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paranoid theory of the week :: are neopagan holidays based on historical realities?

welcome, paranoimiacs! as you might have noticed, this seems to have become more of a bi-weekly thing, so i guess we're talking more about the paranoid theory of the fortnight. i have the best of intentions, but i seem to forget that sometimes i wear myself out and get tired. so i'll ask you to bear with me and my occasionally unpredictable scheduling until i get better at managing my time or find better drugs.

the end of january/ beginning of february is likely one of the most non-descript times of the year. later in february or in march, spring break for students has become a bacchanalian rite of passage for students. plus february also brings the "i can't believe it's christianity" festivities of carnival/ mardi gras. after that you have the arrival of spring and easter and then we just kind of coast along a series of official holidays that are really just excuses for all of us to get outside and be happy. seriously, nothing says "domination by the northern hemisphere" like no holidays in january and early february. in australia, argentina and many countries further down the alphabet, those months are the height of summer.

but for pagans, particularly wiccans, the beginning of february is kind of a big deal. it's one of the four wiccan "high holidays" called imbolc, which ushers in the first part of spring. it has been traditionally linked to the beginning of the lambing season in the british isles, to the old irish goddess brigid [later catholicized as saint brigid] and to divination, particularly to do with the weather.

part of the appeal of paganism is doubtless that it seeks to burn away the totalitarian sins of the christian churches, and to reconnect people with a simpler time and a less proscriptive spiritual system. it peels back the onion skin that is christian history and takes the stories of "saints" and "holy days" back to their original, pre-christian truth.

or maybe not. in fact, maybe the supposed historicity of pagan holidays is something that's made up to sell more books and pillowcases with celtic knotwork. let's have a look.

the theory ::
well, this isn't so much a theory as a dialectic. neopagans hold that there is a long and largely repressed history behind their rituals and observances. critics [who include atheists, devout christians and many things in between] say that it's revisionism, with no more claim to fact than stories of ghosts or goblins.

the origin ::
the origin point would probably be somewhere around the time that people started arguing about religion. however, you could also date it to the resurgence of interest in magic and esoteric knowledge around the fin de siècle and the rise of the modern world after the great war. or you could link it to the flourishing of alternative spirituality that occurred as part of the sixties "new age" movement. referring strictly to debates surrounding the "wheel of the year", the publication of gerald gardner's witchcraft today, a foundational document for virtually all modern pagan traditions.

the believers ::

the bad guys ::
christians, but particularly the witch-burning, tradition-stealing roman catholic church.

the evidence ::
history is written by the victors, we all know that. that's why we think of hitler as the incarnation of evil, but we don't know who king leopold ii was. [well, maybe you do. you're a smart lot, after all. but most people aren't as smart as you.] so part of the problem with talking about pagan traditions is that they've been very effectively scrubbed from history by the christian church. after all, the church didn't want to dedicate a lot of time to recording the things they were trying to destroy. and for a very long period, the people in the church were the only ones that could read and write, which means that even if everyone had tolerated each other's beliefs, chances are that the christians still would have come out ahead.

what's written about pre-christian traditions was overwhelmingly written in the post-christian world, and we need to take absolutely everything that's said about it with at least a pinch of salt.

however, that's not to say that all the writing stems from post-christian times. there are texts from the celts of ancient ireland and from scandinavian cultures that do shed some light on life before catholicism. unfortunately, while that can tell us something about their gods and myths, it doesn't say a lot about the daily practice of belief. did people leave a candle burning day and night at the end of january/ beginning of february to encourage the return of the sun and the warming of the earth? did they sacrifice their children in order to ensure a good harvest? did they gather with their family members and neighbours in the outdoors and dance all night to mark the longest day of the year? we're not really clear on a lot of that detail.

so in order to figure out what sort of things they might have done, we look at the "footprints" they've left behind. those footprints are comprised largely of traditions or beliefs that are known to have been present for generations, but which come from obscure sources. these can be superstitions, like the number thirteen being unlucky, or customs, like decorating the home with evergreens to coincide with the winter solstice, or even things like songs or fairytales. when you study many of these things closely enough and look at where the earliest references to them are made, you can figure out some things about the lives of the people who started them.

that's a very long way of making what is ultimately an unsatisfying point: there is very little direct but considerable amount of indirect evidence about the history of neopagan holidays. and unfortunately, a lot of the indirect evidence is misrepresented and/ or misinterpreted.

for starters, there is the idea of halloween, or samhain. this is another one of the "high holidays" on the neopagan wheel of the year, perceived by some as the most important holiday [although the whole point of having a wheel is that there isn't a hierarchy]. there is some pretty compelling historical evidence to suggest that the date was important to the celts, in the form of irish writing that dates all the way back to the fourth century- some of the oldest vernacular writing in the world. it may have also been a date of some significance to the gauls [who were also celts, but we talked about that already]. so it's tempting to link our halloween to the pre-christian tradition of a festival that marked the final harvest before the darker half of the year.

but if that were the case, you'd expect that halloween would have stronger roots in europe rather than the new world, when the truth is the exact opposite. halloween is a relative non-event in europe, even in the celtic homelands. those people couldn't even grow their own pumpkins until we sent them the seeds.

in fact, all the traditions that we associate with modern "halloween", many of which have been carried over to the neopagan samhain, are far more strongly rooted in the new world than the old. nor is there much evidence that the catholic observances of all saints and all souls days were an attempt to co-opt a previously existing festival. the catholic church wasn't opposed to things like harvest festivals, necessarily. they were opposed to using them to honour other gods. those aren't the same thing.

[side note :: i chose halloween as an example because it has some of the best known traditions, along with yule/ winter solstice. imbolc is a much more obscure date, but it does have some folklore associated with it. it is linked heavily with saint brigid, who is a christianized form of the irish goddess brigid and imbolc may be linked to another strange little superstition. remember when i mentioned that it was associated with divination? well isn't it coincidental that at the beginning of february every year, we are treated to the spectacle of a large rodent who emerges from the ground to tell us how much longer winter will last? you call it groundhog day. others call it imbolc.] 

part of the problem here is that we're assuming that both of these narratives constitutes a religious history. the history of christianity is religious. the history of paganism is folk history. our attempts to classify it as a religion are borne of our experience of religion, specifically of the christian religion. we know that pre-christian cultures had gods. some of them had practices that went well beyond "superstition". a distant relative of mine was burned alive à la wicker man because he was king during a bad harvest. that's a little more hardcore than stepping over [or on] the cracks in the sidewalk. but it's still a big leap from there to assuming that religion and the gods played the sort of omnipresent role in people's lives that they do in christianity. the gods might demand that the king be killed to reverse the luck of a bad crop, but they didn't insist that you kill every king all the time. it was a special occasion kind of thing.

the likelihood :: 6.5/10
there is some historical evidence to support the existence of pre-christian holidays oriented around the change of seasons and the times of planting and harvesting, but modern neopagan traditions filter those through a series of lenses, so that their historical realities are pretty much detached from their current form.

religious belief or spirituality, however, is supposed to be something that you can experience in the absence of empirical fact or historical proof, however. that's what makes it faith. you don't have faith in gravity because you can just drop something and remind yourself that it exists. religious beliefs aren't like that, and that's totally fine.

but what's important, after so much history has already been distorted by victors, that we don't engage in distorting it more. don't claim that something is science when it isn't anymore than you'd claim that a certain chemical can be safely ingested.

  • there is clearly some historical foundation for neopagan holidays
  • we have very little information about how those days were observed in pre-christian times
  • there is mixed information on which traditions predate and postdate christianity.

so if you celebrate imbolc, may you have a happy one. if you don't, enjoy your long, cold holiday-less existence for a few weeks longer. 


Iron Toad said…
Most of the today's Wiccan tradition is actually based on Margaret Alice Murray's Witch-Cult in Western Europe, first published in 1921 and immensely popular at the time. Unfortunately, (as the book, public domain now and available on the web, is quite a good and erm enchanting;) read) this work is totally dismissed now as being an un-scientific romantic stuff, based on partial and selective evidence and using dubious sources without a s ahde of doubt. BTW I think you may really like it, just perceive in the way White Goddess by Robert Graves is usually perceived, i e a work of art, not of science.

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