Everyone has hobbies. My hobbies are watching football, hard apple cider, the great god Pan, and studying the history of Modern Paganism. The history of Modern Paganism is a contentious one. Either you believe that most Modern Paganism is a relatively modern creation with ancient building blocks, or you believe that Modern Paganism has existed since at least the Middle Ages (the Witch Trials), and possibly stretches even farther back. The latter of the two camps can be quite passionate, and loud.
The most important book on the subject of Modern Paganim was published in 1999, and was the first academic approach to the subject. Ronald Hutton's "Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft," in many ways remains the "go-to" source on the subject. Hutton's basic premise is that the majority of the elements found within Modern Paganism emerged in the 19th Century. The "languages" we use to speak about Goddess and God come from that period, ritual forms, etc. The argument is extremely persuasive, and one I subscribe to the majority of the time.
There is a second part to Hutton's book though, and the second part is what upsets most people. In the second part of the book Hutton discounts one of the "foundation myths" of Modern Paganism, the story that Gerald Gardner was initiated into a coven of existing Witches in 1939. Hutton's dismissal of Gardner's claim is not mean spirited, a slight to Modern Pagans, or malicious. He's a historian, there's no record that he can find, so he makes an educated guess with the information at hand. Hutton's educated guess was that Gardner told a small fib.
Hutton's belief in Gardner's small fib changed everything for a lot of people. Suddenly Modern Witchcraft is not an ancient belief system. Suddenly there is no direct connection from the witches executed in the Witch Trials of the Middle Ages to Witches of the 20th Century. Suddenly there's no connection between Modern Witchcraft and ancient shamanism. For many people "the antiquity" of a religion equals validation.
I can't think of a one religion that has ever said "Hey, we're new here, try us out instead!" Christianity and Islam both saw themselves as continuations of Judaism, with the same God at the forefront. Mormonism, the most powerful "new religion," see its self as a "correction" of Christianity gone bad. The first large occult order, "The Order of the Golden Dawn" in Great Britain claimed lineage with German Rosicrucian groups etc.
To me, age means nothing when it comes to religion, but it's so ingrained in our culture to think that way that I'm not surprised people got upset with Hutton's revelations. That unease with Hutton has led many people over the last ten years to find flaws in his findings and methodology. Some of those criticisms are well founded, and the people who have done the criticizing have gone out and come up with new evidence.
While Hutton remains essential reading, there's another author whose work is equally essential, Philip Heselton. While Heselton is not an academic, he did a lot of the field research that Hutton neglected to do. None of Heselton's arguments can be looked at as "definitive proof" that Gardner was initiated into a coven 1939, but the arguments make it look extremely likely that Gardner was. Heselton gives you the puzzle pieces, how you put the puzzle together ultimately ends up to you.
What Heselton did was establish that the area in which Gardner claimed to be initiated, New Forest England, was full of people interested in the occult. He finds individuals and circumstances which line up well with Gardner's claim of initiation in 1939. What Heselton doesn't prove is that Witchcraft stretches back centuries. I've never seen a credible shred of evidence that makes me believe in the "unbroken chain back to pagan Europe."
Now there are tantalizing bits that seem "Pagan." People worry about nature spirits, fey, and other "witchy" type creatures/races that feel Pagan to many of us in the 21st Century. The argument always goes "Those people were honoring a spirit in the well, that must be Pagan, or at least a Pagan relic, there's no way a Christian would do that!" Of course, Christians have always done all kinds of things they aren't supposed to do. Many Christians today believe in astrology or tarot cards, or use a ouija board, those aren't Christian things but they are done by Christians anyways. A belief in something outside the ordinary does not make something Pagan.
Most cultures believe in magic, and that magic can be seen as "good" or "bad." During the Renaissance there were many Christian and Jewish sorcerers who attempted to conjure demons and angels, and they used magic circles for protection. To some of us, that looks Pagan, but there are people contacting the dead in the Old Testament. It wasn't Pagan, it was simply ceremonial being practiced by Christians and Jews.
Many villages in Great Britain were home to "cunningfolk," individuals who practiced beneficial magic for their town. Some of those folks had grimoires going back centuries, and were full of herblore, potions, and spells. Many Pagans keep books like that today, but those grimoires weren't Pagan, and the people collecting that material probably weren't either. The idea that Christians practiced magic always strikes Modern Pagans as odd, but think about it, growing up didn't we all know Christians who were interested in the occult and remained Christian? Palm readers aren't staying in business because of Pagans, there aren't enough of us.
One of the problems with the idea of the "unbroken chain," dating back to Pre-Christian times is that there are large gaps in the historical record. One can find something that feels "Pagan" in a 16th Century source, and then it disappears never to be seen again. Most of you know that I'm very big into Horned God Lore, and I bring that up because Pan fits this cycle rather well.
Pan was worshipped in the Ancient World, from Great Britain to the Middle East, and throughout the Roman Empire. Pan was never a god to inspire much mythology or poetry, but that he was well thought of by people is proven through the sheer volume of artwork depicting him. In some sense he was certainly popular. After Christianity triumphs and the Roman Empire turns its back on Paganism, the worship of Pan stops for several hundred years. It doesn't go underground, or wane, it simply stops. He's nearly absent from the historical record. He doesn't morph into Satan either, look at wood carvings from the Renaissance (Satan doesn't really show up in iconography until the 14th Century.) The Devil has horns and hooves, but he doesn't look like Pan, he looks like a gargoyle, reptilian even.
So Pan goes away from the years 500 to 1300 CE, that's a long chunk of change. If Pan was being worshipped in Italy during those 800 years it would have been brought up. Now something interesting does happen after 1300, Pan re-emerges during the Italian Renaissance. While there needs to be a great deal more study of this phenomenon, the Renaissance gives new life to the ancient gods. Pagan deities appear in art and literature for the first time in centuries, and Pan is a part of that. The Renaissance that began in Italy sweeps across the rest of the Europe. The gods have woken, at least for a little bit. By the 1650's they wane in popularity, and while they are no longer taboo, they cease to be a frequent motif in art and literature.
Fast forward to the 19th Century, and pagan deities are again all the rage, especially Pan. Pan becomes a major fad in Great Britain during this period of time, and in terms of literature and poetry owns the century. Pan's influence on art and literature lessened in the 20th Century, but the fact that you are reading this means it didn't just go away like it did for 800 years. It's still here.
What's the point of this? Pan's worship was a series of starts and stops. That's not a chain. Some of the ideas of Pan as a universal figure first expressed in Italy would become popular in the 19th Century, but that's only because someone obviously bothered to read them for the first time in a couple hundred years. That doesn't mean it was whispered in secret for centuries until arriving at the ear of Keats.
All kinds of "pagan" relics share a similar pattern. People worshipped at this well in pagan times. Two hundred years later there is evidence of coins being thrown in it. Several hundred years pass and in the 19th Century someone says there are fairies living in it. Is that a pagan survival, or a constant reinvention? Why does everything have to be a survival? Why can't it be a recreation or a brand new idea? No matter the religious climate people seem to have a natural desire for mysticism and magic. You can get it from saints, fairies, spiritualism, etc. Why do these things need to be a continuation of anything?
Most criticism of Hutton follows the pattern above. An isolated incident shows up on the radar, there by proving that there were "pagans" in such and such century. These incidents are nearly always isolated in space and time. A dance to ensure fertile crops in the 17th Century doesn't mean that dance came from the 3rd Century. An historian can't make those kinds of assumptions, and educated people shouldn't either.
I believe whole heartedly that magickal systems can survive and endure over long periods of time, and that legends and stories are also capable of such feats. However, stories and magickal systems are not religion. They can be incorporated into a religious framework later on, and in that sense Modern Paganism is ancient. You can trace the history of Modern Paganism back to the ancient Greeks, Ceremonial Magicians during the Renaissance, English Cunningfolk from the 17th Century, and a great many poets from the 19th. That doesn't mean it's all an unbroken chain, it just means we have a pretty impressive pedigree.