The Thoughtworld Of Modern Paganism

There were four different languages employed when talking about paganism in nineteenth-century Europe. One assumed it to be a religion of savages, characterized by animal and human sacrifice and a superstitious dread of idols; it was used mainly to describe tribal beliefs and some Hindu traditions in the contemporary world, but these were commonly projected back onto prehistoric Europeans. In addition, it was often applied to the temple-based religions of the ancient Near East and North Africa. This language strengthened dunng the century, under the impact of reports generated by increasing European missionary work in the tropics, and evolutionary theory. The latter made it easy to portray this brutish paganism as the lowest form of religion, from which European humanity had ascended as part of a general progression of knowledge and manners, aided (for the pious) by divine revelation. The second language did not conflict with the first, but represented a different emphasis within the same picture, by concentrating instead upon the most developed form of European paganism before the triumph of Christianity. This was the religious world of classical Greece and Rome, with its Olympian deities which had been so firmly built into the familiar images of European culture. The traditional admiration of western Europeans for classical civilization only strengthened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and made it impossible to regard its deities and festivals with the contempt manifested towards other polytheist systems. Instead, they were treated as a religion which was inferior only to Christianity itself, and which had possessed virtues which had been incorporated into Christian culture, a mixture which represented the most perfect of all systems of belief.

These were attitudes held by the overwhelming majority of Europeans during the nineteenth century; but during that century they came to be accompanied by two others, which were essentially languages of disaffected intellectuals and which posed challenges to the first two. One was that of Theosophy, and embodied the principle that behind all the more sophisticated systems of religious belief recorded in the world lay an original body of common wisdom, more ancient than and superior to all. This, ran the argument of Theosophists, could now be recovered, by a process of comparative study enhanced by renewed contact with superhuman intelligences. The other radical language was one which was explicidy or implicidy hostile to Christianity. It characterized the religions of pagan Greece and Rome as mherendy superior, at once more in touch with the natural world and with human nature; joyous, libera dornst and life-affirming. This was to be the discourse of modern pagan witchcraft.

It appeared m Germany at the end of the eighteenth century, as one result of the fusion ofthat idealization of classical Greece and nostalgia for a vanished past which were hallmarks of the German literature of the time. In March 1788 it was given its first fall expression, in Johann von Schiller's poem 'The Gods of Greece \ an impassioned lament for a lost pagan fairyland, in which everyday sights had been invested with divinity, and happy and serene deities made objects of adoration. This theme was taken up, with equal feeling, by followers of Schiller such as Hölderlin. It did not, however, remain a major one m Continental Europe. In its German birthplace it suffered from the general waning of interest in Greek and Roman cultural models, while French dissident intellectuals preferred an all-out anti-clencalism and a scepticism which flirted with blasphemy and Satanism. Only occasionally did it resurface in these countries during the nineteenth century; but in England it found a new homeland, a reflection both of the greater secuianty of English culture and of its increasing preoccupation with rural images.

It was taken up there at once by virtually all of the Romantic poets. Wordsworth, in 'The World Is Too Much With Us', and Byron, in 'Anstomenes' both wrote verse which echoed the sentiments of Schiller, More radical m its employment of them was the group which gathered in 1815-16 about the essayist Leigh Hunt, and included Keats and Shelley. All three writers felt that Christianity had proved inadequate to the spiritual needs of the age, and looked to a selective revival of classical paganism .to provide a happier, more beautiful, and more positive form of religion, which celebrated the world. All three propagated this idea in their works. At times the activities of Hunt and his friends extended to practical gestures of worship, such as hanging up of garlands and other acts of consecration in places of natural loveliness. How literally any of them believed in the existence of the old deities is difficult to say — they retained a vague Platonic faith in a single Great Spirit and Creator — but they certainly treated them as potent symbolic forces (Barnard, 1937; Scott, 1943: 43-4; Scott, 1944: 61; Ryan. 1976).

Such sentiments continued to be expressed through the middle of the century. In 1844 Elizabeth Barrett Browmng was sufRciendy incensed by continuing admiration m England for Schiller's poem to write a Christian response, 'The Dead Pan\ against the ;vam false gods of Hellas'. One of those who was deaf to her call was George Meredith, who between 1851 and 1901 wrote a long series of poems developing the idea that humanity needed to be reconciled with 'Great Nature1 m order to be complete once again. He employed classical deities as aspects of this being. Another was Algernon Swinburne, who published two volumes of verse in the mid-18605 which renewed the arguments of the Hunt circle, assailing Christianity for its morbidity and praising the life-affirming qualities of the old religions. Such sentiments were expressed by lesser writers of the period such as James Thomson, Roden Noel and Lord de Tabley.

By the late Victorian period, the word 'pagan1 had become laden with such associations. Thomas Hardy used it in passing three times m his novel The Return of the Native, m each case to evoke, without need of gloss or explanation, a sense of self-indulgent liberation and renewal of contact with an archaic life-force. The same language runs through other poems and novels of the 1870s and 1880s. As the century drew to a close it became more self-consciously aggressive. In 1889 the socialist mystic Edward Carpenter called for a return of the cosmic consciousness1 of'the old religions' to modem Man: 'on the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bnght horn of the young moon1 (Carpenter, 1889: 44—7). The following year W. E. Henley founded The National Observer, a magazine which ran for half a decade and was designed to oppose 'Puritanism, Labour, and Humbug'- One antidote proposed by contributors was a restoration of the antique worship of nature and realization of the animal side of humanity; among them was the young Kenneth Grahame, who gathered his articles into a book brought out in 1893 under the tide of Pagan Papers. The previous year William Sharp had launched a Pagan Review, writing the whole of the first issue himself, under the motto 'Sic Transit Gloria Grundi'. True to this, the contents were mainly dedicated to a celebration of eroticism, of various kinds, but Sharp gave the new connotation of pagamsm a further twist by declaring that it also stood for 'a true copartnership' between the sexes. More soberly, at the end of the decade the classicist Lowes Dickinson suggested in The Independent Review that ancient Greek religion had been :the ideal of a foil and satisfied humanity' and thus a revival of it was 'fitted for a new age*.

All this produced some hostile reactions, which themselves were evidence of how seriously observers could take these statements. In 1891 W.F. Barry coined the expression 'neopagamsm', summing it up as a reputed wisdom which Overcomes death with the exuberance of eternal nature, all rhythm and harmonious evolution, a great unceasing festival of flowers and lights and easy sensuous love.' He went on to assert traditional Christian teachings against it, and to try to expose it as a corrupting, negative, creed (Barry, 1891). His term was used in Punch m 1894 to attack the first issue of the magazine which was to be the most famous expression of Fin de Siècle British decadence, The Yellow Book. It was employed later by another Christian apologist, G.K. Chesterton, in reply to Dickinson's article. Chesterton drew a distinction between the more serious and formidable proponents of a new paganism, such as Dickinson himself, and the more common expression of it, as an evocation of a classical never-never land in which people 'were continually crowmng themselves with flowers and dancing about m an irresponsible state , , -above all things mebnate and lawless5. The former, he suggested, had to be answered from theology and history, while the latter could be dismissed with ridicule (Chesterton, 1905: 153-70).

Much of the self-confidence of the 'pagan' writing of the early 1890s was destroyed, along with so much of the Aesthetic Movement to which it was linked, by the fall of Oscar Wilde whose poetry had itself been one expression of the genre. What followed, however, was not so much a decline as a more subdued and! thoughtful continuation. Dickinson's work was an example, and in many ways the less provocative and flamboyant use of this language of pagamsm made it all the more effective and ingrained in British culture. During the first four decades of the twentieth century it is found in works as ^different as the novels of E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence, the popular short stones of Algernon Blackwood, H. j. Massingham's books about the English countryside, and the verse of minor poets such as Victor Neuburg, James Elroy Flecker, Geoffrey Sefton and Teresa Hooley. In most cases it functioned as a means of mere escapism, but employed so powerfully as to suggest a genuinely alternative way of looking at nature, divinity, gender roles and sexuality. Wicca was to represent a means of trying to put it into practice; and m domg so it adopted the particular deities which this literary Jneopagamsm' had identified as especially important. It is time to consider these.

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