Wild Men of Europe

I mentioned Charles Fréger’s book Wilder Mann: The Image Of The Savage three years ago, but here is a magazine article with a selection of the photos.

The article’s author writes,

As it happens, I’ve attended pagan rituals myself, in rural Austria, and I’ve met men who work on their intricate, large, wooden Krampus masks all year long in preparation for the fantastical Krampus “performance” in early December. I mention this as a prelude to explaining that (in my opinion) telling the difference between some authentic pagan belief and just people partaking in a fun pastime isn’t a straightforward proposition. It isn’t that such people are necessarily undertaking such rituals in order appease the earth goddess Erda and improve next year’s crop yield or anything like that, but at the same time I think that participants and spectators alike would agree that everyone is getting something necessary out of it, something communal, something emotional.

Well no, we would not want to think that it was actually religious, would we? On the other hand, indigenous religions don’t require creeds. Some people go to the ceremony for the “something emotional” only, and that’s all right.

Go Full Ötzi

otziYou want to go full old-time Pagan at the next festival? Rock the full Ötzi, like the original Ice-Ice Man his own self.

It’s said that fashion is cyclical, and that the styles of past decades are inevitably revived for new generations. But for a truly original look, trendsters should dig deeper than the neon spandex tones of the 1980s or the flower child garb of the 1960s. Why not channel the tropes of an even simpler time, beyond the flapper-dressed Jazz Age and into the Copper Age, some 5,300 years ago?

New DNA research shows you just what you will need: a little bearskin, some goat and deer . . .

Being “Nones” in a Pagan Society?

Sacrificial pine tree of Lalli in Tartu county - photo by Pille Porila

Sacrificial pine tree of Lalli in Tartu county – photo by Pille Porila

In Estonia, as with many Eastern European countries, the native Pagan religion is entertwined with national pride. Conquerers from the medieval Teutonic Knights to the Soviet Union have tried to supress it.

According to this writer, many—perhaps a majority—of Estonians are spiritual-but-not-religious in a Pagan sort of way:

Taaraism [native Paganism] went against the ways of Christianity and focused more upon the belief of nature. Because of the disbelief in Christianity, Estonians maintained a traditional culture of neo-Paganism that has continued to affect Estonian culture, beliefs and traditions to this day.

What I think might be happening can be explained by the good old 80-20 rule. Even if there is a “traditional culture of neo-Paganism” (Isn’t that a clash of adjectives?), at most only about 20 percent of  people really care about the daily business of religion, while the rest, to use an old phrase, mainly want it when they are “hatched, matched, and dispatched” — and for festivals.

Despite Estonia’s well-maintained churches and other medieval tourist attractions, Estonia is considered to be one of the least religious countries in the world, with 78% of Estonians saying they do not use religion as part of their daily lives, according to the 2006-2011 Gallup polls.

This is the normal condition of humanity, when you leave people to their own devices and do not demand that they line up in neat rows every seven days (on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday) and say their prayers.

More from the article:

Those who had hoped Taaraism to become Estonia’s national religion during the first independence period in 1918-1940, saw their prospective success squashed by the Soviet occupation, as the atheistic and collective Soviet Union didn’t take any religion kindly, let alone a stand-alone national one, which would give too many independent ideas and thoughts.

Today, the population of Taara or Maausk followers is extremely small. However, according to the 2000 census, only 29% of the total Estonian population is at all religious, but in 2005, the Eurobarometer poll found that 54% believed in some spirit or external life force.

It’s Late October — Who Can Keep Up with the News?

psst it's halloweenThere is more Pagan-related stuff popping up in the news and publishing world than usual right now. I wonder why. So here are some highlights:

• Gwendolyn Reece is a university librarian, blogger (Diary of an Occult Librarian), and scholar — one recent publication, “Impediments to Practice in Contemporary Paganism,” appeared in the most recent issue of The Pomegranate. So it made sense for the communications and marketing office at her employer, American University in Washington, DC, to go to her as their in-house expert on all things Halloween-ish.

• The phrase “post-Christian Europe” has become a journalistic cliché. So a writer for The Week imagines what a post-Christian and pagan [sic] world might look like.

So, could we go back to paganism? This is more than an idle question. Our era is still — much more than we care to admit — very much defined by Christian ideals, which — much more than we care to admit — were very much defined in opposition to pagan ideals. Looking at the pagan worldviews that once ruled Europe should give us some insight into the West today, and, perhaps, its future.

The article is free from much knowledge of actual contemporary Paganism outside of Iceland. But he does make the point that sacrifice was key to ancient Paganism, even though nowadays it is euphemized or just plain considered icky

• There is a type of book that I call “I go among the Witches.” Mostly I associate these with the 1970s, such as Susan Roberts’ Witches U.S.A. (1971), Hans Holzer’s The New Pagans (1973 but now on Kindle!), and the queen of them all, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (original publication 1979).

A new entry in this genre is Alex Mar’s Witches of America. In a review titled “Eat, Prey, Learn Magic,” Rhyd Wildermuth gives it two thumbs down.

Much touted by the internet press–but met with muted reservation by most witches, her book offers a sordidly pornographic and self-aggrandising narrative disguised as an elucidating look into the way witchcraft is practised in the United States.  Belonging alongside a 1980’s issue of National Geographic (we’ll get to the pendulous breasts in a bit), exploitative British-tourist narratives, and freak-documentary, Mar’s book tells the tale of her search for authentic witchcraft in the most ‘extreme’ of American Pagan experiences.

• Want to sample Alex Mar’s book for yourself? Check this excerpt in New York magazine: “The Powerful, Unlikely Appeal of Witchcraft — Even for a Skeptic.”

That’s what this is like, the embarrassing wide-openness that witchcraft requires: a movement or voice or improv class, in which the actor is expected, required by her work, to throw herself all the way in. To make a flailing mess of herself as the only route to truer performance.

‘Cause her readers  understand the thea-tuh. Or as others say, “Fake it ’till you make it.” Nothing about deity in this excerpt, however.

New Publishing Opportunity in Euro-Paganism

Headline: “Genetic analysis reveals present-day Europeans descended from at least 3, not 2, groups of ancient humans.”

So how before someone writes a book on “Ancient North Eurasian” shamanic Paganism?  Campfire, drum, bears . . . take it away.

Caves, a Sacred Pillar, and a Mystery Disk

¶ If I could visit Chauvet Cave, I could die happy. It’s one of “10 must-see cave paintings,” of which I have seen none. At least I know where there is signage-free rock art in southern Colorado.

¶ Croatian Pagans erect a pillar to Perun, the sky god. With video, still photos, and music.

¶ An article on the Nebra Sky Disk, buried in Germany thousands of years ago. Except I don’t buy this part:

Astronomer Ralph Hansen maintains that the disc was an attempt to co-ordinate the solar and lunar calendars to tell Bronze Age Man when to plant seeds and when to make trades, giving him an almost modern sense of time. “For everyday calendrical purposes, you would use Moon years. But for designing when to plough fields and when to harvest, you use Sun years,” said Hansen.

I am just a gardener, not a Neolithic farmer, but I do not think that Neolithic farmers needed stone circles or “portable instruments” to tell them when to plant. If you live in a place long enough, you know the local signs, for instance, “plant cool weather crops when the grass turns green,” or “it’s usually safe to plant warm-weather plants when the oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear” — whatever works for you.

But I have seen this so many times — members of the Clerisy like Hansen who think that the peasants are or were too stupid to know when to plant their peas unless someone like themselves, backed by the authority of a stone circle (“Lo, Father Sun is rising . . .”) tells them when to do it.

Pentagram Pizza from Rome’s Enemy

pentagrampizza¶ The word went around last week of the passing of Jonas Trinkunas (1939–2014), founder of the revived Lithuanian Pagan group Romuva. This Lithuanian website has video of his funeral ceremony, everyone in archaic ritual gear, lots of singing and drumming. (Video may be slow to load.)

¶ “Perhaps the future Carthaginians were like the Pilgrim Fathers leaving from Plymouth – they were so fervent in their devotion to the gods that they weren’t welcome at home any more.” But do not let that sentence give you any warm feelings until you have read the rest.

¶ The polytheists’ Ark was round, but still held animals.

Circles and Rectangles: Does Your House Shape You?

My first year as an undergraduate, I lived a in four-person dormitory suit. One day I entered the (rectangular) room of my suite-mate Bill and found that he had placed his bed, desk, etc. at diagonal angles to the walls.

“I got tired of everything being so rectilinear,” he said. It was funny how Bill’s new arrangement felt oddly disquieting.

A circular room, however was not an option.

People in some times and places have favored circular shapes and in other times rectangular shapes. Do these preferences say something about the societies?

These kinds of idea have a long history. In the early 1930s, the Soviet city planner Mikhail Okhitovich claimed that the right angle in architecture originated in private land ownership: curvilinear structures, whether they be round buildings or chairs with curved backs, were therefore communist in principle.

This quotation comes from a review essay in the Times Literary Supplement: “Seeing Straight,” discussing three books that examine questions of shape, perception, and society:

Vision is a form of cognition: the kinds of things we see shape the ways we think. That is why it is so hard to imagine the visual experience of our prehistoric ancestors, or, for that matter, the girls of nineteenth-century Malawi, who lived in a world without right angles. Inhabitants of, say, late Neolithic Orkney would only have seen a handful of perpendicular lines a day: tools, shaped stones, perhaps some simple geometric decoration on a pot. For the most part, their world was curved: circular buildings, round tombs, stone circles, rounded clay vessels . . . . What does a round building mean? Does it mean anything, or is the choice of one shape of house over another simply a matter of practicalities?

I think that I want to read at least one of the books reviewed, How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Vision, Patterns, and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times.

As for my roommate Bill, he eventually put his furniture back in line with the walls, as the non-rectilinear arrangement made it too hard to move around his dorm room.

New Book on Ukrainian Paganism

The Return of Ancestral Gods: Modern Ukrainian Paganism as an Alternative Vision for a Nation by Mariya Lesiv, who teaches in the Department of Folklore at  the Memorial University of Newfoundland, has now been released by McGill-Queen’s University Press in Canada.

From the publisher’s site:

In The Return of Ancestral Gods, Mariya Lesiv explores Pagan beliefs and practices in Ukraine and amongst the North American Ukrainian diaspora. Drawing on intensive fieldwork, archival documents, and published sources not available in English, she allows the voices of Pagans to be heard. Paganism in Slavic countries is heavily charged with ethno-nationalist politics, and previous scholarship has mainly focused on this aspect. Lesiv finds it important to consider not only how Paganism is preached but also the way that it is understood on a private level. She shows that many Ukrainians embrace Paganism because of its aesthetic aspects rather than its associated politics and discusses the role that aesthetics may play in the further development of Ukrainian Paganism.

An earlier article of hers, “Glory to Dazhboh (Sun-god) or to All Native Gods?: Monotheism and Polytheism in Contemporary Ukrainian Paganism,” appeared in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, in 2009.

Heathenry and the Politics of Postcolonialism

Thad Horrell, Heathen and graduate student, hurls himself against the issue of post-colonialism and reconstructed Northern religion in this article, “Heathenry as a Postcolonial Movement,” published in the online Journal of Religion, Identity and Politics, written by students in his PhD program.

His thesis is “that Heathenry is ‘postcolonial’  in complex and contradictory senses of the term. It both acknowledges and offers resistance to the imperialism of Christendom, while simultaneously trivializing colonialism and making it seem merely a thing of the past.”

I will argue that Heathenry is a postcolonial movement both in the sense that it combats and challenges elements of colonial history and the contemporary expectations derived from it (anti-colonial), and in the much more problematic sense that it serves to justify current social and racial inequalities by pushing the structures of colonialism off as a thing of the past (pro-colonial). Rather than promoting a sense of solidarity with colonized populations, Heathen critiques of colonialism and imperialism often serve to justify disregard for claims of oppression by colonized minorities. After all, if we’ve all been colonized, what is there to complain about?

This trope of resistance is employed in academic writing as well as “insider” writing. It shines through Carole Cusack’s recent Pomegranate article on the emperor Charlemagne’s “jihad” (to borrow an appropriate term) against the Pagan Saxons: “Pagan Saxon Resistance to Charlemagne’s Mission: ‘Indigenous’ Religion and ‘World’ Religion in the Early Middle Ages.”

The ideas of invasion, colonization, and resistance were important in the first years of Wicca too, although not so much since the 1950s.

Gerald Gardner played the nativist card as well, implicitly conflating the threatened invasion of southern England by the German army in 1940 with the “Gregorian mission” that brought Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England in the sixth century. (The earlier Celtic-speaking post-colonial-Roman Britain had been heavily Christian as well by the end.)

But the idea of resistance to “invasion” has put down deeper roots in contemporary Norse, Baltic, and Slavic Paganism than in the Anglosphere, I think.