Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Paganism is Indigenous and very, very old -- but it is not limited to "Europe", and it is not "Ethnic"

The roots of modern Paganism long predate the modern conception of "Europe". It is true that the 2nd century (AD) Pagan polymath Ptolemy labeled part of his maps of the world "EVROPA" (well, something like that, but in Greek), and that this more or less corresponds to where we think of Europe being today. But it is also true that this famous "Greek" scientist was sitting at his desk in the great Library of Alexandria when he drew these maps. Alexandria, of course, was on the part of Ptolemy's map labeled "AFFRICA" (see map).

Those who wish to redefine Paganism as intrinsically European show their ignorance of both history and geography, and, much more importantly, of what it means to be Pagan. Precisely the same thing is true of those who want to redefine Paganism as a "New Religious Movement".

There are two things to be clear about: being a Pagan sure as hell doesn't mean being European, and being a Pagan has absolutely nothing to do with being a member of any particular "ethnic" group.

Modern Paganisms' roots are as wide as they are deep. No one can deny the strong influences of the pre-Christian religious traditions of Celts, Germans, Balts, Slavs and others on modern Paganism. But at the same time no one can with any justification deny the Egyptian, Phrygian, Semitic, Chaldean and other "non-European" influences that are an integral part of modern Paganism. Just as the influence of Greco-Roman Paganism, which straddled Asia, Africa and Europe, cannot be questioned.

We know for a fact that ancient Pagans did not recognize clear bright lines neatly separating the "pantheons" of one "people" from their neighbors, or even from those on other "continents". Greeks and Romans worshipped the Phrygian Great Goddess Cybele. Hellenized Romans spread the worship of Egyptian Isis to far flung Britain and Germania. Wandering priests of Dionysos spread the good news of the dying God who yet lives (and who is the son of God, and who promises eternal life) to Africa, Asia and throughout Europe.

At the very least ancient Pagans were tolerant and respectful of the Goddesses and Gods of "others". But often they went far beyond this and eagerly embraced new exotic cults and practices. Of course there were also always those whose mental and spiritual universe was much more narrowly confined, but even these did not question the validity of "foreign" Gods, if for no other reason than for the very good reason of fear of blasphemy.

Here is some suggested light reading:

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid

Religions of the Hellenistic Roman Age by Antonia Tripolitis

Ancient Religions, edited by Sarah Iles Johnston

Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture by Walter Burkert

Religion in the Roman Empire by James B. Rives

And for extra credit:

Athenian Religion: A History by Robert Parker

In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele by Lynn Roller

Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization by Martin Bernal

The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth by Martin Lichtfield West

The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age by Walter Burkert

Polytheism and Society at Athens by Robert Parker

Hekate Soteira by Sarah Iles Johnston


8 comments:

Mike said...

hail the great philosopher and historian APULEIUS PLATONICUS.

I always look forward to your posts.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hail Mike! It takes one to know one!

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

I have some legitimate questions vis-a-vis what in modern polemic is called "hard polytheism" as to whether the ancients practiced this. Did they believe that there were separate divine entities for each religious tradition (which hard polytheism suggests, but which I personally find absurd), or did they believe that there was a collectivity of gods that were SEEN differently by each people? The Roman practice of giving Roman names to Gods of other peoples who approximated the functions of their own suggests the latter, as does Herodotus' suggestion that the Egyptians saw Dionysos as Osiris. Personally, I think this is an important point : infinity of competing Gods, or concept of a pantheon variously seen? What's your take?

Nick Ritter said...

Siegfried, would the gods have to be "competing"? Your larger question touches on something I'm trying to express elsewhere, so perhaps I'll give a digest version here: On the one hand, I'm comfortable with the notion that the gods of other peoples are not simply my gods in "other clothes," but have their own, independent existence. On the other hand, I can understand that correspondences can be drawn between gods in the mythologies of related peoples. For instance, while I tend to feel that the Roman equation of Wodan with Mercurius isn't right, because based on fairly shallow similarities, I am comfortable with the correspondences that scholars have drawn between Wodan and Jupiter, as well as Lugos/Lugh, Velinas, Volos/Veles, and Varuna (possibly also Ahura Mazda). I am comfortable enough with this to say that all of these are, in some deep sense, the same god as Wodan, but there is still some reticence there. It is, for me, a sticky problem.

Also, this is to say nothing of gods of religious traditions far removed from my own. How am I to think of a deity with no clear correspondence to any of the ones I worship as anything other than a separate deity?

Apuleius Platonicus said...

On "hard" polytheism:

Clearly there are differences even between Venus and Aphrodite, between Artemis and Diana, etc etc. Even more clear are differences between Mercury and Odin, Thor and Jupiter, etc.

And yet it is also clear that ancient devotees asserted, in some sense, the "sameness" of Thoth, an Ibis headed Moon God, and Hermes, a God always depicted as a beautiful youth and associated with the planet of the same name.

I think Pagans have to be able to see both broad commonalities and to make fine distinctions. And when it is right to do one, but not the other, is always going to be a matter of judgment. As long as we are not shedding blood, though, we can debate and even argue these matters to our heart's content.

I think theological disputation comes so naturally to Pagans precisely because it would never occur to us to kill over these matters.

But I do think we should draw a line at any notion that the Gods are not fully "real". Any such suggestion must be flatly rejected.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

The only reason I think of competition or contradiction is because of chief gods of the pantheon. If there is a God said to be the chief of all the Gods, and who rules in the heavens, how many heavens are there? It's just a matter of systematic thinking.

LilithsPriest said...

There are at least four big questions that have to be addressed by any polytheology:

1. Do the Gods exist separately from the minds of believers?

2. Are all of the known Gods distinct from each other?

3. Are the Gods affected by the way their believers see them?

4. Are the Gods essentially unchanging?

I am still considering all of these, but based on where my experience and research have led me to date, I go with "Yes;Mostly;Slightly;and No.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

My own personal views on those four questions are very much like yours, LilithsPriest.

In particular a "good Pagan" and/or a "good polytheist" must always be respectful toward the Gods worshipped by others. In my opinion such respect in no way impinges on genuine critical thinking about and free inquiry into theological matters.