Paganism and Countercultures

Paganism and Countercultures March 8, 2020

“To live outside the law, you must be honest.” — Bob Dylan, Absolutely Sweet Marie

Today’s Neopagan movement was heavily influenced by the 1960s counter-culture.

The overall zeitgeist of self-expression and self-exploration made space for alternatives to mainstream culture and religion. Feminism helped bring the idea of the divine feminine and the archetype of the witch to new prominence. The ecological movement lent impetus to the idea of nature religion. Fantasy literature notions of wizards brought magical ideas to mind.

But Neopaganism has older roots than the 1960s. We can clearly trace its ancestry back through Gardnerian Wicca and the occult movements of the early 20th century, though Hermetic societies like the Golden Dawn, to Theosophy and Spiritualism.

We can go further back, to the Transcendentalists — we’re previously discussed how Walt Whitman was a proto-Pagan. And before them, the British Romantic poets were important predecessors of Paganism; not only did their poetry help shape our notion of the Goddess and raise Pan to new prominence, they seems to have taken the worship of the Old Gods into their lives to some degree. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to a friend, “I am glad that you do not neglect the rites of the true religion. Your letter awoke my sleeping devotions, and the same evening I ascended alone the high mountain behind my house, and suspended a garland, and raised a small turf altar to the mountain-walking Pan.”

And we can go back through earlier Romantics like Blake and Rousseau; and in the mists of history, we can dimly see the secret and fraternal societies of the 1600s and 1700s, the Bavarian Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, and Freemasons, freethinkers and anti-authoritarians whose ritual structures became templates for occultists of later centuries.

To some degree, each of these ancestors and influences might be said, in a broad sense, to be a “counterculture”.

The term “counter culture” was popularized in Theodore Roszak’s 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture. An earlier form, “contraculture”, was used by sociologist John Milton Yinger in a 1960 article.

(Miriam-Webster.com claims, but does not cite a source, for a first known use of “counter culture” in 1947. If the term was in use before the 1960s, it was not significant enough to show up in my 1956 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Old dictionaries, by the way, are fascinating.)

Roszak was writing specifically about the subculture that developed in the US (with echoes in Europe) in the 1960s, as a response to the materially affluent but spiritually empty technocratic mainstream culture that developed in the post-World War II years. However he did not completely limit his view; he quoted William Blake and named our proto-Pagan Walt Whitman as “prophetically counter-cultural”.

Furthur, from its 2014 tour stop in Greenbelt, Maryland.. Photo by the author.

In contrast, Yinger was writing about a general sociological concept. He used “contraculture” to refer to subcultures with norms that contain “as a primary element, a theme of conflict with the values of the total society, where personality variables are directly involved in the development and maintenance of the group’s values, and…its norms can be understood only by reference to the relationships of the group to a surrounding dominant culture.” He cited examples from jazz musicians to juvenile delinquents.

So while the word “counter culture” was first coined — or at least popularized — to describe the specific cultural upheaval of the 1960s, it is a concept with broader application.

A counterculture is different than a subculture which merely persists as a minority group in a larger whole. It sets itself up as an opposition, attempting in some way to change, reform, or replace some aspect of the culture at large.

So before the 1960s, we might classify the poets and artists of the “Beat Generation” in the US as a counterculture; before them in Europe, the Surrealists and the Decadent movement; and before them the Transcendentalists, and the Romantics.

Outside of artistic movements, in the field of lifestyle, we can identity Borsodi’s back to the land” movement; the German Naturmenschen and Libensreform movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the California California “Nature Boys” of the 1940s whom they inspired; and Ernest Thompson Seton’s Woodcraft Indians of the early 1900s, who may have been an ancestor tradition to both Wicca and the Boy Scouts.

Each of these movements set out, in some way, to reform or change broader society. In some sense, they (as Yinger described) stood in conflict with the values of society at large, and attracted a personality type in accordance with that conflict.

Now we, wild Pagans that we are, might find each of these groups sympathetic in at least some sense. Artists, poets, nature lovers, advocates for alternative medicine, social reformers, naturalists, wanderers — these are our people! They stood opposed to the mainstream cultures of their time in order to push for egalitarianism, creativity, and liberty.

But these are not the only countercultures out there.

Prohibitionists, censors, authoritarians, religions fundamentalists — in every society, there are countercultural currents that move in opposition to freedom and openness.

Imagine, for example, that you were invited to join a “mystic, social, patriotic, benevolent association” with a “perfected lodge system, with an exalted ritual form of work…not for selfish profit, but for the mutual betterment, benefit, and protection” of initiates, in order to promote “liberty, justice, and fraternity among all mankind.” If I told you that the initiation rite of the this fraternity involved a chalice and a blade (though called differently) and proceeding widdershins around a sacred altar while wearing ceremonial robes, you might think that I was talking about some cousin to Wicca, or a Rosicrucian group.

In fact, this description is of the Ku Klux Klan — a thoroughly twisted counter-culture.

And this is important to us today, because there are twisted counter-cultures around that present with elements of Paganism. Some have real historical ties to groups that were antecedents of the Pagan revival, however badly they have gone off the track.

White supremacists — standing in opposition to cultural values of equality — who misrepresent Heathenry and Asatru. “Trans-exclusive radical feminist” witches who believe that the yin qualities of existence are entirely linked with anatomy, standing against the trend towards greater openness about gender.

And of course there are always cults organized for the enrichment or empowerment of the leaders but that present themselves as brave rebels standing against a corrupt society.

There are many advantages to Paganism being decentralized, diverse, and a somewhat underground, countercultural phenomenon. But this also brings with it the risk that seekers will encounter one of these twisted groups which can look Paganish from a distance.


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