When Christianity switched from a persecuted fringe sect to the state religion of the Roman Empire in 415 CE, those in the new monotheistic mainstream came up with an insult for the polytheistic "hicks" who still worshipped the pantheon of Roman gods. They called them "pagans" from the Latin wordpaganus for "country dweller."
While most of the rites and practices of Pagan belief systems died out centuries ago, some modern spiritual seekers have recovered those ancient wisdom traditions and now proudly identify as Pagan. By some measures, Modern Paganism is one of America's fastest-growing religions with an estimated 1 million followers of various Pagan sects in the United States. According to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study, 0.3 percent of Americans identify as "Pagan or Wicca," which is the same number who identify as Unitarian. In 2008, there were just 340,000 Pagans in the U.S.
Modern Paganism (also called Neopaganism, Contemporary Paganism or just Paganism) is a revival movement that encompasses a wide and rich variety of polytheistic religious traditions: Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman practices, as well as Wicca (modern witchcraft), Ásatrú (the worship of Norse gods, goddesses and land spirits) and Druidism (an Indo-European priesthood).
With such a diversity of religious traditions and rituals, Modern Paganism defies easy definition. The religious scholar Michael Strmiska described Modern Paganism as a collection of religious movements "dedicated to reviving the polytheistic, nature-worshipping pagan religions of pre-Christian Europe and adapting them for the use of people in modern societies."
What Modern Pagans are definitely not is "historical reenactors," says Jefferson Calico, a religion professor at the University of the Cumberlands, Kentucky, and author of "Being Viking: Heathenism in Contemporary America."
"Contemporary Pagans feel a strong connection to the past and look to those pre-Christian practices and cultures and spirituality as inspiration for what they're trying to recover, find again or create anew," says Calico. "They look at pre-Christian traditions of the past as repositories of ancient sacred wisdom and lifestyles that connected us to the cosmos and to each other in ways that are holy and sacred."
Pagan Practice and Rituals
Unlike Judeo-Christian traditions that center around biblical authority, clergy and codified belief systems, Modern Paganism is all about the rituals. The religious scholar Sabina Magliocco wrote that the role of ritual in Modern Paganism is to achieve communion with nature, with the deities, with the community and with the inner self. She describes Modern Pagan rituals as "forms of communally created artistic expression" that often include drumming, dance, ceremonial fires, incense, and representations of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water).
Although every Modern Pagan religion has its own set of rituals, there are some common themes. There are rituals marking the seasons, and the cycles of the moon and sun (solstices and equinoxes). There are rituals honoring specific gods or goddesses, and nature spirits. There are rituals celebrating birth, death, marriage and rites of passage. And there are rituals that call on divine powers to heal, strengthen and comfort individuals and entire communities.
Most rituals have a three-part structure, according to Magliocco:
- Setting the stage: This may mean symbolically cleansing the sacred area or drawing a circle around it.
- Performing the ritual: Communing with the gods through dance, music, guided meditation, etc. within the sacred space.
- Returning to reality: Thanking and dismissing the spirits/gods and perhaps sharing food and drink with the other participants.
In Ásatrú, also known as Heathenism or Heathenry, one of the most common rituals involves the ceremonial drinking of mead or "honey wine," one of the oldest alcoholic beverages known to man. In the ritual known as Blót (Old Norse for "sacrifice"), members of the "kindred" (community) pass around a horn filled with mead that's sacrificed to the gods accompanied by prayers to deities like Odin, Thor and Freya. A Blót can be held anytime, preferably outdoors, but two of the most important Blóts are held on the summer solstice (MidsummerBlót) and winter solstice (YuleBlót).
While not as common, Magliocco mentions an Ancient Egyptian ritual called Navigium Isidis practiced by the Fellowship of Isis in Los Angeles. Ancient Egyptians honored the fertility goddess Isis every March when the Nile would flood its banks and bring life to the valley. Instead of launching boats into the Nile, the members of the Fellowship of Isis make small boats out of ice (non-polluting) and release them into the Pacific Ocean carrying their wishes and prayers to the goddess.
You won't find Modern Pagan "churches" in the sense of a building dedicated to worship. For starters, Calico says, adherents prefer to worship outside where there's a direct connection with the natural world. But there's also the issue of money. Modern Pagans generally avoid asking for tithes, donations or dues that would go toward the building of a permanent church or temple.
The only problem with outdoor worship is that Pagans often have to deal with the public, whose reactions can range from curiosity to outright harassment.
"I've been to outdoor events where people have yelled rude things at Pagans who are practicing their religion," says Calico.
Wicca and Women's Empowerment
Wicca is one of the largest and oldest religious movements in Modern Paganism. This contemporary revival of witchcraft was first popularized in the United Kingdom in the 1950s with the writings of Gerald Gardner and later caught on in America, especially within the women's empowerment movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
"In the 1970s, women were turning to Wicca and witchcraft in part because mainstream religion didn't have a place for them in terms of leadership," says Calico.
Margot Adler, an NPR journalist and Wiccan high priestess who wrote the landmark 1979 book, " Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today," said that she was drawn to Wicca and Modern Paganism because the invocation of goddesses appealed to her feminism and the connection to the environment resonated with her love of nature, according to The New York Times. The Wiccan author and environmentalist Starhawk has also written popular books on finding inner power through Goddess worship.
In traditional Wicca practice, initiates join a coven and are introduced to rituals that prepare them to become priestesses or priests. Like many other Modern Pagan religions, there's a magical element to Wicca. Like prayer in other religions, Modern Pagans believe that when a ritual is performed with real intent, it can change human consciousness and even reality itself. Wiccans can learn magic (or magick) as part of a coven, or through individual study and practice using books and online resources.
The popularity of modern Wicca and witchcraft has also spread beyond its Anglo roots. Brujería, which is Spanish for witchcraft, dates back to pre-Hispanic rituals used in ancient Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. Modern "Brujas" ("witches") in Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean communities have revived traditions like West-African Yoruba and Afro-Cuban Santería that were stigmatized by the Christian Church for centuries.
The Rise of Heathenry
In 1972, an Icelandic man named Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson and some friends decided to revive the public worship of the Norse gods, tapping into texts and communal rites known as the "Old Way." That movement, now called Ásatrú or Heathenry, has spread around the globe. Other Old Norse religious revivals followed including Theodism, Urglaawe, Irminism, Odinism and Vanatru.
In writing his book on Ásatrú in America, Calico visited with kindred across the United States, where he estimates there are between 15,000 and 20,000 self-identified Heathens. Ásatrú emphasizes communal rituals like the Blót and group study of the "Lore," a library of Icelandic mythic stories and epics originally written in Old Norse and now widely available in translation. One of the primary texts is Hávamál, a poem of traditional wisdom attributed to Odin that's a powerful expression of Old Norse religious philosophy.
As in other Modern Pagan religious movements, Heathens display a wide variety of beliefs. Some take a humanistic approach in which the Norse gods and goddesses provide useful metaphors or archetypes for making sense of the world. Others are strict reconstructionists that view the gods as distinct beings that can be worshipped individually or collectively.
Unfortunately, there's a splinter movement within Ásatrú and Heathenism that's been co-opted by white nationalists who claim that Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon religions are solely the right of Northern Europeans, aka "white people." Organizations like the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, which claim that Asatru is tailored to the "unique makeup" of whites, have been labeled "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In response, inclusive Ásatrú organizations like The Troth have taken a stand for diversity and anti-racism within the religion.
The first Ásatrú temple in 1,000 years is currently being constructed in Reykjavík, Iceland. The large wooden space is being built on a rock outcropping traditionally connected to the powers of Odin and will host Blóts, weddings and communal feasts.
HowStuffWorks earns a small affiliate commission when you purchase through links on our site.