Paganism as a cultural phenomenon in Europe

Last year I attended a conference with the theme ‘Gender in neo-paganism and native faith in Central and Eastern Europe’.  (March 2014, Krakow, Poland). I gave a paper in which I talked about gender in a Wiccan context. The thing I noticed was that people were differentiating between Western-style paganism which is generally Wiccanish… and Eastern-style paganism which is often patriarchal with nationalistic tendencies. In fact I had seen this trend in the early 2000’s. Also during my travels I found it easier to talk of paganism as a CULTURAL phenomenon rather than an expression of a religious or spiritual movement.

One of the main problem is one of definitions. Since people have difficulties in defining religion it makes it even more difficult to define a pagan religion. Also it was becoming evident that the very term paganism was also very unclear. 

I had been thinking about this situation for some time and it was in October 2014 when I was invited to submit a paper for the SIEF 11th annual conference in Kazan, Russia, that I decided to offer a paper discussing paganism as a cultural phenomenon. The theme of this conference was ‘Traditions and Transformation’  (June 2015).

It was received with a good amount of enthusiasm so I read the paper later again in July 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia at the College of Thelema.


‘Neo paganism’ as a term was introduced in the 1860’s in the UK. In the last 60 years it has become a term to describe many things including New Religions described as ‘Nature Religions’. As many of the groups and practitioners have sought for their roots in classical paganism it has become increasingly difficult to determine what is actually meant by ‘Neo-paganism’. In recent discussions where there is a tendency to claim authenticity it has become more and more apparent that to understand the nature of neo-paganism we need to look at the cultural context. The pagan/heathen heritage in Europe does indeed go back millennia. In this paper I will be looking at the impact of cultural influences and how neo-paganism has developed in Europe over the last 40 years.

‘PAGANISM as a cultural phenomenon in Europe’: Morgana, Utrecht, the Netherlands May 2015

Introduction: Good afternoon, my name is Morgana and I am presenting the following paper as a pagan practitioner. I have been practicing as a Wiccan priestess for more than 35 years and have seen the development of (neo) paganism in Europe, especially in the UK and the Netherlands.

Definitions and our understanding of the word “paganism”. 

Today paganism has come to mean a number of things to different people. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary the word is derived from pagus:

“In ancient Rome a person living in a rural area or village was called paganus, a word derived from the Latin noun pagus, meaning “village, district.” In time paganus came to refer to a civilian as opposed to a soldier. When Christianity became generally accepted in the towns and cities of the empire, paganus was used to refer to a villager who continued to worship the old gods. Christians used the term for anyone not of their faith or of the Jewish faith. The word in Old English for such a person was what is now heathen. In the 14th century, English borrowed the Latin paganus as pagan, and used it with the same meaning. In time both heathen and pagan also took on the meaning of “a person having no religion.”

“Having no religion” at best and at worst; followers of the old pagan gods were barbaric and devil worshippers.

On ‘Paganus’ Fritz Muntean writes “… neither paganus nor rusticus necessarily imply that the people or practices being referred to are rural in nature. In the context of the texts we are examining, paganus refers to non-Christian beliefs and practices, and rusticus means uncultured, unsophisticated or just uneducated, and as such is similar to Augustine’s rudes.”

However in more recent times, for example, the ancient Greek and Roman gods would be categorized under ‘Classical Paganism’. In the mid-19th century the term ‘Neo-pagan’ was first used and referred to the revival in pagan culture.

The term ‘neo-pagan’ now provides a means of distinguishing between historical pagans of ancient cultures and the adherents of modern religious movements.

Adler DDM


Margot Adler’s now classic book Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today (first published 1979) is an examination of neo-paganism in the US from a sociological point-of-view. Interviewing many pagans Margot mapped out many groups and practitioners who were already well established in the 1970’s.

To a large extent the same was happening in the UK where Wicca, introduced by Gerald Gardner, was also becoming popular. In fact it was due to Gerald Gardner and the emergence of Wicca after the repeal of the Witchcraft laws in 1951 that the way was made open for many people to practice ‘The Old Religion’. This was a term Christians gave to those who worshipped the old pagan gods as I noted earlier. The NEW religion was Christianity.

Restall Orr Honour

(fig. 2)

In her book Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics (O Books, 2007) Emma Restall Orr begins by actually describing Paganism. She describes ‘Four threads of paganism’:

  1. The image of paganism as a fashion trend, a hype. The main audience being young people, particularly girls. TV shows such ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, ‘Charmed’, ‘how to’ books etc.
  2. “An authentic and ancient thread … of magic: many paths within Western Paganism hold the craft of magic as a defining and focal practice”. The emphasis here is on methodology and not on a religion or theology.
  3. “Paganism based upon the quest for knowledge and knowing”. Using archaeology and anthropological sources, cultural studies, literature, mythology and language. Here we see too the revival of worshipping ancient deities. Here the religious aspect is evident.
  4. “The oldest thread. It is the perspective that appears to be the most rudimentary, the most primitive and elemental… Here the core focus is the spiritual power of nature, and spiritual or religious practice.”

In Part 1 ‘Finding a perspective’, she writes: “Even acknowledging its many diverse threads, there is one significant attitude that draws modern Pagans together: the unwillingness to accept without question society’s norms.” This and the above observations clearly refer to paganism as cultural, societal phenomenon.

Religion is one aspect of any cultural landscape and it would seem logical that paganism too falls within this category. My own experiences certainly attest to this. I have seen paganism – and particularly Wicca – be the subject of a hype (thread 1).

(Sub-)Urban paganism

For many years paganism was perceived as “a person having no religion”. In 1971 the Pagan Federation (UK) was established. As an activist campaigning group the main goal was to provide correct information about paganism and the emerging (neo) pagan religions such as Wicca and Druidism. The emphasis also was to highlight the connection these religions had with the Earth and the ‘divine feminine’. In many respects paganism as defined in thread 3.

It was in the 1970’s as Margot Adler pointed out that paganism as a religious, spiritual alternative suddenly exploded on to the scene. Along with anti-establishment demonstrations, cries of “Make love, not war”, feminism, the sexual revolution, gay-rights and civil-rights – the Goddess had returned!

Although the call “to go back to nature” resounded in the hearts of many people it was in the cities and towns where most people lived. If paganism was the spiritual calling then it was urbanism which was the cultural setting.

Wouldn’t this be a contradiction? It could have been but as we have seen in recent years the very term ‘Urban pagan’ is one which is being used to describe the very people practicing a Nature religion in the cities.

Nature is everywhere. It is the connectedness with nature which has been lost. As the monotheistic religions with the emphasis on scripture/writings of their respective ‘Holy Book’, Pagans were more connected by the locality and where their gods lived. Some of the ancient gods travelled well and were more universal but the majority were local deities or genius loci as the protective spirit of a place.

It is perhaps this very aspect that will be the overriding attraction of (neo)-paganism in a global sense. In his essay Civil Religion Aspects of Neo-Paganism (2004) Michael York writes,

“This last, however, already answers my second initial question, namely, how much does the language of contemporary Goddess Spirituality constitute a form of ‘pagan civil religion’? While I would argue that, indeed, belief in a transcendent yet immanent being called ‘the Goddess’ has and does provide a lingua franca through which many different types of pagans can associate, despite their denominational or sectarian separate identities, the future trend of contemporary Western paganism would appear to focus more on an abstract concept of nature – one that is both impersonal yet animated, pantheistic yet animistic. Increasingly, nature religion is, or nature religions are, supplanting even Wicca/witchcraft as the prevailing norm within present-day paganism. But in either case, whether Goddess Spirituality or nature religion, the common denominator has – or at least attempts to have – a more universal appeal. There may be at the end of the day a new global form of civil religion that supercedes the particularity of any national civil religion – be it American, Canadian, British or French. The pagan global civil religion will not conform to any Durkheimian reification of the state but will be transnational in the sense of focusing upon the planet as a global community. If Bellah can see the Vietnam War as an occasion for reflection on American civil religion, or Swatos can recognize the revitalization of the same through the calamity of 911, the increasingly imminent crisis of environmental disaster might no less be the occasion for the emergence of a global civil religion. If such be the case, contemporary paganism already has the door open in that direction.” [note 1]

Since ‘Civil Religion’ has everything to do with national culture and symbolism it is not unreasonable to see paganism in this context.  As a cultural phenomenon.

Situation in Europe

When looking at the development of (Neo-) paganism in Europe since the 1860’s, when the term was first coined, as a cultural phenomenon – or Civil Religion – it becomes easier to pin-point differences and commonalities. However, even more so than in the US, the cultural differences between European countries and the shift of political boundaries in the last 150 years makes it difficult to generalize.

As a practitioner though I have seen – in the last 35 years – that there has been a gradual emergence of what one could call ‘Western European-style Paganism’ with a great emphasis on Goddess spirituality and the reverence for Nature and ‘Eastern European-style Paganism’ with a great emphasis on male leadership and heroism. However as people intermingle and share rituals there may be a shift in emphasis. As a cultural phenomenon neo-paganism is of course still very young and the social impact is still limited if compared to the other world religions. [note 2]

Another term for Western European-style Paganism is Wiccanish/ Wiccanesque, alluding to the early work of Gerald Gardner, and others, and the influence Wiccan ritual practice and philosophy has had on the neo-pagan movement. Even though a group today may call themselves, for example Heathen, many of their practices are recognizably Wiccan including; duo-polytheistic, the drawing of a magical circle, calling the four quarters, following the Wheel of the Year and celebrating 8 seasonal festivals.

This is perhaps the biggest compliment that Gerald Gardner could have ever wished for. That his interest in folklore, connection with the Goddess, interest in naturism and many other things, leading to the creation of Wicca, has evolved in itself into a cultural  phenomenon not just a religion.

Undoubtedly the emergence of internet and social media has encouraged and influenced many people to look at their own cultural roots. Whether they fall into the definition, or threads of paganism as outlined by Emma Restall Orr will remain to be seen. Whether paganism will emerge as a Global Civil Religion where the genus loci is the leading cultural force will also remain to be seen.

That there is a new map emerging is clear. Thank you for your attention.


[note1] ‘Civil religion’; in the Sociology of Religion civil religion is the folk religion of a nation or a political culture.

[note 2] Number of practicing pagans worldwide. If one was to include ALL indigenous people and Hindus, who have in recent years also claimed a pagan heritage, then the numbers would be round about 1.2 billion people, who would consider themselves to follow a pagan, polytheistic, life-style.

Adler, Margot (1979): Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Publisher: Penguin Books; Revised & Expanded edition (2006), ISBN 978-0140195361 

Merriam Webster dictionary; definition of the word pagan; [online] available at [accessed May 10, 2015]

Muntean, Fritz “On ‘Paganus’” University of British Columbia (n.d.) : [online] available at’Paganus’.pdf [accessed May 10, 2015]

Restall Orr, Emma (2008): Living with Honour – a Pagan Ethics. Publisher O-Books. ISBN 978-1-84694-094-1 

York, Michael: Civil Religion Aspects of Neo-Paganism Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 6, No 2 (2004) Full essay Civil Religion Aspects of Neo-paganism by Michael York

Bath Spa University College Association for the Sociology of Religion 2003, Atlanta [online] available at [accessed May 10, 2015]

On Wiccanate/ Wiccanish/ Wiccanesque/Wiccan Privilege

Frew, Don: The Rudiments of Neopagan Spiritual Practice. Posted on Friday, November 15, 2013 at 09:00AM [online] available at [accessed May 10, 2015]

Frew, Don on saving Pagan lives, ‘Wiccan privilege’ and interfaith February 11, 2014 [online] available at [accessed May 10, 2015]

diZerega, Gus: “Looking to the future: Pagan religions in 50 Years” March 11, 2014 [online] available at [accessed May 10, 2015]

See also:

Over Morgana

"Morgana is Anglo/Dutch and lives in the Netherlands. She is a practising Gardnerian HPS. Over the years, she has facilitated a variety of Wiccan groups. She is co-editor of the international and bilingual "Wiccan Rede" magazine, which was launched in 1980 and is coordinator of Silver Circle, a Wiccan network in the Netherlands. As International Coordinator for PFI she travels extensively giving talks and workshops about Wicca and Paganism."
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