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.)