Over at the Sacred Page…

John Bergsma does a fine job of exploding the silly suburban bourgeois myth that ancient paganism was a world of buttercup twirling goddess worshippers that was inexplicably routed by brutal and intolerant followers of Christ.  The tolerance of the classical world was the essence of its brutality and the intolerance of the Christians for it casual brutality was the only thing that set about reforming it:

To take an example more or less at random… Tacitus relates the tale of the murder of Pedanius Secundus in A.D. 61 by one of his own slaves, which brought into effect the ancient custom that in such cases all the slaves of the household should be put to death— a custom that meant, on this occasion, the execution of approximately four hundred men, women, and children. There was, commendably enough, considerable public protest against the killing of so many innocents, but the Senate concluded that the ancient ways must be honored, if only for the example the slaughter would set, and nowhere in the course of the debate, it appears, was any concept of divine justice or spiritual virtue invoked. That might seem a rather irrelevant anecdote here, admittedly, but the points to note are that the social order that the imperial cults sustained and served was one that rested, not accidentally but essentially, upon a pervasive, relentless, and polymorphous cruelty, and that to rebel against those cults was to rebel also against that order.

“This, above all, must be remembered when assessing the relative openness or exclusivity of ancient creeds. We may recall with palpable throbs of fond emotion how the noble Symmachus pleaded for a greater toleration of pagan practices, and we may generally be disposed to endorse his view that the roads to truth are many; but we would do well to avoid excessive sentimentality all the same….It should probably neither surprise nor particularly disturb us, then, to discover that Christians of the late fourth century were not very inclined to agree with Symmachus that all religious paths led toward the same truth, given that one could walk so many of those paths quite successfully without ever turning aside to bind up the wounds of a suffering stranger, and without even pausing in alarm before unwanted babies left to be devoured by wild beasts, or before the atrocities of the arena, or before mass executions. If, as Christians believed, God had revealed himself as omnipotent love, and if true obedience to God required a life of moral heroism, in service to even “the least of these,” how should Christians have viewed the religious life of most pagans if not as a rather obscene coincidence of spiritual servility and moral callousness? And how should they have viewed the gods from whose power Christ had liberated them if not as spirits of strife, ignorance, chaos, fate, and elemental violence, whose cults and devotions were far beneath the dignity of creatures fashioned in the divine image?”

The world of paganism was–always and everywhere and for all of human history–a world of a few masters riding the back of a lot of slaves because slavery is the room temperature state of fallen man.  The only thing that has ever come close to pushing it back–and then only tenuously–is the Christian tradition.  What spoiled moderns forget in their neopagan dilettantism is that all these dark forces in the human soul are all still there and are itching to find a way to be expressed again using all the tools modern technology provides.  If we reject Jesus, we will get ourselves–the same brutal creature that decided it’s a good idea to butcher 400 innocents, just to keep the lower orders in line.  We still need a savior.

  • Sherry

    Thank you! I’ve been reading a book, “Daily Life in Ancient Greece,” and the author pauses in almost every discussion whether of Plato or of the gods, of entertainments or of daily life, to lament the evil intolerance of early Christians who banished ancient mysterious rites and pagan practices or overtook them. I’d been searching for the words to address this, especially his infatuation with the Eleusinian mysteries, which he lauds despite only knowing that if you disclosed what happened in those rites, you were murdered for breaking the vow of secrecy. If that’s all I know, I know enough to know, it’s not good whatever is happening and that maybe, those early Christians in the 400′s had more probably cause for banning than we moderns have for imagining such cults to be benign.

  • MarylandBill

    I am always amazed that neo-pagans claim to be connected in any fashion to the ancient pagan cults of the past. This is particularly true when one considers the fact that if not universal, it is true that large numbers of ancient pagan cults practiced blood sacrifice; yet many of today’s pagans will also embrace veganism.

    Ultimately, paganism, new ageism and other semi-spiritualist practices that are increasingly embraced by members of our society are really a shallow attempt to replace what is lost by rejecting authentic faith in God.

    • VikingTech

      Ancient pagans practiced blood sacrifice. Ancient Catholics only worshiped in Latin. Nice to see no one’s changed in the mean-time.

  • Shawna Mathieu

    I took Medieval Women’s History in college when I was, at the time, Wiccan. I was surprised that most of what I’d been told, religious-wise was complete BS. No such thing as hidden witches passing their knowledge down, no “Burning Times” where, supposedly 10 million innocent pagans were killed by the big bad Church, etc.
    What’s galling is that many well-known Wiccans and neopagans are completely aware that their take on history is completely untrue. I know I saw at least one of them admit it’s made up – but women need a religion of their own, so even though it’s not true, it’s psychologically comforting.
    The seed of my conversion to the Church started in that class, when I noticed that almost all the super-bright innovative women in the Middle Ages were Catholic.

    • http://brianniemeier.com/ Brian Niemeier

      Thanks for the anecdote and welcome home!

    • http://yardsaleofthemind.wordpress.com/ Joseph Moore

      Good story, thanks.

      A man I know once attended a lecture by Margaret Meade in his youth, during which she was treated as a superstar celebrity. When he asked his sociology professor why no one seemed to care that all her supposed findings were complete fabrications, he was told ‘Yes, but her positions are still true in a larger sense’. In other words, all the findings that supposedly lead to her position were lies, but her position was still somehow true, and that theoretical truth trumped actual reality.

      This sort of emotion in lieu of thought dishonesty is ubiquitous.

      • Heather

        Isn’t this what the Colbert Report calls “truthiness?”

    • VikingTech

      So because the numbers were closer to 40,000-60,000 rather than “millions” (which is obviously ridiculous based on population density of the Middle Ages), there were no “Burning Times”? It’s suffered from hyperbole, no doubt, but thousands were killed and ignoring the religious fervor that led to it is problematic.

      • Heather

        Citation, please? Given the huge geographic and historical scope included by the term “middle ages” I’d like to know when and where these 40,000-60,000 people were killed and for what.

        As far as I am aware, the real “witch hunt” crazes didn’t begin until well after the end of the middle ages proper, and during the actual middle ages belief in witchcraft was largely viewed as a problem of ignorant superstition to be addressed by proper instruction, rather than a matter for widespread persecution of Empowered Women Thinking For Themselves as some neo-pagan narratives would have it.

        • VikingTech

          http://www.gendercide.org/case_witchhunts.html

          “This is an overestimate by a factor of up to 200, for the most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, with something between 40,000 and 50,000 executions, of which 20 to 25 per cent were men.” Briggs adds that “these figures are chilling enough, but they have to be set in the context of what was probably the harshest period of capital punishments in European history.” (Briggs, Witches & Neighbours, p. 8.)”

          http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/witchhistory.html

          ” Over the 160 years from 1500 to 1660, Europe saw between 50,000 and 80,000 suspected witches executed. About 80% of those killed were women. Execution rates varied greatly by country, from a high of about 26,000 in Germany to about 10,000 in France, 1,000 in England, and only four in Ireland. The lower death tolls in England and Ireland owe in part to better procedural safeguards in those countries for defendants.”

          And honestly, does it really matter if they were actually “witches”, Empowered Women, or anything else? They were accused of conspiring with the Devil. What they actually were is irrelevant.

          • freddy

            Both of your quotes reference the time period *after* the Medieval period, known as the Renaissance. The article Mark links to discusses the early Christians reaction to paganism, up to the late fourth century (very early Middle Ages). Your earlier comment also references the Middle Ages. Witchcraft trials in the 1500′s were no more a reaction to paganism in the 350′s than the building of a football field today is a reaction to the Mississippi Mound builders of 1000 years ago in America.

            • VikingTech

              The original comment implied that the persecutions were complete fabrications. I sourced that they were not. Yeah, I mistyped that it was the Middle Ages. I did not, however, imply any link to ancient or modern Paganism.

          • Heather

            Ah. So not actually the Middle Ages, and as the first linked article points out, undertaken in the vast majority by secular courts and not actually the local religious authorities. Tragic illustration of societal paranoia, yes, but still not particularly consistent with the “Big Bad Church persecutes gentle proto-hippies” narrative.

            • Rebecca Fuentes

              I know it’s a serious subject, but the term proto-hippie cracked me up.

            • VikingTech

              See reply to freddy.

              • Heather

                I’m not sure which reply you’re referring to. Is it this one? “The article Mark linked to was just another “Christians are the best, suck it ancient- and neo-pagans” statement. History can’t be boiled down as neatly as he or the original article might like.”

                If so, I don’t know how that actually addresses what I said at all.

                Neopaganism imagines a history of noble ancestors heroically maintaining an unbroken succession of altruistic, proto-feminist practitioners of “the old ways” and a long history of hiding their practices from the Big Bad Church that was out to get them and persecuted them en masse. You read it in historical fantasy novels. You see it in neopagan popular literature, or at least you did 15 years ago or so when I flirted with it briefly in my late teens before becoming Catholic.

                It’s generally presented completely straight faced. But it’s a complete invention on the part of a movement that came out of the Victorian obsessions with dabbling in the occult and romantic pseudo-history.

                The witch trial craze of the 15th-17th centuries (again, NOT the imagined “Burning Times” of the middle ages) had nothing to do with persecuting the ancestors-in-faith of modern neopagans and everything to do with mass paranoia in an era marked by plagues, the Little Ice Age, and religious and political instability. People were accused of causing crops to fail and putting the Evil Eye on others, not of embracing their Sacred Feminine Inner Goddess or whatever.

                The point of Mark’s comment in linking this article is that neopagan nostalgia for “the old ways” is based on a totally imaginary notion of what “the old ways” were.

                • VikingTech

                  This one – “The original comment implied that the persecutions were complete fabrications. I sourced that they were not. Yeah, I mistyped that it was the Middle Ages. I did not, however, imply any link to ancient or modern Paganism.”

                  Also, Neopaganism isn’t so self-blinded any more. No one with any real training maintains that “unbroken line” farce. It has been 15 years, as you said.

                  • chezami

                    Doing damage control, are we?

                  • Heather

                    Ah, sorry. But my response still stands. If you are not implying any link to ancient or modern Paganism, why bring it up and claim the “burning times” narrative to be true?
                    The complete fabrication is not that there was a “witch hunt” craze during a historical period where a lot of bad stuff was happening. The complete fabrication is how this historical fact has been co-opted by modern neopaganism to create a “historically persecuted minority religion” narrative. The only thing that the victims of the historical witch hunts have in common with modern neopagans is the word “witch.”

                    The problem that Christians have with ancient paganism is that it did not tend to do a very good job of reining in humanity’s baser impulses towards violence and exploitation. Yes, some Christian soldiers engaged in raping and pillaging. But at least when they did it, they were acting against their religion’s teachings.

                    “I continually fail to understand why you think that worshipping old Pagan Gods requires a complete cultural copy/paste.”
                    Well, I continually fail to understand why modern neopagans wanting to worship “old Pagan Gods” think they can import deities without importing any of the historical cultural baggage surrounding them. It also seems highly disrespectful to claim someone as your deity without actually taking into account anything to do with what the historical worshippers of said deity considered proper religious practice.

                  • MarylandBill

                    Perhaps no one with “real training” as you put it maintains that, but I have run into more than one pagan not all that long ago who tried to tell me that there was such an unbroken line.

          • MarylandBill

            I think we need to also keep in mind that equating the term witch and pagan is a modern idea that essentially began with the invention of Wicca. So the 40-100 thousand witches who were executed would not necessarily have been executed for sacrificing to Zeus of Thor but rather for performing Dark Magic. Whether you believe in Dark Magic or not is irrelevant, the people of the time did. Accusations of witchcraft were often attempts by local populations to find the cause of local disasters.

            • Imrahil

              It is no modern idea as it’s simply not popular enough, even today, to be a modern idea. Except perhaps in Wiccan dreams. No significant number of people confuse witchcraft with pagan cult.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Those figures pertain to the Modern Ages when belief in sorcery and such things was rampant, even in the Royal Society. It may have reflected social anxiety following the breakdown of the medieval worldview. (It was during this time frame, for example, that the Church was broken and subordinated to the State as “established churches.”)

            There was always belief in witchcraft. It was a capital offense in pagan Rome, for example, since the term veneficia meant “poisoner.” (The Romans, who thought nothing of gutting a man with a sword had a dread of poison, which they regarded as magical.) These beliefs persisted esp. among the country folk, who had to be frequently reprimanded by their bishops. Agobard of Lyons, for example, called beliefs in weather-makers, Magolians, and Beneventen poisoners “stupid” and “ignorant.”

            +++
            Charlemagne’s slaughter of 20,000 leading Saxons is sometimes cited as an example of persecution of pagans in the Early Middle Ages; but this is often raised by people who have not suffered under repeated Saxon raids and ambushes, their signing and then ignoring of treaties, and so on. This was at the culmination of a 33-year long Franco-Saxonian war, and would likely have had no other outcome had the Saxons not been pagan, or the Franks still so.
            http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/einhard.asp#Saxon%20War

            • Imrahil

              As an annotation, the slaughter of the Saxons I know of (if it was real, which is controversial among historians) were not 20000 but some less than 4500 (as Wikipedia just now informed me, I learnt a similar number in school)..

      • freddy

        Not sure where you’re getting your numbers or to what they are referring. As Heather notes, the middle ages covers a large area: about 1000 years of history (roughly 5th to 15th century) over most of Europe. Sixty-thousand people killed over that period of time for religious reasons (especially paganism or “witchcraft”) would only average 60 per year — not even a blip on an historian’s radar.
        .
        If you’re talking about people killed for the practice of witchcraft, it’s really impossible to come up with a number, as witchcraft was often conflated with various heresies as well as political differences and strife between peoples and nations. I would suspect that many more than 60,000 were killed over that 1000 years, but that the reasons were more complex than “we don’t like your religion.” And I would agree that it’s worth talking about: that’s what the article Mark linked to does.
        .
        Finally, it’s possible that you’re getting the 40,000 to 60,000 number from studies done regarding the 13th to 17th centuries, which would encompass the early Renaissance as well. It’s interesting to note that the early Protestants were far more eager to burn “witches” than Catholics had been!

        • VikingTech

          The article Mark linked to was just another “Christians are the best, suck it ancient- and neo-pagans” statement. History can’t be boiled down as neatly as he or the original article might like.

          • freddy

            Um, I read the article and that’s not at all the take-away I got. David Bentley Hart appears to be dealing with critics of Christianity, grounding his claims in actual history, and noting the differences between ancient and modern paganism.

          • chezami

            No. It wasn’t. You need to learn to read better. It was a piece pointing out that the pagans as the Christian found them (almost always on the pointy end of the sword since they were from the dregs of society) were not super-impressed with the pagan world as one that was full of a lot of compassion for people from the wrong side of the tracks. Paganism means full acceptance of a master/slave world and in the early Church, the Christians were overwhelming from the ranks of slave, not masters.

            • VikingTech

              So which was it: Christians didn’t like pagan society, or slaves didn’t enjoy their masters?
              Please clarify how “the silly suburban bourgeois myth that ancient paganism was a world of buttercup twirling goddess worshippers[sic] that was inexplicably routed by brutal and intolerant followers of Christ” isn’t a “suck it, ancient and neo pagans” statement.

              • chezami

                So which was it: Christians didn’t like pagan society, or slaves didn’t enjoy their masters?

                Does it have to be either/or?

                It’s a suck it neopagan statement, because neopaganism is a silly boutique dillettante religion indulged in by well off surburbanites who have invented a fake history and who wouldn’t last ten minutes .among real Vikings nor last ten second in real intellectual engagement with an Aristotle. Real pagans, I have respect for, while of course recognizing that they, like we, were fallen and capable of just the kind of brutality the piece talked about–and possessed of few resources for so much as worrying about that brutality. I don’t think Christians are perfect and in fact think us capable of (and guilty of) monstrous evils. But then I don’t worship Christians. I worship Christ.

                • chezami

                  And, by the way, what saved pagan culture from the flames of such noble pagans as the Vikings in their campaigns of force sperm donation and urban renewal through arson was Christians, not pagans. I know it’s sometimes believed by boutique dilettantes that Penda of Mercia was just about to unveil deep spiritual insights and convene Parliament and invent the hospital when he was rudely interrupted by southern ruffians with names like Augustine and Anselm and that the Irish monks were a huge drag on the civilizing raids of nameless redheaded hordes who were only trying to improve the breed, but this account of history, like so much else pretend rubbish from neopagans is inaccurate. Precisely what saved such paganism that we retain from the depredations of other pagans was Christians.

                  • VikingTech

                    No, it doesn’t have to be either/or, but you seem to be trying to simplify it down to Christians vs Pagans, excepting any previous history or societal norms or master/slave dynamic: Pagan bad, Christian good.

                    I continually fail to understand why you think that worshipping old Pagan Gods requires a complete cultural copy/paste. How can you, as a Christian, offer up the “No True Scotsman” fallacy repeatedly as a counter-argument to modern Pagan piety? If anyone, man or woman, can’t behead with a single swing of a rusty axe they’re not worthy? If a man on the street can’t argue with one of the greatest minds in history, he’s not worthy of his choice in worship? Should all theoretical physicists just give up because they can’t match Einstein or Hawking? Of course not, that’s ridiculous.

                    Your continuous smearing of Vikings is cute, because no Christian in historical war time ever raped anyone. I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at with this, though: “But then I don’t worship Christians. I worship Christ.”?

                    • chezami

                      No. You are assuming that simplification because it is convenient to the boutique neopagan narrative. As I say, it’s precisely because there was real good in paganism that Christians preserved it while the pagans were burning it down. Read City of God for heavens sake.

                    • ivan_the_mad

                      Your assertion is confirmed by no less than Christopher Dawson, a man of encyclopaedic knowledge and sociological genius. Lecturing on the emergence of monasticism in Ireland:

                      “Although the monastic community, which was a society of peace, represents the opposite pole of thought and action to the tribal community, which was a society of warriors, there was a certain parallelism between them. … This correspondence between the patterns of pagan and monastic culture made it possible for men to pass from one to the other by a profound change in their beliefs and their system of moral values without losing vital contact with their old social tradition, which was sublimated and transformed, but not destroyed or lost.” — Religion and the Rise of Western Culture

  • KM

    Very good article. As Western culture becomes less Christian and more pagan, it’s no coincidence that society turns more cruel, selfish, and brutish as well.

    • VikingTech

      Honestly curious: Less Christian, yes. More pagan? Not seeing it.

      • SteveP

        You referenced blood sacrifice below; how much blood was offered today to a god named Choice? Less Christian, more barbaric.

        • VikingTech

          Yeah, taking a word and capitalizing it doesn’t make it a “pagan God”. Cute bit of sophistry, but doesn’t jive.

          • SteveP

            Sure it’s worshiped as a “pagan god” as it is an act of appeasement thought to be sacred rite. As the commenter said: less Christian, more pagan.

      • KM

        pagan (from Merriam Webster)

        2 : one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods : an irreligious or hedonistic person

        • VikingTech

          If you have to hit the 2nd definition, perhaps a more accurate word (hedonistic, secular, irreligious) would serve you better next time.
          Per the 1st definition, I’m not seeing any polytheistic tendencies in the wider Western Modern Culture.

          • KM

            Nope, I think pagan works. It could also be argued that American society worships many “gods” or idols such as money, fame, sex, war, and so on. And as for blood sacrifice? The killing of future generations.

          • chezami

            Who says pagans have to be polytheists–or theists?

            • VikingTech

              The Pagans. Webster’s primary definition. The Historical definition…

              • Heather

                Well, the REALLY historical definition is that a pagan was someone from the countryside who therefore was too uncultured to take part in Roman emperor-worship.

                • VikingTech

                  Um..no. Historically, it was the civilians and non-soldiers of the country, then was co-opted by some to refer to polytheists in the country who were too uncultured to join the religion of the new elite and Rome proper in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, maybe you’ve heard of it?
                  http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pagan

            • kenofken

              The term does carry connotations of belief or participation in pagan religion. As used by you and some bishops, the term has been stretched to mean any nasty person you don’t feel is true enough to Christ.

      • MarylandBill

        Then you need to open your eyes. Fifty years ago it would have been very hard to find anyone who admitted to being a pagan. Sure they were around, but even those who were pagan tended to keep a low profile. Now neo-pagans seem to be everywhere. If you work with 50 people, unless it is at church, I would be willing to bet one of them is pagan.

        • VikingTech

          So 1 in 50 is an invasion? Interesting.

          • kenofken

            I like that. As the house pagan, I’m going to adopt the slogan “An Invasion of One”!

          • MarylandBill

            I am being conservative. But I am only claiming the people who explicitly identify as pagan, when in truth, people who embrace new-ageism, spiritualism and other practices would also have been described as pagan not too long ago.

  • http://brianniemeier.com/ Brian Niemeier

    Thanks for sharing this article, Mark. Dr. Bergsma was my favorite professor during my time at FUS.

  • VikingTech

    Mark, John was quoting another author. Check your attribution.

  • VikingTech

    Christians are, thanks to Jesus.

    • MarylandBill

      Well if we are still practicing blood sacrifice, then you are admitting to the truth of the Eucharist. In any case, Christians (well Catholics and Orthodox) are offering God, his son, who voluntarily offered himself.


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