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Whose Gods are These?

A Classicist Looks at Neopaganism

By Sarah Iles Johnston

Many contributors to this volume will be discussing «religions of the other» in the ancient world, as seen through the eyes of the ancients themselves: how the Romans viewed the Jews, how the Greeks viewed the Egyptians, and so on. I would like to do something different; I would like to look at a group of people whom scholars of ancient religions themselves tend to view as practicing a strange religion: namely, those who recreate ancient religions in the contemporary world, or «neopagans». The topic is particularly interesting because neopagans base their practices and systems of belief not only on the ancient sources but also, and even more directly, on the work of those who study the ancient sources – that is,they create their religions by drawing upon on the scholarship that we produce. For most of this essay, I will look at what it is that our work contributes to these new religions, and how, exactly, it does so. More briefly, at the end, I will suggest that by considering how these new religions develop, we will better appreciate the vitality and flexibility of ancient religions.

But first I must get some basics out of the way. The word «neopaganism» is often used as a blanket term for religions that seek to revive the polytheistic beliefs and practices of the pre-Christian west. Although estimates vary, it is likely that about 700 000 people in North America (including Canada) identify themselves as practicing some form of neopaganism. This includes, for example, Neo-Druidism, Heathenry (or Norse neopaganism), and Hellenismos – that is, the revival of ancient Greek religious practices.

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(H/T Sannion)

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