History of Neo-Paganism

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cover art by Frederick Adams

“The time is just ripe for a natural religion. People like rites and ceremonies, and are tired of hypothetical gods. In­sist on the real benefits of the Sun and the Moon, the Mother-force and the Father-force and so on; and show that by celebrating these benefits worthily the worship­pers unite themselves more fully with the current of life. Let the religion be a joy, but with a worthy and dignified sorrow in death itself; and treat death as an ordeal, an initia­tion. Do not gloss over facts, but transmute them in the athanor* of your ecstasy. In short, be the founder of a new and greater Pagan cult** in the beautiful land that you have made your home. As you go on, you can add new festivals of corn and wine, and all things noble and in­spiring.”

— Aleister Crowley, writing to Charles Stansfeld Jones (a.k.a. Frater Achad) in 1914

Neo-Paganism is often conflated with Wicca. Wicca was in­vented by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente in England in the 1940s and 1950s, drawing from a variety of sources, includ­ing ceremonial magic, Freemasonry, and Margaret Murray’s study of medieval witch trials. Wicca was imported to the U.S. in 1963. Although Wicca is one of the most well-known forms of Paganism, there were other forms of Paganism that arose around the early to mid-20th century. These included a Celtic magical order founded by poet, W. B. Yeats, and writer, George Russell, in the 1890s, the British Woodcraft movement in the early 20th century, a student group at Cambridge in the 1930s that tried to reconstruct a witch cult, and the Church of Aphro­dite that was founded in New York in 1938.

Neo-Paganism has its roots in the 19th century Romantic Movement in England and Germany, which saw ancient pagan­ism as an ideological and aesthetic counter to the influence of Western modernity and industrialism. Neo-Paganism today is a product of the American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Like the Romantics before them, the Neo-Pagans of those decades saw in ancient paganism a cure for the spiritual aliena­tion of modernity.

The beginning of the Neo-Pagan movement can be dated to 1967. In that year, Fred Adams founded Feraferia, a wilderness mystery religion, Aidan Kelly and others formed the New Re­formed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (NROOGD), and Oberon Zell filed for incorporation of the Church of All Worlds. Official status was granted in 1968, making it the first state-recog­nized Neo-Pagan “church.” The Church of All Worlds also began publishing the Green Egg newsletter that year, which be­came the most important public forum for Neo-Pagans for many years and was instrumental in the formation of an emerging iden­tity around the name, “Neo-Pagan.”

In the 1970s, the movement took a decidedly feminist and environmentalist turn. In 1971, Zsuzsanna Budapest founded the Susan B. Anthony Coven No. 1, creating feminist “Dianic” Witchcraft, an exclusively women’s tradition. Also in 1971, Oberon Zell, the founder of the Church of All Worlds, published an essay entitled, “Theagenesis: The Birth of the Goddess,” which anticipated James Lovelock’s 1979 “Gaia Hypothesis.”

Early forms of Neo-Paganism integrated nature religion and feminist spirituality with the mythology of Robert Graves’ White Goddess (1954) and Jungian psychology. Although Neo-Pa­gans draw inspiration from ancient religious myths and prac­tices, Neo-Paganism is a modern religion designed to meet mod­ern spiritual needs. The primary focus of Neo-Paganism is not on historical authenticity to an ideal pagan past, but on creat­ing what David Waldron calls a “Pagan consciousness,” the experi­ence of the immanence of divinity and the interconnected­ness of all life.

* An athanor is an alchemical furnace.

** “Cult” is used here, not in a pejorative sense, but rather more or less synonymously with “religion.”

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