Religion | Paganism

Images, words, and the return of the pagan spirit.

Tom X Hart
Nov 15 · 3 min read

Unlike the Catholic Church, paganism no longer exists as a sociological phenomenon. Paganism, as it existed in the classical world, was made up of rites and relations to the particular gods of your tribe. This world was obliterated by Christianity and industrial modernity, and the modes of pagan thought that went with it also died – no modern pagan sincerely reads bird entrails or thinks that the economy is in recession because the old gods of London are not honoured. Nor do they have the time-tested (and therefore evolutionarily proved ) traditions of the Christians either, since we know almost nothing about what most pagan rites were.

What the druids actually did remains a complete mystery to us, but Christian traditions, whether true or not, have at least survived and are known to us. Christianity has been spiritually hollowed out as modernity critiqued its truth claims, but it remains sociologically extant – for now, anyway; it is unclear how long a building can stand without foundations.

There have been two self-conscious modern attempts to revive paganism as a social phenomenon: “the Wiccan” and “the Crowleyite”. I use these terms broadly to refer to two factions of revivalist paganism, the former of the political left and the latter of the right. Wicca-type paganism tends to endorse the claims of progressive liberalism – merely dressing up feminist talking points in the clothes of witches and druids. The Crowleyite faction – emulating Aleister Crowley, the “wickedest man in the world” – also subscribes to an ideology of modernity, usually the self-consciously “evil” worship of blood and race characteristic of the fascist movements and their descendants.

Spiritually, these are merely aspects of modernity dressed up in the clothes of an imagined paganism – a LARP. The people who participate in these simulations of paganism stress the fussy or nerdy details of their costumes and spells, but they think like materialists. They can do this precisely because we do not know what druids and other pagans really thought or did: modern “Druidism” can be endowed with whatever contemporary ideology you want. This is evident in the way both factions see magic as simply a primitive form of science – modern reason dresses as Thor and the old gods.

The genuine and unconscious spirit of paganism is, however, present in Hollywood films. Alain de Benoist and Camille Paglia have both noted that paganism took the image over the word. The pagan world is one of statues, murals, and theatrical effect. Almost from the beginning of the Bible “the word” – logos – is key to Christianity. This is not merely about “words”: Christian logos sees the world as ordered and rationally predictable – the word of God made it so.

Our contemporary world, since the advent of cinema and television, has become a world of the image and the unpredictable. In the 18th and 19th centuries, literacy, eventually mass literacy, ruled all. Accordingly, this was a time when the atheist and ultra-rationalist descendants of Christianity, socialism and communism, came to prominence. The advent of cinema gave rise to a new pagan spirit: the image became all and Hollywood stars were worshipped as little gods – glamour’s deep etymological meaning is literally “magic” or “enchantment”, and Hollywood sells glamour.

This change from word to image heralded post-modernity: a vital, confusing, dark, and relativistic time. Post-Christians, from Allan Bloom to Jordan Peterson, fret over this new relativism and the decline of logos, but material reality makes this process inevitable. Post-modernity is not the same as pre-modernity, just as post-Christians aren’t the same as pagans; but there is a relation in the rise of vital, relative, and image-based culture that doesn’t submit to “the word” anymore.

On Twitter, every anon user is wearing the mask of Greek tragedy – and Greek plays were pagan religious rituals. The age of the Internet is an age of memes, and these memes are almost all visual. Imageboards are spiritually pagan, and these are the last places where dressing up as a wizard or witch would be taken seriously.

We are living in a return of the same material circumstances that animated paganism, but we cannot fully return to paganism because of the post-Christian legacy of scientific reason. Heidegger famously said “only a god can save us”, and perhaps this particular ferment lays the conditions for a step beyond the pagan, Christian, and post-Christian.

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