This is the third day of Lughnasadh and the New Moon to boot: a time of beginnings in the face of endings when what is solid, tangible, and physical is most in tune with what is rarified and abstract.
A fitting time to talk about paganism past, present and future.
Don’t worry: this is not a history lesson, exhaustive description or diatribe on what paganism should be. There are plenty of others filling those roles. My focus here is on answering the only questions that really matter when considering the progress of history from a traditional pagan viewpoint — where were the gods when the monotheisms and monocultures began to spread across the globe, where are they now that the record is so dominated by voices bent on monoculture, and how are we to move forward when our very minds have developed in a world where monoculture (a.k.a civilization) has taken root so all-pervasively?
Looking at history we might well ask why the priests and “bosses,” as one pagan writer describes them, weren’t blasted by the deities of sea and sky, blood and storm? Why didn’t Saturn destroy Rome when Vatican city arose as the cultic centre of that ancient city with aspirations to rule the world? Why didn’t the Morrígan or the Cailleach Bheur butcher the Normans in 1173 or the English in the 1540’s?
Actually, all these questions are misleading. They are predicated on several conceptions that are founded in modern historiography which itself is the direct descendent of Christian historiography which is itself the immediate successor of Christian scripture; so every modern history book you’ve ever read is a direct manifestation of that monoculture which is anathema to traditional paganism. You can’t escape it.
Here’s an example. Everyone has heard this little rhyme:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one … except February with twenty-eight.
That is a corrupted version of a translation of the Latin which Wikipedia gives as:
Thirty days have September,
April, June, and November;
Thirty-one the others date,
Except in February, twenty-eight;
But in leap year we assign
Wikipedia also notes that the earliest attested record of this mnemonic is from 1488, but who knows how old it is? The reason why we don’t know its age is the same reason why you know of it: this poem is part of oral tradition.
See, oral tradition is pagan, plain and simple. Every culture that has been characterized by my definition of traditional paganism used oral tradition to preserve what was considered necessary of preservation. In many cultures like the ancient Celts, writing was used but was not considered a worthy vessel for authoritative knowledge. As Julius Caesar put it in his description of the druids …
they do not think it proper to commit these utterances to writing, although in almost all other matters, and in their public and private accounts, they make use of Greek letters.
Memory is living knowledge, and when you have memorized something it has transformed you. You are more than you were. Is it the same to buy a book and put it on your shelf? Even if you only memorized something by rote without connecting it to all the other knowledge you have, you have at least done that much. If you do connect it to everything else you know, then you have been inspired by that knowledge and touched by the divine. You have been initiated.
The focus on written text as authoritative knowledge comes from scriptural tradition, i.e. sacred scripture. If you point to a book as the Word of God, then text becomes the basis of knowledge. By extension, authority can be communicated by text because you can check anything against the orthodox teaching. Thus we have textual tradition. There is a whole cultural and historical process through which sacred scriptural tradition turns into a system of authoritative texts, but I don’t have the space here to go into it. If you want to know more, let me know in the comments.
How does this get back to answering where the gods have been in history? Well, the short answer is that they’ve always been there. Here are some little historical tidbits to whet your appettite:
- Rome had laid claim to all the lands around the Mediterranean, but they extended religious tolerance to all religions save Judaism and Christianity because monotheistic religions only recognize their own god. Then orthodox Christianity arose in the early decades of the fourth century. Theodosius I extinguished the Vestal Flame and established orthodox Christianity as the official religion of Rome around 390 AD. He was the last Emperor of Rome to rule both its eastern and western halves, within twenty years Rome was sacked by the goths and within 100 years the Western Empire had fallen entirely into the hands of pagan warlords. Clearly Vesta and Saturn were displeased.
- Christianity achieved its zenith at the end of the thirteenth century when the Crusades were in full swing. The military tradition of the pagan West had been transformed by Christianity into the chivalric knight. Monasteries were at their peak and Latin was quickly becoming the eternal language of learning. Then in the fourteenth century the Black Death struck in the middle of a mini-ice age. The western orthodox church reeled under the impact of the mortality. Humanism grew up in the aftermath during the fifteenth century, and in the early sixteenth century the orthodoxy of the West shattered into the many of denominations that we have today. Maybe Apollo was tired of being mistaken for Jesus.
- Humanism then started to take the lead during the Age of Reason, and eventually things began to settle down with science leading the way forward with textual education strengthening increasingly centralized nation-states during the nineteenth century. Across the globe, “civilized” countries could agree on rules of government, thought, and society under the influence of modernism — that is until a certain political party took those principles to a brutal extreme, unifying culture and biology under the black, white and red banner of racial purity in its bid for world domination. The resultant World War shattered the world’s confidence in modernism, industry and the other fruits of monocultural science, prompting the ‘back-to-nature’ movements that have so strengthened contemporary paganism.
- The military Colonization of the New World progressed apace with its Christianization, subsuming the people culturally who could not be destroyed. Yet some still persist who venerate their ancestors and gods. Can you say their gods are not protecting them?
There are so many examples of monoculture being shattered out of the blue that I cannot include them all here. My point is that the gods are there. Most people just don’t know where to look because they’ve become too idiotic under the influence of textual tradition.
Prove it, you ask?
Scriptural tradition altered the perception of history in a crucial way. The Christian understanding of the Bible says that God created the world at the beginning and will destroy it to make way for a new reality — a better, uncorrupted one where only the Chosen may survive. This creates “the Arrow of History” that begins at the beginning and ends at the end, but what model of history came before? Well, the typical pagan understanding seems to be that time happened in cycles. (That last link by the way shows how the Arrow of History is used to strengthen certain forms of modern rhetoric.) It’s true that Greek, Roman, and Chinese tradition seem to have developed a sense of historical progression, but each of these are also held up as great civilizations advancing human progress. Everywhere that civilization and human progress shows up in historiography you can bet that monoculture is not far behind.
So what we have is a “dark age” of oral tradition when human history is not recorded in an authoritative, fact-worshipping way, but knowledge important to local people was instead passed down within a community generation to generation as living memory. This “dark age” was “enlightened” by textual tradition, which was a direct result of orthodox scriptural tradition. This orthodox tradition deliberately coopted earlier traditions and records in favour of a monocultural, globalized (even universalized?) history establishing its own viewpoint as being the only one true enough to be passed down. At first in the West it was Christian, but Scientism has been fighting it for a while now. It is very interesting that this battle for textural authority between orthodox religions and scientism has been couched as an age old battle between superstition and reason. Dan Brown would be proud.
Let’s take a break from history and just look at this question from a purely conceptual direction. In other words, let’s take time out of the equation.
A fairly insightful article was posted to the website ‘Gods and Radicals’ on Pagan Anarchism (cited above). The thesis was that anarchism is not a belief but an approach allowing pagans to dismantle orthodox power structures in a ‘perpetual revolution.’ The problem is the usual difficulty with what comes after the revolution, but attempting to side-step it by making the revolution perpetual only makes things worse. There already is a perpetual revolution: it’s called our life-cycle. Children are born, we grow old, die and they take over. We don’t really need a perpetual anarchistic revolution because, properly considered, we’re already living in it.
Ultimately rulers only have the power we give them. Money only buys things because we believe it has value. You can live on the barter system. You don’t have to participate in whatever state you live in, but you do because it’s convenient. You don’t want to live without a computer or a car. You don’t want to miss Game of Thrones because you don’t own a tv of some kind, and you certainly don’t want to live without the security of Emergency Services. We buy into the system in thousands of little ways so we can be safe and comfortable, but we don’t have to. We are free to buck the system entirely and remake our lives along whatever we can imagine, but most of us do not want to live with the consequences.
If we think of paganism politically, allowing our religious beliefs to manifest choices that can influence society, then we might consider ourselves members of a de facto Pagan Party. Gilbride’s Pagan Anarchy suggests that political pagans should essentially be an Anarchist Party undermining the power of a de facto Boss Party made up of those who wish to gather socio-eonomic influence to themselves, but we’re talking about cultural groups here. Culture is always fluid and about to be real — the word comes from a Latin future participle meaning literally ‘things about to be worshipped or cultivated.’
We already live in anarchy because the only real strictures are physical (viz. you can’t turn into a pink unicorn by thinking about it), but the Archon Party (leg. the Boss Party) has won over most people to its way of thinking because it actually can supply some sense of security and comfort. If we don’t like the Archon Party — or the Monoculture Party, or whatever — then we’d better come up with a system that can actually encompass and grow beyond it — eat it essentially! —
… and here is where history comes back into it.
See, humanity really lived its anarchy during its hunter-gatherer days. In those days traditional paganism was the dominant religion. Civilization and orthodoxy began to grow together with the rise of agriculture a little over ten thousand years ago, but humanity is somewhere around 200,000 years old! That’s 190,000 years of history completely unaccounted for because the oral tradition has been eclipsed by written tradition! The earliest stone tools were more than two million years older than that, and language is considered to have been developing already at that time! This is all to say that history as we know it is really not that long in the great story of humanity, but it is a turning point. In 5% of the time that humans have been around we have gone from pagan to orthodoxy. In 2% of that time (.1% of modern humanity’s history) we have thrown the planet so out of balance that we are affecting the climate and wiping out whole ecosystems.
Where are the gods now? They’re everywhere and they’re pissed off!
We can change things, though. Traditional paganism sees spirits everywhere in the world, supernal and infernal gods influencing everything, and benevolent ancestors taking an interest in their offspring. It would be easy to think of our less benevolent ancestors disliking our return to paganism, judgmental Christian great grandmothers spinning in their proverbial graves, but when you think of how many generations lived as pagans before the conversions over the last paltry millennium or so they won’t seem quite so scary. Not only that, but I imagine the revelations in store after death mitigate some of the rancor that might be felt. Ultimately though when it comes down to it, you should trust your instincts because you have literally millions of years of cultural, genetic, and spiritual development under your incorporeal belt.
Now I want to be clear about something. I am not in any way advocating a regression back to our hunter-gatherer past. That road leads to the Land of the Uni-Bomber — a kind of evil I have no interest in fostering. The main point here is that if you are reading this and consider yourself pagan then you have been colonized, and decolonization is a tricky thing.
There are a few basic steps you can take that will make your life more pagan:
1. Cultivate the Four Characteristics of Paganism
I outlined these in a previous post, but in a nutshell this means building relationships with your people (living and dead), your gods, and your local area. Study ritual not just as magical sayings and actions but as a way of understanding how the world works — its rhythms and cycles.
2. Speak Your Language
Many people don’t so much speak their language as are spoken by it. This is fine so far as it goes, but you will not live deliberately unless you understand your language well enough to speak it deliberately. Language is magic. All the ancients knew this, so use it well. You already know how to do this. You only need to remember.
Another aspect of this is that your language is the language you use with your people: the people who are your family (genetic or not) and really get you. If you need to reject where and who you’ve been, adopting another language is a really good way to do it. It will take a lot of work and persistence though, but it is more than worth it!
3. Cultivate Oral Tradition
There’s no way around it; you will need to memorize things. Tell stories, learn or make up mnemonic poems, and pass them along to others — particularly children. Start with Mother Goose, one of the great corpora of gnomic and historical wisdom. Here’s one of my favourites:
Intery, mintery, cutery corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wine, brier, limber lock,
Three geese all in a flock;
Along came Tod,
With his long rod,
And scared them all to Migly-wod.
One flew east, one flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.—
Make your way home, Jack.
Now this is often recounted as a simple counting rhyme not meaning much, but in Gaelic tradition the lords of the Gael were referred to as Wild Geese, and the abandonment of Ireland by the last great Gaelic lords in the face of English warfare and persecution in the early seventeenth century is known as the Flight of the Wild Geese. The Wikipedia article I linked to only mentions this use in the Early Modern period, but it stretches well back into the Middle Ages. Now, during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Gael of Ireland and Scotland fled to the East to Europe and the West to the New World, while some went to London where William of Orange, the Dutch husband of Mary Stuart, was brought in to replace the rightful but Catholic king, James II, just as certain breeds of the cuckoo will foist their offspring on other mothers.
That last line “make your way home, Jack,” doesn’t seem so meaningless now, does it?
This is oral culture: poems with stories behind them. As the Irish poet, Tadhg Dáll Ó hUíginn put it:
Dá mbáiti an dán, a dhaoine.
Gan seanchas, gan seanlaoidhe,
Gu brath, acht athair gach fhír,
Rachaidh cách gan a chluinsín.
Should poetic art drown, o people,
Without the ancient tradition, the old lays,
Until Judgement, save the father of each man,
All will pass away without ever being heard of.
And finally …
4. See Where the Dominant Culture Goes Unquestioned, and Question It
This is the most elusive and difficult of these cues, but it is also the most fun. I won’t go into details here as I will let you discover it. I will say this, though: the gods love what is hidden (as the Vedic text says), but they are very good at hiding things in plain sight.