You are here: Wild Ideas > Forest > Library >
The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality
Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents
page for full permissions.
12: The birth of neopaganism
modern magico-religious movement which is sometimes lumped in with the
new age movement by outsiders, but in fact holds substantially different
beliefs in many respects, is that of neo-paganism. There are numerous
forms of this, from historically based and culturally specific movements,
such as the Celtic reconstructionists referred to earlier, to highly
eclectic, unstructured groups which place more emphasis on spontaneity
and individuality than on any historical pagan precedent. But
probably the most widespread and best-known form of neo-paganism is
Wicca, an explicitly nature-centred religion whose roots lie in a blend
of 19th century occultism and British folk tradition.
As the earlier quote from Wiccan priestess Starhawk outlined, the key
tenets of the religion involve the immanence of divinity within the
natural world and a focus on direct experience rather than blind faith.
Wicca's system of ethics is based on a belief in the interconnectedness
of all things, meaning that the consequences of any action are likely
to be farther-reaching than may be at first apparent, and will often
return upon the actor in unexpected ways. This belief in some respects
parallels the insights of modern ecology, as well as the Eastern concept
The Wiccan worldview is a strongly animistic one, with animals, plants,
and other natural phenomena perceived as possessing indwelling spirits.
Rituals frequently take place outdoors, and nature imagery is very prevalent.
In "The Charge of the Goddess," probably the most widespread
piece of Wiccan ritual poetry, the Goddess states:
I who am the beauty
of the green earth,
And the white moon among the stars,
And the mystery of the waters,
Call unto your soul: arise and come unto me,
For I am the soul of nature...
Here, nature is not merely alive and responsive to divinity, as in
the Christian psalms quoted earlier; nature is the deity. In
terms of the fourfold progression outlined above, Wicca could be said
to combine elements of both primal animism and animistic polytheism.
Individual deities, sometimes in anthropomorphic form, are acknowledged,
but primarily as aspects of an underlying, immanent divinity resident
There is also a strong strain of environmental awareness and activism
among Wiccans and other neo-pagans, which is particularly evident in
the work of writers like Starhawk and Erynn Laurie. Neo-pagan magazines
frequently feature information on environmental issues, and rituals
are often specifically devoted to raising ecological awareness. This
has become increasingly true over the last 20 years; Margot
Adler notes that in the seven years between the first and second editions
of Drawing Down the Moon, her survey of neo-paganism in the United
States, she witnessed a tremendous upsurge in political involvement
among pagans, especially around environmental issues.
And I have personally seen previously apolitical people sufficiently
moved by involvement in Wicca to engage in civil disobedience actions
with Earth First!.
In fact, the association between neo-paganism and ecological politics
has become sufficiently strong that a somewhat unfortunate side-effect
has been the widespread misconception that the movement is itself somehow
merely an outgrowth of the environmental movement -- or of feminism,
with which it is also frequently associated -- rather than religious
movement in its own right which predates either feminism or environmentalism
in their modern forms. Entire essays have been devoted
to attacking Wicca and neo-paganism on the assumption that they are
purely political creations.
Exactly how old the various neo-pagan traditions are is a subject of
considerable debate. While many practitioners feel they have a spiritual
lineage dating back to pre-Christian times, in actual historical terms,
the genesis of the movement can largely be traced to the various occult
orders that sprang up in England during the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. While by and
large, these groups used pagan deities only symbolically, operated predominantly
within a Judaeo-Christian framework, and accepted the typically Western
metaphysical notions of transcendent divinity, there were important
countercurrents present, particularly as the occult revival grew on
into the 1920's and 30's.
Dion Fortune, a former Golden Dawn initiate who
went on to found her own order, the Society of the Inner Light, wrote
several occult novels which embodied a much more visceral, ecstatic,
and nature based approach to divinity than was prevalent among occultists
at the time. While
Fortune herself soon abandoned her flirtation with paganism and returned
to a Christian-based mysticism, two of her students, Christine Hartley
and Charles Seymour, carried on in the vein she had begun.
Seymour's work, in particular, articulates a very different sort of
spirituality than was the norm for British occultism of that period:
On tree-clad hills,
in boulder-strewn gorges, and upon bare windswept wastes and steep-sided
peaks dwell the Old Gods, the essential Gods. These are the nature gods
that the slum-dwelling children of modern man have forgotten, to their
According to at least one scholar who has researched
the matter, Seymour and Hartley were likely two of the founders of modern
Wicca. While this
is somewhat speculative, it is certain that for them the goal of what
occultists referred to as "the Mysteries" was the cultivation
of contact with the Old Gods, the primal forces of nature, and most
especially with the Earth Mother, the Magna Mater who they regarded
as the soul of the living world, a concept that is central to much of
neo-pagan theology today. Their concept of divinity and of spiritual
exploration and discovery was one that was strongly rooted in the living
There are many who know well how nature,
when we are in the wild places, comes stealthily nearer with a riot
of silent beauty. Through closed eyes in green beechwoods, feelings
steal upon us that bring an awareness of some vital essence of the place
that discharges itself into the receptive human soul. Something that
recharges the natural battery that modern town life causes to run down.
There is a tingling at the nape and a prickling
in the thumbs. Then a glow as from a great inner fire warms one's being.
A deep sense of the greatness and goodness of nature's vast life steals
over one, and the pagan who knows this feeling says, "This place
is divine. Here the Old Ones are still with us."
It is also certain, from my experience, that involvement with neo-paganism
has inspired many previously apolitical people to become environmentally
active. Many adherents are drawn to the movement simply by a search
for spiritual meaning, but find their worldview sufficiently altered
by their experiences that they are inspired to act. Of course, not every
neo-pagan becomes politically active -- Western society's insistence
on pigeonholing religion as a separate category of experience, divorced
from daily life, has made itself felt in countercultural communities
too, with the result that many people appear to be quite capable of
keeping their nature-revering religious beliefs in a separate compartment
from their nature-destroying lifestyles. Despite the overall emphasis
on living one's religion, there are "Sunday pagans" whose
commitment to their faith goes no deeper than that of "Sunday Christians."
One can also find among the activists many people who were environmentally
active before they discovered neo-paganism, and gravitated to it because
it complemented their political beliefs and provided them with the emotional
and spiritual support essential to avoiding the phenomenon of "activist
burnout." But looking at the politically active pagans I have met
within my 18 years of involvement with Toronto's Wiccan community, I
can attest that I have encountered more who came to activism by way
of spirituality than vice-versa.
All content copyright 1999-2006 by the
individual authors, where cited, or by
where not specifically credited.
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs
Site design: Spider Silk Design - Toronto web designers
This page last modified: January 29, 2006