Rustic Paganism

A few weekends ago at an extensive photo shoot* with some friends I ended up in a discussion about the word “pagan.” It was a mostly congenial chat but it took a nasty turn when I mentioned something about Morris Dancing not being an ancient pagan tradition but a practice that felt pagan** none the less. The moment those words left my mouth a member of our party informed me that I was completely incorrect (and that it was one of the reasons she’s not a Raise the Horns reader).

For the record, my information was correct; Morris Dancing is simply not an ancient pagan practice. It began as a court dance in the Fifteenth Century before eventually moving into the countryside and becoming a dance of the common folk a few decades later. In the early 1900′s several individuals began to argue that Morris Dancing was a pagan practice, most notably Sir James Frazier (author of The Golden Bough) and musician/music collector Cecil Sharp. Up until the 1970′s Morris as pagan was simply accepted as gospel truth, even though the idea had been widely dismissed in academic circles. (1)

Sadly, if I had been allowed to complete my original thought, we probably would have come to an understanding that afternoon, but it was not to be. Morris Dancing might not be an ancient pagan dance, but it’s obviously a dance that resonates with many Modern Pagans, and certainly feels Pagan. I was up at an hour not generally suited for goatboys this past Beltane to watch a few local Morris teams and it was wonderful. The dances may not have stretched back to pagan antiquity, but they still gave voice to my own (Pagan) feelings. In the book Electric Eden author Rob Young describes Morris Dancing in near ecstatic terms:

“To those that actually practise (sic) it, morris dance has an elemental quality, an ancient ritual magic comparable to the whirling dervish dance of Sufism, the Native American ghost dance or the spiritual movements developed by G.I. Gurdjieff. Its gestures are designed to act as a lightning conductor for spiritual energies to unite the universe with the earth and replicate the seasonal cycles of growth, death, and rebirth. Morris dancers’ tatter jackets act as symbolic antennae; clogs dash against the ground, awakening slumbering earth gods . . . . .”

While Morris may not be pagan in the sense my friend wanted it to be, it is pagan in a different sense. It’s a great example of what I like to call rustic paganism.

Morris dancing feels pagan because it contains echoes of an earlier era and, in the minds of many, holds a fixed spot on the Wheel of the Year. We associate Morris with Beltane, and that association makes it feel like a seasonal tradition. It’s true that ancient pagans celebrated a holiday in early May. That doesn’t mean all the customs practiced on that day are pagan, but it’s an easy assumption to make. I’m of the opinion that human beings have a deep psychological need to connect with the world around them regardless of religion. The trappings of most major Christian holidays reflect seasonal changes, and while some of them do come from ancient pagan sources, the majority do not, but all kinds of people believe they do.

Agricultural celebrations (and their mementos) are not always pagan in a religious sense, but they are a pagan in the way they feel. When writing about Pagan Music I often add the caveat that something is Pagan when it feels Pagan. The celebration of bread that many of us observe at Lammas began as a Christian rite, but works perfectly within a Pagan worldview. It’s a connection to nature and that idea of the golden, eternal countryside where everyone lives in harmony with the Earth. It’s pagan in the sense that being one with nature is pagan, and it’s an association that even many of our critics make. Perhaps the classical definition of pagan as a person of the countryside still has some resonance.

When asked about their favorite season a lot of Modern Pagans tend to reply with Halloween/Samhain/Late Autumn, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a major transition period on the Wheel of the Year and it’s filled with customs and traditions that many of us think of as pagan. We aren’t alone in that line of thinking either, a whole mess of people believe that things like carving pumpkins and playing dress-up are intimately connected with a “pagan Halloween.” The truth is something else entirely, as both of those customs arose in Christian Europe. That doesn’t stop ignorant Christians from protesting Halloween though, as they’ve become thoroughly convinced that the majority of Halloween tricks and treats come from our ancestors.

I always get a kick out of people who try to replace Halloween (a mostly Catholic holiday in origin) with “Harvest Festivals,” which were truly the first real pagan holidays. At this point trying to argue that “Halloween isn’t entirely pagan” just results in blank looks, Halloween and its customs have become examples of rustic paganism because of the ghosts they stir up inside of us. I honestly feel like there are a whole lot of non-Pagans out there who are jealous of how we relate to the world, and therefore attempt to demonize practices that come naturally to people regardless of gods or God.

When my wife and I visit local craft fairs we are always struck by just how pagan they feel to us. There are vendors selling antique looking brooms, hand-dipped candles, and goblets that just scream “ritual chalice.” None of it is explicitly designed for Modern Pagans, but it all feels pagan because much of it seems to reflect a simpler era. Old fashioned doesn’t necessarily imply paganism, but items that fit into a seasonal motif often do. Cinnamon brooms conjure up images of fall and hand dipped organic candles just seem like the thing to use on Imbolc, and it’s easy to imagine both items in the cottage of a village witch. There’s nothing obviously pagan in either item, but they are the kinds of things we might associate with a pagan household of any era. For me it’s another example of rustic paganism.

When something moves you, when it touches your soul, its origins no longer truly matter. I think it’s important to know where we come from, but it’s sometimes even more important to know where we are now. The echoes of other eras draw us closer to nature, so we celebrate them no matter their origins. To get back to the original discussion I was having a few weeks ago, Morris Dancing isn’t an ancient pagan practice, but it’s a practice that feels pagan, and in a sense has become one, a rustic pagan one.

1. Historian Ronald Hutton offers a brief but thorough history of Morris Dancing in his book Stations of the Sun (published by Oxford University Press in 1996). That’s where my information on Morris not being pagan is coming from.

*I really wanted to have some photos of people engaging in ritual to use on Raise the Horns, hence the photo shoot. Some of the results showed up in this article.

**There are many different definitions of the word pagan. In my own writing when I refer to Modern Pagans I capitalize the word, for the other definitions of the word I use the lower-case. As you read, this may or may not make sense to you.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    It’s Pagan Revenge!

    For years, people have scolded Christianity for ‘stealing’ from historical paganism (Jesus born in December?), but Paganisms ‘borrow’ a lot of non P/pagan traditions as well.

    Less pagan traditions with a veneer of Christianity and almost a case of Christian traditions with a veneer of Paganism. (Of course, many of these rural customs are entirely secular.)

    I live just off the Cotswolds (one of the spiritual homes of Morris Dancing), near a small town that has a strong ‘craft’ element. It has to be said that, to me, a lot of craft stuff feels very “Women’s Institute”, so I don’t see the ability to cross-stitch or make jam as particularly connected with any one religion.

    (Also, we tend to call them ‘sides’ not teams, over here.)

    • JasonMankey

      I think we call them sides here too, but I didn’t want to use the term thinking it might confuse the uninitiated.

      Since I try to find the divine in all things and all paths, I like to think the world is my oyster when it comes to pilfering religious/spiritual ideas (as long as I use them in a respectful manner).

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        No matter what you do, you will offend someone. That is what makes respect so unattainable for many.

  • sacredblasphemies

    I’m not sure I understand the difference between what you’re calling ‘rustic paganism’ and modern Paganism.

    I mean, unless you’re a strict Reconstructionist, pretty much all of modern Paganism is something that ancient Pagans didn’t do but ‘feels’ Pagan.

    Isn’t that pretty much all of Wicca and Wiccan-derived Paganism?

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      What I got from it is that ‘rustic paganism’ may well not even be Pagan.

      Rather than being directly spiritual, these things are more inspirational and evocative.

    • JasonMankey

      I’ll admit that this whole thing didn’t come out exactly as I wanted it to, but what I think of us “rustic pagan” practices are traditions of hearth, home, and family that developed in (mostly) Christian circumstances. Generally these are things that we claim as our own even when they are not. Many Pagans claim Morris Dancing, even though there’s nothing linking it to ancient paganisms (for example). Christians label some of the practices they developed as pagan, especially when they involve seasonal cycles.

  • Mark Iliff

    “practise” is correct in Brit Eng for the verb. (It would be -ice in US Eng.)

  • Nathan McGill

    I would find it pretty funny to find someone trying to turn Halloween into a ‘Harvest Festival’ to take away the ‘paganism’ too, if I ever saw it happen. What I tend to see, however, is an attempt to make the holiday explicitly Christian (as though it wasn’t already). “Jesus-ween” they sometimes call it. Or insisting that children only dress up as things like doctors or priests, which for a long time was the rule in our conservative Catholic household (I wasn’t allowed to dress as a vampire until I was a teenager). That everything has to be commandeered and made explicitly Christian continues to baffle me. (And of course they aren’t the only ones; the Muslim extremists are a far more violent application of the same line of thinking.)

    Back to the point, I completely agree that anything which “feels pagan” is fair game to use if it helps you spiritually. Especially for those of us who aren’t strict Reconstructionists, because virtually everything we do or use was either co-opted from somewhere else or recently invented. If it helps you to do or watch Morris dancing, go for it. If it helps you to smugly point out that Morris dancing isn’t actually pagan, do it, but do it to yourself and don’t get in the way of people trying to get an experience from it.