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Caring for the future: Contemporary Pagans & engagement with environmentalismin Portugal and the United Kingdom

Date:10 April 2024
Author:Joana Martins
Image provided by author
Image provided by author

We are currently experiencing a period in our collective history marked by social, environmental, political, and health crises, characterized by high levels of uncertainty and anxiety. These affect the living conditions of people and their livelihoods, and they bring forth the precariousness of the systems that sustain and govern us. What is the role of religious and spiritual movements in today’s conjectures and the future?

This article, based on research done with eEcologically inclined Contemporary contemporary Pagans in Portugal and the United Kingdom, will explore the importance of religious and spiritual movements during these crises.1 First of all, it is necessary to define (at least to a point) what Contemporary Paganism is. Contemporary Paganism is a broad label used to define heterogeneous groups, currents, traditions, and paths that draw inspiration from European ancestral and pre-Christian religious traditions to create their paths and practices and adapt these to the necessities of contemporary life. Among the principles that guide these movements, holding nature as sacred and venerating it is the most consensual. In addition, being a movement that arose in the 20 th century, it was highly influenced by environmentalist, feminist, and ecofeminist social movements.

My research aimed to understand how, contemporary Pagans participated in the public space through the negotiation of internal power dynamics related with gender issues and environmental and ecological revindications. in the context of Contemporary Paganism in Portugal and the United Kingdom, internal power dynamics related to gender relations and environmental issues inform and are informed by their social and political participation in the public space. Since contemporary Ppaganism is so broad, I focused on how Ecocentric pagans— Contemporary Pagans who are ecologically and environmentally inclined – engaged in these issues and dialogued with the broader social and environmental context they belong to.

The celebration of the natural world and the emphasis on belonging to a world community are central to their religious and spiritual lives. It is a reference through which humans make sense of the transformations and cycles they go through. They celebrate this connection and sacredness through The Wheel of the Year, a calendar of eight festivals that mark the turning of the seasons and, consequently, the transformations of the environment in which they live and their life cycles. Also, Nature is sacred because it is considered the Great Mother. She is the one who nurtures, protects, and sustains life. It is the only home that humanity and other species have. Thus, it must be protected and respected. The disconnection of humans from the planet is mentioned recurrently in the context of Contemporary Paganism. Through their ritual, ceremonial, and magical forms of spiritual and religious engagement, they look at the reconnection, considering meaningful ways to sustain and respect life and making sense of the uncertainty, pain, and crises felt globally, both at environmental and social levels.

While activists call for a change in attitude for human beings before the environment and other beings and discuss the impacts of capitalism, neoliberal policies, intensive exploration and extraction of resources, rising pollution and global warming, increased wildfires, and destruction of environments, Contemporary Pagans, in celebrating and sacralising nature, align with and reproduce these discourses. They worry about the impact of human action on the planet, advocating for collective participation in themes related to environmental awareness. They perform several activities that connect with the celebration of the natural world. One is the ritual and magical practices done to connect with the natural cycles; the second is participating in environmental actions, such as marches, demonstrations, international environmental currents, or collaboration with environmentalists; and thirdly, adapting their actions, like diets, to exclude animal-based products or excluding mass production of these products and looking for sustainable ways to move.

At the same time, the call for healing, caring, regeneration, and reconnection with the earth becomes central to their religious and spiritual lives. Through this language of care, healing, and regeneration that is embodied and perceived while Ecocentric Pagans engage in magical, spiritual, and political work and lived experiences, they make sense of the several crises affecting their lives and the uncertainty that comes with them. Therefore, they combine both these personal, more ecologically inclined choices, with their religious and spiritual stands, and with their engagement and participation in political actions, both implicit and explicit.

Therefore, Contemporary Pagans combine their spiritual, religious, and political convictions in both their public and political lives and their ritual and magical practices. However, this is not consensual; it depends on currents, groups, and traditions and focuses on these questions. This reflects the heterogeneity of these groups as well. While calling for transformation, some issues arise, like for instance issues related with leadership and maintenance of hierarchies; who has the economic, financial and knowledge to access these spaces or who can provide the tools to people that look for personal empowerment in these spiritual and religious practices. Nevertheless, it is crucial to consider these types of participation in public spaces and their importance to people. It is undeniable that religion and spirituality dialogue with social movements, mainly feminism and environmentalism.

Moreover, Religion and Spirituality provide comfort, security, certainty, protection, and emotional and spiritual support for pagans before the future and the unknown, or before uncertainty and crises. It provides a security network most needed in times of crises, which, as seen with the example of Contemporary Paganism in Portugal and the United Kingdom, offers the support and explanations people most need to consider a future that interconnects all forms of life in a common home: the Earth.

1Martins, Joana, 2023, “Connecting with the Great Mother, Regenerating Us: Environmental Activism, Gender Relations and Power Dynamics in Contemporary Paganism in Portugal”, Ph.D. Thesis, Iscte – Lisbon University Institute.

About the author

Joana Martins

Joana Martins (She/Her) is a Portuguese Anthropologist, currently a post-doctoral researcher at CRIA - Centre for Research in Anthropology, Lisbon. 

She has been researching contemporary Paganism in Portugal since 2016. Her research interests focus on the lived religion and spirituality of contemporary pagans, gender, care, environmental and ecological questions, power, politics, ritual creativity, healing and well-being.