e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Paganism is not a European religion, Part Deux

I would like to return briefly to the issue of the non-European-ness of Paganism (look here to see my previous post on this subject, written back in June of ’09).

More than anything else I would simply like to encourage Pagans (and anyone else interested in an intellectual understanding of what Paganism is) to get their hands on the book Ancient Religions, edited by Sarah Iles Johnston, and to read it. Johnston, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Professor of Greek and Latin at the Ohio State University, is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking Hekate Soteira. She has also written or edited volumes on Medea, Ancient Greek Divination, Orphic Dionysianism, and other subjects of acute interest to modern Pagans (or at least to this one).

The publishers blurb for Ancient Religions reads as follows:

Religious beliefs and practices, which permeated all aspects of life in antiquity, traveled well-worn routes throughout the Mediterranean: itinerant charismatic practitioners journeying from place to place peddled their skills as healers, purifiers, cursers, and initiators; and vessels decorated with illustrations of myths traveled with them. New gods encountered in foreign lands by merchants and conquerors were sometimes taken home to be adapted and adopted. This collection of essays by a distinguished international group of scholars, drawn from the groundbreaking reference work Religion in the Ancient World, offers an expansive, comparative perspective on this complex spiritual world.

An “expansive comparative perspective” is, unfortunately, exactly the opposite of the perspective with which many Pagans today, especially those who consider themselves “reconstructionists” and/or fans of Ronald Hutton, look at our Pagan past. Although the majority of these Pagans don’t even realize that they have enlisted themselves (on the wrong side, no less) in the ongoing intellectual conflict between comparativism and anti-comparativism.

As Johnston notes in her Introduction, whereas modern westerners take it for granted that, at least in theory, we have a wide variety of religious alternatives to choose from if we are so inclined,

Only relatively recently, however, have scholars recognized the extent to which ancient peoples, as well, were exposed to a diversity of religions, both indigenous and imported — or even, indeed, acknowledged that ancient peoples were exposed to a diversity of cultural influences of any kind. The historical reasons for this failure [until recently — on the part of modern scholarship] are political and ideological, as well as intellectual, among which three are especially interesting, as Walter Burkert and other scholars have shown (see esp. Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution). First, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, following a long period during which scholars of the Bible and of classical antiquity had taken cultural interaction in the ancient Mediterranean for granted, the boundaries between academic fields were redrawn in universities, and what we now call classics and theology strove to assert themselves as independent entities. As they did so, each one naturally stressed the grandeur and achievements of the cultures it represented — respectively, ancient Greece and Rome, and the ancient Near East. Second, at about the same time, Romantic nationalism developed. In their desire to show that particular myths, literatures, and forms of religion could be tied to particular ancient cultures that served as models for contemporary nation-states, Romantic nationalists not only discouraged any assumption of cross-cutural influences within the ancient Mediterranean, but also brought new energy to the old quest of tracking the specific, discrete origins of each cultures practices and ideas. Finally, and also at about the same time, notions about a lost “pre-language,” shared by the Greeks, Romans, Germans, and other “Aryan” peoples — but not by the Semites — crystallized into the proposal for the language we now cal “Indo-European.”
[p. viii]

The source that Johnston cites, Burkert’s The Orientalizing Revolution, was originally published in 1984 in German as Die orientalisierende Epoche in der griechischen Religion und Literatur. Between the first German edition and the revised expanded English edition in 1992 there appeared Martin Bernal‘s 1987 Black Athena: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985. The furor and outrage that greeted Bernal’s Black Athena significantly effected the reception of Burkert’s Orientalizing Revolution. Compared to Bernal, who was widely viewed as a bomb-throwing leftist cultural warrior, Burkert was seen as a refined and cautious scholar. This was largely due to style and timing, since the main theses of the two books broadly overlap. In fact, by 1992 Burkert felt emboldened to go futher than he had in 1984, and this is reflected in the title itself: the Orientalizing “Epoch” had become the Orientalizing “Revolution”!

In fact it’s quite interesting to look at the Introduction to Burkert’s book to see the original inspiration for what Johsnton says above:

The Greeks had become of their own identity as separate from that of the “Orient” when they succeeded in repelling the attacks of the Persian empire. But not until much later, during the crusades, did the concept and the term Orient actually enter the languages of the West. This fact hardly explains why even today it should be difficult to undertake unprejudiced discussion of connections between classical Greece and the East. But whoever tries will encounter entrenched positions, uneasiness, apology if not resentment. What is foreign and unknown is held at a distance by an attitude of wary defensiveness.

To a large extent this is the result of an intellectual development which began more than two centuries ago and took root especially in Germany. Increasing specialization of scholarship converged with ideological protectionism, and both constructed an image of a pure, classical Greece in splendid isolation. Until well into the eighteenth century, as long as philology was closely connected with theology, the Hebrew Bible naturally stood next to the Greek classics, and the existence of cross-connections did not present any problems. Jephtha’s daughter and Iphigenia were interchangeable models in the realm of oprea; Iapetos was traced to Japheth, the Kabeiroi to a Semitic designation for “great gods”, and the “East” was found in the name of Kadmos the Phoenician
[pp. 1-2 ]

Johnston delicately points out that despite significant advances in knowledge during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ideology continued to dominate the study of ancient cultures with the result being the emphasis of “the unique character of each Mediterranean culture” to the detriment of recognizing commonalities. Although Johnston feels compelled to, inaccurately, insist that this was the case “particularly in Germany”, the fact is that “racial theories” were, at the very least, an acceptable part of mainstream intellectual discourse throughout the West. It only needs to be pointed out that segregation was widespread throughout the United States prior to, throughout, and even after WWII — and this was not just in the South.

[I also discuss Johnston’s book Ancient Religions in this previous post: Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux. In addition I dashed off a flurry of posts when this issue became something of a hot topic due to some stupid things said during the recent World Parliament of Religions: Everyone Already Knows What Paganism Is, Paganism Is Indigenous and Very Old , But It Is Not European, and Are Pagans At The Parliament Sleeping With The Enemy?]

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