We need to talk about paganism.
I’ve written a lot in the past about atheism. I’ve taken Christianity to task, and talked at great length about the problems that I see inherent both in the bible and in picking and choosing which bits of the mythology to believe. In order to continue to do this, and to feel I have any intellectual honesty, I need to write a mea culpa. I wasn’t raised Christian. I wasn’t christened. It’s never played a big part in my life and although I do have family members who are christian, they’re always very tolerant of my opinions and critiques. There is another belief system that is closer to home. One that I was raised to have more belief in, and that some members of my family still care deeply about. So if I’m comfortable taking pot shots at a religion that I have no stake in, I should say a few words about one that I have had more involvement with.
So let’s get one thing very clear about paganism. It’s not what people say it is.
Modern paganism is fun, sure. It’s interesting, and it has some great parties attached to it. It’s also not one unified thing. For the purpose of this piece I’ll be talking about it as if ‘paganism’ is all one homogenous belief system, but that’s just for ease of reading (and writing.) in truth, it is a many splintered thing. There are a lot of different groups, each with their own customs and rituals. But we need to be clear on one fundamental point. They are modern. Around this time of year, sat in the chill air between Halloween and Christmas, we hear talk of how these holidays are really pagan, how they were co-opted by Christianity, and that the modern pagans are upholding ancient traditions.
There is a grain of truth to those statements, but noting more than that. Yes, Halloween roughly coincides with a number of ancient festivals, including the Irish Celtic Samhain. And yes, Christmas also roughly coincides with a similar number of mid-winter festivals. Also yes, Christianity did deliberately place it’s feasts at times that matched up to exiting rituals. But that’s as far as the truth really travels. Modern paganism isn’t continuing an unbroken line that reaches back to those pre-Christian traditions. What it does do, and what its practitioners do, is to take some of what we know about those ancient customs, and many things we’ve learned since, and combine them into a new and interesting narrative.
That would be fine. There is nothing at all wrong with starting new customs. In fact, it’s something that we should embrace and celebrate. It shows progress and creativity. Each culture, and each generation within that culture, gets to invent and reinvent itself. Even for atheists like myself, there is something important about customs and traditions, things that bind us together. The key, the real aim, is to have them be done out of honesty, not out of myth-making. The problem is that we’re not being entirely honest about paganism. For every person who embraces modern paganism for what it is, there are others who genuinely believe they’re joining a fictional unbroken line that dates back to a bygone age. As such, modern paganism is in danger of doing what all religions do, and of distorting itself for political gain (largely identity politics. I’ll return to this.)
Let’s take Samhain as an example. What do we know about it?
Well, we know there was a festival called Samhain. We know it was a seasonal celebration, mostly a kind of harvest festival that marked the start of winter. And, like most seasonal celebrations around these parts in winter, it involved bonfires.
That’s…kind of it. Was it simply a harvest festival, or did it contain more mystical elements? We don’t really know. There’s not much actual historical proof to go on, and there is very little evidence to say there was any link to death or to spooky beasties. The people who really celebrated Samhain were a culture who were not very literate (in the way we understand it today) and a lot of what is written, was written a long time after the fact, mostly by christian or christianised scholars. Most of the symbolism over death, magic and demons appears to have been added onto these celebrations by christianity. Sure, you can go on websites and find all sorts of entries about the various traditions and customs of Samhain, and of how many of them have carried through to Halloween. You’ll even find reputable news sites picking up on this. But in truth it’s pretty much all guesswork. And that’s the best case scenario.
There is a problem inherent in the bible that’s worth revisiting here. One of the single most important problems with that text, is that everything was written after the fact. The stories of Jesus were put together by second and third hand sources (at best). Because of this, it’s impossible to really say the documents are accurate (as a note, it’s also extremely difficult to say they’re all innacurate for exactly the same reason. The truth is, and the atheist position is, that we simply don’t know. Anyone claiming divine authority on the issue is lying to you.) If we’re going to hold christianity to that standard, we need to do the same for paganism. If you’re a pagan, and you choose to believe that all of these customs and traditions are true, then that’s fine. However, you have to accept that there’s very little in the way of verified historical veracity to that position, and that you can’t then moan about christians choosing to believe their own version of events on the same amount of evidence. Just as we can make a case that christians co-opted ancient festivals for their own purposes, so we can make the same case against modern paganism.
So if we don’t know how much, if any, of the ancient Samhain is replicated in the modern Halloween, what do we know?
Well, we know that Halloween and Christmas as we know them are modern developments. Most of our current version of Christmas was gathered together around the time of Charles Dickens (early Christians didn’t celebrate it at all. In some parts of the christian world it was actively banned.) In the case of Halloween, most of what we see now dates back to the romantic era of novelists and poets. Indeed, the Oxford Dictionary Of English folklore says, “from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, there is no sign in England that 31 October had any meaning except as the eve of All Saint’s Day.” (http://www.amazon.com/Dictionary-English-Folklore-Paperback-Reference/dp/0198607660) We could point out that the quote is only talking about England and that the Celtic traditions that pagans point to were from Scotland and Ireland. But there’s an important point to make here. Whilst archeologists could talk for hours about the many things they’ve discovered about these ancient groups, that needs to be separated from what we think we know about them from pop culture. A lot of what we came to see as markers of “celtic identity” were created, adapted and spread during the Victorian era, and largely by the English ruling class. It was essentially a means of ghettoisation. They reduced the people of Scotland and Ireland to cliche (anyone ever wonder why the Royal family wear such stupid looking “Scottish” clothes when they’re in Scotland? They created them.) Around this time we see a huge boom in romantic poets and writers, and they were imbuing their work with ideas that persist to this day. They were great writers, and the work should be celebrated, but instead we’ve absorbed them as historical documents. Robert Burns, for instance, wrote the poem “Halloween” in 1785, with stylised and evocative references to fairies and Scottish history, and it became a template not for preserving an old tradition, but for exporting a new one.
Modern paganism is very effective. It’s exciting, it’s evocative, and for people looking for something a little different to the mainstream religions, it’s a good way of forging a different identity and feeling more connected to nature. But it’s not a note-for-note continuation of ancient traditions. It’s a relatively new belief system that uses some trappings of ancient beliefs -from across many regions- and melds them together into something new and cohesive. That’s what religions do. That’s what christianity did. But there is a danger that comes with that, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this.
We are in an interesting age for identity politics. The term used to be negative, a sign of people manipulating voters based on colour, sex or background. But identity is increasingly important, and old class-focused left-wing thinking is struggling to adapt to a world where people want to be both distinct and united. Intersectional feminism, for instance, is regarded by lefties of older generations as something divisive, not to be trusted. But it’s a movement that seeks to open up a debate, to encourage room for more people in the conversation. We’re in an age where a variety of different voices and experiences is vital. When it comes to religion, though, I can’t help but see the identity politics of old. A form of division and control. If we seek to pretend that modern paganism is part of an unbroken tradition, then we allow room for the argument that these beliefs were here first. By extension we allow that there are indigenous beliefs that have an older and stronger claim to the piece of dirt we stand on than anything new.
We don’t have to go far in the world to see what happens when religions and belief systems are left unchecked to get into identity politics. We can see all to well what happens when two or more religions in a region start playing games of one-upmanship and we were here first.
In the debates over who owns christmas and halloween, both sides lose. Modern pagans and modern christians are both using ancient names and dates in the service of having a party. Neither of them have any great claim to be carrying on the traditions of Samhain, or any other winter festivals, because we simply don’t know enough about the traditions and rituals they entailed.
Personally? I love a good bonfire. There is something about the combination of the fire, the winter air, and a mass gathering of people that feels right. It feels like we’re doing something simple and basic that humans have been doing ever since we first discovered fire. If you want to do this at the start of winter, or in the middle of winter, then chances are you are doing something that people on these islands did thousands of years ago. But that’s the extent of the connection, and anything more than that is simply a good story.