Sunday, 9 October 2011

Paganism: A Very Short Introduction - Part 2

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

Regarding the term "pagan", which has become something of a contested term, as having origins as "country dweller". Davies notes that its meaning changes over time. It is clear that by the 5th century it was being used by Christians as a cultic term, which he notes was ironic, because while it carried overtones of rusticity - the yokel beliefs - it was mostly in the urban centres that the main resistance to Christianity lay. So it was being used as a term that was both description and derogatory, much as anthropologists like Frazer used the term "primitive".

What is remarkable in the later history is the extremely rapid way in which Paganism gave way to Christianity. When Rollo the Viking settled in Normandy, but was defeated at first by the Frankish King, Charles the Simple (879-929), he was granted control of Normandy (as a buffer zone) and part of the deal was to convert to Christianity, and he was duly baptised as Robert.

As was the custom, all his subjects converted as well. His son, William Longsword, was a devout Christian, and sealed the alliance by marrying a Frankish princess. What strikes me as so totally different from the way in which we frame belief is that changing from a Pagan system to a Christian system is done almost casually, as a political act, and then the subjects follow their leader, literally. But the assimilation, even at the top, is so rapid, that by one or two generations, Christianity is established in the practice and thought of the population, not just as following the leader, but as something believed by the next generations.

The downside is, of course, that the same kind of rapid assimilation seems to have happened with a lot of Christians later in lands that had been conquered by Islam. While there was freedom for them to practice their faith (as long as they didn't proselytise), the dhimmi status (2nd class citizen paying extra taxes) also led to fairly rapid assimilation of many of the peoples, as if you wanted to move up the social scale, you had to convert.

And, of course, both religions soon came to exercise a stronghold of power of the peoples who had converted. In Christianity, the strictures against deviance only emerged as an official force with the establishment of inquisitions from the 12th century onwards. Islam, by contrast, had built in strictures which mandated the death penalty for apostasy (and which are still in place today).

Looking across the oceans, in the Americas, there was a difference between the Catholic approach, in which the explorers and adventurers played into their status as demigods, and that of Francis Drake further north in North America, where he made it very clear to a local Chief that he was not a god, and not to be worshipped. Drake ordered that the Bible be read to the chiefs of the local Miwok tribe, and with gestures towards the sky, made it clear he was a man, and not a god. He was there to trade and treat with them, as another human being. Cortes, on the other hand, played the part of a god for all he could, and doesn't seem to have been much criticised by the Catholic church for that at the time.

The case of Scandinavian Paganism is interesting because we think we know a lot with texts about Odin, Loki and the Norse gods. In fact , this is not the case, as Davies points out. He notes that there is actually very little known about the ancient paganism there, because the Icelandic sagas (our principle source) were written between the 12th and 14th centuries, long after the Viking settlers of the 9th cent, and 200 years after the adoption of Christianity. "While the authors of most of the sagas and eddas draw no doubt upon oral stories, some of their work is clearly the product of poetic imagination".

So it is very difficult to determine what is oral story written down, how it has been altered (after all this was written down by Christian monks), and get behind that. The archeological evidence shows some evidence of a highly localised religion, based on animal sacrifices or blot; the stories suggest that these were done "to strengthen the gods and make them more predisposed to helping humanity". But the sagas depict indoor sacrifices in large halls, whereas the archeological evidence - in contradiction to that - suggests outdoor sacrifice in groves. Sites such as that at Froso suggests that animals were hung from a tree to represent Yggdrasil, the world tree associated with Odin.

There are some wonderful Viking names - Ivar the Boneless! certainly not spineless as we might interpret that, he came to England, and established himself by conquest as King of York. Wikipedia notes that:

‎"There is some disagreement as to the meaning of Ivar's epithet "the Boneless" (inn Beinlausi) in the sagas. Some have suggested it was a euphemism for impotence or even a snake metaphor (he had a brother named Snake-in-the-Eye). It may have referred to an incredible physical flexibility; Ivar was a renowned warrior, and perhaps this limberness gave rise to the popular notion that he was "boneless". The poem "Háttalykill inn forni" describes Ivar as being "without any bones at all"."

Unlike the older study of paganism, Davies stresses ambiguity, locality, and fieldwork in archeology. I hope that books like his will exorcise the baneful influence of writers like Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941) whose Golden Bough is still used as reliable by many people, although not in academia, where its flaws are all too apparent.

I read it a few times in the 1980s, and it struck me that the main problem is that Frazer tends to propounding relationships between phenomena that are in fact unrelated, and do so by taking selections which support his own case, ignoring those which do not.

Though Frazer was a pioneer in using anthropological data, his methodology was seriously flawed. Victorian anthropologists like him brought together supposedly similar customs of different peoples in different times and places without the slightest regard for their original social context, and without any notion of looking at fieldwork.

It is this method, for example, that allows Frazer to associate Celtic fire festivals with Scandinavian ones, and then, because his argument needs it, to assume conveniently that a practice found only in the former (tossing human images into the fires) must, at some point, have also occurred in the latter, and he presents this as fact, even though there is no evidence for it. He also overlooks the fact that while the Nordic fires occur in midsummer, as in the festival of Diana, the Celtic festival occurs only in the spring and fall. After a close look at such loosely made connections, we find ourselves asking what, apart from the mere co- incidence that there is fire in each, allows Frazer to connect these festivals at all.

It was this facility to group things with a very loose family resemblance that led Wittgenstein to ruthlessly expose the inadequate logic of Frazer's work. A modern example of the kind of approach to Frazer is found in "Pagan Channel Islands" where suppositions rapidly take on the status of fact, mainly to fit the author's thesis.

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