Neopaganism

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Neopaganism or Neo-Paganism is an umbrella term used to identify a wide variety of new religious movements, particularly those influenced by ancient and pre-Abrahamic Pagan religions.[1]

These movements are extremely diverse. The beliefs of adherents of Neopaganism range widely from duotheism to polytheism, and even monotheistic and other paradigms. Many Neopagans practice a spirituality that is entirely modern in origin, while others attempt to reconstruct or revive culturally historic Pagan and indigenous belief systems.

Contents

Etymology

The word Pagan comes from the Latin (paganus, literally country dweller), originally meaning rustic or from the country. As the cities converted to Christianity, the rural folk held onto their old beliefs longer. Always pejorative, pagan was applied to polytheistic religions to indicate they were nothing more than the rural superstitions of the uneducated farmers. Neopaganism may be defined as a "post-Christian" new religious movement, and is pronouncedly a modern phenomenon with its roots in early 19th century Romanticism. Other Neopagans stress a connectedness or lineage with older forms of Paganism in terms of an alleged "underground" continuity or tradition.

Modern usage of the terms "Pagan" and "Neopagan"

The term "Neopagan" is used by academics and adherents alike to identify Pagan traditions which are largely modern in origin, or which are conceived as reconstructions, continuations or revivals of ancient practices. While "pagan" (lowercase) is still used by many to denote an irreligious person, adherents of modern Pagan and Neopagan religions capitalize these words because, in these cases, the words are being used to describe a religion, or members of a religion, "in the same way as one would describe a 'Christian' or a 'Jew'."

The term "Neopagan" provides a means of distinguishing between historical Pagans of ancient cultures and the adherents of modern religious movements. The category of religions known as "Neopagan" includes Wicca, Non-Wiccan Religious Witchcraft, Neodruid faiths, and many others.

"Reconstructionists" - those who practice modern forms of culturally-specific historical Pagan religions - sometimes self-identify as Pagan and Neopagan, depending on their respective personal or group belief. Generally, most Reconstructionists avoid usage of the term "Neopagan" and even "Pagan", instead preferring terms like "polytheist", or traditional terms from the languages of their specific cultures. Some Reconstructionists do not identify as part of the Neopagan community, although in a purely technical & semantic sense, their traditions are "Neopagan" since even the most historically accurate reconstructions are now being practiced by modern people in a contemporary context.

History

Neopaganism began with the 19th century Romantic movement, and the surge of interest in Germanic paganism with the Viking revival in the British Isles and in Scandinavia. In Germany the Völkisch movement was in full swing. These Neopagan currents resulted in a wide-spread interest in folklore, ecology, occultism, romanticism and nationalism.

During this resurgence in the UK, Neo-Druidism and various Western occult groups emerged like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis who attempted to syncretize "exotic" elements like Egyptian cosmology and Kaballah into their belief systems, although not necessarily for purely religious purposes. Influenced by the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, several prominent writers and artists were involved in these organizations, including William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Arthur Edward Waite, and Aleister Crowley. Along with these early occult organizations, there were other social phenomena such as the interest in mediumship, and an interest in magic and other supernatural beliefs which were at an all time high in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

In the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the witchcraft prosecutions by ecclesiastic and state courts. Most historians now reject Murray's theory, as it was partially based on the similarities of the accounts given by those accused of witchcraft and such similarity is thought to actually derive from the standard set of questions laid out in witch-hunting manuals that were used by interrogators.

In the 1940s, Englishman Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a New Forest coven led by a woman named "Old Dorothy", whom some surmise was actually a woman named Dorothy Clutterbuck - an ex-colonial woman returned from India. Gardner had already written about Malay native customs, as well as books about witchcraft. Gardnerian Wicca is used to refer to the traditions of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, differentiating it from similar traditions, such as Alexandrian Wicca.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence in Neodruidism as well as the rise of Germanic Neopaganism and Ásatrú in the USA and in Iceland. The 1980s and 1990s saw, on the one hand, an increasing interest in serious academic research and Reconstructionist Pagan traditions, and on the other, more New Age, counter-cultural, and commercialized perceptions of Neopaganism, derided by some Neopagans as "Wicca Lite". In the 2000s, the community is incredibly large, diverse, and (given some of the above differences) sometimes polarized.

Oberon Zell-Ravenheart was a modern popularizer of the phrase "Neo-Pagan", beginning in 1967 with the early issues of Green Egg, described as being published by "the 1st Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds"

Historical sources

Many Neopagans and Neopagan traditions attempt to incorporate elements of historical religions, cultures and mythologies into their beliefs and practices, often emphasizing the hoary age of their sources. Thus, Wicca in particular is sometimes referred to by its proponents as the "Old Religion", a term popularized by Margaret Murray in the 1920s, while Germanic Neopaganism (more properly defined as a Meso-Paganism) is referred to as Forn Sed or "the Old Way". Such emphasis on the antiquity of religious tradition is not exclusive to Neopaganism, and is found in many other religions. For example the terms Purana, Sanatana Dharma, and the emphasis on the antiquity of the Ancient Egyptian sources of the Hellenistic Mystery religions. Antiquity of source suggests authenticity and authority to many believers.

Some claims of continuity between Neopaganism and older forms of Paganism have been shown to be spurious, or outright false, as in the case of Iolo Morganwg's Druid's Prayer. Wiccan beliefs of an ancient monotheistic Goddess were inspired by Marija Gimbutas's description of Neolithic Europe. The factual historical validity of her theories have been disputed by many scholars, including historian Ronald Hutton.

While most Neopagans draw from old religious traditions, they also adapt them. The mythologies of the ancient traditions are not generally considered to be literally factual by Neopagans, in the sense that the Bible and other Abrahamic texts are often thought of by their followers. Eclectic Neopagans in particular are resistant to the concept of scripture or excessive structure, considering personal freedom to be one of the primary goals of their spirituality. In contrast, some Reconstructionist sects, like those who practice Theodism, take a stricter religious approach, and only recognize certain historical texts and sources as being relevant to their belief system, intentionally focusing on one culture to the exclusion of others, and having a general disdain for the eclectic mentality.

The mythological sources of the various Neopagan traditions are similarly varied, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Egyptian and others. Some groups focus solely on one cultural tradition, while others draw from several. For example, Doreen Valiente's text The Charge of the Goddess used materials from The Gospel of Aradia by Charles G. Leland (1899), as well as material from Aleister Crowley's writings.

Some Neopagans also draw inspiration from modern traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism and others, creating syncretisms like "Christian Witchcraft" or "Buddheo-Paganism". Since many Neopagan beliefs do not require exclusivity, some Neopagans practice other faiths in parallel or dual trad.

Since eclectic Neopagans take a rather undogmatic religious stance,[1] and sometimes see no one as having authority to deem a source "apocryphal", Neopaganism has been notably prone to fakelore, especially in recent years, as information and misinformation alike have been spread on the Internet and in print media.

Ecological and mystical currents

Neopaganism generally emphasizes the sanctity of Earth and Nature. Some Neopagans are influenced by Animist traditions of the indigenous Native Americans and Africans.

Neopagans often feel a duty to protect the Earth through activism, and support causes such as rainforest protection, Organic farming, permaculture, animal rights and so on - the frequent embracing of animal rights by Neopagans stands sharpy at odds with historic European Paganism, in which animal sacrifice was all but universal.[2]

Many Neopagans refer to themselves as following Nature-based spirituality, and this ethic links Neopagan spiritual practitioners with indigenous, shamanic, and traditions that supposedly pre-date agricultural civilizations.

Concepts of the divine

Most Neopagan traditions are polytheistic, but the interpretation of the concept of deity or deities varies widely, including monist, pantheist, dualist, deist, animist, henotheist, psychological and mystical variations and interpretations.

Hutton states that the historical Pagans did not see "All Goddesses as one Goddess; all Gods as one God", but some types of modern Neopagans believe that there is but a single divinity or life force of the universe, which is immanent in the world. The various manifestations and archetypes of this divinity are not viewed as wholly separate, but as different aspects of the divine which are ineffable.

In Wicca, (especially Dianic Wicca) the concept of an Earth or Mother Goddess similar to the Greek Gaia is emphasized. Male counterparts are also evoked, such as the Green Man and the Horned God (who is loosely based on the Celtic Cernunnos.) These duo-theistic philosophies tend to emphasize the God and Goddess' (or Lord and Lady's) genders as being analogous to a concept similar to that of yin and yang in ancient Chinese philosophy; ie, two complementary opposites. Many Oriental philosophies equate weakness with femininity and strength with masculinity; this is not the prevailing attitude in Neopaganism and Wicca. Among many Neopagans, there is a strong desire to incorporate the female aspects of the divine in their worship and within their lives, which can partially explain the attitude which sometimes manifests as the veneration of women. Other Neopagans reject the concept of binary gender roles.

Historical Paganism, particularly in the Mediterranean, tended to regard beliefs as valid as long as they conformed to the traditions and customs, or cultural patrimony of the people. As Christian eschatology became a rising force, Pagan thinkers such as Celsus and the Roman Emperor Julian wrote arguments against Christian claims and in defense of the traditional religions which give us insight into their contrasting beliefs.

Worship and ritual

Many Neopagan traditions include occult or "magical" elements in their beliefs and practices. Wicca in particular emphasises the role of witchcraft and ritual. Other Neopagan traditions may include a belief in the supernatural, but place much less emphasis on the working of magic.

Most Neopagan religions celebrate the cycles and seasons of nature through a festival calendar that honors these changes. The timing of festivals, and the rites celebrated, may vary from climate to climate, and will also vary (sometimes widely) depending upon which particular Neopagan religion the adherent subscribes to.

Number of adherents

Adherents.com estimates that there are one million Neopagans in the world today. It is necessary to clearly define which groups are included in any estimate, using the term "Neopagan" or "Pagan". There is a distinct difference between Western Paganism and Neopaganism (which are technically or outright New Religious Movements), and the ethnic and indigenous beliefs of peoples across the world. Thus, if one used the Abrahamic definition of "pagan" to describe these peoples who do not subscribe to an Abrahamic belief, the numbers of "Pagans" and "Neopagans" would increase by millions.

Most Neopagans do not have distinct temples, usually holding rituals in private homes or sacred groves and other outdoor locations. Many adherents keep their faith secret for fear of religious persecution. Many also practice their faith as "Solitaries" (short for "solitary practitioners"), and work within no fixed spiritual community.

A study by Ronald Hutton compared a number of different sources (including membership lists of major UK organizations, attendance at major events, subscriptions to magazines, etc.) and used standard models for extrapolating likely numbers. This estimate accounted for multiple membership overlaps as well as the number of adherents represented by each attendee of a Neopagan gathering. Hutton estimated that there are 250,000 Neopagan adherents in the United Kingdom, roughly equivalent to the national Hindu community.

In the United States, the ARIS 2001 study based on a poll conducted by The Graduate Center at The City University of New York found that an estimated 140,000 people self-identified as Pagans; 134,000 self-identified as Wiccans; and 33,000 self-identified as Druids. This would bring the total of groups largely accepted under the modern popular western definition of Neopagan to 307,000. Other groups measured in the report, such as Native Americans, New Agers and a significant portion of Unitarian Universalists, could be categorized under this definition, but many of these adherents would not consider themselves Pagan nor would the mainstream Pagan communities accept them as such.

The Covenant of the Goddess conducted a poll of U.S. and Canadian Neopagans in 1999 that estimated the population in those countries at 768,400. This would seem to support the view that there are at least one million adherents, worldwide. This poll was not scientific and represents a self selected subset of all Neopagans, but it does provide some interesting insights that confirm what many Neopagans 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 three times as many women as men (71%) 13% have served in the Armed Forces, and Neopagan women served at a higher rate than the general population - 32% of Neopagans who reported having been in the Armed Forces were female

Forms

The term "Neopaganism" encompasses a very broad range of groups and beliefs. Syncretic or eclectic approaches are usually inspired by historical traditions, but not bound by any strict identification with a historical religion or culture. Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, British Traditional Wicca, and variations such as Dianic Wicca are examples of eclectic traditions, as are Neo-druid groups like Ár nDraíocht Féin.

Wicca

See main article: Wicca

Reconstructionism

In contrast to the eclectic traditions, Reconstructionists are usually very culturally oriented and attempt to reconstruct historical forms of Paganism, in a modern context. For example, adherents of Hellenic polytheism reconstruct the practices and beliefs of Ancient Greece, while Kemetic, Celtic and Germanic Reconstructionists practice the indigenous beliefs of Ancient Egypt, Celtic Paganism and Germanic Paganism, respectively.

Syncretism

Syncretic traditions like Santeria, Candomble, Voudou and others often combine elements from Roman Catholic Christianity and West African animism. Syncretic traditions are often a result of colonialism and the oppression of indigenous belief systems. Rather than abandon their cultural heritage, conquered or enslaved people would often put new faces on their existing gods and goddesses. For example, in the case of the Afro-Caribbean tradition of Santeria, the Orishas of the West African Yoruba people lived on behind the masks of Catholic saints. Yemaya, Goddess of the sea, Mother of the gods, was represented by the Virgin Mary. Chango, the God of fire and thunder, was represented by Saint Barbara. There are other historical syncretisms that happened in a less oppressive way, such as the Scottish traditions that are a product of centuries of combined Norse and Celtic influence. The early Celtic church was an excellent example of syncretism at work, and it wasn't until the end of the 8th century A.D. that Rome had managed to get its half-pagan Irish child properly Christianized. In early Medieval times, a sacred flame was tended at the monastery of St. Brigid in the same area (in Kildare or in nearby Dun Ailinne) where Pagan priestesses previously kept vigil tending a flame. Now the Kildare Cathedral stands on those grounds.

Other forms

Eco-Paganism and Eco-Magic, which are off-shoots of direct action environmental groups, have a strong emphasis on fairy imagery and a belief in the possibility of intercession by the fae (fairies, pixies, gnomes, elves, and other spirits of nature and the Otherworlds

Techno-Pagans are inspired by modern technology, especially computers and rave music.

Some Unitarian Universalists are eclectic Pagans. Unitarian Universalists look for spiritual inspiration in a wide variety of religious beliefs. The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, or CUUPs, encourages their member chapters to "use practices familiar to members who attend for worship services but not to follow only one tradition of Paganism.

See also

Further reading

External links

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