On the topic of traditions and the channels through which they become constructed in each generation, there is also the matter of modern paganism. Like any philosophical or religious community, pagan culture is not reducible to any one group or canonical set of shared dogma. The culture of Ásatrú is not the culture of druids, druidism is not equivalent to Wicca, and even within Wicca you have the divides between Gardnerian and other sects. Yet there is a certain constellation to be seen in these varying belief systems, which are all broadly syncretic modern traditions claiming ancient roots in pre-christian western culture. I do not consider myself a pagan, though I have come to see paganism as something of a fellow traveler, and here would like to make a case for the value of paganism, particularly those elements within it which have formed around the fluid realm of folklore more so than in an ideal image of an absolute, unchanging and ancient dogma. To treat it as a dogma, or perhaps worse, as a dogma of convenience, evinces a lack of reflexivity in some pagan adherents that I find to be deeply troubling.
Wikipedia claims that the origin of the term Pagan comes from the Latin paganus, which meant rustic or “of the country”. While this is not wrong, a classicist friend of mine once informed me that at the time it was used this term also possessed pejorative undertones, more like, “bumpkin”, “hick” or “hillbilly”, and that it began to take on its “heathen” connotations with the growing dominance of Christianity in the Roman empire, which was, in its early history, much more a religion of the city than of the countryside.
In this regard some of my concern comes from the lack of historical awareness of some pagans, whose belief in the ancient origins of their tradition tends to mask the fact that in its first usage, paganism was a reactionary, christian invention, yet one which, in the hands of contemporary pagans, often seems, first and foremost to mean “not christian”. I do not know if it enriches a culture to define itself in terms of what it thinks evil, and some of my pagan colleges come very close to structuring their morality around a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment against the still-dominant christian culture.
There is also the question of perceived cultural trauma. Few things, real or imagined, tend to galvanise a people, as a collective, quite as well as a shared sense of loss. Psychologically, Christians thrived on their martyrs and their lions’ dens, something that they could rally around with the outrage of personal injustice. Jews, even before the holocaust, had the destruction of the temple. Most recently Americans (as a religion no less than as a geopolitical nation-state) experienced their 9-11. Pagans, likewise, often rally around the burning times, and a sense that as one people, the cultural destruction and abuses of Christianity have historically wronged them. Like most things, there is something to be said for this, but, like most things, it is also deceptive in its way, and has more to do with modern politics than with ancient antipathies.
I do not mean to say that the burning times did not happen, but that based on most contemporary historical studies of the events, those who were persecuted, tortured and killed rarely, if ever, experienced these abuses because of some association with what we now think of today as pagan identity. They were, by and large, christian midwives, spinsters, outcasts, very commonly in Spain they were Jewish or Jewish converts to Christianity, the Marranos. In the case of the Druids, there was a systematic attempt to destroy their culture and traditions, but this act was perpetrated by pre-Christian Rome in its wars of conquest, not by Christians.
Community building is important and valuable, and I would very much like to see all pagan groups thrive, diversify, and grow into what they desire and seek in a spirit of introspective exploration and self-awareness. I would not like to see it expand upon a foundation of willed ignorance or through an apathetic disinclination to investigate its own claims as a historical tradition, or by a shared contempt for any other system of beliefs.
In this regard I have been most impressed by the the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, who not only seem to recognize how much is fragmentary, retroactive and contingent in the tradition that they themselves have made as much as found, but that they also seek to unearth whatever they can of the old ways with specific plans of historical research. I was first made aware of the order through their exploration of the possible ties between ancient druidic beliefs and practices and those of ancient India. Their article on the subject is linked below.
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