Several people chuckled when they walked past Room 513B during the 2009 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, held in Montréal. The title of the session within was simply “Idolatry,” held by the AAR’s Contemporary Pagan Studies Group, papers such as “Materiality and Spirituality Aren’t Opposites (Necessarily): Paganism and Objects” were presented.
The nervous laughter at the session’s title shows that even among scholars of religion, topics of polytheism and idolatry seem quaint, antique, and even trivial. Do people still even take them seriously?
Indeed, they do. Pagan religions, both newly envisioned and reconstructed on ancient patterns, are growing throughout the world. In addition, followers of these newer Paganisms, such as Wicca, Druidry, and reconstructed Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Greek, and other traditions, have begun to reach out to people attempting to maintain other indigenous or tribal traditions.
In the English-speaking world, the best-known new Pagan religion is Wicca, which is one form of Pagan witchcraft. Arguably rooted in Romantic ideas — appreciation of nature, an idealization of the “folk soul” and the countryside, a great appreciation of feminine principles — it was created around 1950 by a retired civil servant and spiritual seeker named Gerald Gardner (1884–1964). Gardner did not seek a mass movement but more of a “mystery cult” in the classical sense — small groups of initiates who would meet according to the lunar calendar to worship a goddess symbolized by the Moon and a god symbolized by (among other things) a stag or goat or the Sun, and to perform magic.
Wicca, as the British historian Ronald Hutton has noted, is the “the only religion that England has given the world.” Lacking missionaries, Wicca, which can be practiced solo or in groups, spread by books and later the Internet — where it can be found not just in the English-speaking world, but also in Western Europe, Brazil, Russia, and Mexico, among others.
While fraternal and cultural Druidic groups existed in the British Isles from the eighteenth century onwards, it was only in the mid-twentieth century that self-consciously Pagan Druidism began, seeking to restore both a harmonious relationship with nature (Druids are frequent eco-protestors) and to restore the relationships with ancient British deities.
By contrast with Wiccan individuality, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have seen the rise of numerous Pagan groups that claim to express the true identities of Baltic and Slavic people. Among the first were Pagan movements that blossomed in the Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania after the collapse of imperial Russia, offering a return to folk roots severed by the violent arrival of Christianity in the late Middle Ages. In Latvia, Pagans called Dievturi sought to reconstruct traditional religion through the study and performance of dainas (folksongs), traditional arts, archaeology, folk healing, and other practices, while denouncing Christian clergy as “alien preachers.” A key leader, Ernests Brastiņš (1892–1942), was arrested and executed by the Soviet Union after the Red Army swept into Latvia.
Similarly in Lithuania, nineteenth-century folklorists collected songs that twentieth-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). As in Latvia, when Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, Romuva was outlawed and persisted only underground and among Lithuanian immigrants in North America. With independence regained, the new national government recognized Romuva as a “non-traditional” religion in 1995, because of its organizational newness.
Now Russia itself has its own “Native Faith” movement, challenging the Russian Orthodox Church as to which best expresses “true Russian spirituality,” while similar movements have arisen in Ukraine, Poland, and elsewhere. In Scandinavia, followers of Norse “Native Faith” groups also meet. One is Ásatrú (followers of the Norse gods), especially prominent in Iceland, where construction of a new, purpose-built temple began in 2015.
Ásatrú has planted roots in North America, part of a larger Heathen revival, to use a more general term for Norse and Germanic reconstructed Paganism. But America’s and Canada’s cultural history are different than Iceland or Latvia; here religious identity cannot be linked to cultural heritage in the same way. From Wicca to Ásatrú, all these forms of Paganism pose a problem for both scholars’ and the general public’s understanding of “religion.”
Paganism is polytheistic, although Pagans themselves debate just how separate and distinct their gods actually area. There are no elevated prophets and no holy scriptures — although Pagans themselves produce a plethora of books, blogs, and journals. Scholars whose approach is primarily textual may find little to grasp, unless they return to ancient texts like the Iliad or the Eddas to understand how they shape contemporary practice.
Pagans expect that divinity can manifest in many ways: through a ritual participant temporarily “ridden” by a god or goddess, through art, through natural features such as trees or rivers, or through ecstatic experience of any sort. Sometimes this principle of relationship is stated as, “Pagan mysticism is horizontal, not vertical.” While humans are fallible and make mistakes, no contemporary Pagan religion preaches hell and damnation. (An acceptance of reincarnation is fairly common.)
Pagan religion identity is fluid. The same individual might be initiated in a Vodú “house” and attend a ritual blot at an Ásatrú hof. Contemporary Paganism is relational rather than revelatory. Instead of being told how to worship the One God, a Pagan might form ritual and personal relationships with several who have spoken to him or her through dreams or other life experiences.
Even the term “worship” is problematic among many Pagans, since it suggests submitting to an absolute ruler and begging for favors. “To honor” is often preferred.
Increasingly, polytheistic, animist, and tribal religions begin to make common cause in an inter-connected world. With no one god/one book/one truth ideology, and no mandate to convert “unbelievers,” Pagans of all sorts are more likely to support each other against monotheisms that bulldoze their uniqueness. They challenge the claim that polytheism is merely a stage on the way to “true religion” or to moving “beyond religion.” They affirm that their “horizontal” relationship with divinity embraces an environmental ethic that no longer treats the natural world in only utilitarian ways.
Featured image credit: Hellen ritual by YSEE. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.