Perhaps the greatest unifying feature of Pagan beliefs about the structure of the universe is immanence, the belief that divinity is embodied in the world. Pagans believe that the sacred is inherent in the natural world, meaning that divinity dwells within the physical universe.... The sacred is not understood as the opposite of the profane in Paganism. To a large degree in Pagan worldviews, nothing is profane, and everything is sacred. "Ordinary" and "extraordinary" are better terms for speaking of the way Pagans understand sacrality and the manifestation of divinity than "profane" and "supernatural".The same thought was put more poetically by George Russell in his poem "Dust" (1913), where he addresses Mother Earth:
Mother, thy rudest sod to me
Is thrilled with fire of hidden day,
And haunted by all mystery.
The history of an idea
The idea of a "natural" religion - one which exists in harmony with and is known through the real world rather than the Church or the Bible - goes back to the 18th century Enlightenment. It was initially used to promote a rather dry intellectual Deism in opposition to traditional Christianity. Only with the coming of the Romantic movement and the first generation of Neopagans was the idea fashioned into a characteristically Pagan form, affirming the immanent divinity of the natural world and the importance of human sensual experience.
Friedrich Schiller's Die Götter Griechenlands (The Gods of Greece), first published in 1788, was arguably the founding text of the Pagan movement. It bears witness to a sense of the immanent divinity of nature and an ethic of sensual joy which continue to characterise the Pagan movement:
Da ihr noch die schöne Welt regiertet,
an der Freude leichtem Gängelband
glücklichere Menschenalter führtet,
schöne Wesen aus dem Fabelland!
Ach! da euer Wonnedienst noch glänzte,
wie ganz anders, anders war es da!
Da man deine Tempel noch bekränzte,
Wo jezt nur, wie unsre Weisen sagen,
seelenlos ein Feuerball sich dreht,
lenkte damals seinen goldnen Wagen
Helios in stiller Majestät....
Unbewußt der Freuden, die sie schenket,
nie entzückt von ihrer Trefflichkeit,
nie gewahr des Armes, der sie lenket,
reicher nie durch meine Dankbarkeit,
fühllos selbst für ihres Künstlers Ehre,
gleich dem todten Schlag der Pendeluhr,
dient sie knechtisch dem Gesetz der Schwere
die entgötterte Natur!
Then you still ruled over the lovely world,
you guided a happier age of men
with the light leash of joy,
O beautiful beings from the land of legend!
Ah! Then your worship of delight was still resplendent -
how different, how different it was then!
Then men still garlanded your temple,
Where now, as our scholars tell us,
a soulless ball of fire revolves,
then Helios in silent majesty
drove his golden chariot....
Unconscious of the joys which she bestows,
never charmed by her wonders,
never aware of the arm that guides her,
never richer for my gratitude,
not knowing the honour done her by her artist,
like the dead beat of the pendulum,
Nature slavishly obeys the law of gravity,
deprived of her divinity!
Schiller's poem highlights another important feature of Pagan spirituality - it developed not only in opposition to Christianity, which was perceived as ascetic and oppressive, but also in opposition to modern science and technology. In a world which was looking increasingly ugly, mechanistic and dull, the early Neopagans looked back to the ancient world as an era of imminent divinity and enchantment - a time, in the words of Keats in his Ode to Psyche,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire....
For the 19th century Neopagans, the natural world was linked to two deities in particular: the Mother Goddess, who was associated with the earth and the moon; and Pan, a Greek god who was associated with wild nature.
For some writers, a Pagan revival was a real prospect. Already in 1818, Leigh Hunt could foretell in a letter to Thomas Jefferson Hogg that the peasants of his native England "will leave off starving, and singing profane hymns, and fall to dancing again". In 1889, Edward Carpenter wrote in Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure:
[W]hen the Civilisation-period has passed away, the old Nature-religion — perhaps greatly grown — will come back.... Man will once more feel his unity with his fellows, he will feel his unity with the animals, with the mountains and the streams, with the earth itself and the slow lapse of the constellations, not as an abstract dogma of Science or Theology, but as a living and ever-present fact....
The meaning of the old religions will come back to [man]. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon which now after a hundred centuries comes back laden with such wondrous associations — all the yearnings and the dreams and the wonderment of the generations of mankind — the worship of Astarte and of Diana, of Isis or the Virgin Mary; once more in sacred groves will he reunite the passion and the delight of human love with his deepest feelings of the sanctity and beauty of Nature; or in the open, standing uncovered to the Sun, will adore the emblem of the everlasting splendour which shines within. The same sense of vital perfection and exaltation which can be traced in the early and pre-civilisation peoples — only a thousand times intensified, defined, illustrated and purified — will return to irradiate the redeemed and delivered Man.As Carpenter's work indicates, for some writers with Pagan sympathies modern civilisation was an essentially retrograde step. The well-known children's author Kenneth Grahame wrote in his Pagan Papers:
Yes: to-day the iron horse has searched the country through - east and west, north and south - bringing with it Commercialism, whose god is Jerry, and who studs the hills with stucco and garrotes the streams with the girder. Bringing, too, into every nook and corner fashion and chatter, the tailor-made gown and the eyeglass. Happily a great part is still spared - how great these others fortunately do not know - in which the rural Pan and his following may hide their heads for yet a little longer, until the growing tyranny has invaded the last common, spinney, and sheep-down, and driven the kindly god, the well-wisher to man - whither?He took up the same the theme in a chapter inspired by the legendary Greek hunter Orion:
Yet should his game be up, you would think by now. Many a century has passed since the plough first sped a conqueror east and west, clearing forest and draining fen; policing the valleys with barbed-wires and Sunday schools, with the chains that are forged of peace, the irking fetters of plenty: driving also the whole lot of us, these to sweat at its tail, those to plod with the patient team, but all to march in a great chain-gang, the convicts of peace and order and law: while the happy nomad, with his woodlands, his wild cattle, his pleasing nuptialities, has long since disappeared, dropping only in his flight some store of flint-heads, a legacy of confusion.... Where, then, does he hide, the Shaker of the Spear? Why, here, my brother, and here; deep in the breasts of each and all of us!
Paganism as a nature religion
Michael York writes in Pagan Theology that "[t]he earth and nature constitute the seminal and unifying sacred text" of the world's pagan religions. This statement, while somewhat broad, is as true of Neopaganism as it is of traditional ancient and indigenous pagan religions. For many both inside and outside the Pagan community, the defining feature of Paganism is that it is essentially a nature religion. This is reflected in the first of the Three Principles of the Pagan Federation:
Love for and Kinship with Nature. Reverence for the life force and its ever-renewing cycles of life and death.Likewise, the second of the 13 Principles of Wiccan Belief of the American Council of Witches (1974) was this:
We recognize that our intelligence gives us a unique responsibility toward our environment. We seek to live in harmony with Nature, in ecological balance offering fulfillment to life and consciousness within an evolutionary concept.Rather earlier, C.R.F.Seymour, a British soldier and esotericist, wrote in "The Old Gods" (1936-7):
The modern pagan... is a lover of open air, one who worships God made manifest in nature.... He sees God most clearly in the countryside and finds Him in the open spaces.For many Pagans, particularly Wiccans, the ideas of reverence for and kinship with nature are entwined with the annual ritual cycle known as the Wheel of the Year. The eight progressive seasonal festivals of the Wheel are seen as enabling the Pagan to attune herself with the natural rhythms of the earth.
Finding joy in the sensual
Paganism is not an ascetic religion. It not only permits, but actively encourages, taking pleasure in sensual experiences, including sex. In the Charge of the Goddess, the Goddess tells us that "all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals", and that "ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music, and love, all in my praise".
In Pagan writings, one encounters again and again mention of dancing, music, wine and sexuality. This is apparent, for example, in the quote from Leigh Hunt cited above, and also in Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn, with its mentions of music and love, its "pipes and timbrels", and its "wild ecstasy". Leigh Hunt also observed in his autobiography that
among the strange compliments which superstition pays to the Creator is a scorn and contempt for the fleshly investiture which he has bestowed on us, at least among Christians; for the Pagans were far more pious in this respect....Similar sentiments are found in another 19th century poet with Pagan sympathies, George Meredith. Meredith wrote in his Ode to the Spirit of the Earth in Autumn, a work which is notable for its celebration of "Mother Nature":
The Golden Harp is struck once more,
And all its music is for me!
Pour, let the wines of Heaven pour!
And, ho, for a night of Pagan glee!....
O, green bounteous Earth!
Bacchante Mother! stern to those
Who live not in thy heart of mirth;
At the end of the century, C.G.Leland's Aradia included the following passage:
Se questa grazia, o Diana, mi farai,
la cena in tua lode in molti la faremo,
se questa grazia che ti ho chiesta,
se questa grazia tu mi farai,
nel tempo che balliamo,
il lume spengnerai,
cosi al l'amore
liberamente la faremo!
If you grant me this favour, O Diana,
we will hold the feast in honour of you,
we will eat and drink,
and leap and dance;
if you grant me this favour,
this favour which I have asked of you,
when we are dancing,
the lights will be extinguished,
and so we will make
Aradia was a major influence on the Charge of the Goddess, which was formulated by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente. Another poem by Valiente, "The Witches' Creed", published in Witchcraft for Tomorrow (1978), contains the lines:
So drink the good wine to the old Gods,
And dance and make love in their praise....
No mention of Pagan ethics would be complete without reference to the Wiccan rede: "An it harm none, do what ye will". The immediate source of this dictum seems to be a mixture of Aleister Crowley and the French writer Pierre Louÿs. Its philosophical basis corresponds with that of classical liberalism, notably the "harm principle" of J.S.Mill as set out in his essay On Liberty (1859).
A new religious tradition
The Neopagan revival looked back to classical antiquity, and Greece in particular, for inspiration, but in many ways it constituted a new religious tradition rather than the revival of an older one.
The notion of paganism as something wild and natural, a joyful, counter-cultural alternative to narrow-minded Christianity and over-intellectualised science, is of questionable validity when tested against the historical practices of the Hellenic world. Ancient Greek religion was inherently civic, conservative, communal, and reminiscent of religions in other premodern agricultural societies. It was centred around maintaining a beneficial relationship with the gods through rituals of sacrifice (in particular, offerings of animals and wine). It was not morally or sexually radical; it regarded the working of magic with some suspicion; and it gave no particular encouragement to personal spiritual exploration.
In the ancient Greek world, the closest parallels to Neopaganism were found in a set of practices relating to private religious societies, mystery cults and "initiations" administered by wandering practitioners. These practices were linked with figures such as Dionysos and Orpheus, and they were connected with the promise of blessedness in the afterlife. Not all of these practices were necessarily "unorthodox" from the point of view of mainstream religion - the Eleusinian mysteries, for example, were utterly respectable - but they were certainly not central to it.
This disjunction is recognised and accepted by many modern Pagans. Indeed, it had already been noticed over a century ago by the Christian writer G.K.Chesterton, who deployed it for polemical purposes:
The New Paganism is no longer new, and it never at any time bore the smallest resemblance to Paganism.... The pagans, according to this notion, were continually crowning themselves with flowers and dancing about in an irresponsible state, whereas, if there were two things that the best pagan civilization did honestly believe in, they were a rather too rigid dignity and a much too rigid responsibility. Pagans are depicted as above all things inebriate and lawless, whereas they were above all things reasonable and respectable.More acidly, the Anglican scholar Eliot Rose wrote in A Razor for a Goat: "Gods with Persian names and Greek bodies would prove, on examination, to have thoroughly Bloomsbury minds".
In some cases, Pagans freely accept that their religion is something significantly different from historical pagan religions and regard the "Neo-" element in Neopaganism as a legitimate development. In other cases, "Reconstructionist" Pagans actively seek to take a more conservative path and to align themselves more exactly with ancient practices. This "Neopagan v Reconstructionist" distinction has generated some discussion in the Pagan community (see e.g. here, here and here), though the two positions are perhaps better seen as points on a continuum than as opposite extremes.