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Neo-Paganism: An Old Religion for a New Age

Subject: Neo-Paganism:  An Old Religion for a New Age
                            by Otter G'Zell
                     Founder, Church of All Worlds

As founder and priest of a Neo-Pagan church, I have often been asked to
explain exactly what we mean by the term "Pagan".  We find ourselves in
the peculiar position of having a public image that was created not by
ourselves, but by our persecutors.  It is much as if the Nazis had
succeeded in eradicating Judaism to the extent that, generations later,
the common opinion of what the Jewish faith was all about was derived
solely from the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Third Reich.

In Europe alone, from tens of thousands to millions (the figures are
still in dispute) of Pagans were martyred by the Christian churches
during the Inquisition and Witch trials.  Those figures do not even
count the millions of other Pagan peoples in North and South America,
Africa, Polynesia, Melanesia and Asia who fell before the advancing
plague of Western Christendom.  Today, the conception most people have
of Paganism is the lurid one drawn by the Christian church to justify
its own reign of terror, and bears about as much relation to reality as
the similar propaganda Christianity once fostered about Jews.

In the 13th century the Church opened its long-drawn-out conflict with
Paganism in Europe by declaring Witchcraft to be a 'sect' and heretical.
It was not until the 14th century that the two religions came to grips.
All through the 16th and 17th centuries the battle raged.  The Pagans
fought a gallant, though losing, fight against a remorseless and
unscrupulous enemy; every inch of the field was disputed.  At first
victory occasionally inclined to the Pagans, but the Christian policy of
obtaining influence over the rulers and law-givers was irresistible.
Vae victis was also the policy of the Christians, and we see the priests
of the Papacy gloating over the thousands whom they had consigned to the
flames while the ministers of the Reformed Churches hounded on the
administrators of the law to condemn the 'devil worshipers'.

What can have been the feelings with which those unhappy victims
regarded the vaunted God of Love, the Prince of Peace, whose votaries
condemned them to torture and death?  What wonder that they clung to
their old faith, and died in agony unspeakable rather than deny their
God.  (Margaret Murray, The God of the Witches, 1931, Oxford GB 332,
pp. 21-22)

'Pagan' does not mean "irreligious" or "barbarian".  It is the correct
anthropological term to describe indigenous folk religions, being
derived from the Latin paganus, "peasant," which derives in turn from
pagus, "village".  The Latin comes from the Greek pagos, "standing
stone," and paga, "sacred spring," representing, respectively, the male
and female generative powers.  Paganism is basically Nature worship.
'Pagan' is a proper noun or adjective denoting the name of a religion,
and as such, is properly always capitalized, as is 'Jewish' or 'Hindu'.

Religions can be roughly divided into two distinct categories: the
naturally evolving, indigenous "folk" religions of particular regions
and peoples (the Pagan religions), and on the other hand the "revealed"
religions: those religions owing their existence to a "revelation"
taught by some great "prophet" and formulated in various creeds and
dogmas.  The latter category, of course, includes most of the "Great
Religions of Mankind:" Judeo-Christian- Islamic, Buddhist, Confucian,
etc.  Though articulated by a great teacher, Lao-Tsu, Taoism is
essentially Pagan in philosophy and attitude, while Hinduism and Shinto
are Pagan in origin and essence even though they have become
institutionalized as State religions.

Pagan religions are characterized by being "natural," both in origin and
mode of expression, as opposed to the artificiality of constructed
revealed religions.  Paganism emerges out of the processes of Life and
Nature, and continues to evolve as a living, growing, organic entity.
Revealed religions are like buildings: an architect (prophet) get an
inspiration (revelation) and lays down his vision in blueprints
(prophecy; scriptures).  Then contractors, carpenters, masons,
etc. (disciples and followers) build the structure more or less
according to his specifications.  It is made of non-living materials,
and does not grow naturally; it is assembled.  When it is finished, it
cannot grow further, and begins to deteriorate, until it is eventually
so outmoded and rundown it is demolished to make way for new buildings.
A world of revealed religions is like unto a city, with all the problems
(hunger, war, hatreds, crime, pollution, dis-ease) of a city, and for
much the same reason: alienation from the life-flow.  A Pagan religion,
on the other hand, is like a tree: it emerges alive from the Earth,
grows, changes (both cyclically through the seasons, and continually in
upward and outward growth), bears flowers and fruit, and shares its life
with other living beings.  It is not made or designed according to any
blueprint other than genetic.  And when, after many thousands of years,
perhaps, it should come to the end of its time, it does not pass from
the world entirely, for its own progeny have, in the interval, begun to
spring up all around, again from the Earth, and again, similar yet each
unique.  A world of Pagan religions is like a forest.

Paganism includes Animism, Pantheism, Shamanism and Totemism.
(Witchcraft is the survival or reconstruction of European Shamanism;
i.e.ัthe magical arts of tribal peoples.)  Pagan are the native
religions of the American Indians, the Africans, the various Island
peoples, many peasants in the mountains of Asia, the Aborigines of
Australia, and, at one time, the Gauls, Teutons, Norse, Celts and
Faeries (as the invading Saxons called the pygmy neolithic race they
encountered in the British Isles).  Long before they encountered
Christianity, the Faeries (known to archaeologists as Pretani, or Picts)
had been forced by the Saxons onto the inhospitable Heaths of Britain,
later to be called "Heathens" by the Church.  By 1500 CE, they had been
virtually exterminated, save for those who managed to intermarry or
exchange their infants for those of the invaders ("changelings").
Moreover, as it was later to do in the case of the Witches, who
inherited much of the Faery lore and religion, the Church began a
campaign to convince the world and future generations that these people
had never existed in the first place, but were merely imaginary!

The old Pagan religions were never "created".  They had no founding
prophets and no saviors.  They grew up with their people, and their
origins are lost in the mists at the dawn of humanity.  What little we
can trace indicates a descent from paleolithic and neolithic "fertility
cults," hence the common symbols of the Earth Mother Goddess, the Green
Man and the Horned God - the fecund embodiments of living Nature.  We
find them therefore unanimous in their veneration of Nature and their
sensual celebration of life, birth, sex and death as expressed in the
seasonal Festivals of the Sacred Year.  All these Great Festivals of
Paganism, wherever they may be found, correspond in common with the
Solstices, Equinoxes, and other natural annual cycles of life (animal
mating and birth seasons, planting, harvest).  Most of these remain with
us today in more-or-less disguised form as the so-called "Christian"
holidays of Christmas (Yule), Easter (Ostara), May Day (Beltane),
Thanksgiving (Mabon or Harvest Home), Halloween (Samhain) and even
Groundhog's Day (Oimelc).  In addition to these six, there are two
others, Litha (Midsummer) and Lughnasadh, comprising a total of eight
Festivals (or Sabbats, as they are known, sometimes under different
names, in Witchcraft).  Thus it is obvious that the rich heritage of
Paganism forms a solid foundation for the spontaneous emergence of a
Neo-Pagan revival today.  In the midst of our current spiritual and
ecological crisis, it is highly appropriate that natural religions are
once again finding a place among the children of Earth.  Modern
Neo-Paganism, however, is somewhat distinct from the Old Religion, in
that it is to a large measure a relatively new phenomenon.  Neo-Pagan
religions are many and diverse.  They range from the sublimely artistic
Paradisal vision and reconstruction of old Pagan Mysteries of Feraferia
to the astrological divination and ancient Egyptian religion of the
Church of the Eternal Source, and from the Wiccan-oriented myth and
ritual of the Pagan Way to the transpersonal psychology, science-fiction
mythology and deep ecology of the Church of All Worlds.  All of the
dozens of Neo-Pagan religions now in existence, and most of the
countless sects of Witchcraft, however, do hold certain values in
common, and it is these values which relate them to Paganism in the
older sense.  One of the key values of Neo-Paganism is its insistence on
personal responsibility.  The Church of All Worlds expresses this in the
phrase, "Thou art God/dess," implying total personal freedom and
individual responsibility on the part of every one of us.  Paganism has
no concept of "original sin," and hence has no need of saviors.
Neo-Pagans do not expect Divine retribution for breaking social taboos.
Rather, concepts of "sin" and "atonement" are restated in the framework
of ecological awareness and karma.  If our actions are discordant and in
opposition to the evolutionary flow of Life, we suffer the ecological
consequences, in much the same way, and for exactly the same reason, as
diseased cells in the body are attacked by the antibodies and other
natural defenses.  Whatever energy we put out returns to us multiplied
threefold.  Love returns love; hate returns hate.  Robert Ingersoll
observed: "In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there
are consequences".  The total responsibility (and hence the total
freedom) rests in our hands.  As in the Old Religion, Neo-Pagans
conceptualize Divinity as manifest in the processes of Nature.  Indeed,
in a very literal sense, Mother Nature, Mother Earth, is "Goddess," and
She has been recognized as such since time immemorial.  Thus ecology is
seen as the supreme religious study: "Nature is Divinity made
manifest...It is creativity, continuity, balance, beauty and truth of
life.  "Everything we encounter in the Biosphere is a part of Nature,
and ecology reveals the pattern of that is-ness, the natural
relationships among all these things and the Organic Unity of all of
them as a Biospheric Whole.  Thus ecology shows the pattern of man's
proper and creative involvement with Nature, that Nature which
encompasses his own life and on proper relation to which his survival
and development depend:

Of all man's secular studies, ecology comes closest to bringing him to
the threshold of religious relationship to his world.  Ecology not only
confirms the wonders of form and function that other secular studies
have revealed, but it brings these into organic union with each other as
one dynamic, living Whole; and it points out the conditions for the
wellbeing of both this overall Unity and the parts that comprise it.

An intensive realization of these conditions, and of one's own immediate
role in their sustainment and development, brings one to the threshold
of religious awe.  To worship Nature, therefore, is to venerate and
commune with Divinity as the dynamically organic perfection of the
whole.  (Council of Themis, from Green Egg #43)

Neo-Paganism is a recent mutation of the Old Religion which had its
earliest emergence during the European Renaissance with the rediscovery
of the ancient Greek philosophers via Arabian texts brought by
travelers.  However, this was also the time of the Burnings, and the
budding Neo-Pagan emergence was suppressed until the late 1700's, when
it found expression in the Romantic Period of art, music and literature
- especially in Germany.

This Romantic flowering of Neo-Paganism, especially the element known as
the Bavarian Illuminati (whose mottoes were "eternal flower power" and
"eternal serpent power"), greatly appealed to a visiting American named
Benjamin Franklin, and upon his return to the colonies, it became a
major spiritual force in the post-Revolutionary America of the 1780s,
where its influence continued to shape the new nation through the
presidencies of the Adams family.  It was Monroe and the War of 1812
that managed to suppress this movement for a time, but it re-emerged 60
years later in the form of the Transcendentalist Movement, exemplified
in the poetry and writings of Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson, and the
overnight mushrooming of the commune movement in the 1840's.  The Civil
War, Reconstruction, the conquest of the West and the Gold Rush drained
the Nature-oriented spiritual energy from the people of America for
another 60 years, but it blossomed again through the Art Nouveau
movement in the 1900's.  Then came the World Wars, the Depression,
McCarthyism...60 more years had to pass before the gathering impact of
Eastern religious philosophy, especially Zen, and Existentialism gave
birth to the "hip" "underground" counter-culture of the Beatniks, whose
experimentation with drugs, sexuality, music, poetry, communal living
and alternate lifestyles paved the way for the Hippie phenomenon of the
1960's (which spontaneously resurrected the old Illuminati motto of
"flower power").  The seeds of Neo- Paganism which had again lain
dormant for three generations took root in such fertile soil, and
emerged once more into the light, to be joined in the '70s by the heirs
of Wicca, the last vestiges of the Old Religion of Europe.

The New Religion is still very much Paganism, for its inspiration and
orientation today is based, as was that of its predecessors, upon an
understanding and relationship of Humanity within the larger perspective
of Life, Nature and the Universe.  Fred Adams of Feraferia coined the
term "eco- psychic" to describe the type of awareness that permeates the
New Religion.  Revealed religions, especially of the monotheistic
variety, tend to see man as a special creation, exalted above all
Nature, and the epitome of God's handiwork.  Thus the Biblical
injunction to Man to "have dominion over all the Earth" is not seen by
Judeo-Christians as outrageously presumptuous; nor is God's destruction
of all life on Earth in the legend of the Deluge seen as insanely
immoral ecocide.  Both God and Man are considered to have a "divine
right" to desecrate the Earth at their pleasure.

This is in direct opposition to the view of Paganism, which sees
humanity's duty not to conquer Nature, but to live in harmony and
stewardship with Her.  Every revealed religion claims to have its own
direct pipeline to the Divinity, and its own essential precepts from
direct, unassailable revelation.  Neo- Pagans, on the other hand, have
outgrown egotistical and temperamental gods, and expect no intervention
from some Big Daddy in the Sky to solve the problems of our times.
Instead, we look to Nature (through the clear glass of ecology) for
inspiration and direction, and to ourselves as the instrumentality for
all that needs to be done.  Thou art God/dess!

: Otter G'Zell, 1970 (revised Jan. 8, 1991)

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