Four Books on Modern Paganism

By Ethan Doyle White

From Wiccan covens assembling in English drawing rooms to Rodnover midsummer gatherings in rural Russia, the modern Pagan religions represent a fascinating and diverse component of our contemporary religious landscape. Although their age, numerical size, and comparative cultural marginality leaves them outside the so-called “world religions”’ that attract the bulk of our attentions, I strongly believe that this family of new religious movements warrants far greater understanding among scholars of religion. In particular, these traditions offer us important insights into the modern reception of Europe’s pre-Christian heritage, into the construction of new religions, and into the complex interplay of gendered, ethnic, and religious identities in the 21st century.

A few scattered scholarly writings on modern Paganism appeared from the 1960s onward but it was only in the 2000s that a distinct sub-field of research, commonly (if somewhat problematically) called “Pagan studies,” fully emerged. The effort was spearheaded largely by intellectually oriented modern Pagans themselves, with 2004 seeing both a Pagan Studies Group form at the American Academy of Religion and the launch of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, a peer-reviewed journal. Like several other areas in the scholarly study of religion, Pagan studies has had to grapple with issues arising from being a field dominated by practitioner-scholars, and, in contrast to related sub-fields like the study of esotericism, we still lack any formal academic position devoted to the study of modern Pagan religion. Nevertheless, there has been a considerable number of important books published and the field continues to attract new scholars from a varied array of national and disciplinary backgrounds.

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, by Ronald Hutton (Oxford University Press, 1999 and 2019)

The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton is one of the classics. First published in 1999, but with a revised edition appearing in 2019, Hutton’s exploration of Wicca’s early history was a benchmark in the study of modern Paganism. It examines the rich cultural context from which Wicca arose before outlining the religion’s emergence in 1950s Britain and its broader impact on British society over the following half century.

Not everyone was happy with Hutton’s Triumph. Reflecting broader social prejudices, a lot of British historians couldn’t understand why he would bother researching Wicca to begin with. Meanwhile, some Wiccans were angry that he didn’t endorse their belief that Wicca was the survival of an ancient pre-Christian witchcraft religion—an idea that had actually been discredited since at least the 1960s. Despite this, the book gained considerable respect from scholars of Paganism, from a great many practitioners, and ultimately from broader sectors of the academy. Today, it is probably the most widely cited book on modern Pagan religion. 

Besides being a hugely important work for the development of the field, Hutton’s book was also of considerable importance to me personally, being one of the first academic books I ever read. It encouraged me to think about culturally alternative spirituality in a scholarly way and when the opportunity arose, Shai Feraro and I decided to issue an edited volume that celebrated the twentieth anniversary of this important work.

Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism: Narratives of Russian Rodnoverie, by Kaarina Aitamurto (Routledge, 2016)

Kaarina Aitamurto’s Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism: Narratives of Russian Rodnoverie is one of those books that really helped to expand the study of modern Pagan religion. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, there was a heavy research focus on modern Paganism in Anglophone Western countries and especially in the United States. Ethnographic studies in particular revolved predominantly around politically progressive and often explicitly feminist Pagan traditions while largely ignoring movements with very different orientations. As important as this research was, it meant that the field collectively failed to reflect the international and ideological diversity of the modern Pagan milieu.

That began to be corrected in the 2010s, when the field welcomed a growing number of English-language publications on modern Pagan religions from Central and Eastern Europe. Key to this was the work of scholars like Michael Strmiska, Scott Simpson, Mariya Lesiv, and Kaarina Aitamurto. The latter’s study of Rodnoverie (“Native Faith”) as it exists in Russia was of great interest to me, lacking as I do any linguistic competence in Slavic languages. Aitamurto offered not only a history of the movement but also a consideration of its strongly nationalistic tendencies and its hostility towards the “mono-ideologies” of Christianity and Marxism. Her book really should be read by anyone studying modern Paganism.

Being Viking: Heathenism in Contemporary America, by Jefferson F. Calico (Equinox, 2018)

One of the largest of the world’s modern Pagan religions is Heathenry, a broad tradition inspired by the pre-Christian religions of linguistically Germanic peoples, most notably those that spoke Old Norse. Thus, Heathens include those Pagans who venerate gods like Thor, Odin, and Freya and who draw inspiration from Icelandic eddas and sagas. Some of the earliest academic discussions of Heathenry came in the 2000s from British practitioner-scholars like Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis, but the following decade also saw the appearance of important ethnographic studies undertaken in the United States, primarily by Jennifer Snook and Jefferson F. Calico.

Calico’s Being Viking: Heathenism in Contemporary America is interesting in part because he was approaching Heathenry as a non-practitioner, something that set his work apart from much of the ethnographic research on modern Pagan traditions that had gone before. One of the things I particularly appreciated about Calico’s book was the attention he gave to issues of class, a topic often overlooked in academic studies of modern Paganism. Like the earlier work of Mattias Gardell, Calico’s project also highlighted the role of white nationalism and related far-right ideologies within certain sectors of the American Pagan milieu, an issue many other scholars had avoided.

American Druidry: Crafting the Wild Soul, by Kimberly Kirner (Bloomsbury, 2024)

The most recent contribution to this list, Kimberly Kirner’s American Druidry: Crafting the Wild Soul is an autoethnography that explores her experiences as a modern Druid-cum-anthropologist living in Southern California. In addition to being the first study of modern Pagan Druidry to be published by an established academic press, it also provides a good example of the contributions that practitioner-scholars continue to make to the study of modern Paganism.

Modern religious Druids adopt the name “druid” from the Iron Age ritual specialists of Western Europe, and while they draw on various historical sources—often medieval Irish and Welsh literature—theirs is nevertheless a new religion rooted in very modern concerns. This tradition is notably eclectic, permitting a wide array of ritual diversity and almost any theological belief, although most practitioners are polytheists. Kirner’s book offers a sophisticated insider view of this movement, emphasising the animistic worldview of most Druids, the complexities of respecting ancestors with morally complicated histories, and the difficulties that Druids face in trying to live out their environmentalist ideals in a modern Western society.

Ethan Doyle White, PhD, teaches courses at City Lit, London.