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Why are all these different things called “pagan”?

It is somewhat disconcerting to a lot of people that different pagan religions, while they often have a lot of overlap in attitudes, do not in fact share common beliefs, theologies, or (very occasionally) practices. They will often say, “Well, Christians all have something that they can point at as shared, so why can’t pagans?”

The fundamental issue is that “pagan” is not a religious category; it is a socio-historical one. The thing the pagan religions have in common is the twentieth century cultural stewpot from which they emerged; this explains the commonalities that many of them have with each other, as well as the fact that many of the particulars are entirely alien to each other.

A portion of the stewpot, as applies to Wicca’s origins, can be found detailed in Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon, but that will primarily pertain to the Craft in England; the entire stewpot contains a whole lot more.

The Romantic movement of the 1800s is the root of a large number of threads that eventually wound up in the pagan stewpot. It contained a certain amount of backlash against the Industrial Revolution, which led in part to the invention of the wilderness and the associated imagination of nature as something pure and untainted and separate from human involvement. It was also a response to the Enlightenment and the growth of rationalism, and thus valorised emotional intensity as the hallmark of genuine artistic (and I would say also spiritual) experience.

Romanticism also was the root of Romantic nationalism, which originate the idea of the particular spirit of a people, expressed through their language, folklore, ethnicity, religion, and customs. From this well, one can draw up the interest in collecting and contemplating local folklore and history, the preservation of ethnic languages, and the first roots of the idea of cultural polytheism, though it would take some time for it to develop more fully.

At the same time, the revival imagery of Neoclassicism had once again gotten European-derived cultures interested in the classical representations of the gods, leaving a lingering fascination with those polytheisms in particular. Even once Neoclassicism proper had wound to a close, the images remained as an artistic thread, one which was perhaps especially fascinated with Pan; consider Browning’s “A Musical Instrument” or Bouguereau’s “Nymphs and Satyr”, or, later, the horror story The Great God Pan, by Machen.

This is also the timeframe for the beginning of the Druidic revival, though of course Iolo Morganwg predates that significantly.

Further, we get into the Victorian obsession with fairies and their various forms of reconceptualising fairy lore; just because there was an interest in folklore does not mean that people preserved it well or refrained from spinning it into something they prefer. (The work of the Grimms was also heavily edited to make it fit more into a hypothetical German folk-spirit.)

Getting into the latter half of the 1800s, one encounters the occult revival. This gives rise to Theosophy, which contemplated the nexus formed by interactions between nature, the human, and the divine, carried on the earlier interests in the mythic and intuitive as counterpoints for an excess of rationality, and had a belief in otherworlds and the human capacity to interact with them. One also sees the founding of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an outgrowth of longer-established Masonic orders and the modern Rosicrucians.

We start getting cultural nationalistic movements around this time, such as the Celtic revival and similar revival movements in other regions. Rooted in Romantic nationalism, these movements provided fertile ground for art and literary exploration. Some of the early roots of Asatru and Romuva can be found back here, as well as several early druidic organisations. Further, the colonial powers developed a fascination with matters Orientalist, including various interpretations of Asian religious expression and art.

Take this soup up through to the end of the nineteenth century. Then crash it into the First World War, the flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and all of the resulting massive disillusionment with mainstream institutions. This only fed the Romantic nostalgia for an earlier time, considered cleaner, less sinful, unfallen. There was increasing interest in the occult, along with investigations of folklore and heritage. Fantastic fiction – fantasy, horror, and the new field of science fiction – gets a significant boost in this timeframe; many people have linked themes in Tolkien’s work to The Great War.

That stew gave rise to Dada, Modernism, and Futurism. Various return-to-nature movements like back to the land flavored the stew, along with anti-war movements, developing tensions between labour and capital, and other issues.

Meanwhile, a number of disciplines were getting established. The new science of archaeology was getting people started on figuring out more specifically how ancient cultures lived. Psychology had people beginning to explore the nature and structure of the mind, and what did and did not work; the work of Jung in particular left its mark. The steady development of a scientific understanding of the world foundered suddenly on quantum mechanics and gave rise to the horrors of the Bomb.

Faith in established institutions broke down, at the same time that people developed tools to look to a romanticised past for lost answers and confronted the alienation that industrialised modernity produced.

This is the environment that gave rise to the modern pagan movement. (Also to science fiction fandom, certain artistic strains, UFO cults, countercultural movements, and large piles of other stuff, including, eventually, the New Agers.) Religious witchcraft groups began with the same impulses as the reconstructions; it’s just that the thing they were attempting to reconstruct did not in fact exist. It is the environment that created The White Goddess and Joseph Campbell.

That is the raw material. Which parts of it get emphasis in a particular thread lead to the end results. The fraternal and Masonic organisations produced Thelema and the OTO; the nature-veneration produced more druidic organisations (with the Celtic revival) and religious witchcraft (with early archaeology and folklore studies); the literary threads and connections to fantastic fiction produce the first popcultural pagans and the Church of All Worlds; the absurdist threads give rise to Discordianism; the various Romantic nationalisms and cultural revivals gave rise to their particular reconstructions along with the related folkishness.

So, in brief trying to find a religious commonality for religions called pagan is doomed to failure, because the process that gave rise to them – in all their reaction to each other and the surrounding culture – was not theological, but sociopolitical. It comes out of an environment where:

1) a lot of established institutions were being seen as having feet of clay
2) there was a great deal of sometimes excessively rosy looking back to a “simpler” past
3) many people were developing interests in various forms of occultic and mystical knowledge
4) which combination of historic romanticism and occultic interest often led to seeking lost or “hidden” knowledge from the past, including developing an interest in aligning the resulting organisations with lineages real or fabricated, or with bills of This Is How People Of Old Did It
5) there was a lot of dealing with the sharp developments in tensions between mutually opposing poles: obsession with both history and the future, with the state of this world and access to otherworlds, with the development of nationalistic spirit and its enhancement of the idea of “the people” and an urge to recognise universal humanity and improved human rights
6) engaging with largely, but not entirely, Classical images of divinity as a spark, shifting to other images both as time went by and as people said “but what about the historical gods of *my* people?”
7) with an idealised notion of nature as that which had been lost as part of the modern world
8) increased interest in recording and preserving regional folklore (related to obsession with history, in part, but also to the Romantic nationalism)
9) and, most critically, people reacted to all of that with transformative works and creative engagement