Pagan Roots in the West

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Pagan religions are living traditions that have evolved over time and continue to change today.  Occult practices and religions such as Wicca in particular have drawn from inspiration around the world including sources originating in the Americas.  The West has had a very noticeable impact on the development of occult philosophy that is easy to see when we look for it.

In the early days of European contact with the American continents Europe and the United Kingdom were in the grip of the spirit of exploration with every new report back from the frontier welcomed by a novelty-hungry public.  Those who went to the exotic Americas came back with stories of Pagan tribes and even empires, rumors of hidden wealth, and accounts of life that sounded strange and in many ways romantic to Europeans.  If Africa was considered to be the dark continent with its impenetrable jungles, and Asia the mysterious and mystical East, the Americas were stereotyped as the land of promise where even the most lowly European could go and have a chance at becoming wealthy.  As European colonists established themselves in North America in particular the Americas also became known among Europeans as the destination for those wishing to create their own religious communities.  Groups such as the Puritans disliked the cosmopolitan nature of Europe with the relatively high population and well-established religious competitors such as the Roman Catholic church and the various Protestant denominations already in place.  The Americas, with the rumored open spaces and purportedly unclaimed territory, provided the opportunity for religious minorities to create Paradise in their own idealized image.

The Puritans, while popular as a subject in American history accounts, were not the only group who settled in North America and practiced their own forms of religion.  Quakers, Shakers, Mennonites, Amish, and many other religious minorities came over the years to the Western continents and spread across the land.  Some were openly antagonistic towards the natives who had lived in the Americas for thousands of years while others were friendly and at least tried to be good neighbors.  In some cases individual settlers or even whole settlements were absorbed by the native tribes sometimes willingly and sometimes through warfare.  And in some cases native tribes and individuals blended into the European settlements as well.  Intermarriage between European settlers and native inhabitants was not unknown.

One interesting example of an attempt to establish a settlement based on Pagan ideas rather than Christian ones is the Merrymount community in what is now Massachusetts.  Key to this settlement was a man named Thomas Morton who respected and admired the Algonquin tribe who were his neighbors, and despised the Puritans and their repressive society.  Morton encouraged the ideas of freedom, peaceful cohabitation with the Natives, and celebration along the lines of European Pagan traditions.  Historical records show that one of the highlights of the Merrymount celebrations was the Maypole dance when the local Algonquins were invited to join in days of feasting, dancing, drinking, and general merrymaking.  Unfortunately the neighboring Puritans were not happy about any of this and with the aid of Puritan authorities in the colonies they had Morton sent back to England and the Merrymount settlement was disbanded and destroyed.

Back in Europe and the British Isles those with progressive views had a tendency to romanticize Native American cultures.  It was a variant of the “noble savage” idea – those who live in other cultures, especially those who were not Christian, were seen by Europeans as less evolved but of interest because of their novelty as well as their apparent close connection to the natural world.  

Europeans embraced three products from the Americas in particular that in their native settings were considered to be gifts from the gods.  Chocolate, tobacco, and maize (what we North Americans tend to call “corn”) were a hit in European homes.  In Europe however they lost their spiritual associations and were seen as merely things to consume.  Europeans tended to see American ideas, such as the stereotypical Native American way of life popularized in European accounts, as having a glimpse of spiritual truth although of course it was largely considered to be inferior to Christianity.

The attraction to a mythical American Indian spirituality though caught the interest of some Europeans and European settlers in the Americas to the point that sometimes Europeans would impersonate American Indians (at least when among Europeans) or claim that they were descended from American Indian ancestors.  Grey Owl, who was actually named Archie Belaney by his very English parents, gained fame popularizing American Indian folklore and culture.  While some real American Indians such as Chief Sitting Bull toured Europe with groups such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, there were also those who made a living speaking to the gullible public about American Indian life claiming to be American Indians when in fact they were not.  Unfortunately this is still sometimes a problem today.

The European and UK occult world was involved explicitly in drawing from Native American culture at the start of the 1900s in the form of the work of Ernest Thompson Seton and his Woodcraft movement.  Ernest Thompson Seton grew up in Canada (in the Don Valley area of Toronto, Ontario) and also in the United States in various places.  In 1902 while Seton lived in rural Connecticut he started up a group for local boys to introduce them to the ideas of wilderness survival skills, good citizenship, and environmental awareness all with an overt Native American appearance.  Seton made his living writing books about nature and used his literary skills to produce magazine articles as well as handbooks for his new movement.  Before long there were thousands involved in Seton’s Woodcraft organization in the US alone.

Lord Baden-Powell and others decided to create their own version of a boys’ group and called it Boy Scouts, drawing similarly on Native American folklore but adding a more military structure and attitude.  For a time Seton’s Woodcraft movement and Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts merged but they split again over political differences.  Seton’s Woodcraft movement is still active today although Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts has surpassed it in popularity.  The Woodcraft movement is much more prominent in the UK and Europe today than it is in the Americas, where the Boy Scouts are much more popular.

Seton felt that the Woodcraft movement could be much more than just a club for boys.  In 1911 he established an inner group called the Red Lodge which consisted of adults who wanted to provide a spiritual core to the Woodcraft movement based explicitly on Native American spiritual ideals.  Accounts indicate that this secretive circle of people incorporated standard secret society practices drawn from fraternal groups such as the Freemasons and Native American spiritual traditions, with some emphasis on psychic development as well.  Members of this group included such notables as Manly P. Hall (author of the widely respected mystical and occult text “The Secret Teachings of All Ages”), Arthur Conan Doyle, and some who were celebrities in the Spiritualist community.

Seton traveled to the UK to speak publicly about the Woodcraft movement and it was enthusiastically embraced.  An offshoot group known as the Kibbo Kift was created and worked in conjunction with Seton’s Woodcraft, complete with the ideals of the Red or Sun Lodge.  The founders of the Kibbo Kift, Ernest and Aubrey Westlake and John Hargrave, brought British and European Pagan influences into the Red Lodge material.  (Hargrave was formerly a high-ranking leader of Boy Scouts but left it over dissatisfaction with the military emphasis.)  The Kibbo Kift, like the Woodcraft members, would often adopt names styled after Native American ones.  Hargrave was known for instance as White Fox.  Many Kibbo Kift members were also involved in nudism.  In various pamphlets and publications Hargrave explained the roles of the Pagan deities Pan, Artemis, and Dionysus as the patron deities of the Kibbo Kift.

Hargrave was also a personal friend of Michael Houghton who owned the famous Atlantis Books occult bookstore in London.  Houghton helped spread the word about the Kibbo Kift by publishing some of Hargrave’s articles in the Atlantis Books magazines.  Ross Nichols, who founded the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids left the Kibbo Kift a sizable donation in his will so there was another clear connection between the founders if not the ideas of the two movements.

And of course there was another key person who was influenced either directly or indirectly by Seton’s Woodcraft, the Red Lodge, and the offshoot Kibbo Kift  – Gerald Gardner.  Gardner is well known for his involvement in occultism through his Witchcraft Museum, his involvement with the Folklore Society, membership as a Freemason, enthusiasm for nudism, and involvement with Druid organizations, and of course for his promotion of Wicca.  He was also friends with Ross Nichols with whom he shared a number of interests including nudism as well as occultism and Pagan religions and philosophies.  There is also some speculation that Gardner was also friends with Harry “Dion” Byngham who was involved in nudism as well as both Pagan philosophies and various Woodcraft groups.  Evidence suggests that Byngham and Gardner were both members of the same nudist groups and so would have had a chance to meet that way.

The Woodcraft movement and the European romantic ideas about Native American spirituality and culture were not the only or even the most influential Western touches in European occultism.  In 1848 a religious group was founded in the United States that took off in popular culture and quickly spread to an eager European and British audience.  It all started with the Fox sisters, and became known as Spiritualism.

Spiritualism is based on the idea that some part of the human identity survives past death and is capable of communicating with the living.  Speaking with the dead has been a practice for time immemorial but the Fox sisters provided an apparently reliable method for doing so in a time and place where the public was eager to rediscover this possibility.  Once the Fox sisters were discovered they were quickly taken on tour (initially by P.T. Barnum!) where they performed essentially on command for a very willing paying audience.  Before long there were others serving as mediums between the living and the spirit world to not only meet the public’s growing demand for these services but also encouraging the public interest to grow even greater.

It was this atmosphere of acceptance that allowed mediums to flourish.  A few such as Daniel Dunglas Home, Maurice Barbanell (who worked with a Native American spirit guide, Silver Birch), the Davenport brothers, an American woman who was known simply as Margery, and Mrs. Guppy among others became common household names.  Spiritualist associations and churches were founded on both sides of the Atlantic and the movement found a very receptive public.  Enthusiastic endorsements of Spiritualism by such figures as Arthur Conan Doyle also helped in building the popularity of the movement.

Spiritualist mediums expanded their repertory to include not just providing messages from the dearly departed but also sometimes quite impressive demonstrations of physical phenomena such as levitation, teleportation of objects (often called “apports”), and even manifestation of spirits to visible appearance.  Some Spiritualist mediums were exposed as charlatans but some were never proven to be hoaxes.  In any case the popularity of Spiritualism brought new attention to occult ideas and spurred on further researchers and groups to explore magickal topics.

Some have said that the British, European, and North American cultures were primed for the return of Pagan religions and magickal spiritual paths.  If Gerald Gardner had not come along and started promoting Wicca then someone else was bound to do the same or similar – society was ready for just this sort of thing.  The one thing we can count on though is that things will always change and that is true with Wicca and British and European Paganism.  Since Gardner’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s the Americas has had a very significant impact on Paganism.

Gardner’s Wicca was brought to the United States in 1963 by Raymond Buckland and in the hippy alternative culture at that time it quickly took off.  This colorful cauldron brew of a decade brought together a number of interesting factions including feminism, the civil rights movement (including the gay and lesbian rights movement), experimentation of alternative ways of seeing reality including both alternative religions as well as recreational drug use, and a general emphasis on freedom as well as seeking meaning through non-mainstream outlets.  Wicca and the idea of Pagan spirituality expanded rapidly with countless new systems and groups springing up overnight.  Some attempted to stick to preserving Wiccan and other specific Pagan systems while others openly drew from any and all sources that inspired them.  Gardner’s Wicca blossomed and spawned whole new generations of alternative Wiccan denominations and inspired many non-Wiccan Pagan groups to form.  Wicca itself evolved in many ways and in some specific cases changed so much that some groups were really not Wiccan any longer.  The Divine loves diversity though and since the 1960s the variety in the Wiccan and Pagan community has increased rather than decreased.  Some groups will likely become more solidified and will last in the long run, with other groups disappearing as they lose popularity, but the diversity is here to stay in some form.  As they say, the cat is out of the bag now and having too much fun celebrating freedom and diversity so it isn’t really possible to bring everything back to the point of eliminating all the variety.

The community in North America also saw the formation of a number of influential Pagan organizations such as the Covenant of the Goddess, the Church of All Worlds, Ár nDraíocht Féin (the Druid group ADF), the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, and of course Circle Sanctuary which all served to not only provide valuable networking resources but also helped introduce Paganism to many individuals who otherwise would likely have never found these spiritual paths.  Networking and outreach were done a number of ways but one of the most effective methods used was the regular publication of newsletters and magazines.  Connections were made and ideas were shared in ways that allowed even those living in remote areas the chance to learn and participate.  

These more formal Pagan organizations also helped to address legal issues affecting Pagans including basic recognition by governmental authorities.  By becoming incorporated as legal entities, or established as bona fide religious institutions with legal tax exemptions just like other religious groups, the Pagan community started to gain acceptance and visibility.  Our spiritual paths moved from rumors and shadows to very real legal status deserving of all the legal benefits enjoyed by other religions.  And just like dominoes, as one Pagan group builds its legal existence awareness spreads and allows other Pagan groups to do likewise.  The success at establishing legal Pagan religious groups in North America makes it easier for groups in other parts of the world to do the same.

American commercial publishers started to discover the Pagan market and began to produce increasing numbers of books for us.  It started with a trickle of books by a handful of authors but quickly grew until in the 1980s and 1990s publishers such as Llewellyn had books on Paganism, occult practices, and Wicca in not just specialty but also mainstream bookstores all around the world.  Some decried the quality of some of the authors and books but even watered-down material helped to spread awareness of magickal spiritual paths.  Thanks to the occult publishing boom that happened in the United States it is now relatively easy to get your hands on such classics as the works of Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, Doreen Valiente, Ray Buckland, and many others no matter where you are in the world today.   

Modern Paganism of the UK and Europe did not develop in isolation and are still evolving products of influences from around the world.  As we have seen there are indeed some very intriguing developments that have their roots firmly in the West, in the American continents.  History has a way of constantly unfolding and we will undoubtedly find that as further research is done that even more remarkable detail will come out about the impact of Western ideas on European and UK occultism.


Buckland, Raymond.  “Buckland’s Book of Spirit Communications,” Llewellyn Publishing, Second Revised Edition, 2004.

Greer, John Michael and Cooper, Gordon.  “The Red God: Woodcraft and the Origins of Wicca,” from the Summer 1998 issue of Gnosis Magazine. 

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen.  “Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience,” HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. 

Heselton, Philip.  “Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration,” Capall Bann Publishing, 2003. for information on Thomas Morton and the Merrymount community. for information on the life of Grey Owl. for an account of Native Americans touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, including in Europe. is a UK Woodcraft website. for information on Ernest Thompson Seton.

Note: This article was previously published in Issue 98 of Circle Magazine.