The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to renewed interest in western matriarchal religious traditions that had long been suppressed by mainstream monotheism in northern Europe and the Mediterranean. During the medieval period and beyond, the ancient goddess-based religious traditions of Scandinavia, the Baltic region, the British Isles, central Europe, Egypt, and the Balkans were replaced by patriarchal Christian and Muslim authorities bent on the violent repression of cultural and religious minorities. Women who practiced the healing and earth-based rituals and arts of the “old religion” were persecuted as “witches.” Hundreds of thousands were ostracized, imprisoned, or murdered over several centuries in what became known as “the Burning Times.”
When Christianity was legalized by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century C.E., any Roman citizen who refused to convert was labeled paganus, a pejorative Latin term for an ignorant “rustic” rural outsider. Many of these people refused to abandon the ancient goddesses of their native Etruscan, Norse, Germanic, Iberian, Slavic, Celtic, or north African religious traditions and were therefore termed “pagans.” When interest in these indigenous faiths returned in the second half of the 20th century, their adherents were dubbed “neo-pagans” by mainstream critics. Much like the 16th century term “Lutheran,” what was once a term of scorn became one of pride.
Not all followers of this “new paganism” today choose to identify themselves by this term. In fact, the cultural and cosmological diversity of the movement defies uniform description and categorization. Renewed scholarly interest in the indigenous religious traditions of Africa, Australia, Asia, North and South America, and the South Pacific led to demands for the same respect afforded to the indigenous faiths of Europe. The seminal work of authors such as archaeologist Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), publisher Raymond Buckland (1934-2017), and journalist Margot Adler (1946-2014) drew popular attention to revived pagan traditions.
The American environmental activist Starhawk (born Miriam Simos in 1951) has become one of the most recognized leaders of neo-paganism today. Her 1979 book The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess was later revised and reprinted in 1989 and 1999 and has become a classic resource for practicing pagans. Her commitment to human rights, protecting the environment, sustainable agriculture, and nonviolence has set the pace for the modern pagan movement and garnered some level of recognition from other religious leaders and the mainstream media.
Starhawk and others identify the goddess-based faith of ancient Europe as Wicca, from an old Germanic verb meaning “bend” and from which the words “witch” and “witchcraft” were derived. The negative connotations and stereotypes associated with this terminology have been replaced by modern Wiccans with a celebration of their earth-based and holistic faith. Wicca emphasizes the divine power of fertility and regeneration that emanates from the Goddess and renews life on earth in the annual cycle of the seasons. Wiccan ritual provides the tools to access this regenerative force for the common good.
Wicca and other neo-pagan traditions share many theological and liturgical practices. Worship is held in a circle and often outdoors, rather than in the indoor, linear configurations of modern churches, synagogues, and mosques. While some pagan priests and priestesses have formal religious training and their credentials and congregations (or “covens”) are legally recognized, paganism does not require formal clergy or group membership. Home altars are common as they are in Roman Catholic, Hindu, and Shinto households. As in Shinto and Taoism, sacred locales in nature serve as places of worship. Celtic astrology, for example, is based on trees, and Norse divination drawn from runes.
In the British Isles, ancient circles of standing stones such as Stonehenge in England and the Callanish Stones in Scotland and neolithic tombs like Newgrange in Ireland have become focal points for pagan lore and liturgy. Neo-pagans mark the four seasons in their rituals and invoke the power of the four directions with the use of an athame, or sacred consecrated blade. In Celtic paganism, the four seasonal festivals of Imbolc (February 1), Beltaine (May 1), Lughnasa (August 1), and Samhain (November 1) are observed along with the Spring and Fall Equinoxes and the Summer and Winter Solstices. Full and new moons are also occasions for prayer and celebration.
Holistic medicine is also an integral part of many modern pagan movements. The use of essential oils, healing stones, meditation, and organic foods is encouraged, as well as noninvasive pain management techniques such as acupuncture, massage, stretching, and chiropractic. Oft-neglected elements of both eastern and western religions can be found in neo-pagan practice as well, particularly ancient Buddhist and Taoist mediation techniques and the mystical styles of prayer found in the Jewish Kabbalah and Muslim sufi traditions. Music, song, costume, and dance are lively aspects of pagan prayer.
Pagan symbols include the Pentacle (five-pointed star), the Tree of Life, the ankh symbol from ancient Egypt, and small figurines of the pregnant Goddess such as Ishtar from ancient Mesopotamia. The circle is considered the most sacred of shapes and forms the basis for all pagan worship. Many pagans choose to wear clothing made from organic materials in earth tone colors to honor the Goddess in their daily life. The four elements of fire, water, earth, and air are integrated into pagan homes and worship. Incense, boughs, flowers, candles, goblets, and jewelry representing sacred animals or mythological creatures are also used to reinforce pagan beliefs.
Much of the historic hostility toward pagan traditions is associated with the casting of “spells” or rituals that invoke the power of the Goddess to bring healing or good fortune to the coven or individual. Western missionaries considered these practices a direct threat to their own liturgies and doctrines and engaged in concerted efforts to stamp them out. Paganism became equated with the occult, destructive “black magic,” and blood sacrifice, all distortions designed to thwart the traditions of Goddess worship. The Wiccan Rede of “Do as you will, and harm none” was ignored in favor of a negative view of their traditions as “the instrument of Satan,” an aspersion rejected by Wiccans and their supporters today.
Modern pagans follow many of the same traditions as other indigenous religious traditions around the world, including the use of amulets, totems, astrology, divination, shamanic rituals, spirit animals, vision quests, and ancestral worship. The lack of continuity of these traditions in Europe and the Middle East because of historic persecution has made some of them difficult to reconstruct. Neo-pagans utilize extant manuscripts as well as oral traditions and archaeological artifacts to pull together a contemporary version of these ancient faiths. Pagan artists and sculptors have sought to recreate some of the sacred symbols that have been largely lost to history.
Neo-paganism has often been mistakenly identified with “New Age” spiritual practices such as channeling, astral projection, and other esoteric occult beliefs. While there is some overlap in the use of sacred gems, ritual, and prayer, pagans are quick to identify themselves with an authentic historical religious tradition. Modern pagans see their faith as benevolent and devoted to personal renewal and public service, not something that sets them apart through science fiction, commercial popularity, or self-destructive behavior. They do not take their beliefs lightly and are diligent in correcting mainstream presumptions to do so.
In 1972, the Icelandic farmer and poet Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson (1924-1993) formed the Germanic heathen organization Asatruarfelagio (the Asatru Fellowship), which was recognized as a formal religious body by the government of Iceland the following year and now boasts more than 4,000 members. In Britain, the Odinic Rite gained legal status in 1988 as a “registered religious charity.” Other animist and druidic organizations have grown in membership and are now recognized by many governments as legitimate religious groups. Up to two million people worldwide consider themselves practitioners of European neo-pagan traditions today, and popular interest in their movement is growing.
Several countries today still consider “witchcraft” a capital crime, and prejudice and discrimination against pagans remains widespread around the world. The terms “heathen” and “pagan” are still associated by many with savagery and barbarism. Modern pagans are committed to braving these obstacles and forging forward with their belief in the all-powerful Goddess who created and nurtures the natural world. They are among the forefront of contemporary people of faith who see their tradition as a relevant remedy to the social, economic, and environmental injustices that threaten the world today.
- Why are witches portrayed as evil or negative in popular media such as television, film, theater, and costuming?
- How did the Celtic new year celebration of Samhain’s Eve (October 31) morph into today’s commercial Halloween holiday?
- How can modern pagan movements gain the same social and legal status as the other major world religions?
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