New Pagans - or people just getting interested in Paganism - can easily get a bit lost with all the new information flooding at them. But when a new Pagan comes to a Pagan thread or a website looking for information, advice, a guiding hand, it can be hard to know what to say - not least because Paganism is so big, and unless you already have some idea of what you're looking for, it can be hard to give a person any guidance. A few of my Pagan friends and acquaintances helped me compile a list of important things to understand when starting out, as well as a couple of how-tos and some tips and tricks for navigating the Pagan world.
The first thing to understand is that Paganism is a big religious umbrella. It encompasses a huge number of religious views, not all of which are polytheistic or even theistic at all. You aren't going to agree with every view or hold every belief in common with any other Pagan you meet. One of the reasons Paganism as a whole appears to be so accepting is that there are so few things grouping us all together. Thus if someone tells you something that begins with "All Pagans....", there's a fairly good chance they're wrong. The two things to take away from this are 1) not everyone is going to agree with you, and 2) you will not like every Pagan religion you come across. Oh, and 3) assuming someone's religion is like yours because you are both Pagan may offend them.
The second thing to understand is that you will be doing a lot of reading. Because Paganism is so large an umbrella, and there are so many different religions beneath that umbrella, it may take you quite some time to come across the religion or religions that you want to practise. You may never find one that meets your needs absolutely; you're allowed to be an eclectic Pagan, and piece together your own religion. But either way, you will need to read a lot of different books about different forms of Paganism to work it out. Even if you find the religion for you straight away, the more you read and are exposed to, the more your views may change and evolve. Regardless, you should be fairly well educated about different forms of Paganism, so that you don't inadvertently offend. You will never stop reading. Particularly if you are a member of a reconstructionist religion, but even if you're not, you will be reading lore, and reading over it again in a different translation... you'll be reading books by others of your religion, books by historians and archaeologists.... you'll be reading books by religious anthropologists, books about comparative mythology and comparative religion... maybe even learning the language in which the lore was originally written so that you can read it for yourself. Do not stop reading. Err. But don't feel overwhelmed.
The third thing to understand is that not all gods are alike. Even if you believe that all gods are different faces of the same god or goddess (and this is by no means the most common view across Pagan religions), it's important to understand that an offering that is happily accepted by one god might be taboo according to another. If you're wondering whether an offering is appropriate, ask a reconstructionist of that pantheon for advice (they tend to have good ideas) and look to the lore and culture of that deity. Keep in mind too that if you're worshipping deities from multiple pantheons, these deities will not necessarily get along. It's good practise to keep your worship separate: don't hold a ritual and invite deities from multiple pantheons. Even within a pantheon, it's wise to be aware which deities don't really get along.
The fourth thing to understand is that not all authors and publishers are ethical people. This is one of the hardest lessons, so it's good to understand it right off the bat. There are authors who will mangle cultures to their own ends, who will outright lie, who will treat deities like ingredients in spells. It's important to know first off that just because someone appears to be admired or to have written a lot of books doesn't mean that they're an ethical person and that you should follow their lead. And secondly, it doesn't mean that anything they say has any resemblance to the truth. If you're unsure about an author, ask around. Flick through their work on Amazon or Google books and compare what they've said to objective history. As a new Pagan or an interested Seeker, even a bad author might inspire you or give you some decent information, so it's fine if you read their work... just be aware that there are some awful books out there, and don't become too attached to one book or one person's work, in case it turns out their advice is very poor.
The fifth thing to understand is that not all Pagan religions use witchcraft. There are so many books on various forms of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft that it can seem like every Pagan religion is involved in the craft somehow. This isn't true. While practising witchcraft is essential for some religions like Wicca, in others it is entirely optional, even if that particular religion has its own form of magic. In still others it might be considered impious by some practitioners and so practised by very few. If magic isn't your thing, don't think this excludes you from Paganism. Witchcraft might be common in Paganism but it's not mandatory - and nor do you need to be a Pagan to be a witch. If you do choose to study magic, don't jump straight into spellwork. Make sure you can write a spell before you perform one, start small, and put in some serious study before you start practising.
The sixth thing to understand is that context is important. You might be an eclectic Pagan - most people start out that way, before they nail down what it is they believe and which direction they want to go in. Eclectic Pagans can find things they like in other religions and adopt them for their own practise. But, it's very important to remember that not everything can be taken out of that original religious context. It's essential to understanding what this thing is by looking at it in its wider context of the religion and culture, and even once you've done that, you may not ethically be able to take it out of that context and adapt it for your own use. Runes, for example, can be used by anyone, but you will never understand them without a good knowledge of Nordic cultures and religion, and on top of that, the runes are very sacred Mysteries. If you use them, be aware of this, respect them, respect Norse polytheists, and don't misuse them. There are things from other cultures that can't be respectfully taken and used in this way, so be culturally aware, and be sensitive, wise and respectful of others. This can even extend to the worship of particular gods, as some deities won't accept worship from you if you're not a practitioner of a particular culture. Be aware of this also, and don't take personal offense.
The seventh thing to understand is that gods are gods. They aren't abstract ideas that you can work into a spell or prayer every time you want something. For example, if you would like help in love but you have no previous relationship with Aphrodite, it would be rude to ask for her help out of the blue. If you had friends who only called you when they wanted something, but never gave anything back to you or called you up just to talk, you would grow irritated with those friends. Gods can be the same way; if you only call when you want help, they may lose patience with you. Even if you believe the gods are just archetypes, at least show these archetypes respect.
The eighth thing to understand is that not everyone shares your enthusiasm. You are new to Paganism. Quite probably, your discovery of this big new world full of information you were previously unaware of is exciting. You may be very enthusiastic. Cherish this enthusiasm: after a while it will wear off, and it's rare to recapture it in quite the same way again. Use it to inspire you in your studies, to inspire you in writing prayers and poetry, to keep you motivated. But keep in mind that, while you have found something grand in suchandsuch a religion or suchandsuch a god, not everyone is open to hearing about it. Think about the way some people speak about, for example, Jesus, and whether it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable or it comes off as obnoxious. You may want to shout your new-found faith to the world, but the world isn't that keen on hearing it most of the time, even if they share your belief, so keep it to journals, to blogs and to appropriate threads in forums, where others can come and share in your enthusiasm if they like, and can avoid it if it makes them uncomfortable.
The ninth thing to understand is that the person correcting you is not trying to insult you. Don't be offended if someone tells you, for example, that you're not Wiccan, or that your sources for your rune work are fatally flawed. They're not telling you that your practices are 100% invalid, just that you've made some mistakes, or perhaps you've been misled. It happens, and as mentioned, it happens a lot in Paganism. (See above.) We all make mistakes - they probably have done, too, and they may have been sucked in by the same bad sources as you have. It's not something you should take so personally. More often than not, this person is trying to help you, as well as trying to preserve something they consider sacred. Really try not to be offended.
The last thing to understand is yourself. Work out what you want out of a religion. Work out what it is you believe. If you don't know, read around on websites, forums, in books, to get more of an idea of what types of beliefs are out there. Try journalling or typing things out online or in a word processor to see what you come up with. What beliefs or values is it important that are reflected in whichever religion/s you choose? What beliefs or values are you willing to modify or change? Which beliefs can you hold separately from whichever religion you choose? Of course, knowing yourself is quite an ongoing task, so just having an idea of what you want and what sort of practise you enjoy, what you're looking for, can help you.
Form a relationship with a deity:
First, read up on lore about that deity. Don't leave it to websites written by other Pagans, do actually go back to the lore. Even Wikipedia can have some good links and sources. But there are Pagans who accept whatever they read, and what they read might have been made up. So check the lore. Some, like many of the Greek gods, will have a tonne of lore including pre-written prayers and hymns. Others, like Cernunnos, will have next to nothing. So first, read up on what there is to know about that god, to start with. Make sure the god you're being drawn towards is the god you think they are.
Next, make an offering. Make it appropriate; what is appropriate will differ from god to god and from pantheon to pantheon. Express your desire to get to know the deity, perhaps ask for their guidance in doing so and in finding the path for you.
Relationships with deities take time to form, as in any relationship. Be patient and willing to dedicate the time. Be aware also that not every deity will be interested in you, regardless of how fascinating you find them.
Perform a ritual:
Most rituals follow a basic set-up of:
Inviting the gods/entities/etc. to the ritual, if applicable (you can also ask them to observe without asking them into your ritual space, so to speak)
Stating purpose of ritual
Making offerings (light incense, pour libation, etc)
Meditation, communion with deity, personal prayer etc
Thank guests (gods, powers, entities, whatever) if applicable
Add to this very basic system whatever you like. Re-arrange it if you prefer. This is a very basic overview followed by many religious systems, and some will place greater emphasis on this or that. You may want to start the ritual by preparing the ritual space; some religions do this by casting a magic circle, others sweep the floor, still others feel that all space is sacred and needs no preparation. You may want to take a ritual bath beforehand; for some religions this is essential. (For example, in Greek Paganism cleansing before ritual is very important, and you should wash your hands if you can't bathe.) Don't worry if your first rituals aren't particularly fulfilling: you're still working things out and you may feel awkward or self-conscious to begin with.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Ask questions. Even if they're stupid questions. It's much more important to get the right information and risk someone getting annoyed with you or laughing at you than to save face and remain ignorant. Buck up, be polite when you ask questions, and most people are happy to help you.
Don't take it personally if someone gets annoyed with you. Most of the time when this happens it's because they have faced the same misunderstanding with a hundred different people and are getting a bit tired of it. Be patient and be polite and they'll probably apologise for it; it's not you, it's just frustration. I'm sure you know if you've made it this far that Pagans don't worship Satan, and how annoyed you might have become at facing that assumption from others when explaining your new-found interest. Empathise. One day you may be in their position.
Don't rush. You don't need to buy an altar's full of stuff and complete your Book of Shadows right now. (In fact, most Pagans don't have a book of shadows.) If you want to start actively practising right away, you're fine with a small candle on a windowsill or on top of a bookshelf. Even if you start writing out a Book of Shadows now, chances are you will change your beliefs or practices as you go anyway, so it will be a waste of money to buy a nice book for it at this point. Instead, keep a folder on your computer or a ring binder with handwritten notes and print-outs so that you can move things around and scrap what you no longer need. On top of that, don't think you need to find the gods you want to worship right away. You will grow and change. The gods will call you in their time; impatience won't speed things up.
Think critically. There's this horrible tendency in some circles of modern Paganism to accept things without question, and to accuse anyone who does not do this of being "closed-minded". Ironically it is often these people who are closed-minded, as they tend to accept any answer at first but then close themselves off to any other possibilities. As noted above, some authors are full of shit. As you go along and learn more, these people will be easier and easier to spot. You don't need to accept what others tell you, you're allowed to ask them where they got their information, and you're allowed to question things. Do, absolutely. Just because someone has 20 years of being a Pagan under their belt doesn't mean they know much more than you: unfortunately, some people stop learning.
It's OK to be new. The vast majority of us came to Paganism ourselves, rather than being raised in Pagan families. It's perfectly normal to be new and unsure. There's no reason to assume you should have a Pagan heredity in order to be a real or valid Pagan, and the word "lineage" within Paganism tends to refer to initiatory lineage for those religions that involve initiation. Remember, too, that we all started out not knowing much at all. It's fine to not know stuff. We've been there, and we remember. Problems only arise when people share information with you, and you don't consider it. (You don't have to believe it - the important thing is that you weigh it up.)
Keep your feet on the ground. There's a tendency in some groups to get over-excited and people start declaring they are the Grand High Priestess daughter of Aphrodite or something. Avoid groups where people seem to make things up, or where there doesn't seem to be a line between make-believe and reality. There are Pagans out there who think of Paganism as a game, or a LARP - play-gans, we call them. They aren't serious about things, they aren't honest. Even among more serious Pagans, there are people who name themselves High Priest because they have a study group, or something, as if the title in its own right gave them any sort of legitimacy. Avoid inflating yourself, as well. Be honest with yourself, be honest with the universe, and keep your feet on the ground. Playing with your imagination and fantasy is fun and lots of Pagans are into it, they LARP or play D&D or MMORPGs... but don't let it cross over into your genuine practice. No one is going to swallow that you are the Lord High Chosen One, sacred King of Elphame, so don't even bother trying.
Some people are private. Religion is a personal thing, and not everyone is going to be open to sharing things with you. Be aware that people sometimes have sworn oaths of secrecy, and may be taken aback by some questions. Others are just not interested in sharing details of something that is personal to them. Respect their boundaries.
Don't be a bigot. Some new Pagans are coming out of bad experiences with other religions, most often Christianity. In doing so, it's natural to feel some bitterness towards the religion you are leaving. Try not to lash out at Christianity as a whole. Regardless of your experiences, remember that painting all Christians with the same brush is not reasonable. It is inappropriate to imply Christians today are the same as Christians who in the past committed acts of atrocity against Pagans (and other Christians). Some Pagans have painted Christians as unthinking slaves or hateful, violent people, and that sort of thing is rude and unnecessary. Aside from anything else, poor behaviour towards Christians is construed as immature.
That's all for now, though more advice may turn up here (or if there's enough of it, in a separate post) in the future. For now, good luck, new Pagans, and don't be afraid to email in questions or post them here in the comments.