Paganism and humanism have long danced together, and are beginning to do so again in the modern day. To understand the commonalities and differences between ancient and modern forms of pagan humanism, it will be useful to distinguish a few of the different kinds that have emerged. The three this article will investigate are Classical Greek humanism, Renaissance humanism, and contemporary Humanistic Paganism.
First, we must briefly define what we’re talking about. Humanism here means a central focus on human interests and concerns, as opposed to those of the divine. Paganism in this article refers to the panoply of myths and gods emerging out of ancient polytheistic traditions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe. In each case of pagan humanism investigated here, the myths and gods of pagan pantheons combine with a focus on human endeavors to produce a unique response to the human condition.
Classical Greek humanism emerged from within a thriving mythic tradition, the indigenous polytheism of the Mediterranean. Myths and gods had come down to the Greeks from time immemorial, and suffused their culture. Meanwhile, the widespread development of literacy in Athens, along with other important factors, led to new critical reflection on the arts and the human condition. Homer’s god-drenched Iliad and Odyssey were studied as literary creations, and playwrights took myths to the stage. In the hands of writers such as Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides, a view of the universe appeared in which gods influenced human affairs, but it was primarily people themselves who created their own problems and suffered the consequences. For example, Sophocles’ play Antigone is soaked through with religious coloration, but it is primarily an investigation of power and standing up for one’s principles in a human world. Meanwhile, sculptors achieved unprecedented technical representations of the human form, and philosophers began to conceive of the universe in naturalistic terms. Overall, Greek humanism was a movement in literature and art that made humans, rather than gods, the central concern. Paganism comprised the essential backdrop to an essentially human investigation.
Later, in the Renaissance, rediscovery of texts from the ancient world led to renewed interest in such human-focused concerns, as well as in pagan mythology, producing a new kind of pagan humanism. Myths became popular subjects of literature, sculpture, painting, and other forms of art. The old gods also appeared in allegorical form in scholarly and early scientific texts. For example, the goddess Isis with her veil became a symbol for nature and the unveiling of its secrets through philosophical or alchemical investigation. This revival of pagan motifs was in most cases integrated without challenging the dominance of Christianity. Although there were exceptions, Renaissance humanists remained largely Christian while employing pagan imagery toward human-focused ends.
Contemporary Humanistic Paganism has much in common with its Greek and Renaissance counterparts, but also some differences. In common with them, it emphasizes human challenges and the human condition. However, it is less about art and literature and more about spirituality (that’s why the “H” and “P” are capitalized here and not elsewhere). It explores how to lead a spiritual life enriched with mythic symbolism, yet within a naturalistic worldview. Naturalism here means embracing the universe as revealed by human observation, i.e. by modern science, without recourse to supernatural explanations. While the gods of myth may not exist literally as anthropomorphic beings “out there” somewhere, they may yet exert powerful and beneficial influence on our lives as archetypes of the unconscious, metaphorical symbols, or role models. Myth thus meets science in a new union that places human concerns once again at center stage.
These are three important moments in history when paganism and humanism have come together to great effect. There have been many others, of course, but these three suffice to illustrate the course that history has taken in the dance between myth and humanism.