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.

Polish Pagans Hold Congress

Scott Simpson, co-editor of Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, is quoted in an article on Polish Paganism in a June 18, 2013 article in Rzeczpospolita, one of Poland’s largest daily newspapers.

He offers this translation:

Polish Pagans Combine Their Strength

Three Polish Pagans (Rzeczpospolita newspaper).

At their first congress in years, the followers of the old beliefs will try to overcome their theological differences.

Making harvest offerings to the gods, jumping through bonfires and releasing wreathes [into running water] — that’s how Rodzimowiercy, the followers of the old Pagan beliefs, will celebrate Kupala [Summer Solstice]. Poland’s largest celebration in a chram, the temple at Pruszkow in Mazowia, will begin on Thursday. The culmination falls on the shortest night of the year — from 21 to 22 June.

Pre-Christian beliefs started to return in the 1980s, and the Pagans say that the followers of their religion is growing. In August, in Łódz the first National Convention of Rodzimowierczy will be held. “From the point of view of this milieu, this is a breakthrough,” Scott Simpson, a scholar of religion from the Jagiellonian University tells Rzeczpospolita.

Polish Pagans celebrate six major holidays, most of them related to dates marking changes in the length of the day. On the spring equinox they celebrate Jare Gody, Dozynki [harvest] marks the beginning of autumn, and Swięto Godów – the beginning of winter. Added to this Dziady [Forefathers’ Eve], in memory of the dead, which is celebrated twice,  in spring and autumn.

The most important role, however, is played by Święto Kupaly [Midsummer Night]. Pagan rites will be celebrated, among others in Warsaw, Szczecin, Wrocław, Opole, Poznan, Łódż and Sopot.

Ratomir Wilkowski, who is a żerca, that is, a Slavic priest of the Native Polish Church tells Rzeczpospolita that the biggest celebration near Pruszkow expects some [missing number] participants. “A similar turnout came last year. However, more and more people are asking about the celebration,” he adds.

How many Rodzimowierców are there in Poland? Scott Simpson says that there are around two thousand committed followers.”But there is a much broader periphery of supporters. I think that the number is growing, although not as rapidly as it was in the 90s,’”he says.

However, recently the Pagans have done much to integrate their movement.

They have managed to reactivate the Gniazdo periodical dedicated to their religion. The next step will be to organize the Congress for several communities in Łódż. One of the speakers will be author Witold Jablonski, who recently published a novel [Słowo i Miecz] about the Pagan uprising in the eleventh century in Poland.

In the registry of the Ministry of Administration and Digitization there are currently four religious Rodzimowiersto organisations: the Polish Slavic Church, Native Faith, Slavic Faith and the Native Polish Church. They try to find the principles of the faith of their ancestors in historical sources. They believe in the gods, who are identified with the forces of nature. Mother Earth is Mokosh, the Sky — Swiatowid, the Sun — Svarog, and Lightning — Perun.

However, there have arisen theological differences between the adherents. “Some Rodzimowiercy claim that their religion can be combined with other faiths. I think that is unacceptable. I am counting on the congress helping to dispel theological doubts,” says Stanislaw Potrzebowski of Native Faith.

Why are Poles going back to pre-Christian beliefs? Religious Studies Professor Zbigniew Pasek argues that the reason is the desire to seek alternatives to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. “For these people, it is not credible today. The claim that we Slavs will never regain our identity if we do not go back to our roots, rejecting foreign gods, falls on fertile ground,” he explains.

The scholar adds that many people get involved in the Neopagan movement, because they are drawn to participation in the reconstruction [re-enactment] of history. Ratomir Wilkowski argues that his faith is authentic.

“We’re not a bunch of lunatics running around half-naked in the woods. If we did not believe in it we would not create religious organisations,” he assures.

To which he adds, “Again, the journalist (relatively harmlessly) made my vague hedging answer into something short and punchy that I didn’t really say. ”  So it goes!

Two Important New Books in Pagan Studies

Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson, has now been released in hardcover. (No paperback edition appears to be coming in the near future.)

You can read the complete table of contents and see ordering information at Acumen Publishing’s website.

Also being released in June — Pop Pagans: Pagans and Popular Music, with contributions from some of the people on my blogroll, I am happy to say.

The same publishing arrangement applies, one of the reasons that my series co-editor and I said farewell to Acumen.

Talking like the Old Ones

Back in 2000, I was writing an article about a prescribed fire on the national forest near my home, so I hiked in with the ignition crew. Some point during the day, I heard a radio crackle with the message, “Come up that little ridge and bring fire with you.”

Bring fire with you. I thought of one of my favorite movies, Quest for Fire, and the language of its Neanderthal characters. And I thought of how that sentence could probably be translated into Neanderthal — if only we knew how — and certainly into a later Proto-Indo-European.

Those might be “utraconserved words,” as defined by this piece from the Washington Post.

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.

That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.

Read the rest and listen to the words themselves.

UPDATE: Another piece, this one from Wired, on the same research:

Pagel and his co-workers took a first step by building a statistical model based on Indo-European cognates. Incorporating only the frequency of a word’s use and its part of speech (noun, verb, numeral, etc.)—and ignoring its sound— the model could predict how long the word persisted through time. Reporting in Nature in 2007, they found that most words have about a 50% chance of being replaced by a completely different word every 2000 to 4000 years. Thus the Proto-Indo-European wata, winding its way through wasser in German, water in English, and voda in Russian, became eau in French. But some words, including I, you, here, how, not, and two, are replaced only once every 10,000 or even 20,000 years.

The Secret Police as Ethnographers

The next issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies will be devoted largely to new forms of Paganism in the Baltic countries, if all goes as planned.

One article that I have been reading is entitled “The Dievturi Movement in the Reports of the Latvian Political Police, 1939–1940.”

This movement itself started in the 1920s—and promptly fissioned. (Insert “Peoples’ Front of Judea” joke here.) But that origin does make it an old-timer in contemporary Paganism.

Latvia gained its independence in 1919, following the collapse of czarist Russia and Latvia’s own factional war. It became a republic, but a politician named Karlis Ulmanis dissolved Parliament and seized power in a bloodless coup in 1934. His authoritarian nationalist government lasted until the Soviet Union occupied Latvia in 1940.

During that time, however, the political police were spying on all political, dissident, and unusual groups, including the Pagans. I don’t want to steal Prof. Anita Stasulane’s thunder, but she made an interesting discovery in the national archives: notes on Pagan meetings and rituals made by a police “mole” in the group.

There is so much there: who attended the meeting, what was talked about, what songs were sung, how the altar was decorated . .  .

Imagine, for example, if someone had infiltrated that Yeshua ben Yusef’s group two thousand years ago — and that the scrolls had survived and been re-discovered. New Testament studies would sure look a lot different.

Europe’s Oldest Paganism

At Forging the Sampo, a link to a short documentary video on the revived Pagan religion of the Mari people of the former Soviet Union. (Wikipedia entry on Mari-El.)

Massive sacrificial feasts, accordions, sacred oaks and groves, priests in tall woolen hats, even a sort of Bigfoot reference — what’s not to like?

I have been reading chapters from a forthcoming book on revived Paganism in Central and Eastern Europe, which includes a chapter on the Mari by Boris Knorre, who writes,

Even during the Soviet times, within the isolated rural population of the Mari, certain elements remained well preserved: local and family prayers, reverence for the sacred grove, and similar “private” practices of the tradition. In the 1990s, some urban intellectuals among the Mari initiated an active process of restoration of the native faith. The conduct of these Pagan rituals extended the boundaries of family tradition into public space, and at this time public communal sacrifices and prayers reemerged. In the Republic of Mari El, there are six hundred holy groves (kusoto), of which the majority have been taken under the protection of the state.

I look forward to being able to promote the entire volume when it is published.

The Maskers and the Money

Krampus parades, both from Austrian ski resort towns. To what extent they are underwritten by local tourism authorities I do not know. (Thanks to folk musician and writer Andy Letcher.)

When I was 16-17 years old, I lived part of each year in Mandeville, Jamaica, up in the hills, during breaks from school in the US.

One Christmas break I was getting a haircut at a second-floor establishment in the center of town when one of the staff glanced out a window and shouted, “John Canoe! John Canoe!”

Immediately everyone rushed to the windows and looked down on the street, where no more than half-a-dozen maskers were dancing down the street. Their appearance must not have been announced in advance, for no one seemed to be waiting to see them.

I wondered if I was seeing a dying tradition. Wikipedia says,

The parade and festivities probably arrived with African slaves. Although Jamaica is credited with the longest running tradition of Jonkanoo, today these mysterious bands with their gigantic costumes appear more as entertainment at cultural events than at random along the streets. Not as popular in the cities as it was 30 years ago, Jonkanoo is still a tradition in rural Jamaica.

This was certainly “at random along the streets.” There did not seem to be any organized civic or touristic organization behind it all. In a way, that was more cool.

When things get organized and promoted for touristic purposes, the rough edges are smoothed off. Watching the history of the May Day hobby horse processions in Padstow, Cornwall, you can see how the local antagonisms and occasional violence mixed in with the parade are pushed down as it becomes more of a tourist event.

Since these Krampus parades occur in ski resort towns, I wonder how much of them is controlled by the maskers themselves and  how much by the ski-tourism industry. Re-created or not, at least they speak to archaic understanding of the solstice season not just as fun and feasting but as cold, dark, hunger, and “cabin fever.”  Among other things.

The Revenants’ Tales and What They Tell Us

A few key ideas hold the promise of keeping Pagan religions distinct from the people who go around claiming the “all Truth is one” etc. (When I hear that, I also hear “You will be assimilated.”)

An obvious one is polytheism.

Another is the concept of the multiple soul, which wends its way through Claude Lecouteux’s The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, published by Inner Traditions.

Focused mainly on Indo-European traditions, this attempts to illuminate a “complex belief system at whose heart reside the fundamental beliefs touching upon the soul, the beyond, and ancestor worship” (vii).

Lecouteux, a retired French medievalist, relies heavily on old stories and sagas and a little bit on archaeology  to seek the premodern “Pagan” experience of ghosts, the virtuous dead, the unquiet dead, and other revenants—those who return from the dead for whatever reason.

Not surprisingly, the increasing influence of Christianity led to changed attitudes, with a little top-down guidance:

The notion of suffrages [prayers, petitions] helpful to the dead gave birth to the directives serving to eliminate worship of the dead, a core feature of paganism. It was adulterated and recuperated with great subtlety and wherever possible, the saints replaced the good ancestors—the objects of a cult connection to the [Indo-European] third function (fecundity/fertility)—and liturgical feasts replaced the pagan festivals (50).

Naturally, the concept of multiple souls familiar to more shamanic cultures had to be dampened down to the Christian norm, although some ideas of “the double” lingered.

Nonetheless, both these early-medieval  European Christians and their Pagan ancestors shared a pre-modern world view that was more alike than ours with theirs. In the author’s words, they participated in “a divine cosmogony: [where] perpetual motion animated the world, pulling men and things; everything fit inside a perfect circle encompassing the visible and the invisible; human beings and gods; the real and the possible; past, present, and future” (153).

We try to return to what we imagine that pre-modern “wholeness” felt like. Indeed, such a return has been a theme of art and religion for several centuries. Through ritual, magic, entheogens, or extreme experience we cross the divide going backwards, but it is very very difficult to stay.

Perhaps that longing for the “perfect circle” is why one colleague argues that in contemporary Paganism, the calendar—the wheel of the year—is more important than the gods.

One digression: through reading The Return of the Dead, I understand better why people being executed are often given hoods or blindfolds. It is not to spare their feelings, nor even is it just to depersonalize them and make the the executioners’ job easier. It is to prevent the dying person from casting the Evil Eye upon the living.

I am keeping this book at hand for reading on winter nights.

(For the grammarians reading this: The vague pronoun reference in the post’s title is deliberate.)