Did It All Happen in the 1980s?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 27, 2010 — 53 Comments

Technoccult uses Google’s new Ngram Viewer, which searches for trends among various corpus of books Google has scanned, to track a seeming explosion of interest in the occult and “magick” in the mid-1980s. So I decided to do my own search, and compare the terms “Wicca”, “Paganism”, and “Magick.”

Both Wicca and Magick, as terms in published books, experienced a dramatic period of growth starting around 1985, not starting to decrease again until around 2003. Paganism, as a more general term used in many different contexts, also saw a rise of interest, but didn’t experience the downturn of the other two. This could be because of the non-religious contexts, but also because many books targeting the modern Pagan community started using “Paganism” in titles instead of “Wicca” or “Neopaganism.”

Searching for the terms “Asatru” and “Heathen” you also see growth, though not as dramatic in nature.

In the case of “Asatru” it’s the 1990s where you start to see growth, and then seems to level off around 1995 and stays there. For “Heathen,” again a general term used in many contexts, it also rises in the 1990s and seems to have enjoyed a resurgence of use since then.

So it does seem something sparked in the publishing world in the 1980s, not only within Pagan/occult publishing contexts, but, as Technoccult points out, with the “Satanic Panics” pushing up interest as well. Anyone involved in the Pagan publishing world in the mid-1980s, perhaps you can shed some more light? Another interesting question is the rapid decline in mentions of “Wicca” and “magick” starting in the mid-2000s. Is this an artifact of the books Google has scanned, or a larger trend in an ongoing downturn?

I encourage my readers to use the Ngram Viewer to check for other terms of interest, and see if they can spot any pertinent trends for our communities.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://badassbard.blogspot.com Thomas

    As someone who was raised Pagan in exactly this era, I can't speak for the causes, but the mid '80s was when it first seemed safe to be Pagan in public. I know that my mother didn't practice or identify herself in public until this time.

    As for the jump in the nineties, I suspect that a lot of that might be the result of non-Pagans becoming interested in the occult because of what was on television at the time. These were the days of "Buffy" and "Charmed" after all.

    • Bookhousegal

      I do think there's more to it than that: in the 80's it was hardly safe *everywhere* to be Pagan in public, even places you might expect to be. ….And the interest in magic and shamanism and the occult *I* certainly was around for wasn't something that came after or necessarily connected to even then, any pop culture things *about* it.: there was a real sense something was going on and people were trying to figure out *about* it. I'm always pretty astounding how long it took me to actually connect up with Wicca and the like, but there's no mistaking that there were a number of talented people coming of age at the time.

      Maybe the causation was going the other way, regarding the pop culture stuff.

      I think there's less *talk* about magic and the like because a lot's been 'figured out' and it's no longer so much the focus of tending to cluster around the likes of retail bookstores. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/tpward Terence Patrick Ward
  • Patrick

    If you put "witch" with "Wicca" you can see the former word seem to pick up in use in the early 2000s while the latter drops a bit. Could be that in publishing in the last few years Witch outsells Wicca. The downturn lately could be just general drop in book sales. Also, the mass proliferation of the internet on book sales.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667952307 Jennifer Parsons

    Interestingly enough, at a time when "Buffy" and "Charmed" were on the air. Not terribly surprising, I'm afraid.

    Dettmer v. Landon took place in 1985-6; I imagine that also spurred public interest in the 1980s. It makes me wonder if the "Satanic Panics" of my childhood were more of a response to Paganism and alternative religions entering the mainstream, rather than something that spurred interest in those religions. When the SRA rumors turned out to be just that– rumors– the high profile and visibility of Paganism remained as a beacon for those interested in "something else."

  • Robin Artisson

    Though I was reading books on the occult in the years 1987-1989, they were found in libraries, and were older books. It wasn't until 1990 that I was going to book stores on my own to see newly published books, and there were TONS of them on occult matters- in those days, Vivianne Crowley's (not bad) book "Wicca: the Old Religion in the New Age" was on every shelf, as was "Eight Sabbats for Witches" by the Farrars.

    Circle Sanctuary's journal/newspaper was everywhere, too, as was the Green Egg magazine from the CAW. Margaret Murray's books were in new editions, and on shelves, Gardner's "The Meaning of Witchcraft" was on shelves, and Starhawk was also everywhere, particularly "The Spiral Dance." Crowley and the Golden Dawn were both still hip then.

    I remember that time well; though my interest was in the work of Paul Huson, and not the likes of Cunningham or Buckland (mind you I have nothing against Uncle Bucky) I enjoyed the sense of "freshness" that was everywhere in bookstores and in the various "Pagan" groups that were holding meetings everywhere you looked.

    MZB's "The Mists of Avalon" had that grey, tastefully painted cover with the woman on the horse holding the sword, and it, too, was everywhere. I always hated that book, but at least that cover wasn't offensive. Cunningham's "Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner" was inevitably alongside it somewhere. Those fluffy "Faery Wicca" books by Kisma K. were also on every frickin' shelf, and Edain McCoy had quite the following. This was before those women were thoroughly discredited.

    By 1995 or so, Nigel Jackson's "Call of the Horned Piper" and other of Capall Bann's titles were filtering out, but never on shelves, just back-channels, and they presented someone like me with a more satisfying source for occult literature, more angled to tradition and folklore, less on the new-age aspects of things. Also, John Michael Greer's great books "Paths of Wisdom" and "Circles of Power" came out then- this was before he re-invented himself as a Druid, back when he was a ceremonial magician, and a superb author on the topic. His books really impressed me.

    Let's not downplay the impact of hollywood- in 1996, "The Craft" hit theatres, and it was quite the hit among all the wiccans and new-agers I knew then. I liked it too, but not for the cheeseball fake witchcraft in it, just for Neve Campbell.

    Around that same time, or in the year or two after, so-called "Gaelic Traditionalists" (one of the advance guard of so-called "CR") first gained my attention, along with an online weirdo group called "Imbas", and Laurie's "A Circle of Stones", a small green book that I liked quite a lot. These, along with Asatruar, were the first "Recons" I met- and all of them (except Laurie, whom I didn't "meet" until years later) were lords of arguing online and hating on Wicca and the new age. I think I learned a lot from them, back then, about how to be a total douche online. By the time I virtually "met" Laurie, she already disliked me for whatever reason, so I really never had a chance to thank her for "A Circle of Stones".

    I respected the Recons then, not so much now. With the exception of the Asatruar I knew, and some (very few) Hellenes I knew, I now know that recons were just small, bitter cliques of over-educated snots that hated Wicca. The scorn for new-agery I could forgive; their unforgivable elitism born in their bookwormery I cannot- that, and their politics.

    They were okay scholars, but very, very poor excuses for Pagans or spiritual folk. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self this. Honestly, the more vibrant spiritual people I knew were precisely the wiccans and hippies that I learned to scorn so well from recons. I fully own that some part of me totally separate from the recons also disliked the new-agers, but the new-ager people themselves, however deluded they were about the historical realities of Paganism and Witchcraft, were usually gentle, fun-loving people, and that does count for something.

  • Robin Artisson

    By 1999 I was done with my first "walk through" the new-age world, and was busy making my first online writings and websites. I had reverted back to my real literary roots- Katherine Briggs, Evans-Wentz, Spence, and Huson, whom I read even as a kid, out of my parent's in-house library.

    The 2000's were a totally different time. Things did change, though what, I never could tell. Side-stream and (some) Mainstream scholarship began to invade the new-age edifice. I first heard about Kelly causing drama with the Gardnerians, Hutton began his "scholarly" blitzkrieg, Heselton's awesome books and papers came out, and by this time, people seemed to be moving away from "My great grandma was a hereditary witch" stories and towards the cults of powerful then-living occultists like Andrew Chumbley and that team. I started to see Feri groups popping up and more recons. I met my first traditionally initiated Gardnerians in the early 2000's and learned a lot about them- I respected them now, and still do.

    It's obvious what happened. The 80's and 90's were the blossoming years of "Generation Hex" (that's the occult branch of Generation X, by the way). We are in a digital generation now, which won't ever have it the way it was before.

    The occult cultural explosion was intense enough to attract the attention of Huttonite scholars, who saw a chance to make their mark debunking things, and let's face it- only really young people (and a few older ones) really groove on "peace love and light" religions. People withdraw into a harder, more dark and cynical position after the glow fades, and Cunningham's wicca isn't appealing after that. But Christianity sure is, and that's where most of the people I knew in my long walk ended up again.

    • sarenth

      Thanks for sharing what happened with you/to you during those years. Having grown up during the 90s and discovering Paganism during my high school years, I've found the stories from the pre-internet days interesting.

    • Crystal7431

      Paganism is an uphill battle. It's easy to revert back and I mean EASY, just stop swimming and you float lazily down stream, no effort. I'm a spring chicken in comparison but I started my walk in 1999, when I was 18 and realized that legally I was an adult with autonomy. Most of my friends who were walking with me ended up back among the Christian ranks, with the exception of one who took up reformed Judaism and a couple who became Buddhists. It has a much friendlier facade after all and is less likely to upset the relatives.

      • Pagan Puff Pieces

        There has always been the nagging voice that I'll just go back with my tail between my legs in the end…

        • Crystal7431

          Let's hope not.? You couldn't have these interesting conversations, otherwise.

          • Pagan Puff Pieces

            Aw, thank you!

  • Morgan

    I'd say that part of the major increase in the use of the word Wicca in the 1995-2000 period is because of the TV shows Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which both used the word to describe their witch characters. Wicca drops off after 2003 slightly, which is the year Buffy went off the air.

    ~M

  • http://freemanpresson.wordpress.com Freeman Presson

    Just from watching the growth and shrinkage of sections at the big-box bookstores, I could tell that the Wicca and occult publishing fad had peaked somewhere in 2003-2005 IIRC. Before that, we had the even more cognitively-dissonant Zen publishing fad, which was the same sort of thing, and had about the same degree of correlation (a tiny bit above none) with real Zen practice as the W* fad had to do with real magical practice or Pagan spirituality.

    • Robin Artisson

      I'd say the that Wicca and Occult publishing fad peaked in the mid 90's. Easily.

      • Bookhousegal

        Easily, at least, was at the peak of, in many ways, failing to outgrow the faddishness, at least as regarded the big publishers. while the community was really finding the Internet in numbers and voicing how tired we were of the publishers just putting out new flavors of someone's take on 'Wicca 101' every season. Some people who are now quality authors were there. :)

        In a lot of ways the typical metaphysical shop sales model suffered the decline in retail earlier, partly because the book aspect: more people were more settled in …and there wasn't much in the way of 'Hey, go buy this book' from such more-settled people, either. Then online shopping really sort of beat out the paying-rent-in-a-gentrifying-downtowns/big-box retailers thing.

        Definitely leaves a smaller 'occult faddishness' market, but it's clear some are still trying at it. :)

    • Crystal7431

      I know at the local Borders the "Occult" section in the expanse of about 8 years went from three full bookcases (the big industrial ones) to a single bookcase (if that) with some pretty irrelevant filler thrown in to pad the section.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    This was also a period of major structural changes in the publishing industry itself. Samuel R. Delany once described how these changes looked, up close and personal, to a working writer. This was in a 2001 interview with Kojo Nnamdi (you can listen to it here — the part about the publishing industry starts around 6:45). All of Delany's science fiction novels, some of which had been in print for 20 years, all went out of print during a 6 month period in 1988. His problem was that his books only sold in the hundreds of thousands, but not in the millions, and so he ended up being shoved to the side during the consolidation frenzy.

    • Bookhousegal

      One of Reagan's little gifts to us. Book backstock used to be tax-deductible, but Reagan did away with that in specific, meaning the press was more in the current-commercialist-profit model than acting as a resource of literature and knowledge and all.

      • Crystal7431

        And so now we have popular super-selling effluvia like The Secret and Twilight and anything decent has to be ordered from the UK or elsewheres.

  • http://pagancollegestudent.blogspot.com WarriorPrincessDanu

    Hmmm… I put in Celtic Reconstructionism and got absolutely nothing…
    http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=Celtic

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I must admit some skepticism about whether Ngram readings, of which I had never heard before, reflect anything real.

    I'm also bemused by the verbal pun on "engram." Dianetics, anyone?

  • Todd

    "Hellenic Polytheism" shows pretty much the same thing as "Hellenismos": growth, growth, growth.
    http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=Hellen

    • Khryseis_Astra

      Strange though that it flatlines in the 90s which is when things really got going. Although it could just be a matter of how we identified ourselves at whatever point in time…

  • Bookhousegal

    Around the year 2000, particularly post-election, was when a lot of Pagans started *hiding.* National mood and all.

    • Robert Mathiesen

      Ah! That explains a lot. I never "did" community, so I didn't pick up on that at the time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10131763 Mathew Devitt

    I ran the term "Druidry" and it is essentially non-existent until about 1990 and then there is an incredible rise in popularity that continues on through 2008.

  • Robin Artisson

    I ran "Robin Artisson" through the Ngram viewer, and apparently my best year for popularity was 2006, when I was trending 700%. But apparently I took a dive in 2008. Ah, the polls are fickle. People are fickle. Even Obama has ratings below 50% now from the ungrateful public.

    …of course, I seem to have been trending 250% in the years before 1999, which is before I was on the internet at all- so either I'm just that badass, or the *other* Robin Artisson (you know, that Irish Familiar-Demon) was stealing all my press back before I had any.

  • Matt Gerlach

    The graph for "Religio Romana" is interesting as well. A small hump through the 90s, but then a dramatic up-shoot from 2000 onward.

    • Robin Artisson

      I'm tellin' ya- the 2000's are the decade when Recon came into its own. And all because of the internet.

    • Khryseis_Astra

      I don't know off the top of my head if there are actually any Religio Romana books out there by modern practitioners. Do you know of any?

      Religio Romana seems to have the same problem as Hellenismos when it comes to things like this: the search results are dealing mostly with scholarly works about the ancient religions and cultures, and a tiny fraction are books written by our modern communities. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/amberapple Peg Aloi

    The Witches' Voice, aka Witchvox, was founded in 1997 with the URL http://www.witchvox.com. A website that might be called its predecessor appeared about a year before, for The Witches' League for Public Awareness, at http://www.celticcrow.com. After parting ways with the WLPA, the website creators founded Witchvox.

    I think the 1980s trend was largely due to a small number of very popular books (Cunningham's book for solitaries, Bradley's novel, Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, and Adler's Drawing Down the Moon, mainly), and the rise of interest in goddess worship, Wicca and New Age stuff in general.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amberapple Peg Aloi

    The word "Occult" shows spikes in the late 1890s, 1970 or so (Colin Wilson's book?) and the late 1990s.

  • Alex Pendragon

    Reading these comments I wonder if anybody reading this blog is really pagan, since it seems that all us Wiccans and neopagans and whatnot are silly and deluded and bored silly and having moved onto to something more exciting like………CHRISTIANITY? Really? Are you kidding me?

    Having escaped that delusion a decade ago I have settle into the middle realms between what Gardner claimed and what Hutton "debunked". There is plenty of scholary evidence out there for durable Earth-based religions when it isn't being glossed over by someone's arrogant assumptions, especially when much of the "reporting" was done by Christian "historians" with very self-serving points of view.

    But, I never did need a body-count to steer me onto the path I am now on. I do not require a persecution complex to validate my beliefs. And I don't need an overwealming faith to compete with what any person with common sense would realize is bedrock reality. So far, I have as much respect for science now as I did when I was an agnostic tettering on atheism. It hasn't proven that magik can't exist, rather, it has given me reasons to believe it must. But the angry white guy in the clouds? Yea, right………

    • http://twitter.com/openbuddha @openbuddha

      I'm a Mahayana Buddhist (mostly Zen) these days, actually. :-)

    • Crystal7431

      I don't think anyone was saying Christianity is more exciting, if so it was probably tongue in cheek. Most of what I've read is people's accounts of the Pagan boom and then how interst faded and many turned back to Christianity. That's just how it goes. People's attention spans are short and if it's only a fad they're following they'll eventually go back to where they came from. Some aren't following the fad but the real drive for spirituality. Those are the ones who stick with it, or at least to Paganism of some variety.

      • Bookhousegal

        I definitely don't see 'faddish appeal' (or lack of it) as any measure of success, really: we're hardly the only ones out there who've seen these sorts of waves of popular interest. Remember the fad for all things Irish, before that Native American things, somewhere in there Kabballah, and on and on. (I think it's the New Atheists who are having the surge of attention right now: they seem to have a pretty high noob quotient at the moment. :) )

        Some people stayed, some moved on, and, one thing I well note is that staying in Paganism pretty quickly means you don't *buy* so much stuff. There's nothing wrong with that, really. Probably pretty natural for seekers and newbies to first be looking for tangible things to get hold of.

        Frankly, I seem to remember a lot of us being somewhat *alarmed* for one reason or another *about* the faddishness and all. (And frankly, a certain number of people still insist Wicca *is* 'faddish,' inherently)
        If one's concerned with numbers, we're still seemingly growing every time one turns around, so I dunno why one ought to be too fussed about marketing/Googling numbers. Plenty to do as it is, and Pagan religion's been needing time to mature as a community and as our theologies and all the rest.

        I remember, too, the sensation a few times of looking up from some big topic or other and being like, "Whoa, Lady, what happened to that quiet, out of the way religion I thought I signed on for?" :) ) Kinda went from feeling like the last Pagan in the world to hearing the word 'Million,' occasionally corresponding with archbishops and theologians…

        Hec of a ride so far, eh? I wouldn't be too fussed about faddishnesses, they come and go and seem to happen to everyone. :)

        • Crystal7431

          Not worried about it. Just noticing the trend. So New Atheism is all the rage now, huh. I wonder what sort of accoutrement that entails… Kids need accessories, collectibles, and get-up.

          • Bookhousegal

            Well, I've been buying up snark futures. :)

          • Pagan Puff Pieces

            I suspect a rise in "Zombie Jesus" paraphernalia, worn by people who feel like the first ever to use that gag.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            "Kids need accessories, collectibles, and get-up."

            For New Atheism? How about a lapel button that says "Do not write in this space."

          • Riverbend

            "This space intentionally left blank"? :)

          • Grimmorrigan

            " This space is still unexplained by science"

  • Pitch313

    I'm not sure quite what these word frequency curves are showing us. But the phrase "New Age" also seems to climb steeply somewhere in the mid-1980s.

    That was a period of rapid growth for Wicca and Paganism. And Goddess Spirituality. Lots of new books appeared on the market.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kkampmiller Kat Kampmiller

    I wonder how much of it involves the lack of depth in much of neopaganism. And the fact that we're all terribly bored of reading the same old things over and over again.

    • Matt Gerlach

      Amen.

      Anymore if you find me in a bookstore I'm buried neck deep in other departments: anthropology, history, sociology, LGBT studies, etc. etc. I'll usually only go into the occult section if I am looking for a specific book that was recommended by one of my intellectual Pagan acquaintances, particularly if they describe the book as "the first of its kind on the market."

    • Bookhousegal

      I think it's more like the *depth* doesn't *actually* require buying a but of *stuff.* :)

      Especially when major publishers really have been and were trying to sell the same things over and over again, that's their *sales model,* …sell more of what sold before. :) (And, of course, if anyone really gets that kind of Wicca 101 book just right, a lot of people won't keep trying to find one, cause they'll have it. :) )

    • grimmorrigan

      If people are loking for depth in books then they are missing a large part fo the point. The leap from books to experience is where most folks fall flat. People still ahve this need to have things revealed to them from a book, rather than go forth and experience it first hand.

  • http://erynn999.livejournal.com Erynn

    I really think a lot of this has to do with both the reorganization of the entire publishing industry and with the glut of Wicca 101 books back in the day. The Pagan community is a lot more diverse now than its public face at the time. The internet has had an immense amount to do with this, so not everyone comes in through Wicca anymore. I doubt it signifies a drop in interest regarding Wicca, Paganism, the occult or magic. I think it simply signifies a diversifying of both community and communications.

    • http://www.facebook.com/amberapple Peg Aloi

      I guess that's one point I was trying to make: the rise of paganism on the internet meant people could gather all sorts of information previously available mainly in books. So, people wanting information on spells, magic, herblore, druidry, goddesses, ritual, what have you, could save their $12.95 and get that kind of information for free on the internet. Of course, the internet also eventually allowed people to purchase books and other occult goods anonymously very easily.

      And writers could watch their work get posted all over, willy nilly, without citation or credit.

      And pagan 'zines slowly, slowly, began to die out.

      • http://erynn999.livejournal.com Erynn

        Well, yeah. That whole stealing stuff from authors who are barely making any money on it anyway thing is only increasing as time goes on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sheski1 She Szimanski

    When I was much younger (late 70's to late 80's), I sought out books; first in the library and then for years in metaphysical bookstores and at psychic fairs. I guess I was studying and learning what others believed and comparing them to what I believed. Then by the 90's I lost interest in other peoples beliefs and had become quite solid in my own, so I really stopped buying books or even paying attention to the fact that I was usually the only pagan that I knew of in the circles I traveled. Only recently I realized that my next door neighbor (of 4 yrs.) is also pagan, and quietly so for a long time….Maybe our solitary nature and in my case a disdain for trying to teach or explain my ways to others is why there are lulls in new recruits, so to speak. When I was 5-ish I would sit on the swing set under the big tree in our back yard and sing to the tree about the lady in the stars who was watching over us, I never grew out of it I only matured and grew in my pagan ways. It is interesting to me that others on a large scale also seemed to have similar lulls in book buying and studying spirituality outside of themselves. I wonder if anyone has ever compared a Myers-Briggs personality test type to religious or spiritual preferences, as a 1% INTP type and having been handfasted to an INTJ type, I would love to see a graph of INT's in paganism and in society over those same time spans….Hmm my fingers are thinking I hope no-one bothered to read my pondering.

  • Riverbend

    Here's one for the wingnut-reactionary-response files: did a graph on "spiritual warfare" and hoo boy it starts taking off around '85 and is really skyrocketing now! http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=spirit

    Thanks for pointing out an interesting tool, Jason! Anyone else who knows stuff about researching book sales/trends please post, I could really use the info for my own nascent work tracking how fundies have responded to us over the past few decades.