The term "neofolk" originates from esoteric music circles who started using the term in the late 20th Century to describe music influenced by musicians such as Douglas Pearce (Death In June), Tony Wakeford (Sol Invictus) and David Tibet (Current 93) who collaborated heavily for a period of time. These musicians were part of a post-industrial music circle who later on incorporated folk music based upon traditional and European elements into their sound. Folk musicians as far back as the 1960s were creating music similar to neofolk in terms of sounds and themes. These musicians could be considered harbingers of the sound that later influenced the neofolk artists. However, the distinction must be made that it was the aforementioned artists who were involved in the dark music scene throughout the 1980s and 1990s that contributed specifically to the emergence of neofolk. Neofolk is seen by many as an extension of post-industrial music into the folk music genre which did not occur until the late 20th Century.
The spirit of neofolk contains parallels to the ideals of American and British folk movements of the 1960s. The basis of this music is built upon principles against commercialization and popular culture. However the themes of neofolk and folk music are drastically different. A majority of artists within the neofolk genre focus on archaic symbols of culture, myths and beliefs. Local traditions and indigenous beliefs tend to be portrayed heavily as well as esoteric and historical topics. Homages and tributes to figures some may consider controversial such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Julius Evola, and Leni Riefenstl as well as the usage of war themes, imagery and historical imagery by some musicians have drawn misguided criticisms and links between neofolk and right wing establishments from various sources.
Of particular mention is Heathenry or Germanic Neopaganism. This subject plays a large part in the thematic elements touched upon by many modern and original neofolk artists. Runes, pagan European sites and other means of expressing an interest in the ancient and ancestral occurs often in neofolk music. Aesthetically, references to this subject occur within band names, album artwork, clothing and various other means of artistic expression. This has lead to some forefathers of the genre and current artists within the genre attributing it to being part of a broader Heathen revival.