto, where emphasis is placed on the fact that the spirits (kami) are invisible to us. That’s probably why you don’t see many depictions of kami themselves at Shinto shrines. And yet, at a great number of Shinto shrines, you will see the kami embodied in natural things – often trees, rocks or waterfalls that are marked with a shimenawa rope or torii gate to show that they are the dwelling place of a kami. Larger things, such as mountains, bodies of water and even phenomena such as thunder, can also be considered to be of the kami. So even when the underlying force behind nature is unseen, it can be perceived by humans in the form of natural phenomena. In this way, even the unseen forces are actually worshipped as things we can see!
One of my favourite quotes from Douglas Adams’ excellent book The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” As Pagans, I think we can do a bit of both. I think that because a tree is a tree, a beautiful living thing that in turn gives us life, is reason enough to worship it. But I also think venerating tree-spirits – the “fairies at the bottom of the garden,” quite literally fairies for some Pagans – helps us to connect to the tree on a more personal level. More often than not, our deities are anthropmorphised, so that they resemble us (at least in personality if not in appearance). Even in Japan, the unseen kami have rather human traits; they can act in a way that is both good and bad, they have likes and dislikes, and they enjoy receiving some of the same things we do, like food and alcohol. To be a Pagan is to both worship things as they are, and as symbols of particular significance to us as humans.