Thursday, December 26, 2013

"To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God"

In 1753, noted jurist William Blackstone set down some of his thoughts on the subject of Witchcraft. Several essential points need to be emphasized about what Blackstone had to say:
  1. Witchcraft is a religious crime against Christianity.
  2. Witchcraft is placed in the general category of magic, without necessarily requiring any qualification that the magic in question be used to cause harm.
  3. Witchcraft is placed in the same category as the crime of Heresy, "condemning both to the flames."
  4. Special emphasis is placed on the fact that practitioners of Witchcraft are actively sought out by those who wish to employ Witches for their magical services.
  5. Divination and love magic are explicitly included in the types of magic included in the prohibition against "witchcraft, conjuration, enchantment, or sorcery."
  6. At no point is Witchcraft in particular singled out in any way (for example as somehow worse either from a legal or a spiritual perspective) as opposed to "conjuration, enchantment, or sorcery."
  7. Blackstone divides the general category of magical crimes into those that are punishable by death on the first offense, and those that are punishable by death only on the second offense.
  8. Magical crimes deserving death on the first offense are further divided into three categories: (i) any and all consorting with "evil spirits", (ii) necromancy, or (iii) killing or causing harm "by such infernal arts".
  9. Magical crimes deserving death on the second offense consist of all attempts (whether successful or not) to employ "sorcery" in order to (i) "discover hidden treasure", (ii) "restore stolen goods", (iii) "provoke unlawful love", or (iv) "hurt any man or beast".
  10. The fact that Blackstone does explicitly mention the use of magic to cause harm (or even attempting to do so), alongside other specific acts that are all treated as equally deserving of the same punishment, serves to highlight the fact that there was no absolute correlation between Witchcraft as a crime and the use of unlawful magic to cause harm.

Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books, vol. 2 [1753]
[Please see the original at the link for notes and sources.]

VI. A sixth species of offence against God and religion, of which our antient books are full, is a crime of which one knows not well what account to give. I mean the offence of witchcraft, conjuration, enchantment, or sorcery. To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God, in various passages both of the Old and New Testament: and the thing itself is a truth to which every nation in the world hath in its turn borne testimony, either by examples seemingly well attested or by prohibitory laws; which at least suppose the possibility of commerce with evil spirits. The civil law punishes with death not only the sorcerers themselves, but also those who consult them,(j) imitating in the former the express law of God,(k) “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” And our own laws, both before and since the conquest, have been *equally penal; ranking this crime in the same class with heresy, and condemning both to the flames.(l) The president Montesquieu(m) ranks them also both together, but with a very different view: laying it down as an important maxim that we ought to be very circumspect in the prosecution of magic and heresy; because the most unexceptionable conduct, the purest morals, and the constant practice of every duty in life are not a sufficient security against the suspicion of crimes like these. And indeed the ridiculous stories that are generally told, and the many impostures and delusions that have been discovered in all ages, are enough to demolish all faith in such a dubious crime; if the contrary evidence were not also extremely strong. Wherefore it seems to be the most eligible way to conclude, with an ingenious writer of our own,(n) that in general there has been such a thing as witchcraft; though one cannot give credit to any particular modern instance of it.

Our forefathers were stronger believers when they enacted, by statute 33 Hen. VIII. c. 8, all witchcraft and sorcery to be felony without benefit of clergy; and again, by statute 1 Jac. I. c. 12, that all persons invoking any evil spirit, or consulting, covenanting with, entertaining, employing, feeding, or rewarding, any evil spirit; or taking up dead bodies from their graves to be used in any witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment; or killing or otherwise hurting any person by such infernal arts, should be guilty of felony without benefit of clergy, and suffer death. And if any person should attempt by sorcery to discover hidden treasure, or to restore stolen goods, or to provoke unlawful love, or to hurt any man or beast, though the same were not effected, he or she should suffer imprisonment and pillory for the first offence, and death for the second. These acts continued in force till lately, to the terror of all antient females in the kingdom: and many poor wretches were sacrificed thereby to the prejudice of their neighbours and their own illusions; not a few having, by some means or other, confessed the fact at the gallows. But all executions for this dubious crime are now at an end; our legislature having at length followed the wise example of *Louis XIV. in France, who thought proper, by an edict, to restrain the tribunals of justice from receiving informations of witchcraft.(o) And accordingly it is with us enacted, by statute 9 Geo. II. c. 5, that no prosecution shall for the future be carried on against any persons for conjuration, witchcraft, sorcery, or enchantment. But the misdemeanour of persons pretending to use witchcraft, tell fortunes, or discover stolen goods, by skill in the occult sciences, is still deservedly punished with a year’s imprisonment, and standing four times in the pillory.12

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Vaguely Pagan-esque (possibly) videos from the Ukraine

Well, at least the first two are both kind of vaguely Pagan-esque. After that, I found it difficult to stop .....

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"Pan, O Great God Pan, To Thee, Thus Do We Sing" (1608)

"Hail, holy Earth ..." Thus begins John Fletcher's The Faithful Shepherdess, first performed in 1608. This was a crucial time in English history. Elizabeth I had been dead for five years, but the "Elizabethan" era was still going strong. One of the remarkable hallmarks of that Age was a great flowering of pastoralism in literature and the arts. Some of this pastoralism was purely stylistic, and to some extent it was merely one aspect of a broader classicism (for there is much pastoralism in classical Greco-Roman literature). But there was a deeper, spiritual aspect to this Elizabethan pastoralism as well. This was, after all, a time when Alchemy and Astrology were highly valued courtly Arts, even if their practitioners had to live under constant suspicion of being in league with Satan.

"Holy Earth" is mentioned, in those precise words, once more in the play, but another deity is granted pride of place in Fletcher's pastoral tragicomedy. "The Great God Pan" is referred to with those precise words three times. In addition we hear of "great Pan" eight more times, and Pan is referred to as a "great god" three additional times. In all, Pan is mentioned by name over twenty-five times. The play begins and ends with a hymn to Pan, sung by a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses who are led by a priest of Pan.

For more, check out these two links:

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A few quick notes on historical Witchcraft

"The Double Star" Louis Falero
If we strictly limit ourselves to the English language, the following five statements about "witches" and "witchcraft" are clearly true:

1. The earliest evidence shows that the pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon word "wiccecraeft" was explicitly associated both with beneficial magic and with the survival of Heathen beliefs and practices. This is openly acknowledged by Simpson and Roud in their Dictionary of English Folklore.
2. Middle English sources demonstrate that "wicchecreft" continued to be associated with both Heathenry and beneficial magic during the Middle Ages. This is found in such well-known literary sources as Piers Plowman and Le Morte d'Arthur, as well as less well known works.
 3. Early modern English sources, including sources from the times of the Witch-hunts, show that the word "witch", even without any modifiers such as "good", "white", etc, continued to be used to refer to practitioners of beneficial magic. For example, William Shakespeare attests to the fact that "witch" (by itself) was interchangeable with "wise woman" as an appellation for practitioners of divination. Many of these sources directly attest to the "common" or "vulgar" usage of "witch" among "the people" to refer to practitioners of beneficial magic. Only once the most intense period of Witch-hunting was getting under way do the terms "good Witch" and "white Witch" become more prominent in the surviving sources as a means for specifically referring to practitioners of beneficial magic.
4. Trial records from the Scottish Witch-hunts, which comprise the large majority of all Witchcraft trials conducted in the English language, show that accusations of maleficium are documented in only 12% of these trials. If we restrict ourselves to the subset of trials for which we have specific information concerning the charges (less than one-third of the trials), still less than half of these cases involved any documented accusation of maleficium, whereas over 20% of this subset of cases involved documented accusations of beneficial magic.
5. After the end of the Witch-hunts in the English speaking world, the word "witch" continued to be used to refer to people who were sought out for their ability to perform beneficial magic, in a direct and seamless continuity from usage going back to before the Norman Conquest up to the present day.
"A Visit to the Witch" by Edward Frederick Brewtnall, 1882

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Pagan History, Pagan Identity, and Pagan Resistance (The Bones of Pagan History and Pagan Identity, Part Two)

As previously noted (The Bones of Pagan History and Pagan Identity, Part One), there are two diametrically opposed views of the relationship between ancient and modern Paganism. One position rests solidly (or, perhaps one should say, rigidly) on an absolute denial of any survival of ancient Paganism, so that there is simply no possibility that modern Paganism could be in any manner connected with the Paganism of the past. In extreme cases this viewpoiont finds expression in the accusation that all notions of any connection whatsoever between modern Paganism and ancient Paganism amounts to "the trap of fundamentalism".

The other position accepts that ancient Paganism did, at least in some sense, survive, so that modern Paganism can reasonably be allotted some amount of historical rootedness. This category is fairly broad and could, conceivably, include those who might actually deserve to be labeled as "fundamentalists" for claiming, for example, that modern Wicca is the modern expression of an unbroken lineage that has preserved intact and unchanged some religious cult dating back to the Stone Age. One small problem is that such "fundamentalists" simply do not exist, but perhaps we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by anything so trivial as mere facts! On the other hand, there are a great many modern Pagans (almost certainly the vast majority) who do conceive of themselves as the modern-day inheritors and continuators of ancient religious traditions, but without going (anywhere near) so far as to claim that these traditions have remained unchanged through the centuries. In most cases, modern Pagans readily accept, as did Gerald Gardner, that our present day Pagan beliefs and practices represent a mixture of traditions from a variety of cultures and historical periods, including a non-negligible amount of quite recent additions.

However, the whole matter of ancient Paganism's survival can also be profitably studied in it's own right, without necessarily being concerned about any possible connection between ancient and modern Paganisms. This approach more narrowly focuses our attention on the fourth century AD (and the next century or two or three before and after), posing the question of whether or not during this period ancient Paganism "died".

(More broadly speaking, Christianization is not, of course, at all strictly limited to the religious transformation of the Roman world during late antiquity. But to the extent that one wishes to investigate the whole historical process Christianization in the broadest possible sense, then one's first order of business still has to be understanding the Christianization of the Roman world.)

If one focuses on the rise of Christianity in late antiquity, and the concomitant decline of Paganism, this leads to two subsidiary questions depending on how one answers the question: did Paganism die? If the answer is "yes", then one must futher inquire into manner of the death of Paganism. Alternatively, if Paganism somehow survived, then it must be asked: what was the nature and mode of this survival?

There are at least five distinct kinds of answers to the question of whether or not Paganism died:

1. Paganism died a violent death. This means both (1) that Paganism was actively suppressed by Christians, and (2) that Pagans actively resisted this suppression.
Sources supporting this view: MacMullen, Brown, Trombley, Chuvin, Hedrick, Zagorin, Bury, Gibbon

2. Paganism died a peaceful death because by the time Christianity came along, Paganism was already moribund and very close to dead anyway. Therefore it was not necessary for Christians to apply much, if any, pressure on Pagans, nor were Pagans in any real position to offer any resistance.
Source supporting this view: Alan Cameron

3. Paganism did not really die, so much as it gradually transformed itself into Christianity, by way of the missing link of "Pagan Monotheism". This point of view, like the one above, claims that the transition from Paganism to Christianity was largely peacefully, and even, in the words of Stephen Mitchell, "tidy".
Sources: Mitchel & Co. (the whole motley "Pagan monotheism" gang)

4. Paganism did not die but rather went underground. In this case it is posited that there existed crypto-Pagans who practiced dissumulation, that is, they publicly professed to be Christians while secretly and self-consciously rejecting Christianity and continuing to practice the "Old Religion", so to speak.
Sources supporting this view: Anthony Kaldellis, Niketas Siniossoglou

5. Paganism did not really die, but after a certain point there were no longer any people that could any longer be accurately called Pagans. In this case it is posited that while Pagan beliefs and practices were kept alive, the agents of this "survival" were people who were sincere, if possibly heterodox, Christians.
Source supporting this : Ronald Hutton in chapters 4 and 5 of his Witches, Druids and King Arthur.

One thing cannot be doubted. To the extent that there were any Pagans who wholeheartedly resisted conversion to Christianity, then it must undeniably be the case that there was a period of time when these Pagan diehards stubbornly continued to worship the old Gods even after all public forms of Pagan religious practice had become impossible. So the real question is whether or not there was any such formidable resistance to Christianity, for as long as there was such resistance, Paganism was still very much alive. And this, of course, is not an open question at all, but rather one to which, at least in terms of the basic facts, the answer is clearly established beyond any reasonable doubt. We know that such wholehearted resistance absolutely existed and that, furthermore, it was not limited to any one social class or group or to any one part of the Empire. We know that there was such resistance in the ancient city of Rome itself, and also that Athens was another center of resistance. But we also know that there was determined resistance to Christianization in such far flung parts of the Empire as Britania, Egypt and Anatolia.

We also know that in the 8th century the Saxons had their turn to fiercely resist conversion by the sword at the hands of the Franks. We also know that the Saxons were far from alone, and that Frisia, Denmark, Norway and Iceland were also centers of resistance. We know that the Baltic peoples continued to resist even in the face of the Northern Crusades, which lasted for over two centuries. Baltic Pagans even succeeded in establishing a powerful Pagan Empire in the heart of northeastern Europe that lasted well into the 14th century!

And even after Europe was finally "Christianized", the same kind of fierce resistance is seen in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, and this resistance is ongoing today in the 21st century. But then we have come full circle, back to the question of the relationship between modern and ancient Paganism. If we stupidly reduce Paganism to an epiphenomenon that exists only as a kind of appendage to isolated, disconnected, mutually exclusive "cultures" or, worse, "ethnicities", then we have already surrendered ourselves to the Christian strategy of divide and conquer.

Modern Pagans only deserve to consider ourselves Pagan if we unhesitatingly embrace everyone who has ever cursed the name of Christ and sworn to go down fighting rather than meekly submit to the missionaries, and prayed to the Gods for the chance to take as many Christians as possible with them in the process. And we only deserve to call ourselves Pagan if we unhesitatingly embrace as our spiritual kin those who chose more subtle modes of resistance, keeping the worship of the Gods alive in secret from generation to generation.

In sum, both Pagan history and Pagan identity are inseparable from the historical question of Pagan resistance. Those who either deny that such resistance has taken place and continues to take place, or who seek to diminish the importance or extent of this resistance, or who decline to identity with and declare solidarity with those who have engaged in this resistance, cannot in any sense be considered Pagans.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"The God of Whites, it was presumed, was already the God of all other people—even if others did not yet know this fact."

Racism's intimate relationship with Christianity takes on a variety of guises, or at least two (with many sub-variations thereon). Sometimes it is openly and unashamedly violent and downright thuggish, after the manner of the Egyptian monk Shenoute, who proclaimed, "There is no crime for those who have Christ". Such was the case with those who installed baptismal fonts alongside blacksmith's forges in the Slave Castles along the coast of West Africa, so that new slaves could be "won to Christ" at the same instant that they were put into chains, ready for delivery to the New World.

But quite often the relationship between Christianity and racism is (at least somewhat) more subtle, in a skin-crawlingly unctuous sort of way, hiding behind a simpering paternalistic smile while mouthing sanctimonious promises about justice, equality and progress for the downtrodden, but only on the condition that the poor oppressed savages abandon their Many Dark Gods and worship the One White Father. In this way, "conversion" is seen as a way of "uplifting" non-Europeans by turning them into second-class Whites. This transformation is accomplished by removing the dark stain of Paganism from their souls, albeit while leaving the cursed mark of Ham upon their skin. Such was the case with the Quakers who were placed directly in charge of many "Reservations" after the Civil War, and who continued to kidnap Native children in order to raise them as proper Christians in their "boarding schools" well into the 20th century.

This double nature of the relationship between Christianity and racism should be held in mind while reading the following long excerpt from Daniel B. Lee, A Great Racial Commission: Religion and the Construction of White America, which was published in the volume Race, Religion, and Identity Formation in the Americas, ed. Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister, Cambridge: Oxford University Press.

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Until the end of the Civil War, White people in America had a relatively easy time thinking of themselves as God’s chosen people. In this age of imperialist expansion and Manifest Destiny, divine favor was often equated with political power. Who could deny the power of the slave master or cavalry captain? In 1880, the editor of the monthly journal National Repository commented:
Originally our race stock was exclusively Caucasian, for though both the American Indian race and the African were found upon our territory, yet neither of these entered into the body politic or was a real factor in the social structure. So, too, we were a specifically an English-speaking people and a Protestant nation as to all our mental habits and ideas of personal liberty both of thought and action; yet full of religious reverence, Sabbath keeping, Bible reading, and law abiding.
The second half of the nineteenth century brought profound social changes that threatened the way “decent” White Americans represented themselves as a race. Not only did Blacks gain freedom, but also they were given the right to vote alongside Whites. Degenerate Whites were rallying to the calls of proletarian demagogues. Native Americans were “allowed to wander about” outside of their reservations. After the German and Irish immigrants who came to the United States between 1820 and 1880, a second wave of immigrants began to pour into the land. Many more “Romanists” arrived from Southern Europe, Jews came from Eastern Europe, and “idol-worshipping” Asians entered from China and Japan. White Americans were beginning to feel ill at ease.

In 1882, Henry Cabot Lodge expressed the concerns of White America in an article entitled “The Census and Immigration:”
The question of foreign immigration has of late engaged the most serious attention of the country, and in a constantly increasing degree. The race changes which have begun during the last decade among the immigrants to this country, the growth of the total immigration, and the effects of it upon our rates of wages and the quality of our citizenship, have excited much apprehension and aroused a very deep interest.
The “vast masses of alien elements in the social and political body” significantly altered the appearance of the “lovely white” country. White Americans searched for ways to protect their civilization from the polyglot, polytheistic other. Surely God would not submit them to a test that they were not strong enough to pass—with His merciful assistance. In 1880, one writer urged his readers to put their faith in the transforming power of the Gospel:
Can the ascendancy of our American republic and Christian thought be asserted, maintained, and perpetuated among such tremendous disadvantages? …The hope of the American republic, and of the civilization, in which above all else we glory, will be found to abide in the practical effectiveness of its Christian element. Only let these strangers be brought under the power of the Gospel, and we may safely trust them with our civilization.
To maintain their identity as the master race, White Americans increasingly relied on their religious assumptions. In an article detailing the value of Christianity as a social science, published in 1884, Henry C. Potter suggested that the White man’s religion was a true panacea:
How shall we deal with these social problems of the hour—whether they concern the reclaiming of our fallen brethren and sisters here at our very side, or our fellow-creature, the despised Chinaman, who has found his way to our far off Pacific coast, save as we look at each and every one of them in the light that streams from the cross of One who gave himself to lift men up?
The God of Whites, it was presumed, was already the God of all other people—even if others did not yet know this fact. No matter how many people came into the country, God was animating each one. The primary goal, then, was to haul the masses out of their cave of spiritual ignorance. According to the editor of Scribner’s Monthly, writing in 1880, the United States “equals in extent ten of Paul’s Macedonias, while our Home Missionary Territory is larger than the Old Roman Empire.” Considering all of the many different people who must be converted to Christianity, the editor noted, “some races are bright and speculative, others dull and practical; some are in the caves of superstition, others on the heights of philosophy; all are in the childhood of religion.” Lyman Abbott, writing in 1890, had no doubt that his race’s religion could solve all of the nation’s problems, including those posed by Native Americans and the Blacks. Abbott reasoned,
The Indian and the Negro questions are both phases of one and the same question: what duties, if any, do a superior race owe to an inferior and subject race, living in the same territory, under the same government, parts of the same nation? The question cannot be answered by individual philanthropy or by missionary societies; the question is asked of the nation, and only the nation can answer it. If the law “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is a religious law, if the question “Who is my neighbor?” is a religious question, then the Indian and the Negro problems are religious problems.
The United States cannot exist unless all of its children are imbued with “that religious spirit which is essential to national life.” According to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black delegate to the First National Congress of Mothers, which convened in 1897, the profound social inequalities between Whites and Blacks made it difficult, but not impossible, for both races to make the necessary adjustment from “the old oligarchy of slavery into the new commonwealth of freedom:”
You of the Caucasian race were born to an inheritance of privileges; behind you are ages of civilization, education, and organized Christianity; behind us are ages of ignorance, poverty, and slavery; and now into your hands, oh, my favored sisters, God has placed one of the grandest opportunities that ever fell into the hands of a nation or a people… Trample, if you will, on our bodies, but do not crush out self-respect from our souls. If you want us to act as women, treat us as women. If you want us to become good Christians, teach us concerning our high origin, our relation to God, our possibilities of rising so high in the scale of moral and spiritual life that from being a little lower than the angels we may become one with God, even as Christ was one—one in spirit and one in harmony. [57]

In the struggle to Christianize America and the world, religious leaders called for interdenominational cooperation. “Like the scattered bones which Ezekiel saw coming together into a great army they would at once start into new life and activity as the United Churches of the United States,” one writer hoped. In 1882, the editor of The Century pleaded:
The sectarian divisions of the Christian church in city and country, by which in so many places its power is destroyed and its glory turned to shame, all rest on non-essential differences… Suppose we stop talking of union and of unity, and begin working to consider the duty of cooperation in Christian work. This is the desideratum—cooperation. In town and city and mission field, Christians, the disciples of a common Master, ought to cooperate. Can they cooperate? Who will deny it?
In 1884, a reader of The Century wrote an open letter to the magazine in which he praised a recently printed story about a fictional organization called the Christian League. The writer stated, “The spirit of the new theology is the spirit of the Christian League. It will not permit the details of creed and ritual to bar the way to Christian unity, for in Christ all contradictions are reconciled. George R. Crooks, a Methodist minister, argued: “If such opposites as Jews and Gentiles could in the Pauline period be one body, much more can the Christian opposites of the modern period enter, through the life-giving Spirit, into the composition of one body… As the human race is one, being of one blood… so the church is one.”

United in a “noble” spiritual effort, Protestants of English descent easily joined with German and Scottish immigrants. Strategic reasons were even found to work together with Catholics, sectarians, and Black Christians. “An inferior type of Christianity” wrote one commentator, “may have adaptations to particular nations because of its inferiority and admixture with error. Yet upon the possibility of overcoming these objections depends the future success of missions.”