Neopaganism (sometimes Neo-Paganism) is a heterogeneous religion established as a revival of the largely extinct forms of European paganism. It is called Neopaganism to distinguish it from earlier forms of paganism, from which it differs in some significant ways. The religious movement was launched in England in the 1930s by Gerald Gardner under the name Wicca. The term "Wicca" is still used to refer to the sects of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, but Neopaganism is a broader field that includes sects whose beliefs and practices vary more widely.
Neopaganism is a very diverse belief system. It has been said that there are as many Neopagan belief systems are there are Neopagans, and there is some truth to that. However, while Neopagans do establish their own personal belief system, they do tend to share some common precepts, including the use of ancient mythologies, reverence for nature, the belief in magick, and the belief in reincarnation.
Mythological and Religious Sources
Neopaganism is sometimes referred to as the "Old Religion", indicating that, despite its novelty as a recognized belief system, it is based on beliefs that are very, very old. However, while Neopagans draw from the old religious traditions, it also adapts them. The mythologies of the ancient civilizations are not generally considered to be literally factual or historical in the sense that the Bible is historical. Nor are they considered to be scripture, as Neopaganism specifically rejects the concept of scripture.
The mythological sources of Neopaganism are many, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian and others, in approximate order of prevalence. There is probably no significant mythology or religious tradition that has not been used as a source by some group at some time. Some sects focus on one tradition; others draw from several or many. All mythologies are believed to contain truth, seen from different perspectives, and most Neopagans feel free to borrow or adapt from any tradition where they find it useful. For example, the Charge of the Goddess, an inspirational text by Doreen Valiente commonly used to invoke the Goddess, begins with the words: "Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arionrhod, Brigid, and by many other names."
An Earth-Based Religion
Neopaganism is considered an "Earth-based" or "Nature-based" religion because it holds the Earth and all of Nature to be sacred. Some Neopagans draw on more modern, or at least less ancient, religions that are also nature-based such as those of Native Americans and Africans.
The Divine nature of the Earth is recognized in the form of the Goddess by many names, among them Gaia and the Great Mother.
Many Neopagans practice Witchcraft, which is often referred to simply as The Craft, and refer to themselves as witches. While not all Neopagans are witches, and not all witches are Neopagan, the two tend to go together. Wiccans are probably more likely to call themselves witches than other Neopagans.
Number of Adherents
Adherents.com estimates there are one million Neopagans (see http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html). There probably are at least one million Neopagans worldwide, but there could be anywhere up to several million -- an exact figure is extremely difficult to obtain. Unlike most other sects, most Neopagans do not have churches per se, usually holding rituals in private homes or sacred groves and other outdoor locations. There are no membership lists to consult, no baptismal records. Many adherents keep their faith secret for fear of repercussions. Many also practice their faith as "solitaries", and work within no fixed spiritual community.
The Covenant of the Goddess conducted a poll of U.S. and Canadian Neopagans in 1999 that estimated the population in those countries at 768,400 (see http://www.cog.org/cogpoll_final.html). This would seem to support the view that there are at least one million worldwide. 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. Some other statistics from this poll are:
- 65% of repondents were between 26 and 39 years of age. Neopaganism appears to be particularly popular among young people.
- 86% were registered to vote, a figure much higher than the national average
- There were nearly twice as many women as men (71%), which is undoubtedly due to the emphasis placed on the Goddess as well as the God.
- 36% have served in the Armed Forces, and neopagan women served at a higher rate than the general population.
Concepts of Divinity
While Neopaganism does continue many beliefs and practices of original Paganism, including many of their Gods and Goddesses, it is in many other ways fundamentally different. For example, their beliefs about the fundamental nature of the Divinities behind those names are often completely different.
Many Neopagans believe that there is a single Divinity, a life force of the universe, who is immanent in the world. The various names and archetypes which they worship are seen not as truly separate individuals, but as facets, or faces, of something that is far beyond our human abilities to see, know, or understand. Rather than attempt to describe the indescribable, they approach the Divine through one of Her many aspects.
Neopagans celebrate eight major holy days, which are called Sabbats. Each year's Sabbats are together called the Wheel of the Year. Most Neopagans also hold smaller rituals, alone or with a coven, at each full moon. These are called Esbats. Sometimes rituals are held at the dark moon as well.
A sect within Neopaganism is referred to as a tradition. There are many traditions within the larger world of Neopaganism, most of which are identified according to the pantheon they work with, or the founder of the tradition.
Some of the larger traditions of Neopaganism include:
- Wicca, in several branches, which emphasize polarity, or working with both masculine and feminine forces. The earliest Neopaganism was of this type.
- Gardnerian Wicca, the first Wiccan tradition, founded by Gerald Gardner.
- Alexandrian Wicca, another early Wiccan tradition which came out of Gardnerianism
- Dianic Wicca, a Feminist tradition which is focused on female spirituality exclusively, particularly the Goddess Diana. Most if not all practitions are women, many of them lesbians.
- Odinism or Asatru , taken from Norse traditions.
- Reclaiming Tradition, a Feminist tradition which believes in manifesting faith through action in the world. Many reclaiming Witches are involved in feminist, gay rights, and social justice activism.
- Neo-druidism (sometimes written Neodruidism), a modern day reclamation of the ancient Celtic Druid religion.