American Neopaganism, Part 1: An Imaginary Tradition?

American Neopaganism, Part 1: An Imaginary Tradition? May 2, 2012

The website which I maintain will be taken down next month.  I’ve maintained it for several years now, and it’s been about a year since I made any changes to the site.  All of my writing energy has gone into this blog.  I’ve decided to let the domain lapse until I figure out what direction I want to take it.

When I first came to Neopaganism, it was through books.  And when I encountered the real thing, I was, frankly, disappointed.  Somehow, in the process of learning about Neopaganism, I had imagined something which really did not exist — a celebratory Neopagan religion without any of the trappings of esotericism or practical magic.  When I left my books and made my foray into the Neopagan community, I was disappointed to discover that “Neopaganism” was generally perceived as an umbrella term and not a tradition in its own right.  When asked what your tradition wasm you could not just say “Neopagan”.  And I was disappointed to discover that what was perceived as “Neo-Pagan” was really Neo-Wiccan — and many Pagans seemed oblivious to this fact.  Since I did not identify as witch or Wiccan (or druid or shaman for that matter), I was at a loss where to go.

So I set about to stake out some territory on the religious landscape for myself  — and the American Neopaganism website was born.  I specifically had the goal of defending the proposition that American Neopaganism was a tradition in its own right, distinct from Wicca, as well as from Pagan Reconstructionist traditions.  In the process, I discovered that I was both wrong and right.  In this post, I am going to outline what I was hoping to find.  And in my next post, I will discuss how and why I did not find it.  I will also discuss some groups that come (or came) pretty close.

Specifically, when I went looking for a Neopagan community, I was looking for a tradition which was:

(1) eclectic — meaning non-traditional and non-reconstructionist,

(2) open — meaning non-initiatory, and

(3) celebratory — meaning non-esoteric and eschewing practical magic.

In short, I was looking for a Neo-Paganism with all the Wicca taken out of it.  In my studies, I felt I had had identified something unique, something which I called “Neopagan” — something which I felt was distinct from, and even antithetical to, the esotericism and magic which are part of Wicca.

For clarity sake, I should say that, by “esotericism”, I follow Wouter Hanegraaf in referring to a nexus of related quasi-religious movements, sometimes called the “Western Esoteric Tradition” or the “Western Mystery Tradition”, and including Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kaballah, ceremonial magic (or “magick”), astrology, alchemy, tarot,  spiritualism, and Theosophy, and the philosophies of Jacob Bohme, Franz Mesmer, Emanuel Swedenborg, Helena Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, and Aleister Crowley.  The common trait among these movements is the notion that esoteric knowledge is secret or hidden and available only to a small elect group and only through intense study.  This knowledge often takes the form of a system of hidden correspondences between levels of reality.  “Esotericism” is often used interchangeably with “occultism”, but I believe the latter category to be broader.

By “Wicca”, I refer to an initiatory mystery religion, which blends Golden Dawn ritual forms with witchcraft folklore derived from Charles Leland and Margaret Murray.  Indicia of a Wiccan tradition are: duotheism, gender polarity, eight seasonal “sabbats”, ritual drawn from ceremonial magic including casting a magic circle, calling the quarters, and “raising energy”, and the practice of practical magic.  Note: I use the term “Wiccan” even for those people who identify as “Witches” and not “Wiccan”, if they fall into the category as described above.

I was uncomfortable with both practical magic and esotericism because I felt they were incompatible with my commitment to empiricism.  But also the notion of magical control of nature seemed to me to be antithetical to the Neopagan attitude of reverence of and cooperation with nature.  My vision of a non-esoteric Neopaganism was best expressed in Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin’s Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America:

“The unifying theme among the diverse Neo-Pagan traditions is the ecology of one’s relation to nature and to the various parts of one’s self.  As Neo-Pagans understand it, the Judaeo-Christian tradition teaches that the human intellectual will is to have dominion over the world, and over the unruly lesser parts of the human psyche, as it, in turn, is to be subordinate to the One God and his will.  The Neo-Pagans hold that, on the contrary, we must cooperate with nature and its deep forces on a basis of reverence and exchange. Of the parts of man, the imagination should be first among equals, for man’s true glory is not in what he commands, but in what he sees.  What wonders he sees of nature and of himself he leaves untouched, save to glorify and celebrate them.”

In this view, esotericism and practical magic were not Neopagan, but rather part and parcel of the legacy of the Enlightenment goal of dominating nature.

As a result, I took issue with the common perception of Neopaganism as the “exoteric” circumference of a circle at which Wicca is the “esoteric” center.  In this view, Neopaganism is a generic form of Wicca — a kind of Wicca lite.  But I believed that Neopaganism had more than enough substance to be a tradition in its own right, and one which could be and should be distinguished from Wicca.  In the course of my reading, I came across a few writers who agreed.

In Wicca and the Christian Heritage, Jo Pearson questions whether Wicca can even be considered a form of Neopaganism.  She writes: “In many ways initiatory Wicca can be regarded as existing on the margins of Paganism.”  In New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Wouter Hanegraaff observes “that Wicca is a neopagan development of traditional occultist ritual magic, but that the later movement is not itself pagan.”

Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin drew the same conclusion earlier in their Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America.  Ellwood and Partin broke Neopaganism into the magical groups, influenced by the model of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the O.T.O., and Aleister Crowley, and the nature oriented groups.  The magical groups, they wrote:

“are the more antiquarian; they love to discuss editions of old grimoires, and the complicated histories of groups an lineages.  They delight in precise and fussy ritualism, though the object is the evocation of intense emotional power […]

“The pagan nature-oriented groups are more more purely romantic; the prefer woodsy setting to incense and they dance and plant trees.  They are deeply influenced by Robert Graves, especially his White Goddess.  They are less concerned with evocation than celebration of the goddesses they know are already there.  The mood is spontaneous rather than precise, though the rite may be as beautiful and complex as a country dance. […]

(Partin and Ellwood offered Feraferia as an example of the latter group.)  Interestingly, Partin and Elwood described Wicca as being “in the middle between magic and nature-oriented groups.”  Elsewhere, Ellwood distinguished “occult groups”, which “offer initiation into expanded consciousness through a highly structured production of internal experiences and impartation of knowledge”, from “neopagan groups”, which “promote a new vision of man’s relation to nature, the archetypes of the unconscious, and the passions”.

I suggest that it might be helpful to think of Neopaganism and esotericism as two circles circumscribing different cultural phenomena with overlapping circumferences.  Traditional Wicca would fall within the overlapping area, whereas Neopaganism would fall outside of the circle of esotericism.

It was this celebratory and nature-oriented side of this picture which I want to extract from the esoteric side in which Wicca was (at least partially) rooted.

I also wanted to distinguish Neopaganism from Reconstructionist Paganism (or retro-Paganism).  While drawing inspiration from numerous ancient traditions and reconstructions of ancient traditions, Neopaganism is consciously and unapologetically eclectic.  It does not aim to reconstruct a (paleo-)pagan past, but rather to construct a Neo-Pagan present and future.

Various names have been suggested by others for this celebratory form of Neopaganism, including “non-initiated Paganism” (Tanya Luhrmann), “non-aligned Paganism” (Jo Pearson), “exoteric Paganism (Vivianne Crowley).  I chose the term “American Neopaganism” following both Aidan Kelly and James Lewis use of the term “American Tradition” to describe the Pagan Way.  (More on that in the next post.)

The use of the prefix “Neo-“ was intended to distinguish American Neopaganism both from modern forms of paganism (which include Hinduism, Voudun, and others) and from modern reconstructions of ancient paganisms (such as Druidry, Heathenry, and others).  Whether it dates to the 1967 organization of the Church of All Worlds and Feraferia or the 18th century Romantic Movement, Neopaganism is still a relatively new religion in comparison to the world’s religions.  In addition, Neopaganism, as I understand it needs, to be distinguished from ancient paganisms, which it rarely resembles (as well as from modern reconstructions of ancient aganisms).  Ancient pagans were mostly hard (or radical) polytheists, not Jungian polytheists, and not pantheists either (with a few exceptions like the Stoics).  The morality of ancient pagans is also distinguishable from that of modern Neopagans, whose morality is the product of the Enlightenment and Liberalism.

The modifier “American” was intended to distinguish American Neopaganism from more nationalistic European forms of Neopaganism, including the 19th century German volkisch movement, northern European heathenry, British druidry, as well as from traditional Wicca, which was originally conceived as a revival of an ancient British religion.

The “American” modifier was also intended as a recognition that Neopaganism really a product of the American Sixties counterculture.   Sarah Pike, in her book Witching Culture, dates Neopaganism to the founding of the Church of All Worlds and Feraferia in 1967.  While it was undoubtedly influenced by Wicca, I argued that American Neopaganism was historically and theologically distinct from Wicca.  In  my view, the intellectual and spiritual grandfather of American Neopaganism was not Gerald Gardner, but Robert Graves.  The White Goddess had only a minor influence on traditional Wicca, but was the inspiration behind most American forms of Neopaganism, including the Pagan Way movement, the Church of All Worlds, Feraferia, and NROOGD.  These and other American groups arose in the context of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and integrated Graves’ mythology with the feminist spirituality movement (especially the Goddess movement), religious ecology (or nature religion), and Jungian psychology.  It was to those traditions that referred when I wrote about “American Neopaganism”.

I was to discover, however, that it was separating the influence of Wicca from Neopaganism was more difficult than I had hoped.  And it is for that reason, perhaps, that occultism and practical magic now seem to be inseparable from Pagan culture.  And that is the subject of my next post.

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  • The major problem with separating out Wicca from neo-paganism is that it was the launching point for so many in to the realm of neo-paganism, and so many of its bits got carried over in to other traditions. I consider myself a Hellenistic (neo) pagan and I still incorporate some of the things I learned from reading Wicca 101 books. I must say though I am intrigued by your idea of Neo-Paganism being a stand alone tradition. The closest I have ever seen of such a thing is those that claim to be eclectic. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on the subject.

    • I think you’re right, M. More on why separating the two is so hard in my next post.

  • I enjoy your blog John because it reminds me, and possibly many who have been involved in Paganism for many years, how we once, possibly, viewed the Pagan landscape and the challenges that arise when exploring it.

    Unfortunately, and I do mean Unfortunately, for most Amer/Euro Pagans their practice is inherently a Wiccan-esque one derived from the Masonic/Golden Dawn Hermetic tradition, which is itself derived from Juedeo/Xtian Grimoire Hierarchical madness, and really has very little to do with what our Paleo-Pagan ancestors would have been up to in the fields and sacred enclosures of the past. Magic(k), as most Neo-Pagans understand it, was not what our predecessors would have been doing, nor would it have been the purpose of their Religion.

    You’d like your Neo-Paganism to include Eclecticism, to be Non-Initiatory, Non-Magic(k)al, Non-Traditional, and Non-Reconstructionist…all that sounds great. That’s a meaty wish list.

    I would recommend creating a list of what you do want it to be. In the end you may find that a group simply isn’t going to work for you, and that your form of Paganism doesn’t fit with any organization, church, or system. I’ve been there, and it takes awhile to understand for yourself what being a modern Pagan is or isn’t.

    One thing I have found is that if you want to Worship/Practice/Gather with others there’s going to be occasions when your agreement level will fluctuate. It’s part of being a member of anything, and I’m sure I’m not divulging any new information to you here.

    Much Frith,

    • I agree Todd. It’s better to make a list of what you do want, than what you don’t — I’ll save that for a future post. And you’re right, of course, that working with a group always involves compromise. The problem is when there are so few groups that actually qualify — I’ll be writing about some of them in my next post. Also I find it interesting (and frustrating) that “Juedeo/Xtian Grimoire Hierarchical madness” has become such a ubiquitous part of the Pagan landscape, when it is certainly not a logically necessary part of it, and may even be antithetical to other aspects of Paganism.

  • Have you ever considered not joining any tradition?
    In my humble opinion, one of the best characteristics of the Paganism (or Neopaganism) is that there’s just one-RIGHT-tradition or path, and either an institution.
    I think that sometimes we fall in the mistake of following the same steps as the mainstream religions, using the same patterns and thus trying to gather our own personal beliefs in different traditions. I always though that a traditions was more than that. In fact I’ve known many Wicca who have a completely different view of the Deity, even working in the same circle.
    If you can’t find something suitable, why keep looking for it instead of just…as you say…’celebrate’ in an open and eclectic way?
    After all, that’s what neopaganism is about, isn’t it? It being more magickal related or not, doesn’t make it better or worse.

    • Do I ever consider joining no tradition? Daily. And that is where I am. But honestly, it’s lonely. Even a very introverted person like me needs to connect with like-minded people every once in a while. The internet is helpful, but there is no substitute for in-person interaction.

  • Wouldn’t the group which Isaac Bonewits founded meet your three-point definiton? ADF or Ár nDraíocht Féin at

    • I did consider ADF. I think they meet 2 of the 3 qualifications. ADF is quite self-consciously non-Wiccan, open and celebratory. However, in my limited experience ( ) they are not eclectic — in fact, I think they are as emphatic about not being eclectic as they about not being Wiccan. Although the ADF ritual is obviously a modern invention, they remain quite reconstructionist in their attitudes. As someone who left a Christian religion that relied on the past (or it’s version of the past) for its claim to authenticity, I struggle with any Neopagan religion that does the same thing. While I look to the past for inspiration, I have no desire to repeat the past. Basically, I struggle with any tradition which uses the terms “lore” or “UPG” (unverified personal gnosis). The other issue I had with ADF, due to my naturalistic orientation, was the hard/literal polytheism, which seems to go hand in hand with a reconstructionist orientation. I’ve been looking into OBOD, which seems a little closer to what I am looking for.

    • The ADF (or at least the local group here in Columbus)charge you money to become an official member!

      • That’s okay with me. I was raised by an ardent capitalist and I still believe you generally get what you pay for. The ADF is a great organization.

  • Robert Mathiesen

    I am sorry to read that you plan to take American Neopaganism down at the end of the month. Even if you never add another text to it, it is a useful summary and reference; and I will miss being able to refer to it. Have you considered archiving it on a CD, which interested parties (like me) could then purchase from you?

    • Robert,

      I’ve archived it and would be glad to send it to you for for free. Just send me your mailing address. I think the best way to do it is to friend me (John H Halstead) on Facebook and then send me a private message on Facebook. If you can think of a better (more secure way) that’s fine.

      FYI, I am considering different options for the site. I will likely post some of the content again. Also, Brandon Newberg at Humanistic Paganism is considering doing a series with some of the information from the site.

      • Robert Mathiesen

        I just found your reply, and will do what you suggest later this evening.
        Many thanks!

  • I will miss the American Neopagan site also! It has been an informative and wonderful resource. I will keep reading your blog, might I suggest a type of question-and-answer post that can be quickly navigated to from the main page? Maybe an extension of the “about me”. Just a thought. I will keep reading!

    • That’s a great idea Sarah. I’ll give that some thought. And thanks for reading.

  • Drea

    I think I know just what you mean when you describe what you were looking for in neopaganism. I was looking for something similar when I first started out. When I couldn’t find it, I figured that creating a family tradition was the next best thing. Though I do still get a sense of romantic nostalgia when I see the myth of neopaganism described. I think that there are a lot of eclectic solitaries looking for that dream.

    Also, I love the term retro-paganism, though for me I get an image of rollerdiscos, afros, sparkly shirts, and dinnerplate sized pentacles 😉

    • I ended up doing the same thing. Creating a very ideosyncratic personal practice and a tradition for my family. It’s good to know others feel the same way — a kind nostalgia for something that didn’t exist?

      • Drea

        I think so. Sort of a rose-coloured glasses thing – like when you remember being a kid, everything seemed so much easier and perfect, when you do know academically that growing up was hard and a lot of days sucked. That gets pushed aside to emphasize the good times.

  • John, Although I spent some time exploring shamanism and heathenry, I can’t say I’ve ever been deeply religious about paganism of any sort. However, I really enjoy your perspective, and am sorry I no longer have access to the American Neopaganism website. I hope you have the resources to make it available again in some form.

    • Thanks Julia. I’ve heard the same thing from several people and I am brainstorming how to rework the content for a new site.

  • I want to wish you luck on your search and hope you have better success than I.
    First, let me tell you I was taught by my mother who was born in 1927 who was taught by her aunt ( my great aunt ) who was born in 1899 who was taught by her mother ( my great grandmother ) who was born in 1868 who was taught by her aunt born in circa 1827. It goes back to Switzerland and was combined with the folklore of the Scots-Irish when my great grandmother married my great grandfather.
    I was taught to make friends of the unseen spirits, the wind, the stones, the trees, the animals and to treat them as friends. Having this relationship allowed me to enjoy benefits of asking favors of them as well as approaching my ancestors, various unseen spirits and The Great Unseen. Last year, a Mombaki of the Ifugao tribe in the Philippines honored me with an atlatl saying he both respected and honored my knowledge as I had taken on his son for an 8 week period as an “intern”. It was a great honor..
    I personally have had to turn away from “neo-paganism” as it conflicts with what I was taught and even historical records. One heathen told me that Vikings really did not believe in Valhalla.or the existence of other realms. One group allowed Satanists in claiming they were pagan as well.
    While in neo-paganism, I was subjected to theories of Gardner, Crowley and others which had absolutely no bearing on paganism at all. It had a great deal to do with esoteric beliefs and magic ( magick ). I left the general community aggrieved and disheartened. To this day, I walk alone feeling very much alone as paganism proved to be more “high magic lite” than any real pagan belief system.
    Again, I wish you well and better success than I.

    • I think we are looking for very different things, but I understand your feelings of loneliness and disappointment with Paganism writ large. I wish you luck in your quest.