Neo-Paganism: An Old Religion for a New Age
by Otter Zell
As founder and priest of a Neo-Pagan church, I have often
been asked to explain exactly what we mean by the term
"Pagan." We find ourselves in the peculiar position of
having a public image that was created not by ourselves,
but by our persecutors. It is much as if the Nazis had
succeeded in eradicating Judaism to the extent that,
generations later, the common opinion of what the Jewish
faith was all about was derived solely from the anti-Semitic
propaganda of the Third Reich.
In Europe alone, as many as nine million Pagans were
martyred by the Christian churches during the Inquisition
and Witch trials. That figure is half again as many as the
six million Jews who died in Nazi concentration camps,
and does not even count the millions of other Pagan
peoples in North and South America, Africa, Polynesia,
Melanesia and Asia who fell before the advancing plague
of Western Christendom. Today, the concept most people
have of Paganism is the lurid one drawn by the Christian
church to justify its own reign of terror. It bears about the
same relation to reality as the similar propaganda
Christianity once fostered about Jews.
"In the 13th century the Church opened its long-drawn-
out conflict with Paganism in Europe by declaring
Witchcraft to be a 'sect' and heretical. It was not til the 14th
century that the two religions came to grips. . .
"All through the 16th and 17th centuries the battle
raged. The Pagans fought a gallant, though losing, fight
against a remorseless and unscrupulous enemy; every
inch of the field was disputed. At first victory occasionally
inclined to the Pagans, but the Christian policy of obtaining
influence over the rulers and law-givers was irresistible.
Vae victis was also the policy of the Christians, and we see
the priests of the Papacy gloating over the thousands
whom they had consigned to the flames while the ministers
of the Reformed Churches hounded on the administrators
of the law to condemn the 'devil worshippers.'
"What can have been the feelings with which those
unhappy victims regarded the vaunted God of Love, the
Prince of Peace, whose votaries condemned them to
torture and death? What wonder that they clung to their old
faith, and died in agony unspeakable rather than deny their
God." (Margaret Murray, The God of the Witches) 'Pagan'
does not mean "irreligious" or "barbarian." It is the correct
anthropological term to describe indigenous folk religions,
being derived from the Latin paganus, "peasant," which
derives in turn from pagus, "village." The Latin comes from
the Greek pagos, "standing stone," and paga, "sacred
spring," representing, respectively, the male and female
generative powers. Paganism is basically Nature worship.
'Pagan' is a proper noun or adjective denoting the name of
a religion, and as such, is properly always capitalized, as
is 'Jewish' or 'Hindu.'
Religions can be roughly divided into two distinct
categories: the naturally evolving, indigenous "folk"
religions of particular regions and peoples (the Pagan
religions), and on the other hand the "revealed" religions:
those religions owing their existence to a "revelation"
taught by some great "prophet" and formulated in various
creeds and dogmas. The latter category, of course,
includes most of the "Great Religions of Mankind": Judeo-
Christian-Islamic, Buddhist, Confucian, etc. Though
articulated by a great teacher, Lao-tsu, Taoism is
essentially Pagan in philosophy and attitude, while
Hinduism and Shinto are Pagan in origin and essence
even though they have become institutionalized as State
Pagan religions are characterized by being "natural" in
origin and mode of expression, as compared to the
artificiality of constructed revealed religions. Paganism
emerges out of the processes of Life and Nature and
continues to evolve as a living, growing, organic entity.
Revealed religions are like buildings: an architect
(prophet) get an inspiration (revelation) and lays down his
vision in blueprints (prophecy, scriptures). Then
contractors, carpenters, masons, etc. (disciples and
followers) build the structure more or less according to his
specifications. It is made of non-living materials and does
not grow naturally: it is assembled. When it is finished, it
cannot grow further and begins to deteriorate, until it is
eventually so outmoded and rundown it is demolished to
make way for new constructs. A world of revealed religions
is like unto a city, with all the problems (hunger, war,
hatreds, crime, pollution, dis-ease) of a city, and for much
the same reason: alienation from the life-flow.
A Pagan religion, on the other hand, is like a tree: it
emerges alive from the Earth, grows, changes (both
cyclically through the seasons, and continually in upward
and outward growth), bears flowers and fruit and shares its
life with other living beings. It is not made or designed
according to any blueprint other than genetic. And when,
after many thousands of years perhaps, it should come to
the end of its time, it does not pass from the world entirely,
for its own progeny have spring up all around, again from
the Earth, similar yet each unique. A world of Pagan
religions is like a forest.
Paganism includes Animism, Pantheism, Shamanism
and Totemism. (Wichcraft is the survival or reconstruction
of European Shamanism; i.e. the magical arts of tribal
peoples.) Pagan are the native religions of the American
Indians, the Africans, the various Island peoples, many
peasants in the mountains of Asia, the Aborigines of
Australia, and, at one time, the Gauls, Teutons, Norse,
Celts and Faeries (as the invading Saxons called the
pygmy neolithic race they encountered in Britain and parts
Long before they encountered Christianity, the Faeries
(known to archaeologists as Pretani, or Picts) had been
forced by the Saxons onto the inhospitable heathered
lands of Britain, and were later to be called "Heathens" by
the Church. By 1500 CE, they had been virtually
exterminated, save for those who managed to intermarry or
exchange their infants for those of the invaders_these
were the "changelings." Moreover, as it was later to do in
the case of the Witches, who inherited much of the Faery
lore and religion, the Church began a campaign to convince
the world and future generations that these people had
never existed, but were merely imaginary!
The old Pagan religions were never "created." They
had no founding prophets and no saviors. They grew up
with their people and their origins are lost in the mists at
the dawn of humanity. What little we can trace indicates a
descent from paleolithic and neolithic "fertility cults,"
hence the common symbols of the Earth Mother Goddess,
the Green Man and the Horned God_the fecund
embodiments of living Nature. We find them therefore
unanimous in their veneration of Nature and their sensual
celebration of life, birth, sex and death as expressed in the
seasonal Festivals of the Sacred Year.
All these Great Festivals of Paganism, wherever they
may be found, correspond in common with the Solstices,
Equinoxes and other natural annual cycles of life (animal
mating and birth seasons, planting, harvest). Most of these
remain with us today in more-or-less disguised form as the
so-called "Christian" holidays of Christmas (Yule), Easter
(Ostara), May Day (Beltane), Thanksgiving (Mabon or
Harvest Home), Halloween (Samhain) and even
Groundhog's Day (Oimelc). In addition to these six, there
are two others, Litha (Midsummer) and Lughnasadh,
comprising a total of eight Festivals (or Sabbats, as they
are known, sometimes under different names in
Thus it is obvious that the rich heritage of Paganism
forms a solid foundation for the emergence of the Neo-
Pagan revival today. In the midst of our current spiritual
and ecological crisis, it is appropriate that natural religions
are once again finding a place among the children of Earth.
Modern Neo-Paganism, however, is distinct from the
Old Religion, in that it is a relatively new phenomenon.
Neo-Pagan religions are many and diverse. They range
from the sublimely artistic Paradisal vision and
reconstruction of old Pagan Mysteries of Feraferia to the
astrological divination and ancient Egyption religion of the
Church of the Eternal Source; and from the Wiccan-oriented
myth and ritual of the Pagan Way to the transpersonal
psychology, science-fiction mythology and deep ecology of
the Church of All Worlds. All of the several dozen Neo-
Pagan religious traditions now in existence, and most of
the countless sects of Witchcraft, hold certain values in
common. It is these values which relate them to Paganism
in the older sense.
One of the key values of Neo-Paganism is its
insistence on personal responsibility. The Church of All
Worlds expresses this in the phrase, "Thou art God/dess,"
implying total personal freedom and individual
responsibility on the part of every one. Paganism has no
concept of "original sin," hence has no need of saviors.
Neo-Pagans do not expect divine retribution for breaking
social taboos. Rather, concepts of "sin" and "atonement"
are restated in the framework of ecological awareness and
karma. If our actions are discordant and in opposition to
the evolutionary flow of Life, we suffer the ecological
consequences, in much the same way, and for exactly the
same reason, as diseased cells in the body are attacked
by the antibodies and other natural defenses. Whatever
energy we put out returns to us multiplied threefold. Love
returns love; hate returns hate. Robert Ingersoll observed:
"In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments;
there are consequences." Total responsibility (hence total
freedom) rests in our hands.
As in the Old Religion, Neo-Pagans conceptualize
Divinity as manifest in the processes of Nature. In a literal
sense, Mother Nature, Mother Earth, is "Goddess," and
She has been recognized as such since time immemorial.
Thus ecology is seen as the supreme religious study:
"Nature is Divinity made manifest...It is creativity,
continuity, balance, beauty and truth of life.
"Everything we encounter in the Biosphere is a part of
Nature, and ecology reveals the pattern of that is-ness, the
natural relationships among all these things and the
Organic Unity of all of them as a Biospheric Whole. Thus
ecology shows the pattern of man's proper and creative
involvement with Nature, that Nature which encompasses
his own life and on proper relation to which his survival
and development depend.
"Of all man's secular studies, ecology comes closest
to bringing him to the threshold of religious relationship to
his world. Ecology not only confirms the wonders of form
and function that other secular studies have revealed, but
it brings these into organic union with each other as one
dynamic, living Whole; and it points out the conditions for
the wellbeing of both this overall Unity and the parts that
"An intensive realization of these conditions, and of
one's own immediate role in their sustainment and
development, brings one to the threshold of religious awe.
To worship Nature, therefore, is to venerate and commune
with Divinity as the dynamically organic perfection of the
whole." (Council of Themis, from Green Egg #43)
Neo-Paganism is a recent mutation of the Old Religion
which had its earliest emergence during the European
Renaissance with the rediscovery of the ancient Greek
philosophers via Arabian texts. However, this was also the
time of the Burnings, and the budding Neo-Pagan
emergence was suppressed until the late 1700s, when it
found expression in the Romantic Period of art, music and
literature, especially in Germany.
This Romantic flowering of Neo-Paganism, notably the
element known as the Bavarian Illuminati (whose mottos
were "eternal flower power" and "eternal serpent power"),
greatly appealed to a visiting American named Benjamin
Franklin. Upon his return to the colonies it became a major
spiritual force in the post-Revolutionary America of the
1780s, where its influence continued to shape the new
nation through the presidencies of the Adams family. It was
Monroe and the War of 1812 that managed to suppress
this movement for a time, but it re-emerged 60 years later
in the form of the Transcendentalist Movement,
exemplified in the poetry and writings of Whitman, Thoreau
and Emerson, and the commune movement in the 1840s.
The Civil War, Reconstruction, the conquest of the
West and the Gold Rush drained the Nature-oriented
spritual energy from the people of America for another 60
years, but it blossomed again through Art Nouveau in the
1900s. Then came the World Wars, the Depression,
McCarthyism. Sixty more years had to pass before the
gathering impact of Eastern religious philosophy,
especially Zen, and Existentialism gave birth to the "hip
underground" counter-culture of the Beatniks.
Experimentation with drugs, sexuality, music, poetry,
communal living and alternate lifestyles paved the way for
the Hippie phenomenon of the 1960s, which curiously
resurrected the old Illuminati motto of "flower power." The
seeds of Neo-Paganism which had lain dormant for three
generations took root in fertile soil and emerged once more
into the light, to be joined in the '70s by the heirs of Wicca,
the last vestiges of the Old Religion of Europe.
The New Religion is still very much Paganism, for its
inspiration and orientation is based, as were its
predecessors', upon an understanding of the relationship
of Humanity with the larger perspective of Life, Nature and
the Universe. Fred Adams of Feraferia coined the term
"eco-psychic" to describe the type of awareness that
permeates this new religion.
Revealed religions, especially of the monotheistic
variety, tend to see man as a special creation, exalted
above all Nature, the epitome of God's handiwork. Thus the
Biblical injunction to Man to "have dominion over all the
Earth" is not seen by Judeo-Christians as outrageously
presumptious; nor is God's destruction of all life on Earth
in the legend of the Deluge seen as insane, immoral
ecocide. Both God and Man are considered to have a
"divine right" to desecrate the Earth at their pleasure. This
is in direct opposition to the view of Paganism, which sees
humanity's duty not to conquer Nature, but to live in
harmony and stewardship with Her.
Every revealed religion claims to have its own direct
pipeline to the Divinity and its own essential precepts
derived from direct, uncontestable revelation. Neo-Pagans,
on the other hand, have outgrown egotistical,
temperamental gods and expect no intervention from some
Big Daddy in the Sky to solve the problems of our times.
Instead, we look to Nature (through the clear glass of
ecology) for inspiration and direction, and to ourselves as
the instruments for all that needs to be done. Thou art
God/dess! Otter G'Zell, 1970 (revised Jan. 8, 1991)