by Andras Corban Arthen
As it has been previously noted in these pages, within the global interreligious movement that has evolved since the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago, pagans have typically been placed in the category of New Religious Movements, which roughly applies to religions that have emerged since the middle of the 19th century. This would seem to be, surely, the most appropriate category for the neopagan and reconstructionist groups that make up the greater part of modern paganism, since their existence does not appear to go further back than the early 1950s.
For thirty-some years, however, I have been trying to make the case throughout the interfaith movement that some forms of paganism — namely, the very few remaining survivals of ethnic European spiritual traditions — more properly belong in the category of Indigenous Religions. My arguments, and others’ similar arguments, have mostly fallen on deaf ears — both pagan and non-pagan alike — for various reasons which make it a lot more convenient for many people to believe that no such survivals exist at all.
For Christians, for example, an acknowledgment that the original pagan traditions were not completely wiped out opens the door to the unpleasant possibility that they may, finally, have to deal with the genocidal horrors which Christianity inflicted on Indigenous peoples throughout the world. Outside of Europe, the blame for such heinous acts — when they are even acknowledged — has conveniently been attributed to chiefly secular motives, such as excessive nationalistic ambitions and economic greed, which obscure their actual, fundamental aim and rationale. When the Christian colonization of Europe is factored in, however, it becomes a lot harder to camouflage the theologically-justified goal of creating a vast religious empire, which continued to be the foundation for most subsequent Christian European colonization elsewhere. But if no trace of the original European pagan traditions were to survive, the motivation to open that painful door becomes less compelling, and the comforting obliviousness of the status quo can remain untouched.
For many North American Indians, the prospect of the continued existence of Indigenous European traditions is often met with decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, the survival of some of those traditions after more than fifteen-hundred years of Christian colonization could be taken as a hopeful sign for their own survival, not to mention the new allies they are likely to gain among the keepers of such practices. On the other hand, American Indians have had so much taken from them by “white people” that a lot of them can understandably react with suspicion and even resentment in the face of such a prospect, especially if it can in any way take some of the focus away from their own struggles to preserve what is left of their cultures.
And, ironically, many neopagans themselves are extremely resistant to the notion that ethnic forms of European paganism have survived into the present. For them, this raises fears of delegitimization, of marginalization, of power trips: given the contentious history of the modern pagan movement, this reaction is not very surprising.
Be that as it may, after all the years of trying to convince people in the interfaith movement, last December in Melbourne, for the first time ever, the Parliament of the World’s Religions finally included the surviving European ethnic spiritual traditions in the same category as other Indigenous religions from around the world, a very significant step which could pave the way to many interesting possibilities.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, when given the task of organizing the European components for the Parliament’s Indigenous Task Force programs, I invited krivis Jonas Trinkunas, the head of the traditional Romuva pagan religion of Lithuania, to be one of the featured speakers. Lithuania was one of the last European countries to be Christianized, and its history and cultural makeup have combined in a way that has allowed paganism to survive there to a degree that may be unsurpassed anywhere else in Europe. In Melbourne, Jonas and I offered a presentation together, entitled “The Revival of the European Pagan Religions,” which was meant to address some of the various key elements in the survival of Indigenous European spirituality.
Jonas, along with his son-in-law Artūras Sinkeviĉius, opened the program by singing a Lithuanian daina, one of several thousand traditional folksongs from their homeland that are imbued with mystical and religious meanings. Jonas discussed the role of the dainas in ethnic Lithuanian paganism, as the most important vehicle for spiritual transmission across the generations. He then went on to talk about the history of Romuva, and about the various factors that enabled Lithuanian paganism to survive into the modern era — preserved clandestinely or disguised as “folklore” — despite intense opposition and suppression by both the Catholic Church and the Soviet Union.
I spoke then about the traditional practices from the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic-speaking culture of Scotland) which I received from my teachers back in the late 1960s; of my eventual realization that such practices represented the rare survival of a very old, non-Christian form of spirituality; and of my subsequent search, both in Europe and throughout the European diaspora, for similar surviving traditions.
Then Jonas and I took turns describing some of the commonalities that are found among most of the European traditions, as well as some of the important differences, particularly between Eastern and Western Europe (rural focus, preservation of old tongues, animistic vs. polytheistic approaches, etc.) Our presentation was very well received, and was cited in a very good article on the Parliament which appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Parabola magazine.
There’s obviously a whole lot more that could be said about all this, though EarthSpirit Voices is probably not the best format through which to convey it. I have now presented a two-hour talk/slide show/film entitled “The ‘Indians’ of Old Europe” several times in the last couple of years, and it looks like I will be turning it into a book. I am also planning a series of trips to various parts of Europe to meet with keepers of surviving Indigenous traditions, though when and where that happens will depend on what kind of funding we are able to raise for the purpose.
I hope that the door which we managed to crack open at the Melbourne Parliament will gradually widen and that the surviving Indigenous pagan religions of Europe will finally be able to shed their mantle of invisibility, not only as a way to insure their continued existence, but also because of the particular wisdom, values and perspectives which they are able to impart.
[ Ed.note: Andras will be offering his talk on The “Indians” of Old Europe on Sunday, September 12 as part of The EarthSpirit Community’s “Sacred Lands” Open Houses at Glenwood Farm in Western Mass. For more information, go to http://www.earthspirit.com/openhouse/index.html ]