Pagan studies

Pagan studies is the multidisciplinary academic field devoted to the study of contemporary Paganism, a broad assortment of modern religious movements, which are typically influenced by or claiming to be derived from the various pagan beliefs of premodern Europe.[1][2] Pagan studies embrace a variety of different scholarly approaches to studying such religions, drawing from history, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, folkloristics, theology and other religious studies.


The earliest academic studies of contemporary Paganism were published between 1970 and 1980 by scholars like Margot Adler, Marcello Truzzi and Tanya Luhrmann, although it would not be until the 1990s that the actual Pagan studies discipline properly developed, pioneered by academics such as Graham Harvey and Chas S. Clifton. Increasing academic interest in Paganism has been attributed to the new religious movement's increasing public visibility, as it began interacting with the interfaith movement and holding large public celebrations at sites such as Stonehenge.

The first academic conference on the subject was held at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, North-East England in 1993, followed three years later by a larger conference organised by the University of Lancaster in North-West England. Annual gatherings of the Conference on Current Pagan Studies[3] and the Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit[4] of the American Academy of Religion continue to develop scholarship in this field. In 2004, a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to the discipline, The Pomegranate, began publication.[5] Many books on the subject have been published by a variety of different academic publishing companies, while AltaMira Press began publication of the Pagan Studies Series.[6]

The relationship between Pagan studies scholars and the contemporary Pagan community which it studies has at times been strained, with some practitioners rejecting academic interpretations of their faiths. At the same time, many academics involved in Pagan studies are practicing Pagans themselves, bringing an insider's perspective to their approaches.



"Pagan studies, as a subdivision of the larger study of religions, exists, I have no doubt, because scholars of contemporary Paganism (many of them practitioners themselves) found and continue to find themselves not completely at home in such categories as "new religious movements" or "feminist religion." "

Chas S. Clifton, 2004.[7]

Pagan studies scholar Chas S. Clifton argued that the discipline had developed as a result of the increasing "academic acknowledgement" of contemporary Paganism's "movement into the public eye", referring to the emergence of Pagan involvement with interfaith groups and the Pagan use of archaeological monuments as "sacred sites", particularly in the United Kingdom.[7] Clifton also argued that the development of Pagan studies was necessary to "set forth an audacious redefinition of the term "pagan" as Michael York has done", something which Clifton felt "gives us room to reexamine from fresh perspectives all manifestation of ancient Pagan religions".[8]


The first international academic conference on the subject of Pagan studies was held at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, North-East England in 1993. It had been organised by two British religious studies scholars, Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman.[9] In April 1996 a larger conference dealing with contemporary Paganism took place at Ambleside in the Lake District, organised by the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster, North-West England. Titled "Nature Religion Today: Western Paganism, Shamanism and Esotericism in the 1990s", it led to the publication of an academic anthology, Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World.[9][10] In that anthology, some of the conference's organisers described its original intentions, remarking that through it they "sought to explore the innovations in practice and belief which constitute contemporary Paganism, and which appear to be a part of a widespread cultural response to the decay of main-line religions and to a widely felt awareness of ecological crisis."[10]

That same year saw the beginnings of The Pomegranate, which would later be transformed into a peer-reviewed academic journal, which first appeared in 2004.[11]

One of the books AltaMira released was Researching Paganisms, an anthology edited by Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy and Graham Harvey in which different Pagan studies scholars discussed their involvement with the subject and the opposition that they have faced.[12]

Ethan Doyle White noted that as Pagan studies reached its twentieth year, it came under "increasing pressure to explain itself, both to academia and to the Pagan community that it studies."[13]



In 1979, the American sociologist, journalist and Wiccan Margot Adler published Drawing Down the Moon, a sociological study of the Pagan movement across the United States, covering Wiccans, Druids, Goddess Worshipers, Heathens and Radical Faeries.

In 1999, the American sociologist Helen A. Berger of West Chester University published A Community of Witches, a sociological study of the Wiccan and Pagan movement in the north-eastern United States.[14]

Religious studies

In 2003, the British religious studies scholar Michael York published Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, in which he argued that contemporary Paganism could be seen as a part of a much wider global "paganism" which encompassed a large variety of animistic and polytheistic religious traditions, including Indigenous religions.[15] In 2005, ABC-CLIO published an anthology entitled Modern Paganism in World Cultures, which was edited by the American religious studies scholar Michael F. Strmiska.


Among the first scholars to study contemporary Paganism from a historical perspective was the American Wiccan Aidan Kelly, who had been a founding member of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn and the Covenant of the Goddess during the 1970s. Having attained several academic qualifications, including in the field of religious studies, in the 1970s he began a study of the religious texts of Gardnerian Wicca, in order to establish a historical chronology for the tradition. The results of his study would only be published in 1991, as Crafting the Art of Magic. This would later be rewritten and republished in 2007 as Inventing Witchcraft.[16]

The prominent English historian Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol later devoted the latter part of his book The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991) to an examination of the contemporary Pagan religions that took these pre-Christian religions as a core influence. He followed this with several studies of British folk customs, but in 1999 returned to the field of Pagan studies when he published The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, the first academic study of Wiccan history.[17]

Theoretical debates

Pagan studies has been charged with failing to properly define "paganism", as some scholars use it solely to designate contemporary Paganism and others like Michael York and Chas Clifton using it to refer to a wide range of religious movements across the world and throughout history.[18] A further problem arises from the fact that while Pagan studies scholars might adopt "paganism" in reference to pre-Christian belief systems in Europe, the term was increasingly rejected by archaeologists specialising in those belief systems.[19]

Pagan studies has failed to satisfactorily define "contemporary Paganism"; a minority of scholars have treated it as a singular religion within which groups like Wicca and Heathenry are denominations, while a larger group have instead treated it as a "group of comparative religions".[20] The concern has been made that Pagan studies scholars would be "at a loss to convey (to ourselves and to others), what it is that we are actually studying. The current situation, in which widely differing definitions are being used in tandem, is clearly unsustainable."[21]

Religious studies scholar Markus Altena Davidsen published a critique of the field in 2012, via a review of the Handbook of Contemporary Paganism.[22] Ethan Doyle White in The Pomegranate, arguing that there were flaws in Davidsen's approach.[23] Arguing that the Handbook of Contemporary Paganism was not as symptomatic of the field as Davidsen had assumed, he goes on to identify a number of factual errors within Davidsen's paper.[24] Doyle White argued that Davidsen's division of scholars into firmly insider and outsider categories was problematic as scholars of Pagan studies like Sabina Magliocco straddled both boundaries, an approach based in the methodologies employed in anthropology.[25]

Relationship with Pagan community

The relationship between Pagan studies scholars and some practicing Pagans has at times been strained.[13] The Australian academic and practicing Pagan Caroline Jane Tully argued that as a result of cognitive dissonance, many Pagans can react negatively to new scholarship regarding historical pre-Christian societies, believing that it is a threat to the structure of their beliefs and "sense of identity." She furthermore argued that some of those dissatisfied Pagans lashed out against academics as a result, particularly on the internet.[26]



  1. Carpenter 1996. p. 40.
  2. Lewis 2004. p. 13.
  3. "Conference on Current Pagan Studies". Conference on Current Pagan Studies. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  4. "Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit | PAPERS". Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  5. "Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies". Retrieved 2008-05-26.
  6. "Pagan Studies / AltaMira Press". Retrieved 2008-05-26.
  7. Clifton 2004. p. 7.
  8. Clifton 2004. pp. 78.
  9. Clifton 2004. p. 8.
  10. Pearson, Roberts and Samuel 1998. p. 1.
  11. Clifton 2004. p. 5.
  12. Blain, Ezzy and Harvey 2004.
  13. Doyle White 2012, p. 17.
  14. Berger 1999.
  15. York 2003.
  16. Kelly 2007.
  17. Hutton 1999.
  18. Doyle White 2012, pp. 1115.
  19. Doyle White 2014, p. 11.
  20. Doyle White 2012, pp. 1517.
  21. Doyle White 2012, p. 18.
  22. Davidsen 2012.
  23. Doyle White 2012, p. 5.
  24. Doyle White 2012, pp. 78.
  25. Doyle White 2012, pp. 811.
  26. Tully 2011, pp. 9899.


Clifton, Chas S. (2004). "The Pomegranate Returns from the Underworld: A Letter from the Editor". The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. London: Equinox. 6 (1): 5–10.
Davidsen, Markus Altena (2012). "What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?". Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. Leiden: Brill. 24: 183–199.
Doyle White, Ethan (2012). "In Defense of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen's Critique". The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. London: Equinox. 14 (1): 5–21.
Doyle White, Ethan (2014). "Britain's Pagan Heritage". Journal of Religion and Society. Kripke Center. 16: 1–16.
Pearson, Joanne; Roberts, Richard H.; Samuel, Geoffrey (1998). "Introduction". In Joanne Pearson, Richard H. Roberts and Geoffrey Samuel (eds.). Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 1–7. ISBN 978-0-7486-1057-0.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
Tully, Caroline Jane (2011). "Researching the Past is a Foreign Country: Cognitive Dissonance as a Response by Practitioner Pagans to Academic Research on the History of Pagan Religions". The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. London: Equinox. 13 (1): 98–105.

Further reading

  • Adler, Margot (2006). Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America (revised edition). London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-303819-1.
  • Berger, Helen (1999). A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-57003-246-2.
  • Berger, Helen; Ezzy, Douglas (2007). Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers International Press. ISBN 978-0813540207.
  • Blain, Jenny (2002). Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in Northern European Paganism. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Blain, Jenny; Ezzy, Douglas; Harvey, Graham (eds.) (2004). Researching Paganisms. Oxford and Lanham: AltaMira. ISBN 978-0-7591-0522-5.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  • Blain, Jenny; Wallis, Robert (2007). Sacred Sites Contested Rites/Rights: Pagan Engagements with Archaeological Monuments. Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press. ISBN 978-1-84519-130-6.
  • Chuvin, Pierre (1990). Chronique des Derniers Païns. Paris: Belles Lettres/Fayard. ISBN 978-2-251-38003-2.
  • Clifton, Chas S. (2006). Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America. Oxford and Lanham: AltaMira. ISBN 978-0-7591-0202-6.
  • Cowan, Douglas E. (2005). Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-96911-6.
  • Gardell, Mattias (2003). Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0822330714.
  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. (1996). New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-10696-0.
  • Harvey, Graham (2007). Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism (second edition). London: Hurst & Company. ISBN 978-1-85065-272-4.
  • Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-820744-3.
  • Hutton, Ronald (2009). Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-14485-7.
  • Greenwood, Susan (2000). Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld: An Anthropology. Berg Publishers. ISBN 978-1-85973-450-6.
  • Johnston, Hannah E.; Aloi, Peg (eds.) (2007). The New Generation Witches: Teenage Witchcraft in Contemporary Culture. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-5784-2.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  • Jones, Prudence; Pennick, Nigel (1995). A History of Pagan Europe. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-09136-5.
  • Kelly, Aidan A. (2007). Inventing Witchcraft: A Case Study in the Creation of a New Religion. Loughborough: Thoth Publications. ISBN 978-1-870450-58-4.
  • Lewis, James R. (2004). The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements. London and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514986-6.
  • Magliocco, Sabina (2002). Neo-pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Work. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-57806-391-8.
  • Magliocco, Sabina (2004). Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-paganism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-3803-7.
  • Orion, Loretta (1995). Never Again the Burning Times: Paganism Revisited. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press. ISBN 978-0-88133-835-5.
  • Pearson, Joanne (2007). Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual, Sex and Magic. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge.
  • Salomonsen, Jone (2002). Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-22393-5.
  • Wallis, Robert J. (2003). Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-30203-6.
  • Wise, Constance (2008). Hidden Circles in the Web: Feminist Wicca, Occult Knowledge and Process Thought. Oxford and Lanham: AltaMira. ISBN 978-0-7591-1007-6.
  • York, Michael (2003). Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-9702-0.
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