Paganism is alive and well – but you won’t find it at a Goddess Temple

Religion, as a special category of life, is a modern, Protestant invention and the most anachronistic feature of modern paganism is that it so eagerly claims to be a religion at all

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

The first pagan temple to be built in Iceland for a thousand years has just been granted planning permission, a wonderful bureaucratic detail that shows up just how much this revival is polite make-believe. Ragnar Hairybreeks or Harald Bluetooth would not seek planning permission before building a place of sacrifice. At Gamla Uppsala, the Viking temple site in Sweden, horses were hanged to please the gods in groups of nine from trees, along with cattle, sheep, and human beings. In Reykjavik today’s pagans still eat sacred horsemeat at their feasts, but they buy it in from caterers.

Respectable modern paganism is not only made up, as its leading ideologues cheerfully admit, but made up within a very limited compass of the modern Anglo-American imagination. The most obvious example is Wicca, invented almost entirely by a civil servant, Gerald Gardner, in the 1940s and 1950s, when he lived in Hampshire, although he claimed to have rediscovered a hidden tradition. But even in Scandinavia, where there are still some living elements of old unchristian beliefs, the pagan revival draws on English-speaking models. One self-conscious pagan group in Helsinki had to be told by a visiting sociologist that there was a native Finnish tradition of nature deities: until then they had just read Aleister Crowley.

The religious imagination has always been greedy and creative, stealing from every-thing around it. Look at the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. The one thing that traditional religions have never done, though, is to be religious. Religion, as a special category of life, is a modern, Protestant invention. Real folk religions just seem like part of life. They aren’t about what people believe, but about what they know, and still more what they do. Elements of that kind of paganism do survive in Sweden: I have friends in Lapland who believe in an entirely unforced way that their farm is guarded by trolls, who are sometimes visible, mischievous but generally friendly. The distinguishing mark of this kind of paganism is that it is so normal and casual.

We know that there are 2,400 pagans in Iceland today because that’s the number who pay their church tax to a pagan organisation. But real, untidy beliefs don’t show up on tax returns, and they are not tidily separated from either religion or daily life. They seep up into the way we approach life and death. The Goddess Temple in Glastonbury has just announced it has become the first pagan temple in England licensed for heterosexual and same-sex weddings. But they are a tiny part of modern British paganism, and weddings are much less significant than funerals here.

This was first obvious in the frenzy around the death of Diana. The flowers and the stuffed toys piled into spontaneous shrines were nothing to do with Christianity or any other organised religion. The Church of England made some feeble effort to appropriate them, but it was obvious that if they did reveal a spiritual hunger, it was one already satisfied. More significant evidence comes from ordinary graves around the country and their bizarre iconography. Linda Woodhead, the leading sociologist of contemporary English religion, once photographed a grave on which there was no cross, just laminated pictures of the emblems of Tottenham Hotspur and Stella Artois, along with some lucky heather. Was that religious or secular, she asked, and concluded that the question makes no sense. It’s no use asking what beliefs these represent: like the flowers and teddy bears, they are just something that people do.

Paganism in this widespread general sense has an important lesson for Christianity. You hear it argued that liberal religion declined because it lets people believe anything, when in fact they want clear judgments. But there is lots of biblical teaching, from the condemnation of adultery to the duty of hospitality to asylum seekers, which the churches are very clear about and which simply makes them unpopular. What successful churches have is not demanding doctrine but demanding practices, rituals and observances which saturate everyday life. That’s what New Agery offers, with its crystals and cleansings. It’s what charismatic Christianity and folk Islam both provide. But the nearest approach to a widespread folk religion in this country is neither of these. Nor is it the paganism of the druids or the Pagan Federation. If you want to see mass rituals carried out purely for their own sake, and symbolism invoked on all the great occasions of life, it isn’t what goes on in Glastonbury. It’s bloody football.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Andrew Brown won the 2009 Orwell prize for his book about Sweden, Fishing in Utopia.

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  • grutchyngfysch

    “demanding practices, rituals and observances which saturate everyday life […is] what charismatic Christianity […] provide[s].”

    Er… not at this end of the pool it doesn’t. I’m not sure what sort of Charismatic Christianity you had in mind, but evangelical types tend to be rather low on “rituals and observances” and rather high on “demanding doctrine”. Sort of goes with the territory.

    Besides, you’ve misdiagnosed why liberal religion ultimately encourages paganism – it’s not because it lacks judgements (it has plenty: ask the average liberal churchgoer whether intolerance should be tolerated, or what they think about UKIP, and you’ll receive more than your fair share) but rather because the judgements it makes are largely at ease with the society which it inhabits. It makes no demands of its adherents that would not already be made by their social peers.

    It’s sauce not salt to the world around it.

    • Andrew Brown

      First, I don’t think that liberal religion ultimately encourages paganism. That’s a very evangelical viewpoint. IN general, people who derive a lot of their identity from being countercultural can fail to notice that this depends on the culture they are countering just as much as the “liberal” alternative they despise.

      Secondly, I suspect that you may be missing my point about rituals and practices. Evangelical churches don’t, obviously, go in for the same rituals and practices *in church* that other forms of Christianity,a nd especially Anglicans, do. But they have a great many of their own, ranging from the use of language (“fellowship”, especially as a verb; “a heart for”; “discipling”) to ways of prayer and things like midweek bible study — in fact, any bible study!. These are all rituals and observances to an anthropologist. Anna Strhan’s upcoming book on a London Conservative Evangelical church is very illuminating on this, and so is Tanya Luhrman’s “When God talks back”, about the rather different, though still evangelical, world of the Vineyard churches. Just because you get rid of pews, hymns and cassocks does not mean that you have thereby abolished rituals and observances, merely that you have changed them to something more in tune with the surrounding culture.

      • Damaris Tighe

        Then why do increasing numbers of rootless unchurched young people convert to Islam? Islam offers them strong ritual practices: prayer five times a day, dress codes, food taboos, strict rules for everyday living, formal & sombre mosque services. They obviously find this more attractive than informal, ritual-free, touchy-feely evangelical Christianity.

        Ironically orthodox Christianity itself provides this sort of regulated, formal religious lifestyle (the daily ‘office’ of matins, lauds, vespers/ compline etc; highly formalised church services) but as it no longer evangelises (that would be soo counter-cultural) native young people are not aware of their own tradition.

        Rootless ‘yoof’ mired in drugs & violence are often looking for strong boundaries. Orthodox Christianity has abrogated its responsibility to reach out & the vacuum is filled by uber-emotional happy-clappy evangelicalism, which doesn’t fill that need, & Islam which does.

        • Jim Station

          Your point about churches no longer evangelising hits the nail on the head about the causes of the decline in Christianity in Britain and Europe. Too many churches have lost confidence in the Christian message and are too scared to appease anyone at all who may be offended by the challenges of Christianity. They seem to forget the purpose of their existence about spreading the Christian message and instead focus on lefty matters, from climate change to whether or not God is actually a woman to criticising benefits cuts by governments. Until they get their act together, this country will deteriorate further into social ‘confusion.’

          • Damaris Tighe

            To evangelise would go against the m/c grain. The Evangelicals are willing of course to do this & oppose the PC narrative. But they’re the only show in town &, as I commented, they have little to offer ‘yoof’ apart from happy-clappy family parties called ‘services’.

  • Mother Wolf

    While the point of your article was not the validity of modern Pagan practice, there are some inferences you made which I’d like to address.

    There are a lot of modern Pagans, mostly beginners, who don’t know much and are adrift trying to find some sort of religious harbor where they can be at rest. And they do sometimes make it up as they go along, which to a Pagan is just fine in as much we all recognize that everyone seeks and follows their own path to the same goal.

    But don’t sell Wiccans, Druids, and other history-centered Pagan groups short. First of all, a very large percentage of modern Pagans are college educated, and a significant percentage have Masters’ degrees and Phds. They are not stupid nor ignorant and they are definitely not “fluffy” New Agers.

    Second, most Wiccans are completely aware that their religion is the creation of Gerald Gardner and that’s also fine. Witchcraft, which does stretch back over generations, is not a religion, it is a set of skills used by “cunning” men and women (The words Wicca and witch come from the word “wise”) who were knowledgeable about herbal medicines, healing and childbirth. Wicca, on the other hand, is a modern religion of witchcraft which some witches follow.

    Ethnic groups such as Druids and those who follow the Norse religions and pantheon, are also very aware that they take their cues from modern revivals rather than ancient rites lost long ago. But that doesn’t mean they can’t honor the Pagan past and seek, through scholarly research, to rediscover, study, and perhaps recreate some of what has been lost, while adding and shaping the practice and beliefs to better suit a modern perspective. And that’s fine, too.

    • Dodgy Geezer

      …and are adrift trying to find some sort of religious harbor where they can be at rest. And they do sometimes make it up as they go along, which to a Pagan is just fine…


      Surely a ‘religious harbour’ involves some kind of deep understanding of the meaning of the world? And ‘making it up as you go along’ rather invalidates that, to my way of thinking…

      • A “deep understanding” isn’t required in mainstream religions like any of the many varieties of Christianity — why should it be a requirement for validity in any other religion?

        After all, to be a True Christian in many groups all it takes is to profess faith in Jesus, and often a ritual bit involving water.

      • John

        Everyone who ever claimed to be a prophet made it up as they went along. Christianity siphoned up a number of myths and rules during the evolution of the bible. You either believe religion is made up or you believe in invisible genocidal space wizards.

        • Damaris Tighe

          Oooh how insightful. Your intellect is outstanding. You’ve dismissed in three sentences three thousand years of theology, philosophy, & meditation – dismissed in four lines containing the words ‘space wizards’.

          • Phil T Tipp

            lol. OK, how about the big christomagic invisible beardy man, who lives in the clouds with your dead granny and a bearded baby. Two thousand years of galloping b0llocks.

      • IphisIanthe

        Life doesn’t come with instructions. You try and fail to see what works. It’s searching. And it’s not easy. It’s not meant to be or I don’t think the results would be worth it if you didn’t have to work for them. The work itself can break you down to build you up stronger than before. You’ll have battle scars worn like badges of honor and know the trials that brought each one. Many won’t be seen by the naked eye. But as this all happens you’ll learn and you’ll grow and you’ll keep working when you’re feeling so broken you don’t want to get out of bed and it will get better and every good thing you get is earned blood, sweat, and tears. Some people don’t want to work that hard. Some want their reward handed to them while someone else does the work. But if you don’t try, what do you lose or miss from it?

      • Chris Godwin

        Religion doesn’t provide a deep understanding of the world. It’s the self they illuminate, some poorly, some very well. Paganism is unique in that in incorporates animism which automatically arises as the natural human faith. Evolved polytheism is half scholarship and half perception in an altered state of consciousness. It’s why we have atheist pagans. Theism isn’t important, practice is, and it is because of the effect it has on the self in understanding our relationships to each other, nature, and our place in the cosmos that we do these things.

  • disqus_9I6C4azbIA

    Surely the word Pagan is a pejorative term coined by superstitious folk to describe those who opted for reason.

    • I think pagan really means those who come from the country – ‘country folk’.

      • pyewacket

        I always thought it meant someone who worships many gods, male and female, rather than one Arch male deity. Also the spirits of nature. ‘Heathen’ used to have the same meaning, but then became a pejorative term for a Pagan or non believer in the Christian God. But what do I know. I worship, or perhaps it’s better to say, I’m in awe of, the many moods of the sea, but have no truck with Neptune or Poseidon!

      • Hence also the surname, Payne.

        • Damaris Tighe

          Interesting! I didn’t know that.

  • Arthur Ascii

    Ceremony and ritual, particularly in the open air, day or night, season by season, have been practiced in the British Isles for millenia. The new religion of Christianity made a slow start here and won over converts not by the hellfire and damnation of later centuries but by gentle persuasion and example. Humble churches built on existing pagan sites harnessed the genius loci and some of the best churches today are the smallest and most unassuming.

    • Damaris Tighe

      They also have an atmosphere of sanctity which reflects several thousand years of worship, Christian & pre-Christian, at the site. That these churches are now emptying & may be closed down is a disaster. They’re some of the last remaining symbols of continuity that link the native people of Britain with the land.

      • Arthur Ascii

        Precisely. Though I wonder if the spirit within the land endures no matter who passes through. It may become forgotten but it never dies.

  • terence patrick hewett

    The Roman Civitas was divided into the Urbs; the sub-Urbs and the Pagus. After the conversion of Constantine it was the conservative rural Pagus who preferred the old way of doing things: hence Pagan: quite literally “the hicks from the sticks”

    • Damaris Tighe

      The Jews of late biblical times did the same. The elite dogmatists based in Jerusalem called the country people ‘men of the land’ (it was a sneer) & viewed them as heretical because they had a tendency to combine Yahweh worship with the old religion in groves & on hilltops.

  • Suriani

    Funeral rituals are a guide to how pagan things have become. Priests allow second rate secular music, banal secular symbols, celebrations of the life of.., and maudlin eulogising to conflict with what ought to be a solemn and reflective extraordinary encounter with human mortality. Catholic funerals, once liturgically focussed thanks to the continence of the Latin Requiem Mass are become a messy, goofy and cringe-inducing DIY affairs. Cemeteries too are cluttered with sentimental offerings such as balloons, flags and infantile stuffed animals often contrary to the regulations of cemetery authorities.

    • Brigan

      The author of the original article seems to be confusing re-enactment with religion. I, like many others do not want to hang horses nor people for that matter. It is certainly not a prerequisite for pagan belief nor practice.
      It is also not true to suggest that the day to day practices such as house cleansings, crystals are something that those who attend pagan temples etc do not do. I do not know where the author got the idea that one has to chose one or the other. Most of those attending such temples also have the same sort of daily practices and beliefs as those who, like myself, chose not to do the organized group temple thing.
      Even though modern day Wicca, Druidry etc contain much that is “made up”, what is made up is based upon what is known about past practices as evidenced in archeological studies, historic writings and studies of more primative cultures. Things that the author seems to be in complete ignorance of. Although it is not possible to know exactly what the original pagans actually got up to on a day to day level, no way is it actually necessary nor desirable.
      Re-enactment is stagnation. A mere museum piece, not necessary for a modern living religious or spiritual practice. We are living now, not then. If any spiritual/religious practice is to have meaning at all it must move with the times and speak to and from the hearts and souls of modern practitioners, as well as being in line with modern laws and sensibilities.
      Religious practice always has changed with the times as any study of the available evidence will show.
      The author states ” But even in Scandinavia, where there are still some living elements of old unchristian beliefs” Scandinavia is not the only place where such things exist. Everywhere you go you will find remnants of old folk practices and beliefs if you look. England and Ireland are no exceptions to this.
      Accademia is not the only side to spiritual practice and belief. One thing we will have in common with our forbearers is that we are all human. Human nature is something that has not changed. Practices that are made up by folk because they feel right and address a need for communion with nature and deity are very likely to be similar to previous practices.
      Where does the author think the ancient pagans got their practices from ? I can answer my own question. I need no university degree to do it. The answer is “they made them up!”

  • Cobbett

    “There is no need to ”believe” in Jupiter or Wotan—something that is no more ridiculous then believing in Yahweh however—to be pagan. Contemporary paganism does not consist of erecting altars to Apollo or reviving the worship of Odin. Instead it implies looking behind religion and, according to a now classic itinerary, seeking for the “mental equipment” that produced it, the inner world it reflects, and how the world it depicts as apprehended. In short, it consists of viewing the gods as “centers of value” and the beliefs they generate as value systems: gods and beliefs may pass away, but the values remain.”

    “When it comes to specifying the values particular to paganism, people have generally listed features such as these: an eminently aristocratic conception of the human individual; an ethics founded on honor (“shame” rather than “sin”); an heroic attitude toward life’s challenges; the exaltation and sacralization of the world, beauty, the body, strength, health; the rejection of any “worlds beyond”; the inseparability of morality and aesthetics; and so on. From this perspective, the highest value is undoubtedly not a form of “justice” whose purpose is essentially interpreted as flattening the social order in the name of equality, but everything that can allow a man to surpass himself. To paganism, it is pure absurdity to consider the results of the workings of life’s basic framework as unjust. In the pagan ethic of honor, the classic antithesis noble vs. base, courageous vs. cowardly, honorable vs. dishonorable, beautiful vs. deformed, sick vs. healthy, and so forth, replace the antithesis operative in a morality based on the concept of sin: good vs. evil, humble vs. vainglorious, submissive vs. proud, weak vs. arrogant, modest vs. boastful, and so on. However, while all this appears to be accurate, the fundamental feature in my opinion is something else entirely. It lies in the denial of dualism.”
    ― Alain de Benoist, On Being A Pagan

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    As a Wiccan I would say religion is what you do on a day to day basis. Certainly I have my seasonal and moon based rituals and I have my nightly meditations. But unless it affects my day to day thoughts and action with the land and the people around me, it would be only be pretense much like the Christmas and Easter Christian.

    Meanwhile religions changes with the people and the times. One that stayed the same would become a museum religions, not a living one. The Jews of the Temple did animal sacrifice it was said that God loved the smell of burning flesh. I note that neither today’s Jews, or today’s Christians, practice animal sacrifice though it was still the practice in Jesus’ time. So is the columnist going to say that neither the Jews of today, nor the Christians, practice a real religion. When was the last time a Christian worshiped in a SYNAGOGUE? Yet both claim to worship the God of Abraham.

  • Benjamin Baum

    Much of modern paganism is born from the crucible of the victorian and pre victorian era. Began arguably in the age of reason (late 15th-17th cent)…when we reach the 18th and 19th century we see a huge attempt to create from nothing, egypt became trendy.. hebrew was only “holy language”. Things we very much a victorian conquest, create, control, discover…a lot of reinventing of the wheel.

    So a lot going on… however a lot of modern so called “paganism”is still like this. Especially for “beginners.” Things however have been moving on…in the past few decades. Paganism is becoming what it was… connecting to the land and its actual roots. Modern paganism exists… its alive, well and living and breathing. Even now I know of a few practising druids from Glastonbury. I myself entered the invisible realms mostly after decades of living in the area.

    The spiritual energy of Glastonbury frankly, is so bright it is blinding, that you may nt even notice it is there.

  • The Kraken

    This article is hugely offensive to modern paganism and its recent evolutions. Yes, neo-paganism is not old-school paganism, but christianity is quite different from its past as well, as is nearly every other religion. And to say that religion as a special category of life is a Protestant invention is almost laughable were it not so inaccurate. Some cursory research into eastern religious practices will quickly tell you otherwise.

  • yewtree

    What a depressing and frankly pointless article. The “paganism” that you are describing is the residual folk practices that were left over after ancient pagan religions had been supplanted by an aggressive an exclusivist religion.

    As The Kraken comments below, contemporary Paganisms may not be identical to ancient paganisms, but they are worshipping the same gods and attempting to recover what was lost.

    As a person who has practised Wicca for 24 years (just over half of my life), I can assure you that it is a meaningful and satisfying religion. And my friends who are Druids, Heathens, and polytheists would say the same about their religions too.

  • Haikukitty

    You know what else is made up? The Bible, which got most of its old testament stories from the Sumerian creation myths via Babylonian exile. So what? Religions are stories and mythologies that mean something to a group of people. What is made-up about that? A religion that respects nature and the planet isn’t really made up in spirit even if particular rituals have been invented. I’m not sure what the point of the snarky tone of this article is. I know my reverence for Mother Earth isn’t “made-up” though.

    • Anomalocaris of the North

      Are you a pagan?