Pagan Survivals

Around this time of year you tend to see a lot of pagans mentioning the ways in which certain Christmas traditions are survivals of pagan customs (you see it from the Christians too, though for different reasons). This inevitably leads to some debate about just which things are true survivals, and which actually appeared post-Christianity. Which is in turn part of a larger conversation about how many folk traditions, and which ones, can be traced back to pagan roots. This discussion can get heated very quickly – witness the constant controversy that follows Ronald Hutton’s work, and the responses to it.

But it seems to me that all of this is missing the point. It doesn’t matter if some particular pagan-seeming custom can be absolutely traced back to origins in the polytheistic past. Regardless, it is a survival (or re-manifestation, if you will) of the polytheistic mindset, the animistic worldview. In fact, I would posit that it’s better if these customs re-emerged in new forms post-Christianity. Then they are simply newer variations on the same themes, proving the primacy of those themes in the human experience (i.e., our natural state is paganism). They are a genuine and fresh response to the continuous perception of spirits and the immanent divine in the natural world, one that cannot be eliminated by strong discouragement by the Church or materialistic society, even when the latter two things manage to squash specific activities. They just find a new expression again, rising from the same basic spiritual understanding that has existed for all of human history.

Take, for example, mumming. Most mumming traditions cannot be traced back with any certainty more than a few hundred years. Even the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, whose antlers have been carbon dated to the 11th century, was only first referred to in 1686. But anyone who watches it is seeing the world through pagan eyes for those few minutes, tapping into the same awareness of the spiritual forces at work in the world around us. Those families in Austria who gather to be gleefully terrified by the Perchtenlauf each winter do so because deep down, they know that winter is a perilous time, with spirits abroad that need appeasing.

Even in cynical, consumerist, Christian-dominated 21st century America, we’re seeing a small resurgence of Krampus – partly in response to the hollowness of the modern Christmas season, to be sure, but also because it fills a need some people didn’t even know they had. Krampus is inextricably linked to Saint Nicholas, and therefore ostensibly Christian; it is not technically a pagan survival, but instead a new iteration of certain core concepts and perspectives that themselves are inherently pagan.

I think for the most part, we can leave the hair-splitting to the historians, and instead embrace the spirit of these traditions – a spirit which is undeniably pagan at heart.

~ by Dver on December 20, 2011.

17 Responses to “Pagan Survivals”

  1. “In fact, I would posit that it’s better if these customs re-emerged in new forms post-Christianity.”

    Dver, you made me really happy with this. Yes, our historical and ancestral roots matter, but it isn’t it a wonderful thing that even if all historical references to a pagan past would be destroyed, we can reconnect once more? It gives so much hope. Not only would this suggest that we as a pagan community could be thriving in the 21 century, but also that the whole of human kind can reinvent their relation to the earth and its spirits.

    Truly, this has been the most uplifting post in quite a while. And it is exactly this what we need in this time of cynicism and apathy.

    • isn’t it a wonderful thing that even if all historical references to a pagan past would be destroyed, we can reconnect once more

      Exactly! The well from which this springs is never exhausted, and I think as a species we are built to be tuned into it, when we let ourselves. It happens over and over, and will continue to do so. That is indeed something positive to hold onto.

  2. Hm, you have given me food for thought this Yuletide. I might have to take that with me to Frau Holda this evening. Thank you and happy Yule!

  3. Wonderful! I couldn’t agree more, dear friend!

    My most blessed wishes for the season to you!

    • And to you too!

      Interesting back-and-forth that’s been going on over at Patheos over that “Christmas is our victory over paganism” post. You’ve been making some great points there!

      • I’m glad you think so…I’m beginning to think it was utterly useless, and probably just trouble-making to get involved in all of that at all. But, it being Saturnalia and all, I wanted to feel some sense–however artificial–of “defeating the darkness” and so forth, particularly yesterday. So much for that…I never expected to change the minds of anyone, but I also didn’t expect that some of the reactions would be as poor as they’ve been.

  4. […] pagan inspirational news elsewhere, Star Foster has written something lovely for the day, and Dver has written quite beautifully about how, whether traditions of paganism are revived or continuo… And meanwhile, the King of Fools and the Lord of Misrule continues to be royally foolish and rules […]

  5. “our natural state is paganism” – yes, certainly. Witness saints in Catholicism, the Trinity in all Christianity – they can spin it any way they want, but it is still polytheism.

    • Yup, even when people try really hard to be monotheistic because they think they should be, they usually slip into some sort of polytheism or animism by default.

  6. Actually, in St. John’s, Newfoundland they had a mumming festival just recently which is a revival of mumming festivals done several decades ago in that area. I thought it was absolutely fabulous to see hundreds of people walking down the streets in strange clothes making noise, even if it didn’t look Pagan(tm).🙂 I think we need to see more things like this today.

  7. […] https://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/pagan-survivals/ A blog about Pagan survivals in the modern world. […]

  8. I’m personally a Krampus fan because he looks as grumpy and gleefully ill-tempered as I am around Christmastime.🙂

  9. […] now. A Europe I wish to discover, through books, travel and ritual. And this also leads me to a point where I see little point in distinguishing between the Pagan and the pagan. I am more apt to buy […]

  10. […] put our history into a glass cabinet? If the gods are real, paganism can never die. As Dver writes here on pagan […]

  11. […] and other customs that take place at transitional seasons. Like me, she is interested in them regardless of how truly “pagan” they are in origin. I think if more of us were to take this perspective, these are the sort of customs that could […]

  12. […] and other customs that take place at transitional seasons. Like me, she is interested in them regardless of how truly “pagan” they are in origin.  I think if more of us were to take this perspective, these are the sort of customs that could […]

  13. […] Previous posts of hers on the subject- Mumming, Masks & Processionals, Pagan Survivals […]

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