Pagan Paean

ImaginingPaganPastThe old gods still live. In literature. The modern world with its open spirituality has continued the process of rediscovering ancient deities. Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and goddesses in literature and history since the Dark Ages offers a glimpse into how British writers since the earliest days have wondered about the gods. Of course, many of those early writers were already Christianized, and treated the old gods as curios that might be placed on an intellectual shelf of bygone days. Some, however, came up with an idea that can still be found, on occasion, among dwellers in the British Isles—the idea that the original British religion was monotheistic. Indeed, some believed that the religion of Noah made its way to Britain, establishing a debased, but yet roughly correct worldview that was only contaminated by Roman polytheism. There are books suggesting, a la Latter-Day Saints, that the lost tribes of Israel found their way to Britain. Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff at Glastonbury, after all. Nothing satisfies like being the chosen people.

Gibson explores both the Celtic gods and the Norse gods. British literature has drawn upon both deity pools to populate a literature with colorful, if sometimes dark, deities. Beyond the literary, many of these gods survived in popular culture throughout the ages. Some of my fondest memories of the UK are driving to prehistoric sites with friends and finding the gods alive and well. As the sun, feeble at best in a British December, sank one afternoon we pulled into Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow. I’d never heard of Wayland before. Gibson reveals the story of Wayland, as well as Woden and Thor, as the gods jumble in a Gaimanesque celebration of cultural diversity. Even on hikes to obscure sites the locals often knew the stories of the gods that had once passed this way.

There’s a virtual Sutton Hoo’s trove of information in Gibson’s brief study. At many points I found myself pausing to think, “that’s where that idea came from” as I followed the trajectory of her explorations. Even some of the deities she does not explore found their place in my three short years in the enchanted countryside where pagan Celt met pagan Saxon met pagan Roman, leading to a heady brew from the well-known Diana to Julian the obscure (there is some witchery afoot here). Even that Anglicanism that once circled the globe did not rid itself of this great cloud of witnesses. We keep our deities alive by preserving them in scripture, whether sacred or secular, and we have done so for hundreds of years. And the old gods, in this monochromatic world of science and industry, remind us where the rainbow really originates. Imagining the pagan past is sometimes the most human thing to do.

Which Lethbridge Witch?

witcheslethbridge Thomas Charles Lethbridge was a twentieth-century explorer. I knew his name only from book covers, and since books published before the cynical 1980s have a feel of the parsimoniousness to them, I tend to be trusting. As a former academic, my choice of reading is, in an odd way, sequential. You see, academic research is often a matter of following leads, rather like Sherlock Holmes with his clues. One thing leads to another. I’ve been learning about paganism at work, and so when I noticed T. C. Lethbridge’s book, Witches: Investigating an Ancient Religion, I figured that I might learn something about belief in witches in the Middle Ages. The book was published by the Routledge Kegan Paul phase of my employer in 1962. I quickly learned that Lethbridge was far from conventional, even in the twenty-first century.

Lethbridge’s book on witches turned out to be a romp through mostly Celtic mythology, with a bit of Norse and ancient Near Eastern myth thrown in for good measure. It turns out that Lethbridge literally did believe in the power of magic and was no slouch when it came to dowsing. In the great Frazerian tradition, Lethbridge brings together some elements that are probably best left separate, but the result is undeniably interesting and entertaining. I’m not sure he would be considered a balanced source for research purposes today, yet his book does contain unexpected insights. But no witches. Witches, according to Lethbridge, were adherents of the old gods. Their worldview collapsed with geocentrism and there was little left for magic to do in an empirical world.

Lethbridge’s constellation has dimmed from the scholarly zodiac. In recent days he has found a new set of disciples, however, who see his work as profoundly prophetic, in a manner of speaking. Lethbridge was an occult investigator before such pursuits became big business. Among mainstream academics these ideas still fall into the category of bogus, naive, or superstitious, but that is beginning to change in some quarters. Lethbridge, as it quickly becomes apparent, reserved a kind of scorn for establishment academics. It is true that stepping out of line has its consequences even in the rarified halls of higher education, but the results of the research are often of high quality. Even witches can be studied with an academic eye. The difference seems to be that T. C. Lethbridge believed what the witches said. That makes him a real explorer.

Peculiar Mythology

Peregrine Confession: I love books like Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Ambiguity in fiction is under-appreciated at times. Of course, I’m not formally trained in fictional literature outside the confines of ancient mythology, but I do know what I like. This wondrous story of paranormal children in an alternate universe could almost have been drawn from Celtic mythology, and indeed Riggs provides a mythology to explain how things got this way. And every mythology is a kind of religion. In this world there are peculiars—not far removed from real life, for those willing to accept it—who have unusual powers. Miss Peregrine’s home, one where the children are under the guardianship of ymbrynes, houses those with special gifts. Some ymbrynes, however, wanted their godlike powers to make them into actual gods and in addition to causing the Siberian explosion, gave birth to hollowgasts, a kind of living damnation monster. “Rather than becoming gods, they had transformed themselves into devils.” Sounds a touch like Lucifer’s fall, n’est-ce pas?

It might be supposed by cynical readers of this blog that I select my reading based on the potential for finding religion in fiction. If that is true it is so only on a subconscious level, I assure you. I read about religion for many hours every day and I taught the subject for nearly two decades. When I turn to fiction it is generally for escape. I have found, however, that there is hardly any escape from religion. When I find it in fiction, therefore, I ponder some of its implications. Religion is so much a part of our lives that it can’t help working its way into popular culture. Maybe I just see it everywhere. That doesn’t mean that it’s not really there. But back to our story…

Hollowgasts, like Ugaritic devourers (sorry, couldn’t help myself), are powerful hungry. They must constantly feed their voracious appetites. Their favorite food, which actually transforms them a slight step back toward humanity, is the blood of peculiars. Blood is their salvation. The depth of this idea trickles down to the very roots of religion itself. Transformation is not possible without somebody paying the cost. Religion is bloody business. I won’t throw any plot spoilers in because I want to encourage you to read this strangely moving book. I will say that it is a strikingly well executed mythology for a world where God is not present, but where monsters and peculiars both partake in their own kind of divinity. And the strange photographs are real.

Invoking Imbolc

As the year continues her eternal circle, we find ourselves once again at Imbolc, the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Imbolc is an ancient fire festival, and given how chilly our apartment has been these last few weeks, I think I could be downright pagan about it. Dividing the year into eighths, the pre-Christian calendar emphasizes the seasonal aspect of nature. The festival was originally dedicated to the goddess Brighid who became, in her later years, St. Brighid. Naturally, when the Celtic lands were converted, Imbolc was supplanted, somewhat, by the following day—not yet Groundhog Day—Candlemas, or the feast of Mary of the Candles. Diametrically apposed to Samhain, or Halloween, Imbolc celebrates the rekindling of light in a dark time of year. Some have suggested that the festival has roots as early as the Neolithic Period.

One feature of the old religions that was lost with the more transcendent interests of monotheism is the dedication to the earth. Religion, in its earliest forms, grew out of a profound awareness of human connections to the planet that was their home. Without our planet we do not thrive. Even though we’ve learned to catapult ourselves into space, our bodies don’t work so efficiently in zero gravity. (Read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars for the gory details.) We evolved on and are part of the earth. Early peoples knew that instinctively. Their religion reflects that implicitly. Kindling a fire in winter is a small way of encouraging the light and warmth to return.

Stbrigid

Brighid, a goddess who represents the return to fertility with the earliest beginnings of spring, may also represent the earth. It will be at least another month or two before many of us will begin to see the hints of crocuses breaking through the wan grass, but Imbolc is all about turning that corner. The earth that seems to have forsaken us in the desolate winter is now about to welcome us back into the growing time. It is no wonder that, despite efforts of the missionaries, elements of the old religion remained. Whether with candles or bonfires, the pagan goddess Brighid, or the Christian Saint Brighid, ushers in February, our last full month of winter. And tomorrow, the groundhog will remind us once again that we are merely part of the earth.

Origin of Halloween

Perhaps the most misunderstood of holidays, Halloween has grown into a major commercial holiday. Outsold only by Christmas in the United States, Halloween now supports its own seasonal stores that cash in on the massive public interest. A few years ago a wrote a book explaining the holidays for teens/tweens. The book was never published, and I’ve been putting excerpts on this blog on appropriate occasions. For the full story of Halloween, please check out the Full Essays page (link above).

Accusations of a demonic origin may fit in with the popular creatures of the holiday, but they are far from the truth of the matter. A cross-quarter day, Halloween comes in the opposite side of the year from May Day (remember Walpurgis Night) when spirits make their way back into the mortal world. It represents the passing of fall into winter and the shades of death that accompany it. How much more religious can you get?

From ancient times people have been aware of how weak our control over our lives really is. We depend on the sun and the weather to cooperate for our crops. We fear the darkness when our eyes can’t compete with those of our predators. As the year descends into longer and longer nights, we secretly fear that eventually night will not end. The dark time of the year belonged to the spirits.

Just as all ancient people celebrated the vernal equinox (if you missed it, check out the Passover-Easter Complex for more), they marked the autumnal equinox with festivals. Although Halloween is six weeks after the equinox, it seems to have inherited some of the ancient associations of that season. One of the ancient feasts of the equinox was for Pomona, the Roman goddess associated with fruits and seeds. There is more of Thanksgiving than Halloween in this festival, however.

Halloween, as we have come to know it, is usually traced to the same people who gave us St. Patrick’s Day – the Celts. The Irish calendar was divided into four quarters, marked between the solstices and equinoxes by the cross-quarter days. The fall cross-quarter day was Samhain (in case you don’t speak Gaelic, this is pronounced “sow-win”). Samhain can be understood as “summer’s end” and it was the traditional marking of the onset of winter; it actually comes just a month before meteorological winter.

The Celts, as well as other ancient peoples, believed that spirits of the dead were active as the trees lost their leaves, the grass began to dry and, and the world itself seemed to be dying. Huge bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits, and perhaps bloody sacrifices were made to ensure the safety of the living.

No matter what modern Halloween critics may say, the Celts did not worship Satan and the origins of the holiday are not satanic. Pagan, maybe, but who isn’t somebody else’s pagan? The idea was to fend off evil, not worship it. The shamans, or “medicine men” of the Celts were a class of priests called Druids. Samhain would have been one of the festivals overseen by the Druids. These guys were priests of a religion that focused on nature, not the Devil. They did play a little rough though. They seem to have practiced human sacrifice once in a while, but Samhain was more often about killing off livestock before the winter. Either you can keep your animals alive and they will eat the little food you have, or you can butcher them and add to the little food you have. After all, not much grows in winter.

[See Full Essays for the rest]

Care of the Dead

Stretching back before the advent of writing, back before civilization itself began, people have shown reverence for their dead. Paleolithic era grave goods attest to care of the dead residing among the earliest strata of human behavior, and it is a behavior that continues to evolve to reflect the belief structures of the Zeitgeist. The idea of constructing cemeteries in a garden where family and friends might visit their departed is a relatively recent innovation. Increased population and concerns about epidemics led to the landscaped, garden-variety cemetery outside of populated areas in the 18th century. Before that graveyards could be located within the city itself, often near a church or sacred location.

While visiting Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, my niece asked me why people left pennies on gravestones (H. P. Lovecraft’s tombstone had one on it, and others around it). My thoughts went to Wulfila’s recent blog post on the Black Angel tomb in Iowa City and the pennies scattered there. I also recalled La Belle Cemetery in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin where a “haunted statue” was always richly endowed with pennies in her cupped hands. LaBelleThe specific form of penny offerings seems to go back to Benjamin Franklin’s burial, at least in America. A few years back while in Philadelphia, I saw for myself that people still leave pennies on Franklin’s grave in Christ Church Cemetery.

Franklin

Franklin pennies (and a few nickles)

There is no universally accepted reason explaining why Benjamin Franklin should have been the first to have received such treatment — in fact, I would argue that it is much older than Dr. Ben.

Money to accompany the dead has a long history. Pennies on the eyes or under the tongue of the deceased originated in the need to placate the ferryman across the river of — what’s it called? — Oh, yes, the river of forgetfulness. The classical Greek form of this mythic character is Charon, the boatman who punted the dead across Styx. He required payment, and since coinage had been invented, it was a convenient way to pay. (Today the truly devoted might leave a credit card in the casket.) The ferryman must have his pay, as the movie Ghostship warns, but the idea is much older still. The earliest references to being poled across the river go back to ancient Sumer, the earliest known civilization. As soon as people became civilized they began to pay homage to the gloomy captain of souls.

While in Prague just after it opened to western visitors, my wife and I stopped by the famous Jewish cemetery where the tombstones are so tightly packed in that they are barely legible. My wife asked why so many of the tombstones had smaller stones on top, placed there as dedications.JPrague I recalled having seen stones on tombs outside Jerusalem some years back, and I even had a student bring me a stone from Israel to keep as long as I promised to put it on her grave after she died. This practice in its recent form is associated with Judaism, but again, it has ancient roots. The building of cairns, or piles of stones, is often associated with the Celts or the pre-Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles. On our many wandering through the highlands and islands we saw several Neolithic examples in Scotland, particularly in the Orkney Islands. The practice of putting stones atop the dead also goes back to ancient times. One plausible suggestion is that it was intended to keep the dead in their graves. A more prosaic conclusion is that digging deep holes takes more work than hauling over a pile of rocks.

No matter what the origin of the practice may be, one of the surest signs of civilization is care for the welfare of the dead. Today a penny is easily left, costs the bearer little, and creates a memorable image for all who follow.