Non-paganism offers something old and new
In a quiet place on the northwestern edge of the United States, a group of enthusiasts gather around a bonfire to celebrate the summer solstice. They begin by lighting a candle dedicated to Bráid, a holy figure from early Ireland whose shadowy tradition is linked to poetry, healing and the skills of the blacksmith. The clothing at this late session is unusual. Most people sport jeans and T-shirts.
One member of the group of 25 carries the flame around the circle while shaking water from a well. Then, seated among pictures of pre-Christian deities, the attendees practice a ritual, using a script that runs to six pages. People familiar with the modern mythology of CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien may recognize the style, though it hardly qualifies as high culture.
HERALD: By the power of stars and stones,
By the power of the land within and without,
With all that is fair and free,
We welcome you to this ceremony of Alban Hefin,
In the Chola Circle seed group
EAST: We have come from the East
THE NORTH: and the West
NORTH: and North
RIGHT: and South to be here together today
The participants practice neo-Druidry, a form of theology that tries to recreate the sacred world of the Celts that existed before the arrival of the Romans and, later, the Christian missionaries to the Islands British. Although Ireland and Wales are thousands of miles away, the devotees draw heavily on the folklore and language of the Celtic lands, ancient and not so ancient. The word used for the summer solstice, Alban Hefin, was dreamed up by a Welsh antiquary in the 18th century.
It is not clear to what extent the rituals and simple chants that this group sincerely used resemble anything from the past. But various forms of paganism seem to offer an attractive modern path to the transcendent. According to Ronald Hutton, professor of history at the University of Bristol and an authority on modern pagan religions, there are apparently more than 100,000 Britons practicing non-paganism, and perhaps five times as many Americans.
As Professor Hutton uses the term, neo-paganism refers to forms of worship that regard nature as sacred, that recognize female deities and contacts, that avoiding the idea of divine commandments, and which aims to recreate the pre-Christian religions of Europe and the religions. Middle East. Two of the subgroups within this general heading are the neo-Druids and the Wiccan movement, which follows a revival in witchcraft started by Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), writer and British archaeologist.
It is difficult to tell if non-paganism is growing in size, given the loose structure of the movement and the fact that some Wiccans keep their relationship secret. But in recent decades pagan religions have received recognition from all branches of authority, especially in the English-speaking world.
In the United States, non-pagans can look back on a series of hard successes. In 1985 a district court in Virginia declared that Wicca was clearly a religion for the purposes of the First Amendment of the American constitution, which guarantees the free exercise of religion. In 1997 Fort Hood in Texas became the first US military base to allow the practice of Wicca, and several others have followed suit. And in 2007, as a result of a court settlement, the American government allowed the pentacle, a Wiccan symbol, to decorate military graves (see photo).
In somewhat different ways, non-paganism is recognized in Britain. The country’s prison service recently advertised for a chaplain who would be expected to “provide for the religious care of prisoners and staff in a pagan religious tradition.” An employment tribunal has stated that bosses must respect the spiritual needs of any Wiccan employees, which could include time off at Halloween. The University of Edinburgh is one of several campuses with chaplains who cater to the needs of pagan students.
Professor Hutton argues that modern Druid and Wiccan practices are legitimate forms of pagan religion even though they are based on a self-conscious revival (in the 18th and 20th centuries respectively) that was not rooted in the special knowledge of earlier customs and beliefs. As the professor and other experts admit, it is impossible to be sure what kind of people the Celtic Druids really were. Modern understanding is largely based on the biased opinions of Roman historians or Irish and Welsh historians writing centuries after the subject had become extinct.
Animal sacrifice is one aspect of the ancient practice of the Druids that is no longer acceptable. That does not mean that today’s Druids practice their faith falsely, Professor Hutton insists; it’s just that human needs have moved on.