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Pagan ritual

Archaic and postmodern, today’s pagans challenge ideas about ‘religion’

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.

Wiccan event
Wiccan event in the US, by Ycco. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. reyn

    Absolutely true. The only danger to neoPaganism in all its forms is the lack of a formal clergy. By which I mean a group of people, trained in the theology and how to care for the community. The group we used to belong to prior to moving had an actual leader, a clergyman who helped the poor, visited the sick and ran our group. He was a member of the local clergy council and took a rotation praying at the opening of city council meetings. The group numbered in the hundreds – because we had an actual minister. Yep, seemed like a church – but it met people’s needs in ways that I have not seen other neoPagan groups do, except in one other case where they also had a building and a minister.

  2. Aline O'Brien

    Really nice, Chas. Useful piece for Interfaith work. Macha

  3. TMoon

    Great article! Also, I will second what reyn says, in that there is a need for leaders trained formally in theology and pastoral care.

  4. Niniann Lacasse

    I’ve been a member of ADF (Ar nDraiocht Fein) , a druid order based in the US, for nearly ten years. I have always felt totally supported by our clergy. I am an older pagan with a disability following an Irish polytheist practice within ADF. I have had clergy and lay members of ADF travel from long distances to visit and join with me in ADF ritual. I have good relationships on line with other ADF clergy members that provide spiritual support and educational information. I have been able to attend ADF events in the Northeast region that have been organized by ADF clergy. All the clergy I have met have been welcoming, knowledgeable, and well trained in their leadership roles. ADF has an excellent clergy training program.

  5. Dominic Wetherell

    I think it is also fair to point out that a lack of clergy is a strength too. One of the main reasons many pagans become pagan is that they reject the indoctrination of the monotheistic and book based religions. The last thing we need is a pagan clergy telling us what to believe or how to practice our faith. Pagans in my experience are a very independant bunch of people devoted to following our OWN path whatever that may be. The numbers of solitary practitioners are proportionally much higher in paganism compared to other religions for exactly that reason.

  6. Mac Dvora Sintes

    This is a great article, both in breadth and depth. Being solitary, I’ve never encountered clergy personally, only “leaders” organizing a multi-path social group, but I’ve read about them. I thought that there are seminaries, some more highly regarded than others, to produce trained clergy, and nearly every group has a track for becoming fully trained clergy, though they may not be accepted by non-Pagan faiths. As a solitary who is disabled, I don’t get out much, so maybe I’m mistaken about this. I hope not, because I think we need such clergy.

  7. Adam

    I unlike others do not want clergy or any form of higher..i dont understand the need for people to be told what us right what is wrong and how to do things..the religion is fluid what one thinks or feels may not be as others do..thus it is nat a natural thing to have a full blown leader unless in a coven or small group.and one is needed to bring likeness and clarity

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