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Religion Library: Paganism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Carl McColman

Ancient Paganism was not missionary in nature - in other words, Pagans did not travel abroad, seeking converts to their way of life. When cultures were expansionist (as were the Celtic, Greek, and Roman), the motivation was political and economic rather than religious or spiritual. Paganism has no sense of damnation or hell, and therefore no urgency to convert other people to the "truth." The defining feature of ancient European Paganism was polytheism, which by its very nature stressed tolerance and coexistence. The many deities revered within a polytheistic religious framework meant that local custom and adaptation was a normal and accepted part of Pagan religion.

As distinct cultures emerged in Europe - Celtic, Norse, Greek, and Roman - each featured its own set of sacred stories, of venerated heroic ancestors, and of gods and goddesses, often directly linked to a particular place or aspect of nature. Within each culture were numerous tribes, clans, or city-states, each again with its own unique religious make-up.This meant that even the gods and goddesses themselves "evolved." For example, Danu (an Indo-European river goddess) lent her name to the Danube River in Germany, which at one point was a Celtic land. Eventually the Celts migrated to Ireland, taking their veneration of Danu with them, but in Ireland, she "evolved" into a shadowy mother goddess, known more for her children-the Tuatha de Danaan, or "Tribe of the goddess Dana," a mythic race of gods-heroes who play a central role in Irish myth. Thus Dana is a local adaptation of a goddess who remains important in other regions of the Indo-European Pagan world (for example, Hindu mythology includes a primordial water/mother goddess named Danu).

The age of empire facilitated an increased spread of Pagan practices. During the Hellenistic age, Greek Paganism spread beyond the Greek isles; with the coming of the Roman Empire, Roman religious practices also spread to new regions. Economic trade meant that spiritual cross-fertilization would follow. This is evident in terms of the spread of Egyptian religion in the Hellenistic world after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. Egyptian deities and myths were harmonized with the Greek equivalents, and Egyptian deities like Horus and Isis were venerated in Greece. Likewise, after the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain, the Romans tolerated local religious practices and did not attempt to stamp them out, but rather introduced their own deities and cultic practices-resulting, again, in a syncretization between these two different forms of Paganism. Sometimes, local deities would be seen as equivalent to Roman gods or goddesses, and would be given compound Celtic-Roman names: for example, Sulis Minerva.

Because of the increased mobility of people within the empire, generated by increased trade activity as well as military movement, religious practices from different cultures contributed to the increasing complexity of Pagan religion. Isis was worshiped in Greece; the Persian god Mithras and the Celtic goddess Epona became popular with Roman soldiers and thus were worshiped throughout the empire. But this same mobility also meant the increasing influence of a force that would eventually have a profound influence on European Paganism: the arrival of monotheism from Judea, especially Christianity.



Study Questions:
     1.    What was the motivation for the spread of Paganism?
     2.    How did Pagan Gods/Goddess evolve over time?
     3.    How did the mobility of people advance the Pagan belief system? What did mobility later bring that would harm it?

 

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