Neopaganism (sometimes Neo-Paganism) describes a heterogeneous group of new religious movements which attempt to revive ancient, mainly pre-Christian and often pre-Judaic Indo-European religions.
Neopaganist beliefs and practices are extremely diverse, some tending towards syncretic melding of once-diverse practices and beliefs, others bordering on the historical reenactment of meticulously reconstructed ancient cultures.
In the USA, Wicca is the largest Neopagan movement, and while itself heterogeneous, many adherents share a body of common precepts, including a reverence for nature or active ecology, Goddess and/or Horned God veneration, use of ancient mythologies, the belief in "magick," and often the belief in reincarnation.
Since the term Pagan was coined by Christians, to summarize non-Abrahamic religions, Neopaganism may be defined as "post-Christian" new religious movements (or, in the recent case of Judeo-Paganism, "post-Judaistic"), and is pronouncedly a modern phenomenon with its roots in early 19th century Romanticism. Polytheistic or animistic traditions that survived into modern times relatively untouched by Christianity and Islam, like Shinto or Hinduism are not considered Neopagan. In some cases, notably in Icelandic Asatru, the revivalist or reconstructionist movements may blend with surviving strains of pre-Christianization folklore. Other Neopagans stress their connections with older forms of Paganism in terms of an alleged "underground" continuity, but such claims are largely discredited.
During Christianization, Christianity became itself suffused by pagan elements, but it was not until the High Middle Ages that interest of the scholastic in the culture and religion of classical antiquity began to revive. Thomas Aquinas attempted to fuse concepts of Graeco-Roman paganism with Christianity. With the Renaissance, Graeco-Roman mythology became omnipresent in Europe, but it was still clad in a Christian interpretation. Neopaganism proper begins only with 18th century Romanticism, and the surge of interest in Germanic paganism with the viking revival in Britain and Scandinavia. Neo-Druidism was established in Britain by Iolo Morganwg from 1792, and may qualify as the first Neopagan proper.
These trends of pagan revival reached Germany within the late 19th century Völkisch movement, which was to become one of the main roots of 20th century Neopaganism. The late 19th century also saw a renewal of interest in various forms of Western occultism, particularly in England. During this period several occultist societies were formed such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis. Several prominent writers and artists were involved in these organizations, including William Butler Yeats, Arthur Edward Waite, and Aleister Crowley. Along with these occult organizations, there were other social phenomena such as the interest in mediumship, which suggest that interest in magic and other supernatural beliefs were at an all time high in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Some evidence suggests that returning colonials and missionaries brought ideas from native traditions home to Britain. In particular the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (1900) was influential.
The word "Neo pagan" first appeared in an essay by F. Hugh O'Donnell, Irish MP in the British House of Commons, written in 1904. O'Donnell, writing about the theater of W. B. Yeats and Maude Gonne, criticized their work as an attempt to "marry Madame Blavatsky with Cuchulainn". Yeats and Gonne, he claimed, openly worked to create a reconstructionist Celtic religion which incorporated Gaelic legend with magic.
It might be well to consider the words of G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1821): "It is one thing to be a pagan, quite another to believe in a pagan religion".
In the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the religious persecutions and Inquisitions of the medieval Church. Most historians reject Murray's theory, as it is based on a similarity between the accounts given by accused witches; this similarity actually derives from the standard set of questions that were used in the interrogation. Murray's theories generated interest reflected in novels by Mitchison ("The Corn King and the Spring Queen") and covens were created along Murrayite lines.
In the 1940s Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a New Forest coven led by Dorothy Clutterbuck, an ex-colonial woman returned from India. Gardner had already written about Malay native customs and now wrote books about witchcraft. His term Wicca is still used to refer to the traditions of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, or direct offshoots, differentiating Gardnerian Wicca and Alexandrian Wicca, but the distinction is being submerged in a wave of modern offshoots, much of it from the United States.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of Germanic Neopaganism, Ásatrú in Iceland, and Odinism in the USA, in parts not entirely uninfluenced by aryan mysticism.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the creation and popularization of a variety of reconstructionalist Pagan traditions, some of which consider themselves part of the NeoPagan or Pagan continuum, others which identify more with cultural and language movements and less so with NeoPagan trappings such as Magick.
Many Neopagans and Neopagan traditions attempt to incorporate historical religions and mythologies into their beliefs and practices, often emphasizing the hoary age of their sources; thus, Wicca in particular is sometimes referred to by its proponents as the "Old Religion", a term popularised by Margaret Murray in the 1920s, while Germanic Neopaganism is referred to as Forn Sed, "the Old Way". Such emphasis on the antiquity of religious tradition is not particular to Neopaganism, and is found in many other religions, compare for example the terms Purana, Sanatana Dharma, and the emphasis on the antiquity of the Ancient Egyptian sources of the Hellenistic mystery religions. Antiquity of source suggests authenticity and authority to many believers, be they Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, Taoist, or any faith.
Some claims of pagan to neo-pagan continuity have been shown to be spurious, or outright forgery, as in the case of Iolo Morganwg's Druid's Prayer. Wiccan beliefs of an ancient monotheistic goddess were inspired by Marija Gimbutas's description of Neolithic Europe; factual historical validity is disputed by many though not all scholars, including historian Ronald Hutton. Most neo-pagans now more cautiously cite as precedent local folk healers/small groups, and a plurality of ancient "goddess traditions", among others.
However, while Neopagans draw from old religious traditions, they also adapt them. The mythologies of the ancient civilizations are not generally considered to be literally factual or historical in the sense that the Bible is claimed historical by fundamentalists Christians; nor are they considered to be scripture, as most Neopagans are resistant to the concept.
The mythological sources of Neopaganism are many, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Egyptian, and others. Some groups focus on one tradition; others draw from several or many, the Charge of the Goddess, for example, a text by Doreen Valiente, used materials from the Gospel of Aradia by Charles Leland (1901), and Aleister Crowley's writings.
Some neopagans also draw inspiration from living traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism, and others. Since most neopaganism does not demand exclusivity, neopagans can and do sometimes practice other faiths in parallel.
As there is no neopagan dogma, nor any authority to deem a source apocryphal, neopaganism has been notably prone to fakelore, especially in recent years, as information and misinformation alike have been spread on the internet and in published material.
Ecological and mystical currents
Neopaganism generally emphasizes the sanctity of Earth and nature. Some Neopagans are influenced by animist traditions of Native Americans and Africans.
In Wicca, the concept of an Earth or Mother Goddess similar to Greek Gaia is emphasized, but male counterparts are also evoked, like the Green Man and the Horned God, loosely based on Celtic Cernunnos.
Worship and Ritual
Many Neopagan movements overlap with occultism, witchcraft, and magic. Wicca in particular emphasizes the role of witchcraft and ritual.
Most Neopagan religions celebrate the cycles and seasons of nature through a festival calendar that honors these changes. The festival calendar can change from climate to climate, and can also depend upon one's religious path of choice.
Number of adherents
A UK study by Ronald Hutton compared a number of different sources (including membership lists of major organizations, attendance at major events, subscriptions to magazines, etc.) and used standard models for extrapolating likely numbers. This has to estimate multiple membership overlap and number of persons represented by each person attending an event. This concluded at adherence of 250,000, roughly equivalent to the national Hindu community.
The study (www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_briefs/aris/key_findings.htm) based on a poll conducted by The Graduate Center at The City University of New York found that an estimated 140,000 people self-identified as pagans; 134,000 self-identified as Wiccans; and 33,000 self-identified as Druids. This would bring the total of groups largely accepted under the modern popular western definition of neo-pagan to 307,000. Other groups measured in the report, such as Native Americans, New Age, and a significant portion of Unitarian/Universalists, could be categorized under this definition, but many of these adherents would not consider themselves pagan nor would the mainstream pagan communities accept them as such.
The "Covenant of the Goddess" (www.cog.org) conducted a poll of U.S. and Canadian modern pagans in 1999 that estimated the population in those countries at 768,400 (see www.cog.org/cogpoll_final.html). That supports the conclusion that there are at least one million modern pagans worldwide. This poll was not scientific and represents a self selected subset of all Neopagans, but it does provide some interesting insights that confirm what many Neopagans have observed anecdotally. Some other statistics from this poll are:
- 65% of respondents were between 26 and 39 years of age. Neopaganism appears to be particularly popular among young people.
- 86% were registered to vote, a figure much higher than the national average
- There were nearly three times as many women as men (71%).
- 13% have served in the Armed Forces, and Neopagan women served at a higher rate than the general population. 32% of Neopagans who reported having been in the Armed Forces were female.
Concepts of divinity
While today's Neopaganism does continue many beliefs and practices of previous forms of Paganism, including many gods and goddesses, it is in many ways claimed to be very different.
Especially syncretic Neopagans have concepts of deity and the divine that vary widely. Belief systems self-describing as Pagan may include elements of dualism, panentheism, pantheism and animism, and it is sometimes difficult to draw an exact line between Neopaganism, Occultism and New Age.
Many Neopagans believe that there is a single divinity, a life force of the universe, who is immanent in the world. The various names and archetypes which they worship are seen not as truly separate individuals, but as facets, or faces, of something that is far beyond our human abilities to see, know, or understand. Hutton considers ancient Pagans did not see "All Goddesses as one Goddess; all Gods as one God" [sic] (though his expertise is limited to the Pagans of the prehistoric British Isles). As such, some more "traditional" approaches to paganism are polytheistic rather than pantheistic, and worship their pantheon while acknowledging others that do not affect their lives.
Ancient paganism, particularly in Mediterranean societies, tended to regard beliefs as valid insomuch as they were part of the traditions and customs, or cultural patrimony of the people. Moreover, as Christianity became a rising force in the Mediterranean world, many authors wrote arguments against Christian claims and in defence of the traditional religions that give us insight into their structure. Most ancient Western religions identified a single source of divinity with ranks of lesser divinities below them till one reached the tier containing deified mortals such as Greek heroes, teachers and Roman emperors. Porphyry, in particular, makes this clear in the surviving fragments of Against the Christians, in which he attempts to claim Jesus for this "heroic tier."
For Wiccans, divinity is bipolar as two bodies dominate: Goddess and God, with many lesser aspects. For Heathens, (Norse, Celtics, Egyptians, and Greeks), divinity is polytheistic. For Druids and High Magicians there is an overall One but other divinities are also recognized. Of Goddess worshipers, many are monotheistic, believing in one Goddess; some are pantheist, believing that all existence/the universe is Deity, or panentheist believing that the Goddess interpenetrates all of nature but has also distinct identity; others are polytheistic, believing that the Divine Feminine can be worshipped in many different forms.
A sect within Neopaganism is sometimes referred to as a "tradition," although this term is more properly used to define a sect within a particular Neopagan religion, such as Wicca, Hellenism, Ásatrú, Druidry, Dianics etc. There are many traditions within the larger world of Neopaganism, most of which are identified according to the pantheon they work with, or the founder of the tradition.
The main distinction between the brances is between reconstructionism, the attempt to base a modern approach to paganism on a particular historical culture, and syncretism or eclectic approaches that may adopt various historical influences, but synthesize them into a personalized religion.
Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (CR) is inspired by the cultures of Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Ireland, and Scotland. Some CRs also take into account the Greek and Roman records of Druidry.
CR and Neo-Druidism are separate, but overlapping traditions. Some present-day Druids attempt to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of ancient Druidism. Other modern-day followers of Druidism claim to have worked directly with the spirits of places, of pagan gods and of their own ancestors to create a new Druidism, see Neo-druidism, Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, Ár nDraíocht Féin.
The Íslenska Ásatrúarfélagið was established by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson in the 1972. Odinic Rite was initiated by Else Christensen from 1969, under its present name founded 1973.
Syncretist or "eclectic"
Wicca, with its various branches can be traced back to Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft, founded in the UK during the late 1940s. Wicca is based on the symbols, seasonal days of celebration, beliefs and deities of a variety of ancient cultures, including Celtic and Germanic. Added to this material were heavy Masonic and ceremonial magical components from recent centuries. Since Wicca is so flexible and syncretic (some have gone so far as to describe themselves as Christian Wiccan) it could be considered a New Age spirituality. The main branches of Wicca are Gardnerian Wicca, adhering strictly to principles as laid down by Gardner, and Alexandrian Wicca. However, other flavors of Wicca can be created ad libidem, summaried as Eclectic Wicca, e.g. Faery Wicca, Kemetic Wicca, Odyssean Wicca, Judeo-Paganism or "jewitchery" etc. Dianic Wicca or "Feminist Wicca", emphasizes the divine feminine often creating women-only groups.
- Eco-Paganism/Eco-Magic: 'The Ecology Party at prayer' (Hutton) is an active, earth loving ecology network that uses meditation and ritual to sustain conservation projects and eco-politics.
- Techno-Pagans: Rather than looking back to ancient mythos, Techno-Pagans are inspired by modern technology, especially computers and rave music.
- Christo-Paganism: Certain individuals and groups identify with both Christianity and Neopaganism, or in some cases with Christianity and some form of Historical Reconstructionism. They create their own syncretic spirituality from the aspects of both religions.
- IndoPagans: An exponentially growing number of people and groups within the NeoPagan community, are deriving the majority of their spiritual inspiration from the Sanatana Dharma, or Hinduism as it is known in the West (or to a lesser degree other faiths of Indian-origin). These individuals follow traditional Hindu ritual and worship structure to varying degrees, but for differing reasons decide not to pursue full-Hindu conversion, and actively blend their NeoPagan faith with Hinduism.
Some Unitarian Universalists are Pagan. Unitarian Universalism is a non-dogmatic, non-creedal, individual search for truth. Unitarian Universalists seek to find the individual truth, incorporating a variety of Pagan and non-Pagan beliefs; so most UU Pagans do not identify with any specific Pagan tradition. They can be considered Neopagans.
Usage of the term 'Neopagan'
The term "Neopagan" is used by academics and adherents alike to denote those Pagan traditions which are largely modern in origin, or which are conceived as reconstructions of ancient practices.
Some critics claim that Neopagans cannot legitimately be considered practitioners of any "true" Pagan religion, citing that in the history of ideas it is understood that revivals are not identical to their models: e.g., Roman sculpture compared to the neoclassicism of, for example, Antonio Canova. Furthermore, a revival or reconstruction can only be as true to the original as the reference material from which it draws, and many alleged Pagan reconstructions have been shown to owe more to erroneous scholarship (such as that of Margaret Murray) or even to outright "fakelore" than to any historically authentic Pagan religious practice. Claims of inherited, unwritten, underground Pagan traditions, which would convey authenticity while conveniently avoiding academic scrutiny, were formerly the standard counter to such observations. These claims are viewed with increasing scepticism by Neopagans, though a small minority adhere to them.
However, no accepted definition of the term "Pagan" requires unbroken continuity with earlier forms; the term is applied according to what the adherent believes, not according to the historical provenance of those beliefs. So while Neo-Egyptian spirituality may not be the same thing as its original, both are technically Pagan (albeit very different varieties).
The usage of the term is further complicated by paganism apparently having arisen in the 18th or 19th century at the earliest as a term for a primitive state of religious belief, rather than a group of beliefs. (The term pagan is much older than paganism.) While it may therefore be possible to revive a Pagan religion or tradition, it is not possible to revive 'paganism' as such, since the term described a condition and not a set of beliefs. It is also misleading to regard individual Pagan traditions, new or old, as subsets of Paganism; it is more accurate to regard 'Paganism' as a disparaging and generalizing label applied to a wide variety of belief systems.
The term Neopaganism does provide a means of distinguishing between those religions which have continued through history and those which consist of an attempt to revive or emulate earlier faiths. The argument for using it is that without the 'neo' prefix, there is a misleading implication of unbroken connection (and moral identification) with the pagan traditions of the past, since there is no difference between the label applied to a contemporary 'pagan' and an ancient one. Some modern pagans within the community desire exactly this removal of distinction since the movement gains authority and relevance by appearing to have its roots in ancient tradition. Others within contemporary paganism consider this dishonest, and emphasize that the modern practice is connected with the old only by aspiration.
Difficulties have arisen following attempts to revive supposed elements of ancient Paganism whose existence has later proven to be tenuous. A case in point is Eostre, a goddess sufficiently popular to have had the modern Wiccan Spring Equinox festival of Ostara named after her and presented as the historical forerunner of Easter. However, according to recent statements from academic sources, Eostre never existed as a figure of worship; she was invented by the 8th century scribe Bede (www.themercury.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5936,12666249%255E3462,00.html), who misunderstood second-hand reports.
Although some Neopagans dismiss such academic conclusions as irrelevant to their beliefs, the majority accept them. They are not disheartened when the evidence suggests that their beliefs have been founded on a misreading of history or upon "fakelore", and instead contend that any goddess who is worshipped is 'real', whether she previously existed in history or not (www.witchvox.com/wren/wn_detaila.html?id=12531).
- groups.yahoo.com/group/ShaktiWicca/ The Shakti Wicca & IndoPagan Discussion Group provides an open and supportive forum to those following an IndoPagan path, with members regularly posting blended rituals, invocations and meditations.
- indopaganproject.tripod.com/ The IndoPagan Project seeks to provide a database and headquarters for IndoPagan rituals, liturgies, ideas, literature, networking and fellowship.
- groups.yahoo.com/group/paganpoetssociety/ The Pagan Poets Society
- www.mythinglinks.org/ Myth*ing Links- A meta page about myths and mythology around the world.
- www.lysator.liu.se/religion/neopagan/ The Neopagan Religious Archive- An online archive of Pagan material.
- www.manygods.org.uk/ The Association of Polytheist Traditions - APT- A UK-based community of Polytheists with a website and a discussion group open to non-members, and a closed list for paid-up members.
- uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/Britpoly/ BritPoly discussion group- The Association of Polytheist Tradition's (APT) discussion group open to non-members. All polytheists are welcome, though the emphasis and style of the group is based upon that of the UK.
- www.neopagan.net Isaac Bonewits' Website- A neopagan author's thoughts on the development of neopaganism, modern druidry and public perception.
- winterscapes.com/ Winterscapes- Graeco-Roman and winterscapes.com/uppsala/index.htm Germanic Neopagan website
- www.neopagan.com/ Neopagan.com- A Neopagan network embracing the worldwide Neopagan or Pagan community and containing educational information as well as magickal tools.
- Karlsson, Thomas. 2002. Uthark - Nightside of the runes. www.ouroborosproduktion.net (Ouroboros)] www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/9197410217/qid=1124395914/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl/026-4035868-0345247 (Amazon.co.uk)]
- Jean Seznec, 1953. The Survival of the Pagan Gods : The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art ISBN 0-691-02988-1