Modern Paganism

Modern Paganism, also known as Contemporary Paganism and Neopaganism, is a collective term for new religious movements influenced by or derived from the various historical pagan beliefs of pre-modern Europe, North Africa and the Near East. Although they do share similarities, contemporary Pagan religious movements are diverse, and no single set of beliefs, practices or texts are shared by them all. Most academics studying the phenomenon have treated it as a movement of different religions, whereas a minority instead characterise it as a single religion into which different Pagan faiths fit as denominations. Not all members of faiths or beliefs regarded as Neopagan self-identify as “Pagan“.

Adherents rely on pre-Christian, folkloric and ethnographic sources to a variety of degrees; many follow a spirituality which they accept as being entirely modern, while others attempt to reconstruct or revive indigenous, ethnic religions as found in historical and folkloric sources as accurately as possible. Academic research has placed the Pagan movement along a spectrum, with Eclecticism on one end and Polytheistic Reconstructionism on the other. Polytheism, animism and pantheism are common features in Pagan theology. Rituals take place in both public and in private domestic settings.

The Pagan relationship with Christianity is often strained. Contemporary Paganism has sometimes been associated with the New Age movement, with scholars highlighting both similarities and differences. From the 1990s onwards, scholars studying the modern Pagan movement have established the academic field of Pagan studies.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and other members of the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið conduct a blót on the First Day of Summer in 2009

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and other members of the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið conduct a blót on the First Day of Summer in 2009



There is “considerable disagreement as to the precise definition and proper usage” of the term “modern Paganism“. Even within the academic field of Pagan studies, there is no consensus regarding how contemporary Paganism can best be defined. Most scholars describe modern Paganism as a broad array of different religions rather than a singular religion in itself. The category of modern Paganism could be compared to the categories of Abrahamic religion and Dharmic religion in its structure. A second, less common definition found within Pagan studies – where it has been promoted by the religious studies scholars Michael F. Strmiska and Graham Harvey – characterises modern Paganism as a singular religion, into which groups like Wicca, Druidry, and Heathenry fit as denominations. This perspective has been critiqued, given the lack of core commonalities in issues such as theology, cosmology, ethics, afterlife, holy days, or ritual practices within the Pagan movement.

Contemporary Paganism has been defined as “a collection of modern religious, spiritual, and magical traditions that are self-consciously inspired by the pre-Judaic, pre-Christian, and pre-Islamic belief systems of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East.” Thus, the view has been expressed that although “a highly diverse phenomenon”, there is nevertheless “an identifiable common element” running through the Pagan movement. Strmiska similarly described Paganism as a movement “dedicated to reviving the polytheistic, nature-worshipping pagan religions of pre-Christian Europe and adapting them for the use of people in modern societies.” The religious studies scholar Wouter Hanegraaff charactised Paganism as encompassing “all those modern movements which are, first, based on the conviction that what Christianity has traditionally denounced as idolatry and superstition actually represents/represented a profound and meaningful religious worldview and, secondly, that a religious practice based on this worldview can and should be revitalized in our modern world.”

Discussing the relationship between the different Pagan religions, religious studies scholars Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson stated that they were “like siblings who have taken different paths in life but still retain many visible similarities”. However, while viewing different forms of Paganism as distinct religions in their own right, there has been much “cross-fertilization” between these different faiths. Accordingly, many groups have exerted an influence on, and in turn have been influenced by, other Pagan religions, thus making clear-cut distinctions between them more difficult for religious studies scholars to make. The various Pagan religions have been academically classified as new religious movements, with the anthropologist Kathryn Rountree describing Paganism as a whole as a “new religious phenomenon”. A number of academics, particularly in North America, have considered modern Paganism to be a form of nature religion.

A Heathen shrine to the god Freyr, Sweden, 2010

A Heathen shrine to the god Freyr, Sweden, 2010

Some practitioners eschew the term “Pagan” altogether, choosing not to define themselves as such, but rather under the more specific name of their religion, like Heathen or Wiccan. This is because the term “Pagan” has its origins in Christian terminology, which the Pagans wish to avoid. Some favor the term “ethnic religion” over “Paganism” – for instance the World Pagan Congress, founded in 1998, soon renamed itself the European Congress of Ethnic Religions – enjoying that term’s association with the Greek ethnos and the academic field of ethnology. Within linguistically Slavic areas of Europe, the term “Native Faith” is often favored as a synonym for Paganism, being rendered as Ridnovirstvo in Ukrainian, Rodnoverie in Russian, and Rodzimowierstwo in Polish. Alternately, many practitioners within these regions view “Native Faith” as a category that exists within modern Paganism but which does not encompass all Pagan religions. Other terms sometimes favored by Pagans are “traditional religion”, “indigenous religion”, “nativist religion”, and “reconstructionism“.

Various Pagans – including those like Michael York and Prudence Jones who are active in Pagan studies – have argued that, due to similarities in their respective spiritual world-views, the modern Pagan movement can be treated as part of the same global phenomenon as both pre-Christian religion, living indigenous religions, and world religions like Hinduism, Shinto, and Afro-American religions. Further, they have suggested that all of these could be defined under the banner of “paganism” or “Paganism”. This approach has been received critically by many specialists in religious studies. Critics have pointed out that such claims would cause problems for analytic scholarship by categorising together belief systems with very significant differences, further noting that the term would instead serve modern Pagan interests by giving the movement the appearance of being far larger on the world stage. Doyle White stated that those modern religions which drew upon the pre-Christian belief systems of other parts of the world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa or the Americas, could not be seen as part of the contemporary Pagan movement, which was “fundamentally Eurocentric” in its focus. Similarly, Strmiska stressed that modern Paganism should not be conflated with the belief systems of the world’s indigenous peoples because the latter lived within the context of colonialism and its legacy, and that while some Pagan worldviews bore similarities to those of indigenous communities, they each stemmed from “different cultural, linguistic, and historical backgrounds.”

Reappropriation of “paganism”

Many scholars have favored the use of “Neopaganism” to describe this phenomenon, with the prefix “neo-” serving to clearly distinguish the modern religions from their ancient, pre-Christian counterparts. Some Pagan practitioners also prefer “Neopaganism”, believing that the prefix conveys the reformed nature of the religion, including for instance its rejection of superstition and animal sacrifice. Conversely, most Pagans do not use the word “Neopagan”, with some expressing disapproval of it, arguing that the term “neo” offensively disconnects them from what they perceive as their pre-Christian forebears. Accordingly, to avoid causing offense many scholars in the English-speaking world have begun using the prefixes “modern” or “contemporary” rather than “neo”. Several academics operating in Pagan studies, such as Ronald Hutton and Sabina Magliocco, have emphasized the use of the upper-case “Paganism” to distinguish the modern movement from the lower-case “paganism”, a term which is commonly used for pre-Christian belief systems. In 2015, Rountree stated that this lower case/upper case division was “now [the] convention” in Pagan studies.

The Parthenon, an ancient pre-Christian temple in Athens dedicated to the goddess Athena. Strmiska believed that modern Pagans in part reappropriate the term "pagan" to honor the cultural achievements of Europe's pre-Christian societies

The Parthenon, an ancient pre-Christian temple in Athens dedicated to the goddess Athena. Strmiska believed that modern Pagans in part reappropriate the term “pagan” to honor the cultural achievements of Europe’s pre-Christian societies

The term “neo-pagan” was coined in the 19th century in reference to Renaissance and Romanticist Hellenophile classical revivalism. By the mid-1930s the term “Neopagan” was being applied to new religious movements like Jakob Wilhelm Hauer’s German Faith Movement and Jan Stachniuk’s Polish Zadruga, usually by outsiders and often in a pejorative sense. Pagan as a self-designation appeared in 1964 and 1965, in the publications of the Witchcraft Research Association; at that time, the term was in use by revivalist Witches in the United States and the United Kingdom, but unconnected to the broader, counter-culture Pagan movement. The modern popularisation of the terms pagan and neopagan, as they are currently understood, is largely traced to Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, co-founder of the 1st Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds who, beginning in 1967 with the early issues of Green Egg, used both terms for the growing movement. This usage has been common since the pagan revival in the 1970s.

According to Strmiska, the reappropriation of the term “pagan” by modern Pagans served as “a deliberate act of defiance” against “traditional, Christian-dominated society”, allowing them to use it as a source of “pride and power”. In this, he compared it to the gay liberation movement’s reappropriation of the term “queer”, which had formerly been used only as a term of homophobic abuse. He suggested that part of the term’s appeal resided in the fact that a large proportion of Pagan converts were raised in Christian families, and that by embracing the term “pagan” – a word long used in reference to that which was “rejected and reviled by Christian authorities” – these converts are summarizing “in a single word his or her definitive break” from Christianity. He further suggested that the term “pagan” had been made appealing through its depiction in romanticist and European nationalist literature from the 19th century, where it had been imbued with “a certain mystery and allure”. A third point raised by Strmiska was that by embracing the word “pagan”, modern Pagans are defying past religious intolerance in order to honor the pre-Christian peoples of Europe and emphasize these societies’ cultural and artistic achievements.


Ethnicity and region

Some examples of symbols for various modern pagan religions

Some examples of symbols for various modern pagan religions

For some Pagan groups, ethnicity is central to their religion, and they often restrict membership to those who are of the same ethnic group as themselves. Critics of this position have described this exclusionary approach as a form of racism. Alternately, other Pagan groups allow individuals of any ethnicity to join them, expressing the view that the gods and goddesses of a particular region can call anyone to their worship. Sometimes such individuals express the view that they feel a particular affinity for the pre-Christian belief systems of a particular region with which they have no ethnic link because they see themselves as the reincarnation of an individual from that society. There is a greater focus on ethnicity within the Pagan movements of continental Europe than in those in North America and the British Isles. Such ethnic Paganisms have varyingly been seen as responses to concerns regarding foreign colonizing ideologies, globalization, cosmopolitanism, and anxieties about cultural erosion. Ethnically restricted groups will face challenges to their attitudes as Eastern and Northern Europe become increasingly ethnically diverse through migration and inter-marriage.

Although acknowledging that it was “a highly simplified model”, Aitamurto and Simpson commented that there was “some truth” to the claim that leftist-oriented forms of Paganism were prevalent in North America and the British Isles, whereas rightist-oriented forms of Paganism were prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe. They noted that in these latter regions, Pagan groups placed an emphasis on “the centrality of the nation, the ethnic group, or the tribe”. Rountree stated that it was wrong to assume that “expressions of Paganism can be categorized straight-forwardly according to region”, although acknowledged that some regional trends were visible, such as the impact of Catholicism on Paganism in Southern Europe.

Eclecticism and reconstructionism

Another division within modern Paganism rests on differing attitudes to the source material surrounding pre-Christian belief systems. Strmiska notes that Pagan groups can be “divided along a continuum: at one end are those that aim to reconstruct the ancient religious traditions of a particular ethnic group or a linguistic or geographic area to the highest degree possible; at the other end are those that freely blend traditions of different areas, peoples, and time periods.” Strmiska argues that these two poles could be termed reconstructionism and eclecticism, respectively. Reconstructionists do not altogether reject innovation in their interpretation and adaptation of the source material, however they do believe that the source material conveys greater authenticity and thus should be emphasized. They often follow scholarly debates about the nature of such pre-Christian religions, and some reconstructionists are themselves scholars. Eclectic Pagans, conversely, seek general inspiration from the pre-Christian past, and do not attempt to recreate past rites or traditions with specific attention to detail.

On the reconstructionist side can be placed those movements which often favour the designation “Native Faith”, including Romuva, Heathenry, and Hellenism.On the eclectic side has been placed Wicca, Thelema, Adonism, Druidry, the Goddess Movement, Discordianism and the Radical Faeries. Strmiska also suggests that this division could be seen as being based on “discourses of identity”, with reconstructionists emphasizing a deep-rooted sense of place and people, and eclectics embracing a universality and openness toward humanity and the Earth.

Strmiska nevertheless notes that this reconstructionist-eclectic division is “neither as absolute nor as straightforward as it might appear”. He cites the example of Dievturība, a form of reconstructionist Paganism that seeks to revive the pre-Christian religion of the Latvian people, by noting that it exhibits eclectic tendencies by adopting a monotheistic focus and ceremonial structure from Lutheranism. Similarly, while examining neo-shamanism among the Sami people of Northern Scandinavia, Siv Ellen Kraft highlights that despite the religion being reconstructionist in intent, it is highly eclectic in the manner in which it has adopted elements from shamanic traditions in other parts of the world. In discussing Asatro – a form of Heathenry based in Denmark – Matthew Amster notes that it did not fit clearly within such a framework, because while seeking a reconstructionist form of historical accuracy, Asatro nevertheless strongly eschewed the emphasis on ethnicity that is common to other reconstructionist groups. While Wicca is identified as an eclectic form of Paganism, Strmiska also notes that some Wiccans have moved in a more reconstructionist direction by focusing on a particular ethnic and cultural link, thus developing such variants as Norse Wicca and Celtic Wicca. Concern has also been expressed regarding the utility of the term “reconstructionism” when dealing with Paganisms in Central and Eastern Europe, because in many of the languages of these regions, equivalents of the term “reconstructionism” – such as the Czech Historická rekonstrukce and Lithuanian Istorinė rekonstrukcija – are already used to define the secular hobby of historical re-enactment.

Naturalism, ecocentrism, and secular paths

See also: Gaia hypothesisNaturalistic pantheism, and Secular paganism

Some Pagans distinguish their beliefs and practices as a form of religious naturalism, embracing a naturalistic worldview, including those who identify as humanistic or atheopagans. Many of these naturalistic Pagans aim for an explicitly nature-centered or ecocentric practice.


“Modern Pagans are reviving, reconstructing, and reimagining religious traditions of the past that were suppressed for a very long time, even to the point of being almost totally obliterated… Thus, with only a few possible exceptions, today’s Pagans cannot claim to be continuing religious traditions handed down in an unbroken line from ancient times to the present. They are modern people with a great reverence for the spirituality of the past, making a new religion – a modern Paganism – from the remnants of the past, which they interpret, adapt, and modify according to modern ways of thinking.”

— Religious studies scholar Michael Strmiska

Although inspired by the pre-Christian belief systems of the past, modern Paganism is not the same phenomenon as these lost traditions and in many respects differs from them considerably. Strmiska stresses that modern Paganism is a “new”, “modern” religious movement, even if some of its “content” derives from ancient sources. Contemporary Paganism as practiced in the United States in the 1990s has been described as “a synthesis of historical inspiration and present-day creativity”.

Eclectic Paganism takes an undogmatic religious stance, and therefore potentially sees no one as having authority to deem a source apocryphal. Contemporary paganism has therefore been prone to fakelore, especially in recent years as information and misinformation alike have been spread on the Internet and in print media. A number of Wiccan, pagan and even some Traditionalist or Tribalist groups have a history of Grandmother Stories – typically involving initiation by a Grandmother, Grandfather, or other elderly relative who is said to have instructed them in the secret, millennia-old traditions of their ancestors. As this secret wisdom can almost always be traced to recent sources, tellers of these stories have often later admitted they made them up. Strmiska asserts that contemporary paganism could be viewed as a part of the “much larger phenomenon” of efforts to revive “traditional, indigenous, or native religions” that were occurring across the globe.


Beliefs and practices vary widely among different Pagan groups; however, there are a series of core principles common to most, if not all, forms of modern paganism. The English academic Graham Harvey noted that Pagans “rarely indulge in theology”.

Romuvan priestess Inija Trinkūnienė leading a ritual

Romuvan priestess Inija Trinkūnienė leading a ritual


One principle of the Pagan movement is polytheism, the belief in and veneration of multiple gods or goddesses. Within the Pagan movement, there can be found many deities, both male and female, who have various associations and embody forces of nature, aspects of culture, and facets of human psychology. These deities are typically depicted in human form, and are viewed as having human faults. They are therefore not seen as perfect, but rather are venerated as being wise and powerful. Pagans feel that this understanding of the gods reflected the dynamics of life on Earth, allowing for the expression of humour.

One view in the Pagan community is that these polytheistic deities are not viewed as literal entities, but as Jungian archetypes or other psychological constructs that exist in the human psyche.Others adopt the belief that the deities have both a psychological and external existence. Many Pagans believe adoption of a polytheistic world-view would be beneficial for western society – replacing the dominant monotheism they see as innately repressive. In fact, many American neopagans first came to their adopted faiths because it allowed a greater freedom, diversity, and tolerance of worship among the community. This pluralistic perspective has helped the varied factions of modern Paganism exist in relative harmony. Most Pagans adopt an ethos of “unity in diversity” regarding their religious beliefs.

It is its inclusion of female deity which distinguishes Pagan religions from their Abrahamic counterparts. In Wicca, male and female deities are typically balanced out in a form of duotheism. Many East Asian philosophies equate weakness with femininity and strength with masculinity; this is not the prevailing attitude in paganism and Wicca. Among many Pagans, 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.

There are exceptions to polytheism in Paganism, as seen for instance in the form of Ukrainian Paganism promoted by Lev Sylenko, which is devoted to a monotheistic veneration of the god Dazhbog. As noted above, Pagans with naturalistic worldviews may not believe in or work with deities at all.

Pagan religions commonly exhibit a metaphysical concept of an underlying order that pervades the universe, such as the concept of harmonia embraced by Hellenists and that of Wyrd found in Heathenry.

Animism and pantheism

A key part of most Pagan worldviews is the holistic concept of a universe that is interconnected. This is connected with a belief in either pantheism or panentheism. In both beliefs, divinity and the material or spiritual universe are one. For pagans, pantheism means that “divinity is inseparable from nature and that deity is immanent in nature”.

Dennis D. Carpenter noted that the belief in a pantheistic or panentheistic deity has led to the idea of interconnectedness playing a key part in pagans’ worldviews. The prominent Reclaiming priestess Starhawk related that a core part of goddess-centred pagan witchcraft was “the understanding that all being is interrelated, that we are all linked with the cosmos as parts of one living organism. What affects one of us affects us all.”

Another pivotal belief in the contemporary Pagan movement is that of animism. This has been interpreted in two distinct ways among the Pagan community. First, it can refer to a belief that everything in the universe is imbued with a life force or spiritual energy. In contrast, some contemporary Pagans believe that there are specific spirits that inhabit various features in the natural world, and that these can be actively communicated with. Some Pagans have reported experiencing communication with spirits dwelling in rocks, plants, trees and animals, as well as power animals or animal spirits who can act as spiritual helpers or guides.

Animism was also a concept common to many pre-Christian European religions, and in adopting it, contemporary Pagans are attempting to “reenter the primeval worldview” and participate in a view of cosmology “that is not possible for most Westerners after childhood”.

Nature worship

Main article: Earth religion

All Pagan movements place great emphasis on the divinity of nature as a primary source of divine will, and on humanity’s membership of the natural world, bound in kinship to all life and the Earth itself. The animistic aspects of Pagan theology assert that all things have a soul – not just humans or organic life – so this bond is held with mountains and rivers as well as trees and wild animals. As a result, Pagans believe the essence of their spirituality is both ancient and timeless, regardless of the age of specific religious movements. Places of natural beauty are therefore treated as sacred and ideal for ritual, like the nemetons of the ancient Celts.

Many Pagans hold that different lands and/or cultures have their own natural religion, with many legitimate interpretations of divinity, and therefore reject religious exclusivism.

While the Pagan community has a tremendous variety in political views spanning the whole of the political spectrum, environmentalism is often a common feature.



Pagan ritual can take place in both a public and private setting. Contemporary Pagan ritual is typically geared towards “facilitating altered states of awareness or shifting mind-sets”. In order to induce such altered states of consciousness, pagans utilize such elements as drumming, visualization, chanting, singing, dancing, and meditation. American folklorist Sabina Magliocco came to the conclusion, based upon her ethnographic fieldwork in California that certain Pagan beliefs “arise from what they experience during religious ecstasy”.

Sociologist Margot Adler highlighted how several Pagan groups, like the Reformed Druids of North America and the Erisian movement incorporate a great deal of play in their rituals rather than having them be completely serious and somber. She noted that there are those who would argue that “the Pagan community is one of the only spiritual communities that is exploring humor, joy, abandonment, even silliness and outrageousness as valid parts of spiritual experience”.

Domestic worship typically takes place in the home and is carried out by either an individual or family group. It typically involves offerings – including bread, cake, flowers, fruit, milk, beer, or wine – being given to images of deities, often accompanied with prayers and songs and the lighting of candles and incense. Common Pagan devotional practices have thus been compared to similar practices in Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity, but contrasted with that in Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam. Although animal sacrifice was a common part of pre-Christian ritual in Europe, it is rarely practiced in contemporary Paganism.


Paganism’s public rituals are generally calenderical, although the pre-Christian festivals that Pagans use as a basis varied across Europe. Nevertheless, common to almost all Pagan religions is an emphasis on an agricultural cycle and respect for the dead. Common Pagan festivals include those marking the summer solstice and winter solstice as well as the start of spring and the harvest. In Wicca, a Wheel of the Year has been developed which typically involves eight seasonal festivals.

Magic and witchcraft

See also: Contemporary Witchcraft

The belief in magical rituals and spells is held by a “significant number” of contemporary Pagans. Among those who believe in magic, there are a variety of different views as to what magic is. Many Neopagans adhere to the definition provided by Aleister Crowley, founder of Thelema, who defined magick[sic] as “the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will”. Also accepted by many is the related definition purported by ceremonial magician Dion Fortune, who declared “magic is the art and science of changing consciousness according to the Will”.

Among those who practice magic are Wiccans, those who identify as Neopagan Witches, and practitioners of some forms of revivalist Neo-druidism, the rituals of whom are at least partially based upon those of ceremonial magic and freemasonry.


Renaissance and Romanticism

The origins of modern Paganism lie in the romanticist and national liberation movements that developed in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. The publications of studies into European folk customs and culture by scholars like Johann Gottfried Herder and Jacob Grimm resulted in a wider interest in these subjects and a growth in cultural self-consciousness. At the time, it was commonly believed that almost all such folk customs were survivals from the pre-Christian period. These attitudes would also be exported to North America by European immigrants in these centuries.

The Romantic movement of the 18th century led to the re-discovery of Old Gaelic and Old Norse literature and poetry. The 19th century saw a surge of interest in Germanic paganism with the Viking revival in Victorian Britain and Scandinavia. In Germany the Völkisch movement was in full swing. These pagan currents coincided with Romanticist interest in folklore and occultism, the widespread emergence of pagan themes in popular literature, and the rise of nationalism.

Early 20th century

The rise of modern Paganism was aided by the decline in Christianity throughout many parts of Europe and North America, as well as by the concomitant decline in enforced religious conformity and greater freedom of religion that developed, allowing people to explore a wider range of spiritual options and form religious organisations that could operate free from legal persecution.

Historian Ronald Hutton has argued that many of the motifs of 20th century neo-Paganism may be traced back to the utopian, mystical counter-cultures of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods (also extending in some instances into the 1920s), via the works of amateur folklorists, popular authors, poets, political radicals and alternative lifestylers.

Prior to the spread of the 20th-century neopagan movement, a notable instance of self-identified paganism was in Sioux writer Zitkala-sa’s essay “Why I Am A Pagan”. Published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1902, the Native American activist and writer outlined her rejection of Christianity (referred to as “the new superstition”) in favor of a harmony with nature embodied by the Great Spirit. She further recounted her mother’s abandonment of Sioux religion and the unsuccessful attempts of a “native preacher” to get her to attend the village church.

In the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a Witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the witchcraft prosecutions that had been enacted by the ecclesiastical and secular courts. Most historians now reject Murray’s theory, as she based it partially upon the similarities of the accounts given by those accused of witchcraft; such similarity is now thought to actually derive from there having been a standard set of questions laid out in the witch-hunting manuals used by interrogators.

Late 20th century

The 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence in Neodruidism as well as the rise of Germanic neopaganism and Ásatrú in the United States and in Iceland. In the 1970s, Wicca was notably influenced by feminism, leading to the creation of an eclectic, Goddess-worshipping movement known as Dianic Wicca. The 1979 publication of Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance opened a new chapter in public awareness of paganism. With the growth and spread of large, pagan gatherings and festivals in the 1980s, public varieties of Wicca continued to further diversify into additional, eclectic sub-denominations, often heavily influenced by the New Age and counter-culture movements. These open, unstructured or loosely structured traditions contrast with British Traditional Wicca, which emphasizes secrecy and initiatory lineage.

The 1980s and 1990s also saw an increasing interest in serious academic research and reconstructionist pagan traditions. The establishment and growth of the Internet in the 1990s brought rapid growth to these, and other pagan movements. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, freedom of religion was legally established across the post-Soviet states, allowing for the growth in both Christian and non-Christian religions, among them Paganism.

Encompassed religions and movements

Goddess movement

Main article: Goddess

Goddess Spirituality, which is also known as the Goddess movement, is a Pagan religion in which a singular, monotheistic Goddess is given predominance. Designed primarily for women, Goddess Spirituality revolves around the sacredness of the female form, and of aspects of women’s lives that have been traditionally neglected in western society, such as menstruation, sexuality and maternity.

Adherents of the Goddess Spirituality movement typically envision a history of the world that is different from traditional narratives about the past, emphasising the role of women rather than that of men. According to this view, human society was formerly a matriarchy, with communities being egalitarian, pacifistic and focused on the worship of the Goddess, and was subsequently overthrown by violent patriarchal hordes – usually Indo-European pastoralists, who worshipped male sky gods and who continued to rule through the form of Abrahamic Religions, specifically Christianity in the West. Adherents look for elements of this mythological history in “theological, anthropological, archaeological, historical, folkloric and hagiographic writings”.


Heathenism, also known as Germanic Neopaganism, refers to a series of contemporary Pagan traditions that are based upon the historical religions, culture and literature of Germanic-speaking Europe. Heathenry is spread out across north-western Europe, and also North America and Australasia, where the descendants of historic Germanic-speaking people now live.

Many Heathen groups adopt variants of Norse mythology as a basis to their beliefs, conceiving of the Earth as being situated on a great world tree called Yggdrasil. Heathens believe in multiple polytheistic deities, all adopted from historical Germanic mythologies. The majority of Heathens are polytheistic realists, believing that the deities are real entities, while others view them as Jungian archetypes.


Main article: Druidry (modern)

Neo-Druidism forms the second largest pagan religion after Wicca, and like Wicca in turn shows significant heterogeneity. It draws several beliefs and inspirations from the Druids, the priest caste of the ancient pagan Celts. With the first Druid Order founded as early as 1717, the history of Neo-Druidism reaches back to the earliest origins of modern paganism. The Ancient Order of Druids founded in 1781 had many aspects of freemasonry, and have practiced rituals at Stonehenge since 1905. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids was established in 1964 by Ross Nichols. In the United States, the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) was founded in 1912, the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) was established in 1963 and Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) in 1983 by Isaac Bonewits.

New Age syncretism and eco-paganism

Since the 1960s and 70s, paganism and the then emergent counter-culture, New Age, and hippie movements experienced a degree of cross pollination. Reconstructionism rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. The majority of pagans are not committed to a single defined tradition, but understand paganism as encompassing a wide range of non-institutionalized spirituality, as promoted by the Church of All Worlds, the Feri Tradition and other movements. Notably, Wicca in the United States since the 1970s has largely moved away from its Gardnerian roots and diversified into eclectic variants.

Paganism generally emphasizes the sanctity of the Earth and Nature. Pagans 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. Some pagans are influenced by Animist traditions of the indigenous Native Americans and Africans and other indigenous or shamanic traditions.

Eco-paganism and Eco-magic, which are offshoots 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).

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”.

Occultism and ethnic mysticism

In 1925, the Czech esotericist Franz Sättler founded a pagan religion known as Adonism, devoted to the ancient Greek god Adonis, whom Sättler equated with the Christian Satan, and which purported that the end of the world would come in the year 2000. Adonism largely died out in the 1930s, but remained an influence on the German occult scene.

The community of the Union of Slavic Native Belief Communities celebrating Mokosh.

The community of the Union of Slavic Native Belief Communities celebrates Mokosh.


In contrast to the eclectic traditions, Polytheistic Reconstructionists practice culturally specific, ethnic traditions, basing their practices on the surviving folklore, traditional songs and prayers, as well as reconstructions from the historical record. Thus, Hellenic, Roman, Kemetic, Celtic, Germanic, Guanche, Baltic and Slavic Reconstructionists aim for the preservation and revival of historical practices and beliefs of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, the Celts, the Germanic peoples, the Guanche people, the Balts and the Slavs, respectively.

Wicca and modern witchcraft

Wicca is the largest form of modern Paganism, as well as the best known form, and the most extensively studied by academics.

The scholar of religious studies Graham Harvey noted that a poem known as the Charge of the Goddess remains central to the liturgy of most Wiccan groups. Originally written by Wiccan High Priestess Doreen Valiente in the mid-1950s, Harvey noted that the recitation of the Charge in the midst of ritual allows Wiccans to gain wisdom and experience deity in “the ordinary things in life”.

The historian Ronald Hutton identified a wide variety of different sources that influenced the development of Wicca. These included ceremonial magic, folk magic, Romanticist literature, Freemasonry, and the historical theories of the English archaeologist Margaret Murray. The figure at the forefront of the burgeoning Wiccan movement was the English esotericist Gerald Gardner, who claimed to have been initiated by the New Forest coven in 1939. Gardner claimed that the religion that he discovered was a modern survival of the old Witch-Cult described in the works of Murray, which had originated in the pre-Christian paganism of Europe. He claimed it was revealed to him by a coven of witches in the New Forest area of southern England. Various forms of Wicca have since evolved or been adapted from Gardner’s British Traditional Wicca or Gardnerian Wicca such as Alexandrian Wicca. Other forms loosely based on Gardner’s teachings are Faery Wicca, Kemetic Wicca, Judeo-Paganism or jewitchery, Dianic Wicca or feminist Wicca – which emphasizes the divine feminine, often creating women-only or lesbian-only groups. In the academic community wicca has also been interpreted as having close affinities with process philosophy.

In the 1990s, Wiccan beliefs and practices were used as a partial basis for a number of U.S. films and television series, such as The CraftCharmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, leading to a dramatic upsurge in teenagers and young adults becoming interested and involved in the religion.

Semitic neopaganism

Beit Asherah (the house of the Goddess Asherah) was one of the first Neopagan synagogues, founded in the early 1990s by Stephanie Fox, Steven Posch, and Magenta Griffiths (Lady Magenta). Magenta Griffiths is High Priestess of the Beit Asherah coven, and a former board member of the Covenant of the Goddess.

The Chuvash people’s Vattisen Yaly

The Chuvash people, a Turkic ethnic group, native to an area stretching from the Volga Region to Siberia, have experienced a Pagan revival since the fall of the Soviet Union, under the name Vattisen Yaly (Chuvash: Ваттисен йӑлиTradition of the Old).

Vattisen Yaly could be categorised as a peculiar form of Tengrism, a related revivalist movement of Central Asian traditional religion, however it differs significantly from it: the Chuvash being a heavily Fennicised and Slavified ethnicity (they were also never fully Islamised, contrary wise to most of other Turks), and having had exchanges also with other Indo-European ethnicities, their religion shows many similarities with Finnic and Slavic Paganisms; moreover, the revival of “Vattisen Yaly” in recent decades has occurred following Neopagan patterns. Thus it should be more carefully categorised as a Neopagan religion. Today the followers of the Chuvash Traditional Religion are called “the true Chuvash”. Their main god is Tura, a deity comparable to the Estonian Taara, the Germanic Thunraz and the pan-Turkic Tengri.


Establishing precise figures on Paganism is difficult. Due to the secrecy and fear of persecution still prevalent among Pagans, limited numbers are willing to openly be counted. The decentralised nature of Paganism and sheer number of solitary practitioners further complicates matters. Nevertheless, there is a slow growing body of data on the subject. Combined statistics from Western nations put Pagans well over one million worldwide.


Neopagan and other folk religion movements have gained a significant following on the eastern fringes of Europe, especially in the Caucasus and the Volga region.

Caucasus region

Among Circassians, the Adyghe Habze faith has been revived after the fall of the Soviet UnEclecticism, reconstructionism, paganism, Naturalism, ecocentrism, Polytheism, ion, and followers of neopagan faiths were found to constitute 12% in Karachay-Cherkessia and 3% in Kabardino-Balkaria (both republics are multiethnic and also have many non-Circassians, especially Russians and Turkic peoples) In Abkhazia, the Abkhaz native faith has also been revived, and in the 2003 census, 8% of residents identified with it (note again that there are many non-Abkhaz in the state including Georgians, Russians and Armenians); on 3 August 2012 the Council of Priests of Abkhazia was formally constituted in Sukhumi. In North Ossetia, the Uatsdin faith was revived, and in 2012, 29% of the population identified with it (North Ossetia is about 2/3 Ossetian and 1/3 Russian). Neopagan movements are also present to a lesser degree elsewhere; in Dagestan 2% of the population identified with folk religious movements, while data on neopagans is unavailable for Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Volga region

The Mari native religion in fact has a continuous existence, but has co-existed with Orthodox Christianity for centuries, and experienced a renewal after the fall of the Soviet Union. A sociological survey conducted in 2004 found that about 15 percent of the population of Mari El consider themselves adherents of the Mari native religion. Since Mari make up just 45 percent of the republic’s population of 700,000, this figure means that probably more than a third claim to follow the old religion. The percentage of pagans among the Mari of Bashkortostan and the eastern part of Tatarstan is even higher (up to 69% among women). Mari fled here from forced Christianization in the 17th to 19th centuries. A similar number was claimed by Victor Schnirelmann, for whom between a quarter and a half of the Mari either worship the Pagan gods or are adherents of Neopagan groups. Mari intellectuals maintain that Mari ethnic believers should be classified in groups with varying degrees of Russian Orthodox influence, including syncretic followers who might even go to church at times, followers of the Mari native religion who are baptized, and nonbaptized Mari.

A neopagan movement drawing from various syncretic practices that had survived among the Christianised Mari people was initiated in 1990, and was estimated in 2004 to have won the adherence of 2% of the Mordvin people.

Western Europe

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 pagan gathering. Hutton estimated that there are 250,000 neopagan adherents in the United Kingdom, roughly equivalent to the national Hindu community.

A smaller number is suggested by the results of the 2001 Census, in which a question about religious affiliation was asked for the first time. Respondents were able to write in an affiliation not covered by the checklist of common religions, and a total of 42,262 people from England, Scotland and Wales declared themselves to be Pagans by this method. These figures were not released as a matter of course by the Office for National Statistics, but were released after an application by the Pagan Federation of Scotland. This is more than many well known traditions such as Rastafarian, Bahá’í and Zoroastrian groups, but fewer than the big six of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism. It is also fewer than the adherents of Jediism, whose campaign made them the fourth largest religion after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.

The 2001 UK Census figures did not allow an accurate breakdown of traditions within the Pagan heading, as a campaign by the Pagan Federation before the census encouraged Wiccans, Heathens, Druids and others all to use the same write-in term ‘Pagan’ in order to maximise the numbers reported. The 2011 census however made it possible to describe oneself as Pagan-Wiccan, Pagan-Druid and so on. The figures for England and Wales showed 80,153 describing themselves as Pagan (or some subgroup thereof.) The largest subgroup was Wicca, with 11,766 adherents. The overall numbers of people self-reporting as Pagan rose between 2001 and 2011. In 2001 about seven people per 10,000 UK respondents were pagan; in 2011 the number (based on the England and Wales population) was 14.3 people per 10,000 respondents.

Census figures in Ireland do not provide a breakdown of religions outside of the major Christian denominations and other major world religions. A total of 22,497 people stated Other Religion in the 2006 census; and a rough estimate is that there were 2,000–3,000 practicing pagans in Ireland in 2009. Numerous pagan groups – primarily Wiccan and Druidic – exist in Ireland though none is officially recognised by the Government. Irish Paganism is often strongly concerned with issues of place and language.

North America

The United States government does not directly collect religious information. As a result such information is provided by religious institutions and other third-party statistical organisations. Based on the most recent survey by the Pew Forum on religion, there are over one million Pagans estimated to be living in the United States. Up to 0.4% of respondents answered “Pagan” or “Wiccan” when polled. Canada does not provide extremely detailed records of religious adherence. Its statistics service only collects limited religious information each decade. At the 2001 census, there were a recorded 21080 Pagans in Canada.

According to Helen A. Berger’s 1995 survey, “The Pagan Census”, most American Pagans are middle class, educated, and live in urban/suburban areas on East and West coasts.


In the 2011 Australian census, 32083 respondents identified as Pagan. Out of 21507717 recorded Australians, they compose approximately 0.15% of the population. The Australian Bureau of Statistics classifies Paganism as an affiliation under which several sub-classifications may optionally be specified. This includes animism, nature religion, Druidism, pantheism, and Witchcraft. As a result, fairly detailed breakdowns of Pagan respondents are available.

In 2006, there were at least 6804 (1.64‰) Pagans among New Zealand’s population of approximately 4 million. Respondents were given the option to select one or more religious affiliations.

Paganism in society


Based upon her study of the pagan community in the United States, the sociologist Margot Adler noted that it is rare for Pagan groups to proselytize in order to gain new converts to their faiths. Instead, she argued that “in most cases”, converts first become interested in the movement through “word of mouth, a discussion between friends, a lecture, a book, an article or a Web site”. She went on to put forward the idea that this typically confirmed “some original, private experience, so that the most common experience of those who have named themselves pagan is something like ‘I finally found a group that has the same religious perceptions I always had'”. A practicing Wiccan herself, Adler used her own conversion to paganism as a case study, remarking that as a child she had taken a great interest in the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece, and had performed her own devised rituals in dedication to them. When she eventually came across the Wiccan religion many years later, she then found that it confirmed her earlier childhood experiences, and that “I never converted in the accepted sense. I simply accepted, reaffirmed, and extended a very old experience.”

Folklorist Sabina Magliocco supported this idea, noting that a great many of those Californian Pagans whom she interviewed claimed that they had been greatly interested in mythology and folklore as children, imagining a world of “enchanted nature and magical transformations, filled with lords and ladies, witches and wizards, and humble but often wise peasants”. Magliocco noted that it was this world that pagans “strive to re-create in some measure”. Further support for Adler’s idea came from American Wiccan priestess Judy Harrow, who noted that among her comrades, there was a feeling that “you don’t become pagan, you discover that you always were”. They have also been supported by Pagan studies scholar Graham Harvey.

Many pagans in North America encounter the movement through their involvement in other hobbies; particularly popular with U.S. Pagans are “golden age”-type pastimes such as the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), Star Trek fandom, Doctor Who fandom and comic book fandom. Other manners in which many North American pagans have got involved with the movement are through political or ecological activism, such as “vegetarian groups, health food stores” or feminist university courses.

Adler went on to note that from those she interviewed and surveyed in the U.S., she could identify a number of common factors that led to people getting involved in Paganism: the beauty, vision and imagination that was found within their beliefs and rituals, a sense of intellectual satisfaction and personal growth that they imparted, their support for environmentalism or feminism, and a sense of freedom.

Class, gender and ethnicity

Based upon her work in the United States, Adler found that the pagan movement was “very diverse” in its class and ethnic background. She went on to remark that she had encountered pagans in jobs that ranged from “fireman to PhD chemist” but that the one thing that she thought made them into an “elite” was as avid readers, something that she found to be very common within the pagan community despite the fact that avid readers constituted less than 20% of the general population of the United States at the time. Magliocco came to a somewhat different conclusion based upon her ethnographic research of pagans in California, remarking that the majority were “white, middle-class, well-educated urbanites” but that they were united in finding “artistic inspiration” within “folk and indigenous spiritual traditions”.

The sociologist Regina Oboler examined the role of gender in the U.S. Pagan community, arguing that although the movement had been constant in its support for the equality of men and women ever since its foundation, there was still an essentialist view of gender engrained within it, with female deities being accorded traditional western feminine traits and male deities being similarly accorded what western society saw as masculine traits.

Relationship with New Age

An issue of academic debate has been regarding the connection between the New Age movement and contemporary Paganism, or Neo-Paganism. Religious studies scholar Sarah Pike asserted that there was a “significant overlap” between the two religious movements, while Aidan A. Kelly stated that Paganism “parallels the New Age movement in some ways, differs sharply from it in others, and overlaps it in some minor ways”. Ethan Doyle White stated that while the Pagan and New Age movements “do share commonalities and overlap”, they were nevertheless “largely distinct phenomena.” Hanegraaff suggested that whereas various forms of contemporary Paganism were not part of the New Age movement – particularly those who pre-dated the movement – other Pagan religions and practices could be identified as New Age. Various differences between the two movements have been highlighted; the New Age movement focuses on an improved future, whereas the focus of Paganism is on the pre-Christian past. Similarly, the New Age movement typically propounds a universalist message which sees all religions as fundamentally the same, whereas Paganism stresses the difference between monotheistic religions and those embracing a polytheistic or animistic theology. Further, the New Age movement shows little interest in magic and witchcraft, which are conversely core interests of many Pagan religions, such as Wicca.

Many Pagans have sought to distance themselves from the New Age movement, even using “New Age” as an insult within their community, while conversely many involved in the New Age have expressed criticism of Paganism for emphasizing the material world over the spiritual. Many Pagans have expressed criticism of the high fees charged by New Age teachers, something not typically present in the Pagan movement.

Christianity, prejudice, and opposition

In Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives Michael F. Strmiska writes that “in Pagan magazines, websites, and Internet discussion venues, Christianity is frequently denounced as an antinatural, antifemale, sexually and culturally repressive, guilt-ridden, and authoritarian religion that has fostered intolerance, hypocrisy, and persecution throughout the world.” Further, there is a deep belief that Christianity and Paganism are fundamentally opposing belief systems. This animosity is flamed by the ancient Christian oppression of pre-Christian religion as well as the ongoing Christian oppression of Pagans. Many Pagans have expressed frustration that Christian authorities have never apologized for the cultural genocide and religious persecution of Europe’s pre-Christian belief systems, particularly following the Roman Catholic Church’s apology for past anti-semitism in its A Reflection on the Shoah. They also express disapproval of Christianity’s continued missionary efforts around the globe at the expense of indigenous and other polytheistic faiths.

Some Christian theologians view modern Paganism as a movement that cannot be tolerated but must be fought and defeated. Various Christian authors have published books attacking modern Paganism. Such Christian critics have regularly equated Paganism with Satanism, something which has been furthered by the portrayal of the former in some mainstream media. In areas such as the U.S. Bible Belt where conservative Christian dominance is strong, Pagans have faced continued religious persecution. For instance, Strmiska highlighted instances in both the U.S. and U.K. in which school teachers were fired when their employers discovered that they were Pagan.

Accordingly, many Pagans keep their religious adherence a secret, seeking to avoid such discrimination.

Pagan studies

The earliest academic studies of contemporary Paganism were published in the late 1970s and 1980s by scholars like Margot Adler, Marcello Truzzi and Tanya Luhrmann, although it would not be until the 1990s that the actual multidisciplinary academic field of Pagan studies properly developed, pioneered by academics such as Graham Harvey and Chas S. Clifton. Increasing academic interest in Paganism has been attributed to the new religious movement’s increasing public visibility, as it began interacting with the interfaith movement and holding large public celebrations at sites like Stonehenge.

The first international academic conference on the subject of Pagan studies was held at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, North-East England in 1993. It was organised by two British religious studies scholars, Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman. In April 1996 a larger conference dealing with contemporary Paganism took place at Ambleside in the Lake District. Organised by the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster, North-West England, it was entitled “Nature Religion Today: Western Paganism, Shamanism and Esotericism in the 1990s”, and led to the publication of an academic anthology, entitled Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World. In 2004, the first peer-reviewed, academic journal devoted to Pagan studies began publication. The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies was edited by Clifton, while the academic publishers AltaMira Press began release of the Pagan Studies Series. From 2008 onward, conferences have been held bringing together scholars specialising in the study of Paganism in Central and Eastern Europe.

The relationship between Pagan studies scholars and some practising Pagans has at times been strained. The Australian academic and practising Pagan Caroline Jane Tully argues that many Pagans can react negatively to new scholarship regarding historical pre-Christian societies, believing that it is a threat to the structure of their beliefs and to their “sense of identity”. She furthermore argues that some of those dissatisfied Pagans lashed out against academics as a result, particularly on the Internet.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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