NEO-PAGANISM (Religious Movement)

Neo-paganism is a complex phenomenon. It has no known or uncontested starting point and no single founder or originator, but in the form recognizable today, Neo-paganism originated in 1940s Britain in the form of Gerald Gardner’s Wicca (see Gardner, Gerald B.). From this, other neo-pagan traditions and other varieties of witchcraft derived. Neopaganism today includes a variety of traditions, such as neo-pagan witchcraft, neo-pagan Druidry, Asatru/Heathenism, neo-shamanism (see Shamanism), ‘non-aligned’ Paganism, and initiatory Wicca. However, the antecedents of neo-paganism can be found in the late nineteenth century, in academic developments such as Egyptology, the rise of tourism to sites of ancient civilizations such as Greece and Rome, the rise of occult/ magical secret societies, and literature. The turn of the twentieth century saw the founding of societies such as the Theosophical Society (see Theosophy) and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Influenced by the close-knit secrecy of Freemasonry and its claims to be the guardian of a powerful ancient secret, these societies set about popularizing their own claims to ancient wisdom.

The term itself is, however, contested, and has multiple uses. It is used by some scholars and practitioners to differentiate between ancient and contemporary Paganism, or between broken, or disrupted, religious traditions (e.g. Asatru, Druidry) and unbroken, or continuous ones (e.g. Hinduism), indigenous peoples such as Australian aborigines or Native Americans (see Native American Religions). Neo-paganism is contested by both academics and practitioners, with practitioners assuming that context makes it apparent whether they are talking about their own contemporary practices or ancient Greco-Roman worship. The prefix ‘neo’ is sometimes regarded as dangerous because it is easily associated with ‘neo-Nazi’. It is also seen as a trivializing modifier which is disrespectful. The term is particularly popular in North America and continental Europe, but is not in common usage within the UK. Where it is commonly used, there are several permutations of capitalization and hyphenation, for example neo-Paganism, Neo-paganism.

The term is variously applied to

1. the romantic revival of pagan religions dominant in the classical ancient world, particularly of Egypt, Greece and Rome, interest in which was revived in the nineteenth century;

2. the indigenous peoples of Asia, Africa and the Americas;

3. the powerful rural myth of pastoral innocence pre-World War One epitomized in the writings of, for example, Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter;

4. a variety of contemporary traditions and practices which revere nature as sacred, ensouled or alive, draw on pagan religions of the past, use ritual and myth creatively, share a seasonal cycle of festivals, and tend to be polytheistic, pantheistic and/or duotheistic rather than monotheistic, at least to the extent of accepting the divine as both male and female and thus including both gods and goddesses in their pantheons.

Neo-pagan groups take many forms, from Wiccan covens to Druid groves, from Heathen hearths to magical lodges, and entry into them may be by formal rituals of initiation or informal groupings based on friendship. Some groups may practise magic, while others do not. Many use ritual, and almost all make use of myth, celebrating the eight seasonal festivals which together constitute a mythic-ritual cycle, usually referred to as The Wheel of the Year. These festivals are the so-called Celtic fire festivals or cross quarter days of Imbolc/Candlemas (c. 2 February), Beltane (c. 30 April), Lughnasadh/Lammas (c. 31 July), and Samhain/Hallowe’en (c. 31 October), plus the Winter and Summer Solstices (c. 21 December and c. 21 June) and the Spring and Autumn equinoxes (c. 21 March and c. 21 September). These are the traditional dates for each festival, but they are not fixed; many groups often find it easier, for the practical purpose of getting everyone together, to work to a set date (usually the nearest Friday or Saturday to the dates given), while smaller groups or individuals working alone may choose to wait for a specific sign of nature (e.g. first snowdrop for Imbolc) and celebrate on that day. In the southern hemisphere, the festivals are reversed in line with the seasons, celebrating the autumnal equinox, for example, whilst northern hemisphere neo-pagans celebrate the vernal equinox. Rites of passage have also been developed to mark the birth of a new child, menarche, manhood, marriage, menopause, ageing and death, and initiation rituals and rites to celebrate the phases of the moon are also popular in some Neo-Pagan groups.

Next post:

Previous post: