Monday, April 6, 2015

Deluded Neo-Pagans

I know it is off topic for my blog, and I should be responding to comments or writing on more relevant topics, but I have to write a bit on the absurd claims often made by neo-pagans that somehow there was a survival of paganism from the classical era right up to the modern age, that is, that "Wicca" (an invention of late 19th century antiquarians, named after a minor Germanic tribe  settled in western England, and not gaining anything like popularity until the late 20th century) is some sort of legacy going back centuries to some real historical antecedent.

I admit, Wiccans are not the only ones. Freemasons love to imagine they are continuing in a lineage going back directly to Pythagoras, Solomon and --in a few extreme claims -- Adam himself. (Though, since Masonry was male only for quite some time, it is hard to imagine who Adam met in his lodge... But that goes back to the question of "who the heck did Adam's children marry?", Genesis does seem to gloss over a few logical problems.) Modern Masons have become a bit more modest, with the rationalists making the -- still pretty absurd -- claim of descent from guilds of medieval stonemasons, guilds no one happened to notice in any historical records, despite a pretty good record for most other guilds. And the romantics, inevitably, find the Masons descending from fugitive Templars, because anything Templar is cool, even more so since The DaVinci Code popularized the Holy Blood, Holy Grail thesis and made the Templars into some sort of neo-pagan hermetic order of their own, though one oddly committed to protecting the bloodline of Jesus, despite a lack of belief in his divinity. (Kind of odd theory, it would be akin to dedicating one's whole life to ensuring the bloodline of Danny Kaye survived for all eternity. If Jesus is not divine, then he is but one of many thousand, perhaps million, descendants of the Davidic line*, and thus one of many potential rightful kings, why would his bloodline be worthy of such attention?)

But to return to the Wiccans, they are more annoying than the Masons in one very noteworthy way, they simply cannot take a consistent position. Sometimes, when feeling feminist and anti-Church, they will tell us, for example, the Salem witch trials were simple hysteria, there was nothing to them but revenge against uppity women or some such. Sometimes they will get a little more delusional and blame it on people fearing "wise women" who worked as midewives or gave herbal remedies, completely ignoring the fact that midwives were an accepted reality throughout Europe and the Americas, and that herbal remedies were common enough that persecuting them would make as much sense as arranging a persecution of CVS employees today. (Though if they continue pontificating about how they won't sell cigarettes for my own good, I may do just that...)
Other times, however, they will suddenly do a volte face, and say "oh, those foolish Christians, pretending witches worship the Devil, there is no Devil in earth religions, and so Salem was just absurd!" In other words, imagining the witch trials were some sort of real persecution of supposed neo-pagan traditions, based upon a mistaken belief that witches worshipped the Devil.

Now, one problem here is quite simply, that "witch" is not a very useful term. In modern times it is often used by those believing in "Wicca", which, as I said already, is an invention of the 19th century. Other times, even in modern eras, it is used for those who do espouse some sort of diabolical belief, and was used as such in the past. And in other cases, it is used for those who adhere to a variety of superstitions, especially those related to divination or harming enemies, which, though very old, were in no way a "survival of pagan practices". Thus, witch can mean a lot of things, and in some cases does mean exactly what the persecutors said. (I know, some Wiccans deny there were ever Devil worshipping witches, but the fact is, there are devil worshippers today -- Anton LaVey grew famous from it -- there are those who confessed to it in the past, even without torture or other inducements, and so, it seems likely that, whatever the frequency of Devil worship, and it likely was rare, there were those who worshipped infernal beings.)

What did not exist was any sort of paganism in hiding lasting from the fourth or fifth century until the present day. Granted, by the fifth century there were still pagans** living in the norther and eastern parts of Europe, as well as in parts of inland north Africa, and, of course, all over the Americas, much of Asia, Australia and sub-Saharan Africa. But, let us concentrate on Europe. In the Mediterranean rim and western Europe, including much of England, Christianity had won out by the mid to late fifth century. Even the invading tribes, such as the Goths, Vandals and Langobards tended to adopt some variant of the faith, though many embraced the Arian heresy, thanks to heavy missionary work outside the borders of the Empire. Still, Christianity was the rule throughout the Roman Empire sometime before Rome itself fell, and even afterward, former Roman possessions tended to stay Christian, with the exception of England, which was occupied by Germanic pagans for about 3-4 centuries, and France, where parts were occupied by non-Christian Germanic tribes for about a century, after which, most did proceed to convert. Outside the Empire, Christianity experienced more difficulty. Germany was largely Christian by the time of Charlemagne's grandchildren, but Scandinavia took longer, as did England (though Wales and Ireland were earlier successes), and eastern Europe had lingering pagan strongholds until the 12th century or a bit later.

Still, if we ignore eastern Europe, as most of these claims of pagan survival do, it is safe to say, by 1000 AD, paganism was no longer a force west of the Oder (we can probably move that line even farther east, but let us be generous here). And in many places, such as the Mediterranean coasts, much of France, parts of the Balkans, Asia Minor and elsewhere, Christianity had been victorious by at least the early 6th century, if not sooner.  So, if paganism was to have survived until the 17th century to inspire the women of Salem, for example, that would mean some sort of underground continuation of old pagan religion, unnoticed by all but a few quirky antiquarians and controversial historian, for up to 11 centuries. That seems quite a stretch.

Let us look, for a contrast, at the native religions on western Africa. The slaves taken in those countries, being dropped in a Christian environment, and one -- at least in the US -- less stringent in enforcing the faith than many states of the middle ages, were largely converted within a generation or two, converted so completely that the remnants of the religion persisted only in disguised form, in syncretic faiths such as Voodoun, Santeria and the like. And before someone claims this is the same way paganism survived, I would point out that, first, these syncretic faiths survived largely because they remained, in some ways, public, able to gain adherents and spread the word. And even then, much of the original faith was lost in the process, with the lingering traces being maintained either in much simplified superstitions, or else in a highly changed form in the new faith. So, yes, Lupercalia did become Easter, Saturnalia (and other winter solstice festivals) influenced Christmas, and so on, but that is about all that remained of paganism, there is little sign that pagans even created a syncretic merging as complex as Santeria. Instead, it seems all that was kept of pagan beliefs were a few holiday traditions, and maybe some common superstitions. That is hardly enough to claim that somehow witchcraft is a survival of pagan faith.

On the other hand, what almost certainly did exist is the thing neo-pagans love to deny, explicit devil worship. And the reason is obvious. If you are unhappy with the status quo, if the church and the state which is heavily influenced by that church, is upsetting, the easiest way to rebel is to embrace that which it rejects. And the medieval church, while not spending much time denouncing the earth mother, or druidic deities, spent a lot of time denouncing the devil. Which is why, in later eras, libertines who wished to create a scandal, and others who wished to signify a total break with their society, embraced devil worship. Some may have done it in a symbolic or joking (or to use the modern sense of the term "an ironic") sense, but still it was the devil, not Lug or Apollo or Artemis or the Magna Mater who made a strong statement against one's cultural traditions. Which is why it is easy to believe not all those accused of devil worship were falsely accused***, while at the same time I find it difficult to imagine they were some sort of proto-hippies carrying on a thousand year old tradition no one noticed until the mid 19th century. (The same way I have trouble believing Freemasons could have existed publicly for about half a century without a hint of a Templar tradition, until some specific lodges "discovered" it, and suddenly all lodges "remembered" they were descended of fugitive monastic knights.)

As I said, I do not deny that the oldest pagan traditions had some influence on early Christianity, especially in terms of specific holiday practices, and maybe some rituals. And, yes, some superstitions may have had an origin in pagan practice, though more likely both Christian and Pagan superstition were influenced by the same basic form of "magical" reasoning****. But that is as far as I can see the survival stretching. And there is one more argument I would offer in favor of this position. Paganism survived the longest in eastern Europe, specifically in the Baltic states (if we limit ourselves to Europe proper). There paganism died out less than 1000 years ago, as opposed to say 1200 to 1300 years ago in England, maybe 1100-1200 in Scandinavia, 1400-1500 or so in much of France (though in some parts even earlier), and 1600-1700 in most of the Mediterranean areas of the former Roman Empire. So, if we were expecting to find witches, meaning witches as survival of a pagan tradition, would it not seem most likely to be in the Baltic states? Yet, when "Wiccans" point to the survival of pagan traditions, it almost always centers on western Europe, perhaps including Italy and Germany. In other words, the places with the longest tradition of Christianity. Does that make even the slightest bit of sense?

Unfortunately, I do not have my usual political or cultural tie in for this one, nor do I have my attempt at a pithy summary, or some brilliant lesson to draw from it. I simply found myself terribly annoyed at those who really believe pagans somehow remained in hiding for centuries and now have suddenly sprung back into public view chanting "an it harm none" and other new age pablum (which has as much to do with real pagan traditions as Jesus Christ Superstar has to do with the historical figure of Jesus). Sorry, but Wicca is as much a survival of an ancient tradition as Disney's Tinkerbell is an expression of traditions about the Sidhe or the inhabitants of Tir na nog.

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* Even if we accept the thesis of Baigent, Leigh, Lincoln and company, and assume his unique in being descended of both David and Aaron, and having married into the tribe of Benjamin, given the relatively small population of classical era Israel, the tendency for elites to intermarry, and the fact that fully one twelfth of Israel was of the tribe of Benjamin, even that specific combination could not have been unique, or even exceptionally rare. And if intermarrying with the tribe of Benjamin is so essential, then it would not be hard to take a descendant of Aaron and David and arrange to fulfill this third condition.

** I am using "pagan" to indicate any sort of organized polytheistic belief system, though thinking mostly of those prevalent in Europe prior to Christianity. I suppose, by my definition, even Hinduism is a sort of "paganism". I do not intend it as any sort of value judgment when I use the term, it is simply convenient shorthand since I am discussing the "neo-pagans", to describe their supposed antecedents as "paganism".

*** Of course there is also one other reason to believe in devil worship, the existence of very sincere Christians. If you really believe the teachings of the Church, and despite that wish to do someone harm, to whom else would you appeal but the devil? Thus, the existence of devout Christians argues more strongly for devil worship than some earth mother/green man tradition hiding out unnoticed for centuries.

 **** For example, the idea that if one injures the item that harmed hi, it will speed healing, or the belief that spirits are offended by boasts about one's good luck. These sort of traditions seem to be near universal, and so probably represent a common sort of simplistic reasoning common to the human experience, rather than the survival of any ancient tradition. (See Couliano's Tree of Gnosis and his arguments that Bogomils and Cathars could have reached the same theological beliefs independently, mostly because there are simply a limited number of possible Christian theological positions on specific questions. This seems much the same. Or, for that matter, look at the chapters on thaumaturgy in The Golden Bough. For all its questionable conclusions, some of the arguments for a common sort of primitive reasoning seem to fit historical experience fairly well.)

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POSTSCRIPT

For those who have been following the blog, I do apologize for doing so little writing. However, work has been crazy. For example, after working late into the evening Friday preparing for a major project going live this morning, then doing some more changes Saturday morning, I spent another part of Saturday, and much of Sunday catching up on other work I had to ignore because of this project. And then, today, I ended up working from 5:30 AM until 4, eating quickly, and then dealing with a call to technical support to try to resolve an issue that caused us to delay our project deployment. So I am afraid I just haven't had the time. Had I not been so inexplicably annoyed at the many absurd neo-pagan comments criticizing the (dreadful looking) TV series "Salem", I probably would not have written at all, but having read those reviews during a few minutes downtime to amuse myself, I found the Wiccan types so irritating I could not resist saying something. Still, tomorrow marks the launch of a second project, and then we have to reschedule the one from today, not to mention the other big rewrite I worked on this weekend which is still waiting, but, I am hoping to find some time to write soon, perhaps alter this week, or the coming weekend. So please check back. And I will get to replying to comments as well, I promise.



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