(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 witches.
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 explicitly religious.
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.
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