Neopagans, reconstructionists, and revivalists, oh my! (Paganism 101 Ch. 5)

Person With Black and White Bracelet Holding Hands
Photo by Deena, accessed via Pexels.

As we’ve discussed before, “pagan” is an umbrella term that actually encompasses a wide range of traditions. Not all pagans believe the same things, worship the same gods, or conceptualize those gods the same way.

Within the bigger pagan umbrella, there are three smaller umbrellas that can be useful for classifying pagan worship: neopagan, reconstructionist, and revivalist. These labels describe different approaches to ancient pagan religion and different ways of incorporating paganism into daily life. It’s important to remember that words like “neopagan” or “reconstructionist” refer to someone’s practice and not necessarily to their beliefs.

A neopagan is someone who takes inspiration from ancient pagan religions, but does not try to recreate those religions in their practice. For example, a neopagan might feel a strong connection to the Roman gods, but they don’t necessarily observe all the intricacies of Roman ritual (and believe me, there’s a lot — Roman polytheism is where Catholicism gets a lot of its formal structure) in their practice. They’re comfortable making things up as they go along, combining concepts from different historical sources, and practicing a thoroughly modern type of paganism. You could say that neopagans strive to capture the spirit of ancient paganism, but do so in a very 21st-century way.

Neopagans are more likely to be monists than hard polytheists, and may even use pagan-style ritual as a means to connect to a single divine Source rather than a specific deity. Neopagan groups often place a great emphasis on reverence for nature and strive to live in harmony with the natural world. Neopagans are sometimes described as practicing “Earth-centered religion.”

The most famous neopagan faith is Wicca. Rather than being a recreation of an ancient religion, Wicca combines concepts from these religions (particularly Celtic and Germanic paganism) with elements of ceremonial magic and Western occultism. Wiccans worship the God and Goddess, personifications of the masculine and feminine sides of the divine Source, and many covens have their own unique mythology to describe the interactions between the God and Goddess through the cycle of the seasons. Wiccans tend to play fast and loose with historical sources, or may not include any historical elements in their practice at all. This is a good example of what a neopagan practice might look like.

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum are reconstructionists, who strive to recreate or “reconstruct” ancient religion. If you can’t do anything without reading three books about it first, you might be a reconstructionist. Jokes aside, reconstructionists seek to emulate a historical religion as closely as possible. Reconstructive practice is very research-heavy, and revolves around recreations of ancient rituals based on historical sources. There is a great emphasis on connecting to and honoring the ancient culture being reconstructed. Some reconstructionists may even learn ancient languages for use in ritual.

Reconstructionists may be monists, hard polytheists, or somewhere in between depending on the religion they are reconstructing. Their values, beliefs, and practices also depend on the culture being reconstructed. A Hellenic reconstructionist will have very different beliefs and practices from an Irish reconstructionist, for example.

Nova Roma is an example of a reconstructionist faith. According to their website, “Founded 2,750 years after the Eternal City itself, Nova Roma seeks to bring back those golden times, not through the sword and the legions, however, but through the spread of knowledge and through our own virtuous example… The modern practice of the Roman religion, the Cultus Deorum Romanorum is our attempt to reconstruct the religion of the ancient Romans as closely as possible.” Members of Nova Roma choose a Roman name for use in ritual — and those rituals are as close as possible to the rites of Imperial Rome. They even have communal religious spaces built to resemble Roman temples!

One important note about reconstruction: it’s impossible to do it perfectly. No matter which historical culture you’re reconstructing, there will likely be some gaps (possibly very large gaps) in our knowledge of their religion. No matter how much research you do, you will sometimes have to use your best guess.

While reconstruction seeks to recreate ancient religion, it is not all about looking backwards. No matter how closely you recreate Egyptian religion, you can never have the same thoughts, experiences, or worldview as an ancient Egyptian peasant. Even the most hardcore reconstructionist has to adapt their religion to fit a modern lifestyle. As author Morgan Daimler points out, “reconstruction is understanding the old pagan religion so that we can envision what it would have been like if it had never been interrupted by foreign influences and had continued to exist until today.”

I like to think of revivalists as the halfway point between neopagans and reconstructionists. Revivalists seek to recreate the spirit of a specific ancient religion, but they may not necessarily reconstruct all of the practices associated with that religion. Revivalists are much more concerned with theology and upholding ancient cultural/religious values than they are with dogma or practice.

Like reconstructionists, revivalists’ beliefs depend on the ancient culture they are seeking to revive. Also like reconstructionists, revivalists do a lot of research — however, their research acts more as inspiration or general guidelines than as something that has to be followed to the letter. Like neopagans, revivalists are very much practicing a modern religion.

Going back to our example of Roman paganism, a Roman revivalist will strive to uphold Roman values in their daily life, like xenia (roughly translated as “hospitality,” though that is an oversimplification). They likely worship the Roman gods, but may do so in a more informal way than Nova Roma or other reconstructionists. They may include some historic elements in their rituals, like wearing a head covering and making burnt offerings — but the ritual will likely be performed in their native language. Revivalists are all about taking the big ideas of ancient religion and adapting them for modern life.

The line between revival and reconstruction is not always clearly defined. Many revivalists use reconstruction in some areas of their faith, and every reconstructionist is a revivalist when they have to fill in gaps in historical knowledge of their religion. The distinction really lies in how closely you want to follow ancient traditions.

Each of these approaches to paganism has its benefits and its drawbacks. Different approaches work better for different people — a lot of it comes down to personality and preference. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the obvious pros and cons of each approach.

PROS of neopaganism:

  • Because this is by far the most widely practiced type of paganism, there is an abundance of beginner-friendly literature available for new neopagans.
  • Because of its popularity and flexibility, it’s usually fairly easy to find a neopagan group to worship with, either in person or online.
  • Neopaganism allows for a lot of experimentation and personal exploration. You are free to incorporate whatever elements work for you.

CONS of neopaganism

  • Ironically, an abundance of literature also means there are a lot of bad neopagan resources floating around. Newcomers should take care in choosing the books they read on the subject.
  • Some people become frustrated with the lack of structure in many neopagan traditions.
  • It can sometimes feel like there are no “real” right answers, since neopaganism relies heavily on personal truth.

PROS of reconstruction

  • Reconstructing an ancient religion provides a sense of structure.
  • Choosing to focus on a specific religion/culture can lead to a deep feeling of connection to that culture. This can be especially powerful for pagans who feel disconnected from their cultural heritage.
  • Because reconstruction seeks to recreate ancient religion, it’s easy to find other people who practice the same way you do.

CONS of reconstruction

  • Reconstruction is largely based on primary sources, so reconstructionists will likely have to read dense, academic, and/or archaic literature at some point.
  • Unless you live in a big city, it may be hard to find an in-person community that shares your beliefs and practices.
  • Focus on a single culture means there is less room for experimentation. You can still incorporate elements from other traditions, but only if they don’t contradict your existing beliefs.

PROS of revival

  • Revival allows pagans to feel a close connection to an ancient culture, while also allowing them freedom to customize their path.
  • Allows practitioners to be their own priest/priestess and make their own decisions regarding their practice.
  • Provides a middle ground between the fluidity of neopaganism and the stricture of reconstruction.

CONS of revival

  • Because every revivalist practices differently, it can be very hard to find a group to worship with without having to make compromises.
  • Like reconstructionists, revivalists will occasionally have to do some difficult reading.
  • Because this path is so often solitary, it can be hard to stick with it if you aren’t good at keeping yourself motivated.

If you are considering becoming pagan, take a moment to think about which of these approaches appeals most to you. Are you most attracted to neopaganism, reconstruction, or revival?

Don’t just think about which approach sounds the best, but think about which one is most practical for you. Do you need the external motivation of a group to keep you on the right track, or are you very internally motivated? Do you like following instructions, or do you prefer to make things up as you go? Do you feel a strong connection to a specific ancient culture, or do you feel more connected to nature itself? All of these questions can help guide you towards the right approach for your practice.


  • Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
  • Nova Roma’s website,
  • Irish Paganism: Reconstructing Irish Polytheism by Morgan Daimler
  • The Way of Fire and Ice by Ryan Smith

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