Renaissance and revival
History of modern PaganismContemporary Paganism is the restoration of indigenous religion, especially that of ancient Europe. Paganism has grown in popularity greatly during the last hundred years. The growth coincides with a decline in Christianity in Europe, and the increase in knowledge of past and distant cultures.
Renaissance, Reformation and RationalismPeople in Europe became more aware of the art and philosophy of the ancient world during the Renaissance period around 1500 (the word 'Renaissance' means 'rebirth'). Documents rescued after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 introduced people to ideas from before the Middle ages. And although Europe remained Christian the Pagan gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece jostled with the patron saints of Christianity on public monument, and classical philosophy began to change the way people thought about ethics and morality.
In Britain the Reformation of the 1600s transformed England from a Catholic country to a Protestant one. The religious conflict that went along with this change led to the persecution of those who didn't fit the desired religious profile. Religious hysteria (disguised as spiritual cleansing) led to some individuals being described as 'witches'. But these people were not part of any religious movement, merely victims of local feuds and quarrels. A few of them were practitioners of herbal medicine but most were ordinary, conventional citizens.
After the enormous political and intellectual upheavals of the 1600s died away, it became possible to explore ways of thought outside Christianity without fear of instant damnation, and the study of Greek and Roman classics became part of every schoolboy's education.
The name 'Europe' (herself a character in Greek myth) replaced 'Christendom' in the mid-18th century. Influenced by the expansion of trade and colonies an awareness and interest in other cultures and spiritualities grew. This new age of reason during the 17th and 18th Centuries became known as the Enlightenment.
The revival of traditional cultures and ancient traditionsThe first Pagan tradition to be restored was that of the Druids in Britain. In the mid-1600s stone circles and other monuments built four and a half thousand years previously began to interest scholars. Some thought that the original Druids (pre-historic tribal people of Europe) had built them. In 1717 one of these scholars, the Irish theologian John Toland, became the first Chosen Chief of the Ancient Druid Order, which became known as the British Circle of the Universal Bond.
By the 19th Century a new outlook was evident as people searched for the fundamental principles of religion by looking at the faiths of different places and times.
Mme Helena Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Its teachings were based on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, Neo-Platonic thought, and ancient Egyptian religion. Pagan philosophies, which venerated Nature and were polytheistic, began to be seen as sophisticated contributions to contemporary spirituality.
Across Europe people were rediscovering their indigenous cultures. In northern Europe there was a growing interest in Saxon and Norse traditions. In England, William Morris translated the Icelandic sagas and Cecil Sharp collected village dances and songs.
In Germany Schlegel and Schelling in particular were attracted to the nature religion which they saw behind traditional folk customs, and at the beginning of the 20th century Guido von Liszt pioneered the study of the runes.
In north-east Europe, particularly Lithuania, nationalist movements spread and indigenous languages were reclaimed, traditional tales recorded and the old festivals celebrated. Folk music was part of this reassertion of local identity, preserving traditions which otherwise would have been forgotten.
Witchcraft, New Age and modern
The Witchcraft movementAn interest in witchcraft developed in the 19th century. By 1828 one historian proposed that the supposed witches of the 16th-17th centuries were in fact underground practitioners of Pagan religion. And in 1899 an American journalist, Charles Godfrey Leland, claimed he had discovered modern day witches in Italy.
It was not until 1951 that the first practitioners of modern day witchcraft became known. It was at this time that the United Kingdom followed the rest of Europe in repealing the last of its anti-witchcraft laws. No laws were thought necessary in this rationalistic age. But amazingly, a retired tea planter and amateur archaeologist, Gerald Brousseau Gardner, appeared in print claiming he spoke for one of several covens of English witches who practised a Pagan religion dating from the Stone Age. Gardner claimed that his witches were practitioners of a fertility religion called Wicca.
The hippy trail and beyondThe 1960s and 1970s were times of radical social change. Hinduism and Taoism helped shape contemporary Paganism as the hippy trail led people to become interested in Eastern religions and philosophies. Other traditions were also revived and incorporated into Pagan practices.
North Americans rediscovered Native American traditions and the Afro-American traditions of Santeria, Candomble and Vodoun.
European traditions reconstructed local holy sites and resurrected traditional ceremonies.
Paganism found an ally in the ecological and feminist movements of the 1960s. Pagan philosophies appealed to many eco-activists, who also saw Nature as sacred and recognised the Great Goddess as Mother Nature. The image of the witch was taken up by feminists as a role-model of the independent powerful woman, and the single Great Goddess as the archetype of women's inner strength and dignity.
Witchcraft continued to develop and from the 1960s onwards, witches from outside Gardner's tradition appeared. Some were practitioners of traditional practical healing and magic, with no particular Pagan religious structure. Others followed a different version of Pagan magical religion.
In the 1990s many British traditional witches began to use the name hedge witches. (A hedge witch is a solitary practitioner who isn't aligned to a coven and who practices herbal healing and spells.) These were experts in traditional practical craft.
Paganism todayNowadays there are many Pagan organisations worldwide, most catering for specific traditions such as Druidry or Asatru, but a few, such as the Pagan Federation (f. 1971, UK) or the Pan-Pacific Pagan Alliance (f. 1991, Australia), representing the entire tradition.
Pagan hospital visitors and prison ministers are a recognised part of modern life, and public Pagan ceremonies such as Druid rituals and Pagan marriages (handfastings) or funerals take place as a matter of routine.