Monday, November 8, 2010

The Roots of Modern Paganism Debate II

This new article continues the debate regarding the antiquity of the roots of modern Paganism from the comments section of my previous article. I am replying to Peregrin with this new article as the issues raised by Peregrin require a somewhat lengthy reply.

Peregrin writes:
Hello again,
Sorry if I do not have the energy or time to really go into this. I have done all this before and do not wish to go over it too much. Some stuff is on MOTO, most was years back and not on-line. This is why I ask folk to do their own research.
Just a few points then.
As Pallas says (thank you) I am referring to some not all.
Of course Pagan does not equal Wicca. However, there is no physical EVIDENCE to suggest paganism remained a viable RELIGIOUS path in Europe up to the 20th century.
Of course there were and are pagan survivals; customs, deity prayers, conflation with Christian saints etc. No one disputes this. What I am saying is that there is no evidence that these survivals existed as a religious alternative to Christianity as a full religious tradition. Sadly Christianity subsumed or killed most of these traditions. Folk magical practices, awareness of deities at wells etc do not a religion make, especially when most of the folk doing this named themselves Christians and would attend Christian churches.
Hutton never asserts beyond England and I speculate based on physical evidence.
The leaders of most neo-pagan traditions that became visible in the 60s and 70s had some contact or training with Wicca. Whilst not Wiccan, many from that time drew from Wicca. It is only from the 80s and 90s that we see Pagan reconstructionism consciously forming itself apart from (and sometimes in opposition to) Wicca.
As for your suggestion that unknown pagan activity may have been happening, it really matters little. We can only judge by the evidence. There may have been a secret cult of the Easter Bunny or the Intestine of Judas…if we cannot see evidence of it, we do not know.
To assert or believe something without evidence requires a level of base faith. This I think is inappropriate in mature religion and certainly has no place, to my mind, in the esoteric traditions. We do not accept literal interpretations of scripture without evidence. I see no reason to accept interpretations of Europe’s pagan past without evidence also.
And while my ego appreciates being described as a Christian apologetic, this is really beyond my field of expertise.
Thanks :)
I frankly don't see how this discussion can continue with any seriousness as long as Peregrin  merely ignores all presented evidence (like about Hutton's proclamations on Leland and Italy covered in my previous comments) and instead merely repeats his talking points over and over, propaganda style. Peregrin's new assertion that "Hutton never asserts beyond England" is so factually inaccurate as to beg the question whether Peregrin has actually even read Hutton himself.

Admittedly, Hutton's evidence is rather convincing that today’s Wicca is largely a reinvention. Numerous of Hutton’s subsidiary claims are not nearly as convincing, however. This may suit true Neopagans, who feel no strong ties to the past, but it disenfranchises many other Pagans who feel kinship and connection with antiquity.

Peregrin writes:

"What I am saying is that there is no evidence that these survivals existed as a religious alternative to Christianity as a full religious tradition. Sadly Christianity subsumed or killed most of these traditions. Folk magical practices, awareness of deities at wells etc do not a religion make, especially when most of the folk doing this named themselves Christians and would attend Christian churches."

In this assertion, Peregrin yet once again parrots Hutton. For Hutton, "these people had signalled their conversion to Christianity by the adoption of Christian worship and customs, and Hutton maintains that in so doing, they necessarily abandoned the old gods: one cannot be both Christian and Pagan. Such an assumption of mutual exclusivity is a very important one, as it underpins many of Hutton's arguments and effectively circumvents whole areas of inquiry. It is also a simplistic idea locked in a monotheistic mindset: from a more polytheistic and syncretic paradigm such as that of our European ancestors it was quite feasible to accommodate the new Christian God into an existing pantheon without invalidating the older deities."

Peregrin follows Hutton as well here in defining "religion" in such a narrow manner as to render any possible evidence as moot, although neither Peregrin nor Hutton provide any real evidence to the contrary either. I am not claiming the existence of a massive, organized Pagan resistance movement like Margaret Murray suggested. But for Peregrin and Hutton to deny the existence of ANY evidence of the survival of pagan religious practice is a much bolder claim not born out by the relevant facts.

On the contrary:
"the survival of pre-Christian belief systems and their contribution to the diabolized stereotype of witchcraft in the Early Modern era has become widely accepted in the field of witchcraft history. It has been amply demonstrated by a whole school of well respected historians, including Éva Pócs, Gustav Henningsen, Carlo Ginzburg, Gábor Klaniczay, Wolfgang Behringer and Juhan Kahk (studying witchcraft in Hungary, Sicily, Italy, Eastern Europe, Bavaria and Estonia, respectively), and other luminaries. What these authors have established is that beliefs about magic followed remarkably consistent, well-developed patterns throughout Europe, and that while they operated within the social framework of Christianity they were anything but Christian in origin."
Moreover, Ethnologist João de Pina-Cabral has also examined the problem of Pagan religious survival in detail and concluded that certain ancient Pagan beliefs and practices have had an “uncanny capacity for survival.” The survival of ancient Pagan beliefs and practices are additionally substantiated in Carlo Ginzburg’s Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath.

In an earlier comment, I questioned what the underlying, personal motivations could possibly for Dr. Ronald Hutton to go to such extremes. Large sections of Triumph of the Moon — entire chapters, even — are one-sided, misleading, or plain wrong. Many of Hutton's sources are misrepresented, and for a surprising number of his claims he provides no evidence at all.

Dr. Ronald Hutton
Ronald Hutton was born at Ootacamund in India to a colonial family of Russian ancestry. His mother considered herself to be a "Pagan." Could it be that the vehemence with which Hutton approaches the roots of Paganism in antiquity arises from little more than Hutton's misplaced feelings about his Mother and her religion?

Peregrin next argues that occulted Pagan activity "does not matter," since we can only judge by evidence we can see. This argument betrays the inappropriateness of applying historical method to matters occult or esoteric, wherein the only admissible evidence is the extremely limited written information available to the profane historian - themselves not privy to the initiatic mysteries. By this narrow definition, no initiatic tradition nor secret mystery school may today even be said to exist, due to their very nature as rooted in secrecy!

According to such narrow standards, the esoteric teachings of the Cromlech temple, for example, could not have been said to exist as long as they remained occulted behind initiatic secrecy.

Peregrin's Act of Desecration
Peregrin himself changed this, however, by personally desecrating the Aura papers of the Golden Dawn spin-off, Cromlech Temple's Sun Order, by publishing them without the permission of the surviving Chiefs of that temple.

It is therefore unsurprising to witness Peregrin today apply this same "profanation standard" to initiatic mysteries of Pagan religion as well!

I am certainly not an advocate of blind faith, as Peregrin would like to paint me as. I do however, believe that neither Pagans nor Neo-Pagans should allow academic historians to define our faith for us, especially in light of the depth of lack of academic integrity we have already witnessed ...

... And certainly we should not desecrate initiatic mysteries, merely to satisfy demands for evidence in arenas in which the only evidence acceptable to the historical method is by its very nature precluded for the profane historian as well as for the desecrator of mysteries.

- David Griffin

Friday, November 5, 2010

Urban Legends: Neo-Pagans & Golden Dawn Forgeries - Answer to Ronald Hutton and Ellic Howe

I am saddened at the way certain historical notions are so easily swallowed by the esoteric community and so effortlessly give birth to harmful and enduring urban legends. All too often, such fables are engendered merely because someone considered to be an academic authority publishes a text based on personal bias, substantiated with what scant evidence they, as non-initiates, are permitted access.

One example of such a harmful myth created by an uncritical reliance on academic authority is the prevalent belief that the Golden Dawn is based on a "forgery." This urban legend arose due to an credulous reliance on the authority of Ellic Howe, whose otherwise fine history of the Golden Dawn is marred by Howe's intense personal dislike of the order. The destructive myth arising from Howe's biased theory that the foundational "Sprengel" letters written to W.Wynn Wescott were forgeries, in reality has been substantiated by nothing more than the so-called, "expert" testimony of Oscar Schlag, a Swiss Thelemite who, like Crowley himself, was out to destroy the Golden Dawn.

Golden Dawn Senior Adept, Dr. Robert Word (of the August Order of the Mystic Rose), recently submitted the Sprengel-Wescott letters for independent examination to a truly objective, professional Germanist. Her results verify the Sprengel-Wescott letters not to have been forged by a native English speaker as both Howe and Schag erroneously and misleadingly claim. The letters instead appear written in completely correct Sutterline German entirely consistent with the period. As a trained Germanist myself, I subsequently submitted these letters to personal scrutiny as well. Admittedly, my personal findings can in no way be considered unbiased, due to the key leadership role I play in the contemporary Golden Dawn. Nonetheless, I have been trained as Germanist for over 30 years and - contrary to the enduring urban legend - I also judge these letters to be authentic.

And yet, the myth that the Golden Dawn is based on a "forgery" tenaciously persists until today, among all but those who have actually bothered to investigate the matter for themselves!

Another such urban legend is the prevalent belief in the modern Pagan movement that no Western Pagan religion has survived from antiquity, and consequently that ALL contemporary Pagan religion is but modern revival, with no historical roots. This belief has resulted in many contemporary Pagans mistakingly identifying themselves as "Neo"-Pagans, and has tragically cut off the modern Pagan movement from its historical roots in antiquity.

This destructive myth has become entrenched in the Pagan community in large part due to an uncritical reliance on the authority of Dr. Ronald Hutton's book, "The Triumph of the Moon," an examination of the historical roots of Wicca. In this well-researched work, tenured historian Dr. Hutton presents a rather convincing argument that Wicca is a synthetic religion pieced together from bits of Gerald Gardner's personal experiences in India with Goddess worship, anthropological data from Dr. Margaret Murray, Sir James Fraizer and Charles G. Leland, and the Golden Dawn, with membership drawn in part from the Naturist (Nudist) movement in England.

Even in regard to Wicca, the evidence presented by Dr. Hutton, while difficult to ignore, a decade later does not remain undisputed. For example, Philip Heselton has provided compelling data that G.B. Gardner was indeed initiated into the pre-existing New Forrest Coven. Consequently, contrary to Hutton's premise, it is unlikely that Gardner completely made up his witchcraft tradition.

Nonetheless, the urban legend tenaciously endures that no European Pagan religion has survived from antiquity. This myth survives not based on factual evidence presented by Dr. Hutton on the origins of Wicca, but merely based on sweeping pronouncements Dr. Hutton makes on the antiquity of Pagan traditions in Continental Europe.

There remain gaping holes in these proclamations. Firstly, Dr. Hutton's historical inquiry is limited to southern England, as he readily admits in the opening of his investigation. Moreover, Hutton presents no solid historical evidence to substantiate his decrees on Italy and the rest of the world. Hutton spends five pages merely parroting the opinions of others on the trustworthiness of Leland’s informant, for example.

Finally and most importantly, such matters are better the province of anthropologists rather than a historian. Hutton inappropriately does not limit himself to the examination of the written word as is properly the province of the historian, but frequently relies on personal reports he gathered himself, which Hutton presents according to his personal bias, rather than as the results of intense scrutiny by the rigors of ethnographic method.

Despite these gaping holes in Dr. Hutton's underlying conclusions, the urban legend that no European Pagan religion has survived from antiquity, has tragically deprived much of the modern Pagan movement of its historical roots, and has led to the audacious conclusion that ALL Pagan religion today is but Neo-Pagan revival.

This audacity arises directly from the erroneous presumption that the historical roots of all modern Paganism stand or fall with Wicca. This is an extremely Anglo-centered vision, as though no European Pagan traditions have ever existed outside of England, Ireland, and Wales!

Such an Anglo-centered Pagan vision negates, for example, the possibility that vestiges of ancient Greek or Roman Paganism might have secretly survived intact. This is as mistaken a notion as the myopic vision I have encountered again and again in the Golden Dawn community, as though the Golden Dawn arose as an exclusively British affair, completely separate from its Continental European context and Hermetic and Rosicrucian roots.

In the decade following Dr. Hutton's study, new anthropological evidence has surfaced, for example, that casts serious doubt on these urban legends. For example, the polytheistic Kalash Kafir religion, still practiced today by about 3,000 people in Chitral, has a strong resemblance to ancient Greek Paganism. This has led some to theorize that the Kalash religion arose directly from the invading Greeks.

When the great hero and general, Alexander, reputed as great as the gods Apollo and Zeus, left troops on the mountainsides of the great Hindu Kush, he asked them to stay there without changing their beliefs and traditions, their laws and culture until he returned from the battles in the East.

The Kalash people living until today in a village in Pakistan, proclaim with pride that they are the direct descendents of Alexander the Great. In fact, there are many similarities between them and the Hellenes of Alexander the Great’s time. Similarities such as religion, culture, and language reinforce their claims to Hellenic ancestry.

The Kalash are a polytheistic people and the gods goddesses they believe in closely resemble the twelve gods of Ancient Greece. Shrines are found in every Kalash village reminding us of religious sanctuaries we would stumble across in ancient Greece. These serve as houses of worship where prayers and sacrifices are offered. Oracles who played a major role in acting as mediators and spokespeople between the gods and the mortals still hold a position of importance in the social structure of the Kalash. Every question or prayer towards the gods is customarily followed by a sacrifice of an animal. This is reminiscent of the sacrifices the Hellenes gave to the gods to assure them a victory over the city of Troy.

The Kalash also practice a ritual that is celebrated on August 6, named the Day of the Transfiguration. This is the day where grapes are brought out to the god to be blessed and to guarantee them of a plentiful crop. This ritual can be traced back to Ancient Greece where it was practiced by the cult of Dionysus who paid their respect to the god of fertility and wine. An active member of the cult of Dionysus was Olympia, mother of Alexander the Great, said to have recruited many of her son’s soldiers and who in return practiced it throughout their expedition (Alexandrou, pg. 184).

The Kalash also live a lifestyle that can be positively compared to that of the Ancient Greeks. For example, the Kalash are the only people in the East who make and use accessories such as chairs and stools that cannot be found anywhere else in the surrounding regions. Their chairs are decorated with drawings such as the ram’s horns which symbolize the horns that decorated Alexander the Great’s helmet. Battle scenes depicting Greek soldiers are also observed. In the recent archaeological discoveries in Vergina, Greek archaeologists found the exact same replicas as the ones the Kalash use in their homes today (National Herald, pg. 7).

Certain scientists and anthropologists dispute, however, the notion of the Kalash being direct descendants of the ancient Greeks. Significantly, no genetic ties between Kalasha and Greeks has as yet been discovered. Moreover, the Greeks merely passed through in 327 B.C., probably within 50 miles of Chitral, but did not enter Chitral itself and did not stop or stay for long.

Even more skeptical anthropologists, however, agree that the polytheistic Kalash religion and the Greek religion at least appear to have a common origin. One prevalent theory is that the Kalasha are Indo-Aryans whose religion has commonalities with pre-Zorastrian Iranians. The strongest anthropological evidence, however, indicates that both ancient Greek Paganism and contemporary Kalash polytheism came from a proto-Indo European religion which was carried along with the Indo European language when the Chitralis first got there some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. No matter which of these theories ultimately prove true, the bulk of this anthropological evidence nonetheless casts serious doubt on the urban legend that no ancient European Pagan religion today survives intact.

Clearly, such a conclusion may not reasonably be drawn merely based on the work of Ronald Hutton. From an academic point of view, Hutton's work is dismissible on three counts. Firstly, Hutton's research is over a decade old and as I have shown in this article, new evidence has meanwhile come to light refuting Hutton's remarks about Paganism outside of England. Secondly, Hutton's attempt at the anthropological method is outside his field of expertise. Thirdly, the statements Hutton makes about Paganism outside of his stated research area are perfunctory, and as such should not be taken as gospel. 

The scope of Hutton's actual research was limited to Wicca and Paganism in southern England, whereas ancient Pagan religion flourished across a far broader region. Clearly any remarks Hutton makes regarding Paganism outside of Southern England should be taken - not with pinches - but with BUCKETS of salt. Thus the conclusion, based on Hutton's research, that the entire contemporary Pagan movement is but Neo-Pagan revival is revealed as fatally flawed.