Paganism is based largely in an Enlightenment-era rejection of Christianity and Romantic-era ideas of the individual experience, emotion, and creativity, combined with a search for true ethnic culture in the lore and practices of the pre-Christian past and a rejection of universal transcendental religion, in favor of the local, the particular, the polytheistic, and the animist. Particularly in the United States, Pagans have challenged governmental accommodations for existing religions by demanding equal status in public spaces. Contemporary Pagan groups began forming in the 1930s, but the largest, Wicca, emerged in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s.
Chas S. Clifton
The Christian word “priest,” which is generally used to translate the Greek word hiereus and the Latin word sacerdos, only inadequately captures the essence of how those who bore this title functioned and were perceived in Greek and Roman polytheism. Foremost among the differences between pagan and Christian priests is the fact that the former did not have any pastoral responsibilities, were not expected to lead exemplary lives, and did not exist in a hierarchy under a centralized religious authority. Instead their duties were largely liturgical and administrative, the proper performing of sacrifice and the upkeep of the sanctuary being among the foremost. Methods of appointment varied—some priesthoods were reserved within specific kin-groups, others were available to the entire citizen body, and still others could be sold to the highest bidder. There were, however, important distinctions between Greek and Roman priests. In the Roman world, for instance, there were far fewer priestesses and a closer connection between religion and politics. In both systems, however, religion provided important outlets for women, not least by presenting them with a unique opportunity to enhance their social status. In Rome the connection between religion and politics strengthened over time. Under the Augustan Principate the position of pontifex maximus, a kind of high priest, became central to the identity of the princeps and was filled by all his successors at least until the late-4th century. The Graeco-Roman world also had a variety of other religious personnel, who performed important functions like the supervising of temple finances or the expounding of sacral law. Among the most important were seers or diviners, who produced oracles and had the expertise to interpret omens.
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) always had a complicated relationship with religion, emblematic of the diverse völkisch movement out of which the NSDAP emerged. This relationship became even more complicated during the later years of the Weimar Republic as the party grew larger and attracted millions of new supporters from Protestant as well as Catholic regions. The NSDAP’s attitude toward the Christian churches was nonetheless ambivalent, swinging from co-optation to outright hostility. This ambivalence was founded in part on a pragmatic recognition of Church power and the influence of Christianity across the German population, but it simultaneously reflected an ideological rejection of Judeo-Christian values that a number of Nazi leaders saw as antithetical to National Socialism. Many Nazis therefore sought religious alternatives, from Nordic paganism and a “religion of nature” to a German Christianity led by a blond, blue-eyed Aryan Jesus. This complex mélange of Christian and alternative faiths included an abiding interest in “Indo-Aryan” (Eastern) religion, tied to broader ideological assumptions regarding the origins of the Aryan race in South Asia. Ultimately, there was no such thing as an official “Nazi religion.” To the contrary, the regime explored, embraced, and exploited diverse elements of (Germanic) Christianity, Ario-Germanic paganism, and Indo-Aryan religions endemic to the völkisch movement and broader supernatural imaginary of the Wilhelmine and Weimar period.
Since the end of the 19th century, pagan ideas have inspired some representatives of nationalist, conservative, and far right political ideologies. The idea of a native tradition connected to land and ancestry, as well as the image of organic, hierarchical societies with warrior values, has fascinated conservative thinkers. Paganism as the suppressed other has also served as a symbol for various subversive ideologies. However, the use of pagan symbols, mythology, and imagery in political movements is often superficial. Therefore, it is crucial to distinguish between different forms of paganism. While some appear more unambiguously religious, others can be better described as political, cultural, or philosophical paganism. Having said that, neither contemporary pagan religious movements nor pagan-inspired politics can be understood separately from each other. Ideas, concepts, and individuals move between the two, and they are both shaped by changes in the surrounding society. In the early 21st century, the mainstream pagan religious organizations of many European countries have adopted a generally apolitical and anti-racist stance. However, the rise of xenophobia and far right parties provides fertile ground for the rise of illiberal and exclusivist forms of paganism as well.