The romance of non-Christian Europe

Discussion in 'Ancient History and Mythology' started by brian, Jun 26, 2003.

  1. brian

    brian Administrator

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    Just a rant...

    In modern Western societies there seems to be a general over-romanticising of Western European "paganism", both in terms of pre-Christian Celtic beliefs, and rural beliefs during the predominantly Christian Mediaeval era.

    This isn't aimed at pagans as much as general social attitudes in general - through British Victorian Era the Romans were seen to have "liberated" the island of Britain (Albion) from terrible "heathens", by giving us culture.

    Nowadays history has corrected that mistake - but it seems as if the bridge swings too far - as if over-compensating.

    The Celts were not a bunch of peace-smoking hippies, but a normal group of people, who were ingrained in superstition, recorded as fickle and greedy by the Romans, and had a habit of stomping across Europe to claim themselves new territories (it should be immediately noted that the "Celtic Britain" of Iron-Age Britain was actually an invasive culture from mainland Europe, which in itself displaced a prior migration of European peoples - and this was repeated when the Anglo-Saxons (a mixture if Germanic lore and heretical Arianism) moved into Roman Britain from the continent - and that's before we come to the Vikings - whom people from the Isle of Man regard as pleasant culture founding sea-farers who happened to pop by by a drink one day...and then rattle on hysterically against the English for sticking some bloke in a castle over there!)

    In terms of beliefs themselves - although some people are happy to read up commentaries on Celtic Mythology, I don't see a rush to read the actual recorded literature, such as the Ossianic Cycles of Ireland. NEither do I see a rush to rediscover ancient pagan practices such as Morrise Dancing!

    Flippancy aside, I guess the world and our relationship to it has profoundly changed. We no longer live lives that face death on a daily basis, and the continual prospect of starvation. We live in a world generally rationalised and conquered, and the original fears of original pagan systemns and general peasant lore are no longer the fears of our cozy modern living.

    But somehow there's a danger of arrogance - that "we know better", therefore Neo-Paganism can afford to ignore the original peasant classes who carried the very ideas being laid claim to.

    Essentially, there's the danger that doing so is just as bad - if not worse - than ignoring them completely. Because in doing so those original people are not simply misrepersented, but also dismissed outright. And that's precisely where they have always been left.

    Perhaps it's time for modern European culture to stop imposing its own judgements on these peaple - and for Neo-Paganism to get a better grasp of the real roots of the original pagans. Because if we allow the heavy romanticising of non-Christian Europe to continue, we don't just do a disservice to them - but also, to ourselves.
     
  2. Talia

    Talia New Member

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    The romanticising isn't the hollow romance you seem to imply it is. You are right that are lives are strictly different with different needs but that's why both 'old' and 'new' pagan are so different. Our advanced healthcare systems, not least preventative such as clean water and drainage, mean that we avoid a whole awathe of issues that affected people in older times. And this is where a lot of the original focus was as religion is basically about facing mortality and meaning in life. Add to that that we have secure supplies of food also means that we don't feel an urge to spend every Easter praying and ritualising for good harvests!

    People can and no doubt do some of the above but as the original experssions in those areas are no longer such a major issue of focus we don't need to fret about them so. So instead we 'modern pagans' take it upon ourselves to explore the levels of reality in the original perceptions, that of a mother earth and our place in the bosom of the Goddess. With the Gaia theory behind us it shows just how erlevant the ideas are in the modern world among modern people. But just because the general experssions in terms of immediate ritual are different doesn't mean to say that modern paganism is taking away from the pagan peasantry. In fact it is anything but, we are taking from them only to extend and develop their beliefs, not copy them directly because directly our lives compare so completely differently.
     
  3. Elizabeth May

    Elizabeth May New Member

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    Brian, I think WHKeith addressed this issue on another topic, where he said that he wasn't interested in driving his cattle between two fires but looked to Wiccan principles as a guide to spiritual principles since forgotten, such as earth mother/goddess relations. I think what he was trying to say is that modern paganism or neopaganism is *not* intended as a reliving of ancient folklore, but instead as a rebirthing of those deeper principles for exploration in modern society. Do you simply have a beef against neopagans?
     
  4. Arch

    Arch New Member

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    Judging by the chronicles network and this messageboard as well, I'd say Brian is demonstrating his bias towards history here. *smiles*

    And as has been said, no one is recreating the historical practices in direct imitation. I do see an argument for better promotion of folklore traditions. It would be interesting to see how much of these the pagan communities have taken up for themselves.
     
  5. exastra

    exastra New Member

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    many historical periods have been romanticed for the sake of story telling. and any romanticizing will be biased, as it is an idealized version.

    as far as contemporaries adopting or adapting pagan beliefs, it isn't about recreating the culture, but appreciating and utilizing the ideals of that culture; making them relevent today as they were in the past... because one recognizes their merits (at least as applies to the individual). indeed, it is because that culture IS respected that its principles are mimiced.
    it is inevitable than in any translation or reinterpretation some of the original source material is lost. but as long as the essentials are intact and we don't ignore its origin, where's the harm?
    i don't see it as a matter of invalidating the origin, but accepting that it is no longer applicable.
    Once upon a time, it was widely held that the earth was flat in a geosynchronous orbit. now we "know better".
     
  6. brian

    brian Administrator

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    I guess one of the problems is precisely because I approach ancient belief through the historical perspective. From what I read of "paganism" in Western Europe, the whole "Earth Mother/Goddess" aspect was a very small part of a much larger set of belief systems.

    Primarily ancestor worship seems to have been a major component of belief, and actual pantheons – not least of Rome – often appear to be sourced from the family of a significant historical leader, honoured through the worship of that figure and his ancestors (and the whole business being reduced to legend – but note Livy's comments on how the worship of Jupiter was given to Rome). Of course, there's Greek and Etruscan influence in there - but the Greek pantheon itself could be specifically held to be a mix of various ancestral spirit worships, all convergent into a single cultural form through the various assimilations of different peoples and cultures - either within Greece itself, or through the peoples it came into contact with.

    Another important aspect of Western European belief was of the spirits of the hearth and home. This could sometimes be related to ancestral spirits, but more often than not (through the lore of the Germanic migrations through Europe) these became associated with distinct non-familial spirits – pixies and brownies, for one (if I remember right).

    The aspect that modern paganism focusses upon – that of earth-centric goddess worship – was always part of a wider and usually complex perception of the world, where the male and female interacted not in terms of the simple dualistic principles that they seem to be reduced to, as much as perceived through a whole series of facets that were spun and intertwined through one another – certainly as belief developed in terms of specific pantheons – cf, Greece as a particular example of which, but the Celtic forms of which seem to remain specifically attributed to natural forms.

    I guess my initial gripe really comes down to the fact the word "paganism" cannot specifically reflect the folkloric systems of Western European peasants. Nor can any use of the word Neo-pagan be applied as specific to any geographical or historical area. I suppose that at best it's like the word "hoovering" as being initially a reference to a very specific brand name, which it no longer is – in this instance being applied to Paganism as having evolved as a set of belief systems from its original historical origins into a specifically Western-centric "Neo-pagan" form.

    As for those mediaeval peasants – I guess the only real way to bring their beliefs back to life is through my own writing. I made a specific issue to research such beliefs for my "Chronicles of Empire" writing – very specifically, Volume 2. That concept is still a long way from publishing, but I guess when it finally is, it can finally serve as a testament to those downtrodden peasants of history, and finally give them both a voice and the justice I feel they deserve. :)
     
  7. WHKeith

    WHKeith New Member

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    [quote author=brian link=board=9;threadid=209;start=msg1000#msg1000 date=1056657868]
    Nowadays history has corrected that mistake - but it seems as if the bridge swings too far - as if over-compensating.

    [/quote]

    And that is essentially what's happening, I think. The pendulum is swinging back the other way, seeking balance. It will return.

    We see here also a revisiting of the Romantic period of the late 1700s/early 1800s, when Europe was captivated by images of the "noble savage"--at the same time the white-eyes were starting to exterminate the indiginous population wholesale.

    Like you, Brian, I love to see history approached realistically and in a balanced fashion. Like you, I deeply mistrust versions of history that grab one or two facts and run with them, excluding the rest. I despise even more attempts to appropriate the spiritual heritage of others. Case in point: can you believe that many medicine wheels here in the States have been closed to outside visitors because, get this, New Age fluffy bunnies were visiting the site, stealing stones from the circle, and replacing them with a crystal or other New-Age trinket, in the misguided opinion that they were somehow "paying for" the stolen rock, or honoring the people who built the circle, or with the idea that their concept of spirituality and earth energy was the same as the native peoples'. GAH! Some of those medicine wheels are still in use by the peoples who built them!

    [ taking time out to shudder :cwm10: ]

    Okay. Excuse the rant.

    Anyway, I also applaud attempts to get in touch with one's spiritual heritage, and I see no problem with respectfully incorporating aspects of other traditions into one's own eclectic beliefs, ritual, and tradition.

    If you're interested, check out a book--not sure if it's available on your side of the pond, Brian--called "Celtic Wicca," by Jane Raeburn. As it happens, Jane is a personal friend of mine; she and her husband (who is an antiquities dealer VERY much into things Roman!) are part of a local coven called Temple Brigantia, which attempts to--within reason--recreate aspects of Celto-Roman worship. She wrote Celtic Wicca in an attempt to counter the absolute deluge of poorly researched, sensationalist, New Agish CRAP on this topic currently out there.

    There are a few out here who think as you do Brian. You're not alone by any means!
     
  8. brian

    brian Administrator

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    Celtic Wicca sounds like a interesting subject to examine further - thanks for the tip. :)

    As for the Temple Brigantia - great stuff! I'm in Yorkshire, just above the Humber. Although the Parisi are recording as living around here around the time of the Roman arrival under Claudius, they just seem to melt away after that. The Brigantines were very much around here in the North, covering a quite extensive area (later mirrored to some degree by Mercia in the Saxon era). I sometimes wonder if the Roman's made York (just up the road) their capital (as Eberculaneum) because it was a major Brigantine settlement? I'm not sure if the term "capital city" can be applied to the pre-Roman Britons, but certainly it must have been somewhere of importance. The Romans have been all around this county, and it's actually on my to-do list to write a book about the Romans in Yorkshire. I'm already collecting photos of various places - was at Cawthorn Roman Camps a couple of weeks ago. Great stuff. :)
     
  9. Pathless

    Pathless Fiercely Interdependent

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    Hmmm. Some thoughts on this:

    The historical interpretation of what the Celts were and weren't is biased by the movement of history itself. I don't have a lot of special knowledge in medieval Britain, but I do know that the Celts, like many other people throughout history, were assimilated by the Roman Empire and Christian belief. As residents within the current telling of history, as residents of western civilization, I find it unlikely that we, with our anthropology, archeology, and suspect historical records, really know the Celts as they were.

    That said, the Celts and others who faced the might of the Roman Empire were all living perhaps long past the time of the matrifocal goddess cultures, which may have flourished before warfare and the birth of states and empires.

    I don't doubt that the Celts had their own stoic and warlike traits. I do believe, simply because it suits me and the kind of life that I want to live, that there very well may have been a time and places on this Earth when human culture flourished and was not driven by competition, conquering, and conflict. For me, the idea of a nurturing and creative Goddess is not an ideal bound by Wicca or even Celtic mythology, or Norse or Egyptian or Babylonian mythology for that matter. The mythology of the Goddess may run through many different cultures and religions, but there is also evidence that matrifocal, generative, creative Goddess culture predates written records of any kind. Of course, this makes any claim dubious to the uptight who must view everything through the lenses of history and science, but those people have already made up their minds. Generative so-called "Goddess" culture is not for people who like clear boundaries, definitions, and hierarchies. It is for imaginative, creative, life-lusting people who long to break through rigid historical patterns and assumptions in order to come closer to living meaningful lives.

    The problem with the historical and ethnocentric approaches of western civilization is that they operate within strict definitions and assumptions that keep people bound and blind. Certain questions and possibilities are marked as illogical or improbable because of the status quo of the accepted historical milieu.

    Screw that. Spirituality is not a historical process. Religion is. Paganism is not religion until it is viewed through the lens of the historical process and the (patriarchal) religions that accompany that process. To me, paganism is pure spirituality: an unmediated ecstatic connection between the individual and the divinity emanant in nature. Wicca, by the way, is not paganism. It is a mockery of paganism, an attempt at creating a religious system from the spontaneous, ecstatic processes of Earth and Cosmic spirituality.

    Just thinking.

    :)
     
  10. _Z_

    _Z_ from far far away

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    the celts were not a European invasion, genetic tests have shown that 51% of Britain is still composed of the same Portuguese and northern Spanish fishermen who ‘migrated’ here some 6,000 years ago [i am unsure of the number].

    they were warlike because they had to be ~ are we not now? the druids are said to have been exempt from the duties of the warrior and hence were peaceful although you had a warrior bard class [deisbard].

    perhaps we cannot find what they were really like, ancient symbols such as the pictish z-rod give us a good idea as much as the literature and irish history is quite different from british. i think we can find an essence in their magic but obviously this cannot be shown.

    it may have gone too far but the balance needed to be addressed or else it wouldn’t have happened. we no longer see christianity as ‘the’ truth so some feel they need look elsewhere. whats wrong with finding cultural roots in our fragmented world, hmm i say that being racially/culturally, germanic, celtic, french, greek, jewish and swiss. :p
     
  11. Dogbrain

    Dogbrain New Member

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    Or never existed at all in the first place.
     
  12. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    To the best of my knowledge as an anthropologist, there has never been a matriarchal society. Patriarchal, yes. Balanced, yes. Matrilineal, yes. Matrifocal is more recent and is what we call those cultures where the dads are away most of the time, so the culture is mother-focused (matri-focal). This does not mean women are in power.

    Many indigenous, pre-agricultural peoples had goddess-worship, but this was generally alongside god-worship. The hunting-gathering folks were primarily animistic, so sometimes there were no gods/goddesses at all- just the idea of spirits (ancestral, place-based, animal, human, and more). I think it likely that the ancient Druids were both animistic and polytheistic, and the religion of the Druids was practiced and theologized at a different level than the religion of the Celtic people as a whole. The Druids were an elite philosopher-judge-artist class who worked alongside ruling elite. It's likely that the ideas and practices of the Druids were connected to but different from those of the everyday people, much like any religion's professional vs. lay clergy today.
     

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