Just How Old ARE We, Anyway?
Author: Talitha Dragonfly
Neo-Pagans. We’re new. We’re not new. We’re as ancient as humanity itself. We’re recent newcomers. We’re preserving the Old Religion. We’ve invented a New Religion. We’re celebrating original traditions. We’re staggering silly neophytes reinventing how the world views the Divine.
Which of these statements is true?
Heck, quite honestly I don’t care.
I love what I do, and that’s all that really matters.
As we explore the question of our supposed birthday, let’s consider a brief definition of “Pagan.” Generally speaking, one who is a Pagan is considered to be a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim (dictionary.com) or a follower of a polytheistic religion (Mirriam-Webster).
Of the major three, Judaism is the oldest. How old is Judaism, then? If you mean when the Jews received the Torah by Moses, then it is about 3300 years old. Of course, this religion has gone through some major revisions since the time of Moses, especially after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Just pick up a copy of the Hebrew Bible, start reading from the beginning in Genesis, and look for how things were done differently than they are today.
So Paganism, it can safely be suggested, is at least older than 3300 years old.
Hinduism has a long and checkered history of at least 6000 years, and is arguably the oldest living religion in the world. Technically this religion fits the official definition of Paganism in that it is not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, and that it is a polytheistic belief system. But do Hindus truly consider themselves to be Pagan?
I would like to pepper in another relevant fact into the mix.
Since the advent of writing, there has never been a single religion uniformly practiced across Western Europe before Christianity.
Many modern sources refer to Wicca as the “Old Religion”, a religion that survived in secret in Europe through the Christian period. Frequently, the age of this “Old Religion” is stretched to impossible proportions. Some people quite ridiculously claim unbroken ties from the Neolithic period. The late Dr. Margaret Murray traces Witchcraft’s origins all the way back to Paleolithic times.
This is silly! No single culture has ever survived this long. Cultures migrate and eventually merge with each other, and their spiritual beliefs merge with them. Cultures eventually die out, and when this happens, their religions generally follow suit.
During the Neolithic and Paleolithic time periods, no written language existed. Although oral traditions are often extremely important, nothing beats the power of the written word to preserve the integrity of a tradition. And even against all odds, if a tradition did survive without the help of writing, we would have no way of knowing it.
The needs of a society changes. People hunted and gathered in small groups in antiquity, and there were no cities and no agriculture in humanity’s beginnings. The eventual needs of a city are very different from the original needs of a nomadic tribe.
As culture evolves, so too do spiritual beliefs; i.e., hunting gods would be replaced by agricultural gods, male deities take supremacy over female deities, lunar deities are replaced by solar deities, gods begin to “specialize” in areas that suit the current technology, etc.
Each culture that populated a particular continent or specific region possessed their own pantheons, their own mythology, their own myths of creation and the afterlife. Read various pre-Christian or pre-Jewish myths from across the globe and see for yourself.
There are, of course, some archetypal similarities. Anyone who is a devoted reader of Carl Jung would definitely agree. Humanity seems to be hard-wired somehow for religion in achingly similar ways. And perhaps some of these similarities can be attributed to interactions between these cultures.
But in whole, every separate religion of all of the world’s religions was its own independent entity.
So why do many people INSIST that there was ever this single “Old Religion”?
For the sake of this argument, you can find beautiful and relevant similarities between all the world’s sacred traditions. You can find similarities between many ancient traditions and Christianity, for that matter.
That does not mean that all religions in antiquity are all the same, or that they all originate from a single common denominator.
Many of us today celebrate old deities, and many of us try to incorporate the spirit of the old rites into our modern rituals. But the simple fact is that our actual and complete knowledge of these rites can be sketchy or sometimes even nonexistent.
Many of these rites were either purposefully secret, or the knowledge of them was repressed or destroyed.
The Egyptians, for instance, did not write most of their magickal rites down because of the belief that written spells and incantations would take a life of their own; the symbols WERE the spell and completely capable, it was believed, to leap off of the papyrus or stone.
The rites, worships, and beliefs of the Eleusinian Mysteries were kept secret, as initiation was believed to unite the worshipper with the gods, including promises of divine power and rewards in the afterlife. There are many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Mysteries, but at best we have but fragmentary glimpses from outside sources, mere casual observers who were not even part of the culture, giving uninitiated opinions like a reporter from Action News.
The Library of Alexandria was destroyed by fire on a number of occasions, and to this day the details of what this library may or may not have contained remains a lively source of controversy.
Other cultures, like the Mesoamericans and the Etruscans and the people of the Indus Valley, documented their practices in a form of writing that has not been completely deciphered.
Gerald Gardner himself acknowledged this fact as it pertains to his invention of Wicca. He said that the rituals he received from Dorothy Clutterbuck (and oh boy, try to prove that she ever actually existed!) were extremely fragmentary.
In order to make them workable, he had to supplement them with other material. And the age of those “fragments” is hardly ancient. He directly lifted material from occult sources of the 19th and early 20th centuries like the Golden Dawn, Thelema, and Freemasonry.
Wicca as an “official” religion did not begin until 1954. This hardly qualifies it as an actual “tradition” in the broadest meaning of the word. It is even historically proven that so-called Wiccan theology did not begin to be compiled before the 1920s.
But yet still the compelling thought persists with many people that they have to believe that their “religion” is ancient.
The first question that I have to ask is why people find it so important to prove that their religion was here first. Every religion had to be a new religion at one point in time.
Wicca, and for that matter most of Neo-Paganism which spun off or was inspired from the practice of Wicca, is only about 60 years old. It is much less old in the United States, having been introduced in the States in the mid to late sixties, and not really beginning to take off until the seventies by different feminist groups.
It wasn’t really until the nineties until most of the rest of us heard about Wicca and Paganism.
Sure, we’ve all adopted certain aspects of older religions. We are inspired by many of the old Gods and Goddesses. But in good conscience, we can never say that we are truly authentic followers of those religions.
Judaism and Christianity share an entire Old Testament, not to mention the Supreme Being Yahweh. But to say that they are the same religion is ridiculous.
So what is the point I am trying to make here?
Let’s not take ourselves, as Neo-Pagans, too seriously. Let’s not give more weight to ourselves than is properly ordained. Neo-Paganism is a beautiful way of life, and if others had not invented it before me, I should like to think that I would have eventually to answer the primal calls of my spirit.
Magick works. I can definitely attest to this fact. The Gods and Goddesses speak to me fervently through their ancient archetypal voices. I love the old myths that were told throughout the world’s history, and I find modern relevance deep within the many layers of their story lines.
I find inspiration from many sacred texts: Hindu, Hebrew, Buddhist, Christian, Greek, Roman, Celtic, Mesopotamian, Native American, etc. I am a modern High Priestess who walks comfortably between all realms of possibility.
Let’s just admit to ourselves with a firmly clear and honest voice that we are reclaiming some of the ancient mysteries but with a thoroughly modern twist. We are taking religion to its logical next step in a way that suits the times and the needs of those who would approach the Divine with love and inspiration, and hopefully honesty and humbleness and gratitude, in our hearts.
Let’s get off our bogus high horses and just BE.
There is no shame in this honesty. There is no need for explanation. There is no need for legitimization. It is what it is.
And that’s perfectly okay by me.