We aren't all New Age hipsters. Andre Coelho/Getty Images

April 1, 2024   5 mins

The West Country is better known for Poldark’s smoulder than the fires of Paganism. But, as a local Heathen priest, I can assure you that the Pagan revival down here is in full swing. Just last week, a builder working next door to me announced that he was a Druid, while a man I hired to fit some floorboards revealed that he, like me, worships the Germanic gods of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors. The most recent census found that the number of Pagans in England and Wales had risen from 57,000 in 2011 to 74,000 — and that they cluster in Ceredigion, Cornwall and Somerset.

The native form of Paganism specifically practiced by the English is variously termed “Asatru”, “Heathenry”, “Fyrnsidu”, “Odinism” or “Wodenism”. And by and large, we get along with everyone. Times have changed since the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which was repealed in 1951, and modern Britons are more likely to find the idea of 21st-century Paganism mildly amusing, rather than terrifying or offensive. Yet there are still some among our compatriots who feel threatened by our faith. As a YouTuber and pagan priest, I receive hundreds, if not thousands, of comments each year from furious Christians.

For the most part, I suspect that they are simply unaware of the central tenets of our tradition or the strict rules that govern our rites. They are naturally frustrated to see people reject the empty atheism of our age, not in favour of England’s traditional religion of the last 1,200 years, but for what they see as a New-Age fantasy based on arbitrary superstitions and whims. I doubt, however, that many of them have ever met a real Pagan.

I first encountered Paganism in my early twenties, when, disillusioned by the atheism of my adolescence, I began an extended period of spiritual exploration. During that time, I would often peer through the gates of the 17th-century Trinity Green Almshouses in London’s East End, where the Heathen religion was revived in the Seventies. I was, however, initially hesitant to embrace Paganism because of the eccentricity of the Pagans I had met. At one neo-pagan event in the woods north of London, the publicity officer was a professional Boris Johnson impersonator wearing a cloak and tiara who called himself Druid Galdron. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the Pagans who drew me to Paganism. Yet I eventually decided that any social cost was worth paying in exchange for a closer relationship with the gods. And so I reverted to the native faith of the English people.

I soon found out that exchange lies at the heart of Heathenry — so much so that some have scornfully described our interactions with the divine as “transactional”. We worship through sacrifice which we call “blƍt”, a word used in Old English and Old Norse to denote sacrifice and worship. Traditionally, blƍt was focused on animal sacrifice but also on libations of alcoholic drinks. Today, a combination of ethical and practical considerations lead us to focus on the latter. When we sacrifice, we emulate the actions of our creators; Odin, also called Woden, and his brothers who shaped this world through sacrifice. The offering is an act of devotion to what is higher, but it also raises the worshipper who participates in the original divine action that brought our cosmos into being. We believe we are completing a sacred cycle that Woden himself has taught us.

At a time when globalisation and technology are challenging our sense of space and belonging, this rootedness of Heathenry in the English context is highly appealing. We worship the same gods as our ancestors, and our rites are observed in sympathy with the cycles of the natural world around us. This worldview naturally encourages an appreciation for the land through a sense of sacred space, rooting the worshipper both in their own regional history and in nature. The sacred centre of the world for us is neither Mecca nor Jerusalem, but the old oak forests and burial mounds of this island. The feet of a popular Palestinian carpenter are less likely than Woden’s to have walked in ancient times upon England’s mountains green. By contrast, our oaks are holy to the thunder god, Thunor. At the rising sun, which heralds spring, we worship the goddess of the dawn, Easter. In ancient burial grounds, we venerate our ancestors who endured countless winters on this sceptered isle.

In many ways, English Heathenry is unique to this land and its history. The philosopher and historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, wrote that: “for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into supernatural reality.” This was true in the 11th century — when King Cnut denounced those Anglo-Danes who worshipped the sun, moon, fire or flood — and it is true now. Certain ancient stones, particularly megalithic monuments such as Adam’s grave (formerly Woden’s grave) in Wiltshire and Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, were once regarded as sacred by Heathens, and still are. The same applies to sacred wells and other waters. The dirty old Thames for us carries more than filth — it is a boundary between our world and the underworld (no, I don’t mean South London). It is the door through which our ancestors passed gifts of weapons to the gods and the dead, and it is every bit as sacred as the Ganges.

“English Heathenry is unique to this land and its history.”

Admittedly, a significant portion of Britons professing Paganism today are indulging in a kind of New-Age counterculture. But there are many others, including myself, who are only seeking to know and propitiate the gods as our forebears did. We are not hippies and our religion doesn’t involve drugs, raves or getting naked — rather, we hold formal gatherings at which we not only pour libations to the gods but also drink to the health of King Charles III. The reason for this is that England’s tradition of monarchy derives from that of the early English Heathens. The King — as a descendent of Woden — remains a divinely-assured figurehead of our people.

All this goes to show that, while too small to rival the infrastructure, community and glorious architecture of the Church of England, Heathenry offers something the church can’t: an authentic bond with the land and a spiritual identity that is rooted in the familiar. I know we are all expected to sing the praises of globalisation. But such optimism is an extravagance beyond the means of those who have seen their rural towns fall to ruin, and had their complaints fall upon the deaf ears of our political representatives. Can they be blamed for looking backwards?

The call of Paganism is thus hard to resist. The enduring popularity of the medieval fantasy genre, and the rise of an entire internet subculture of Viking-related communities, are testament to the deep yearning many still have for something ancient they feel has been lost. We have been severed from our roots by the axe of modernity, while the information revolution has democratised the myths, spells and ancient rites of Heathen times, formerly the reserve of privileged academics. In the years ahead, the dramatic social changes which will rock Britain — from genetic engineering to artificial intelligence — may push more Britons into the arms of the gods. We have much to ask them for. To those who doubt that Paganism in Britain can be reconciled with the protean technological innovations of tomorrow: who but Woden himself could have foreseen that the internet would facilitate the revival of his cult in 21st-century England?

Tom Rowsell is a historian and documentary film-maker who runs the Survive the Jive YouTube channel. He is also a Heathen priest, living in Devon.