Minor Middle-Eastern Monotheists — And the Last Pagans in Pakistan

One god, one or more recognized prophets, a preoccupation with female sexuality — are we talking about Islam? Not this time. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East is a religion-nerd’s tour of “disappearing religions” such as those of the Iraqi Mandaeans or the Zorastrians of Iran. Some, it must be said, are less monotheistic than others.

Written by Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat-turned-policy wonk, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a journalistic survey of ancient religions that might likely be crushed by the Islamic State (like the Yazidis) or by other Muslim fundamentalism (Egypt’s Coptic Christians or the polytheistic Kalasha people of the Aghan-Pakastani boder).

Or they may all end up in Michigan — except for the Yazidis, whose chief immigrant home is Lincoln, Nebraska. There is a reason why the final chapter is titled “Detroit,” since that metro area has attracted many Middle Eastern immigrants.

Russell writes,

In the course of fourteen years as an Arabic- and Farsi-speaking diplomat, working and traveling in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, I enountered religious beliefs that I had never known of before: a taboo against wearing the color blue, obligatory mustaches, and a reverence for peacocks. I met people who believed in supernatural being that take human form, in the power of the planets and stars to steer human affairs, and in reincaration.

He visits and interviews the Mandaeans, who trace their religious lineage to John the Baptist (a “greater miracle worker than Jesus”), people who lived in Iraq since biblical times but who have now mostly fled.

The Yazidis. whose recent persecuation by the Islamic State made headlines, follow “an esoteric religion that has superficial similarities to Islam but is very different from it. . . .  Yazidis believe in reincarnation, sacrifice bulls, and revere an angel who takes the form of the peacock.”

But they have also been frequently accused of “devil-worship,” with predictably bloody results. They might have a root in the ancient worship of Mithras, whose cult was important in imperial Rome as well, brought home by legionaires who served in the Middle East.

He briefly visits some Alawite Muslims too, “technically Shi’a  [but with] as little in common with orthodox Shi’a as Unitarians . . . with evangelical Protestants,” who may share a religious lineage with the ancient inhabitants of the city of Harran, who themselves long kept up a sort of Neoplatonism by convincing their Arab conquerors that they were somehow “people of the book,” i.e., fellow monotheists.1)The Alawites are secretive about their doctrines, he adds, and because Syrian President Assad is one, he did not ask many questions.

Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient Persian religion, hang on in small numbers, celebrating the winter solstice with watermelons and pomegranates. (Their way has enjoyed a small revival lately among the Kurds, who were part of the Persian empire.) They gave us the word “magic.”  And they like dogs better than cats, as their scripture tells them:

“When passing to the other world, the soul of a person who has hit a dog “shall fly howling louder and more sorely grieved than the sheep does in the lofty forest when the wolf ranges.” A man who kills a dog is required by the Avesta to perfomr a list of penances eighteen lines long. One of the penances is to kill a thousand cats. Because Muslims preferred cats over dogs, which they think of as uncean, disputes over the treatment of dogs often led to fights between Zoroastrians and Muslims.

(Can’t we be ecumenical here?)

The few hundred Samaritans, living in Israel and Palestine, were the Hebrews who never accepted the consolidation of the cult of YWHW, with Jerusalem the only official temple site. Like the Druze, they marry only within their own group. The Druze themselves, Russell suggests, carry on some of the teaching of Pythagoras and Hermes Trismegistus — but living in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, have often formed their own armed factions in the region’s wars.

Until the 19th century, meanwhile, a few indigenous Pagan tribues lingered in “Kafirstan”2)meaning Land of Unbelivers/Polytheists (now Nuristan), a mountainous region at the northern edge of British India. They were freedom-loving, warlike, and prone to raids and blood-feuds. In 1895, the Muslim amir of Kabul, whose troops had guns, conquered most of them.

In the 1950s, the British travel writer Eric Newby was shown a stone red with the blood of those who chose execution [over conversion to Islam.

One group the “Iron Amir’s” troops missed was the Kalasha, numbering just a few thousand, celebrating their festivals, worshipping their gods, and being less obssessive about sexual control than their Muslim neighbors — for instance, women can request a divorce without penalty and walk around with their faces unveiled. That freedom influences a sort of Pakistani sex-tourism, however:

I was told that the summer festival attracted many Pakistani tourists who were as intrigued as those from Greece or countries even further afield . . . some came with the wrong idea: they expected that because Kalasha women did not wear veils and were not Muslims, they would be available for sex. [A Kalasha prohibition on sex during the festival] does not stop prostitutes from coming from other parts of Pakistan to exploit the legend by dressing as Kalasha women, though, trading on this desire for the exotic.

There is a special connection between the Kalashas and the Greeks — maybe — it has at least led to some privately funded Greek foreign aid.

Many of these groups, who survived by living in remote places or by making accomodations with Islamic rulers, now are being ground between fundamentalist Islam and increasing bureaucratic efficiency of nation-states. Consequently, many have left: Chaldean, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians in particular are fleeing.

As late as the 1990s there were still 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Now . . . probably only a third of that number remain, or even fewer.

Druze and Mandaeans live in Boston; Yazidis, as mentioned, have congregated in Lincoln, Neb., and some other places. But the negative propaganda follows them:

The one thing that upset the family about American culture was the way their religion was represented. Abu Shihad said he had heard a CNN reporter describe the Yazidis as “the most hideous religion in the world.” I found this hard to believe, but he was very sure he had heard it.

The tragedy, Russell suggests, is that since many of these groups have been keeping their doctrines secret and marrying only in-group according to complicated rules for so long,  once transplanted to North America they find it impossible to carry on as before.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The Alawites are secretive about their doctrines, he adds, and because Syrian President Assad is one, he did not ask many questions.
2. meaning Land of Unbelivers/Polytheists

More Links — Hand-Forged Ones At That

Utility seax from Fay’s Forge

• At Fay’s Forge you may buy “knives, swords, and do castings from the Celtic, migration, Anglo Saxon, and Norse cultures.” Support your local shieldmaiden.

Probably it would be more accurate to say that the planned Black Mass terrifies some Christians in Oklahoma. And before you dump on Oklahoma, remember that Harvard University backed down from a similar proposal!

• I have ordered this book: Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

With Daesh slaughtering and enslaving Yezidis and Mandeans, etc., “disappearing” may not be an exaggeration. As a long review in The Revealer asks,

Will the funeral pyres of the Zoroastrians still alight the dusks of Iran and India? Will the Copts still maintain the well where Mary and Joseph quenched Jesus’ thirst upon the flight into Egypt? Will the Samaritans still smear the blood of the lamb upon their lintels as their ancestors in bondage did? Will the wooden idols of the Kalasha look out at the unforgiving and cragged landscape of the Kush? What of the Yazidis who believe that God is so benevolent that even the devil can be saved? Or the Mandaeans who whisper secrets in the language of the Magi and the Chaldean wizards?

A Top Nazi’s Library, “Violent” Heathens, and a Middle Eastern “Old Religion”

himmler and hitler

Heinrich Himmler (front, leather coat) chats with der Führer.

According to the Daily Mail (dial skepticism appropriately) a collection of occult books1)Hans Thomas Hakl probably has more than Himmer did—but no castle. owned by Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler has been found in the Czech Republic.

The bulk of the collection was called the ‘Witches Library’ and concentrated on witches and their persecution in medieval Germany.

One of Himmler’s quack theories was that the Roman Catholic Church tried to destroy the German race through witch hunts.

UPDATE, March 31, 2016: The Wild Hunt reports that the news story quoted above resulted from a misunderstanding, and that there were no “occult books,” just some Masonic books.

• At Religion Dispatches, thoughts on how the History Channel series The Vikings both “subverts and supports the violent heathen trope” (my italics).

In one scene, the Christian Prince Aethelwulf, who earlier in the series said that “it is just not possible to imagine a world in which there is both one god and several,” unleashed genocidal fury on a settlement of unarmed, pagan [sic], Viking2)“Viking” is a job description, not an ethnicity. “Norse” would be a better choice. farmers who had been promised protection by the king. Yet,3)No comma needed after an introductory conjunction. So stop it! the show includes vestiges of the violent heathen trope that’s been a staple of how dominant religious groups have portrayed minority religious groups throughout history.

• According to this article, some Kurds, who are various in conflict with Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Iranians, are going back to the Old Religion, that of Zoroaster. (It has hung in some places all these centuries since the Arab Muslims rolled over Persia in the 8th century.)

The small, ancient religion of Zoroastrianism is being revived in northern Iraq. Followers say locals should join because it’s a truly Kurdish belief. Others say the revival is a reaction to extremist Islam.

One of the smallest and oldest religions in the world is experiencing a revival in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The religion has deep Kurdish roots – it was founded by Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, who was born in the Kurdish part of Iran and the religion’s sacred book, the Avesta, was written in an ancient language from which the Kurdish language derives. However this century it is estimated that there are only around 190,000 believers in the world – as Islam became the dominant religion in the region during the 7th century, Zoroastrianism more or less disappeared.

So does this count as a “Native Faith” movement, like Rodnoverie, etc., but not polytheistic?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Hans Thomas Hakl probably has more than Himmer did—but no castle.
2. “Viking” is a job description, not an ethnicity. “Norse” would be a better choice.
3. No comma needed after an introductory conjunction. So stop it!

Singing about “The” Flood, in the Original Sumerian


For the back story on the video, go here: “‘The Flood’, A Haunting New Album Bringing Ancient Sumerian and Babylonian Language and Music Back to Life

Not all attempts to re-create old music work well. Some are of interest only to scholars. This one works, I think — see if you agree.

Pagan Superheroes Cut Down Forest, Regret It Later

A newly discovered piece of the epic of Gilgamesh includes a sort of ecological theme. It’s in a museum in Kurdish territory—another reason why they need their own country.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest narratives in the world, got a surprise update last month when the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq announced that it had discovered 20 new lines of the Babylonian-Era poem of gods, mortals, and monsters. Since the poem has existed in fragments since the 18th century BC, there has always been the possibility that more would turn up. And yet the version we’re familiar with — the one discovered in 1853 in Nineveh — hasn’t changed very much over recent decades. The text remained fairly fixed — that is, until the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and the intense looting that followed yielded something new.

Read the rest.

New Paintings Found in Petra

Detail of a winged child playing the flute, before and after cleaning. Photograph: Courtesy of the Courtauld Institute

Detail of a winged child playing the flute, before and after cleaning. Photograph: Courtesy of the Courtauld Institute

Some exceptional paintings from the Hellenistic era have been found at the ancient city of Petra.

Virtually no Hellenistic paintings survive today, and fragments only hint at antiquity’s lost masterpieces, while revealing little about their colours and composition, so the revelation of these wall paintings in Jordan is all the more significant. They were created by the Nabataeans, who traded extensively with the Greek, Roman and Egyptian empires and whose dominion once stretched from Damascus to the Red Sea, and from Sinai to the Arabian desert.

They are full of flowers, insects, and human figures, all of which qualifies as “idolatry” to the fanatical Muslims, so let’s hope that the Islamic State does not roll over Jordan at any time.

Responding to Attacks on Pagan Shrines

_85298986_palmyra_before_after_624On the 20th of August, I posted about “Khalid al-Asaad and the War on Pagan Idolatry.” He was the Syrian archaeologist beheaded by the Muslim fanatics of the Islamic State, their reward for his devoting his professional life to preserving and studying the ancient (and Pagan) city of Palmyra.

On the first of September, the BBC displayed before-and-after satellite images of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. Now you see it, now you don’t.

Responding to the Islamic State’s campaign of destruction against Pagan holy sites, blogger Galina Kraskova writes,

We are horrified, and rightly so, by the human rights violations this filth commits, but we should be equally horrified, if not more so, by the destruction of ancient spaces and places of worship. The destruction of a place like Palmyra, isn’t just the destruction of an ancient building, it’s an attack on the future and what it might be, what it can become. It’s a severing of any link with a pre-Islamic past, and likewise a severing of possibilities for the future. In blowing up the Temple of Ba’al Shamin and the Temple of Bel, they’re damning future generations and that is an attack far more long lasting in its impact, than simply the loss, however grievous it might be, of an antique site.

She offers some suggestions about what to do, both on the “outer” and the “inner” planes, and warns that militant monotheism comes in various disguies (let us not forget the non-theistic mono-ideologies as well).

And for background on Ba’al Shamin and Bel, see this post by Tess Dawson.

If there is a blessing to be gathered out of the ashes of the wanton acts of evil Daesh [the Islamic State] has done here, it is that polytheists are gathering together, protesting in solidarity. I hope and I pray that for every temple they threaten, and for every mine they plant in these dusty, dry, decaying ruins, seven more living, new shrines or temples will spring up. As great as our fury is, we may feel drawn to hurl curses upon the heads of those who would threaten these sacred places. I do not say “do not curse them”—by all means, if you feel moved to do so, be my guest—but I firmly think that there are more important things that need doing first and foremost.

Read the rest. These horrid actions should remind us that if IS could get us, they would treat us contemporary Pagans just the way that they treated the Yezidis.

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.

‘She wanted to come to America and eat bacon’

Cara Schulz has written a tribute to Yana, a young Syrian Pagan woman (yes, there are a few) tortured and killed by Islamic militants.

Trying to make something positive of this sickening story, she has created a donation page for the group Doctors Without Borders in Yana’s name.  You can read the whole story there. I donated, you should too. The campaign has almost reached its goal.

Oh, and Yana’s brother, you will pay in another currency. So much for Syrian family values.

“Sheikhs against shakes”


Nine years ago I wrote a post about Islamist reaction against popular Middle Eastern singers such as Haifa Wehbe. For some reason, I kept working in references to Sappho.

The process continues. Now a court in the new, improved Islamist Egypt has ordered al-Tet, a television channel devoted to belly dancing, shut down.

The channel was also accused of airing advertisements that “arouse viewers,” sell sexual-enhancement products and promote matchmaking, according to the court’s statement.

According to [Baleegh] Hamdy, the court ruling was not based on accurate evidence. “The judge was supposed to check the facts present in the lawyer’s allegations.”

There is not much the court can do about the the owners’ YouTube channel, however.