Thoughts on Paganism

Many useful excerpts to be culled from this essay about historical paganism and witchcraft, as compared to the modern misapprehension of them.

At the centre of the most vaunted ancient paganism, Celtic paganism, lies the terrible secret of the bog body, the uncannily preserved bodies of those deposited in bogs by previous societies for reasons that are still debated. Discoveries in Ireland illustrate that bog people could often be high-status individuals who had done little manual labour. Old Croghan Man, discovered in 2003, has a leather and tinned bronze armlet, and was very tall, almost 6’3”, and young and healthy. Old Croghan Man’s death was garishly violent—hazel rods were threaded through holes in his upper arms; he was stabbed in the chest, struck in the neck, decapitated, and cut in half. The violence, says Eamon Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, is not done for torture or to inflict pain. It is a triple killing because the goddess to whom the sacrifice is made has three natures. She is goddess of sovereignty, fertility, and death.

And

Alexandra Walsham’s work on the reuse of wells and trees illustrates the way that far from destroying paganism, the church sought to convert pagan objects and rituals to Christianity. Consequently, it is inaccurate to see supernatural beliefs in 1500 as a static combination of Christian ideas with a few anterior pagan notions. Paganism survives through rather than in opposition to medieval Catholicism. It’s not that the Middle Ages display groups of dissident pagans hiding out alongside a dominant Christian world. All the “pagan” texts we have were transcribed by Christians. The green man carvings, the sheela-na-gigs, the romances populated with pagan figures—all are of Christian making.

And

The 21st century has also forgotten about the dead. Rites of mourning now are brief to the point of perfunctory even if grief continues unsupported. If there is a general truth it is that experiences of nature are mapped onto assumptions about the dead. As more and more of us live in vast conurbations, we have forgotten and are able to forget our own ultimate ends. It’s this sense of taboo and apprehension that modern paganism wants to omit. Instead of reuniting us with the dead and helping us to manage our fear of death, modern paganism proves to be another form of denial; this in itself makes its claims to historical revival hollow. Timothy Taylor notes that at some point in history, human beings realise that they will all die. To small bands of roaming hunters this was not self-evident; it was possible to view death as something unlucky that happened to other people. Once it was realised that everybody died, further issues arose, including the question “how can I stop the soul of the deceased returning to the body?”

Spurred onward

Any system which allows men to choose their own future will end by choosing safety and mediocrity, and in such a reality the stars are out of reach.

— Asimov

Metonymy

The ronds-de-cuir. French bureaucrats, laboring all day on wooden chairs, were prone to a shine on the seat of the pants… To Lezhev, the ronds-de-cuir seemed, at first, a doleful but inevitable feature of French life but, in time, he came to understand them in a different way. Fussy, niggling, insatiable, they had some kinship with the infamous winds of Catalonia, which will not blow out a candle but will put a man in his grave.

— Alan Furst, The Polish Officer

Vox scriptor

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

— Thomas Jefferson

The best thing for being sad

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

“Apart from all these things,” said the Wart, “what do you suggest for me just now?

— T.H. White

State of emergency

“That, too, is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side. I know positively… that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a care less moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous willpower, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it. That’s why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. But that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death.

“Pending that release, I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to make history. I know, too, that I’m not qualified to pass judgment on those others. There’s something lacking in my mental make-up, and its lack prevents me from being a rational murderer. So it’s a deficiency, not a superiority. But as things are. I’m willing to be as I am; I’ve learned modesty. All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true. You see. I’d heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people’s heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I’d come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language. So I resolved always to speak — and to act — quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting myself on the right track. That’s why I say there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that…”

— Albert Camus