RELIGION LIBRARY

Paganism

History

Exploration and Conquest

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.

The Christianization of Europe never destroyed the old religion, because vestigial remains of old Pagan practices persisted in folklore and folk practices. Ironically, the Christians themselves contributed to the survival of European Paganism, in that the monks of the Middle Ages committed the old polytheistic mythology, which had previously been transmitted orally, to writing.

Many Christian holy days coincided with earlier Pagan festivals (for example, the feast of All Saints' Day took place on November 1, coinciding with the Pagan festival of Samhain). Ancient water sources, venerated by Pagans as associated with local spirits or deities, became Christianized as holy wells dedicated to a Christian saint, but the spiritual practices associated with such wells consisted of a blend of Pagan and Christian activities. Some Pagan deities survived under the folkloric guise of fairies - mischievous and troublesome nature spirits that needed to be propitiated through offerings.  So, while Christianity became established as the "official" religion of Europe, Paganism did not die, but simply went underground, hidden but present in a variety of folk practices.

In her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), archaeologist Margaret Murray made a startling claim: that the pre-Christian religions of ancient Europe survived the coming of Christianity and, by the late Middle Ages into the modern era, became the spiritual practice of witchcraft. Witchcraft, according to this view, was the vestigial remains of an ancient Pagan goddess/fertility cult.

Murray's theories have largely been discredited within the scholarly community. They remain important, however, because of the impact they had on the emergence of modern Pagan spirituality in the mid- to late-20th century.  Although the idea of an "organized cult" is no longer held by academics, vestigial remains of Paganism that survived the arrival of Christianity in Europe have been documented by a variety of historians, anthropologists, and folklorists who have focused on mythology, superstitions, fairy beliefs, folk rituals, and ceremonies to demonstrate that, far from being eradicated, ancient Pagan spirituality simply survived in unofficial ways. One example is the "cunning man" or "cunning woman" tradition, in which rural communities would rely on the healing and magical practices of a cunning man or woman who was versed in herbology and folk medicine. Such figures could represent a vestigial remain of a Pagan priesthood.

Eighteenth-century Britain saw the first movement toward the revival of the druids. Reflecting the popularity of antiquarianism in the late 18th-century, the druid revivalists sought to restore the indigenous spirituality of the British isles, and turned both to literary evidence from classical authors like Julius Caesar, and archaeological evidence (sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury) for inspiration. Although most critics now dismiss the early attempts at reviving druidism to be based more on fantasy than fact, these early efforts at re-visioning ancient Paganism reborn paved the way for the birth of modern Paganism two centuries later.


Study Questions:
     1.     How did the polytheism of the Romans clash with the polytheism of the Pagans in the 1st century C.E.?
     2.     Why were Pagan druids suppressed? What was the effect?
     3.     Did Christianity destroy or perpetuate Paganism? How?
     4.     How did witchcraft help Paganism survive the colonizing effects of Christianity?

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