Monday, August 10, 2009

The problem of historicity

Regarding the historicity of Pagan traditions. Given that we know next to nothing about what ancient druids (if they were really as described by the Romans) got up to or believed, or what medieval witches (who, even if they existed, were probably not pagans) got up to, or what early medieval heathens got up to (a bit more data, but a lot of it written down by Christians), the people who claim that they're doing something because their ancient forerunners did it, and not because they feel it to be the right way for them to be a Druid/Witch/Wiccan/Heathen/Pagan in the here and now - that is what is irritating to the academically-minded.

You can be a Druid/Witch/Wiccan/Heathen/Pagan because you feel you are one because it fits the image you have in your mind of what a Druid/Witch/Wiccan/Heathen/Pagan is (and I affirm your right to do so).

But what happens when someone else with a completely different idea about what a Druid/Witch/Wiccan/Heathen/Pagan is, does the same? Then we have confusion...

What is the solution to this dilemma? I'm not sure that I know. I know that we do need to have discussions about our theology, our values, our worldview, our ethics, and what is distinctly Druid/Witch/Wiccan/Heathen/Pagan about them. We don't want to establish a creed or an orthodoxy, because that could lead to persecution of dissenters. But that does not mean we can dodge the issue and just not talk about it.

As far as historicity is concerned, the rest of us could learn a lot from Heathens and reconstructionists, who have gone to the effort of reading as much of the available source material as possible, and comparing it with experiences and ideas of present-day Heathens, and creating a synthesis of historical and present-day insights. They are lucky because early medieval heathenry lasted a lot longer and was better-documented than other traditions. They also have a well-worked-out and widely publicised set of Heathen virtues. Wicca also has a set of virtues, but this is not so well-known.

Personally, I feel that we are also the heirs of the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, and Romanticism, and we cannot just ignore the intervening centuries and pretend they didn't happen. This is one of the reasons why I am interested in Unitarianism.


Clare Slaney said...

Hello Mrs Rabbit,

I wonder if a distinctly Pagan approach to life would be our basic amorality: we (shouldn't) don't just accept moral and ethical judgements as givens, we think about things for ourselves and come up with our own answers. As Euripides said:

Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.

How's that?

Yewtree said...

Hello you! I don't know about amoral (surely that implies an absence of morals) but I agree that it's all about making up your own mind based on the evidence in front of you. Unfortunately people's mileage varies considerably; one person's late-night drumming is another person's public nuisance, for instance.

Haukur said...

All right, I get what you're saying now. This is fair enough. I'm typically the one defending Wiccans and eclectic pagans during discussions on 'historicity' or 'authenticity'. It's sad to see how the heathen communities in mainland Scandinavia have been ripped apart over 'authenticity' questions and I'm glad we've mostly managed to hang together over here.

Steve Hayes said...

That seems to be a problem with most religions. The first 50 years are most problematic, because that'sd the period when "everyone knows" without spelling it out, and nobody realises that what seems quite straightforward at the time will cause huge problems later. Christianity has the same problem. If you look for historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, you won't find it, though the historical evidence shows that early Christians believed that he did. Of course that isn't a sort of "reconstructionist" view, though you do find Christian reconstructionists too, and no doubt some in other religions as well.

Yewtree said...

@ Haukur: shame about the situation in Scandinavia; glad to hear Icelanders have held things together. I think it's a perfectly valid position to be eclectic and create new Pagan traditions for today's world, as long as we don't pretend that they are actually older than they really are. As I said, Heathens have more source material to work from than other traditions. Whereas by contrast, much of druidry (with the exception of Celtic recons) appears to be wishful thinking about the past. It would be easier if they just accepted (as the author of the post I linked to does) that we know practically nothing about ancient druidry and just settled down to inventing their new version of it, cheerfully admitting that that is what they are doing. Wiccans (of the initiated variety at least) have been doing this now for about a decade; we're quite comfortable with it.

@ Steve: well, there are two problems here - Wicca has been around for fifty years or so and even there, there is stuff we don't know about. Then there's the pre-Christian stuff, with a hiatus of approx 1800 years in the case of druids, and about 1000 years in the case of heathens. Add in the fact that much of pre-Christian paganism was an oral culture (and what we do know about it was written down by Christians trying to preserve what they could of the ancestral culture, whilst not necessarily understanding its underlying worldview), and we have a major problem trying to reconstruct anything. I don't know much about Christian reconstructionists - where do they sit on the political spectrum?

Clare Slaney said...

I'm writing about amorality in regard to ethics (yawn) atm and can't decide if it's the right term. Here's my understanding of it

Perhaps skeptical might be a better word but it doesn't have the right zap. Someone has an excellent email sig from one of the Bronte's

"Morality is not conventionality" I'd like to get the essence of that. Paganism dearly needs to review its opinion of itself.

Yewtree said...

Ah - well the way I see it is this (not dictionary definitions but connotations of the words for me personally): morals = mores = conventional morals imposed by rules and laws; as opposed to ethics, which emerge from ethos, the spirit of the group or individual. So an ethic is a non-arbitrary rule which emerges from ethos or values.

Examples: the Protestant work ethic emerged from the general Protestant view that we weren't put on Earth to enjoy ourselves; whereas Pagan sexual ethics emerge from the idea that we are here to enjoy ourselves as well as learn from a variety of situations.

Yewtree said...

P.S. @ Clare: try this excellent blogpost about immanence and values by Deborah Lipp.

Pitch313 said...

If it were not for claims of supposed historical linkage, then Pagans would have no special role in most of the disputes about sites, artifacts, remains, research agendas, or use. For example, the Druids who are asserting that archaeological recovered human remains be returned to rest at Stonehenge.

So one aspect of "historicity" involves Pagan claims to authrity, legitimacy, and special legal standing equal to those of government organizations, NGOs, preservationists, developers, and entrenched religious groups.

Plus, and I find this charming, most Pagan claims to historicity are, themselves, occult--concealed from most ordinary access.

I, myself, am obstinately postmodern about historicity, looking at history as a narrative that we humans recount at least in part to suit current circumstances.

Haukur said...

Well, to use Varro's terminology heathens have a fairly well-preserved mythical theology, a smattering of civil theology and very little natural theology. In Graeco-Roman paganism all three are well-preserved and I see no reason not to make use of the parts that seem relevant.

Yewtree said...

@ Pitch: exactly.

@Haukur: seems fair enough.

Pitch313 said...

It's not that mythologies, theological schemas, organizational models, methods of practice, and routes of spiritual access do not exist. It's not that we Pagans cannot gain wisdom, undergo transformation, or embrace the Deities by the use of them.

It's that the aggregate effect of history has been to dislocate almost all of us from the kinds of linkages to all these resources that once were commonplace.

I think that my circumstances offer a good example of lots of North American Pagans. My great+grandparents did not depart their European homelands so that I could, willy nilly, become a California (style) Neo-Pagan. But, in departing, they did alter decisively any possible connection that I could develop with the European resources. Because I am here, and that lore is there and about there.

Yewtree said...

Good point, Pitch.

But you are not one of the people claiming to have "special knowledge" of past pagans by virtue of your "special powers".

Bo said...

I have to say I don't think there's any doubt whatsoever that the ancient druids existed! They're perfectly well attested as historically-existent figures, we just don't know what they thought really.

Yewtree said...

Mmm, yes, sloppy writing on my part.

What I meant was: if a large powerful priestly caste existed, or whether they were just the village wizard. The Roman sources say they had a lot of political power and officiated at sacrifices, but there is almost no archaeological evidence of their existence. (Yes there's one grave which has been interpreted as a druid in light of the texts, but it might not be.)

Yewtree said...

PS - have updated the blogpost accordingly, so now your comment doesn't appear to make sense; sorry about that, but it was too important not to change it.

Tarian said...

Regarding the question of historicity, I really don't see much point in modern paganism unless there is a sense of continuity and tradition - surely that is where much of the inspiration and power comes from. The problem now is that that sort of tradition has perforce to go back underground, precisely because of the weight of opinion within the public pagan community against such a position - what exactly is the point of joining some super-modern made-up paganism when all that is left (when you've finished up stripping out the mythology, magic, tradition, etc.) is pop-psychology and left-wing politics? And if I want to commune publically with the Gods, well conventional religion doesn't always do a bad job. (And of course Professor Hutton doesn't get a look in.)

Stephen said...

Nice post, with great depth.

You encapsulate the problems in paganism succinctly. The idea that “You can be a Druid/Witch/Wiccan/Heathen/Pagan because you feel you are one” is both a problem and not one. Obviously, someone can believe as they wish and worship alone and in private. But it’s when they gather together publicly that leads to confusion as to what a “pagan” (or Wiccan, or Heathen) really is.

The phobic attitude towards defining ones religion, including orthodoxy, which you express, and orthopraxy (“Correct” performance of Rituals) is systemic in paganism. The idea that you said you were attracted to Unitarianism is, perhaps unintentional, proof of that deeply held belief. A theologian would tell you that Unitarianism simply means the denial of the Trinity in Christian theology. Irrelevant to Pagans.

But today, Unitarian-Universalism almost insists that its members have NO particular beliefs about religion, making it very sympathetic to Modern Pagans, who ALSO, in many cases, insist fellow pagans deny any kind of systematic beliefs - the “There are Absolutely No Absolutes Creed”, if you will.

I believe differently. If a group of people band together and form a new religion, be it based on as many of the ancient records as they can find and accurately emulate (as many Heathens do) or that be it based on an “inspiration” of the recorded history of those ancient pagans, it should be as natural a thing as forming a garden club or forming a book club, and shouldn’t be a problem.

And of course, if a group (coven, grove, ‘gathering’ or whatever) forms with the belief system that states: “there is no belief system” that’s all well and good, too. I do, however, question what kind of “group” that is, except one that invites constant arguments about ever-changing and unsatisfying rituals or even about the basis for the group’s existence.

Yewtree said...

Hi Stephen,

thanks for your comment, which is very well-thought-out.

regarding Unitarianism - they engage creatively with theologies, rather than largely ignoring them. (here in the UK, anyway, but I think it's the same in the US.)

regarding Heathens and people basing their Paganism(s) on historical ideas - of course, that's a completely natural thing to do. The problem comes when they claim that it is the Real Deal and that they actually know and can get back to whatever the ancestors did (which may or may not be, in itself, a desirable goal).

Stephen said...

You nailed it on the head with "which may or may not be, in itself, a desirable goal." I'm of two minds about this. One, I think it's admirable to try to understand where the ancient's minds were when it came to religion and worship. It's important to know - when knowing is possible. Religion is timeless, and should seek to reach back into the mists of time for that connection.

That spiritual connection with ancestors (metaphorical and literal) is also a reward in and of itself, I believe.

I also feel that religion must live in the present. If a faith says they are a MODERN version of ancient paganism, informed by both history and our own culture of environmentalism, female equality, etc. then that's certainly a legitimate and unique form of religious expression I certainly don't condemn.

I'm a rational guy, but I cannot entirely rule out religions formed by mystics and prophets who speak to the Beyond, either - those with "special knowledge." Most religions today were founded by such people, and why should we think someone could NOT channel the Will of the Gods, or at least the practices of our ancestors?

In those cases, of course, I look to see if the religion being formed is chaotic, looks as if it's being made up on the fly and is changing constantly based on the whims of the Leader. My view is that it's either ancient and unchangeable, or it's modern and adaptable. The initial Truth Claim can't be both, logically (although even ancient religions change, obviously, when exposed to the modern air.)

As for the Unitarians, I've been accused of being too hard on them. What I said about them not holding to any creed is correct - it's their chief tenet. But I've seen some UU groups in the US go far beyond that and become extremely hostile when UU ministers DARED to bring up God (and in one case, the name "God" was used in the FEMININE form, and it was still too "controversial" for the congregation, who feared they were suddenly back in the churches they had fled from!)

Sorry my posts are like books. I should just write a book instead, I guess!

Yewtree said...

I agree, we should try to work out what the ancients thought about things, but we should never assume that just because they thought something it was automatically good. We have to apply reason and empiricism. (As in, does it seem reasonable, and does it work?)

American UUs and British Unitarians are different organisations with different histories. The tensions you describe do exist in British Unitarianism, but not to quite the same degree as you describe. British Unitarians who are non-theists have agreed to regard God as an expression of ultimate worth, or the ground of our being, etc. So whilst there have been arguments over how much Christian stuff to include in services, there is a general consensus that some of it is OK, and including other stuff is OK too.