Curriculum Kernewek

Cornwall Agreed Syllabus 2011

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+ Guide to Paganism

The term 'Paganism' is often used to refer to the spiritual, religious and cultural identity of the indigenous people of the British Isles. There is no written record of communities who lived in the distant past, so other evidence is needed in order to understand the beliefs and practices of these people.

Academics now largely agree that the complexity and number of burial structures in Cornwall suggests that Neolithic and Bronze Age communities venerated their ancestors. The arrangement, orientation and alignment of sites like stone circles and tombs is commonly thought to indicate that these communities perceived and inhabited a sacred landscape. It seems that this landscape was central to their understanding of the world and acted as a focal point for their rituals and ceremonies.

Records kept by the Romans, place names, myths and archaeological finds indicate that people across Britain worshipped a range of gods and goddesses, often specific to their locality. It seems that these British gods were often associated with aspects of nature, for example the sky, an animal or a river.

The arrival of Christianity did not simply replace or banish the beliefs and customs of these communities. Pagan and Christian ideas and practices continued alongside each other and the integration of these belief systems are evident in some traditions still observed today.

During the C18th and C19th, a revived interest in pagan beliefs and practices led to a romantic re-imagining of the Celtic and Pagan past. Pagan traditions became the focus of study in the C20th, and individuals like William Paynter and Cecil Williamson did a lot to extend the study of witchcraft by collecting and recording folk customs and artefacts.

These various interpretations of Paganism have, to varying degrees, informed Neopaganism in Cornwall today. The 2011 Census showed a population of 1429 Pagans living in Cornwall. In addition to this figure, some people selected religions that are considered a sub-set of Neopaganism or similar to it, for example, Wiccan, Occult and Druid.

Neopaganism groups tend to meet and engage in ritual in natural environments or places they consider sacred. Due to their diversity, these groups do not share a single statement of religious belief. Some groups like the Pagan Federation centre their practice on a simple statement of guidance, 'do what you will, as long as it harms none'.

The lack of written records documenting this period has prompted academics to look for later clues to Pagan spirituality, for instance:

+ archaeological finds e.g. artefacts excavated from in holy wells suggest offerings to gods or spirits.

+ celebrations e.g. Obby Oss, Midsummer Bonfires, Montol indicate that people marked and celebrated a change or mid point in a season.

+ traditions and superstitions e.g. keeping the last stand of corn cut somewhere safe until the following year so that the spirit of the corn has a place to reside until the new crop grows. This indicates belief in nature gods or spirits and the use of ritual to appease or influence them.

+ folklore e.g. the tales of little people and giants indicate earlier beliefs in spirits and gods.

+ cures and spells e.g. witch bottles found under the front step of homes around Cornwall show that up until fairly recently people believed in spirits and curses, using a range of methods to ward them off.