I am finding, more and more, that I am getting away from the word “Pagan,” and embracing the word “Animist.” Pagan is such a loaded term. For one thing, it was originally always pejorative. First, the Romans used the term as their equivalent to our modern “Red Neck.” Then, the Church applied it to anyone who wasn’t Christian, usually with the connotation that they were immoral and uncivilized, possibly even evil. In the modern sense, it is used to refer to the Neopagan movement. Even there, self described modern Pagans resist definition. Margot Adler described the Neopagan movement as being more of a mood than a religion, and she was onto something there. For me, the word Animist is much more precise, far less loaded, and yet far more flexible in many ways.
What is Animism? Quite simply, it is the belief in spirits, particularly nature spirits and spirits of the dead. Animism is the oldest religion in the world, the Primal Religion from which all other religions evolved. When you hear someone use the word “shamanism,” (incorrectly) they usually mean Animism. In Animism, everything has a spirit, a soul, not just human beings. Every animal and plant, even natural features such as rocks, hillsides, mountains, rivers, streams, and lakes, all are alive and inhabited by a spirit. It is nature worship, but it is also ancestor worship. In Animism, the spirits of the dead watch over the living. For me, my ancestors are increasingly the central focus of my worship.
As for the Gods, I am personally a Polytheist, but Animism is older than any form of Theism. To me Paganism implies Polytheism, but in Animism it is irrelevant. It is the worship of Nature and the Blessed Dead, not necessarily any God. Animism can, therefore, be practiced in concert with any other religion, and often is. When Christianity came to Europe, Monotheism replaced the old Polytheism, but Animism remained, especially in the North. In the British Isles and Scandinavia, belief in the nature spirits, called elves, fairies, dwarves, and trolls, persists even to the present day.