Pagan Virtue

We are products of our place of birth. One of the truly amazing things about human culture is how quickly it can evolve. As biologists have noted, populations separated by natural barriers such as mountains, big rivers, or oceans, tend to evolve in different directions. They adapt to their environment. So far the world-wide web hasn’t flattened our differences out completely with a cultural creole, and it may be best to celebrate it while we still can. In an article in The Atlantic, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories,” by Colleen Gillard, answers her titular query with religion. The British, she suggests, are better attuned to their pagan past. In the United States children’s stories tend toward the moralistic, reflecting the Puritan values that some decry as absent from culture. British stories lean toward magic and earthiness in a way that American stories don’t.

Any generalization opens itself for criticism. (Including the generalization I’ve just made, I suppose.) Still, I think Gillard is onto something. Children are magical thinkers and have to be taught not to see what they think they see. We acculturate them into the dull, adult world of making money instead of magic. American kids get started on the entrepreneurial pathway with early moralizing about hard work and attaining goals—just glance at the titles mentioned in the article and see if you can disagree. Christianity arrived in Britain much, much earlier, of course. There it encountered a pagan sensibility that tempered its increasingly harsh edges. Puritanism took the remaining joy from the good news and made it into a very serious belief system, indeed, with eternal consequences that persistently threaten any enjoyment of life. You constantly have to examine and prove yourself. The British allowed their former earthiness to survive, as early epistles to Augustine (not of Hippo) demonstrate.

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The article ends by reflecting on recent American dystopian novels for young adults. These, Gillard suggests, reach toward fantasy in a way earlier efforts didn’t. I wonder if a bleak future is the natural consequence of founding a nation under the eye of an ever watchful, and vengeful, deity. Even a Trump may appear righteous with a Pence in his pocket. We’ve got to return to those old Puritan ways of subjecting women to men to make America great again. As this mass insanity continues to grow and infects the internet, dystopian futures appear to be strangely prescient. The C. S. Lewis of real life was not the grinning evangelical that modern-day candy Christians suppose. He knew a faun wasn’t what it seemed.

Pagan Religion

TriumphMoonFraming. Much of what we call “religion” has to do with framing. At one time it was standard practice to assume “pagan” was distasteful, if not downright evil. “Witch” was a pejorative term intended to humiliate and excoriate. Ronald Hutton is one of the few scholars who has taken the time to consider Wicca and related religions seriously. The Triumph of the Moon: a History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft has been on my reading list for quite some time. It is a big book, but this is a complex subject that can’t be dealt with briefly. Taking the time to get to know witches, with a historian’s patience, Hutton has given the world a valuable, balanced resource. Without prejudice, he traces how paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft are religions difficult to define or even categorize. There is little to frame them.

Rumor and hearsay make poor substitutes for understanding a religion. Most of what I grew up learning about witches was, in short, completely wrong. I wonder how much more pleasant the world might be if people assumed religions all to be similar in many ways. They are varied attempts to find ways of being moral in a world that gives little clear instruction on the matter. Witches and pagans are only evil in the uninformed opinions of more powerfully established religions. Religions of empire, whether real or only imagined. Those that had political backing and brute force to anathematize those who were different. Theirs is still a stigma that persists.

The Triumph of the Moon recounts the development, since the early part of the last century, of a somewhat organized experiment of religion as it grows organically. Without a leading figure or spokesperson, radically egalitarian, these groups, while sometimes in conflict, coalesce around the practice of finding something magical in the world. Theirs is an educated, literate world that does not judge other religions. It isn’t perfect, but then what religion is? The belief structure isn’t so different than many established religions except in the matter of degree. It is private and secretive in a way that we could only wish in many religions, if they could be counted on to behave themselves. I’m not likely to do a sky-clad spiral dance any time soon, but I would say that if we took religions at their word for being what they say they are, we might have a lot more resembling that of the noble pagan.

Sleepy Hallow

Sleepy_hollow_ver2Upon occasion I found movie clips to be of great help in explaining ideas in religion classes. A movie whose clips I used sparingly, due to concerns for squeamishness, was Sleepy Hollow (the Tim Burton movie, not the modern television series). Upon viewing it again recently, I was impressed by just how much religion is intertwined in the narrative. This is especially interesting since Washington Irving’s story does not contain much in the way of religious symbolism or motifs. From the beginning of the film, Rev. Steenwyck is one of the conspirators, making the church complicit in the attempt to subvert the van Garrett will. When Ichabod Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow the cleric drops a Bible—a recurring motif in the movie—on the table beside him, telling Ichabod it is the only book he will need. Christianity and Paganism clash throughout the film as a number of the women are revealed to be witches, either “innocents” or practitioners of a darker kind of magic.

In flashbacks Ichabod Crane recalls his mother’s white magic that draws the ire of his ordained father. Indeed, Ichabod’s father is a stylized amalgamation of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism blended into one. His harsh white chapel houses an inquisitorial torture chamber in which he murders his wife. Seeing her pagan symbols in the fireplace ash, he too drops a heavy Bible to point out his wife’s sins. When he stalks off from his medieval chamber of horrors, the camera angle shows him to be headless—he is the true terror, rather than the Horseman who was raised by magic and appeased by the simple return of stolen property—his head. Even in the present Rev. Steenwyck is both an adulterer and a murderer. The melee in the church leaves the final three conspirators dead.

The white witches, however, are marked by their purity. Mother Crane is so light that she can float up into the air. Katrina van Tassel draws chalk icons to protect Ichabod, indeed, the whole town, from evil. While Ichabod refers to his father with the evocative phrase “Bible-black tyrant,” his mother was an innocent child of nature. In the film Ichabod moves from the rational view of life to one that allows for the supernatural, in the form of magic. True, the Horseman cannot cross onto the consecrated ground of the church (another Catholic concept mixed in with the Protestant milieu), but the faith that saves Ichabod’s life is the book of spells given to him by Katrina. Yes, the physical book stopped a material bullet, but it was faith the put the book in the pocket in the first place. All very appropriate to bring students’ minds to religion in the autumn of the year.

Rorschach Test

Rutgers University, College Avenue Campus. I recall coming out on a sweltering night once in a while during a summer term, only to find a street evangelist inveighing against undergraduate evils. He, and it was invariably a he, may have delved into the darker sins of graduate students, but I didn’t stay around to find out. Colleges attempt to educate while street preachers try to halt the process. Shall we go forward or retreat? I occasionally run into off-campus preachers on my university visits. I still look like a professor, I suppose, so I am treated to their version of salvation along with the people less than half my age, facing all the temptations of adulthood. The last evangelists I saw were handing out tracts about the evils of tattoos. I know tattoos are very popular, although I’ve personally never seen the draw. With one eye cast warily ahead, I think of what happens when that firm bit of skin starts to sag and the bold decoration begins to shrivel to make us look less like rebels and more like crepe paper left too long in the rain. Besides, I could never think of a picture that I’d want attached to me for the rest of my life. Too many changes come along, best leaving tattoos for those who appreciate a strong dose of irony.

Tattoo

Our evangelist friends, of course, object because tattoos are expressly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible. “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you. I am the Lord,” so the Lord declares in Leviticus 19. I resisted the urge to ask my ersatz savior if his clothing contained any blends of materials, forbidden earlier in the same chapter. Or if he trimmed the hair on the sides of his head. Or rotated his crops. The problem, according to the tract, is that tattooing was considered a heathen or pagan activity as Christianity spread to new lands. Presumably the very popular cross or crucifix tattoo design had not yet evolved. The tattoo is a tribal mark, indicating loyalty to a (presumably unChristian) group. My tract sets itself out on a history of tattooing, and suggests that it became popular as a form of entertainment, suggestively knocking on the door of that devil, idleness. They even cite Rick Warren as making church too entertaining. This isn’t supposed to be fun, people!

The real problem is that tattooing is getting society prepared to receive the mark of the beast. With echoes of Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth (now severely dated), the tract tells us that the mark is a tattoo and that among the most popular designs is the dragon. China, which venerates the dragon, is hostile to Christians—coincidence?! And, it should be noted, “Studies have shown that WOMEN who get DRAGON tattoos become more SELF CONFIDENT and ASSERTIVE” (emphasis in the original). And that, they want us to believe, is a bad thing. At least with Fundamentalists, agendas are rarely hidden. Too many assertive women and scheming foreigners are trying to lead us to the very tattoo parlor of the beast. Who knew that so much could be unpacked from half a verse in Leviticus? The name Levi, by the way, some suggest, comes from the same root as leviathan, the dragon.

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.

Palming the Truth

For some today is Palm Sunday. For others it is not. And I’m not referring to those outside the Christian camp. For many Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lent is just beginning as others prepare to celebrate Easter. Such divisions in the priesthood of all believers. The message was brought home to me when a friend emailed me an article from Archon News headlined “For the first time since the Great Schism, Ecumenical Patriarch to attend Pope’s inaugural mass.” For those of you outside the thrill-a-millennium Catholic-Orthodox drama, it might help to know that about the middle of the eleventh century, Christianity experienced its first major schism. The issues were insignificant to all but those who had far too much time on their hands, but the list of grievances grew and festered for centuries until a clean-shaven Pope and heavily bearded Patriarch stopped inviting each other to one another’s parties. It seems that Pope Francis may be seeing the beginning of the end of that particular tiff.

Christianity is one of the most fragmented faiths in the world. Tens of thousands, yea, myriads of denominations exist. And if some of them got together and compared notes, I suspect they’d be shocked to learn that they are just the same as some of the others. Religious belief is deeply personal and highly individualistic. Belonging to a religious body is more a matter of commitment than it is a full agreement on every point—rather like a marriage, I suppose. The funny thing is people join religions that they like, suspecting that these copacetic beliefs will somehow save them from Hell. You can literally write your own ticket to Heaven, based on this system. No religion is right because all religions are right. And we wonder why people are eager to kill one another over matters of belief.

So, is it Palm Sunday or not? It depends entirely on your point of view. Roman Catholicism, followed by many Protestant groups, considers the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox to be Easter. Never mind that all this equinox stuff smacks of its Pagan forebears—even Easter is named after the Germanic goddess Ostara. I can’t pretend to know how various Orthodox groups calculate their Easter, but the fact is that both dates can’t be right. Unless, of course, one of them is really a celebration of Ostara. Or maybe both are. And if it comes to a matter of debate, it will mean the birth of even more denominations.

Ostara laughs to see such sport

Ostara laughs to see such sport

Religion and Its Discontents

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Travel broadens the mind. I’ve always felt that travel, for those who pay attention when they do it, is one of the best forms of education available. When I do campus visits for work, my time is spent talking to faculty, but on my walks between appointments I keep an eye out for my own education. This past week at the University of Texas in Austin, I couldn’t help but notice how much religion still plays into the lives of many people—even undergraduates. One of the first things I noticed as I approached campus was the sign outside a Methodist Church announcing a sermon series entitled “When Christians Disagree.” Anyone with experience within, let alone between, denominations knows that disagreement is endemic. It would be difficult to find a single point of Christian teaching that is universally held among Christians without at least one group of dissenters. In my own experience, disagreements run deeply within Christian denominations, and the hatred experienced is often more fierce than that between Christians and “heathens.”

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Well, maybe not between some Christians and Islam. So on a campus kiosk I found posters for a seminar entitled “Muhammad: Messenger of Peace.” In a largely Christian context, Muslim students have a difficult time with their religion being castigated in the media and in popular thought. Almost all religions are capable of violence (I was going to write “All religions” but I couldn’t think of any instances where Jains have incited violence), but most highly value and promote peace as the ideal. Few religions are actually founded on violence. I’ve heard many Christians make the claim that Islam is about conquest, pointing to the rapid expansion of Islam following the time of Muhammad. They often overlook the Crusades, one of the most violent Christian reactions to another religion in history. Is Christianity all about violence? Who is “the prince of peace” anyway?

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On a bulletin board I saw a notice for Asatru, the Pagan Student Alliance. If any religious group is misunderstood, surely it is Pagans. Christian missionaries liberally used “pagan” to denigrate the old religions they encountered throughout the world. Often attempts were made to eradicate such beliefs completely. With some success. Many forms of paganism today are revivals of the old religions, and a few are actual survivals. The Pagans I know are moral, peace-loving people as well. Claims of human sacrifice (often fabricated) aside, paganism was, and is, an attempt to make peace with the planet upon which we find ourselves. Peace, it seems, is a desideratum of many religions. If we studied college campuses, where such beliefs are encouraged to coexist, we might find a model that would work for people in the “real world.” And perhaps peace really would have a chance.