Saturday, August 1, 2015

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Pagan gods, nature spirits, totem animals and the secular State

Karl du Fresne’s piquant little piece of last month about stingrays and traditional Maori beliefs struck a chord with me as the subject matter intersects with a social phenomenon I have long been interested in – the resurgence of pagan beliefs in modern society.

The word ‘pagan’ is of uncertain etymology – one theory is that it is a corruption of ‘pai gens’ which is mediaeval French for ‘country folk’. 

Pagan belief systems are rooted in traditional folk religions the origins of which are shrouded in the mists of antiquity. Some of them later became institutionalised, such as the religions of the ancient civilisations. ‘Paganism’ is an umbrella term for an immense variety of religio-cultural belief systems spanning a broad spectrum of mythical beings and aetiological narratives.

It is hard to generalise about pagan religion, but there are recurring themes. For instance, pagan religions are polytheistic (they recognise the existence of numerous gods) and henotheistic (they recognise the existence of the gods of other peoples). “Mine’s bigger than yours” takes on a whole new meaning in the latter context. The Old Testament of the Bible contains various accounts of the rivalry between the Jewish God (capital ‘G’ in the monotheistic context) and influential pagan gods of neighbouring peoples, such as Baal, vying for people’s adoration.

Christianity and Islam inherited Judaism’s aversion to paganism and added a macabre twist: its being of Satanic origin, Old Nick being the supposed ringmaster of all occult forces lining up to challenge their God. Hence the mediaeval European frenzy of persecutions of groups with links to pre-Christian religion. Paramount among these were ‘witches’. The ‘witch’ was/is actually a successor to the shaman of the pagan era – healer, clairvoyant, spell-caster and go-between for people and the spirit world (it was the church that added the broomstick aeronautics). Also targeted were groups that observed ancient good fortune and fertility rituals such as a still widely recognised rite involving a guy prancing about wearing a stag’s head complete with antlers. This was such an entrenched pagan custom that the church came to adopt that headgear as a symbol of Satan.   

Christian scholars until historically recently regarded Hinduism and other Far Eastern religions as ‘pagan’. While Western academics now mostly see Hinduism as a religion on a par with the Abrahamic ones, Islamic scholars generally do not – ‘pagan’ remains a derogatory word in Islam; Islamic commentators tend to use the term ‘religion’ only for the monotheistic cluster. Many Muslims continue to refer to pagan adherents as ‘devil worshippers’ and pagans continue to be clamped down on in some Muslim societies. The destruction of ancient pagan statues and other relics by hard-line groups such as the Taliban and ISIS is entirely consistent with this attitude.

In Western society, the echoes of ancient pagan beliefs and practices were never quelled completely. Many common European names have pagan associations, and so the early church brought in the ‘Christian name’ (a biblical name or the name of a saint) which one was baptised as while often continuing to be referred to by one’s ‘common name’. The Protestants abandoned this protocol and allowed people to baptise their children using their ‘common name’. My first name is an ancient Germanic name invoking the bear as a totem animal. My parents being Protestants, I was baptised as ‘Barend’. Do not ever ask me for my ‘Christian name’ as I can honestly say that I don’t have one!

As far as pagan beliefs go, the egg-laying bunny subsequently associated with Easter, the wearing of lucky charms, and the garden gnome are examples of pagan vestiges. Beliefs in trolls and various nature spirits persisted in Europe particularly in rural areas until well into the last century. At the same time,  some suave and sophisticated urbanites started taking an active interest in the old beliefs, particularly in England, and modern paganism, or neo-paganism, was born.

The modern pagan movement is hardly of groundswell proportions, but we can nevertheless speak of a low-level pagan renaissance in Western countries over the past three-quarters of a  century or so. People have started looking at relics such as Stonehenge as genuine religious artefacts rather than as mildly embarrassing reminders of a ‘primitive’ past. 

Paganism was classified as a bona fide religion by the British Home Office in 1971. Amongst other things, guests of Her Majesty’s prison service can ask for a pagan chaplain.

Why should modern people take any interest at all in the wacky beliefs of their distant ancestors? Based on my acquaintance with the movement – I was a subscriber to ‘Pagan Dawn’ (the quarterly of the British Pagan Federation) for several years, and scoured the websites of European pagan associations – I have the following insights to offer.

Paganism offers a form of spirituality to people who are thoroughly disenchanted with orthodox religion (especially Christianity) but for whom the purely materialistic outlook on life is unsatisfactory. It offers them a religious platform that they can truly call their own, as it arises from their heritage – the beliefs of their pre-Christian ancestors. Within this frame of reference, the new paganism can be thought of as a ‘roots movement’. Believing in elves, totem animals, witches, tree spirits and water spirits and the gods of the old pagan pantheons isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an innocuous way of satisfying an inner yearning for a spiritual aspect to one’s existence. At any rate it beats the blood-soaked poppycock of ancient Middle Eastern pseudohistories that many of us had thrust down our throats at Sunday School.

There is also the role of women in the Western neo-pagan movement. ‘Equal but different’ prevails in contemporary paganism, which offers women special and revered roles that are neither based on those of [male] priests nor ones that can be emulated by men. The designation of ‘priestess’ is not an offensive one for female pagan devotees, but rather a coveted one. Much the same can be said of the title ‘witch’, often preceded by the adjective ‘white’ i.e. a witch who uses her powers for good. Many pagan women worship goddesses rather than gods.

There has moreover been forged a connection between modern paganism and environmentalism. Nature is sacred to pagans, and as well as being essential for human survival is inhabited by a myriad of nature spirits (not to mention the odd pixie and non-ceramic gnome) with whom people can form meaningful relationships.

So there has been a resurgence of interest in pre-Christianisation Maori religion over the past decades. That’s no big deal (join the club!) and I have no problem with it – until it starts popping up in political discourse and governance.

If paganism is a religion – which in some Western European countries it officially is – then it should be treated as any other religion by the modern secular State. It has taken us centuries of determined effort to exorcise religion from Western government and law, and we should not allow religion in any guise to return as a governmental/legal paradigm. That includes paganism, be it classical or ‘neo’. If there is no place for valkyries or fairy circles in the systems of governance of today’s secular State, then neither is there a place for taniwha or wahi tapu therein. To allow religion this back-door re-entry to the mechanisms of governance breaches the principle of separation of State and church (however defined) that the Enlightenment ushered in. Is there a constitutional issue here? Maybe we should try to make it one.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc (Auckland), BA, BEdSt (Queensland), MAppSc (Curtin), PhD (Otago), DipCommonLaw, PGDipLaws (London) is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut. Feedback welcome at

1 comment:

Brian said...
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I can almost hear the old Luton Girls Choir of the 1940s/50s singing their “Nymphs & Shepherds come away. Come come away........Shades of a British Sunday afternoon!!
Apart from the fact that I have a liberal attitude to whatever people decide to believe in, I would however religiously follow the Churchillian utterance “ I disagree with what you say, but would defend to the death your right to say it”!
Having been brought up with stories of witches, coupled with Hans Anderson’s Fairy Tales (for the young), and later the wonderful Hauff’s Fairy Tales the idea of paganism is somewhat related. However I would guess that after the fall of Rome in the 5th century AD, when bands of Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns loosely describe as Pagans, crossed the Rhine and drove headlong into France. Any Mother in an undefended village situation, would tend to regard Pagans and Paganism in a very different light.
Probably the Green movement owes a deal of its success to Paganism, with its total opposition to anyone with a different viewpoint, which in itself, reflects a power base confident always that they are in the right.
As far as this country is concerned it is obvious that National regards the support in Parliament of the Maori vote crucial, and refuses point blank to oppose the ridiculous conception of Taniwha or wahi tapu. In doing so, this becomes a further cost on the taxpayer. One must give credit where credit is due, Maori have exploited this to the fullest advantage in cultural and financial terms.
Yes, the principal of separation between religion and the State has to be maintained, but Western Civilisation owes its very existence to a Judaeo-Christian religion civilisation...(albeit we came through literally “By the skin of our teeth”) its art and democratic principles were inherited ideals from Greece.
My fear is not of religion in itself, but of religion being used to promote a division ethnic or otherwise in our society.

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