goat rape
Pan rapes a goat

A discussion on another person’s blog got me thinking about how much modern paganism is associated with Nature and animals. A list of things modern pagans are supposed to do include things like getting out into nature and communing with the various spirits you find there. Pagans are half expected to be vegetarians and respect all life

However I feel that while such goals might be laudable, by pigeon holing paganism into one set of standards we are creating a paganism that never was and cutting off the ancient gods from the Urban life where they really dominated.

urban rome
Urban Ancient Rome — not a sacred grove to bee seen

Walking around in Rome you can’t help noticing that one of the key motivators of European pagan was almost entirely urban. Gods were placated in temples and there were few real nature gods. Rome’s founding spirit was fire related which evolved into a Vesta and Vulcan worship. Later, under the influence of another mostly urban culture – the Etruscans this changed into a triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. For the million or so inhabitants of Rome gods and goddesses were in temples and had little to do with nature.

In the countryside the gods and goddesses were mostly agricultural. Sure there were nature spirits associated with particular places but these were not dealt with in the normal way of modern pagans. One ancient writer described how taken he was with a nature spirit at a particular spot that he was moved to slit the throat of a young goat.

Modern pagans, still harbouring a near protestant grudge against Rome, claim that other pagan societies were better because of their closeness to nature. Normally the Celts are cited. However we are not really sure what the Ancient Celts believed as we have to rely on Roman writers. While they met in sacred groves there is nothing to suggest that this was a religion based on the love of nature or indeed that the religion was not agriculturally based and much different in spirit from the Romans.

Really early pagan worship was even less nature orientated. Ron Hutton once pointed out that much of the British wasteland and moors was caused by the Bronze Age over farming. The first time the planet experienced global warming was when the Spanish mines started churning out so much lead that it ended up in Artic Ice cores.

What about the Greeks. Modern authors, starting from Murray Hope have classified Greek religion as “Green ray” meaning it was all singing and dancing and in tune with nature. They point out that Orpheus did not want animal sacrifices. The Ancient Greeks themselves would have been shocked and more than a little insulted.

Orpheus was a Thracian, who the Greeks considered barbarians, and besides they were proud of their intellectual approach to religion. They considered the Romans more religious than them, but at the same time they were interested in the nature of the universe. Besides Orpheus was on a small part of Thracian beliefs – as mass sacrifices of dogs and horses attest.

There is little in the way of nature worship in Ancient Egypt either. Sure you can say that the Nile and Set are natural forces, but they were worshipped in temples by an urban and agricultural based society.

Pagan societies where nature was respected did exist, but they were not in Europe. The Maori in New Zealand conducted elaborate rituals when they needed to cut trees, the Native American had similar practices. But few modern pagans follow these paths in their entirety, and these seem to be different from European pagan practice/

To True Ancient Pagans was rarely a relationship with the gods and goddesses as we understand it anyway. Most of the time worship was to keep the divinities sweet so that they did not curse them or ruin their life. While some had closer relationships with their gods their piety was not measured by mystical experiences, but by their devotion to the rituals. A Few examples exist – Ovid’s love of Hekate. There is no reason to suggest that this was not the case in nature worship by the ancients. Rather than a cult of love and connection with nature, it is more likely then to be one of fear where worship was offered to prevent a nature spirit turning nasty.

So what do we miss by making modern paganism about nature? Quite a bit really. The other ancient gods were geared to expressing natural and spiritual forces in a human way. In our urban world we need access to those forces to get our spiritual connection in our daily life. It is by invoking gods which are relevant to our daily life that a useful modern spirituality is found. The Romans saw ritual as part of their daily life and not just because they were on holiday by a pretty lake or forest.


  1. Although I agree with most of the points made, I think it’s important to make an important but somewhat pedantic point here. Polytheists in classical Europe (Greece, Rome etc) who worshipped the old gods in cities would not have used the term ‘pagani’ (pagan – country dweller) to describe themselves. In fact they would probably have considered it insulting. It was of course the city and town dwellers, who were first christianized which resulted in the term ‘pagan’ being associated with all forms of polytheistic practise. Ancient ‘paganism’ was specific to the countryside and specific deities of nature, Pan, Diana etc. the gods and goddesses of fertility, crops, the yearly cycles.
    Gavin Bone

    1. Nick Farrell

      I think I tend to see the concept of agricultural cycles etc not being about nature and more about a human economic activity rather than working with the natural forces. The cycles of planting etc are important to humans less so for plants or animals.
      The pagan word is an insult… it implies that the “pagans” were rednecks and poorly educated… but use of the word did stick. To the point where we are in a strange situation of saying the phrase “Pagan Rome” which was impossible until the 17th century (when most of it was fields.)

    1. Nick Farrell

      I dont think it was NOT about nature, headlines have to be a bit more black and white. It was just about as much about nature as modern catholicism. Nature was much less important to Ancient Pagans than modern ones. Like a lot of religion it was more about community than self, in that if something went wrong the community panicked about which god it had pissed off and if it needed to build a temple to a new one to stop the rot.

  2. ravi

    It depends what you mean by pagan. If you are restricting it to bronze and iron age beliefts you have a point. If you extend thevterm to include pre farming stone age beliefs then these are most certainly nature based. Indeed the period you consider is when nature bssed beliefs were adspted to fit in with agricultural and urban life but before monotheism. If you take paganism to include ingenous cultures they are wild beliefs like all our ancestors until the neolithic lived in the wild and this was their religion and spiriuliity which is inheritantly nature based

    1. Nick Farrell

      Problem with those is we don’t know what they believed or what they worshipped because they predate writing and there are simply not enough clues. We certainly cant form a religion based on that.

  3. Ian Corrigan

    I find the description of Roman religion factually incorrect. There were a number of sacred groves in the city of Rome, any home shrine (other than the lararium, perhaps) was likely to be outside or in a courtyard. Sacrificial altars were all under the sky, and the auspiciousness of any given day for sacrificing was at the mercy of the rain. Seasons determined the feasts; trees, stones and fires were as likely to be the presences of the gods as were carved images. In almost all cases non-human nature was vital to the location, form and practice of religion.

    The notion that ‘Pagan’ means ‘of the countryside’ is just no longer supported by etymology, is it? A ‘pagus’ is a formal, marked district. Both Rome and the countryside were divided into ‘pagi’. One could worship the ‘pagan’ gods of the tanner’s street as surely as those of the cornfield, and be as much a part of ‘nature’.


      The few “groves” in Rome appear to have gone up in Imperial times. There is no case in Rome of trees and stones being worshiped. The Lararium altar was usually set in the Atrium (front reception room, near the front door) not in the courtyard. The examples in Rome are enclosed. The problem is you worshipped gods which were something to do with you. A tanner had nothing to do with the nature gods of lakes, but had a lot to do with the goddess of urine

  4. Doug

    As the author makes the distinction between modern paganism and ancient, there is nothing that requires the old wouldn’t evolve into something more fitting to our times and our knowledge. Keeping tradition just for its own sake is silly

  5. Alex

    This displays quite a bit of ignorance. In urban areas, the spirits that arise from human activity are called “egregores” which are nothing more than accumulations of like energies that congeal into an unconscious force of neutral power. they are not actually gods. they can function as god forms, intermediary interfaces between humans, the egregore of a city, and a deity, etc.. gods are natural things that manifested INTO nature. they become nature as they descend into dense form. egregores are the byproduct of human energies. they are creations, lower than us, basically like goetic demons.

    1. Nick Farrell

      It never is a good idea to call someone ignorant and then misuse a basic magical term. An egregore is a group mind and is a term used for magical group (see my book Gathering the Magic) it is not a term that can be applied to a god. Giving you the benefit of the doubt (and not getting too picky about your misuse of the word) – you are assuming then that a god is a bottom down creation forged from a hybrid of a natural energy and human belief. Therefore all gods and goddesses are natural forces therefore all ancients were nature worshippers. I agree that if this were true there would be no point worshipping anything (after all such creations are pointless). However you are ignoring the possibly that Gods are expressions of divine energy and most of this divine energy is not “natural.” What the gods are this divine energy as seen by humans and categorised and understood as gods.

      1. Alex

        Despite whatever flub I made in my post, I am well aware of the definition of an egregore and understand the concept quite well. And if you see, I use it correctly to refer to cumulative energies born of human activity in general, not the activity of one person. But of course my favorite thing is to argue with a pedant over irrelevant minutia so HERE WE GO.

        I NEVER said that egregores were gods. never. never ever. So I don’t know where you got that from, but that’s two mistakes you’ve made so far.

        I don’t assume ANYTHING about the gods because I don’t have to. We speak privately now and then.

        What I KNOW because they showed me, is that gods are primordial consciousness that are spawned by the monad, the totality, and then ground and lower themselves in various densities to create our physical universe which they embody.

        They are 100% natural in that nature is spawned from them.

        Oh and who told you that divine energy is not natural? That’s a load of BS if I ever heard one.

        What I WAS saying is a bit more complex than what you outlined in your response. And I honestly believe that if you’re going to argue with me, please understand the topic and respond with minimally mediocre spelling and grammar.

        I was saying that the spirits and energies that we understand to be “deities” of urban areas and synthetic human life, are actually servitors (singular beings) and egregores (made by many, like if a city or house had a spirit, it would be an egregore).

        I was also saying that an egregore’s consciousness does not necessarily terminate at the 4th dimensional plane. Specifically, the egregore of a city, such as NYC, could function as a godform, which is a servitor created to act as a visual and auditory intermediary between god and man. Meaning that a god could use an astral avatar to communicate better with man, and that astral avatar could be the egregore of a city, such as NYC. So while the egregore was born independently and has no consciousness of its own, it can function as a “mask” or an avatar/godform (a pleasing visual form composed of astral energy) for an actual god.

        So the egregore of NYC would be Babylon The Great and She would look like lady liberty and probably smell like a mixture of falafel and hot garbage. And she would be an autonomous yet non-sentient astral form that could then be accessed by a fully sentient actual goddess and “worn” like a suit as an interface for us. All the parts fit together.

        But that would not make her a goddess. You could worship her as a goddess, believe she really is a goddess, and be as dumb as you want to be. But that does not really have any bearing on the reality of it.

        Which brings us back to the point of the article, that paganism is about nature, because magic comes from working with the natural forces. The crux of the argument to the contrary being that ancient polytheistic cultures focused on urban life, defeated by the realization that natural forces supersede synthetic. The real gods will always be stronger than the egregores, HOWEVER, another illusion is here.

        The idea that we must choose one or the other, comes from out of nowhere but seems to be ingrained into everyone’s mind. The truth is that this idea is parasitic and limits the power of anyone who yields to it.

        The truth is that all these forces were meant to be used in tandem, giving the magician ultimate strength and versatility.


          I think the problem here is you are looking at the bottom up and not not the top down. Your “eggregore” of New Yoirk would be built that way but not from human interaction. The Neo-Platonic is that it would start with the idea of New York and that would be mediated through the various levels to humanity. Humanity would then do the rest and create a angel of New York. New York New York (you have to vibrate the name twice and it is an Angel which never sleeps). Because it is a big idea it would contain a divine spark or an expression. Occult group mind egregores work in a similar way. But they are not as strong (initially) They start with the Idea of “a golden dawn group, or a wiccan circle” which is spiritually weaker (it is still there because everything comes from the divine mind). Natural energy is anything which comes from nature and spirit is not “natural.” If it were then Angels, gods, spirits etc would be made of the same material that we are (and we would see them). Natural forces might contain spiritual forces (like a human soul) but they cannot be spiritual forces in themselves.

  6. Scott Holbrook

    To grant all the fairness and lenience owed to any argument…I get that honoring the gods as vital and relevant parts of our lives is better than getting all hippy-dippy and imagining one has had a profound and transformative experience just because one has happened to observe an attractive sunset. But…why should the non-human world not be vital and relevant to our lives? It doesn’t really matter what the center of belief for ancient pagans was. They lived in a world where urban centers and the human world were tiny pockets of refuge from a large and hostile wilderness. Now, we’re facing massive global crises on an unprecedented scale that are a direct result of a species wide war on the natural systems that support us. I know there are a lot of Pagans out there who to lip service to the natural world without doing anything to live by their supposed values and that bugs me too, but I know how difficult it can be to get past mental blocks to constructive action, but the idea of Pagans actually trying to use their religion as a justification to exploit and destroy in the exact same language as the “dominion” language you get from certain brands of Christianity is simply unacceptable. And to go out of one’s way to point out that ancient Pagan civilizations destroyed their environment too—um…so? Does that mean we should too? And did they do that because of their religion? Or because they didn’t understand ecology well enough to know what they were doing? Our understanding of and our relationship with the natural world has fundamentally shifted in the past several centuries; and in reviving, reconstructing, and/or being inspired by the ideas and religions of the ancient past, that doesn’t mean we need to slavishly adhere to every stupid or destructive practice our ancestors exhibited. Religion evolves, and must do, in order to serve the needs of the people who practice it. We rely overmuch on the past at the expense of the present—or future—at our peril.


      So why then focus ONLY on paganisms nature aspects when these were only a small part of a very rich tradition? I agree historical paganism cant actually work in a modern society but why ignore some of the good stuff?

  7. “Pagan”, of course means “country dweller”, but they only became country dwellers after the Roman Catholic Church banished their worship from the places of administrative power, i.e. the cities. The word has since then be synonymous with everyone who practices the old polytheistic way, instead of the mainstream monotheism, but in the old pre-Christian day such a term as “pagan” would have been meaningless as the polytheistic way WAS the mainstream and the cities were founded upon it.

    That, having been said, the monotheistic culture that took over from the older polytheistic culture, did tend to have more of a disparaging view towards the natural world, even at times viewing it as the “work of the devil”, and putting more emphasis on Spirit’s superiority to Matter. There seems to have been less of this in the old polytheistic traditions (what are now termed “pagans” in the modern parlance) – they did view the heavens, Mount Olympus or the Duat as more Eternal and, it seems, the places of the greatest power, yet their view still had a greater appreciation of the natural world than in the later monotheism. In short, there appears to be more of a natural pantheism involved in polytheism than in Judeo-Christian monotheism. But yeah, thinking that “Paganism is all about Nature” is way too simplistic.

  8. Lea

    It is an oft repeated fallacy that we know nothing of the Celts but what we’re told through the writings of others, but it’s simply not true. No, we cannot know exactly what their religious practice looked like, but we have stories, though Christianized, that show us the way the Celts looked at the world, the way they viewed their Gods, and their relationship with the natural world. There are lining traditions within the British Isles that show how the Celtic mind reacts to nature.

    And for the record, if you don’t understand how agriculture puts you in close proximity to nature, then you’ve never spent a season trying to grow your own food. Agriculture is, in a way, about taming nature, but you don’t tame a lion by playing with a tortoise. You have to understand the cycles of nature to successfully grow anything.


      I grew up on a farm…. I think there is a difference between working with domesticated animals and crops and a forest and a mountain.

  9. I think they should of mentioned Egypt, they believed in life after death but they were also very based on the Nile which is a body of water which is nature. They had most of their myths based around the Nile and orion constellation. So to not mention them just shows that this article writer was picking and choosing what they wanted to prove their point instead of looking at the truth.


      What you are stating is a logical fallacy. The Egyptians worshiped the Nile, the Nile is nature therefore the Egyptians worshipped nature. I would suggest that your comment is therefore projection. In otherwords “I want the pagans to worship nature, a writer has suggested that belief is not the truth so therefore the writer is not interested in the Truth, which is mine. Only I know the truth and I am not prepared to accept anyone telling me otherwise… kill, kill the unbeliever who dares to tell me the truth.”

  10. Travis

    It might be fun to note that ancient pagans (all semantics aside) were living in emerging civilizations. For them, civilization was safety and better than the ferocity and unforgiving, indifferent attitude of nature towards humanity. Nature in the past couldnt care less if you lived or died (well, its still that way but were better equipped to deal with natures dangers) and cities were beacons of safety from the tooth and nail of raw nature. I would assume the goal of progress was society and moving away from nature.
    Contemporary pagans seek a return to nature, away from society that some may feel deadens or severs a supposed divine “Nature” found in the outdoors.
    Pagans of old and pagans of now have different perspectives on what is good, what is to be avoided or shunned, and what is significant in worship.


      Actually that is a myth… at least in Europe. The divide between nature and humanity has been a key part of European society for an extremely long time — predating the gnostics who thought that nature and matter was bad (which was copied by the Christians). Traces of this belief can be found in ancient societies, particularly in the mediterranean — look at their treatment of animals and their tendency to over farm, over mine, and deforrest.

  11. Atalanta

    Your post is full of conjecture & inaccuracies. Hesia/Vesta far pre-dated the founding of any city whatever; & can be traced almost as far as the first domestic use of fire: a force of nature.

    I also object to your caption attributing rape to Pan. There is nothng in that sacred erotic artwork to indicate non-consenual. Perhaps your attribition stems from an agenda to sanction sexual violence?

    You seem to me a city-dweller resentful of nature worship because you don’t identify. You’d do better to consider that the city as a gathering is itself a sacred entity; as in “sacred Ilium”.


      What you seem to be objecting too is that it does not fit your conjecture and inaccuracies 🙂 Hesta and Vesta are not the same beings and this generalisation makes your argument a little problematic. They were only linked long after the founding of Rome when some of Greek Hesta’s cult was merged into the existing fire gods of Rome. The fire god in a home was not a natural force it was a divine and spiritual force (do you see cooking fires out in nature?). Have you ever had sex with a goat or even seen this statue — there is nothing in the goat’s expression which indicates it is enjoying the experience. Rape is non-consensual sex a goat can’t consent therefore it is being raped (now there is a sentence I never thought I would write). As for being resentful I could easily find your attempt to limit pagan gods to nice fluffy nature spirits an insult to the true powers of the Gods. I wouldn’t because that would be the same as saying my god is bigger than yours (which is silly). A city is indeed a god and Roma was not built in a day — but she was made by men and indwelt by divine spirit, none of which had anything to do with bunnies, waterfalls, rainbows or unicorns.

  12. Anne Agecoutay

    Well , it is maybe time to understand Nature. Spiritualites have always evolved, so will do paganism. What happens today is an ecocide, religions are not apart of the real worl and they have to answer to social questions and to adapt. Paganism will belong to the people again as the people will set the natural world free.

  13. Well said. Have you read Brendan Myers’ The Earth, The Gods, and The Soul? He’s a Pagan philosopher, and goes into this quite a bit. It’s a fantastic book. I’ll have to get my review up soon.

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