Great article by a classicist on contemporary Paganism

An Australian Pagan academic friend today linked to a great article on contemporary Paganism:

Whose Gods are These ? A Classicist Looks at Neopaganism by Sarah Iles Johnston.

The title says it all. My favourite bit, aligning with my views elsewhere on MOTO, is this:

I will note one more thing about the neopagan desire to emphasize the personal side of Greek religion far beyond what any scholar of antiquity would : namely, that it aligns with a broader, although probably unconscious, tendency within neopaganism to model their new religions upon precisely those that they have rejected, particularly Christianity.

What’s more the author, Sarah Iles Johnston has several other articles for free download at This is a really good site, and well worth trawling through.

Happy reading. 🙂



  1. Michael I · July 18, 2013

    Your favourite bit is the bit the author says nothing about beyond the single sentence that you’ve quoted! She doesn’t support the statement with any evidence. She may be right for all I know, but do you think you could flip her sentence around and still be right?

    “The christian desire to emphasize the personal side of religion aligns with a broader, although probably unconscious, tendency within early Christianity to model their new religion(s) upon precisely those that they have rejected, particularly pagan mystery cults.”

    Is the longing for personal contact with the spiritual something that is pagan or christian? Or is it something that people have always had regardless of their religious and cultural context?

  2. Apuleius Platonicus · July 18, 2013

    Johnston is without a doubt one of the most important and interesting classical scholars working today by any set of criteria one might apply. But for modern Pagans in particular she is even more important and interesting than that.

    However, it should be noted that Johnston makes it very clear that she is relying almost exclusively (and very uncritically, it must be observed) on informal conversations with a single modern Pagan for all of her statements in this paper concerning modern Paganism. Therefore, Johnston’s paper definitely needs to be read the way that Johnston herself is encouraging Pagans to read classical scholarship generally: with a critical eye!

    For my part, I will certainly be poaching from what Johnston has written here. Especially this: “So whose gods are these? …. I think we must concede that they have always belonged to whoever invested time and energy in imagining them — their appearances, their powers, their loves and their hatreds…..”

  3. freemanpresson · July 19, 2013

    Yeeeeeesssss, but … that very quote also showcases the enforced isolation by specialization that is the hallmark of modern academia. Someone more broadly read in the records of the ancient world might have noticed that personal relationships with Gods were the norm in other societies, such as those of Ancient Mesopotamia, where people expected to have an ilu or ishtaru by maturity, and one who was mentally ill or otherwise disturbed was said to have “lost his/her ilu.”

    Then, of course, even without explicit theurgy, we have many examples of those who knew their daimones (Sokrates springs to mind), or the personal Genius or Juno of the Romans.

    So, there is no need to accuse us of importing Christian ideas into neopaganism (at least not on this account; I certainly can’t claim it doesn’t happen): the ancient world was saturated with the idea in question.

  4. Apuleius Platonicus · July 19, 2013

    The more closely I look at her paper, the more apparent it becomes that Johnston really needs to heed her own advice. She poaches willy-nilly from random websites that she has happened upon, and combines these with snippets yanked from a single book by a single Pagan author.

    If Johnston wants her views to be taken seriously, while at the same time avoiding the inconvenience involved with “research on human subjects” (ie, formally interviewing actual Pagans), she could still do what every graduate student is trained to do: a literature survey. Because, you see, Pagans not only have a habit of reading lots of books, we also write lots of books. Of course if she did that not only would it be a lot of work, but it would seriously constrain her ability to make sweeping generalizations about modern Pagans. The advantage, for her, though, that such an approach would allow her to make a genuine contribution to our knowledge about modern Paganism, rather than simply adding yet another ill-informed opinion to the mix.

  5. Pingback: Mysteria Misc. Maxima: July 26th, 2013 | Invocatio

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