CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

Varieties of Neo-Paganism

Frederic Lamond

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

Neo-Paganism is one of the broadest religious concepts used today.  Among people who call themselves “pagan” or “heathen” you will find:

How can a single concept cover such a variety of different attitudes?

An originally pejorative term taken up as a banner

‘Paganism’ is derived from the Latin ‘paganus’ meaning a countryman.  But in the mouths of the sophisticated townspeople of Ancient Rome it soon acquired the same contemptuous meaning as the English ‘yokel’ or American ‘redneck’.  The Roman army then adopted it as a term of contempt for civilians, and in due course the Christians for those who had not yet enrolled in Christ’s army, most of whom were indeed country people.  To the Christian churches anyone who does not subscribe to one of the monotheist religions of the Book – Christianity, Judaism or Islam – is a ‘Pagan’ and this term embraces Hindus, Taoists, African traditional religionists, Native Americans, and even atheists like Richard Dawkins.

The alternative term ‘Heathen’ derived from the German ‘Heide’ is even worse. It implies someone living on the heaths, and therefore a palaeolithic hunter-gatherer rather than a farmer.

As often happens with pejorative terms their targets adopt them as their self-defining flags, and this happened in the last quarter of the 19th century to the terms ‘Pagan’ and ‘Heathen’. Those who rejected all monotheistic faiths but were still mystical or religious proclaimed:  “Yes!  We are Pagans!”  but their motives for doing so were and are as varied as the groups whom the churches had previously labelled as such.

The Ethnic Religions

On the right conservative end of the spectrum we have the socalled ‘ethnic’ religions. Their main reproach against the Christian churches is to have deprived them of their ancestral ethnic myths and to have imposed on them the ethnic myths of a wandering near-Eastern desert tribe of three thousand years ago.  One can see their point: Why should young Germans or Scandinavians have to learn about Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, etc rather than about Odin, Thor and Baldur?

One of the earliest and most consistent of these nationalist paganisms has been the Lithuanian one, because the belated adoption of Christianity in Lithuania in 1378 CE coincided with the loss of Lithuanian independence.  The king of Polandof the time had only a daughter and greatly admired the Grand Duke of Lithuania for his martial leadership qualities. So he offered him the hand of his daughter and the succession to the Polish crown (which was not elective at that time) on condition that he convert to Christianity, which the Grand Duke did.  Thus began the Polish-Lithuanian Union which endured until the first partition of Poland in 1772 when the Russian Empire absorbed Lithuania.

The Grand Duke and his successors did nothing, however, to impose Catholic Christianity on his subjects, leaving that to Polish missionaries who were mostly too lazy to learn Lithuanian.  Catholicism only took root in the Lithuanian countryside in the late 19th century as a way of spiting the Russian czar who had tried to force Catholic priests to convert to Russian Orthodoxy after the 1863 Polish rebellion, in which a number of Lithuanian noble families had taken part.  Among Lithuanian intellectuals, however,  the old Pagan religion remained an essential aspect of Lithuanian national identity.  In 1987, two years before Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and four years before Lithuanian independence, I was shown a book printed in Lithuanian in Cleveland, Ohio.  Entitled “Old Lithuanian folk tales” it showed the sun goddess Saulé in Lithuanian costume on the cover zapping two serpents with thunderbolts from each hand:  one serpent had the hammer and sickle on its head, the other the Christian cross.

Since Lithuanian independence in 1991 the Lithuanian Pagan movement Romuva has taken the lead in establishing the World Council of Ethnic Religions (WCER), to which the Nordic, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian Pagan movements also belong, and which a Hindu organisation has recently joined. The next WCER annual meeting will take place in Delhi in January 2006.

The best known of the ethnic religions in Western Europe and North America is the Nordic one, also called Odinism or Asatru (loyal to the Aesir, the divine ancestors of the Indo-European tribes which conquered Germany and Scandinavia). A child of the German Romantic movement it acquired a considerable following in Germany in the first three decades of the 20th century and was a Nature worshipping as much as a nationalist religion.  When Hitler came to power the Nazis tried to absorb Odinism into the Nazi ideology, and some (but not all) of its leaders accepted. Himmler made it the SS religion.  As a result it acquired the reputation of being a far right if not a Neo-Nazi religion, a reputation it still has in Germany and Austria.

 Today’s Nordic Pagan movements are found not only in Germany, Austria,  Scandinavia, Holland, England and North America, but also in France, Spain and Portugal, which had been conquered  1600 years ago by the Franks and the Visigoths. They have grown in these countries since the 1970s, partly as a reaction to the growth of the Wiccan Goddess religion and its followers` adoption of Celtic names for their festivals and Celtic mythology.  English and other Northern Europeans who had no Celtic ancestry were therefore led to explore the Nordic mythology and gods and goddesses.

In Italy we have the adherents of the Roman Traditional Religion,  who reproach the Catholic Church with having opposed Italian unification in the 19th century, since this deprived the Church of its lands in Central Italy.


Patriarchal Values

The adherents of these ethnic religions aim to reestablish the way of life of their Pagan ancestors, and this was and is just as patriarchal as that taught by the Christian churches, if not more so.  The home pages of most of the Nordic movements, including the Odinic Rite in Germany and England, and Odinshof in England, proclaim the “Nine Noble Virtues” of Odinism:  Honour, Loyalty, Courage,  Hospitality, Truthfulness, Self-control,  Endurance,  Willingness to Work and Self-reliance.  These are admirable qualities calculated to keep young men off drugs and encourage them to make a useful contribution to society, but they are typical warrior virtues. The mental image they conjure up is of the Klingons in the Startrek TV series,  which is not so far fetched since the favourite activity of many Odinists seems to be Viking reenactments in imitation costumes of the period and large swords or battleaxes.

The Odinshof home page in England has a women’s section for the ‘Daughters of Frigg’ (Odin’s wife according to one of the Nordic legends).  It states:

“Women have always been regarded as men’s equals in the Nordic tradition, which is why they don’t need to affirm their equality by competing with men in men’s traditional jobs. A Daughter of Frigg can best fulfill herself by making a good home for her husband and children and backing him in his endeavours.”

It and other Odinist homepages stress strict heterosexual monogamy and faithfulness and regard any form of homosexuality as degraded and against Nature.  The only facet of this ethic with which Pope Benedict XVI would take issue is that Odinists worship Odin, Thor and Baldur instead of the Christian Trinity.

Political attitudes include an opposition to immigration into Europe of people from different cultures and ethnic brackgrounds (especially Islamic and African),  and to “miscegenation” i.e. inter-ethnic marriages.  They do not, however, these days claim any cultural superiority for their race or their religion.  “The African orishas are probably just as powerful as the Nordic gods and goddesses, but for Africans living in Africa.”


From Witchcraft Reconstruction to Wicca

At the opposite end of the Pagan spectrum we have the Witchcraft Reconstruction movement, which originated also in the second half of the 19th century with the publication of Jules Michelet’s book “La sorcière” in 1864 and of G. Leland’s “Aradia, the Gospel of the Witches” in 1998. They presented witchcraft as a surviving pagan religion of the oppressed French and Italian peasants in opposition to the Christian church seen as supporting the oppressive nobility.  This is ahistorical because country witchcraft found throughout Europe has been and is primarily a craft of herbal remedies, spell casting, horse whispering and weather influence that is not explicitly anti-Christian (though the churches have traditionally disapproved of it), and its spells call on the Virgin Mary and various Christian saints as frequently as on various demons.

As a popular liberation ideology from feudal and capitalist oppression witchcraft reconstruction was pipped to the post by Marxist communist atheism, but it appealed to people who reproached the Christian churches for their patriarchal values,  their exclusion of women from the priesthood, and their repressive attitudes to human sexuality. They therefore revived the worship of the Neolithic Earth Mother Goddess, worshipped under the names of Inanna and Ishtar in ancient Mesopotamia, Isis, Nephtys and Hathor in Egypt, and Demeter, Cybele and Aphrodite in ancient Greece, together with their consort gods of fertility, notably the Greek Pan and the Etruscan Cernunnos. 

 This movement remained, however, small and limited to some magical lodges and witchcraft reconstruction covens, which proliferated after the publication of Margaret Murray’s “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” in 1920.  It only burst into public view with the publication of Gerald Gardner’s “Witchcraft Today” in 1954. Gardner borrowed rituals from Freemasonry, the Key of Solomon and Aleister Crowley’s Gnostic Mass to create a Neoplatonic initiatory mystery cult, which has been called Wicca since the late 1960s to distinguish it from generic country witchcraft.  Uninitiated Goddess worshippers call themselves Pagans.

 This too might have remained comparatively small had it not been adopted by the religious wing of the  Feminist movement in the late 1960s. Since then it has expanded rapidly and is now the dominant Pagan tradition in the English speaking countries and since the 1990s also in Protestant Northern Europe. It is only recently that it has begun to expand into Catholic Southern Europe, where people have always had the Virgin Mary as a feminine object of reverence.

Goddess worshipping Paganism is supposed to be balanced between the Earth Mother Goddess and the Horned God of fertility, but it hasn’t worked out like this in practice. Probably because of the influence of the Feminist movement, the Goddess is clearly dominant and inspires woman worshippers with strong self-confidence, which the Horned God figure fails to do to men.  This has led many of them to migrate to the Northern tradition.

Goddess worshipping Pagans are pantheists who regard our bodies and instincts just as much incarnations of the divine as our rational minds.  Their ethics are liberal and permissive “If it harms none, do what you will!”  and sexual desire and activity are regarded as sacred as long as they express mutual respect and love before, during and even outside marriage.

Between these two extremes we have various Druid movements – a concept even more elastic than Pagan – and the ceremonial  Fellowship of Isis, which are, however, closer to Wicca than to the Nordic tradition.

Inter-traditional Relationships

At the moment the two main branches of the Pagan movement keep each other at arm’s length and affirm their separate identities.  Thus in English speaking countries, the adherents of the Nordic religion prefer to call themselves ‘Heathens’  rather than ‘Pagans’, since the latter term is closely associated with the Goddess movement.  On the  American Email group for the Lithuanian Romuva adherents it is clearly stated: “Discussion of Wicca is off-topic.”

In German speaking countries the term ‘Heide’ is so closely associated with the Nordic tradition and far right nationalist politics that Goddess worshippers avoid it as a self description, preferring the names ‘Wicca’ in Germany even when they have not been initiated into that coven based mystery cult, and ‘Hexe’ (witch) in Austria even when they practise no magical spell casting.

Yet the two branches also have a lot in common.  Both are concerned about the environment and practise seasonal rituals out of doors, that celebrate the passing of the seasons rather than historical events as Jewish, Christian and Muslim festivals do.  Both oppose the globalisation of Hollywood and McDonalds mass consumerist culture,  the Goddess worshippers because of its threat to the environment, the ethnic religions because of its threat to their cultural identities.  And both are beginning to moderate their more extreme positions and thereby move closer to each other.

Thus the younger generations of Wiccans and other Goddess worshippers have long since dropped the free love values of the 1960s and practise the same serial monogamy as their non-Pagan contemporaries. They recognise also that the many gods and goddesses of antiquity and of contemporary India and Africa each have their own distinct personalities and are not just different names for a single Goddess and God. This leads many Wiccans to search for a stronger male God icon to give their male members the same backbone that the Goddess(es) gives women members.

Meanwhile, some branches of the Nordic religion in North America and England are beginning to give equal weight to the Vanir Freya and Frey – the traditional Nordic Earth and fertility deities – and their magical tradition called seidr - as to the ancestral Aesir. This gives their women the same strong self confidence as Wiccan priestesses enjoy and alternative role models to the faithful wife and mother.

Frederic Lamond has written two books on contemporary Paganism:

·       Religion without Beliefs,  Janus Publishing 1997,

·       Fifty Years of Wicca,  Green Magic Books 2004.