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Neopaganism

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Neopaganism (sometimes Neo-Paganism) is a heterogeneous group of religions established as a revival of mainly European Paganism, which was once largely extinct. It is called Neopaganism by academics and many adherents to distinguish it from earlier forms of Paganism, from which it differs in some significant ways. Since this is so of all religious traditions looking at their pasts, some Pagans detest the term neo-Pagan, finding it deeply insulting, while some see it as representing the living, changing, vital nature of Paganism.

Paganism is a very diverse belief system. It has been said that there are as many Pagan belief systems are there are Pagans, and there is some truth to that. However, while Pagans do establish their own personal belief system, they also share some common precepts, although the younger generation of Pagans especially can be highly resistant to such profiling. Common themes include the reverence for nature or active ecology, Goddess veneration, use of ancient mythologies, the belief in magick, and often the belief in reincarnation.

Table of contents

History of Neopaganism

The late 19th century saw a renewal of interest in various forms of Western occultism, particularly in England. During this period several occultist societies were formed such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis. Several prominent writers and artists were involved in these organizations, including William Butler Yeats and Arthur Edward Waite, and the famous (or infamous) Aleister Crowley.

Along with these occult organizations, there were other social phenomena such as the interest in mediumship[?], which suggest that interest in magic and other supernatural beliefs were at an all time high in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Some evidence suggests that returning colonials and missionaries brought ideas from native traditions home to Britain. In particular the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer[?]'s The Golden Bough (1900) was influential.

In the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the religious persecutions and Inquisitions of the medieval Church. Most historians reject Murray's theory, while accepting some parts of it. Although there were undoubtedly still some pockets of Pagan worship, it is highly unlikely to have existed on as wide a scale as Murray proposed.

This sparked interest reflected in novels by Mitchison ("The Corn King and the Spring Queen") and covens were created along Murrayite lines.

It is likely that this general atmosphere created the circumstances which were necessary for the rise of Wicca. At the very least, it was fertile ground for its introduction.

In the 1940s Gerald Gardner initiated into a New Forest coven led by ex-colonial women returned from India. Gardner had already written about Malay native customs and now wrote books about Wicca. The term "Wicca" is still used to refer to the traditions of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, or direct offshoots such as the teachings of Alex Sanders. In the USA Wicca is used loosely to equate with any form of Paganism, but British based Paganism uses Wicca much more narrowly, as Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca.

Wicca has been arguably the most well organised and influential form of Paganism until the mid '80s, justifying a tendency by some Wiccans to arrogance, expressed as claims to be the priesthood of the Pagan community. Other Pagan traditions do not see it so.

Mythological and Religious Sources

Paganism is sometimes referred to as the "Old Religion", a term popularised by Margaret Murray in the 1920s. Its use until the 90s drew on a dreamtime of underground European Paganism, and ancient Goddess religions. These models are now largely discredited, notably by Ronald Hutton, Bristol, UK, and claims are now more cautiously made to local folk healers/ small groups, and a plurality of ancient Goddess traditions among others, that served many social aims. However, while Pagans draw enthusiastically from old religious traditions, they also adapt them. The mythologies of the ancient civilizations are not generally considered to be literally factual or historical in the sense that the Bible is claimed historical by fundamentalists. Nor are they considered to be scripture, as Paganism specifically rejects the concept of scripture: they are not "People of the Book," and value oral and custom-based traditions.

The mythological sources of Paganism are many, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian and others. There is probably no significant mythology or religious tradition that has not been used as a source by some group at some time. Some groups focus on one tradition; others draw from several or many. All mythologies are believed to contain truth, seen from different perspectives, and most Pagans feel free to borrow or adapt from any tradition where they find it useful. For example, the Charge of the Goddess, a widely loved inspirational text by Doreen Valiente[?] used materials from the Gospel of Aradia' by Charles Leland (1901) , and Aleister Crowley's writings. It is commonly used to invoke[?] the Goddess, beginning with the words: "Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine[?], Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arionrhod, Brigid, and by many other names", showing a glimpse of Pagan eclectism.

Some Pagans also draw inspiration from external traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism and others. Since Paganism does not demand absolute loyalty or exclusivity, Pagans can and do practice other faiths in parallel.

An Earth-Based Religion

Paganism is considered an "Earth-based" or "Nature-based" religion because it holds the Earth and all of Nature to be sacred. Some Pagans draw on more modern, or at least less ancient, religions that are also nature-based such as those of Native Americans and Africans.

The Divine nature of the Earth is recognized in the form of the Goddess by many names, among them Gaia ref. the Gaia Hypothesis, and the Great Mother of classical anthropology.

Witchcraft

Witchcraft is one specific Pagan tradition often referred to by its members simply as The Craft. Both women and men are titled as witches. Confusingly, the American usage makes Paganism and Wicca witchcraft broadly similar. British usage restricts Wicca to one form of witchcraft, the Craft as one among many forms of Paganism.

Number of Adherents

Adherents.com (http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents) estimates there are one million Pagans. It is necessary to define clearly who is included in any estimate, as Pagan could mean active initiates, or anyone who likes Tarot! Also there is a difference between Western (Neo) Paganism, technically a New Religious Movement (NRM), and worldwide Paganisms and neoPaganisms including all Native Traditions. This would be many millions, the vast majority of peoples, especially as it is only in Western and monotheist cultures that priests insist on an exclusive loyalty so multiple practice is elsewhere commonplace.

Most Pagans do not have distinct temples per se, usually holding rituals in private homes or sacred groves and other outdoor locations. There are no membership lists to consult, no formal records. Many adherents keep their faith secret for fear of repercussions. Many also practice their faith as "solitaries", and work within no fixed spiritual community.

However a UK study by Prof Hutton, Bristol compared numbers on membership lists of major organisations, attendance at major events, subscriptions to magazines etc and used standard models for extrapolating likely numbers. This has to estimate multiple membership overlap and number of persons represented by each person attending an event. This concluded at adherence of 250,000, roughly equivalent to the national Hindu community.

The Covenant of the Goddess (http://www.cog.org) conducted a poll of U.S. and Canadian Pagans in 1999 that estimated the population in those countries at 768,400 (see http://www.cog.org/cogpoll_final ). This would seem to support the view that there are at least one million worldwide. This poll was not scientific and represents a self selected subset of all Pagans, but it does provide some interesting insights that confirm what many Pagans have observed anecdotally. Some other statistics from this poll are:

  • 65% of respondents were between 26 and 39 years of age. Neopaganism appears to be particularly popular among young people.
  • 86% were registered to vote, a figure much higher than the national average
  • There were nearly twice as many women as men (71%), which is undoubtedly due to the emphasis placed on the Goddess as well as the God.
  • 13% have served in the Armed Forces, and Pagan women served at a higher rate than the general population. 32% of Pagans who reported having been in the Armed Forces were female.

Concepts of Divinity

While today's Paganism does continue many beliefs and practices of historical Paganism, including many of their Gods and Goddesses, it is in other ways different. Many Pagans believe that there is a single Divinity, a life force of the universe, who is immanent in the world. The various names and archetypes which they worship are seen not as truly separate individuals, but as facets, or faces, of something that is far beyond our human abilities to see, know, or understand. Rather than attempt to describe the indescribable, they approach the Divine through one of Her many aspects. This appears to be a genuinely new Pagan thealogy, as Hutton considers ancient Pagans did not see "All Goddesses as one Goddess; all Gods as one God."

For Wiccans, Divinity is definitely bipolar, Goddess and God, with many lesser aspects. For Heathens, Nordics, Celtics, Egyptians, and Greeks, divinity is polytheistic. For Druids and High Magicians there is an overall One but other divities are also recognised. For Goddess people there is Goddess, occasionally monotheistic, but often one and many which can be simultaneous.

Festivals

Pagans celebrate eight major seasonal festivals, based on a fairly modern construction of the Celtic Year. Wiccans call them Sabbats. Each year's festivals are together called the Wheel of the Year. They are:

Please note: the above dates are specifically for the Northern Hemisphere - Southern-hemisphere wheels are generally moved 6 months along so the festivals remain consistent with the seasons.

Spellings differ slightly and most Pagans are becoming more flexible about dates, tending to celebrate at the nearest weekend for convenience. Christmas is usually celebrated in addition as a secular family festival, as is the calendar new year December 31 as a traditional party night. Druid and Heathen festivals have different names entirely. (Druids only name the "fire festivals" differently - i.e., all the equinoxes/solstices. The rest are the same.)

Most witches also hold smaller rituals, alone or with a coven, Lodge, or Circle, monthly, often at each full moon. Wiccans call these Esbats. Sometimes rituals are held at the dark moon as well. Moon meetings are working or study meetings as opposed to the festivals. Druids do not order their meetings by the moon but also hold regular working and study meetings.

Traditions

A sect within Paganism is referred to as a tradition. There are many traditions within the larger world of Paganism, most of which are identified according to the pantheon they work with, or the founder of the tradition.

Some of the larger traditions of Paganism include:

WICCA

Wicca is a recently created, Neopagan tradition, with various branches of Wicca that can be traced back to Gardnerian Witchcraft which was founded in the UK during the late 1940s. Wicca is based on the symbols, seasonal days of celebration, beliefs and deities of ancient Celtic society. Added to this material were Masonic and ceremonial magickal components from recent centuries. Wicca has several branches, which emphasize polarity, or working with both masculine and feminine forces. These are but a few of the many branches of Wicca.

  • Gardnerian Wicca, named after Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), a British civil servant who studied magic among other things. He knew and worked with many famous occultists, not the least of which was Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Certain traditional practices had survived in Gardner's family, and he found others who had preserved similar survivals, and shared his beliefs in the ancientry of this knowledge. Gardner set about re-inventing that ancient, ancestral religion. He had little to work with and had to write a good deal of it himself. He borrowed appropriate work from other artists, most notably Aleister Crowley and Rudyard Kipling, Queen Victoria's Poet Laureate. Gardner's High Priestess, Doreen Valiente[?] (1922-2000) wrote much of the most well-known poetry, including the much-quoted Charge of the Goddess. The core group grew slowly and in utter secrecy as Witchcraft was illegal in Britain at the time. When the Witchcraft Laws were replaced, in 1951, by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, Gerald Gardner went public.
  • Alexandrian Wicca[?], named after Alex Sanders[?] who, with his wife Maxine, The established the tradition in the 1960s. He had been previously an initiate of a Gardnerian coven. Generally Alexandrian covens focus strongly upon training, which includes areas more generally associated with ceremonial magick, such as Qabalah, Angelic magick, and Enochian magick[?]. The typical Alexandrian coven has a hierarchical structure, and generally meets weekly, or at least on Full Moons, New Moons and Festivals.
  • Dianic Wicca, typically focuses primarily or exclusively on the Goddess, most typically Diana, and consists of predominantly women-only covens and groups. These tend to be loosely structured and non-hierarchical. Consensus building is a conscious part of their decision-making and their spiritual practice. The most common variety of Dianic are politically feminist groups, usually very supportive, personal and emotionally intimate. There is a strong lesbian presence in the movement, though most covens are open to women of all orientations.
  • Seax-Wica[?], came from the vision of one man, Raymond Buckland[?]. While he was in America teaching the tradition he learned from Gerald Gardner to willing Americans, he found his own ideas developing along lines that differed in important ways from Gardner's. Buckland spent many years researching Pagan traditions, then wrote, from start to finish, Seax-Wica in 1973. None of the ceremonies or rites were secret. There was no oath of secrecy binding members of the groups together, nor was there an iron-clad rule that stated everything learned must be passed down without any changes. Individual Priests and Priestesses were encouraged to do research and add to the tradition if it suited them, and to share that knowledge with everyone that was interested. The rituals are on a solar cycle, although Moon rites are encouraged. However, unlike many traditions, it is not only the God that is celebrated during the Sabbats, but both deities, and the same holds true for the Moon Esbats as well. Both God and Goddess are honored at each rite or ritual held in their honor. There is no ritual sacrifice of the God, no supremacy of the Goddess and the Priestess.
  • Faery Wicca, it is an ecstatic, rather than a fertility, tradition. Strong emphasis is placed on sensual experience and awareness, including sexual mysticism, which is not limited to heterosexual expression. In this, as in the general spirit of spiritual exploration, there is more risk-taking encouraged than in other Wiccan traditions which may have specific laws limiting behavior, and there is a certain amorality historically associated with the Tradition. Among the distinguishing features of the Faery tradition is the use of a Faery Power which characterizes the lineage. They see themselves, when enchanted, as "fey"--not black, not white, outside social definitions, on the road to Faeryland, either mad or poetical. They are aware that much of reality is unseen, or at least has uncertain boundaries. There is a deep respect for the wisdom of Nature, a love of beauty, and an appreciation of bardic and mantic creativity.

HEATHENISM

Asatru/Odinism is frequently regarded as one of the Neopagan family of religions. However, many Asatruers prefer the term Heathen to Neopagan and look upon their tradition as "not just a branch on the Neopagan tree" but as a different tree. Unlike Wicca, which has gradually evolved into many different traditions, the reconstruction of Asatru has been based on the surviving historical record; it has been maintained as closely as possible to the original religion of the Norse people.

  • Asatru, also known by some as Odinism. Asatru or Įsatrś is an Icelandic word, a translation of the Danish word Asetro. The latter was coined by scholars in the mid-19th century. It was intended to mean belief in the Asir, the Gods. In Scandinavia the religion is called Forn Sišr (which means the Ancient way), Forn sed (the Old custom), Nordisk sed (Nordic custom), or Hedensk sed (Pagan custom). The religion's origin is lost in antiquity. At its peak, it covered all of Northern Europe. In 1000 CE, Iceland became the second last Norse culture to convert to Christianity. Icelandic poet Gothi Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson promoted government recognition of Asatru as a legitimate religion; this was granted in 1972. Since the early 1970's, the religion has been in a period of rapid growth in the former Norse countries, in Europe and North America.

CELTIC BASED

  • Druidry is one of the Neopaganism family of religions. Some present-day Druids attempt to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of ancient Druidism. Other modern-day followers of Druidism work directly with the spirits of place, of the gods and of their ancestors to create a new Druidism. Within ancient Druidism, there were three specialties. The Bards were "the keepers of tradition, of the memory of the tribe - they were the custodians of the sacredness of the Word. The Ovates worked with the processes of death and regeneration. They were the native healers. They specialized in divination, conversing with the ancestors, and prophesizing the future. The Druids and Druidesses performed the functions of modern day priests, teachers, ambassadors, astronomers, genealogists, philosophers, musicians, theologians, scientists, poets and judges. Most modern Druids connect the origin of their religion to the ancient Celtic people. However, historical data is scarce. The Druids may well have been active in Britain and perhaps in northern Europe before the advent of the Celts.
  • Celtic Spirituality inspired by the cultures of Wales, Cornwall, Bretagne, (Brythonic) Eire and Scotia (Brythonic). 'Celtic Twilight' generates a lot of fluffy twaddle and inaccurate dreams, but it is a heart based path that doesn't exact precise scholarship. Its beauty is its flexibility and its genuinely different view of divinity: deities are mega-heroic and foreign, but not puppeteers. Celtic soul work is annamchara based (soul friend) rather than priest/ess-based, and can generate a Celtic /Pagan[?] Christianity based on early medieval models of pantheism.

MODERN

  • Eco-Paganism/ Eco-Magic
'The Ecology Party at prayer' (Hutton) an active, earth loving ecology network that uses meditation and ritual to sustain conservation projects and eco-politics.
  • Techno-Pagans
Rather than looking back to ancient mythos, Techno-Pagans are inspired by modern technology, especially computers and rave music. A younger Paganism this, but it has powerful mature analysis, not least a figuring of the Internet as Deity!

Neopagans claim to have experienced discrimination in the United States based on misunderstanding of their faith. Neopagans as a faith community have occasionally retaliated with half serious language games such as the Wiccan terms "cowan" and "mundane" (not to mention growing use of the word "muggle"...) to describe a non-Wiccan, but generally, since the aim of their faith is not to displace or destroy others' faith, the attempt to derogate has not been established. It may also fail due to the unpleasant experience many Pagans well know of suffering social discrimination and risk due to frequent Christian construction of Paganism as evil, and there is little desire to copy that.

Terms for kinds of Pagan worship

Most Pagans worship various Gods and Goddesses; some of them are from the same culture and others are not, while others believe in the deity within. The terms for worship are: animism, dualism, henotheism, monotheism, pantheism, polytheism, and autotheism.

  • Animism is the belief that spirits inhabit every existing thing, including plants, minerals, animals and, including all the elements, air, water, earth, and fire. This was probably the first form of worship.

  • Dualism is the belief that there are only two fundamental things or substances or constituents of things in the world at large or in the human soul. An example would be that both good and evil simultaneously exist and that one cannot survive without the other. That they balance each other even though they are independent of each other.

  • Henotheism is the belief in one god, but at the same time does not deny the existence of other gods. The term has come to mean in recent years that one believes in multiple god/esses, though the worshipper "borrows" from various cultural groups and may worship one above the others. Example would be, worshipping a Greco-Roman god for one thing and then asking a Celtic god for something else. This is a fairly new form of worship used primarily by Neo-Pagans.

  • Pantheism is the belief that god is the universe and the universe is god -- or, more generally, that the universe is divine. It is most often explained as having the feeling that existence has a divine or awe-inspiring aspect.

  • Polytheism is the belief in more than one god/dess. In some beliefs it is said that all these god/desses are of equal power and authority while in others, there is a hierarchy. This is best demonstrated by the Greco-Roman deity structure.

  • Autotheism is the belief in the deity of one's own self without denying the existence of other god/desses. This is common in Thelema and among Left Hand Path occultists.

See also Goddess, neopagan views of homosexuality, Charge of the Goddess



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