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Neo-Pagan Religious Divisions Revisited (Or Just Who The Heck We Are These Days)

Two decades ago, if they'd been asked to talk about the different subgroups under the Neo-Pagan umbrella, many Pagans would have crinkled their brows and said, "Divisions? You mean like different kinds of Wiccan covens?" Some might have mentioned Asatru if they knew of its existence, or said something about women's spirituality, or the Radical Faeries. However, generally it was Wicca, Wicca, and yet another version of Wicca. Decent histories of the early years of Neo-Paganism can be found in Margot Adler's Drawing Down The Moon and Ronald Hutton's The Triumph Of The Moon.

Today, although Wicca is still the single largest division of Neo-Paganism (when explaining this to outsiders, I often use the analogy "Wicca is to Neo-Paganism as Catholicism is to Christianity"), other sorts of groups have grown and changed around it, forcing a new revision of people's assumptions. New traditions (Pagan for "sects") are presenting rites at public gatherings that are far and away from traditional coven structures and symbols. In ancient and medieval times, it might take a religion centuries to do this kind of splitting and schisming; today, in the Information Era when people can travel across the world in hours and share their ideas in seconds, it has taken Neo-Paganism mere decades to do what it took Christianity, for example, ten centuries to accomplish. We have literally as many sects as that major religion, with a far smaller population to do it with.

Modern Neo-Pagans are still rather bewildered as to the number and type of subgroups in their faith demographic; some still use "Wiccan" and "Pagan" interchangeably and are taken aback when they encounter group after group that differentiate themselves from that label. There have been fiery and tempestuous inter-group arguments about who ought to be under the "Pagan" umbrella title and who ought not to be, all of which are beyond the scope of this article, but are a map of the growing pains of this highly eclectic faith.

However, we can still sum up the basic divisions as they stand now. This list may be different in a matter of years, and need to be remade; that's how fast we are changing. But for the moment, this is how things stand. We can divide Neo-Pagan groups into the following categories: British Traditional Wicca, Modern Wicca, Wiccan-derived traditions, Reconstructionist traditions, and Reconstructionist-derived traditions.

The First Circles: British Traditional Wicca

BTWs, as they are called, are a much smaller percentage of the demographic (or even of the Wiccan demographic) than they once were, but they still boast a good number of folk in the UK and America. This is the sect that started it all, coming out in the 1950s in England and stimulating the "Witchcraft Revival" in America. Classic BTW is an initiatory mystery tradition rather than a church-with-congregation structure – adults-only, requiring a series of initiations, limited to small-numbered covens, and focusing as much on magical practice as on religious faith. Secrecy is emphasized to a greater or lesser extent, reflecting its nature as a mystery tradition. Their liturgy worships the Lord and Lady, a male-female god/goddess pair also referred to as the Triple Goddess (due to her ability to appear in any of three forms – Maiden, Mother, or Crone) and the Horned God. Occasionally they will use the names of deities drawn from historical records in place of the nameless Lord and Lady (Frey and Freya, or Herne and Diana, etc.) but these are held to be aspects of the Lord and Lady. BTW practice could be categorized as "duotheistic", although it is probably more accurately called "pantheistic".

The Great Wave: Modern Wicca

From the roots of British Traditional Wicca exploded a huge number of groups that used the basic Wiccan structure, values, and symbolism, but embellished their practices in different ways from the original Gardnerian version. The Alexandrian tradition may have been the first official offshoot, but it was similar enough that today it is generally relegated to the first category above, and Modern Wicca is made up of groups with more strongly varied catechism. These groups generally keep to the custom of organizing in small covensteads, "hiving off" when they become too large and unwieldy for their spaces and manageability.

This is a domestic religion, in the sense that it is usually practiced in people's homes (or, in many cases, outdoors in secluded areas) rather than in any central building made for the purpose. Due to a good deal of influx during the 1980s from environmentalist, antiwar, feminist, GLBT, sex-positive, and other politically radical individuals seeking a religion that could be made to support their goals and values, the political and social values of Modern Wicca have tended to become more progressive and liberal, and in some cases more radical, than the BTWs from whence they sprang. One of the side-effects of this influx is a great reduction in the emphasis on secrecy; Wiccan arts and rituals exploded into major publication during the 1980s. Where once initiates had hand-copied rites and spells into their own Book of Shadows, now Pagan presses were churning out the mysteries for anyone to see – and to start their own coven on the strength of a book or two.

Modern Wicca groups, like their forebears, are initiatory mystery traditions. They tend to have a strong emphasis on teaching and practicing magical arts, an adults-only demographic, require initiations, and work with a male/female deity duality. Modern Wicca groups tend to be strongly pantheistic, seeing all historical goddesses and gods as aspects of that divine duality, and sometimes using their names interchangeably. Some place an emphasis on a particular culture, incorporating that ancient pantheon's deities and symbols onto a Wiccan framework – Celtic Wicca, Seax-Wicca, Faery Wicca, etc.

Wanderers Through A Million Fields: Wiccan-Derived Traditions

Today, although Wiccan symbolism permeates throughout the Neo-Pagan community if only in its familiarity, the largest subgroup of Paganism consists of groups that could all be called Wiccan-derived, even if they now bear little resemblance to their Wiccan progenitors. These groups still tend to have a pantheistic focus that sees many Gods and Goddesses as facets of two or even one, and they share with Wicca an immanent rather than a transcendent focus, a reverence for the earth and for diversity, a belief in the body and sexuality as sacred forces, the teaching and practice of magical arts, and an emphasis on personal responsibility in morality. They may also use the symbolism of the four elements and/or the four directions, casting "circle" or other related forms of creating sacred space and delineating ritual time, and many of the other tools of Wiccan practice. Their Gods may reflect Wiccan divine duality, or be any number of ancient deities in any number of combinations, or in some cases be pantheons entirely created (their worshippers would say "discovered") by modern practitioners.

Where they differ is radical changes in structure. Many folk who came into the Wiccan revival found its mildly hierarchical, initiatory, secrecy-laden, small-domestic-group structure to be unable to meet their needs, and carried the spirit and the symbolism over to groups formed on different structures. Some added more hierarchy; some took it away entirely and created horizontal consensus groups where roles were rotated. Groups differ in structure as vastly as consensus-based spiritually-oriented political-action covens to large churches with congregations. In fact, probably the most drastic change was the transition from small initiatory mystery groups to large, open church/congregation models, with education for children, community service, Pagan chapels, liturgical cycles, tax-exempt church status, donation boxes, and all the other structural trappings of the mainstream faiths that many people had fled to Wicca long ago in order to avoid.

The aforementioned radical-political influx that affected Modern Wicca to an extent practically forged the outflow of the Wiccan-Derived Traditions, and still accounts for the pervasive community atmosphere of tolerance toward progressive politics and alternative lifestyles. So many nonheterosexual and transgressively-gendered individuals defected to Neo-Paganism that there is now a higher percentage of them here than in any other religion, and it is not uncommon to have small Pagan religious groups that are entirely queer-oriented. A few Pagan churches will do weddings not only for GLBT folk but polyamorous ones as well. There are groups dedicated to men's mysteries and women's mysteries, to political work as a sacred task, to the worship of a single ancient deity, and to Pagan versions of monasticism. Environmental reverence is almost a given in most communities, as is a general ethic of tolerance. The ability to "sacralize the ordinary" – whether that means creating sacred space in a concrete warehouse, see the body in all its physicality as sacred, or do magic in the kitchen with a wooden spoon – has been a guiding force in many Wiccan-derived communities; it is all about sacralizing what one already is rather than trying to become some different ideal.

One of the more surprising theological trends that has arisen in the Wiccan-derived demographic is the significant numbers of folk who ardently take part in Pagan ritual and community, yet consider themselves to be atheists. For them, ritually calling on Gods is a way of communing with transpersonal archetypes, gaining self-knowledge, and being spiritually moved by sacred theater. Referred to as "archetypists", theirs is a new phenomenon, and one that creates an interesting faultline among existing groups who consider themselves to be theistic, whether pantheistic or polytheistic. It may be that only Buddhism has to deal with more of a growing number of religious atheists, and it will be interesting to see how the tolerant but theistic majority reacts to them.

Ancient Echoes: Reconstructionists

At the same time that the Wiccan Revival was exploding, some individuals and small groups were working on more specific aspects of Pagan religion. Reconstructionists attempt to "reconstruct" the religions of the ancient world and practice them as closely as is possible in a modern context. This means that their groups center on a specific time and place in ancient times – Hellenic Greece, republican Rome, Pharaonic Egypt, pre-Roman Celts, and early-medieval Iron Age Scandinavia being the most common. (Those particular traditions tend to be referred to as Hellenics, Romans, Kemetics, Celtics, and Heathens, respectively, at least in this area.)

Adapting ancient faiths to modern contexts is a challenging situation, as many practices and social beliefs of our ancestors do not translate well into modern society – sexism, slavery, and human sacrifice being good examples of those, for instance. Reconstructionists walk a fine line when they must choose what to keep and what to discard. They also struggle with the issue of practicing beliefs that are by definition the product of a specific society, to which they do not belong and whose mindset they cannot fully recreate, with specific sets of deities. As might be expected, a great deal of emphasis is placed on academic scholarship and research as the foundations of reconstructionist liturgy, ritual, and belief. This often places them in the difficult position of taking most of their theological foundation from the written works of academics who not are not only unbelievers, but find the idea of actually practicing this religion ludicrous, and whose attitudes about this permeate the sources .. a situation with which no other faiths have to cope.

There is often a strong atmosphere of reverence for the past, ancestor worship (of literal or spiritual ancestors), and soft-to-hard polytheism – the belief that all the ancient Gods are separate entities who can personally interact with their worshippers, and tend only to do so when addressed as separate entities rather than as vague aspects of a pantheistic whole. This polytheism/pantheism split is the major theological difference between reconstructionist groups and their derivations, and Wiccan-derived groups which tend to a more pantheistic theology, with the aforementioned percentage of archetypists.

Reconstructionist groups grew up simultaneously within the growing Wiccan-derived community, created by people who were interested in historical recreation and liked the idea of recreating authentic-feeling Pagan religion as well, and externally in separate groups not linked to that demographic. During the 1990s, a good deal of crossing back and forth between these internal and external groups occurred. Some left the greater Pagan demographic, and some entered it; others existed on the fringe. To this day there are reconstructionist groups who consider themselves firmly part of the larger umbrella of Neo-Paganism, and reflect that in their social values and political alliances, as well as groups who shun the name and are hostile to the association, and a few who find themselves somewhere in the middle. Even so, since a good percentage of converts to the latter groups come out of Neo-Pagan groups, the influence still remains.

Since reconstructionist groups did not come out of initiatory mystery traditions, their beliefs adapted quickly to either public temple/congregational-style structures, tribal/clan-style communities, or to domestic hearth-and-home family worship (not unlike solitary Judaic structures) that include whole families and households. As the externally-developing groups missed the influx of politically progressive seekers from the 1980s, many of them have much more conservative values and gain most of their converts from conservative Christianity rather than a mix of faiths. Their small numbers and lack of area concentration in much of America (or in Europe in countries where their specific ancient culture is not the ancestral one – for example, Hellenics in Germany or Asatru in Italy) is a difficult handicap for them to overcome for faiths that evolved within a homogenous community, but they are hopeful that the future will resolve this issue.

New Leaves From Ancient Roots: Reconstructionist-Derived Traditions

Just as Wicca spawned a great number of traditions that built on those roots, so the reconstructionist traditions have spawned their own offshoots. While these offshoots may borrow the rituals, liturgies, cultural ceremonies, and pantheon of Gods of the "recons", as they're casually known, they tend to use these researched works as a base and build from there, through intuition, prayer, divine mediation, and sometimes imagination. One of the main differences is that in "recon-derived" traditions, it is considered acceptable to use divine inspiration as a primary source to fill in the missing holes in lore. Historical documentation is displaced as a primary source, and becomes merely the means to an end – providing enough religious context to access the real primary source, which is the Gods themselves. It is also considered more acceptable to openly adapt the ancient religion to modern social values; recon-derived groups almost always consider themselves part of the Neo-Pagan demographic and tend to share similar ethics and values.

One of the biggest differentiations is the creation of "eclectic" reconstructionist-derived traditions, where rather than concentrating on recreating one particular religious era, a group may do so with several of them, and rotate "cultures" among their rituals. This eclecticism of practice reflects an eclecticism of theology: unlike many recon groups which practice theological separatism (the idea that one should only deal with the Gods of one's chosen pantheon), recon-derived groups consider it acceptable to deal with the Gods of many (or any) pantheons. A few even reach across the divide to Wiccan-derived groups and consider Wiccan beliefs, Gods, culture, and symbols as a separate "pantheon", as legitimate as Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse, or Hindu, to be used on a rotational basis with the latter.

(Author's Note: You'll notice that the one thing that this article is lacking are five lists of actual groups that are examples of these five subgroups of our demographic. There's a reason for this – we'd love to include them, but we'd prefer that they self-identify, rather than relying on our assumptions about them. If your group fits into one of these subgroups (or is clearly a cross between two), and you'd like us to use it as an example, please email us at asphodelclerk@yahoo.com and briefly describe your group, and for which subgroup it should be used as an example! Help us to make this article more complete and comprehensive!)

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