[This is another post in the series on What is Paganism? It is also to some extent inspired by and a response to Chas Clifton’s recent (and very interesting) Draft Paper In the Mists of Avalon.]
Religious Continuities and Discontinuities
Religious sects often exaggerate the length and nobility of their pedigrees and especially the seamless continuity of their sacred histories — while downplaying any recent innovations or embarrassing gaps. But even when wielded as a supposedly objective conceptual tool applied by scholars of religion, the phrase “continuous tradition” is inevitably applied very selectively, indeed, arbitrarily. What would happen if the “continuous tradition” idea was applied consistently to all religions?
Take Christianity, for example. The “founder” of that religion had no intention of “founding” a new religion at all. Jesus was an observant Jew as were all of his disciples. So right from the start there is a very clear and unbridgeable discontinuity between Christianity and Christ.
Another abrupt discontinuity came when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, a historical event that completely changed the fundamental nature of Christianity as it had existed for the previous two (plus) centuries. Prior to Constantine, Christianity was a theological free for all, characterized not so much by a great diversity of views as by an atmosphere of perpetual sectarian rancor among grouplets that had nothing but contempt for each other. None of the beliefs that are currently accepted by all of the main sects of Christianity today were agreed upon then, and at least one central Christian tenet, “original sin”, still had not yet even been dreamt up. Even the very nature of Jesus himself was up for grabs. Many ante-Nicene Christians held that Jesus was either just a man or that he was purely divine with no human nature at all. Holding either of those beliefs, or any other beliefs at odds with the Nicene creed, became a crime punishable by death in the year 381 under the Emperor Theodosius (although the creed itself had been first formulated in 325, the year after Constantine became sole Emperor).
Even if we focus only on “orthodox” Christianity there is a jarring discontinuity when it gained political power. Prior to Constantine, what came to be known as orthodox Christianity was just one of many competing sects, each of which had to rely solely on such things as the persuasive power of their arguments and the perceived validity of the religious experience that they offered. After gaining the power to do so, however, the Orthodox Christians became ruthless, indeed murderous, oppressors who gloried in the use of savage violence to impose their ideas on others — and they not only bragged about doing so, but they enshrined their use of violent coercion explicitly in their theology.
Another discontinuity in Christianity came with the so-called Protestant Reformation. Both Luther and Calvin renounced any historical continuity with the Catholic Church, which was seen by both “reformers” as a literally Satanic institution whose no conceivable relationship with genuine Christianity. But prior to the Reformation the Christian religion had been synonymous with “the Church” for over a thousand years! And yet who (seriously) insists that only adherents of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (and maybe Copts and Ethiopians …) are Christians, while Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. must be referred to, and must refer to themselves as “Neochristians”?
Ancient Pagan religious traditions also provide clear exceptions to the red herring of “continuous tradition”. An important example is the cult of Pan in Athens, which according to Herodotus was dormant at the time of the epiphany granted to the runner Pheidippides on the eve of the Battle of Marathon (an epiphany that began with Pan chiding Pheidippides and his fellow Athenians for neglecting him). In fact, a God like Pan is essentially impossible to honor within a rigidly institutionalized cult. One cannot even build Temples or any other permanent structures for Him. The only acceptable sacred spaces for Pan are natural caves, or other places provided by Nature herself with no assistance from human hands. And so after the Battle of Marathon the Athenians revived Pan’s cult and dedicated a natural cave in the side of the hill of the Acropolis to the Horned God.
Now it should be obvious that no self-respecting Pagan, ancient or modern, would ever simply “invent” a new Deity out of thin air, let alone worship such an “invented” or “new” Goddess or God. But as examples like that of the Athenian cult of Pan show, this still leaves plenty of room for innovations. The importation of “foreign” Gods is another important phenomenon. How much “continuity” is there between the ancient traditional Egyptian worship of Isis, and the cosmopolitan and even highly philosophized Hellenistic Mystery Religion of Isis that stretched as far north as Britain?
Indeed, ancient Pagans openly acknowledged the spread of cults from one place to another, but it was understood that when this happened, the fact that a cult was “newly arrived” did not indicate that either the Deity or the cult were really “new” at all. I don’t see how this point could be made any more clear than it is in Euripides’ Bakkhai, or, for that matter, in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, written a thousand years later. Dionysos was not only portrayed as a wandering, indeed “conquering”, God in works of literature, it is well known that wandering priests traveled about carrying “the good news” of “the son of God” far and wide.
And yet to some extent the cult of Magna Mater in Rome, for example, could have been considered a “New Religious Movement” in the late third century BC. And no one would claim that this Roman cult was a simple and straightforward “continuation” of the Phrygian cult of Matar. Similarly, when the worship of the wandering God Bacchus came to Rome it was seen as new and foreign and, by many, quite unwelcome. And then over time the status of the worship of Bacchus went from “new, foreign and unwelcome cult”, to “banned cult”, to “tolerated but disliked cult”, to “established cult”. One last example is the strange career of Mercurius ter Maximus, aka Hermes Trismegistus, aka “Thoth the great, the great, the great” — that quintessentially cosmopolitan and ever-changing God whose bag of tricks and array of disguises allowed this Pagan God to walk openly down the boulevards, so to speak, of Medieval Europe.
It should be emphasized that the natural dynamics of ancient Paganism, long before Jesus came along, included both (1) the decline of cults into dormancy followed by their subsequent revival, and (2) the importation of cults from foreign lands, which would then take on forms quite different from that known in their “native” lands.
Here’s one more example of how problematic the insistence on “continuity” can be. Zen Buddhism traces it’s history back to the semi-legendary Indian teacher Bodhidharma, who traveled to China and founded the Ch’an sect of Buddhism. Of course Bodhidharma never said anything about founding a new sect of Buddhism, and no one called his teaching “Ch’an Buddhism” at the time. And it should also be unsurprising that Zen Buddhists naturally do not “stop” at Bodhidharma, but rather claim that the teachings and practice of Zen are traceable all the way back to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni.
Bottom line: there is simply no well-defined, objective criterion that makes modern Paganism less rooted in the past than, say, Presbyterianism. Only by arbitrarily applying a criterion to Paganism that is not applied (or is not applied in the same way) to other religions, can it be claimed that modern Paganism is especially deficient in terms of our roots.
“… certain types of ancient religion …”
In a recent Draft Paper titled In the Mists of Avalon: How Contemporary Paganism Dodges the ‘Crisis of History’, noted Pagan scholar Chas Clifton (still …) claims that “Contemporary Pagan traditions … are rooted neither in a long-standing religious tradition nor in a relationship with the land.”
I will leave aside for now our “relationship with the land”, and focus on the claim that modern Pagans are not “rooted” in any “long-standing religious tradition”. This makes it sounds very much like Clifton still believes, as Ronald Hutton once proclaimed, that modern and ancient Paganism “have nothing in common other than the name”. The thing is, though, it turns out that Hutton subsequently discovered (surprise!) there were, in fact, “certain types of ancient religion which far more closely resembled [modern] Paganism , had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it.” [Witches, Druids and King Arthur p. 87]
And where had these obscure ancestors of modern Paganism been hiding? Certainly they must have been deep down in their warrens to have evaded the detection of Ronald Hutton (and apparently they are still evading Clifton). Well one of these Pagans was a famous Roman Emperor, and several others were among the most famous names in the history of ancient philosophy and classical literature. And what were the obscure “types of ancient religion” that they practiced? Why they worshipped the Olympian Gods and sacrificed at the ancient Pagan Temples of Athens, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, etc. But surely they must have based their bizarre avant-garde cults on esoteric proto-Etruscan poetry written on buried pot sherds in hieroglyphics that are indecipherable to this day even by experts? No? They quoted Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle – works freely and easily available in English translation to anyone with an internet connection? You don’t say!
And even if it were the case, as Hutton desperately argues in his Witches, Druids and King Arthur (Chapter Four: The New Old Paganism) that those “certain types or religion” from which modern Paganism is descended were either (1) “detached from the masses and usually disempowered” or (2) a “new kind of ancient paganism” that differed fundamentally from “traditional” ancient Paganism — it would not matter. Why wouldn’t it matter? Because Christianity was both socially marginalized and quite new to the scene at the time when Apuleius was a high ranking priest in Carthage and Ammonius Saccas was teaching Platonic philosophy in Alexanderia. And, therefore, it is not possible, without abandoning even a pretense of consistency, to claim that modern Paganism is any more of a “New Religious Movement” than Roman Catholicism is!
At this late stage of the game I find it hard to understand why anyone is still buying what Clifton is selling. Modern Paganism has roots going back to well before the reign of Constantine, back to a time when Christianity as we know it today had not yet come into being. And we have every reason to take pride in these roots: we have the staggering philosophical accomplishments of Ammonius, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus; the intimate and magical religion of Apuleius of Madaurus and Apollonius of Tyana; the enduring prose of Longus and Heliodorus; the esoteric poetic extravagance of Statius and Valerius Flaccus, etc. We also have the principled calls for religious tolerance from Celsus and Julian, who spoke from positions of relative power with respect to the Christians, whose rights they defended. (Where are the similar voices from Christians in power calling for toleration? They did not even tolerate each other – they did not even pretend to.)
Pagans need to start learning the real history of our real ancestors — who already considered their sacred traditions incredibly ancient long before the Galileans came along. To put it as simply as possible: Paganism does have a real history, and this is a history we need neither “dodge” nor apologize for. Nor need we fear any “crisis” as a result of genuine scholarship. We are not end-time fundamentalists. Our religion does not require the acceptance of untruths, and it never has. At the same time Pagans are perfectly free to believe, and encourage others to believe, nonsense. But that is the price of freedom.
And as much as we all loved Mists of Avalon and Stranger in a Strange Land, the history of Paganism has far more to do with ancient religious traditions that long preceded Christianity, than it does with our favorite science fiction and fantasy novels!
We need to embrace those who practiced those “certain types of ancient religion” that even Ronald Hutton can no longer deny the reality of: they are our spiritual ancestors. Unless we understand our connection with our ancestors we cannot understand who we are. It really is just like the historian Howard Zinn once said:
If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody … can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.