The Past is a Place We Still Inhabit

Roman Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain (CC Manuel González Olaechea y Franco)

…what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is the very fact these worlds are never completely lost.  We inhabit their fragments even when we classify ourselves as modern and secular.

–Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe

As I’ve stated before, the disenchantment of the earth is not only something that happens “to us,” but something which occurs through us, whether conscious or not.  Recognizing our complicity in the disenchantment of the  world is essential if we hope for a world where the gods and spirits are real, not merely fictive relics of some “primitive” past.

This notion of “primitive” is crucial.  It’s both something we Pagans encounter as criticism against us, as well as something we’ve inherited and internalized from the grand western narratives of Progress.  Because we worship gods and spirits, call the elemental forces of nature, revere our ancestors and consider the natural world innately sacred, we are sometimes seen as embracing primitive, less-developed, or “unenlightened” ways of thinking and believing, contrary to the  enlightened, modern, and secular/scientific society in which we live.

Previous Does Not Equal Inferior

There’s a tendency in some fields of Pagan study to search far into the past (far enough there’s no record of human experience to say otherwise–) to find the root of our skewed relationship to nature.  This, I’d suggest, isn’t Pagan at all, but rather an inherited and unsurprisingly unexamined conception of our “modern” culture.

Consider the evolutionary sciences.  It’s become common to reach into our genetic ancestry and proposed biological pressures in order to find justifications for violence, patriarchal structures, and even Capitalism as inevitable outgrowths of our “primitive” states.  Though some have attempted to counter this with alternate theories which suggest we’re also “wired” for compassion, co-operation, and equality, the evolutionary sciences have been infected by the Progress Narrative.  That is, evolution (which means “change over time”) has come popularly to mean “getting better.”

This narrative infects many other fields of study, including that of the “evolution” of religious beliefs.  If we were less advanced in the past, it would follow that our past beliefs were also “less advanced.”  Theories of the progression of religious systems often assert we started out as animists, transitioned to polytheism when we discovered agriculture and founded cities, then went to henotheism as civilization progressed until embracing the one-god of monotheism.  At this point in our “progress,” many suggest we’re evolving our beliefs to a “higher” form of understanding—that is, secularism or atheism.

Progress is a constructed and forced narrative.   Worse, it asserts that the western world is somehow superior not only to its previous forms but also other societies and cultures as it categorizes polytheistic and animistic beliefs in a category of “primitive” or less developed.

Consider: in order to believe the present is better, we create a break between the present and past.  That is, the past is over and the present is something radically different from all which has come before.  We “modern” people are somehow exceptional, with our ideas of rights, our embrace of science, and our dismissal of “primitive” conceptions of the gods.  We’ve forced a false distance between ourselves and what has come before, and I suspect T.S. Eliot is correct about the reason for this.  In “The Dry Salvages,” he says this distancing is…

“…a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.”

That is, our “modern” state is one of disenchantment partially because we enforce an artificial break between what is “now” and what “was then,” and it frees us from responsibility to the past.

Disowning the Past

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

–G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Looking at our relationship to place is a great way to see how the Progress Narrative affect our worldings.  I’ve mentioned this before, and I will say it again (and again)—those of us who live in the United States, if we are not of First Nation’s blood, are living on stolen land.

This statement, when taken from a “modern,” disenchanted viewpoint, means only that the land we were living on was once stolen from others.  If we lean left in our political views, we might be inclined to attempt to mitigate that earlier crime or maybe experience a twinge of guilt about it all.

But consider: just because the land was once stolen doesn’t mean it isn’t still stolen.  That theft is still with us, and not merely in a psychological or moral sense.  In the same way we wouldn’t expect a thief to claim that stolen property now belongs to her merely because she stole it last year, America’s founding crime continues without end.  The theft hasn’t ended–it’s continuous as long as the land hasn’t been returned, nor the victims given up their claim.

Believing that the present isn’t continuous with the past, asserting that the present is more advanced, more evolved and less primitive — that is, “exceptional” — functions as a way of disowning the acts we continuously participate in.

Disenchantment and Racism

Expanding this perspective from the realm of place to our relationship with the Other reveals a mechanism of disenchantment.  People in the past worshiped gods and spirits, raised shrines and built wells and went on pilgrimages to holy sites.  They left offerings for ancestors and house spirits, said prayers and charms to protect against malevolent beings, held processions and festivals to honor the (mostly) unseen beings who existed alongside them.  That is, they worlded the earth along with the gods and spirits.

But, we’re “modern and enlightened” now.  We have smartphones and landfills, computers and fast food, human rights and nuclear weapons, high fructose corn syrup and teeth-whitening strips—that is, all the man-made artifacts of our conquest over our primitive past.  Thus, the gods and spirits and all the Other which inhabited our world must have either gone away, or we’ve risen above them, or (in a particularly pernicious reading many Pagans are also guilty of), either never existed in the first place or were only cultural metaphors for natural forces or our psychological inner-states, as if people in the past were too stupid to understand the world around them.[1]

And what’s more, our notions of Progress, the exceptional present, and the evolution of beliefs don’t just disenchant, they also sustain Imperialism and Racism.  Post-colonial theorists have written significantly against our western notions of “development” and “advancement” precisely because these ideas create a framework to belittle or infantilize the customs and beliefs of colonized, subaltern, primarily non-white peoples.  First Nations’ folks who believed in spirits were re-educated in parochial schools, the beliefs of African slaves were seen as signs of their inferior intelligence, and countless laws were made in America and Europe to prohibit the religious practices of immigrants.

Refusing to acknowledge our own always-present past sustains a belief in the inferiority of other peoples, and our detachment imprisons us.  It keeps us from seeing our own (still-existing) traditions, and the gods and spirits who exist alongside us, while also destroying the traditions of others.  By claiming to be “modern” and “secular,” no longer part of our “primitive” past, we disenchant our own lives as well as ruin the lives of others.

And this is deeply racist.  Our notion of the present (and let’s not fool ourselves—we mean “our” present) is what allows us, when we encounter indigenous beliefs in our own lands and elsewhere, to label them as “primitive.”  Indigenous beliefs in the Americas, Shinto beliefs in Japan, the vast and near endless array of polytheistic worship in India, the animism of Africa—we discount and belittle the experiences of billions of people at the same time that we disavow our own.


[1] There’s a German word for the belief that our ancestors were too ignorant to understand the world around them.  The word is Urdummheit, or “primeval stupidity,” used by Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera in their book, Neolithic Shamanism

Stay in touch! Like Patheos Pagan on Facebook:
About Rhyd Wildermuth

An intractable tea-swilling leftist-punk bard, Rhyd Wildermuth has left bits of his heart(h) everywhere—in a satyr’s den in Berlin, hanging from an elder tree over a holy well in Bretagne, scattered in back alleys of Seattle, and lost somewhere in the bottom of his rucksack. He’s devoted to Welsh gods, breathes words, makes candles, plays recorder, fumbles with tech, and refuses ever to learn to drive. He also writes at