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                                    By Eric S. Raymond
          I. Introduction 
                    The neopagan  phenomenon is a loose  collection of religious
          movements, experiments and jokes that offers  a healthy alternative to
          the dogmatism  of the  Judeo/Christian/Islamic mainstream (on  the one
          hand)  and the  mushy-mindedness  of most  'New  Age' groups  (on  the
                    This article,prepared atthe requestof anumber ofcurious net.
          posters, offers a brief description of neopagan thought and  practice.
          A list of good sources for further study are listed at the end. 
          II. What is a neopagan? 
                    I  used the term 'religious'  above, but as  you'll see it's
          actually  more  than somewhat  misleading,  and  I  (like  many  other
          neopagans) use it only because no other word is available for the more
          general kind  of thing  of which  the  neopagan movement  and what  we
          generally think of as 'religion' are special cases. 
                    Neopaganism is 'religious' in  the etymological sense of 're
          ligare', to rebind (to roots, to strengths, to the  basics of things),
          and it deals with mythology and  the realm of the 'spiritual'. But, as
          we  in the Judeo/Christian West have come to understand 'religion' (an
          organized  body of  belief that  connects the  'supernatural'  with an
          authoritarian moral  code via 'faith') neopaganism  is effectively and
          radically anti-religious. I emphasize this because it  is important in
          understanding what follows. 
                    Common characteristics of almostall the groups that describe
          themselves as 'neopagan' (the term is often capitalized) include: 
          1. Anti-dogmatism 
                    Neopagan religions are religions of practice, pragmatism and
          immediate experience. The emphasis is always on what they can help the
          individuals in them to *do* and *experience*; theology and metaphysics
          take a back  seat, and very little 'faith' or  'belief' is required or
          expected. In fact many neopagans  (including yours truly) are actively
          hostile to 'faith' and  all the related ideas of  religious authority,
          'divine revelation' and the like. 
          2. Compatibility with a scientific world-view 
                  This  tends to follow  from the above.  Because neopaganism is
          centered in experiences rather  than beliefs, it doesn't need  or want
          to do vast overarching  cosmologies or push fixed Final Answers to the
          Big Questions -- understanding and helping human beings relate to each
          other and the world as we experience it is quite  enough for us. Thus,
          we are  generally friendly to  science and the  scientific world-view.
          Many of us  are scientists  and technologists ourselves  (in fact,  by
          some counts, a plurality of us are computer programmers!). 

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          3. Reverence for nature, sensuality, and pleasure 
                  Mostneopaganisms makeheavy use ofnature symbolismand encourage
          people  to be more  aware of their  ties to all the  non-human life on
          this  planet.   Explicit  worship  of  'Gaia',   the  earth  ecosphere
          considered as a single  interdependent unit, is common.  Veneration of
          nature  deities is central to many  traditions. Ecological activism is
          often  considered a religious  duty, though there  is much controversy
          over what form it should take. 
                  Bypreference, mostneopagans holdtheir ceremoniesoutdoors under
          sun or moon. Seasonal changes and astronomical rhythms (especially the
          solstices,  equinoxes and  full  and  new  moons)  define  the  ritual
                  Ritual and festivenudity arecommon; to benaked before natureis
          often  considered a  holy  and  integrating  act  in  itself.  Sex  is
          considered  sacramental  and  sexual  energy  and  symbolisms permeate
          neopagan  practice (we  like to  contrast this  with Christianity,  in
          which the  central  sacrament commemorates  a murder  and climaxes  in
          ritual cannibalism). 
          4. Polytheism, pantheism, agnosticism 
                  Most neopaganisms are explicitly polytheistic -- that is, they
          recognize pantheons of  multiple deities. But the reality  behind this
          is more complex than it might appear. 
                  First,  many  neopagans  are philosophical  agnostics  or even
          atheists;  there is  a  tendency  to  regard  'the  gods'  as  Jungian
          archetypes  or otherwise  in some  sense created  by and  dependent on
          human belief, and thus naturally plural and observer-dependent. 
                  Secondly, asin many historicalpolytheisms, there isan implicit
          though seldom-discussed idea that  all the gods and goddesses  we deal
          with  are 'masks', refractions of some underlying unity that we cannot
          or should not attempt to approach directly. 
                  And thirdly, there is a strong undercurrent of pantheism,  the
          belief  that  the  entire  universe  is  in  some  important  sense  a
          responsive, resonating  and sacred whole  (or, which is  different and
          subtler, that it is proper for human beings to view it that way). 

          Many neopagans hold all three of these beliefs simultaneously. 
          5. Decentralized, non-authoritarian organization; no priestly elite 
                  Neopagans have seen what happens when a priesthood elite  gets
          temporal power;  we want  none of  that. We  do not take  collections,
          build  temples, or fund a  full-time clergy. In  fact the clergy-laity
          distinction  is  pretty  soft; in  many  traditions,  all members  are
          considered  'in  training'  for  it,  and  in  all   traditions  every
          participant in  a ritual  is an active  one; there are  and can  be no
          pew-sitting passive observers. 

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                  Mostneopagan traditionsare (dis)organizedashorizontal networks
          of  small  affinity groups  (usually  called  'circles', 'groves',  or
          'covens' depending on  the flavor of  neopagan involved). Priests  and
          priestesses have  no real  authority outside  their  own circles  (and
          sometimes  not  much  inside  them!), though  some  do  have  national
                  Many  of us keep a  low profile partly  due to a  real fear of
          persecution. Too many  of our spiritual  ancestors were burned,  hung,
          flayed and shot  by religions that are still powerful for  a lot of us
          to feel  safe in the  open. Down in  the Bible  Belt the burnings  and
          beatings  are  still  going on,  and  the  media  loves  to hang  that
          'Satanist' label on anything it doesn't understand for a good 
          juicy story. 
                  Also,  we never proselytize. This posting is about as active a
          neopagan solicitation as anyone will ever see; we tend to believe that
          'converts'  are  dangerous  robots  and  that  people  looking  to  be
          'converted' aren't the kind we want. We have found that it works quite
          well enough to let people find us when they're ready for  what we have
          to teach. 
          6. Reverence for the female principle 
                  Oneof the most striking differencesbetween neopagan groups and
          the   religious  mainstream  is  the  wide  prevalence  (and  in  some
          traditions  dominance)  of  the   worship  of  goddesses.  Almost  all
          neopagans revere  some form  of the  Great Mother,  often as  a nature
          goddess  identified with the  ecosphere, and  there are  probably more
          female neopagan clergy than there are male. 
                  Most neopagan traditions are equalist  (these tend to pair the
          Great  Mother with a male  fertility-god, usually some  cognate of the
          Greek Pan).  A vocal and  influential minority are  actively feminist,
          and (especially on the West Coast) there have been attempts to present
          various neopagan traditions  as the natural 'women's religion' for the
          feminist  movement. The  effects  of this  kind  of politicization  of
          neopaganism are a topic of intense debate within the movement and fuel
          some of its deepest factional divisions. 
          7. Respect for art and creativity 
                  Neopaganism tends to attractartists and musicians as muchas it
          attracts  technologists. Our myth and  ritual can be  very powerful at
          stimulating  and  releasing  creativity,   and  one  of  the  greatest
          strengths  of the  movement is  the rich  outgrowth of  music, poetry,
          crafts and arts that has come from that. It is quite common for people
          joining the movement to discover real talents in those areas that they
          never suspected. 
                  Poets and musicians have the kind of special place at neopagan
          festivals  that  they  did  in  pre-literate  cultures;  many  of  our
          best-known  people  are or  have been  bards  and songsmiths,  and the
          ability  to compose and improvise good ritual poetry is considered the
          mark of a gifted priest(ess) and very highly respected. 

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          8. Eclecticism 
                  "Steal from any source that doesn't run too fast" is aneopagan
          motto.  A typical neopagan  group will mix Greek, Celtic  and Egyptian
          mythology with  American Indian  shamanism. Ritual  technique includes
          recognizable  borrowings from  medieval ceremonial  magic, Freemasonry
          and pre-Nicene  Christianity,  as  well  as a  bunch  of  20th-century
          inventions.  Humanistic psychology and some of the more replicable New
          Age healing  techniques have recently been  influential. The resulting
          stew  is lively  and effective,  though sometimes  a bit hard  to hold
          9. A sense of humor 
                  Neopagans generally believethat itis more dangerousto takeyour
          religion too seriously than too lightly. Self-spoofery is frequent and
          (in some  traditions) semi-institutionalized,  and at least  one major
          neopagan  tradition  (Discordianism, known  to  many on  this  net) is
          *founded* on elaborate spoofery and started out as a joke. 
                  Oneof the most attractive features of the neopagan approach is
          that  we don't confuse solemnity with gloom. Our rituals are generally
          celebratory and joyous, and  a humorous remark at the right  time need
          not break the mood. 
                  We generally feel that anyreligion that can't stand tohave fun
          poked at it is in as sad shape as the corresponding kind of person. 
          III. What kinds of neopagan are there, and where did they come from? 
                    Depending onwho you talkto and whatdefinitions you use,there
          are between 40,000  and 200,000 neopagans in the U.S.; the true figure
          is probably closer to the latter than the former, and  the movement is
          still growing rapidly following a major 'population explosion'  in the
          late '70s. 
                    The numericallylargest and most influentialneopagan group is
          the 'Kingdom of Wicca'  -- the modern witch covens.  Modern witchcraft
          has  nothing  to   do  with  Hollywood's   images  of  the   cackling,
          cauldron-stirring crone (though wiccans sometimes joke about that one)
          and  is  actively  opposed  to the  psychopathic  Satanism  that  many
          Christians erroneously think  of as  'witchcraft'. Your  author is  an
          initiate Wiccan priest and coven leader of long standing. 
                    Otherimportant subgroupsinclude thoseseeking torevive Norse,
          Egyptian, Amerind,  and various kinds  of tribal pantheons  other than
          the  Greek and  Celtic ones  that have  been incorporated  into Wicca.
          These  generally started  out  as Wiccan  offshoots  or have  been  so
          heavily influenced  by Wiccan ritual  technique that their  people can
          usually work comfortably in a Wiccan circle and vice-versa. 
                    There arealso the variousorders of ceremonialmagicians, most
          claiming to be  the successors to the turn-of-the-century  Golden Dawn
          or one of  the groups founded by Alesteir Crowley during his brilliant
          and  notorious occult  career.  These have  their  own very  elaborate
          ritual  tradition, and tend to  be more intellectual,  more rigid, and
          less  nature-oriented.   They  are  sometimes  reluctant  to  describe
          themselves as neopagans. 

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                    The Discordians (and, more recently, the Discordian-offshoot
          Church of the  Sub-Genius) are  few in number  but quite  influential.
          They are  the neopagan  movement's sacred clowns,  puncturing pretense
          and adding an  essential note  to the pagan  festivals. Many  Wiccans,
          especially  among priests  and priestesses,  are also  Discordians and
          will  look you  straight  in the  eye  and tell  you  that the  entire
          neopagan movement is a Discordian hoax... 
                    Neopaganism used  to be largely a  white, upper-middle-class
          phenomenon, but that has been changing  during the last five years. So
          called 'new-collar'  workers have come in droves  during the eighties.
          We  still see fewer non-whites, proportionately, than there are in the
          general population,  but that is  also changing (though  more slowly).
          With the  exception of a few nut-fringe 'Aryan' groups detested by the
          whole  rest  of  the  movement, neopagans  are  actively  anti-racist;
          prejudice is  not the problem, it's more that the ideas have tended to
          be accepted by the more educated segments of society 
          first, and  until recently  those more  educated segments  were mostly
                    OntheEastCoast, ahigher-than-general-populationpercentage of
          neopagans  have  Roman Catholic  or  Jewish  backgrounds, but  figures
          suggest this is not true nationwide. There is also  a very significant
          overlap in population with science-fiction fandom and the  Society for
          Creative Anachronism. 
                    Politically, neopagans are distributed about the same as the
          general population,  except that whether liberal  or conservative they
          tend  to be more individualist and less conformist and moralistic than
          average. It is therefore  not too surprising that the  one significant
          difference  in  distribution  is the  presence  of  a  good many  more
          libertarians than one  would see in a same-sized chunk  of the general
          population  (I particularly  register this  because I'm  a libertarian
          myself, but  non-libertarians have  noted the same  phenomenon). These
          complexities are obscured by the fact that the most politically active
          and  visible neopagans  are usually  ex-hippie left-liberals  from the
                    I think the most acute generalization made about pagans as a
          whole  is  Margot Adler's  observation that they  are mostly self-made
          people,  supreme individualists  not necessarily  in the  assertive or
          egoist sense but  because they have felt  the need to  construct their
          own  culture, their own definitions, their own religious paths, out of
          whatever  came to  hand  rather  than  accepting  the  ones  that  the
          mainstream offers. 
          IV. Where do I find out more? 
                    I have deliberatelynot said much aboutmythology, or specific
          religious practice or aims, or the role of magic and to what extent we
          practice and  'believe' in it. Any one of those is a topic for another
          posting;  but you can  get a lot  of information from  books. Here's a
          basic bibliography: 

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          Adler, Margot _Drawing_Down_the_Moon_ (Random House 1979, hc) 
              This book  is a lucid and  penetrating account of who  the modern 
          neo-pagans are,  what they do  and why they do  it, from a  woman who 
          spent almost two  years doing observer-participant journalism  in the 
          neo-pagan  community.  Especially valuable  because  it  combines an  
          anthropologist's objectivity  with a candid  personal account of  her 
          own  feelings about all she  saw and did and how  her ideas about the 
          neo-pagans  changed  under the  impact of  the  experiences she  went 
          through. Recommended  strongly as  a first book  on the subject,  and 
          it's relatively  easy to  find. There  is now  a revised  and expanded
          second edition available. 
          Starhawk _The_Spiral_Dance_ 
              An anthology  of  philosophy, poetry,  training exercises,  ritual
          outlines and  instructive anecdotes  from a successful  working coven.
          First-rate as an introduction  to the practical aspects of  magick and
          running a functioning circle. Often findable at feminist bookstores. 
          Shea, Robert and Wilson, Robert Anton _Illuminatus!_ (Dell, 1975, pb)
            This work of alleged fiction is an incredible berserko-surrealist  
          rollercoaster  that _will_  bend  your mind  into  a pretzel  with  an
          acid-head blitzkrieg  of plausible, instructive  and enlightening lies
          and  a few preposterous and obscure truths. Amidst this eccentric tale
          of  world-girdling  conspiracies, intelligent  dolphins,  the fall  of
          Atlantis, who  _really_ killed JFK,  sex, drugs, rock and roll and the
          Cosmic Giggle Factor, you  will find Serious Truths about  Mind, Time,
          Space,  the Nature   of God(dess)  and What It  All Means --  and also
          learn why  you  should  on    no  account  take  them  Seriously.  Pay
          particular attention to Appendix Lamedh ("The Tactics of Magick"), but
          it won't  make sense  until  you've read  the rest.    This was  first
          published   in   3    volumes   as   _The_Eye_In_The_Pyramid_,   _The_
          Golden_Apple_ and _Leviathan_, but there's now a one-volume trade 
          paperback carried by most chain bookstores under SF. 
          Campbell, Joseph W., _The_Masks_of_God_ (Viking Books, 1971, pb) 
              One of the definitiveanalytical surveys of world mythography-- and
          readable to boot! It's in 4 volumes: 
          I. _Primitive_Mythology_ 
          II. _Oriental_Mythology_ 
          III. _Occidental_Mythology_ 
          IV. _Creative_Mythology_ 
          The theoretical framework of these books is a form of pragmatic 
          neo-Jungianism which  has enormously influenced the  neopagans (we can
          accurately  be described as the  practice for which  Campbell and Jung
          were theorizing). Note especially his predictions in vols. I & IV of a
          revival of shamanic, vision-quest-based religious forms. The recent  
          Penguin pb edition  of this book should be available  in the Mythology
          and  Folklore selection of any large bookstore. 

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          Bonewits, Isaac, _Real_Magic_ (Creative Arts Books, 1979, pb) 
            A fascinating analytical study of the psychodynamics of ritual and  
          magick. This was Bonewits's Ph.D. thesis for the world's only known  
          doctorate in Magic  and Thaumaturgy (UCLA Berkeley,  1971). Hardest of
          the  five  to  find  but  well  worth  the  effort  --  an  enormously
          instructive, trenchant and funny book. 
          V. Will there be more on this topic? 
                I am  also available to answer  questions by email or  phone. Be
          warned  that I will probably tell  you to go off  and study some more,
          rather than referring you to a group, if you haven't read at least two
          out of the  five above or else good  equivalents like Michael Harner's
          _Way_Of_The_Shaman_   (Castaneda,  UFOlogy   books  and   anything  on
          astrology or the Great Pyramid will *not* count! Grrr...!). 
                No  fooling, learning to  do this stuff  right is  hard work and
          demands a lot more rigor and clear thinking than most people associate
          with  'occultism'. But it's also fun and empowering and could turn out
          to be one of the couple most important things you do with your life. 
                If response to this posting  is heavy, I may post some  stuff on
          Wiccan ritual practice and theology, that being what I know best. 

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