A Brief History of Paganism in America
Author’s note: This essay was originally a submission to my American History class at Southern New Hampshire University. I felt that I should share it with the Pagan Community at large since it was apparently well received by my professor, who had no previous background or knowledge in Paganism. It is written in APA style, so the notations in the reference section are correct. The reference to Witchvox will probably give you a chuckle. – Deb J.
There is a religion in America today that has been slowly growing since the late 1960’s and has been gaining in popularity and acceptance throughout the years. Neo-Paganism, which includes such diverse branches as Wicca, Druidism, Asatru (a worship of Norse deities) , and many other reconstructionist and revivalist groups often based on the deeply researched practices of the ancients. Far from being the Hollywood vision of witches and witchdoctors, the “worldview of witchcraft is, above all, one that values life” (Starhawk 1979, p 32) , and is tied closer to the natural world than many world religions, save for other nature-oriented sects such as Buddhism and Shinto.
The roots of the modern Pagan movement in America can be traced back to the early 1950’s in England where a man by the name of Gerald B. Gardner first made public his beliefs in an older Goddess based religion called Wica (also known as Wicca, the Craft of the Wise, or simply, the Craft) that had persisted from ancient times. Aidan Kelley, founder of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn states that “it really makes no difference whether or not Gardner was initiated into an older coven. He invented a new religion, a ‘living system’ and modern covens have adopted a lot of it because it fulfills a need” (Adler 1979, p 80) . Gardner himself claimed that a lot of what he taught came directly from an ancient coven, and that he was initiated by an old neighbor woman by the name of Dorothy Clutterbuck. The veracity of this claim has never been firmly established, and although birth and death records for “Old Dorothy” have been uncovered, how much involvement she had in Gardner’s vision still remains a topic of hot debate.
It is the view of many Neo-Pagans including Kelley that Gardner has never properly “been given credit for creative genius. He had a vision of a reformed Craft. He pulled together pieces from magic and folklore; he assimilated the ‘matriarchal theology set forth in (Robert) Graves, (Charles) Leland, and Apuleius. With these elements, he created a system that grew” (Adler 1979, p 83) .
Whatever the true background of the first English branch of Wicca, by the early 1970’s “all of the main English branches of Pagan Witchcraft had arrived in the United States: and “the books of (Margaret) Murray, Graves, and Gardner found a wide readership” (Hutton 1999, p 341) . There is some evidence that there were indigenous branches of American Paganism on record as early as 1938 when “the very first self-conscious modern Pagan religion, the Church of Aphrodite, ” was ”established in Long Island”, (Hutton 1999, p 340) , however, none of these had the staying power of the English branches. By 1975, Paganism was becoming firmly entrenched on our soil.
The next phase of the assimilation of English Pagan beliefs was a large turning point for the blossoming American Pagans. The radical feminist movement, which was developing during the mid seventies, came into contact with these very Goddess-oriented, female affirming worshipers, and there was a great merging of beliefs. By the mid 1970’s the “view of witchcraft expressed being ‘female, untamed, angry, joyous, and immortal’ “ and this “became embedded firmly in American Radical Feminism” (Hutton 1999, p 341) . The problem was that the feminist view overtook the religious aspects and by the late seventies, witchcraft had decayed into a feminist-rallying cry, centered around the so-called Burning Times when men dehumanized women and supposedly burned them at the stake because they interfered with the newly created practice of the doctor.
Midwives and herbalists were claimed to be some of the targets of this attack, so naturally, feminists flocked to this banner of outrage, seeing it as proof of continued patriarchal persecution.
Not all of the Pagan feminists lost sight of the religious aspects, however. In 1971, a young woman by the name of Zsuzanna Budapest formed the Susan B Anthony coven in Hollywood, CA, and went on to become one of the most respected feminist Pagan writers of the period. While she was staunchly feminist, she also was very much a follower of Wiccan beliefs, and was one of the most influential writers those who were to follow in her footsteps. In 1980, she wrote The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries which went on to become an instant classic, and is one of the standards by which modern Pagans judge all other books in the genre.
Another feminist writer gained fame when she published her first book, The Spiral Dance, on Hallowe’en in 1979. The woman’s penname was Starhawk, and her book gained much praise, not so much for its religious material that was extensive, but also for its poetic prose. Starhawk was a Witch who had been “trained by Gardnerians, and then initiated into one of the homegrown American strains of Pagan Witchcraft which had also absorbed some material from Wicca, the Faery (or Feri) , taught by Victor Anderson” (Hutton 1999, p 345).
Starhawk described her vision of the Craft as “a joyous, life-affirming, tolerant path; a religion of poetry not theology, which yet demanded responsibility” (Hutton 1999, p 346). Starhawk is one of the most often quoted Pagan writers, and The Spiral Dance is considered to be one of the top five selling pagan books of all time. Starhawk’s vision of Wicca floats through the words on every page, and the words are lyric and insightful. The Spiral Dance does not so much instruct readers on how to follow Paganism, but more leads by telling stories and giving examples of what the Pagan life is like through the eyes of a Pagan. Starhawk’s following books, Dreaming the Dark and Truth or Dare delve more deeply into the history of religious movements and examine the dualism present in most religions. Although somewhat darker than The Spiral Dance in tenor, the books never the less contain important ideas that have helped to develop Paganism into the new millennium.
The 1980’s were a time of great change for the Pagan movement in terms of the spread of information and the pursuit of general acceptance. The word was out, either on the newly created Internet or in the increasing number of books available. By the end of the 1980’s there were thousands of established Pagan groups across the country, and festivals were being celebrated on the eight major holidays in the open. While there was still a lot of prejudice, especially in the Midwestern Bible-belt, in the North-East and West coast, there were more and more publicly announced rituals and events that were open to the public. New England’s own Earthspirit community was among the first to hold an annual Beltaine or Mayday event at Sheepfold Meadow in Medford, MA. Complete with Maypole, donated foods by participants, and drumming and dancing, these yearly events were no longer hidden and performed in seclusion, but were held out in the open for all to see.
Other events followed, becoming more widespread and more diverse. By the early nineties, what had once been a small celebration between invited guests in Salem, MA on Hallowe’en or Samhain had become a giant affair involving most of the local merchants and Pagan groups. Huge psychic fairs were held at the Olde Town Hall, and lines went out the door for attendees of such events.
Elsewhere in the country, other similar events were being held, and a website devoted to the progress of the Pagan community as a whole in the U.S. was formed. The Witches Voice or Witchvox as it was commonly known, was a place to meet local pagans, promote events, post informational articles, and advertise skills such as clergy and tarot readers. Most groups interested in promoting their events would post their information online for everyone to see, and from there, hold their events. As of the time of this writing, the Witches Voice community listings are still the most popular way of getting information on upcoming Pagan events.
The amount of Pagan oriented books skyrocketed in the 1990’s. With the publication of books by SilverRavenWolf, Amber K, Edain MacCoy and countless others, the amount of information available at any local bookstore or online bookseller was staggering. Whether it was information on various Pagan holidays like Llewellyn’s Wheel of the Year by the Campanelli’s or on legal issues, like Dana Eiler’s Pagans and the Law, there was a reference out there for anything you could want.
That did not mean that the information was always solid, and there was a lot of repetitiveness, especially since the publishers at Llewellyn knew a good thing when they saw it, but by the mid-nineties, there was no longer a question of whether the Pagan movement would be dying out any time soon. Neo-Paganism was here to stay.
A testament to how deeply entrenched the alternative culture had penetrated the minds of America came from an unlikely source. On November 27, 1995, “an episode of the cult science fiction show, The X-files neatly had its ideological cake and ate it too…” While dealing with a cult-oriented murder case, “the heroine (Agent Scully) burst out that ‘Wiccans love all living things’ – and that settled the matter. Suddenly, the story was in the 1990’s” (Hutton 1999, p 386).
The X-files was not the first television show to portray pro-pagan sentiment. The most stunning “display of motifs taken ultimately from Wicca in the 1980’s and 1990’s” was the hit show broadcast first in the UK and then over here in America. Hosted by Showtime, the show “Robin of Sherwood” produced by HTV was a hit both in America and across the pond. With its stunning scenery and costuming, Robin of Sherwood starred both Michael Praed and, later, Jason Connery, as the title character. The show “portrayed Robin Hood as a pagan guided by the antlered god of the greenwood – here called Herne” (Hutton 1999, p 388) . This show would influence an entire generation of Neo-Pagans, and flavor their view of magic and mystery for years to come.
Now, in the new century, Paganism is alive and well. Annual Pagan Pride events that take place across the country serve as educational tools for both Pagans and non-Pagans alike. Books and movies continue to act as influential means of education, and Paganism continues to grow. As a positive, life-affirming religion, it has its heart in the right place, and as long as it remains so, with its goals intact, it will continue to prosper and spread its message of peace for many years to come.
Adler, M. (1979) . Drawing down the moon. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hutton, R. (1999) . The triumph of the moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Simos, M. (Starhawk) , (1979) . The spiral dance; a rebirth of the ancient religion of the great goddess. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.