Short Pagan History
(This message was written for USENET's talk.religion.misc in early December
1986, in response to a request for information on paganism. It fit my
absolute criterion of quality - that is, a huge number of compliments, even
from people who usually think I'm an asshole - so I thought some people here
might enjoy reading it.)
Paganism is a loose word for the large variety of polytheistic, shamanistic,
and mystical non-monotheistic religions. Paganism exists in all cultures,
from paleolithic to technological, but has historically waxed and waned.
The ancient Egyptians are an example of a highly pagan society; so are the
ancient Romans; and all paleolithic cultures from the Old Stone Age to the
present have strong pagan elements. An example of a less pagan culture
would be the West for the last thousand years or so, since the centuries
following the Fall of Rome. The domination of the Middle East by Christians
and Moslems has also largely shut out paganism.
Characteristic of paganism is a tolerance for other pagnistic ideas, even
those that literally contradict one's own. Such persecutions as have been
directed against paganistic religions by each other are by-products of
political struggles and mass population movements rather than ideologically
motivated. The same is to some extent true of early Judaism, which was the
direct inheritor to the traditions of a strongly pagan society. A slave
revolt apparently led to a few hundred thousand slaves with no place to
live; to get them, they butchered the inhabitants of pagan cities and took
up residence in the cities themselves. They invoked their war god to
justify this action. Similarly, when the beginnings of the modern Greek
mythology were laid down, it was as a result of invading Northern barbarians
supplanting the earlier (and somewhat gynocentric) Titan mythology with
their imported religion, which grew more refined and less aggressive later
on, as happened with Judaism.
Before it came under the thumb of monotheism, the West was dominated by
the highly civilized Roman culture. The Roman Republic and Empire were
characterized by an unusually large number of religions together in a
single social whole, frequently sharing the same geography and even
the same temples. This explicitly eclectic (or "syncretistic", as it is
more usually known in studies of the Romans) synthesis is more similar to
modern neo-paganism than any other form of historical paganism I know of.
However, it ended after the Christian emperors took over and Rome fell.
The post-pagan West experienced frequent resurgences of paganism in various
forms. If we date this at 1000 CE for convenience, we see first the
Inquisitorial period, where paganism was punished with death and torture.
Then there comes the Renaissance, in which pagan symbolism and ideas in art
and philosophy were somewhat more common than explicitly Christian ones.
The Renaissance lasted until the 16th century. Note that the Inquisitions
lasted effectively until the Enlightenment period, and were bad during the
Renaissance, but ceased to be mostly ideologically motivated after the first
three centuries. The Inquisition had become a political arm of the Vatican,
a force useful in many ways other than suppressing heresy. It spent much of
its time accomplishing political, antifeminist, and covert goals of the
Church. We see in the trial of the Templars in the fourteenth century that
uncommonly faithful people were caught in a secular political struggle
between the King of France and the Pope. They were routinely tortured, the
usual prompted confessions were given, and they were executed, for reasons
having nothing to do with ideology or heresy except as excuses.
It is also during the Renaissance that we begin to have evidence of what we
may consider explicitly religious paganism again. Most of the grimoires we
have date from this era; alchemists, often overtly Christian but employing
pagan symbolism and texts, were most common during the Renaissance; the
Kabbalah and Tarot originate in the Renaissance, forming the backbone of
modern pagan symbolism. The Renaissance also saw the obscure origins of a
rebirth, in improved form, of Greek humanism, technically pagan because of
its suppression by Christian Rome and its use of theistic symbols.
The Reformation was again a less pagan period; Protestant rulers like
Elizabeth and James carried out their own anti-heresy pogroms, annihilating
most evidence of witchcraft. Of particular interest in the Reformation is
Scot's "The Discoverie of Witchcraft", which presents the humanist and
rationalist perspective on witches which has generally triumphed today: that
witch accusations were more often driven by factors such as ugliness,
personal enmity, poverty, and so forth than on ideological grounds, and that
in fact there were no witches. This is probably true only of the later
Inquisitorial period. Earlier on, the Inquisition certainly did help in the
temporary stamping out of paganism; so if pagans are witches, there were
We need not bother much with Murray's supposedly anthropological study of
English witchcraft in the Inquisitorial period, except to note that it has
been devoutly accepted by many modern pagans, and to point out some of its
flaws. Based on late Inquisitorial evidence and the consistency of the
confessions obtained by the Inquistors, and tossing in some disjointed
scraps of English folk history and legend, Murray asks us to believe that a
paleolithic subculture lasted in England, living semi-naked in the bushes,
until nearly the beginning of the Reformation at least, and possibly until
the current day. Of course late Inquistorial confessions were consistent;
they were practically dictated to the torture victim. A much better account
of the relationship of paganism to Christianity before and during England's
post-pagan period is Jessi Weston's classic "From Ritual to Romance". Its
conclusions were derived from decades of intense study of the Grail
mythology and its anthropological, mythological, and social context.
As a parting note on the Reformation, we may note the peculiar phenomenon of
court astrologers and alchemists and their ilk, the most notable examples
being the sorcerer John Dee and the seer Edward Kelley under Elizabeth.
These were the inheritors of Paracelsus and the other alchemists and
Christian medicine doctors, using pagan symbols and methods with a veil of
Christian symbolism. Kelley stopped the work of Dee and Kelley under
unknown circumstances; he is said to have been told by the angels to form a
group sex arrangement with Dee and his wife, which they supposedly did for a
while; in another version, Kelley was driven from the work by a prophecy of
a new age dawning, which was heresy.
So, on to the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. This was more
humanistic than religious, though humanism is a religion on alternate
Tuesdays; it all depends which of the many reasonable definitions you use.
In any case, the seventeenth centuries saw the first applications of the
renewed Greek humanism that originated in the Renaissance. The
counter-Christian current was running stronger; more and more, people were
beginning to demand equal treatment for all, and freedom from the rigid
boundaries of thought and expression imposed on them by governments and
churches alike. This humanism has colored most "opposition" religious
movements in America since this time, much for the better in my opinion.
This is because principles of respect for the individual were put into the
American system of government (as an afterthought - the humanistic heyday
had ended in the 1780's in America, and the new would-be ruling class had to
be forcibly reminded), and the governmental structure was such that it was
able to make progress in its understanding of freedom.
Things did not work out quite so well in France's humanistic revolution,
largely due to Robespierre, the atheistic moral grandfather of Stalin and
Pol Pot. He interpreted opposition to monarchy as punishing high birth
with low death, and then set out ruthlessly to purge opposition and
deviation. Soon monarchy was re-established in France.
The nineteenth century was a period of resurgence of paganism. The
neo-classical movement was explicitly devoted to rediscovering the virtues
of the highly pagan societies Rome and Greece. This movement was to be by
far the dominant force of the century. Humanism was further applied to the
institution of slavery, resulting in war and social upheaval. The
Prometheans such as Blake, Shelley, Byron, and so forth were widely
considered to be among the greatest luminaries of the period.
The method of science and its results made available much more information
on religions of the East and of less civilized cultures. Contact between
religiously different but politically equal forces invariably leads to
mutual excuses for the other, largely to help keep trade going, but also as
a result of time spent in foreign climes observing the practice of religion.
This creates, although not in great numbers at first, a different attitude
toward religions than the dogmatic denial of all other religions possible
only under a large and self-sufficient monolithic theocracy. Other
religions are seen as not neccessarily conflicting with one's own any more
than another art movement does with one's own favorite.
There was a more open resurgence of sorcery in less overtly Christian forms,
particularly in the last half of the century. This attracted many notable
adherents, and from the publication of "The Magus" by Barrett in 1801,
created a magical library in modern English which is still widely read and
used. It used the work of Renaissance magicians, court sorcerors,
Kabalists, and so forth, and attempted to apply the psychological principles
of the day in various original fudgings. There was also the Theosophical
movement, largely discredited by Blavatsky's proven cheating on tests of
psychic powers, and rather more like spiritualism with Eastern allusions
than any Eastern religion.
The psychical movement, which changed its name to parapsychology, grew out of
spiritualism, which grew out of mesmerism, which was apparently fairly
original and totally ludicrous, but did yield the secret of hypnotism.
This led legitimate investigators to examining the claims of other groups
usually brushed off as mystical. The early Society for Psychical Research,
founded in 1882 and led by prominent scientists such as the American
psychologist William James, was formed "first, to carry on systematic
experimentation with hypnotic subjects, mediums, clairvoyants, and others;
and, secondly, to collect evidence concerning apparitions, haunted houses,
and similar phenomena which are incidentally reported, but which, from their
fugitive nature, admit of no deliberate control."
It is to be noted that there is still, a century later, no replicable
experiment to demonstrate the existence of anything but hypnotic subjects in
this list. It is also worth noting that while general models of the layout of
the psyche continue to be employed in psychotherapy, there is still no
generally agreed upon experimental methodology to falsify features of these
models. Finally, it should be noted that the ritual magic methods employed by
many pagans, in other times as well as today, still have not been placed under
real scientific scrutiny to determine whether or not they produce any physically
measurable effects. (My feeling is that such effects are limited in scope to
participants in the rituals and people who have knowledge of their occurrence,
whether such knowledge is true or false.)
Various factions of magicians struggled to survive in the early half of the
twentieth century, against an increasingly Christian atheist culture; that
is, a materialistic populace considered almost exclusively with day-to-day
life and easy entertainment, but still paying occassional lip service to
Christianity and suspicious of all other religions. Most of the inheritors
of nineteenth-century magical paganism were hopelessly fragmented and
dogmatized, incapable of working together and resolving their differences.
In the late forties, Gerald Gardner began publishing books on witchcraft.
Gardner was a known associate of Crowley's and his rituals use a lot of
symbolism drawn from Crowley, but only a few actual references to Crowley.
He is also reported to have associated with Theosophist groups. Crowley was
one of the chief inheritors of the jumble left at the end of the nineteenth
century, as well as a traveller and student in Eastern lands. In any case,
Gardner (after Crowley) called for yet another neo-classicism, following the
pattern of all the other resurgences of Graeco-Roman paganism, but more
The laudable looseness of Gardner's system was more attractive to magically
inclined people than the Golden Dawn and Theosophy splinters remaining. It
freed them to create on their own, and they went at it with a vengeance. One
reason for the greater effective freedom was that Gardner was not as hard an
act to follow as many of the Golden Dawn leaders. He was soon gone beyond by
his students, many of whom went off to form their own Gardnerian splinters
and mythological histories of their origin.
Another reason was the less formidable Gardnerian system of initiation. Most
magical groups had complex multi-layered spiritual hierarchies. These were
supposed to represent psychological fact, but little in the way of acceptable
empirical observation was used to correct these schemes, mostly drawn from
loose interpretations of the Kaballa, and they can't be said to have really
compelling inter-individual force. These were replaced by a simple hierarchy
of three grades. This was the high-level structure of the Golden Dawn, and
of a number of Masonic groups, which divided their degrees into categories.
The third grade was no longer reserved for secret chiefs who almost certainly
never existed or for mythological prophets, and the initiations had a more
joyful and celebratory character, rather than a system of awful psychological
ordeals. (I feel that the emphasis on ordeals and spiritual hierarchy was
a product of Christian influence, with the triumph of martyrdom as a supreme
spiritual experience and the hierarchic nature of the Church, and that a
simpler formula based on Thelemic growth, like the dominant neo-pagan formula,
rather than Christian death/rebirth is more appropriate.)
A common claim among neo-pagans is that paganism was suddenly revealed to the
world in the fifties after centuries of hiding. This is demonstrably false;
all that is needed is a bit of history, textual analysis, and symbolic
comparison to see how close neo-paganism (as the movement came to be known in
the sixties) is to its known historical antecedents. But mythological
histories are themselves traditional in world religions. While it is important
to know the real history of a religion, this does not invalidate the possible
value of mythological tales of the origin, because these serve as fictional
statements of intent, often incorporating powerful symbolism. They have
literary value in this respect; and literary or other artistic value is a type
of spiritual value.
Modern religious paganism has made a unique contribution. No eclectic/pagan
movement of the historical past has brought the contributions of paleolithic
shamanism into the fold as well as has neo-paganism. In large part this is
due to a rise in knowledge of such religions at the same time as the rise of
neo-paganism. This is an extremely valuable contribution; in shamanism lies
the roots of all human religion. A coven meeting still resembles a GD lodge
considerably more than it does a shamanistic lodge, despite the valuable
addition of techniques originating in shamanism.
This has been a neccessarily brief and incomplete account. I have not
mentioned Rabelais, the Rosicrucians, the decadent poets, Nietzsche, de
Sade, Levi, Gurdjieff, James, Augustine, Shakespeare, Masonry, Paine, American
utopian communities, Jung, Merlin, art and spirit, or Gnosticism, all of which
are vital elements of the story; I have given short shrift to the psychical
movement and its influence on nineteenth and twentieth century paganism;
and I have neglected many other relevant topics. But I hope this will
suffice as a brief overview of the pagan history preceding neo-paganism.