Friday, October 30, 2009

Es tu Paganus?

As all hallow's eve approaches, the NYTimes has an article on the polytheistic background of the highly commercialized holiday (well, aren't all holidays these days?): the autumnal festival of Samhain.

Many people probably know that most of our "Christian" holidays rely upon an older calendar of European religious festivals, referred to as "pagan":

Certainly, there is nothing new about Paganism per se. From Halloween to May Day to Yuletide, said Prof. Diana L. Eck of Harvard Divinity School, “There’s a way in which all of us, especially in the Christian tradition, follow a religious calendar that is pegged to ancient Pagan festivals.”

One might add all of the fertility imagery (rabbits and eggs) in Easter. It was recognized early on by Christian leaders that it would be easier to convert people and keep them in the fold if many of the practices and festivals of the older religions were retained in some form and re-framed in Christian terms--that is why Christmas is December 25th, which used to commemorate the Sol Invictus ("unconquered sun"), and now commemorates the "unconquered son." Even for those who converted and their successors, the older polytheistic practices and beliefs have retained a strong hold: we are all still their successors.

More generally, however, the article focuses on groups and individuals who self-identify as "Pagan" or even "Heathen," and their struggle for official recognition. Sub-groups include Wiccan and Druid.

"Pagan" is an interesting word to identify oneself by. It literally means "villager." During the spread of Christianity in late antiquity, it began to be used to refer to those who did not convert and held onto their earlier religious traditions. Since Christianity spread fastest through a network of cities in the Roman Empire, most of the holdouts lived in the villages; thus, the term "pagan" was applied to a particular set of religious practices. But it was a "dustbin" category--it referred to anyone who was neither Christian nor Jewish. It was a pejorative term.

Nonetheless, as one of the ultimate terms of creating an outsider, an other, in societies that came to be dominated by Christians, "Pagan" has been adopted as a self-identifying term for those who practice or who resurrected these earlier religious forms with some modifications: most ancient forms of European and Near Eastern polytheistic worship included some sort of animal sacrifice, which is excluded in modern iterations (yet this is true of all religious movements--the modern versions bear faint resemblance to their ancient forebears). I have a feeling, however, that the variegated movements that fall under this broad umbrella appropriated this term due to the need for official, governmental protection. It is, in a way, useful so that each individual group would not have to fight for recognition separately. I do not know, however, to what degree someone who practices Wicca would recognize their similarity with someone who is a Druid except insofar as their common history of exclusion and their struggle for recognition. But, on the other hand, the same may be said for the difference between a Russian Orthodox Christian and a Southern Baptist.

Es tu Paganus? To at least a small degree, most of us are even if by the shattered remnants that have survived the ages in new clothing, even if that is not our identifying term.

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