Pagan Time: Ritual of the Gods

After last night’s marathon post, tonight’s will be fairly short and to the point. After all, I fully expect you to be out drinking and celebrating and not at home reading blogs! Incidentally, the image attached to this post is from the Daily Mail. You can read the article it’s from here.

Strange Bedfellows

The strange bedfellows I am referring to are Christian and pagan tradition. You see, Christianity had inherited much of pagan tradition, but in the last days of the Middle Ages the birth of modern thought finally buried much of what was left of paganism — not that it can be kept down. The gods will never remain silent, but the chain of tradition was broken. Oddly enough, how we reckon time changed as well.

Almost all people experience the immediate cycles of days, months and years, so it is no surprise that all systems that account for the passage of time begin with these basic units. There is much more to the issue of time and how it interacts with our understanding of and interaction with the divine than would otherwise seem readily apparent. Most people live in a world that is progressing relentlessly from the past into the future, thoughtlessly accepting this pattern as simply natural to reality, but this model of time is fairly recent in development and originated with the dominance of the Christian cosmology.

It began with the doctrine of Incarnation: the teaching that the One True God intersected with the worldly progression of time and thereby came to share our human experience.   setting the birth of Jesus as a kind of temporal anchor on which all time depends. Years are numbered from the Nazarene’s birth in positive integers leading away into the future and negatively into the past. The custom began early in the history of Christianity and was only meant to serve as a convenience until the savior returned from his ascension to remake the world. The Christian paradigm is thus essentially linear, not cyclical, beginning with the creation of the world on the one hand and ending with its destruction on the other. The birth of Jesus marks the most important point of reference between these two events because it marks the point at which God personally intervened on behalf of the human race. As a result, everything changed after this ‘Christ-event’, placing everything before into one category (Before Christ or BC) and everything after into its opposite. The designating abbreviation A.D. stands for Anno Domini or ‘in the year of the Lord’, belying this Christian emphasis.

Our truly Common Era, when an awareness of the full scope of our world began to form, really began with the beginning of the seventeenth century and the social changes born of the Reformation. The rise of colonialism in the sixteenth century was accompanied by a concomitant rise in Imperialism and made manifest in the political doctrine of the divine right of kings. (This was, contrary to current belief, an Early Modern and not medieval idea.) Nevertheless, there was an accompanying rise in the democratic power of elected representatives in the parliaments of Europe, and the tension between parliaments and Emperors was an ongoing drama that would not wholly fade until Hitler’s death in 1945. Colonialism and totalitarianism, whether seated in an emperor or a parliament, thus grew together in a peculiar way from the seventeenth century on. In fact, since 1600 nearly every facet of human society has moved into a new stage of life completely removed from what came before. Science, politics, medicine, religion and art —every facet of life as we know it developed into forms recognizable to us since the turn of the seventeenth century. Perhaps surprisingly to the modern, patronizing view of past societies, such a massive change was anticipated by most people during the late sixteenth century.

The political upheavals of the time made the conjunction in 1603 particularly noteworthy; after all, in May of 1603 James VI of Scotland, a Stewart, became James I of England on the death of his cousin, Elizabeth I, last of the Tudor monarchs and designer of the East India Trade Company — perhaps one of the strongest forces of colonialism this side of the Irish plantations and New World colonies. Nevertheless, few these days seem to have noticed a profound cultural shift that took place as well — one that gave rise to our modern perspective. At least few remember it. This disjunction is most readily seen, however, in our terminology, for Astrology and Astronomy are two separate disciplines from the perspective of usual Scientific thought, which deliberately divests physical phenomena of all divinity and thus of all meaning. Prior to the 1603 conjunction, the two terms were essentially synonymous, but the meaning perceived by Astrology in the physical phenomena of the heavens was labeled superstition by the nascent and materialistic Science of the seventeenth century.

In fact, John Donne (1572–1631), a prominent if somewhat tragic poet of the time, whose world-view was rooted deeply in the medieval Christian paradigm, commented on the disjunctive effect of the new perspective which followed the conjunction, and lamented its devaluation of older elemental associations along with the older, geocentric model of our solar system:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him to look for it.

The new order of the seventeenth century was thus hardly hidden or vague; it merely suppressed earlier modes of perception by relegating them to a historical slum. The Renaissance, much vaunted in our current Era as the awakening of culture from a long, superstitious “Dark Age”, was advancing a new way of thinking — one that still has a strong hold on the minds of many in the “First World.” Donne’s lamentation continues with the comment that people of his time back to Eve and her original sin ignored the connections proper to all things in favor of a self-serving independence and devotion to an egotistical uniqueness:

‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

The ‘new philosophy’ mentioned above is, Donne’s eyes, the next logical step in a world spinning more and more into the depravity of willful sin. (Remember that he was hard-core Christian so it’s a Christian viewpoint we’re talking about.) The associations inherent in the older philosophy of the four elements presumed and revealed the interconnectedness of all things, but the ‘new philosophy’ that would come to be called scientific thought eradicated this presumption and placed in its stead a profound skepticism that divided the world and its unitive order into discrete, individual areas that were not necessarily related.

In other words, the natural order was no longer to be associated with divine imminence but natural process. Donne’s criticism unites the urge to formulate the ‘new philosophy’ of science with what he saw as a new attitude: the separation of the individual from a sense of relationship to larger social and kin-oriented groups. This shift has been the subject of academic discussions that saw in it the emergence of the modern point of view: the ideal of the private individual. While many in our time would see this as the natural advancement of society, Donne saw this as the natural if sinful progression away from God’s order. On the other (pagan) hand, this disconnection of the individual from connection to family and society is simply the next step that began when humanity broke off its connection, its ‘supply and all relation’ to use Donne’s terms to the natural world and thus the gods. Whatever the interpretation, the astronomical conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on December 18, 1603, marked the point at which a new age of political, economic and social thought became ascendant.

Rekindling The Fires of Ritual

Without the divinity of the earlier perspective, time became a dead motion with no real meaning. No longer did the movements of the planets and the natural elements portend the will of the gods for supernal reality itself had been removed entirely. To find our way back to that perspective in which everything is imbued with a numinous meaning beyond its apparent reality we must pick our way very gently back to an earlier mindset and begin to see anew with old eyes.

This is not to say that we must chuck out scientific reasoning or discoveries. Knowledge is transformative and not merely additive. To put it another way, the common way of conceiving thought is to think of it physically: we “keep” memories and “get” ideas as if they were commodities to hold and exchange. Ideas, thoughts, and memories in reality have more to do with action than items. To think of thought in physical terms is to think of it in an additive way — we add to our store of knowledge — but knowledge is not about things we keep. It is about how we change. As we learn we grow and transform. Once we learn something we cannot unlearn it. We may forget the details but we never lose the changes that such knowledge has wrought in our very being. We are at every moment the sum of the knowledge that has passed through our awareness, and so having grown up in the modern, empirical, dead-world paradigm we cannot just say “we’re through with it” and never look back.

We must own what we have become and be willing to grow beyond it through seeking out forms of knowledge that we feel will be beneficial to who we are as peoples and individuals.

In a similar way, we cannot simply ignore the system of time-keeping that has become so ingrained in our culture, but we can think of it in a new way and thereby transform how we act, who we are, how we know.

We can put the gods back into time, and this is the essence of ritual.

See, ritual is that special kind of time when the supernal and the mundane are conjoined. There is a rhythm and poetry to events. Our ancestors believed that “random circumstances” that occurred in ritual time and space had special meaning that related to future events. This is why husbands not too long ago carried their wives over the door-jamb of the house. The Romans believed that if she tripped when first entering, the family would be afflicted with misfortune.

In truth there is no time without this special rhythm. The gods are always in the world, so their ritual is eternal. It’s just that we are usually too stupid to notice…

… but we don’t have to be.

Listen, watch, learn and be patient. Never has the old nursery rhyme been more poignant:

There was an old owl who lived in an oak,
The more he saw, the less he spoke.
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Now why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?

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