Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Ancestral heritage (guest post)

A guest post by Anne Griffith Evans, a member of Pagans for Archaeology:

After watching the debate with Nick Griffin on Question Time, I have been trying to crystallise my own views on national identity, the connected concept of ancestral heritage, and the related archaeological record.

As a British Pagan, I wish to understand the ancient past, and the manner of worship in these lands before Christianity. I want to know and honour the gods of my land. But I am not a racist or a right-winger. Like the guy in the audience who spoke up during
Question Time (and the Folk against Fascism Facebook group), I do not want my love of my country or its traditional/ancient cultures to be subverted to indicate support for views of the BNP.

In attempting to reclaim my ancestral heritage, am I a racist? Today I saw a 1999 TV programme (
Hitler's Search For The Holy Grail) which described how Hitler and his minions undertook archaeological research into the origins of the German 'Volk' and their old myths and gods, to inform what they considered to be their holy war and attempt to purify the Aryan race. Like me, they were searching for their origins to inform their present.

Oh dear.

Have I fallen into a trap? Various people have pointed out the parallel between Pagan reconstructions of the past and fascist attempts to rediscover origins. I wonder if the Nazi rationale explains why some leading Pagan thinkers emphasise the 'neo' part of neo-paganism, as a way of avoiding the entire dialogue about ancient roots and origins?

A quote near the end of 'Holy Grail' points out a non-engagement with the issue of racism by archaeologists, and also points to a way forward for me.

Professor Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge (1999) says that what had to be laid at the door of archaeologists and anthropologists, is that:
"at the end of the Second World War, they didn't sort out the issues of ethnicity. The holocaust was so ghastly that they walked away from the issue and didn't analyse it carefully. That ethnicity, the notion of who a people is, is very much what a people wants to be [my emphasis] and is not to be demonstrated or proved from something deep in prehistory.... Archaeologists were very late in saying this and have only been saying it very recently. Academics did not grasp the nettle with sufficient vigour."
I take the Professor's words to mean that ethnicity is not about genetics or race; it's about collective cultural identity. This makes absolute sense to me, and takes away the stigma of potential accusations that my enthusiasm about heritage is race-related.

Watching the
Question Time audience, composed of people of many different ethnic groups (who were collectively though not exclusively against the stance of BNP and Mr Griffin) I was proud to be British and to be one of those opposing the BNP. And I have yet to find examples of racial imperialism in the customs or deities of my pre-Christian ancestors. I like to think I'm out of trouble.

Note: if you feel strongly about the appropriation of Pagan and Heathen symbols by the extreme right, please visit the Heathens against Hate website, which is a long-standing campaign against the misuse of Heathen lore and symbols by fascists.

Pagans for Archaeology is opposed to racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of hatred.


Anonymous said...

I think the question of heritage/ethnic identity appreciation vs. racism can be answered pretty much by the intent behind it. The first is pro-something, the second is anti-something.

There's nothing bad about wanting to learn about where you came from, and how it shaped you and the society you live in today. Even if you don't want to embrace it in it's entirety, I think you miss a lot by not having the perspective it can give you.

The Nazis weren't looking for heritage; they were looking for an excuse and justification, and they perverted Germany's religious history to get it. If your foundation for being interested in and appreciative of your ancestor's culture and accomplishments rests on having to denigrate or devalue others', then you don't have much to be proud of.

Yewtree said...

Very true Snooze, but sadly some people do conflate the two, and we have to be careful how we engage with these ideas, so people can tell the difference.

June Courage said...

Consider these points: 1)'race' is almost entirely a cultural construct: something we see because we create it, rather than because it actually exists.As an example,imagine that the word 'ethnic' referred to redheads, and to redheads alone. Of course,it would be meaningless - but that's the point.
2)No matter how far you trace back your ancestors, you are pretty unlikely to establish for sure your genetic origins.I'm Welsh/Cornish/Irish for at least 6 generations on one side, and 10 on the other - but that doesn't mean a thing.For all I will ever know, I could be the direct descendent of a Carthiginian slave sold on to a Viking warlord and exported to Britain some several hundred years ago.3)Culture, not the colour of your eyebrows is what matters: left to their own devices, children assimilate with extraordinary speed and ease.Of course, that scares the adults who have to cling to an identity the kids can only ever partly share, which is where the trouble starts. 4)A mono-culture is just that. A culture. To get a civilisation, you have to mix.The civilisation of these beautiful islands is the result of lots of mixing.5)Being proud of who you are is a first and necessary step to respecting who everybody else is.6)Being proud of your civilisation means you want to share it. If you are ready to share your own civilisation and have respect for other people's, all will be well. The problems start with exclusivity, fear, and arrogance. 7)I though we all came out of Africa anyhow? Blessings June.

Yewtree said...

Excellent points, June, thank you for commenting.