¶ “The Three/Four Souls and Their Afterlives.” Heather at Eaarth Animist looks at different traditional accounts to learn what might explain her own experiences: “It has baffled many Western anthropologists how a studied people can talk about a dead person being reincarnated in a child and also being an ancestor. The problem comes from the anthropologist’s own Christian idea of one soul.”
¶ Scholar of esotericism Wouter Hanegraaf from the University of Amstersdam discovers a solid book on idolatry as a category within monotheistic religions: “One searches practically in vain for authoritative monographs about the notion of idolatry and its significance in monotheist religions generally.” There are some contemporary scholars of Paganism working on that area too, but maybe not enough.
Things Fall Apart, by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, published in 1958, is often labeled as the “archetypal modern African novel.” Set in the 1890s, at the beginning of British colonial rule, its protagonist is a hard-driving Igboyam farmer, warrior, and village leader named Okonkwo, who hold himself, his wives, and his children to high standards of hard work and respect for ancestral traditions.
Things Fall Apart was always on my list of Classics I Should Read Some Day, and two weeks ago, facing a 1,000-mile drive, I checked out the audio book from the library. Having cleared the urban areas of Colorado Springs and Denver and entered the High Plains on Interstate 76, I slipped the first CD into the player.
Somewhere in South Dakota I finished it. And I connected it with a a book that I had been reading in September, Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome.
Achebe is writing historical fiction about villagers confronted (in the last fourth of the book) by the British colonial apparatus and Anglican missionaries. Cameron is examining the persistent idea that there was a self-consciously Pagan resistance in the Western Roman Empire during the 4th century to imperial Christianity — this a generation or two after the last Pagan emperor, Julian (who would have called himself a “Hellene”), failed in his attempt to decouple Christianity from the power of the empire.
Achebe’s characters are fictional subsistence farmers. Cameron looks at the writing and actions of upper-class Romans 1,600 years earlier, mostly men whose birth and wealth entitled them to a seat in the Roman Senate, even though little power came with the job — the power by then was centered far away in Constantinople.
It is indeed widely believed that a largely pagan [sic] aristocracy remained a powerful and active force well into the fifth century, sponsoring pagan literary circles, patronage of the classics, and propaganda for the old cults in art and literature. The main focus of much modern scholarship on the end of paganism in the West has been on its supposed stubborn resistance to Christianity. The dismantling of this romantic myth is one of the main goals of Alan Cameron’s book. Actually, the book argues, Western paganism petered out much earlier and more rapidly than hitherto assumed.
Cameron argues in fine-grained detail that there was no such stubborn resistance based on a clash of theologies. To these high-class Romans, the “old religion” was largely about social position and tradition. To be named to a college of priests was a social honor, perhaps like being invited to serve on the board of directors of a symphony orchestra. (Something similar happened on a smaller scale in Okonkwo’s village.) When they were able to keep their social position (and their copies of the Iliad) while accepting Christianity, they did so.
Likewise, in Things Fall Apart, as the Christian missionaries begin to attract more and more converts, and those converts attack the traditional religion, such as by killing a sacred python in a village shrine, someone asks one of the elders why they don’t fight back.
“It is not our custom to fight for our gods,” said one of them. “Let us not presume to do so now. If a man kills the python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and the god. We did not see it. If we put ourselves between the god and his victim we may receive blows intended for the offender. When a man blasphemes, what do we do? Do we go and stop his mouth? No. We put our fingers into our ears to stop us from hearing. That is a wise action.”
And when one group, including Okonkwo, does burn the missionaries’ church, they are punished by the colonial authorities, which breaks their resolve. The disruption of the structure of traditional authority and the disruption of traditional religion go hand in hand.
I am left with some thoughts:
• Whereas the Emperor Julian understood that Hellenic religion, literature, and philosophy were all interrelated and strove to keep that cosmos in place, the glue was looser in the Western Empire.
In their world, confronted by one British district commissioner, his African policemen, and a missionary or two, the Igbo people did not understand the scale of what was happening.
• Most people do not fight over theology anyway. Theology is often just a group marker, “us versus them.” The theological claims themselves are secondary. People fight for their group more than “for the gods,” perhaps.
• People will change religion for a variety of reasons—to get along with a spouse’s family, to gain or to retain their social status (the Roman senatorial class), or to avoid having their heads chopped off (anyone confronted with Islamic expansionism).
• An “organic” Pagan society is the dream of many, but as Things Fall Apart illustrates, such a society can be transformed within one generation.
• I do, of course, consider both the traditional Igbo and the fourth-century Romans to be Pagan, using the term as we now define it. There is no other choice when “traditional religion goes global” either, as the recent New York Times piece about a West African traditional priest working in New York City described. When geographical and cultural boundaries are crossed, we need a “global” descriptor.
• Can we construct a theology — or is it part of Pagan theology today — to say that the gods fight their own battles?
The real-estate supplement of the Taos News this week carried an article titled “Five Must-Haves for a Beautiful Backyard.” Oddly enough, four of the five items* were available at the store owned by a person interviewed for the story.
“Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is one of our most popular statues,” said Char Austin, who works at Camino Real Imports. “People like the air of serenity that he brings in, more so when the statue is surrounded by trees, and birds can nest around. El San Francisco definitely contributes to create a peaceful environment.”
The real St. Francis of Assisi was anything but serene. He was more like “Occupy Rome” AD 1204 — an upper middle class young man angry at the establishment, demanding radical change in the Roman Catholic Church. But history has turned him into a bird bath — and perhaps that metamorphosis was inevitable.
St. Francis as a bird bath, with the wolf of Gubbio.
Growing up as a Forest Service brat, with an agnostic father and a devoutly Christian mother, I noticed that Christianity seemed to end at the edge of town. Relations with the other-than-human world were not discussed in church. The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer contained a prayer for rain, as I recall, and that was about all.
For the rest, I was offered the secular gospel of conservation: scientific forestry, soil and water conservation, state-regulated hunting. At least that was better than what had gone before: cut-and-run timber cutting, market-hunting that wiped out species, the Dust Bowl . . .
Pope Innocent III has a dream of St. Francis of Assisi supporting the tilting church (attributed to Giotto). Francis was more concerned with church reform than with nature itself. (Wikipedia.)
His Franciscan order grew to where it too was a bureaucratic organization, and some of the monks who clung too hard to Francis’ peace-and-poverty ideals (the “Spirituals”) ended up condemned as heretics. (The conflict between hard-core Franciscans and the Vatican appears briefly at the beginning of The Name of the Rose. Most viewers probably don’t get it.)
Yes, he wrote the “Canticle of the Sun,” in which all creation, including animals, the Sun and Moon, etc., is invited to praise God and is depicted as manifesting the divine. And he supposedly preached to birds — but he preferred to preach to people, even to the Muslim sultan of Egypt, who was enough of a sporting gent to let him live. In the story of the “wolf of Gubbio,” he saves the wolf from persecution by the local pastoralists, but at the price of giving up its wolf-ness. There is nothing in the canticle about the ecological role of predators.
Fast forward to 1967, when the journal Science published an essay by the historian Lynn White, Jr., “The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” (PDF), still widely read and anthologized today. In it, White blamed the crisis on the dualistic creator/created thinking fostered by the monotheistic religions, among which he included Communism, given the environmental crises created by Communist Party policies in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe:
Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy.
Casting about for an alternative to the “domination” model within the Christian tradition, White settled (rather half-heartedly, I always thought) on Francis, even though Francis’ view of non-human nature was thoroughly Catholic. To quote the Wikipedia entry, Francis taught “that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of the primordial sin of man.” Contrary to the slide show linked above, this is not particularly “closer to Eastern philosophy.”
With the environmental movement growing, religious officialdom had to respond. Some Protestant Christians started talking “eco-justice,” while in 1979, Pope John Paul II named Francis “patron of ecology,” urging Catholics to be like Francis and take care of nature. Francis, said the pope, “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation” — as long as we understand that it is human-centric and required to praise God the creator, who is outside of creation, for letting it exist.
Of the hundreds of officially canonized saints, Francis was the only candidate for patron of ecology, even though the Vatican had squeezed all the radical ideas out of the Franciscan order within a century of his death.
We could see Bird Bath Francis as an attempt to bridge these traditions, to consecrate a safe, protected, and cultivated nature — if not the self-organizing wolf-ridden wilderness. Followers of what Bron Taylor calls “dark green religion,” which may not be at all theistic, might not be so easily persuaded by the monk of Assisi, were they to meet him on the path.
*Wood carvings of saints, giant metal flowers, concrete animals, small water fountain, and ceramic Sun and Moon faces
The trouble with most of the “early music” groups that I have heard is that they take stuff originally played by drunken peasants (setting aside Christian church music) and make it sound like it is played by anorexic graduate students.
In this case, however, no one knows what ancient Roman music sounded like. They have the instruments and knowledge of ancient modes — and the rest is just conjectural.
But I still think they all need to slam back some of the good Falernian wine and then play.
The Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity (NSEA) is happy to announce our new website. With continually-updated online resources news, and conference announcements, AncientEsotericism.org is intended to be a one-stop location for scholars and students of the field.
What is esotericism in antiquity? This is a broad term that governs the use of secrecy, concealment, and revelation to talk about the really important stuff—from the true identity of the creator of the cosmos (Gnosticism) to the keys to the heavenly palaces (Hekhalot literature) to how to talk about the indescribable One (Neoplatonic mysticism), etc. So if the subject involves arcana celestial and subterrestrial, it’s ancient esotericism. Scholars in various disciplines have struggled to describe a spike in “secret revelations” in Hellenistic and Late Antique religion (Hengel) or the trend towards mythology in the “Underworld of Platonism” (Dillon)—what all this diverse material has in common is an interest in secrecy and revelation for dealing with the divine, and a common reception-history in “esotericism” in the modern era, ranging from Renaissance Platonism to the New Age.
The website is intended provide a guide to the wonderful, but dizzying, online resources available for the study of this vast and difficult body of literature. My goal (in collaboration with Sarah Veale) was to create the website I would have died to see when I was an undergraduate and just starting to get excited about this material, but totally confused about how to go about studying it, what scholarship was already out there, and, most importantly, where to find the most useful primary sources and reference materials on the web. A lot of the resources gathered here will be familiar to you—but perhaps not to your students, or colleagues in an adjoining field, or a friend. So, if someone has come your way who is starting to get into Nag Hammadi, or Iamblichus, or the apocalypses, etc. and asks you for some guidance to what’s out there, please consider making this one of the links you pass on to them. We will do our best to make it worth your while.
We encourage those interested in these fields to submit calls for papers, workshop notices, conference announcements, and other pertinent news and resources for inclusion on the website. You can submit by email or through our online submissions form. Those wishing to get involved with NSEA are invited to contact us for more information.
With best wishes to you and yours,
Dylan M. Burns, University of Copenhagen
Coordinator, Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity
I have looked at the site, and it is large and comprehensive. Congratulations!