Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No.6. Vol. 1, Vernal Equinox 2004
Neo-Paganism in the Post-Modern Age
by Amber Laine Fisher

Perhaps one of the fastest growing religious affiliations in the west, paganism is becoming a widespread cultural phenomenon. Though anchored in the paganisms of ancient people and cultures and with more recent roots in the romantic literary movement in Victorian England and classical mythology, modern neo-paganism is clearly the result of many different anti-establishment ideologies coming together to provide a pliable, culturally rich spiritual system suited to life in the modern, western world.

Perhaps the most significant ideological contributors to neo-paganism are feminism, pluralism, anarchism and self-determination, holism and ecological awareness and post-modernism. In its own way, each of these ideologies and movements has added its own flavor and texture to neo-paganism as a whole. And though not all neo-pagan religions have responded equally to all of these, none of them are immune to the effects they have had on western pop culture as a whole.

Long neglected by Protestantism and therefore by a huge portion of the western world, the Goddess has managed to find a home in neo-paganism, and her veneration in many different forms has become a standard and uplifting practices to many of today’s self-declared pagans. Whether Isis or Ma’at to Kemetic practitioners, Freyja to the Asatru, the Lady to Wiccans, or Artemis, Athena, or Hecate to Hellenic Reconstructionists, some aspect of the feminine Divine has become central to most if not all neo-pagan religions. Though individual practitioners may not choose to follow or honor a particular goddess, especially those who follow a henotheistic path, the religion that they identify with is still loyal to certain images of feminine divinity. This is not only a response to feminism which certainly allowed Goddess-consciousness to take root and flourish in modern times, but also a real recognition of a past in which female and male deities interacted with each other and with humanity through myth, poetry, war, and ritual. The re-emergence of female deities in the neo-pagan paradigm serves to offset the dominant western cultural image of an unyielding, omnipotent male deity. As a result, the concept of Divinity is seeing real change, thanks in no small p art of the upsurge of neo-pagan philosophy.

Perhaps the single most important theological contribution made by neo-paganism is its favor toward polytheism. Because most neo-pagans currently identify as Wiccan, and because most Wiccans do not self-identify as hard polytheists, it is still probably too early to say that most neo-pagans are polytheists. However, I think this is a trend that is quickly changing. The lure of polythsism is a strong one, and for good reason. For so long, western culture has been attached to am image of God that was monolithic, patriarchal, and seemingly unchanging. His mythology is regarded by many as literal truth unavailable to individual interpretation. This distance put a strain on the individual relationship with God, and coupled with a tendency for God to be seen as transcendent, the individual lost sight of God as tenable, as present, as a being rather than a lofty concept. Polytheism addresses these issues nicely. Rather than God being singular and omnipotent, many gods and goddesses of different personalities, temperaments, and characteristics share divinity. These individual beings with all their different idiosyncrasies, talents, and stories appeal to many different people, allowing many people to enter into a single religion and find themselves at home. Moreover, polytheism allows and even encourages individuals to seek out the many different aspects of themselves and correlate those pieces to some part of the divine architecture, for certainly there is a patron deity for all pieces of ourselves, whether that be warrior, artisan, mother or whore. Polytheism embraces pluralism and pluralism embraces polytheism, for integral to the nature of polytheism is the concept of truth and sacredness as subjective and mutable. Monotheistic faith allows only for one truth proclaimed by the one holy divine; polytheist faith demands multiple truths as each god or goddess is loyal to his or her own internal voice, and their followers are free to decide for themselves which paths to follow and which voices to listen to at particular times. Neo-pagans of polytheistic paths may find solace in the seductive wiles and artistic venture of Aphrodite one moment and in the throes of violent battle with Ares the next. But at all times, in all stages of life and development, there is a god or goddess that governs that phase, and there is a myth to turn to for guidance and strength. Polytheism in this sense does not provide the untenable goal of transcendence and salvation from the self as monotheistic faith is prone to do; rather, polytheistic faith finds glory and value in each phase of life as those phases are epitomized and deified through the members of various pantheons. This is extremely attractive in our time when both pluralism and post-modernism are such integral aspects of our culture. Neo-pagans have left the confinement of singularity and stoicism behind in order to find comfort and strength in diversity and change.

As the concept of Deity was stretched out of it’s monotheist, transcendent box, many neo-pagans began to embrace deity as not only plural but immanent. For the monistically minded neo-pagan, this indwelling presence became somewhat synonymous with the doctrine of pantheism or panentheism, while for the polytheist this idea blossomed in the form of animism. But whether pantheism or animism, the central concept is the same: the physical world is infused with Spirit, and through the tendrils of the deific web, all things are connected and interdependent, and all things contain a sacred element. The concept of inherent sacredness is of course in direct contrast to the concept of original sin. Instead of treating humanity and by extension all of nature as inherently flawed, neo-pagan traditions tend to treat humanity as inherently sacred, and because each individual contains the divine spark, each person has the right to chose for himself his own path and destiny. The notion of an external, central authority or governing body is mostly alien in neo-pagan traditions. The central tenets of both anarchy and self-determination are lauded in neo-paganism as the individual is both entitled and expected to forge his own path. While many reconstructionist paths such as Kemet, Asatru, and Hellenism do advocate a certain degree of scholarship and research as the basis for any personal gnosis, the individual on these paths is still expected to come to know his or her own gods on a personal level. Each person is individually responsible to their gods. And because many neo-pagan religions are self-proclaimed Mystery traditions, they do not and cannot rely solely on the teachings of sages or elders to provide insight to how life should be lived or how the gods should be revered or worshiped. All practitioners are internally guided to their own truth and hence into their own individual relationships with their gods. This naturally leads to loosely constructed, non-dogmatic, orthopraxic faith communities rather than more rigid, hierachical orthodoxy. Even Traditional Wicca, which tends to be more orthodox and hierarchical than some of the other neo-pagan traditions, favors self-determined covens over any externally imposed structure. Though individual covens, groves, and hearths may be considerably hierarchical, there is little if any organization r hierarchy between collectives. Thus, the religions themselves tend towards anarchy. The benefit of this non-structure is that each group is able to individual tailor itself to the needs of its members. The downside is that many neo-pagan faiths have some trouble with their own self-identification and internal theology.

An extension of the immanence philosophy are the notions of holism and deep ecology. The latter is most prevalent in the ecofeminism of such groups as Starhawk’s Reclaiming collective, but even outside of this organization the idea of networks and interrelationships has taken root, especially in traditions where magic plays an important role. The more we begin to see ourselves as parts of nature and not merely rulers of it, we begin to identify with the ecology rather than the environment. This slight shift in awareness allows the neo-pagan a shift in vision—a crucial shift that removes humanity from the center of the universe and instead focuses on a unified whole. For some, this unified whole itself is God—for others is may be the Ground of Being, the Soul of the World, the Nameless. But no matter the moniker, the spiritual unification of the universe adds a somewhat mystical dimension to neo-paganism that is not emphasized in many other western traditions. This holistic mysticism seeks not so much to bridge the chasm between humanity and Deity, as such a rift is not emphasized in the neo-pagan traditions, but rather to challenge the practitioner to experience and know Deity through interacting with the world rather than removing oneself from it.
But perhaps the single most direct contributor to the personality and texture of neo-paganism is the post-modern movement. More so than perhaps any other ideology, postmodernism has had a direct hand in the direction and flavor of neo-paganism in the western world. Until very recently, western society has been marked by two prevailing viewpoints: transcendent monotheism, as previously discussed, and scientific atheism. Both schools are dominated by a very Cartesian, mechanistic either/or worldview. Postmodern thought, in contrast, is highly personal and syncretic, preferring individual experience and interpretation over any externally imposed order. We can see this clearly in religions like Wicca and the Goddess movement. But even in Reconstructionist religions, which place far less emphasis on personal gnosis, there is an inherently syncretic thought process that must take place—for the Reconstructionist must place premodern gods, rituals, and rites within the current culture and atmosphere.. Few reconstructionists, for example, would advocate doing away with equal rights for women and minorities, or reinventing the institution of slavery, even though slavery and rigid class structure might very well have been the norms of the time. So though the Reconstructionist strives to reinvent the spirit of his chosen path, he must accomplish this task with the tools his own culture and worldview have given him. This in an of itself is a very postmodern approach to spirituality.

In keeping with its preference for syncretism, many Neo-Pagan religions have successfully incorporated mythology, spirituality and psychology into a cohesive whole. Many witches and magicians will point to quantum physics as scientific explanations for why they believe magic works. No longer are religion and science seen as opposing forces. For the Neo-Pagan, one complements the other. If Spirit is immanent within nature, than understanding the natural world, whether through physics, biology, or psychology, is tantamount to understanding and exploring Spirit. The myths and stories of cultures from all over the world are said to represent “public dreams” while the human psyche spins its own private myths in the form of dreams. And though for most neo-pagans the gods are not reduced to psychological archetypes, the gods of Neo-Paganism do avail themselves to study through archetypal psychology, and through exploring the stories of the gods that are worshiped the practitioner better comes to understand himself. In this postmodern construct, the microcosm and the macrocosm are deeply intertwined, one reflecting the other, each moment bleeding into the next. Internal meditation is tantamount to communicating with God.

What holistic postmodernism does not try to do, however, and what Neo-Pagan religions do not generally try to do, is destroy the good that we have already created and that we already have access to. Neo-Pagans are encouraged to be both in the world and of the world, and to help the world that we are part of to improver. Many Neo-Pagans strive to serve their gods by seeking out a cosmic balance. In Pellorys, the cosmic balance and right order is called dallethys. For some, seeking out this balance is entirely personal and consists of finding a way to keep all aspects of the self within arm’s reach—the playful self, the serious self, the love, the warrior, the mother, the priestess. For others, seeking this equilibrium might involve becoming more community oriented. But due to the decentralization of all Neo-Pagan religions, the search must by default be highly personal in nature. Each individual has to find his own motivation, his own truth, and his own method for walking his path and keeping his faith.

The Neo-Pagan movement is a highly reactionary cultural phenomenon borne out of a deep-seated frustration and dissatisfaction with the norms of Protestantism, Cartesian philosophy, and industrial modern thinking. Though it has its roots in the distance and not-so-distant past, Neo-Paganism is certainly a new spiritual construct, flying in the face of modern conventions and seeking to forge its own way to an improved future. As new cultural inventions become popularized and explored, no doubt many of these new ideologies will find a home with the Neo-Pagan movement. The creativity of spirit and self determination encouraged in Neo-Pagan thought and philosophy will continue to flourish, producing vivid and highly individual theologies and practices that will continue to serve the Neo-Pagan community for years to come.