Sunday, 2 October 2011

Paganism: A Very Short Introduction - Part 1

I've been reading "Paganism: A Very Short Introduction" by Owen Davies, and he packs a huge amount in to 144 pages.

There's a lot of very interesting stuff on how Paganism was effectively wiped out in its old forms (Temples, trees, streams, animal sacrifice), and pressure from the political authorities. This was not in fact done by Constantine, who is often credited with that, but only imposed toleration for Christianity as a State supported religion, and made no political moves at all directed against Paganism.

Instead it was later Emperors like Theodosius (379-395) and Justinian I (527-585) who imposed laws against sacrifice of animals in the Temples, and other practices, making it increasingly difficult for Paganism to survive.  Tellingly, this led to a shift not among the lower classes but the upper echelons of Roman society. As Davies notes:

"It has been estimated that at the death of Theodosius, more than half the of the Roman population was still pagan. Still, for ambitious politicians and state functionaries, it was becoming amply clear that being pagan was increasingly unprofitable in career terms".

Pragmatism rather than belief was clearly a significant factor, with the richer members of society choosing Christianity as the best option for getting on, which shows us that the ancient world was not perhaps so different in terms of how some people behaved - when you look at people trying to get kids in Church schools.

Later, Pope Gregory's  policy was not to destroy Pagan temples, but to destroy idols within them, and put saint's relic's there for veneration instead, so one can see how the practices of Paganism became replaced with a Christian substitute that largely satisfied the emotional needs of the general peoples, and led to assimilation, with the Temples largely not being destroyed, but simply falling into decay because they were no longer the centre of people's lives.

But old practices continued, with (for example) thousands of 5th and 6th century lamps found in caves in Attica, dedicated to Apollo. Of course, like practices today such as not walking under ladders, this may have not been a conflict, but ordinary people keeping options open.

It was really in the time of Charlemagne, however, that we see a brutal regime, especially against Saxon pagans (c772 onwards) where he instituted the harsh "Capitulatio de Partibus Laws". Sacrifice to idols, failure to keep the Lenten fast, cremation of the dead, or rejection of baptism - these all now had the death penalty! Punishment was also ordered for witches, soothsayers, magicians. "Summary executions of resistant pagans apparently took place, a policy that disturbed some churchmen", as Davies notes.

It is clear that Charlemagne used Christianity for political ends, for forcing subservience, in probably a more forceful and brutal fashion than even some of the later Roman Emperors. Christianity and Frankish aggression went hand in hand, one being used a justification for the other, an unholy alliance that would be repeated in the Crusades, and even recently in George W Bush's use of Biblical language to describe the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

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