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Religion Library: Paganism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Carl Gregg

For Paganism, the age of empire - even though the great empires of the Greeks and the Romans all began in Pagan antiquity - was, ironically, the age when Paganism would be marginalized. By the 1st century C.E., the Roman Empire had spread throughout most of Europe. Although at this time all of Europe was Pagan in the sense of practicing polytheistic religion, many of the so-called barbarians (such as the Celtic and the Germanic tribes) appear to have engaged in independent cultic veneration of local gods and goddesses, while the Romans imported a more abstract "pantheon" of deities that were regarded as having universal authority. In the process of Romanization that occurred in places like Gaul and Britain, two key events transpired: local deities were "merged" with their more universal Roman counterparts, and the native priesthood-the Druids-were suppressed.

Once a Roman presence was established in Britain, gods with both Celtic and Roman names were venerated. Examples include Sulis Minerva (the water goddess of what is modern-day Bath, England, who was merged with the Roman goddess Minerva) and Apollo Grannus (Grannus, a Celtic solar deity, merged with the Roman god Apollo). From the perspective of the conquering Romans, this practicing of merging universal and local deities was a form of religious tolerance, but for the local religion, it had the effect of subverting the prior orientation toward local veneration in favor of a more universalizing approach to deities (which had the effect of introducing an abstract dimension to spirituality that was subtly at odds with local, nature-oriented devotion).

But what may have been even more damaging to Celtic Paganism was the suppression of the druids. In the 1st century B.C.E., Julius Caesar spoke of the need to suppress the Celtic druids when writing about his conquest of Gaul; a century later, when Britain was under conquest, Suetonius Paulinus attacked a college of druids on an island in Wales (modern-day Anglesey), killing the druid priests and priestesses and destroying their shrines.

While the Roman conquest of Europe weakened the region's indigenous religious practices, the suppression of Paganism was completed with the arrival of Christianity. This new monotheistic religion spread quickly throughout the Empire; for example, there is evidence of Christianity in Britain as early as the 2nd century C.E.  With Christianity came a religion oriented toward a single deity and a belief that polytheistic deities were demonic. Legendary tales, particularly from Ireland, suggest that the Christianization of the British Isles included a process of confronting the existing Pagan practices, and triumphing over them - often by the Christians performing wonders greater than the magic of their Pagan priests.

Although such legends belong to the realm of myth rather than history, they do indicate that Christianity did not just move into a spiritual vacuum when arriving in Britain and Ireland, but did in fact supplant the pre-Christian Pagan religion.


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