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NeoPaganism – Re-imagining the past for contemporary needs

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NeoPaganism is an umbrella term for diverse spiritual movements that reimagine beliefs and practices from the Middle Ages and pre-Christian era.

The overall purpose is to restore and develop apparently lost and repressed forms of spiritual knowledge and practice.

Goddess religion can be a part of NeoPaganism. Some adherents believe that a golden era of humanity existed when Goddess worship was dominant.

NeoPaganism has some spiritual leaders who may express the core beliefs of many adherents, but most describe themselves and the movement as anti-authoritarian. There are, however, big fish and little fish. In academic circles, for instance, Starhawk figures prominently and inspires lesser known seekers who try to emulate her example.

J. Gordon Melton argues in The Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (1992) that NeoPagans differ from the New Age movement.

New Age enthusiasts often generalize diverse religious ethics, cosmologies and practices to a single belief in Universal Love within All That Is.

Image by Lunireal via Wikipedia

NeoPagans, on the other hand, practice within a variety of relatively small groups or Circles, such as Church of Circle Wicca (later renamed Circle Sanctuary).

But this comparison is subject to debate. One thing that seems common among NeoPagans is a kind of pantheistic belief in connectivity. Alongside this, animism may figure prominently.

Some contemporary Pagans believe that there are specific spirits that inhabit various features in the natural world, and that these can be actively communicated with. Some Pagans have reported experiencing communication with spirits dwelling in rocks, plants, trees and animals, as well as power animals or animal spirits who can act as spiritual helpers or guides.¹

Many NeoPagans are women, finding a place to express symbols and themes close to women’s daily experience.

In Canada and the US only the most basic religious data is collected. So it’s hard to say exactly how many NeoPagans exist in North America. Different worldwide estimates are given here.

A Slavic Rodnover ritual in modern Russia, c. 2000 via Wikipedia


Related » Pagan, Starhawk, Theism, Barbara G. Walker, Witch



A Pagan Place?

The perception of Paganism has changed over the years. Pagans remain a religious minority in most places, and we find different opinions about Paganism as a spiritual path. In advanced countries it is rare and probably illegal to publicly disrespect or, especially, harass someone because they are Pagans or NeoPagans.

But it wasn’t always this way.

The term pagan has roots in 4th century early Christianity. The early Christians took a dim view of Pagans. At best, believers in many gods or those outside the Christian fold were stock to be converted to the Christian understanding of the One True God. At worst, they were victims of harsh insults and cruel persecution.

This disturbing trend came to a fever pitch in the Middle Ages. Many so-called heretics and witches suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of their Christian “saviors” (irony intended).

The Latin term paganismus was first used in the 4th century, by early Christian community, in reference to populations of the Roman world who worshipped many deities, either because they were increasingly rural and provincial relative to the Christian population or else because they were not milites Christi (soldiers of Christ).¹

In Medieval and early modern times the Christian Church sanctioned successive waves of barbaric torture and killing under the guise of purifying individual souls – and the Earth – of Satan’s demons, which included Pagan deities. Catholics weren’t the only sadistic psychopaths doing this. Protestants burnt people alive too—something many Catholic-detractors downplay or simply don’t know about.

But it didn’t begin in the Middle Ages. The mistrust of Paganism stems back to Biblical times. Competing with the term pagan is polytheism, which the Hellenistic Jew Philo had been using since the 1st century to denote those who didn’t believe in Jewish monotheism. And if we browse through the Christian Old Testament, it’s not too hard to see what unspeakable violence and plunder took place in the name of God before the coming of Christ.

Today the Catholic Church has softened its stand on Paganism, along with most non-Christian religions. Not accepting all aspects of non-Catholic faiths, Catholics do profess to accept all that is from God within non-Catholic belief and practice. There is some truth among the ‘shadows’ of error, is how the Catholic Catechism tends to put it.

Sounds good to some. However, Catholics remain cautious when dealing with Pagan religions. They claim that Pagan beliefs contain elements of error.

Funnily enough, many Protestants – especially Fundamentalists – believe that Catholicism has lapsed into Paganism. After all, Catholics believe in intercession and venerate the saints (to include the Virgin Mary, the Queen of all saints). And not only Catholics. Orthodox believers too.

Panagia Church Virgin Mary Iconography, Orthodox via MaxPixel

Most contemporary scholars cleverly conceal or make ambiguous any negative connotations around the word Paganism. For better or for worse, universities are bastions of political correctness. And to not fall in line can cost you your job. Nevertheless, some scholars still denounce Pagan belief, especially those on the payroll of Christian fundamentalist publishers. They see it as their holy duty to “set the record straight.”

Like most, perhaps, all aspects of life, scholarship, does not enjoy a magical banner of objectivity. The misguided belief in objectivity arguably is a kind of religious folly. But the folly is not about religion, as in Erasmus‘ day.  The folly is the belief that human research and analysis should be elevated to a lofty position that, in reality, is often undeserved.²

Peter Gay traces the development of contemporary Paganism to the European Enlightenment and Renaissance, where new ideas and fresh ways of seeing things apparently enabled mankind to deconstruct its dogmatic Christian heritage.³ By way of contrast, Dinesh D’Souza argues that Christianity, itself, is the core of all that is good in contemporary culture (for him, American society).4

Wikipedia outlines what the term Paganism means today:

Modern Paganism, or Neopaganism, can include reconstructed religions such as the Cultus Deorum Romanorum, Hellenic polytheism, Slavic neopaganism (Rodnovery), Celtic reconstructionist paganism, or Germanic neopaganism, as well as modern eclectic traditions such as Wicca and its many offshoots, Druidry, Heathenry, and Discordianism.

However, there often exists a distinction or separation between some… [groups] over numerous issues such as; the importance of accurate orthopraxy according to ancient sources available, the use and concept of magic, which calendar to use and which holidays to observe, as well as the use of the term pagan itself.

Many of the “revivals”, Wicca and Neo-druidism in particular, have their roots in 19th century Romanticism and retain noticeable elements of occultism or theosophy that were current then, setting them apart from historical rural (paganus) folk religion. Most modern pagans, however, believe in the divine character of the natural world and paganism is often described as an “Earth religion.”5

Some scholars point out similarities between aspects of Christianity and Paganism. What matters is how we interpret these similarities.

Here are three examples in Catholicism:

  • With the Eucharistic Celebration, Catholicism claims to have finalized and transformed the previously barbaric acts of sacrifice and atonement
  • Many Catholic (and Christian) feast days fall on the dates of older Pagan festivals—for example, Saturnalia and Christmas
  • Catholics say their religion transforms and ennobles all that is good in the annals of mankind. So the Vatican collects priceless Pagan statues because these represent artistic ‘greatness.’ God must have been present, they argue, because the statues were so superbly conceived and executed.

On this last point, some non-Catholics take this as rank idolatry, greed and hypocrisy masked as piety. For the critics, it is false to see God working through non-Christian pathways. The Catholic replies that the heavenly Jesus exists in all of time so can influence historical periods that took place – or some might say that are taking place – before his earthly manifestation.

This is interesting. So many perceive Catholics as narrow-minded, brainwashed traditionalists. But considering Einstein’s empirically supported ideas about the relativity of space and time, we can safely say that Catholic theology was centuries ahead on this one.6


² Academics often use special words and speech patterns to try, arguably in part, to legitimize their brand of thinking. But when we look closer or just think for ourselves, we often see how arrogant, small and uninspiring this can be. (The overuse of the word “magisterial” comes to mind). Recently reading one sociological piece, I had to wade through miles of gobbledygook to get to the main points. And these were so obvious and pedantic, it made me wonder why the author was such a big shot in the first place.

³ See Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966).

4 D’Souza is a great writer. He reminds me of some hip Indian intellectuals and artists whom I met in India. But he simplifies and misrepresents Canada so terribly, I can only wonder what blunders and omissions he commits in other areas. Reading his stuff and watching his films makes me feel like I’m looking at a very bright 15-year-old’s connect the dots picture. The artwork is well above average for a 15-year-old. But an adult gets the sense that too many dots are left out. In short, entertaining but be sure to fact check. See


6 Plato too, one could argue.

† Entry title:

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Freyja – Afterlife goddess still alive today

English: The goddess Freia stands under a tree...

The goddess Freia stands under a tree of apples with her cats by her feet. Note that Wagner’s Freia merges the Norse goddesses Freyja and Iðunn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Norse mythology, Freyja is the goddess of love, sex, fertility, wealth, war and the afterlife, roughly parallel to the Greek Aphrodite. Young women consult her on matters of love. She and her brother, the fertility god Frey, are the offspring of Niord, god of the sea.

Half of all warriors slain in battle enter her heavenly hall, Fólkvangr. The other half go to Odin’s great hall at Valhalla. Wikipedia tells us

Freyja is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources; in the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, the two latter written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century; in several Sagas of Icelanders; in the short story Sörla þáttr; in the poetry of skalds; and into the modern age in Scandinavian folklore, as well as the name for Friday in many Germanic languages.¹

Freyja is an old goddess, historically speaking, often equated with Frigga, the wife of Odin. However, some scholars suggest that Frigga and Freyja are two different versions of the same Germanic pagan deity.

The following image shows how Freyja, far from being some distant mythic memory, continues to inform the mythological and artistic imagination of many Northern Europeans.

The statue of Freyja on the Djurgårdsbron bridge in Stockholm (Sweden) in the late evening.


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Athena Varvakeion, small Roman replica of the ...

Athena Varvakeion, small Roman replica of the Athena Parthenos by Phidias. Found in Athens near the Varvakeion school, hence the name. First half of the 3rd c. AD. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Athena is the sagely and powerful Greek goddess of war and strategy, daughter of Zeus and Metis.

Uranus and Gaia warned Zeus that if Metis had a daughter, she would bear a son who would rob Zeus of his heavenly kingdom. Zeus responded by swallowing the pregnant Metis so as to be Athena’s sole progenitor. Athena sprang fully armed from Zeus’ head at birth to become the goddess of War, known more for her strategizing and encouragement of heroes than mere blood lust.

In Homer’s Illiad Athena often intercedes, bestowing advice and strength to Greek mortals during the Trojan war. As the protectress of Athens, she was venerated in three temples at the Acropolis and celebrated during numerous festivals, the main festival being Panathenaea.

In the 5th century BCE she is also worshiped as a goddess of philosophy. She’s also a patroness of craftsmen, especially weavers.

Athena’s warrior shield was called an aegis, which she shared with her father, Zeus. And the phrase, under the aegis of derives from the legends of Zeus and Athena.

Athena’s Roman parallel is the goddess Minerva.

In 1982 the British rock group The Who wrote a song called “Athena” on the album It’s Hard.

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Alien Aphrodite by Craig Moe via Flickr

Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of beauty, love and fertility, worshipped throughout ancient Greece. Legend has it that she was born from the sea foam that arose at Paphos, Cyprus after Cronus had castrated Uranus and thrown the testicles (some say all the genitals) into the water.

My Classical Mythology Blog writes:

It seems surprising that the goddess of love would be sprung from such violence and mutilation, but when we explore the kind of “love” that this goddess delivers the connection makes more sense.¹

Homer says she is the wife of Hephaestus but also had romantic affairs with Ares, the god of War. From that union she became the mother of Eros. She also had sex with a human, Anchises, out of which the Trojan hero, Aeneas was born.

Aprhrodite might also have been the guardian of prostitutes; Pindar notes that her temples often housed corps of prostitutes. And Ovid in myth connects her to the first prostitutes in Cyprus.

Tile mosaic depicting Leada and the Swan from ...

Tile mosaic depicting Leada and the Swan from the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, Palea Paphos; now in the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Primarily worshipped by women, men also took part in her cult, probably because of her role as guardian of the sea.

Although the beautiful Helen of Troy is usually blamed for the Trojan War, it was Aphrodite who bribed Paris for the prize of the Golden Apple by offering the reward of Helen, the Queen of Sparta, in the first place. So Paris abducted Helen on the – apparently – legitimate grounds of Aphrodite’s “divine” bribe.

Aphrodite is also given a curious dual nature by Plato and figures in several other myths, outlined in the Wikipedia article:

The Roman parallel to Aphrodite is Venus.

¹ Read the rest of this excellent post here:

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Castor and Pollux

Castor and Pollux

Castor and Pollux by tiseb via Flickr

Also known as the Dioscuri, the Greek Kastor and Polydeuces figure in classical myth. The Roman Castor and Pollux are believed to have intervened in the battle of Regillus in 484 BCE , and recent temple excavations support this claim.¹

As the twin sons of Leda, they are often honored among the pagan gods at Sparta and Rome,² and represented on horseback. As Zeus‘ child, Pollux was immortal and an outstanding boxer.

Castor was the offspring of Tyndareus, mortal and an excellent horseman. At Castor’s death, Pollux beseeched Zeus to grant Castor immortality as he could not bear the thought of separation.

Zeus transformed them both into the constellation Gemini (the Twins). They appear as St. Elmo’s Fire to aid seafarers, and appeared in the New Testament as the image on a grain ship that carried Paul from Malta to Puteoli ³ (Acts 28:11).

And after three months we departed in a ship of Alexandria, which had wintered in the isle, whose sign was Castor and Pollux.4

Perhaps because of the archetypal idea of the twins, Castor and Pollux appear through the arts and literature, as attested to here.

¹ Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1999, p. 303.

² Maas, Georgia S.. “Castor and Pollux.” Oxford Reference. Oxford University Press. . n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

³ Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1987, p. 1024.