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Modern Paganism

(A Brief Historical Overview for Newcomers)



Those of us who have followed a pagan path for many years sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that newcomers already possess a reasonably broad understanding of pagan ideas and their development. After all, why should one express interest in paganism, as opposed to some other form of spirituality, unless one has first taken the time and trouble to have done some basic homework and acquired a fair degree of understanding as to what modern paganism is about? However, it is often the case that many individuals are attracted to paganism not from an intellectual perspective or because they are seeking an ideology but from a sense of acknowledging a pagan spirit within.

But once having made contact with other pagans the newcomer will quickly discover that there are numerous paths and traditions huddling under the collective banner of paganism and that these various paths can differ quite radically one from another both in belief and practise. To complicate matters further, it is not unusual to find differences of belief and opinion even amongst adherents of the same tradition. For example, some might subscribe to Animism, Polytheism, Pantheism or indeed none of these. There is also an increasing number of pagans who subscribe to what has become described as pagan atheism, a position regarded by many other pagans and non-pagans alike as a contradiction in terms, although rational and sound arguments can be postulated to support such a seemingly paradoxical view.

Perhaps part of the reason for all this apparent confusion to newcomers and outsiders alike lies with the rather misleading term 'paganism'. The suffix 'ism' does tend to imply a cohesive and standardised system of belief when, in fact, 'paganism' is really a generic term applied to a bewildering array of paths. However, the purpose of this article is not to explore the variety of paths that constitute modern paganism but to examine how it evolved into what is has become today.

The observant reader will have noted that when referring to 'pagan' I tend to qualify it with the adjective 'modern'. The reason for this is to distinguish present-day, or new paganism, from the traditional or historical variety. The use of the term Neo-paganism in this article has deliberately been avoided because of its unfortunate association with Nazism or right-wing ideology.  At this point there will be those who object to any delineation on the grounds that paganism is paganism regardless of when and where it is expressed. Nonetheless, how did paganism as it is generally recognised today really start? Academic research has revealed that modern British paganism began its evolution in the nineteenth century, and since then has been subjected to a variety of influences. Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at Bristol University, has conducted much of this ground-breaking research and his book The Triumph of the Moon is essential reading for anyone seeking a thoroughly detailed and sympathetic examination of the origins and development of modern paganism.

As a reaction to what many perceived was the destruction of rural England in the wake of the Industrial Revolution much interest was generated in the idea of a 'Golden Age'. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was one expression of such romanticism; the other was the Arts and Crafts movement. At the same time, there was widespread resurgence of interest in Classical pagan cultures such as Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. From these influences an increasing reverence for what was regarded as the 'Natural World' became popular. Another milestone in the development of pagan ideas was reached with the publication of James Frazer's The Golden Bough, which promoted the theory of dying and resurrecting gods. During the early part of the twentieth century Jane Ellen Harrison and later Robert Graves, author of The Golden Fleece and The White Goddess, postulated that a Supreme Triple Goddess pre-dated the parochial triple goddesses revered in ancient times. Unfortunately, this was pure speculation on their part and no historical evidence exists to support the idea. However, to many it became a fact and remains so in the minds of many pagans today, particularly those with an allegiance to feminist values.

Also, around this period magical societies, such as the Golden Dawn, were founded, most of their members having connections to Freemasonry, or the Craft as its adherents refer to it. In England during the early part of the twentieth century nature-loving groups, such as the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry and also the Woodcraft Folk, sprang up and these tended to incorporate Masonic practices into their rituals, such as circle work; a feature that became standard in the development of later paganism. Around this time too an anthropologist by the name of Margaret Murray promoted the view that historically witchcraft in Europe had been a pagan religion, which had been driven underground as a result of prolonged persecution by the Christian Church. Although Murray's theories have since been discredited by academia, they played a major role at the time in influencing the ideas of an individual named Gerald Gardner. Gardner came from a Masonic background and also had connections both with the Woodcraft fraternities and the magical societies. He was also a naturist and succeeded in blending his various interests to create a system of pagan witchcraft he called Wicca.

In the wake of social changes during the nineteen sixties interest in alternative ideas was blossoming. Other individuals at the time, such as Alex Sanders and Robert Cochrane, jumped on the witchcraft bandwagon and founded their own systems. Another major influence on modern paganism was the rise of Feminism in the U.S.A. For a detailed study of this, see the chapter Uncle Sam and the Goddess in Ron Hutton's aforementioned book, and also Living in the Lap of the Goddess (the Feminist Spirituality Movement in America), by Cynthia Eller. Although Wicca originated in England, it was exported to the United States where certain American feminists, such as Starhawk and Zsuzsanna Budapest, embraced it and placed upon it a specific feminist bias. Subsequently this overtly feminist version of Wicca was re-exported back to the U.K. where it continues to thrive today.

Yet another influence on the now fast-evolving area of paganism was the advent of the New Age with its focus on alternative healing remedies, crystals, ecology and personal lifestyle management. It seems that over the years very little has been left out of the pagan melting pot. Owing to the fact that Wicca was the earliest system of modern paganism and also the one most widely publicised, it seems to be the system most newcomers to paganism first become acquainted with. However, many other paths and traditions now exist and an introductory study of these can be found in Pete Jenning's book: Pagan Paths. Undoubtedly paganism will continue to evolve and newcomers most certainly will contribute their own ideas and influence its future development. Such an injection of new blood has re-shaped many religious systems. One example of this process is present-day Quakerism, which was founded by George Fox back in the seventeenth century.  Since then Quakerism has undergone many changes and now is virtually unrecognisable from its early days. As to how paganism will develop is anyone's guess. Perhaps to the horror of some of its present anarchic adherents, it might one day, like Quakerism, even become highly respectable!


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