Pagans and the Past – It’s Complicated

Pagans and the Past – It’s Complicated May 24, 2016

If you’re new to Paganism (or maybe even if you’ve been here a while) you may be wondering about the interest (sometimes bordering on obsession) many of us have with the past. We sometimes speak of “the Old Ways” and “the Old Gods.” Many of us make honoring our ancestors a part of every ritual. We wear ritual clothes and jewelry that would appear to be more at home in a history book than a religious service. We study ancient religions, plus mainstream history, archaeology, and anthropology. And we take pilgrimages to ancient sites.

Not all of us do all these things, of course, but enough of us do that it can make you wonder why the past is so important to contemporary Pagans.

Where do we come from? This is one of the Big Questions of Life that virtually all religions attempt to answer. When I was growing up, I heard lots of stories about Adam and Eve, Moses, Jesus, and Paul. Being Baptist, though, the stories stopped for about 1700 years (nobody wanted to talk about all that inconvenient Catholic stuff, or even Martin Luther) and picked back up with Jonathan Edwards.

Christians have known for a long time that these stories are myths, not history. They’re a source of meaning. But for those of us who are no longer Christians – or who never were – these aren’t our stories. So we look for our own. And since we are not the People of the Book but the People of Many Books, we look for them in many places.

We have some of our ancestors’ stories: many from the Greeks and Romans, some from the Norse, a few from the Celts. We have a fair amount of history and more is being discovered all the time. Many contemporary historians are reluctant to tell us “what it all means” – because they know even their best educated guess is still a guess. But they can tell us facts and theories, and we can decide for ourselves what it means.

Our interest in the past helps us learn where our Pagan beliefs and practices – our religious identity – comes from.

Recovering what we’ve lost. History is written by the winners. And for over a thousand years, the “winners” have told us our pagan ancestors were savages in need of Christian civilization. They continue to tell us that humanity has “progressed” from many Gods to one God to one particular conception of that one God… and now some insist that the final progression is to no Gods at all. The story of humanity is not a straight line, and many of us are realizing that the world as we actually experience it is best explained by many Gods of limited power and scope, rather than by either one God or no Gods.

But when we look for our history, we see huge gaps. Not only did our pagan and polytheist traditions fall out of practice for centuries (yes, some elements survived in legends and culture, but not as intact religions) they were often suppressed, or if not, they were simply forgotten.

So we look for the ancient documents that did survive, in one form or another. We look to archaeology, to see what can be discovered from tombs, ruins, and artifacts. We look to nearby cultures, to see what we can learn from our ancestors’ neighbors.

Some of our heritage is lost forever. But we already have enough to form a good idea of who we are, and we are finding more all the time.

Reaching back beyond history. History only goes back to the beginning of writing. But our ancestors left their art, their tools, and their bones in the ground. Genetics and linguistics tell us when and where people moved. We’ve long assumed that the development of agriculture led to settled living, and settled living led to organized religion. But excavations at the 12,000 year old site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey show that people came together for worship and ritual before they started living in cities.

These works of pre-history help refine our stories of our ancestors and the religions they practiced that we are attempting to revive, reimagine, and re-create.

Some of us are history geeks. Let’s be honest – some of us are history geeks. We could be Buddhists or Christians or atheists and we’d still be wondering about what happened in the far past. We’d still find it meaningful to visit sites of importance to our ancestors. We’d still think it was fun to re-create their arts and culture.

But as Pagans, history isn’t just a fun geeky curiosity. It’s also an opportunity to incorporate religious and cultural history into our lives.

Anachronisms remind us the contemporary world leaves much to be desired. I like modern technology. I’m thankful for the internet, anesthesia and antibiotics, and air conditioning. I’d rather not live in the 1800s, much less in the Iron Age.

But for all the miracles and luxuries of the contemporary world, we’re terribly isolated. We’ve lost our connection with Nature, and with our families and communities. We’ve lost our sense of wonder and enchantment. We’re overworked, overstressed, and overmedicated. When we put on odd clothes and do our best to re-create rituals that are over two thousand years old, we remind ourselves that our ancestors didn’t have all the tools and toys of the modern world, but they still lived happy and meaningful lives.

And we realize that different choices are possible.

But we live here and now. This is where things get complicated. Because for all our very real desires to understand where we come from and our deep appreciation of our ancestors and their worlds, we don’t live in a hunter-gatherer society in the ancient Near East. We don’t live in Pharaonic Egypt or Iron Age Britain. We don’t even live in the era(s) of Crowley, Gardner, and Valiente. Our religions, our Paganisms, our polytheisms, have to speak to our needs and our conditions here and now.

My religion is first (but not solely) about the Gods and our relationships with Them. How our ancestors understood Them, communicated with Them, and honored Them is the starting point for my polytheism. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I assume their beliefs and practices were adequate – many times they were far more that that. But it does not follow that their ways are the only way or even the best way.

For example, while I do not dismiss the idea of animal sacrifice out of hand, it has a different meaning in our society than it did in a society where wealth was measured in herds and meat had to be consumed promptly before it spoiled. There are unbroken traditions that require blood sacrifice, but for those of us who are re-imagining Paganism for our era, other sacrifices can be more appropriate.

We must take great care to insure our “updates” really do represent relevant changes for our times and are not merely shortcuts for our convenience. But to simply say “our ancestors did it so we have to do it too” is overly simplistic and a recipe for irrelevancy.

How do we know what’s a necessary continuity and what’s a worn out relic we can update or abandon? That’s a difficult question to answer. Does it support the virtues and values of our Gods and ancestors? Is the rest of the theology and practice improved by the change, or does in slide into weakness and inconsistencies? Is the end result still reflective of its original tradition, or has it been watered down with popular culture and mainstream religion?

Most importantly, what do the Gods tell you, either in direct communion or through divination?

It’s your call. While we all draw from the past and are rooted in the past, we don’t all have the same interest in the past. If you prefer to wear modern clothes in circles, continually update your rituals, and practice the most contemporary magic you can find, so be it. But stick around for a while and you’ll find a lot of people in love with the past. It connects us to our origins, and it reminds us that what we see on the streets and on the television isn’t the only way to live.

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