Queen Mab: If people stop believing in us, we won’t exist. The new religion has already pushed us to the brink, soon we’ll be forgotten.
Lady of the Lake: All things change sister, it’s sad, but heaven, hell, and the world move on. It’s Fate.
-Merlin (1998 TV mini-series)
The Neo-Pagan Narrative
The past is to the traditionalist what the future is to the progressive, it is more glorious imagined than seen. Since the sort of circles I move in tend to have an extensive interest in the past, as well as a tendency towards a “ressourcement” of past wisdom for fixing present problems. Thus it would naturally have a great interest in paganism itself given that it is part of the past of most cultures before the advent of the dominance of monotheistic religions.
There is however a certain narrative strand I wish to critique and that is that supposedly Christianity with its “cucked” ethics spectacularly cocked up the whole thing and that we need to return back to strong, brave, iron-willed paganism as a solution to present ailments. The argument is supposedly that Christians are materialistic and commericalised Le Merchant minded Jews, with their universalist levelling creed against everything particular and local, while pagans, bravely and with an indomitable spirit, held on loyally to the old religion and ways of their tribal ancestors contra the overwhelming material forces arrayed against them.
There is no doubt that many conversions in both Latin America and Europe occurred quite literally at the point of the sword under the banner of the superior Christianised Roman forces. But what many do not get is that many other barbarian pagans as well were desperate to imitate Rome as much as possible, even to the point of abandoning their ancestral religions and becoming Christians, and it was their very own pagan clerics who counsel such conversion to Christianity because of its material advantages. Thus the sort of critique of the “materialistic” and “commercial” nature of Christianity is more of a universal trait of the human condition than something particular to Christianity, and is precisely what motivated the pagans to voluntarily convert to Christianity to begin with.
It would be necessary to begin my critique by first mapping out the “materialistic” mind set of the ancient pagans before proceeding to articulate the historical examples of pagan conversion to Christianity. Finally I end off with some general observations about how religions interact with material forces and the stark difference between ancient and modern pagans. (A lot of the arguments presented here would repeat parts of my arguments elsewhere about the development of religious modernity.)
The Pragmatic Mindset of Ancient Pagans
There is this absurd idea that pagans held onto their religion as some sort of romantic expression of their identity and as a means of defining themselves in the world. While neo-pagans maybe so existentially alienated from their environment such that they project their concerns for locating their place in the cosmos backwards to the ancient pagans, those pagans actually had much more mundane substantive concerns, concerns which rarely touches the modern pagans who live in a materially and economically secure modern West. To get a better sense of how ancient paganism works, we will look at some examples of actually inherited paganism (instead of consciously self-chosen ones like in the West). Maya Deren in her study of Haiti paganism made the following insightful observation:
The man of such a culture must be, necessarily, a pragmatist. His immediate needs are too persistent, too pressing, and too critical, to permit the luxury of idealism or mysticism, and they must be answered rather than escaped from. He has neither time, energy, nor means for inconsequential activity. His religious system must do more than give him moral sustenance; it must do more than rationalize his instinct for survival when survival is no longer a “reasonable” activity. It must do more than provide a reason for living; it must provide the means for living. It must serves the organism as well as the psyche. It must serve as a practical methodology not as an irrational hope. In consequence, the Haitian thinks of his religion in working terms. To ask him whether he “believes” in Voudoun is to pose a meaningless, irrelevant question. He answers, “I serve the loa”, and, more than likely, he will say, “I serve so-and-so, giving even to general divine power a specialized focus.
–Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
To put it bluntly, people were pagans, not because it expressed their identity or define their place or being in the world, but because it provided “the means for living”. The rituals of paganism were believed to help the crops grow and make it rain. (As an aside, my parents were traditional Chinese pagans and it is very difficult to explain to people who live in the West how paganism actually works, how utterly materialistic and pragmatic it is, where a lot of rituals are aimed at increasing one’s material wealth or pass one’s exams.)
Richard Fletcher in his masterly study on the barbarian conversion to Christianity (a study which I will be constantly returning to), made the following observations about the Christian challenges to converting the barbarians:
Caesarius of Arles, Martin of Braga, Gregory of Tours, Pope Gregory the Great, had as their principal concern the problem of how to make people who were nominally Christian more thoroughly Christian, the more effectively to guard them from demonic assault which would threaten God’s protection of the whole community.
They were also clear about what the good Christian should avoid. All four of these writers would probably have agreed in terming it rusticitas, ‘rusticity’. The notion of rusticity comprehended not just doing a bit of fencing or brushing your hair on Sunday, not just boorish junketings at the Kalends of January, but potentially also something much more menacing in the guise of resort to alternative systems of explanation, propitiation and control. This is the lesson of the story about Aquilinus and the arioli (an arioli was sort of like a witch).There existed an alternative network to the one presented by Christian teachers. There were other persons about, easily resorted to, claiming access to the means of explaining misfortune, curing sickness, stimulating love, wreaking vengeance, foretelling the future, advising when to undertake a journey, interpreting the flight of birds or the patterns on the shoulder-blades of the sheep.
Historians have often written dismissively of ‘pagan survivals’, old beliefs and practices tolerated by a sagely easy-going church, which would subside harmlessly into the quaint and folkloric. But this is to miss the point. The men of the sixth century – and not just the sixth century by any means – were engaged in an urgent and competitive enterprise. In a European countryside where over hundreds of years diverse rituals had evolved for coping with the forces of nature, Christian holy men had to show that they had access to more efficacious power… Competition involves an element of comparability, even of compromise.
Country people were notoriously conservative. We may be absolutely certain that more than a few generations of episcopal exhortation or lordly harassment would be needed to alter the habits inherited from time out of mind. Ways of doing things, ways that grindingly poor people living at subsistence level had devised for managing their visible and invisible environments, were not going to yield easily, perhaps were not going to yield at all, to ecclesiastical injunction.
–The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity
The Christian challenge to converting the barbarian pagans were not that the pagans loyally and romantically held onto their ancestral identity or old religion. The challenge was that the old rituals and ways were hallowed means for coping with the forces of nature, for supposedly accomplishing material objectives like curing sickness, and for deciding when is the most opportune time to grow a crop, etc. Old rituals were held, not as an existential part of their identity, but as the only means they knew of how they could accomplish their material goals.
When one lives at the subsistence level, when a bumper crop or failure can mean the difference between having food through the winter or a famine, a religion must necessarily service and meets these needs, not merely titillate the subjective sensibilities of materially secure 21st century pagans. Older historic paganism did not have the luxury of modern material and civic methods for securing one’s food supplies or health. Religion was not a private subjective enterprise but was an objective means for securing material health. This point could be better seen when we move onto the ratio given by the pagans themselves for becoming Christians.
The Materialistic Motives for Pagan Conversion to Christianity
Given the pragmatic mindset of the pagans, we can be sure that their motives for converting to Christianity were equally materialistic, and this seems to be the picture borne out by what records we have. Fletcher again:
In 626 Queen Ethelburga [a Christian] gave birth to a daughter. Paulinus [her Christian chaplain] assured [King] Edwin that the queen’s safe delivery and the baby’s survival were owed to his prayers to the God of the Christians. Later in the same year Edwin led his warband against the king of the West Saxons (who gave their name to the kingdom of Wessex). Before he set out on campaign he promised that if God should grant him victory he would renounce the worship of idols and serve Christ. As a pledge of his promise he permitted his infant daughter to be baptized, which took place at Whitsun (7 June) 626. His campaign was completely successful: ﬁve ehieftains of the West Saxons were slain and Edwin returned booty- laden and rejoicing to the north. He abandoned the worship of idols and sought instruction in the Christian faith from Paulinus, though he did not yet publicly declare himself a Christian. As well as instructing him Paulinus reminded Edwin of a mysterious experience that he had had years before, while in exile before ﬁghting his way to power in ‘ Northumbria. At dead of night he had encountered an unknown stranger — in one version of the story this was Paulinus himself — who had prophesied Edwin’s future greatness and held out the promise of salvation. In a ﬁnal episode of [St] Bede’s conversion narrative the king held a meeting with his counsellors and sought their advice. The chief pagan priest, by name Coiﬁ, made the point that a lifetime’s devotion to pagan cult had brought little in the way of material advantage to himself, the principal intermediary between king and gods. (We should note that Bede regarded these as ‘prudent words’; his nineteenth-century editor and matchless commentator Charles Plummer found it ‘disappointing’ that Bede should have approved such ‘gross materialism’.) A nobleman present likened the life of man to the flight of a sparrow through the king’s hall in winter, from darkness to darkness, and urged sympathetic consideration for a faith which might reveal more of the origins and ultimate goals of mankind. Paulinus also spoke in the debate. At its close Edwin formally embraced Christianity and (Ioiﬁ led the way in profaning the heathen temples. The royal baptism at Easter followed shortly thereafter.
Note well the premises employed by the chief pagan priest for converting to Christianity. He argued that since the pagan cult did not bring any material advantage, they should convert to Christianity which was clearly and visibly a lot more materially secure and powerful. The premise is not that paganism was their ancestral religion which existentially defined their place in the cosmos which they must adhere it come what may, the premise is that their pagan gods no longer delivered the goods which the Christians seem to enjoy.
Richard Fletcher in another interview made these more general observations:
The common factor in paganism all over medieval Europe was polytheism. Pagans had lots and lots of gods—gods of weather, of harvest, of the sea, of the sky, of beer making, of battle, and so on. Anthropologists who’ve studied conversion in polytheistic culture in Africa, for example, have found that such peoples think they can just add Christ to their existing pantheon. This is what seems to have happened in medieval Europe. The exclusive claims of a monotheistic faith didn’t sink in at first. That’s why even after “conversion,” we find a long period in which ideas about gods and goddesses, spirits and fairies, elves and goblins coexist with faith in Christ.
Another reason was that pagans were impressed with the sheer material power of Christendom. Paganism was a faith that was largely geared to gaining material prosperity. There were gods for the crops because they wanted their crops to grow. They had gods for cattle so that they would produce more milk. When these pagans looked at the wealth and power of Christian Europe, they were impressed: the Christian God was obviously one who could deliver the goods. Christians built bigger buildings, made more beautiful jewelry, possessed better ships, and so on. Many pagans were not adverse to converting to Christianity because they believed it would, in fact, give them more material prosperity than had their gods.
To appreciate this point, note how Christian missionaries fared in sixteenth-century China. Here was a non-Christian culture that was in many ways superior to the West. In that context, Christianity makes practically no headway.
In Europe, we see evidence that this wasn’t a by-product but a deliberate tactic of missionaries. When the bishop of Winchester sent his pupil Boniface to evangelize Germany, he stressed that Boniface should remind the pagans just how rich and powerful the Christians were.
If neo-paganism is supposed to be some brave romantic way of holding unto their existential tribes identities against the crass materialism and commercialism of Christianity, their ancestor whose ways they are supposed to imitate clearly did not think likewise.
Religion and Material Conditions
Any religion which becomes sufficiently large and established would inevitably have to take into account material conditions. Unlike isolated internet pagans the vast majority of other people need to control the forces of nature in order to be able to put food on the table or secure their material security. Very few people actually believe in a religion because they were seized by some profound or esoteric idealistic system concerning the Reverence of Nature or Our People or Ancestors. A religion is believed because it was an effective means of accomplishing one’s goals. What many contemporary pagans who imagine paganism as some stronghold against the globalist liberal forces forgot is that paganism itself converted to Christianity precisely on the strength of the Christian material forces.
If anything, the closest equivalent of paganism in our time would not be wiccans or self-identified pagans, they would in fact ironically be the pentecostals and prosperity Gospel preachers who hold that spiritual forces do directly bring about material goods and prosperity. However, the aesthetic meanness of the pentecostals and prosperity Gospel churches offends the refined sensibilities of the modern neo-pagan. Despite the fact that these are closer in spirit to their claimed pagan ancestors of old, they are despised because they do not fit into some presentist idealistic or aesthetic affectations of theirs. Which would bring me to my next point.]
Conclusion: The Internal Contradictions of Romanticism and the Artificiality of Neo-Paganism
I took some classes in English literature and wrote a couple of papers about the development of English Romanticism from the 18th century to the Victorian period. Basically I argued that there was an inherent tension within 18th century romanticism. The early English romantics sought harmony with nature, emphasising direct immediate sensual experience, and art and music, contra the artificiality of bookish learning, science, and reason which eviscerates and dissect the beauty of nature and alienates us from the immediacy of our organic link with her. The problem of course was that the root word of “artificial” itself is art, the Romantic emphasis upon beauty and art contra the theories and reasons of the Enlightenment merely exchanged one form of artificiality for another. Human works of art themselves are human creations, products of the human will, they don’t grow naturally on trees. Just as science organises data into systems and theorems, likewise does art engage in likewise crafting and organising of sensual materials into linguistic or musical forms created by human conventions. Inevitably some human artificiality is involved and some distancing and controlling of nature is required.
As English society developed likewise did Romanticism. The early 18th century English Romantics emphasised the artistic and sensual as a balance against the dry mechanical reason of the Enlightenment, the 19th century Victorian romantics turned away from harmony with nature to the past. While the early English romantics idealised nature, which idealisation is itself a work of art and deliberately crafted by artists, the Victorian romantics idealised the past in their re-telling of Arthurian legends and their re-presentation of the past. By selectively gleaning historical materials, the Victorian Romantics crafted an idealised narrative or history about medieval society whereby they may ground their present national narratives or aspiration. This was no doubt an attempt to situate themselves in the midst of momentous societal changes which were occurring in English society with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the British Empire, etc. Establishing themselves in continuity with an idealised past gave them grounds to maintain and cling unto their habits in the midst of great changes or served as a ratio for resisting and correcting perceived ailments of their present changes.
This romantic impulse however is fundamentally inherently self-contradictory. In the act of trying to recover the past, they have merely reconstructed and shaped it with presentist materials and concerns. It is as much an artificial product of their present condition as anything else, not a genuine attempt to actually revive the past in all its fullness. Just as the hipster shops for an ever expanding product lines of identities to adopt and construct, the modern neo-pagan has not critiqued or resisted commercialisation, they are still navigating the same system but merely adopting an ironic posture towards it, shopping for a supposedly “counter-cultural” “do it yourself” identity on sale amongst others. But this neo-pagan identity itself is quite modern, an invention of their own times as any other identity, and while it postures itself as an attempt to recover the past, to humbly receive their inheritance, it is itself not received passively but actively crafted, fundamentally distorting and perverting it to suit their own present needs.
One is reminded of the old critiques of Christ against the Pharisees who build monuments to the prophets but do not heed their counsels but kill them instead, replacing their counsels with traditions of their own invention. The modern neo-pagan would be guilty of the same, they build their totems to their ancestors, but they do not actually adopt or follow their reasoning, they are merely using them as an emblem for their own presentist affectations.