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.


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.


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?”