One of the major eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories about the origin of religion, the theory of fertility religion proposes that all religion springs from the sense of awe and delight born of humanity’s experience of its own reproductive powers, and the fertility and abundance of living nature. It emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century as European scholars found themselves confronted with the contrast between the guilt and shame with which the western cultures of the time surrounded sex, and the exuberance with which ancient Greeks and Romans, modern Hindus, and people of several other non-western cultures treated sexuality as a natural part of life. English classical scholar Richard Payne Knight (1751–1824) launched the concept of fertility religion into scholarly discussion in his A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786), and it remained a major force in comparative religion until the early twentieth century, when Sir James Frazer’s massive The Golden Bough (1917) defended it in immense detail.

Like its rival and occasional ally, the theory of astronomical religion, the fertility religion theory started as an explanation for the origin of all religions other than Judaism and Christianity. Where the astronomical theory was often used to dismiss pagan faiths as products of human ignorance, though, a surprising number of fertility religion theorists considered the old fertility faiths better than the Judeo-Christian tradition precisely because they made room for a positive attitude toward sex. Payne Knight led the way in this, putting edgy comments about “the sour mythology of the Christians” in his book and pointing out that, whatever the supposed moral failings of the old sexual faiths, they had managed to avoid persecuting other religions. See astronomical religion.

Yet the quest for sexual symbolism in religion eventually opened up the possibility that Judaism and Christianity, too, might be interpreted in sexual terms. This seems to have been done first by the Welsh Druid Owen Morgan, head of a Druid order based at Pontypridd and the author of the privately printed The Light of Britannia (1888), a work that fused the astronomical and fertility theories of religion and interpreted Christianity in their light. To Morgan, Jesus was simply another fertility deity whose life, death, and resurrection had a primarily sexual meaning. His approach was taken up by a minority of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers but never gained the popularity of astronomical interpretations of Christian myth. See Christian origins; Druid Revival.

The theory of fertility religion formulated by Sir James Frazer in the early twentieth century, and popularized by the many volumes of The Golden Bough, had a much more extensive impact by way of Margaret Murray, an Egyptologist turned medieval historian who projected Frazer’s theories onto the witchcraft persecutions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries and came to the conclusion that the witch trials were aimed at exterminating a surviving fertility cult in western Europe. Despite massive problems with issues of evidence, Murray’s claim was widely accepted during the middle years of the twentieth century and gave a crucial boost to the rise of Wicca, the first widely publicized neo-pagan religion. See Murray hypothesis; Wicca.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006