13 Feb 2010

A Definition of Paganism

Because of its wide application, the meaning of the word "paganism" is liable to be stretched and rendered almost meaningless. The definitions given in dictionaries tend to reflect rather than resolve the resultant confusion. Because of this it is essential that we have a clear definition of what paganism is.

I would define it as religions, supernatural beliefs, and symbolic systems that are rooted in the lives, landscapes, and histories of particular peoples. This distinguishes it from rootless international globalized religions, supernatural beliefs, and symbolic systems; in particular the one-size-fits-all spiritual totalitarianism inherent in the proselytizing religions of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

This definition also distinguishes it from such rootless internationally traded cultural commodities as Satanism, the occult, New Age mumbo-jumbo, and indeed any 'pagan' belief system transplanted wholesale from its native soil halfway round the world to a spiritual vacuum elsewhere.

In this context, the etymology of the word pagan is revealing. Not surprisingly, given the Christian-dominated background of European languages, pagan was originally meant as an insult. It comes from "paganus," meaning "villager, rustic, civilian," which in turn comes from "pagus," meaning "rural district." "Pagus" itself comes from "pangere," which means "to fix, fasten," and derives from "pag" (to fix), which is also the root of "pact."

In this, we can see paganism's clear connection with location and social obligation, rather than with the rootless amoral masses, gathered as slaves and immigrants, in the vast metropolii of the Roman Empire, a population, which, deprived of cultural and religious identity, provided many easy converts to the great universal religion.

9 Feb 2010

The Green Men of Rosslyn

Thanks to books like the preposterous "Da Vinci Code," Rossyln Chapel in Midlothian, Scotland, is now a well-known site, associated with freemasonry, the Knights Templar, and a load of other mumbo-jumbo, but, setting all this nonsense aside, it is also home to a remarkable collection of Green Men, the ancient pagan symbol of fertility and rebirth that runs through British culture.

There are said to be in excess of 110 Green Men throughout the 15th-century chapel, many of them of very high quality. Depictions of the Green Man normally show a human head enmeshed in foliage, often with branches or vines sprouting from the mouth.

Older versions, like the one in the picture, often seem designed to scare. Perhaps, like church gargoyles, they were intended to repel evil spirits, or simply to warn Christians of the supposed dangers of paganism. Through the centuries, the Green Man has become increasingly human. At present his popularity seems bolstered by the fad for ecology.

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered: (6) Delphi

One of the most famous and recognizable pagan sites in Europe is undoubtedly Delphi, once famous for its oracle. Lying at the foot of Mount Parnassos, within the angle formed by the twin rocks of the Phaedriades, Delphi was regarded as the navel of the world by the pagan Greeks.

8 Feb 2010

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered: (5) Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Many of the former pagan sites of Europe can easily be found because they are now weighed down with an over-ornate church or cathedral. A case in point is Santiago de Compostela, often described as the third holiest Christian site (after Jerusalem and Rome) and the supposed resting place of St. James, one of Jesus's twelve disciples.

7 Feb 2010

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered: (4) Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius Cathedral built on the shrine of Perkunas

Apart from a few tribes in the depths of the remote Russian forests, the Lithuanians were the last European people to be Christianized, finally submitting to the Church in 1387.

6 Feb 2010

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered: (3) Aquae Sulis, Bath, England

Bath - site of the cult of the Celtic Goddess Sulis

One of the best known pagan sites in Britain is the Roman baths in the town of Bath, the Roman name of which was Aquae Sulis. This means 'the Baths of Sulis,' the local Celtic goddess of the hot spring.

The Roman baths, built after the conquest of Southern Britain in the first century, occupied a site long held sacred. In Celtic times the pool of bubbling orange-tinged water would probably have been surrounded by a grove of oak trees.

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered: (2) Shrine of Lugus, Peñalba de Villastar, Spain

Near the small town of Peñalba de Villastar, 8 km from Teruel in the Aragon region of Eastern Spain, there is a sanctuary of the Celtic god Lugus (also spelt Lugh, Luc, or Lugus). This brief account is based on a Spanish blog by Juan Carlos Olive Pedreño [link].

St. Michael = Mithras

It's no secret that Christianity, in its ruthless ascent to religious dominance, borrowed, commandeered, and co-opted elements from all the other competing religions of the time, weaving them deep into its totalitarian picture of the universe. Almost every element of Christianity can be traced to some pre-existing pagan faith.

But Christianity was also very skillful at Christianizing elements of paganism by finding the nearest Christian equivalent and substituting it. For example, in the Mediterranean, where the worship of the Goddess Diana had deep roots, they were able to transfer the pagan affection for this goddess to Christianity through the cult of the Madonna.

During the pre-Christian period, the religion of Mithraism, with its central theme of a dualistic battle between good and evil, was popular in the North West part of Roman Empire. It was especially favored by the military stationed in the provinces of Spain, Gaul, Britain, and the Rhine frontier. In order to successfully subsume these local sentiments into their religion, the Christians found aspects of their faith that matched local beliefs and then promoted them.

In the Bible, the Archangel Michael is described as the commander of the army of the Lord (Joshua 5:13-15). In artistic representation, he is usually shown holding a sword and defeating Satan or a dragon in battle. In short he is the cutting edge of the "Forces of Light" in the battle with the "Forces of Darkness." Like Mithras, he is also connected to those in uniform, being considered the patron of police officers and soldiers.

These affinities made Michael a suitable spearhead for Christianizing areas where Mithraic traditions still had some influence. A good example is the world heritage site of Mont-Saint-Michel in Brittany. Originally this was a site sacred to Mithraism. Its original name, Mont Tombe, means 'tomb,' probably a reference to the underground temples favored by the Mithraists.

The change of name is recorded in the Life of Saint Aubert, the bishop of Avranches. One night in the year 708, the archangel Saint Michael appeared to the bishop in a dream, ordering him to erect a sanctuary on Mont Tombe. At that time, the Mount was a remote site far from any road, and could only be accessed by passing through the vast forest of Scissy, which was inhabited by wolves and wild beasts.

For this reason, the bishop was reluctant to act, whereupon the Archangel Michael appeared again. Incensed at the bishop's prevarication, he struck the cleric with a blazing finger, leaving a deep mark in his skull, but persuading him to finally build the sanctuary, which gave the site it Christian name. In later years, a hole in the relic of the bishop's skull was explained as the mark of the Archangel's finger.

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered: (1) Heligoland

Heligoland - a site once sacred to the Frisian god Fosite

The pagan sites of Europe - shrines, temples, and groves - were often destroyed by Christian fanatics and then forgotten, but some of them, like Heligoland, can still be traced in the historical records. It may even be possible one day to reestablish these sites as holy places.

Heligoland is a tiny island, less than a square mile in size and 29 miles off the German coastline in the North Sea. The name means 'Holy Land' because of the island's religious associations with the Frisian god Fosite, the god of justice, peace, and truth, identified with the Norse god Froseti. On the island, there was a well that was once sacred to Fosite and probably provided a focal point for his shrine.