History of Pagan Movements

Pagan Movements


The origins of modern Paganism and Witchcraft continue to be hotly debated and discussed among practitioners. This is not intended to be anything like an exhaustive history, but rather an introduction to some of the main strands of modern Paganism. (For an exhaustive history of British Witchcraft, I highly recommend Ronald Hutton's Triumph of the Moon. A more wide-ranging history of American Pagan movements can be found in Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon.)

For each basic "type" of Witchcraft described here, I give a brief idea of the historical background and then list some of the hallmarks of that practice which we may recognize. I also present some criticisms which have been made by others about this type of Witchcraft, and I then list some authors who are associated with this tradition.

I have not attempted to include every tradition here. For descriptions of traditions by their practitioners, go to the Witches' Voice Pagan Traditions website. In addition, this page is not about my opinions and beliefs; it is about my understanding of the nature and history of the modern Pagan movement. If you feel I have misrepresented one of these types of witchcraft, or made a factual error that you would like to correct, feel free to email me so we can discuss it. (Email address at bottom of page)

I haven't always cited my sources on this page, because some of this information comes from my experiences with different groups or conversations I've had with practitioners. However, I have tried to add information on sources and/or reading material that people might want to refer to, and I will continue adding these sources as I find them. I have also tried to add web links giving further information where I think they may be helpful.

Traditional/ Gardnerian Wicca
Ceremonial Magic(k)
Dianic and Goddess Witchcraft
Faery Witchcraft
Shamanism/ Neo-Shamanism
Cultural Reconstructionists
Science-Fiction-Derived Paganism

Traditional/ Gardnerian Wicca

In the 1930's, an anthropologist named Margaret Murray published a book claiming that women (and men) burned as witches in the Middle Ages actually were witches, following ancient pagan traditions passed down from pre-Christian times. This book caused quite a stir when it came out, and piqued the interests of scholars. However, most of the book's content has since been debunked by other anthropologists.

In the 1940's, an English man named Gerald Gardner announced publicly that he had been initiated into a coven of witches. Gardner claimed that their tradition of witchcraft was directly descended from pre-Christian pagan practices, and its members had survived the Middle Ages by going underground and practicing in secret. Gardner published a couple of books on the topic and began initiating people into witchcraft himself. (Interestingly, Margaret Murray wrote the introduction to his book Witchcraft Today.) This was the beginning of what we know today as Wicca.

Most scholars agree that there really isn't any evidence to support Gardner's contention that Wicca descends from unbroken pagan traditions which survived medieval times in secret. A number of scholars (such as Aidan Kelly) have concluded that he invented the whole thing, possibly with help from others such as English occultist Aleister Crowley (and later from Doreen Valiente, the author of the Charge of the Goddess). Gardner borrowed from sources as diverse as English folklore and Masonic ritual.

There are a number of Wiccan denominations, such as Alexandrian Wicca or Seax-Wica, which I consider to be part of this group although they are not strictly Gardnerian. I include them here because they are based on "traditional" Wicca and share many of the characteristics described below.

Wiccan beliefs include:
  • Divine Polarity - According to this concept, the God and Goddess represent complementary forces (light/dark, active/passive, outer world/ inner world) and their union is the divine spark which animates the world.
  • The Goddess is a Triple Goddess in the form of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Sometimes Wiccans use deities from specific cultures to represent these archetypes, for example the Greek goddess Persephone is usually seen as the Maiden.
  • Wiccans' conception of the God varies - sometimes he is seen as a Triple God (Youth, Father, and Sage); sometimes as the Green Man, Lord of the Forests and the Hunt. Often he is represented as the Sun God, while the Goddess is the Moon.
Here are some of the hallmarks of traditional Wiccan practice. (Many of them have now been adopted by the larger community of pagans and witches, but their origin is Wiccan.)
  • Sabbats - The name "sabbats" and the form in which most modern pagans celebrate the Wheel of the Year come from Wicca. Their origins are varied; for example, although some of the solstices and equinoxes have been celebrated by different cultures, no culture that I know of celebrates all of them. The "cross-quarters" (Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain, Imbolc), by contrast, are all Celtic holidays.
  • Esbats - This term for rituals of the moon's phases supposedly comes from the French "s'esbattre", meaning "to frolic." I believe, although my memory may be wrong, that this comes from Margaret Murray's research.
  • Three degrees of initiation - Those who wish to become members of this tradition must pass through three levels of initiation; the final degree empowers individuals to teach others. Typically initiates keep secret much of what they learn. (The three-degree initiation is Masonic in origin.)
  • Drawing Down the Moon - This ritual where a priestess invokes the Goddess into oneself (and its parallel, Drawing Down the Sun) are Wiccan in origin.
  • The Great Rite - The symbolic or actual sexual union of male and female in a ritual context.
Limitations: Some have criticized Gardnerians' emphasis on hierarchy as disempowering, and have suggested that their emphasis on secrecy is exclusionary. In addition, others have criticized the emphasis on male-female polarity as being heterosexist and encouraging stereotypes. (Modern Gardnerians differ in the extent to which they follow "traditional" practices and beliefs.)

Some authors associated with traditional Gardnerian Witchcraft: Gerald Gardner (obviously), Janet and Stewart Farrar, Raymond Buckland, Judy Harrow.

Ceremonial Magic(k)

The roots of ceremonial magic go way back to medieval alchemists, who believed that they could learn how to transform base metals into gold through arcane "scientific" rituals. More recent roots are in secret orders like the Freemasons or the Order of the Rosy Cross (the Rosicrucians). These secret societies proliferated at the end of the 19th century, when the influential Order of the Golden Dawn (which included a number of famous people like poet W. B. Yeats) took shape. Dion Fortune's Society of the Inner Light is another well-known organization. (Ronald Hutton's Triumph of the Moon includes a comprehensive study of the evolution of ceremonial magic.)

Ceremonial magicians use tools such as the Tarot and the Qabala to achieve their goals, which are primarily self-knowledge and self-actualization. Like modern-day alchemists, they want to become more spiritual and more enlightened by transmuting themselves into the "gold". (There is a fascinating participant-observational description of British ceremonial magicians in Susan Greenwood's book Magic, Witchcraft, and the Otherworld.)

Some features of ceremonial magic:
  • A complex network of correspondences guides their rituals. The exact time of day may be determined by careful astrological calculations; the magical working may involve intricate symbols and sigils which have to be drawn perfectly to be effective; the color of the candles, altar-cloths, and the magician's clothing are all determined by their correspondence with the particular topic chosen.
  • They may not be pagans. Ceremonial magicians may be Christian (or any other religion) and may refer to their practices by terms like "occultism" or "the Western Mystery Tradition". At times they may use Christian symbolism (for example, archangels) or delve into the Jewish mysticism of the Qabala. They may or may not be involved in a larger pagan community. For example, well-known occultist Dion Fortune considered herself a Christian.
Limitations: Some have proposed that ceremonial techniques are too focused on style (choosing the correct correspondences or saying the correct words) rather than substance. Others (see the above-mentioned Greenwood book for an example) have described their methods as sexist. In addition, some pagans feel that the ceremonial emphasis on transcendence is in conflict with pagan visions of the immanent divine.

Authors:
Dion Fortune was a twentieth-century occultist who also wrote fiction (such as The Sea Priestess). Israel Regardie was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn who has written some well-regarded books on ceremonial magic. Gareth Knight was a member of the Society of Inner Light and has written a number of books on occultism and ritual magic.

Dianic Witchcraft and Goddess Spirituality

This type of spirituality grew out of the feminist movement of the 1960's and 1970's. Although the Goddess was always considered to be paramount in traditional Gardnerian Wicca, the idea behind this was originally that just as men (and the male principle) had more power in the outer world and on the physical plane, so women (and the female principle) had more power on the inner world and the spiritual plane.

Dianic Witchcraft, on the other hand, began to take a much more radical and political view. Many Dianic and Goddess-centered Witches believe in a pre-Christian historical period where matriarchy was central; as in Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade, they assert that it was the advent of patriarchal religious culture which devalued women and encouraged relationships of hierarchy and domination. They want to not only restore women's political power in the material world, but also to restore relationships of cooperation rather than domination.

Some hallmarks of Dianic and Goddess Witchcraft:
  • The Goddess has many names. Practitioners of Dianic Wicca often research or call on Goddess archetypes from many different cultures; it would not be uncommon to hear names such as Demeter, Kali, Amaterasu, and Corn Woman invoked in the same circle.
  • Emphasis on healing the self and the world - Many practitioners focus on healing the wounds inflicted by growing up in a patriarchal society (such as a ritual for acceptance of body size). They may also work to heal the wounds which they consider that patriarchal society has inflicted on the world - for example, doing ecological magick, or magickal work around a Take Back the Night rally.
  • The personal is political. This feminist maxim is an important part of Dianic and Goddess Witchcraft. As in the above examples, magick, politics, and personal growth may all be intertwined in a group or individual's practice.
Limitations: Although there are men who practice this type of witchcraft, some pagans consider that Dianic Witchcraft tends to exclude and devalue men. In addition, not all pagans and witches agree with the political orientation of many Dianic Witches - that is to say, some disagree with their political views, while others simply feel that politics shouldn't play a role in the Craft. Finally, some have criticized segments of this movement for poor scholarship - for example, a number of scholars have written against the idea that we have evidence of a pre-Christian matriarchy.

Authors on Dianic and Goddess Witchcraft include:
Z Budapest, Diane Stein, Starhawk.

Faery/Feri Witchcraft

Faery Witchcraft (also sometimes spelled Faerie or Feri) was developed in the 1950's and 60's; it originated with Victor Anderson (1917-2001), who studied world mythologies extensively. There are several branches of Feri Witchcraft, a recent example being the Third Road tradition. The greater Pagan community may not be aware how influential Feri Witchcraft has been, primarily through the influence of Starhawk. Most Pagans are familiar with Starhawk's social-activist brand of Witchcraft (practiced by the Reclaiming tradition she helped to found); however, many Witches are not aware that Starhawk was originally trained by Victor Anderson in the Feri tradition. In fact, The Spiral Dance includes a large amount of Feri material which many readers assume to be part of "traditional" Witchcraft.

The style of witchcraft created by Anderson involves several unique elements, many of which were borrowed or re-invented from other cultures:

  • Faeries: As one might expect from the name, Feri Witchcraft typically involves working with faeries and entering the land of Faery.
  • Three Souls or Selves: Humans are made up of three souls or selves: Higher Self (the self that is in contact with the divine), Talking Self (our conscious, aware self), and Younger Self (our "inner child" - our playful, unconscious self which responds to the use of symbols). Popularized by other authors such as Starhawk and Amber K, this concept was drawn from indigenous Hawaiian beliefs and parallels the modern Freudian psychological concept of the id, ego, and superego.
  • The use of trance: Feri Witches use trance and inner journeying to access sacred realms and gain self-knowledge. They may bring about trance through shamanistic techniques such as drumming, breathwork, or dance.
  • Acceptance of gender and sexual diversity: This style of Witchcraft does not focus thealogically on polarity (as do the Gardnerians) and, similarly, does not place heterosexual relationships at the cornerstone of its worldview. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Witches often find this to be a denomination where they can feel comfortable and welcome.

Limitations: I have not frequently heard criticisms directed toward Feri Witchcraft as a whole (although I have often heard criticisms from Feri practitioners about books purporting to describe "Fairy Witchcraft" or "Faery Wicca"). Personally, I could imagine that Anderson might be criticized for cultural appropriation - but I have not heard anyone level this charge against him.

Authors on Feri Witchcraft include: Victor Anderson,
Starhawk, Francesca DeGrandis, T. Thorn Coyle.

Shamanism/ Neo-Shamanism

Influenced by Mircea Eliade, a scholar of religions who wrote about indigenous shamanism in other cultures, a revival of "traditional" shamanic practices has been underway since, perhaps, the late 1970's. Michael Harner's book (The Way of the Shaman) and the workshops led by himself and his collaborators have been extremely influential in this regard. Harner claimed that when studying indigenous shamanistic traditions (in societies as diverse as Siberia, New Guinea, and the Amazonian jungle), a certain set of universal ("core") beliefs, goals, and techniques could be identified. Because of their universality, these shamanistic traditions (known as "core shamanism") could be taken out of their cultural context and used by anyone to achieve the same results. The development of shamanistic groups and traditions was also influenced by Carlos Castaneda, whose tales of his initiation by Don Juan, an indigenous shaman and teacher, have been widely read.

Neo-shamans may not call themselves Witches or even Pagans; however, many of them participate in the wider Pagan community. In addition, some neo-shamanistic groups have attempted to revive culture-specific forms of shamanism (Celtic or Norse shamanism, to give two examples). Techniques of shamanism have also been used by a number of different traditions of Witchcraft; in fact, shamanistic methods of trance induction and pathworking have become so widespread among Witches and Pagans that they are rarely seen as separate from individual traditions. It is not clear whether these techniques developed separately in each tradition or whether each tradition was influenced by the neo-shamanistic movement; probably there is some truth to both of these statements.

Some common techniques of neo-shamanism are:
  • Induction into trance: Trance may be achieved by fasting, drumming, dancing, singing, or other methods.
  • Pathworking and inner journeying: Through guided trances, neo-shamans may quest for such goals as spiritual healing, finding a "totem" or "power" animal, or answering life questions.
  • Use of psychogenic/ hallucinogenic substances: This is not a widely accepted practice within the larger Pagan community, and is presumably also somewhat controversial among neo-shamans. However, the use of substances such as peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and other psychogenic plants are common among a variety of indigenous societies. Castaneda, Harner, and others have suggested that they can be a way to access spiritual knowledge and make inner journeys.
  • Apolitical orientation: Although many neo-shamans value the environment and may become involved in activism related to "sacred sites" such as Stonehenge, the movement tends to focus on personal growth and healing to the exclusion of political activism.
Limitations: Neo-shamans, who are mostly White, are frequently charged with cultural appropriation. This can take the form of simplifying or mis-interpreting traditional practices (as many scholars have argued that Eliade did) or it may take the form of "stealing" elements which are considered to belong to other cultures (such as the Native American sweat lodge). Neo-shamans typically argue that these ritual elements or techniques are "universal" and therefore belong to them equally; however, many indigenous groups find this assertion offensive. In addition, Carlos Castaneda in particular has been discredited as a reliable source about indigenous shamanism and many have claimed that he actually made up all or most of his encounters with Don Juan. (An interesting book which examines some of these charges, as well as other issues relating to neo-shamanism, is Robert J. Wallis, Shamans/ Neo-Shamans.)

Well-known authors in the field of shamanism include: Mircea Eliade (though not a shaman himself), Carlos Castaneda, and Michael Harner.

Cultural Reconstructionists

Many individuals work not to "invent" or "re-invent" new traditions for themselves, but to re-create traditions from ancient cultures. Some common reconstructionist traditions are Celtic (often known as Druidism), Norse (often known as Ásatru), Greek (Hellenismos), and Egyptian (sometimes called Kemetic). Members of these groups study ancient history and culture in order to re-create ancient practices; however, groups differ in the extent to which they stay faithful to ancient sources. Here is a helpful description of types of reconstructionism - it focuses on Hellenismos, but may be applicable to other traditions as well. Remember that reconstructionists do not form a unified community, and a huge variation exists, for example, even among those who call themselves "Druids". (I should note here that I have a lot more knowledge about Ásatru than about other reconstructionist groups; therefore, my generalizations may not always be on target for other groups.)

Obviously these groups are very different from each other, as are the cultures they study; however, here are some points of commonality:
  • Scholarly devotion: Most members of reconstructionist groups are meticulous scholars. They frequently learn ancient languages and spend a lot of time studying ancient primary and secondary sources in order to better understand their chosen culture. For example, in order to be an elder in some Ásatru groups, an individual must have a PhD in some field related to Norse language, literature, or culture.
  • Emphasis on ritual form: Many reconstructionist groups work hard to adhere to the traditional form of their culture's rituals; or, if they have re-invented some facets of the rituals, they work hard to adhere to these.
  • Conservative values: Members of reconstructionist groups are probably more likely than the Pagan community as a whole to identify themselves as conservative or libertarian and to value "traditional" family structures, small government, the right to bear arms, national warfare (when deemed necessary) and so on. This point is most true of Ásatru practitioners, but I believe it also holds true for a number of other reconstructionist groups.
Limitations: I have rarely met anyone who doesn't have some respect for the amazing scholarly efforts put forward by cultural reconstructionists. Sometimes they are criticized for being too "bound" to tradition and being unwilling to create new ritual structures as needed. (One Hellenic reconstructionist provides an interesting rebuttal to these charges.)

In addition (although this is not a criticism), sometimes there is a poor fit between some reconstructionist groups and the larger Pagan community when it comes to political and social values. (A great discussion of this can be found here.)

Finally, some reconstructionist movements have been charged with racism (in particular Norse-inspired groups). It is true that some white supremacist groups follow the Nazi tradition of twisting ancient symbols or myths to represent their cause. However, most groups in this segment of the pagan community would be horrified to hear that any elements of their practice were used in the service of racism.

Some well-known authors in these fields include: Edred Thorsson, Isaac Bonewits, Alexei Kondratiev. (However, as noted, practitioners in these fields often turn to scholarly and academic sources for information and inspiration.)

Science-Fiction-Derived Paganism

Strange, but true: the origins of some pagan paths are in science fiction. Here I will describe two of the better known paths: the Church of All Worlds and the Discordian Movement.

The
Church of All Worlds came into being in the 1960's as a result of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, a novel which tells the story of a human who was raised on Mars and brings his Martian spirituality back to Earth. CAW members have a wide range of beliefs but are likely to be pantheistic (believing that the divine is immanent - present in everyone). CAW tends to focus on restoring harmony with nature and harmony within human relationships.

Here are some features of CAW:

  • Sharing Water: Since water is revered in this tradition, the primary act of fellowship among CAW practitioners is sharing a drink of water with someone, who then becomes your "water brother" or "water sister," a trusted member of your family.
  • "Thou art God/dess": This statement is made by one practitioner to another to describe how the divine is present within each of us. (This has been adopted by many other pagan groups, but its origin is in CAW.)
  • Nests: Nests are the CAW equivalent of covens: a close-knit family of individuals who practice their spirituality together.
  • Sacred sexuality: Sexuality is honored as an important part of spirituality, and many CAW members practice some form of "free love" or polyamory (in fact, the term polyamory was coined by a CAW member).

The Discordian Movement was loosely inspired by a couple of works: the Principia Discordia, which became popular in the 1960's, and the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (published in 1975). To better understand the Discordian worldview, it is imperative to read the Principia Discordia, so that you may partake in the Sacred Chao and eat hot dogs without buns on Friday. Hail Eris!


Wiccan History Links


For slightly more humorous looks at the differences between traditions:

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? (Pagan Style)
The Field Guide to Neopagandom


Email me:



Back to Beth's Pagan Stuff, please!