Saturday, 28 January 2012

Cultural continuity?

People from other religions, and occasionally archaeologists, refer to contemporary Pagans as "neopagans". I personally find this condescending. I have outlined the reasons for this before, in a blogpost entitled "Stop calling us NeoPagans".

I think the reason "neopagan" bothers me so much is (1) the other terms that the prefix "neo"appears in; (2) the fact that no-one ever refers to Protestants and the like as "Neo-Christians"; (3) it implies a lack of authenticity - why can't people be Pagans (as long as we don't claim to be direct heirs of ancient pagans, because there are both similarities and differences); (4) it's usually said in a snidey way.

I am not saying that there is cultural continuity between contemporary Pagans and ancient "pagans" (who did not self-identify as pagan - the term was applied to them by the early Christians).

The only connection between contemporary Paganism and ancient polytheisms is that we honour the same deities. The philosophical basis of the Pagan revival is different - even in the case of reconstructionist Paganisms. Our philosophical basis is either reconnecting with Nature, or recovering the lost wisdom of the past. The philosophical basis of much of ancient polytheism was mainly propitiating the deities. Of course there must have been those who participated in the rituals out of love of the deities, and because they wanted to connect with the world-soul, but these were probably in the minority (as they sadly are today in most religions).

The rituals of ancient polytheisms, and the reasons behind them, are largely lost to us. What understanding of death did the Iron Age Celts have? We simply don't know, because they didn't write it down. Nor do we know with what rituals they disposed of their dead, even if we can see the results. Our knowledge of the Iron Age priesthood known as the druids comes mainly from the propagandist writings of Julius Caesar, as Ronald Hutton points out in his excellent book The Druids. (Presumably also in Blood and Mistletoe, but I haven't read that yet.)

Information about what the Saxon and Norse rituals were like is considerably better, and so Heathen reconstructionists have far more hope of producing something accurate.

Obviously there is also no unbroken line of initiatory descent from ancient polytheisms (unless you trace it through the Christian church, ironically enough). And the genetic link between contemporary Pagans and ancient pagans is shared by every other inhabitant of the British Isles.

So contemporary Pagans cannot claim exclusive jurisdiction over sacred sites or human remains, because everyone is the heir of the ancient past. But when someone wants to desecrate a sacred site (as when some Christians wanted to place a rock with Alpha and Omega carved on it in the middle of Maybury Henge), then we should have a voice alongside others who would want to prevent such a thing from happening.


Bo said...

Despite the title, that ammounted to an excellent argument for using the 'neo-' prefix, I have to say! The analogy I always use is revived Cornish, which some linguists call 'neo-Cornish' to distinguish it from Late Cornish, the form of the language in the two centuries or so before it died out. It's a nice shorthand for the commonality-in-revival, but not continuous identity, that you discuss here.

Bo said...


Yewtree said...

Maybe, but it's the way some people say Neo Pagan as if they were sucking a lemon, in much the same way as a certain demographic refers to ho-mo-sexuality with pursed lip and furrowed brow.

There's little or no cultural continuity between evangelicals and Catholics, but nobody refers to the former as neo-Christians. Though perhaps they should.

Makarios said...

The late, lamented Isaac Bonewits used the term Neopaganism to distinguish it from Paleopaganism and Mesopaganism. He explained it here.

Stuart Rathbone said...

One of the most common uses of the term Neo I have come across is Neo-Marxist. In that instance there is direct continuity to the original Marxists and the term, at least when used by followers, is not a derogatory term. Similar uses of neo in a decidedly non derogatory manner include Neoclassical, neodarwinism, neomalthusianism, neorealism etc. Other uses of the term include Neolithic and neophyte, which have some relevance in the general context of recreated paganism. I note the Oxford English dictionary defines neopaganism as "a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or ritual practices from outside the main world religions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe and North America" with no suggestions of a derogatory slur.
I think you may be overly sensitive in this, as the slur is not implied by the word rather it becomes attached to it by the context in which it is used. It doesn't matter which term you prefer, if someone wants to use that term as an insult, they will, and there has to be a distinction made somewhere between authentic ancient paganism and modern versions no matter how authentic they may or may not be. As the first poster said, you yourself have made a compelling argument for retaining the term neopagan.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Actually there is a great deal of continuity between ancient Paganism and modern Paganism. We have this on no less an authority than Ronald Hutton, who admitted, after having published "Triumph of the Moon", that he had previously "ignored the existence of certain types of ancient religion which far more closely resembled Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it." Hutton attempted to correct this previous oversight in his book "Witches, Druids and King Arthur" (especially chapters 4 & 5), but everyone appears to have ignored this very large asterisk next to Hutton's contribution to the history of Paganism.

And there is also a growing body of scholarly literature documenting the existence of "underground Paganism" in Byzantium up to the fifteenth century. This clandestine spiritual movement had its culmination in the career of George Gemistos Plethon, who was immensely influential in Renaissance Italy.

Anyone who wishes to continue to poo-poo the idea of Pagan continuity really needs to read what Hutton wrote after Triumph of the Moon, and, more importantly, read what two Byzantine scholars named Niketas Siniossoglou and Anthony Kaldellis have written in the last five or so years. In particular, Siniossoglou has a new (2011) book on Plethon which is probably the most important piece of research ever produced on the survival of Paganism after the "triumph" of Christianity.

Yewtree said...

Yes I have read Witches, Druids and King Arthur.

I would have said that the cultural continuity being argued for there was that which can be traced via ritual magic, rather than via any pagan survivals.

Though your example of George Gemistos Plethon is interesting.

Erska said...

I also saw some great arguments for using "Neo" in there!

I'm a Neopagan and I like/use the term, although I tend to use it with Pagan interchangeably. I simply don't believe my practice has enough in common with its ancient counterparts (from which, many would argue, I have borrowed with impunity and without properly citing anything) for me to give it the same name. I live in a very different time from ancient agricultural/herding societies, with VERY different priorities.

Anonymous said...

We are still too little removed from the time when claiming unbroken tradition from ancient times was common for me to be comfortable dropping the prefix "neo-". Using it admits respect for scholarship and an understanding that the forms we use are modern, though they may be inspired and informed by our understanding, however limited, of ancient practices.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hutton's fallback position, going back to "Pagan Religions of the British Isles" has always been that the continuity of Paganism is by way of "ritual magic" but not by way of religion. But this assumes a sharp dichotomy between religion and magic, and such a dichotomy is at best a controversial idea. The truth is that few scholars support such a bright line these days, and for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with Hutton. I would suggest taking a look at the anthology "Prayer Magic and the Stars in Ancient and Late Antique Worlds" edited by Noegel, Walker and Wheeler (link), where one reads: "[R]ecent work has provided compelling documentation for the broad area of overlap between 'religion' and 'magic' in the Graeco-Roman world. From the courtrooms of classical Athens, there is ample evidence for the deployment of magical rituals, objects, and words. These written, spoken, or sung words--whether we call them spells, incantations, or charms--draw upon a ritual and conceptual vocabulary closely linked to the 'official' forms of civic and public prayer. In contrast to earlier scholarship, which tended to see such shared elements as evidence for magicians' surreptitious appropriation of public religion, recent scholarship has preferred to view 'magical' and 'religious' practices as part of a continuum that encompassed both individual and communal forms of piety."

Anonymous said...

In Scandinavia we have to differ between the new and the old paganism because we have so much "imported" paganism that isn't connected to our culture in any way, and to avoid having to point this fact out every time we speak about it we find the labels very practical. We often use "new" about Christians who do not come from a Christian background, as well, simply because it's a different kind of Christianity from the traditional culturally bound kind.

Ethan Doyle White said...

On one additional note, that admittedly does not necessarily support either side of the argument, I would have to criticise the statement that the "only connection between contemporary Paganism and ancient polytheisms is that we honour the same deities."

Simply put, in a large percentage of cases, modern Pagans simply do not venerate the same deities as the people of pre-Christian Europe. Take for instance the Horned God and Goddess of Wicca, or the Great Goddess of the contemporary Goddess movement; these are largely twentieth-century creations, based in large part on contemporary literature, and while bearing iconographic and/or thematic similarities with certain historic European deities, they are distinctly different creations from a historical point of view.

It is also of note that the majority of deity names found in pre-Christian Europe have likely been lost to both contemporary scholarship and to contemporary Paganism. Sure, literary and numismatic evidence have supplied us a wide array of deities from Ancient Egypt and the Roman World, but we are lacking such documentation from other parts of Europe, particularly further north. For instance, in regards to my area of special interest, Anglo-Saxon England, we may know of Woden and Thunor, but we know nothing of the multitude of different gods and spirits who were probably believed to inhabit the landscape, some being venerated only in very small localities. In this way, the majority of ancient pagan gods from across Europe have quite simply been forgotten, and so in this respect it is -- at least in part -- erroneous to claim that contemporary Pagans (and I include in this reconstructionists), really are venerating exactly the same deities as their forebears. At best we can say that some contemporary Pagans are venerating some of the same deities as ancient pre-Christian Europeans, albeit often in an altered form.

Karen A. Scofield said...

I propose that it's less a problem with linguistics and more of a problem of rampant, persistent poor thinking.

If you’ve agreed to the premise that belief-based identity clashes are the best basis for any argument, then you’ve agreed to the abusive premise for us vs. them type of identity wars (and with less focus on behaviors, people are more likely to act like real butts to anyone more vulnerable for any reason, which is one of the reasons why prejudice tends to travel in bunches). If you’re trying shake things up for the better but agree to the dominant problematic premise for the argument to be solved, you’re usually have already lost the battle. Or you've at least done a lot to sabotage all your efforts made in good faith, as it were.

Labels new or neo- can make little difference to them. They may simply employ a different false dilemma (see below). It won’t take much effort or brain cells on their part, they’ll tend to get a lot of social approval for it, and that makes their continued use of identity-based prejudice, sniffing and nose wrinkling extremely predictable. Extremely predictable. Changing labels can work monstrously well in the mainstream but not so well for religious minorities.

* Absolute moralism vs. moral relativism (read as monotheism, especially or only theirs, vs. damned, dirty neos/liberals)

* The Forces of Good™ vs. The Forces of Evil™ dualism (credit to Isaac Bonewits for that apt addition of adding ™ to that phrase)

* Apollonian vs. Dionysian ("wholeness" vs. anything goes individualism dualism and anything neo- has to lack a moral compass, any sense of accountability, and so on...but anything “whole”/established/entrenched has a stable, superior, reliable and known moral compass)

* Eclecticism vs. Traditionalism and Hard vs. Soft Polytheology false dilemmas (are both unique in many ways but overlap greatly in that they both mirror many of the majoritarian or religious right arguments against things neo-)

* Individualism vs. Normalization and Individual vs. Group Think false dilemmas (deep topics, and yes, they overlap and mirror many of the majoritarian or religious right arguments against things neo-)

* Religion vs. Scientism (for those folk that believe that the new dualism is so much better than the old ones)

The whole idea of basing culture or overt war on identity (especially belief-based identity) is one of the most volatile and entrenched. It is the most likely to be socially sanctioned and the least likely to be well examined. By nature, it is a ward of the deep end of society’s shadow. It is the tricky dark side of a lot of light chasing. It’s a huge part of why "There are two kinds of light - the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures."

Slow movements tend to illuminate, tend to make far more progress. They really earn what they illuminate; they earn their excellence and progress.

Where the focus goes, the energies flow.

Now, there are cases when it makes sense to drop a label of identity and pick a wiser one. I'm not convinced "Neopagan" should be avoided.

Yewtree said...

Many excellent points there. Not sure that you've made a case to support the use of the term neo-pagan, only that there may be other more important battles to fight in the identity and culture wars...

Thomas Traxler said...

There are still some bad assumptions here, modeled along the lines of the Xtian church. Ancient belief was not orthodox, nor always strictly apostolic in a xtian sense. If you study contemporary accounts of the change in African diaspora religions from the admittedly bad reporting of the 1700s to Diaspora in the Americas, and their practice now in Africa, you can begin to see that oral traditions evolve, and change due to locales and the very nature of oral tradition. Although much of the essential meaning is kept, many of the ritual details change and evolve. Many of us DO honor the dieties, not for "appeasement" (bad horror movie trope, or at least the viewpoint of only SOME ancient people) but because of the relationship we have have in the world with the diety. Paganism has survived in architecture and other arts all through the xtian epoch. We are pagan because that's who we are, that's what we worship, and although a link with the past is desirable, it is not essential to the practice of paganism, nor to one's identity as a pagan.

Thomas Traxler said...

As a further comment, let me say I agree completely with the person who posted re: Ronald Hutton. The point he makes (and which is confirmed by Oturopon Meji in Ifa tradition) is that pagan dieties are IMMANENT, they do not require an "unbroken lineage" or an "identical point of view", simply recognition and devotion. We are pagan because we worship pagan gods, that's it, that's all that's needed-- historicity is a valued bonus, not a requirement. So our relationship with deity differs from ancient practice, so what? Were ancient priests super-human in their powers of perception? No...they were just as we are today (biologically speaking). So somebody started it, and at various points, worship was discontinuous and someone had to start it again, without a doubt differing slightly from its previous version. Look at Olorishas and Osainistas in the New World, busily adapting the local fauna to fill in for missing old-world fauna. Are they described as "Neo-Olorishas"? No, they are practically adapting to the time and place (perhaps they pick neo-herbs...). Any "neo-" prefix is an interesting (valid yet a bit nit-picky) footnote, but is in no way a valid criticism of the authenticity of modern personal practice. What do they call Brazil nuts in Brazil? They just call them nuts....

Yewtree said...

Well that's why I don't like the prefix "Neo" myself.