Early last year, the well-known publishing company Thames and Hudson asked me if I could write them a book about paganism as part of their ongoing series on the visual culture of various religious traditions. A little over twelve months on, the book is now set for release in April 2023 as Pagans: The Visual Culture of Pagan Myths, Legends and Rituals. You can check it out at the publisher’s website here, although you’ll probably also find it for sale at your bookseller of choice. As well as the English language version, translations are also being released in French, Spanish, and Korean.
Working on this lavishly illustrated coffee-table book was a collaborative effort, with my main text being supplemented by over 400 images obtained by the publisher themselves. Thames and Hudson have a great record at publishing wonderfully illustrated works accessible to a broad readership, and I still have fond memories of devouring some of their volumes on witchcraft and esotericism in my teenage years.
Of course, writing about paganism is a bit more complicated than writing about, say, Catholicism, as Suzanna Ivanič did in the previous volume in this Thames and Hudson series, Catholica: The Visual Culture of Catholicism (which has also been beautifully put together). That is because paganism is not just one thing, but (at least) two. On the one hand, ‘paganism’ is a Christian theological concept with which Christians since the fourth century have characterised every religious tradition not worshipping the God of Abraham. In this Christian sense, ‘paganism’ describes everything from the polytheistic religions of the ancient Romans and the early medieval Vikings to thriving living traditions like Hinduism and Shinto today. On the other, ‘Paganism,’ usually with a capital P, is the term typically embraced to describe a family of related new religions that arose largely in Europe and North America during the twentieth century. These modern Pagans, who include among their ranks Wiccans, Heathens, and modern Druids, are heavily inspired by the extinct pre-Christian religions once found across Europe and in adjacent parts of North Africa and West Asia. For today’s Pagans, the distant past is a resource with which to craft meaningful spiritual traditions for the present.
Pagans seeks to give a good overview of both of these phenomena. I try to make it clear how the term ‘pagan’ has been used in different ways, and why some people embrace it while others dislike it. ‘Paganism’ can be a controversial term, especially when used in the Christian sense, and we should not shy away from that fact. Alongside considering these terminological issues, I seek to offer a thematic overview of many of the recurring traits that we find in religions that do not venerate the God of Abraham, such as their acceptance of many different deities, their use of divination, and their view that divinity can manifest through material culture and the natural world. In this way I highlight some of the rich diversity that can be found within the world’s non-Abrahamic religious traditions.
Unlike my previous publications, such as my 2016 book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, this is not a volume aimed primarily at an academic audience. Rather, Pagans is intended for a broader, popular readership, people who may have a general interest in paganism but not know a great deal about it, or who may be put off reading strictly academic books. Hopefully there are many readers out there who will find it to be exactly what they are looking for.