Myth, History, and Pagan Origins

I originally wrote this article in 1999 and it was published in mildly mutilated form that year in The Pomegranate, a journal of Neopagan scholarship. Its attempt to discuss the role of mythic thinking in Neopagan history did not go over well, to put things mildly, but it seems even more relevant now than it did then. — JMG


Over the last few decades, the debate about the origins of modern Paganism has swelled steadily in volume, if not always in clarity. All through this debate, several odd features have maintained a persistent presence. Perhaps the oddest is the way that the question of Pagan origins has almost always been framed in terms of history, as though its meanings and the implications of the question are liinited to matters of bare historical fact.

That focus seems sensible enough at first glance, since the modern Pagan revival does have a history, one that deserves serious study. Still, it’s increasingly clear that to treat the subject of Pagan origins as a purely historical question is to evade the dominant issues of the debate. In my one previous contribution to the debate, my co-author and I focused purely on the historical dimension. The nature of the response made it clear that, whatever our intentions, the article was read by many people in terms of mythic issues (Greer and Cooper 1998).

Those issues come up, in one way or another, whenever the roots of modern Paganism are discussed within the Pagan community. They are not matters of evidence and inference, sources and developments; they have to do instead with questions of validity, of meaning and of ultimate concerns. They are not questions of history, in other words, but of myth.

The real subject of the whole debate, in fact, is the origin myth of modern Paganism.  From this standpoint, the thicket of claims and counterclaims that surround these questions can only be effectively untangled by approaching Pagan historical narratives at least partly from their mythic side—by understanding them as myths, with all that this implies.

Dealing with any dimension of myth nowadays, though, is a difficult matter. People raised in the industrial societies of the present era typically view myths through a set of unspoken and highly problematic assumptions.  These assumptions are the ambivalent gifts of a culture that has very little understanding of myth in general, and even less of its own mythic underpinnings.

History and Myth

Some of the most important of these assumptions are coded into the very words we use to discuss the subject. To most people in modern Western societies, the word “myth” means, simply, a story that isn’t true. The phrase “myth of racial superiority,” for example, is used to mean that the claims made by racists of various stripes are factually inaccurate, as of course they are. The word “history,” in turn, is treated as an antonym of “myth,” and thus a synonym for “truth” — or at least of “fact.” Myths are stories about events that didn’t happen, in other words, while history is what did happen. Thus any attempt nowadays to speak of Pagan origin stories as myths tends to run up against the immediate response, “But this isn’t myth – it’s history. It’s true!”

This sort of Pagan-in-the-street definition is to some extent a caricature, but it reflects a real and pervasive attitude toward the realm of myth. That attitude comes out of the ideas and definitions of truth that came into fashion in the West around the time of the Scientific Revolution – ideas that restrict the concept of truth to the sort of thing that can be known by the senses and written up in newspaper articles. (The literature on the modern West’s blindness to the mythic is extensive, but not always useful. One of the best analyses is that of Roszak 1972.)

In an earlier time, different definitions held sway. “Myths,” as one classical philosopher put it, “are things that never happened, but always are.” This draws a distinction useful for understanding myth, but even so it can mislead. Myths can be made out of events that happened, of events that never happened, or a mixture of both. I propose that it’s not the source that defines something as myth, but the function; not whether the thing happened, but whether it is – whether it goes beyond the merely factual into the realm of meaning and ultimate concern, of the deep patterns of interpretation through which people comprehend their experience of the world.

Myths, according to this understanding, are the stories groups of people use to teach themselves about who they are and what the world is like. They are the narratives that define a given vision of reality. The myths of a culture or a subculture have tremendous power to shape the universe of human experience – one reason why such stories (“metanarratives,” in current terminology) have come to be treated with a good deal of suspicion in postmodernist circles – and that power is greatest when the myths are accepted blindly, unthinkingly.

History as Myth

It was reflections of this sort, in part, that motivated the rejection of myth by the founders and banner-bearers of the Scientific Revolution. They sought to purge society of myth, to replace myth with historical and scientific fact (see Roszak 1973, 101-61). That was the plan, at least; it’s clearly not the way things turned out. Human beings are incurably mythic creatures. Take away myths from a group of people, and they will quickly construct new ones; demand that they believe facts rather than myths, and they’ll construct their new myths using facts as the raw material

This is exactly what happened to modern industrial societies. The mythical narratives of these cultures are called “history,” “scientific theory,” or just “the way things are” – anything but “myth.”   Thus, for example, most people raised in American culture think of Progress as a simple historical fact, and never notice that in this idea they are actually touching on the ruling myth of the modern world.

Myth, supposedly the antithesis of science, affects the sciences just as much as any other part of our culture. Thomas Kuhn, in his magisterial The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, has demonstrated that the great shifts from one scientific paradigm to another are motivated less by changes to data than by the realization that the new paradigm tells a better story than the old one did. More telling still, the anthropologist Misia Landau has shown that scientific theories of human evolution are lightly rewritten hero myths of the classic type, with Homo sapiens in the starring role, and every one of the ineidents common to hero myths around the world present and accounted for (Landau 1984: 262-68).

History is even more vulnerable to this sort of disguised mythology. The common notion that history is simply “what happened” is naive, to use no harsher word; “what happened” in any single day in any small town, recorded in detail, would fill volumes. The historian must select – must decide what is important and what is not – and makes the selection, consciously or not, on the basis of the story he or she is trying to tell.

Some postmodernist theorists have claimed, on the basis of such considerations, that history is simply another mode of fiction. Such claims have been widely criticized as overstated, and this criticism seems reasonable. Historians are indeed in the business of storytelling, but the stories they tell are bound by a set of very specific rules, foremost among them the rule that every event in their stories should be a verifiable fact. More deeply, though, history in the proper sense of the word has specific goals, as well as specific materials and rules; its purpose is to show the texture and flow of past events, in all their complexity and ambiguity, through a selection of illuminating facts. This purpose can overlap to some degree with the goals of myth (or of fiction), but overlap is not the same thing as identity.

In the modern fusion of history and myth, therefore, something is arguably lost on both sides. History and myth are both types of stories — but they are different types of stories. They have different goals and expectations and, usually, different raw materials as well. A story that tries to be both rarely succeeds well at either.

This is the kernel of truth behind the otherwise very questionable claim, made by certain modern pundits, that our society suffers from a shortage of myths. On the contrary, we have plenty of myths; we just call them “science,” “history,” and so on, and think that their validity depends on the accuracy of the facts that make up their raw material. We no longer examine them as myths; we no longer judge them on their strength and meaning on the mythic level. More important, we no longer ask ourselves what these stories are teaching us, what kind of world they are leading us to build.

Such questions remain highly relevant in the present situation, because not all myths are constructive, or positive, or useful. Consider the myth of racial superiority mentioned above. This is a myth in both senses of the word, the deeper one as well as that of the person-in-the-street. It’s a story that some people use to teach themselves about who they are and what their world is like. In the hands of a powerful storyteller such as Adolf Hitler, it’s capable of shaping the behavior and destiny of entire nations. The results of such shaping can be traced without much difficulty in the history of the century now ending, and there are very few people who would argue that those results have been positive.

It’s clear, therefore, that myths have implications and consequences. They shape consciousness, and therefore they shape behavior. The myths one believes in determine the world one creates, for good or ill. By examining the implications of a myth, it may be possible to guess at the sort of world that myth is likely to create.

The Myth of Pagan Origins

There are many different accounts of the origins of modern Paganism, backed up with historical claims of varying degrees of plausibility, and so far – as mentioned earlier – disputes about the claims have hidden the fact that what lies behind them is a single, powerful, and very distinctive myth. Setting aside all the arguments about historical evidence for a moment, and looking at the myth itself as a myth, the whole debate takes on a very different character.

To help get past the historical dimension, I will outline the myth as though it were a folktale from some distant culture. Told in such a way, it might go something like this:


Once upon a time, long ago, people lived in peace and harmony with eaeh other and the world, following the teachings of their ancient Pagan faiths. Then a terrible and tragic event happened. (The nature of this event differs from version to version – the introduction of Christianity, the arrival of patriarchal Indo-European invaders from the East, or any of several other variants.) This shattered the peace and happiness of that ancient time, bringing in its place savage persecution, oppression, and every kind of suffering.

Still, despite all this, a small remnant hidden away in deep woods and isolated places kept alive the ancient traditions in secret. The Burning Times are a testimony both to the savagery visited upon this small remnant, and the steadfastness with which they persevered despite all opposition.

Finally, in the fullness of time, the ancient traditions were revealed again, and people began to turn away from the oppressive system around them – a few at first, but then steadily more and more. The defenders of Christianity (or patriarchy, or whatever the villains of this tale happen to be called in any given version) have responded with renewed persecution, but their strength is weakening daily. Sooner or later, the whole process will conclude with a renewal of the golden age, and people will once again live according to the ancient traditions, in peace and harmony with each other and the world.


This “folktale” version of the origin myth of modern Paganism is derived from many sources draw n from the current Pagan subculture. (See especially the extraordinarily revealing “Life, Death, and the Goddess: The Gnosis Interview with Starhawk and Carol Christ,” Gnosis 48 (1998), 28-34, in which Christ argues for the historical reality of a scheme basically identical to the one given here.) There are, of course, some Pagan origin accounts that do not follow the story given here, but it should be noted that claims of lineal connection between modern Paganism and its ancient equivalents are not a necessary part of the story.  There are many full-blown versions of this myth that explicity renounce such claims without impairing the myth as such.


Other Versions of the Myth

In trying to make sense of this myth and its implications, Pagan seholars have one great advantage: it’s not a new myth, or one unique to modern Paganism. It’s actually quite old, and it’s found in many versions throughout the history of Western cultures. The names of the characters change from version to version, but the story remains essentially the same.  For the sake of comparison, here is another version, which is familiar to most people nowadays:


Once upon a time, long ago, people lived in peace and harmony with each other and the world, in the state of primitive communism. Then a terrible and tragic event happened: the invention of private property. This shattered the peace and happiness of that ancient time, bringing in its place savage persecution, feudalism, and every kind of suffering.

Still, despite all this, a small remnant hidden away in the deeps of the proletariat kept alive the ideals of a classless society.  The outbreaks of class warfare throughout the feudal period are a testimony both to the savagery visited upon this small remnant, and the steadfastness with which they persevered despite all opposition.

Finally, in the fullness of time, the precepts of dialectical materialism and proletarian solidarity were revealed, and people began to turn away from the oppressive system around them – a few at first, but then steadily more and more. The defenders of capitalism have responded with renewed persecution, but their strength is weakening daily. Sooner or later, the whole process will conclude with a renewal of the golden age, and people will live in the glorious dictatorship of the proletariat, in peace and harmony with each other and the world.


Again, the story is the same; only the names have been changed. Still, the historical mythology of Communism—like the historical mythology of modern Paganism – is a recent revision of a rnuch older and more widespread myth. The most common form of that myth in Western culture is also one of the very earliest, and it’s familiar enough that it shouldn’t be necessary to repeat more than the beginning:


Once upon a time, long ago. the first two people in the world – Adam and Eve – lived in peace and harmony with each other and the world, in the Garden of Eden. Then a terrible and tragic event happened…


And so on.

The implications of all this are not likely to sit well with many people in today’s Pagan community. From the original paradise through the Fall, the righteous remnant in their isolated purity, the age of persecution, the redeeming revelation, the rising struggle between good and evil, all the way up to the New Jerusalem and the restoration of the original paradise – the core myth of modern Paganism is structurally identical, point for point, with that of traditional Christianity.

What the Myth Implies

This in itself says nothing about what the myth implies, or what kind of world it creates for those that accept it. For that, mere labeling is inadequate. What is needed is a clear look at what the myth actually says and how it structures experience.  Here, we can only make a beginning at that task. A full exploration of this myth – thc Christian myth of Fall and Redemption – could easily fill entire books. Still, there are at least a few points that can be seen clearly right away.

First of all, the myth we’ve described is a myth of moral dualism. There are two sides, and only two; one is right, and the other is wrong. There is no middle ground, no moral ambiguity, only good and evil in stark contrast.

Secondly, the myth is agonistic — that is to say, it’s a myth of war. The opposition between the two sides in the myth isn’t complementary, like the Yin and Yang of Taoist philosophy, or the Oak King and Holly King of some Wiccan traditions; there is no balance being struck, no greater harmony created, only a struggle to the death. Peace and harmony are restored only when one side no longer exists.

Finally, the myth is based on a cosmology of linear time. It has a beginning and an end, and travels from one to the other once and once only.

It probably needs to be stressed that all three of these characteristics are very much part of the modern Pagan version of the myth, not just the Christian and Marxist ones. It may be useful, for the sake of contrast, to imagine a Pagan version of the myth that eliminated these features – that presented the relation between Paganism and Christianity (or patriarchy, or whatever) as a creative balance between equally positive forces; that saw, let’s say, the two of them as incomplete without each other, or forming some kind of greater whole in their union; or that traced out the historical struggle between them and then said, “And then, in another two thousand years or so, another monotheistic, patriarchal religion will rise up and start the cycle again-and isn’t that wonderful!” Such versions of the narrative may be in circulation somewhere in the modern Pagan community, but they seem few and far between, at least at present.

Myth and Ideology

These points are central to the issues raised to this essay, beeause the three characteristics discussed above are among the central features that many modern Pagans use to distinguish their own spirituality from Christianity and other revealed religions. Many Pagan writers and teachers have claimed that Pagan spirituality rejeets moral dualism, ideologies of conflict, and linear time in favor of a cosmologieal polarity between opposites, in which each side is equally necessary and equally good, relating harmoniously in the endless dance of the cycles of nature and the turning of the heavens. The problem is that the historical claims and origin myths propounded by most of these same writers and teachers tell exactly the opposite story.

Such conflicts between ideology and mythology are not precisely rare nowadays; close equivalents may be found all over the cultural spectrum.  One highly relevant example from outside the Pagan community can he found in the writings of the Reverend Matthew Fox.

In his voluminous writings. Fox has some very harsh things to say about dualism. In fact, his argument – as presented at length in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ and other books – is that there are two and only two kinds o f religion, dualist and nondualist, which are utterly opposed to one another. Dualism is absolutely evil, while nondualism is absolutely good. At one point he spends the better part of two pages running through a long list of polar opposites, defining one (“nondualist”) pole as good and the other (“dualist”) as bad (see especially pp. 134-35, where the opposing powers of Fox’s Manichean cosmos are set out in a convenient list). All in all, it’s one of the better examples of hardcore moral dualism you’ll find this side of Gnostic scripture.

Fox, in fact, is probably the most dualistic thinker on the modern theological scene. His ideology rejects dualism, but his mythology is yet another version – an ecological, feminist, politically liberal version — of the myth we’ve been discussing, and it’s as deeply rooted in moral dualism as any of the others. His ideology and his myth are in conflict, and it’s the mythology that wins out.

Myth and the Future

Fox’s antidualist dualism is all the more important because you can find the same thing in most of the central texts of the modern Pagan revival. Pick up books by Starhawk, Riane Eisler or any of several dozen others, and you’ll find ringing critiques of dualist thinking phrased in highly dualistic terms. Myths have implications and consequences. They shape consciousness, and therefore they shape behavior. More to the point, they are at the height of their power when they go unrecognized and unexamined.

Much of what this implies depends on what today’s Pagans want their spirituality to be, and how they want it to develop over time. The histories of Christianity, Marxism and several other related traditions provide numerous examples of the ways in which the  myth of Fall and Redemption tends to shape behavior and define the world. It may not be unreasonable to suggest that modern Paganism, by embracing the same myth, may be headed down the same road.

If this is the road the Pagan movement wants to take, well and good. Current initiatives in some parts of that community to establish a full-time paid Pagan clergy, and to redefine Pagan spirituality in terms of belief in some generally accepted set of doctrines, suggest that this process may already be well under way.

On the other hand, if that isn’t what the members of that movement have in mind, there is plainly a great deal of work to be done. Some of that work, it might be suggested, is a matter of confronting some of the thoughtways of Western culture:  a matter of learning how to take myth seriously on its own terms, of facing the implications of myths and letting go of those myths that lead in directions we do not wish to take. Much of it, finally, has to do with learning the difference between myth and history, and realizing that the history of a tradition may have no particular bearing on its validity and relevance, or about the nature and powers of the mythic and spiritual forces in its deep places.



Fox, Matthew, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).

Greer, John Michael,  and Gordon Cooper, “The Red Lodge: Woodcraft and the Origins of Wicca,” Gnosis 48 (1998), 50-58.

Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1970).

Landau. Misia, Narratives of Human Evolution (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1991).

Roszak, Theodore, Where the Wasteland Ends (New York: Anchor, 1972).