Friday, 9 March 2012

A Dissenter graveyard

In Manchester, there is a defunct Unitarian church, and next to it a graveyard where many Unitarians and their dissenting predecessors are buried.

Asda want to build a car-park on it.

A local group, Friends of Swinton Unitarian, has been formed to protest the loss of this piece of heritage.

I thought this whole issue was rather illuminating of the issues around ancient 'pagan' burials.

How this is different from reburying ancient 'pagan' burials
  • the burials are considerably more recent; direct descendants may still be around
  • if the burials need to be relocated, the rituals with which they would have been interred are still extant
  • there is still a Unitarian religion with direct and unbroken descent from the Unitarians of the 19th century and their dissenting predecessors
  • the graves are still in situ and we don't really need another supermarket - the remains are not being dug up for rescue archaeology purposes
The Unitarian response

The response to this from contemporary Unitarians is also interesting and sensible.

In the UK Unitarians group on Facebook, one member commented:
Graveyards and cemeteries are for the living. That we live in a time when we don't see a graveyard as sacred space and don't value them is to my mind a real shame. This is not about where the bodies may be buried but about the meaning of this space. Our history should not just be confined to written or electronic records but should be around us for all to see. If this becomes a debate about where bones are buried, I think that we are missing a more profound issue about the value of sacred space within our communities.
I think the history is important. The fact that there were separate dissenters' graveyards is a significant aspect of British history. Also, this is a green space in the heart of a city, which is another reason for caring about it. And there may be individual graves of historic significance, as well as the whole thing being a bit of our history. But I am heartened to see that most commenters have said that the living are more important than the dead, and that the history and the sacred space are the most important aspects.

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.