The Myths of Modern Paganism
“What’s history? Nothing but a legend on which all agree” – Napoleon Bonaparte.
As the title may suggest, this essay will deal mainly with history, or if I should be more precise, it’ll deal with some prevailing myths and urban legends among the global Neopagan community. I would like, however, to state beforehand that I am no historian of any sort; all I can claim to be is an ardent critic of the way people tend to perceive history. However, if there are any factual errors, I would be more than glad to be notified of them.
History, as opposed to what some may think, is not written in order to teach us of what happened in the past. Frankly, it’s relatively rare to find a history book that has no ulterior motives regarding anything. The reason for that, as I believe you all know, is that history was recorded mostly by those who managed to survive it. Thus it is not uncommon to find alterations and perversions of facts. You could find that in the Bible as well as in the writings of any notable historian, such as Tacitus or Josephus; it cannot be avoided.
However, I am not here to talk of such alterations, as I will not be discussing the suppression of Pagans by their Monotheistic counterparts, or vice versa. Much had been written and said about this topic without me adding to it. I will however write about some of the modern, Neo-Pagan myths, ranging from the supposed historicity of Wicca to the fictitious Mists of Avalon.
I often hear pagans uttering some statements regarding how old their religion is, and about their traditions being passed down orally for hundreds of years from father to son, or through covens, apprenticeship, etc. Needless to say, many of these claims are fabrications. Most, if not all, of the Western Pagan religions — from which the Wiccans, Asatruars, the Neo-Druids, and many others claim descent — were extinct by the late Middle Ages, if not much earlier. Although there were many aspects from the old religions blended into folklore (which in some cases survived up to modern times) , reconstructing these ancient religions precisely is impossible. I could recount here the history of Christianity and Islam and their bloody wars of destruction against the old religions, however, that would be unnecessary. There’s very little doubt that by the 1900’s, when the Neopagan movement began to surface, other than some old folktales and traditions, nothing remained of the old religions.
However, I see no problem in reconstructing these old religions per se. We’ll just never know for sure if the folk traditions the modern forms are based upon are actually remnants of an old pagan past, or on the contrary, simply modern costuming. My main problem concerns the falsehoods some people spread about Neopagan history. It’s no longer a problem about “who wrote it down”; the problem is that many of these things simply never happened.
Let’s take the Witch craze, for example. I have heard people say that it was basically a campaign by the Church, all for the extermination of an old European Pagan Religion. Of course, this is not true. The Witch craze was not directed against any supposed “witchcraft religion” because there simply wasn’t any witchcraft religion at that time. The entire concept of this supposedly historical religion originated in the 19th century among some anthropologists; however, it was soon discarded until Gerald Gardner picked it up and created the Wiccan Creation Myth.
Then there is the popular concept of an old widespread ‘Goddess religion’. It is true that Pagan cultures had some respect for the feminine aspects however there was no widespread Goddess-worshipping religion. Moreover, the entire concept of a triple Goddess, which encompasses everything (or as I prefer referring to it – the MMC – maiden, mother, crone) , never existed before the advent of Neopaganism (Yes, there were triple Gods and Goddesses, but they were not of the MMC type by all means) . There were some historical cults favoring female deities, however, none of them (from whatever we know of them) seem like their modern counterparts.
And lastly, there is the book, The Mists Of Avalon. When I first read it, I loved it. I truly think that it’s an important book, mainly because of its message. However, seeing the use made of the tale by so many, I felt dismayed at first, and enraged afterwards. The Mists of Avalon, as you all should know, is not history, and they never will be. Morgan Le Fey is likely nothing but a literary figure (although she might have some Pagan origin as the Welsh Modron) , and Avalon was never an island, nor had there been an order of druidesses in Glastonbury Tor. The entire legend connecting Glastonbury Tor with the mythical Avallach originated in the 11th century, when the English were warring with the Welsh, and most of what we know as the Arthurian Saga is the literary creation of Geoffry from Monmouth. Although he did incorporate many old folktales of Arthur in his tales, he had, as many others did on those days, invented parts of his story while claiming them to be older.
There is no problem in people following a religion that is other than yours, as long as they don’t harm other people in the process. The problem is that people choose to distort, and sometimes, even reinvent history in order to justify their religion. Even the oldest of religions were once new, so there’s no need for emerging new ones to fill in their blanks with a fictitious history. However, we still do it. (The answer to the question “why do we rely on mythologies to justify whatever we do?” will not be answered in this essay.)
I will conclude with a simple call for all of you out there: do not distort history. Simply, do not do it. What you’re doing is not presenting the ‘other side’ of history; you are attempting to rewrite it. I beg you, please do some research.
And may the universe bless you all.