Terminology and definition
The word "pagan" comes from the Latin paganus, originally meaning "rustic" or "from the country", and later also used for "civilian". The pejorative meaning, "uneducated non-Christian", emerges in Vulgar Latin from the 4th century.
"Pagan" and "Neopagan", when capitalized, refer to religions, or members of a Pagan or Neopagan religion, "in the same way as one would describe a 'Christian' or a 'Jew'." This usage has been common since the Neopagan revival in the 1970s, and is now used by academics and adherents alike to identify new religious movements that emphasize pantheism or nature-worship, or that revive or reconstruct aspects of historical polytheism.
The term "Neopagan" provides a means of distinguishing between historical Pagans of ancient cultures and the adherents of modern religious movements. The category of religions known as "Neopagan" includes syncretic or eclectic approaches like Wicca, Neo-druidism, and Neoshamanism at one end of the spectrum, as well as culturally specific traditions, such as the many varieties of polytheistic reconstructionism, at the other. Some Reconstructionists reject the term "Neopagan" because they wish to set their historically oriented approach apart from generic "Neopagan" eclecticism.
Some "Traditionalists" and "Reconstructionists" stress a connectedness to, or lineage within, folk religion. Others (notably Wicca and some currents of Neo-druidism) allege an "underground" continuity or tradition of actual religious doctrine, but such claims often display fakelore as opposed to outright reconstruction or cultural continuation. "Reconstructionists" emphasize reconstruction of historical religious customs without the claim of an unbroken tradition.
"Pagan" as a self-designation of Neopagans appeared in 1964 and 1965, in the publications of the Witchcraft Research Association; at that time, the term was in use by "revivalist Witches" in the United States and the United Kingdom, but unconnected to the broader, counter-culture Neopagan movement. The modern popularization of the terms "Pagan" and "Neopagan", as they are currently understood, is largely traced to Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, co-founder of "the 1st Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds" who, beginning in 1967 with the early issues of Green Egg, used both terms for the growing movement.
"Heathen", "Heathenism" or "Heathenry" as a self-designation of adherents of Germanic neopaganism (Theodism in particular) appears in the late 1990s.
The roots of Neopaganism begin with the Renaissance, and the reintroduction of Classicism and the resurgence of interest in Graeco-Roman polytheism in the wake of works like the Theologia mythologica of 1532.
The Romantic movement of the 18th century led to the re-discovery of Old Gaelic and Old Norse literature and poetry. Neo-druidism can be taken to have its origins as early as 1717 with the foundation of The Druid Order. The 19th century saw a surge of interest in Germanic paganism with the Viking revival in the British Isles and Scandinavia. In Germany the Völkisch movement was in full swing. These Neopagan currents coincided with Romanticist interest in folklore and occultism, and the rise of nationalism.
During this resurgence in the United Kingdom, Neo-druidism and various Western occult groups emerged, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis, who attempted to syncretize "exotic" elements like Egyptian cosmology and Kabbalah into their belief systems, although not necessarily for purely religious purposes. Influenced by the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, several prominent writers and artists were involved in these organizations, including William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Arthur Edward Waite, and Aleister Crowley. Along with these early occult organizations, there were other social phenomena such as the interest in mediumship, magic, and other supernatural beliefs which was at an all time high in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
In the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a Witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the witchcraft prosecutions that had been enacted by the ecclesiastical and secular courts. Most historians now reject Murray's theory, as she based it partially upon the similarities of the accounts given by those accused of witchcraft; such similarity is now thought to actually derive from there having been a standard set of questions laid out in the witch-hunting manuals used by interrogators. Murray's ideas nevertheless exerted great influence on certain Neopagan currents; in the [[1940s, Englishman Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a New Forest coven. Gardnerian Wicca is used to refer to the traditions of Neopaganism that adhere closely to Gardner's teachings, differentiating it from similar traditions, such as Alexandrian Wicca or more recent Wiccan offshoots.
In the meantime, Germanic mysticism in Germany had developed into baroque forms such as Guido von List's "Armanism", from the 1900s merging into anti-semitic and national mysticist (völkisch) currents, notably with Lanz von Liebenfels' Guido von List Society and Ostara magazine, which with the rise of Nazism were partially absorbed into Nazi occultism. Other Germanic mysticist groups, such as the Germanische Glaubens-Gemeinschaft of Ludwig Fahrenkrog were disendorsed by the Nazi regime. Such distortions of Germanic mythology were denounced by J. R. R. Tolkien, e.g. in a 1941 letter where he speaks of Hitler's corruption of "...that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved and tried to present in its true light." Because of such connections with Nazism, interest in Neopaganism was virtually eclipsed for about two decades following World War II.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence in Neodruidism as well as the rise of Germanic Neopaganism and Ásatrú in the USA and in Iceland. In the 1970s, Wicca was notably influenced by feminism, leading to the creation of an eclectic, Goddess-worshipping movement known as Dianic Wicca. The 1979 publication of Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk's The Spiral Dance opened a new chapter in public awareness of Neopaganism.
With the growth and spread of large, Neopagan gatherings and festivals in the 1980s, public varieties of Neo-Wicca continued to further diversify into additional, eclectic sub-denominations, often heavily influenced by the New Age and counter-culture movements. These open, loosely-structured or unstructured traditions contrast with British Traditional Wicca, which emphasizes secrecy and initiatory lineage.
The 1980s and 1990s also saw an increasing interest in serious academic research and Reconstructionist Pagan traditions. The establishment and growth of the Internet in the 1990s brought rapid growth to these, and other Neopagan movements.
Many Neopagans and Neopagan traditions attempt to incorporate elements of historical religions, cultures and mythologies into their beliefs and practices, often emphasizing the hoary age of their sources. Thus, Wicca in particular is sometimes referred to by its proponents as "The Old Religion", a term popularized by Margaret Murray in the 1920s, while Germanic Neopaganism is referred to in some of its varieties as Forn Sed "Old Custom". Such emphasis on the antiquity of religious tradition is not exclusive to Neopaganism, and is found in many other religions. For example the terms Purana, Sanatana Dharma, and the emphasis on the antiquity of the Ancient Egyptian sources of the Hellenistic Mystery religions.
Some claims of continuity between Neopaganism and older forms of Paganism have been shown to be spurious, or outright false, as in the case of Iolo Morganwg's Druid's Prayer. Wiccan beliefs of an ancient monotheistic Goddess were inspired by Marija Gimbutas's description of Neolithic Europe. The factual historical validity of her theories have been disputed by many scholars, including historian Ronald Hutton.
While most Neopagans draw from old religious traditions, they also adapt them. The mythologies of the ancient traditions are not generally considered to be literally factual by Neopagans, in the sense that the Bible and other Abrahamic texts are often thought of by their followers. Eclectic Neopagans in particular are resistant to the concept of scripture or excessive structure, considering personal freedom to be one of the primary goals of their spirituality. In contrast, some Reconstructionist sects, like those who practice Theodism, take a stricter religious approach, and only recognize certain historical texts and sources as being relevant to their belief system, intentionally focusing on one culture to the exclusion of others, and having a general disdain for the eclectic mentality.
The mythological sources of the various Neopagan traditions are similarly varied, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Egyptian and others. Some groups focus solely on one cultural tradition, while others draw from several. For example, Doreen Valiente's text The Charge of the Goddess used materials from The Gospel of Aradia by Charles G. Leland (1899), as well as material from Aleister Crowley's writings.
Some Neopagans also draw inspiration from modern traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism and others, creating syncretisms like "Christian Witchcraft" or "Buddheo-Paganism". Since many Neopagan beliefs do not require exclusivity, some Neopagans practice other faiths in parallel.
Since eclectic Neopagans take a rather undogmatic religious stance, and sometimes see no one as having authority to deem a source "apocryphal", Neopaganism has been notably prone to fakelore, especially in recent years, as information and misinformation alike have been spread on the Internet and in print media. A number of Wiccan, Neopagan and even some "Traditionalist" or "Tribalist" groups have a history of spurious "Grandmother Stories" – usually involving initiation by a Grandmother, Grandfather, or other elderly relative who is said to have instructed them in the secret, millennia-old traditions of their ancestors. As this "secret wisdom" has almost always been traced to recent sources, or been quite obviously concocted even more recently, most proponents of these stories have eventually admitted they made them up.
Concepts of the divine
Further information: hard and soft polytheism
Most Neopagan traditions are polytheistic, but interpretations of the nature of a deity may vary widely. In principle, there is the distinction of hard vs. soft (also, "strong" vs. "weak" or "radical" vs. "moderate") polytheism. Hard polytheism is the notion of the existence of gods and goddesses independent from the human mind and from one another. Soft polytheism considers the plurality of gods as "aspects" of other notions of the divine, including Monism, Pantheism, Panentheism or Deism, Mysticism or Psychologism (Jungianism). In practice, at best a small minority of Neopagans advocates hard polytheism.
Historical polytheism was not founded on religious belief in gods, but focussed on ritual, tradition (ethos) and notions of virtue (arete, pietas). As Christian eschatology became a rising force, Pagan thinkers such as Celsus and the Roman Emperor Julian wrote arguments against Christian claims and in defense of the traditional religions, which give us insight into their contrasting beliefs. Hutton states that the historical Pagans did not see "All Goddesses as one Goddess; all Gods as one God", but some types of modern Neopagans believe that there is but a single divinity or life force of the universe, which is immanent in the world. The various manifestations and archetypes of this divinity are not viewed as wholly separate, but as different aspects of the divine which are ineffable.
In Wicca, (especially Dianic Wicca) the concept of an Earth or Mother Goddess similar to the Greek Gaia is emphasized. Male counterparts are usually also evoked, such as the Green Man and the Horned God (who is loosely based on the Celtic Cernunnos.) These Duotheistic philosophies tend to emphasize the God and Goddess' (or Lord and Lady's) genders as being analogous to a concept similar to that of yin and yang in ancient Chinese philosophy; ie, two complementary opposites. Many Oriental philosophies equate weakness with femininity and strength with masculinity; this is not the prevailing attitude in Neopaganism and Wicca. Among many Neopagans, there is a strong desire to incorporate the female aspects of the divine in their worship and within their lives, which can partially explain the attitude which sometimes manifests as the veneration of women. Other Neopagans reject the concept of binary gender roles.
Worship and ritual
Many Neopagan traditions include occult or "magical" elements in their beliefs and practices. Wicca in particular emphasises the role of witchcraft and ritual. Other Neopagan traditions may include a belief in the supernatural, but place much less emphasis on the working of magic.
Most Neopagan religions celebrate the cycles and seasons of nature through a festival calendar that honours these changes. The timing of festivals, and the rites celebrated, may vary from climate to climate, and will also vary (sometimes widely) depending upon which particular Neopagan religion the adherent subscribes to.
Main currents and denominations
Further information: List of Neopagan movements
The term "Neopaganism" encompasses a very broad range of groups and beliefs. Syncretic or eclectic approaches are often inspired by historical traditions, but not bound by any strict identification with a historical religion or culture. These are contrasted by a focus on historicity (reconstructionism), on folklore, or on occultist or national mysticist claims of continuity from racial memory.
Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, British Traditional Wicca, and variations such as Dianic Wicca are examples of eclectic traditions, as are Neo-druid groups like Ár nDraíocht Féin.