[This is the second of a series of posts on “What is Paganism?“]
In the first post on “What is Paganism?” I began to look into the question of how Paganism fared when confronted with “the machinery of enforcement”, as historian Ramsay MacMullen has called it, of the process of Christianization. The idea being that a great deal can be learned by observing how people (both as individuals and as groups) “put forth their strength” in the face of severe adversity (as Socrates puts it in the opening of Plato’s Timaeus). I will have much more to say along those lines, but before doing so it might be a good idea to stop and ask a question that could conceivably sound strange to some: did any such thing as Paganism actually exist independently of, and prior to, “the determination of the Christian leadership to extirpate” it?
Of course there were temples, statues, altars, shrines, sacred groves, sacred caves, sacred pools, sacred mountains, sacred rivers, etc. dedicated to various Goddesses and Gods long before Christianity came along. And there were rituals, fasts, feasts, prayers, hymns, processions, holidays, secret initiations, etc, dedicated to these same deities. And, of course, there were people who worshipped these deities together and participated in those fasts, feasts, etc. To the Christians all these people were “Pagans”, but what were they to themselves and to each other? Did they, before the pressures brought on by Christianization, already see each other as “fellow” believers/practitioners of a common religious tradition?
James Rives states, in his 2007 Religion in the Roman Empire (also see the BMCR review here):
[O]n a fundamental level the various religious traditions of the [Roman] empire had more similarities than differences. As a result, when people from one tradition were confronted with another, they often found much that was familiar and immediately understandable, and tended to treat what was unfamiliar simply as a local peculiarity. In short, the impression we get from the sources is that people thought not so much in terms of “different religions,” as we might today, but simply of varying local customs with regard to the gods.
Similarly, Ramsay MacMullen had observed (in 1981) in the Introduction to his Paganism in the Roman Empire:
[T]he thing so arrogantly called [by the Christians] paganism, being in fact all the many hundreds of the Empire’s religions save one, must really have shared certain widespread characteristics.
And Charles W. Hedrick Jr, in his 2000 History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (also see the BMCR review here), says this about Paganism:
Paganism cannot be reduced to nothing more than its opposition to Christianity. There are other sets of systematic relations operating simultaneously. The most important of these is the relation of paganism to its past, that is, the identity of memory.
Rives is saying that Pagans from different cultures mutually recognized one another as, (very) broadly speaking, co-religionists. MacMullen is saying that this mutual recognition is based in the fact that the religious traditions of these different groups of Pagans “shared certain widespread characteristics” (that is, there is a real objective basis for this mutual recognition). Finally, Hedrick says that, at least once the process of Christianization got underway, “the most important” shared characteristic of different groups of Pagans was “the relation of paganism to its past.”
As Hedrick notes, Pagans during the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD (the period his book focusses on) were already, as (many) modern Pagans do today, defining themselves in relation to their past, that is, to a time before the process of Christianization had begun to encroach on traditional Paganism. Already even in the late fourth century, Pagans had a tendency to imagine their past in a romanticized way. But as the quotes from Seneca (in the previous post) showed (concerning the great heroic figures from Roman history that he refers to), whatever romanticization late antique Pagans engaged in was nothing new, and it in no way amounts to merely a response to Christianization, rather it was a continuation of business as usual in terms of mythologizing the heroic past. (On a side note it might be worth pointing out that to not mythologize the heroic past is arguably very un-Pagan, which calls into question much of the rationale behind both the whole “reconstructionist” project, and also much of what currently passes for “Pagan scholarship” especially the work of Ronald Hutton and those like him.)
It is important to focus on the timeline of Christianization, not on the supposed time of the birth of Jesus or any of the events associated with his life and career (all during which he and all of his followers were, as everyone knows, observant Jews, and no such religion as “Christianity” either existed or was conceived of). During the first three centuries of Christianity’s existence, Christians were often viewed by Pagans (to the extent Pagans gave Christians any thought at all) as dangerously anti-social elements on the margins of society who threatened social harmony, especially because of their violent acts directed against Pagan holy sites and other criminal activity. That is to say, prior to 312, Pagans had no reason to define themselves in terms of their opposition to Christianity, although after that date they increasingly had little choice but to define themselves as non-Christians. For more on how Pagans viewed early Christianity see especially Robert L. Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, and for the acts of criminal violence committed by early Christians see especially Christian Persecution, Martyrdom and Orthodoxy by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, especially chapter four: Voluntary Martyrdom in the Early Church.
It must be mentioned at least in passing that the great irony here is that it is Christianity itself, at least as we know it today, that did not exist prior to early fourth century. Early Christianity (that is Christianity as it existed prior to the beginning of coercive Christianization) bore very little resemblance to the Christianity that came later. Among early Christians there was no agreement on whether Jesus was human, divine, or, both. There was no agreement on whether a Christian needed be baptized, or circumcised, or both. There was no agreement on what constituted “the Church”. There was no agreement on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, or in particular, on whether or not the followers of Jesus should follow the Mosaic Law, as Jesus and all of his disciples had done. There was no agreement on what the sacred texts (including even the Gospels themselves) of Christianity were. And so forth. All these matters were only straightened out, so to speak, by the very same violently coercive process that sought (and to a great extent succeeded in the attempt) to extirpate Paganism.
In addition to the contemporary scholarly sources already noted above (a list which could very easily be lengthened), many primary sources also support the idea that long before Christianization, and even long before Jesus, Pagans mutually recognized one another, despite (sometimes quite wide) cultural differences. One of the most important of these sources is the Histories of the fifth century Athenian writer Herodotus. In his Athenian Religion: A History (also see BMCR review here), Robert Parker nonchalantly observes that,
Herodotus, of course, tends to suppose that Greek and foreign gods can be translated into one another, like Greek and foreign words. Indeed it seems that for him the gods themselves are the same everywhere.
Thomas Harrison in his Divinity and History (reviewed here) goes so far as to say that, at least in the case of Herodotus, “It is questionable indeed whether it is legitimate to talk of foreign religions at all” [p.209]. Harrison does state that “This picture of a tolerant universalism must be qualified …. [but] [i]n many of these cases, the apparent lapse can be explained by its context” [p.214]. It is worth noting that between these two quotes from Harris there appears a two page long table of correspondences showing “Herodotus’ equations of Greek and foreign gods.” It is clear that whatever qualification might be required, that Herodotus’ perspective on religion is fundamentally cosmopolitan.
Plutarch (who lived during the late first and early second centuries AD) echoes Herodotus’ universalism in his essay On Isis and Osiris:
But those theorists engender horrible and impious notions, who apply the names of deities to natural productions and to things that be without sense, without life, and necessarily consumed by men in want of and making use of them. For these things themselves it is impossible to conceive as gods (for we cannot conceive God as an inanimate thing, subject to man), but from these productions we have drawn the inference that they who created them, and bestow, and dispense them to us constantly and sufficiently, are gods—not different gods amongst different people, nor Barbarian or Grecian, of the South or of the North—but like as the Sun, Moon, Sky, Earth, Sea, are the common property of all men, but yet are called by different names by different nations; in the same manner, as one reason regulates all things, and one Providence directs, and subordinate Powers are appointed over all things, yet different honors and titles are by custom assigned to them amongst different peoples….
One more example is the Temple of Diana on the Aventine Hill of Rome. This temple to Roman Diana was built by an Etruscan king who used as his model a temple built by a Lydian King (Croesus) honoring a Greek Goddess (the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus). Livy informs us concerning Servius Tullius, one of the semi-legendary Etruscan Kings of Rome, that
Having increased the power of the state by this enlargement of the city, and made every internal regulation that appeared best adapted to the exigences both of war and peace, the king, who wished that the acquisition of power should not always depend on the mere force of arms, laid a scheme for extending his dominion, by the wisdom of his counsels, and raising, at the same time, a conspicuous ornament to the city. The temple of Diana at Ephesus was at that time universally celebrated, and it was commonly believed, that it had been built by a general contribution from the several states of Asia: Servius, in conversation with the chief men of the Latines, with whom he had taken pains to form connections of hospitality and friendship, both in his public and private capacity, used frequently in the strongest terms, to recommend concord and a social union between their several gods; and by often repeating the same sentiments, prevailed so far at last, that the Latine states agreed to build, in conjunction with the Roman people, a temple to Diana at Rome. This was an acknowledgment that Rome was the sovereign head of both nations, a point which had been so often disputed in arms.
[Livy The History of Rome 1.xlv]
It is obvious, then, that a Paganism that transcended, without necessarily abrogating or even contesting, local customs and “ethnic” identities, was not something that only came into existence with the onslaught of Christianization. In fact, Livy shows us that (well over five centuries before the birth of Jesus) different “ethnic” groups (in this case the Latins and Romans – with the Romans seen as foreign colonists and the Latins as the “indigenous” population) could be brought together peacefully through common worship (although perhaps not through that alone).
The widely varied religious traditions of the people of the oikoumene, stretching from Britain to Bactria, did form a loosely coherent family of religions, which does not in any way imply one uniformly monolithic, static, homogeneous religion with a unified priesthood, a common set of beliefs and religious texts, or anything like that. But it does mean that, while they did not use the word yet, those who would come to be called “Pagans” did already mutually recognize each other as following religious traditions that were clearly related to each other. (More on religious universalism in ancient Paganism can be found in my previous blog posts labeled Prisca Theologia.)
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post there really are people who believe that there never was any such thing as Paganism. Frank Trombley, in his masterful Hellenic Religion and Christianization (reviewed here), states in the Preface concerning the process of writing that book that “It became obvious right from the start that the project had taken a line of analysis that few had anticipated. It was suggested to me, for example, that there was no paganism ….”
In addition to the claim that “there was no paganism”, one also encounters the closely related claim that whatever Paganism may have existed vanished nearly instantaneously upon first contact with aggressive state-sponsored Christianization, as claimed by Ronald Hutton in his Witches Druids and King Arthur:
During the late twetieth century it gradually became apparent that, all over Europe, the conversion of the rulers of a medieval state to Christianity was followed with a relatively short time by the formal acceptance of the new religion by their subjects. There is no evidence of the long-term persistence of paganism as an organized religion of resistance, meeting in secret or associated with military or political rebellion, once the ruling family of a particular kingdom had accepted the Christian faith and outlawed the traditional ways. This effectively means that paganism as a formal system of religion vanished from Mediterranean Europe after the sixth century, from the western and northern parts of the continent after the eleventh, and from the north-eastern portions after the fourteenth.
It is quite revealing that in a book with over 50 pages of endnotes, Hutton does not provide even a single reference to even one other scholar to whom this “gradually became apparent”. Hutton seems to think that Christianity is like kryptonite to the Pagan Superman. But we already know that in the case of the most powerful state to ever exist in Europe, the Roman Empire, that Paganism did indeed persist after the Emperors had embraced Christianity and “outlawed the traditional ways”. There is also evidence for much later Pagan survivals and/or revivals in Byzantium, especially associated with the Platonic school of philosophy founded by Michael Psellos in the 11th century. Psellos’ hand picked successor as head of the school, John Italos, was, in fact, arrested, charged, and convicted of being a Pagan and of promulgating Pagan religious ideas in his philosophical teachings. Italos was spared only after he recanted on all 12 counts, and also agreeing to live the rest of his life under house arrest. Parts of the proceedings against Italos were even incorporated (as so-called “anathemas“) into the liturgy of the Orthodox Church! The school of Psellos and Italos is none other than that of George Gemistos Plethon (to learn more about him see this earlier post and also the references listed here). Hutton also conveniently neglects the well known fact that secret religious groups were a widespread feature of the religiosity of the Middle Ages.
I’ll have more to say about Hutton and his take on answering the question “What is Paganism?”, but for now let’s just make a note of the fact that Hutton acknowledges that modern Paganism has a “distinguished and very long pedigree” connecting it back to the Paganism of late antiquity. Even Hutton nervously understands the awkwardness of allowing modern Paganism’s “very long pedigree” while simultaneously asserting that “there is no evidence of the long-term persistence of Paganism.”
Bottom line: Paganism existed, Paganism persisted. But why is this important? It is important for Pagans to know our history, and knowing our history means knowing who we were, and without knowing that we will never understand who we are. We were not just little groups of people who each worshipped our own little godlings huddled in our own little separate corners of the world, imagining that our Gods spoke our language, wore the same clothes and ate the same food as we do – and did not speak the languages of our neighbors, or look or dress or eat, etc., like them. To be sure, we knew our Gods intimately – they were part of our family life, part of our personal lives – they dwelled with us in our cities and villages and in our own homes, and they dwelled in us in our hearts and minds and bodies. But we also knew that the same was true of our neighbors, and even of our enemies, of all humanity everywhere. And we also knew that this had always been true from the dawn of humanity.
T. Thorn Coyle recently said on her blog: “My religion is connection.” It sent a shiver down my spine when I read that. This has always been so for Pagans. Our religion, today, connects us with all humanity, and also with the past of humanity – for as long as there have been humans there has been this dance with the Gods that we call Paganism – or call it what you will. As Julian, the Pagan, said “without having it taught us” we feel our connection to each other and to the Gods.