Monday, October 18, 2010

Honoring Our Pagan Ancestors

"Have you not received from the Gods the faculties
which will enable you to bear all that happens to you?
Have you not received greatness of spirit?
Have you not received courage?
Have you not received endurance?"

[Epictetus, Discourses (Λόγοι), I.6]
Hypatia, being led to her death by Christian thugs
(in the film Agora).
Some we know by name, like Hypatia, Arbogast, Widukind, Krum, and Hercus. But we will never know the names of the vast majority of those who resisted and fought, openly or covertly, with sword and spear, with pen and parchment, or simply with their individual stubbornness and their private prayers, against the relentless onslaught of coercive Christianization.

If it had not been for those Pagans who stood their ground, who fought back, and who even when defeated continued to plot the next revolt, then there would be no point in modern Paganism at all. If our religious traditions had not been worth fighting for at the first encounter with the dark fantasies and darker fanaticism of the early Christians, then these Pagan traditions would certainly not be worth our attention, much less our devotion, today.

But our traditions were worth fighting for, or at least they were to some, and we should celebrate those who chose to fight rather than tamely submit. It is our duty to ensure that their sacrifice is not simply remembered, but that it is honored. A living religion must renew itself generation after generation. And part of that process of perpetual renewal for modern Pagans is retelling the old tales of these great-spirited women and men who are our spiritual ancestors in the truest sense.

Romano-British Temple at Frilford, probably built in the late
2nd century AD. The Temple appears to have been enlarged
during the 4th century and to have been in use at least
until the early 5th century.
Britain, in particular, is a place where Heathenry has fought back more than once against the advance of Christianity, and not without effectiveness. And not only the people of Britain, but the very land itself appears to have resisted Christianization, for even when the souls of its human inhabitants were being harvested by the missionaries with waning resistance, fresh Heathen reinforcements would arrive on her shores, as if called forth by the sacred stones and forests themselves, now that they were being deprived of their rightful worship.

Already during the brief reign of Julian from 360 - 363 AD, there was "a resurgence of [Pagan] temple building in the rural areas" of Roman Britain, according to Dorothy Watts in her Christians and Pagans in Roman Britain [p.140]. Watts also notes that "the demise of some presumed [Christian] churches coincides with this revival of Paganism."

In addition to the reign of Julian, there was the later rebellion of Eugenius and Arbogast in the Western provinces from 392-394, and in her Religion in late Roman Britain: forces of change, Dorothy Watts writes that the "Pagan Revival of the Fourth Century" (the title of Chapter Two of that book), of which Julian and Arbogast are the leading lights, was able "to slow down the spread of Christianity in Britain and weaken the Church to the extent that it barely survived in the following two centuries." [p. 23] Watts' opinion is that, as a general rule, the tide of Christianization was "irreversible", but that Britain was the exception: "There the survival of the Christian faith was not guaranteed." [p. 37] In fact, Britain was the only one of the so-called successor states in which there was a large-scale reversion to Paganism after the "fall" of the Roman Empire in the west.

What remained of British Christianity after the Pagan resurgence of the late 4th century suffered an even greater blow than those delivered by Julian and Arbogast with the influx of large numbers of Heathen Anglo-Saxons during the 5th and 6th centuries. But then, like the Celtic Britons before them, the Anglo-Saxons began to be converted starting at the end of the 6th century, and by the end of the 7th century Christianity once again dominated Britain.

Frankish expansionism, 481 - 814 AD.
But while the Anglo-Saxon Heathens were restoring the worship of the Gods to large parts of Britain in the 5th century, Christianity was on the march to the south. Clovis I (466-511) unified the Franks, converted to Catholicism, and by the time of his death had extended his rule over much of Gaul. After that, the Franks continued to expand their overall territory, although the fragile political unity that Clovis had achieved was lost until the rise of the Carolingians.

Charles Martel once again unified the Franks under a single ruler in 718, although Pepin the Short was the first to openly proclaim himself King of the Franks, the title he held from 751 until his death in 768, when he was succeeded by his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman. The latter died just three years later, after which Charlemagne ruled alone.

The significance of a politically unified and constantly expanding Frankish imperial state that was not merely Christian, and not even merely Catholic, but which was closely allied with the Papacy, cannot be over-emphasized. Indeed, the so-called Carolingian period (beginning with Charles Martel) ushers in the era of the modern nation-state, and, in particular, the Western European nation-states which would, over the course of the next one thousand years, come to literally rule the world, while spreading their own distinctly European version of Christianity. But first, the Christian Franks had to fight their way through the Heathen Saxons.

Which brings us to 772, when, after repeated attempts by him and his father before him, Charlemagne finally succeeded in capturing and destroying the holy site of the Continental Saxons known as Irminsul. Despite this blow, the Saxons fought on. Then in 782 Charlemagne perpetrated the infamous Verden massacre, in which 4,500 Saxon warriors who had surrendered and laid down their weapons were first baptized, and then beheaded. This was followed by the enactment of the Capitulare de partibus Saxonie, "which imposed the death penalty on anyone who offended the Christian religion and its clergy, and in reality it constituted a program for the forced conversion of the Saxons." [see here for sourcing and more]

In 785, Widukind, the war-leader of the Saxon Heathens, finally capitulated and submitted to baptism. But then in 793 the Saxons rose up in revolt once more. They burned churches, massacred priests, and organized new fighting units based deep in the sheltering forests.

"Or should they fight to defend their culture?"
Widukind the Saxon had had close relations with the Heathen Danes to his north (indeed, the Saxons probably had formal political ties with the highly organized Danes). More than once during the fierce Saxon resistance to Charlemagne, Widukind and others were given refuge by the Danes. The Saxon war-leader was also married to a Danish noble-woman, Geva Siegfriedsdottir, the sister of Siegfried the Dane.

Robert Ferguson, author of the 2009 book The Vikings: A History (published in the UK under the title The Hammer and the Cross), believes that there is a very real connection between Charlemagne's fondness for spreading the Gospel at the point of a spear, and the sudden emergence out of Scandinavia of a strange new variety of Pagan warrior at the end of the 8th century: the Viking.

Ferguson has characterized Charlemagne's war against the Saxons as "ethnic cleansing", and notes that the Danes were well aware of such incidents as the Verden massacre. In Ferguson's opinion, the Danes could have been in no doubt that they could look forward to the same treatment, and on behalf of those ancient Danish Heathens, Ferguson poses the very pointed questions: "Should the Vikings simply wait for Charlemagne's armies to arrive and set about the task? Or should they fight to defend their culture?" But the Danes weren't stupid, so instead of launching a frontal assault on the one unified, militarily powerful, Christian state in western Europe, they attacked elsewhere, and, in particular, they payed special attention to Britain. (Go here to listen to Ferguson explain all this in much greater depth in his own words, or, better yet, get his book and read it!)

I agree with Ferguson that it was no coincidence that as the Saxons, despite their ongoing, ferocious resistance (a resistance that would well outlast Charlemagne, as the Stellinga uprising of 841-845 attests), were being beaten into submission by the Christian Franks, the world witnessed the beginning of the Viking Age, during which British Christendom would, at least for a while, be rocked back on its heels yet again. Indeed, there would still be Heathenish Vikings in the British Isles who refused to convert to Christianity for at least two centuries after the fattened monks of Lindisfarne got their first taste of Danish steel in 793. And in the Scandinavian heartland, at least some Heathens were still stubbornly persisting in worshipping their old Gods into the 13th century.

As Winston Churchill said to his fellow inhabitants of the British Isles (and to the world), during the darkest days of the Nazi advance across the European continent, "Nations that go down fighting shall rise up again; those that surrender tamely are finished." The season of Samhain should be, or so it seems to me, a time when Pagan hearts and minds turn to those Heroes -- in the true, original, Pagan sense of the word -- who refused to abandon their Gods (the same Gods still worshipped by Pagans today). Those women and men of old stood and fought because they possessed and put to good use those precious gifts of the Gods that the philosopher-slave Epictetus spoke of: greatness of spirit, courage, and endurance. The Christians were able to break their bodies, just as they smashed their idols, destroyed their temples, cut down their sacred groves, etc. But the Christians could not overcome, indeed they could not touch, the indomitable Spirit of our Pagan ancestors. And because they went down fighting, in truth Paganism has never been vanquished. Ours is not a religion without a past, and, indeed, it is our past that makes us Pagan.

Also see the follow-up post specifically on Hypatia, and also: "Those that are most stubborn and unbending, She assails", which also discusses the Pagan resistance to Christianization.

[Parenthetical Epilogue: There are many who would like us to think that the Christianization of Europe, including Britain, was a relatively peaceful, and even a "tidy", process that met with little or no resistance. According to this view, Paganism put up no real resistance to Christianity for the simple reason that Pagans themselves felt they had nothing to defend, and, therefore, no reason to resist. Christianity was just so much newer and shinier, more progressive, more moral, more spiritual, more logical, and just better in every way.

And these days the old narrative of Christian Triumphalism is not only coming from those who openly and honestly identify themselves as religious propagandists. Many leading scholars specializing in the study of late antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Early Modern period, are committed to spreading the Good News that Paganism died long ago, peacefully in its sleep, and hasn't bothered anyone since. Even some "Pagan" "scholars" (both sets of quotation marks are necessary), starting with Ronald Hutton first and foremost, have also lent their voices to the choir singing the praises of Christianity's peaceful and irreversible triumph over the bad old Paganism of antiquity. But this is already far more attention than these modern day apologists for spiritual totalitarianism are worth!]

Also see these posts on the Saxons:
"A substantialy new Church was allied with a new political system."
Widukind and the Bielski Brothers
"Stridently opposed to abandoning the religion of their ancestors."
Widukind & the Saxon Resistance to Christianity