That REALLY Old Time Religion

That REALLY Old Time Religion December 16, 2016

Over the past few months, I have posted quite a few items on the subject of possible pagan survivals into medieval and even modern societies, as indeed has my Baylor colleague Beth Barr. I stand by everything I have written in those pieces – but I really have some questions that remain open. They are actually good questions to ask around the time of Christmas, and the Winter Solstice.

My basic point here: with the best intentions in the world, I think scholars have just gone too far in our skepticism about such possible pagan continuities. We have thrown out the pagan idols with the bathwater.

Let me begin with some background. In the early twentieth century, various scholars (and quite a few pseudo-scholarly cranks) argued that ancient pagan religions had survived en masse after the European conversion to Christianity. In this view, ordinary country people kept up the old religion, even including human sacrifice, and we see the traces of that authentic religion in the form of the “witch cult.” Let me say right away, I don’t believe that formulation for a second, and you would be hard pressed to find a reputable scholar who believes that today. It’s nonsense. Peasants in the seventeenth century (say) were not sacrificing sheep to pagan gods, never mind slaughtering virgins.

But how much further can we go along those lines? One scholar I admire enormously is Ronald Hutton, who has written a series of fine books about alleged pagan survivals in Britain, and in virtually no case does he find evidence of continuity. Time and again, he looks at something that initially seems pagan-looking, and he traces it convincingly to medieval church custom, or Tudor-era fads and fashions, or deliberate antiquarianism in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. He is a model example of a critical scholar, who asks all the right questions. He warns for instance about the dangers of taking something recorded in one place, and extending it to other sites where it may not have been valid. No, you can’t just look at Irish stories of the Samhain season, and assume that they are the bases for all the Halloween customs we find in England, Scotland, Germany and elsewhere. His bottom line: romantic antiquarians have a lot to answer for. At every stage, fair enough.

But here is my problem. Hutton asks great questions, but can we really reject all those seeming pagan manifestations and survivals? Is it all smoke and no fire?

I was recently reading a lecture by the wonderful author Alan Garner, in which he dissects a folk tale from his English region of Cheshire, a version of the old Sleeping King motif. (This appears in his collection The Voice That Thunders). Yes, he says, this is a folk tale that is generic in lots of ways, but one part of it is a route that the characters have to tread, and if you look at that map in detail, it makes no sense whatever in any modern or medieval era. It does, though, preserve a set of ancient landmarks and tombs that would have been very notable in ancient times, perhaps the Bronze Age. So does the story really represent a kind of oral history from that distant antiquity? Should we see pagan antecedents for its components: “white horses, boundaries, beacons, hill-tops, caves, treasure, buried heroes, intermediaries, old women, cows, fertility wells, sacred trees, the Devil associated in a place name, stone alignments, stone chairs, elves, the sun, moon, and town fairs.” This assemblage, he argues, is Celtic rather than English, and it long predates Early Modern England.

Frankly, I don’t know whether or not to accept his interpretation in this instance, particularly in suggesting a continuity over such lengthy periods, but it does raise some interesting points. Let me summarize:

First, pre-Christian people in Britain, for instance, assuredly had some quite elaborate religious forms and structures, even if we cannot say precisely what those might have been. We do know that ancient peoples had a very strong sense of the landscape, which they recognized by erecting deeply impressive structures.

Second, it is inherently unlikely that ordinary people would immediately renounce each and every custom and habit associated with that old world view, provided that it did not overtly conflict with Christian orthodoxy. Horse sacrifices, no; but sympathetic magic, charms, and scrying, why not? And what about all the legends and tales associated with those old sacred places? Were they all instantly forgotten and tabooed? Was that amnesia instant and 100 percent effective?

Third, we know from Bede and other writers that early Christians did not make any concerted effort to stamp out those religious forms, and they tried to adapt them as best they could. It is very likely that at least some ancient feasts and holy days really did survive in Christian form. I would cite the name of Easter in this regard, though Hutton would argue with me on that, and so would Beth Barr. We disagree on this. Bede’s evidence clearly suggests the preservation and repurposing of old pagan temples and shrines in the new ritual landscape.

Finally, and this seems very important to me, plenty of comparative and international evidence amply confirms and documents the survival of old religious forms under new religious regimes. Scandinavia produces lots of such examples, as witness the work of church councils trying to stamp out old habits long after conversion, not to mention major folklore survivals. It is at least plausible that the stave churches in Norway really do reproduce the architecture of older temples.

Full disclosure: one of the people who taught me at university was the brilliant Hilda Ellis Davidson, who knew more about North Europeanpaganism and its survivals than anybody apart from possibly Mighty Thor himself.

Or to take another telling example, look at the many cases where communities in the Middle East made the transition from older forms, especially from Christianity, to Islam. Across the region, Christian and Christianized habits and structures continued very slightly below the surface for many centuries after notional conversion. We see this for instance in the continuity of old religious cults, shrines and pilgrimage centers, especially those focused on Saint George. In turn, George may well have drawn some imagery from still older pagan figures.

Colonial Latin America offers perhaps the best examples of all. In Mexico, Peru, wherever we look, we find the Church making massive compromises with the old pagan religions, absorbing devotional forms, appropriating old deities, consecrating holy days and feasts … just look at the cult of Santiago across the continent. Old Maya priestly societies persisted as Catholic confraternities. Even the “eagle basins” that the Aztecs used to collect the blood of human sacrificial victims were repurposed as baptismal fonts. The church lived happily with those “pagan” continuities – not surprisingly, as one major textbook they used to formulate their relations with the old native faith was the work of the Englishman Bede, who described the Christian encounter with the Anglo-Saxons a millennium before. (You might check out the quotation at that post from Fernando Cervantes, which I will not reproduce at length here).

Most scholars would see such an act of “conversion” in the Mexican cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who bears many feature of an Aztec goddess who was once worshiped on the site of her apparition at Tepeyac in 1531. Today, the Virgin is a central feature of Mexican religious life, and Pope John Paul II elevated her to the rank of Patroness of the Americas, both North and South.

Did the old pagan religions continue intact? No. But their traces and memories are everywhere you look. It is an open question whether such survivals are so extensive or so explicit as to allow you to reconstruct the lost originals with any confidence.

Even in the case of Africans taken from their homeland and enslaved in the Americas, scholars increasingly find convincing evidence of semi-clandestine cultural and religious survivals, far more in the Caribbean and Latin America than in the US, but in this country also. If that was true of people so savagely and suddenly uprooted from their homes, how much more would it have applied to peasant families still living in the same regions that their ancestors had lived through the centuries?

So here is the problem we face. If you look at many parts of the world, scholars have no difficulty at all in accepting that mainstream dominant religions do in fact preserve plenty of older ghosts from their predecessors. In that sense, religions don’t die, they leave their ways to serve as “interference” for their successors. Those survivals may take the form of folklore and custom, of sacred sites and holy days, or they might be still more substantial.

In so many other places then, we happily acknowledge that old religions survive in veiled form. In Britain, though, we are required to believe that the old pagan ways utterly vanished in a spiritual holocaust, and more or less overnight. Even in the age of BREXIT, I have real trouble accepting this kind of radical British exceptionalism. That global, comparative, perspective demands our attention, and our respect.

So yes, I am prepared to believe in the possibility of later customs preserving ancient pagan foundations. But I plan to be very careful indeed in the evidence I choose to support these ideas.


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