The 1996 Annual Meeting for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion
<<Making and Remaking the Sacred>>

Invented Culture / Invented Religion:
The Fictional Origins of Contemporary Paganism

Michael York
Department for the Study of Religions
Bath College of Higher Education
Bath, England



Is the current milieu comprehended by Wicca, Goddess Spirituality and reconstructed forms of Druidry, Celtic Mysteries and Asatru among others a new religious culture? As part of the methodological examination of the question of culture creation, this paper compares the artificial origins of Shinto by Meiji Japan with today's Anglo-American pagan attempts toward resacralizing the natural world. New developments in religious practice include the invocation of the guardians of the four directions as found among both large-scale gatherings such as the pan-British Pagan Federation and small-scale private household worship such as in a London-Brixtonian Imbolc ceremony. Despite the growing multifacetedness of Western pagan sectarianism (chaos and thelemic magic, urban shamanism, wicca and even new age), an emergent ecologically based sacrality can be observed which cuts across these many divides. The so-called `eco-magick' movement known as Dragon in the United Kingdom and abroad is one recent quasi-institutionalized example. Dragon's involvement with the protest against the Newbury by-pass further illustrates the potential for religio-cultural conflict and dissenting identity within non-traditional understandings of the sacred.

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Allan Grapard of Honolulu's East-West Center refers to the development of cultic centers in Japan as a fundamental aspect of Japanese religions and culture. In 1868, the ideologues of the Meiji Restoration undid all associations between Shinto and Buddhist divinities.

“... the dissociations ordered by the Meiji government were destructive moves aimed at [the cultic] centers, but they were, first and foremost, attempts at modifying religious consciousness. That could not be done without an ideology ... that, while attempting to take the guise of a rediscovery of history, was in fact the institutionalization of cultural lies.” (Grappard, 1984:245)

 For Grapard, the government `pretended' to be returning to the real source of Japanese identity and religious consciousness, but what it was really doing "was creating from bits and pieces a `religion' that was to become no more than a tool for coercion dedicated to the support of `structure'" (Grappard, 1984:245). In effect, according to Grappard, the Meiji ideologues formulated a new Shinto. As Kuroda Toshio (1981:3) puts it, to "regard Shinto as a unique religion existing independently throughout history ... is not only an incorrect perception of the facts but also a one-sided interpretation of Japanese history and culture, ... that before modern times Shinto did not exist as an independent religion."[1] For Kuroda (1981:19), though the concept first developed with political reforms at the beginning of the ninth century and was furthered with the rise of Yoshida Shinto (the Shinto-only school) at the end of the fifteenth century, "The notion of Shinto as Japan's indigenous religion finally emerged complete both in name and in fact with the rise of modern nationalism ..."[2]

By focussing on the history of the Tônomine cultic center, Grapard is able to show that the cult was probably Buddhist to start with and nothing else. In fact, the deification of great political figures and deceased leaders in Japan invariably "began as a Buddhist cult, became syncretic during the medieval period, and finally became `Shinto' only in 1868" (Grapard, 184:259). With the shimbutsu bunri or dissociation of Shinto and Buddhist divinities, Buddhist elements which had been structurally significant and present since the beginning were removed from such cults in 1868. In that year,

“Tônomine received ... specific orders from the government: (1) all monks must return immediately to lay life; (2) all Buddhist representations, buildings and objects of the cult must be removed; and (3) all divinities bearing syncretic names must be renamed.” (Grapard, 1984:263)

By continuing to specialize in either Buddhist or Shinto studies, the modern student is thereby "throwing most of Japanese culture out the window" (Grapard, 1984:242). Concerning the Meiji creation or invention of modern Shinto, Grapard (1984:245) can conclude that "the destruction of [the] syncretic art and treatises [of Japan] is beyond imagination." He also categorically affirms that "The usual arguments of modernization, urbanization, industrialization, and secularization advanced by scholars who project European and American models, do not, in fact, stand for Japan" (Grapard, 1984:265).

As Basil Hall Chamberlain (1912:531) declared in 1912 concerning Shinto as `the invention of a new religion', "religions are sometimes manufactured for a special end - to subserve practical worldly purposes." He considered the invention of a new national religion by post-exilic Jews as the classic case: "Works which every critic can now see to be relatively modern were ascribed to Moses, David, or Daniel; ... a whole new way of thinking and acting was set in motion on the assumption that it was old" (Chamberlain, 1912:542).

In view of the capability for Hebrew scribes and Meiji ideologues to construct a religion and falsify the past, I wish to examine the contemporary development of Neo-paganism and Goddess Spirituality. What if any parallels are there? In what ways can the emergent paganism of the West be seen as an invented religion? And finally I wish to address the question considering the validity of religious expression irregardless of whether it is new and innovative or old and traditional.

To begin with, let me state from the onset that there is little or no evidence that modern earth spiritualities and related traditions in the West are anything but contemporary creations. Instead, the contemporary Neo-pagan movement can be seen as a multiple conflation of numerous traditions or sources, many of which were patently contrived or even erroneous. Part of the impetus of modern witchcraft stems from the nineteenth century ideas proposed or imagined by two Germans, Karl Ernest Jarcke and Franz Joseph Mone, and the French writer Jules Michelet alleging that the victims of the `witchcraft' persecutions during the middle ages were the survivors of the pre-Christian religion of Europe.

Subsequently, the American Charles Godfrey Leland, drawing on Michelet's La Sorcière, termed this earlier faith in his book, Aradia, the `Old Religion' and alleged that it had survived in secret. Its adherents reputedly conducted their ceremonies unclothed. Hutton (1991:301) advises that, since Leland's is largely `an original composition', it represents more of a forgery than a plagiarism. The `classic' formulation of the Great Witch Hunt thesis, however, was developed by the Egyptologist Margaret Alice Murray (d. 1963). Employing highly selected and manipulated evidence, she contended that the witch-persecutions represented the extermination of the remnants of European paganism. Murray published The Witch Cult in Western Europe in 1921, and, influenced by Sir James Frazer's highly flawed The Golden Bough, The God of the Witches in 1933 (reprinted in 1952) and The Divine King in England in 1954. Confusing the recorded parodies of Christian ceremonies as the original rituals of Leland's `Old Religion', she developed the notion of the Horned God and the Goddess and confabulated the Celtic quarter days as the main celebrations which she termed sabats (`sabbaths'). Murray also argued that the witches were organized into covens whose prime concern was fertility.[3]

Likewise influenced by Frazer, the poet Robert Graves, in his fictional The White Goddess (1944), turned the alleged Corn Maiden into the Triple Goddess of virgin, matron and hag. Many of Graves' ideas are to be seen as re-workings of Lady Charlotte Guest's The Mabinogion (1849) which unfortunately and unwittingly included several of the forged texts added by Edward Williams to his Canu Taliesin `Song of Taliesin' which Hutton (1991:322) proposes was first developed by the Gogynfeirdd (c.1080 - c.1350) as a new Welsh mytholgy incorporating supernatural figures created by these `fairly early poets'. Hutton (1991:139ff, 320-323) contends that `pseudo-Celticism', like the `Old Religion', is not continuous with pre-Christian paganism which had ceased to exist with the conversion of Europe to Christianity save for its absorption into Christianity itself, its transformation into magic, and its artistic legacy along with various survivals of superstition and folk culture. Where the modern Neo-pagan movement does reveal an ancient continuity which stems back at least to Hellenistic Egypt is in the magic tradition which can be traced subsequently through the medieval grimoires, Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry and the Templars, the works of Eliphas Levi and S.L. MacGregor Mathers, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis and Aleister Crowley (Hutton, 1991:337).

This tradition of magical practices, on the one hand, along with a grafting of ideas from Margaret Murray, Charles Leland and various English folk customs became synthesized in the 1940s by Gerald Broisseau Gardner (1884-1964), a retired English colonial civil servant, who appears almost single-handedly to have fashioned the contemporary Wiccan movement (see York, 1995:306). Before the British repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, Gardner published two novels: A Goddess Arrives (1941) and High Magic's Aid (1949). In 1954, he released Witchcraft Today (with a preface by Murray) - to be followed by The Meaning of Witchcraft. It was Gardner, moreover, who added the solstices and equinoxes to Murray's major witch festivals - creating the present Wiccan calendar of eight sabats.

In Gardner's wake, a host of semi-competing Wiccan sub-traditions have emerged - drawing in addition from the `earth mysteries', Celtic `revivalism', native American religions, Eastern - chiefly Hindu - concepts, and radical feminism as well as an alleged `oral tradition' (e.g., via Victor Anderson, Starhawk's Fairy Tradition). Unlike pre-Christian paganism with its polytheism, practice of worship, temples and permanent shrines and preoccupation with welfare or prosperity, Wicca and Neo-paganism in general are bi-theistic, magic oriented in which deities or `powers' are conjured to serve the celebrant, employing the ad hoc ritual circle and currently predominantly concerned with environmental protection.

Consequently, modern witchcraft or Wicca in fact owes its origins, via Gardner, to the Murray thesis. This once popular argument, that the victims of the medieval Inquisition were the remnants of an earlier fertility religion who had survived despite the advent and success of the Roman Catholic Church, has now been exposed as a conscious selection, repression and manipulation of evidence (York, 1995:102f, 396f; Hutton, 1991:301-307).[4] In other words, it is a patent forgery and becomes an invented base for a religion which differs little in essentials from what Grapard, Chamberlain, Kuroda, Murakami and Bocking allege to be the fabricated foundation for modern Shinto.

In a startling paper delivered by Ronald Hutton to the Lancaster University's "Nature Religion Today" conference held earlier this year at the university's Lake District campus, the issue was raised concerning the "politics of the Great Goddess" and the conflict between professional British and American archaeology. In his talk, Hutton traced the development of the modern concept of the Great Goddess as largely a Romantic creation - concluding that the archaeological reality of whether there was indeed a universal veneration of the Goddess throughout the neolithic south-east and megalithic north-west of Europe is once again an open question. Hutton emphasizes the role of Jacquetta Hawkes as a best-selling author and respected scholar who doubtlessly influenced three major British archaeologists (Gordon Childe, O.G.S. Crawford and Glyn Daniel) "to declare in the mid-1950s that Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe had been devoted to the worship of the Great Goddess." Hutton (1996:12) points out that not only was Jane Harrison a life-long Tory, but that Jacquetta Hawkes followed in this same romanticized conservative tradition.

She idealized a woman-centred Neolithic because she believed that women were the great forces for conservatism in the world. Her two great hatreds were science and socialism, and her favorite period was the eighteenth century, when the aristocracy lorded it over the land in beautiful houses and gardens and everything was kept in order. (Hutton, 1996:14)[5]

When the `New Archaeology' of the 1960s sought to challenge Childe et al.'s presuppositions, "Nobody fought it more bitterly than Hawkes, who became the loudest voice of reactionary prehistory in the British scholarly community" (Hutton, 1996:14f).

From the point of view of the `Old Guard', the neolithic Great Goddess opposed the messy and insecure contaminations represented by science, technology and socialism. The rising generation of British scholars between 1965 and 1975, then, were glad to see the Goddess `toppled from her throne' along with the idealization of `Nature', essentialist notions of gender, and the sexist stereotypes which masqueraded in Erich Neumann's work as natural archetypes. According to Hutton (1996:17), "To many British historians, therefore, it was shock and a surprise when the old images and the old ideas came back to Britain from America in the late 1970s and 1980s, but this time as part of a radical discourse." Mary Daly, Susan Griffin, Adrienne Rick and Marija Gimbutas had continued the old notion of an essential female nature but attached to it a liberationist agenda rather than a conservative reactionary one. But the British and American strategies were incompatible, and, according to Hutton (1996:18), "British archaeologists and historians of my generation had built up a whole series of excellent arguments for not believing in the Great Goddess of the conservatives" which were not easily dismissed though the American re-presentation associated them with a new political position.

However, as the modern paradigm of science and technology has come increasingly to be questioned and the resultant environmental costs more apparent, writers like Gimbutas or Michael Dames who had the focus to reach a mass audience were able to diffuse the American ideas rapidly among the British radical subcultures (Hutton, 1996:18). This subculture includes the Neo-paganism of Britain along with its similar expressions in North America, Western Europe and Oceania. With the exception of Hinduism and vernacular religious practice, all religions seem to have a founder and in some sense may be considered artificial inventions. Contemporary Western paganism appears to be no exception, and here the seminal leaders or organizers or creators include Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, Alexander Sanders, Zsuzsanna Budapest and Starhawk (Miriam Simos) among others. Unlike mainstream Christianity and Judaism and traditional forms of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, and more like Scientology, ISKCON, the Unification Church among others, it is simply a new religion - one without a long continuity or fully developed history. Neo-paganism, however, does often seek validation through linking itself to a pre-Christian legacy - whether Greek, Celtic, Nordic, Egyptian, medieval witchcraft or neolithic Goddess worship despite the fact that its theology, organization and practice are radically different or its understandings of these early traditions is unfounded or erroneous. Whereas contemporary New Age makes little or no attempt to identify with earlier forms of spirituality but seeks its own innovation largely unfettered by the past, it, like contemporary paganism, generally stresses a radical individual exegesis which endorses the personalized shopping and unhindered selection from within the emergent spiritual supermarket.

Modern paganisms are frequently termed re-constructed religions, and to the degree they can reinvent their past, they may be seen as similar to the possibilities of a Meiji creation of a Shinto identity. If so, both religions would be deliberate and conscious constructions. The major difference between this new understanding of Western paganism as the ancient, indigenous and pure religion of Europe and that of Shinto in post-Meiji Restoration Japan is of course that the one would be a state sponsored governmental initiative and the other a subcultural protest. To date, Neo-paganism has no official sanction or corporate backing and remains essentially covert and marginal with religious appeal limited, in Britain, to so-called New Age Travellers on one end and computer programmers and higher education academics on the other. Its non-conformist orientation along with an intense valorization of nature and the natural, however, remains paramount. At the present time, both the Pagan Federation and the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust are engaged in protracted negotiations with the British Charity Commission for acceptance or preservation of trust status. The Charity Commission, however, contends that, since there is no generally accepted definition of the term, paganism is not a recognized or official religion. It is therefore ineligible in its bid to be a legal charity. A process is now underway to strip the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust of its current position as a charity.

In contrast to the reputed governmental invention of Japanese Shinto,[6] Western paganism is largely a spontaneous and unorganized response from a more `grass-roots' level - one which conforms more to Gerlach and Hine's SPIN or segmented-polycentric-integrated-network model of survival strategy in a non-supportive or hostile environment (see York, 1995:324-329). In other words, the key difference is one in which a network is to be contrasted to an organized institution. The search for meaning through the kinds of individual religious experience in New Age and Neo-paganism appears to be a counterbalancing response to what sociologists recognize as an increase of secularization in Western cultures.[7] This is not to say that the increase in numbers attracted to new religious movements as well as the charismatic movement offset the numbers lost by mainstream churches, but the turn to alternate forms of religiosity may be a mitigating effect to the general process and may in fact represent beginnings of a turning tide to religious decline in general. Following Felicitas Goodman's assertation (1988:171) that, "In the long run, ... humans cannot tolerate ecstasy deprivation," the increasing prominence of appeal to what the Church of England condemns as popular superstitious behavior may constitute culturally inspired reactions to secular dominance in the West. Non-rational conduct connected with the Toronto Blessing and other charismatic phenomena, with New Age forms of the paranormal, and with Neo-pagan incorporations of supernatural experience may develop from human needs to `slip' on occasion into an ecstatic experience shaped by a religious orientation which appeals to the individual.

The theology of re-enchantment typical of the new paganism corresponds in essence to what complexity theorist Brian Arthur refers to as the complex approach of Taoism. He contrasts this last with the standard but waning Protestant belief that "If we act as individuals in our own right, if we pursue our own righteous self-interest and work hard, and don't bother other people, then the natural equilibrium of the world will assert itself ... [and] we get the best of all possible worlds - the one we deserve" (apud Waldrup, 1992:330). But in Arthur's Taoism and an increasingly modern/post-modern secularistic perception, there is no inherent order to the world: the universe is understood as vast, amorphous and ever-changing - with patterns repeating although never exactly. Arthur (Waldrup, 1992:330f) concludes that "if you quietly observe the flow, realizing that you're part of it, realizing that the flow is ever-changing and always leading to new complexities, then every so often you can stick an oar into the river and punt yourself from one eddy to another." This general `going-with-the-flow' is typical of the attitude in contemporary paganism in which, nevertheless, when the occasion is right, the practitioner resorts, hopefully judiciously, to a ceremonial rite to effect change in accordance with will and move `from one eddy to another'.

If paganism in the West is largely fictional in origins and comprises a polyphony of consciously invented or reconstructed religions, it nevertheless is not only growing or expanding through such pan-national or international network-organizations as Circle, the Pagan Spirit Alliance, EarthSpirit, the Pagan Federation and the Fellowship of Isis or in such diffusions as small household gatherings meeting to celebrate the pagan sabats or festivals, it is also emerging into new forms which become something greater than simply the sum of its sectarian parts. The British-based and London-headquartered Dragon Environmental Group and the road-protest Dongas Tribe[8] are among the foremost expressions of this new pagan spirituality. Typically, Dragon and Dongas employ a combination of `eco-magickal' practices and environmental campaigns. These last include the cleaning-up of a holy well in North Penwith; protesting the proposed road bypasses in Lancaster, Blackburn and Newbury; campaigning against the Criminal Justice Bill; and supporting such organizations as the Wildlife Trust and the Freedom Network. Both groups emphasize the use of ritual ceremony based on ancient myth or what has been criticized as an `atavistic taste for supernaturalism' (see McKay, 1996:147).

So while Western paganism is a new and essentially recently created or invented religion, despite its non-dogmatic lattitude, it increasing exhibits the ceremonial, social, quasi-political and cathartic or mystical behaviors characteristic of religion in general. It is, therefore, a new religion which is inceasingly finding its own niche in contemporary society.



Basil Hall Chamberlain, "Appendix: The Invention of a New Religion," Japanese Things, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1912.

Felicitas D. Goodman, Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternative Reality: Religion in a Pluralistic World, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Allan G. Grapard, "Japan's Ignored Cultural Revolution: The Separation of Shinto and Buddhist Divinities in Meiji (shimbutsu bunri) and A Case Study: Tônomine," History of Religions, University of Chicago (1984).

Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

" "The Discovery of the Modern Goddess," paper delivered to the conference `Nature Religion Today: Western Paganism, Shamanism and Esotericism in the 1990s', Lancaster University Lake District Campus, 11 April 1996.

George McKay, "Direct Action of the New Protest: Eco-Rads on the Road," Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties, London: Verso, 1996.

Kuroda Toshio, "Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion," The Journal of Japanese Studies 7.1 (1981).

M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992; Touchstone, 1993.

Michael York, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.



[1] Kuroda (1981:6) explains that "Based on recent studies, it is clear that Shinto was another term for Taoism in China in the same period [i.e., the 8th century A.D.]" He continues that in view of the possibility that there was an attempt to establish a Taoist tradition in Japan, "Japan's ancient popular beliefs were not so much an indigenous religion but merely a local brand of Taoism ..." See further, Murakami Shigeyoshi, Japanese Religion in the Modern Century, Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 1980.

[2] A further instance of governmental manipulation in the invention and structuring of Shinto might be seen in the implementation of jinja gappei or `shrine merger' which occurred in the late Meiji era - reaching its peak in the years 1906-1910. This policy of shrine consolidation was part of a Japanese government program to reconstruct state finances. See Sakurai Haruo, "Tradition and Change in Local Community Shrines," Acta Asiatica: Bulletin of the Institute of Eastern Culture 51 (Studies on Shinto), Tokyo: The Tôhô Gakkai, 1987. See further, Brian Bocking, "Fundamental Rites? Religion, State, Education and the Invention of Sacred Heritage in post-Christian Britain and pre-War Japan," Religion 25 (1995:228-231).

[3] Refer to Hutton (1991:301-306). See also York (1995:102, 119).

[4] See further concerning the shortcomings of Margaret Murray's work on the Great Witch Hunt: Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971:514-519); Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons (1975:102-125); and Jacqueline Simpson, `Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?', Folklore 105 (1994:89-96). I am indebted to Professor Hutton for these references.

[5] Hutton cites Hawkes' A Land (pp 143-201), Man on Earth (passim), Man and the Sun (pp 212-241), `The Proper Study of Mankind' (p. 260), and Jacquetta Hawkes and J. B. Priestley's Journey Down A Rainbow (London: Heinemann-Cresset, 1955:277).

[6] Although I have followed Grappard, Kuroda et al.'s arguments concerning the artificial creation of Shinto, it is an argument with which I am not fully in accord. While religious studies departments in several British universities and colleges of higher education struggle to distance themselves from more traditional theologically oriented departments, there appears as an accidental by-product of this process a neglect of theological considerations in current phenomenological descriptions of religions. When, however, the distinct theologies between Shinto and Buddhism as, respectively, this-worldly and other-worldly forms of religiosity are appraised, it becomes clear that the folk religious origins of Shinto were operative independent of imported Buddhist concepts irregardless of the name `Shinto' and Meiji reformulations. To the extent that Meiji Shinto represents a restructuring of earlier understandings, it may be considered as a manufactured religion and in this sense similar to Neo-paganism, but as a totally invented religion, Shinto is not.

[7] See Amy Simes, Contemporary Paganism in the East Midlands, PhD dissertation, Department of Theology, University of Nottingham, 1995:515.

[8] For the Dongas Tribe which formed spontaneously in 1992, see McKay (1996:127-158). As McKay explains, "The very term Dongas Tribe derives from the landscape the tribe came together at the camp to preserve, Dongas being a Matebele name originally adopted in the nineteenth century by Winchester College teachers for the medieval pathways that criss-cross the Downs" (p. 136).