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Neopaganism (sometimes Neo-Paganism, meaning "New Paganism") is a heterogeneous group of religions which attempt to revive ancient, mainly European pre-Christian religions. Some Neopagans stress connections with older forms of Paganism, sometimes in terms of "underground" continuity.
Neopaganist beliefs and practices are extremely diverse, and tend towards syncretic melding of once-diverse practices and beliefs. It has been said that there are as many Neopagan belief systems as there are Neopagans. However, while Neopaganism tends towards individualism, 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.
Neopaganism is commonly associated with the pre-Christian religions of northwestern Europe, however the term also applies to modern revivals of other cults and belief systems, such as those of Isis, Mithra and of the state religion of ancient Rome.
History of Neopaganism
In Germany, a resurgence of interest in pre-Christian, authentically Germanic pagan practices such as summer solstice festivities were a feature of the Völkisch movement in the late 19th century, one of the main roots of modern paganism. 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.
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.
It is likely that this general atmosphere created the circumstances which were necessary for the rise of Wicca. At the very least, it was fertile ground for its introduction.
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 Wicca. The term "Wicca" is still used to refer to the traditions of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, or direct offshoots such as the teachings of Alex Sanders.
In the USA today Wicca is sometimes (mis)used loosely to equate with any form of Neopaganism; while Wicca is by far the largest form of Neopaganism in the US, it is nonetheless a subset of the larger Neopagan movement. This error is common among outsiders and newcomers, less so among those who've been involved with the Neopagan community for significant amounts of time. British based Neopaganism, on the other hand, used to use the term 'Wicca' much more narrowly, as Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca; also, a third generation of Wicca descended from Gardnerian is now flourishing, notably Seax-Wica.
However, in Britain today, the term is most commonly associated with a Celtic themed approach. Indeed, Wicca in Britain is now so widespread that the two forms of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca have been submerged in a wave of modern offshoots, much of it from the United States. Much of this was inspired directly or indirectly by the publication of The Tree by Raymond Buckland, detailing the tradition of Seax-Wica; prior to this, Wicca had been unpublished and secret in nature. After it, people started creating new orders on their own, to the lasting irritation of the Gardnerians.
Wicca has been arguably the most well organised and influential form of Neopaganism until the mid '80s, perhaps justifying a tendency by some Wiccans to claim for themselves the priesthood of the Neopagan community. Other Neopagan traditions do not see it so. This is sometimes a flashpoint for considerable argument.
Mythological and religious sources
The sources from whence most Neopagan reconstructionists adapt their beliefs and practices are usually ancient mythologies. Wicca in particular is sometimes referred to by its proponents as the "Old Religion", a term popularised by Margaret Murray in the 1920s. Its use until the 1990s drew on a perceived underground European Paganism and supposed ancient "Goddess religions". These models are now largely discredited, notably by Ronald Hutton, and allusions are now more cautiously made to 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. Nor are they considered to be scripture, as most Neopagans are resistant to the concept of scripture.
The mythological sources of Neopaganism are many, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Egyptian and others. There is probably no widely known mythology or religious tradition that has not been used as a source by some group at some time. Some groups focus on one tradition; others draw from several or many. All mythologies are believed to contain truth, seen from different perspectives. Neopagans seemingly borrow or adapt from any tradition they find useful. For example, the Charge of the Goddess, a text by Doreen Valiente, used materials from the Gospel of Aradia by Charles Leland (1901), and Aleister Crowley's writings. It is commonly used to invoke the "Goddess", beginning with the words: "Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arionrhod, Brigid, and by many other names", showing a glimpse of Neopagan eclecticism.
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.
An Earth-based religion
Neopaganism is considered an "Earth-based" or "nature-based" religion because it holds Earth and all of nature to be sacred. Some Neopagans draw from other religions that are also nature-based such as those of Native Americans and Africans .
The divine nature of Earth is recognized in the form of the Goddess by many names, among them Gaia, the Earth Mother, and the Great Mother of classical anthropology. In masculine form, the nature force is called the Green Man.
Witchcraft is one specific Neopagan tradition often referred to by its members simply as The Craft. Both women and men are titled as witches. Confusingly, the American usage makes Neopaganism and Wicca witchcraft broadly similar. British usage restricts Wicca to one form of witchcraft, the Craft as one among many forms of Neopaganism.
Number of adherents
Adherents.com estimates there are one million Neopagans. It is necessary to define clearly who is included in any estimate, as Neopagan could mean active initiates, or anyone who likes Tarot! Also there is a difference between Western (Neo) Paganism, (technically a New Religious Movement), and worldwide traditional Neopagan faiths. It is possible, however, to consider these varied and diverse indigenous religions, generically referred to as "pagan" by monotheistic faiths, as having enough in common to warrant grouping them together as a single denomination. This would raise the number of adherents to many millions.
Most Neopagans do not have distinct temples, usually holding rituals in private homes or sacred groves and other outdoor locations. Many adherents keep their faith secret for fear of repercussions. Many also practice their faith as "solitaries", and work within no fixed spiritual community.
A UK study by Ronald Hutton compared a number of different sources (including membership lists of major organisations, 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 Covenant of the Goddess conducted a poll of U.S. and Canadian Neopagans in 1999 that estimated the population in those countries at 768,400 (see http://www.cog.org/cogpoll_final.html). This would seem to support the view that there are at least one million 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 of their gods and goddesses, it is in many ways claimed to be very different.
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. Rather than attempt to describe the indescribable, they approach the divine through one of its many aspects. This is claimed to be a genuinely new theology, particularly by critics, although it is a common concept, especially in Eastern philosophy and can be traced in Western thinking to the ancient Egyptian concept of divinity — the ancient Egyptian word for god, netjer, is sometimes claimed to have literally meant "all one". 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 in many cases to be a deification of the political process, with "state divinities" assigned to various localities (Athena in Athens, for example), though this was by no means universal. Even if value systems which put material comfort over ethical concerns are common in modern society, the practice of worshipping governments as direct representatives of the gods has largely not survived into the modern period.
For Wiccans, divinity is bipolar as two bodies dominate: Goddess and God, with many lesser aspects. For Heathens, (Nordics, Celtics, Egyptians, and Greeks), divinity is polytheistic. For Druids and High Magicians there is an overall One but other divinities are also recognised. For Goddess people there is Goddess, occasionally monotheistic, but often one and many which can be simultaneous.
Different Neopagan groups celebrate different holidays. The eight main Wiccan celebrations or Sabbats are more or less evenly spread through the year in a cycle sometimes called the Wheel of the Year.
Non-sabbat celebrations, called Esbats, may be held to honor phases of the moon, or events of personal or group significance.
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.
Some of the larger traditions of Neopaganism include:
Wicca is a recently created Neopagan religion, with various branches of Wicca that can be traced back to Gardnerian Witchcraft which was founded in the UK during the late 1940s. Wicca is based on the symbols, seasonal days of celebration, beliefs and deities of ancient Celtic society. Added to this material were Masonic and ceremonial magical components from recent centuries. Wicca has several branches, which emphasize polarity, or working with both masculine and feminine forces. See the Wicca article for more details of these.
Since Wicca is so flexible and syncretic (some have gone so far as to be Christian Wiccan) it could be considered a New Age spirituality.
Ásatrú/Odinism is frequently regarded as one of the Neopagan family of religions. However, many Ásatrúers prefer the term Heathen to Neopagan and look upon their tradition as "not just a branch on the Neopagan tree" but as a different tree. Unlike Wicca, which has gradually evolved into many different traditions, the reconstruction of Ásatrú has been based on the surviving historical record; it has been maintained as closely as possible to the original religion of the Norse people.
Ásatrú, also known by some as Odinism. Asatru or Ásatrú is an Icelandic word, a translation of the Danish word Asetro. The latter was coined by scholars in the mid-19th century. It was intended to mean belief in the Æsir, the Gods. In Scandinavia the religion is called Forn Siðr (which means the Ancient way), Forn Sed (the Old custom), Nordisk sed (Nordic custom), or Hedensk sed (Heathen custom). The religion's origin is lost in antiquity. At its peak, it covered all of Northern Europe. In 1000 CE, Iceland became the second last Norse culture to convert to Christianity, and Sweden became the last after a civil war that ended with the burning of the Temple at Uppsala in 1087. In Sweden, folklorists discovered that legends of the gods and secret sacrifices surfaced as late as the early 20th century (see Trollkyrka and Norse mythology). Icelandic poet Gothi Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson promoted government recognition of Ásatrú as a legitimate religion; this was granted in 1972. Since the early 1970s, the religion has been in a period of rapid growth in the former Norse countries and North America.
Druidry is one of the Neopaganism family of religions. 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. Within ancient Druidism, there were three specialties. The Bards were "the keepers of tradition, of the memory of the tribe - they were the custodians of the sacredness of the Word". The Ovates worked with the processes of death and regeneration. They were the native healers. They specialized in divination, conversing with the ancestors, and prophesizing the future. The Druids (in actuality the original singular was "Drui", "Druid" being the plural) performed the functions of modern day priests, teachers, ambassadors, astronomers, genealogists, philosophers, musicians, theologians, scientists, poets and judges. Most modern Druids connect the origin of their religion to the ancient Celtic people. However, historical data is scarce. some think the Druids were active in Britain and northern Europe before the advent of the Celts.
- Celtic Spirituality inspired by the cultures of Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Ireland and Scotland. Its deities are mega-heroic and foreign, but not puppeteers. Celtic soul work is annamchara based (soul friend) rather than priest/ess-based, and can generate a Celtic Pagan Christianity based on early medieval models of pantheism.
Most Slavic neopagans follow customs of old Slavic religion and revere Slavic gods. Many use the Book of Veles as their sacred text. As a group these Slavic religions are known as Slavianstvo . Most Slavianstvo call themselves heathens rather than pagans. Slavic reconstructionists are a relative rarity since there is little information available in English.
Romuva is a Lithuanian Pagan tradition, while a neo-pagan Latvian tradition is called Dievturiba.
Ancient Near East-based
Judeo-Paganism, which celebrates the old religions of the ancient Near East, including the Canaanite-Ugarit religion.
- 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.
Feminist Wicca is a Dianic Pagan tradition, emphasize the divine feminine and often create women-only groups.
- Solitary Paganism: Some neopagans either find inspiration in solitude or are more comfortable practicing paganism alone.
- Christo-Paganism: Certain individuals and groups identify with both Christianity and Neopaganism. They create their own syncretic spirituality from the aspects of both religions.
Some Unitarian Universalists are Pagan. Unitarian Universalism is a non-dogmatic, non-creedal, individual search for truth. Unitarian Universalists seek to find 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.
Many neopagans self-identify as "eclectic", taking their practices and knowledge from a varity of sources to synthesize a personal understanding and expression of their beliefs.
Terms for kinds of Neopagan worship
Most Neopagans worship various Gods and Goddessesm but this may not be actually polytheistic; some believe as Dion Fortune wrote "All Gods are One God, All Goddesses are One Goddess." Many Wiccan neopagans are dualists, or panentheists, but there are also polytheists, some are anamists, and some believe in the deity within. The terms are defined below:
Animism is the belief that spirits inhabit every existing thing, including plants, minerals, animals and, including all the elements, air, water, earth, and fire. This was probably the first form of worship.
Monotheism is the belief that there is one ultimate Deity.
Pantheism is the belief that god is the universe and the universe is god -- or, more generally, that the universe is divine. It is most often explained as having the feeling that existence has a divine or awe-inspiring aspect. This is a form of monotheism.
Panentheism is the belief that god is both immanent in creation and transcendent to it. God creates, contains and sustains the universe, but exists partly outside of it. Dualism is an illusion. Matter and spirit are two sides of the same coin. They come from the same source and share the same essential nature.
Dualism (sometimes known as Ditheism or Gnosticism) is the belief that there are only two fundamental things or substances or constituents of things in the world at large or in the human soul. An example would be that the Goddess and God simultaneously exist and that they balance each other even though they are independent of each other. Some dualists are also monotheists (in that dualities have an ultimate unity), others are polytheist.
Polytheism is the belief in more than one god(dess). A polytheist may worship one or more god(dess), but recognizes the existence of others they may not personally celebrate.
Henotheism is the belief in one god, but at the same time does not deny the existence of other gods. It is a variation of polytheism which holds that there are many gods, but one of them is supreme and the other ones are only ancillary and don't have the same level of "god-ness". Some forms of Greek and Roman classical polytheism fall into this category. Henotheism can also be described as worship of one god, and belief in one or more. Hinduism is another very widespread example. The term has come to mean in recent years that one believes in multiple god(desse)s, though the worshipper "borrows" from various cultural groups and may worship one above the others. An example would be worshipping a Greco-Roman god for one reason and then asking a Celtic god for something else.
Monolatrism forms a type of henotheism. Its adherents believe that many gods do exist, but these gods can exert their power only on those who worship them. Thus, a monolatrist may believe in the reality of both the Egyptian gods and the god described in the Bible, but sees him or herself as a member of only one of these religions. The gods that he/she worships affect their life; the other gods do not.
Suitheism is the belief in the deity of one's own self without denying the existence of other god(desse)s. This is common in Thelema and among Left-Hand Path occultists.
Usage of the term 'Neopagan' in different quarters
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 "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 generalising 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 emphasise 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 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 .
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 .
Neo-pagan as used in literary criticism
The growth of, and consequent emphasis on, neopagan religion has almost entirely obscured the use of neopagan as a term for a type of vital philosophy expressed in 20th century literature. This use does not indicate any literal paganism in the religious sense at all. It connotes, rather, a form of positive existentialism comprising an attitude to the environment in which the immediate is indulged in to the fullest, with tomorrow left to fend for itself. To quote from Cyril Conolly 's introduction to the first English edition of Albert Camus' L'etranger:
'Meursault represents the neo-pagan, a reversion to Mediterranean man as once he was in Corinth or Carthage or Alexandria or Tarshish, as he is today in Casablanca or Southern California. He is sensual and well-meaning, profoundly in love with life, whose least pleasures, from a bathe to a yawn, afford him complete and silent gratification. He lives without anxiety in a continuous present and has no need to think or to express himself; there is no Nordic why-clause in his pact with nature.'
By this definition, Ernest Hemingway's philosophy can be construed as neo-pagan, becoming explicitly so towards the end of his life in True at First Light in which he advocates an ancient hunter religion based upon Gitche Manitou, in contrast to Islamic monotheism.
This interpretation of paganism as existence in a 'continuous present' is wryly mocked by Dorothy Parker in her poem The Flaw in Paganism.