Neo-Paganism, A Psychological Perspective I: Trend

Suddenly, it seems everybody’s a witch.

In recent years, there’s been a tremendous surge of interest in and adherence to ‘neo-paganism’ – for some, a religion with pre-Christian roots; for others, a nonreligious system of magic; for still  more, an expression of their ecological, feminist, mythological, cultural, and/or esoteric interests. The philosophies and practices may stem from one tradition or be an eclectic mix of several, from one’s own cultural heritage or that of another (and in the latter, varying among cultural appropriation, deep respect, or a belief in reincarnation and a connection to said culture in a past life), and from a perspective of indigenous practice or ‘New Age’ mysticism.

In other words – everyone’s a witch, but the interpretation is vast.

In fact, many don’t use the term ‘witch’ at all – Harry Potter generation aside, it carries negative connotation for some or makes them the target of others, can be seen as not applicable to those who identify as male (though the term is not gender specific), is equated to the early 20th century British framework known as Wicca, or simply doesn’t quite fit one’s interests. Many identify instead as pagan, some as shaman, others as wizard, sorcerer, wisewoman, priest/ess, seer, empath, healer – and more. Nevertheless, the word ‘witch’ as a self-identifier is increasingly popular and freely used by many the world over.

So where is this phenomenon coming from? In a word: agency.

Humans need not only to feel safe, secure, and loved, but also that they have a sense of autonomy over their lives – however illusive that may be. When Wicca was developed in England during the first half of the 20th century, the world had experienced a multi-national war with an estimated 20 million dead, an equal number wounded, and cities and lives in ruins, immediately followed by a global pandemic that killed 50 million more, which then led to a global economic depression that lasted 10 years – and brought about the second world war. In the face of such profound and multi-layered trauma, to say that many lost their faith — in government, social systems, religion, and humanity — would be an understatement.

In early 1950s, Gerald Gardner published his first book on Wicca, in which he introduced a new magico-religious framework based on pre-Christian European practices. This new-old system resonated with the cycles of nature, placed the feminine principle in a position of prominence, and gave adherents an alternative to unquestioning faith: that of direct involvement in their own lives and the world around them, with gods of their own choosing, or not.

Meantime, the Korean War including several outside parties also occurred in early 1950s, sparking the Cold War and concomitant insecurities which continued for several decades, while 1955-1975 saw the Vietnam War. In late 1960s and through the 1970s, a counterculture movement began in many parts of the world, simultaneous with a sharp decrease in religious affiliation; people had seen the destruction that humans and their systems could cause, and were looking for a new world, a new way of living. Various parallel efforts toward this end arose, including a new wave of feminism, environmentalism, men’s movements toward greater emotional awareness and healing of the father-son complex – and the so-called Age of Aquarius with renewed interest in the esoteric.

Wicca and similar neo-pagan practices align with all of these, in perfect constellation.

There have been many influences to be sure, from pop culture in various countries beyond American movies or Britain’s Harry Potter – for example, one of the current top trending Netflix productions is a South Korean series themed on a ‘real magician’ – but, while art forms can influence the individual, the reverse is also unquestionably true: cultural products are made precisely because the interest, the market, is already there.

In this current era, when distrust in political systems and social structures is once again at an all-time high, family structure and safety nets are miniminised, cost of living is soaring while finances are often tenuous – and, when a pandemic can still shut down the world overnight and is now wreaking havoc with the global economy, it’s not uncommon that we feel life is spinning out of control and that we as individuals have very little agency indeed.

Conversely, in this digital age information and communication are at a global accessibility and speed unprecedented in human history. Cultural products are shared freely across borders and barriers increasingly broken down. Social media use has enhanced not only freedom of expression but the belief that all opinions, however poorly conceived, are of equal value – and equal to expertise gained through years of study and experience. As a result, it is also common, however paradoxically, to feel that agency is something that must be firmly grasped – that we must, and can, be in control of our lives.

One feeds the other. The outer world is out of our, and its own, control, seemingly in free-fall. The inner world, then, becomes a place in which we are compelled to find a sense of control, and believe that we can then project that onto the outer world – in the form of magic.

Not all witches (pagans, shamans, etc), it must be said, cast spells or attempt magic. For many, it’s an identity – of deep ecology and a belief in the unseen – without specific practice, or with religious devotion only. The common thread, however, among all such esoteric systems or the eclectic integration thereof, is this: the universe is manipulatable and one can learn to do just that.

The allure is powerful.

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