views updated May 18 2018


Neo-paganism encompasses several religious traditions. It does so in the same way that Christianity refers to a diverse body of sects, or subgroups, such as Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, and many others, that share certain fundamental beliefs. The prefix neo-, meaning "new," implies that an ancient belief, practice, or custom has been rediscovered and adapted to the modern era. The word pagan, though, is harder to define. It generally refers to any ancient, pre-Christian set of religious beliefs, gods, symbols, rituals, and practices. Neo-paganism, then, is not the name of a specific religion. Instead, it is a descriptive term applied to any modern religious movement that tries to reconstruct ancient religious practices, primarily those from northern and western Europe.

One complication with the word pagan is that it is open to many different interpretations. Linguists, scholars who study the history and development of language, even debate the origins of the word. Most believe that it comes from the Latin word paganus, generally thought to mean a person who lives in a rural area, outside the city walls. City dwellers in the Roman Empire (31 bce–476 ce) used the word to refer to unsophisticated rural people. After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity in the fourth century, the term was applied to people in the countryside who continued to follow religious beliefs that were regarded as backward and superstitious.

Some scholars, or researchers, believe that the word meant something more like "civilian," referring to those who were not "soldiers of Christ," or Christians. Still others argue that the term more generally referred to "outsiders," those who were not part of the body of Christian believers. Whatever the origins of the word, by the time Christianity had spread throughout Europe, it branded any religious belief that was not Christian as "pagan." In addition, pagan practices were regarded as the work of Satan. (In Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions Satan is considered the chief spirit of evil.) In time many Christians came to regard any non-Christian religion, including the religions of Asia, such as Buddhism, Shinto, and Hinduism, as pagan.


A neo-pagan religion based on worship of the Norse (Scandanavian) gods.
Beltane (Beltaine):
Neo-pagan holiday on May 1 to celebrate spring flowerings and births.
A term referring to an ethnic group that spread throughout Europe, particularly the British Isles, and is the source of many modern neo-pagan movements.
A group of neo-pagans, such as Wiccans. Alternately referred to as circles, groves, kindreds, garths, hearths, and other terms.
A neo-pagan religion based in the Celtic region of the British Isles.
Either of two points during the year when the Sun crosses the equator and the hours of day and night are equal. The spring, or vernal, equinox occurs generally on March 21 and the autumn equinox occurs on or about September 23.
Wiccan celebration of the full Moon.
Goddess worship:
Term that refers generally to any neo-pagan practice that elevates the status of goddesses over that of gods.
Neo-pagan holiday generally held on February 2 to mark the lengthening of the days and the emergence of the world from winter.
Neo-pagan harvest festival on August 1.
Neo-pagan celebration of the autumn equinox; the completion of the harvest season.
The ability to focus mental and physical energies to affect the natural world or to achieve a goal.
The collected stories of a culture or religion, especially those dealing with the origins, heroes, gods, and beliefs of a group of people.
A term referring to modern religions based on ancient pagan religions.
Neo-pagan holiday held at the time of the spring equinox.
Holidays practiced by Wiccans throughout the year, including the summer and winter solstices, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and four additional holidays between these four.
Samhain (Samhuinn):
Neo-pagan holiday celebrated on October 31.
The points in the year when the day is longest (the summer solstice, generally on June 21) and the shortest (the winter solstice, generally on December 21).
The name of a neo-pagan religion that generally worships the God and the Goddess.

In the modern era pagan continues to be used as a negative and insulting term, implying something backward and vaguely evil. Pagans are sometimes thought of as Satanists, members of secretive cults who take part in bizarre rituals involving blood sacrifice and "black magic," or magic practiced for selfish and bad purposes. Neo-paganists, however, use the word pagan freely to refer to their religious beliefs. They resist stereotypes and emphasize that theirs is an Earth-centered religion whose members find fulfillment in the cycles and rhythms of the natural world.

Estimating the number of neo-pagans is difficult. The groups tend to be loosely organized. They avoid the structure and hierarchy (chain of command) of more formal mainstream religions, making it nearly impossible to count their members. A further complication is that many people who take part in neo-pagan activities also profess belief in other religions such as Christianity. One group of neo-pagans called Wicca, estimated that in 2000 there were some 768,000 neo-pagans, including 750,000 Wiccans, in the United States, which would make it the nation's fifth-largest religion, as well as one of the nation's fastest-growing religions. Another estimate places the number of neo-pagans in the United States and Canada at anywhere between one-half million and "several" million.

Characteristics of neo-paganism

Neo-pagan religions are known by different names, depending on the specific religious tradition from ancient times that a particular group has reconstructed. Some of the terms used to refer to these groups overlap, making discussions of neo-paganism confusing. For example, three terms often used in discussing neo-paganism are Wicca, witchcraft, and magick. (While the everyday word magic suggests parlor tricks and stage shows, magick emphasizes the neo-pagan belief that humans can focus their energies to influence natural forces.) Magick refers to a practice that many neo-pagans follow. Witchcraft, or the ability to communicate with past ancestors or use charms and spells to influence natural events, is a generic word often attached to a subcategory of neo-paganism. Wicca, on the other hand, refers to a specific group. While Wiccans practice witchcraft and magick, not all Wiccans are witches, and not all witches are Wiccans.

Despite this complex mix of terms and labels, neo-pagan groups tend to share a number of important characteristics:

Neo-pagan religions are reconstructed from ancient, pre-Christian religions. Wicca, for example, was reconstructed from the beliefs of the ancient Celts (pronounced "Kelts"), an ethnic group found in western Europe and the British Isles. Celts worshipped the goddess of fertility and the god of the hunt. Other neo-pagans identify themselves specifically as followers of Asatru, a god from ancient Norse (Scandinavian) mythology, or as druids, another religion based on ancient Celtic practices. (Mythology is the collected stories of a culture or religion dealing with the origins, heroes, gods, and beliefs of a group of people.) While many neo-pagan religions have their roots in Celtic traditions, others have their origins in the gods and goddesses of the Roman Empire (c. 31 bce–476 ce). Sometimes the Central and South American religions Vodou and Santería, which each combine aspects of ancient African religion and Roman Catholocism, are classified as neo-pagan religions.

Neo-pagan religions are Earth-centered. Their followers seek salvation, or deliverance from sin and evil, and happiness by following the cycles of the natural world. For this reason neo-pagan religions have attracted many people who have lost faith in mainstream Western religions. These people see Western religions as part of a broader set of Western beliefs that have led to exploitation of the natural world and damage to the environment. Neo-paganism, for many, is a way to embrace a simpler, more natural way of life that does not depend on the tools of modern technology and that respects the natural world.

Because neo-pagans feel close to the cycles of nature, holy days tend to include the first day of each of the four seasons: the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes. (The solstices are the points in the year when the day is the longest and shortest; the equinoxes are the points of the year when the hours of day and night are equal.) This emphasis on seasonal changes reflects the geographical origins of many neo-pagan religions.

Neo-pagan groups tend to have similar beliefs. They follow a belief system that is either duotheistic (meaning belief in a god and a goddess, or two deities) or polytheistic (meaning belief in many deities).

Many neo-pagans are solitary practitioners. Alternatively, they may practice in small groups, variously referred to as covens, circles, groves, kindreds, garths, hearths, and other terms.

Neo-pagans groups have little, if any, hierarchical structure. That is, no ruling body has authority over members. There is no class of priests that enforce uniformity of belief. There is no officially authorized text, sacred scripture, or body of teachings.

Most neo-pagans prefer to practice their rituals outdoors when they can, consistent with their emphasis on nature. In the past many practiced in secret, largely because many people associated neo-paganism with Satan worship and accordingly persecuted or discriminated against them. As of the early twenty-first century this situation has improved, and neo-pagans feel somewhat freer to openly acknowledge their beliefs.

About Neo-paganism

  • Belief. Most neo-pagans trace their religious views back to traditions used by Celts and other European peoples before missionaries brought Christianity into the area. In general, they are polytheistic, believing in more than one god and/or goddess. They also generally respect the divine in nature.
  • Followers. Estimates suggest that there may be more than one million neo-pagans around the world today, with the majority in Europe and North America.
  • Name of God. The divinities of neo-paganism are called by a variety of names. Prominent among them are the Goddess (worshipped in many different aspects) and the God (also worshipped in many different aspects). Other neo-pagan groups worship the pantheon, or group, of ancient Norse mythology or the forces of nature.
  • Symbols. The Goddess's symbols include the Moon and many other objects representing the feminine: the cup, flowers, mirrors, seashells, and jewels. The God's symbols include the hunt, the Sun, the sword, horns, the spear, the knife, the magic wand, the arrow, the sickle (a curved blade), and precious metals.
  • Worship. In general, forms of worship are left to the individual believer or practitioner.
  • Dress. Neo-pagans have no standard costume or form of dress, although some dress in robes and others worship naked.
  • Texts. Asatruars honor the sagas that relate ancient Norse myths, but neo-pagans as a whole have no defined texts or scriptures.
  • Sites. Neo-pagans have no particular sites sacred to their religion. Alternatively, because many celebrate the divine in nature, all sites may be considered holy.
  • Observances. In general, neo-pagans observe four festivals taken from Celtic tradition that mark the seasons of the year: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasad.
  • Phrases. Neo-paganism has no particular phrases associated with its system of worship.

All neo-pagans follow a code of behavior based on not doing harm to others. Neo-pagans do not practice black arts, blood sacrifices, or Satan worship. They do not take part in bizarre sexual rituals. Some groups have been accused of this because they practice rituals "skyclad," meaning naked. This practice, however, is not widespread.

Neo-paganism includes a wide range of religious traditions. Other religious groups, such as Native American and African shamanism, hold beliefs similar to neo-paganism. The term neo-pagan, however, generally refers to religious traditions that originated in pre-Christian northern and western Europe. Some of these traditions include Asatru, druidism, Goddess worship, and Wicca.


Asatru (often written as Ásatruú) is generally considered a neo-pagan religion, although its practitioners, called Asatruars, refer to themselves as heathens rather than neo-pagans. (Heathen, like pagan, is a word that has strong negative connotations, suggesting someone who is uncivilized. The word, however, is related to the words heath and heather, referring simply to an open field and to the low vegetation that covers it.) They see themselves as part of a tradition separate from neo-paganism, or, in their words, not a branch of the tree but a separate tree. Unlike such religions as Wicca, Asatru is based on a surviving historical record. The religion's followers try to follow the beliefs contained in that record as much as possible.

Asatru is a Norse religion, meaning that it is of Scandinavian origin. (Scandinavia is a region that includes modern Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.) In the modern era the religion goes by a wide number of names: Forn Sior, meaning "ancient way or tradition"; Forn sed, or "old custom"; Hedensk sed, or "pagan custom"; and Nordisk sed, or "Nordic custom." Other names that appear in writings about the religion include Norse heathenism, Germanic heathenism, the Elder Troth, the Old Way, Vor Sior ("our way"), Odinism, and Folkish Asatru.

Little is known about the origins of Asatru. The Scandinavian religion on which it is based was practiced in northern Europe during the first millennium (a period consisting of one thousand years) of the Common Era, meaning the years from 1 through 1000 ce, until the countries in the region converted to Christianity. Its last major stronghold was Iceland, which did not convert to Christianity until the start of the second millennium. In the modern era Asatru was officially recognized as a religion in Iceland in 1972. Since then it has grown rapidly in Scandinavian countries, as well as in the rest of Europe and in North America.

In the twentieth century some of the beliefs of Asatru were corrupted by the Nazi regime in Germany. (The Nazi Party was the ruling political group in Germany from the 1930s to 1945. It was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews and other groups.) Nazis such as Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945) and Rudolf Hess (1894–1987) seized on the idea of a religion that predated Christianity (which they regarded as corrupted by Judaism) and that was ethnically German in origin. They used concepts from Asatru to support their beliefs in a racially pure Aryan group. Some modern-day neo-Nazis claim to practice the religion. Asatru firmly rejects these corruptions, and to counter them developed a list of "Nine Noble Virtues": Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self-Reliance, and Perseverance (determination). Asatruars reject any form of racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination that divide people into categories.

Asatru beliefs and practices

Asatru is a polytheistic religion, meaning that it believes in more than one god. Specifically, Asatru believes in three classes of gods. The first are the Aesir, the gods of the clan or tribe. These gods represent such concepts as order and rule. The second are the Vanir, which are the gods of fertility and the forces of nature. The third are the Jotnar, or giants that are in constant conflict with the Aesir and represent destruction and chaos. Within these classes are a number of specific gods and goddesses:

  • Thor, the Thunderer, who races across the sky in his chariot to create thunder. Thor wields the divine hammer, called Mjollnir. He is the god of weather and crops.
  • Odin, the one-eyed god, who gave up an eye to drink from the fountain of wisdom. Odin is the wise one, the magician, who acquired the secrets of the northern European runic alphabet (also called runes) by hanging for nine nights from the tree Yggdrasil.
  • Frey is the god of Yuletide (a celebration of the winter solstice) because he was born on that day, which usually falls on December 21. Frey is the god of plenty and of peace. He provides prosperity and fertility
  • The goddess of love, sexuality, and beauty is Freya, or Freyja. She is the leader of the Valkyries, the maidens of Odin who choose the greatest warriors slain in battle and conduct them to Odin's hall, Valhalla.
  • Frigg, or Frigga, as Odin's wife, is the patroness of married women and of the household and hearth.
  • Skadi is the goddess of skiing, hunting, death, and independence.
  • Ostara is the goddess of fertility who is honored at the spring equinox. A variation of her name is Eostre, from which the word Easter is derived. Her symbols include the egg and the hare (rabbit), common symbols of Easter in the West.
  • Asatru also honors the Landvaettir, or the land spirits that inhabit the streams, Earth, and forests.

Asatru belief says that the universe was created when Muspelheim, or the Land of Fire, and Niflheim, or the Land of Ice, moved toward each other over an empty space called Ginnungigap. When they collided, the universe was born. The earth was created when three brothers, Odin, Vili, and Ve, killed a giant, whose body became the earth. These brothers then created humanity from two trees. Another god, Rig, came to Earth to create the social classes. The gods granted humans Od, or ecstasy, to separate them from the animals and to provide them with a connection to the gods. Asatruars believe that when they die, evil people are sent to a realm of torment called Hifhel (or Hiflhel), while those who have lived well are sent to a place of peace called Hel (which, oddly, is the word from which the word hell is derived).

Asatru rituals are conducted by priests (Gothi) or priestesses (Gythia). They can be conducted in permanent or temporary sites, as long as the space is consecrated, or blessed. There is no canon, or official group, of texts, although many Asatruars read the ancient Norse sagas for their stories about the gods and goddesses. (Sagas are lengthy poems about heroic and legendary figures in Scandinavia.) Holidays include celebration of the vernal equinox and the summer solstice; the Charming of the Plow in February; Fogmoon, a celebration of the dead in November; and the Blot ritual, a sacrificial offering to the gods that consists of such items as fruit or grains. Sacred symbols include the axe, Thor's hammer, and the horns of Odin.


Historical information about druidism is very slight. While the religion is often thought of as Celtic, some scholars believe that it was being practiced in northern and western Europe before the arrival of the Celts, who spread throughout Europe over a period of thousands of years. The original Celts may have come out of the region around the Black Sea some time around 4,000 bce. From there, they migrated to southwestern Europe to contact the cultures of ancient Greece and Thrace and to northwestern Europe to form the Celtic cultures.

Evidence suggests that around 1,000 bce a group of loosely linked Celtic tribes occupied modern-day Slovakia. Over the next millennium these tribes moved into Spain, northern Italy, central Turkey, then on to much of France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and, in 200 bce, the British Isles. Other than these broad generalizations, however, little is known about the ancient Celts and druidism. Druidism survived mainly through oral rather than written traditions until Christianity absorbed, modified, and finally stamped out Celtic beliefs. Celtic gods and goddesses were often transformed into Christian saints. (A saint is a deceased person recognized for having led a virtuous and holy life.) The Celtic goddess Brigid (or Brigit), for example, was canonized (made a saint) by the Catholic Church. Brigid is a goddess of poetry, healing, and fertility. She continues to be honored at thousands of springs and wells in Ireland. Further, Catholic cathedrals were built on many Celtic religious sites. By the seventh century of the Common Era the druid religion practiced by the Celts had been destroyed, and the few surviving practitioners were driven into hiding.

Ancient druids organized their society around three classes of people. The Bards were given responsibility for the arts and philosophy. They were the keepers of the people's traditions and preservers of the tribes' memories. The Ovates were the healers, the ones responsible for the processes of death and regeneration, or renewal. They were also prophets because they could speak with ancestral spirits. Finally, the druids and druidesses (who gave the religion its name) were the society's professional class and included teachers, priests, astronomers, musicians, scientists, and judges. These were the specialists who conducted public rituals. The word druid comes from the Indo-European words drus, meaning "oak," and wid, meaning "to know." So a druid was one who "knew the oak," that is, could understand the mysteries of the ancient forests and could lead people in outdoor religious rituals.

Druid beliefs and practices

Druidism was a polytheistic religion practiced in many countries. Druids were never organized into a single group but practiced their religion at the local, tribal level. The archaeological record shows that at least 374 different gods and goddesses were worshipped. At least three hundred were probably local tribal gods. The main group of gods and goddesses number perhaps thirty-three (a sacred number among ancient Celts) and include Arawn, Brigid, Cerrid-wen, Danu, Herne, Lugh, Morgan, Rhiannon, and Taranis.

Modern druids work to reconstruct the myths and practices of ancient druidism, but they have few records from which to work. They have determined that the ancient Celts had a ritual similar to baptism, an initiation ceremony also found in Christianity, though some scholars believe that references to this ritual were forgeries created by Christian monks. The druids believed that the god Bile (also known as Bel or Bele-nus) transported the dead to the Otherworld, where life continued in much the same way that it did on Earth. Believing that the soul was immortal, druids believed that after death the soul was reincarnated, or reborn, into the body of another living thing. After a soul learned what it could from the ongoing cycle of reincarnation, it moved to a higher realm, eventually arriving at the Source, the flame of existence of which humans represent sparks.

Current practitioners of druidism have also reconstructed several ancient practices and symbols. They know that the ancient druids practiced divination, or techniques designed to read into the future. Some of these techniques included interpreting dreams, examining the flights of birds, meditation, and reading the pattern of sticks scattered on the ground. They have also rediscovered the Awen symbol (awen is Welsh for "inspiration"), consisting of three pillars with the outer two sloped toward the one in the center. Druids were fascinated with the number three. Many goddesses were triune goddesses, represented as three sisters. Brigid is one of these triune goddesses. Another important symbol is the triskele, consisting of three curved branches, arms, or legs radiating from the center.

The chief practice of druidism, both ancient and modern, is the celebration of seasonal days. These celebrations, which begin at sunset and continue for three days, usually feature large bonfires. The four festivals are:

  1. Samhain (or Samhuinn), the "end of the warm season." This festival, which begins on November 1, later evolved into the secular (nonreligious) holiday of Halloween.
  2. Imbolc, or "in the belly," celebrates the return of light and the first evidence of new life in the ground. It evolved into the secular Groundhog Day.
  3. Beltaine (or Bealteinne), celebrated on May 1, was the equivalent of the modern May Day. It is a time to celebrate the blossoming of flowers and the birth of domesticated animals.
  4. Lughnasad (also Lughnasadh and Lamma), celebrated on August 1, is the "Feast of Lugh," the god of light, and marks the start of the harvest season.

The Druids and Stonehenge

About 2 miles (3 kilometers) west of the town of Amesbury, Wiltshire, in southern England stands a cluster of stone, wood, and earth structures called Stonehenge. Both archaeologists (scholars who study the physical remains of ancient civilizations) and millions of tourists stand before these structures in awe, wondering who built them, when, and why. They also wonder how the structure was built, given that some of the massive stones were transported from as far away as Wales.

Some people believe that the druids built Stonehenge, likely as a religious shrine. The fact is, though, that construction on Stonehenge began some time around 2,900 bce and was completed some time around 1,600 bce, more than one thousand years before the arrival of the Celtic druids.

There are a number of modern druidic movements, primarily in Great Britain and North America. The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) was formed in the eighteenth century under the name Ancient Order of Druids. This original group separated into factions, of which one, the British Circle of Universal Bond, survived to become the OBOD. Another movement is the British Druid Order, founded in 1979 and claiming three thousand members. In the United States the Reformed Druids of North America were formed in the late 1950s or early 1960s (the date is uncertain), and this movement gave rise to a number of others, including Ar nDraiocht Fein, a movement that emphasizes scholarly research and that has forty-three groves in the United States and two in Canada. In Australia, the Druids Friendly Society offers a health insurance plan to its members.

Goddess worship

The phrase Goddess worship does not refer to a particular religious group. It refers to a set of religious beliefs that celebrate feminine characteristics generally associated with women, like nurturing, child-bearing, sensitivity, and gentleness. Some goddess worshippers are members of specific religious groups such as Wicca. Others worship goddesses independent of any specific group.

Throughout history many cultures, including the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, worshipped goddesses. The names of some of these goddesses include Anat, Aphrodite, Aradia, Arianrhod, Artemis, Astarte, Brigid, Ceres, Demeter, Diana, Eostre, Freya, Gaia, Hera, Ishtar, Isis, Juno, Kali, Lilith, Maat, Mary, Minerva, Ostare, Persephone, Venus, and Vesta. Some historians of religion would add Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ (c. 6 bce–c. 30 ce), to this list because Mary has been venerated, or highly respected, by many Christians throughout history. In modern times the feminist movement has renewed interest in Goddess worship. Feminists want equal rights and treatment for women. They believe that Western culture and civilization have for too long been dominated by masculine principles, characteristics associated with men, such as aggression. Feminism and Goddess worship restore a balance by placing greater emphasis on feminine principles.

Many anthropologists (scholars who study human cultures and behavior) and archaeologists believe that the earliest humans may have worshipped goddesses more often than they worshipped gods. They believe that early people did not have a good understanding of men's role in procreation (reproducing; having children). While these tribal peoples worshipped male gods, such as those associated with hunting, they also worshipped female gods associated with birth, fertility, and procreation. To ensure that the tribe survived, these people may have believed that the goddesses required their worship in exchange for children (as well as the birth of wild and domesticated animals and the emergence of new crops in the spring). Many of these earliest cultures were matrilineal, meaning that the family tree was traced through the mother's, rather than the father's, ancestors.

Adaption and absorption of Goddess worship

Goddess worshippers and feminists believe that monotheistic religions (those that believe in one God), such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, suppressed feminine values and elevated masculine ones. Gods, kings, priests, and fathers grew in importance at the expense of goddesses, queens, priestesses, and mothers. In some branches of Judaism and Christianity, for instance, women are not allowed to serve as priests. The merger of masculine and feminine in time gave rise to a number of pagan religions in Europe, religions that absorbed the new male gods but continued to include goddesses.

The modern world has reinvented some of these religions. Modern believers in these movements value the balance between masculine and feminine that such religions provide or they value the promotion of feminine deities over masculine ones. In elevating goddesses, neo-pagans tend to see the Goddess in three aspects, represented by the waxing moon, the full moon, and the waning moon. The waxing (or growing) moon is the Goddess in her youth and vitality. She is the Maiden whose sexuality is just emerging. The Mother, represented by the full moon, symbolizes nurturing, procreation, and feminine power. The Crone, represented by the waning moon, symbolizes wisdom and experience. It is the Crone who guides humans toward death and the afterlife.


Wicca is one of the most prominent neo-pagan religions, and one that elevates the Goddess to a stature equal to that of the God. It is a form of modern witchcraft. Not all people who call themselves witches are Wiccans. The word witchcraft causes confusion because in the Judeo-Christian tradition, witchcraft is usually associated with Satan. Over the past two thousand years the Christian church has persecuted many people for witchcraft and for practicing "black arts."

Modern practitioners of witchcraft, though, strongly deny that they worship evil or engage in strange practices. They maintain that witchcraft as practiced by Wiccans and other groups sees the divine in the natural world, including the cycle of the seasons and the phases of the Moon. Most such groups have a strict code of behavior based on not doing harm to others. Wiccans also obey the Law of Threefold Return, meaning that anything one does, such as a good deed (or a bad deed) will return to them threefold (multiplied by three).

The emergence of Wicca as a modern religious movement can be traced to the 1950s in England and the efforts of a British civil servant and amateur anthropologist named Gerald Gardner (1884–1964). Gardner wrote extensively on witchcraft in two widely read books, Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft. Practitioners of Wicca as Gardner described it are often referred to as Gardnerian Wiccans. Considerable controversy has surrounded Gardner and his writings. He claimed that the religion had been revealed to him by a woman named Dorothy Clut-terbuck, a well-known local witch in England. Later students of Wicca have disputed this claim, arguing that Gardner formulated the religion on the basis of nineteenth-century occult practices combined with elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and his own imagination. Some Wiccans credited Gardner with keeping the ancient religion alive. Others accused him of revealing secret wisdom that should have been kept secret among initiates into the religion.

Magic in Wicca

It's common knowledge even among the masses that Witches practice magic. They may have misguided ideas concerning the type of magic performed, but the Witch is firmly linked in popular thought with the magical arts.

Wicca is … a religion that embraces magic as one of its basic concepts. This isn't unusual. In fact, it's often difficult to discern [determine] where religion ends and magic begins in any faith.

Still, magic plays a special role in Wicca. It allows us to improve our lives and return energy to our ravaged [damaged] planet. Wiccans also develop special relationships with the Goddess and God through magic…. Through working with the powers which the God and the Goddess embody [represent], we grow close to them. Calling upon their names and visualizing their presence during spells and rites creates a bond between Deity and human. Thus, in Wicca, magic is a religious practice….

Magic is the projection of natural energies to produce needed effects.

There are three main sources of this energy—personal power, Earth power and divine power.

Personal power is the life force that sustains our earthly existences. It powers our bodies. We absorb energy from the Moon and Sun, from water and food. We release it during movement, exercise, sex and childbirth. Even exhaling releases some power, though we recoup [get back] the loss through inhaling….

Earth power is that which resides within our planet and in its natural products. Stones, trees, wind, flames, water, crystals and scents all possess unique, specific powers which can be used during magical ritual….

Both person power and Earth power are manifestations [expressions] of divine power. This is the energy that exists within the Goddess and God—the life force, the source of universal power which created everything in existence.

Wiccans invoke [call upon] the Goddess and God to bless their magic with power. During ritual they may direct personal power to the deities, asking that a specific need be met. This is truly religious magic.

And so, magic is a process in which Wiccans work in harmony with the universal power source which we envision as the Goddess and God, as well as with personal and Earth energies, to improve our lives and lend energy to the Earth.

Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for The Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1999: pages 19-20.

Wiccan beliefs and practices

In 1974 a number of Wiccans gathered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they drafted a statement containing the principles of Wiccan belief. The following list summarizes some of the most important principles.

Wiccans practice rites attuned to the "natural rhythm of life forces." Its rituals follow both the astronomical year, marked by the movement of the Sun, and the waxing and waning of the Moon.

Because they believe that the divine manifests itself in all creation, Wiccans advocate responsibility toward the environment. Many are involved with environmental protection activities and oppose destruction of the natural world.

Wiccans believe that a great depth of power exists in the world that is not noticeable to the average person. Although Wiccans take part in formal rituals, they regard the natural world, such as the blossom of a flower or a fertile field, as having the power to instill feelings of awe and mystery.

A key belief of Wiccans has to do with the nature of the divine. Wicca is a duotheistic religion (a religion of two gods) that emphasizes the creative power of both the masculine and the feminine deities. The (usually unnamed) Goddess is the mother, the source of fertility, abundance, love, and growth. Her chief symbol is the Moon. Her other symbols include the cup, flowers, mirrors, sea-shells, and jewels. The God is associated with the hunt and is regarded as the source of all life. His symbols include not only the life-giving Sun but also the sword, horns, the spear, the knife, the magic wand, the arrow, the sickle, and precious metals. Note that these symbols have marked sexual connotations, suggesting the merger of male and female into one to create and affirm life. One branch of Wicca, however, called Dianic Wicca after the Roman goddess Diana, places nearly all of its emphasis on the Goddess.

Wiccans do not recognize a hierarchy of authority, or chain of command. Every practitioner can be his or her own priest or priestess, performing rituals without the assistance of a class of specialists. When they do participate with groups, Wiccans believe that the ideal size of a coven is thirteen members. When a coven grows larger than thirteen, it splits, or "hives," into two or more covens. The covens remain associated as a larger unit called a grove.

Wiccans have the freedom to develop a number of ritual practices. They start by accumulating ritual tools, which serve the same purpose as ritual objects in other religions. They focus and guide the worshipper's thoughts and energies. These tools are used in rituals conducted on altars positioned within a sacred circle. Some common Wiccan tools include:

The broom, typically used at the beginning of rituals to both physically and spiritually cleanse the place where rituals will be conducted. At Wiccan weddings, called handfastings, the newly married couple often leaps over the broom. The broom has become a stereotype of witchcraft, but it is a stereotype based on an element of fact.

The magic wand, which can be made of any material, gives the worshipper a sense of energy and power.

The censer, or incense burner, and the incense burned in it represent the element of air. Watching the smoke curl into the air can sometimes create a trancelike state.

The cauldron is seen as a vessel in which magical transformations take place. It is a clear symbol of the Goddess, representing fertility and femininity, and a symbol of water, inspiration, and reincarnation. During springtime rituals it is often filled with flowers and water. In wintertime rituals fires are built within the cauldron to symbolize the heat and light of the Sun. Related to the cauldron is the cup, which contains beverages drunk during rituals.

The crystal sphere is used in divination (predicting the future) and promotes contemplation. As a sphere, it is symbolic of the Goddess.

The bell is a feminine symbol used to invoke, or call, the Goddess during rituals.

The Book of Shadows is the closest thing that Wicca has to a sacred scripture, though it is more in the nature of a workbook or manual. Each Book of Shadows is compiled by the individual practitioner, but such books are often passed from Wiccan to Wiccan. They contain not rules but suggestions about Wiccan practice, including invocations and rituals.

The pentacle is one of the most visible symbols of Wicca. It consists of a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a Satanic symbol. Rather, the star's geometric shape symbolizes wisdom and balance, while the circle symbolizes unity and eternity.

The Wiccan calendar is quite similar to that of other neo-pagan religions, especially druidism. It follows the cycles of the Moon, the Sun, and the natural world. Wiccans celebrate thirteen Esbats, or full Moons, each year. Wiccans also mark a number of days called Sabbats throughout the cycle of the year. Four Sabbats mark the beginning of seasons, and four more occur about midway between the seasonal days. The cycle begins with Yule, the shortest day of the year and the start of winter, when Wiccans ask the Sun to return. Imbolc, on February 2, marks the lengthening of the days and the emergence of the world from winter. It is a time when many people are ritually initiated into covens. Ostara, around March 21, is the spring equinox, when light overtakes darkness (at the moment of the equinox, the hours of day and night are precisely equal). This observance marks the beginning of spring, of planting, and of reproduction.

Duality in Religion

Male and female representations can be found in all religions. For instance, the Prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatima plays an important role in the early development of Islam, just as Mary, the mother of Christiantiy's founder Jesus Christ, has a special place in Christianity. Additionally, there are many female goddesses that are worshipped in Hinduism. In some religions, the male and female elements make up a central belief or understanding about the religion. This is the case both for some neo-pagan religions, such as Wicca, and for faiths like Daoism.

Neo-pagans may believe in one Supreme Being or in many gods and goddesses. One of the central teachings of many neo-pagan religions is that the divine is a part of all things. Some worship both the God and the Goddess, a duality of male and feminine aspects. The male aspects are represented by certain characteristics, such as power, ripe harvests, and wild animals. Female aspects are represented by other characteristics, such as fertility, wisdom, and love. The Goddess in Wicca, for example, is associated with the Moon, while the God is associated with the Sun.

The same is true in the religion of Daoism. Male and female forces are represented by yin and yang. Yin is the feminine. It is dark, open, flexible, and soft. Yang is the male. It is light and controlling, hard, unbending. These characteristics are opposites of each other, yet each are needed to create a balance in existence. The Daoist depiction of yin and yang is of two halves of a circle. One half is white and one is black. Each of the sides are curling into the other and each contain a speck of the other.

Yin and yang work in harmony, or agreement, together. Dark and light, or female and male, are constantly adjusted between the two to keep these elements in balance. One does not operate without the other. Similarly, Wicca considers its dual aspects of the God and the Goddess to be equal and part of one whole. Both religions believe that the divine, whether it is God, Goddess, or Dao, is present in all things at all times.

The next Sabbat is Beltane (or Beltaine) on April 30. By now spring is well under way. Beltane marks the return of vitality and passion into the world, a process that continues through the summer solstice, around June 21. During this period the world has been filled with the creative power of the God and Goddess, concluding on August 1 with Lughnasadh, the harvest festival. On about September 21, Wiccans celebrate the Mabon, the autumn equinox, and the completion of the harvest season. Again, the hours of day and night are equal, but at this point in the cycle darkness is overtaking the light. Finally, at Samhain, on October 31, Wiccans bid the Sun goodbye and engage in a period of reflection about the past year. With the new Yule, the cycle begins again.

Neo-pagan observances: Samhain and Halloween

Halloween as celebrated in the United States is a blend of Christian and pagan traditions. The word itself refers to the evening of the day preceding All Hallows' Day, or All Saints Day as it is commonly called, a Christian feast first celebrated by the Catholic Church in the seventh century. (The word hallow means "holy.")

In addition to these Christian roots, Halloween also has deep roots in Celtic pagan practices. Modern Halloween corresponds with the pagan/Wiccan holiday of Samhain (often spelled Samhuinn and pronounced "sow-in"). Samhain marks the beginning of the cold season, just as Beltane six months earlier marks the beginning of the warm season. Samhain is particularly important to pagans for at least two reasons. One is that it was believed that at Samhain the boundary dividing this world from the next was the thinnest. They saw this season as a time when a "crack" opened between the two worlds and it was possible to make contact with ancestors, who could return and share their wisdom with the living.

Samhain was also important because it was believed that during the Samhain season it was possible to foretell the future. This emphasis on being able to see into the future was important to people living in the extreme cold of the north, where life promised to be uncertain during the cold months of a long winter. Of particular concern was whether food supplies for both humans and domesticated animals would last until the following spring or summer.

Modern neo-pagans such as Wiccans have attempted to recreate the observances surrounding Samhain as accurately as possible. Ceremonies typically begin with a ritual bath. Wiccans then consecrate ("cast") a sacred circle in which rituals are conducted. The altar within the circle is decorated with gourds, pumpkins, pine cones, and autumn flowers. Rituals are performed to foretell the future and to make contact with ancestral loved ones. After participants have shared food, such as cakes and wine or cider, the sacred circle is "banished" (or "grounded"), and the ritual ends.

Neo-paganism in the modern world

Neo-pagans acknowledge that as more people have become familiar with their religious beliefs, discrimination and incidents of outright persecution (mistreatment) have sharply reduced. In 1984 a district court in Virginia ruled that Wicca was a legally protected religion, a ruling that was affirmed in 1985 by a Federal Court of Appeals. Nonetheless, neo-pagans are still often ridiculed. The term "fluffy bunny" has entered the language to refer to members of neo-pagan religious groups. It suggests a belief that neo-pagans emphasize emotion and the more soothing, uplifting aspects of religion. Many neo-pagans refer to themselves as "fluffy bunnies" as a tongue-in-cheek way to acknowledge this perception and to persuade other neo-pagans not to take themselves too seriously.

In the view of many people, neo-paganism is not a serious religion but rather a form of "feel-good" social protest, especially among the young. According to this view, people adopt neo-pagan beliefs as a way of rejecting the values of modern technological society. The beliefs of neo-pagan religions, however, have endured through ancient times and retain their appeal. Neo-paganism continues to attract believers around the world in the twenty-first century.

For More Information


Grimassi, Raven. Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

Higginbotham, Joyce. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-centered Religions. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.

O'Hara, Gwydion. Pagan Ways: Finding the Spirituality in Nature. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.

Pennick, Nigel. The Pagan Book of Days: A Guide to the Festivals, Traditions, and Sacred Days of the Year, 2nd ed. Rochester, VT.: Destiny Books, 2001.


Junker, Karen. "Druids." Religious Movements Homepage. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"A Pagan Primer." (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Robinson, B. A. "Neo-Pagan—Pagan Religious Traditions." Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Robinson, B. A. "Wicca: A Neo-Pagan, Earth-Centered Religion." Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. (accessed on June 5, 2006).


views updated May 21 2018


NEOPAGANISM . The term Neopagan covers a wide variety of traditions that include re-creations of ancient Celtic Druidism (a British organization of sun worshippers who gathered in sacred groves), Wicca or Witchcraft, ceremonial magic, and neoshamanism (revivals of ecstatic journeys into the spirit world in indigenous and pre-Christian cultures). Neopaganism's historical origins lie in nineteenth-century religious movements such as Theosophy, folk practices such as tarot and astrology, studies in folklore and anthropology, the theatrical rituals of an Edwardian occult group called the Order of the Golden Dawn, and the countercultural milieu of North America in the 1960s. Neopagans' images of god and goddess emerged from nineteenth-century British folklore and literature and were influenced by the armchair anthropology of scholars like Sir James Frazer (18541941), author of the sweeping Golden Bough (1890), and the mythology of Robert Graves (18951985), author of The White Goddess (1948). In Europe, contemporary pagan organizations usually claim a lineage that is ancient and unbroken, often tied to nationalism and ethnic pride. American, Canadian, British, and Australian "Neopagan" communities differ in that they have been influenced by feminist and environmentalist movements and are self-conscious revivals created to be egalitarian and individualistic.


Neopagans tend to emphasize newness, creativity, imagination, and invention over tradition, creed, established doctrine, and institutionalized religion, but they also claim ancient traditions as their heritage. Neopaganism did not emerge directly from ancient pagan cultures, even though a few Neopagans would argue that their religion descended through the centuries from a pre-Christian goddess religion. According to scholarly consensus, there is no direct lineage from ancient goddess cultures to Neopaganism. Contemporary Pagans (pagan was originally a term that referred to non-Christians or country dwellers) are "neo" in the sense that they are revising and updating what they can learn from ancient traditions to meet the needs of modern people. They believe that, in some aspects of life, ancient cultures have much to teach contemporary people, such as respect for the earth and maintaining a balance between humans and nature. They search for alternatives to the gods they were raised with by looking to Asian and Native American religions, and they claim that spiritual beings from other cultures are more accessible to humans than the Western monotheistic god.

The various forms of Neopaganism share a desire to revive ancient pre-Christian nature religions. In the process of creating new religions in the cast of old ones, Neopagans borrow from Native American and other available religious cultures. They tend to be tolerant of eclectic uses of other cultures' myths and traditions, but borrowing from Native American religions has been more controversial. Some Neopagans, for instance, argue that "white people" should only borrow myths and deities from their "own" cultural heritage, such as Witchcraft or ancient Druidism of the British Isles. Druids, for instance, often learn ancient Celtic languages and focus on their roles as caretakers of the woods. Neopagans who are intrigued by specific ancient cultures look to Tibetan, Greek, West African, Roman, and Egyptian pantheons. They find ritual texts, usually in translation, and fashion their rituals after mythological stories, such as the descent of the goddess Persephone into the underworld. Neopagans dressed as Aphrodite and Dionysos put in appearances at Neopagan festivals, and festival rituals encourage participants to explore divine archetypes from ancient pantheons of deities.

Witches, or "Wiccans," form the largest religious culture under the Neopagan umbrella and include, at one extreme, separatist feminist Witches who worship a great goddess in women-only covens, and at the other, traditional Gardnerian Witches who worship a god and a goddess together, claim to have the oldest lineage, and pass down their rituals from teachers to students who are instructed to perform them in exactly the same way. Gardnerian rituals emphasize the dual nature of divinity in the form of a paired god and goddess. An increasingly common kind of Witch is the man or woman who is an "eclectic Witch" or "Wiccan" and borrows from British traditional Witchcraft as well as from a variety of other religious cultures. Witches are sometimes trained and initiated through covens, but they are also self-taught or guided by correspondence courses and books, like Raymond Buckland's (1934) Complete Book of Witchcraft (1986), which includes lists of ritual tools, directions for how to make ritual robes, simple explanations of Witchcraft's moral principles, and guidelines for basic rituals. Do-it-yourself Witchcraft has to some extent replaced traditional covens that included several levels of initiation. Another popular Neopagan title derived from traditional Wiccan teachings is the feminist Witch Starhawk's The Spiral Dance (1979), which encourages individuals to tailor their rituals to suit personal needs and preferences and includes sections on herbal charms, chants, blessings, spells, and myths.

Witches have only a few beliefs that almost all of them adhere to, and these include "The Witches Rede: An it harm none, do what you will" and "The Law of Threefold Effect," the belief that any action a person commits will return to that person threefold. These beliefs, or similar versions of them, are also held by other Neopagans, such as ceremonial magicians and Druids, who share Witchcraft's or Wicca's origins in early twentieth-century British magical groups.

Ceremonial magicians, another important community of Neopagans, are more likely to turn to late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century occultists for inspiration, especially the writings of the British occultist Aleister Crowley (18751947) and the Order of the Golden Dawn (started in 1888), which included the Irish writer William Butler Yeats (18651939) among its members. Ceremonial magic also draws heavily on Qabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Ceremonial magicians may blend these traditions with their own interests in religious cultures as diverse as Haitian vodou and Tibetan Buddhism, while others stay within the bounds of organizations like the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), which Crowley joined in 1912 and which involves lengthy study and specific rites of initiation. Where ceremonial magicians emphasize their Golden Dawn heritage, Witches identify with the work of the English civil servant Gerald Gardner (18841964), whose novel, High Magic's Aid (1949), and pseudo-anthropological study of a coven, Witchcraft Today (1954), are founding documents for contemporary Witchcraft that have influenced many other Neopagans as well.

Although organizations like the OTO and Gardnerian Witchcraft offer structured guidelines for their members and levels of initiation based on the secret societies of the Freemasons, many Neopagans choose to create their own spiritual practice by drawing on information from a rich array of teachers and traditions. Hierarchical structures were common in the earliest Neopagan groups and still characterize some contemporary Neopagan communities, but by the twenty-first century many ritual groups had become more loosely structured and egalitarian. Elders are still acknowledged for their wisdom and experience but not viewed as all-powerful. One of the ways in which American Neopagans adapt religious traditions of the past and other cultures is to make them more democratic and inclusive, and this is particularly evident in the new rituals they create.


Ritual is the touchstone of Neopagan religious identity and community. Neopagans honor the cycles of nature with rituals at new and full moons and on eight seasonal festivals, including the solstices and equinoxes. Regular rituals are often held in small groups for any number of purposes, including healing and personal spiritual growth. Rituals are usually held in circles and are facilitated by ritual leaders, who explain the purpose of the ritual, invite deities or spirits to be present, monitor the group's energy, and end the ritual in such a way that everyone returns to a normal state of consciousness. Ritual spaces are generally oriented in relation to the four cardinal directions and feature altars that hold statues of deities and symbols of water, air, fire, and earth. Neopagans also periodically hold rituals to mark life passages, including death rites, baby blessings, and marriage vows. Rituals and festivals held as seasonal celebrations include retellings of ancient myths, theater, ritual performances, music, feasting, and storytelling.

Because of their interest in bringing back the past, Neopagans perform Egyptian rites based on ancient texts, dress like Renaissance mages, and engage in Yoruba divination, replicating the original as best they can. In 1993 large numbers of Neopagans attended a festival in Nashville, Tennessee, to honor the goddess Athena, whose statue there is the largest indoor statue in the Western world (according to a report in the Neopagan magazine Green Egg). The reconstructed ancient Greek games included a ritual to pay tribute to Athena. Rites of Spring, a Neopagan gathering that is held annually in western Massachusetts, hosts a "Medieval Feast," during which medieval music is played and festivalgoers are served by "wenches" dressed in period costumes. Some men and women have become Neopagans as a result of their interest in historical reenactment and are involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a medieval reenactment society. Historical re-creation and science fiction, especially Robert Heinlein's (19071988) Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), contribute to the colorful aesthetics of Neopagan rituals and gatherings.

Connection to Nature

Because of their close identification of deity with nature, Neopagans often travel from cities and towns to worship in the woods and to establish nature sanctuaries to honor their gods. Several Neopagan organizations have established retreats and sanctuaries, where stone altars and ritual circles are constructed in the woods to facilitate interactions between Neopagans and the natural world. Circle Sanctuary in southwestern Wisconsin is a prominent Neopagan organization that in the 1980s bought land specifically set aside for the enjoyment of the Neopagan community as a retreat and sanctuary from the outside world. Gatherings and other ritual events held at the sanctuary include caring for the land, planting flowers, and learning about local edible plants and the healing properties of herbs. Lothlorien in southern Indiana was also established as a Neopagan retreat and, like Circle, is open to people of all faiths as long as they are tolerant of others. Named after the novelist J. R. R. Tolkien's land of the elves, the Neopagan Lothlorien is envisioned as a magical place, where spiritual beings are free to roam, and it is accessible to humans who treat the land properly. Nature sanctuaries are one way that Neopagans put their religious ideas into practice, because these sites are set up to facilitate ongoing relationships among humans, spiritual beings, and nature.


Neopagans create rituals and establish nature sanctuaries to provide what they see as much-needed alternatives to other available religious options. They believe their special role is not to maintain tradition, though there may be some who try to do this, but rather to change self and society. They practice "magic" with the understanding that it means changing consciousness in accordance with will, thus taking charge of their lives instead of relying on institutional religions. Because they begin with the assumption that the self is sacred or divine, Neopagans place the responsibility for change with each individual. Even when social and political structures are seen to need changing, the self and not the institution is the agent and locus of change.

Many Neopagans see the self as flawed and the world in which they live as desperately in need of transformation, but their approaches to cultural change vary. According to some Neopagan authors, destructive ways of relating to each other, ongoing interpersonal and global violence, and environmental devastation are some of the ills that need to be addressed as personal healing takes place. That said, it is important to point out that such beliefs do not necessarily lead to social and political activism in Neopagan communities. Neopagans participate in a range of activist activities. On one end of the spectrum is the entirely private pursuit of transformation, in which one consults information in books and on the Internet for guidance. At the other end is involvement with public protest actions, such as the Neopagans who marched as a "living river" at the World Bank meeting protests in Ottawa in 2001 and a group of Witches that gave an "earth-based blessing" when they joined other religious groups at the School of Americas Protest in Columbus, Georgia, that same month. Some Neopagans publicly challenge the American status quo, while others focus inward on personal changes. In contrast, some Neopagans are not pacifists or countercultural activists but instead feel comfortable serving in the military.

Regardless of their political preferences, Neopagans generally have a tendency to privilege internal over external authority and experience over belief. They focus on self-exploration as the best route to truth and knowledge. The explosion of information available on the Internet and in bookstores makes it seem unnecessary to rely on religious elders, though they are still sought out for their ritual experience, charismatic presence, and detailed knowledge of specific traditions. The process of self-exploration through techniques that shift one's consciousness, such as meditation and visualization, is similar across the diverse forms of Neopaganism. Neopagan religious practices are flexible and can be personalized to fit individual needs. This is in part because of how Neopagans understand the relationship between human and divine. Starhawk, for example, teaches that the goddess who guides human beings dwells in the earth and in the world all around. According to her view, the goddess looks at "each of us unique and natural as a snowflake, each of us her own star, her Child, her lover, her beloved, her Self" (Starhawk, 1979, p. 29). This belief, commonly echoed by other Neopagans, is that the self has all the necessary resources for spiritual advancement and that the divine is within as well as without. It is this view that, in part, accounts for the diversity of religious identities among Neopagans.

Neopagan beliefs and practices highlight the centrality of the relationship between humans and nature. An important element of Neopagan theology is the belief in immanence, the idea that divinity permeates the world and runs through other humans, the earth, and all living beings. For some Neopagans, divine power is personified by a great goddess or the planet Gaia, and for others divinity is polytheisticassorted deities are available to help and teach humans. They may be seen as spirits or gods and goddesses representing the forces of nature or anthropomorphized into archetypes that represent particular aspects of human personality, such as the "wild man" or the "trickster." Neopagans are likely to reject monotheistic understandings of deity, except for those who worship one great goddess or remain nominally Christian or Jewish and believe in one god. Deities are typically identified with forces of naturethe earth goddess Gaia is one exampleand the four elementsearth, air, water, and fireare almost always invoked in Neopagan rituals. Another popular Neopagan deity is the god Pan, who emerged as an archetype in mid-twentieth-century Britain and was incorporated into the magical subculture in the form of a "horned god," paired with a goddess derived from Artemis and other Greek deities. Many Neopagans continue to interact with the god and goddess, while others have returned to Pan in his Greek form. Morning Glory Zell, a Neopagan elder and representative of the Church of All Worlds, explains in her article "Pan" that "our word pantheism is derived from that idea, that all Nature is God and that God is all Nature" (Zell, 1994, p. 13).

Neopagans enjoy intimate and highly personalized relationships with spiritual beings. They frequently make contact with the spirit world or another level of reality and communicate with deities through home altars and group rituals. Spiritual beings are approached for help with everyday concerns, like finding jobs and lovers, as well as more generally for spiritual growth and global healing. Neopagans assert that their spirituality is based on experience and a direct relationship with deities. Images of deities are gateways to an experience of other realities, and meditating on them is meant to transport the meditator into another state of consciousness or onto the "astral" plane, an unseen dimension of reality. Because Neopaganism is decentralized and has no founding text or teacher, participants vary greatly in how they understand their interactions with the gods and spirits. Spiritual beings can be images that "take you someplace" or friendly guides leading seekers on spiritual journeys, but what they have in common is being accessible to humans rather than distant.

The Internet has played an important role in popularizing Neopagan traditions and making them accessible to seekers everywhere. Websites for Neopagan organizations abound and are designed to guide the uninitiated to information on the strange religion they heard about in the news. The website of the Covenant of the Goddess, a national ecumenical Neopagan organization, includes resources for teenagers, families, and solitary practitioners as well as schedules of events taking place throughout the country. Websites for Neopagan communities like Circle Sanctuary and the Church of All Worlds have similar content, with the addition of resources on religious freedom and religious persecution, such as Circle's Lady Liberty League. Neopagan Internet discussions have been in existence since the early 1990s, a reflection of the disproportionate technoliteracy among Neopagans. Such groups remain one of the important ways that Neopagans, especially young Neopagans, stay in contact with others who share their spiritual concerns.

Most Neopagans believe in reincarnation (rebirththe continuity of the soul through many lives) and karma (derived from the Hindu belief that the condition to which each soul is reborn is the result of good or bad actions performed in previous lives), and they look to past lives to help them understand the present. In order to heal wounds from the past and past lives and to live more fully in the present, some Neopagans engage in holistic healing practices, such as herbal therapies, aura cleansing, psychic healing, and massage and other types of body work. Healing practices tend to be focused on cleansing and purifying the self and healing old and new physical and emotional wounds. The goal of these practices is to usher in a more peaceful, tolerant, healthy, and spiritually enlightened society. They consult astrologers and tarot cards, the I ching (a type of Chinese divination), and other divinatory techniques for guidance in life choices and to further self-knowledge. They appropriate the spiritual riches of other religious cultures, including Tibetan, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Egyptian, Native-American, and even some Christian beliefs and practices. They put statuettes of the Buddha or Hindu and Egyptian deities on their home altars alongside pentacles, candles, crystals, and goddess figurines. In these ways Neopagans attempt to synthesize new religious identities from the old and the new, drawing from tradition as well as the imagination.

See Also



Adler, Margot. Drawing down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today (1979). Boston, 1986. The National Public Radio reporter's journalistic account of a wide variety of Neopagan organizations. A general introduction to people, organizations, and central issues of belief and practice in Neopaganism

Buckland, Raymond. Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul, Minn., 1986. A how- to book for Witches and Neopagans by one of the important founders of Witchcraft in the United States. The book includes directions for setting up altars, making ritual tools, and conducting ritual practices.

Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. London, 1954. A founding document for contemporary Witchcraft that describes Gardner's knowledge of a folk religion of the English countryside that venerated nature and worshipped a god and a goddess.

Griffin, Wendy, ed. Daughters of the Goddess: Studies of Healing, Identity, and Empowerment. Walnut Creek, Calif., 2000. This edited volume includes essays by both scholars and participants on a variety of Neopagan and feminist spiritual practices.

Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York, 1997. A scholarly overview of Neopagan beliefs and practices with a focus on Neopaganism in Great Britain.

Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford, and New York, 1999. An exhaustive history of the origins, leading figures, beliefs, and practices of Neopaganism from 1800 to the late 1990s.

Luhrmann, T. M. Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, Mass., 1989. A psychological anthropologist reports on her experiences as a participant-observer with an emphasis on psychological explanations for magical beliefs.

Magliocco, Sabina. Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole. Jackson, Miss., 2001. In this book the folklorist Magliocco describes the role of the arts in Neopagan ritual life and showcases photographs of a wide range of Neopagan altars and artwork.

Pike, Sarah M. Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community. Berkeley, Calif., 2001. An ethnography of Neopagan rituals and festivals, including discussion of rituals, self-identity, sacred space, and conflicts between Neopagans and other religious cultures.

Salomonsen, Jone. Enchanted Feminism: Ritual, Gender, and Divinity among the Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. London and New York, 2002. The Norwegian theologian Salomonsen focuses on the theology, feminist ideals, and ritual life of one important Neopagan organization.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco, 1979. A description of the basic beliefs and practices of a feminist version of Witchcraft by the Neopagan leader and social activist Starhawk. One of the first Neopagan books to achieve widespread popularity and to function as a kind of sacred text for many women and men discovering Neopaganism for the first time.

Zell, Morning Glory. "Pan." Green Egg 27 (1994): 1213. An essay by one of the leaders of the Neopagan organization the Church of All Worlds that explores the deep connection Neopagans feel between divinity and nature.

Sarah M. Pike (2005)


views updated Jun 27 2018


As a result of the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual rationalism (reasoning) that started in seventeenth-century Europe and came to the United States in the eighteenth century, (see Chapter 5), cultural, social, economic, and technological changes continued to push fears of witches into the background. Nevertheless, belief in witchcraft still flourished, particularly among peasant societies in isolated areas of Europe. In the nineteenth century an organized revival of witchcraft, called Wicca, took place in Britain among the Romantics, a social and literary group that rejected the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and tried to recapture a closeness to nature. ("Wicca" is a term for "witch" that has been traced to Germanic words like wik, meaning "to bend," or Old English words such as wiccian, meaning "to cast spells," and witan, or "wise person.") In the early 1900s the British Order of the Druids, who claimed to have roots in pre-Christian Ireland, became one of the first formal movements to declare a revival of witchcraft. According to some scholars, however, the druids of Ireland had actually been teachers and wise men, not witches who engaged in the practice of magic.

British writers Margaret Murray, Robert Graves, and Gerald B. Gardner also helped renew interest in ancient religions and witchcraft. Murray was an Egyptologist (an archaeologist who studies ancient Egypt) who, in the 1920s, wrote extensively about such practices as goddess worship and introduced the concept of the coven, or group of witches (see box on p. 84). Graves was a novelist and poet who based his work on mythology (the study of traditional stories and myths). In 1947 he wrote The White Goddess, an anthropological and mythological study of the ancient mother goddess who ruled the moon and controlled fertility (the ability of humans, animals, and plants to produce offspring). Graves claimed that poetry originated from the ritual worship of the White Goddess in ancient societies. Whereas Murray and Graves conducted research and wrote books, Gardner set out to revive the actual practice of witchcraft after becoming inspired by Murray's theories (see box). He claimed to have discovered a surviving witches' coven based on an ancient lineage (line of family descendants) that Murray charted in The Witch-Cult in Europe (1921). When anti-witchcraft laws of 1735 were repealed by the British Parliament in 1951, Gardner openly declared himself a witch and started teaching his ideas to an ever-increasing number of students. In 1962 two of his followers, Raymond and Rosemary Buckland, went to the United States to teach "Gardnerian witchcraft." The Gardnerians were instrumental in initiating Neo-Paganism ("neo," meaning new and "paganism," the belief in a higher power other than God), which spread throughout North America, Great Britain, and Scandinavia.

Words to Know

study of people and societies
a group of witches
the measurement around a circle
a landmark court decision is a decision that changes the way things are done, or changes the way a law is written
a person interested in reviving paganism
priest or priestess:
spiritual leader
another way of seeing or examining something
to become popular again
witch; also, a formal Neo-Pagan religion

Neo-Paganism recognized as religion

By the 1970s numerous covens and spiritual groups were independently reviving rituals and beliefs based on ancient documents or reinterpretations of myths. Many Neo-Paganists called themselves Wiccans. In 1975 the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) was formed to incorporate hundreds of separate Wiccan covens and was officially recognized as a church in the United States. The CoG is the largest Wiccan organization, representing a variety of belief systems and practices. Its acceptance by official organizations such as the Internal Revenue Service helped to integrate Wiccans into mainstream American society. At the end of the twentieth century Wicca was the eighth largest religion in the United States, ranking with Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and other established faiths. This fact is not generally known because many Wiccans observe their rituals in small groups, or even in secret, fearing that they will be attacked as Satan worshipers. Although Wicca and witchcraft are often used interchangeably, the two terms have different meanings. Wicca is a formal Neo-Pagan religion, whereas witchcraft is the practice of black magic (casting evil spells), which is not used by Wiccans (see Chapter 1). The Neo-Paganists' refusal to form an open, structured religion, however, has created a sense of mystery around Wiccan groups.

Margaret Murray Influences Neo-Paganism

British Egyptologist Margaret Murray originated the notion that a large pagan underground in Europe and North America had survived extermination during the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century. In the 1920s Murray became intrigued by similarities she discovered between ancient documents and writings about paganism in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (sixteenth century). She based her theory on connections between the pre-Christian horned god of fertility and the Christian concept of the devil. She wrote in the introduction of Gerald B. Gardner's book Witchcraft Today:

I worked only from contemporary records and when I suddenly realized that the so-called Devil was simply a disguised man I was startled, almost alarmed, by the way the recorded facts fell into place, and showed that the witches were members of an old and primitive form of religion, and that the records had been made by members of a new and persecuting form.

In 1921 Murray wrote The Witch-Cult in Europe, in which she traced the survival of goddess-worshiping people from ancient times through the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages into the twentieth century. In the book she described the coven, a group of twelve witches headed by the devil, which was supposedly a parody of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, and his twelve disciples (followers). According to Murray, each member of the coven specialized in a distinct form of magic, such as controlling agricultural crops, raising storms, or bewitching humans. The coven concept was adopted by Montague Sommers, a famous Roman Catholic witchcraft scholar in the 1920s and 1930s. The Witch-Cult inEurope was generally met with intense criticism and ridicule among Murray's colleagues, however, and her theories remain largely discredited by anthropologists (scientists who study people and societies) and historians. Yet many Neo-Pagan groups call themselves covens, and coven activity became common in the United States and Europe in the 1960s.

Wiccans focus on nature

In an attempt to reunite humans with nature, Neo-Paganists revived the gods and goddesses of ancient religions, such as Mother Earth, Father Sky, the goddess of fertility, and the horned god Pan (see Chapter 1). Wiccans provide the best example of Neo-Pagan practices. Wiccan covens focus on one deity (a god) as a symbolic, unifying force in their rituals; contrary to popular belief, however, Wiccans do not worship the devil, who did not exist before the advent of Christianity (see Chapter 1). The central principle of Wiccan practice is the rede (advice): "An ye harm none, do what ye will"; that is, people are free to act as long as they do not harm others.

Wiccans hold eight primary festivals that are based on the seasons of nature and take place about every forty-five days; these celebrations recall ancient customs dating back thousands of years. The main Wiccan festivals are the winter solstice on December 21, the spring equinox on March 21, and Samhain (Halloween) on October 31—all of them linked to holidays celebrated by other faiths, that have become part of popular culture. Many Wiccans also worship the phases of the moon, ocean tides, and agricultural seasons. Most meet in covens as independent groups headed by a high priestess or priest (spiritual leaders), but all members are given equal status. The traditions and activities of covens vary greatly and allow for flexibility in expression. For instance, some Wiccans adhere to traditional rituals led by a priest or priestess, while others give more freedom to the whole group and rely less upon a leader. Neo-Paganists who do not belong to covens worship independently and may attend special festivals or gatherings several times a year. Many conduct their rituals outdoors, usually in the nude ("sky-clad"), to express their closeness to nature.

A traditional Wiccan ceremony begins with the members of a coven gathering in a circle, usually measuring nine feet in diameter, with candles at four points to show the cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west). An altar consisting of various objects, which represent the energy and power of nature, is located at the center of the circle or at the northern candle point. The ceremony customarily involves lighting the candles and "casting the circle," or creating a "healing" space within the circle of the participants' bodies. Most covens then share a cup of wine, bread, and cookies, and pass special items such as bowls, spoons, incense, and engraved tiles around the circle. The main purpose of the meeting is usually to celebrate a new moon or a holiday, to discuss new ideas, or hold nature-oriented activities. Wiccans observe other rituals, including the act of dedication, in which a person expresses an interest in joining a coven. This is followed by the initiation, in which the person is formally accepted as a Wiccan and takes a Wiccan name. The marriage ceremony is called a "handfasting"; the "parting of ways" ritual marks the end of a marriage. When a baby is born to Wiccan parents, a "Wiccaning" ceremony celebrates the child's entrance into the world; the child is free, however, to choose his or her own faith upon reaching adulthood.

Prejudice and other challenges

The resurgence of Wicca has revived fears and superstitions about witchcraft that have lingered since the witch-hunts of past centuries. Despite greater access to information and education in the modern era, many people believe Wiccans are Satan worshipers, child abusers, and sexual deviants. Frequently encountering harassment and discrimination, Neo-Paganists sought protection through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law states: "To be a bona fide [legally authentic or sincere] religious belief entitled to protection under either the First Amendment [constitutional right to freedom of religion] . . . a belief must be sincerely held and within the believer's own scheme of things religious." Although this part of the act is somewhat vague, it inspired several court decisions that gave official recognition to Wiccans. For example, in 1983 the U.S. District Court of Michigan made a landmark decision when it found that three employees of a prison had violated an inmate's constitutional rights by restricting his ability to perform Wiccan rituals. In its ruling the court stated that the prison employees "deprived [the inmate] of his First Amendmentright to freely exercise his religion and his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws," as quoted by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.

In 1985 the District Court of Virginia declared that Wicca is a legitimate religion protected by the First Amendment, also cited by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance:

Members of the [Wiccan] Church sincerely adhere to a fairly complex set of doctrines relating to the spiritual aspect of their lives, and in doing so they have "ultimate concerns" in much the same way as followers of some more accepted religions. Their ceremonies and leadership structure, their rather elaborate set of articulated doctrine [codified beliefs and teachings], their belief in the concept of another world, and their broad concern for improving the quality of life for others gives them at least some facial similarity to other more widely recognized religions.

A similar decision was made by Judge J. Butzner of the Fourth District Federal Appeals Court in 1986 when he agreed that Wiccan beliefs meet the legal definition of a religion and thus require the protection granted to other faiths. The U.S. Army has also recognized Wicca as a legitimate religion. The U.S. Army chaplain's handbook describes the rituals and customs of Wicca in order to guarantee religious freedom.

Army Wiccan Policy Attacked

In 1999, three hundred years after the resolution of the Salem witch trials, a controversy arose at Fort Hood, Texas, a U.S. Army base known for tolerance of Wiccan soldiers. The controversy started when the press covered a Wiccan vernal equinox celebration in March 1999 and hate mail began flooding into the camp. Wiccans were called "Satan worshipers," and many soldiers were physically assaulted. The following May, a U.S Congressman from Texas tried to amend a defense authorization bill to prohibit the practice of Wicca at any Defense Department facility, but the bill was promptly dismissed on procedural grounds. In June 1999 thirteen conservative religious groups issued a statement in which they urged their members not to pay taxes or let their children enlist in the military because of the army's tolerance of Wicca. Several other conservative religious groups stepped into the debate and defended both the military and the right of Wiccans to practice their beliefs. The American Freedom Institute made a direct connection between the anti-Wicca campaign and the Salem witch trials, decrying the use of the "freedom for me but not for thee" approach of the coalition.

Neo-Panganism and environmentalism

The twentieth century was a time of great resurgence of pagan-inspired faiths throughout North America. Although many observers have described this movement as a revival of ancient tradition mixed with modern practices, others view Neo-Paganism as an entirely new belief system. Much like traditional healers during the Middle Ages (see Chapter 1), however, Neo-Pagan groups are frequently targeted for being different. Yet according to Margot Adler, author of Drawing Down the Moon (1979), a study of Neo-Paganism, they are essentially "Fueled by romantic vision, fantasy, and visionary activities, empowered by a sense of planetary crisis and the idea that such a nature vision may be drowned in an ecocidal nightmare" or ecological destruction. By the 1980s Neo-Paganists were increasingly being identified with other movements such as environmentalism, which attempts to preserve the natural world, and to reestablish the link between humans and nature.

For Further Study

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1986.

Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco, California: Harper, 1999.

Buckland, Ray. Witchcraft From the Inside. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewelynn Publications, 1995.

Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. London: Rider & Co., 1954.

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. (Accessed July 7, 2000).


views updated May 23 2018


Neopaganism is a new religious movement in the United States that had its beginnings in the 1950s but saw its period of greatest growth during the 1970s and 1980s. Reports are mixed, but most observers agree that Neopaganism in the United States is well established and is growing steadily if not rapidly. It is impossible to say how many Americans practice Neopaganism, but most estimates (based on book sales, festival attendance, and the like) range from one hundred thousand to five hundred thousand.

Neopaganism in the United States was initially imported from Britain in the form of Witchcraft. Gerald Gardner, who popularized Witchcraft in England, described it as a pre-Christian, indigenously European religious tradition that had survived through secret teachings handed down along small group or family lines. Gardner himself claimed to have been initiated into Witchcraft in 1939 by an old woman who had received these traditions in an unbroken line dating back at least to the Middle Ages, when presumed witches were tried and executed in large numbers, especially in continental Europe. Goddess worship, group rituals on lunar and solar holidays, and the practice of magic were all key themes in Gardner's version of Witchcraft. From the start, Witchcraft was a fractious religion, and new variants of it kept cropping up and vying for ascendancy. Several found their way in the 1950s and 1960s to the United States, where they were met by various complementary American occult traditions and a burgeoning religious counter-culture that led to a dramatic flowering of Neopaganism. As it developed in the United States, Neopaganism gradually separated itself from its specifically European roots and began to adopt deities and religious practices from religions—especially tribal religions—worldwide.

There are several things that most Neopagans hold in common. First, Neopagans find the divine in the natural world, regarding the divine as radically immanent. For most American Neopagans, this extends to a commitment to environmentalist politics and often to vegetarianism. Second, ritual centers on natural events such as new and full moons, solstices, and equinoxes. Ritual typically involves the "casting of a circle" (an invocation of ritual space through blessings and ritual actions) and the "raising of energy" through drumming and chanting. Third, Neopagans practice magic, sometimes in the context of group ritual, but more often as a home-based religious practice. Most Neopagans have altars in their homes that contain objects from nature (feathers, flowers, stones, shells), images of gods or goddesses, divination tools such as runes or tarot cards, and items of personal importance such as photographs, all of which can be used to invoke magic or to cast spells. Fourth, Neopagans are officially polytheistic, worshiping a huge pantheon of gods and goddesses. However, this is often balanced by the view that all the deities are ultimately one and that this oneness is somehow feminine. Goddess worship and a concomitant use of female leadership in ritual have attracted large numbers of women to Neopaganism, some of whom have adapted it for specifically feminist use.

Neopagans in the United States are mostly antiauthoritarian and antidogmatic, downplaying doctrinal beliefs and formal initiations in favor of spontaneity and invention. This is especially apparent in the move from a Gardnerian-style hereditary Witchcraft—in which it was felt that an ancient body of secret knowledge had traveled relatively unscathed through centuries of official Christendom—to a happy admission that Neopagans are making it up as they go along. Despite the variety, even chaos, that this policy of spontaneous invention engenders, Neopagans are able to come together across their differences for shared ritual and worship. Several umbrella organizations exist, the largest of which is the Covenant of the Goddess. Regional and national festivals are held on an annual basis, and they draw solid and enthusiastic crowds. The ideal among Neopagans is the formation of a coven, a small group of practitioners (some say the optimum number is thirteen) who meet together on all the lunar and solar holidays and assist one another on an ongoing basis with their individual magical practices. However, such groups fall apart about as often as they form, with the result that Neopaganism at the local level is rarely very stable. Many Neopagans describe themselves as "solitaries" whose connection with other Neopagans is limited to reading the same newsletters and journals and attending the same festivals. To date, most Neopagans in America come to the religion as adults, but increasingly Neopagans are raising their children within the religion, creating a new and interesting phenomenon: second-generation Neopaganism.

See alsoAltar; Chanting; Cult; Drumming; Ecofeminism; Ecospirituality; Goddess; Magic; Nature Religion; Occult, the; Pantheon; Ritual; Tarot; Vegetarianism; Wicca.


Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids,Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. 1989.

Eller, Cynthia. Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America. 1993.

Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History ofModern Pagan Witchcraft. Forthcoming.

Kelly, Aidan. "An Update on Neopagan Witchcraft in America." In Perspectives on the New Age, edited by James Lewis. 1993.

Cynthia Eller


views updated Jun 08 2018

Neo-Paganism. A variety of witchcraft and other movements such as the Pagan Pathfinders that have emerged in recent times to revive and spread what is called the pagan way of being, to protect pagan sacred places and more generally Mother Earth.