Why We Are Not Pagans
1. On the Feast of St. Nicholas
Just minutes after St. Nicholas was born, on December 6, he stood up on his own two feet in the basin where the midwives washed him, and completed the task himself. Then the babe grabbed a knife from the table and severed his own umbilical cord. Through the rest of his infancy he refused to nurse more than twice a week, and only ever on Wednesdays and Fridays. As Nicholas grew older he developed a sharp hatred of sin, and wept whenever he witnessed it. Having inherited a great wealth from his parents, he decided to fight sin through what you might today call “effective altruism”. When he overheard his neighbor announcing a plan to sell his two daughters into prostitution in order to lighten his debts, Nicholas contrived to throw a sack of gold coins through the neighbor’s window in the middle of the night (the sled and reindeer, we may imagine, are later accretions upon the legend). After a life of such good works, when he died in 313 AD, oil poured from his head, and water from his feet, and continued to pour for some centuries after that from the site of his burial, when such things as this still occurred.
In St. Nicholas’s day the pagan inhabitants of Myra, where he served as bishop, continued to practice their rites in the shade of a tree consecrated to Diana. Infuriated by the survival of idolatry under his watch, Nicholas had the tree felled. Angered in turn, Diana herself concocted a magical oil with the power to burn right through water and stone. She took the form of a nun, set out in a boat, and encountered on the waters a group of pilgrim-sailors on their way to meet Nicholas. She extended to them a vial, and said: “When you meet this holy man, consecrate the walls of his church with this oil”. But just as she handed it to them, Nicholas himself arrived in another boat, and said: “That woman is no nun, but the shameless Diana herself, and the oil she gave you is an unnatural potion. Throw it into the water and you will see.” And one of the pilgrims threw it into the water, and the water burst into flames, as when some centuries later the Greeks mixed naphtha and quicklime and cast it over the Bosporus Strait to incinerate the invading Ottomans — “liquid fire”, it was sometimes called, “Greek fire” at other times. When Diana’s oil hit the water, her boat and Nicholas’s both disappeared, and the pilgrims were left marveling at what they had seen.
In those days, Christian saints and pagan idols were still fighting it out like superheroes, at least if you believe Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century Genoese compendium of tales broadly drawn from late-antique Patristic hagiographies, and wildly embellished according to the tastes and sensibilities of the late Middle Ages. Bears, lions, and elephants line up in martial phalanges to protect the Christians they are supposed to devour for the Romans’ delight. The Devil contrives to tempt an adolescent into sin by stripping him naked, tying him on his back to the top of a giant lilypad, and sending a demoness in the form of a voluptuous woman to seduce him. But the boy, though bound hand and foot, is not completely unfree: he bites off his own tongue and spits it in the woman’s face, whereupon she returns to her usual ghastly form and vanishes. His subsequent life of silence is a testament to his piety.
2. In the Field
In the narrowest sense, a pagan is someone who worships in the pagus, which is to say the open countryside, a Latin root that also gives us “peasant” (in French the relationship remains clearer: paysan and païen respectively). To a great extent there is not just a shared etymology here, but a proper synonymy, especially evident when we consider the long, slow process of Christianization in peripheral regions such as the Baltics, or even in the rural areas of northern Italy as described by Carlo Ginzburg in his magisterial work on the benandanti of Friuli. Well into the sixteenth century, members of agrarian communities in Europe that had passingly adopted the outward forms of Christianity continued to transform themselves into wolves at night, to go riding through the sky on stalks of fennel, and in general —if we wish to describe it in terms that would make sense to the Inquisition— to sacrifice to false idols and to enter into pacts with the Devil.
“Heathen”, in turn, is really only the Germanic counterpart to “pagan”, coming from the same root that gives us the German Heide, which means both “pagan” but also “heath” or “meadow”. A heathen is someone who worships outside. In the primitive expressions of Christianity still idealized by some currents of Eastern Orthodoxy, by contrast, a church can be hewn out of rock, can be nothing more than a sliver of a cave, but it still must enclose the worshipper, must shut out the trees that might contain the spirit of Diana or of the ancestors of the Druids. Thus the Romanian Saint Theodora of Sihla lived for decades in a cave near Agapia, had only her long hair for raiment, and talked as an equal with the animals. The purest expressions of Christianity, it seems, sometimes bump right up against paganism. Theodora might indeed be taken for a witch, were it not for the fact that the dark interior of her cave, with the walls blackened after centuries of smoke from votive candles, has an ambience nearly indistinguishable from the interior, not so much chiaroscuro as “oscuroscuro”, of a typical Orthodox church. To worship in the heath or in the field by contrast, rather than in such an enclosure, is to risk allowing nature to become not just the setting of worship, but its object.
This then is the first of two elements that must be included in any attempt to narrow down what is meant by the very nebulous notion of paganism: it involves a particular disposition to the natural world, which from the beginning Christians were concerned to eradicate. We sometimes call this “animism”, and it is a central preoccupation of the early modern missionaries and the armchair philosophers in Europe back to whom ethnographic information from both the Indies began to trickle already by the end of the fifteenth century. Whether consciously or not, much of the work of early modern European philosophy itself is an effort to protect against the remnants of animism within European tradition — as for example when René Descartes insists that nature cannot “abhor a vacuum”, as the medievals had said, since nature can’t abhor anything, and to suppose otherwise is to lapse into the same spiritual disposition that makes the worship of trees, mountains, and streams seem reasonable.
Some early modern missionaries, notably the Jesuits, were considerably more flexible, adapting themselves to the realities they encountered in the field. By the eighteenth century, a deistic natural theology was for the most part perfectly salonfähig back home in Europe. This theology took trees and streams as the “works of God” rather than as gods themselves, but the very idea that these “works” were sufficient, without revelation, to bring us to certainty of God’s existence was already a compromise measure that had emerged gradually in response to the challenges of talking about God with peoples for whom the idea of divinity, or something like it, remained entirely coextensive with nature. In this respect the missionary project of the “first globalization” is itself both an expansion of Christianity and, at the same time, one of the key factors in the secularization of the territory we once thought of as “Christendom”.
3. “Spiritual but not religious”
Whatever your faith, it is not hard to agree that de Voragine’s legends are compelling indeed. From the Church Fathers until the Renaissance, the Christians managed to spread their influence in part thanks to a mastery of imaginative storytelling — they cornered the narrative market, a medieval Hollywood, under the reign of which tales of Diana or Thor or of the lifeways of the not-yet-converted could have little purchase. The pagans were barbarians and skraelings, they worshipped false idols, and were as sexually incontinent as dogs. There was nothing to learn from them.
With the beginning of the centuries-long process of secularization, we also see what Jean Seznec calls, in his work on Renaissance art and humanism, “the rebirth of the pagan gods”. It is certain that pre-Christian mythological subjects begin in the Renaissance to expand the range of accepted themes in figurative art beyond the repetitive crucifixions and Last Suppers of a few centuries earlier. Though as always we are left wondering, as in the propagation of any element of culture at all (Mickey Mouse, Pepe the Frog), to what extent mere representation carries belief-commitments along with it.
Today you can invoke the name of Diana or Apollo, as you please, with little risk of being told you will burn in hell for this, and without having to clarify, generally, whether you “really” believe in them or not. Things get a bit touchier when it comes to Freya or Odin, for reasons we will get to soon enough, and in any case even here the hell you are risking is not the one that comes in the afterlife, but rather in ostracism from polite secular society, which allows one to dabble in paganism, but not in an unregulated way.
At its most vacuous, today’s neopaganism is just what is expressed in the banal claim that one is “spiritual but not religious”. If we agree with Frits Staal’s compelling analysis of ancient Vedic ritual, this modern cliché is not so much a tempering or softening of old-fashioned “hardcore” religion, as it is a simple inversion of it: in the old days, one was rather “religious but not spiritual”. That is, one cultivated a form of life disciplined by rituals that held the cosmos together, without regard for how these practices made one feel. In this light, to claim that you are spiritual but not religious may in fact do little more than to position you in the vacuum at the end of tradition, where we are free to imagine that our perfectly human orientation to the world around us is somehow a distinguishing feature of us as individuals. What could it possibly be that would make one person “spiritual but not religious” and another “neither spiritual nor religious”? What is that extra x-factor, that mojo, that juice? No one can say. It is empty grasping.
To some extent, it is the emergence of the secular sphere, more or less contemporaneous with the Protestant Reformation, that invites the modern individual to treat “spirituality” as a marketplace for the accessorization of the self. And just as in Protestantism, neopaganism now has both its Mainline and its fire-and-brimstone factions, encompassing everything from Bryn Mawr Wiccans to Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. I could be wrong, but just as in the demographic worries of Mainline Protestants today, the Mainline neopagans also seem to be having trouble reproducing themselves. I recall the death of NPR correspondent and Wiccan priestess Margot Adler in 2014, and thinking already that this was the end of an era — the era of left-liberal, amply credentialed members of the American cultural elite latching onto neopaganism as a way to be post-Abrahamic without being “merely” secular. For one thing, Adler’s version of paganism, as expounded in her 1979 Drawing Down the Moon, was charged up with ideas of gender essentialism that would hardly be welcome today in the sort of places where NPR can be heard. For her (as for La Vey), the masculine and the feminine, far from being constructed on top of biological sex, are principles built into the very structure of the cosmos.
It may be that in the current historical moment —which in the United States, as I have argued before in this space, is enduring yet another Great Protestant Awakening— there is little room for the polite neopaganism that extended from the Age of Aquarius through the neo-Jungian gender-essentialist and crypto-ethnocentrist archetypalism of Adler or Robert Bly in the 1980s and ‘90s. Bumperstickers invoking “the goddess” have given way to yard signs announcing that “In this house we believe Black lives matter”. And meanwhile the space left empty by the extinct breed of NPR neopagans has been filled by neopagans of the impolite kind: the kind that sees no need to encrypt its ethnocentrism.
4. The Ancestors
I never believed in ghosts until my father died. By this I don’t mean that my ontology changed in 2016, that I added a new kind of entity to the list of “things there are” that had previously been missing. What I mean is that after my father died it came to seem undeniably true to me that there are two kinds of people: the ones who are alive at present, and the ones who are not, and that both kinds of people are literally people in a full and equal sense. My father is still a person; I can’t cognize him in any other way. Analytic philosophy spends considerable energy trying to figure out how it is possible for us to have duties to dead people, for example fulfilling promises to loved ones made on their death-beds, given that they are, well, dead, and strictly speaking no longer in a position to be benefitted or harmed. The answer is simple though: dead people are people too.
Traditionally this other sort of people are known as “the ancestors”, and in many cultures rites of reverence are practiced towards them as a central part of “religion” (if we must call it that). The tremendous controversy between the Vatican and the liberalizing Jesuits in China that unfolded at the dawn of the eighteenth century concerned precisely the question whether Chinese converts to Catholicism should be permitted to go on practicing “ancestor worship”. The missionaries in the field maintained there was no other way to gain converts than to exhibit tolerance in this matter; the armchair bishops in Rome considered rites of reverence to the dead to be a “deal-breaker”.
Alongside “animism”, which is a certain disposition to the natural world, a parallel disposition to the ancestors seems to constitute, at a minimum, the essence of paganism as it was conceived in traditional cultures prior to the emergence of neopaganism as a form of self-cultivation within secularism. The ancestors in most traditions shade off —particularly as we move further back in time, and historical time becomes mythical time—, into divinities, whether theriomorphic or heavenly. In this respect, genealogy constitutes both a form of community memory, as well as a chain of being that extends upwards to transcendence in the same measure as it moves backwards in time: from grandpas to gods.
5. A Great Job
The line between paganism and neopaganism is blurry, and the relevant factors in drawing it differ from one region to another, influenced in large part by the relative recency of Christianization (or Islamization, or any number of other imperial faiths). I tend to take Icelanders at their word when they speak of waterfalls and volcanoes in animistic terms, while I would probably laugh if an Italian told me he practices rites of sacrifice to Apollo. I tend to see Americans, in turn, as trapped in a pattern of postmodern dabbling and self-invention whenever they try to recover some expression of spirituality they imagine to have been held by their ancestors.
The case of present-day Yakutia, within the Russian Federation in Northeastern Siberia, is an interesting one. The Sakha people were Christianized by force from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, and then de-Christianized by force beginning in 1917. After 1989, a significant vacuum was filled with all manner of spiritual effervescences, including some retrenched commitment to Eastern Orthodoxy, the appearance of new Evangelical sects, and also the development of formally constituted organizations of Tengriist shamanism. These latter resemble in certain respects the Ásatrú movement of ethno-identitarian Scandinavians and people of Scandinavian heritage, as well as other comparable identitarian political-cum-spiritual movements throughout the world. But a significant difference is that in Yakutia, deep in the forest, the old-style shamans never entirely went away: the ones whose bones are left in the tops of trees when they die, and whose vocation it is practically taboo to mention out loud. There are thus two parallel systems, the urban and the rural. The urban shamans are moderately educated, proud of their “leadership” role, and largely duplicate the function of priests. The rural shamans are not “leaders”, but rather marginal and dangerous figures. They presumably have no strong sense of ethnonational identity, since they don’t really have other groups around to compare themselves with. They are just doing what those of their kind have always done: mediating between the Upper, the Lower, and the Middle Worlds.
In the Coen brothers’ underrated film, Burn After Reading, there is an ingenious scene where a Washington DC gym owner shows one of his co-workers a picture of himself from a previous chapter of his life, dressed in the garb of a Greek Orthodox priest. She exclaims with surprise: “That’s a great job!” This gets to the heart of something essential in the distinction between the two different kinds of shaman as well. It is only within the secular sphere that it makes sense to call priesthood a “job”. It is only someone operating within the modern marketplace of identity formation who would suppose that there might be a licensing procedure for becoming a shaman. And it is also within the same context of the administrative state with its licensing procedures and its practices of official recognition for certain identity groups (as well as its refusal of recognition for others), that neopagan movements so often cross over into expressions of ethnocentrism.
6. An Epitaph, and an Excursus on Antisemitism
When I was eighteen or so, there was a boy at my community college whom I found impossibly cool. Adept in graphic design, he had customized his skateboard with the polar-bear Icee logo on the bottom (his drink of choice, but, more than that, his totem and as it were his spirit-animal), and he was heavily tattooed at a time when this still had the power to signal real antisocial commitment. I used to go over to his house to listen to music, past the Scottish heraldry knick-knacks in his parents’ entryway, and into his bedroom where we savored and discussed Coil, Current 93, Nurse With Wound. We both had a taste for the stuff that is dark as hell; unlike me, over time he developed a strong preference for those groups with a far-right ideological inflection: Death in June, Boyd Rice, &c. I was curious, then as now, about everything, so I solicited his opinions and listened to whatever he had to say. Eventually he started a fanzine, The Fifth Path, which I gather is still circulating in rare and expensive used copies among right-wing occultist weirdos on the internet. I helped him edit a piece on Yukio Mishima for one of the issues (Robert was a fan of all ethnocentric nationalisms), and didn’t think much of it. Soon enough, we drifted apart.
After I had gone off to grad school at Columbia, I came home at some point circa 1995 and happened to run into Robert at a café (the Weatherstone, for those of you who require such local precision). He was amiable with me, but he could not hold himself back from asking how I was managing to get by in New York City, “with all the Jews there”. What I had earlier shrugged off as “Robert’s whole weird thing” now struck me as nothing more than repellent bigotry, as what Ezra Pound, in one of his periodic half-hearted attempts at repentance, called “that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-semitism”.
The German social democrats of the 1890s liked to say that antisemitism is “socialism for fools”, but I don’t think this gets it quite right. Antisemitism is elitism for suburban midwits. Every full-fledged antisemite I have ever encountered, including Robert, but also at least one close family member (about whom I’ve written here), has been a man with scant formal education who works a low-status job and styles himself an intellectual. At least in the American context a white person can be an anti-Black racist almost effortlessly; everyone understands in that country what the defining racial divide of American history is, and everyone thinks they understand what the differences are that sustain the divide. But to hate Jews is to cultivate a taste for abstraction, an attunement to things hidden, lying entirely off the radar of your less bookish family members and colleagues. Nowhere is this aspect of the antisemite’s identity portrayed more sharply and amusingly than in the great Russian bard Vladimir Vysotsky’s song “The Antisemite”, where a barstool intellectual is attempting to recruit some new loser to the cause, as this latter struggles to grasp what the movement will require of him. The new recruit has trouble understanding how he’s supposed to know who is and is not Jewish, and when the leader lists some telltale Old Testament names for him, the new guy replies with dismay: “You mean I’m supposed to hate Abraham Lincoln?”
That was the last time I saw Robert, and I continued to think of him once a year or so until 2017, when I happened to be reading the Swedish scholar Mattias Gardell’s Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism (2003), a deep ethnographic dive into the social world of young men in the United States who belonged to various strains of the far-right neopagan counterculture (I had previously enjoyed reading Gardell’s work on the Nation of Islam). On one of the pages there was a picture of some goofball with a neo-Nazi insignia on his lapel, standing in a plainly Californian suburban backyard, performing some kind of ritual with battle axes. I laughed at the sight of this ridiculous fellow, until I saw the caption: “Robert Ward, Godi of Ulfhethnar Kindred. Sacramento, California. Promotional photo. Courtesy of C. A. W.” Chubbier than he had been back in his skateboarding days, long hair shorn, almost unrecognizable, the ridiculous fellow was, withal, my old friend.
I was stunned. I have often thought the people I know are worthy of sustained ethnographic attention, but when it actually happens, when a former friend finds his place in a subculture so peculiar it warrants academic study in a book published by Duke University Press, well, at such moments what Bruno Latour calls le grand partage really does seem to collapse. We, Robert and I and everyone I know, have never been modern.
A quick Google search revealed that Robert died in 2004 at the age of thirty-five, under unclear circumstances. His obituary in the Sacramento Bee tells us that he “enjoyed photography, local bands, travel, visiting historic sites like Stonehenge and the Viking museum in Denmark”, and that he “produced his own music magazine The Fifth Path from 1990-1994 and corresponded with musicians throughout the world”. Those who wished to do so were invited to make contributions to the Effie Yeaw Nature Center, a place where Robert liked to take walks along the American River, and where I as well went on countless field trips with my Montessori class.
Robert’s mother, plainly distraught, writes in the online comments section of the obituary: “We still do not know why Robert died. His illness was not one that is normally considered major.” Another signer of the digital guestbook was not shy about invoking Robert’s neopagan interests, and offered up this little poem:
O Great Ones, hear our call,
And send forth thy messengers
We commend the soul of Robert Martin Ward
To the Gods of High Valhalla,
In the names of Odin and Thor, Farewell, good friend.
All my symphonies are epitaphs, Shostakovich said, and sometimes it seems something similar might be said of my essays. I have trouble going one week without writing about someone I knew, and who died, even when that was not my first intention. Typically, these are people whose lives tragically misfired, always in very different ways. Anyhow, Robert was my friend, I guess, for better or worse, and I commend his soul not to the gods of Valhalla, but at least to everlasting repose.
6. Why We Are Not Pagans
I have called this essay, and now also this section, “Why We Are Not Pagans”, somewhat on the model of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Evan Thompson’s wonderful recent book, Why I Am Not a Buddhist. But I have so far really only been setting up the long preliminary reflections in light of which what I hope now will be a concise answer will make some sense.
I have identified two basic elements of traditional paganism, which we may call, at risk of oversimplification, “animism” and “ancestor worship”. It is my contention that in the present age, the closest we can get to animism is a sort of romantic outdoorsmanship, which is perhaps gratifying, but does not reach the depths that made the premodern apprehension of nature meaningful. You can try to work your way back into such a spirit, you can go in for deep ecology or Heideggerian strolls along forest paths. But the forest is a managed space: managed, namely, by bureaus with headquarters in the city, under the supervision of the administrative state. Our apprehension of nature is inevitably mediated, and under these conditions any experience of “animism” is fleeting, and more a product of the imaginative will than of contact with the natural world itself.
There’s nothing wrong with going camping, and our failed animism is at least politically harmless. It’s not so simple with the other principal component of paganism, where ancestor worship degenerates quickly into ethnonationalism. I learned from Gardell’s book that Robert had —emptily— denied in interviews with him that he was a racist or a fascist, explaining: “Being white and proud of my ancestors and our culture, I of course cover a lot of Indo-European tribal issues more often than those of other cultures”. From there he strays into an explanation of his interest in the use of runes among the Nazi SS, and expounds his theory as to why the documents pertaining to this subject were, so he contends, classified as top-secret after the war. It was not a matter of Christians who hated Jews, Robert claimed, but “Pagans who were taking charge of their ancestral land! … If all the forces that were operating in the Third Reich during World War Two were acknowledged it would shake the world.”
Ouf. The world is certainly shaken. Everywhere you look, fools who can’t tell the difference between mythology and history are making claims to disputed territories on the basis of some phantasmic idea of who their ancestors were. This is not “ancestor worship” in the sense I have described as characteristic of paganism in its premodern form, any more than camping is animism. I do not want to say that neopaganism’s natural tendency is one that always moves from the polite “spirituality” of the NPR crowd to the vicious bigotry of Holocaust denial and delirious Nazi esoterica. I do want to say, however, that neopaganism, to the extent that it is an ad-hoc effort to fill the vacuum left at the end of tradition, will always move between the poles of vapidity, at best, and bigotry at worst.
And yet, while one cannot legitimately be a neopagan, it is, I think, crucial for the survival of the modern project of secularism and toleration, against the various rising ethnonationalisms, to conserve a generous disposition towards paganism in its original sense, of the sort practiced by the forest shaman but not the urban shaman, and of the sort that Jacobus de Voragine and the hagiographers who came before him found despicable. Nature really is full of gods, and the ancestors really are divine, it’s just that our historical predicament makes us unable to apprehend the full significance of these facts, or to make anything good come of them.
7. The Skull of Mary Magdalene
A few years ago, we were in a church in the South of France, looking at a skull in the crypt behind a pane of glass. There were two labels explaining its provenance: the one on the right said that it had belonged to Mary Magdalene; the one on the left said that physical anthropologists had determined it belonged to a woman in her fifties of Eastern Mediterranean origin who died in the first century CE. Thus, two versions of the same brute fact of the object’s presence, the one mythological, the other scientific. As we stood there contemplating it, Bruno Latour appeared behind us (we had been at the same wedding in that town the previous day, so it was not such a surprise to find him there). I asked him which of the two labels he preferred, but he did not give me a straightforward answer.
After Latour disappeared I continued to stand there wondering. It seemed to me that both labels were false, or at least inadequate. De Voragine would have wanted Mary Magdalene’s skull to fly through the air and land there miraculously, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, while the physical anthropologists, presumably, would not really care who the individual woman was who once carried that skull behind her living face. When you think about it, all this preoccupation with flying skulls, with the oil that pours from a dead saint’s head, with St. Lucia whom the Holy Spirit held so firmly in place that a thousand men could not move her: all of this storytelling is, in its own way, a continuation of the flights of mythological imagination that authors like de Voragine sought to suppress when they concerned Diana or Apollo rather than the saints. And in the passage to modernity we went more or less straight from these flights to physical anthropology.
In this sense, you might say, although we can no longer be pagan, we have also never been Christian.
And now for some news and announcements.
A leaked copy of In Search of the Third Bird was rudely defaced by certain elusive enemies. TANK Magazine has generously published the profaned pages, which are beautiful in their own way. You may read them here.
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