The Twilight of the Neopagan Era

I think most people with any kind of connection to the contemporary American occult scene have noticed by now that the great wave of pop Neopaganism that came rolling up the beach in the early 1980s, and crested right around the turn of the millennium, is flowing rapidly back out to sea. That should come as no surprise to anybody who knows the history of American alternative spirituality.  Thirty to forty years is the average lifespan of a spiritual movement once it finds its way into pop culture, and the Neopagan scene, having dutifully passed all the other milestones along that overfamiliar trajectory, is reaching the one marked “Road Ends Ahead” right on schedule.

The latest data point to come my way arrived via a Druid friend who visited last weekend, and who mentioned that all of a sudden people she knows are starting to describe themselves laughingly as “recovering Pagans”—not, please note, in the sense of Pagans recovering from something else, but in the sense of people recovering from Paganism—and giving away their Pagan books and trinkets to their remaining Pagan friends. Again, that’s standard. In the 1930s and 1940s, you could find any number of people who laughed and said, “Yeah, I used to be into Theosophy back then.” The cycle before then, the object of those reflections was the apocalyptic liberal Christianity—yes, there used to be such a thing—that reached its embarrassing conclusion of the Great Disappointment of 1844; the time before that, it was the evangelical Protestantism of the Great Awakening that kicked off in the 1720s and kicked the bucket in the 1760s, and so on.

The same cycle of emergence and decline happens in radical politics, and there’s an interesting synchronization between the two. By and large, they alternate in popular culture. Thus a great many of those people who used to be into Theosophy in the 1920s got into political radicalism of the left or right during the 1930s, just as a good many former political radicals of the 1960s and 1970s ended up in some kind of alternative spirituality in the 1980s—Protestant fundamentalism, the New Age movement, Buddhism and other Asian religions, and Neopaganism all got their share. It’s a regular rhythm in  the history of American popular culture, going back as far as there’s any distinctly American popular culture at all, and it can be charted more or less like this:

1720s-1760s: Great Awakening era (spiritual focus)
1770s-1800s: Revolutionary era (political focus)
1810s-1840s: Transcendentalist era (spiritual focus)
1850s-1880s: Populist era (political focus)
1890s-1920s: Theosophical era (spiritual focus)
1930s-1970s: Socialist era (political focus)
1980s-2010s: Neopagan era (spiritual focus)
2020s-2060s: ??? (political focus)

These names are somewhat arbitrary.  The Transcendentalist era, for example, was also the heyday of Unitarianism, Millerism, and the first wave of Mormonism, just as the Theosophical era was also the heyday of American Freemasonry and of a dizzying assortment of magical and fraternal lodges. In the same way, “Populist” and “Socialist” are broad labels, the first embracing everything from abolitionism and classic populism to first wave feminism, the second covering everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to the New Left of the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are always political movements in eras that fixate on spirituality, and spiritual movements in eras that fixate on politics; the point at issue is how the center of gravity of certain modes of pop culture moves between these two poles.

Oceanographers will tell you that the waves that sweep the ocean don’t actually carry water with them. The water rises and falls with each wave, but it normally ends up pretty much where it started. The same thing is true of most of the people who get caught up in the waves of collective enthusiasm that sweep through human societies from time to time. There’s always a certain very modest number of people who are drawn to alternative spiritualities, just as there’s always a slightly larger number of people who are attracted with equal force to radical politics of various kinds.  At intervals, those cultural minorities suddenly find crowds showing up on their doorsteps, eager to take part in what they have to offer, and then after a certain period the crowds head elsewhere and the people left behind get to clean up the wreckage resulting from what normally amounts to a thirty-year binge.

That’s not an easy thing to do, especially if the people left behind have bought into an ideological stance that defines them as the cutting edge of the future, or what have you. Still, there are benefits to those who stick around for the cleanup, and one of them is that it becomes possible to repair some of the damage and distortion that always befalls an alternative spiritual tradition when it gets redefined and relaunched as a pop culture phenomenon.

I’m not sure how many of my readers realize just how drastically the currents that became modern pop Neopaganism got remanufactured for their debut on the mass market. Until October 31, 1979, to be precise, Wicca and witchcraft—the two were, and are, not quite the same thing—were two rather similar flavors in the sprawling ice cream parlor of contemporary occultism, much less sharply differentiated from the other flavors on offer than their proponents today generally like to think. To the extent that they weren’t simply sex clubs with exotic decor, they filled a recognized niche in the occult scene of the time, and functioned in ways that didn’t have a lot in common with their equivalents today.

For example, the claim that Wicca could trace its lineage to the witches of the Middle Ages, or for that matter the goddess-worshipping civilization of ancient Crete—I’ve been told that this latter point was one of the secret teachings of quite a lot of Wiccan and witchcraft groups in the 1970s—didn’t have the same emotional loading it’s had for a great many Neopagan groups since the 1980s. Now of course occult traditions in those days, by definition, claimed ancient origins. There were groups whose origin stories traced their lineages back to just about any romantic source you care to name: ancient Egyptian mystery temples, conveniently untraceable Himalayan monasteries, the sages of lost Atlantis, seventeenth-century Rosicrucian mystics, the Knights Templar, the Pythagoreans, the Essenes—why, even the ancient Druids!—and the list goes on.

Medieval witches and Cretan priestesses were just two more colorful imaginary heritages to choose from, with no more cachet than any of the others. Though novices sometimes took such claims literally and the management of the various orders and traditions tended to stand up stoutly in defense of their truth, serious occultists knew that such claims are meant to energize the imagination and jolt the mind out of its ordinary ruts. In other words, they’re cut from the same cloth as the notion that Masonry started among the builders of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem; they’re tools for work with the self-image, not supposed statements of historical fact.

One measure of the distance between this approach and the less nuanced habits of later years can be seen in a rarely remembered fact:  before that day in 1979, it was quite common for practitioners of magic and Pagan spirituality to also be ordained as Christian priests and bishops. It may come as a shock to many of my readers to learn that there are alternative Christian churches, a fair number of them, that are comfortable not only with magic and occultism but also with other gods and goddesses. Some of them are still around, but they could be found much more easily back in the day, and a great many occultists took that opportunity to add the distinctive Christian style of occult philosophy and sacramental ritual to their toolkits.

Thus Gerald Gardner—yes, that Gerald Gardner, the inventor of Wicca and student of Aleister Crowley—was ordained as a Christian priest by one esoteric Christian church while he was busy promoting Wicca. Later on, while he was still very active in Wicca, he was consecrated as a bishop in another such church.  Dion Fortune, whose work with the goddess Isis was ancestral to much of modern goddess-centric Paganism, was also a devout if eccentric Christian who wrote a book of mystical meditations on the Collects of the Anglican service, and Ross Nichols, the founder of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids and one of the most influential figures in 20th century Druidry, used to invoke Celtic gods and Christian archangels very nearly in the same breath. That sort of thing was routine among occultists.  Being a witch or a Wiccan in those days, like being a Druid, a Rosicrucian, an Essene, a Christian, or what have you, was a matter of study and practice rather than of personal identity, and so you could be more than one thing at once without any sense of contradiction.

There were many other differences, of course. The movements that turned into modern Neopaganism were, like nearly all other occult groups at the time, initiatory orders in which candidates had to work their way up a ladder of degrees—and “work,” by the way, was the operative word; if you wanted to advance, you had quite a curriculum of studies and practices before you. They kept a very quiet public presence for a variety of good reasons, and they were generally fairly strict in deciding who to admit to membership, but they weren’t that hard to find if you were looking for occult instruction. Pick up a copy of any of the mass-market magazines that once catered to the American public’s taste for the weird, and you’ll find plenty of quiet advertisements telling you that a letter to Scribe Z at PO Box mumble mumble will get an informative pamplet and an application for membership by return mail.

Were there abuses? Sure. Were some occult orders in it for the money, or for other dubious ends? You bet—though it’s probably worth noting that Neopaganism has had no shortage of either of these. Despite these familiar difficulties, the groups that kept America’s occult traditions alive during an era of general neglect formed a stable, tolerant, largely functional community with its own networks of lodges, private libraries, correspondence courses, magazines, and book publishing programs.

Then came October 31, 1979. On that day, publishers in San Francisco and Boston simultaneously published Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, the books that invented modern pop Neopaganism. I use the word “invented” intentionally; I’ve lost the reference, but Adler admitted in print that while her book presented itself as an objective survey of Pagan groups in America, it was written to push the nascent Neopagan scene in specific directions she thought it ought to go, a goal it achieved quite handily. The Spiral Dance pursued the same goal in a considerably more direct manner—it simply presented, as “the ancient religion of the Goddess,” a near-total rewrite of Wicca that scrapped most of its traditional content in favor of second wave feminism, California goddess spirituality, and self-empowerment psychology.

Both books were massive commercial successes, Starhawk’s at once, Adler’s a little further down the road.  They were followed by a torrent of similar books, as other authors and publishers tried, with no little success, to cash in on the shift in the zeitgeist. Old classics, and old not-so-classics, were promptly hauled out of cold storage and reprinted. By 1985 or so, for the first time since the heyday of Theosophy, you could go into a big bookstore that catered to a general audience and count on finding an occult section that had something other than cheap astrological annuals and collections of scary stories for the Halloween market.

Two previous trends in the publishing field helped pave the way for Neopaganism as a pop-culture movement. The first was the explosive growth of paperback nonfiction (and, shall we say, pseudo-nonfiction) as a mass market publishing phenomenon. The paperback revolution that rattled the American book publishing industry to its core in the 1950s focused on fiction; entire genres, such as science fiction, that had been published almost entirely in pulp magazines up to that time suddenly found a niche in 25-cent paperback novels, which sold by the boxcar to literate, affluent postwar readers. The late 1960s saw speculative nonfiction invade the same dime-store 25-cent paperback novel racks. 1969 was in many ways the watershed year, with Carlos Castaneda’s wildly popular hoax The Teachings of don Juan and John Michell’s engagingly weird treatise of visionary landscape mysticism The View Over Atlantis just two of the alternative-reality bestsellers that year.

The omnivorous appetite for marvels that made these and many like them successful was probably kickstarted by Sixties drug culture, but it zoomed off in a galaxy of different directions, and occultism was among the many things that got swept up in the resulting publishing frenzy. Most of the books on magic and the occult that appeared in mass market paperbacks during the 1970s were astonishingly bad, focusing on the cheap-thrills end of the subject to the exclusion of nearly everything else. There were occasional gems—the first serious book of magical instruction I ever owned, Techniques of High Magic by Francis King and Stephen Skinner, first appeared in a lurid mass market paperback edition meant for those same paperback racks—but they were few and far between. That fed the appetite for explicit instruction in magical spirituality that made Starhawk’s book a roaring commercial success.

There was, however, a second and even larger trend in publishing that fed into the same phenomenon, and it’s one that contemporary Neopagans tend not to talk about in this context. Still, if you attend a Neopagan event, you can see its stigmata everywhere: just look for dragons, unicorns, and faux-medieval clothing. What do dragons, unicorns, and faux-medieval clothing have to do with magic or the worship of Pagan deities? Nothing at all, but they have everything to do with the other pop-culture phenomenon that drove the rise of Neopaganism: the great fantasy fiction boom of the 1970s.

It can take a remarkable effort these days to remember that until the early 1970s, fantasy fiction wasn’t a genre of its own yet. When JRR Tolkien’s sprawling trilogy The Lord of the Rings first saw print, for example, at least one American reviewer hailed it as an interesting new work of science fiction, and most of the other pre-1970 works that get lumped together as fantasies were simply part of the broad current of general literature when they first appeared.  The overwhelming commercial success Tolkien’s trilogy had in its US paperback release basically created the genre; an assortment of older pieces that all featured swords, wizards, and faux-medieval settings, even if they had nothing else in common, were drafted to provide it with a prehistory, and legions of avid fans proceeded to start writing stories full of swords, wizards, and faux-medieval settings, which were promptly added to the genre.

I can testify to this with unusual clarity, as I was one of the fans in question, and wasted way too many reams of paper on embarrassingly derivative hackwork fiction packed to the groaning point and beyond with swords, wizards, and faux-medieval settings. I also played Dungeons & Dragons and an assortment of other fantasy roleplaying games, in which swords, wizards, and faux-medieval settings were de rigueur, and got underfoot in those same years in the Society for Creative Anachronism, which was short on wizards but had an ample supply of the other two; and it was no accident that I also took up magic in those same years.

It took me quite a few years—most of my teens and the first few years of my twenties—to extract myself from the resulting tangle, and see clearly that magical training is not about wallowing in faux-medieval anything, nor is it a matter of make-believe and dress-up games. Mind you, I don’t have anything against make-believe and dress-up games, nor in wallowing in the faux-medieval whatnot of your choice; I still read plenty of fantasy fiction, and enjoy it hugely; but these things aren’t magic in the practitioner’s sense of the word, and I don’t confuse them with magic. There are people in the Neopagan scene who are clear on the same distinction, but I’m far from sure they’re in the majority.

The interpenetration of popular fiction and popular occultism is actually a very common feature of periods in which American pop culture swings in the direction of magical spirituality. The heyday of Theosophy saw plenty of examples of the same sort of thing; Marie Corelli, John Uri Lloyd, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton were among the authors back then whose work helped shape the pop spirituality of the era. Nor, of course, does the influence go all one way; toward the end of each such era, you start seeing plenty of imaginative fiction that takes the imagery and ideas of the pop occultism du jour and feeds it back to audiences eager for more of the same. Robert E. Howard, who set the stories of Conan the Cimmerian against a backdrop drawn largely from Theosophical writings, was an example from the last time around; Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose bestselling The Mists of Avalon rehashed Arthurian legends against a backdrop of generic California Neopaganism, is an example from this cycle.

The problem that arises when fiction becomes a driving force behind any kind of pop occultism is twofold. First, of course, fictional magic quite reliably has fictional effects, rather than real ones, when people try to practice it. I’m convinced that one of the core reasons why there’s currently a movement in the Neopagan scene to dismiss magic as useles superstition is that too many people have taken too many of their ideas about magic from fantasy fiction, and this has accordingly brought about a steady decline in the capacity of too many Neopagans to magic their way out of a wet paper bag. (There are other factors pushing in that same direction, too; we’ll get to one of those next month.)

There’s a subtler problem, though, which is that fantasy fiction by and large reinforces the idea that magic belongs to places full of dragons, unicorns, faux-medieval clothing, and the like, rather than to the world we inhabit here and now. That, I’m convinced, is why the trappings of fantasy are so thick on the ground at Neopagan events, and why they’ve penetrated some distance into other branches of the occult scene as well: if magic needs the trappings of fantasy, providing those trappings can be one way to get past that mental block temporarily and try to do some magical work. That’s a trick with limited applicability, though, and it’s a much more useful tactic to get out from under the mental block—but for a variety of reasons, that latter option hasn’t been very popular of late.

The detritus of fantasy fiction is just one part of the refuse that’s going to have to be hauled out by those of us who are still around and still practicing magic as the Neopagan era draws to its close, and the crowds who’ve thronged Neopagan festivals and kept suppliers of faux-medieval clothing in business go rushing off toward whatever political movements take center stage in pop culture hereafter. I don’t think it will do any harm to the unicorns to see them returned to their natural habitat in fiction, and it may be a lot of help to aspiring mages, who will no longer be tempted to confuse wallowing in a romantic medieval haze with the hard work of studying and practicing operative magic. Still, there’s another thing that will have to be done, and that’s the rehabilitation of occult philosophy and its study—something that was thrown out with the trash early on in the Neopagan era, and will have to be hauled back out of the dumpster, given a good scrubbing, and put back in its proper place. We’ll talk about that next month.