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date: 24 March 2017

Contemporary Pagan, Wiccan, and Native Faith Movements

Summary and Keywords

Paganism is based largely in an Enlightenment-era rejection of Christianity and Romantic-era ideas of the individual experience, emotion, and creativity, combined with a search for true ethnic culture in the lore and practices of the pre-Christian past and a rejection of universal transcendental religion, in favor of the local, the particular, the polytheistic, and the animist. Particularly in the United States, Pagans have challenged governmental accommodations for existing religions by demanding equal status in public spaces. Contemporary Pagan groups began forming in the 1930s, but the largest, Wicca, emerged in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s.

Keywords: alternative religions, Ásatrú, native faith, neopaganism, new religious movements, Paganism, Wicca, witchcraft

Often described as postmodern religions, untethered to the grand narratives of monotheism, today’s Pagan movements are rooted variously in literary Romanticism, the nationalist movements of 19th-century Europe, reactions against modernist and secularist ideologies, and the concerns of feminism and the environmental movement. While claiming to have revived ancient religions of pre-Christian Europe, for example, adherents for the most part have strenuously resisted creation of long-term formal structures and the “routinization of charisma” that occurs in most religious traditions.

Most contemporary Pagan religions are 20th-century creations, beginning in the 1930s in parts of Eastern Europe and somewhat later in Western Europe and North America.1 Wicca, the most far-flung, “the only religion that England has ever given the world,”2 quickly established itself in North America and in Western Europe, and is now practiced in Mexico, Brazil, and India, among other locales. Likewise, 20th-century forms of Druidry became established in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and France. Many other Pagan expressions are, however, less freeform than Wicca and less universalist than Druidry, and they often are, by design, restricted to people of particular ethnic backgrounds, such as Slavic or Germanic. To further complicate the picture, the descriptor “Pagan,” once universally negative within religious and cultural discourse, has in some cases been adopted by followers of truly ancient tribal religions as well as by some self-assertive Hindus who emphasize the polytheism of their tradition.3

The number of self-professed Pagans is difficult to count. The United States, which has probably the largest number, does not ask about religious affiliation as part of its decadal census. Other countries that do ask have changed terminology over the years; more importantly, many Pagans, fearing some degree of social backlash, do not name their religious affiliations. The 2011 British census found 78,566 Pagans (counting Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, and other categories), a figure that most scholars would consider to be low. Most Pagans are not completely open about their practice, and a majority are “solitary practitioners” who may join with their co-religionists only at festivals. Women tend to outnumber men, at least in the English-speaking populations surveyed.4

New Pagan religions represent both radical individualism and a hunger for communal identity. They are often described as “post-,” for example post-Christian, postmodern, or post-Communist, yet virtually all are engaged in an archaeological mining of past practices, knowledge, attitudes, and lore. Today’s Pagan theologians often argue that the old gods have re-emerged on their own timetable, but it is also possible to see this reemergence in historical terms, as an expression of literary Romanticism and of the increasing emphasis on individual experience over communal tradition that has only grown for the past two hundred years. Among Eastern European Pagans in particular, one often encounters a rhetoric of anti-modernism and calls for a new communal organization of society, yet paradoxically these movements only emerged (or in some cases, re-emerged) after the 1990s collapse of Communist states that had opposed an official ideology of atheism while closely controlling remaining religious bodies.

While organized Pagan religious bodies began to appear in the 20th century, the intellectual foundation for their emergence was laid in the Renaissance, given powerful impetus in the Romantic age, and made possible by the individual freedoms and breakdown of communal identity encouraged by modernism and capitalism. The Renaissance brought new attention to classical Pagan philosophy, chiefly neoplatonism, and related ideas of astrology, ceremonial magic, and a doctrine of physiology and psychology, centered on the four “humors,” or types of body and mind. During the 15th century, notably at certain northern Italian courts, educated aristocrats created environments where the old Greek and Roman deities and their associated Pagan mythology were celebrated in literature and art.5

The 18th-century Western intellectual movement called the Enlightenment maintained a skeptical attitude towards Christianity; for example, the eminent historian Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), abandoned the Church of England for Roman Catholicism; but he returned to the Protestant fold as well as becoming a Freemason. In his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he ignored Christian theology to treat the religion as a historical phenomenon, whose effect on imperial Roman culture was mostly negative. After 1,500 years of historical narrative about the triumph of Christianity, this counter-narrative from a member of Britain’s intellectual establishment, with its endorsement of “tolerant Polytheism,” shocked many readers and, it may be argued, created a fissure into which later revived Pagan roots might grow.

The Romantic Movement in art and literature reacted against the reliance of Enlightenment thinkers on order, moderation, benevolent aristocracy, and the scientific method. Often associated with political radicalism of the time, the Romantics of the first half of the 19th century emphasized instead the primacy of emotion and intuition over reason, and the “heroic” individual against the established class-bound social order. Instead of seeing wild nature as something to be tamed and put to productive use, Romantics sought out the awe-inspiring and the “sublime” emotion of gazing upon tossing waves, sunsets and storm clouds, deep forests, and mountain peaks.

The new Romantic view of nationhood emphasized organic societies—purely Slavic, Germanic, or whatever—in favor of the large empires of the past. Scholars such as the Brothers Grimm, Germanic folklorists, sought a “purely Germanic” cultural layer in folk stories from which a national literate and cultural identity might grow. Similar discovery (and in some cases invention) of folk-literature occurred throughout Europe from Serbia to Scotland. Rural peasants, fisher folk, shepherds, and the like were seen as retaining a true ancestral literature that could inform the growth of new independent nations such as Romania (1859) or Serbia (1835).

Yet Romanticism contained a tension between this search for the grassroots folk-soul and its admiration for the heroic individual. Sometimes that hero might be a national savior, as Napoleon was first viewed by many, or an actual outlaw or outlaw-patriot. Sometimes it might be a witch: for the first time in history, the historic witch was portrayed not as a worshipper of the Devil (the late-medieval view that persisted longer), nor as the ignorant victim of corrupt and uncaring ecclesiastical or judicial establishments (an Enlightenment view), but as a rebel against greedy churchmen and (often foreign) overlords. The American journalist and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903) published, in 1899, a so-called “gospel of the witches,” based on material collected in the northern Italian region of Tuscany.6 This gospel, Aradia, speaks of an unspecified (medieval?) past in which “the rich made slaves of all the poor,” who in turn escaped and “fled to the country; there they became thieves and evil folk … So they dwelt in the mountains and forests as robbers and assassins, all to avoid slavery.” As the text continues, the goddess Diana instructs her daughter Aradia to serve as teacher to these outlaws, instructing them in “poisoning those who are great lords of all”; likewise, “when a priest shall do you injury by his benedictions, ye shall do to him double the harm, and do it in the name of me, Diana, Queen of witches all!”7 Thus the figure of the witch and the heroic outlaw rebel are fused.

As an aesthetic movement, Romanticism lost ground to Realism in the late 19th century, but its influence continued. The Romantics—notably German Romantic writers—proclaimed “admiration for ancient Greece, nostalgia for a vanished past, and desire for an organic unity between people, culture, and nature.”8 If we substitute “ancient Pagan cultures” for Greece specifically, these elements—mixed with the Western esoteric tradition teaching about human access to divine worlds and Theosophy’s popularization of reincarnation—constitute much of the outline of Paganism today. Three more elements are important, however.

The first is the increasingly secular nature of modern society. It is easier to call oneself a witch, for example, in a society that pays little credence to witchcraft, but sees instead the performance of harmful magic. It is no coincidence that Wicca, the new religion of Pagan Witchcraft, emerged in the early 1950s immediately after Britain’s Parliament repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which had made calling oneself a “witch” illegal, and replaced it with the more narrowly focused Fraudulent Mediums Act, which did not.9 In larger terms, the increasing view in the West, that religion is a personal choice rather than also a sign of membership in one’s society—for example, if one is Greek, the expectation is that one is baptized in the Orthodox Church—makes it easier to change religious affiliations; this is most noticeable in the United States, which has never had an officially established religion.

Second, some new Pagan religions, notably Wicca, emphasize female religious leadership, a characteristic shared with many non-Pagan current or former new religious movements (e.g. the Shakers and Christian Science). In Wicca, however, this leadership reflects the primacy of the Divine Female. Nineteenth-century writers and mystics had already begun to invoke this Divine Female or Eternal Feminine. In some cases, she was Sophia (Divine Wisdom) or the World Soul, the source of all beauty and a force that urged humans toward union with the divine. The Russian philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Soloviev (1853–1900) not only treated Sophia as a universal principle but also had a personal relationship with her through a sort of automatic writing. Another Russian Symbolist author, Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky (1865–1941), argued that modern society had forgotten “the Mother” to its harm: “All paganism—Christianity before Christ—is an unquenchable thirst for the Son; all Christianity after Christ is an unquenchable longing for Mother.”10 In his Aradia, Leland, summarizing his informants’ material, described a vecchia religione (the Old Religion) descended from Roman Paganism, but with a creation story in which Diana, goddess of the Moon, co-created the world with the god of the Sun, her brother. In Britain, meanwhile, Diana/Artemis began to surpass other Greco-Roman goddesses (even Venus/Aphrodite), as counted in literary references by the mid-19th century, being increasingly invoked as patroness of the natural world.11

Nevertheless, in terms of the first-established new Pagan religions, the honor goes to the Baltic republics of Lithuania and Latvia. Formerly parts of the Russian empire, both countries gained their independence after the Russian revolution of 1917 broke up the empire. The new republic of Latvia supported the Lutheran church as a state religion; however, a new Pagan religion called Dievturība (or Dievturi, the term of its followers, meaning god-keepers) emerged among intellectuals and artists. A Latvian artistic nationalism emerged in the 19th century, as artists sought a native soul in a land with a largely German aristocracy and Russian political domination. Painters began to portray ancient deities, such as the storm god Perkuns, combining them with scenes of “timeless” rural life.12 The Dievturība movement had several founders, most notably Ernests Brastiņš (1892–1942). It was officially registered with the government in 1926; nevertheless, police agents of the new republic infiltrated its meetings. The Dievturi sought to reconstruct traditional Latvian religion through the study and performance of dainas (folksongs), traditional arts, folk healing and other practices, and archaeology, while denouncing Christian clergy as “alien preachers.” Brastiņš and some other Dievturi were also members of Perkonkrusts (Thundercross), a right-wing political party hostile to non-Latvian minorities. When the Soviet Union absorbed Latvia in 1940, Brastiņš was arrested and shot, and Dievturība outlawed. Perkonkrusts reappeared in the 1980s as a folkloric movement, focused on singing the dainas, and after Latvia again became independent in 1991, various groups of Dievturi sprang up and have continued to practice their reconstructed Paganism.13

Similarly in Lithuania, 19th-century folklorists collected songs that 20th-century reconstructionists mined for older worldviews and practices. Old festivals were revived in a self-conscious way, and in 1911 the new religion of Romuva was proclaimed by Domas Šidlauskas-Visuomis (1878–1944). Its best-known leader and high priest was Jonas Jaunius Trinkūnas (1939–2014). As in Latvia, when Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, Romuva was outlawed and persisted only underground and among immigrant Lithuanians in North America. With independence regained, the new national government recognized Romuva as a “non-traditional” religion in 1995, because of its organizational newness. Its key idea is darna, an ideal harmony between people, ancestors, gods, nature, and local spirits of place.

Wicca, the most widely practice new Pagan religion, appeared in England in the early 1950s, although its chief spokesman, Gerald Gardner, claimed originally that it was the current form of an ancient pre-Christian religion, into which he had been initiated in 1939.14 Together with the “Pagan revivals” in art and literature of the previous century, it had two important source books. The first was The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), in which the archaeologist Margaret Murray (1863–1963) argued that the witches persecuted in late medieval and subsequent times were actually followers of an underground Paganism, whose god the inquisitors re-cast as the Christian Devil.15 (There was no important goddess in Murray’s hypothesis.) The second book, published shortly before the public emergence of Wicca, was The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, by the British poet and novelist Robert Graves (1895–1985). Never out of print since its publication in 1948, it argues that a pan-European deity symbolized by the phases of the Moon underlies all historical Pagan goddesses—and that “true poets” inevitably acknowledge her. While Gardner’s Wiccan rituals drew heavily on European ritual magic, and his claim for Wicca’s antiquity, reinforced by documents written in faux early-modern English, was based on Murray’s work, nothing he wrote before 1948 included worship of a Great Goddess.

Today, “Wicca” is sometimes restricted to the initiatory lineage that proceeds from Gardner’s coven of the 1950s; more commonly, it refers to those Pagan groups that borrowed elements of that group’s theology and practices, but applied them creatively. Gardner’s books, particularly Witchcraft Today, had an influence beyond the face-to-face impact of his initiatory lineage. After their publication, rival witchcraft groups in Britain emerged claiming to be even more ancient and traditional than Wicca.16

In North America, various small groups that had sprung up seeking their own sort of “witchcraft” regarded Wicca, with its claim of ancient lineage—a claim that gradually lost traction in the 1970s—as authoritative, and they modeled themselves upon it.17 In the mid-1960s, various groups began experimenting with quasi-Pagan rituals—a group of “Druids” at Carleton College in Minnesota,18 a “Goddess wedding” for two members of a San Francisco Bay Area group celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, and many others. Aidan Kelly, a member of the latter group, described how they had read on classical Paganism, the witch trials, Graves’ The White Goddess, and Gerald Gardner, yet were afraid that they would not be considered “real witches.” Then they decided that being creative was part of “the Craft,” and what worked in the past might not work in the future, and that they should “tinker around to get it work for us.”19 And so they—and many similar groups—would do.

The United States has no system for registering religious groups, but by the 1970s, Pagan groups did begin seeking federal designation as tax-exempt religious groups, with gradually increasing success. Pagan activists sought recognition as prison and hospital chaplains, with some success, but have thus far not succeeding in being named as military chaplains; however, a campaign to gain Wiccan military veterans the right to a pentagram on their headstones in military ceremonies succeeded in 2005, and other Pagan groups, such as Ásatrú, have followed suit. A Pagan seminary movement is growing to provide ministerial training as leaders of small groups request their space in the American religious spectrum: offering invocations at legislative sessions, conducting weddings and funerals, and otherwise interacting with the larger society.

Problems of Definition: “Pagan,” “Witch,” “Heathen,” and “Druid”

The words “Pagan” and “Paganism” themselves are contested, multivalent, and fluid.20 Certainly they have shifted over time, and, in addition, there is the problem of finding equivalent terms in other languages. In origin, the word is Latin and derives from paganus, a person of the pagus, a region or a district within a province, but also the country people collectively. At this point, however, the etymological narrative splits: is a “Pagan” an unsophisticated country person or a civilian not enlisted in the Army of Christ?

In classical Latin, paganus first carried the connotation of “rustic” or “hick.” This etymology is frequently cited by contemporary Pagans who see it as justifying a religion “close to nature” and lacking the bureaucratic hierarchies of Christianity. Following those 19th-century folklorists who believed that rural districts preserved “Pagan religious survivals” in a fossilized state under the guise of Christianity, and employing the Romantic trope of the virtuous countryside versus the corrupt city, they comb records of rural folklore for evidence of beliefs and practices that might inform the revived Paganisms of today. The concept is even more important in parts of central and eastern Europe, where the countryside is viewed as having preserved the essence of national soul, and where revived “native faiths” are seen as returning their followers to the “national soul,” as well as providing communitarian forms of social order—in contrast to “imported” religions (chiefly Christianity and Islam) and to unfettered secular individualism.21

The second Latin connotation, one that arose in the Roman legions, defined paganus as a civilian as opposed to a soldier. In subsequent Christian parlance, therefore, the “Pagan,” was not a miles Christi, a soldier of Christ.22 This usage began as early as the 2nd century ce and persists in Christian writing to this day, with “Pagan” used indiscriminately to identify followers of ethnic religions, Muslims,23 Hindus, and nonreligious people. In the last instance, the language of “Paganism” and “idolatry” is deployed against modern life. (After the Protestant Reformation, the term “Pagan” was also employed by militant Protestants against the Roman Catholic Church when they accused it of maintaining ancient Mediterranean Pagan beliefs and practices.24)

The reclaiming of the term Paganism began in the 19th century, primarily as an artistic and literary movement, one often connected with the new Romantic spiritual value placed on nature and on ecstatic experience, sometimes symbolized by the rustic deities of Pan and Diana. A disenchantment with modern life, drab and mechanistic, and with a Christianity seen as a system of morality that merely upheld the social order, led writers and artists to re-envision ancient Paganism as natural, simple, and life-affirming—with a higher valuation of the erotic dimensions of life.25

Even the capitalization of “Pagan” and “Paganism” is contentious. Oberon Zell, editor of the influential American Pagan magazine Green Egg in the 1960s–1980s, in which Pagan and its variants such as “Neopagan,” were always capitalized, launched a petition campaign in 2013 to influence such usage guides as the Associated Press Stylebook, the University of Chicago Press Manual of Style, and the Religion Newswriters Association Stylebook.26 The argument, endorsed by numerous writers, scholars, and Pagan leaders, was that the capital P was a mark of respect and appropriate for a proper noun, the name of a religious category. At this writing, the outcome is unclear, although in 2015, the Associated Press did add “Wicca” to its Stylebook, which is definitive for most American journalists.

Many British Pagans and academics, and writers in other countries following their lead, stick to lowercase “Pagan” even when discussing Wicca, Druidry, and other Pagan religions. One argument made is that “Paganism” describes practices that appear in multiple religions, such as pilgrimage, honoring of local shrines and sacred spaces, respect paid to religious images, incorporation of deity into the body through trance and spirit-possession, soul travel and shamanism, polytheism, and the perception of nature as a source of sacred value.27 In other instances, the lowercase appears to be a carryover from the more pejorative uses of the term.


Similarly, based on the theories of Margaret Murray, that the European witch trials represented the persecution of an underground Pagan religion that lasted until the 17th century at least, the founders of the new religion of Wicca referred to themselves as “witches,” a term that is itself often capitalized by practitioners. In so doing, they swim against a current that is centuries old, one that considered a “witch” to be a person who harmed his or her (more often her) neighbors, damaging their crops, livestock, marriages, children, or livelihoods either for malignant joy or in deliberate service of evil powers—what many Pagan witches now refer to as “anthropological witchcraft,” in order to draw a bright line between it and their own version.28

In the 19th century, reaction against the centuries of European witch persecutions by both religious and secular authorizes began to appear. The French historian Jules Michelet (1798–1874), in his mid-century work La Sorcière, was one of the first to depict witchcraft as a rebellion against medieval feudalism, while the persecutions represented to him a deliberate oppression of women.29 Leland, in his book Aradia: Or the Gospel of The Witches, took a similar approach, arguing that it proved the existence of a female-led underground Italian Pagan religion with a goddess-centered theology.30 Aradia would prove inspirational to many figures within the 20th-century new religion of Pagan Witchcraft, uniting the themes of rebellion, youth (Aradia is the daughter of Diana, the great goddess), magic working, female religious leadership, and the Divine Feminine.

In an attempt to re-define witchcraft as Pagan religion, writers from the early 20th century forward offered alternative origins for the term “witch” that supported their agendas. One of these was to cast the new Pagan Witchcraft as the “Craft of the Wise,” and witches as “wise ones” rather than malevolent evil-doers. The contemporary Pagan band Inkubus Sukkubus recorded a 1995 song, “Craft of the Wise,” with the lines, “Across a thousand nations / And forty thousand years / The teachers and the healers, / We are the Craft of the Wise.”31 A Web search of the phrase will turn up numerous pages making assertions similar to this: “The Craft of the Wise is otherwise known as ‘Witchcraft’—a word that frightens some religious authorities … It teaches spiritual ways of working in tune with nature.”32 Charles Leland had made the same argument in the 1890s: “As the English word witch, Anglo-Saxon Wicca, comes from a root implying wisdom, so the pure Slavonian word vjestica, Bulgarian, vjescirica (masculine, viestae), meant originally the one knowing or well informed, and it has preserved the same power in allied languages, as Veaa (New Slovenish), knowledge, Vedavica, a fortune-teller by cards, Viedma (Russian), a witch, and Vedwin, fatidicus.”33

This derivation is rejected by most linguists; for example, Mario Pei derives “wise” from a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *w(e)di, “to see,” which underlies the Sanskrit “Veda,” the Greek “idea,” such Latin-derived words as “video,” “envy,” and “survey,” and the Germanic “wizard,” “wise,” and even “twit,” probably shortened from nitwit, “not wise.”34 Thus, from the point of view of the history of the English language, witchcraft cannot be said to mean the “craft of the wise.”

The American Druid Isaac Bonewits (1949–2010) argued for a different origin, the postulated Proto-Indo-European root *wiek-4, meaning to bend or wind, which also gave us “wicker,” “weak” (bendable), and “vetch,” a twining plant. This is the “witch” of witch hazel, a combination of “wych,” meaning a type of elm tree, plus “hazel.” Consequently, a “witch” would be someone who could bend fate or chance. While adopted by some Pagans, this etymology is not generally supported.

Instead, the word “witch” is more often derived from PIE root *weik-2, a word “connected with magic and religious notions” and related to “guile,” “wile,” and “victim,” in the sense of a sacrificial animal, although other origins have been proposed as well.35 Old English, the form of the language spoken from roughly the 5th to 11th centuries, had grammatical gender, a feature that disappeared during the Middle Ages. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the masculine form, wicca (pronounced “witch-uh”), and the feminine wicce could have derived from the verb wiccian, “to bewitch,” but that leaves us more or less where we were. “Witch” seems to mean “witch,” a magic- worker, but not a wise person necessarily, and not, as some hopeful Pagan Witches propose, a “bender of fate.” Certainly none of the OED’s citations from literature put a positive interpretation on the word: through the Middle Ages, they speak of binding and smiting witches, rhyme “wycche” with “bycche,” and speak of cursing and wasting by witches. The first citation of “witch” as meaning a beautiful and alluring young woman comes in the 18th century.

Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), the prime mover of the new Pagan religion called Wicca in the 1950s and 1960s, was apparently unaware of the rules of Old English spelling and pronunciation. He employed “Wica” and “Wicca” both and always pronounced them with a hard “c” sound, as do virtually all Wiccans to this day. As Wicca has moved into non-English-speaking countries, it has taken this new/old name with it, although occasionally we see direct translations of “witch” into other languages.36 For many, “Wicca” served well as the public name of the new religion, with “Witchcraft” or “the Craft” reserved for more “insider” communications.


Like “Pagan” and “witch,” “heathen” has undergone several decades of reclamation and re-valuing. Again, the question of origin is not settled. Some have argued that it is a borrowing of the Greek ethnos into the eastern Germanic Gothic language, a borrowing that spread with Christianity into other Germanic languages.37 Ethnos (nation, tribe) had been used to translate the Hebrew goyim (non-Jewish nations) by translators putting the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. In Latin, the word gentilis or “gentile” was used in turn to translate ethnikos. Whereas goyim meant non-Jews, ethnikos, gentile, and heathen (and its Germanic cognates) were used to mean non-Christian. The Vikings, for example, were described by Christian Anglo-Saxon writers as heathens. Contemporary followers of revived Germanic or Scandinavian religions, however, generally prefer the explanation that “heathen” means “people of the heath,” in other words, those living outside cities and towns, for that meshes with the Romantic trope of the rural dwellers retaining bits and pieces of a land’s pre-Christian magical religious practices. Of all contemporary Pagan movements, these Heathen, Norse, or Ásatrú (the last means “true to the Aesir,” one group of old Norse gods, and was introduced in Iceland and the United States in the 1970s) are most closely aligned with “the Lore,” the surviving books and poetry that depicts old Norse Pagan society, which was largely non-urban. Other Scandinavian terms for revived Paganism translate simply as “old custom,” “Nordic custom,” or “Heathen custom.”

Druids and Druidry

The Ancient Druids were the priesthood of the Celtic-speaking people of Gaul (roughly equivalent in territory to modern France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Switzerland), Britain, and Ireland. The term “Druid” comes to us from Latin druidae (plural) from the Gaulish druides, that came in turn from a hypothesized Celtic compound *dru-wid-, probably representing Old Celtic *derwos (true), based on Proto-Indo-European dru- (tree, especially oak). Descriptions of Druids, often based on legend and second-hand sources, are found as old as the 3d century bce. In some cases, they are depicted through the lens of “soft primitivism,” in which the Druids are “noble savages,” who while living a simpler, rougher life than that of the Roman author describing them, nevertheless maintain a higher standard of morality and display much knowledge of the cosmic order. Julius Caesar during his campaigns against the Gaulish tribes in 58–50 bce, and his incursions into Britain in 55 bce, encountered the Druids directly and wrote of them in the vein of “hard primitivism,” as a priesthood that performed human sacrifice. Yet he also described the Druids as standing apart from war and as teaching a doctrine of reincarnation that in turn made Celtic warriors less afraid of death. While not actively fighting, they encouraged the warriors through prophecy and magic. Thus two different images of the Druid arose, which persist to this day: the high-minded primitive philosopher on the one hand, studying the stars,38 and on the other, a cunning magic worker sacrificing prisoners of war and other victims on bloody altars. Since the 18th century, a variety of new Druidic groups have arisen in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Some were largely fraternal benefit societies, others more cultural in nature, while since the 1960s more consciously Pagan groups have been formed, drawing on historical records of Irish and Gaulish polytheism, for example.39

Review of the Literature

During the early 20th century, the notion that the witches tried by religious and secular authorities, most during the 15th to 17th centuries, were followers of an underground Pagan religion, was popularized by the archaeologist Margaret Murray, who in addition to two books40 also wrote the “Witchcraft” entry for the long-lived fourteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1929). Murray’s thesis was severely criticized by later scholars,41 but by then it was well-embedded in popular writing and contributed to the creation of Wicca and others of the skein of Pagan Witchcraft groups.

In the 1960s and 1970s, popular books linked British and American Paganism to the counterculture, lumping those together with the turning to Asian religion among some youth, after visionary encounters produced by entheogenic drugs. In the case of Paganism, it was argued that new visions required new and experiential religious groupings.42 Much subsequent study in North America focused on issues of withdrawal from mainstream society (especially during the “cults scare” of the 1980s) and on the sociological disenchantment/re-enchantment with society.43

Other studies of new Pagan religions in the United States focused, in particular, on the term “nature religion” and on feminist influences, the latter part of a large spectrum of interest that ranged from reinterpreting the Christian God with female imagery to a theological construct of the “Great Goddess,”44 to the active polytheism of many contemporary Pagans.45 The effects of feminism on American Paganism—which in turn greatly influenced British Paganism—cannot be over-estimated.46

While American Pagans were using terms like “earth religion” and “nature religion” as self-descriptors as early as the 1970s, this usage was initially overlooked by scholarly exploration on nature as a source of spiritual authority in American religion.47 The Pagan usage in some parts reached back to the post-Romantic German Naturmenschen (“nature boys,” as they came to be known) who immigrated to California in the late 19th century with messages of Lebensreform (life-reform), including sunbathing, raw foods, and a simple lifestyle, thus making a contribution to “California cosmology.”48 Nor is it coincidental that the American Pagan movement began to grow rapidly in the 1970s, in parallel with the environmental movement, while its adherents sought a spiritual connection with the earth and what they saw as the planet’s deities and local spirits. “Nature” can be expressed in the human body and also in the cosmos, following the ancient esoteric formula “As above, so below.”49 Yet exploration of the negative side of the this emphasis on particularity and locality will continue to be fruitful, as some new Pagan or Ancestral Faith groups make claims along the lines of “blood and soil.”

Finally, scholars of religion are still contending with the meaning of “P/pagan,” some wishing to restrict it to a range of behaviors that can be found in multiple religious traditions, such as the veneration of shrines and graves, pilgrimages, and the employment of religious images, statues, and icons as portals of divine power, together with an emphasis on folk belief and practice over top-down doctrine and hierarchy. Some would add to this an affirmation of the cycles of the natural world as a crucial part of “Paganism,” arguing that these practices together lie at the roots of the so-called great religious traditions.50 Against this position, others prefer an “umbrella” approach, placing under this umbrella all polytheism, animism, and indigenous religions.

Primary Sources

Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1986.

Clifton, Chas S., and Graham Harvey, eds. The Paganism Reader. London: Routledge, 2004.

Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. London: Ryder, 1954.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1948.

McNallen, Stephen A. Asatru: A Native European Spirituality. Nevada City, CA: Runestone Press, 2015.

Murray, Margaret. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921.

Murray, Margaret. The God of the Witches. London: Sampson Low, 1931.

Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale, 1989.

Zell-Ravenheart, Oberon, ed. Green Egg Omelette: An Anthology of Art and Articles from the Legendary Pagan Journal. Franklin Lakes: New Page Books, 2009.

Further Reading

Aitamurto, Kaarina, and Scott Simpson, eds. Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Studies in Historical and Contemporary Paganism. Durham, U.K.: Acumen, 2013.Find this resource:

Berger, Helen. A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Berger, Helen, and Douglas Ezzy. Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for Self. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Blain, Jenny, Douglas Ezzy, and Graham Harvey, eds. Researching Paganisms. The Pagan Studies Series. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2004.Find this resource:

Clifton, Chas S. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America. The Pagan Studies Series. Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2006.Find this resource:

Davy, Barbara Jane. Paganism. 3 vols. Critical Concepts in Religious Studies. London: Routledge, 2009.Find this resource:

Doyle White, Ethan. Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Brighton, U.K: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Eller, Cynthia. Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Harvey, Graham. Animism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Hutton, Ronald. Witches, Druids, and King Arthur. London: Hambledon, 2003.Find this resource:

Hutton, Ronald. Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Johnston, Hannah E., and Peg Aloi, eds. The New Generation Witches: Teenage Witchcraft in Contemporary Culture. Controversial New Religions. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2007.Find this resource:

Lewis, James R., ed. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Myers, Brendan. The Earth, the Gods, and the Soul: A History of Pagan Philosophy from the Iron Age to the 21st Century. Winchester: Moon Books, 2013.Find this resource:

Pike, Sarah M. Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Pike, Sarah M. New Age and Neopagan Religions in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Rountree, Kathryn. Embracing the Witch and the Goddess: Feminist Ritual-Makers in New Zealand. London: Routledge, 2004.Find this resource:

Rountree, Kathryn, ed. Contemporary Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Europe: Colonialist and Nationalist Impulses. New York: Berghahn, 2015.Find this resource:

Salomonsen, Jone. Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. London: Routledge, 2002.Find this resource:

Weston, Donna, and Andy Bennett. Pop Pagans: Paganism and Popular Music. Studies in Historical and Contemporary Paganism. Durham, U.K.: Acumen, 2013.Find this resource:

Wise, Constance. Hidden Circles in the Web: Feminist Wicca, Occult Knowledge, and Process Thought. The Pagan Studies Series. Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008.Find this resource:

York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2003.Find this resource:


(1.) Russia émigré Gleb Botkin did charter the Church of Aphrodite in Long Island, New York, in 1938, but it represented a sort of Goddess-monotheism. It lasted until 1969.

(2.) Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), vii.

(3.) Koenraad Elst, “The Gatherings of the Elders: The Beginnings of a Pagan International,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14 (2012): 140–158.

(4.) James R. Lewis and Inga Bårdsen Tollefsen, “Gender and Paganism in Census and Survey Data,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 15 (2013): 51–78.

(5.) For a longer discussion, see Joscelyn Godwin, The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance (Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press, 2002).

(6.) Charles Godfrey Leland, Aradia: Or the Gospel of the Witches (London: David Nutt, 1899). A centennial edition containing a new translation of the Italian material by Mario and Dina Pazzaglini, plus additional scholarly essays, was published by Phoenix Publishing Inc. in 1998.

(7.) Leland, Aradia, 2, 4–5.

(8.) Hutton, Triumph of the Moon, 21.

(9.) It was the Spiritualist churches, not Pagans, who lobbied for the repeal of the 1735 act. A Spiritualist medium, Helen Duncan (1897–1956) was imprisoned during World War II under the old law, after announcing during a séance the sinking of a British warship whose loss had not yet been officially admitted. The 1951 law lasted until 2008, when it was replaced by new E.U. consumer-protection directives.

(10.) Quoted in Dmitry Galtsin, “The Divine Feminine in the Silver Age of Russian Culture and Beyond: Vladimir Soloviev, Vasily Rozanov, and Dmitry Merezhkovsky,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 17.1 (2015): 41–78.

(11.) Hutton, Triumph of the Moon, 33.

(12.) Kristine Ogle, “Representation of Nature Spirits and Gods in Latvian Art in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 47–48, 58.

(13.) Anita Stasulane, “The Dievturi Movement in the Reports of the Latvian Political Police (1939–1940),” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 31–46.

(14.) The existence of a previous coven remains unproven, and the only source for its existence is Gardner himself, as argued by Aidan Kelly in Crafting the Art of Magic, Book 1: A History of Modern Witchcraft, 1939–1964 (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1991), 172–173.

(15.) Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921).

(16.) For more on other British witchcraft groups, see the chapter “Gardner’s Early Rivals,” in Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, ed. Ethan Doyle White (Eastbourne, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 2015), 34–42.

(17.) For more discussion, see the chapter “West Coast Wicca: Self-Invention, and the ‘Gardnerian Magnet’,” in Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America, ed. Chas S. Clifton (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2006), 111–136.

(18.) What began as a spoof religious service to escape the college’s mandatory chapel attendance requirement would, post-graduation, turn into something more serious.

(19.) Chas S. Clifton, Her Hidden Children, 114–115.

(20.) I follow the usage of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies and of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group within the American Academy of Religion in capitalizing both terms as nouns denoting polytheistic religions and their followers.

(21.) Agneiszka Gajda, “Romanticism and the Rise of Neopaganism in Nineteenth-Century Central and Eastern Europe: The Polish Case,” in Modern Pagans and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson (Durham: Acumen, 2013), 57.

(22.) James J. O’Donnell, “Paganus,” Classical Folia 31 (1977): 163–169. (Currently available on a faculty website.)

(23.) Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson, “Introduction,” in Modern Pagans and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson (Durham, U.K.: Acumen, 2013), 28.

(24.) One example of this polemical use of “Pagan” occurs in Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons (Edinburgh: W. Whyte, 1853).

(25.) Jenifer Hallett, “Wandering Dreams and Social Marches: Varieties of Paganisms in Late Victorian and Edwardian England,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 8.2 (2006): 161–183.

(26.) Heather Greene, “Was Paganism Left Out of the New AP Stylebook Religion Chapter?The Wild Hunt: Modern Pagan News & Commentary blog, June 15, 2014.

(27.) This view is particularly advanced by Michael York in his Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2003) and his Pagan Ethics: Paganism as a World Religion (Berlin: Springer, 2016).

(28.) To some, the line is less bright than for others. While rejecting the accusations of Devil-worship, so called “hedge witches” claim to follow a more folkish practice of magic working, with less emphasis on the religious aspects.

(29.) Jules Michelet, La Sorcière, 2d ed. (Brussels: A. Lacroix, 1863).

(30.) Charles Godfrey Leland, Aradia: Or the Gospel of the Witches (London: David Nutt, 1899).

(33.) Charles Godfrey Leland, Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling (London: T. Fishr Unwin, 1891), 66.

(34.) Mario Pei, The Families of Words (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962), 228.

(35.) “Witch,” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1969.

(36.) For example, the Spanish translation of Stewart Farrar’s positive study of Wicca, What Witches Do (1971) was published as Lo que hacen los brujos, while Raymond Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft (1986), a guidebook for contemporary Pagan Witches, was published as Libro completo de la brujeria de Buckland (1990), even though brujo/a and brujeria carry the same traditional negative connotations as “witch” and “witchcraft.”

(37.) “Heathen,” Online Etymology Dictionary.

(38.) Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments are older by millennia than the Celtic Druids, yet by the 18th century, it was commonly believed that Druids had built them as their temples, an erroneous perception built upon by more recent “Druidic” groups that meet there.

(39.) For discussion of the classical sources on Druidism, see Stuart Piggott, The Druids (London: Thames & Hudson, 1968); for discussion of the power and uses of the Druid archetype through British history see Ronald Hutton, Blood & Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

(40.) Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921) and The God of the Witches (London: Faber & Faber, 1931).

(41.) Two critiques are Elliot Rose, A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962); and Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch Hunt (London: Chatto, 1975).

(42.) Robert Ellwood, The Sixties Spiritual Awakening: American Religion Moving from Modern to Postmodern (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 19–20.

(43.) For example, Gini Graham Scott, Cult and Countercult: A Study of a Spiritual Growth Group and a Witchcraft Order (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980); and R. George Kirkpatrick, R. Rainey, and K. Rubi, “Pagan Renaissance and Wiccan Witchcraft in Industrial Society: A Study in Parasociology and the Sociology of Enchantment,” paper presented to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Knoxville, TN, November 4, 1983.

(44.) Cynthia Eller, Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 132–133.

(45.) See, for example, the Druidic writer John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism (Tucson, AZ: ADF Press, 2005).

(46.) Jone Salomonsen, Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco (London: Routledge, 2002), 8–10.

(47.) Catherine Albanese, Nature Religion in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

(48.) Gordon Kennedy, “Children of the Sonne: Wandervogel, Reformers, Hippies, Greens, Naturmenschen, and Ferals,” Tyr 3 (2007–2008): 193–214.

(49.) See the chapter “Calling It Nature Religion,” in Chas S. Clifton, Her Hidden Children, 37–70.

(50.) Michael York, Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 167–168.