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Neopagans argue that paganism is the oldest religion on earth (Pagan Alliance: 2). It was the religion of the Romans, but the onset of the Constantinian age marginalised paganism. Innocent VIII allowed the Inquisition to persecute witches, and persecution lasted until the seventeenth century. This sad part of history is referred to as the `burning times'. Some pagans say that two million people lost their lives in the witch-hunts, though serious scholarship reckons with about 40,000 killed. Pagans feel this loss acutely. As Kemp says, `It took centuries, and heaps of dead bodies, for Christianity finally to triumph over Paganism in Europe' (13).
Paganism was driven underground, libraries were destroyed and heresy was stamped out, but enough knowledge of the `old religion' remained. Kemp believes that the Crusaders returned with texts and ideas from pagan lands, with 'truths' that were often set out in story, legend or code (runes) and were spread by invading parties or itinerant storytellers. To such belong the stories of the fairy folk or little people among the illiterate in rural Ireland. Some traditions were maintained by families that silently went about practising their craft while still practising Christianity (Adler: 71). These practices started as classical witchcraft. Despite having changed through the years, they are still recognisable. `Family Tradition' witches or Fam Trads usually survived in the more 'mainstream' alternative spiritualities such as Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism in the eighteenth century, and Spiritualism and Theosophy in the nineteenth century (Adler: 71). However, paganism was all but lost in western society of the early twentieth century.
The Revival, as pagans call it, came in the 1950s. Often couched in pseudo-medieval language, witchcraft writings began to appear in the 1920s onwards. In 1952 it was no longer illegal to practise witchcraft in Britain. Gerald Gardner is attributed with having founded modern witchery. Literature and knowledge of the old religion was scarce and fragmented, but Gardner collected its liturgies, rites, practices and poetry. The Book of Shadows is well known today. Gardner's aim was to bring the old religion to the general public. Wicca, as he called it, began to be practised in the US, Australia and Northern Europe. To this day, Wicca remains a rather fluid enterprise, with covens free to adapt or create ritual as they please. There are many branches of Wicca, but all owe their existence to Gerald Gardner.
Neopaganism is based on the old religions, with adherents using ancient myth, story, runes (symbols from Nordic and Germanic traditions) and gods and goddesses to explore divinity. They are not simply reviving old religions but adapt beliefs and practices `to suit life in a modern world' (Pagan Alliance: 2). The ancient Druids, for example, appear to have used animal if not human sacrifice - totally anathema to today's pagans. `Today most revivalist Witches ... accept the universal Old Religion as more of a metaphor than a literal reality - a spiritual truth more than a geographical one' (Adler: 86).
Paganism is now the fastest growing religion in the western world. It meets the search of many for a lost spirituality, it deals with dysfunctional community, it restores broken historical connections, and it connects those estranged from nature. Life in our urban technology- and dollar-driven society is seen to be 'impersonal, neutral and dead' (Adler: 25).
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