Britain’s Pagan Twilight

Britain’s Pagan Twilight August 19, 2016

I have been writing about the long-standing British fascination with the idea of a continuing rural paganism, ideas that in the 1960s grew into the genre of Folk Horror. But why did the ideas of witch-cult theorist Margaret Murray attract such a wide and credulous following?

Looking at the writings of such mainstream figures as John Buchan and Rudyard Kipling suggests how very mainstream such notions were in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, roughly 1890-1918. British culture was saturated in occult and esoteric thought at this time, with extensive beliefs in ghosts and the demonic, Theosophy and spiritualism, and (yes) fairies, and those by no means imagined just in terms of children’s literature.

This was a golden age of horror and fantasy literature, which did their bit to popularize these themes. Think of M. R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and strictly mainstream figures like W. B. Yeats. We don’t usually put them together under the same cultural roof, but Stoker’s Dracula, for instance, appeared in 1897, and Barrie’s play of Peter Pan in 1904. Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, spent much of his life trying to prove the truth of Spiritualism. Meanwhile, Yeats, Lady Gregory, and others kept the Celtic Twilight literature in full flow throughout these Edwardian years, with all its fairies, curses, visions, and supernatural trappings. Giving a pseudo-scientific basis to so much of this were the successive editions of Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough, which appeared between 1890 and 1915.

It’s suggestive how many of these key figures were Scottish, Irish, or (Machen) Welsh – actually, Celts like Buchan were in a fair majority.

Before saying anything else about paganism, I really have to define my terms. From the Renaissance onwards, most writers in English made great use of Classical literature and analogy, and often cited Roman or Greek pagan deities. Any poem about the sea is likely to cite Neptune or Poseidon. What changed during the nineteenth century is that scholars and authors became aware of the distinctive gods of their own landscape, the German or Norse deities, and later, of the ancient dark gods who preceded them, chthonic figures whose very names were generally lost. What I am discussing here is the idea that the cults of those old native gods survived and continued in the landscape, perhaps recalled in the guise of devils or demons. Even Buchan’s poem Wood Magic cites the old gods as Apollo and Venus, though the speaker explains that it is the learned priest who has told him these Classical names.

Oddly, if I was looking at the critical pioneer of the “continuing paganism” genre, it would be Thomas Hardy, another writer who went on to core Establishment respectability. But if you look at early novels of his like The Woodlanders (1887) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), they have a huge amount in common with later Folk Horror. Tess, for instance, begins with the heroine marching in a women’s May Day event that Hardy clearly thinks of as a modern day continuation of an ancient pagan rite. When Tess sings a psalm, Hardy calls it “a Fetishistic utterance in a Monotheistic setting; women whose chief companions are the forms and forces of outdoor Nature retain in their souls far more of the Pagan fantasy of their remote forefathers than of the systematized religion taught their race at later date.”

Tess ends with her facing capture and death within Stonehenge, almost as a sacrifice to the pagan gods.

Although it is not well known to non-specialists today, The Woodlanders delves deep into pagan ideas. The book follows the cycles of the year in a village dominated by its apple orchards, with all the pagan-looking ceremonies attached to different seasons of the year. The character Giles Winterborne is described explicitly as an incarnation of a pagan deity, the spirit of the Fruit:

He looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-color, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his boots and leggings dyed with fruit-stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him that atmosphere of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards. …..

He rose upon her memory as the fruit-god and the wood-god in alternation; sometimes leafy, and smeared with green lichen, as she had seen him among the sappy boughs of the plantations; sometimes cider-stained, and with apple-pips in the hair of his arms, as she had met him on his return from cider-making in White Hart Vale, with his vats and presses beside him.

This is a deeply and authentically visionary pagan novel. Its ideas run very close to those of Frazer, but the latter’s work would only appear from 1890 onward, and when they did, Hardy read him with much interest. But if anything, it looks as if Hardy influenced Frazer, rather than the other way round.

He did not mean it in this context, but I think of Marlowe’s first words about London in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899): “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

I would also add one point that might seem obvious, but which rarely gets stressed enough when discussing the origins of witch-cult myths. In the early twentieth century, most educated Brits (and Irish) had studied German, and had read some Goethe. If they knew anything, they knew Faust and the spectacular witches sabbat scene on the Brocken on Walpurgis Nacht. They thus had an established framework of what witches did into which later ideas could easily be slotted. Reading Faust also gave them a religious sense of the Eternal Feminine.

So pagan witches and their ancient gods and goddesses …. Why not?


The best book on the historical and cultural background of all this is G. R. Searle, A New England? (2004) and especially the long chapter on Art and Culture. This is very good on the rural revivalism and romanticism of this age, the attempts by elites to rediscover “authentic” folk cultures and generally get back to an imagined countryside, paganism and all.

There are of course any number of more detailed books on the occult and esoteric movement of the age. Ronald Hutton’s excellent books tell us a great deal about the early history of these pagan notions. And see also Marion Gibson, Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and goddesses in literature and history since the Dark Ages (Routledge, 2013).


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