This article is another reason why I must remember to send my dues to the Mark-Shea-John-Wright Mutual Admiration Society, aside from the fact that I am one of two members and founders.
What puzzles me about neo-paganism is why it wastes all this time inventing a fake synthetic paganism based on some suburbanites’ supposings about what esoteric sects did centuries ago, when there are lots of real pagans running around in Asia and the global south they could just go join without all this laborious re-inventing of an almost entirely fictional wheel. The focus of the neo-pagans is on pretend recreations of ancient euro-paganism, based on fictionalized history , coupled with modern notions of relativism and libertinism that would have often baffled and horrified many ancient pagans (who were by no means a monolith). So when you consult an actual pagan rooted in an actual historic pagan tradition like, say, the Dalai Lama on things like sexual mores, he sounds disappointingly more like Pope Benedict than like some sexually liberated votress of a goddess from a Joss Whedon fantasy universe dressed like a Frank Frazetta heroine.
Mr Shea agrees with Mr Chesterton and Mr Lewis about paganism, and about how what is called “Paganism” in these days is a sacramentalized liberalism. I have an example as well. Let me quote from Chesterton and Lewis before offering my example.
This poem I have quoted many times from Lewis before, and shall no doubt many times again.
Cliche Came Out of its Cage
by C.S. Lewis
You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’.
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. at the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.
Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond wil1 break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).
And now for GK Chesterton. These were men who lived in civilized times, when gentlemen of letter still wrote poems, and sometimes even rhymes.
THE SONG OF THE STRANGE ASCETIC
If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.
If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have crowned Neaera’s curls*,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.
If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still.
If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.
Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight-
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.
Both Lewis and Chesterton were unimpressed with modern paganism for reasons that the poems above make abundantly clear.
(*Note: For those of you who do not know who Neaera is, she is not the slavegirl from HISPANIA, a Spanish-made program about the cruel reign of the Roman Empire in Spain, as portrayed by Ana de Armas. Neaera is instead the traditional name for a nymph or for a rustic maiden appearing in Virgil’s Eclogues and Milton’s Lycidas. However, there is no point in posting a picture of Virgil, when I have an excuse to post a gratuitous picture of Ana de Armis, portraying Neaera, who is, after all, a pagan.)
Myself, I have the greatest respect for paganism, and slightly less respect for neopaganism, but respect them both more than I respect atheism, of which I was once a prime practitioner.
Because a neopagan might perhaps, if his spiritual strength does not wane with age, one day come to be a pagan and an honorable one like Trajan or Socrates; and an honorable pagan might perhaps, if heaven smiles, receive the free gift of holy baptism and become a Christian like Justin Martyr or Augustine; and one day, even if heaven and earth must pass away before all is accomplished, the Christian may one day become a human being.
Let me give you an example of when neopaganism least impressed me.
But first a long digression: for I must say before I say more that my example of disappointment with neopaganism comes not from any real life witches I know, all of whom I honor and love as friends (even when they call on fertility goddesses to bless their lesbian handfasting, unaware of the several ironies involved — come now: friends can smile at each other’s flaws, can they not?) but only from their stories they tell about themselves. Naturally the reality is more complex than the stories.
That I bear them no enmity no honest man can doubt: I also pray for the salvation of their Witchy souls to the Virgin, whom my Protestant friends, or one of them, solemnly tell me is a pagan goddess. If my Protestant friends are right, then who better to act as intercessor?
But one way to tell whether my Protestant friends are right is to ask whether any of my witch friends have drawn a magic circle or raised a sacred athame and chanted to Diana for the salvation of my soul, or my reincarnation into higher-energy astral plane? Has my close friend William the Witch sacrificed even one coney to Freyja that I might ascend to Folkvangr, or sacrificed a war-captive to Odin Bolverk, that I might die in battle and be wafted to Valhalla by the Choosers of the Slain?
For I have said many rounds of rosaries for the conversion of the heathens, and ask the Blessed Queen of Heaven for her aid. (I think that is the difference between pagans and Christians. We pray for them; they don’t pray for us.)
So, no, no real life neopagan has ever struck me as anything other than fairly decent right-thinking left-leaning folk no better nor worse than other natural men, who are toying with something dangerous and infinitely evil.
They fit into the zeitgeist of modernity much better than do I.
I think dabblers in neopagan rites have very little notion of how horrific the real pagan rites could be. We don’t see the Thor of Marvel Comics performing the sacrifice called the blood eagle, mentioned in Norse sagas, where ribs of the victim were cut by the spine, the ribcage opened so the ribs looked like blood-stained wings, and the lungs pulled out through the dripping gaps in the back.
This is a good excuse to post a picture of Thor. I do have ladies in my audience, after all.
We do not hear from Gore Vidal or Edward Gibbon how their darling, Julian the Apostate, had a slavegirl (like Neaera, see above) slaughtered and hung above an alter in the Temple of the Moon at Carra, in Syria. Afterward he had the Temple doors sealed and a guard placed so no one could enter until his return. However, courtesy of the Persians, he did not return and when his successor, Jovian, sent men into the Temple they found a woman hanging by her hair with her liver torn out. The philosophical emperor had wanted haruspices to read her warm entrails and liver for omens of the Imperator’s coming battle with the Persians.
Which is as good an excuse as any to post another picture of Nerea:
And, likewise, when I hear my witch friends speak of “their ancient traditions” I point out, if they will hear me, that their ancient traditions reach back to the Romantic movement in the Eighteenth Century.
I feel about neopagans the way I feel about children playing dress-up in their parent’s old clothes …
… if their parents were Nazis, that is.
The above picture perfectly sums up the frisson of disquiet I feel seeing fairly decent right-thinking left-leaning folk paying homages to the Powers of the Air, whose real nature the ancients made little attempt to hide.
Now, before my readers in umbrage shout to the umpires to call “Goodwin’s Law!” on me, I am not calling neopagans members of the national socialist worker’s part of Germany. I am calling them natural, the most natural thing in the world. And the most natural thing for the Sons of Adam to be is unnatural.
Picture your average Phoenician, hard working, honest, true to his family and good to his friends, and picture him going on sacred days to the Town Square in Carthage. Diodorus of Sicily (20.14) describes this scene:
There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.
It is not so different from the picture of an honest and hardworking college girl, unexpectedly pregnant, pressured by her live-in boyfriend to visit an abortionist, and if the baby (or “product of conception”) is accidentally born alive, having it smothered in chloroform and put out with the medical waste.
Such is the way humans naturally act. Are postmodern Americans better than the Carthaginians? Really?
(And before eager internet scholars call into question the historical accuracy of the Viking or Carthaginian human sacrifices, let me point out as an attorney that you judge the evidence on the witnesses and exhibits as presented, not based on what fits your postmodern postrational historical revisionism. The combination of paucity of evidence and plenitude of imaginative partisanship in such claims threatens to bring historians into that same degree of respect with which modern journalism is regarded. )
End of the long digression. Take it as given that I have not found my neopagan friends to be disappointing, and, indeed in many a way they are able to tread water and keep their heads a little ways above the moral level of the sewage of surrounding popular culture.
Being a bookish fellow, my example of being disappointed with neopaganism comes from a book.
I remember reading a novel by an author both well respected and whom I respect. I will not call it an “urban fantasy” because that term usually means someone following BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER or ANITA BLAKE. This was someone following LITTLE, BIG by John Crowley (but not as well as Crowley, who is a genius). I won’t mention the book or the author, lest I embarrass him or display my impudence in criticizing a superior in my own chosen field.
But there was a scene in one of his books where the heroine summons up a thinly-disguised version of the Earth Mother, Demeter or Rhea or Gaea, to confront her sister who had been keeping herself unnaturally young by slaying the unicorns found in a dreamworld not far from earth’s plane of existence, and bathing in their sacred blood.
The slayer scoffed and mocked at the goddess, and I, a fan since my youth up of Greek and Roman mythology looked forward with terror, awe and dread about to be visited on the poor mortal for her hubris (a Greek remark!) — not just because of the pollution of the crime but because of the lack of honor shown the dread and august Divine Power.
But, no, the great and terrible Earth Mother, instead of transforming the upstart instantly into a nightingale or poplar tree to placate divine wrath, or cloaking the world in everlasting winter, or summoning up hundred-handed giants and prodigies from her prodigious womb to fall upon the miscreant and drag her screaming to Tartarus, there to spin on Ixion’s wheel forever or starve in Tantalus’s garden or push the stone of Sisyphus, no, no, nothing like that happened.
It seems the miscreant had suffered one of the stereotypically favorite tragedies of postmodern writers, namely, she had been sexually abused as a child, and being the victim means that no moral opprobrium could be assigned her acts. So the wise Earth Goddess merely clucked her tongue and looked sorrowful and talked a bunch of boilerplate saccharine psychobabble nonsense about “healing” and giving the miscreant “time to find herself” — and the whole scene was to shallow you could thrust your hand into it and only your fingernails would get wet.
It retroactively made the unicorn slaying no longer seem like a dreadful and blasphemous affront against the majesty, purity and sanctity of nature. Instead it left me hungry for unicorn venison.
What was missing from the scene was the pagan sense of the world as a dreadful and divine thing.
What was missing was awe.
And that is the main difference between the neopagans and the pagans. The pagans are pre-Christian, men who, by force of imagination alone, attempt to plumb the depth of the mystery of the divine, and who, in addition to many vile and terrible practices and grotesque superstitions, from time to time also illume with striking clarity the sorrow of this world and the joyous and terrible weight of awe which reaches beyond the world.
You see, the neopagans are not pagans. Neopagans believe in the modern therapeutic view of the world, as if life’s problems are merely an illness which can be solved, perhaps with help from the divine nurses and physicians of the mystic Otherworld, by meditating or by dancing naked among the trees, either in this life or some hither cycle of reincarnation. This is a modern and optimistic view, and deeply shallow.
There are no Vestal Virgins among the neopagans, and I would delight in the irony of seeing neopagans indulging in ancestor worship, paying divine honors to their Christian great-grandfathers and mothers.
The pagans, in contrast, think life tragic, and they preach resignation to what cannot be solved. Those who are shocked that I and other Christians list Buddhists among the pagans underestimate the resignation and self-abnegation and Stoic despair that pervades the thinking of the Enlightened One. It is a profoundly pessimistic view.
Buddhism is not as pessimistic as materialism, however, which preaches that all human thought is matter in motion, which stops when the motion stops, and all human accomplishment ends in obliteration, and all worlds end in entropy. There is not even a re-absorption of an illusion of “self” back into the world-soul of Nirvana for the materialist. For at least the Buddha hoped for freedom from the illusion of self with the extinction of selfhood. The materialist preaches that the illusion that you exist and have free will and think cannot be broken, cannot end save in death, which is perfect extinction. Atheism is subpagan, and even subneopagan.
Christianity is outrageously pessimistic about this world and this life, and outrageously optimistic about the next. Christians do not believe heaven on earth is possible, and that attempts to create it lead to hell on earth; but we believe in heaven in heaven is possible for those who are saved from hell in hell.
The main metaphysical difference between pagans and neopagans is that neopagans — at least the ones of my personal acquaintance, and I do not know if they are typical — think they get to choose their gods.
They think — at least if I understand them, which perhaps I do not — that the act of worship activates and awakens and shapes the god or his manifestations. The divine energy is like a river, and whatever pantheon you select is like the vessels of different shapes which the sacred fluid of divinity fills, so that the god will come in the shape you select.
For the modern witch, the only truth is that there is no truth, merely narratives, including a pagan narrative that you have selected for yourself on aesthetic or therapeutic grounds. You believe in Isis on Friday and Odin on Wednesday and Cernunnos the Horned Man on Monday because you want to and it helps you. And on the Sabbath you believe in a combination of Theosophy and Taoism and Tantric magic.
This view implies a metaphysical theory, and, as is typical and unique to modernity, this theory places the will of the observer as the paramount determiner of the nature of reality: you make your own life and you make your own reality. Why not make your own gods?
The belief that nothing exists except for the willpower of man to make what he wishes of the chaos of the cosmos is nihilism, the absence of belief in ultimate reality. I do not mean the word as an insult; I am using it in a technical sense, for no other word will do. It is the defining belief of postmodern and ultra-relativistic thought.
The neopagans are post-Christians who are attempting to baptize their postmodern and metaphysically nihilist world view in the sacred images and names of the Old Gods so as to leave them with the indulgent and avuncular gods who are more like Santa Claus than Odin, and goddesses who, unlike Vesta, never insist upon virginity.
The neopagans believe in “live and let live” not because any real pagans ever believed that, but because Christendom, believing in the unique worth of the individual and the voluntary nature of obedience to God, believe in a private conscience beyond the reach of secular power, and made that belief popular.
And now the the neopagans, raised in a largely Christian society with Christian philosophical assumptions in their intellectual background, want the tasty pudding of the Christendom without eating the meat of the Church’s strictly rational theology, the potatoes of her spiritual discipline of its contemplative life, and the vegetables of its strict morality.
Neopaganism is Christianity without the starch. It is lax Christianity for a relaxed generation.
They sit at the shining feast table of the Christian intellectual universe, and, ravenous with spiritual starvation, dare not eat the substance, lest their eyes be opened, and so they feast on scented shadows, echoes, and dim reflections.