People in Europe became more aware of the art and philosophy of the ancient world during the Renaissance period around 1500 (the word ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’). Documents rescued after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 introduced people to ideas from before the Middle ages. And although Europe remained Christian the Pagan gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece jostled with the patron saints of Christianity on public monument, and classical philosophy began to change the way people thought about ethics and morality.
In Britain the Reformation of the 1600s transformed England from a Catholic country to a Protestant one. The religious conflict that went along with this change led to the persecution of those who didn’t fit the desired religious profile. Religious hysteria (disguised as spiritual cleansing) led to some individuals being described as ‘witches’. But these people were not part of any religious movement, merely victims of local feuds and quarrels. A few of them were practitioners of herbal medicine but most were ordinary, conventional citizens.
After the enormous political and intellectual upheavals of the 1600s died away, it became possible to explore ways of thought outside Christianity without fear of instant damnation, and the study of Greek and Roman classics became part of every schoolboy’s education.
The name ‘Europe’ (herself a character in Greek myth) replaced ‘Christendom’ in the mid-18th century. Influenced by the expansion of trade and colonies an awareness and interest in other cultures and spiritualities grew. This new age of reason during the 17th and 18th Centuries became known as the Enlightenment.
The revival of traditional cultures and ancient traditions
The first Pagan tradition to be restored was that of the Druids in Britain. In the mid-1600s stone circles and other monuments built four and a half thousand years previously began to interest scholars. Some thought that the original Druids (pre-historic tribal people of Europe) had built them. In 1717 one of these scholars, the Irish theologian John Toland, became the first Chosen Chief of the Ancient Druid Order, which became known as the British Circle of the Universal Bond.
By the 19th Century a new outlook was evident as people searched for the fundamental principles of religion by looking at the faiths of different places and times.
Mme Helena Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Its teachings were based on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, Neo-Platonic thought, and ancient Egyptian religion. Pagan philosophies, which venerated Nature and were polytheistic, began to be seen as sophisticated contributions to contemporary spirituality.