Very brief history of British paganism

Jack Dark shares this humourous (and fairly controversial!) history:

druidry, pagan historyRight. Here’s my very, very quick and slightly dodgy history of paganism in the UK.

I’m doing this off the top of my head and without checking sources, so please bear that in mind.


Back at the dawn of time, in the mists of history, everyone was pagan and prayed to the goddess and there were mountains and waterfalls at Glastonbury and dragons flew about everywhere.

Actually, it wasn’t like that at all.

Life was pretty difficult and people made up their own supernatural explanations for the weather and tried to bring meaning to things they couldn’t explain. They did this by anthropomorphising these concepts. Making them like themselves so that they had a face and a voice and could be related to. So gods were born. We might as well call these different gods of nature ‘pagan’. They lived all around, but also in the sky and sea. Some people tried to study these gods, and to learn from or influence them. So religion was born. Different ideas about religion came and went with the people as they moved about and invaded each other.

So, in the UK there were a whole bunch of different pagan religions and gods that we don’t know a massive amount about, before the Romans came along and brought their gods and stole a few of ours. They wrote a little bit about the Druids, whilst killing them, because they were leaders and administrators, of sorts, whom the Romans feared may be the focal point for rebellion.

Just a little bit before they decided to become Christians the Romans left Britain and they left a few of their religious ideas behind, and a few of the pre-existing ones had a bit of a go again, but then the Vikings decided to raid and invade and some settled in the East of the country and they brought their big hairy gods with them too.

Everyone fought each other most of the time and got along some of the time and the land was divided up into different tribal areas, most of which had their own gods.

Then the Romans decided to re-import Christianity and through a series of tribal leaders and later kings turning to Christianity, bits of Britain gradually became more united and also Christian.

William Rufus was supposedly the last pagan king of England, after a few Christian ones, but there are several silly stories about him, which can probably be ignored.

Now, let’s fast forward a few hundred years to a bloke in Wales called Edward Williams, who called himself Iolo Morganwg. He fancied himself as a bit of a poet, so he researched the old bardic traditions, which had a bit of a link to Druidry. Their old tales and stories about the older gods were handed down through an oral bardic tradition, and he got into this and decided to be a Druid and to reinvent Druidry. He wasn’t reeeeaally pagan, though, and most of the prayers that he wrote referred to ‘God’.

Iolo inspired a few Druidic societies and groups to be set up and these did their thing in a fairly Christian way, much like the other friendly societies and mutual savings and pensions groups and drinking clubs that also existed. He did also take some ideas from the bardic sources he found that were vaguely pagan and also spent most of his time off his tits on laudanum and opium.

Okay, that’s enough about Druids for a bit. Back to them later.

Well…in the nineteenth century you had people getting interested in magic and alternatives to Christianity and also getting their kit off in public. The golden dawn and various other magical societies were doing their thing and some intellectuals advocated a return to Roman and Greek values. Things were changing slightly and radical thinkers were getting some of their ideas heard.

You also had stuff like the Wind in the Willows, which was a beautiful pastoral story about animals, which had a chapter where Pan featured as a great horned god.

Aleister Crowley was shagging, snorting or injecting pretty much anything he could and there were all sorts of magical and quasi-magical groups forming.

Then, in the 1920s an academic called Margaret Murray did some research into the witch crazes and witch trials and decided she’d found evidence that the covens of witches mentioned were actually the descendants of an ancient goddess based religion.

So, a few magical groups that were already in existence decided that that’s where their origins must have been, and that they were really witches and had been all along without even knowing about it!

Enter Gerald Gardner.

Gardner had lived in the far east and wrote about things like knives, as he had a bit of a thing for them. He was also involved with various semi-magical groups and masonic type orders, and had acquaintances with people like Aleister Crowley and also Ross Nichols (whom we shall come to shortly).

He met some folk down in the New Forest, who were doing something a bit like witchcraft. So, he decided that he was going to revive what he called ‘The Witch Cult’ along the lines that Margaret Murray laid out, and also bunged in a load of stuff from the New Forest people he’d met. He asked Crowley to write him some rituals (probably) and Crowley asked for some money in return (probably) and so Wicca was born. He also liked getting his kit off, and being tied up and whipped, so these elements made their way into Wicca. Wicca was faaairly pagan at this point, but was still more about angels and classical or magical ideas, instead of what we think of today as paganism.

At the same time as Gardner was inventing Wicca, other people got interested in Witchcraft and also decided that they had their own ancient heritage and version of it. One of these was Robert Cochrane. More on him later too.

Okay, back to Druidry. Since Iolo Thingy, there were plenty of Druidic groups, and a mate of Gerald Gardner’s, Ross Nichols, was a member of a one of them. He loved all that old Welsh poetry stuff, so decided to form a new druid group, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which was a bit more like Wicca in that it wasn’t Christian, but took much of its inspiration from Welsh and bardic stuff, including ideas about gods and spirits and heroes from the older stories.

The other druid groups stuck around and are still around, of sorts, but Nichols’ writings and the work he did led to what we know as modern Druidry.

That’ll do about Druidry, I think. OBOD continued and is still going, and other Druid groups decided that they were pagan too. And then they split. And reformed. And got drunk. And fought. And made up. And argued. And got drunk. Repeat ad nauseum.

When in 1951 the Witchcraft Act was repealed, Gardner published a few books about Wicca and its popularity grew, due to the fact people thought they might get a shag out of it, and see some people nekkid, and also because they now wouldn’t be arrested for it.

Gardner went to hang out at the Museum of Witchcraft on the Isle of Man and founded and worked with various covens around the country.

Now, er…

Oh yeah. Doreen.

Doreen Valiente got involved with Wicca after hearing about it in some dodgy magazine or other, and met Gardner and became Wiccan. However, she thought that some of the stuff in there was a bit pants. Mostly Crowley’s stuff, so Gardner let her rewrite it.

The stuff that she put in was a lot more pagan, and also goddess focused. She then fell out with Gardner and met with various other people who said they were witches, including the previously mentioned Robert Cochrane. He turned out to have been talking nonsense about various things too, so she also fell out with him.

Along the way, joining various groups, then falling out with them, Doreen Valiente left with them a lot of writing that was much more pagan and less strictly magical or Crowley-like than they had been.

Then Alex Sanders came along and said his granny initiated him when he was little, but that was nonsense too, but he was actually a Gardnerian, who it was rumoured, Gardner wouldn’t acknowledge because Sanders was a tiny bit gay. So Sanders founded his own tradition and initiated loads of people. That’s Wicca then.

Old Craft comes from various people and groups, like Robert Cochrane’s who might or might not have had some links to pre-existing magicians or magical groups, but they also decided they were pagan on hearing Margaret Murray’s theories.

Then you’ve got the Heathens and Northern Traditions. They didn’t undergo the same kinds of reinventions and changes that the other pagan religions did, and were around in various forms in Scandinavia and Europe until they had their serious revivals in the 1960s and 70s. These revival groups also all fell out with each other and split. And got drunk. And split. And reformed. And got drunk. And fought. And made up. And argued. And got drunk. Etc.

Somewhere along the line people started printing β€˜zines and newsletters, so a pagan scene that put people in touch with other pagans became distinct from the occult scene and groups like the Pagan Front were formed, which decided that being open about being pagan was okay, and some kinds of official recognition were needed.

Then they thought that being called the ‘Pagan Front’ sounded a bit confrontational, and calling their magazine ‘The Wiccan’ was a bit exclusionary, so they changed them to the ‘Pagan Federation’ and ‘Pagan Dawn’.

Then the people who started and sorted all this out fell out with each other and split. And got drunk. And split. And reformed. And got drunk. And fought. And made up. And argued. And got drunk.

Somewhere along the way, all this stuff got exported to the USA. Where the Americans did two things. They either became uber-strict about the rules and became quite fundamentalist about their approach to paganism. Or they utterly sanitised and tamed it so that it was hideous and fluffy and nice and super appealing to teenage girls. You also had people like Starhawk and the Dianics who took Murray’s witch cult myth a bit seriously as a feminist political statement.

Then all that stuff was reimported back to the UK. Stuff like Cochrane’s version of witchcraft came back as a strict, fairly hardcore version of what it was, and Wicca became the ‘eclectic’ mess we see today when it got appropriated by horrible New Agers.

Then the Internet happened. And everyone got to be able to find out about paganism. And a few daft films and TV programmes nicked its language and ideals.

Then everyone thought they could be a Druid or a Witch or a Wiccan.

And some people in the UK thought this was great. And some hated it. And they all fell out with each other. And got drunk. And their groups split. And reformed. And got drunk. And fought. And made up. And argued. And got drunk.

And that’s about it, really.

Oh, except they’re still falling out and getting drunk and forming and reforming groups and arguing. Sometimes, amongst all that, some good stuff happens though.

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    63 Responses to Very brief history of British paganism

    1. Christopher Blackwell says:

      Finally a nice concise and reasonably accurate history of Paganism, especially the modern part. [Grin]

    2. Midori Greenleaf says:

      Loved it! It’s about the most concise summary I have ever read on the subject. I’m old enough to have met Gerald and Doreen, and I trained in one of Gerald’s hived off covens. 46 years, Witch and Witchlet! (No, not saying whether my 3rd was in Truth or in Token!)

      Love the humour in the account, right up my alley!

      • Ginger says:

        Hello Midori!

        I have only ever heard of the existence of one of Gerald’s hived off covens…all other Gardenerians, as I have known, have come from HP and HPs’ that GBG initiated outside of the first coven (apart from Eleanor but her stay was very brief). Be fascinating to hear about you and I can think of a few Biographers and Historians who would be thrilled to speak to you!?

    3. I don’t know about things going back a long way. Anthropologists I talk to seem to think that magical/ritual/social practices change fairly rapidly in response to multiple influences … so even if people *are* doing “traditional” dodgy things with wells, they’re probably utterly different from the dodgy things their distant ancestors were doing with wells … Historic Celtic beltane involved lighting two huge fires and driving all the farm animals between them. Not exactly maypole dancing and morris men …

    4. Hahaha! loved it. I still think that modern paganism has much more in common with Christianity than any other ancient traditions … which is probably a good thing πŸ˜‰

    5. Sarah says:

      Hahaha! Hilarious and brilliant!
      Am a bit confused about the survival (or not?) of pagan beliefs and practises as folk events in Celtic communitites which i thought kind of never totally died out? Maybe it officially did as i am sure there was no self-identification as “Pagan”? It’s just that Messers Crowley, Gardner etc never really reached some British communities until maybe thirty-odd years ago (or ever in some cases!) yet distinctly pagan practises did endure. I am certainly no historian so please can somebody enlighten me – thanks! xXx

      • Sarah says:

        sorry for sounding a little celtocentric there… i am reliably informed that these practises may also have survived in other British communities too.. xXx

        • Jack Dark says:

          Hmm… very contentious, that. There are possibly some well-dressing rituals and there’s something I’m remembering about putting rocks on a cairn in Wales, which go back a long way, but not wholly formed religious practices.

    6. Debs says:

      In between the Romans leaving and the Vikings arriving with their big hairy gods, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived with the same big hairy gods, just different names, which can still be found in the says of the weeks and many, many place names still in use.
      I hope to Woden that you haven’t offended them by missing them out, they get a bit pissed off at those bloody vikings taking all the glory.

    7. Kilmrnock aka kilm says:

      i love it , quite funny . Probably alot more accurate than many would like to admit .We in the CR movement are alot like to norse , lest you forget us and yes we have the same origons and problem icluding the drinking and fighting . Kilm

    8. Ula Gwerhas says:

      Hilarious – but you forgot the Shamans (the Celts had them too) – or perhaps they were all monged out on strange fungi!! Too stoned to argue with anyone.

      • Jack Dark says:

        Well, first I really don’t think that modern British paganism has any links whatsoever to any types of historical or pre-historic ‘shamanism’ even if you are happy to use that term, and I don’t really think that it’s got much to do with anything actually ‘Celtic’ either.

        There are maaaaybe a few indications that sabbatic confessions were linked to entheogens, and posssssibly some kinds of ecstatic visionary rituals practiced at times, which fed into what’s now Trad Craft, but the evidence for this is all fairly scant and very rare, but I really don’t think these had anything to do with anything Celtic or widespread traditions of shamanism-like practices.

        • Julia Oboyle says:

          You write better when you do not think but drink!

          So Shaman is a stolen word from another time and another place. As is Chakra!!!
          Language evolves, mainly due to this falling out and getting drunk stealing a wench and a pig and the odd word process.
          Deity knows what Shaman were called in Britain pre conversion Β£sd

    9. Janine says:

      This made me laugh throughout. Very well written. πŸ™‚

    10. Sionnan says:

      Excellent, concise summary πŸ™‚ Thanks!!

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    13. Christopher Blackwell says:

      Well this old gezzer rather liked it and I am Alexandrian Tradition. One complaint, no sex? Surely some one must have gotten laid on ocasion. We would not want to disappoint all th Christians who think we have nothing but orgies all the time.

    14. empty-sarah says:

      Actually lol’d!

    15. Gwion says:

      I laughed. I cried. I got drunk, fell out with myself and then beat myself up.

      As an English Pagan living in the U.S and being part of the Reclaiming Tradition, I can say that if one is going to base a political statement on something (especially here in the U.S) then something goddess-y and witchy is a good place to start as it blows the gaskets of the xtian fundies to the enth degree. And, occasionally, causes then to fall out with themselves and beat each other up!

    16. bunnybumples says:

      Love it. Can we have a bit of proof reading though? Sorry…

      I like the mention of Christianity most. People dismiss Christianity too much for me – after 1500 years of it in this country, it can’t be ignored, and neither should it be!

    17. Gary says:

      Absolutely brilliant! Loved you superb piece of writing – you really did make me chuckle!

      I would have loved to have heard you rip it out of the G.D. and the Theosophical Society as well – lol! πŸ™‚

      All the best

      • Jack Dark says:

        Sadly I really don’t have much of a clue about them. Well, not enough to comment much really. I like the Blasting Rod fights though. They were great.

    18. Ina says:

      well done, would write more but busy getting drunk hehe

    19. A hilarious and irreverent look at history, written (if I dare say so) in a Douglas Adams style with a lot of Tom Holt thrown in, which had me chuckling from start to finish.
      I am a group of one so please excuse me if I don’t get drunk or fall out with anyone.

      • astra says:

        I am also a group of one, i could get drunk fallout with myself , but i won,t remember why i fell out with myself due to being totally loved the potted history.

    20. Sageylee says:

      Love this! A very funny assessment, and probably pretty close to the mark for accuracy lol.

    21. Very witty and just about sums it all up !

    22. Simon Harris-Dack says:

      Then there’s us Eclectics who liked the idea of paganism but thought bits of the organised stuff was pant but some of it was good. So, like the inventors of those branches, we decided to cobble it together to suit ourselves.

    23. Devonian Druid says:

      Well, it seems fairly accurate to me,
      except lots of people don’t really belong to any groups.

      I am therefore going to go and get drunk and fall out with myself.

    24. Paul Pearson says:

      Brilliantly done…witty and fun. I imagine there will be a few people who will laugh a little more nervously than others!

    25. Rufus Maychild says:

      I would like to take issue with the opening paragraph, which basically suggests that our ancestors simply ‘made up’ their religion essentially as an incompetent form of ‘science’.

      Seems to me that if there is no ‘spiritual reality’ then there’s not much point in having a religion for it. Why should anyone bother ? Since we do so bother, we must deeply believe that ‘spiritual reality’ is actually Real, in some way at least that (if not megalomanic) we usually don’t claim to wholly understand.

      So I would suggest rather that Pagan Religions (both ancestral and modern) are the result of true human contact with Spiritual Reality, however inadequately and variably we may perceive that, and by whatver intensity of experience – from the ‘mystical’ and ‘shamanic’ to the ‘intellectual’ and including the least precise of ‘feelings’.

      We speak of Goddess(es) and God(s) because that is the result of the ‘filtering’ of spiritual awareness and contact through our own minds and consciousness, which are deeply linked with our physical being (including our general sexual dimorphism, which is not necessarily a primal feature of the cosmos). But the Spiritual Realities of the Cosmos do actually Speak To Us as if they are Goddess(es) and God(s).

      Then, I can’t resist challenging your almost last paragraph. Long years ago, when I first came to find Goddess, the P(agan) word was used as a euphemism for the W(itch) word, basically because the Wiccan movement had bungled its PR. I was one of the first, in the UK anyway, to use the P word in a genuinely inclusive sense, and as something with religious meaning. The ‘manifesto’ of Pagans Against Nukes (PAN) – founded 1980 – was all quite clear about this. Nowadays, it’s certainly not at all true that everyone wants to be ‘Druid, Witch or Wiccan’. The P(agan) word is not a shorthand either for that previous construction or anything with a couple more labels. Many of us are happy to be Simple Country Pagans.

      • Kilmrnock aka kilm says:

        Dude ………….you have overthought this . Tis a humor piece , lighten up a bit and laugh , my friend . it’s not supposed to be historicaly accurate altho it surprisingly is. Made me chuckle more than a little , as have many of the comments .i love it

      • Jack Dark says:

        So Many Long Words And Capital Letters that I started reading this to myself in William Shatner’s voice and then my ability to make any sensible response totally evaporated. So, sorry about that and well, you make some excellent points.

      • Ginger says:

        I love your point here about the “P” word. So true.

    26. Philippa says:

      Before the Romans became Christian, Britain had such endgynous Celtic Christian luminatries as:- Patrick, Samson [not the guy with the long hair!], Hilda [Bishop of Whitby, but keep that quiet from the Catholics!], Brigid of Ireland [whose story got mixed up with Brigit the goddess], Caedmon, Cuthbert, David of Wales, Illtyd, Ninian, several hundred Cornish saints, Aiden, Teilo, Crispin of Street. And many more!

      • Jack Dark says:

        Indeed, but they didn’t do especially well. It was probably intermarriage between French and Kentish tribal leaders that *really* did the trick, whatever the Vatican would have you believe about Augustine and Gregory and how he was so moved by beautiful child slaves that he… decided later to try to convert the land they were captured in and not actually do something that like campaign for their freedom… but that’s a whole other essay I’m certainly not qualified or informed enough to write.

        • Julia Oboyle says:

          So the Saxons were more or less into communal living so getting your kit of wasn’t such a big thing. Then there was this Pagan king who had a wife(probably a queen) and Gregory thought it would be a good idea If he could convert the king. So he sent the queen a pretty jeweled mirror to encourage her vanity, such a christian ideal. Hoping that now she had seen the light-her own beauty- She would cuddle up to the king and convince him to become christian too.
          Of course because of the communal style living the rest of the household saw this beautiful mirror and wondered what they would get if they became christian too. Perhaps they all wanted a cuddle of the queen.

          Cant remember which letter it was but somehow Bede got his hands on it and thought it was something to boast about.

    27. Rob Hall says:

      Probably the most accurate and realistic version of events ever and certainly a lot more accessible that most other modern histories of neo-Paganism that I’ve ever read! Well done. Give the man a 3rd Degree in something or another.

    28. Laurence Littlewizard says:

      I thought the characters were well rounded, but the plot was a little thin. It really needs more falling out with each other, people getting drunk, groups splitting apart, fighting, arguing, more fighting, and perhaps a little getting drunk. All in all, I will give it an A-!

    29. This gave me the happy chuckles.

      Good fun!

    30. steve guare says:

      Without doubt, the most acurate description of all things slightly “Wiccensian” (how long till that goes around?) I have read in 35 years of “Alexandrianization” (ditto). An absolutely fantastic read & laugh. BB.

    31. AnthonyHJ says:

      The terrible thing is that, despite being played for laughs, it’s probably one of the better brief histories of paganism in the British Isles. That about sums up modern paganism though; it’s all about finding that point halfway between not taking it seriously and taking it all far too seriously.

    32. Snorkmaiden says:

      This is top! Damned Internet, making our little cults accessible. I think I shall go & get drunk & argue about it & fall out with someone. And perhaps get drunk again.

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    34. Tanga ---------- says:

      Hahahah! Excellent. I shall be re-reading and giggling for days – thankyou! (Where is one headed exactly, if one cannot laugh at oneself?)

    35. Ginger says:

      I love this, tickled me pink it did. Although, not entirely accurate, it is bloody funny nonetheless.

    36. Charlotte says:

      Fantastic! The best brief history of Paganism I think I’ve ever read and the only one to make me smile throughout πŸ™‚

    37. Zoe Bidgood says:

      And probably a lot more accurate than most histories….

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