“A Brief History of Neo-Paganism” by John Halstead

This essay was originally published in multiple parts at Neo-Paganism.com.

A Modern Tradition with Ancient Roots

Neo-Paganism has its roots in the 19th century Romantic movement in England and Germany which saw ancient paganism as an ideological and aesthetic counter to the influence of Western modernity and industrialism.

Neo-Pagan witchrcraft, also known as Wicca, was invented by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente in England in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and imported to the U.S. in 1963. Although Wicca is one of the the most well-known forms of Paganism, there were forms of Neo-Paganism which arose around the early to mid-20th century. These included a Celtic magical order founded by W. B. Yeats and George Russell in the 1890s, the British Woodcraft movement in the early 20th century, a student group at Cambridge in the 1930’s that tried to reconstruct a pagan witchcraft, and The Church of Aphrodite which was formed in New York in 1938.

summer-solstice-sunrise-at-the-stonehengeHowever, Neo-Paganism today is really a product of the American Counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Like the Romantics, the Neo-Pagans of these decades saw in ancient paganism a cure for the spiritual alienation of modernity. The beginning of the Neo-Pagan movement can be dated to 1967. In that year, three organizations were formed which shaped American Neo-Paganism: Frederick Adams founded Feraferia, a wilderness mystery religion; Aidan Kelly and others formed the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn (NROOGD); and Tim (Oberon) Zell filed for incorporation of the Church of All Worlds (CAW). Official status was granted to the CAW in 1968, making it the first Neo-Pagan state-recognized “church”. The CAW also began publishing the Green Egg newsletter in 1968, which became the most important public forum for Neo-Pagans many years and was instrumental in the formation of an emerging identity around the name “Neo-Pagan”.

In the 1970’s, the movement took a decidedly feminist and environmentalist turn. In 1971, Zsuzsanna Budapest founded the Susan B. Anthony Coven No. 1,  creating feminist “Dianic” witchcraft, an exclusively women’s tradition. Also in 1971, Tim Zell, the founder of the CAW, published an article entitled, “Theagenesis: The Birth of the Goddess”, which anticipated James Lovelock’s 1979 “Gaia Hypothesis”.

Early forms of Neo-Paganism integrated nature religion and feminist spirituality with the mythology of Robert Graves’ book, The White Goddess, and Jungian psychology. Although Neo-Paganism draws inspiration from ancient religious myths and practices, it is a modern religion intended to meet modern spiritual needs.  The primary focus of Neo-Paganism is not on historical authenticity to an ideal pagan past, but on creating a what David Waldron calls a “Pagan consciousness”, the experience of the immanence of divinity and the interconnectedness of all life.

It is now widely accepted by Neo-Paganism is not a survival of an ancient pagan tradition. As Ronald Hutton explains,

“Instead of a line of martyrs and embattled tradition-bearers, the immediate ancestors of [Neo-]Paganism became a succession of cultural radicals, appearing from the eighteenth century onward, who carried out the work of distinguishing the Pagan elements preserved in Western culture and recombining them with images and ideas retrieved directly from the remains of the ancient past, to create a set of modern religions.”

Why “Neo-“?

Many Neo-Pagans call themselves “Pagan” without the Neo- prefix. However, “Pagan” is an umbrella term which includes Neo-Pagans as well as many other kinds of Pagans. Neo-Paganism refers specifically to the “earth-centered” Paganism which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.

All Neo-Pagans are Pagan, but not all Pagans are Neo-Pagan. Neo-Paganism is one form of contemporary Paganism grouped under what is sometimes called the “Pagan Umbrella”. Contemporary Pagans are a diverse group with varied beliefs and practices which includes Neo-Pagans, feminist witches, Pagan reconstructionists, devotional polytheists, occultists, and many more. What most contemporary Pagans have in common is that they look to ancient pagan religions and contemporary non-monotheistic religions (like Hinduism and the African diasporic religions) for religious inspiration. How they make use of these sources varies considerably.

BRONNITSY, RUSSIA - JUNE 19:  Russian neo-pagans pray celebrating the summer solstice festival called Kupalo on June 19, 2010 in a forest near Bronnitsy, 60 km east of Moscow, Russia.  Hundreds of followers of slavic neo-pagan religious movements  gathered in a forest to celebrate the midsummer. The festivities of Kupalo, or Kupala are known as one of the most expressive Russian folk and pagan holidays. According to their beliefs they try to reconstruct what they believe is the true religion of the Russian people that was destroyed by early Russian Christian church 1000 years ago when it came to Russia and violently converted local pagan populations to Christianity. After the 1991 Soviet collapse Russia has seen a revival of religious movements,superstitions and creeds such as paganism. (Photo by Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images)“Neo-Pagan” is an inclusive term. It includes many Wiccans, witches, druids, shamans, animists, Goddess worshipers, religious humanists, and others. Neo-Paganism is distinguished from other forms of Paganisms by the centrality of the belief that nature is sacred, and for this reason is often called an “earth religion” or “nature religion”. Neo-Paganism is an “earth-centered” religion. The “center” here refers to the place which is most sacred. This is often expressed in theological terms of immanence or pantheism.

The difference between Neo-Paganism and other forms of contemporary Paganism is often a matter of degree. For example, while devotional polytheistic Pagans locate what is most sacred in deities — who may be thought of as a part of nature, Neo-Pagans locate what is most sacred in nature — of which deities may be a part.  The earth-centered orientation of Neo-Paganism is something new, and was not usually characteristic of ancient paganisms. It is no coincidence that the birth of Neo-Paganism in the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with the birth of the environmental movement. While many other religions, like Christianity and Buddhism, are becoming more ecological, no other non-indigenous religion has earth-centeredness as its first principle.

Neo-Paganism can be distinguished from reconstructionist forms of Paganism, which attempt to reconstruct the religions of ancient pagans from surviving historical sources. Neo-Paganism draws freely from many traditions, both ancient and modern, without concern for historical authenticity, to create a spirituality to meet modern needs. In the words of Dennis Carpenter, Neo-Paganism is a “synthesis of historical inspiration and present-day creativity”. Neo-Paganism can also distinguished from devotional polytheistic forms of Paganism, which experience Pagan deities as literal beings with individual personalities. Neo-Pagans are more likely to understand gods and goddesses as metaphors for parts of nature and our unconscious selves and/or as aspects of a greater divine unity.

“Coming Home”

Russian neo-pagans look on while participating in festivities to celebrate the summer solstice in Maloyaroslavets, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) south-west from Moscow, Russia, early Saturday, June 20, 2009. The festivities of Ivan Kupala, or John the Baptist, are similar to Mardi Gras and reflect pre-Christian Slavic traditions and practices. After the 1991 Soviet collapse, Russia has seen a revival of the Russian Orthodox church along with a surge of peripheral movements and creeds.(AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)Many people come to Neo-Paganism after leaving the religion they were raised in. Different Neo-Pagan groups may have different requirements for membership, like a probationary period of study, but there is no formal process of conversion to Neo-Paganism generally, and many Neo-Pagans never join any group. Anyone can call themselves Neo-Pagan (which is one of the reasons it is so difficult to define). Most Neo-Pagans come to identify as such through a process of individual spiritual exploration.

Many of us experience our coming to Neo-Paganism as a feeling of “coming home”, by which we mean that Neo-Pagan is an expression of a religious identify for which we previously had no name. For whatever reason, we feel drawn away from the religions of our birth. We feel drawn to the woods, the mountains, or the seashore. We feel a sense of the divine in nature, whether in the earth itself, in the changing of the seasons, or in our own bodies. We are moved by fairy tales, stories from folklore, and ancient pagan myths and art. When we meet other like-minded people, we discover that we are not alone and we realize that we are Neo-Pagans too.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation.  In addition to being the Managing Editor here at HP, he is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the administrator of the website Neo-Paganism.org.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

7 Comments on ““A Brief History of Neo-Paganism” by John Halstead

  1. Nice. I liked this when it was on American Neopaganism, and I still like it now. Good job abbreviating it. I would have expected a loss of flow, but it flows very smoothly.

    Two minor nitpicks: First, by “Y. B. Yeats” I think you probably mean “W. B. Yeats.” Second, it might be nice to add one more paragraph to the history section about current developments, especially since the rise of reconstructionism and then devotional polytheism has yielded a variety that does indeed focus on historical authenticity to a pagan past. I realize they get air-time in the second section and they do not fall under the umbrella of “neo-“, but a brief mentions in the history section would make that clear earlier on and prepare the reader for the distinction made in the second section. Naturalistic Paganism could also be mentioned in the history section.

    • Thanks for catching the typo. And thanks for the other suggestions. I’ll keep tinkering with it.

  2. Great stuff. I appreciate the effort to reclaim and re-establish this label, to articulate why it’s still relevant and useful. But that raises the question: Why do y’all think the Neo- prefix has been so widely abandoned?

    • I think there are two reason (neither of which I find persuasive, obviously).

      The first is that many people don’t like to be “neo-” anything. People like to feel rooted in tradition, especially in religion. And some people with short historical memories like to think that nothing that is more than 10 years old can be “new”.

      The second reason is that some academics have used the term “neo-paganism” (usually uncapitalized) to refer to the non-Christian religious elements in the Volkisch movement which influenced Naziism. No one likes to be associated with that.

  3. Thanks, John. I found this piece very informative. I have read critics of paganism who use the fact that it is more a modern creation rather than an ancient tradition, to dismiss it. The way you present the material here helps show that that criticism simply misses the point. I suspect that most pagans at times touch upon something that feels primal and authentic, and in those moments we feel ourselves part of an unbroken traditions despite the quibbles of scholarship.

  4. As you’ve noted elsewhere, Earth-centered (or Earth-based) doesn’t necessarily equate to ecologically conscious and/or politically engaged. That’s one reason I’ve been keen to promote Eco- as a prefix: to make that value more explicit.

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