Purity of Belief?

Diotima Sophia

It seems that every week sees another new book, website or article published telling us (in case we had some how failed to notice since Frazer pointed it out early in the last century) that Christianity has Pagan roots, Pagan influences or just plain is Pagan. (That last claim requires, however, linguistic gymnastics of Olympian standard).

The – usually unspoken – assumption underlying all these literary efforts is that somehow reliance on previous belief, or incorporation of older rituals, invalidates the newer faith. The idea seems to be that because the newer faith contains elements of the old, the newer one is untrue, hybrid, and therefore not worthy of belief.

Within the Pagan community itself charge and countercharge of eclecticism and cultural theft fly with all too predictable regularity. Some proudly wear “eclectic” as a badge of defiant honour with others proclaim the purity of their path from the lofty heights of self secure superiority.

All of this raises a number of questions, the most important of which (in my mind, at least), is, is such purity a good thing? However, we need to approach the answer to that question by a vaguely circuitous route, by looking at some of the elements that lie along the way.

The first point I’d raise has to do with the pill box of purity on which some stand to berate the rest of us as eclectic, as cultural thieves, as pickers-up-of-unconsidered-spiritual triflesi.

Is it possible to make, and more importantly, substantiate such claims of Pagan purity? Is there, in fact, any such thing as a “pure” faith, path, religion, belief?

I doubt it very much. Even if one is talking about an entirely new path, directly revealed by the divine to an individual, that path will, of necessity, make use of ideas, signs and symbols which already exist and which will have been used somewhere before. No matter how new something is, we drag all of our previous experience along with us when we come to the new.

If we’re talking about a community of belief, the waters become even muddier. Aside, perhaps, from belief systems which are from entirely isolated groups, discovered yesterday and published today (ignoring the necessity of translation, of course), is it even possible to have a pure, “uncontaminated” system?

My answer is two fold: no, and why should that be problematic?

First of all, (again, aside from things directly told to us by the divine), we receive beliefs from other people. The issue of the editor, the redaktor, the translator, is a well known and widely discussed one . Is it actually possible to follow, for example, a pure Celtic path, when so much of the information that comes to us arrives through channels which were not adherents of the beliefs?

Considering the problems of translation, is it even possible to claim to follow a path in a “pure” manner – be it Nordic or Celtic– if the information is not in the original language? The common phrase – every translator is a traitor – bears the burden of truth; words are hard enough to translate; concepts are much more difficult. If we read our sources in translation, we have already let someone (at least one person, often many more) come between us and the material – we rely on their skills, and indeed on their honesty and objectivity, as much as we do on the original text.

If we assume that people are the sorts of animals that have beliefs about things such as gods, magic, spirits, the supernatural – and this seems to be a well founded assumption – then it becomes difficult if not impossible to talk about a “pure” path. What we tend to mean here is not “pure” in the sense of “it contains no parts belonging to anyone else” but rather, “old”.

For a path to be “pure” we’d have to be able to show not only the terminus ad quem (ending point – a point where additions and changes stopped being made) but also a terminus ad quo (the starting point) – when it began, and we would have to know that it began as something entirely new, with no elements of the old. How would this ever be possible?

Rather, what people tend to mean by “pure” or uncontaminated, might be better expressed as “unchanged since a particular date”, “not updated”, or, if we wish to be unkind, “stagnant”.

Controversial words, but perhaps apt.

We know from history that our predecessors had few difficulties incorporating change into their beliefs – the Egyptians were past masters at welcoming new deities into their pantheon ; the Romans and Greeks found this not only simple but expedient . Those who write of Celtic belief and literature speak of early and late examples of both . The fact that this delineation can be made is enough to show that change was taking place over time.

Why should we assume that any particular belief had reached an “elegant sufficiency” before our own era? Why hallow the ancient at the expense of the present? Many ancient cultures would have been baffled by an assertion that belief and knowledge were fixed and complete.

Indeed, even more controversially, I would argue that a contention that belief should be kept “pure” in some pristine state inherited from the distant past is far more appropriate for followers of a book based relation – something with a definitive text that can be pointed at and referred to – rather the belief systems or paths which are founded on the priority of the individual over the text. Rather than Christianity being influenced by ancient Paganism, (which it undoubtedly was), this surely is a case of modern Paganism being influenced at the very least by the societal mindset which is redolent of religions of the bookii.

Why should religions, beliefs, faiths, paths, stop evolving at a particular point in time? Why are we happy to accept, for the sake of argument, Egyptian religious beliefs from the New and Old Kingdom, but rail against incorporation (again for the sake of argument) of elements of Amerindian belief into a person system combining both? The citizens of the New Kingdom would have taken such syncretism in their stride, after all.

What of the charge, often laid, of “cultural theft”? One who incorporates elements of particularly Amerindian or Aboriginal belief, practice or ritual into their European or otherwise non-Amerindian etc. path is all too open to this charge.

Yet, can culture be stolen? And why is it only particular cultures which seem prone to this theft? Surely all cultures have been plundered at one time or another for what they can bring to today’s practices: is it cultural theft to use an alphabet devised for another language, to use a language such as English which is at best a mongrel of assorted bits from other countries?

Theft, surely, includes not only the use of something but the claim of ownership. To use elements of beliefs or paths which are not one’s own in terms of blood, descent, etc., is not theft – it may be “intelligent use of materials to hand”. It would, however, be theft to then label those practices as something unique, something one had created out of whole cloth. Plagiarism is plagiarism, after all.

We can now return to the original point: the refusal to incorporate modern or cross cultural elements may well be to place human (and not overly well founded) limitations on the divine. Yes, we have some idea at least of what our ancestors on these islands believed about The Morrigan – does this mean to say she will not have changed at all in the intervening centuries? (If so, surely we can only approach her with regard to situations which would have been familiar centuries ago; in another example, if Vulcan is exactly the same now as he was at the fall of Rome, there is little point asking his help with your car).

In other words, not only is it difficult to substantiate claims of “pure” Pagan paths, with no outside influences, but I’m not at all sure it’s useful to do so, or to seek to do so. To insist that one’s path has had no outside influences or has not been updated since some particular date, is to make a series of statements.

The first is that one brings nothing of oneself to the path. We can only approach the divine as people of the 21st C., with all the baggage that carries. If we are part and parcel of our paths, we change those paths, whether we wish to do so or not. Even the language we speak when thinking about them, changes them.

Secondly, it is to say that the path, belief system, etc., has stopped evolving. If that is the case, can it meet the needs of the world as it stands now? It is only by a fairly tortuous route that one can say, for instance, “Hermes is the patron of communication, therefore he understands the internet” if at the same time, one is unwilling to see that anything about religio romana has changed since the Visigoths were at the gates.

Finally, and to me most importantly, it is to prioritise the text, the received information, the textus receptus, over experience. Is that really what Paganism is about? Yet it is only with that mind set that we can accuse each other of theft, of eclecticism, of lack of purity.

Perhaps it is time to concentrate more on the content and less on the provenance?



i This brings to mind a very strange image of a large glass bowl, containing layer upon layer of mythological symbol, interspersed with the custard of belief. It is an image for which I apologise profoundly.

ii Of course, one could argue that this attitude itself derives from Roman, priestly pagan beliefs, with the emphasis on script and exact working which was so important at the time. However that may be, we in the West at least have certainly received that through the medium of the religions of the book.

© Diotima NewWitch issue 7 2004


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