Friday, February 8, 2013

The Rise of Pagan Fundamentalism

Within days of the 9th Conference on Current Pagan Studies ending, an internet firestorm flared up over Professor Sabina Magliocco’s presentation “The Rise of Pagan Fundamentalism” in comments to a guest post on the Wild Hunt from Professor Patrick Wolff, “Pagans Studied: The 2013 Conference on Current Pagan Studies,” which summarized both keynote presentations, of which Sabina’s was one.

Sabina clarified what she had actually stated:
“I think there may have been an unintentional misrepresentation of what I actually said. My argument was that constructing a shared identity around belief is problematic, because belief is based on experience. If the gods choose to reveal themselves differently to different people, and if belief is changeable and emergent, as belief scholarship shows it to be, then shared identity needs to be based on something other than belief.

Let me also clarify that belief in and of itself is not 'fundamentalist' ( a word I adopted polemically and with some reservations). It is the insistence that only one sort of belief is correct, and the demonization of those who disagree or whose experience is different, that can lead to a dogmatic rigidity that we might want to avoid.”

As per my summary, Sabina defined the 21st century emergence of fundamentalist trends within Paganism, as “an increasing emphasis on the acceptance of certain beliefs, including those about the history of modern Paganisms and the nature of the divine, and on a growing intransigence and hostility towards those who refuse to accept them or argue against them.”


Sabina’s reference to “history of modern Paganisms” was an allusion to the revisionist versus fundamentalist (or counter-revisionist) controversy. There is a wonderful summary of the current state of affairs by “Le patron” titled “The origins of neopaganism and Prof. Ronald Hutton.” The gist of the article is that some Pagans “claim that their religion is a direct, lineal survival of ancient paganism. This applies particularly to … Wicca.” Reconstructionists, on the other hand, are reviving, shall we say, lapsed, traditions.

It seems that all academics now believe that Wicca was created by Gerald Gardner and a small number of other middle-class occultists between the 1920s and the 1950s, rather than being the survival of an ancient fertility cult dating back to Palaeolithic times.

Further, “paganism as a formal system of religion vanishes from Mediterranean Europe after the 6th century CE, from the western and northern parts of the continent after the 11th century, and from the north-eastern portions after the 14th century. Among the Saami nomads of north-eastern Scandinavia it may have lingered into the 17th century.”

Professor Ronald Hutton has been championing the revisionist view of the Pagan revival being a modern phenomenon in many of his writings, but his magnum opus is his 1999 book The Triumph of the Moon. While academic scholars support him, he was critiqued by prominent American Pagan elder Don Frew and subsequently by New Zealand Wiccan priest Ben Whitmore in his book Trials of the Moon, who both believe that modern Wicca is a genuine survival of ancient Paganism.

Hutton responded to his critics in “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History” in Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies Vol 13, No 2 (2011), but focused on Ben Whitmore. After stressing the importance of being a professional historian to research the validity or otherwise of the revisionist position, he refuted Whitmore’s points.

Hutton has polarized many Pagans. While many support him (especially in Britain), others oppose him bitterly. He states:
I read Internet postings from Pagans in other nations who accuse me of failing to understand the damage that I have done to their beliefs. The heart of the problem is that those beliefs were never actually “theirs,” in a double sense. The original history of Wicca was based firmly and explicitly on academic scholarship, and academics have changed their minds with further research; likewise, Wicca was taken from Britain to other nations, and the most prominent British Wiccans have altered their opinions.

Regarding folk magic, or perhaps more accurately, cunning men and wise women, revisionists do not see them as Pagan survivals, but point out that they generally seem to have considered themselves good Christians.

By way of illustration, one of the speakers at the Conference, Armando D. Marini a.k.a. Murtagh AnDoile shared a rather amusing anecdote of elderly Italian women living in the US practicing folk magic, but sitting in the front row in church every Sunday. Had anyone accused them of not being good Catholics, they would have given the malocchio [evil eye]!

So, from a revisionist standpoint, any sort of continuous family tradition, such as Serbian witchcraft [Radomir Ristic’s “Balkan Traditional Witchcraft”], Stregheria [Italian witchcraft], or any other potential Pagan survival, is considered to be part of a Christian framework and no longer Pagan.

Playing devil’s advocate, taking this argument to its logical conclusion, it would seem that European Pagan survivals could only be possible within a non-Christian environment. Two such environments spring immediately to mind.

Firstly, Europe had numerous Jewish ghettos to isolate them from the Christians. This meant that Qabala studies and various folk magick practices could continue untainted by Christianity. My wife, Jo-Ann, is part of one such matrilineal Jewish tradition – her grandmother and grandaunt would discuss what they had learned from their grandmother. These people, however, would have considered themselves Jewish rather than Pagan, despite engaging in Pagan-like activities.

Secondly, Europe had large numbers of Romani gypsies who were excluded from Christian society. Their religious belief system was based on Hinduism. As an aside, they also believed in vampires who would return from the dead and cause malicious acts as well as drink human blood. Their beliefs contributed to vampire lore. Gypsies frequently feature in vampire fiction and film, no doubt influenced by Bram Stoker's book "Dracula" in which the Szgany gypsies served Dracula, carrying his boxes of earth and guarding him. Much of the Romani folklore and magickal practices are Pagan-like, but would they consider themselves Pagan?

My personal opinion is that there was a direct transmission of Hellenistic magickal lore into European grimoires via the Arabic world, particularly the Sabians of Harran. Islamic expansion, particularly in Spain, brought this lore back to Europe. This is the view espoused by Don Frew, Jake Stratton-Kent in Geosophia: The Argo of Magic, as well as Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy in The Hermetica. The Sabians did not just translate writings, they developed them, indicating that they were actively working with them. Sadly there is insufficient documentary evidence to satisfy professional historians of the veracity of this, but perhaps one day this will change. In the meantime, the Pagan community which prides itself on its diversity should accommodate opposing viewpoints.

Hard and Soft Polytheism

Sabina’s reference to “nature of the divine” was an allusion to the controversy of how Pagans see their deities, a controversy which is being played out on numerous blogs and email groups. Here’s an article which distinguishes between hard and soft polytheism.


Regarding beliefs, Sabina stated that there was “a growing intransigence and hostility towards those who refuse to accept them or argue against them.” This, to my mind, was the most worrying aspect of fundamentalism, and the most important part of her talk. It was also raised by the other Keynote Speaker, Peter Dybing.

Sabina’s primary focus was online research, limited to the English speaking world. Paganism has a very strong internet presence, which fosters a sense of community, especially for those who are geographically isolated, but also allows extreme beliefs to flourish without being challenged by a more moderate majority.

Professor Patrick Wolff summarized the thoughts of Sabina and Peter on Pagan fundamentalism on the internet:
“Neither of the keynote presenters were critical of internet activity in general, but only the negative attacks that often occur in blog comments behind the veil of anonymity (incidentally, personally I agree that pseudonyms can be used responsibility, but it does take an extra effort of mindfulness, since they make it easy to say things that would not be said in a face to face encounter). It might have helped if I had noted that Peter Dybing's comments on the internet at one point were accompanied by a powerpoint image of a troll at a computer as a backdrop. …
Sabina Magliocco's point was that the internet can create a kind of alternate universe, where idiosyncratic views that would not receive much credence in face to face communities (and means of expression that would likely not be used in face to face discussion) can take on a life of their own with a veneer of credibility since they are in print. This a problem with internet discourse that goes beyond the realm of Paganism. This aspect of the internet relates to the rise of Pagan Fundamentalism, but is not the whole story (or even most of the story) when it comes to the place of the internet.”

One of the speakers at the Conference, Amber D Gray, followed on from Sabina’s presentation, in “On Racism, Homophobia, and Misogyny: In Hellenic / Pagan Reconstructionist Communities After the Election of President Obama.” Focusing on the online Hellenic Pagan community, Amber pointed out that while the internet allowed Pagans to feel connected to each other, it allowed unchecked behavior and allowed discrimination against creed, religion, sexual orientation, race and gender. Pagan Reconstructionism is a branch of Paganism that is 90% Caucasian, where mainstream exclusionary practices foster Pagan exclusionary practices. This creates an environment conducive to the inclusion of fringe elements (Neo-Nazis, Anti-Semitics, Misogynists, Racists, Nationalists, Homophobes, and other hate groups). Public division after the presidential election exacerbated the issue. She cited the example of K Pythia, whose blog and newsletters were widely utilized by Hellenic Reconstructionists, but who came under fire when she was revealed as being non-white. Some Reconstructionists insist that you must be of the same heritage and race to practice. Greco-Roman subjugation and degradation of women is being continued by some Reconstructionists, who push aside and dismiss the points of view of women. Some Reconstructionists consider LGBTs inferior. Those Pagans who are less knowledgeable than others are made to feel inferior on Reconstructionist forums. Amber recommended that intolerance must be made unacceptable on the internet by taking a universal stance, and ensuring that it is inclusive.

On a very similar note, at the 8th Conference on Current Pagan Studies in February, 2012, Dr Amy Hale of St Petersburg College presented “Locating Identity and Authenticity in Radical Traditionalism and the Pagan New Right.” Traditionalism emerged in the early 20th century and is frequently associated with a group of European occultists including René Guénon and Julius Evola. While Guénon’s writings were absorbed into Islam, Evola’s writings recommended that Europe return to a pre-Christian, caste based social system, which inspired the formulation of the European New Right in 1968 by French theorist Alain deBenoist. Since 2000, the ideas of the European New Right, with the help of the internet, music producers, and small committed publishing firms [in particular Arktos from India and Counter Currents from San Francisco], have taken a hold among both European and American Pagans, now branding themselves as “Radical Traditionalists,” and have developed ties with extreme green, separatist and identitarian movements. Radical Traditionalism attempts to export right wing politics from Heathen organizations to the remainder of the community, meaning a culturally separate emphasis that is white separatist and white supremacist. Amy stated that we need critical thinking about where our Pagan practices are heading, especially with people pitching new ideas. The paper on which this presentation was based on was published in the Pomegranate and is available for perusal here.

Clearly Pagan Fundamentalism is hot topic. I am hopeful that we as a community will be able to have sufficient maturity to transcend our differences and grow in tolerance and inclusiveness.


  1. Thank you for this very cogent summary, Tony.

    Regarding the links between ancient and modern Paganisms, let me point out that no reputable scholar, including Prof. Hutton, has *ever* said that Gerald Gardner made Wicca up out of nothing. The predominant scholarly view is that many elements of ancient Paganism continued to exist as threads in European culture after Christianization, including folk magic, "cunning craft," folk festivals and celebrations with formerly pagan aspects, and a learned tradition of esoteric magic which was indeed preserved by the Arabic world and re-entered Europe during the Renaissance. Not to mention the stories of goddesses and gods that were part of elite Classical education from the Renaissance onwards, through which they entered European literature, art and philosophy.

    What we can't say is that these are evidence of continued Pagan practice, because they existed in a different cultural and religious framework.

    But we can certainly trace many elements of modern Pagnaisms back to at least Classical times, and probably beyond.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Sabina.
    Also, I really enjoyed your guest post on the Wild Hunt, further explaining your views:

  3. Ms. Magliocco's prose seems admirably clear and evenhanded to me, to judge by the text of her guest post addressing this controversy on The Wild Hunt (

    BTW Tony, the "Contact" button on your website is drawing a blank. Any chance of getting the contact information up again?


    1. Hi Kevin,

      I'm sure Tony will respond later but I wanted to address the issue with the website contact page. It was originally connected to the old blog service that we no longer use and I haven't had a chance to redo Tonys website to fix this issue. If you would like to contact him personally you can always find him on facebook :

      When I can get the website fixed I'm sure we'll announce it on FB ... sorry for the inconvenience.

    2. Thanks Jo-Ann! See you on FB.


  4. Hi Kevin,

    I totally agree with your statement that “Ms. Magliocco's prose seems admirably clear and evenhanded.” As someone who knows Sabina Magliocco personally I can assure you that she is a valued member of the Pagan community, and gives it her full support. As a reputable academic she has to limit herself to verifiable facts, and it’s a shame that some of her statements have been misrepresented.


  5. There is a separate and largely independent route of transmission for theurgical/Hermetic thought and practice by way of Byzantium. Two young scholars who have made highly significant contributions to this field are Anthony Kaldellis and Niketas Siniossoglou. Other Byzantinists of note (including Donald M. Nicol and Steven Runciman) have also confirmed that a full-blown Pagan underground existed in Byzantium in the 15th century, with its most prominent representative being George Gemistos Plethon.