See M. Adler, Drawing Down the Moon (1981, rev. ed. 1986); T. M. Luhrman, Pervasions of the Witch's Craft (1989); J. G. Melton and I. Poggi, Magic, Witchcraft, and Paganism in America (1992).
Neo-Pagan religious movements are extremely diverse, with beliefs that range widely from polytheism to animism, to pantheism and other paradigms. Many Neopagans practice a spirituality that is entirely modern in origin, while others attempt to accurately reconstruct or revive indigenous, ethnic religions as found in historical and folkloric sources. (see also List of Neopagan movements)
The word "pagan" comes from the Latin paganus, originally meaning "rustic" or "from the country", and later also used for "civilian". The pejorative meaning, "uneducated non-Christian", emerges in Vulgar Latin from the 4th century. Since Christianity first spread to the cities, the rural Europeans were the last to convert to Christianty. The term neo-pagan was coined in the 19th century in reference to Renaissance and Romanticist Hellenophile classical revivalism.
"Pagan" and "Neopagan", when capitalized, refer to religions, or members of a Pagan or Neopagan religion, "in the same way as one would describe a 'Christian' or a 'Jew'." This usage has been common since the Neopagan revival in the 1970s, and is now used by academics and adherents alike to identify new religious movements that emphasize pantheism or nature-worship, or that revive or reconstruct aspects of historical polytheism.
The term "Neopagan" provides a means of distinguishing between historical Pagans of ancient cultures and the adherents of modern religious movements. The category of religions known as "Neopagan" includes syncretic or eclectic approaches like Wicca or witchcraft, Neo-druidism, and Neoshamanism at one end of the spectrum, as well as culturally specific traditions, such as the many varieties of polytheistic reconstructionism, at the other. Some Reconstructionists reject the term "Neopagan" because they wish to set their historically oriented approach apart from generic "Neopagan" eclecticism.
"Pagan" as a self-designation of Neopagans appeared in 1964 and 1965, in the publications of the Witchcraft Research Association; at that time, the term was in use by "revivalist Witches" in the United States and the United Kingdom, but unconnected to the broader, counter-culture Neopagan movement. The modern popularization of the terms "Pagan" and "Neopagan", as they are currently understood, is largely traced to Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, co-founder of "the 1st Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds" who, beginning in 1967 with the early issues of Green Egg, used both terms for the growing movement.
Increasingly, however, scholarly writers prefer the term "contemporary Paganism" to cover all new polytheistic religious movements, a usage favored by The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, the leading peer-reviewed journal in the field.
The Romantic movement of the 18th century led to the re-discovery of Old Gaelic and Old Norse literature and poetry. Neo-druidism can be taken to have its origins as early as 1717 with the foundation of The Druid Order. The 19th century saw a surge of interest in Germanic paganism with the Viking revival in the British Isles and Scandinavia. In Germany the Völkisch movement was in full swing. These Neopagan currents coincided with Romanticist interest in folklore and occultism, the widespread emergence of pagan themes in popular literature, and the rise of nationalism.Occultic Revival During this resurgence in the United Kingdom, Neo-druidism and various Western occult groups emerged, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis, who attempted to syncretize "exotic" elements like Egyptian cosmology and Kabbalah into their belief systems, although not necessarily for purely religious purposes. Influenced by the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, several prominent writers and artists were involved in these organizations, including William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Arthur Edward Waite, and Aleister Crowley. Along with these early occult organizations, there were other social phenomena such as the interest in mediumship, magic, and other supernatural beliefs which was at an all time high in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Another important influence during this period was the Romantic aesthetic movement, which venerated the natural world and frequently made reference to the deities of antiquity. The Romantic poets, essayists, artists and authors who employed these themes in their work were later associated with socially progressive attitudes towards sexuality, feminism, pacifism and similar issues. Witchcraft Revival In the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a Witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the witchcraft prosecutions that had been enacted by the ecclesiastical and secular courts. Most historians now reject Murray's theory, as she based it partially upon the similarities of the accounts given by those accused of witchcraft; such similarity is now thought to actually derive from there having been a standard set of questions laid out in the witch-hunting manuals used by interrogators. Murray's ideas nevertheless exerted great influence on certain Neopagan currents; in the 1940s, Englishman Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a New Forest coven. Gardnerian Wicca is used to refer to the traditions of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, differentiating it from similar traditions, such as Alexandrian Wicca or more recent Wiccan offshoots.Germanic Mysticism In the meantime, Germanic mysticism in Germany and Switzerland had developed into baroque forms such as Guido von List's "Armanism", from the 1900s merging into antisemitic and national mysticist (völkisch) currents, notably with Lanz von Liebenfels' Guido von List Society and Ostara magazine, which with the rise of Nazism were partially absorbed into Nazi occultism. Other Germanic mysticist groups, such as the Germanische Glaubens-Gemeinschaft of Ludwig Fahrenkrog were disendorsed by the Nazi regime. Such distortions of Germanic mythology were denounced by J. R. R. Tolkien, e.g. in a 1941 letter where he speaks of Hitler's corruption of "...that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved and tried to present in its true light." Because of such connections with Nazism, interest in Neopaganism was virtually eclipsed for about two decades following World War II. Neopagan emergence The 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence in Neodruidism as well as the rise of Germanic Neopaganism and Ásatrú in the USA and in Iceland. In the 1970s, Wicca was notably influenced by feminism, leading to the creation of an eclectic, Goddess-worshipping movement known as Dianic Wicca. The 1979 publication of Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk's The Spiral Dance opened a new chapter in public awareness of Neopaganism.
With the growth and spread of large, Neopagan gatherings and festivals in the 1980s, public varieties of Neo-Wicca continued to further diversify into additional, eclectic sub-denominations, often heavily influenced by the New Age and counter-culture movements. These open, loosely-structured or unstructured traditions contrast with British Traditional Wicca, which emphasizes secrecy and initiatory lineage.
The 1980s and 1990s also saw an increasing interest in serious academic research and Reconstructionist Pagan traditions. The establishment and growth of the Internet in the 1990s brought rapid growth to these, and other Neopagan movements.
While most Neopagans draw from old religious traditions, they also adapt them. The mythologies of the ancient traditions are not generally considered to be literally factual by Neopagans, in the sense that the Bible and other Abrahamic texts are often thought of by their followers. Eclectic Neopagans in particular are resistant to the concept of scripture or excessive structure, considering personal freedom to be one of the primary goals of their spirituality. In contrast, some Reconstructionist movements, like those who practice Theodism, take a stricter religious approach, and only recognize certain historical texts and sources as being relevant to their belief system, intentionally focusing on one culture to the exclusion of others, and having a general disdain for the eclectic mentality.
The mythological sources of the various Neopagan traditions are similarly varied, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Egyptian and others. Some groups focus solely on one cultural tradition, while others draw from several. For example, Doreen Valiente's text The Charge of the Goddess used materials from The Gospel of Aradia by Charles G. Leland (1899), as well as material from Aleister Crowley's writings.
Some Neopagans also draw inspiration from modern traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism and others, creating syncretisms like "Christian Witchcraft" or "Buddheo-Paganism". Since many Neopagan beliefs do not require exclusivity, some Neopagans practice other faiths in parallel.
Since eclectic Neopagans take a rather undogmatic religious stance, and sometimes see no one as having authority to deem a source "apocryphal", Neopaganism has been notably prone to fakelore, especially in recent years, as information and misinformation alike have been spread on the Internet and in print media. A number of Wiccan, Neopagan and even some "Traditionalist" or "Tribalist" groups have a history of spurious "Grandmother Stories" – usually involving initiation by a Grandmother, Grandfather, or other elderly relative who is said to have instructed them in the secret, millennia-old traditions of their ancestors. As this "secret wisdom" has almost always been traced to recent sources, or been quite obviously concocted even more recently, most proponents of these stories have eventually admitted they made them up.
Historically polytheistic religious traditions in the west were not solely concerned with religious belief in gods, but focussed on ritual, tradition (ethos) and notions of virtue (arete, pietas). As Christianity became a rising force, Pagan thinkers such as Celsus and the Roman Emperor Julian wrote arguments against Christian ideas and in defense of the traditional religions, which give us insight into their contrasting beliefs. Hutton states that the historical Pagans did not see "All Goddesses as one Goddess; all Gods as one God", but some types of modern Neopagans believe that there is but a single divinity or life force of the universe, which is immanent in the world. The various manifestations and archetypes of this divinity are not viewed as wholly separate, but as different aspects of the divine which are ineffable.
In Wicca, (especially Dianic Wicca) the concept of an Earth or Mother Goddess similar to the Greek Gaia is emphasized. Male counterparts are usually also evoked, such as the Green Man and the Horned God (who is loosely based on the Celtic Cernunnos.) These Duotheistic philosophies tend to emphasize the God and Goddess' (or Lord and Lady's) genders as being analogous to a concept similar to that of yin and yang in ancient Chinese philosophy; ie, two complementary opposites. Many Oriental philosophies equate weakness with femininity and strength with masculinity; this is not the prevailing attitude in Neopaganism and Wicca. Among many Neopagans, there is a strong desire to incorporate the female aspects of the divine in their worship and within their lives, which can partially explain the attitude which sometimes manifests as the veneration of women. Other Neopagans reject the concept of binary gender roles.
Most Neopagan religions celebrate the cycles and seasons of nature through a festival calendar that honours these changes. The timing of festivals, and the rites celebrated, may vary from climate to climate, and will also vary (sometimes widely) depending upon which particular Neopagan religion the adherent subscribes to.
Neopaganism generally emphasizes the sanctity of the Earth and Nature. Neopagans often feel a duty to protect the Earth through activism, and support causes such as rainforest protection, organic farming, permaculture, animal rights and so on. Some Neopagans are influenced by Animist traditions of the indigenous Native Americans and Africans and other indigenous or shamanic traditions.
Eco-Paganism and Eco-magic, which are off-shoots of direct action environmental groups, have a strong emphasis on fairy imagery and a belief in the possibility of intercession by the fae (fairies, pixies, gnomes, elves, and other spirits of nature and the Otherworlds).
Some Unitarian Universalists are eclectic Pagans. Unitarian Universalists look for spiritual inspiration in a wide variety of religious beliefs. The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, or CUUPs, encourages their member chapters to "use practices familiar to members who attend for worship services but not to follow only one tradition of Paganism."
In the United States, ethnic mysticist approaches are advocated in the form of anti-racist Asatru Folk Assembly founder Stephen McNallen's "metagenetics" and by David Lane's openly white supremacist Wotanism.
Occultist currents persist in neo-fascist and national mysticist Neopaganism, since the 1990s revived in the European Nouvelle Droite in the context of the "Integral Traditionalism" of Julius Evola and others (Alain de Benoist, Werkgroep Traditie; see Neopaganism and the New Right).
High estimates by Neopagan authors may reach several times that number. A precise number is impossible to establish, because of the largely uninstitutionalised nature of the religion and the secrecy observed by some traditions, - sometimes explained by fear of religious discrimination.
The Covenant of the Goddess, "an international organization of cooperating, autonomous Wiccan congregations and solitary practitioners," conducted a poll of U.S. and Canadian "Wiccan/Pagan" respondents in 2005 and 2006. This poll was not scientific and represents a self selected subset of all Neopagans, but it does provide some interesting insights that confirm what many Neopagans have observed anecdotally:
A study by Ronald Hutton compared a number of different sources (including membership lists of major UK organizations, attendance at major events, subscriptions to magazines, etc.) and used standard models for extrapolating likely numbers. This estimate accounted for multiple membership overlaps as well as the number of adherents represented by each attendee of a Neopagan gathering. Hutton estimated that there are 250,000 Neopagan adherents in the United Kingdom, roughly equivalent to the national Hindu community.
A smaller number is suggested by the results of the 2001 Census, in which a question about religious affiliation was asked for the first time. Respondents were able to write in an affiliation not covered by the checklist of common religions, and a total of 42,262 people from England, Scotland and Wales declared themselves to be Pagans by this method. These figures were not released as a matter of course by the Office of National Statistics, but were released after an application by the Pagan Federation of Scotland. From a British population of 59 million this gives a rough proportion of 7 pagans per 100,000 population. This is more than many well known traditions such as Rastafarian, Bahá'í and Zoroastrian groups, but fewer than the 'Big Six' of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism. It is also fewer than the adherents of the so-called Jedi religion, whose campaign made them the largest of the religions after the Big Six..
The UK Census figures do not allow an accurate breakdown of traditions within the Pagan heading, as a campaign by the Pagan Federation before the census encouraged Wiccans, Heathens, Druids and others all to use the same write-in term 'Pagan' in order to maximise the numbers reported.
The Swedish AsatruSociety formed in 1994, and in Norway the Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost formed in 1996 and Foreningen Forn Sed formed in 1999. They have been recognized by the Norwegian government as a religious society, allowing them to perform "legally binding civil ceremonies" (i. e. marriages). In Denmark Forn Siðr also formed in 1999, recognized in 2003 and in Sweden Nätverket Gimle formed in 2001, as an informal community for individual heathens. Nätverket Forn Sed formed in 2004, and has a network consisting of local groups (blotlag) from all over the Sweden.