(Image courtesy of Mike Mason, Pagan Pride UK, Nottingham, 2012.)
Happy Birthday Paganism!
Contemporary Paganism, as it exists today, began with the Counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Religious studies scholar, Sarah Pike dates the origins of contemporary Paganism to 1967, the year that Frederick Adams incorporated Feraferia and the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn was founded. That same year, the Church of All Worlds filed for incorporation as a the first Pagan “church”.
Which means that this year, 2017, is the 50th anniversary of contemporary Paganism! So let’s look back at what we have accomplished over the past five decades.
1. One million strong?
To begin with, our numbers have grown. By some guestimates, there are 1 million Pagans in the U.S. More reliable estimates can be gotten from the rest of the English-speaking world, which asks citizens to identify their religious affiliation in their censuses: 85,000 Pagans in the U.K., 27,000 in Australia, and 25,000 in Canada.
I think the 1 million number is inflated. If you look at the proportional representation of Pagans in the rest of the English-speaking world, the percentage is about 0.1%. Which would mean that there would be about 300,000 Pagans in the U.S.
You might argue that Americans are more religious than other English-speakers. If we look at the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey conducted in 2008, 0.4% of Americans identified as New Age, Wiccan, and Pagan. However, that figure did not distinguish Wiccans and Pagans from other New Agers. If we guestimate that half of that 0.4% is Pagan/Wiccan, then the number of U.S. Pagans would be closer to 600,000.
To give you a frame of reference, that’s about the number of Rastafarians. So, we’re growing, but we’re still really small.
2. We’ve been through a lot of growing pains.
It’s to be expected that an new religious movement will experience a lot of centrifugal force. There will schisms and splinters.
Conflict between traditionalists and eclectics has been a common theme over the last 50 years. One of the earliest schisms was over the validity of “self-initiation”. More recently, there was the “fluffy-bunny” controversy and then the pop-culture Paganism debate.
Much of the internal conflict in Paganism has had to do with issues of gender and sexual orientation. There was the wimmin-only controversy brought on by the growth of feminist Dianic witchcraft in the 1970s. More recently, that debate was revived by the exclusion of trans-women from Dianic rituals.
We have gone from Wicca being the sine qua non of Paganism to questioning the “Wiccanate” or Wicca-centric focus of much of public Paganism. There has even been an anti-Wiccan backlash in some corners of the Pagan community.
Paganism has now been around long enough to witness the appearance of charismatic and pietist forms of Paganism. The growth of devotional polytheism was in reaction to the perceived “dumbing down” of Paganism which inevitably accompanied its popularization. This brought theistic Pagans into conflict with non-theistic Pagans, especially atheistic Pagans.
We have a tendency to bemoan all kind of conflict, as if it should all be roses and rainbows, but it’s actually quite normal in the growth of a new religion. What matters is not that we avoid controversy, but that we survive it.
3. What We’ve Built
In spite of our iconoclastic and ideosyncratic tendencies, we have managed to build some lasting Pagan institutions. Some Pagan organizations are established as legally-recognized churches with tax-exempt status. And there are some larger umbrella Pagan organizations, like the Covenant of the Goddess, the Pagan Federation, and the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans.
Pagans serve in the leadership of various ecumenical and inter-faith groups, like the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the American Academy of Religion. Pagan studies is a recognized academic discipline, and there is an academic journal of Pagan Studies called Pomegranate. We even have a Pagan seminary, Cherry Hill Seminary, though its survival has recently been in question.
The Wild Hunt is a daily online news journal which gathers news and commentary of interest to Pagans. And there are many online forums where Pagans can share ideas and organize. There are also Pagan publications like Witches & Pagans and the Green Egg.
Annual Pagan Pride events are held around the country in the fall of every year, and outdoor Pagan festivals, which draw thousands of people, take place throughout the summer. CUUPS boasts almost 70 chapters, which hold open Wheel of the Year rituals.
Still, it seems that we Pagans struggle to create lasting institutions. For all their limitations and baggage, I think Pagan institutions are necessary if we want to be a force for positive change in the world. But Pagan groups tend to either self-destruct or quietly fizzle out after just a little while.
Part of the problem is that there are still some Pagans who don’t want to see Paganism became anything more than a cult of the individual. I sympathize with the suspicion of institutions, but opposition to all organization on principle serves nothing but the egos of certain individuals. And it reduces our community to the lowest common denominator — the heckler and the troll, whose only agenda is the destruction of all agendas.
If we really want to be a force for good in the world, then we need to work together, we need to build some solidarity, some community integrity. As much as we Pagans talk about attuning ourselves to nature and the cycles of the Earth, we also need to learn to “attune” ourselves with one another. And that means temporarily setting aside our egos and reevaluating our priorities, so that we can speak with a collective voice when it is urgently needed, as it is now.
New religious movements like Paganism must face two different threats. The first is a centrifugal force which comes from inward pressure to schism, which I talked about above. The second is a centripetal force which threatens to crush new religious movements from the outside. For Paganism, this outward pressure probably reached its height during the Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare of the 1980s. Today, being “out of the broom closet” is much less risky for many people.
Since then, Pagan advocacy groups, like the Lady Liberty League and others, have worked to educate the public and to protect the rights of Pagans in the workplace, in prisons, and in the community in general. Significant Pagan legal victories of the past include the recognition of Wicca as a religion in the federal prisoner’s rights case of Dettmer v. Landon, the defeat of the Helms Amendment, which would have denied tax-exempt status to many Pagan churches, and the approval of Pagan symbols on headstones by the Veteran’s Administration. The fact that I can write online using my real name is due to the bravery and sacrifices made by those Pagans who came before me.
But we still have a long way to go, both culturally and politically. It seems to me that Pagans gone from being perceived as a threat, to being perceived as a joke. Consider the quip Jon Stewart made on The Daily Show in 2004. Talking about an open letter by the Bob Jones University president referring to “the agenda of paganism”, Stewart responded, “Dude, pagans don’t have an agenda. They’re pagans. Organizational skills, not their strong suit.” The fact that Stewart thought the joke would connect with a mainstream audience says a lot.
This derisive attitude toward Pagans is reinforced by Pagans who equate Paganism with dressing up in silly costumes. Paganism is more than a fashion statement. We have a deeper wisdom to share with the world. And we need to ask ourselves whether the costumes and antics are helping or hurting that deeper purpose.
Poorly planned and poorly executed public rituals are another problem. In my opinion, intentional ritual creation is kind of our thing. And after 50 years, we should be really good at it. And there are some people in our community who are really good at it. But every great ritual I have attended, there have been a lot more which were purely awful. We need to step up our game.
“Respectability” is a bad word to many Pagans. I’m not suggesting that Paganism surrender its counter-cultural critique of mainstream society or that we avoid making the stiffs uncomfortable. But I am suggesting that Paganism will only realize its potential to transform the world we can communicate our vision with that world.
Respectability means means being able to share our beliefs with our friends and neighbors openly — not just on the Internet. Respectability means being a greater part of the interfaith movement. Respectability means having greater influence on critical social and political issues that concern us, including the environment, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and so on. Respectability means power … power to bring about change according to our collective will. And that is a kind of magic that all Pagans should be interested in.
What do you think?
What has the Pagan community has accomplished in the last 50 years? What are you proud of? What are you embarrassed by? What would you like to see in the next 50 years?
In Canada it still seems to me that most of the gains that we’ve made have been due to individuals and their accomplishments rather than the ‘community’ (a pious misnomer). Charles Arnold won a victory for us when his union backed him in Ontario and Wiccan Sabbats were recognized for religious days off with pay (198?), I won a victory in 1992 when I was religiously discriminated against in a political party’s nomination process and went through the Human Rights process in BC, and others have individually won. But our institutions are small and fragile and generally still centred on the charismatic founders rather than grounded in the communities that they serve, our theology (particularly our ecclesiology) is inconsistent and poorly thought out, and we have a long way to go.
I do agree with you that this is typical of new religions, and hope that we will grow and consolidate without losing our particular insights. But unless our institutions (like the Edmonton Wiccan Seminary or our various small legally incorporated churches) are supported, and in turn support the deepening of the religious movement, we may well dissolve back into the New Age or liberal Christianity or unitarianism, and not serve the Gods anymore.
Reblogged this on The Feed By Our Pantheons Way.
Ordo Templi Orientis was founded sometime between 1895 and 1905, and since Aleister Crowley was a member, I think your math is off just a tad.
You think Crowley was Pagan? He was an occultist. There is plenty of overlap between Paganism and occultism, but they are not the same thing — even though a lot of occultist Pagans conflate the two.
Consider this: In 1914 (after the OTO was founded), Crowley wrote to Charles Stansfield Jones:
“The time is just ripe for a natural religion. People like rites and ceremonies, and are tired of hypothetical gods. Insist on the real benefits of the Sun and the Moon, the Mother-Force and the Father-force and so on; and show that by celebrating these benefits worthily the worshippers unite themselves more fully with the current of life. Let the religion be a joy, with but a worthy and dignified sorrow in death itself; and treat death as an ordeal, an initiation. Do not gloss over facts, but transmute them in the athanor of your ecstasy. In short, be the founder of a new and greater Pagan cult in the beautiful land which you have made your home. As you go on, you can add new festivals of corn and wine, and all things noble and inspiring.”
What Crowley was describing was Pagan religion. If he had already created it with the OTO, he wouldn’t be advising a follower how to do it.
I think there is also a problem with the umbrella category of “pagan.” It makes it seem as if everyone were on the same page for a lot of things. Like the assumption that if you are pagan you must be a progressive, Leftist Democrat. (Because all Christians are Republican, right? But that 2nd half isn’t true either.) Don’t believe that assumption holds true? Go read the posts at Patheos.
And the assertion that the costumes are “silly” (your word not mine.) And how would you categorize the vestments of a Catholic priest? Are they any sillier than the ceremonial names selected in some sects?
As for respect, probably the biggest thing in the past 20 years is getting the Veterans Administration to approve grave and memorial markers that include things like the Wiccan pentacle, or the Hammer of Thor. Or maybe it is the outdoor worship space for non-traditional religions at the Air Force Academy. (Even though the AF still has problems with pushing Christianity on cadets.)
I don’t think the problem is with over-generalization. Too many Pagans seem to thing that if they can find any small exception to a general rule then the category is meaningless. If that were the case, all communication would be impossible. We can say that, generally, being Pagan means a person is more likely to be left-leaning, earth-honoring, LGBT-affirming, etc.
The difference between the Catholic costumes and the costumes many Pagans wear is that the former are institutionalized. All priests wear the same costumes. They are expressions of shared values, beliefs, etc. Pagan costumes tend to be expressions, not of shared values, but of individuality. The link I provided to they guy who insisted on wearing horns in his BMV photo is just an extreme example of this.
Very good article, but I think the Pagan community has gone even further down to the septic tank with the advent of Facebook.
Pagans have, in general, no respect for one another that I see. No one engages in constructive dialougue when encountering differing streams of information, it is all about discrediting the individual over minor differences in scholarship where larger issues have come out to the forefront that no one is willing to address.
In the UK the the Pagan Federation got Home Office (part of UK government) recognition (and payment) for Pagan Chaplains in prisons and hospitals. In Scotland Handfast Weddings are legally accepted – England & Wales need to catch up with that. The establishment of a network of public Pagan Moots & conferences has grown. Guidance for Employment legislation included warning against religious discrimination for all religions and atheists. (That took about 7 years to achieve.) Recognition of Heathen and Pagan charities has been problematic, but has started to become realised. Esoteric shops are accepted instead of being demonstrated against or even fire-bombed as they once were.After years of pro-active campaigns most Radio,TV and newspapers carry neutral or positive stories about Pagans, rather than label them devil worshipers, even if some of the general public remain ill informed. Interfaith recognition and involvement has increased but it has to be admitted that some Heathens and Pagans are suspicious of that.
Having said all that there is still more to achieve, and we cannot be complacent. Like any group of people (whatever the shared interest) it is normal to have splits and disagreements. As we claim to be passionate free thinkers not ruled by any book or religious hierarchy it would be un-natural if we didn’t!
I wonder if we should be measuring our success by something other than how many people we have convinced not to fear us. Maybe we have set ourselves up to fail by focusing on anti-defamation, instead of trying to make the world a better place through other forms of socially-responsible activism.
Hello. I’m the Events Manager of Pagan Pride UK and you’ve used our image for your article without permission or credit. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss. Thanks.
I’ve added an attribution. Thanks for letting me know.
And there we go.
Paganism (which is much more than 50 years old btw) has became a commercial issue.
The picture used was probably taken from one of the many internet pages that host such, and would be considered ‘public domain’…. Especially as it’s a few years old.
I suppose Nottingham’s Pagan Pride will be “bellydancing fest’ again this year, way to celebrate slavery.
I think that being a Pagan is more then just costumes and rituals. For my two pennies worth, it is in celebrating our connection with the Earth and respecting her, and not under the auspices of a religious doctrine.
Jason. This photo was taken by a talented photographer at Pagan Pride UK 2012. It is not wrong or unreasonable to expect to ne asked permission before our photo is used to advertise someone’s work, or to expect that the photographer- who worked free of charge at our community, non profit and free festival, be credited. It’s simply a matter of disrespect. Your remarks about the amazing dancers who perform at Pagan Pride UK are so offensive that I will not dignify them with a response, but simply direct you to research the history and evolution of bellydance across the world and in the UK. The Tribal Bible and similar texts may help you
Perhaps the poster could not find details to correctly attribute the photographer, he may not have even heard about the Nottingham PP -he made no mention of it in the article.
As for the bellydancing, it does seems to be the main ‘attraction’ of the event, along with goth/punk bands that give half hearted performances – even the headliners.
To many, bellydancing was simply a way of showing off wealth by getting his slaves to perform, it has very little (imo) with any ‘tribal’ dancing I’m aware of, simply changing it to ‘American Tribal’ does not legitimise it in any way – i know of no native American Tribal traditions that use such dancing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve missed other events to attend PP, it’s a wonderful event, but would prefer more traditional folk music (I’m actually a metal head!), It would attract more passers by rather than scaring them off.
Jason I’m not willing to have a discussion with someone who is so offensive towards our incredible performers. I’m a bellydancer myself and I’m very aware of its history which is far more complex and varied than your comments suggest. If you wish to discuss a specifc issue you can email me at the address given, but I won’t be responding to you further here, nor to any offensive remarks about our performers.
It appears John Stewart was correct after all: Pagans can’t get past their individual issues, and therefore, are not relevant in any sense other than to fight among themselves. Congratulations, you’ve confirmed his claim. It’s the sole reason I withdrew from the national Pagan movement a decade ago after nearly thirty years as a musician and organizer, and in the intervening years I’ve enjoyed the wisdom of that decision. Until Pagans move past their collective adolescence and navel-gazing they will never be anything other than an object of ridicule.
Absolutely correct and well stated.
” We can say that, generally, being Pagan means a person is more likely to be left-leaning, earth-honoring, LGBT-affirming, etc.”
This looks a lot like conformation bias.
This also goes to the mistake that those who have the soapbox, i.e. the loudest vices in paganism, define the norm. They don’t.
Additionally, the problem is access to the soapbox is often limited to those who share the political views of the owners of the soapbox. If I were a conservative, pro Trump pagan, how many times do you think I’d be invited to present at the local pagan festival?
The fact is there’s a substantial minority of pagans who reject the Leftist position.
The question I have is, how does one define paganism? Should any other factors than self described adherence to paganism matter?
Well said, in fact, on an international level, certain traditions tend to be more aligned to right of centre politically.
I should have qualified “Left” with “U.S.” As I understand it, our Left is centrist in Europe.
It is a strange one, i have many Pagan friends around the world, most of those in the USA who are of the Northern Tradition (Asatru/Form Seid/Odinists/Heathen) tend to be on the Right politically, while in the UK and Europe, more to the Left – there are, of course, exceptions; while those that identify as ‘Wiccan’ tend to be centre-left around the world.
I think there’s a good argument for seeing Heathenry as a separate religious tradition which grew up alongside contemporary Paganism, but has a distinct culture, values, theology, etc.
I agree, Heathery as we know it today does have a longer history than neopaganism; it was practised in rural Germany until a certain chappy and his cronies took over in the 1930’s and abused it’s traditions.
And there is where the pagan faith is failing ! falling in those systemic political dichotomy, heathen and pagans should work together and learn from one another, instead being divided ! we should have a common agenda no matter what !
Be united ! or die !
>”there’s a substantial minority of pagans who reject the Leftist position.”
No doubt. Exceptions that prove the rule?
>”Should any other factors than self described adherence to paganism matter?”
I’ve found “inspired by ancient pagan and contemporary non-monotheistic religions” to be a good working definition.
Reblogged this on The Crane Book of Wisdom and commented:
A look back at the past… and the present.
Well, I am the photographer and this image has been used without mine nor Pagan Pride UK’s permission. Please credit the image to “M.Mason/Pagan Pride UK” or remove the image. Many thanks. Creative work in all forms should be credited (it’s the right and proper thing to do).
I am both pleased and surprised to see a photograph of me being used here and note that it is the same image used on my blog (link below). In my case however, not only have Pagan Pride graciously granted my permission to use the image but I have waived any rights I have in the matter, so as to enable the proper promotion of Pagan Pride in future.
The article itself asks some very pertinent questions, although I note the focus is rather USA centric and that appears to put the mathematics out. Here in the UK I would suggest that ‘Public’ Paganism can be dated to the early nineteen fifties with the publication of Gardner’s first book, if not before with the founding of his first coven.
I am perplexed that as others have pointed out, that the existence of the OTO is ignored, accepting that the organisation is an Occult one. Even more so when one of the rebirthed orders of the Golden Dawn is mentioned (there are now very many Golden Dawn Orders) but no mention of the original Victorian order is mentioned. This appears contradictory.
Neither the OTO, nor early British Wicca, were Pagan. They were both occultist.
Occultism/Esotericism refers to a nexus of related quasi-religious movements, sometimes called the “Western Esoteric Tradition” or the “Western Mystery Tradition”, which includes elements of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kaballah, ceremonial magic (or “magick”), astrology, alchemy, tarot, spiritualism, and Theosophy, and the philosophies of Jacob Bohme, Franz Mesmer, Emanuel Swedenborg, Helena Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, and Aleister Crowley. The common trait among these movements is the notion that there is secret or hidden (i.e., “occult”) knowledge which available only to a small elect group and only through intense study. This knowledge often takes the form of a system of hidden correspondences between levels of reality. Esotericism entered Neo-Paganism largely through Wicca, and it entered Wicca through Gerald Gardner and his association with Rosicrucianism, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and Aleister Crowley.
Several academics have attempted to distinguish esotericism from Neo-Paganism. In 1987, Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin, in reviewing the Neo-Pagan scene, observed a distinction between the British-influenced esoteric groups and the more nature-oriented forms of Neo-Paganism:
“The Neo-Pagan movement breaks down into two broad categories: the magical groups, deeply influenced by the model of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the O.T.O., and Crowley; and the nature oriented groups. The former are the more antiquarian; they love to discuss editions of old grimoires, and the complicated histories of groups an lineages. They delight in precise and fussy ritualism, though the object is the evocation of intense emotional power […]
hippies“The pagan nature-oriented groups are more purely romantic; they prefer woodsy setting to incense and they dance and plant trees. They are deeply influenced by Robert Graves, especially his White Goddess. They are less concerned with evocation than celebration of the goddesses they know are already there. The mood is spontaneous rather than precise, though the rite may be as beautiful and complex as a country dance. […]
“Wicca itself is in the middle between magic and nature-oriented groups.”
— Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin, Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America
Elsewhere, Ellwood distinguished “occult groups”, which “offer initiation into expanded consciousness through a highly structured production of internal experiences and impartation of knowledge”, from “neopagan groups”, “which promote a new vision of man’s relation to nature, the archetypes of the unconscious, and the passions”.
Similarly, in New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Wouter Hanegraaff observed “that Wicca is a neopagan development of traditional occultist ritual magic, but that the later movement is not itself pagan.” In fact, Hanegraaff admits that he might not have even included Wicca in his survey of Neo-Paganism if it had remained a “relatively self-contained England-based occultist religion”. Likewise, in Wicca and the Christian Heritage, Jo Pearson questions whether Wicca can even be considered a form of Neo-Paganism. She writes: “In many ways initiatory Wicca can be regarded as existing on the margins of Paganism.”
Obviously, in reality, things get quite a bit fuzzier than some of these quotes suggest. Rather than drawing a bright line, I think it would be more accurate to speak of degrees of difference. It might be helpful to think of Neo-Paganism and esotericism as two circles circumscribing different cultural phenomena with overlapping circumferences. Wicca falls within the overlapping area.
What about the Maetreum of Cybele they took on and won the highest appeals Court for NYS they fought the Town of Catskill for 8 yrs and they are still going strong they have a Pagan owned and operated radio station in upstate NY
What a great article. One area where I think we are lacking, or give up too easily, is educational outreach. Defining Paganism is tough – not least because there is always the risk of offending other Pagans by doing so. I was astounded recently when two of my colleagues, who know that I identify as a Pagan, thought that therefore I must be an atheist. I was astounded because I know these two individuals to be open-minded, well-informed, educated and inclusive. Yet they really had no inkling of what I might be likely to believe – and that’s because no real “definition” of Paganism had yet reached them. We still have a lot of work to do.
That’s shocking. Especially considering that many Pagans (wrongly) have been telling me I can’t be atheist and Pagan at the same time for years.
Hi John. Interesting article though I think 50 years is based on US neopaganism. On the figure 85,000, this is way under the number of Pagans in the U.K. The 85,00 are those who chose to respond to a non-compulsory religion question in the 2011 Census.
IMHO, contemporary Paganism as we know it today didn’t exist until after Wicca was imported to the US and was adopted by the feminist spirituality movement.
“The 85,000 are those who chose to respond to a non-compulsory religion question in the 2011 Census” … plus those who chose to to check “Pagan” because they thought it was funny.
I do not share your opinion sorry but then I am in the UK, things are quite different here.
“Contemporary Paganism as we know it today”: Who is this “we,” John? North Americans first of all, and secondarily as exported to other lands? There are certainly “contemporary Paganisms” that did not arise in North America, nor under any degree of North American influence.
Your approach to the use and meaning of the term “Paganism” here reminds me quite strongly — and quite unpleasantly — of the way in which North American Protestants in the early 1900s used to use the term “Christian” to refer to Protestants only, openly claiming that Catholics and Eastern Orthodox weren’t “Christian” religions at all.
It is shocking that the author has also forgotten the native pagan traditions that are still thriving in America.
Native Americans do not refer to themselves as pagan, and the sometimes inclusion of them under the contemporary Pagan umbrella comes close to white appropriation.
Most native pagan societies do not refer to themselves as pagan.
Who do you feel is being left out?
Pagan, as the term is generally understood throughout Europe and the English-speaking world, refers to all the pre-Christian religious traditions in those lands. Such traditions survive, in somewhat attenuated form, in the Baltic lands (which were Christianized only at the very end of the Middle Ages), and more vigorously among some of the indigenous peoples in the north of European Russia (who were christianized even later than the Baltic lands, and often Christianized very superficially). None of these Pagans belong to any “counter-culture”; in deed, cpounter-culture is viewed as an alien and offensive import from America; and none of these Pagans, to the best of my knowledge, feel much or any kinship with the American Pagans who are the focus of your essay. — Moreover, even in the United States, a significant part of the various pre-Gardnerian traditions of Witchcraft and Paganism that had been created here and there — in New England and New York, in Michigan, in Illinois, on the West Coast — in the later 19th and early 20th century seem to have favored the sort of nativist and racist politics that we now associate with the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan. Counter-cultural Paganism of the sort you have chronicled here shares little common political and cutural ground with the Pagan survivals (in Europe) and earlier revivals (in the USA). To limit the term “Paganism” for only the counter-cultural variety clouds the real history of Pagan religion in the USA and Europe — and it does so in a way that strikes me as partisan and even politically tendentious.
>”Counter-cultural Paganism of the sort you have chronicled here shares little common political and cutural ground with the Pagan survivals (in Europe) and earlier revivals (in the USA).”
Exactly, which is why we need different names for them. Most of the indigenous European forms of paganism and family-tradition witchcraft had other names or no name (“it just what our family did”). Few if any would answer to the name “Pagan”.
As you point out, these other paganisms are so different that to put them in the same category with contemporary (Neo-)Paganism is not helpful.
I don’t mind your coining a new term for counter-cultural Paganism: even the term Neo-Paganism would do. But the term Paganism has an old, well-established very broad usage through the English-speaking world. For counter-cultural Pagans to narrow its reference to themselves alone is akin to outright theft, to cultural appropriation. And to insist that Neo-Pagans’ superior numbers somehow give them the right to appropriate the term to themselves is arrogant, patronizing and condescending.
It can’t be appropriation or theft if the people you’re referring to didn’t call themselves “Pagan”. In fact, I think it may be a form of appropriation to include them in under our “umbrella” without their consent.
Oberon Zell was one of first people to use the term “Pagan” self-referentially. That was probably around 1970. It caught on because of the influence of the Green Egg.
(One other group was a small group of intellectuals and artists around 1908-1912 , who called themselves the “Neo-pagans”, who gathered around the poet, Rupert Brooke, with the intent of rebelling against Victorianism. The group practiced intellectual-equality for women, co-ed campouts, and bathing together. There are some interesting similarities to the Neo-Pagans of the 1960s and 1970s.)
Your frame of reference, John, seems too narrow to me, too tightly focussed on English-speaking North America, or even on the English-speaking regions of of the United States, as if that land and its people alone held the reins to guide what counts as Pagan and what doesn’t in the Western World. Until WW2 the United States and its English-language culture was small potatoes in the world at large, and it is likely to become small potatoes again within the lifetime of many readers of this blog. — And it’s simply not true that “few if any would answer to the name “Pagan” (or its equivalents in the various languages of Europe).” There were other names used as well, but “Paganism” (Heidentum, Iazychestvo, etc.) was a widely recognized name for the totality of these religions and practices. (By the way, even “Witchcraft” began to be reclaimed as a positive name for this as early as the 1860s in the United States.) — But it’s probably not productive for us to continue arguing much longer. I have data that you don’t; and you are articulating or implying a set of goals for the (Neo-)Pagan movement that I do not think can (or should) ever be achieved, even if everyone were to work together to achieve them. We may probably never see eye-to-eye on many things. Peace, then … over and out …
It was the New Reformed ORTHODOX Order of the Golden Dawn that was formed in 1967. I’m not sure about the unorthodox order that you mention in your first paragraph. 😉
Thanks. I left out an “O”. Understandably, I think, since there was nothing orthodox about NROOGD.
John– if you haven’t read “Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America” by Chas Clifton (2006), I very highly recommend it. It picks up in America where “Triumph of the Moon” leaves off.
I’m kind of astounded by your assertion that early British Wicca wasn’t Pagan.
I’ve read it several times. It’s been a great resource for me. Clifton actually reinforces the distinction I (following Ellwood & Partin, Wouter Hanegraaff, and Jo Peason) am drawing between occultism and (Neo-)Paganism. Clifton distinguishes two Pagan understandings of “nature: what he calls “Cosmic Nature” from the “Gaian Nature.” The former is a symbolic “nature”, the value of which lies in the esoteric truths it holds for humanity, whereas the latter is an “embodied” nature, which has its own intrinsic value, apart from its usefulness to humans. This distinction roughly overlaps the distinction between occultism and Paganism.
I am not the least bit troubled by Stewart’s jibe at us of 13 years ago. It’s mildly humorous and at some level rather reassuring. I’m good not having an “agenda” like Bob Jones University – to ram its beliefs down everyone’s throats. Attributions of overarching agendas to religions also implies a monolithic unity that simply never exists, and is usually fabricated to further xenophobia of some sort. What exactly is the Christian Agenda? Now for the trillion-dollar prize, what is The Muslim Agenda? If anyone knows it, please pass it along to the State Department. We’ll have Syria sorted out within a week.
I don’t see a principled total opposition to institutions in the Pagan movement. i see a deep and fairly reasonable skepticism. Most of us came from religions with strong organizational infrastructures. In no case did we see those institutions and hierarchies at their higher levels foster real or worthwhile spirituality. They are nothing most of us are interested in recreating. Institutional religion is about power over people, and power is its own justification and positive feedback loop. The Roman Catholic Church and Scientology have organizational abilities which are among the best in human history, not merely that of religions. It brought them both staggering amounts of power and wealth. But where did it leave them in terms of moral authority? How effective a voice is the RCC today relative to 50 years ago? Where does anyone see Scientology’s credibility tracking 50 years from now?
We’re open to institutions in the Pagan movement, but the burden lies with organizers and would-be leaders to prove a true need and worthiness of our trust. That’s a high bar, but certainly not impossible. The groups you listed made the grade. The vast majority that did not deserved to wither away. Most had no greater purpose than the egos and self-aggrandizement of their founders and leaders, or else were formed by people who had no leadership or business acumen. It’s also an unfortunate truth that many of our “leaders” are nowhere to be found when everything hits the fan. The advances we have made in trans acceptance in the Pagan community did not come from our public leaders. Most of them were either on the wrong side of the issue or simply couldn’t find their voices when that fight was still uphill. Once a groundswell of bottom-up outcry largely settled the matter in favor of trans inclusion, we suddenly had leaders with “evolving” positions on the matter who came out from the bunkers just in time for the victory speeches…
I’m proud of the few Pagan organizations I do support, and open to supporting others, provided they add some real value and arise organically from actual, not wishful, solidarity.
Thank you, Kenneth. I believe this is a good assessment of the true position. (Except that a few leaders were positively and effectively around for earlier fan-hitting, such as inclusion of LGB [T had not yet come onto the scene as an issue] in ritual because of supposedly skewed polarities. Early 80s.)
OMGs! I have SO much to say about all this. ::sigh:: Too much, perhaps, because if I get going I’ll probably be typing for hours. Thanks, John and commentators.
What about the Maetreum of Cybele they took on and won the highest appeals Court for NYS they fought the Town of Catskill for 8 yrs and they are still going strong they have a Pagan owned and operated radio station in upstate NY
John,am I a freak then? My training was in ceremonial magic, but in due course I wanted a deeper religious aspect and began also to engage in religious ritual. As this was the 80s, pre-Triumph of the Moon, my decidedly non-Wiccan group did use certain Wiccan frameworks that I recognized from my OTHER training and endeavours. Over time I have moved farther and farther into nature religion, but sometimes still return to my magical roots for workings which may cause equally altered states but are only related within the broader term “Magic” – which I don’t believe you would deny to all Paganisms, while I am certain you would not say they require it.
While I have never been Wiccan myself, I am personally acquainted with a number who are very clear that their practice is devotional and religious, not simply ceremonial. Borrowing a Western Tradition framework is not really relevant, because the content is different, but more than this, Doreen Valiente very early on introduced a highly devotional liturgy into Wicca’s poly- or duotheistic framework. I am also acquainted with many ceremonial magicians, and while the majority are Pagan, they mostly consider that to be a slightly separate issue from their magic. I realize I am arguing against several of your printed sources as well as you,but I still have to maintain by dint of experience that they are dead wrong about Wicca not being Pagan because it is ritualistic. “Quasi-religious” is the proper term for your list of magical systems, and Wicca is no more “quasi” than Kem or Greek Reconstructionism.
And did you actually realize that you are doing the Arguing about Who is Pagan thing? I hope that you simply slipped into it without noticing.
Anybody can call themselves Pagan and I’m not going to argue with it. But from a sociological perspective, the Neo-Pagan revival of the late 60s/early 70s was distinct from the witchcraft revival which happened earlier, and the esoteric tradition which preceded it. It was distinct culturally, theologically, aesthetically, etc. Of course, there was some overlap, and people moved fluidly between them, but both of these threads deserve to be appreciated on their own terms.
On the West Coast there was a tradition of nature religion, chiefly pantheistic or non-theistic, that went back as far as the earliest 1900s, and maybe even to the late 1800s. Quite early on, it merged with the kind of propless “magic with the serial numbers filed off” that was cultivated within the New Thought movement by such people as William Walker Atkinson. I speak here on the basis of personal knowledge from in my own lifetime and the lifetimes of my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, who lived in the San Francisco Bay area. This merged, though not in my own family, with other efforts from the 1860s onward to reclaim the word “Witch” as the best word for any woman who cultivated her own religious and magical autonomy.
From this perspective, the Neo-Pagan revival and the somewhat separate Witchcraft revival of the late 60s / early 70s were not new and distinct revivals, but natural growth and development within earlier established traditions. One of the watchwords of that period was, “Never trust anyone over 30”; that led to a deliberate — I emphasize “deliberate” here — erasure of the strong continuity that these movements had with their past. I was there; my family was there; and the version of that history that you have drawn from current academic research is misleading.
One can’t effectively base lasting political reforms on false history. It is out of a measure of respect for your agenda that I offer these criticisms. — Would you like to continue this discussion in academic fashion, with me piling on primary sources for each point within this comment stream? I stand ready and willing to do so.
I recognize that nothing emerges sui generis. Every social movement will grow out of its historical context. And I’m familiar with the influence of New Thought, Esalen, and the rest on what became Neo-Paganism. We could trace it further back to the Transcendentalists or the German Romantics. But all of these movements were still distinct. Neo-Paganism was not New Thought, though it was influenced by it.
My main point, though, is that British Traditional Wicca influenced Neo-Paganism, but there would have been a Pagan revival in the 60s without Gerald Gardner.
I wholly agree with your main point, John. I think I somewhat misunderstood the nuances of what you were claiming earlier.
Likewise: I misunderstood that your main point was that there would have been a Pagan revival in any case. I certainly agree, but the popularizing done by Gardner, though not all positive, paved the way for the rapid rise and acquisition of rights that we achieved.But I think I could only agree with your assessment of the 60s-70s revival being different from the 50s, in the same way that the Teen Witch revival of the 90s was different again. As Robert implied, natural growth and development leads to change.
An excellent and thought-provoking article. I couldn’t refrain from responding, in two parts; here’s the first:
Part 1: Half a Century of Neo-Paganism
Response from Oberon Zell to “It’s been 50 years. And what have Pagans accomplished?”
Religious studies scholar Sarah Pike dates the origins of contemporary Paganism to 1967, the year that Frederick Adams incorporated Feraferia and the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn was founded. That same year, the Church of All Worlds filed for incorporation as the first Pagan “church.”
How apropos to be having this discussion now! Yes, it was 50 years ago this coming Sept. that I publicly claimed “Pagan” as my religious designation—and that of the Church of All Worlds, which had just “come out” after five years as a secret underground water-brotherhood. Prior to that, “Pagan” was used most commonly by Christians as a derogatory term for “primitive savages” and other nonbelievers whom missionaries were supposed to go out and convert. It was always “those pagans,” never “us Pagans.”
And now it is, indeed, “us Pagans!”—with a capital “P.”
The modern Pagan community can be dated from various germinal events in the mid-20th century, such as the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in 1954, which resulted in the first generation of self-identified modern Witches. However, “Wiccan” Witchcraft was generally unknown outside of the UK until 1969, when Gardner assigned Ray and Rosemary Buckland to bring the Craft to the US. And Gardner’s Witches never thought of themselves as Pagans.
Lance Christie and I met in Sept. of 1961 at the start of our college years. Inspired by Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, we shared water on April 7, 1962. Our initial Mission Statement was “to make the world safe for people like us.” Over the next five years, our “water-brotherhood,” called “Atl,” grew to more than 100 people before undergoing an amiable mitosis which resulted in two sister branches: the public Church of All Worlds (CAW) and the underground Association for the Tree of Life (ATL). It was at that juncture (Sept. 7, 1967), in a talk at a local Beatnik coffeehouse, that I first claimed the term “Pagan” as a religious identification for myself and the CAW.
Six months later (March 4, 1968), the Church of Worlds was legally incorporated, and the first issue of Green Egg was printed that Ostara. Promoting the identity of “Pagan” through Green Egg inspired other early groups to adopt the designation as well, and thus a movement of “Green Religion” was launched, embracing Nature worship, pantheism, polytheism, Goddesses, Priestesses, the Gaea Thesis, the Wheel of the Year, sexual diversity, polyamory, and many other features rejected by the mainstream religions. Foundations were laid, memes were established, and a legacy was created.
1. One million strong?
To begin with, our numbers have grown. By some guestimates, there are 1 million Pagans in the U.S. More reliable estimates can be gotten from the rest of the English-speaking world, which asks citizens to identify their religious affiliation in their censuses: 85,000 Pagans in the U.K., 27,000 in Australia, and 25,000 in Canada. (Ibid.)
Some religion scholars, such as Dr. J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religions (ISAR), have cited Neo-Paganism as the fastest-growing religion in the English-speaking world. We really have no idea of our numbers in America, as questions of religious identity were removed from the U.S. Census as of 1990. However, estimates based on publishers’ records of Pagan-themed book sales (specifically Drawing Down the Moon and The Spiral Dance) bring those figures into the several millions.
But there is also a strong and growing resurgence of the Old Religion (i.e. Paganism) in many other non-English-speaking countries throughout the world, such as Scandinavia, the Balkans (particularly Lithuania and Latvia), the Slavic countries, Greece, Guatemala, Peru, Japan, India… In these countries, the Old Religion is seen as a reclaiming of lost ancestral heritage—a restoration of “roots.” Commonly in reaction to the brutal cultural oppression of national identity under the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the British Empire, and Soviet communism.
Iceland’s Pagans enjoy dramatic rise
(28 March, 2017) Iceland has seen a dramatic increase in the followers of its indigenous Pagan movement in recent years, making Odin worshippers the country’s fastest-growing religion.
National Statistics Bureau figures show that followers of the Asatru Association still lag far behind the established Lutheran Church, which accounts for 237,938 or almost 70% of the population and has remained stable for decades. But the total of Icelanders who revere Odin, Thor and the Goddess Freyja has leapt 50% since 2014 to 3,583, with more than twice as many male as female faithful, Morgunbladid newspaper reports.
In Russia there are 750,000 Pagans called the Rodnevers. They have Pagan ritual sites all over Mother Russia. Here’s a paragraph from Wikipedia on modern Slavic Paganism:
Slavic Paganism today
Main article: Slavic neopaganism
For the last few decades, Slavic Paganism has gained limited popularity among the Russian public, with many web sites and organizations dedicated to the study of Slavic mythology and some who openly call for “returning to the roots.”
Most of the NeoPagan movements take place in Russia and Belarus, but they also take place in other Slavic countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, Croatia, Czech Republic and Ukraine.
(Wikipedia: “Slavic Mythology.” Accessed 4/30/17)
Recent headlines indicate a similar resurgence of Classical Paganism in Greece:
Greek Paganism legally recognized as ‘known religion’ in Greece
Cara Schulz — April 18, 2017
ATHENS, Greece – On April 9th, the Supreme Council of Ethnic Hellenes (YSEE), a religious organization working to restore the indigenous religion of Greece, announced that after more than twenty years of struggle, the Greek state has finally recognized the Hellenic Religion as a ‘Known Religion’ according to paragraph 17 – the only form of recognition for a religion in Greece. The mentioned paragraph includes the permission to build a temple as well as the right of public exercise of any recognized religion. Prior to this, Greek Pagans did not have religious freedoms such as the ability to buy land to create houses of worship nor could Pagan clergy perform marriage ceremonies.
We also need to recognize that Paganism as the Old Religion has never been extinguished in large areas of the world, and remains the foundation of many indigenous cultures, as among Nature Americans, Hawaiians, Central and South America, much of Arica, Polynesia, Melanesia, the Caribbean, and most spectacularly, India. The cover story (by Rev. Palaniswami, editor) of the Feb. 1991 issue of Hinduism Today—the primary publication for English-speaking Hindus throughout the world—was on the Hindu-Pagan link: “Europe’s Ancient Nature Worshippers, the Pagans, Call for a Hindu Alliance.” This commentary also appeared as a guest editorial in the Litha 1991 issue of Green Egg (Vol. 24, #93). Here are a few paragraphs:
Pagan. The very word conjures up uneasy feelings, and images of dancers in a moon-lit meadow or nearly-naked primitives. Yet every Hindu, all 900 million of us, is a Pagan. That’s right. And if we knew the real meaning of the word, we would be proudly Pagan (though you might not have the machismo to wear the T-shirt that Orin Lyons, an Iroquois Indian chief and New York professor, designed proclaiming himself a “Born Again Pagan.”)
Morning Glory’s husband, Otter, articulates their philosophy skillfully: “The Pagan theology is basically pantheism, the belief that all objects are given sacred significance. It has a universal outlook, one which embraces all indigenous folkways, one whose unifying vision keeps a place for all ethnic traditions. It is non-hierarchical, non-dogmatic and experiential, placing emphasis on unity through diversity.”
So how do we count our numbers? Only the several million English-speakers? Or do we also count 900 million Hindus (as they do), and all the other national adherents of their respective ancestral Old Religions? As Rev. Palaniswami says later in his editorial: “Being bold, we may count as Pagan the entire human race prior to the Christian era and all those following the Christian era but not following Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. Most of the human family, in other words.”
Oberon, your comment went into my spam folder for some reason. I’ve now rescued it. Thank you for your comment. It’s an honor.
Thank you, Oberon, that was lovely. I remember the Green Egg in the 70s, when I was discovering that there was a word – yes, Paganism – for what I had always been.
In our magazine Greenmantle, I write a regular column on “Proto-Pagans” – those who may never have used the word, but who, before 1920, had a clearly Pagan sensibility and left a lasting influence on our movement.
Good article! I can tell you read my essay in “Pagan Leadership Anthology,” and I enjoyed what you added!
With the greatest respect for Oberon Zell, I must cheerfully contradict his assertion that “Gardner’s Witches never thought of themselves as Pagans.” In a 1965 interview, Lois Pearson (later Lois Bourne) — who was at the time the High Priestess of the Bricket Wood [Gardnerian] coven — states “I’m pagan” when asked about her religion.
See the 1st and 4th pages of
Click to access Lois_Pearson%20VFTS1.pdf
Interesting article – I’ll just make a few semi-random comments:
1) I’m a Hellenic NeoPagan, a “hard polytheist” or “Devotional polytheist” – I’d never heard the latter term before, but it works.
2) Wicca is the 600 lb gorilla of the Pagan world, like it or not. Much like Catholicism is the 600 lb gorilla of the Christian world. There is no way that its possible to have a “Pagan Pride” or similar event and cater to *everybody*. I can function in a “Wicca-lite” atmosphere, much like I can in a “Christian-lite” arena. I can invoke the “Universal Goddess” in a “soft polytheistic” manner, even though my Patroness is Athena, and I “work with” other Gods and Goddesses as well.
3) All this hand wringing may be well intentioned, but let’s not PC ourselves to death, shall we?
4) I personally am a right leaning Libertarian. I dislike the all-too-often-assumed Socialistic left quite heartily! And yes, I dislike the Bible-thumping right just as much. As far as I’m concerned, BOTH Republicans/Conservatives and Democrats/Liberals are parties of SLAVERY – just the form differs. “Choose the form of the Distructor…”
5) Lastly, but certainly not leastly, Pagans of all stripes have a love of Belly Dancing. Many Pagans are Belly Dancers, and many – if not most – Belly Dancers seem to be Pagans! Including me – I’m a (male) Belly Dancer of 19 years experience. Not that it matters to anyone, but I’m even straight. Belly Dancing is a large part of my spirituality, I’m not really a ritualist otherwise.
6) Squeezing in one more: someone above decried the influence of Facebook. They’re right – it is my considered opinion that Facebook corrupts everything it touches, and I for one won’t have anything to do with it.