What does it mean to be a good person according to a Pagan?
We ask Jenny Uzzell, Education & Youth Manager for The Pagan Federation, to share her opinions on being "good" according to Pagan teachings. Jenny has been involved in Druidry for 12 years, and is carrying out her PhD research into death rites among contemporary Druids in the UK. She is also co-owner and Director of a funeral home, which is where she was for this interview. In this conversation, Jenny covers many of the misconceptions that people have about paganism, and shares the history and background of this area of spirituality.
If you’d like to learn more about Druidry, you can visit OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) and BDO (British Druid Order).
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Sarah Buckmaster 0:03
Hi everyone, I'm Sarah and this is "How to be good?" - the podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world. Today I'm talking all things Paganism with Jenny Uzzell. Jenny is a Druid and also the Education and Youth Manager for The Pagan Federation.
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Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 0:23
[...] and if you are rooted in compassion, if that is foundational to you, if that is where you are drawing your nourishment from, then that is going to have a big impact on how you live in the world.
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Sarah Buckmaster 0:39
Jenny has been involved in Druidry for 12 years, and has represented The Pagan Federation on the Religious Education Council for seven years. Her knowledge of all things Paganism is inspiring and I learned so much from this conversation. It really is an area of religious and spiritual practices and traditions that I don't know that much about.
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 1:00
Paganisms - several scholars refer to it as Paganisms, rather than Paganism. They are a collection of traditions that are very different from each other. They have different histories, but they share what I think of as family traits.
Sarah Buckmaster 1:15
Jenny is currently carrying out her PhD research at Durham University, looking into death rites among contemporary Druids in the UK. She is also the co-owner and director of a funeral home. And as part of this work, she helps reimagine and design funeral rituals that are relevant to those involved. She also provides help and advice with home funerals. Jenny was at the funeral home during our interview which added this incredible depth to our conversation.
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 1:46
What it is to live as a Pagan is to live in relationship with persons around you, only some of which are human.
Sarah Buckmaster 1:53
Hearing more about this area of spirituality from someone who has also worked as a teacher in philosophy and ethics for many years was such an honour. I asked Jenny to start our conversation by giving some context about Paganism - or Paganisms. And so that's where we start. It is my joy to introduce you to Jenny Uzzell...
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Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 2:17
Paganism, first of all, or Neo-Paganism some would call it, modern Paganism, is an umbrella term that covers a number of different religious and spiritual traditions.
In Britain, there are Wiccans, Witches, Druids, Heathens, and there are all sorts of generic, eclectic pagans that identify as Pagans but don't belong to a particular tradition. There's a lot of solitary practitioners.
My tradition is Druidry. And Druidry takes its inspiration from the Iron Age Druids, as you might expect, but it's not intending to continue whatever their religion was, because we don't know. We know very little about the ancient Druids. And what we do know is contested. What modern Druids have tended to do - the history of modern Druidry really goes back further than most Neo-Pagan groups, actually, it goes back at a push into the 1500s. And reliably into the 1790s. When people start using the the term Druid and the concept of Druid in a variety of ways that have to do with cultural identity, as well as religion. In its really modern incarnation, I would say it goes back to the late 70s, to the mid 80s, which is where what I describe as Spiritual Druidry really begins to take hold, where it's seen by many of its practitioners (not all), as a Pagan religious tradition, which is rooted, I suppose, in ideas of connection to nature, reverence for ancestors, who are understood in a variety of ways. So blood ancestors, as you might expect, but also ancestors of place. So whoever has been where you physically are before you. Ancestors of tradition, which is anybody who has made you what you are. So in terms of Druidry, that might go back to figures like Iolo Morganwg who wrote a lot of things in the 1790s that have become foundational to modern Druidry. So he would be an Ancestor of Tradition for Druids. So basically, anybody that has contributed to making you the person you are is seen as an ancestor. So ancestry is very important to Druids, landscape is very important to Druids, and I would say that story and creativity is very important to Druids as well.
Paganisms - several scholars refer to it as "Paganisms", rather than "Paganism" - are a collection of traditions that are very different from each other, they have different histories, but they they share what I think of as family traits. So for example, Pagan religions tend to find the Divine, however they understand that, in nature. They tend to take the Divine Feminine more seriously than perhaps some of the world religions have traditionally done. So the concept of either goddess, the goddess, or goddesses, is something that's quite prevalent in Paganism. And again, this idea of connection to nature... there's a scholar that writes about Paganism quite a lot, and he took a phrase from an anthropologist at the beginning of the century, who was studying indigenous peoples and who talked within animism (which is another trait that a lot of pagans share *editorial note - Animism is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence*), he talked about this idea of "other-than-human-persons". And Graham Harvey, who is a scholar who writes extensively on Paganism has made this phrase very popular amongst modern Pagans. So, the idea that what it is to live as a Pagan is to live in relationship with persons around you, only some of which are human. And the non-human can be understood in terms of animals and plants, the ecosystem that you belong to, it can be understood in terms of ancestors, it can be understood in terms of land spirits, and it can be understood in terms of Gods, Deities, and for some Pagans - God. What paganism isn't is a belief system. Because, you know, even within Druidry - if you get three Pagans in a room, you've got upwards of 10 different opinions and belief systems. And if you have Druids in ritual in circle together, they will not share beliefs about what God or the gods is, what happens after death. They will not all have those same beliefs, and there are no beliefs that are dictated or expected for people to have. What they will have is what I think of as a particular way of orientating themselves towards the world. And what's foundational to that way of orientating is this idea of being in relationship with things that go beyond the human world.
Sarah Buckmaster 7:35
That's really useful context, and makes me really curious to ask that first big question - as a Pagan, what does being a good person mean?
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 7:45
Individuality and relationship are sort of equally important within Paganism, I think. And to me personally, this is what separates Paganism from what are sometimes called 'New Age movements'. New Age tends to be very much fixed on individual spirituality. Although that is very much present in Paganism, there is also this idea of connectedness and responsibility beyond yourself. And also, while the New Age movements tend to look forward to some sort of New Age, Paganism tends to look backwards insofar as it finds its inspiration in the past.
There are very few things in Paganism that could be compared to Holy Books or Scriptures that you would find in world religions. There are bits and pieces here and there that for some Pagans take on that sort of ideology. There is no concept of Divine Rule. So, within the field of ethics, the concept that something is right because the scripture or a God says that it's right just does not exist. It's not there. Which obviously makes, you know, ethics fairly complicated. There are I think, overreaching things though - and having said that there's no scripture, there are certain Pagans that take certain things in that sort of way. So for Heathens who are Pagans who follow the northern tradition, so they tend to be polytheists. They tend to worship a number of gods, and they tend to be the gods that we would think of as Anglo Saxon or Viking. So Odin, Thor, those sorts of gods.
Now, a lot of Heathens take a lot of inspiration from a book called the Havamal, which is an Icelandic medieval book of aphorisms, so in its intent it's comparable to the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. And the Havamal upholds certain personal traits. And those traits would include things like honour, personal honour, courage, and hospitality. These traits are seen as really keen virtues and things that Heathens would try to follow.
And interestingly, two prominent Pagan writers have written specifically about ethics and they came to very similar conclusions. One is a university lecturer from Canada, Brendan Myers, and he wrote a book called "The Earth, the Gods and the Soul", which was tracing philosophy but looking at it from a pagan perspective. So he started in classical Greece and he worked his way through to the modern world and finished with modern Pagans. And he says that if you look at the ancient philosophers, and if you look at the way Pagans tend to operate today, what you find is something that ethicists call virtue theory. So it's not deontological, which is ethics that you do it because it's just right, it's duty. From an ethicist's perspective, it's teleological - so it is connected to consequence; this is right because it has a good consequence.
But it's not following a set of rules. So it's not "In situation A, do B" because life is just far too complicated for that. There is no black and white a lot of the time. And in a lot of situations that people find themselves in, there is no obviously good thing to do. There may be a variety of less bad options, but sometimes there isn't a good option. And what he suggested that Paganism and pagan philosophy has always taught - and this is the same conclusion that Emma Restall Orr came to. Emma is a prominent Druid who wrote a book called "Living with honour: A Pagan Ethics", which was also about ethics within paganism. And what both of them said was: what you do is you concentrate (by your practice and your habits) in making yourself a virtuous person. You don't worry about "what is the right thing to do in situation A" - e.g. is contraception right or wrong? You don't go into the nth degree on those. You make yourself a person who is rooted in honour, and who is rooted in these virtues like courage, like hospitality, like kindness. And then when you're faced with a difficult circumstance, you will make choices that are good within the options that are available to you. So where there is no good option, a virtuous person is well placed to find a better option. And I would say that if there's an overreaching idea within Paganism, about ethics, that is probably it.
Within Wicca, there is a Gerald Gardner who was foundational in Wicca and, in his Book of Shadows, he says something that a lot of witches take as an ethical guide, which is, "if it harms no one and it harms none, do as you will". So in other words, there is nothing that is forbidden, you can do what you want; there is no sin. But you think how your action is going to affect others. And if it's going to cause harm, then you don't do it. Or you at least think very hard about doing it; is this the best option? And for a lot of witches, again, there is this idea of what they call the Rule of Three, which is whatever you do to somebody else, or whatever you send out, comes back to you threefold. So if you are causing harm to somebody, be it by how you behave, or magically, then you expect that harm to come back to yourself. So there are themes that run through Paganism, even though there's no rulebook.
Sarah Buckmaster 14:05
And what does being "good" mean to you personally? How much do the themes you've discussed play into your idea of being a good person?
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 14:17
It's certainly very much aligned with my personal philosophy. And in my past, I was a teacher and I actually taught philosophy and ethics amongst other things. And well, while I was actually teaching it, I have to say that virtue theory was the only thing that made any sense to me in a complicated world.
Knowing that this question was coming up, I've been thinking about this quite a bit. And serendipity - great thing - two things fell into my sphere of influence on Facebook this week, and both of them really made me think. One was a friend of mine, just writing about Christmas and the difficulties in the world at the moment - and hope and looking forward - and she said, "root yourself in compassion". And that had a really strong effect on me. And I thought, yeah, that's a really good way to be. And again, it feeds into this idea of - it's not what you do, it's who you are. And if you are rooted in compassion, if that is foundational to you, if that is where you are drawing your nourishment from, then that is going to have a big impact on how you live in the world. And that was a real inspiration for me in terms of what I would aspire to do.
And the other one was part of a discussion about spiritual narcissism... you know, this, "I'm more holy than you"," I've got a brighter aura than you" "I see visions better than you do", and all sorts of things that occasionally come into Paganism as they come into any religion. And what this lady said about it was that any genuine spiritual development is grounded in service. And that's what stops spiritual narcissism; if what you are doing, if what is foundational about it, is service to others in some way, then that is going to stop you getting carried away with everything else. And that had a real big effect on me as well.
So in terms of my personal philosophy, my partner and I own a funeral home, for example. And we set that up to sort of buck the trend of what often happens in the funeral industry in Britain. We've been going for nearly 10 years. And just now as the law is about to change, to say that you must display your prices, for example, we've been doing that for 10 years. So this idea that what I am doing when I come into work, I'm offering service, I'm offering service to the bereaved - to the dead. And everything that we do as a funeral home, it's that question that comes up: "is this service?" - or are we doing this because it's easy for us? And if we're doing it because it's easy for us, then we need to rethink. So I would say in terms of my personal philosophy, that's where I'm coming from, or where I aim to be coming from. And I have found this reflected in so many different religions, that the way that you live a life that is fulfilled and meaningful and happy, is when you're in service. That comes out of just about every religion, which I think is probably deeply significant.
Sarah Buckmaster 17:34
Yes, it's interesting because the interviews I've had so far, that's a really common thread that comes through - along with the connection aspect, which you spoke about as well. And I'm curious, because you mentioned that under this umbrella of Paganisms, there's a lot of solitary practitioners or people that do this alone. How does that link to a sense of community under the umbrella of Paganism?
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 17:58
Okay, so for many groups, they would - under normal circumstances - meet and practice together. And a lot of that has moved online (*due to covid-19). But for those who describe themselves as solitary, again, oddly, there is a lot of community.
A lot of Pagans reject the word religion, for example, because to them, it has very negative connotations. And when they think of religion, they think of dogma and control. And that is not something they want. And so a lot of people would say that their spirituality, and that's how they would describe it, is extremely personal and private to them. And it's about their practice. Now, that might be ritual practice, it might be prayers, it might be burning incense, it might be an altar, it might be as simple as walking in nature, and feeling the connection, that connection with nature. And religious practice worship can include picking up the rubbish in a public place. And for some, that is actually all that they want. They don't want more community than that. But a lot of people who are private practitioners, there is actually community and a lot of it is online. Pagans are on the whole very tech-savvy people - I think they were some of the first people to start using chat groups. And there are various groups, online groups... there are Facebook groups for Hedge Witches - even though that practice is solitary. So the fact that you're practising alone doesn't necessarily mean that you're not talking to other Pagans, and sharing ideas. It just means that you're not actually engaging in any kind of religious practice together. So, for those that want it, there is always community there.
Sarah Buckmaster 19:45
Is there anything - you hinted a bit about this in your first answer - specifically within Paganism that would be judged to be bad? - an action that would make someone a bad person?
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 20:01
Not in a specific way. I mean, all the things that most people think of as being bad, you know - stealing, violence, murder - Pagans are going to think that those things are bad as well. And that is something I really do want to emphasise because we get a lot of bad press. Sometimes the media get hold of ideas. And if a Pagan has done something bad somewhere, then it's because they're a Pagan. And every time Halloween comes up, there'll be some story about a Pagan sacrificing animals and what have you. And it's really not helpful, it really is not helpful in terms of a general sort of social moral compass. There is no difference between a Pagan and anybody else. What society deems to be bad, the Pagan community deems to be bad.
What we don't have is the concept of sin. Because sin is going against a being who has moral purview; you know, it is to transgress a rule. So that concept doesn't really exist within Paganism because that sort of divine figure doesn't exist within Paganism. So some pagans are polytheists, they follow many gods. And for some, those gods are real beings that you can have a relationship with, but it's a reciprocal relationship. It's not one that is founded purely on obedience and purely on submission. Other Pagans are monist, or monotheists but they tend not to think of God (with a capital G) in personal terms, they tend to think of it as a source of energy that is the source or the foundation of the universe. So again, it's not something that turns up with a rulebook. So instead of this idea of sin, there is very much the idea of personal responsibility; that you think about your actions, that you take responsibility for your actions. And that if something that you did has caused harm, that you try to put that right. So you know, divine forgiveness, in a Christian sense, and sin in a Christian sense, are not really there. But the things that society holds to be good or bad, you will find that Pagans hold to be good or bad. Kindness, compassion, connection are good. Anger, unless it's directed well, violence... all of these things would be held to be bad.
Sarah Buckmaster 22:35
It's interesting, you brought up the opinions a lot of people have around Paganism because there's often this link to witchcraft, and that connection to nature is often something a lot of people don't understand. I would maybe see a prioritisation of a connection to nature - would a Pagan prioritise nature over a human being?
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 23:00
I think there is certainly no teaching to that effect. I think, to be honest, it would depend on the individual Pagan. I think most Pagans would feel their first loyalty within a kinship group. And that kinship doesn't mean bloodlines. It doesn't mean race. And that's something else I want to make very, very plain, because that's the other thing that Paganism gets accused of very often - that is all about who your ancestors were in a very strictly understood sense of the word ancestor. And it's not. The people in somebody's immediate family or friendship group, they would probably see their first loyalty to them. In a case of - if I can help my mother, or if I can help my pagan coven mate, or I can help a stranger, I will probably help my friend first. And I don't think that is any different to anybody else. But that isn't a dictate. It's not a guiding principle.
A lot of people feel that humanity has done extreme damage to nature. And this has put humans in danger. Because, you know, when people talk about climate change, and they talk about the damage to the earth, it's actually ultimately not the earth that is damaged. The earth has gone through many different ages, many differences, variations, many different mass extinctions, and it finds its balance again, and new life forms come out when the new status quo settles. What we are probably doing is damaging ourselves because we may change the earth past a point where human beings can adapt to cope with it. So human beings will go. That doesn't mean there'll be no life on Earth.
So, a lot of Pagans may feel that they have a duty to try and heal the earth and you will find a lot of environmental activism within Paganism. There is very much that feeling that something very special has been damaged and is being harmed, and that Pagans have a responsibility to try and stop it. But there is also this feeling that we are all human beings. And yes, we're connected to animals - what Graham Harvey famously referred to as "hedgehog persons" - yes, we're connected to an ecosystem, yes, we may be connected to spirits or gods, but what we all fundamentally share is our humanity. And that is a really important thing. Because, you know, it is a matter of fact that we are all human beings. So, yeah, a Pagan would feel a strong need to help other people. And there is a charity, there is a Pagan Aid Charity, that exists to try to help in much the same way as any other charity would do; to foster connections between people and to support food banks. You know, all of these things are, are very much part and parcel of Paganism.
Sarah Buckmaster 26:08
So many of us know so little about paganism, and it's something that, especially in Hollywood films, has a certain portrayal.
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 26:15
It does, you know, there's this sort of horror film idea of what witchcraft is. It doesn't help because people do genuinely believe it. And then what we get is Pagans getting bricks through their windows. And I think, one really important thing to get out is that Pagans are exactly like everybody else. You may live next door to one; Pagans are teachers, they're judges, they're policemen - they are fully integrated in society. And they tend to have this ethic, and this idea of service and creativity. So, you know, I would say they're probably quite a good to have in a society.
Sarah Buckmaster 26:56
If you could give our listeners one piece of advice, if they could go out today and contribute positively to the world, be a good person, increase the goodness in the world, what would that be? What kind of action or behaviour would you advise?
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 27:10
You know, a really simple thing at this precise moment, I think the simplest, easiest thing you can do is to just smile at somebody. Because we're all walking around with our faces covered all the time. And we're all maintaining distance from each other physically, and it goes fundamentally against what it is to be a human being. And that's why we're all struggling with it so much. And you know, when you are keeping physically apart from somebody and you're masked, people very often react to being in that situation by not looking at people by turning away by; I have crossed the road to avoid somebody coming towards me to give them space and that feels like a very antisocial thing to do. If you smile at them while you're doing it, it changes completely from being an antisocial act into being an act of kindness. And I think that I would say at the moment that beyond doing big things that we can all do from time to time, just being friendly, saying thank you to the postman, saying hello to somebody as you're crossing the road to to give them the space. I think that's really going to make a difference at the moment.
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Sarah Buckmaster 28:37
My hugest thanks go to Jenny for her time, warmth and openness during that interview. If after listening to our conversation, you'd like to learn more about Paganism. You can visit The Pagan Federation website. It's https://www.paganfed.org. And I'll add a link in the show description.
Jenny Uzzell, The Pagan Federation 28:55
Have a look at The Pagan Federation website. There is loads of information there about what Paganism is. There are people at the other end of an email that will answer questions, that will be able to provide somebody to speak about a particular topic. But engage. Paganism is not a threat. It's not dangerous. It's a force for good in the world as much as any other religious tradition.
Sarah Buckmaster 29:22
And if you've enjoyed this episode, and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today's world, then please consider hitting the subscribe button. And if you have time and liked what you heard, then I would love you to leave a review and share with your friends. I'm in the early stages of this podcast, very much learning as I go and so any help and support is really appreciated. Thank you for listening. And if you have any questions or suggestions, please email me at any time. It's email@example.com and I would love to hear from you. Thank you
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai and Sarah Buckmaster