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.
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.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”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.
Take the outdoor funeral for an 86-year-old man surnamed Huang in central China’s Henan province in December 2012. A woman in a short, white skirt and halter top pulls a mourner on stage and begins to undress him, while periodically peeling off a piece of her own clothing.
I learned that cow dung cakes can now be ordered on the Indian Amazon website. Out of curiosity, I ordered 6 pieces. It cost me 236 rupees, about $4. I called the local office of Amazon and spoke to Jaideep, who was very courteous and happy to answer my questions.
Some of the links that I saved that never turned into blog posts . . .
• The Internet loves quizes, so “What Kind of Witch Would You Be?” (answer: hearth witch). I always suspect that the answer is based on just one question, while the others are there just for fluff and decoration.
This is, indeed, one of the roots of many problems in modern polytheism – people being unwilling to wait and let things naturally evolve. My biggest concern here isn’t the specific examples of mis-assignment (though they do exist, and are indicative of a serious lack of understanding in some cases). It is the fact that these folks are sitting around trying to artificially assign gods to places and things as if it’s just a game, or at best an intellectual exercise.
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.
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.
From the abstract to Robert A. Saunder’s paper “Primetime Paganism: Popular-Culture Representations of Europhilic Polytheism in Game of Thrones and Vikings,” reprinted at Medievalists.net, in which he argues two points:
First, that traditional filmic treatments of pagans [sic] qua villains is shifting, with contemporary popular culture allowing for more nuanced framing of Western forms of polytheism. Secondly, that such popular-culture representations of paganism have direct impact on certain contemporary Pagans’ personal spiritual paths by promoting and influencing the “invention of tradition” among a population which manifests non-traditional religious identities.
There was some discussion last week at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting as to whether the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group should sponsor or co-sponsor a session devoted to issues surrounding animal sacrifice.
Some voices in the Pagan world suggest that you are not really a “hard” polytheist (truly understanding the gods as independent beings) unless you do it or at least accept its feasibility. Certainly it was a chief feature of civic Paganism in the ancient Mediterranean world. For many people, probably their chief or only opportunity to eat red meat was in the context of communal sacrifice.
The presenter rather made it sound as though we Pagans were all in the wilderness (no elders?!) until Margot brought us out, but then, as you pointed out in milder language, one thing that Margot did was make Wicca, etc., a bit more respectable to the chattering classes of the Northeast by being something that they recognized: a politically pink, secular-seeming Jewish intellectual, descendent of a famous psychoanalyst, thus easily penetrating their particular bulwarks of snobbery — not someone from Flyover Country or the wrong sort of foreigner.
Drawing Down the Moon was the third or fourth “I go among the witches” book of the era, following on Hans Holzer’s The New Pagans, Susan Roberts’ Witches USA, etc. and hitting some of the same locales, but it was far, far better and deeper, and I agree that it did give contemporary Paganism a bit of intellectual ballast.
Taking Christianity as the exemplar of religion skews philosophical discussion towards attempts to solve, resolve or dissolve difficult philosophical puzzles inherent in monotheism: problems about God’s powers, goodness and knowledge; attempts to provide rational arguments for God’s existence; the problem of evil; and so on. Hindu philosophers have traditionally been far more interested in a quite different array of problems, especially questions about the nature of religious knowledge and religious language, initially arising from their concerns with the Veda as a sacred eternal text and as a source of ritual and moral law.