Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Indigenous Paganism and New Religious Movements

Is the general term "Pagan" on the verge of a redefinition?

At the "Parliament of the World's Religions", some new and somewhat exciting/controversial statements were made by some of the persons who attended in the name of "Pagans" worldwide.

Let me begin by saying that I don't believe anyone or any small group of people can sufficiently and adequately "represent" Pagans worldwide. These people who appeared on the behalf of Pagans were not elected to go, or any such thing. Even if someone could "represent" Wiccans or other New-Age spiritual movements, Asatru and other such religions- which are always painfully lumped in with the rest- would certainly not be represented at all.

I'm pleased to report that, despite this strange and unsatisfactory state of affairs, that one of the Pagan attendees, Andras Corban-Arthen, made a very positive and somewhat profound statement about religious identity and classifications for modern Pagans. What he said is worth being reprinted here, and I shall do so by quoting online journalist and Pagan parliament attendee Ed Hubbard:

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"...So the term Pagan itself is being redefined from this old Christian based definition. Part of the Teaching of Traditions series, created with the help of Pagan Trustees, describes Paganism as follows: “Paganism” is a collective term that most aptly defines Indigenous cultures of pre-Christian Europe, the Celtic and Germanic Tribes, The Balts, The Scandinavians, The Basques, The Slavs and many others.

The first Pagan presentation of the Parliament helped begin this change of identity and was called “People Call Us Pagans-The European Indigenous Traditions”, by PWR Trustees Angie Buchanan, Andras Arthen, and Phyllis Curott. The opening of the description is as follows: As the World confronts environmental devastation, we are beginning to appreciate the wisdom of Indigenous peoples who have lived thousands of years in sustainable harmony and spiritual connection with the Earth. After hundreds of years of suppression, most Westerners have forgotten that their ancestors once shared this wisdom as the Indigenous traditions of Europe. *

This concept of Paganism as being based deeply in European Indigenous Traditions has fascinated and found ground among American, European and Australian members of the Parliament. It helps move Paganism from being a New Religious Movement to an Indigenous tradition, and offers many more opportunities to reach out at the parliament.

As described by Andras Corban-Arthen most forms of modern Paganism can be described as part of the New Religious Movements as they were formed in the 20th century, yet there are several Pagan ethnic traditions that have survived Christianization. One such example is Romuva of Lithuania. It is these ethnic traditions that fit better into the description of Indigenous traditions, instead of New Religious Movements. It allows Pagans to be part of both New Religious Movements and also recognized as part of the Indigenous traditions. By accepting that Pagan Traditions are indigenous to Europe, then individuals must take another look and it presents them with a different paradigm of what Pagan stands for.

Further, Andras Corban-Arthen points out that Wicca, for example, cannot be seen as an indigenous Pagan faith practice and is instead a modern syncretic movement. Under this description Wicca therefore would not fall under the definition of Pagan, and would be squarely a New Religious Movement, while British Traditional Witchcraft could be considered a Pagan and Indigenous faith tradition. "

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My hat off to Andras' bravery! The blast-back from Wiccans and others who do not fall under the heading of "indigenous" has already begun, and promises to be a raging debate for a long time to come. Here is my take on the entire topic of who is and is not "indigenous", and why the term "indigenous" is so important:

The only reason anyone gets worked up over "indigenous" is because they think that people saying "we belong to an indigenous faith" are trying to claim some legitimacy over others. But as a person who belongs to the indigenous faith of the Germanic people of Europe, I am not using the term with that intent.

Despite the attempts on the part of some peoples to try and stake an exclusive claim to the word, "Indigenous" is defined simply as "originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country"- and it also means "inherent" or "innate". Asatru did originate in the Northern regions of Europe, and it is characteristic of what pre-Christian Europeans of those regions were doing. Further, we believe it to be the inherent, innate religion of people of Northern European extraction. That's all. That's what it means, and I reject as political manipulation any other attempt to give this term "indigenous" any other meaning.

Wicca originated in England, but cannot be said to be "characteristic" of anything that historical Pagans or witches in England were doing before it, as the structure, while workable and sufficient, is new, pioneered by Gardner and other contemporary occult groups. I don't doubt Wicca's power or efficacy in the lives of the people who believe in it, and Wiccans are certainly allies to all Pagans today in the struggle for recognition. Also, Wiccans, insofar as they pray to Pagan Gods, ARE "Pagan", as I see no further definition for "pagan" needed beyond "People who believe in and/or worship Pagan Gods and Goddesses."

What qualifies as "Pagan" has been debated a long time; for the longest time, anyone who wasn't a member of an Abrahamic religion was classified as Pagan, but Native Americans, Buddhists, and others are offended by the word, for their own reasons. Now, it seems to be used for European non-Abrahamic faiths, and that's fine by me. I don't mind it at all. But the "indigenous" distinction is important to me, because all Pagans/New Religions cannot and must not be lumped together as a whole. That would be insulting to the truth about them all- different varieties of Pagan have different histories, different worldviews, different focus, and these things are very, very important to their thoughtful membership.

If we want an intellectually honest appraisal of the situation, we have to cease the lumping and start studying the great variety that we've all inherited.

I would like to end by saying that it's sad that such a distinction and conversation never happened in the mainstream of the Pagan community until unelected "representatives" of the "Pagan" world went to a parliament of world religions and brought it up. But however it had to come about, the conversation is now out and ongoing.


Apuleius Platonicus said...

Of course Pagans are practitioners of "indigenous" religions, or at the very least practitioners of various revivals, reconstructions, or whatever, of pre-Christian indigenous traditions. That is what Paganism has always been about.

My own problem is with the insistence on identifying Paganism as "European". Obviously Germanic Heathenism is European. But it is equally obvious (well at least to anyone familiar with history and geography) that neither Roman nor Hellenic Pagans were in any way exclusively (or even primarily) "European".

Wicca is, in fact, "characteristic" of the kind of Paganism that was widely practiced in the Greco-Roman world during late antiquity. This part of the spiritual power of Wicca, for it is rooted in the form of Paganism that most stubbornly resisted the very first wave of violent, coercive Christianization.

Ule said...

Good Day, Apuleius. You say that neither Roman nor Hellenic Pagans were in any way exclusively or even primarily European. I am mystified by this statement. I can't see how they could be anything else. Rome was founded by European peoples, as was Greece. There's no doubt that their religions received some influences from the Near East and North Africa, but indigenous Gods were always there and always chief in their pantheons, and their characteristic ways of worship were European. Care to clarify what you meant?

Apuleius Platonicus said...

The Hellenes are as much native to Asia Minor as they are to the area we now know as "Greece". And like all industrious and adventurous people they ended up all over the place -- but mostly they ended up in Africa and Asia. But even those Hellenes who remained in Europe were likely to be found worshipping Asian and African Deities, especially Cybele and Isis.

The Romans claimed to be descended from the Asiatic Trojans. And Romans were even more fond of Cybele than the Greeks were. In fact the Romans credited Magna Mater, as they called Her, with their victory over Hannibal in the Second Punic war. And the same is true of Isis, whose temple in Rome was one of the most sacred places in that ancient city.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Also: what are these "characteristic ways of worship" that are distinctly "European".

Also: did the the Hellenes bring these "characteristic ways of worship" with them when they first arrived in Europe? If so then in what sense are they "European"?

Ule said...

I don't think the Greeks were native to Asia Minor. I think they colonized that region, yes, but they colonized after Hellas was settled and thriving. It depends, of course, on what you mean by "Greeks", and this is the heart of the matter. The "Greeks" were not originally Lydians or Carians. The Greeks, like the Romans, emerged right where they were historically- Greece and Italy, and they emerged over a long process of cultural diffusion and change taking place on a stage of native genetics.

The peopling of Europe wasn't a matter of "migrations" of Greeks from somewhere else, nor of Celts or Germans. We're mistaking cultures with genetics here. The "people of Europe" were always there. The mysterious natives that we know nothing about were simply present from long before the Indo-European culture features began to move along with trickles of people (mostly traders) spreading out.

As IE Culture spread from place to place, it subverted languages, local politics, and culture, but not genetics. The IE people, from what I have understood as probably accurate, didn't go in huge numbers, in massive invasions, but diffused slowly, in a largely non-violent way, though sometimes their movements may have taken the form of a violent upheaval. And we aren't talking of a single IE culture, but the many variations of Proto-IE culture that began to form as the culture spread. I'd say the main mechanism of spreading was trade, as most of "culture" that can be found by archaeologists is in the form of technology, like pottery or weaponry.

At some point, IE culture came to the region we now call Greece. I don't know how it originally came, but I know that one wave of it (yes, there was more than one) was probably faster and more violent than others- the later "Dorian" wave. But it came as cultural changes, and some population changes (though not enough to massively alter the genetics of the people who had been there since forever) and created post-Mycenean Greece. the Indo-European culture brought Gods like Zeus; he "married" local, native Goddesses like Hera. Greek mythology is a melding of IE mythical powers with local beings and entities. One might say that all surviving IE mythologies are like that.

The Myceneans were Indo-European in culture, and were probably the first people espousing that culture to integrate with the natives in (or right before) the Greek Bronze Age. At any rate, the Myceneans didn't "come" from somewhere in a big, armed wave that took a few years for them to get there from Asia Minor or Africa. It may have taken many, many generations for their culture and the people identified with it to solidify. By the time they did, they would not have been "invaders" or "migrants". They'd be as native as anyone who had lived in a place for generations.

And the religious practices of the Greeks were born in the native practices of sacrifice, of creating temples in the characteristic way we know of the Greek and Roman world (having immovable sanctuaries surrounded by pillars attached to permanent settlements).

The original IE people didn't have cities and immovable temples, but, as the Vedic people represent best, did rituals in outdoors groves or fields or locations that could be used and then abandoned as they moved on. The "city culture" wasn't originally IE, but born from mobile IE cultures meeting long-established Native cultures in Europe. The IE people give us our languages today and lots of our cultural patterns. But the natives give us our genetics.

Ule said...

If you read Burkert's "Greek Religion", he analyzes the standard forumla for animal sacrifice, which indeed, was found in Greece and Rome in every age that I know of- the procession, cleansings of participants, the ololuge, the cutting of throats, the pelting with grains of the victim, the reddening of the altar, the roasting of the heart, the burning of parts of the victim, the reconstitution of the parts after the meat is taken, all of it- stems back to primitive hunter-gatherer rituals for community sharing of the guilt of killing a living creature, and a ritual reconstruction of it so that it can live again, metaphysically. These sorts of hints about the distant origin of the sacrifice ritual point to a pretty primitive, indigenous origin for it and a continual tradition of it from Old Europe. Incoming culture patterns and slow transformations that bring in new languages, some new genetics (though never much) and new rulers still absorbs some (or a lot) of previous material, like ancient patterns of native religion. They put a new spin on it sometimes, but edifices of things like sacrifice and the like are slow to change.

This could go on forever, but I think you get my drift. Europe wasn't an empty place waiting for the east and for Africa to fill it up, and the authors of European cultures- the Indo-Europeans- were from north of the Black Sea.

There is, as I said, no doubt that the later European cultures, meldings of IE culture and native genetics along with some aspects of native culture that survived, borrowed from cultures that had grown up in places like Asia Minor and Africa. No doubt. But that doesn't mean that Europeans cultures like the Romans and Greeks weren't European.

I think the Romans were appalled by the castrated priests of Cybele, and this gets mentioned; her cult was savage, and only admitted to Rome because the Sybilline Books told them to do it, to save their asses. Cybele, in the form of her sacred black stone and idol, was brought by boat to Rome. She was brought there to save Rome in accordance with a prophecy. And, since Rome survived, she was received gratefully. Roman devotion to Cybele was a business deal that worked out well for both parties. Her worship gained acceptance over time. But I don't think she was the most beloved Goddess in the City.