Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Paganism is not a European religion

[This is the fourth in a series of posts on the question What is Paganism? Also see this follow-up post.]

One thing that confounds and obstructs our ability to understand modern Paganism's deep connections with the past is the pervasive and pernicious idea that Paganism is European. Essentially this boils down to Paganism being viewed as some kind of indigenous religion for white people, not to put too fine a point on it.

Take, for example, the very popular A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick. Nearly one third of that book (Chapters 2, 3 and 4) is devoted to "Greeks" and "Romans", but Jones and Pennick fail to appreciate and communicate the fact that Greco-Roman civilization was in no meaningful sense "European".

After Alexander's conquests (334-323 BC, see blue area in map to the right, which was found online here), the Hellenistic world lay primarily in Asia and Africa, not in Europe. In fact, the center of "Greek" culture for at least the next half millenium would be the Egyptian city of Alexandria. And when the Roman Empire was at it's peak, Alexandria was its second largest city and the third largest was the Greek-speaking Asiatic metropolis of Antioch (these were probably the three largest cities in the world - at a time when the Roman Empire may have comprised as much as 1/4 the entire human population). And as far as Rome itself goes, the patrician class of that city was proud to claim descent from the Asiatic Trojans.

The demographic, cultural and economic center of gravity of the Roman Empire was always in the Greek-speaking east. This point is driven home by the fact that when the western Empire devolved into "successor states", where there then ensued a centuries long cultural decline known quaintly as the Dark Ages, the eastern empire (which continued to be called, simply, Rome, and whose ruler continued to be known as far away as Britain as, simply, the Emperor) remained a militarily powerful, politically coherent, and culturally advanced Empire for centuries to come. The so-called "Byzantine" Empire reached the peak of it's power in the year 550 AD under the Emperor Justinian (see green area in map to the right), and five hundred years later it was still the most powerful state in the mediterranean (see map from 1045 AD to the left - both this and the previous map are taken from here). The Byzantine state went into serious decline in the 12th century, only to experience a resurgence in the late 13th century. But even as its political and military power steadily eroded in the 14th and 15th centuries, it still remained a great center of culture and learning, especially compared to western europe, where Plato and Homer had been unavailable for centuries, even in translation. And even when Byzantium came to an end as a political entity (in 1452), its learned scholars fled to western Europe, especially Italy, and became part of the impetus behind the Renaissance.

Those who wish to portray Paganism as European usually (and revealingly) go further and posit neatly separable ethnically based hyphenated Paganisms, anachronistically reflecting national "identities" that arose in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries (along with other pleasant ideas such as "racial purity"). A look at the map of ancient Italy (where Greeks, Phoenicians, Celts and Etruscans were among the more important populations - map taken from here) shows just how doomed and ridiculous such a paradigm is. The first historical attestation of people speaking a Celtic language actually occurs in Italy with the sack of Rome by Cisalpine Gauls in 387 BC (Rome would not be entered by hostile forces again for nearly 8 centuries). Both Livy and Vergil were from Gallia Cisalpina, and may have been ethnic Celts themselves.

Ancient Pagans turn out to have been quite cosmopolitan, which is only reasonable since they invented the word in the first place! The cosmopolitanism of (most) modern Pagans is, therefore, yet another way in which we reflect the proud traditions of our ancient Pagan ancestors. For more on cosmopolitanism in ancient Paganism see my previous series of posts on Prisca Theologia. For a closer look at the non-European roots of classical Greek civilization in particular see the the writings of Walter Burkert, especially his The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greece in the Early Archaic Age and Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture, and also M.L. West, especially his East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Literature. M.L. West wrote in the introduction to his edition of Hesiod's Theogony that "Greece is part of Asia; Greek literature is a Near Eastern literature."


Anonymous said...

Hey there. Just wanted to let you know that I've really been enjoying your blog. Thoughtful, provocative, beautiful, well-written, and always entertaining. Keep up the good work!

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Gee, thanks! Your online writings (over many years) were part of my original inspiration to give this a serious try.

mamiel said...

Nova Roma has published some great stuff comparing the practices of the pontifexes in Roma to that of the Brahmins in India. It was compelling stuff, of course I forgot where it is. Thanks for this post.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Mamiel - if you do remember where it is please pass it along!

There was a great deal of direct contact between Rome and India especially by way of trade. I've been told that over half of all surviving Roman coins have been preserved or rediscovered in India.

mamiel said...

I will ask the Nova Roma folks if they could point me in the right direction.

How cool is that about the coins? Never knew that!

mamiel said...

I was wrong. The comparison was between the Flamen Dialis and Brahmins. Not pontifiexes.From a Nova Roma member:

"1. a. The flamen Dialis cannot be forced to swear an oath or bear witness.

b. The brahman cannot be forced to swear an oath or be subpoenaed as a witness.

2. a. The flamen Dialis must not set eyes on the army.

b. The brahmin must not see the army or conduct religious activities in its proximity..

3. a. The flamen Dialis must not mount or touch a horse.

b. The brahman must not ride a horse.

4. a. The flamen Dialis must not eat raw meat or beef.

b. The brahman must not eat meat.

5. a. The flamen Dialis must not go near a funeral pyre.

b. The brahman must not go near a funeral pyre or even be touched by its smoke.

6. a. The flamen Dialis must avoid fermented substances

b. The brahman must not ingest intoxicants.

7. a. The flamen Dialis must not touch or speak about a dog.

b. The brahman must not touch a dog, dog breeders, and must not study the Vedas when he hears a dog barking.

8. a. The flamen Dialis must never, not even at night, doff entirely the insignia of his
priesthood nor his sacred cord nor see his wife, the flaminica, entirely in the nude.

b. The brahman must never be stark naked nor remove his sacred cord which is the sign of his status nor see his wife entirely nude.

9. a. The flamen's person is sacrosanct, laying hands on him is death.

b. The assault or killing of a brahman is death.