Pagans All Around Us
Article ID: 15817
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: January 1st. 2015
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How many of you know we live in a world rich in Pagan practices and customs? Does it surprise you that an essay would be about this topic? Perhaps youíve been listening to too many claiming to be in the societal mainstream using the media to complain, usually making the assumption that it is their values that are in danger of being lost. Yet many of those same values are based on Pagan ideas. Humans can be such illogical creatures. Philosophers and theologians may propose systems of thought and belief, but we always end up confusing things. The reality of our world is that we are a mixed culture of conflicting customs and this is one of those things that is wonderful about humanity. I love how people tend to blend things they admire on their everyday practices. For me, this is a positive part of being human and a reflection of the diverse, complex society we live in.
This essay in fact is intended to look at our society from a slightly different perspective. Call it revisionist? Maybe so, but all I am doing is looking around the world you and I live in and pointing out things in plain sight. As humans, we can be so blind to those things we see every day. Due to its topic, I do have to limit the scope of this article to the culture of the USA. Truth be told though, while the last few decades have tended to minimize differences between the regions of our country, your local reality may differ in at least some ways because that is the way culture works. One thing is common no matter where you live in the USA: we live in a secular society. So in case it isnít obvious, my examples reflect both the secular expression (popular culture) as well as more spiritual expressions. People are quirky after all. Who doesnít mix the two a bit?
Lets start with Christmas. Really! Ancient Romans celebrated this end of year harvest festival for a week starting around Dec. 17th. Of course, so is the date of the holiday, which was also borrowed (or perhaps exchanged) for the Pagan Roman holiday Saturnalia. Much of the celebrations involved parties and gift-giving. Santa Claus? Well, do I really need to go there? Is the jolly old elf really St. Nicholas, Father Christmas or maybe Odin or some other Pagan God put in a red suit? We owe that modern image of Santa in his red suit to a single poem that most people still learn by heart as a kid. However who is that man inside the costume? More importantly, does it matter? The Christmas tree? Our lovely evergreen is a borrowing from Pagan Northern Europe. While lately designer trees came come in black, gold or silver, the notion remains the same and even most Christian commentators will admit that this American custom, first introduced in the 1840s by German immigrants to the United States has little or nothing to do with the religion they are so keen on saying is the Ďreason for the seasoní. I never thought to question the Christmas tree in the church as a child and indeed most clergy will freely admit the addition and simply state that it is just another symbolic representation of the birth/rebirth central to their faith. The same for the holy and mistletoe garlands that appear everywhere, borrowed from Celtic druids ultimately.
Some other prominent holidays with strong Pagan ties: Of course, Easter is near the top of the list. This holiday celebrating rebirth has deep Pagan roots. The Easter Bunny with her magic eggs is a Goddess in a different form. Now deeply intertwined as one of the most religious of Christian celebrations, Easterís roots in multiple traditions are undeniable. In my own family, we still celebrate the blended tradition at Easter with special food dishes as well. In the Eastern Orthodox faith, the holiday one eats a ritual dish with the holy meal that involves poppy seed, barley and honey called Kutya. We also leave an empty seat at the table at high meals reserved for the missing family member. So why do I bring up my own family as examples? Thatís because, as adults, we want to pass on those magic things that made our own family so special growing up. So regardless of oneís actual faith, we still try to pass on those things that make our children see themselves as a part of a continuation of blood ties. Religion takes a back seat to the desire to define family.
Just about any Pagan can tell the background on Samhain and there are whole books on the nature of it. Of course to Christians, it is Halloween or All Saints Eve/Day. In the US Protestant tradition, it is generally considered a mostly secular holiday, but that is not true for many in the larger Christian community. It is a deeply Christian religious holiday as well. As the Latin American influence grows in North America, so does awareness of how mainstream the idea of celebrating the dead. Christians with Latin roots know that celebrating the dead is one of the most sincere forms of affirming family heritage in the Latin American Catholic tradition.
In the mainstream US, folks think of bonfires, trick or treating, and pumpkins as the core of the holiday. They are blended in the uniquely North American expression of this celebration. Here in Pennsylvania a local tradition is the Halloween parade. Thatís right, whole towns turn out to have parades down main street: marching bands, costumed characters and all. It all blends together with high school football, hunting season, apple cider and the changing of the seasons. I wonder if any covens in the state join any of these celebrations as an affirmation of common celebration? I wouldnít be surprised if they do somewhere.
Other Pagan celebrations live on in their own, sometimes odd, ways as well. May Day, the solstices, even Groundhog Day all have elements of ritual magick and Pagan elements in them. A local Faerie Festival held each May locally has revived many of the spring devotions, and many people who are not Pagan in the least come out in fey regalia to take part in the fun. The people there are a mix, many young, but a majority are simply families with young children who look in wonder at the spectacle and will keep the experience as a lovingly remembered part of growing up when they do. A local church group attempted to boycott the festival at one time because many LGBT would come out and this as well as the open Pagan tone offended them. Well, the protesters have been gone a few years now, but the festival is as big as ever.
My favorite surprise was when a quick check of the Internet showed that Groundhog Day was considered not only another German import but ultimately tied to Imbolc.
How Pagan ideals have reached into popular culture extends into some other areas as well. I live in Pennsylvania. You might call it the land of the sacred stag. Seriously, deer season really is practically a sacred time of year here. So many people are in the woods on opening day of firearms season that the schools are closed since both students and staff are in the woods. Buck worship is a part of the culture. Iíve seen locals driving their pickup trucks complete with rebel flag (ironic when you realize that PA was a staunch Union state in the Civil War) , yet sprouting a dream catcher hanging from the rear view mirror and bumper sticker with antlers. Many a local hunter where I live will sprinkle tobacco or say a prayer for the spirit of a departed animal after it is slain. Is this theft of Native American culture or a transformation of values? It is touching that now a typical hunter recognizes that the life he or she takes has value and makes a gesture of respect straight from a shamanistic tradition.
There are big ways and little ways that Pagan rituals survive in our culture. Construction crews will place an evergreen tree in the roof level of a new building before putting on a roof. Coins placed on the eyes of the deceased to pay the ferryman Charon on the journey to the underworld. Lawn gnomes, the Green man and other small statuary grace many yards as both decoration and tribute to the hidden folk so many still give token gestures of fear and respect to. Did you know that the mantle of roses traditionally given to the winner of a horse race is an ancient devotion to Epona, Goddess of Horses? Horseshoes hung on the doorframe of a barn? Point the ends up or the magick will escape. Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs are a riot of symbolic magick giving protection, or wealth, health and domestic bliss.
So what the heck does all this crazy stuff mean? Well, I have a point to all this. Recently reading the Golden Bough made me look at the society I live in a slightly different way. I went from the occasional nod at the inclusion of the most obvious of Pagan borrowings to a wider look at all the subtle ways that we are not simply a Judeo-Christian society. Nor is the United States simply a Protestant Christian country, but rather a land whose people have constantly adapted, borrowed and exchanged ideas amongst its peoples.
Instead of complaining about how minimized Pagans are in our culture or how a few right wing religious fanatics are in danger of restarting the burning times, I see a vibrant culture all around me. I, for one, just donít see the modern revival of Pagan religion as the surviving members of ancient Pagan religions coming out into the open. Instead the influences have always been around us in plain sight and just added to the existing cultural practices of mainstream society. Now maybe is a good time to admit that we arenít doing something radical, or in defiance of an oppressive mainstream religion, but just adding our own voice and being aware of our collective place in the world.
A fortress mentality may work when surrounded by real danger (and Iíll be the first to admit there are dangers out there) , however unless the very fabric of our society is changed the only thing most people have to fear is the usual slander of small town gossip and prejudice. Yes, we do live in a highly civilized society, the norms of which includes tolerance of different creeds, and layers of protections so that any group that lives in a lawful manner has recourse when wronged.
As for me personally, I was raised to value my society and live my life as a model of the values I expect of others. Is this Christian virtue? Well yes, and no. Apparently I got many of my values from the Pagans as well. Folks with names like Socrates and Marcus Aurelius set the example long before some half witted village priest was assigned to convert the local peasants by their recently converted king. If you want to know what happened then, read the Golden Bough. It is chock full of examples of how the local folk ended up making their church a part of the ancient world they lived in. The Inquisition was never successful in purifying the faith, not then, or not now although their modern successors in todayís society may keep trying.
Evangelical clergy apparently even now are concerned about these practices and finding anti-pagan debunking websites and sermons on-line is pretty easy. Yet in spite of all the noise about it, people love to celebrate them even when the purists denounce the practices as if they can quantify and fossilize their faith into a pure form.
Myth and religion are living entities. They are not some immutable substance, but living and vibrant like the cultures and societies they spring from. I find looking at it an awe-inspiring process. Donít you?
Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. (New York: Routledge, 1995) ISBN: 0-415-09136-5
Frazer, James., The Golden Bough (single volume condensed edition) , New York., MacMillan Company, 1951
Or Download of the book from Public Domain:
Other sources not cited: I follow the general rule that a source does not need to be cited if it is "common knowledge". I have taken that to mean that if I find the same fact over and over again in just about every source I've checked, I don't need to give a specific cite on that fact. I have followed that guideline here: for example when I say that Epona is worshipped with a garland of roses, it is because every single source I checked repeats exactly the same fact.
Copyright: c. 2014 A I Mychalus.,
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Location: New Park, Pennsylvania
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