This is the first installment of A Pagan Bestiary, a brief history of Modern Paganism, and an attempt to categorize and explain many of the different beliefs, paths and practices of Modern Pagans. Parts II and III will be published here over the next two weeks.
Disclaimer: This document is necessarily skewed toward the things I happen to know about: Wicca, Eclecticism, the history of Paganism in the U.S. and the U.K. It does not adequately address the many things I’m less familiar with, including the history and subtleties of Heathenry. It also entirely ignores non-English speaking countries, which I regret. I hope it has some value. I am sure parts of it will make many people angry.)
Modern Paganism is not really a religion so much as a group of more-or-less related religions or religious or spiritual practices. These are related in that they generally are distinctly outside the Abrahamic monotheistic model of Christianity and Islam; in that they seek religious inspiration from older, pre-Christian cultures (often, but not always, those of Old Europe); and in that they are concerned with understanding humanity’s role as a part of nature, rather than as something apart from nature.
If you get five Pagans in a room, you’ll probably get seven opinions as to what Paganism is. And all five Pagans will probably disagree with something about this list. But here is a brief summary of the modern history of Paganism and a general description of the tribes, ways, paths and names of modern Paganism.
istorical: Some modern Pagans maintain that they are simply continuing traditions of great antiquity. Also, there are documented efforts to revive the ancient religions dating back to at least the 18th Century in Europe, but the history of Modern Paganism as a publicly acknowledged religious movement undoubtedly begins with the publication of Witchcraft Today by Gerald B. Gardner in 1953.1 In that book, Gardner announced the existence of Witchcraft as a religion, which he referred to as the Religion of Witchcraft, The Craft of the Wise, and The Old Religion. Gardner maintained that he had met, and been initiated into, a coven of witches who had been continuing the Pre-Christian traditions in secret. Gardner had sworn oaths of secrecy but persuaded the elders to let him make some of their practices known to the public, as he thought that it was valuable knowledge that needed to be spread.
Gardner was controversial in his lifetime and is perhaps even more controversial now. I know of at least three books written to disprove Gardner’s account of the origins of Wicca and, to some extent, to attack his character.2 But Gardner was a natural showman and promoter, and got a good bit of publicity in England during the remaining years of his life (he died in 1963). By that time, there were a number of working Gardnerian covens in Britain, as well as a couple of competing but similar systems that I will mention below. In 1962, Gardnerian initiates Raymond and Rosemary Buckland moved to the United States and began forming their own covens.
At some point in the Early ‘60s, many of these initiates began referring to themselves as “Wiccans” rather than Witches and calling the religion “Wicca.”3
In my opinion, there are three reasons why Gardner’s Witchcraft (or Wicca) was the seed that took root and bore significant fruit, where the teaching of earlier occultists, including his some-time mentor Aleister Crowley, did not:
First, Gardner wrote in a fairly plain style, with far less arcane jargon than most occultists, and ordinary people could seek initiation without having to demonstrate lots of occult knowledge.
Secondly, Gardner never went out of his way to be shocking or offensive (unlike Crowley, who loved to provoke screams of outrage from respectable people.)
Thirdly, Gardner was always careful to present Witchcraft as religion in itself, entirely independent of Christianity and other established religions but not in opposition to them.
One might further ask why any sort of Pagan religion would begin to spread in the middle of the 20th Century in Europe and America. My answer is that Gardner was right: the human race needed magick again and was ready for it.
Such is my opinion. In any case, by about 1963, various forms of Wicca had become established in Britain and were making inroads in the U.S. and Western Europe. In that era, the new Pagans came into contact with the beginnings of the 1960s counterculture.
The counter-cultural trends of life-style experimentation, environmental awareness, sexual liberation, and suspicion of established authority fit well with the rise of Paganism and, in that environment, the Pagan movements mutated and developed into forms that Gardner, who was surprisingly conservative about politics and social behavior, could never have imagined.
During the ‘60s, a number of other Pagan traditions arose, rivaling Gardnerian covens. Some were strongly influenced by Gardner, such as the Alexandrian Tradition in Britain, and Victor Anderson’s Feri Tradition and the Church of All Worlds in the U.S.; others were quite different, such as Robert Cochrane’s Clan of Tubal Cain, and the “traditional” witchcraft taught by the author Sybil Leek.
Another development in the 1960s was the emergence of Pagan ways specifically dedicated to the Gods of Northern Europe, now usually called Heathenry, and of what I call post-modern Paganisms, such as Discordianism.
In the next decade, political and social activism continued to influence the development of Paganism, with the rise of explicitly Goddess-oriented and feminist forms, such as Dianic Witchcraft, and the Reclaiming Tradition, which combined Feri and Gardnerian influences with an emphasis of environmental concern, feminism and other social justice issues. Reclaiming was founded by Starhawk, whose book, The Spiral Dance: a Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, published in 1979, was influential and became widely available in conventional bookstores.
The Spiral Dance was one of the first books to benefit from the “New Age” marketing category in commercial publishing. Although New Age has come to represent a vaguely consistent set of practices and beliefs, in the early 1980s, it was just a sign over a shelf in the bookstores. There, alongside books about astrology and Mayan prophecies, one could find books about Witchcraft, Paganism and other occult traditions. Before that, these books could only be found in obscure specialist bookstores and or large libraries, usually in big cities. Now, it was much easier for isolated people in the suburbs and small towns to get this information.4
The next decade brought the internet, which had even more influence on the spread of Paganism. Even though Pagans are often represented as skeptical of or hostile to modern technology, there are a lot of early adopters of computer technology among us. Pagans quickly found a presence on early systems such as UseNet and the computer bulletin boards, and, once access to the worldwide web with graphic user interfaces became widely available, Pagans migrated to websites.
The American Religious Identification Survey in the early 2000s showed that the number of the people identifying themselves as Wiccan grew from 8,000 to 134,000 between 1990 and 2001, making it the fastest growing religion in the U.S., although those numbers are still small compared to the more established religions. A 2014 study by Pew Research Center shows “Pagan/Wiccan,” as the category was given in that poll, as 0.3 percent of the U.S. population and essentially unchanged since 2007.5
I categorize the various traditions that are likely to be represented as Pagan generally in five categories:
- Traditionalists, who hold that their beliefs/practices have been handed down secretly since pre-Christian times and form a continuous Tradition
- Reconstructionists, who deny that any authentic Pagan practice survived from ancient times but are trying to reconstruct ancient practices by studying documents and the archaeological record
- Eclectics, who think that the questions of authenticity and historical accuracy are largely irrelevant, but seek to create a completely modern Pagan practice with reference to both ancient traditions and more modern ideas
- Other occult traditions, including medieval and renaissance systems of Magick and spiritual enlightenment, as well as Jewish Cabala.
- Modernist and post-modernist systems, which are frankly recent literary or artistic inventions but espouse similar ideas to Paganisms.
- The date is not happenstance. The last laws against Witchcraft in England had been repealed about 18 months earlier.
- The books I’m thinking of are Crafting the Art of Magic by Aidan Kelly, which is mainly a hit piece; The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton, which is regarded as a serious scholarly work; and The True History of Witchcraft by Allen Greenfield, which is hard to explain.
- In Modern English, “Wicca” is pronounced “Wick-ah,” with a hard c, but it is derived from an Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word with the same spelling, that would have been pronounced “Which-ah” or “Wheech- ah.” In Old English, Wicca is a masculine singular noun, meaning a man who practiced wiccecraefte. The feminine form was Wicce, pronounced almost exactly like the modern word Witch, but with a little sigh at the end. Wiccan was a plural noun in Old English. No one knows why this happened or who first started using the term, but it became popular because it did not carry the dire cultural baggage of Witchcraft. I will expand on this and discuss the linguistic background of some other terms in a future essay.
- One of the more widely distributed books of the era was Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. I suspect, but cannot prove, that that one book had more to do with making the general public aware of the word “Wicca” than anything else. It seemed to be in every mall bookstore circa 1989-90.
- For a more complete account of this history, I recommend Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. Adler. Adler (who was the granddaughter of the psychologist Alfred Adler) encountered Wiccans while working on a story for NPR radio, became an initiate and eventually a priestess. The last edition of the book was published in 2007.