Julian interviewed me in June, and I wanted to be outside so that I could have a supporting cast of broad-tailed hummingbirds. They don’t show up too well though, and there was glare in a face. . . oh well.
The mid-6th century must have been a terrible time in the Mediterranean world, in Western Europe, and probably other places as well.
If you look up “the plague of Justinian,” you will find that much has been written on a bubonic plague outbreak during the rule of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian, peaking around 540–541 CE. Apparently that is part of a larger disaster that started around 536.
I was introduced to Catastrophe by my friend and mentor, the English witch Evan John Jones, who had bought it shortly before I visited him in Brighton, and I stayed up late a couple nights speed-reading it after he and Val, his wife, had long gone to bed.
All that concatenation of volcanic eruption-plague-and climate change was brought back to mind by this article, “The Long, Harsh Fimbul Winter is not a Myth,” subtitled, “Probably half of Norway and Sweden’s population died. Researchers now know more and more about the catastrophic year of 536.”
Reconstructed Bronze Age house in Norway, typical of houses built up until 536 CE (Wikimedia Commons).
In essence, massive short-term climate changes slammed Scandinavia, northern Germany, and the Baltic region in the 530s, leading to abandonment of farms and settlements and the projected deaths of up to half of the peoples there.
“First came the Fimbul winter that lasted three years. This was a warning of the coming of Ragnarok, when everything living on Earth came to an end.”
This is how the story of the long harsh winter, called the Fimbul winter in Norwegian, begins, both in Norse mythology and in the Finnish national work of epic poetry, the Kalevala.
But why are stories that warn of a frozen end-time found in Nordic mythologies?
* * *
[Swedish archaeologist Bo] Gräslund was first to suggest that the Fimbul winter was a real event, and that it took place in the years after 536. He also pointed out that the 13th century Icelandic historian Snorre in his book Edda was not only concerned that it was very cold and the winters were snowy — Snorre was also concerned because there were no summers for several years in a row.
Whereas David Keys looks toward a volcano in Indonesia as the culprit, the Scandinavians are suspecting an eruption in Central America or Mexico:
“This must have happened somewhere near the Equator. Maybe it was El Chichón volcano in southern Mexico,” [climate scientist Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist] said.
The tiny particles from the two volcanic eruptions remained in the atmosphere for several years, leading to strong cooling in the northern hemisphere. Ljungqvist points out that there are now a number of studies of annual rings in old trees that confirm this.
He points out that the cumulative effect of two huge volcanic eruptions in the years 536 and 540 was what made this cooling quite exceptional and very long lasting.
The archaeological evidence is chilling, no pun intended:
In Denmark, archaeologist Morten Axboe found that large quantities of gold and other precious metal jewellery were sacrificed right after the climate shock.
Axboe’s theory is that these sacrifices were actions of desperate people. They sought to mollify higher powers and asked them to bring the sun back into the sky.
* * *
In Rogaland and the surrounding areas, until the disaster 1500 years ago, there were many skilled goldsmiths.
Both they and their craft disappeared.
The same thing happened to the many talented potters who had lived in western Norway before the Merovingian Period, from Jæren in the south to Sogn in the north.
It would take another thousand years before equally fine pottery was made in Norway.
You can’t blame people for thinking that this was The End, or at least a good preview of what The End would look like.
I received word from Amazon that the newest version of my FREE educational Alexa skill, “Caesar’s Ancient World” has been certified. This latest version of the skill includes 280 images of ancient art from almost 100 institutions worldwide for those of you with Alexa-enabled devices with displays like the Echo Show, Echo Spot and FireTV. Of course the voice-only version remains available for those with regular Echos or Echo Dots.
I have redesigned the interface so you can now just ask Caesar what you would like to talk about and he will reply with narrative including sound effects. You can say things like “I want to know more about chariot racing” or “Tell me more about your greatest victory” or “I’m interested in gladiators”. If you can’t think of anything just say “I don’t know” or “I can’t think of anything” and he’ll suggest a topic!
I read an alternative-history novel now and then,1)Robert Harris’ Fatherland remains an all-time favorite. especially those in which the Pagans triumph. For instance, John M. Ford created a 15th-century world, Dragon Waiting: A Masque of History, in which Julian the Philosopher, the last Pagan emperor, did put on his armor before that skirmish with the Persians, and, consequently, made possible a Pagan empire centered on Byzantium — not that they are necessarily the good guys to Western Europeans.2)Bonus: fans of Richard III of England will like this one a lot. There are also vampires.
Another book that I have ordered is The Kingdom of the Wicked, Book One: Rules by Helen Dale, an Australian writer who is also a lawyer and one-time Classics scholar. In an review essay titled “Return of the Pagans,” she writes,3)Law & Liberty describes itself as focused “on the classical liberal tradition of law and political thought and how it shapes a society of free and responsible persons.”
Kingdom of the Wicked is a work of speculative fiction. It takes place in a Roman Empire that’s undergone an industrial revolution. My initial academic training was in classics (I became a lawyer later to pay the bills), so I’m well aware pagan Rome had different cultural values from those now present in the modern, industrialized West.
She says of herself that she “lacks a religious orientation.”
This serves to explain [my] mystification at adherents of both immanent and transcendent religions. We classical liberals really do spend a lot of time asking, “I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” In doing so we forget how rare we are in the population. Minding other people’s morality is deeply human. It turns up everywhere, a cosmic homeopathic joke with only memories of being funny.
The first half of Pagans & Christians in the City is given over to comparative religion. Smith outlines the underlying logic of Roman paganism and emergent (Catholic) Christianity and draws out similarities and differences. He discusses how paganism locates the sacred within the world — it’s an immanent religiosity whereby the divine emerges from the natural environment. Christianity and Islam, by contrast, are instances of transcendent religiosity — they place what is most sacred outside the world, in part because God made the world.
While classicists and scholars of comparative religion appreciate this distinction, it’s not widely known otherwise. For my sins I once spent a couple of years tutoring Latin, losing track of students’ pleading enquiries about what Romans actually believed. That I resorted to suggestions like “read Ovid’s Metamorphoses while stoned” or “go to Japan and get a priest or priestess to explain the significance of The Great Ise Shrine” gives a sense of the magnitude of Smith’s achievement. Without once falling back on theologically similar Shinto (which I’ve pillaged as a novelist and teacher of classics), he takes Roman paganism seriously as a religious tradition on its own terms and renders it real and alive.
In the second half of Pagans & Christians in the City, Smith sets out a bold claim. In short, he argues that paganism never went away. The immanent orientation to the sacred it advances is not only in direct competition with Christian transcendence, but competition between the two orientations continues today — it manifests in the US as “culture wars” — because a number of progressive values comport readily with pagan conceptions of the sacred. This is particularly so when it comes to sex and sexuality. To take two of Smith’s case studies among many: modern liberal democracies have simply abandoned the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim view of same-sex attraction and abortion and substituted the pagan Roman view wholesale.
Where this leads includes a discussion of what happens when monotheism goes wrong: “bigotry, misogyny, vandalism, and what amounts to a war on human sexuality” contrasted with the other extreme: “If, however, you’re one of those fashionable humanists for whom Roman civil religion and civic nationalism seem sophisticated and high-minded, you will learn how those fine ideals were drenched in blood — both animal and human — and the extent to which Roman sexual liberality was founded on terrifying exploitation of slaves and (sometimes) non-citizens.”
Again we have the argument that environmentalism functions as a substitute immanent religion, a theme familiar both to some religion scholars and to some Christian preachers.
So “the Pagans” here are not contemporary religious Pagans, be they Heathens or Hellenic reconstructionists. But they are a broadly drawn collection of people whose values might well match with those of many or most Wiccans, etc. etc. And these values are in sometimes violent conflict with the “transcendental” values, even when the conflict is cast in secular terms.
When times were good, the dockworkers of Portus, the maritime port of Imperial Rome, enjoyed a surprisingly diversified diet. But new analysis of ancient animal and human remains — detailed in the journal Antiquity this week — suggests the diets of the city’s working class shifted as Rome fell into decline.
True, I am sure. But the article does not mention the fact that dockworkers historically skimmed off cargo, so I suspect that when “the dockworkers of Portus ate diversified diets featuring animal proteins, imported wheat, olive oil, fish sauce and wine from North Africa,” they were helping themselves to cargo.1)The invention of the “Conex box” and subsequent larger shipping containers certainly reduced casual theft of cargo, but no system is perfect.
As the union dockworker says in the classic movie On the Waterfront (1954), “One thing you’ve got to understand, Father, on the dock we’ve always been ‘D and D.'”
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.
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.
We arrived in Corfu late in the evening of the 12th of September and had about fifteen minutes of worry when the agent of the apartment’s owner was not present to meet us at the airport, as promised. And I had neglected to get his number!
But I did have the number for Yannis, the owner, who lives in Athens, and I called him. He promised to call Nikos, the agent. Soon he called back to say that Nikos had car problems but would soon be in touch, which he was. Before too long Nikos arrived — on a Vespa — got us a taxi, and we were off.
He showed us the apartment, gave us the keys, and said that he would be back inthe late morning to collect the rent (assuming we liked the place — which we did) and give us a quick tour of the neighborhood.
“At home” at last, but too jittery to sleep, we took a walk through part of Corfu’s old town, quickly locating Sasha Chaitow’s Icon Gallery, where something was waiting for me.
She sent a preliminary sketch. We went back and forth by email — laurel wreath or imperial diadem? — and so on.
It came from a sort of a quickly fantasized alternative history, one in which Julian had not died in that cavalry skirmish with the Persians in 363 CE in what is now northern Iraq, but had lived and had succeeded in his quest to re-institute and reform the old Pagan practices, and become venerated after his death.
That’s my alternative history, and I’m sticking to it. The day after I arrived in Corfu, I was holding it in my hands. Now it hangs on the study wall, glowing.
Sasha holds an MA in Western esotericism from the University of Exeter and a PhD in myth and literature from the University of Essex, as well as being an accomplished painter. She takes commissions, and you can contact her through the gallery website, Facebook,Academia.edu, or LinkedIn.