Neo-Paganism left and right, old and new

“The past two centuries of European history”, says Claire Berlisnki in Menace in Europe: Why the Continents Crisis is America’s, too, “can be viewed as a series of struggles to find a replacement for what Europe has lost.” For Berlinski, Europe lost Christianity. Since the USA remains Christian to a far greater degree, the assertion is at least superficially correct. But what the West really lost was its sense of the transcendence in the things of daily life. Berlinski looks especially to the political in regard to what has filled this vacuum. Filling the void, left by Christianity, she suggests, are political “pseudoreligious substitutes.”[i]

Journalist and author Melanie Phillips – or “mad Mel,” as her critics call her – makes a similar claim in her book Londonistan. She believes that there is an agenda to promote “antireligion,” at least when it comes to the traditional faith of Europe. “Dethrone Christianity, and the job of subjugating the West is halfway done,” says Phillips. “Radical Islam” will take advantage, and, eventually, will take over, she believes. But not before every other faith, “cult,” etc., has done so. “Judaism and Christianity, the creeds that formed the bedrock of Western civilization,” she argues, “have been pushed aside and their place filled by a plethora of paranormal activities and cults.”

Both Berlinski and Phillips appear to be missing something crucial. Roman Catholic convert and author G. K. Chesterton noted a century ago, “The New Paganism is no longer new.” It wasn’t new then, and it isn’t new now. Nor is Western esotericism. And both have, for at least several centuries – if not millennia – contributed to the intellectual, cultural, and political climate of Britain, Europe, and, later, America. Prime Minister Winston Churchill joined the The Ancient Order of Druids as a young man. Elizabeth I’s close advisor was, as we now know, an astrologer – as well as a magus and alchemist. The USA’s first president, George Washington, was Freemason. Sir Isaac Newton had studied alchemy and even attempted to predict future through the aid of the architectural details of Solomon’s Temple. We need not linger on the details here.

The Birth of Fraternal neo-Paganism

Somewhere around 1694 John Aubrey founded a society called Mount Haemus Grove. It was supposed to have been a revival of a Druid Order that had existed in oxford during the thirteenth century. One of the members of the Gove, John Toland, later founded a Druid society in London. Like the semi-philosophical, semi-mystical fraternity of Freemasonry, this society announced the founding of its Grand Lodge in 1717.[ii] The Druids held their inaugural meeting in the same year at the Apple Tree Tavern in Covent Garden, which, notably, was a well-known hangout for Freemasons.

William Stukeley, an Anglican priest, archeologist, antiquarian, and one of the more prominent Freemasons, was partly responsible for associating Stonehenge with Druidry. Stuckeley had a highly romantic view of Druidry, which he believed to be a highly sophisticated form of religion, closely resembling — he alleged — Christianity.

Like Stukeley’s Druidry, Freemasonry had already acquired a romantic aura, and was believed by many to derive from the ancient past, although the exact origin varied from one theory to the next. The stonemasons’ guild of the British Isles, from which Freemasonry had emerged, possessed a mythology at least as early as the end of the fourteenth century that explained how it had been introduced to that land. Over the centuries, the myth altered slightly, but, recorded in various manuscripts, it describes stonemasonry as being brought from the Holy Land, through Egypt, Europe, and to England at the time of King Athelstan, who reigned from 925 and 939 AD. For those like Stukeley, who were interested in ancient Britain and in ancient religion, the Freemasonic fraternity must have appeared as offering significant clues to their nature.

Stukeley was initiated into a Freemasonic lodge that met at Salutation Tavern, Tavistock Street, London, in 1721. The following year he formed a circle of gentlemen called the Society of Roman Knights. Its members took the names of historical literary figures, and Stukeley adopted Chyndonax, which he believed to have belonged to a Druid priest. Included in his illustrated Stonehenge a temple restor’d to the British druids was a portrait of Stukeley in profile, within an oval frame, wearing a vine wreathe in imitation of Roman portraiture, and with the name Chyndonax inscribed on the inside left, behind his head.[iii]

If Freemasonry came to define the fraternal life of the eighteenth century, Druidry probably benefited from absorbing something from its procedures and framework. In 1781 a secret society called the Ancient Order of Druids was founded by a carpenter and builder named Henry Hurle. Partly mystical and partly charitable, this split in 1833, with the new Druid societies opting for one or the other. One of the successor societies was Albion Lodge of the Ancient Order of Druids of Oxford, which initiated the future Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill in a ceremony in Blenheim Park in August 1908.[iv] He had already joined a Freemasonic Lodge in 1901, though he was not especially dedicated to it, and left the Freemasonic fraternity in July 1912.[v]

By the late nineteenth century the appropriation of Norse mythology by German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) for his “great operas” had helped turn it into a serious subject of contemplation for esoteric thinkers. Although interest in pagan mythology remained small, Max Heindel, founder of the Rosicrucian Fellowship in the USA, wrote a meditative treatise, titled Mysteries of the Great Operas, that explored Wagner’s operas and compared Norse and Christian mythology. Occasional references to Wagner and Norse mythology also appear in the writings of English occultist Aleister Crowley.

Way of the Goddess

Occultism and neo-paganism were affected by modern psychology, especially the theories of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), the latter of which theorized that fascism had emerged as the result of sexual repression. As such, the stage was set for a Left-wing, even anti-fascist, spirituality to emerge. The occult and neo-paganism entered the public domain, along with elements of Buddhism and Hinduism (meditation and yoga), in the 1960s’ Hippie movement. It viewed these, and consequently reinterpreted and refashioned them, in light of the civil rights, anti-war and ecology movements (influenced by Marxism and Third Worldism), as well as the psychedelics drug craze.

Historian Peter Wood claims that “diversity” has “has achieved an almost complete fusion” with neo-paganism. In this religious phenomenon, he says, the notion has become “radicalized.”[vi] However, it is probable that alternative spirituality – including neo-paganism – contributed significantly to the notion of cultural diversity, or multiculturalism.  As potential liberators, young Western men and women turned to Hindu and Buddhist meditation techniques in the 1960s in order to experience inner peace, and so on. These experiences – which often alternated with others induced by drugs – were supposed to open the mind to new worlds of consciousness. More mundanely, Westerners have adopted — usually select aspects of — non-Christian religions as a way of shedding the last constraints of their traditional culture.

The Sixties’ zeitgeist continued within the realm of alternative spirituality, drawing “progressive” politics toward their archetypes. With its emphasis on the “Goddess,” and the role of the “high priestess,” not surprisingly, Wicca (the modern “witchcraft” religion, and most popular form of neo-paganism) became intertwined with feminist politics early on. A minority of its practitioners now regard Wicca as specifically a women’s religion, and many Wiccan groups (“covens”) only admit women.

Sexual freedom and women’s empowerment are, naturally, themes of importance for many female Wiccans. However, Wicca has adopted into its worldview — which originates with Karl Marx, if we are to believe historian Kenneth Minogue — the premise that society and history is defined by dominator and dominated classes. In this case, witches and Wiccans are the oppressed, or dominated, and Christianity and patriarchy are the historic oppressors. The “witch trials” and the burning of alleged witches in the early modern era suggests that this view is not entirely without foundation, but it is also one that opens some Wiccans and neo-pagans to modern, “progressive” ideas that certainly contradict what traditional, pre-Christian societies stood for. At its most extreme, Wicca seems similar to Christian Liberation Theology.

While students were rioting in Paris and protesting against the Vietnam War in the US, women’s political group, WITCH (originally “Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell”), was established. It campaigned against a number of issues, and the name of the group was changed accordingly, although always so that the acronym remained constant. It also mixed politics and spirituality, claiming that witches were the “original guerillas and resistance fighters against oppression,” (that’s pretty unlikely) as well as the first drug dealers. They were also non-conformists, “groovy,” and opposed the “sexual, economic, and spiritual repression of the Imperialist Phallic Society.”[vii]

Margot Adler, whose Drawing Down the Moon (1979) remains an indispensable guide to the modern pagan movement, believed she saw a growing division between politics and spirituality in the US “counterculture” generally, with feminists alone bucking the trend. They were blending politics and spirituality “as if they were two streams of a single river.” In the four years prior to her writing Drawing Down the Moon she had observed a growing number of feminist conferences on spirituality that also discussed witchcraft and held workshops on Tarot cards, meditation, psychic healing, and the “relationship between political, economic, and spiritual concerns.” [viii]

The Runes

With the growth and popularization of Wicca, some practitioners began to feel that the faith needed to be revised, and a more authentic version of Wicca established. The reformation within Wicca, and the emphasis on finding authenticity in neo-paganism more broadly, has — perhaps unexpectedly — led a growing number of practitioners to look to ancient northern European texts and ancient traditions. Raymond Buckland created Seax-Wicca, inspired by Anglo-Saxon witchcraft. His 1974 work, The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft, included short chapters on Woden (the Old English name for Odin) and the goddess Freya, as well as illustrations and discussions of runes, the magical symbols and letters that Odin received in a vision, according to mythology. In his later Complete Book of Witchcraft Buckland again references Woden and gives a basic primer on runes.

The earliest documented use of the term “Odinism” was by Orestes A. Brownson, who wrote of a “revival of Odinism, or the old Scandinavian heathenism” in 1848.[ix] However, the religion as it exists today emerged partly through, and partly in reaction to, the neo-pagan religion of Wicca. Odinism has become a significant religious movement in recent years. Although small Odinist movements existed elsewhere, in the English-speaking world Odinism emerged largely through Wicca during the 1980s and 90s. Freya Aswynn’s enigmatically titled Leaves of Yggdrasil (1988) helped to grow interest in the Norse gods and goddesses, and to present a revived – although still largely-Wiccan influenced – Norse faith as a distinct branch of neo-paganism. Despite publishing infrequently in comparison to Buckland, Aswynn remains a cult figure in the neo-pagan scene.

At around the same time, Stephen Flowers a PHD graduate in runeology, began publishing works on the subject under his own name and also using the name Edred Thorsson. These were divided into more scholarly and more occult-type works, with the latter under the Thorsson name. Both Aswynn and Thorsson are somewhat controversial figures on the Odinist and occult scenes today; Thorsson because he also embraced Satansim, which he regards as a legitimate manifestation of the dark side of Odin. Most Odinists strongly disagree, and tend to steer clear of anything remotely connected to Christian mythology.

For most Odinists, the purpose of turning to ancient and often obscure texts was of course to recreate a pagan religion unsullied by modern ideas of religion. This does not mean, of course, that Odinism is a kind of religious reenactment movement. On the contrary, like those of other religions, most Odinists try to incorporate their faith into their ordinary daily lives, and most regard it as a faith that offers practical wisdom for how to live.

While Wicca has tended to be allied to Left-wing (even far-Left) ideas, fairly or unfairly, Odinism and Asatru are often associated with the far-Right. Some contemporary overtly racist organizations have adopted runes in their insignia and imagery, and Odinism has apparently ousted “Christian Identity” (a White supremacist religion that interprets the Bible in an anti-Semitic manner, and claims that White people are the “real Israelites”) as the racist religion of choice. Most Odinists distance themselves from racism and neo-Nazism, but the alliance of racialists and Norse-type neo-pagans is not new. The “Volkish” movement of Austria and Germany romanticized the Germanic peoples and was largely anti-Semitic. Some of its ideas and symbols seeped into the Nazi Party — which nevertheless had no qualms about sending many leading neo-pagans of the day to concentration camps.

Thorsson introduced much of the (practical and, we must stress, non-racist) material of this period to English-speaking readers, most especially the “rune yoga” practices of early twentieth century German and Austrian occultists, such as Friedrich Bernhard Marby, and the writings of Germanic mystic “Der Meister” Guido von List.

Whether positive or negative, the practical effect of the introduction of these occultists and thinkers has been to establish the 18 “Armanen” runes (created or “seen” by von List in a vision, but clearly based upon the Old English runes) as a kind of inner, secret store of knowledge, and rune yoga as the practical basis for contemporary Germanic-inclined occult practitioners. (The ancient runic “alphabets” continue to play the largest role, however.)

Whether invoking the pre-Christian world or claiming that it is a “scientific” pursuit, whether feminist or “Right-wing,” neo-paganism is certainly one of the most dynamic forms of Western occultism around today. It has grown, in recent decades, from a small subgroup of Western esotericism to distinct religions — Wicca and Asatru — given legal recognition and protection by the state, at least in the USA.

Neo-paganism is influencing culture through “Black Metal.” And it is turning up in American politics, with “America’s top Heathen,” Republican New York councilman Dan Halloran, being trashed in the Village Voice for his neo-pagan activities, and Tea Partier and Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell claiming to have dabbled in Witchcraft as a youth. You might lament that these political figures are both Republicans, but I’m sure you’ll agree that at least they’re a little funkier than conservatives like anti-pagan, anti-modernity, anti-most things Melanie Phillips.

Whether you’re for it, like altar-dating O’Donnell, or against it like “mad Mel,” or an outsider like me, the one thing you might agree with is that the new paganism, as Chesterton reminds us, is no longer new.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.


[i] Claire Berlinski, Menace in Europe: Why the continents Crisis is America’s, too, Crown Forum, New York, 2006.

[ii] Ronald Hutton, The History of the Druids in Britain, Yale University Press, USA, 2009, p. 125.

[iii] Neil Mortimer, Stukeley Illustrated: William Stukeley’s Rediscovery of Britain’s Ancient Sites, Green Magic, United Kingdom, 2004, p. 4 and p. 13. See also David Boyd Haycock, William Stukeley: science, religion, and archaeology in eighteenth-century, Boydell Press, United Kingdom, 2002, p. 175.

[iv] Stuart Piggott, The Druids, Thames and Hudson, United Kingdom, 1975, p. 180.

[v] Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, ‘Winston Churchill’;  http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/churchill_w/churchill_w.html

[vi] Peter Wood, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, Encounter Books, San Francisco, California, 2003, pp. 156-159 and pp. 168-169.

[vii] From the WITCH Manifesto, published in Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Powerful, Random House, 1979, pp. 539-543. Also quoted by Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, Penguin/Arkana, 1986, p. 179.

[viii] Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, Penguin/Arkana, 1986, p. 178.

[ix] The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, Vol. X, Moul-Ovum, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989, “Odinism,” p. 703.

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