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The Esoteric and Occult Appeal of Neopaganism

The Esoteric and Occult Appeal of Neopaganism
© Photograph by Evgeniya Litovchenko

There are several scholarly conceptualizations of esotericism, the most significant being Antoine Faivre’s definition of it as “a form of thought” (Faivre 1994:10–15) expressed in a number of diverse currents in Western religious and cultural history, Kocku von Stuckrad’s discursive approach focusing on claims to higher or absolute knowledge and specific means of attaining this knowledge (von Stuckrad 2005a, 2005b:6–11), and Wouter Jacobus Hanegraaff’s focus on aspects of Western culture that have at one time or another been relegated to the realm of pseudo-knowledge and consequently rejected (Hanegraaff 2005, 2007). Providing a clear and concise “all-around” definition of the esoteric is thus difficult. However, there exists a considerable scholarly consensus on particular phenomena that can be included under the banner. Besides things such as magic, alchemy, and astrology, this also includes modern paganism — or neopaganism — and the cultural and religious trends that gave birth to it.

The common esoteric notion that some, many, or all religions and philosophies have a foundation in one true and ancient religion — the philosophia perennis or prisca theologia (e.g. Faivre 1994:58–61; Hanegraaff 1996:327–330; von Stuckrad 2005b:56–59) — is of particular importance in the present context. In the pursuit of the perennial philosophy, esotericists have always looked to that which is far away, either in time or space, or both. While Kocku von Stuckrad (2005:86–87) and Wouter Jacobus Hanegraaff (2007) both note the importance of othering for esotericism, their focus is largely on how the esoteric has been othered. I do not feel that enough attention has been given to the role of othering as an integral aspect of esoteric discourse itself. The creation of and focus on a positive other is at the very centre of esoteric spirituality.

Orientalism (Said [1978] 1995; King 2005) and the creation of “exotic others” through which self-understandings and self-identities can be constructed are commonplace in European contexts (and their eventual offshoots in e.g. North America), and this would appear to have been the case since at least Antiquity (Campbell 2007:44–52). However, the form of positive othering found in esotericism, where the exotic and foreign represents the pinnacle of achievement and the familiar and mainstream becomes flawed, is not commonplace. For the Renaissance esotericists, Plato was seen as expressing a higher wisdom that was not Greek but foreign in origin (See Burns 2006 on the concept of ‘Platonic Orientalism’). Eventually, Ancient Greek material had become all too familiar and the main focus was shifted to Egypt. With the inception of modern Egyptology in the early nineteenth-century what can only be called an “Egyptomania” swept over both mainland Europe and the British Isles, and consequently references to Egyptian notions and the use of Egyptian-style art became the trend par excellence in movements such as Freemasonry and ceremonial magic (Mazet 1993; God- win 1998; Bogdan 2007:100–102). Eventually, Egypt as well became too familiar. The Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875, turned the focus to India and its religions as the new source of choice for the eternal philosophy. The same trend can be seen in the appeal of imaginary lost continents and cities such as Atlantis, Lemuria, Agharti, and Shangri-La, and extraterrestrials and their far-away planets (Partridge 2005:165–206) — which are all considered to be in the possession of a knowledge far more advanced than our own. The esoteric current of Traditionalism (see Sedgwick 2004) is an illuminating example in this regard. This form of esotericism originates in the writings of René-Jean-Marie-Joseph Guénon in early twentieth-century France, where modernity and the modern West are regarded as spiritually dead and the focus is shifted to “authentic traditions” such as Islam — particularly Sufism — and Orthodox Christianity.

This positive othering not only applies to non-Western cultures and religions the appeal of Europe’s pre-Christian pagan past is an expression of this phenomenon as well. While things such as Druids, witchcraft, and Old Norse gods and goddesses may seem closer to Europeans than Egypt and India, they are equally exotic due to representing a perceived “mystical and enchanted” pre-Christian past. In order to understand how modern paganism was conceived, we must take a closer look at the impact the Enlightenment and Romanticism had on European religion and culture.

Modern paganism is most often thoroughly non-Christian, and at times anti-Christian, but the fascination for the pagan history of Europe did not start in the relatively secularized mid-twentieth-century. The Renaissance was the period when interest in pre-Christian European religion and mythology, in particular, Greek and Roman, really blossomed (Godwin 2002; Gregorius 2009a:47). Poets wrote about Greek gods and goddesses, and artists depicted them in their artwork. However, the focus was almost exclusively on ancient Greece as the foundation of European culture, and the general frame of reference was Christian. In post-Renaissance times, however, we find some of the first examples of how pagan mythology and religious notions were consciously introduced and mixed into Christian esoteric contexts.

In Sweden, Johannes Thomae Bureus Agrivillensis (1568–1652) created what he called a Kabbalah Upsalica (named after the Swedish town of Uppsala), the first modern esoteric system based on the runes (Åkerman 1998:29–67; Karlsson 2006, 2010). Johannes Thomae Bureus Agrivillensis, the teacher of Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus (1594–1632), is considered the father of Swedish grammar and surveyed approximately one-fourth of the rune stones known in Sweden today (Karlsson 2006). He was also greatly influenced by Swedish national romanticism and Gothicism — the idea that Sweden and the Swedish people represented the most ancient civilized people of the world (Gregorius 2009a:49; Karlsson 2010:61–71). In conjunction with these influences, he wanted to reintroduce the runes as an alphabetic system. In 1613 Johannes Thomae Bureus Agrivillensis had a vision in which he received the secret knowledge of the fifteen Adulrunes (approximately, “noble runes”). He had a threefold understanding of the runes: a textual literal meaning referencing “sacred microcosmic events”; the adulrunic level which conveys “macrocosmic structures”; and the alrunic level which represents “the divine aspect of nature” (Åkerman 1998:57). The Adulruna, a glyph consisting of the combined adulrunes in the shape of a concentric solar cross, was inspired by John Dee’s ‘Monas Hieroglyphica’ (1564) (Åkerman 1998:44–45). For Johannes Thomae Bureus Agrivillensis the Adulruna functioned both as a symbol of and a map to God. He considered there to be essential correspondences between Kabbalah — the Jewish mystical system — and the runes and endeavoured to create a synthesis where the runes were essentially Christian symbols and proved the Truth of Christianity.

The so-called Age of Enlightenment had a huge bearing on the development of neopaganism. With its ideologies of reason and rationality, the Age of Enlightenment ushered in a societal order where secular worldviews gained power over traditionally religious ones. This lessened the influence of the Christian Church, which in turn created a situation in Europe where for the first time in more than a millennium non-Christian religion could be openly practised and advocated (Hanegraaff 1996:411–415). For some, the loss of explanatory power that traditional Christian religion experienced resulted in the need for different religious answers, answers that did not have the negative historical connotations of Christianity. A turn to European pre-Christian mythology proved to be one suitable answer.

The ideologies of reason and rationality, as well as the universalist notions (Hanegraaff 1996:411–412) that were institutionalized during the Age of Enlightenment, caused a backlash. They had created a world devoid of magic and mysticism, and for some people, this situation was insufferable. A response came in the form of the Romantic movement. German Romanticism — from the late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century — is of particular importance for the development of neopaganism, but the wider Romantic movement, which in some cases stretched as far as the early twentieth-century, should not be ignored.

The Romantics turned their gaze to the particular (Hanegraaff 1996: 419), in the form of the old and native. We can speak of a sort of a “discovery of nature” during this period (Faivre 1994:82–84; Hanegraaff 1996:387–388), in the sense that it is now that we find the idea that nature is alive, divine, and valuable in itself — not simply animated by the influence of a God who is in essence separated from the natural world. Certain intellectuals started to develop ideas of pre-Christian religions as more natural, organic, and positive than Christianity.

This development went hand in hand with the birth of Nationalism, where the pre-Christian roots of distinct cultures were sought — and often created. In Germany, the notion of a national, ancestral, and racial history of a people, and indeed even the notion of “a people” — the idea of a folk-spirit, a Volksgeist, which unified all the members of a particular folk throughout the ages — was formulated based on the ideas of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) (Gregorius 2009a:52). Thus the romantic birth of paganism stems from both a fascination for nature and the ideas of nation and race — features which make it more understandable how the “pagan frame of mind” has managed to manifest in both radical right-wing racist white power movements and anti-racist, environmentalist and leftist groups.

The mindset pioneered in German Romanticism continued into the twentieth-century. In the early 1900s, several proto-pagan groups existed in Germany and inspired the later formation of modern (re)constructions of Old Germanic and Scandinavian religion. The völkisch movement formed in the late nineteenth-century combined the notion of the Volksgeist with strong apocalyptic notions of the nation and the people — the very ethnic uniqueness of the German folk — being in danger of extinction due to the influences of foreign people and ideas (Gardell 2003:20–22; Goodrick-Clarke 2004:2; Gregorius 2009a:55– 56). It was in this atmosphere of national pride and apocalyptic fears that the Austrian Guido Karl Anton List, (1848–1919) was raised and developed his rune-mystical and -magical ideas. He regarded the Germanic god Wōtan — Odin — as the saviour of the German people, and saw himself as the prophet who announced the coming of the Germanic Messiah (Goodrick-Clarke 2004:50–51; Gregorius 2009a:57–58). In 1908 he published the book ‘Secret of the Runes’ (‘Das Geheimnis der Runen’) where he introduced the eighteen-rune-long Armanen rune row. For Guido Karl Anton List the runes could be interpreted on an exoteric, common, level; a mystical esoteric level; or on the highest Armanen level — similar to the ideas held by Johannes Thomae Bureus Agrivillensis earlier. As early as 1910 Guido Karl Anton List Societies with the aim of promoting his work and ideas were formed, and these further developed practical techniques to achieve an Armanen-level understanding of the runes. These techniques included rune gymnastics and rune yoga, in which the practitioner contorts his or her body in the shapes of the various runes (Gregorius 2009a:58). Guido Karl Anton List’s ideas have had an immense impact on later Asatrú and rune magic, although his racial ideas are commonly discarded.

Several more or less distinct forms of neopaganism exist today. Wicca, or modern Witchcraft developed in the United Kingdom by Gerald Brosseau Gardner in the 1950s, is the largest variant (Gilhus & Mikaelsson 1998:102; see also Hutton 1999). Other significant variants include the overtly feminist Goddess Worship, or Goddess Spirituality, which stems directly from Wicca (Harvey 1997:69–86; Gilhus & Mikaelsson 1998:100–104); Druidry, which was a theme in largely Christian fraternal societies already in the eighteenth-century but developed in distinctly pagan forms in the 1960s and the 1970s (Harvey 1997:18–19); and neoshamanism, or the Western application of traditional shamanic techniques (Gilhus & Mikaelsson 1998:100), 7 which is both a current of modern paganism in itself and a common ingredient in most other forms of modern paganism. It is, however, Germanic and Scandinavian neopaganism — commonly termed Asatrú, Heathenism/Heathenry, or Odinism — that is of particular relevance in the present context. The first Asatrú organizations were founded independently of each other in the United Kingdom, United States of America, and Iceland in 1972. In Iceland, Asatrú has, since 1973, been an officially recognized religion with the right to provide legally recognized rituals such as marriage, burial and baptism. The group started with only twelve members, but quickly grew to 88 in 1986, 172 in the mid 1990s (Harvey 1997:53–68; Hammer 1997:135–136; Gilhus & Mikaelsson 1998:104–107), and finally claimed nearly 800 members in the mid 2000s (Gregorius 2009a:71). The first British organization was the Odinic Rite, and the first United States of America one was the Viking Brotherhood (Gregorius 2009a: 74–77) 8 of Stephen Anthony McNallen (1948–). According to Swedish scholar Fredrik Gregorius, it is, in fact, the American form of Asatrú, not the British or Icelandic one, which has had the strongest influence on subsequent European Asatrú (Gregorius 2009a:76).

A rather recent player on the field of paganism is so-called Radical Traditionalism. Similar to the earlier mentioned Guénonian Traditionalism in its critique of Western modernity, it differs in having a strong heathen focus. Here we thus find a mixture of the esoteric currents of paganism and Traditionalism. On the website of the journal Tyr — in which the term Radical Traditionalism was coined — Radical Traditionalists are said to “reject the modern, materialist reign of ‘quantity over quality,’ the absence of any meaningful spiritual values, environmental devastation, the mechanization and overspecialization of urban life, and the imperialism of corporate monoculture, with its vulgar ‘values’ of progress and efficiency,” and instead prefer “the small, homogenous tribal societies that flourished before Christianity” (Tyr 2010). The denominator “radical” is here used to demarcate the movement both from the earlier Traditionalism of the likes of René-Jean-Marie-Joseph Guénon and Baron Giulio Cesare Andrea Evola, but also more importantly from other, less specific, understandings of tradition and traditionalism.

In discussing paganism, or in this case heathenism, it needs to be noted that the current — when understood as a discursive complex — is identified not primarily by and through explicit content, i.e. the deities and symbols it employs. Instead one needs to look to the modes of use of these symbols and the worldviews, meanings, and sentiments they evoke. This means that fictional characters such as those occurring in e.g. the works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Clive Staples Lewis — as well as deities derived from sources other than European pre-Christian mythology — can be used in a pagan or heathen framework.

Also published on Medium.


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