Review: “The Final Pagan Generation”

A review from the most recent (20.1) issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. While the publisher does charge for articles, book reviews are free downloads.

Edward J. Watts, The Final Pagan Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015) 344 pp., 29 B&W photographs, map. $34.95 (hardcover, ebook).

At the beginning of the fourth century CE, the Mediterranean world—the Roman empire—“was full of gods. Their temples, statues, and images filled its cities, downs, farms, and wildernesses… Traditional divinities also dominated the spiritual space of the empire as figures whose presences could not be sensed but whose actions many felt they might discern.” So writes Edward J. Watts at the beginning of The Final Pagan Generation. By the century’s end, he notes, “The cities of the empire remained nearly as full of the sights, sounds, and smells of the traditional gods in the 390s as they had been in the 310s.”

Yet much had changed. After Julian’s attempt in the 360s to sustain Pagan temples and education with imperial favor and financing—as those had sustained them in the past—the pendulum swung back, and it swung hard. Emperors such as Gratian (r. 367–83) in the West and Theodosius I (r. 379–95) in the East sought to cut the financial aqueducts that sustained large temples and celebrations. In those times, subsidy was not merely a matter of line items in the imperial budget, but a cut could mean handing over agricultural estates whose profits had sustained a temple to new owners. With sacrifice already banned, Theodosius by the 390s was punishing judges who set foot in Pagan temples and also forbidding private household rites. That these edicts were not always enforced is not the issue; the point is that Nicene Christianity enjoyed imperial favor while traditional religion no longer did.

From the days of Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), who essentially blamed the “fall of Rome” (the Western Empire, at least) on its embrace of Christianity, the question has been asked: “What changed?” The question also obsesses some contemporary Pagans (and not just members of the Julian Society), who ask, “Why did our ancestors abandon the old gods? Were they bribed, coerced, or tricked?” In the case of the four upper-class men on whose lives Watt concentrates, we can only use Gibbon’s favorite adverb, insensibly. Gibbon writes, for instance, that “the active and successful zeal of the Christians had insensibly diffused them through every province and almost every city of the empire” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, chapter 16). Likewise, these men are presented as insensible to the structural changes that occurred while they rose to the pinnacle of their careers.

Three of four were rhetors and philosophers who left extensive writings behind: Libanius (314–c.393), a high-profile teacher of rhetoric, something like a tenured professor today; Themistius (317–390), another rhetorician, statesman, philosopher, and counselor to sev- eral emperors; and Ausonius (310–395), poet, teacher of rhetoric in the imperial household of Valentinian I, later a consul and praetorian prefect variously of Gaul, Italy, and Africa, also the only Christian of the four, converting late in life. The fourth was Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (315–384), a wealthy aristocrat, holder of various Roman priesthoods, and praetorian prefect of Rome, a post that might be compared to a cabinet ministry. As prefect of Rome, he oversaw the reconstruction of major temples, sponsored public rituals, and reinforced the city’s Pagan identity as against that of Milan, seat of the now-Christian Western emperors of the late fourth century.

Watts describes these men’s careers against the changing political landscape of the century, including Julian’s short reign. The last Pagan emperor, he writes, had a different, more Christian upbringing than Watts’ four exemplars: “Unlike those older men, Julian understood that Constantius’ [who preceded him] initiatives pointed toward a world in which traditional religious practices were suppressed and temples replaced by churches”

Lacking Julian’s imperial authority, Libanius, for one, fought a long rear-guard action against the erasure of traditional religion, denouncing how “the black-robed tribe [of monks], who eat more than elephants … hasten to attack the temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these, with hands and feet.” His methods were speeches, letters (perhaps the equivalent of an op-ed in the New York Times today), and appeals to the current emperor’s vanity, arguing that letting extralegal Christian power structures develop would harm the emperor’s authority and prestige. These stratagems worked for a time, but as each of the “final Pagan generation” passed away from their worlds of senates, classrooms, and dinners with important people— becoming truly insensible —the imperial world, which might still have looked, sounded, and smelled much as it did in their childhoods, was irrevocably altered.

Chas S. Clifton Colorado State University-Pueblo
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2018

There Was More to “Pixie” than Tarot Cards

Pamela Coleman Smith, about 1912.

At Spiral Nature you can read a long review of a new book about Pamela Coleman Smith (Pixie to her friends), best known for designing probably the most popular Tarot deck of the twentieth century.

Corinne Pamela Colman Smith, who went by the nickname “Pixie,” defied so many social norms, it’s hard to keep count. The more you read about her, the more impressed you get.

Those who left written comments about their impressions of her confess how hard it was to place her within the gender, class, and racial categories of her time. W. B. Yeats, for instance, wrote that she looked “exactly like a Japanese. Nannie says this Japanese appearance comes from constantly drinking iced water.”

The book has four contributors: Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, currently at work on her own full biography of the artist; Stuart Kaplan’s (the Tarot publisher) section “is just the most incredible and comprehensive collection of Smith’s works to date, and maybe ever”; Melinda Boyd Parsons covers Smith’s experiences with the theatre and ceremonial magick worlds; and Mary K. Greer discusses her work in the context of Tarot history.

Read the whole thing.

Aye, My Hearties, the Six of Coins!

Pickering Wharf today. At left is the reconstructed Salem privateer schooner Fame. The original Fame  operated during the War of 1812 against British shipping, while the newer version offers summer day cruises in Salem Sound.

The history of Salem, Mass., is more about the sea than the witches — at least through the 18th and early 19th centuries, the peak of the Age of Sail.

Kids climb an old anchor at the National Park Service’s Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

In the beginning, all the coastal communities were fishing ports, but while some like Gloucester stayed that way, Salem went mercantile, first in the coastal and West Indies trade and then — for the big money — the Spice Trade. Pepper from Sumatra, cinnamon from India, tea from China, plus other Asian goods, were all in demand. Per capita, Salem was the richest town in Revolutionary War-era America, based on importing and re-shipping West Indian and East Asian goods.

A miniature portrait of Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1776–1808.

There was risk, of course. For example, Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author’s father), a sea captain on the verge of big success, died of yellow fever in South America at age 32.

Model of original Friendship. Note cannon on deck.

The ships themselves were typically three-masted “East Indiamen” — like the Friendship of Salem, a working reconstructed ship based on a 1797 original. It is currently undergoing repairs, so I was not able to visit it last month.

The ocean was not necessarily a friendly place. There were European pirates still, plus privateers in wartime (pirates with a government license), and in the Far East there were local pirates as well.1)Salem ship captains also turned privateer in the 1850s against the French and during the Revolution and War of 1812 against British merchant ships. So the merchant ships carried cannon and other weapons for self-defense and the crews were trained in their use.

But by the time that Nathaniel Hawthorne the writer was working at the federal custom house in Salem in the 1840s, the trade was falling off.2)Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook. One reason was competition with Boston and New York.

The other was environmental. Salem’s merchants built so many private wharves (Pickering Wharf, Turner Wharf, Derby Wharf, etc.) for their ships and goods that they affected water movement, leading to increased silting-up of the harbor. Consequently, the newer, larger clipper ships of the 1840s–1850s could not easily use it.3)Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.

While I drank a beer at Jaho Coffee on Derby Street, M. revisited the Spice Trade, making some purchases at Salem Spice on Wharf Street. Somewhere, the old sea captains nodded in approval.

Wharf Street: nautical New England with psychic readings.

But today’s Pickering Wharf neighborhood looks more like Diagon Alley. Yes, there is a fishing-tackle shop and nautical-theme gifts on sale, but there are also multiple occult shops. (Gypsy Ravish’s Nu Aeon is the only that I have visited.)

It turns into another time-slip: After spending the morning ashore, the second mate of the privateer Annabelle returns to the ship.

Summoning the sailors on deck, he sits on a hatch cover.

“Feast your eyes on my new Tarot deck,” he says. “Let’s have a quick reading for the voyage ahead!

“Ah now, look at that!” he exclaims, tapping a card with tar-stained fingernail. “Aye, my hearties, the Six of Coins! We’ll be coming back rich men!”

Notes   [ + ]

1. Salem ship captains also turned privateer in the 1850s against the French and during the Revolution and War of 1812 against British merchant ships.
2. Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook.
3. Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.

Witchy Cultural Tourists Do Exist

In J. W. Ocker’s book A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts, Jay Finney, chief marketing officer of the big Peabody Essex Museum, tells Ocker that “cultural tourists” who visit the museum are a different crowd than those who come to Salem for witchy stuff.

And he sees no point in marketing to the latter.

But he just did, because M and I are in both categories.

Here you see two refrigerator magnets from the Salem Witch Museum, my Black Phillip pin (really from Nerd Scouts but very Salem-ish), a receipt for two museum admissions, and, good measure, a National Park Service brochure about the maritime history of Salem. (Not shown: Salem Witch Museum t-shirt.) So you see, Mr. Finney, we can be “cultural tourists” and part of “that [t-shirt buying] demographic” At The Same Time.

I need to write a blog post about the maritime stuff.

The Best New Book about the Salem Witch Trials

Wouldn’t you like to live in an enchanted world, where everything in nature brought messages from gods and spirits?

The New England Puritans did so, but with a smaller cast of characters: their God and their Devil.

But there were lots of messages all the same:

If your cow died, if lightning struck your house, if your nine-year-old niece arched her back and babbled hysterically, complaining of “bites and pinches by ‘invisible agents,'” it meant something.

Either God was testing you or the Devil was trying to topple the pious colony of New England. To quote the Puritan clergyman and prolific author Cotton Mather, “I am a man greatly assaulted by Satan. Is it because I have done so much against that enemy?”

The quotes are from Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem.

I had read her biography Cleopatra: A Life earlier and was impressed. When I saw that she had tackled the Salem witch trials, I knew that I had a good read ahead of me.

Books on Salem history at the Athenaeum.

I wonder if more books have been written about the 1692 Salem witch trials than any other, starting within weeks of the final executions and continuing up until today. These are some of the Salem-history books at the Salem Athenaeum (a private library) — the top shelf is all witch-trial books, and I can think of some that are missing or were checked out.

If you are going to read just one book though, make it Stacy Schiff’s. It is grounded in research, but it reads like a novel, while performing the historian’s essential task, which is to show you that no one explanation covers what happened that year in today’s Salem, Danvers, and Andover.

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England, food poisoning, a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria, fraud, taxes, conspiracy, political instability, trauma induced by Indian attacks, and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories. . . . .The irresistible locked-room mystery of the matter is what keeps us coming back to it.

Unlike some accounts, Schiff’s continues past the end of the trials themselves, noting how the end of the witchcraft panic, though it diminished the social position of the Puritan church, did not change the theology about the Devil and witchcraft. The Devil was still out there. New England remained “enchanted,” at least in the sociological sense.

The year 1692 disappeared from some official chronicles as well as important individuals’ journals, which makes historians’ job harder. One thing we can say: it damaged but did not break the prestige of the Puritan clergy, who had thought of themselves, in effect, as the rulers of the people — only to see George Burroughs, a former Salem village minister, sent to the hanging tree himself.

They Were Not Witches — They Are Our Martyrs

Walking through the witch-trial memorial park.

This is the memorial created in 1992 for the victims of the Salem trials in Salem, Mass. Each “bench” contains the name of an accused person: “Margaret Scott. Hanged. September 22, 1692.”

Walk there, and you know that it has become a shrine.

Then you realize that you are walking on their words, their pleas to the uncaring judges: “God knows I am innocent of such wickedness.”

Twenty-five people died (five of them in prison), all professing their innocence, and I tend to believe them. But they left us something: Witch Tees!

And Witch Pix!

And a passel of museums, “haunted houses,” ghost tours, and the like.

Crow Haven Corner.

The first witchcraft shop was Laurie Cabot’s the Witch Shoppe in 1971, which later moved and was renamed Crow Haven Corner.

It has been joined by many others. Walking along nearby Pickering Wharf feels like a trip down Diagon Alley.

Could Sarah Good, a homeless beggar (hanged) or Susannah Martin, an impoverished widow (hanged)  have imagined that their deaths would produce a Salem where being a witch is fairly normal and the police cars have flying witches on their doors? 1)Meanwhile, two burly Salem cops are yelling at some kid to get off his bike, which he is riding illegally on the pedestrian mall.

The National Park Service visitor center, devoted both to Salem’s peak years as a port in the 18th and 19th centuries and to the events of 1692, contains several shelves of books on historical witchcraft.

It’s a crooked path, all right, from hysterical teenagers accusing adults of witchcraft before judges who accepted “spectral evidence” to a wax museum, signage directing visitors to Gallows Hill, and at least two dozen witchcraft shops, but there it is.

The “witches” of 1692 gave it to us.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Meanwhile, two burly Salem cops are yelling at some kid to get off his bike, which he is riding illegally on the pedestrian mall.

Viking Hoodoo — Who Knew?

Who knew the old Norse were into runic candle magic? Not me.

All right, you should not judge a museum exhibit by what is in the gift shop. It’s just that the designers of the Vikings: Beyond the Legend traveling exhibit, chiefly from the Swedish History Museum, if I understand correctly, took great pains to lay waste to “the one-dimensional stereotype of bearded barbarians with horned helmets.” And then you see for sale something that I am pretty sure is non-historical.1)What does the Lore say about about magic candles? Too bad. Syncretism for the win.

In fact, the exhibit explains multiple times that Norse fighters did not wear horned helmets but that those originated with a 19th-century opera costumer’s designs for Wagner’s Ring cycle.2)If you stop to think about it, horns make poor tactical sense. If an opponent’s downward blow struck the projecting horn, it might knock off your helmet, if you had no chin strap. If you had a chin strap, then it would give you a neck-crunching twist — bad news either way. Better to have the blow slide off.

The show is in Denver now, but apparently, like Cirque du Soleil, it has multiple versions on the road, one being now in Salt Lake City. 3)If it were truly like Cirque du Soleil, one exhibit would have a permanent home in Las Vegas. Instead of runic hoodoo candles, Valkyrie showgirls!

A Norse reenactor prepares to demonstrate how to spin woolen thread with a weighted spindle. I bet the original home lighting was never so good.

And since I am unlikely to visit Scandinavia soon, I will accept well-crafted replica ships rather than the real thing.

Exploration and settlement is rather down-played in favor of life in the homelands, since the focus is not so much on “going viking” but on trying to get by as Iron Age farmers and fisherfolk, raising little cows and sheep (by our standards) and chickens the size of “Cornish game hens.”

And there is definitely a Norse Paganism 101 component with interactive exhibits about the Aesir and Vanir.

See Vikings: Beyond the Legend if you can. And pick up a T-shirt and some candles.

Notes   [ + ]

1. What does the Lore say about about magic candles? Too bad. Syncretism for the win.
2. If you stop to think about it, horns make poor tactical sense. If an opponent’s downward blow struck the projecting horn, it might knock off your helmet, if you had no chin strap. If you had a chin strap, then it would give you a neck-crunching twist — bad news either way. Better to have the blow slide off.
3. If it were truly like Cirque du Soleil, one exhibit would have a permanent home in Las Vegas. Instead of runic hoodoo candles, Valkyrie showgirls!

Jared Diamond Was Wrong—The Greenland Norse Adapted

Medieval chess pieces carved from Greenlandic walrus ivory (National Museums Scotland).

A new article in the journal Science refutes Jared Diamond’s claim that the 400-year-old Norse colony in Greenland failed because its habitants failed to adapt to the land.

Diamond’s thesis in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was that the Norse made bad ecological decisions. As one reviewer summarizes,

The problem with the settlements . . . was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.

Diamond, popularizing earlier research, said that the Christian Norse settlers clung to European lifeways of crops and cattle, while the arriving Inuit lived by hunting marine animals. New research shows that it was not that simple:

In 2012, NABO researchers clinched the case that the Greenlanders ate a marine diet by analyzing human bones in Norse graveyards. Animals that live in the sea have ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes that differ from those found in terrestrial animals, and this isotopic signature is passed on to the people who eat them. The Norse bones show that as the settlement developed from the 11th to the 15th century, their diet contained ever more marine protein. Far from clinging to livestock as temperatures fell, the Norse instead managed a successful subsistence system with “flexibility and capacity to adapt,” wrote the author of the 2012 paper, Jette Arneborg from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Nor were the Norse incompetent farmers, as Diamond and others have suggested. Soil geographer Ian Simpson of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom says previous studies overestimated the Norse contribution to erosion in Greenland. New pollen and soil data show that the Norse allowed fields and what little forest existed to recover after tilling and turf cutting. And in analyses of soil and lake sediment cores, researchers have found chemical and paleoecological clues indicating that Norse farmers skillfully maintained pastures with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.

The disappearance of the colony is still a mystery. There is no evidence for war with the Inuit. Climate change — the Little Ice Age — definitely played a part, but politics and trade disruptions were another part. Some historians suggest that too many young adults, seeking better opportunities, returned to Iceland or Norway, leaving the colony to simply dwindle away.

Still, they had a long run, and leaving a mystery behind is paradoxically one way to be remembered.

The Viking “Blood Eagle” Never Happened, Says Historian

ageofthevikingsA Swedish archaeologist reviews a new book, Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings, and makes this observation:

Myself, I was intrigued to learn that the infamous, messy and impractical “blood eagle” murder method may just be the fruit of High Medieval writers misunderstanding one of the countless references in Viking Period poetry to carrion birds munching on the slain (p. 37). There is to my knowledge no osteological evidence for it. Also interesting to me, I can’t recall reading about the Spanish Moor Al-Tartushi’s report on life in Hedeby before (p. 197). But that may just be because I’m not an historian.

Funny thing, I had been thinking of that alleged method of torture/execution a couple of days before.

Read the rest at his blog: “New Popular Book on the Viking Period.”

Around the Blogosphere, 17 July 2014

Tanya Luhrman compares the cultural differences in “hearing voices” in the United States, Ghana, and India. Plus, a Dutch psychiatrist who encourages it in his patients!

¶ You have read Ethan Doyle White’s interview with Ronald Hutton, right? If not, here it is.

¶ Two from Sarah Veale at Invocatio:

A PhD dissertation with music on “Satanic feminism.”

Discussing ancient Greek terms helps us understand “sacred space.”

¶ Mary Harrsch corrrects a slander against Julian, the last Pagan emperor of Rome.