Wild Ideas: an online exploration of the wild

The Calyx: Wild Sexuality The Commons: Wild Politics Return to Wild Ideas home page

In The Forest:

Book Reviews
Web Reviews

Stay informed — join WildNews, our announcement list:

E-mail Address:


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

Another 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.[37]

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 of karma.

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...[38]

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 within nature.

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.[39] 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.[40]

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.[41] 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.[42] 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 infinite loss.[43]

According to at least one scholar who has researched the matter, Seymour and Hartley were likely two of the founders of modern Wicca.[44] 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 earth:

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."[45]

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 Lynna Landstreet where not specifically credited.

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Green Web Hosting by Dreamhost Site design: Spider Silk Design - Toronto web designers
This page last modified: January 29, 2006


Wild Ideas has just undergone a major redesign and restructuring, and may still be a little rough around the edges. Please bear with us as we get things sorted out.