paganism


paganism
   The term (with its synonym 'heathenism') for any religion where several gods and goddesses are worshipped; its relationship to folklore has long been debated, and is central to most *origin theories.
   In England, the first people to discuss folklore from the outside (as opposed to participating in it) were Elizabethan Protestants, who used it as a weapon in their campaign to identify Catholicism with paganism. They sought out every possible similarity between medieval customs and rituals and those of the only two pagan cultures they knew about: Old Testament Gentiles, and classical Greeks and Romans. This was the argument of Philip Stubbes's The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), with its famous diatribe against the *maypole as a 'stinking idol'; it was taken up by antiquarians such as the Revd Henry *Bourne, whose Antiquitates Vulgares (1725) attacks popular customs and beliefs as coming from Pagan Rome via Papist Rome. Even *Aubrey, who liked old ways, held the same theory. In his significantly titled Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisms (1686) he argues that ceremonies and beliefs were 'imbibed' by the ancient Britons from the Romans, and survived wherever 'the Inundation of the Goths' (i.e. Anglo-Saxons) did not penetrate (Aubrey, 1686/1880: 55).
   Several generations of writers referred back to Flora, Ceres, or the Saturnalia, to explain English festivals. Then 19th-century scholars showed that early Germanic and Celtic peoples had had myths and rituals of their own, independent from Rome, supplying closer precedents for English traditions. Claims for pre-Christian origins have always had great appeal among the general public, if only for the glamour antiquity confers; currently they are more popular than ever, for pagan beliefs (especially *Celtic ones) are seen by many as admirable, and Christian tradition as repressive and dull.
   However, there is an important distinction between showing that a custom or belief is older than Christianity, and arguing that when it is found among Christians it means paganism is still alive. Some aspects of the supernatural (e.g. fear of *ghosts and *witch-craft, belief in *dreams) are so commonplace that they can occur in virtually any period, including our own, and do not correlate with one religion rather than another. The same is true of large categories of non-rational thought and action, e.g. those involving *fate, *luck, *omens, and minor practices such as *touching wood; Christians who think or act in this way rarely see it as inconsistent with faith. *Calendar and *life-cycle customs usually involve celebratory activities (e.g. dancing, special foods, drinking, disguise, bonfires) distinct from the religious side of the event (if any), but not felt to be in conflict with it. The appropriate word for these is 'secular', not 'pagan'.
   In England, a fair amount is known about Roman, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon religions before the arrival of Christianity, but little about the conversion process itself, which has led modern advocates of paganism to claim that tolerance and continuity was the norm. For the first wave of Christianization, that which reached the Celtic Britons of the 4th century, the only evidence points the other way: when Celtic Christians reused pagan sites, they mutilated and dumped the statues of the gods (Merrifield, 1987: 96-106). The final conversion, that of the Anglo-Saxons, is described by Bede as a peaceful process, but evidence of continuity is again scanty. Despite the interpretation sometimes put on *Pope Gregory's letter, no Saxon pagan shrine has yet been found underlying a church; though (very exceptionally) some Roman sacred sites were reused (Merrifield, 1987: 93-5). Coincidence of dates is even less significant. The dates of *Christmas and *Easter had been fixed long before Christianity reached Britain, and reflected Roman paganism and the Jewish Passover respectively, not the festivals of northern Europe; since every day in the Christian year celebrated at least one saint, every pagan festival necessarily coincided with a saint's day, for reasons quite unconnected with local cults.
   The only significant documents are some law-codes of the 7th and 8th centuries forbidding sacrifices to Germanic deities, and some more in the early 11th century applying to the diocese of York, where Viking settlers had reintroduced them. The names of some gods appear in place-names, royal genealogies, and one or two *charms, but their myths vanish; surviving hero-legends (*Beowulf, *Wayland) have no religious content.
   There is thus no general framework to support claims that individual folklore items are pagan survivals, and each must be assessed on its own merits.
   For discussion of British religions in relation to later folklore, see Hutton, 1991. For the religions individually, see Martin Henig, Religion in Roman Britain (1984); G. A. Waite, Ritual and Religion in Iron Age Britain (1985); Miranda Green, The Gods of the Celts (1986); Proinsas Mac-Cana, Celtic Mythology (1983); Gale Owen, Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons (1981); David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism (1992).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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