Ash, Oak and Thorn: Clarification on the Death of British Paganism

The crisis of Paganism is directly tied to Capitalism

Cultural and religious analysis, from Jonathan Woolley


Ash die-back

Last month, I wrote an article in which I argued that the British Pagan Movement was dying. I was pleased to see it provoked(1) quite(2) a bit of(3) interest(4). As I expected, some people agreed with what I had to say, while others did not. Whenever you broach a controversial topic – and my article most certainly did so – there will always be some measure of disagreement. So before I move forward and offer some solutions to the problem as I see it, I thought it might be worthwhile to make some points of clarification.

This is what I shall attempt to do below; by means of a naturalistic metaphor. Much of my academic research has been concerned by exploring the ways in which the human and non-human worlds affect one another; how the forces of belief, profit, and bureaucracy percolate out through the landscape, and create patterns in the land and its people that closely mirror one another. Although I agreed with much of what John Beckett had to say in his response to my article*, what I found rather iffy about it was his use of evolution as a way of thinking about the development of religious communities. Using evolution as a model for understanding the spread or decline of human societies has a long and rather dubious history in anthropology, and contemporary social science has generally left metaphors of this particular kind behind.

While I still think nature can be – to use Levi-Strauss’ famous phrase – “good to think with” regarding social relations, I’d deploy it in a rather different way to John. So I thought I might demonstrate this, here, before I move on.

It will show, I hope, three things. One, it will help us appreciate what kinds of social groups I am talking about – in short, what I mean by “The British Pagan Movement.” Two, it will help us understand what “death” means here; what conclusions the evidence supports, and what conclusions it does not. Three, it will help us to understand why this process is inextricably bound-up with global flows of capital.

Clarification 1) Primroses

pagan things are not (necessarily) Paganism

There is a little wood, not far from where I live, that is mostly ash trees. As of this moment, the place is in a state much like many other ancient woodlands in the UK, managed for conservation; the branches are alive with birdsong, the forest floor is covered with a carpet of bluebells, primroses and lush spring grass. New life is flourishing everywhere you look. But if you look up, you see that a good number of the trees have brown lesions on their bark, and that last year’s withered leaf stalks are still clinging to their branches. Many of the older saplings are dead. Signs on the gate posts at the entry to the wood warn you – the whole place is suffering from Chalara, or Ash dieback. This fungus has already hit 90% of Denmark’s ash trees, and it is now spreading rapidly across the British Isles. Although mature trees can survive with an infection for many years, it decimates saplings, preventing the ash population from regenerating.

But remember – we are at the height of spring, and the forest is green, and many of the older trees will still put out leaves this year. So the majority of human visitors might imagine – even those who know the wood well – that there is no problem; hence the need for signs. But unless a solution is found, Britain’s glorious ash woods will die out. This does not mean the end of woodlands in general, nor does Chalara affect all plant species that live in ash woods – many of whom can and do thrive in woods of other sorts of trees. But if the ash trees all die out, then the woodlands defined by them will likewise disappear.

My previous article on Gods and Radicals made a similar diagnosis regarding British Paganism. I observed that – like the ebullient undergrowth in my ash woodland – the level of interest in “pagan” (note the small p) things is flourishing like never before. We’ve just celebrated May Day here in England, and there have been festivities up and down the country of a decidedly “pagan” feel. Despite many of these traditions have deep roots, I cannot remember them being celebrated so widely, or being publicised so much in the media.

I myself spent May Morning in Oxford with some friends, and 27,000 other people, who listened to the choir of Magdalene College sing to the rising sun, before a blessing was called out upon the Earth, our Mother, and the flourishing of the verdure for which the English springtime is famed. As the bells rang in the day, and Morris Men and other folk dancers jangled their way down across the Radcliffe Camera, the people of Oxford spread out to pubs and cafes – open especially early for that Morning – to toast the summer. And although there were initiated Pagans like myself present, by far and away the majority of those out on May Morning were not. The blessing was called out by an Anglican vicar, after all, and the choir were singing Hymnus Eucharisticus, a 500 year-old hymn about the Incarnation of Christ.

Events and activities of this kind, though undoubtedly “pagan” in a sense, should not be conflated with the Pagan Movement in Britain – which, as I stated in my original article, is a network of historically-related initiatory traditions, membership organisations, mailing lists, moots, and shops, all built around a genre of spiritual books, published from the late 19th to the present-day. This retail and voluntary framework supports a group of small religions and mystery schools that have grown dramatically in size during the 1980s and 1990s.

In the comments, a number of people suggested that because interest in pagan things like May Morning were doing so well the Pagan Movement itself must be flourishing. This reveals a common tendency  within both the advocacy and the study of Paganisms to claim pagan groups, ideas, and customs as part of the Pagan Movement, in a way that bolsters the Movement’s perceived size. An extreme version of this approach is represented in Michael York’s Pagan Theology, where he argues that indigenous religions, Hinduism, Shinto, African Traditional and Diasporic Religions, and Chinese Traditional Religions should all be reclassified as Pagan. This view has been heavily criticised for being a wild oversimplification of theological and ritual diversity in the traditions concerned, and for appropriating the independent philosophies of people of colour for confessional ends – despite the fact that followers in those philosophies would certainly reject the “Pagan” label.

I suggest we see a similar mistake being made when cultural events like May Morning, or the Stonehenge gathering at the Solstice, are treated as evidence for initiatory Pagan traditions themselves being in fine fettle. True, small-p paganism might encourage some people to seek out deeper mysteries, but I see little evidence that supports the view that the former necessarily leads to the latter in all cases. To dismiss the prospect of a gradual decline in popularity of initiatory Pagan groups or membership associations in Britain out of hand, simply because of the popularity of “pagan” cultural themes in Britain today is a bit like saying the ash trees can’t be dying from Chalara, because the primroses are doing awfully well.

Clarification 2) Saplings:

A lack of young people, and a lack of volunteerism are the problems; not an immediate collapse in membership

In my article, I identified evidence of decline with two observations; that there appear to be fewer people under 40 attending events organised by British Pagan traditions than previously, and that far fewer members of our community are volunteering to organise events. In the comments to my article – and in some rather frantic critiques published elsewhere – a lot of people went on to assume that the actual number of new members had collapsed, and that the existing membership figures of organisations like OBOD were falling. I have subsequently received clarification that – at least in the case of OBOD – this isn’t the case.

OBOD is increasing its membership rapidly to the point that the office is positively bustling; I have been informed that there are now nearly 20,000 members worldwide, an increase of roughly 4,000 over the past four years. Though reassuring, this bit of quantitative detail doesn’t necessarily affect my original observations – as OBOD doesn’t record the age of its members, it could be that this growth in membership is taking place solely amongst the over 40s. And as I argued in my original piece, if young people are joining the Order, but not coming to events, that still represents a problem. If millennials and younger members of Generation X are not being reached by the Order now, we have no guarantee that this will change as they get older – so the lack of young people at events could still indicate a problem that needs to be resolved. Nor does this continued growth indicate the extent to which people are willing to volunteer their time to organise moots, camps, or rituals.

With our ash woodland, the point is not that all the ash trees are dead already, or that no new seeds are able to germinate – rather, the problem is that Chalara is preventing the trees from flourishing as well as they might, to the point that a almost a whole generation of saplings has withered away, and this will have consequences long-term. The lack of young people at events, and the lack of ready volunteers, indicates that such a process may be ongoing in the British Pagan Community.

Clarification 3) Biosecurity:

Capitalism is, in fact, the causal factor

One might imagine that a fungal disease attacking ash trees and the combination of market forces I identified as being so deleterious to Britain’s initiatory Pagan traditions would have very little to do with one another. But in fact, both track the impact of global capitalism on local communities of different kinds.

Chalara – a species native to Asian forests, where it does no harm whatsoever – was imported into Europe in mass-produced furniture and ornamental plants. Rather than put in place adequate biosecurity measures to protect our forests from such diseases, the UK government opted for deregulation, preferring to protect the free movement of goods over the safety of our forests. It was neoliberal ideology – the religion of late capitalism – that brought Chalara to our shores. Just as Britain’s trees are blighted by the demands of capital, so our mysteries are deprived of the means of their reproduction by those self-same demands.

In the epic poem by Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, the nature spirit Puck explains that – apart from himself – all the magical people of England have left

“The People of the Hills have all left. I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes and the rest — gone, all gone!”

Only he remains, for “I came into England with Oak, Ash, and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash, and Thorn are gone I shall go too”. This powerful poem contains, I suggest, the seeds of the sort of radical “saving vision” that John Halstead suggests we must pursue, not just to save our Movement from long-term decline, but to make it worth saving. While Britain’s ash trees wither due to the spread of Chalara, other threats – like the devastating Emerald Ash Borer – lurk on the horizon. Britain’s oak trees, too, are in danger – with Sudden Oak Death being another species introduced by the trade in exotic plants, without adequate biosecurity. It is the responsibility of initiated Pagans to lead the charge in protecting Oak, Ash, and Thorn, making the land welcoming again for The People of the Hills.

For if we do not, then who shall?

*However, as he believed his remarks were in disagreement with my own, I suspect he wrote more of a response to the title of my article, rather than its content.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


 You can still purchase our entire digital catalogue for $20 US until 1 June.


British Paganism is Dying. Why?

A few years ago, I gave a talk to the OBOD Summer Gathering about the role of young people in Druidry. I began by pointing out that the average lifespan for an adult during the Iron Age was about 30 years – even if the sky-high rates of infant mortality were excluded. Today, we tend to think of elderhood as something reserved for those over 65; but to our ancestors, anyone over 30 would have been looked upon as an invaluable source of wisdom and experience. To accentuate the point, I invited the audience to stand up, and then asked all those over 35 to sit down again. If we were Iron Age druids, the majority of those seated, I explained, would be dead. Although the point I was making about the relativity of youth and eldership is an important one, this little experiment – getting anybody over 35 to sit down – revealed something else. Of a room full of 150 people, only about 9 were left standing. If this sample is taken to be indicative of the Order as a whole, that means only around 6% of OBOD’s members are aged between 16 and 35. By contrast, this age bracket covers some 26.4% of the UK’s general population.

This lack of young people at OBOD gatherings made manifest something that had been lingering in the back of my mind for some time; something that had previously only been whispered over campfires, on kitchen tables, late at night when the wine was flowing. Not only are few younger people coming to OBOD events, but some of my friends report that there seem to be fewer people of all ages taking an active role in organising events and rituals. While people are still coming to big public rituals at seasonal festivals, they are less and less inclined to volunteer to organise them, or to take on regular commitments of any kind. Moots are shrinking, it’s harder to fill up workshops, and getting enough volunteers to set up and run camps and gatherings is a struggle. For a long time, I suspected that this was confined to OBOD – Druidry, after all, has a powerful association with old white men with old white beards – but having spoken to friends of mine involved in other traditions, it appears to be more widespread, if not as extreme in other parts of the community. I’ve been told that the number of registered members of the Pagan Federation has gone down for the first time. At the Harvest Moon Conference in 2016, Melissa Harrington confessed that she felt that this decline in active participation was indicative of Paganism “going underground” again. Most of the Pagan Federation events I’ve been to recently have shown a similar demographic spread to OBOD ones.

All this is developing in the context of our experience of the most recent UK census in 2011. Ronald Hutton calculated in Triumph of the Moonpublished in the mid-ninetiesthat the number of initiated Pagans was around 17,000 – 20,000, with a larger number of “active engagers” of about 120,000; people who may revere Pagan gods, practice magic, and mark seasonal festivals, but are not initiated into any Pagan group. When the 2001 census recorded some 44,000 Pagans across Scotland, England, and Wales, this figure attracted considerable press attention, both positive and negative. Hutton speculated that if 44,000 people were sufficiently invested to identify themselves as Pagan on a censusdouble his figure in Triumphthe number of more loosely affiliated “active engagers” could have doubled too; creating a figure of 250,000 people.

In advance of the 2011 census, major Pagan organisations in Britain led the Pagan-dash campaign, encouraging people to identify themselves as Pagan on the census. However, the number who reported themselves as “Pagan” increased to only 56,620 peopleand depending upon how broadly one defines “Paganism,” the number of those identifying as a member of a Pagan or esoteric tradition increased to around 80,000 people. As Vivienne Crowley pointed out, this indicates that the meteoric growth of the 1990s had slowed. My concern is that the declining number of young participants in the Pagan community in Britain, and the general diminution of those taking an active role in the community as a whole, indicates that that growth has stalled. British Paganismas a subculture and as a movementis in trouble.

The clickbait-y title of the piecechosen to encourage you to read what I have to say (sorry)is doubtless an exaggeration. As such, I’ll need to make a couple of caveats. The problem I mention above is not some catastrophic dissolution of the social relations from which the Pagan Movement in Britain is forged; there is no imminent disaster, we’re not all in schism or at each other’s throats. The fact that this crisis is a slow crisis, I suggest, is what makes it so easy to ignore. But communities are not just vulnerable to feuds and disruption; time itself is an enemy. It is said that we are all dying, one day at a time—but communities have ways of warding off the parabolic curve toward the grave, by recruiting new members from new generations. If none of these ways are followed, however, then a community will necessarily disappear, subjected to the remorseless attrition of the passing of years. The death of the Pagan Movement is some way off; my aim here is not to pronounce its imminent demise, but rather to draw attention to a set of problems that, if unaddressed, will necessarily lead to the movement dying away.

I’d also stress that the scope of my observations above is necessarily quite limited. This situation applies solely to British Paganisms, and not to those of other countries. On a recent trip to Australia, for example, I witnessed a quite different realityin which a great many of people my own age are getting involved in and leading Pagan traditions. In European countries, I know, the demography is similarly diverse. Are there thriving covens and groves, recruiting many members under 30, out there in the UK somewhere, that I have yet to meet? Very possibly. If they do exist, I’d very much like to meet them; it’d be fascinating to learn how they’ve managed to buck the trend that I’ve observed in my own experience of the British Pagan Movement.

I also think it’s important to point out that the decline in British Paganism does not mean in the slightest that magical practice, animistic beliefs and ritual, British folkways, or the celebration of the wild and mythic heritage of these islands as a whole is under threat. Indeed, I would suggest to the contrary; that all these cultural practices are very much alive, and growing, amongst the younger generations as anywhereindeed, witchy stuff, hippy vibes, eco-activism, and nature mysticism are more on trend than ever. Which makes it all the more bizarre, to my mind, that existing British Orders, Traditions, and Camps are not riding the wave of the neo-folk, authenticity-seeking, sustainability-conscious zeitgeist. Hutton’s distinction between initiated Pagans and “active engagers” is very useful hereit is important to stress that becoming an initiate of a mystery school, and actively engaging in a broader cultural tradition of enchantment do not necessarily relate to one another. They are two rather different things.

What is in decline, then, is something quite specificthe Pagan Movement; a collection of organisations, publications, ceremonial genres, training courses. That collection is no longer feeding the appetite of the general public for the magical. That appetite has not gone away; indeed, it has potentially increasedso we must ask ourselves what has changed.

Dealing with some existing explanations

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, some of those I’ve spoken to tend to comment upon it in a number of ways. Firstly, they tend to argue that young people are just inherently less interested in spiritualitybeing more concerned with enjoying themselves, having children, or workingand that they will find Druidry when they become more spiritually-inclined as they get older. Secondly, the argument is made that there are probably many younger druids, but they just don’t come to the existing selection of events. Finally, some druids argue that most people are fundamentally ignorant and insensitive to the subtle forces and immanent power of wild places. Each of these commentaries serves to minimise the problem; the assumption being that the absence of younger people will resolve itself in time. With regard to the dip in the number of people prepared to take on organisational responsibilities, people tend to simply shake their heads, and mutter darkly about adverse economic conditions. I’ll deal with each of these responses in turn.

The suggestion that young people are necessarily less spiritual is one that doesn’t reflect my own experience, nor does it chime with the history of Paganism as a movement. I routinely meet people my own age with a deep and profound engagement with religious and spiritual practicebut they’re just normally involved other organisationssuch as Western Buddhist Orders, the Brahma Kumaris, or even liberal churchesover Pagan ones. As I’ve already pointed out, much of what Paganism is all about is very popular amongst young adults today. This reflects a long and passionate history of youthful involvement with magical and mystery traditions; the 1990s “Teen Witch” phenomenon demonstrated an enthusiastic appetite for enchantment amongst teenagers, and as Helen Berger and Doug Ezzy eloquently point out, the derisory views of this phenomenon by more experienced practitioners was largely ill-founded. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, if you go far back, pretty much all the Druids and priests of pre-Christian times would have been in their 20s. And although many people will get more inclined to involve themselves in spiritual practice as they get older, the same could be said in the reverseit is a well known phenomenon for spiritual ardour to cool with age.

The more moderate claimthat young Pagans are out there, but they aren’t coming to events or undertaking coursesis more plausible. As I’ve said, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a large population of “active engagers” in Pagan materialeven if they aren’t accessing that material through active participation in the community itself. But that begs a further question: why are British Pagan community leaders not organising events and courses that better cater to the majority of people? What might resources of this kind look like? The fact that the majority of those interested in “Pagan” themes in Britain aren’t being catered to by what’s already on offer within our community is not a reason for complacency; if anything, it should be the opposite. I would suggest that we’re simply doing as we’ve always done, even though it clearly isn’t working in the way that it once did.

The final claimthat most people simply don’t appreciate what the Pagan movement has to offeris, I think, the reason for this complacency about the narrow appeal of our movement in Britain. For much of the 20th century, Pagans have been viewed with thinly-veiled hostility by British society at large, with most of our valuesfrom respect for nature to equality for women, from sexual liberation to a valorisation of the imaginationbeing decidedly countercultural in nature. This had direct consequences; in custody battles, in dealings with the police, in employment and at home. This experiencepart of living memory for most Pagans todayhas reinforced the perception that the rest of society simply “doesn’t get” what we’re all about.

But the fact is that British society and its values have changed dramatically since the 1980s. Much of what once made Paganism radical is now widely accepted by those of all religions and none. It is no longer particularly progressive to believe in the central importance of the natural world, or in basic equality for all. Though these values are under attack from corporations and far-right populist movements, the very fact that the opposition to these values has crystallised at this moment demonstrates the broadening of their appeal. People would have no need of the gurning outrages of Nigel Farage and Katy Hopkins if everyone still took their regressive views as common sense, as they once did. While British Pagan organisations have concentrated on mainstreaming, it has escaped the notice of many of us that the mainstream is now increasingly flowing in our direction. We are winning the argument.

And yet, rather than harness this tectonic shift in the soul of Britain, some Pagans have remained pretty insular in their thinking. The recent memory of bigotry shown toward our community has become a shield for other, less edifying attitudes. Like members of most subcultures, it’s tempting for Pagans to look down on those outside of our small community, characterising the general public as mindless, uncritical “sheeple” or “muggles,” enslaved to societal expectations. We are all familiar with the extreme form this attitude can take; the British Pagan Community has its fair share of what an American friend of mine referred to as “Grand High Poobahs.” But I would suggest that we all need to be vigilant against this tendency within ourselvesmyself included. In the past few years, I have met so many people who shared identical values to those of contemporary British Pagans. Though lapsing into a bit of mild snobbery is a ubiquitous trait in British society, I suggest that it has led us initiated Pagans into underestimating the current reach and appeal of the things we care about most. As such, we’ve become vulnerable to a sort of Religious Hipsterismtreating our religion less as a vision of a better world, and more as a mode of personal distinction that lifts us upward in the unending churn of the class system.

To return to Hutton’s formulation, then, it appears the problem is not the decline of all cultural practices that can be connected to the Pagan revival. Rather it is a disjuncture between the orders, traditions, newsletters, groups, literatures, and organisations that make up the “Pagan Movement”and a broader audience of “active engagers” that is larger than ever. But how has this rift emerged? I suggest that, of the comments I’ve mentioned so far, the one that sets us on the path to understanding this process is the lastthose grim reflections upon economic adversity, and its impact on people’s ability to engage in the time-consuming task of organising and volunteering for community activities.

The Political Economy of Paganism

In one of my first essays on Gods and Radicals, I explored the political economy of contemporary Paganism. There I argued that Paganism is quite unlike more established religions, in that the prevailing economic structure is not a church, or a monastic order, or an ashrambut rather a fandom. It is a group of avid enthusiasts, who consume content produced by a smaller circle of creators, who distribute their content through an open marketwith that content being celebrated through events organised by enthusiast-volunteers. My aim in producing this description was to provide the most accurate picture of how goods, services, labour and authority circulate in our community. The point is not that individual British Pagan authors, workshop leaders, diviners, and shopkeepers are greedy capitalists. In fact, all the creators on the British scene that I have met are generous and altruistic, with spiritual rather than profit-motives. The point is that the system in which they all work is a market-oriented one. And as it lives by the market, I suggest, so our community is now dying by it.

Within the British Pagan Community, two kinds of organisation played a key role: the Independent Small Business and the Unincorporated Association. Mind Body Spirit Shops and Bookshops are all small businesses; institutions that rely upon commerce, but provide a hub for existing initiates, and, crucially, allow new seekers a means of finding their way into the community. Through the gateway represented by the MBS Shop, the seeker would find their way into a network of covens, orders, groves, moots, ceremonies, and camps. All of these are forms of Unincorporated Associations, run by volunteers, usually at costif any money changes hands at all. The key feature to both these types of organisationSmall Private Companies and Unincorporated Associationsis that they’re both very vulnerable to fluctuations in the wider market.

The fate of the MBS Bookshop makes this vulnerability plain. Like all small, independent shops, a great many pagan or MBS bookshops have been forced to close, afflicted by economic instability in the wake of the Great Recession, rising business rates, andmost importantlyout-competed by internet retailers. The Internet has now largely replaced the bookshop as the first place seekers go to find out about our traditions. Pagans were early-adopters of the Internet, and the web provided an invaluable means for Pagan groups to meet and work with one another. But the Internet itself has transformed drastically since the 1990s. Web design, search-engine optimisation, and e-marketing have become tremendously advanced, funded by vast amounts of corporate capital. In the crowded marketplace of online content, it’s easy for your brand to be drowned out unless you can successfully deploy a rich supply of fresh, original content, distributed adroitly through social mediamuch of which consumers expect for free. British Pagan organisations have been slow to adapt to this environment; and while being slightly dated and tatty adds to the charm of an independent bookshop, a website that is poorly designed or has late 90s coding won’t look any better for it. To those of us who have grown up with the internet, an old-fashioned website is downright off-putting.

A further problem from a commercial standpoint is the fact that Paganism’s “brand” has suffered in recent years. As John Halstead has pointed out, we’ve gone from being perceived as a threat, to being seen as a joke. Although efforts to mainstream the Pagan movement have brought undoubted benefits, it has nonetheless had the unintended side-effect of removing some of the edgy charisma that was once part of the movement’s appeal. This effect has been compounded by the fact the British Pagans who most assiduously court publicity are amongst the most eccentric, with the lowest production values. Those of us who are less inclined to dress up crushed velvet, or give ourselves grand titles exceeding our actual accomplishments have ended up avoiding the limelight entirely. Though understandable, this reaction has meant that the British public now have a mental image of Paganism that amounts to little more than bad cosplay at the Summer Solstice.

If we turn away from the shop front, towards the community meeting in the function room upstairs, we run into a different set of issuesbut ones that can nonetheless be traced back to market forces. The Pagan Community is reliant upon the voluntary labour of enthusiasts, as the events rarely collect enough cash to pay the going rate for the labour involved. During the 1990s, when many camps and moots were being set up, this was not a problembenefits and wages were generous enough to allow people copious spare time that they could devote towards voluntary activities. But after decades of cuts in state finances and stagnant wages, paired with a rising cost of living, people across the country are struggling to make ends meet, and are working longer hours. With their increasingly limited time off, they now need to focus upon domestic labour, spending time with their loved ones, and on recreationactivities that “recharge the batteries,” allowing them to continue working.

Voluntary labour and extra-curricular learning have both suffered, as people no longer have the time or energy to spare to engage in them. Unfortunately, these are precisely the two types of activity upon which the Pagan community was built in the mid-20th century. As the amount of spare time available has collapsed, so have the number of people prepared who can find the time to become initiated, learn the mysteries, and then enact them for others for free. The only exception are those who have already secured sufficient assets so that they no longer need to work for a living; that is, retired people.

In short, the same reason lies behind the aging of British Paganism, and the decline in the number of active initiates prepared to run events. The Pagan Movement was constructed, quite unintentionally, as a network of commercial relations, that in turn stimulated a thriving voluntary scene, all gathered around a common genre of writing and ritual. But as market conditions have changed in the past few decades, this delicate arrangement has been yanked out of alignment. The Movement has not remained competitive in the crowded marketplace of online content, and has not made the most of its distinctive brand. Given that people are more pressed for time and money than ever, fewer young, working people are attracted to it, and there are no longer enough volunteers available to run its events.

Beyond Commerce, beyond work: The way forward

Although I have taken pains to reveal the commercial underpinnings to British Paganism, this does not mean that I think this situation is an ideal, or even good state of affairs. There are a great many alternative ways of organising ourselves that would make our core activities much less vulnerable to shifts in the wider economy. Equally, in saying this, I do not mean to criticise anybody’s individual way of making a livingas I’ve said, I have not met anybody on the British scene who I would describe as a profiteer, exploiting their spirituality to collect a tidy sum. Instead, what I’ve experienced is lots of passionate, enthusiastic people, aspiring to earn a wage in a fulfilling way. But it is interesting that the social structure that developed organically around our Movement was in the first instance a capitalist one. Even our voluntary arrangements, as I have argued, have been directly affected by adverse market conditions. This just goes to show that the British Pagan Movement is not exempt from the prevailing capitalist logics that structure British society in general. And these same logics are now placing the very longevity of our community in question.

To lay out the issues before us plainly, there are two things with which the market once supplied the Pagan Movement in Britain. Namely, a means for “active engagers” to find out about the Movement and become initiates within it; a shop-front, in other wordsand sufficiently generous and un-taxing sources of income to allow for initiates to pursue the mysteries in their spare time. The market in Britain no-longer provides us with these things, and so our community is withering on the vine. Although there are, perhaps, more “active engagers” than ever, we are cut off from them. The question that now lies before us is this: How can we better connect with this large pool of active engagers, of all ages, and how can we better sustain the practice of the mysteries, now that people’s time and energy is so short?

I cannot provide a comprehensive programme of solutions here, though I will venture some suggestions in future articles. But there are some key observations I wish to make, by way of concluding remarks:

  • It is clear that our movement’s focus around long-term, expensive, extra-curricular pedagogy – that is, upon initiation pursued in one’s spare time, with one’s spare incomeis becoming harder to sustain. In these trying times, active engagers need healing and well-being as much as they need initiations. Now is the time for us to reflect more than ever upon our responsibilities as magicians, rather than our rights as religionists. We must care for the Earth and its peoples.
  • This does not mean we should abandon our drive to initiate more people into the mysteries; but it means we should re-think how and why we do this. If we are serious about broadening the reach of what we do, we need to find ways of making it accessible and feasible for people to learn about it.
  • This, if anything, shows us one thingBritish Paganism is being killed by capitalism. Although I have cast it in quite stark, commercial terms, at the heart of the Pagan community sits a utopian vision of free-association: a Bookchinite imagined village, in which individuals are free to interact with one another regarding matters of mutual interest, and to exchange goods and services in a similar manner. There are many ways in which this vision has been put into practice; particularly in the voluntaristic dimensions to the Pagan experience. I have lived and breathed this sort of lifestyle at Pagan camps I have attended. But it has become increasingly hard to sustain in the cut-throat landscape of post-recession Britain. If we’re serious about wanting to build a village-like community in contemporary Paganism here, we’ll need to destroy capitalism in order to do it.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

Never Shall Be Slaves – I

By Jonathan Woolley

Britannia-Statue

“Rule Britannia/Britannia rules the Waves
Britons never never never shall be slaves.”

These are words I grew up with. To be sung at sporting events and public celebrations, while waving a little plastic Union Jack and being carried along with the crowd. Even if you haven’t come across them before, you will have heard the tune: it immediately calls to mind the maritime, stubborn spirit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We will not be conquered – we fought off the Germans, twice! We stand for freedom. We invented democracy. Did you know we banned slavery before anyone else?

It’s catchy, this sort of thing. It rings out in the public sphere, and fades till it becomes a hum, till it becomes part of the white noise that lingers in the imagination even when all else is silent. Britons never shall be slaves. If our nation were one of the Seven Kingdoms, and the House of Windsor were our liege-lords, these would be their words. You don’t need to know much about blowing gales(1) to know the power that such songs command.

I can remember, when I was small, I just took all this on board. I’d see my mother proudly singing along while watching the Last Night of the Proms. Afterwards, she explained to me why they were important. We Brits have a proud naval tradition, she said, and that protects us from our enemies.

Rule Britannia! was written in 1740 by a Scottish poet called James Thomson. It was part of a production about Alfred the Great – the original patron of the English navy – written to mirror a spate of recent victories scored by the British navy against the Spaniards. It struck a chord, so to speak, and rapidly entered into the popular songbook. Nowadays, nobody really remembers the full lyrics: it’s just the short refrain above that is sung, with great ardour, over and over and over.

It is true, of course, that British sea power has been instrumental in protecting Britain and Northern Ireland from foreign invasion. From the sinking of the Spanish Armada onwards, there has been a sort of popular superstition amongst the British people that the seas and skies themselves defend our island – a tsunami of the occident – with our navy standing guard in their stead. Our seas are to us what Russian winters are to Moscow. Our navy made Operation Sea Lion a pipe dream, unless our air force was removed first.

But the last bit of the words – the indefinite proclamation, never shall be slaves – is a darker matter. Because it isn’t true. Not even a bit of it.

Britons have been – and still are – frequently enslaved. Whether we’re talking about entire Cornish villages being carted off by pirates from the Barbary Coast, or modern-day debt slaves in quiet suburban streets, the ardent claim made by Rule Britannia! rings rather hollow. And the history of the British Empire’s relationship to slavery is anything but noble. I suppose it could be read as aspirational; that slavery is inimicable with British values, even if the reality it somewhat different.

But beyond this, there is another story to be told. A sad one, with a horrible ending.

“Briton” – as a demonym – has deep roots. It stretches back far into the past, to the Priteni, or the People of the Forms (2) – the indigenous inhabitants of the British Isles in the Iron Age. I use the term “indigenous” advisedly, because the Priteni were progressively colonised by a bellicose foreign Empire: that of Ancient Rome. And a big, and often neglected part of that history, is slavery. Slaves were routinely exported from Britain, being listed by Strabo amongst other goods that were traded from there. Like many minor powers on the fringes of imperial players, it seems, the Ancient British chiefdoms were driven to enslave one another as a way of making money. Despite this, Cicero informs us that Britons would “not fetch fancy prices” in Roman slave markets, because they were too lazy. Cicero also observed in a letter to a friend that, after the conquest,

“It’s also become clear that there isn’t an ounce of silver in the island [Britain] nor any prospect of booty except slaves.”

But that was incentive enough for Rome. Slaves were the hydrocarbons of their day – their expropriated labour the primary energy source in Roman agriculture, industry, and domestic life. And just like our present-day Empires, Rome needed a constant supply of energy to keep itself going.

Historians like Tacitus open a window on what the invasion and conquest of Britain would have meant for the indigenous population: if you resisted, thousands of your people would be slain in battle, with the rest being taken into slavery. If you did not, you would be forced to pay tribute to Rome, and would be utterly subject to Roman laws. Your body and person would be free, but your spirit, wealth and society would be forever subject to the Pax Romana.

Within the narrative of conventional British patriotism, this was no bad thing. This was not enslavement, this was progress. Rome brought civilisation – literacy, underfloor heating, professionalised crafts, olive oil, wine, and – eventually – Christianity. The Roman armies protected the Iron Age tribes from one another; pacifying them. In this imagining, the ancient Druids – the spiritual ancestors of modern Druidry – were superstitious, murderous zealots; justifiably massacred on the Isle of Angelsey. History is written by the victors, of course; as such, it is often so much blood libel.

The Britons, of course, never threw off the Roman yoke. They never again were the Priteni – the People of the Forms. Many shaved their faces, put away their ink, and replaced their roundhouses with villas, their trousers for togas. Their wild and mysterious gods were weighted down with stone temples, then forgotten entirely when the Christ came. And Rome did bring peace, and opportunities for trade. The population grew, and lifespans increased. Winston Churchill claimed

“For nearly 300 years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have ever had.”

As Churchill was an ardent imperialist, such a reading is unsurprising. For as with all Empires, the peace and properity of late-Roman Britain was bought and paid for with tens of thousands of lives that were taken in war, or swallowed by the slave trade, then promptly ended in the lead mines, galleys and plantations of Gaul, Spain, and Italy.

But the Pax was not to last in Britain. After 300 years, the Roman Army retreated to defend Gaul, leaving Britain defenseless and – crucially – without a source of currency. Deprived of military wages, and so no longer able to trade, the now highly specialised British economy collapsed. Whereas before ordinary people knew how to support themselves – making their own utensils, growing their own food, and building their own houses – within the Empire, they had access to specialist craftsmen who could provide all these goods. Once the money supply was cut off however, people could neither buy, nor make, nor grow the commodities they needed. The population crashed, with hundreds of thousands of people starving or dying of disease and exposure, simply because the Imperial economic system upon which they relied had suddenly spat them out, and they no longer knew how to cope without it. Much like the Western Australian Government currently; the Romans stayed long enough for everyone to become reliant upon them, before pulling out and leaving the population to fend for themselves. As Professor Ronald Hutton recently stated in a talk at a Lugnasadh celebration: “The paradise of late Roman Britain became a nightmare.”

The Roman Occupation was a time when Britons were – both collectively and personally – slaves. We were violently chained to a grand imperial machine, exploited, then rendered utterly dependent upon that machine for very our survival. True, that experience was varied – some were formally enslaved, others were free citizens of the Empire. But our liberty was utterly destroyed. So much so, that Rome hadn’t just stolen the sons, daughters, grain, gold, and sovereignty of Britain – it had stolen and corrupted its very soul. No longer did the Britons – as the warchief Calcagus once had, in Tacitus’ imagining – long for freedom from the oppression of vicious empires. The trauma of our abandonment scarred that sentiment, so over generations it would be perverted into a desire to become a new Rome ourselves. Britons never shall be slaves. So we shall make slaves of all others.

It’s over a thousand years later now, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The British people are no longer a collection of tribes preparing to fight for their lives, insulted as “barbarians”, and soon to be broken into death and slavery. We are the Romans now. Or, at least, we were. For a time. But our Empire fell, as Empires always do, and everyone who fell under Britannia’s long shadow has been left to pick up the pieces.

We Pagans look to our ancestors for comfort, support, protection, and advice. The Gods can be fickle, but our ancestors – as our kin – can be trusted before all others to look out for us and to teach us true lessons. This story from the past of the British people is pretty baleful knowledge. It isn’t a happy story of triumph, of a Sceptered Isle safe from slavery. It is a story, first and foremost, of the ancestral Britons’ total defeat – their subjection, and eventual decimation. Some died early, some died later, but the overriding theme is the total loss of sovereignty. What’s more, this didn’t just happen once in Britain’s early history, but several times in the various successor nations of Britain – from the Norman Conquest, to the Highland Clearances.

Some people respond to this realisation by creating a kind of victimhood narrative; in place of patriotic bluster, they nurse xenophobia – describing present-day immigration, often by people of colour, as an “invasion”; or trying to conflate the experience of present-day white people with present-day indigenous communities, who still live under a different sort of Pax. But to respond in this way is both foolish, and immoral. Foolish because it ignores the intervening history, and immoral because it justifies the continued persecution of indigenous peoples, and migrants.

These instances of colonalism in Britain’s past foreshadowed the creation of the British Empire centuries later. Rome set a bloody precedent across Europe; its lost golden age driving the ambition of generations of latter day Caesars. The people such conquering visions displaced often ended up in non-Western countries, replicated the abuses they had suffered on indigenous populations. It isn’t so strange that peoples when utterly conquered should themselves then seek to conquer; and sing songs about their own liberty. Most bullies are themselves subjected to abuse, and cover their weakness with ostenstatious displays of strength. But to understand this should never serve to justify or excuse bullying behaviour. The fact that Britain was once colonised in the past, can never be used to excuse present-day colonialism or racism. Instead, it should encourage us to do the opposite.

The irony is that both patriotic and victimhood narratives commit the same error – dishonouring and forgetting our ancestors’ struggle against the Roman oppressor. Putting Rome on a pedestal exemplifying a lost Golden Age, ignores the suffering of those who originally fought against her. And pretending that this idolising of Rome hasn’t happened in our more recent past, merely enables us to ignore those who suffer now. As Pagans, it is our duty and privilege to remember this past, to be inspired by it to show solidarity and support to those oppressed in the modern day, and to oppose Empire in the present, in memory of all our beloved dead who fell beneath its jack-booted oppression. Anything less is not only morally wrong, but leaves us chained to the ghosts of our once-conquerors. We must break those chains. Then, and only then, will the claim that there never shall be slaves ring true.

(1) Blowing a gale – The English word “gale”, referring to a strong wind, comes from the Middle English word galen, which means to sing, scream, cry, or practice enchantment. As such, when Asatruar sing galdr, we English might be said to blow gales.

(2) This etymology is believed to be a Gaulish description of British people, reflecting their tendency to tattoo themselves with blue pigment.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


 Support our work by buying our books & stickers here.