The Daily Star Sunday recently reported that since 2016 there has been an increase in the number of Pagans in the army. There is also a Pagan Police Association, founded in 2009 to support staff who are Pagan and to develop good relations between the police and Pagan communities. This may indicate that Paganism is on the rise in the UK.
Certainly, we have seen an increase of Pagans, including Wiccans, Druids, etc., from over 44,000 in the 2001 UK censuses to over 85,000 in 2011, and we may see yet another rise in the 2021 census when results are released later in 2022.
But what is Paganism and why do people follow it? Paganism in Britain, as it is practised today, emerged in the twentieth century, though with antecedents in nineteenth century romanticism and ceremonial magic groups. It grew in popularity after the Second World War, partly as a response to the devastation of the wars in Europe, which brought with it a disillusionment with modernity and an interest in protecting the environment. I see these sentiments reflected in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings with the march of the tree-like Ents against the corrupted wizard Saruman who had destroyed a large swathe of forest.
Another factor was the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951. Until then it had been illegal to practise witchcraft. This has led to more publications on Pagan traditions and public gatherings of Pagans without fear of prosecutions, though not all Pagans feel safe enough to declare their involvement openly where they might be ridiculed or misunderstood, as still happens in some media representations of Paganism.
Two of the main strands of Paganism emerging in the twentieth century were Wicca and a more Pagan form of Druidry. Gerald Gardner unveiled Wicca in 1954 and his friend Ross Nichols of the Ancient Druid Order (a fraternal order influenced by universalism) founded the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids in 1964 with a focus on Celtic sources. Another strand of Paganism, Heathenry, developed separately in parts of mainland Europe and later in Britain. Many more Pagan groups followed.
Together, Gardner and Nichols introduced the eight seasonal rites. These are the two solstices, the two equinoxes and four ‘fire festivals’ (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh), derived from various ancient sources. The celebration of seasonal changes has become a core organising feature of contemporary Paganism for gatherings, feasts and gaining a sense of the rhythm of nature. Thousands gather to observe the sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice. Observing seasonal changes like this, whether Pagan or not, can help to develop empathy with nature.
Although the different strands of Paganism in Britain share some characteristics – most observe the eight seasonal rites – their beliefs and practices can otherwise vary considerably. For example, Wicca usually conceives of deity as duotheistic (God and Goddess), while Druidry can accommodate Christian, polytheistic, pantheistic and non-theistic views.
What is the appeal of Paganism at this time? Today, some may turn to Paganism to find a better way of living in relationship to the world. More recently, the concern for the environment has become a key political issue with the awareness of climate change. During the pandemic, many people have re-evaluated their lifestyles, especially during the lockdowns and restrictions on travel. While some have always stepped out their door to explore local parks, woods and moors, many more who hadn’t given this much thought had found a sense of well-being from taking daily walks outside. An appreciation of nature is an extension of Pagan beliefs and practices, and equally people may have found a home in Paganism because it aligns with their own values toward the environment and a desire to form a deeper relationship with it.
Suzanne Owen is a Reader in Religious Studies who leads courses on the study of religion and spirituality, fieldwork in religious studies and the study of indigenous religions and cultural appropriation. She has published one monograph, The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality (Bloomsbury, 2011), and several articles and chapters on Paganism and indigenous religions. Currently, Suzanne is secretary of the British Association for the Study of Religions.