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

Category Archives: What is Paganism?

>What Is Paganism? Some Reliable Sources

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Modern Scholars on Ancient Paganism

Below are brief overviews of five major works on historical Paganism by contemporary scholars. In the next post there will be five more. Each of these ten books provides a wealth of information and insight that will greatly assist anyone interested in a better understanding of what the word “Pagan” actually means, by way of understanding those who were the first to be called “Pagans”. Some of these selections are more challenging than others, and they tend to become more difficult as one goes down the list.

  1. Religions of the Ancient World edited by Sarah Iles Johnston
  2. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken
  3. The Morality of Happiness by Julia Annas
  4. Religion in the Roman Empire by James B. Rives
  5. Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam by Robert G. Hoyland
  6. Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture by Walter Burkert
  7. Religion in Late Roman Britain by Dorothy Watts
  8. Athenian Religion: A History by Robert Parker
  9. Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, edited by Scott Noegel, Joel Walker, and Brannon Wheeler
  10. Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets By Fritz Graf, Sarah Iles Johnston


1.  Religions of the Ancient World edited by Sarah Iles Johnston.

Sarah Iles Johnston

This anthology consists of standalone chapters written by scholars who are experts in the areas they write on, but the chapters are intended for a general (intelligent and curious) audience. Topics include: “What is ancient mediterranean religion?”, by Fritz Graf; “Monotheism and Polytheism”, by Jan Assmann; “Religions in contact” by John Scheid; and separate chapters on “Mysteries” and “Magic” by Sarah Iles Johnston. Also includes separate chapters on specific cultures including Egypt (Jan Assmann and David Frankfurter); Mesopotamia (by Paul-Alain Beaulieu); Israel (John J. Collins); Etruria (Oliver de Cazanove), and more.

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 callclassics 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]

I have written previously in this blog about this treasure trove of a book in these two posts:
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Paganism is not a European religion, Part Deux

2. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, by Robert Louis Wilken

A modern day Christian theologian takes a startlingly honest look at how ancient Pagans viewed the new religion of Christianity and its early followers. If you read this book with the right frame of mind it is a textbook of anti-apologetics. In fact, the Japanese translation of the book has sold well primarily due to its popularity among people in Japan who are adamantly opposed to the spread of Christianity in their country (Japan has so far proven admirably resistant to the blood cult of Jebus, thank the Gods). Wilken gives surprisingly good summaries of the main criticisms leveled at the Christians by Celsus, Porphyry and Julian. Sometimes you have to filter out the predictable bullshit, though, like Wilken’s idiotic claim that Christians engaged Pagans in a “dialogue” concerning their differences, when in fact the Christians were only interested in murdering their opponents and burning their writings.

Here is a very positive review from a perspective sympathetic to ancient Paganism.
And here is another positive review from a rather different perspective, published in the Christian journal Theology Today.
Another Christian review of the book, this one published by the Associated Baptist Press.
And yet another Christian review (from the jollyblogger blog).
Finally, here is a blog post on Robert Louis Wilken by the always interesting Arturo Vasquez (this is based on a talk that Wilken gave at Notre Dame in 2009 on the topic of “Reading St. Augustine in the 21st Century”).

3. The Morality of Happiness by Julia Annas

My favorite go-to source on the subject of Pagan Ethics is a big, fat book with the very catchy title of The Morality of Happiness, by Julia Annas, Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona.

The main point of the book, and the reason behind its catchy title, is to present to a broad, albeit intelligent and motivated, audience (without assuming much, or even any, previous study of classical philosophy) the ancient Pagan approach to ethics. This classical approach, very widely held among Pagans in the Greco-Roman world, was based on the Greek concept of eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), which literally means “good spirit”, but which can also be translated simply as happiness. That is to say, eudaimonism refers to “happiness-based” ethics.

But is it possible to base an ethical philosophy on the simple human desire to be happy? Not only is this possible, but the greatest philosophers of the ancient Pagan world were close to unanimous in their view that this was the only proper basis for ethics. This attitude is in turn based on the (happy) assumption that human beings are naturally drawn to what is good (agathos, ἀγαθός) and beautiful (kalos, καλός). Therefore, in order to act ethically (that is, in order to live well), human beings need only act in accordance with our true nature.

The great strength of eudaimonistic ethics is that it seeks to work with human nature rather than against it. The three great difficulties of eudaimonism, however, are (1) discovering what this “true” nature of ours really is, (2) demonstrating that this nature is genuinely “good”, and doing so in a way that is convincing enough so that we can be genuinely confident that acting in accordance with our true nature is the same as living well, and (3) explaining how it is that we do not already act in accordance with Nature.

Here are several relevant links:

4. Religion in the Roman Empire by James B. Rives

This is an excellent overview of the truly vast subject of Roman Paganism. While Rives for the most part avoids the term “Pagan”, he explains in the Introduction to the book that his use of the word “Religion” as opposed to “Religions” in the book’s title is deliberate and is meant to convey Rives’ own contention that to speak of “religions” in this context “is fundamentally misleading.” Rives then goes on to say that

“The diversity of religion in the Roman world was not that of separate and distinct ‘religions,’ each with its own set of core beliefs adn principles and its particular scriptures, clergy, shrines, rituals, and customs …. on a fundamental level the various religious traditions of the 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.”
[pp. 5-6]

A while back I wrote three posts consisting mostly of excerpts from a paper by Rives on the subject of “Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology”: Part One (Exclusivity); Part Two (Homogeneity); and Part Three (Totalization).

Also, here is a review of the book at BMCR, and here is another review at the rogueclassicism blog. And below is an excerpt from a review by Ursus at the Roman Reconstructionist website UNRV.com:

Rives offers the viewer some interesting ways of looking at polytheism. He divides polytheistic reality into several layers – cult, myth, art and philosophy – and looks at each one in turn. He explores how polytheism was experienced by individuals, households, private organizations and city-states. He documents the mobility of both worshipers and deities themselves under the aegis of the Pax Romana. Rives showcases some of the off color religious options in the classical world, such as esoteric mystical sects and freelance magicians. Finally, he looks at sources of authority in the classical world and how they imposed themselves (or not, as the case may be) on society.

Rives correctly assesses that polytheism was, by and large, a social and cultural experience, rather than an individual experience. Religion was something experienced by families, tribes or city-states and was integral to daily life, not separate from it. The religious authorities in the classical world were also, by and large, the same socio-economic elite who directed civil matters (exceptions, such as the Druids with their authority stemming from mastery of arcane lore, were treated with suspicion). Religion was therefore participating in communal life, and placating those powers thought to preside over communal life. While there were cults with different presumptions, they always operated either parallel to the civic cults or on the fringes, never quite replacing civic religion. The scope and practice of religion in the classical world was therefore entirely different from what modern Westerners experience today.

Rives writes for a general audience and is a delight to read. Those with little exposure to classical religion should be able to easily follow this clearly written and highly organized work. He offers no pre-conceptions about either polytheism or monotheism and writes with complete academic objectivity, something all too often rare in religious commentary. Aiding the work is an extended bibliography, glossary, maps, illustrations and topical inserts. This work is highly recommended for those wishing to acquaint themselves with classical religion.

Hoyland’s book is included here primarily because of the chapter devoted to “Religion”, which is nearly 30 pages long. Here is an excerpt:
In monotheism the sacred is concentrated in one omnipotent and omniscient entity, whereas in polytheism it is diffused over a wide range of beings, places, objects, practices and human personnel. In reality there is both seepage in most monotheisms, with saints and shrines and the like tending to proliferate, and some telescoping on the part of many polytheisms, with one God often being preferred over the others. But the difference between the two is real and substantial.
Firstly, in pre-modern societies that had not secularised public life and relegated religion to the private domain, monotheism is by nature intolerant and intransigent. For there to be only one true God all the other must be impotent frauds, and those who worship them are not just in error, but damned, and should be fought or at the very least shunned. If you believe in many Gods however, there is no reason to be hostile to Gods not your own, nor any bar to paying them and their faithful your respects. When you enter a village, swear by its Gods” as the old Arabian proverb goes.
Second, the words of a unique omnipotent God must needs be the absolute Truth, in the light of which its recipients should therefore regulate their lives and interpret their world. Polytheism, on the other hand, is neither so unitary nor so coherent. It is rather a variegated worldview, one capable of eliciting a rich and subtle range of meanings from a multi-faceted reality, one desirous of understanding and influencing the many and varied ways the natural world impinges upon us . . . .
[T]he sophisticated civilization of south Arabia had the most developed pantheon in Arabia with the names of over one hundred deities featuring in the surviving inscriptions, though many of these probably represent different aspects of manifestations of the same God. ‘Athtar almost always occupies first place in lists and his cult was spread throughout the region. Moreover, in one text we find a worshipper thanking another God for “interceding on his behalf with ‘Athtar”, confirming that he enjoyed a certain primacy . . . .
The patron diety (shym) of a people was of more immediate significance in south Arabia than the remoter figure of ‘Athtar. The four principle peoples had as their patrons Almaqah (Sabeans), Wadd (Minaeans), ‘Amm (Qatabanians) and Sayin (Hadramites), and each people was collectively termed the “children” of their respective patron deity. The last would be characterised as the “lord” of the shrine that served as the cultic centre for his people (e.g. “Almaqah lord of Awwam”, the principle temple in Marib) . . . .
In less complex societies than south Arabia the pantheon might be much smaller and the patron deity might assume a particularly prominent place. Thus the inhabitants of the fertile oasis of Dedan turned to Dhu Ghaba, “the master of the grove”, for their needs and rarely to any other. The Minaean God Wadd appears in a few inscriptions, but these are presumably attributable to the Minaean colony that ran trade operations in the oasis. Then there is Kutba (or Aktab), God of writing, who is probably related to a Babylonian scribal deity, perhaps brought to northwest Arabia by the Babylonian monarch Nabonidus. But other Gods are mentioned no more than once or twice, probably invoked by travellers passing through rather than native worshippers.
The Nabataeans were similarly loyal to Dushara, “the master of the Shara”, the mountain range encompassing their capital Petra, and “the God of our lord … the king of the Nabataeans”. At Petra itself the only very popular deity was al-‘Uzza, “the mighty Goddess”, who is celebrated both in texts and and in artistic representations. However the Nabataeans were rulers of a kingdom, and in the territories they controlled many other deities were worshipped, such as Hubal and Manat in Hijaz, and Allat in the Hawran and the Syrian desert.
Moreover, as international merchants, they were exposed to many foreign influences, and it is not therefore surprising top find that the cult of the Egyptian Goddess Isis was widespread in Nabataea . . . .
Palmyra was a special case, for it possessed a very cosmopolitan population, many members of which had brought their Gods with them, and by virtue of its location had long been exposed to a number of different cultures, which had left their mark on its religious life. Hence a great diversity of deities jostle for position in the city’s epigraphic record. The best documented cult, since AD 32 at least, was that of the divine triad Bel, Yahribol and Aglibol. Bel emerged as a supreme God, while Yahribol, an ancestral deity of the oasis, and Aglibol, a deity of a north Syrian immigrant community, became his acolytes. However, Bel continued to associate with other divinities, such as the sun God Shamash and in particular his female partner Herta. We also hear of the ancient Canannite/Phoenician deity Ba’alshamin, the Arab Goddess Allat, the Mesopotamian deity Nergal and so on.
[Robert G. HoylandArabia and the Arabspp. 139-142]

>Hypatia (Honoring our Pagan Ancestors, Part Two)

>This is a post on Hypatia of Alexandria (c.370-415 AD), in commemoration of Samhain, a traditional Pagan holiday dedicated to the honoring of our ancestors. It is a follow-up to another post: Honoring Our Pagan Ancestors.

Even before her murder, which sent shockwaves throughout the Roman world (stretching from the Middle East to Britain), Hypatia was without a doubt the most celebrated Alexandrian intellectual of her day. And it must be remembered that Alexandria was the cultural center of gravity of the οἰκουμένη (oikoumene) or the “known world”, as it had been for over seven centuries. And the man responsible for Hypatia’s murder, Cyril, the appropriately titled “Patriarch” of Alexandria, was one of the most powerful, almost certainly the most ruthless, and perhaps the most influential Christian of the day.

Although she represents all that is best in Paganism, and he all that is worst in Christianity, it is my opinion that they are each truly representative of their respective religious traditions, and, more specifically, that her brutal murder is also representative of the wider conflict between those two traditions.

Three scholars who have studied this period as close as any are Edward Gibbon, J.B. Bury, and Ramsay MacMullen, and the fact is that it is an almost grotesque understatement to put it this way. What is not an understatement is to say that, at least in the English language, the literature on late Roman history can be neatly divided into two categories: (1) the writings of Gibbon, Bury and MacMullen, and (2) everything else.

The remainder of this post will consist of excerpts from the writings of these three historians. The images in this post are all from the movie Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia and Sami Samir as Cyril.

1. From Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries:

It used to be thought that, at the end, the eradication of paganism really required no effort. The empire in its waning generations had suffered decline not only material but spiritual. Of itself, “paganism had by late antiquity become little more than a hollow husk.” [MacMullen is here quoting a 1995 article by New York Times art critic Pepe Karmel: “Persistence of pagan myth in modern imagination“] To replace it, only a preferable alternative was needed which, when supplied and explained, over the course of time inevitably found acceptance. But historians seem now to have abandoned this interpretation (even if, outside their ranks, it persists for a time). The real vitality of paganism is instead recognized; and to explain its eventual fate what must also be recognized is an opposing force, an urgent one, determined on its extinction. Such a force is easily felt in Christian obedience to the divine commands of both Testaments, calling for the annihilation of all error. It was this that controlled the flow of religious history from the fourth century on.
Long before it could be expressed in actions, urgency was clear in the way Christian writers described paganism. From the start, it is not easy to find in the whole of their literature a matter-of-fact, uncolored reference to its beliefs or rituals or (of course, especially) the actual images of gods. Some touch of denigration is almost always added. We might suppose Christians therefore lived in a fog of dark disapproval which they were supposed to breath in and make a part of themselves, if they listened to their leaders or read their works, while of course living also in a mist of love — for each other. Needless to say they could not all, in each moment, respond as they were bid. Instead they responded only in fits and bits, as one might expect, not always with outrage toward their unbelieving neighbors nor ever-charitably toward their own fellows. Periodic outbursts, however, of hate-filled mob or gang violence after the mid-fourth century are indeed recorded — reference will be made to them in what follows — and the role of the church leadership in exciting them is clear. The leaders’ appeals could be heard over a general background of terms such as “mad,” “laughable,” “loathsome,” “disgusting,” “contaminating,” “wicked,” “ignorant,” and so forth, characteristic of ancient invective and freely applied by Christians to everything religious that was not also Christian. More to the fore were specific demands for aggressive action by fulminating synods or individual zealots, of whom I may pick out Firmicus Maternus in 346, adjuring the emperors, “Little remains, before the Devil shall lie utterly prostrate, overthrown by Your laws, and the lethal infection of a vanquished idolatry shall be no more. . . . The favoring numen of Christ has reserved for Your hands the annihilation of idolatry and the destruction of profane temples.” Adjuration rises to a shout: “Abolish! abolish in confidence, most holy emperors, the ornaments of temples. . . . Upon You, most holy emperors, necessity enjoins the avenging and punishing of this evil, . . . so that Your Severities persecute root and branch, omnifarum, the crime of idol worship. Harken and impress upon Your sacred minds what God commands regarding this crime” (and he goes on to work up Deut. 13.6-9, “If thy brother, son, daughter, or wife entice thee secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods, . . . . thou shall surely kill” them). A little more focused than Firmicus’ exhortations will be the legislation of the time with its own version of inflammatory name-calling, for example, aimed at “pagans and their heathen enormities, since with their natural insanity and stubborn insolence they depart from the path of the true religion . . . [in] nefarious rites of their sacrifices and false doctrines of their deadly superstition.” At the end, most sharply of all, specific injunctions on specific occasions by leaders to particular audiences. John Chrysostom by letter to the monks or Augustine to his congregation, demanded action.
Firmicus was writing toward the turn of that point where appeals for toleration also change, from the Christian to the non-Christian. Ecclesiastical leaders now began to exercise their superior powers proportionately against their various enemies; what had been words, earlier, became reality and event. Among those enemies, not to be forgotten, were Jews and Manichees against whom laws and arms were turned in about the same period and manner, while sectarian rivalries within the church continued unabated and with freer use of force, now that it was safe (so, in the century opened by the Peace of the Church, more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions). These areas of religious strife I recall only to make plain in other ways the great urgency lying behind those Old and New Testament commands cited above, which would allow no truce with error. Christians might point with envy to the concordia that prevailed among non-Christians, just as non-Christians pointed with amazement at the murderous intolerance within the now dominant religion; but there could be no compromise with the Devil.
Christian readiness for action carried to no matter what extremes has not always received the acknowledgment it deserves in modern accounts of the period. Among them, prior to the 1980’s, readers will be hard put to find Firmicus’ word “persecution” describing the conduct of the Christian empire toward tis non-Christian subjects. Instead, they will find a reference to that happy moment in 312 “when the era of persecutions ended [!] and Christianity became publicly established in the Later Roman Empire.” Still in the 1990s, congratulation is made on the process of converting the ancient empire “without society tearing itself apart . . . . the fourth century said goodbye to religious strife.” [The first part of the quote is from Stephen Wilson’s Introduction to his Saints and their Cults (1983), while the second is from R.M. Price’s “Pluralism and Religious Tolerance in the Empire in the Fourth Century”, which is published in Papers presented at the 11th International Conference on Patristic Studies (1993).]
The lynching of Hypatia took place toward the beginning of the fifth century (A.D. 415). Her fate is illuminating. It may be recalled that, snatched from the street by a mob of zealots in Alexandria, she was hacked to death in the gloom of the so-called Caesar-church and her body burned. She was a non-Christian and a prominent voice for her views; she had become the focus of the patriarch Cyril’s resentment; the lector had caught his master’s wishes and led the crowd that killed her. All this seems certain. In the background, explaining Cyril’s heat, were the indirectly connected Greek-Jewish tensions in the city and the patriarch’s and the provincial governor’s conflict over their respective followings and strength. In the contest between these two, the patriarch called on his parabalani, church workers with some muscle, as well as hundreds of monks from the Nitrian wilds with still more muscle. The monks shouted against the governor [Orestes] and stoned him, though he escaped alive. They constituted, with the civil and episcopal authorities and nameless zealots, the available agents of that reforming urgency which governed religious change in the centuries post-400, all conveniently seen in action in the drama that ends with the death of Hypatia.

In the first years of his pontificate his chief objects were to exalt his own authority above that of the civil governor of Egypt, the Augustal Prefect, and to make Alexandria an irreproachably Christian city by extirpating paganism which still flourished in its schools, and by persecuting the Jews who for centuries had formed a large minority of the population. He was an ecclesiastical tyrant of the most repulsive type, and the unfortunate Hypatia was the most illustrious of his victims.

Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a distinguished mathematician, who was a professor at the Museum or university of Alexandria. Trained in mathematics by her father, she left that pure air for the deeper and more agitating study of metaphysics, and probably became acquainted with the older Neoplatonism of Plotinus, which, in the Alexandrian Museum, had been transmitted untainted by the later developments of Porphyrius and Iamblichus. When she had completed her education she was appointed to the chair of philosophy, and her extraordinary talents, combined with her beauty, made her a centre of interest in the cultivated circles at Alexandria, and drew to her lecture-room crowds of admirers. Her free and unembarrassed intercourse with educated men and the publicity of her life must have given rise to many scandals and backbitings, and her own sex doubtless looked upon her with suspicion, and called her masculine and immodest. She used to walk in the streets in her academical gown (τρίβων, the philosopher’s cloak) and explain to all who wished to learn, difficulties in Plato or Aristotle. Of the influence of her personality on her pupils we have still a record in some letters of Synesius of Cyrene, who, although his studies under her auspices did not hinder him from adopting Christianity, always remained at heart a semi-pagan, and was devotedly attached to his instructress. That some of her pupils fell in love with her is not surprising, but Hypatia never married.

The cause of the tragic fate, which befell her in March A.D. 415, is veiled in obscurity. We know that she was an intimate friend of the pagan Orestes, the Prefect of Egypt; and she was an object of hatred to Cyril, both because she was an enthusiastic preacher of pagan doctrines and because she was the Prefect’s friend.

The hatred of the Jews for the Patriarch brought the strained relations between Cyril and Orestes to a crisis. On one occasion, seeing a notorious creature of Cyril present in an assembly, they cried out that the spy should be arrested, and Orestes gratified them by inflicting public chastisement on him. The menaces which Cyril, enraged by this act, fulminated against the Jews led to a bloody vengeance on the Christian population. A report was spread at night that the great church was on fire, and when the Christians flocked to the spot the Jews surrounded and massacred them. Cyril replied to this horror by banishing all Hebrews from the city and allowing the Christians to plunder their property, a proceeding which was quite beyond the Patriarch’s rights, and was a direct and insulting interference with the authority of Orestes, who immediately wrote a complaint to Constantinople. At this juncture 500 monks of Nitria, sniffing the savour of blood and bigotry from afar, hastened to the scene. These fanatics insulted Orestes publicly, one of them hitting him with a stone; in fact the governor ran a serious risk of his life. The culprit who hurled the missile was executed, and Cyril treated his body as the remains of a martyr.

It was then that Hypatia fell victim in the midst of these infuriated passions. One day as she was returning home she was seized by a band of parabalani [παράβολοι] or lay brethren, whose duty it was to tend the sick and who were under the supervision of the Patriarch. These fanatics, led by a certain Peter, dragged her to a church and, tearing off her garments, hewed her in pieces and burned the fragments of her body. The reason alleged in public for this atrocity was that she hindered a reconciliation between Orestes and Cyril; but the true motive, as Socrates tells us, was envy. This ecclesiastical historian does not conceal his opinion that Cyril was morally responsible.

There can be no doubt that public opinion was deeply shocked not only in Alexandria but also in Constantinople. Whatever Pulcheria and Atticus may have thought, the Praetorian Prefect Aurelian, who was the friend of her friend Synesius, must have been horrified by the fate of Hypatia. It would seem that the Empress found it impossible to act on the partial and opposite reports which were received from Orestes and Cyril, and a special commissioner, Aedesius, was sent to Alexandria to investigate the circumstances and assign the guilt. We have no direct information concerning his inquiry, but it would appear that it was long drawn out and it was publicly recognised that the parabalani were dangerous. The government consequently reduced the numbers of their corporation, forbade them to appear at games or public assemblies, and gave the Prefect authority over them. But within little more than a year the influence of Cyril at the pious court of Pulcheria elicited a new decree, which raised the number of the parabalani from 500 to 600 and restored them to the Patriarch’s authority. If condign punishment had been inflicted on the guilty we should probably have heard of it. The obscure murderers may have escaped, but “the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.”

[J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, pp. 216-219]
3. From Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XLVII

The name of Cyril of Alexandria is famous in controversial story, and the title of saint is a mark that his opinions and his party have finally prevailed. In the house of his uncle, the archbishop Theophilus, he imbibed the orthodox lessons of zeal and dominion, and five years of his youth were profitably spent in the adjacent monasteries of Nitria. Under the tuition of of the abbot Serapion, he applied himself to ecclesiastical studies with such indefatigable ardour, that in the course of one sleepless night he has perused the four Gospels, the Catholic epistles, and the epistle to the Romans. Origen he detested; but the writings of Clemens and Dionysius, of Athanasius and Basil, were continually in his hands: by the theory and practice of dispute, his faith was confirmed and his wit was sharpened; he extended round his cell the cobwebs of scholastic theology, and meditated the works of allegory and metaphysics, whose remains, in seven verbose folios, now peaceably slumber by the side of their rivals. Cyril prayed and fasted in the desert, but his thoughts (it is the reproach of a friend) were still fixed on the world; and the call of Theophilus, who summoned him to the tumult of the cities and synods, was too readily obeyed by the aspiring hermit. With the approbation of his uncle, he assumed the office and acquired the fame, of a popular preacher. His comely person adorned the pulpit, the harmony of his voice resounded in the cathedral, his friends were stationed to lead or second the applause of the congregation, and the hasty notes of the scribes preserved his discourses, which, in their effect, though not in their composition, might be compared with those of the Athenian orators. The death of Theophilus expanded and realized the hopes of his nephew. The clergy of Alexandria was divided; the soldiers and their general supported the claims of the archdeacon; but a restless multitude, with voices and with hands, asserted the cause of their favorite; and, after a period of thirty-nine years, Cyril was seated on the throne of Athanasius.
The prize was not unworthy of his ambition. At a distance from the court, and at the head of an immense capital, the partriarch, as he was now styled, of Alexandria had gradually usurped the state and authority of a civil magistrate. The public and private charities of the city were managed by his discretion; his voice inflamed or appeased the passions of the multitude; his commands were blindly obeyed by his numerous and fanatic parabolani, familiarized in their daily office with scenes of death; and the praefects of Egypt were awed or provoked by the temporal power of these Christian pontiffs. Ardent in the prosecution of heresy, Curial auspiciously opened his reign by oppressing the Novatians, the most innocent and harmless of sectaries. The interdiction of their religious worship appeared in his eyes a just and meritorious act; and he confiscated their holy vessels, without apprehending the guilt of sacrilege. The toleration, and even the privileges of the Jews, who had multiplied to the number of forty thousand, were secured by the laws of the Caesars and the Ptolemies, and a long prescription of seven hundred years since the foundation of Alexandria.

Without any legal sentence, without any royal mandate, the patriarch, at the dawn of day, led a seditious multitude to the attack of the synagogues. Unarmed and unprepared, the Jews were incapable of resistance; their houses of prayer were levelled with the ground, and the episcopal warrior, after rewarding his troops with the plunder of their goods, expelled from the city the remnants of the unbelieving nation. Perhaps he might plead the insolence of their prosperity and their deadly hatred of the Christians, whose blood they had recently shed in a malicious or accidental tumult. Such crimes would have deserved the animadversion of the magistrate; but in this promiscuous outrage, the innocent were confounded with the guilty, and Alexandria was impoverished by the loss of a wealthy and industrious colony. The zeal of Cyril exposed him to the penalties of the Julian law; but in a feeble government, and a superstitious age, he was secure of impunity, and even of praise. Orestes complained; but his just complaints were too quickly forgotten by the ministers of Theodosius, and too deeply remembered by a priest who affected to pardon, and continued to hate, the prefect of Egypt. As he [Orestes] passed through the streets, his chariot was assaulted by a band of five hundred of the Nitrian monks; his guards fled from the wild beasts of the desert; his protestations that he was a Christian and a Catholic were answered by a volley of stones, and the face of Orestes was covered with blood. The loyal citizens of Alexandria hastened to his rescue; he instantly satisfied his justice and revenge against the monk by whose hand he had been wounded, and Ammonius expired under the rod of the lictor. At the command of Cyril his body was raised from the ground, and transported, in solemn procession, to the cathedral; the name of Ammonius was changed to that of Thaumasius the wonderful; his tomb was decorated with the trophies of martyrdom, and the patriarch ascended the pulpit to celebrate the magnanimity of an assassin and a rebel. Such honours might incite the faithful to combat and die under the banners of the saint; and he soon prompted, or accepted, the sacrifice of a virgin, who professed the religion of the Greeks, and cultivated the friendship of Orestes. Hypatia, the daughter of Theon the mathematician, was initiated in her father’s studies: her learned comments have elucidated the geometry of Aollonius and Diophantus, and she publicly taught, both at Athens and Alexandria, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank or merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and Cyril beheld, with a jealous eye, the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy. A rumor was spread among the Christians that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the prefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season, of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader, and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of enquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts, bu the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.

>Honoring Our Pagan Ancestors

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“Have you not received from the Gods the faculties
which will enable you to bear all that happens to you?
Have you not received greatness of spirit?
Have you not received courage?
Have you not received endurance?”

[Epictetus, Discourses (Λόγοι), I.6]
Hypatia, being led to her death by Christian thugs.

Some we know by name, like Hypatia, Arbogast, Widukind, Krum, and Hercus. But we will never know the names of the vast majority of those who resisted and fought, openly or covertly, with sword and spear, with pen and parchment, or simply with their individual stubbornness and their private prayers, against the relentless onslaught of coercive Christianization.

If it had not been for those Pagans who stood their ground, who fought back, and who even when defeated continued to plot the next revolt, then there would be no point in modern Paganism at all. If our religious traditions had not been worth fighting for at the first encounter with the dark fantasies and darker fanaticism of the early Christians, then these Pagan traditions would certainly not be worth our attention, much less our devotion, today.

But our traditions were worth fighting for, or at least they were to some, and we should celebrate those who chose to fight rather than tamely submit. It is our duty to ensure that their sacrifice is not simply remembered, but that it is honored. A living religion must renew itself generation after generation. And part of that process of perpetual renewal for modern Pagans is retelling the old tales of these great-spirited women and men who are our spiritual ancestors in the truest sense.

Romano-British Temple at Frilford, probably built in the late
2nd century AD. The Temple appears to have been enlarged
during the 4th century and to have been in use at least
until the early 5th century.

Britain, in particular, is a place where Heathenry has fought back more than once against the advance of Christianity, and not without effectiveness. And not only the people of Britain, but the very land itself appears to have resisted Christianization, for even when the souls of its human inhabitants were being harvested by the missionaries with waning resistance, fresh Heathen reinforcements would arrive on her shores, as if called forth by the sacred stones and forests themselves, now that they were being deprived of their rightful worship.

Already during the brief reign of Julian from 360 – 363 AD, there was “a resurgence of [Pagan] temple building in the rural areas” of Roman Britain, according to Dorothy Watts in her Christians and Pagans in Roman Britain [p.140]. Watts also notes that “the demise of some presumed [Christian] churches coincides with this revival of Paganism.”

In addition to the reign of Julian, there was the later rebellion of Eugenius and Arbogast in the Western provinces from 392-394, and in her Religion in late Roman Britain: forces of change, Dorothy Watts writes that the “Pagan Revival of the Fourth Century” (the title of Chapter Two of that book), of which Julian and Arbogast are the leading lights, was able “to slow down the spread of Christianity in Britain and weaken the Church to the extent that it barely survived in the following two centuries.” [p. 23] Watts’ opinion is that, as a general rule, the tide of Christianization was “irreversible”, but that Britain was the exception: “There the survival of the Christian faith was not guaranteed.” [p. 37] In fact, Britain was the only one of the so-called successor states in which there was a large-scale reversion to Paganism after the “fall” of the Roman Empire in the west.

What remained of British Christianity after the Pagan resurgence of the late 4th century suffered an even greater blow than those delivered by Julian and Arbogast with the influx of large numbers of Heathen Anglo-Saxons during the 5th and 6th centuries. But then, like the Celtic Britons before them, the Anglo-Saxons began to be converted starting at the end of the 6th century, and by the end of the 7th century Christianity once again dominated Britain.

Frankish expansionism, 481 – 814 AD.

But while the Anglo-Saxon Heathens were restoring the worship of the Gods to large parts of Britain in the 5th century, Christianity was on the march to the south. Clovis I (466-511) unified the Franks, converted to Catholicism, and by the time of his death had extended his rule over much of Gaul. After that, the Franks continued to expand their overall territory, although the fragile political unity that Clovis had achieved was lost until the rise of the Carolingians.

Charles Martel once again unified the Franks under a single ruler in 718, although Pepin the Short was the first to openly proclaim himself King of the Franks, the title he held from 751 until his death in 768, when he was succeeded by his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman. The latter died just three years later, after which Charlemagne ruled alone.

The significance of a politically unified and constantly expanding Frankish imperial state that was not merely Christian, and not even merely Catholic, but which was closely allied with the Papacy, cannot be over-emphasized. Indeed, the so-called Carolingian period (beginning with Charles Martel) ushers in the era of the modern nation-state, and, in particular, the Western European nation-states which would, over the course of the next one thousand years, come to literally rule the world, while spreading their own distinctly European version of Christianity. But first, the Christian Franks had to fight their way through the Heathen Saxons.

Which brings us to 772, when, after repeated attempts by him and his father before him, Charlemagne finally succeeded in capturing and destroying the holy site of the Continental Saxons known as Irminsul. Despite this blow, the Saxons fought on. Then in 782 Charlemagne perpetrated the infamous Verden massacre, in which 4,500 Saxon warriors who had surrendered and laid down their weapons were first baptized, and then beheaded. This was followed by the enactment of the Capitulare de partibus Saxonie, “which imposed the death penalty on anyone who offended the Christian religion and its clergy, and in reality it constituted a program for the forced conversion of the Saxons.” [see here for sourcing and more]

In 785, Widukind, the war-leader of the Saxon Heathens, finally capitulated and submitted to baptism. But then in 793 the Saxons rose up in revolt once more. They burned churches, massacred priests, and organized new fighting units based deep in the sheltering forests.

“Or should they fight to defend their culture?”

Widukind the Saxon had had close relations with the Heathen Danes to his north (indeed, the Saxons probably had formal political ties with the highly organized Danes). More than once during the fierce Saxon resistance to Charlemagne, Widukind and others were given refuge by the Danes. The Saxon war-leader was also married to a Danish noble-woman, Geva Siegfriedsdottir, the sister of Siegfried the Dane.

Robert Ferguson, author of the 2009 book The Vikings: A History (published in the UK under the title The Hammer and the Cross), believes that there is a very real connection between Charlemagne’s fondness for spreading the Gospel at the point of a spear, and the sudden emergence out of Scandinavia of a strange new variety of Pagan warrior at the end of the 8th century: the Viking.

Ferguson has characterized Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons as “ethnic cleansing”, and notes that the Danes were well aware of such incidents as the Verden massacre. In Ferguson’s opinion, the Danes could have been in no doubt that they could look forward to the same treatment, and on behalf of those ancient Danish Heathens, Ferguson poses the very pointed questions: “Should the Vikings simply wait for Charlemagne’s armies to arrive and set about the task? Or should they fight to defend their culture?” But the Danes weren’t stupid, so instead of launching a frontal assault on the one unified, militarily powerful, Christian state in western Europe, they attacked elsewhere, and, in particular, they payed special attention to Britain. (Go here to listen to Ferguson explain all this in much greater depth in his own words, or, better yet, get his book and read it!)

I agree with Ferguson that it was no coincidence that as the Saxons, despite their ongoing, ferocious resistance (a resistance that would well outlast Charlemagne, as the Stellinga uprising of 841-845 attests), were being beaten into submission by the Christian Franks, the world witnessed the beginning of the Viking Age, during which British Christendom would, at least for a while, be rocked back on its heels yet again. Indeed, there would still be Heathenish Vikings in the British Isles who refused to convert to Christianity for at least two centuries after the fattened monks of Lindisfarne got their first taste of Danish steel in 793. And in the Scandinavian heartland, at least some Heathens were still stubbornly persisting in worshipping their old Gods into the 13th century.

As Winston Churchill said to his fellow inhabitants of the British Isles (and to the world), during the darkest days of the Nazi advance across the European continent, “Nations that go down fighting shall rise up again; those that surrender tamely are finished.” The season of Samhain should be, or so it seems to me, a time when Pagan hearts and minds turn to those Heroes — in the true, original, Pagan sense of the word — who refused to abandon their Gods (the same Gods still worshipped by Pagans today). Those women and men of old stood and fought because they possessed and put to good use those precious gifts of the Gods that the philosopher-slave Epictetus spoke of: greatness of spirit, courage, and endurance. The Christians were able to break their bodies, just as they smashed their idols, destroyed their temples, cut down their sacred groves, etc. But the Christians could not overcome, indeed they could not touch, the indomitable Spirit of our Pagan ancestors. And because they went down fighting, in truth Paganism has never been vanquished. Ours is not a religion without a past, and, indeed, it is our past that makes us Pagan.

Also see the follow-up post specifically on Hypatia, and also: “Those that are most stubborn and unbending, She assails”, which also discusses the Pagan resistance to Christianization.

[Parenthetical Epilogue: There are many who would like us to think that the Christianization of Europe, including Britain, was a relatively peaceful, and even a “tidy”, process that met with little or no resistance. According to this view, Paganism put up no real resistance to Christianity for the simple reason that Pagans themselves felt they had nothing to defend, and, therefore, no reason to resist. Christianity was just so much newer and shinier, more progressive, more moral, more spiritual, more logical, and just better in every way.

And these days the old narrative of Christian Triumphalism is not only coming from those who openly and honestly identify themselves as religious propagandists. Many leading scholars specializing in the study of late antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Early Modern period, are committed to spreading the Good News that Paganism died long ago, peacefully in its sleep, and hasn’t bothered anyone since. Even some “Pagan” “scholars” (both sets of quotation marks are necessary), starting with Ronald Hutton first and foremost, have also lent their voices to the choir singing the praises of Christianity’s peaceful and irreversible triumph over the bad old Paganism of antiquity. But this is already far more attention than these modern day apologists for spiritual totalitarianism are worth!]

>Contra Hutton

>[This is Part One in an ongoing series. Part Two is now up as well: “Nothing in common … except the name”?]

I was recently inspired to go back through some of my old posts in which I have presented critiques of just a few of the very worst offenders among the long sad list of fallacies promulgated by Ronald Hutton in his campaign to recast Paganism in the image of Christianity. It is worth noting that Hutton himself has quite clearly stated all along that it is his goal to replace the traditional view held by Pagans, that our religious traditions are deeply rooted in the ancient past, with a new paradigm based on the truly Orwellian claim that modern Paganism far more closely resembles the morbid death-cult of the early Christians than the ancient polytheistic traditions those Christians violently suppressed.

Paganism, B.C. (Before Christianization)
Did ancient Paganism exist? Yes it did.
Some people claim that the whole notion of ancient Paganism is nothing but a hopeless anachronism. According to this view, there was no coherence or commonality among the different polytheistic traditions now subsumed under the heading of “Paganism”. Specifically the claim is that the only thing that ancient “Pagans” had in common was that they were not Christians. This post draws on the work of seven contemporary scholars (James B. Rives, Ramsay MacMullen, Charles W. Hedrick Jr, Robert Parker, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Thomas Harrison, and Frank Trombley), and as well as Herodotus, Plutarch, and Livy, to argue that, in the words of Charles W. Hedrick Jr, “Paganism cannot be reduced to nothing more than its opposition to Christianity.”

Hic Sunt Dracones
Were late-antique Pagans really Pagan? Yes they were.
This one is by far the longest and most detailed of posts listed here. In it I thoroughly demolish Ronald Hutton’s claim that the late-antique spiritual ancestors of modern Paganism were not really Pagans at all. This was the fall-back position that Hutton was forced into only a few years after the publication of Triumph of the Moon. By the time Witches, Druids and King Arthur came out Hutton had gone from claiming that the roots of modern Paganism go back no further than the 18th century, to acknowledging that these roots in fact go back 18 centuries. Nevertheless, Hutton insisted that this continuous tradition doesn’t count! Relying uncritically on the work of Stephen Mitchell and other proponents of the idea of so-called “Pagan monotheism”, Hutton names eight ancient Pagans in particular: Apuleius, Celsus, Aelius Aristides, Maximus of Tyre, the Emperor Julian, Themistius, Sallustius, and Symmachus. All of these, Hutton believes, were really adherents of a “new kind of ancient paganism” that was thoroughly monotheistic and had fundamentally broken with ancient polytheistic traditions. I show in detail that each of those named by Hutton were, in fact, traditional polytheists.

Ancient Pagans and Theology: did they, or didn’t they?
But didn’t ancient Pagans invent theology? Why, yes they did.
In Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Ronald Hutton stupidly claims that “Traditional European paganism had no theology at all, and the nearest equivalent to it had been provided by the philosophers of the Greek-speaking world.” In this post I (all-too-briefly) hit some of the highlights of ancient Pagan theology, including Heraclitus, Empedocles, Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato. I also cite the work of two modern scholars: Mark McPherran and T.K. Johansen.

Paganism has always been a magical religion
Was ancient Paganism characterized by a “a widespread and officially recognized distinction between religion and magic”? Uh, no.
In Pagan Religions of the British Isles, Ronald Hutton asked “How did the ‘Wicca’ which was developed in these years [the 1950’s and 60’s] actually compare with the paganism of antiquity?” The very first “fundamental difference” that Hutton proposes between Wicca and ancient Paganism is that “Wicca deliberately blurs the distinction between religion and magic.” [p. 335] Later, in Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Hutton more specifically claimed that “a widespread and officially recognized distinction between religion and magic” existed prior to late-antiquity, but at that time “some forms” of “Mediterranean paganism” “dissolved” this distinction. In this post I show that no such distinction was recognized by Plato, or, by implication, Socrates, who both lived during (indeed, helped to define) the height of the classical period, over half a millennia before the earliest glimmerings of so-called late-antiquity. I also cite modern scholars James B. Rives and Scott Noegel, and I allow myself a digression on the theme of “magic as a subversive activity.”

Paganism was not born yesterday
Was Jesus a Presbyterian? You figure it out.
Herein I draw attention to the highly subjective and selective way in which certain scholars apply the concept of “continuous tradition” to Paganism without considering how the same logic would play out if it were applied to any other religious tradition: “there is simply no well-defined, objective criterion that makes modern Paganism less rooted in the past than, say, Presbyterianism. Only by arbitrarily applying criteria to Paganism that are not applied (or are not applied in the same way) to other religions, can it be claimed that modern Paganism is especially deficient in terms of our roots.”

“detached from the masses and usually disempowered”
Hermeticism has played a vital role in the mainstream of Western intellectual history. So there.
That which is today relegated to the intellectual ghetto of the “Occult” had, until quite recently, not only a respected, but a prestigious and central role in both the cultural mainstream and among the intellectual elites. Many of the leading figures of the Scientific Revolution (including Kepler, Newton and Boyle) were actively involved in Hermeticism, Alchemy, Astrology and otherwise engaged in Esotericism. The same is true of the Renaissance (Ficino, Mirandola, Agrippa, etc) and was also true centuries before that, going back at least to the beginning of the High Middle Ages. And it was also the case in late antiquity as well.


>"We’re not sinners, we’re just disconnected from the Divine Life-Force." (My contribution to Pagan Values Blogging Month)

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“Go see Avatar: the most demonic, Satanic film I’ve ever seen …. See, in that movie it is a completely false ideology, it is a sermon preached. It is the most popular movie ever made. It tells you … that we’re not sinners, we’re just disconnected from the Divine Life-Force. Just classic, classic, classic Paganism. That human beings are to connect, literally, with trees and animals and beasts and birds — and that there’s this spiritual connection that we’re all a part of, and we’re all part of the Divine. It presents a false mediator with a witch. It presents false worship of created things rather than the creator god. It’s the absolute antithesis of Romans 1:25”
[Pastor Mark Driscoll, of Mars Hill Church]

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
[Romans, 1:25]

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?]

Widukind and the Bielski Brothers

Gods, I love the Saxons. They put the Bad in Pagan Bad-Ass. They fought Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, who struggled throughout his reign just to protect his own territories, never able to decisively defeat the Saxons on their own turf, beyond the Frankish frontier. And after Pepin was dead, the Saxons fought on. In 772, Charlemagne managed to penetrate deep into Saxon territory and destroy their most holy sanctuary, which contained “Irminsul”, a sacred monument whose appearance, construction, and religious meaning is still almost a complete mystery. But the Saxons fought on.  In a single day in 782 Charlemagne slaughtered 4,500 unarmed, defeated Saxon warriors who had surrendered and laid down their weapons. But the Saxons fought on.

Eventually the leader of the Saxons, Widukind, surrendered and accepted baptism in 785. Charlemagne was as brutal in victory as he had been in war, and he forcibly imposed Christianity on his conquered Saxon subjects, knowing that this was absolutely necessary in order to break the will and spirit of this stubbornly Pagan people. The performance of any Pagan rituals, including funerals, was made punishable by death. Any Saxon who refused to be baptized was to be put to death.

But in 793 the Saxons launched yet another uprising. This time Charlemagne realized he could not simply crush the revolt, so he also bought off the Saxon upper nobility, that is, after killing all those who couldn’t be bought off. Even after that, sporadic fighting continued until at least 804.

But even that wasn’t the end of things. In 841, a full century after Pepin had risen to be “Mayor of the Palace and Duke of the Franks”,  the Pagan Saxons rose up in revolt once again, this time taking on both the Franks and their own sell-out nobility! This was the celebrated Stellinga uprising. The wily Saxons had seen their chance when infighting among the Carolingian royal family escalated into an all-out civil war.

Eventually the Stellinga uprising was also drowned in Saxon blood. Was it all for nothing? No.

I admire the Saxons for the same reason that I (and many others!) admire the Bielski Brothers, Quanah Parker, Nat Turner, Tupac Amaru, and John Brown. They fought. It’s as simple as that. They fought.

There are those who would have us believe that Christianization has been a smooth, peaceful process. That meek Christian missionaries went humbly among the barbarous Pagans to convert them through peaceful persuasion and the excellence of their superior Christian way of life. But that is not how 1/3 the human race became Christian.

The Roman empire was not converted peacefully, but by imperial coercion and mob violence. The “barbarian” peoples of Europe were not converted peacefully, but by the sword and the spear. The indios of the western hemisphere were not converted peacefully, but by conquest and genocide. Half the population of Africa was not converted peacefully, but by enslavement and colonization (most of the other half already having been converted by the sword of Islam). But at each step in this process there have been those who fought back. And that is a damned good thing.

More than anything else, it is the spirit of resistance to coercive Christianization that binds modern Pagans to other peoples who have also struggled to retain their ancient religious traditions. And it is that spirit of resistance that binds modern Pagans to our ancient Pagan ancestors. It is the heart and soul of what makes Paganism the Old Religion.

Charlemagne, Part Deux: "A substantialy new Church was allied with a new political system." (ABHRM, Part Six)


[This post is a continuation from the post: Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism [ABHRM], Part Five)]

“Committed … to the ‘correction’ and education of their subjects.”

The generalized cultural collapse in Roman Italy and what had previously been the western Roman provinces severely weakened the Orthodox (Nicene) Church in the west during the fifth through eighth centuries AD. During this time various heresies (especially but not exclusively Arianism) and even Paganism had more breathing room. In some places, such as Britain, Christianity as a whole declined, at least for a while. But this was not in any way the result of a change of heart or any kind of “liberalization” on the part of the Church.

More than anything else, the somewhat greater religious diversity that is apparent in the west during the darkest of the Dark Ages reveals the extent to which the spread of Christianity (as well as the imposition of one and only one monolithic form of Christianity) had been and continued to be dependent on state sponsored violence. Without a strong, centralized and repressive state as an ally, Christianity in the west was in trouble. But a new saviour arrived late in the 8th century: Charlemagne.

As a direct result of the intervening Dark Age, the resurgent western Christianity that thrived in Charlegmagne’s bloody wake was a fundamentally changed religion. For one thing, a Church whose bishops and most prestigious “theologians” and “philosophers”, such as they were, could not read Greek (and had no interest in learning how) could make no serious claim of seamless continuity with the Christianity of the early “church fathers” who had styled themselves as the heirs and continuators of classical Hellenic culture and philosophy. Compare the Buddhists of Korea (2500 miles from India), who have maintained a strong continuous tradition of Sanskrit studies (because that is the language of the Mahayana Sutras) since soon after Buddhism was first introduced to the “hermit kingdom” in the 4th century AD up to the present day, with the new western Christendom whose “scholars” could not be bothered to learn the language in which the Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the Nicene Creed had been written!

But what the new Christendom of the West lacked in intellectual curiosity and capacity it more than made up for in cruelty and ferocity, as becomes abundantly clear in the following extended excerpts from Alessandro Barbero’s Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, and also Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom.

Charles [Charlemagne] had not set himself the declared aim of converting the Saxons to Christianity right from the very beginning. Before him, his father and grandfather had fought against them, and on each occasion, after having defeated them, they were satisfied with the payment of tribute. Einhard [c.775-840, Frankish courtier and biographer of Charlemagne] who was writing when the wounds had had time to heal and could have easily attributed Charles’s campaigns beyond the Rhine to reassuring predestinations, actually asserts in very pragmatic terms that ‘there were too many reasons for disturbing the peace, for example the border between us and them crossed an open plain, except in a few places where great forests or mountain chains more clearly divided the two countries. Thus murder, raids, and arson were continuously committed by one side or the other.’ In the chronicler’s opinion, this insecurity of the frontier with the barbarians inevitably meant that ‘in the end the exasperated Franks could no longer be contented with returning each blow with another and decided to wage full-scale war against them.’

It is clear that religious motivations were inextricably bound up with political ones, as since the time of Charles Martel I [c. 688-741], Frankish swords had sustained missionary work beyond the Rhine. One of the conditions that Pepin [714-768] imposed on the defeated Saxons was the guarantee that the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon clergy working in the area would be free to continue their apostolic tasks without hindrance. It must have appeared obvious to some of these missionaries that Charles’s war had a religious justification. ‘If you do not accept belief in God,’ Saint Lebuin told the Saxons, ‘there is a king in the next country who will enter your land, conquer it, and lay waste.’ But the Saxons obstinately refused to believe, so in the end that king had to make his move.

It was a ferocious war in a country with little or no civilization, with neither roads nor cities, and entirely covered with forests and marshland. The Saxons sacrificed prisoners of war to their Gods, as Germans had aways done before converting to Christianity, and the Franks did not hesitate to put to death anyone who refused to be baptized. Time and again the Saxon chiefs, worn down by war with no quarter, sued for peace, offered hostages, accepted baptism, and undertook to allow missionaries to go about their work. But every time that vigilance slackened and Charles was engaged on some other front, rebellions broke out, Frankish garrisons were attacked and massacred, and monasteries were pillaged. Even the border regions of the Frankish kingdom were not safe. In 778, when Saxons found out that the king and his army were engaged on the other side of the Pyrenees, and would not be able to return before many weeks of forced marches, they appeared in the Rhine Valley. Local commanders had great difficulty in containing them, and then only after much devastation and plunder.

During the period of these rebellions, the figure of a single leader
emerged from among the Saxon ranks. His name was Prince Widukind, and his authority was acknowledged by all the tribes. Just at the time when Charles felt confident that he had pacified the region and gained the loyalty of the Saxon nobles, it was this leader who triggered the most spectacular rebellion by wiping out the Frankish forces hurriedly sent to confront him on the Suntel Mountains in 782. Beside himself with anger at the treachery that had also cost him the lives of two of his closest aides, his chamberlain Adalgisile and his constable Geilo, Charles bround in a new army and forced the rebels to capitulate, with the exception of Widukind, who took refuge with the Danes. The Saxons had to hand over their arms and then, when he had them in his power, he had 4,500 of them decapitated in a single day at the Verden on the Aller, a tributary of the Weser. This episode produced perhaps the greatest stain on his reputation.

Several historians have attempted to lessen Charle’s responsibility for the massacre, by stressing that until a few months earlier the king thought he had pacified the country, the Saxon nobles had sworn allegiance, and many of them had been appointed counts. Thus the rebellion constituted an act of treason punishable with death, the same penalty that the extremely harsh Saxon law imposed with great facility, even for the most insignificant crimes. Others have attempted to twist the accounts provided by sources, arguing that the Saxons were killed in battle and not massacred in cold blood, or even that the verb decollare (decapitate) was a copyist’s error in place of decolare (relocate), so ther prisoners were simply deported. None of these attempts has proved credible ….

In reality, the most likely inspiration for the mass execution of Verden was the Bible. Exasperated by the continual rebellions, Charlemagne wanted to act like a true king of Israel. The Amelkites had dared to raise their hand to betray God’s people, and it was therefore right that every last one of them should be exterminated. Jericho was taken all those inside had to be put to the sword, including men, women, old people, and children, even the oxen, sheep, and donkeys, so that no trace would be left of them. After defeating the Moabites, David, with whom Charles liked to compare himself, had the prisoners stretched out on the and ground, and two out of three were killed. This, too, was part of the Old Testament from which teh king drew constant inspiration, and it is difficult not to discern a practical and cruelly coherent application of that model in the massacre of Verden. Besides, the royal chronicler wrote a few years later, the war against the Saxons had to be conducted in such a manner that ‘either they were defeated and subjugated to the Christian religion of completely swept away.’

In the years that followed 782, Charles conducted a war of unparalleled ruthlessness. For the first time, he wintered in enemy territory and systematically laid the country to waste to starve the rebels. At the same time, he had published the most ferocious of all the laws enacted during his life, the Capitulare de partibus Saxonie, which imposed the death penalty on anyone who offended the Christian religion and its clergy, and in reality it constituted a program for the forced conversion of the Saxons. We can only shudder as we read the sections of this law that condemn to death those who fail to observe fasting on Friday, thus reflecting a harsh Christianity far removed from the original message of the New Testament [bollocks]. Yet we should be careful not to put the blame for this barbarity onto the times in general. The Capitulare de partibus Saxonie is one of those provisions by which an infuriated general attempts to break the resistance of an entire people through terror, and Charles must bear the moral responsibility, like the many twentieth-century generals responsible for equally inhuman measures. It is more important to emphasize that the edict provoked criticisms among Charles’s entourage precisely because of its ruthlessness. Particularly severe criticisms came from Alcuin, the spiritual adviser he most listened to.

The policy of terror and scorched earth initially appeared to pay off. In 785, after the Franks has ravaged the country as far as the Elbe, Widukind was obliged to capitulate, and he presented himself at the palace of Attigny in France to be baptized. The king acted as godfather. Pope Adrian congratulated the victor and ordered thanks to be given in all the churches of Christendom for the new and magnificent victory for the faith. But the baptism imposed by force did not prove very effective. In 793 the harshness of Frankish government ferocity provoked another mass insurrection in the northern regions of Saxony, which had been more superficially Christianized. ‘Once again breaking their faith,’ according to the royal chronicler, the Saxons burned churches, massacred clergymen, and prepared yet again to resist in their forests.

Charles intervened with now customary ferocity, indeed with even more drastic and frighteningly modern measures. Rather than limit himself to devastating the rebel country and starving the population, he deported them en masse and planned the resettlement of those areas with Frankish and Slav colonists. However, he was an able politician and soon understood the need to modify his approach to the problem. He intensified his contacts with the Saxon aristocracy and sought out their collaboration. At a large assembly in Aachen in 797, he isssued on their advice a new version of the capitulary that was considerably more conciliatory than the previous one. This twin policy proved immediately effective, because it guaranteed almost definitively the collaboration of the Saxon nobles with the new regime. Eigil, the monk at Fulda monastery who wrote the account of Abbot Sturmi’s life, stated during those very years that Charles had imposed Christ’s yoke on the Saxons ‘through war, persuasion, and also gifts,’ demonstrating that he well understood how a new flexibility had made it possible to integrate those obstinate Pagans into the Christian empire.
[Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, Alessandro Barbero, pp. 44-48]

Compare the above passage from Barbero with the following from Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom:

Charlemagne proved to be a man of truly “Napoleanic” energy and width of vision. He was constantly on the move and constantly planning. In one year alone (in 785) he covered 2,000 miles, pacing the frontiers of his new dominions. Such energy boded ill for the Old Saxons. The fate of the Pagan Saxons was crucial to Charles’ new concept of Christian empire. Not only were Saxons Pagan, they were a surprisingly aggressive warrior confederacy whose raids affected precisely the areas in central Germany werhe Frankish settlement and a Frankish style of life had begun to be established.

As had once been the case along the Roman limes, so now in the eighth century, part of the danger posed by the Saxon challenge came from the fact that Franks and Saxons had drawn closer to each other. Saxon noblemen had already come to adopt a large measure of Frankish customs. Yet, like King Radbod [of Frisia], they clung all the more tenaciously to Paganism so as to differentiate themselves from the Franks. It was all the more essential for the prestige of the Carolingian family that the Saxons, who come to adopt so much of Franksih ways, should be declared to be outside the pale as Pagans, and that, as Pagans, they should be well and truly defeated.

In 772, Charlemagne led the Franks into Saxony. They were said to have desecrated the great intertribal sanctuary of the Irminsul, the giant tree which uphead the world. They rode home again, with much plunder, in time for the hunting season in the Ardennes. Next spring the Franks were in northern Italy. In 774, Charles became king, also, of the Lombards. He even made a short visit to Rome. It was the first time that a Frankish king had set foot in Rome. It was also the first time since the fifth century that a western ruler of such power had been greeted in Rome with the sort of elaborate ceremonies which the Romans know so well how to put on. Charles entered Saint Peter’s and, next day, was led through the gigantic basilica churches of the city. In return, Charles proved to be a generous donor. An influx of Frankish silver marked a dramatic recovery in the fortunes of the popes, which was made plain by an unprecedented boom in buildings and repairs.

But it was in Germany, and not in Italy, that Charles showed himself to be a ruler as determined to be obeyed in all matters as any Roman emperor had been. The Saxon war was fought along the same routes into northern Germany as had been taken the legions of Augustus. But this time, unlike Augustus who lost his legions in the Teutoburger Wald, Charlemagne won. It was an unusually vehement war, characterized by the storming, one after another, of well-defended hill-forts. The very flexibility of the kingless society of the Old Saxons prolonged the misery. Total surrender of the Saxons as a whole was impossible. Fifteen treaties were made and broken in 13 years. One Saxon nobelman, Widukind, was able to avoid submission for decades on end. He fled to the Danes and involved even the Pagans of Frisia in his resistance.

For a decade, and entire Frankish order was challenged in the north. Charles found himself forced to take over more territory than he had, perhaps, at first intended to do. He pressed on from the Weser to the Elbe, entering the northern healthlands as far as the Danes. The populations of whole areas were forcibly relocated. In 782, he had 4,500 Saxon prisoners beheaded at Verden, southeast of Bremen….

In 785, Widukind finally submitted and accepted Christian baptism. In the same year, Charles issued his Capitulary on the Region of Saxony. A Capitulary was a set of administrative rulings “from the word of mouth of the king,” grouped under capita, short headings. These were very different in their brusque clarity from the long-winded rhetoric of Roman imperial edicts. They registered, in writing, the invisible, purely oral shock wave of the royal will. The royal will was unambiguous. In theory at least, the frontier was now definitively closed. No other rituals but those of the Christian Church could be practiced in a Frankish province.

“If anyone follows pagan rites and causes the body of a dead man to be consumed by fire … let him pay with his life.

“If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbapitized, amd of he scorns to come to baptism and wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, let him die.”

A small body of clergymen (notably Alcuin, a Saxon from Boniface’s Britain, who was himself connected with the family of Willibrod) were challenged by the brusqueness to restate, more forcibly than ever before, a view of Christian missions which emphasized preaching and persuasion. But, in fact, when it came to Charlemagne’s treatment of the Saxons, most later writers took no notice of Alcuin’s reservations. They accepted the fact that, as befitted a strong king, Charlemagne was entitled to preach to the Saxons ‘with a tongue of iron’ — as a later Saxon writer put it without a hint of blame. Force was what was needed on a dangerous frontier. Education began, rather, at home. IN the reigns of Charlemagne and his successors, a substantially new Church was allied with a new political system, both of which were committed, to a quite unprecedented degree, to the “correction” and education of their subjects.
[The Rise of Western Christendom, Peter Brown, pp. 431-433]

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)
Paganism is not a European Religion
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)

Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)

Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones

Paganism is Indigenous and very, very old — but it is not limited to "Europe", and it is not "Ethnic"

The roots of modern Paganism long predate the modern conception of “Europe”. It is true that the 2nd century (AD) Pagan polymath Ptolemy labeled part of his maps of the world “EVROPA” (well, something like that, but in Greek), and that this more or less corresponds to where we think of Europe being today. But it is also true that this famous “Greek” scientist was sitting at his desk in the great Library of Alexandria when he drew these maps. Alexandria, of course, was on the part of Ptolemy’s map labeled “AFFRICA” (see map).

Those who wish to redefine Paganism as intrinsically European show their ignorance of both history and geography, and, much more importantly, of what it means to be Pagan. Precisely the same thing is true of those who want to redefine Paganism as a “New Religious Movement”.

There are two things to be clear about: being a Pagan sure as hell doesn’t mean being European, and being a Pagan has absolutely nothing to do with being a member of any particular “ethnic” group.

Modern Paganisms’ roots are as wide as they are deep. No one can deny the strong influences of the pre-Christian religious traditions of Celts, Germans, Balts, Slavs and others on modern Paganism. But at the same time no one can with any justification deny the Egyptian, Phrygian, Semitic, Chaldean and other “non-European” influences that are an integral part of modern Paganism. Just as the influence of Greco-Roman Paganism, which straddled Asia, Africa and Europe, cannot be questioned.

We know for a fact that ancient Pagans did not recognize clear bright lines neatly separating the “pantheons” of one “people” from their neighbors, or even from those on other “continents”. Greeks and Romans worshipped the Phrygian Great Goddess Cybele. Hellenized Romans spread the worship of Egyptian Isis to far flung Britain and Germania. Wandering priests of Dionysos spread the good news of the dying God who yet lives (and who is the son of God, and who promises eternal life) to Africa, Asia and throughout Europe.

At the very least ancient Pagans were tolerant and respectful of the Goddesses and Gods of “others”. But often they went far beyond this and eagerly embraced new exotic cults and practices. Of course there were also always those whose mental and spiritual universe was much more narrowly confined, but even these did not question the validity of “foreign” Gods, if for no other reason than for the very good reason of fear of blasphemy.

Here is some suggested light reading:

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid

Religions of the Hellenistic Roman Age by Antonia Tripolitis

Ancient Religions, edited by Sarah Iles Johnston

Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture by Walter Burkert

Religion in the Roman Empire by James B. Rives

And for extra credit:

Athenian Religion: A History by Robert Parker

In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele by Lynn Roller

Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization by Martin Bernal

The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth by Martin Lichtfield West

The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age by Walter Burkert

Polytheism and Society at Athens by Robert Parker

Hekate Soteira by Sarah Iles Johnston


Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)

Father of a “Continent”?

[W]arfare accompanied him throughout almost every year of his life. The harshest war, and the one most fraught with complications, was the war against the Saxons, which lasted for more than twenty years, took the borders of Christendom to the banks of the Elbe, and incorporated the entire breadth of the German regions within the Frankish kingdom. Back in 772 Charles had already gathered his warriors and led them against the Pagans of the north to achieve a spectacular victory: they took the principle Saxon sanctuary, the Irminsul, where the sacred tree stood. The tree that according to the Saxons held up the heavens had been burned, and the Saxon idols destroyed. But these punitive expeditions had to be repeated every year, because the Saxons resisted with all their force a subjugation that implied both the loss of all their tribal independence and the abandonment of their ancestral beliefs.
[Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, by Alessandro Barbero, p. 44]

Alessandro Barbero’s deservedly acclaimed biography of Charlemagne is subtitled Father of a Continent. But how can a political figure from 1200 years ago be the “father of a continent”? Isn’t the formation of a continent a process governed by plate tectonics, not politics and human history, and doesn’t it take hundreds of millions of years?

Well, it turns out that there are continents and then there are continents. In this case the “Continent” that Charlemagne gave birth to isn’t really a “continent” at all, nor was it even “Europe” (whatever “Europe” might be). What Charlemagne gave birth to was what we today euphemistically refer to as “The West”, and this “West” is, in fact, a handful of powerful nation-states that came into existence in Charlemagne’s bloody wake and who, a thousand years later, found themselves ruling nearly the entire planet earth.

This same “West” is also the homeland for the two flavors of “western” Christianity: Catholicism and Protestantism. Prior to Charlemagne, Christianity was a distinctly eastern (and distinctly “Greek”) religion, and proud of it (see for example the early chapters of Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom, hereafter referred to as RWC). The strategic alliance of the Frankish barbarian king Charlemagne with the Bishop of Rome marks the true beginning of an independent western, “Latin” Christianity, and this eventually led to the Great Schism in which Latin Catholics and Greek Orthodox mutually excommunicated each other in 1054. And it was this distinctly western Christianity that gave us the Inquisition; the Witch-Hunts; the murderous religious wars also known as “the Reformation”; the theological justification for the African slave-trade; the cultural genocide that attempted, and largely succeeded, in annihilating every religious tradition on half of the planet (the western hemisphere); and European colonialism (which was always and everywhere carried out in the name of spreading the Gospel, and in which the Church was an eager and important participant).

Modern Christianity is overwhelmingly dominated by Catholicism and Protestantism, neither of which existed in the late 8th century AD when Charlemagne succeeded his father, King Pepin of the Franks. But even the vast majority of those Christians who are neither Catholic nor Protestant are European Christians who are members of the various Orthodox Churches of Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, etc. Charlemagne did not single handedly start, or bring to its culmination, the process by which Europe became Christian and Christianity became European. But his violent life and times are universally recognized as one of the key milestones along that road.

A Brief Prehistory of “The West”
The part of the earth in which the western nation-states (and western Christianity) eventually arose was on the furthest fringes of the great civilizations of the ancient world. What little cultural progress (measured in terms of things like writing, urbanization, engineering, science, trade and commerce) the peoples of western and northern Europe had made mostly (and quickly) disintegrated not long after the process of Christianization took root early in the fourth century (after Constantine’s dream or vision or whatever it was). Two of the most dramatic and telling markers of this decline were (1) the rapid depopulation of urban centers (the city of Rome herself lost 90% of it’s population in 100 years, going from 500,000 to 50,000 inhabitants from 450 to 550 AD [RWC, p. 21]), and (2) a comparable decline in the quantity and quality of the historical record (thus resulting directly in the great paucity of written sources documenting this time period).

Although the phrase Dark Ages is often misunderstood and sometimes misused, it nevertheless expresses a very real cultural collapse that begins (roughly speaking) with the sacking of Rome by Alaric and his (Christian) Visigoths in 410, and ends sometime between the year 800, when Charlemagne was crowned “Emperor”, and the year 1000, when the “High Middle Ages” officially begin. As with all periodization schemes, the beginning and ending points of this Dark Age are somewhat arbitrary, but the historical process of cultural, economic, technological and demographic decline followed by a pronounced and sustained recovery in all of those areas is an objective reality and not merely some dreamed-up “social construct”.

The center of gravity of the Greco-Roman world had always been in the East and the South. Culturally the city of Alexandria ruled supreme. This was where Euclid wrote his Elements, where Ptolemy wrote his Almagest and Geographia, and where Eratoshthenes calculated the circumference of the earth. It was also where Callimachus wrote his Hymns, where Apollonius wrote his Argonautica, and where Aristarchus produced his critical editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Alexandria was also an economic powerhouse, as one of the most important exporters of grain in the ancient world, and it was also among the most populous cities on earth (probably the second or third largest city in the world).

As all students of “Byzantine” history know, the eastern Roman Empire was far more resilient than Roman Italy and the western provinces. In fact, Byzantium continued on until the middle of the 15th century! By then it had been much reduced in power and glory for many centuries already, but culturally and intellectually it remained a truly great power until the bitter end. And in the final years before the Ottomans finally took Constantinople, many Byzantine scholars, seeing the writing clearly written on that city’s ancient and once inviolable walls, set themselves to spreading their learning in the West, and many went so far as to resettle among the Latin barbarians. The Italian Renaissance was largely a result of this migration both of knowledge and the custodians of that knowledge, from the Greek East to Latin West.

So the Dark Ages were a distinctly “western” phenomenon. As already alluded to, and in sharp contrast to Byzantium, Roman political, military and economic power in the west eroded alarmingly (although perhaps “vanished” is the right word) during the 5th-7th centuries. Weak successor states (some of them admittedly less weak than others) arose where Roman provinces had previously been. Christianity remained as the official state religion in most places that had been under Roman rule, but it was increasingly difficult or even impossible to impose credal uniformity even among the Church hierarchy, let alone among the laity (both high and low born). Lombards, Saxons, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Avars, etc, (and perhaps even the Franks, although these were the most Christian of them all) remained, at least in part, Pagan, and even when they converted they usually could not be counted on to be orthodox. When the Lombards ended up in Italy some had become Christian and some hadn’t, and those that had converted tended to be Arian, or at least tended to be hostile to the Pope in Rome politically, militarily and theologically. When Saxons moved into Britain they brought their Germanic Paganism with them and for a time Christianity declined on the very island where Constantine had first been proclaimed Augustus in 306 (in York).

Where do “peoples” come from?
But who exactly were these barbarian peoples with the funky names? There are two very different answers to that question:

Essentialist approach: Saxons, Lombards, Goths, etc., were already ancient, or at least well established and well defined, “peoples” when they entered the historical record. In particular each of these groups (and subgroups like the Ostrogoths and Visigoths) had their own distinctive “culture”, including religious traditions, concepts of kingship, social and family structure, etc. These groups were also ethnically/genetically distinct from each other.

Ethnogenesis approach: Saxons, Lombards, Goths, etc., are, to a great extent arbitrary designations (“cultural constructs”) for extremely fluid groups of people who were not at all well defined either in terms of “ethnicity” or “culture” or in any other way either prior to their appearance in the historical record, or subsequently. Instead these labels refer to groups that enter the historical record while still in the process of “ethnogenesis”, a process that creates the idea of ethnically (that is, racially or even genetically) well defined groups — but which does not, in fact, create the objective referent of that idea, although it can be part of the process of creating powerful political entities.

There are some very serious problems with both approaches, but the “ethnogenesis” approach has the advantage of hindsight, by virtue of being the more recently articulated theory, and, therefore, it does address the most obvious shortcomings of previous “essentialist” approaches. One of the most serious problems with the ethnogenesis approach is that it tends to be over-utilized as a blunt instrument in the service of faddish ideological polemics. Postmodernist types especially adore the theory of “ethnogenesis” because it provides them yet more opportunities to say “cultural construct” over and over again. But Christian apologists also are attracted to the theory because it allows them to give the impression that Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, etc Pagans had no real religions of their own prior to their contact with Christianity (thus exonerating them of the responsibility for suppressing the religions of those peoples, since they had none).

Patrick Geary’s book The Myth of Nations well illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-essentialist ethnogenesis approach. Geary is relentles, but only ocassionally tiresome, in his earnest polemical deconstructionism. Geary intends this book for a wide audience, and, therefore, subtlety is often just not part of his agenda. But his painting, broad strokes and all, is often accurate and is quite helpful in understanding recent trends in the black art of historiography, and it gives a very nice view from 30,000 feet of how we got from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Europe. A less ideological, but also less accessible and more narrowly focussed, application of the anti-essentialist approach is to be found in Herwig Wolfram’s The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples. Another important (and even more narrowly focussed) work on Dark Age ethnogenesis is Patrick Amory’s People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554.

From Clovis to Charlemagne
Without getting bogged down in speculative (and as often as not ideologically driven) theoretical postures about where “peoples” come from, we do have to get into at least some of the nitty gritty of this period which is not only called the Dark Ages but is also called the Age of Migration, or even “The Barbarian Invasion of Europe”, or alternatively, “The Barbarian Conversion”. In order to simplify and focus the discussion in the remainder of this post, I will concentrate now on the developments that eventually led to Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor on Christmans Day, 800 AD. First let’s go all the way back to King Clovis. Here is Peter Brown, from his Rise of Western Christendom:

After the 460’s, northern Gaul resembled Britain. It was a land without an empire. It’s leading inhabitants had begun to accept this fact. This is shown by a significant change in local burial customs. Romani and barbarians alike, whether Christian or pagan, came to be buried bearing arms ….

In this increasingly militarized world, the Franks were by no means newcomers. Many had served in the high command of the imperial armies in the fourth century. To take one example: Bauto, a Frankish chieftain in imperial service became consul in 385 …. Franks such as Bauto were already honorary Romans. They claimed to be descended, like the Romans, from the Trojans. Priam had been their first king. They had only recently — so Franks close to the Rhine frontier — come to Germany from ancient Troy!

Not every Frank was like Bauto. The Franks who were led by king Childeric, in the 470’s, were wilder men. Childeric was a Merovingian. Later legends made the Merovingians the descendants of a Frankish queen who had coupled with a sea monster when swimming in the North Sea, the legendary home of heroes….

Childeric’s son, Clovis — Hlodovech, “glorious warrior” — inhereted the many strands of his father’s authority in Gaul. He was a pagan; yet he received a letter from Remigius, the Catholic bishop of Rheims: “May justice proceed from your mouth.” From the very beginning, Clovis wished to be king of the Franks in a new, more forceful style….

The Lex Salica, the Laws of the Salian Franks [issued by Clovis, possibly around 486 AD], took the paganism of the Frankish inhabitants of the Rhine estuary for granted. It protected with special penalties the great gelded boars who have been set apart for sacrificial banquets: for boars were the bristling, magical guarantors of the waving growth of the cornfields. The law was particularly concerned to regulate the legal status of humble Frankish farmers over against the neighboring Romani. As Franci (perhaps from Frekkr, “the fierce ones”), weapon-bearing Franks, even the poorest, could still stand high in Gaul. But they were told all this in a Latin text, issued by a king who used Latin advisers. Clovis intended to rule Romans and Franks alike as firmly as had any Romanus.
[pp. 133-136]

As Clovis’ long reign continued on into the early sixth century, the Visigoths ruling southern Gaul developed an increasingly cozy relationship with the Orthodox (Nicene) Church, despite the fact that the Visigoths themselves were Arian heretics. Clovis viewed this pan-Christian alliance as a potential threat. In 506, the Visigoth king Alaric II issued his own abbreviated version of the Theodosian Code, with the strong approval of Orthodox bishops. Then Alaric summoned a Council of Bishops, the first ever in Gaul, and in return the bishops openly prayed for the expansion of Alaric’s kingdom.

Clovis’ response to the threat from south was to visit the Orthodox Christian shrine of Saint Martin of Tours, in search of a sign. As Clovis entered the church he heard these words being chanted aloud: “For thou hast girded me with strength unto battle; thou has subdued under me those who rose up against me.” (That is from Psalms 18:39, which is one of those “prayers of imprecation” one sometimes hears about.)

Clovis (still not a Christian) praised God and invaded southern Gaul. By the summer of 507 he was the victorious ruler of all of Gaul. A year and a half later Clovis was baptized, along with 3,000 of his soldiers, by the Orthodox bishop of Rheims. (For more details see RWC pp. 136-138 and references therein.)

After Clovis’ death his rule devolved to his sons and then to his grandsons, each of whom was a “king”. The Frankish realms were once again united under a single ruler under Clothar II, whose reign, along with that of his heir, Dagobert I, from 584 to 639 AD (combined), was “the most peaceful, prosperous and significant period of Frankish history since the reign of Clovis,” according to Patrick Geary in his Before France and Germany: The Creation and the Transformation of the Merovingian World (p. 51).

But Dagobert I was the last strong “Merovingian” ruler. In 751, Pepin the Short once again united the Frankish realms. His son was Charlemagne. Together Pepin and Charlemagne ruled from 751 – 814.

[To be continued …..]

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Paganism is not a European Religion
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)

Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)

Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones