A brahmin walked into a Pagan bar….

Is Paganism always defined by the affirmation of life and corporeal being?

I’m finishing Michael York’s Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, the subject of my last entry as well. Its strength: an exploration of the various polytheistic world religions, as well as several non-polytheistic faiths, which are parsed for Pagan behavioral holdovers. As a compendium of religious customs in India, Japan, China and other places, it’s wonderful. Its weakness, I think, lies in its overall foundation.

His idea is that polytheistic systems — he uses “Pagan,” but I’ll go directly for what I mean by the term: systems that allow for more than one god — can be encompassed by one overarching theology. Interesting concept. Ultimately, that theology is based on the earth, on bhakti-type devotion, on nature and physical being, in so many words. Systems that transcend the primacy of the earthly/corporeal/physical and its concerns are, in his estimation, simply not Pagan.

He defines Buddhism as “protestant Hinduism,” which I find a bit perplexing. However, I can see how that could be the case. I disagree with his contention that the brahmin caste was Dravidian in origin, and that it gained primacy through a “con job.” (His terms.) Yes, they did write themselves into first place — since they were perhaps the only people of that time and place who could write, and had knowledge of the “sacred things.” Priestly castes, however, are native to Indo-European systems; see the typical relationship between the Roman flamen, the brahmin and the Celtic Druid, for example. Yes, I understand he doesn’t like brahmins and believes them to be greedy frauds (“greedy” is a term he uses) — but shouldn’t an academic researcher be able to recognize one’s own biases and put them aside?

Zoroastrianism? A “pagan perversion” because it flips the poles of the devas/gods and asuras/demons, and makes the other the divine party. This is, of course, true — but I don’t see why honoring the Jotun or the Fomhoire as your divine pantheon would make you un-Pagan, since you’re not denying the existence of multiple spirits, the importance of the natural world, etc. It might make you an absolute fool, unless you know something about the Fomhoire I don’t, but a uniquely Pagan fool.

Hinduism with its many Gods and Pagan philosophies that don’t fit his concept of earth-centered bhakti — Plato, the Orphics, etc. — are gnostic, not Pagan. In secular modern times, Pagan devotion can be observed … in going to bars, the opera, the movies.

Um, what?

Taverns were pretty darn popular in Pagan Roman times. Those pesky Greeks and Romans also had theater and their own “star” actors. While you can argue that Greek theaters were, in fact, shrines to Dionysus, they were different than, say, an actual temple. I dare say that most Pagans in those days went to the theater to be entertained or to be deeply moved (in the case of tragedy), to see their favorite actors — much the same reasons people go to the theater today. People went to the tavern to connect with others, not to honor supernatural spirits by sipping a dram of Jack. Social behavior isn’t necessarily pagan; it’s simply human. It’s what we, as a social species, do.

And I’m left wondering: can you have a “transcendental” Paganism, or must Pagan religions be, by definition, focused on the earth and earthly life? Is Paganism always life-affirming, however that is defined?

In most forms of Neo-Paganism, that answer would be yes. But I don’t agree. Platonism, Orphism, the mystery religions of Isis, Mithras, Demeter and Persephone — all, in some respects, transcend the bounds of earthly living and concerns. They focus on the mysteries of the afterlife, conquering death and, in some cases, pursuing “pure” celestial wisdom. Some of the Greek philosophers were monists, although they operated in a polytheistic system.

There are Pagan traditions that include the mortification of the flesh: Hindu ascetics piercing their skin or practicing austerities to gain wisdom, the Plains Nations’ Sun Dance, the Mayans and Aztecs piercing their tongues and drawing blood in atonement. Purification is part of many traditional polytheistic religions. Some traditions are downright gory and life-denying; what I saw of Mayan practices during that culture’s imperial era at Chichen Itza would fit the bill. There are traditional practices in polytheistic cultures many modern Pagan traditions would find absolutely abhorrent.

I suppose that’s one of the dirty little secrets no one wants to bring up, since modern polytheists do encounter very real prejudices in a monotheistic culture that has defined them as minions of the devil. We like to paint ourselves and our ancestors as pure and innocuous. And most of the time, we are. But we’re people, too, and all peoples and faiths have their screwed-up bits, whether you’re talking about Aztec human sacrifice or the Spanish Inquisition.

Overall, what I took from the book: You can define “paganism” as anything you want to justify your personal theories. Which is a shame, because the depiction of various world cultures in the book is really vivid. Better explorations of Pagan theology can be found in John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods and, although more narrowly focused, in Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue.

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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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