September 01, 2004

Musings On Paganism

The term Paganism covers a broad variety of traditions, in the same way as the unrelated term New Age. It originates from the Latin word paganus – meaning approximately, ‘folk religion’ or ‘religion of the people’. By this, it means a spiritual tradition, which naturally comes into being without the direction of a spiritual figure head, such as Buddha, Christ or Muhammad. Such paths can be found throughout the world, in various guises, such as Native American Shamanism, Hinduism, Shinto, Celtic traditions, Norse traditions, Bo (in pre-Buddhist Tibet), Voodoo, the religions of Pre-Columbian Meso-America and so on. The focus here, will be mainly from a European perspective, and therefore, is not applicable in its generalisations to the Paganism of other cultures.

A central aspect that pervades throughout many of the aforementioned traditions is the notion of duality - the understanding of opposite forces within nature. Examples of this are light and darkness, good and evil, white and black, matter and anti-matter, and so on. As the Tao symbol, the Yin and Yang demonstrates so clearly, all things require their parallel, and in each there is a little of the other. In combination, they create the whole.

For Pagans, the acceptance of both the masculine and feminine aspects that exist in nature is imperative for accurate understanding of the forces that lay hidden. Both genders are represented as equal and respected unconditionally for both their strengths and weaknesses. This hardly corresponds to the patriarchal traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism that dominate today. It comes as no surprise, that many leading Feminists, such as Germaine Greer, have been drawn to Paganism.

In recent years, the definition of the word pagan has gone through somewhat of rehabilitation after 2000 years of negative application. When the Christian church was established in Rome, all beliefs contrary to the new religion were considered sinful and anti-Christian. Therefore, pagan became an alternative term for heathen.

During the rise of early Christianity, a conflict with the ancient European traditions was inevitable. By its very nature, Christianity requires conformity and repression of individuality, by following the precepts of Christ correctly, in the hope of attaining a place in heaven. There is no room for rebellious behaviour. In contrast, apart from being polytheistic by nature, European Paganism was often encouraging towards hedonistic practices: something, which contradicted the strict doctrines of the Church. Paganism promotes an appetite for life, whilst Christianity and its sibling religions promote happiness only achieved in the afterworld.

The Church even converted the image of the Horned God archetype into a representation of Satan; transforming what had been a universally positive symbol of our inherent animalistic tendencies, into the embodiment of a previously ambiguous deity. Nowhere in the Bible is Satan described as being in the image of Pan.

Yet, for all its opposition to the old religions, in its zeal to convert the Pagan masses, it adopted many of their festivals as a coax: Yule, Ostara and Samhain became Christmas, Easter and All Saint’s Eve (Halloween), to mention but a few. Such seasonal symbols as the Christmas tree, holly and mistletoe, the Easter egg, the May Pole and even Santa Claus can be only fully explained by having an understanding of pre-Christian traditions. The Church’s policy obviously succeeded in attracting the polytheists to the monotheistic lifestyle.

However, towards the end of the 18th Century, a fascinating social phenomenon occurred in Europe during the peak of the Age of Enlightenment, and continued to persist throughout the 20th Century. As scientific discoveries were leading to breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe, the firm grip of Christianity seemed to slacken and continues to do so today. The scientific theories of Galileo, Newton, Darwin and others, contradicted many of the Church’s core beliefs, which it had propounded for centuries. Through the cracks of uncertainty that appeared between the Christian world of faith and the scientific world of scepticism, a rebirth of Paganism emerged.

The Romantic Movement was a reaction to the flux that society was going through. Whilst many Romantics continued to hold on to Christianity, others began to resurrect the traditions of the ancients, albeit in a dreamy approximation. Combined with this, was a rejection of ordered and controlled nature. It was replaced by a passionate desire to observe the world at its wildest, high up in the rugged mountains and deep in the overgrown forests. This is exemplified in the work of the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich and also the English poet, William Wordsworth, who writes in ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’:

The world is to much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not – Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

While Wordsworth was not a Pagan, and sadly lost this intuitive feeling, as he grew older, there were other individuals who took this expression to the extreme. People such as the French occultist, Eliphas Levi, the Russian mystic, Madam Helena Petrovena Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, Gerald Gardner and of course, Aleister Crowley. This was also a period when ideas from exotic lands became accessible for the first time. Ancient Asian creeds had instant novelty appeal for the intellectual circles of the West. The old traditions inspired a creative and modern interpretation of their mythologies to manifest in the new social dynamic of the era: And one which is perhaps still going on.

Secret societies grew out of the more secretive society of the repressed Victorian Age: Groups such as The Order of the Golden Dawn, The Order of the Druids, Ordo Templi Orientis, The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross (Rosicrucian) and The Theosophical Society, were all conceived out of an active response to the times: And all claiming to hold occultic wisdom hidden from the eyes of the uninitiated. They enchanted radicals, intellectuals and artists from all kinds of backgrounds, such as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, who was an avid member of the Golden Dawn and a supporter of the Theosophists. Such members allowed for a sense of legitimacy to be attached to these groups. The Romantic Movement had evolved a social tolerance towards creative ‘eccentricity’ and ‘excessiveness’, so membership to one of these organisations was often taken as such by sceptics.

It is necessary to see modern European Paganism against this background, if it is to be fully understood. While modern Paganism (or Neo-Paganism) claims to have a long heritage that goes back to the distant past, it is preferable, and prudent, to view it as a separate entity from ancient Paganism, standing on its own terms and merits as a new religion. It is true that the premises on which it is based have roots that go back to our ancestors, but the design and presentation of today’s Paganism, is a modern construct that originates from Romantic ideals and interpretations of the past. This reality should not take away the value of the Pagan Path, but rather remove the misconceptions and tenuous assumptions that consume the perceptions of some modern Pagans. The Paganism of the present should be appreciated as a movement of dynamic creativity. Similar to the Creation mythology of the Australian Aborigines, Neo-Paganism is dreaming itself into existence. This is its strength and appeal, as it has flexibility and a unique openness alien to the dominant world religions.
- El-Branden Brazil -

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