Monday, February 28, 2011

Pagan History 101. All this really happened.

A long time ago there were people who worshiped the Gods. Some of these people lived in cities - others lived in the countryside. Some of the them could read and write - others were illiterate. Some of the them were rich and powerful, some of them were poor and some of them were slaves. But they all worshiped the Gods. Then along came some mean people who told them to stop: "You are Pagans - stop it!!!" The mean people had big clubs and swords (and later on guns) but the other people didn't want to stop worshiping their Gods, so they said "you can't make us!" This was just what the mean people were hoping they would say.

So the mean people killed lots of Pagans, and then they proclaimed "Aha - we've killed them all, now no one still worships the Gods!" A lot of the other people were still worshiping the Gods - but now they were very afraid, so most of them said "Yeah ...... that's right .... yeah, we, uh, don't worship those nasty old Gods any more...." But there were still a few troublemakers who said "yes we do!"

"Who said that!?!?" the mean people demanded. At first the other people just looked at the ground and no one said anything. Then one of the mean people (a really big one) picked someone out of the crowd and said "If you don't tell me who said that I'll kill this person!" Still no one said anything and the big mean person killed the other person like he was brushing a bug off his arm. He smiled at the smell of blood - he was pleased at how much fun it was to kill these "Pagans". So he grabbed another one.

"How many of you Pagans do I have to kill before you tell me who said it." He brushed another bug off his arm......

Eventually the "Pagans" learned to keep their mouths shut. Or maybe the big mean people really did succeed in killing them all. But the mean people couldn't kill the Gods - and they couldn't kill the ability that the "Pagans" had to communicate with these Gods. You see these "Pagans" believed that no one had to be taught how to "be a Pagan". The mean people, on the other hand, believed that there was only one God - but that no one knew about "Him" unless the mean people explained it to you. Usually after explaining it to you they would put a big sharp sword against your throat and ask "so, now do you understand?"

Stories persisted about the Gods - and when no one was looking these "Pagans" would sometimes pray silently "Gods - are you still there?" Some people claimed that they heard answers to these prayers - but they had to be careful who they told. Other people claimed that their great great great grand-parents had never stopped worshiping the Gods. Considering the circumstances it was hard to tell who was crazy, who was lying, who was a spy, and who just might be a real live honest to Gods "Pagan".

But the mean people weren't done yet. They looked around and saw that the whole f*cking world was full of these goddammed "Pagans". "Jesus Christ - lookat 'em all! How in the Hell are we ever going to afford enough cannons to save all their souls!?!?!?" But the mean people found a place where there were Pagans who had never seen iron - but where there was lots of gold. The mean people called this place "The New World" - but really they should have called it "Easy Pickings." The mean people thanked their bloodthirsty "God" and got to work. They quickly became fabulously wealthy - and it gave them more than enough "investment capital" to invest in taking over the whole goddammed planet.

Now the White European Christians went totally ape-shit. They rampaged across the entire surface of the planet earth. They murdered people in the name of Jesus. They leveled cities in the name of Jesus. They burned books, destroyed temples, tortured Priests and Priestesses - all in the name of Jesus. They even had the nerve to simultaneously enlave people and baptize them in the name of Jesus! All this really happened. They had no shame whatsoever. They were intoxicated with the lust for power and wealth.

The world had seen lots of empires - but there had never been anything like this before. And once the White European Christians started running out of planet to conquer - they immediately went to war with each other! They slaughtered each other by the millions. In the name of Jesus.

But before the White European Christians had started butchering each other, a bunch of them had colonized the Eastern part of North America and eventually became "Independent." In some ways they were the most shameless and bloodthirsty of them all. They could simultaneously proclaim that "all men are created equal" while complaining that the King of England hadn't done enough to eradicate the local "savages", while also quibbling over what percentage of a human being a slave was (I mean, if "all men are created equal", shouldn't that be 100%?).

When the White European Christians who were still in Europe started turning on each other, the "Americans" saw this an opportunity to grab the whole world and make it their own personal empire. They invented television, coca-cola, machine-guns and other handy tools to help them fulfill their "Manifest Destiny." To make sure that their fellow "Christians" would understand who was boss, they finally invented a new evil weapon that could literally destroy all human life - and then they did some educational demonstrations of the proper use of these weapons. So today we live in a "unipolar world" - a world that is basically one big happy Christian empire.

The Recantations of Ronald Hutton (The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise, Part Three)

"It had become obvious to me that this model was inadequate"

Modern Paganism closely resembles and is directly influenced by much older Pagan religious traditions stretching back two millennia, or even longer. But please, don't take my word for it. In this post we will see that the Old Religion Debunker in Chief himself, Ronald Hutton, was won over to this position, and publicly proclaimed as much, soon after the publication of Triumph of the Moon. But before getting into the details, lets briefly recap the story so far.

In Part One of this series on The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise, I proposed to take on two "myths" (in the negative sense) about the history of Paganism:

Myth #1: That the concept of "the Old Religion" refers to a "very specific historical claim" concerning an ethnically homogeneous religious tradition that has remained unchanged since the Stone Age.
Myth #2: That Ronald Hutton and others have conclusively proven that modern Paganism has no meaningful relationship with the Pagan religious traditions of the distant past.

Most of that first post was taken up by quotes from the writings of Charles Godfrey Leland, Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner, demonstrating the intellectual sophistication, nuance, flexibility, and common sense with which they approached the concept of the Old Religion. Then Part Two of this series was devoted to describing "the Hutton thesis", that is, the crude, extremist position staked out by Ronald Hutton in his book Triumph of the Moon. In this post, which constitutes Part Three, I will begin to look at the way in which Hutton himself recanted his previous extremist position only four years later in his book Witches, Druids and King Arthur.

In the Introduction to Witches, Druids and King Arthur, published just four years after Triumph of the Moon, Hutton had this to say about the issues previously dealt with in Triumph (and also earlier in Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles):
[Chapters 4 and 5 are] devoted to paganism, and specifically to one particular problem in the history of it. In my previous books on the subject I have drawn strong distinctions between the ancient religions of the Europe and the Near East and varieties of modern Paganism that are partly based on images and ideas drawn from them. I suggested that, although there are particular streams of transmission between them, such as ritual magic, seasonal customs, and artistic and literary traditions, there had been no continuous survival of pagan religions through Europe's Christian centuries. In this reading, the Paganism of today is a set of entirely valid religions developed in response to modern needs and having a history stretching back a couple of hundred years, even though (as stated) they draw heavily on ancient material. What is attempted in this book is a pair of additional enterprises, which operate together to plug the gap between the ancient and modern forms of pagan religion. The first is to examine those strains of ancient pagan belief that appeared towards the end of the ancient, which bore the strongest resemblance to present-day Paganism, and which have exerted the strongest influence upon it. The second is to look at ways in which a place was retained for the ancient deities within the structure of Christian belief during the medieval and early modern periods, and to seek an answer to the question of whether these traditions could amount to a survival of ancient paganism in a different form.
[pp. x-xi]
Once we get to the first of these chapters, "The New Old Paganism", Hutton immediately begins to put some meat on these rather bare bones:
When I first considered the relationship between ancient European paganism and modern Paganism, at the opening of the 1990s, I stressed a number of contrasts. I identified the former as essentially polytheistic, venerating many different goddesses and gods, as making a sharp distinction between religion and magic, and as representing the old, respectable and dominant faith which Christianity was to challenge in the role of brash newcomer. Modern Paganism (and especially Wicca and other forms of Pagan witchcraft which have generally served as its template) is mainly duotheistic, recognizing a pairing of a goddess and god who between them represent the cosmos. It dissolves distinctions between religion and magic, and itself represents a newly-appeared and often pugnacious challenger to to a long established set of Christian religions. Added to lesser contrasts, this led me to conclude that 'the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name, which is itself of Christian coinage'. The 'past' in this context, was clearly that of Europe. I added one major qualification: that if the most important varieties of modern Paganism 'are viewed as a form of ritual magic, then they have a distinguished and very long pedigree, stretching back ... to the early modern and medieval texts which derived by stages from those of Hellenistic Egypt'.
Now I would like to present the above paragraph in a slightly modified form, without changing the wording at all, but with emphases and notations added to assist in future referencing back to what Hutton has said here (where "NOP.1" refers to "The New Old Paganism", paragraph 1):
[1] When I first considered the relationship between ancient European paganism and modern Paganism, at the opening of the 1990s, I stressed a number of contrasts. I identified the former as [2a] essentially polytheistic, venerating many different goddesses and gods, as [3a] making a sharp distinction between religion and magic, and as [4a] representing the old, respectable and dominant faith which Christianity was to challenge in the role of brash newcomer. Modern Paganism (and especially Wicca and other forms of Pagan witchcraft which have generally served as its template) is [2b] mainly duotheistic, recognizing a pairing of a goddess and god who between them represent the cosmos. [3b] It dissolves distinctions between religion and magic, and itself [4b] represents a newly-appeared and often pugnacious challenger to to a long established set of Christian religions. Added to lesser contrasts, this led me to conclude that 'the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name, which is itself of Christian coinage'. [5] The 'past' in this context, was clearly that of Europe. I added [6] one major qualification: that if the most important varieties of modern Paganism 'are viewed as a form of ritual magic, then they have a distinguished and very long pedigree, stretching back ... to the early modern and medieval texts which derived by stages from those of Hellenistic Egypt'.
The highlights of this paragraph can now be briefly and schematically unpacked as follows:

[1] Hutton's self-proclaimed agenda when he first set out to investigate Pagan history was to emphasize the differences between modern and ancient forms of Paganism, with little or no attention paid to similarities. There are three main differences that Hutton claimed to have identified, as described in [2] through [4] below.
[2] The polytheism of ancient Paganism is claimed to be in contrast to the "duotheism" of modern Paganism.
[3] A sharp division between religion and magic in ancient Paganism is claimed to be in contrast to the "dissolving" of any such distinctions in modern Paganism.
[4] In the ancient world Paganism was old and traditional while Christianity was new and "challenging", but today (it is claimed that) things are the other way around.
[5] Additionally, Hutton makes the bizarre claim that "the 'past', in this context, was clearly that of Europe". This is his way of injecting yet another line of argument for the differentness of modern Paganism and ancient Paganism based on culture/ethnicity.
[6] Finally, Hutton points out that he has all along, even going back to his Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (published in 1993), provided himself with an escape clause based upon a completely arbitrary distinction between magic and religion.

OK, now we are one whole paragraph into "The New Old Paganism". And now it is time for Hutton to get to "the money shot", so to speak:
[7a] Long before the end of the decade, it had become obvious to me that this model was inadequate. [8a] Although still true - as far as anybody could tell - for the ancient British Isles, and substantially so for the rest of Europe, [7b] it ignored the existence of certain types of ancient religion which far more closely resembled Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it. [7c] They were in every sense marginal to my own preoccupations when I made the statements quoted above. [8b] They were overtly derived from the traditions of Egypt and the Near East, whereas I was concerned with those of the opposite corner of Europe, [9a] and they made little apparent impact on ancient European paganism outside parts of Greece. [10] They appeared at the very end of the pagan ancient world, at and after the time at which Christianity became the official creed of the Roman Empire, [11] and were arguably influenced by Christian thought. [9b] They were also very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite, detached from the masses and usually disempowered. Nonetheless, [9c] the private and avant-garde nature of these ideas and practices gave them something else in common with those of modern pagans. [7d] It became clear to me that my work on the intellectual roots of modern Paganism would be incomplete unless I made a consideration of their nature and of their influence on the Pagan religions which reappeared in the twentieth century. What follows represents an attempt to fulfill that project.
Before breaking this down further, let me emphasize, rather bluntly, exactly what it is that I see going on here. Ronald Hutton had spent a decade studying the question of the relationship between modern Paganism and ancient forms of religion. During this time he published two major book-length studies (or four if you count his book on Shamanism and Stations of the Sun) on that subject along with numerous shorter publications. As a result of his "research", and I do feel compelled to use ironic quotes here, Hutton had reached the conclusion that no such relationship existed whatsoever, and that no one could be taken seriously who believed otherwise, explicitly including anyone who so much as "suggest[ed] that there might be some truth" in the notion of the Old Religion.

The only problem was that the whole time Hutton had, now by his own admission, been systematically ignoring "certain types of ancient religion" which just so happened to be precisely the ones which most "closely resembled [modern] Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it"!! And why did he ignore the one place he should have been looking? Because it was "in every sense marginal to my own preoccupations."

Which makes perfect sense. You see, Hutton was preoccupied with the proposition that "the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name." Therefore, the very last place he would want to go poking around was precisely in the one place where there was the most evidence disproving his cherished preoccupation. While such a course of action is typical human behavior, it happens to be the opposite of what a person does if that person possesses even a shred of intellectual curiosity.

Finally, for now, let us look in more detail (albeit very briefly) at the paragraph I am calling "NOP.2". The parts labeled [7a-d] constitute the veritable crux of this particular biscuit: Ronald Hutton's true confession [7a-b], his lame excuse [7c], and his own proposal for a self-imposed penance to atone for his past errors [7d]. In [8a-b] Hutton continues in his attempt to inject ethnic/cultural considerations revolving around the issue of "European-ness". In [9a-c] Hutton contends that "the new old paganism" was really nothing more than a boutique religion for an effete, culturally mongrelized elite, and he adds, for good measure, that this is one of the primary ways in which "the new old paganism" most closely resembles modern Paganism.

Additionally, in [10] Hutton makes explicit his claim that this "new old paganism" was, indeed, a new form of religion that was fundamentally different from the "traditional" forms of Paganism that had existed prior to Christianity. Moreover, Hutton claims in [11] that "the new old religion" was "arguably influenced by Christian thought", which will prove to be a centerpiece of his argument in this chapter.

In the next installment in this series I plan to trudge on into some of the gory details of Hutton's argument in the essay "The New Old Paganism". Then once I am done there, it will be time to turn to his "Paganism in the Missing Centuries" (the fifth chapter of Witches, Druids, and King Arthur), which comprises the second half of his recantation.

The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise
  1. Part One: Two Myths
  2. Part Two: "A very specific historical claim"
  3. Part Three: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton
  4. Part Four: "A Different World" (Recantations, Part Deux)
  5. Part Five: More on "A Different World" (Recantations, Part Trois)
  6. Part Six: Huttonian Triumphalism (Recantations, Part Quatre)
  7. Part Seven: The Recantation of Ronald Hutton, The Final Episode [parts 5, 6 & 7 are not done yet]
  8. Part Eight: 21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion
  9. Part Nine: Coeval With Time [part 7 is still to come]

Sunday, February 27, 2011



Las Balkanieras "KALINKA"


Russian dance

Девушки танцуют

If this is not quite enough Kalinka for you, then you can also go here.

A Scholarly Assessment of Early Christianity, Part Three

"God and his Logos on one side and evil demons on the other."

[Here is another excerpt from J.B. Rives' essay Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology. For the full citation see Part One of this series. The image at the top of this post is from illustrator Christian Kaeppke, who was inspired by Stanislav Lem's The Star Diaries.]

C. Totalization

.... In most early Christian texts we can see a single totalizing view of the cosmos, a sort of master narrative that ordered all the different modes of interaction with the divine, rapidly taking shape. This totalizing world-view left no room for myth, philosophy, and cult as separate theologies, since anything that concerned the relationship of humans to the divine had, in order to be true, to flow from and reflect that basic understanding of the cosmos. A crucial element in this world view, I would suggest, was the dualism of cosmic good and evil: everything either came from God or was set in opposition to him. As I have already argued, it was this cosmic dualism that gave the Christian ideologies of exclusivity and homogeneity their peculiar force: in both contexts, the alternative views appeared not simply as erroneous or unsatisfactory, but as expressions of cosmic evil. Moreover, the ultimate fate of individuals was likewise correlated with this cosmic dualism, since those who sided with evil would be condemned to eternal death and destruction, whereas those who sided with good would be saved ....

In the earliest texts this insistence is more a practical expression of authority assumed by Christian leaders than a formulated ideal. In 1Corinthians, for example, Paul deals with a quite astonishing array of moral, cultic, philosophical, and community issues: divisions within the community (1:10-17 and 3:1-9), social and sexual morality (5), lawsuits among Christians (6:1-11), marriage and celibacy (7), the eating of food from traditional sacrifices (8 and 10:14-29), the dress of women during worship (11:2-16) .... Paul claims the right to pronounce on this range of issues because of his authority over the community, an authority based not on an ideology but on personal and charismatic factors .... But if Paul's pronouncements in this letter are based on his claim to personal authority, we can nevertheless discern in it a nascent form of a totalizing ideal that was soon to become discrete. On the one hand, the very fact that Paul pronounces on so wide a range of issues illustrates the totalizing ambitions that an early Christian leader would have. On the other hand, he also refers in passing to the anchoring dualism of good an evil, salvation and condemnation: for example, 'the doctrine of the cross is sheer folly to those on their way to ruin, but to us who are on the way to salvation it is the power of God' (1:18) .... While the letter as a whole is grounded in his claims to personal authority, it can in a sense be seen as setting the stage for later developments.

We encounter a more developed form of Christian totalization in the Didache, whose author was composing a handbook of general instruction rather than asserting his personal authority over a particular community. The first part of the work presents a version of the 'Two Ways', a concise and explicit formulation of cosmic dualism and its implications for human existence: 'there are two ways, one of life and one of death, and a great difference between the two ways' (Did. 1.1). The author elaborates on this theme through a series of exhortations that are mostly moral but partly cultic: augury, for example, is forbidden because it leads to idolatry (3.4). After the initial presentation of this fundamental dualism, the author then proceeds to discuss the proper forms of rituals (7-10), the ways that a community can distinguish between 'true' and 'false' itinerant prophets (11-13), and the observance of the Lord's Day and the regulation of the community (14-15), before closing with a short apocalyptic section that returns to the dualistic theme in the form of salvation and condemnation (16) ....

As Christian leaders began to engage more closely with the Graeco-Roman tradition, they began to articulate their totalizing ideology in more precise and explicit terms. A crucial figure in this development is Justin, who insistently depicts Christianity as an alternative to both traditional cult and traditional philosophy; indeed, for Justin the two are effectively identical, since they are both grounded in the same cosmic reality. A particularly instructive passage occurs near the opening of his First Apology. Roman officials, he argues, persecute Christians because they yield to unreasoning passions and to the instigation of demons, the same demons who terrorized people into treating them as gods. When Socrates attempted by means of true reason to deliver people from their sway, the demons roused their followers to condemn him to death. But the same reason that operated among the Greeks through Socrates, and among the barbarians as well, actually took human form as Jesus Christ, and taught his followers to reject the sway of demons (1 Apol. 5). Justin thus presents a system in which philosophy and cult have merged completely: the divine savior of the Christians is the embodiment of the same divine reason that the great philosophers had honored. Consequently, issues of right and wrong, good and bad, are not simply matters for philosophical debate but are grounded in the nature of the cosmos, with God and his Logos on one side and evil demons on the other. It is within this framework that all questions of cultic practice and philosophical belief must be ordered.

An increasing self-awareness of their distinctive totalizing view of the world on the part of Christian leaders resulted in increasingly sophisticated critiques of the Graeco-Roman tradition to which they set themselves in opposition. Lactantius, in his Divine Institutes, provides a particularly striking example. Having devoted the first two books to a critique of traditional philosophy, he opens the fourth book by arguing that their failure resulted ultimately from their lack of connection with one another: 'since, as I have said, philosophy and the cult of the gods have been dissociated and kept far apart, inasmuch as some are teachers of wisdom, through whom there can of course be no approach to the gods, and others are leaders of cult, through whom wisdom is not taught, it is clear that the former is not true wisdom and the latter not true cult. Consequently, neither can philosophy attain the truth nor the cult of the gods render an account of itself, which it lacks (Div. inst. 4.3.4-5). To be true, worship must be grounded in a correct understanding of the cosmos, and philosophy must be fulfilled in worship: 'but where wisdom is conjoined with cult in an inseparable bond, each must necessarily be true, because we cought both in worship to be wise, that is to know what and how we should worship, and in wisdom to worship, that is to fulfill in actual deed what we know' (4.3.6). This situation, according to Lactantius, is found only in Christianity, where 'the teachers of wisdom are the same as the priests of God.' (4.3.7) The multiplicity of approaches to the divine that was simply a given of the Graeco-Roman tradition has thus become for Lactantius a proof of its falseness and, conversely, of the truth of Christianity ....

The totalizing claims of Christian leaders were ... not completely alien to the Graeco-Roman tradition, as indeed they could not have been if they were to have any effect.

Christian leaders, however, made these claims into the fundamental basis of a new ideology in a way that no previous group had. In the Graeco-Roman tradition, differences in practice and belief were normally neutral, the reflections of different theologies or different ethnic traditions or different philosophies. Some groups might have disdained the traditions of other groups .... But the lack of a rigorous and widely accepted totalizing framework precluded the sort of absolutism that characterized the thought of early Christian leaders ....

Totalization was thus a precondition for Christian homogeneity, just as homogeneity was a precondition for exclusivity .... Totalization was also a precondition of the distinctive type of religious leadership that played so important a role in the definition and expansion of Christianity .... In the Graeco-Roman tradition, the absence of a single discrete and unified approach to the divine meant that there could be no 'religious leaders' per se [Rives here means 'religious leaders' in a narrow sense that only applies to the leaders of Christianity, so what he has just said is blatantly tautological]. There was instead a wide range of figures who in different ways functioned as authorities on the divine world: poets, philosophers, civic priests and magistrates, antiquarians, diviners, oracle-mongers, and free-lance ritual experts of all sorts. [Rives is just plain wrong about this tidy compartmentalization of traditional Paganism, which I will discuss in future posts.] Because of their diversity, no one of these groups could claim unique access to the divine: context was always crucial. Yet because Christianity was at once a philosophy, a cult, and a community, Christian leaders could take the place of the entire range of traditional authorities, and so monopolize access to the divine among adherents of the Christian god: they alone possessed a true knowledge of the divine world, they alone could distinguish the right path from the wrong, they alone could mediate the power of the god. It was this monopoly over access to the divine that gave Christian leaders the authority needed to transform simple adherence to the Christian god into participation in this new ideology.

[I feel that Rives' analysis goes off the tracks, and in more ways than one, when he introduces all this pomo blather about "totalization" in this section of his paper. There is a point to be made here, but Rives mostly fails to make it, and to the limited extent that he succeeds in making the point, he fails to make it well. Totalizing, schmotalizing. Stick to English and leave the jargonizing obfuscations to other. I will soon post some of my own analysis of this paper, and, more generally, my thoughts on the severe limitations of all modern professional scholarship with respect to the study of Pagan history and the closely related subject of Christianization.]

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Scholarly Assessment of Early Christianity, Part Two

"differences become a problem only when
there is an insistence on uniformity"

[Here is another excerpt from J.B. Rives' essay Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology. For the full citation see Part One of this series.]

B. Homogeneity
In the latter part of the second century CE, Irenaeus, the Greek-speaking bishop of Lugdunum, composed a lenghty treatise concerning various Christian leaders whom he regarded as falsifying and distorting genuine Christians teaching: 'by specious argumentation, craftily patched together, they mislead the minds of the more ignorant and ensnare them by falsifying the Lord's words; thus they become wicked interpreters of genuine words.' Irenaeus himself asserts that all true adherents of the Christian god maintain without alteration the teachings that were passed from Jesus to the apostles and hence to latter followers; among true Christians, these teachings remain always and everywhere the same: 'just as the sun, God's creation, is one and the same throughout the world, so too the light, the preaching of the Truth, shines everywhere and enlightenes all men who wish to come to the knowledge of the Truth' (1.10.2). For Irenaeus, adherence to the Christian god could take one form and one form only. Consequently, Christian leaders who offered alternative interpretations were by definition deviating from the truth, and Irenaeus set out to refute their errors and at the same time classify their different forms. In so doing, he in effect not only created the distinctively Christian literary genre that we now call heresiology, but also helped crystallize the distinctively Christian notion of heresy as a wicked deviation from correct belief and practice.

Many Christian leaders besides Irenaeus placed great emphasis on homogeneity of belief and practice, and as a result had to contend with the variety that actually existed. Like Irenaeus they analyzed this variety as a dichotomy between the orthodoxy of the Church, the one true teaching of the unified and genuine Christian community, and the innumerable heresies that deviated from it. This analysis became an increasingly important element in the narratives about the growth of the Church; by the early fourth century it served as one of the main themes in Eusebius' comprehensive history of the Church, in which he proposed to record both the bearers of orthodoxy, 'the successions of sacred apostles' stretching from Jesus to his own day, and equally the heretics, those 'driven by a desire for innovation to an extremity of error' who ravanged the flock of Christ like wolves ....

[T]he Christian concept of orthodoxy was grounded in a dualistic understanding of the cosmos that was largely absent from the Graeco-Roman tradition and that consequently served to justify a much more absolutist approach on the part of Christian leaders. Like 'pagans', 'heretics' were not merely misguided people who foolishly chose to deviate from the truth, but agents, whether witting or unwitting, of cosmic evil. It was thus imperative that Christian leaders either win them back to the truth or condemn them absolutely ....

It is important to note that this general principle was by no means restricted to those leaders eventually regarded as 'orthodox'. Marcion, for example, with his categorical rejection of many traditional Christian writings and beliefs as Judaizing errors, was clearly operating within the same sort of absolutist framework as his 'orthodox' opponents. So too did followers of the New Prophecy, if we can judge from Tertullian's polemics against the psychici. The Nag Hammadi codices have revealed that some Gnostic grops could boast polemicists to equal Irenaeus and Tertullian .... The most elaborate of these polemics, the Testimony of Truth (NHC IX, 3), contains attacks not only on 'orthodox' Christians but also other Gnostic groups, including those of Valentinius, Basilides, and the Simonians. All sides tended to agree that one position was right and the others wrong, even if they disagreed on which was which.

The push for homogeneity came at a very high price: all the numerous divisions among early Christians resulted from it, since the differences become a problem only when there is an insistence on uniformity. Yet if homogeneity was a costly goal, it was nonetheless an essential component of early Christian ideology. For one thing, Christian homogeneity was a precondition for Christian exclusivity. In practical terms, unless Christian leaders were in agreement about what constituted 'correct' Christianity, the boundaries between Christian and non-Christian would necessarily remain imprecise ....

[W]ithout homogeneity, there would be no distinctive 'Christian ideology' at all, but merely a range of ways to incorporate devotion to the Christian god into one's religious practice and/or understanding of the cosmos. Without the insistence of Christian leaders like Irenaeus or, for that matter, Marcion that adherence to the Christian god would mean one thing and one thing only, 'Christianity' would never have been more than a catch-all term to cover a variety of practices and beliefs. It was the intolerant push for homogeneity that made 'Christianity' a social reality and ultimatel a powerful and cohesive institution. Yet for all its importance, I would argue that homogeneity was neither the most fundamental nor the most crucial component of Christian ideology. One further element must be considered.

[Continue to Part Three of this series.]

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Scholarly Assessment of Early Christianity, Part One

"You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of Demons."
(1 Corinthians 10:21)

Below is an excerpt from a paper by James B. Rives (who is also the author of Religion in the Roman Empire). The paper is found (as Chapter Two) in the anthology The spread of Christianity in the first four centuries: essays in explanation, edited by William Vernon Harris (Brill, 2005). The excerpt is taken from pages 15 to 23 of that volume. I am posting this without any comment or editorializing on my part, except to say that if such a thing as "Pagan scholarship" actually existed, it would sound and look a lot like this:

Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology
J.B. Rives

[D]evotion to the Christian god took a wide range of forms and ... diversity rather than uniformity of practice and belief was the norm among early Christianity. An expansion of 'Christianity' in this sense, however, is of limited historical interest, because it would have been nothing particularly new. It was an inherent feature of the Graeco-Roman tradition that cults could expand and contract, i.e., that some deities would acquire more worshippers while others would have fewer. The expansion of Christianity is historically significant precisely because it represented something more than a new deity acquiring increasing numbers of adherents: it represents the growth of a new social and conceptual system, a new ideology of religion.

A clear understanding of this new ideology is thus even more important to an understanding of the expansion of Christianity than the analysis of Christian numbers .... [T]he phenomenon of rejecting old practices and beliefs in favor of new ones was something that did not and could not exist within the traditional Graeco-Roman system ... and ... consequently the very fact of conversion was an indication of a fundamental systemic change: a system in which choices of religious belief and practice were non-exclusive, open-ended, and virtually limitless was being replaced by one in which choices were exclusive, sharply defined, and relatively restricted. Adherence to the Christian god acquired revolutionary significance, I would argue, only insofar as it involved participation in this new ideology. Without that, a mere increase in the number of Christians, regardless of its magnitude, could never have led to the expansion of Christianity, because there would have been no 'Christianity' to expand.

It is my purpose in this paper to sketch out more explicitly some of the key elements of this new ideology, which I term exclusivity, homogeneity, and totalization. I cannot claim any great novelty in my analysis of these elements, particularly of the first two, but I hope that a succinct overview will highlight their crucial relevance to the whole notion of Christian expansion. For the sake of clarity I analyze each element separately, although as I shall argue in my conclusion it is precisely their interconnection that rendered Christian ideology so distinctive and effective.

A. Exclusivity

The conception of the divine world that prevailed in the Graeco-Roman tradition, and indeed in most of the cultural traditions within or adjacent to the Roman Empire, was one that emphasized its multiformity. Despite the recurrent tendencies toward monotheism, the normal view was that the divine world consisted of multiple superhuman entities; even the monotheistic tendency itself normally took forms, such as hierarchization and syncretism, that accepted and proceeded from a polytheistic premise. In such a system ... exclusive devotion to one deity was not really a possibility, not so much because it was frowned upon, but simply because it made no sense. The prevailing instinct seems instead to have been to encourage at least the token recognition of all forms of the divine ... on the communal level it was normal for cities and other organized groups to add cults for new deities to those already established, without rejecting the one in favor of the other.

To this openness the exclusivity of Christianity stood in dramatic contrast. The assumption that adherence to the Christian god meant a rejection of all other manifestations of the divine is pervasive in most extant early Christian texts ... But the fact that this assumption was also widespread among non-Christians is perhaps even more significant .... An insistence on exclusivity seems thus to have been widely perceived as one of the most distinctive features of Christianity.

This exclusivity was not unique to Christianity, but was already well established in the Jewish tradition out of which Christianity arose ....

But while early Christians may have inherited the ideal of exclusivity from Second Temple Judaism, they seem to have developed it in some novel and significant directions. We can get a clear sense of this if we compare the disucssion of gentile cults in the Wisdom of Solomon with that found in early Christian texts. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon ... castigates other religious traditions in the harshest terms ... [passages cited: 13:1-9; 13:10-14:10; 14:11-12; 14:25-27] ... Yet for all the havoc wrought by idolatry, the author describes it simply as a human error: a gross error, and one with devastating consequences, but one brought about by 'mischance or misgovernment' (14:21). This analysis of idolatry seems to have been the most common one in the Jewish tradition. [Here, Rives also cites the Letter of Jeremiah, as well as Jer. 10:1-16 and Isa. 44:9-20.]

When we turn to early Christian texts, we find something radically different. When Paul writes to his fellow Christians in Corinth, he warns them sharply against the dangers of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. "What do I imply by this? That an idol is anything but an idol? Or food offered to it is anything more than food? No; but the sacrifice that the heathen offer are offered (in the words of the Scripture) 'to demons and to that which is not God' (Deut. 32:17); and I will not have you become partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the Lord's table and the table of demons" (1 Cor. 10:19-21). Paul apparently accepted the traditional Jewish view that idols were simply inanimate matter and that the rejection of the true God for false gods was the root of all evil (see especially Rom 1:18-22). Yet for him that was only half the story: idols were also a link to evil demons, and therfore dangerous .... Traditional cult and myth was thus nothing but worship of and interaction with these evil demons. Although we can identify a Jewish source for many of these motifs, their combination into a general analysis of idolatry seems to have been distinctly Christian. [Rives' footnote here refers to Athenagoras (Leg. 23-27), Tertullian (Apol. 22-23), and Minucius Felix (Oct. 26-27)]

Christian exclusivity, then, much more than Jewish exclusivity, became firmly grounded in a dualistic view of the cosmos, in which the Christian god embodied all goodness and demons were evil beings ranged against him. Idolatry was accordingly not the result of mere human error but an expression of cosmic evil; to participate in the worship of these so-called gods was not simply to make an error of judgment but to become subservient to powers that opposed God ....

The extent to which people accepted these arguments is of course uncertain .... Nevertheless, the extensive evidence for Christian refusal to take part in traditional cult acts suggests that the [exclusivist] analysis advocated by most Christian leaders was indeed widely accepted by their followers ....

[T]he Christian characterization of traditional cult as the worship of evil demons entailed not only avoidance of that cult but ultimately active hostility towards it .... Accordingly, acceptance of the new Christian ideology ultimately entailed the imperative to stamp out all other approaches to the divine. The ideology of exclusivity ... marked out 'paganism' as something to be eliminated and replaced. And when Christian leaders gained access to Roman imperial authority, this is precisely what they proceeded to do. As many recent studies have emphasized, the notion that traditional practices and beliefs were by the fourth century moribund and effete is simply mistaken: 'paganism' did not die of natural causes, but was deliberately murdered.

[Continue to Part Two of this series.]

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shocking! Actual scholarship on Pagan resistance and survival in Europe!

This is really two lists. The first list is some materials on the stubborn resistance of the Longobards ("Lombards") to Christianization. The second list is just some interesting looking book-length studies of Christianization in Medieval Europe. The one thing that all of these have in common is that I haven't mentioned them anywhere else before in this blog.

Longobard Pagan Resistance:
  1. Stefano Gasparri La Cultura Tradizionale dei Longobardi: Struttura Tribale e Resistenze Pagane ("Traditional Longobard Culture: Tribal Structure and Pagan Resistance") (1989)
  2. Stefano Gasparri I duchi longobardi (1978)
  3. Stefano Palmieri Duchi, principi e vescovi nella Longobardia meridionale ("Dukes, princes and bishops in southern Longobardia"), a Chapter in Longobardia e longobardi nell'Italia meridionale: le istituzioni ecclesiastiche (Vita e Pensiero, 1996)
  4. Jörg Jarnut, Storia dei Longobardi (2002)
  5. Pohl, Walter. "Deliberate ambiguity: the Lombards and Christianity." In Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals, ed. Guyda Armstrong, pp. 47-58. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000 (overview and full table of contents of that book is at
  6. Pohl, Walter, "Memory, Identity, and Power in Lombard Italy", in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen, Matthew Innes
  7. Stefano Gasparri, Kingship rituals and ideology in Lombard Italy, in Rituals of power: from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages, ed. Frans Theuws, Janet L. Nelson (Brill, 2000)
  8. Walter Pohl, "The Empire and the Lombards: Treaties and Negotiations in the Sixth Century", a chapter in Kingdoms and Empire: The Integration of Barbarians in Late Antiquity, ed. Walter Pohl (Brill, 1997)

Interesting looking book length studies of Christianization during the Middle Ages:
  1. Varieties of Religious Conversion in the Middle Ages ed. James Muldoon (University of Florida Press, 1997) [especially 'For Force Is Not of God'? Compulsion and Conversion from Yahweh to Charlemagne by Lawrence G. Duggan]
  2. The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300 ed. Martin Carver (Boydell Press, 2006) [especially Three Ages of Conversion at Kirkdale, North Yorkshire Philip Rahtz and Lorna Watts]
  3. The Viking Age as a Period of Religious Transformation: The Christianization of Norway from AD 560 to 1150/1200 by Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide (not yet published)
  4. Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345 by S. C. Rowell (Cambridge Univesity Press, 1994)
  5. The Crusades and the Expansion of Catholic Christendom, 1000-1714, by John France (Taylor and Francis, 2005)
  6. History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity by Charles W. Hedrick, Jr. (This book doesn't really meet my official criteria for this post, since it deals with Late Antiquity instead of the Middle Ages, and I have also mentioned it many times before in this blog. But its an absolutely essential work of scholarship on the process of Christianization, and it was just reissued as a paperback in 2010, so I am giving it another plug.) (University of Texas Press, 2000)

Monday, February 21, 2011

"the public dances of women, which may do so much harm and mischief"

An excerpt from A History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory, 2 ed., 2010, Wiley:
It is clear that some practices derived from paganism continued to survive into the Byzantine period. Some of these apparently were connected with ancient festivals of the gods Pan (the so-called Bota) and Dionysos (the Brumalia). These festivals were no longer closely associated with religion, but rather were opportunities for dancing, drinking, and general carousing - much, perhaps, like the modern Mardi Gras. The bishops assembled for the Council in Trullo were shocked by such behavior and one of the Canons (decrees) condemned the festivals, but also provides us with important evidence of the kind of behavior that was apparently still going on, well into the Byzantine Empire:

"The so-called Calends, and what are called Bota and Brumalia, and the full assembly which takes place on the first of March, we wish to be abolished from the life of the faithful. And also the public dances of women, which may do so much harm and mischief. Moreover we drive away from the life of Christians the dances given in the names of those falsely called gods by the Greeks whether of men or women, and which are preformed after an ancient and un-Christian fashion; decreeing that no man from this time forth shall be dressed as a woman, nor any woman in the garb suitable to men. Nor shall he assume comic, satyric, or tragic masks; nor may men invoke the name of the execrable Bacchus when they squeeze out the wine in the presses; nor when pouring out wine into jars [to cause a laugh], practicing in ignorance and vanity the things which proceed from the deceit of insanity. Therefore those who in the future attempt any of these things which are written, having obtained knowledge of them, if they be clerics we order them to be deposed, and if laymen to be cut off."
[p. 174]

Here are two excerpts from The Council of Trullo (691-692): A Study Relating to Paganism, Heresy, and the Invasions by Frank R. Trombley, published in Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1978. The full article is viewable at eScholarship.Org here. Following those two excerpts there is also an overview of some other "Pagan practices" prohibited by the Trullo Canons that Trombley (who is also the author of the magnificent two volume Hellenic Religion and Christianization) discusses in his article:
The survival of pagan cult practices among Christians alarmed imperial and ecclesiastical authorities, it seems, partly because the empire still had a highly visible, but not very large pagan population. Apostasy was an ever present danger. Very little information survives in the sources about the continuation of pagan cults in Anatolia and Greece after the mid-sixth century. It will be recalled that in 542 John of Ephesus [c.507 - c.586], with the assistance of Deuterius, the metropolitan of Caria, undertook the catechization of the pagans of western Anatolia (the regions of Asia, Caria, Lydia, and Phrygia). John himself penetrated the mountainous country near Tralles, and convinced many idol-worshipers to embrace Christianity. He directed these activities from a monastery at D'RYR', and at one time entered the rough mountain area where a celebrated pagan temple, containing fifteen hundred idols, existed. The conversion of these populous regions was accomplished by the foundation of more than one hundred churches and monasteries. The maintenance of these institutions was necessary to prevent the apostasy of the vast new congregation. The population of the regions evangelized by John practiced the enthusiastic cult of Cybele .... The strength of paganism in these areas, even after John's missionary work, is attested by the persistence of [the cult of Cybele] in Caria well into the eighth century ....

Pagan groups persisted in Greece as well, although the exact character of their cult is not attested. Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus reports in De Administrando Imperio that the city of Maina in the Peloponnese was inhabited by a non-Slavic population. The people referred to themselves as 'Hellenes' and gave out that in ancient times they had been idolators in the fashion of the Greeks of old. They accepted conversion during the reign of Basil I (867-886). [For more on the Hellenes of Maina, see the excerpt from J.B. Bury in section 3 of this post, below.]
[pp. 4-5]

The Sixty-first Canon describes a different type of paganism, one not unique to Graeco-Roman culture, yet referred to with the term hellenika. In times of cataclysm, such as the invasions of the seventh century, fortune tellers and seers do a windfall business. The Canon catalogues several types of diviners and charlatans. Diviners (mantai) of the usual sort, who read palms and dishes, are recorded, including the so-called hecatantarchoi, old men who claimed to be divine, and convinced the simple folk of this by displaying bears and other other animals, and then making them do tricks. Soothsayers went about making pronouncements regarding fate (tyche), destiny (heimarmene), and genealogy (genealogia) (the prediction of the future by analysis of the circumstances of birth, including the position of the heavenly bodies), which this Canon refers to as the 'nonsense of error.' Several other types of diviners foretold events after gazing at the shapes of clouds at sunset, and 'magicians' (geteutai), who invited themselves into the houses of Christian women by singing psalms, muttering the names of the theotokos and martyrs, and wearing amulets and charms. It is recorded that the purveyors of amulets (phylakterioi) were doing a good business.

The Sixtieth Canon reflects another aspect of the pagan subculture. Certain persons, it is reported, imitated the manners of the possessed. Like the soothsayers and diviners, they probably did this for private gain. Women practiced this, if Balsamon's conjecture is correct, in oracular fashion resembling that of the priestesses of Delphi. Since the pagan deities were regarded as demons, persons who feigned possession had, by the injunction of this Canon, to undergo the same discipline of exorcism as those actually possessed.
[p. 6]
Other Pagan practices
specifically forbidden by the Canons enacted at the Council of Trullo (in addition to those named above) included (as described by Trombley):
  • Gaming with dice. (50th Canon)
  • Mime shows. (51st Canon)
  • Commemorating the new moon (numeniai) by "erecting a pyre in front of one's home or workshop and leaping over it." (65th Canon)
  • Law students were forbidden to practice various Pagan customs (hellinika ethe), and this specifically included attending the theater or horse races, or wearing "unusual or bizarre clothing". (71st Canon)
  • According to the 71st Canon, law students were also forbidden to study "the sciences" (ta mathemata).
  • Men were forbidden to visit bath houses with women. (77th Canon)
  • Curses and oaths in the names of Pagan Gods (horkoi hellnikoi). (94th Canon)
  • The wearing of seductive hair styles. (96th Canon)
  • "Paintings that bewitch the sense of sight, whether communicated on tablets or in any other way, which are destructive to reason, and move it toward the fueling of shameful passions." (100th Canon)


An excerpt from History of the Eastern Empire from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil: A.D. 802-867 by J.B. Bury, first published in 1912:
It is interesting to note that on the promontory of Taenaron in Laconia a small Hellenic community survived, little touched by the political and social changes which had transformed the Hellenistic into the Byzantine world. Surrounded by Slavs, these Hellenes lived in the fortress of Maina, and in the days of Theophilus [Emperor from 829-842] and his son [Michael III, ruled from 842-867] still worshipped the old gods of Greece. But the days of this pagan community were numbered; the Olympians were soon to be driven from their last recess. Before the end of the century the Mainotes were baptized [under Basil I].
[p. 381 in the 2008 Cosimo Classics edition]



Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Hutton Thesis: "A very specific historical claim" (The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise, Part Two)

"Modern pagan witchcraft had, after all, appeared as
a movement with a very specific historical claim."

[Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon]

What was the "very specific historical claim" that Ronald Hutton claimed to have overthrown in Triumph of the Moon? Where in the 500 odd pages of that book does he name those who made this claim, and explain how it had come to be that those named had spoken authoritatively, monolithically, and specifically for the "movement" as a whole? Where does he provide us with the precise words with which this "very specific historical claim" was supposedly articulated by those who supposedly made it? Where does he provide an explanation for how "modern pagan witchcraft", unlike any other religion known to humankind, is capable of speaking with such a unified voice? No one can produce any such passages from Triumph of the Moon, because none exist.

In Part One of this series on The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise, we saw that Charles Leland, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner were not, in fact, at all "specific" when making their "historical claims" concerning the Old Religion. They were only as specific as the evidence, in their view, allowed. Specifically, they did not claim that the Old Religion was purely Celtic, or purely Northern European, or even purely European. In fact, they all explicitly acknowledged that it was none of those things. They did not claim that the Old Religion had remained unchanged since the Stone Age. In fact, they acknowledged that it had elements originating from a variety of historical periods, including the classical era, late-antiquity, the early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the early modern period, and also more recent times.

In sharp contrast to the reasoned and cautious, but nevertheless positive, views expressed by Leland, Murray, and Gardner on the subject of the Old Religion, Ronald Hutton loutishly declared that not only was there no correlation, none whatsoever, between modern and ancient Paganism, but that "any possibility of doubt" regarding this had been "swept away", and that anyone who dared to question this was caught in the "trap of fundamentalism." A more disgusting (and blatant) display of ideological hubris masquerading as "scholarship" is hard to imagine. This has been made all the more disheartening by the warm reception that the "Hutton thesis" has received among many Pagans.

It should be emphasized that Hutton could have taken a different path. He could have accepted the plain and obvious fact that there are many and various connections and correlations between ancient and modern Paganism, and then he could have argued that Leland, Murray, Gardner, & Co. had gotten these connections and correlations wrong. He could have argued, for example, that these relationships had been exaggerated, or perhaps they had been interpreted in ways that were simplistic, romantic, anachronistic, naively comparativist, etc. Hutton could then have endeavored to provide his own better documented and more intellectually rigorous narrative of the (often literally) tortuous history of Paganism's survival over the centuries. And he could have done all this while still (as Leland, Murray and Gardner had done) admitting to gaps in our knowledge and ambiguities in the evidence, that is, allowing for multiple interpretations where this is warranted, or even admitting that there are limitations to our ability to fully explain every aspect of Pagan history. But Hutton did no such thing. Instead, he falsely ascribed an absolutist position to others, while promoting his own absolutist position as the only possible alternative.

What, then, is this "absolutist position", this "Hutton thesis" that I am ascribing to Ronald Hutton? It is a very specific historical claim. What is it that I claim that Hutton claims in this thesis, in his own words?
"in the 1990s there broke a tidal wave of accumulating research which swept away not only any possibility of doubt regarding the lack of correlation between paganism and early modern witchcraft, but virtually the whole set of assumptions upon which both the original concept of the Old Religion and its later, evolved, American feminist version, had been based."
This thesis, as stated by Hutton above, makes one primary claim, and three subsidiary claims:
  1. There is no correlation between modern Paganism and any form of Pagan religion that is more than a few hundred years old. It must be emphasized that Hutton himself explicitly states that his thesis is intended to exclude even so much as "suggesting that there might be some truth" in the notion of the Old Religion.
  2. This primary historical claim (above) is supported by an overwhelming volume of recent research.
  3. "Virtually" all of the underlying assumptions behind the original concept of the Old Religion (the conception of Leland, Murray, and Gardner) have also been thoroughly disproven.
  4. "Virtually" all of the underlying assumptions behind the "American feminist version" of the notion of the Old Religion have also been thoroughly disproven
The most important thing to know about the Hutton thesis is that Ronald Hutton himself explicitly rejected it in his next major book-length publication on Pagan history following Triumph. That book is titled Witches, Druids and King Arthur, and the next post in this series will look more closely at Hutton's own admission that the "Hutton thesis" is wrong, and his explanations of how he came to be so completely wrong. But in the remainder of this post I want to recommend several sources that I consider to be far more worthy of attention than Hutton's prevarications in Witches, Druids and King Arthur.

(1) Gus diZerega recently (Fall 2010) wrote a series of posts for his blog on the subject of Theurgy. More specifically, these posts were focused on the recently completed Theurgicon 2010 conference in Berkeley California. In the Introduction to that multipart series, diZerega begins by pointing out some significant similarities between Wicca and late antique Theurgy, and then he states, "These similarities, along with some others, are the reason why some investigators of our history argue that Wicca's earliest major roots lie not in Celtic Britain or stone age Europe but in late Classical times."

In other words, diZerega is suggesting that there might, indeed, be some truth in the historical claim that modern Paganism has correlations with forms of Paganism that go back much further than a few centuries. Most importantly, diZerega emphasizes not only the connection between modern Paganism and late antique Theurgy, he also emphasizes the fact that, in his opinion, Theurgy itself was the culmination of an "unbroken line of thinking and practice extending back into the Paleolithic origins of human civilization." For more on diZerega's views on Theurgy and Wicca, I suggest starting here: Theurgicon and Pagan Neoplatonism I.

(2) Joscelyn Godwin's The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions is a treasure trove of information about the stubborn survival of the ancient Pagan Mysteries as a living (and lived) religious tradition. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a treasure map. Unfortunately, Godwin's presentation is somewhat jumbled, and, even worse, the author adopts a wavering attitude toward Christianity which is maddeningly inconsistent and unnecessarily ambiguous. But treasure maps are notorious for their imprecisions, and if the map gets you in the right general vicinity, then one should not complain if a little extra searching of one's own is still required in order to find the booty.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 11, "The Pagan Renaissance":
"The new, Pagan imagination of the Renaissance worked on two levels, exoteric and esoteric. In the public domain there were new palaces and gardens, paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, prints and books, where were the antithesis of the Gothic cathedrals and of Medieval Christian art. No one could evade the influence of the new imaginal environment, and few would want to, for it openened the senses to the Eros of earthly beauty. All unknowingly, Europeans were become Platonists: for while mainstream Christianity spurned natural beauty and erotic attraction, Plato's philosophy embraced them, as the first sprouting of the wings on which the soul would eventually rise to the knowledge of intellectual beauty.

"In the more esoteric circles of the highly educated humanists, it was equally impossible to evade the seduction of classical philosophy and the challenge it posed to the Christian view of the world. As we ahve seen in chapter 1, [George Gemistos] Plethon's lineage of Pagan sages opened up a vision of the distant past .... The newly discovered texts of Hermes, Zoroaster, Plato, etc., set a thorny problem to those obliged to reconcile them with the Christian revelation."
[pp. 101-102]
(3) Nicolas Campion's History of Western Astrology, Volume II: The Medieval and Modern Worlds is yet another treasure map similar in many ways to Godwin's Golden Thread. Campion's book is far longer and meatier, and while its focus is ostensibly the subject of Astrology, it is really more of a history of applied Hermetic philosophy over the last 2000 years or so, with a special emphasis on Astrology (or, more precisely, on Cosmology).

Below is an excerpt from Kirk Little's excellent, in-depth review of Campion's book. The review is from the British online Astrology journal (link):
"From the outset, Campion states 'the central theme of my narrative is religious' (p. ix) and his introductory chapter nicely lay out the complex issues faced by the historian of astrology. Among those issues are the philosophical questions raised by the astrological world view concerning fate, free will and moral choice. The religious and philosophical issues, more than the social and political uses of astrology, constitute the major strands of his narrative thread and lend this book an intellectual heft lacking in other recent histories of astrology. Campion is quite concerned with historical continuity and often makes startling connections between groups of astrologers separated by both great distance and historical time. Take for instance, this passage on the Ghayat al-Hakim composed around 1000 AD by Moslem scholars in Andalucía:
Translated into Latin in 1256 by the Castilian monarch Alfonso the Wise, it was known in medieval Europe as the Picatrix, and was to be the key text of magical astrology until the seventeenth century. The Picatrix provided a direct line of transition for Islamic Hermeticism, and hence for Babylonian celestial deities, direct into the thirteenth century Christian West. (p. 66)
"Or this one concerning the 19th century occult writer Eliphas Lévi:
Lévi's astrology was embedded, even more than Ebenezer Sibly's, in the medieval system of magical relationships by which nature's secrets could be penetrated and manipulated. Lévi, following in the tradition of the esoteric Masons and illuminists of eighteenth century France, advocated practical magic in the style of Agrippa and the Picatrix… (pp. 223-4)
"Leaping across centuries and cultures, Campion hopes to demonstrate unifying themes and intellectual commitments, even if the actual uses of astrology are quite different."
(4) Finally, here is an excerpt from Angela Voss' 2006 biography Marsilio Ficino:
"Ficino played a major role in the 'rebirth' of classical learning we know as the Renaissance, through his commitment to the renewal of Platonic and Hermetic philosophies and his determination to integrate their metaphysics into Christianity, a marriage - however problematic - which revitalised religious and cultural life and placed a new emphasis on the capacity of the human soul to realise its innate divinity. The words of Hermes Trismegistus, "a great wonder, O Asclepius, is man!", reiterated by Giovani Pico della Mirandola in his Oration became the battle-cry of the era, in celebration of a new-found human dignity and intellectual prowess. Ficino and Pico's revival of 'pagan' ritual in the service of spiritual enlightenment was however doomed to provoke reactionary forces. In the 1490s the fanatical Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola railed against both philosophers and astrologers, instigating a puritan regime in Florence. The Inquisition was gaining strength, and the Catholic Church was about to face its most serious challenges in the upheavals of the Reformation and the new scientific discoveries of Copernicus. But for a brief, golden period in the fifteenth-century Florence, the ancient Gods descended once more and inspired human creativity to unprecedented heights, summoned by the invitation of Marsilio Ficino ....

At the height of his career Ficino was at the centre of a circle of intellectuals in Florence known as the Platonic Academy, which included his patron Lorenzo de' Medici and many of the leading humanist thinkers of the day. Their aim was not ony to promote the perennial wisdom (prisca theologia) of the 'ancient theologians', but also to have a direct influence on the arts as an accessible way of bringing it to contemporary humanity. It has been suggested that Ficino himself provided the programme for Botticelli's Primavera, Birth of Venus and Minerva and the Centaur, and he certainly inspired a new generation of musicians who brought a Platonic imagination to bear on both theory and performance. Such geniuses as Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, John Dowland and Claudio Monteverdi all swam in the tide of the spiritual renewal instigated by Ficino.
[pp. 1-3]

The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise
  1. Part One: Two Myths
  2. Part Two: "A very specific historical claim"
  3. Part Three: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton
  4. Part Four: "A Different World" (Recantations, Part Deux)
  5. Part Five: More on "A Different World" (Recantations, Part Trois)
  6. Part Six: Huttonian Triumphalism (Recantations, Part Quatre)
  7. Part Seven: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton, The Final Episode [parts 5, 6 & 7 are not done yet]
  8. Part Eight: 21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion
  9. Part Nine: Coeval With Time [part 9 is still to come]