Return of the Ancient Gods: The Resurgence of Paganism
Over the past two centuries, Europe has become increasingly secular. Scholars in fact no longer talk of the Christian West when they speak of Modern Europe and North America, but of the Secular West. There is however evidence of a spiritual revival stirring on the continent where God is supposedly dead.
Old traditions pre-dating the appearance of the Jewish carpenter turned Messiah are beginning to re-emerge. Since the 19th century, there has been an increasing interest in ancient pre-Christian European religions such as ancient Greek, Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic paganism. This stems from an increasing interest in spirituality in Europe, specifically a spirituality in touch with European heritage and ethnic roots in a similar manner to indigenous religions of Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians.
Ancient and Modern Combine
Among modern Pagans, there are two approaches to reviving pagan practices. One is eclecticism or syncretism, in which elements of historical ethnic religions such as the ancient Norse religion are combined with modern movements such as Wicca, Theosophy or other New Age philosophies. This is largely based on romantic views of these ancient religions which emerged in the 19th century which may or may not be historically accurate.
In Iceland, the Norse gods are making a particularly strong comeback and Nordic paganism is now Iceland’s fastest growing religion. In fact, they will soon complete the first temple to Thor and Odin to exist in Iceland in over 1000 years. “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” High priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson told the Guardia n. “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”
Denmark too completed a pagan temple dedicated to Odin for the first time in a millennium in 2016.
A modern-day pagan celebration ( theweek.com)
Reconstructing the Past
The other approach is polytheistic reconstructionism which is an attempt to make an historically accurate reconstruction of these ancient religions based on historical sources, archaeological data, and perhaps ethnographic comparison. Reconstructionists avoid embellishing ancient pagan religions with modern movements and ideologies.
One of the largest movements currently which can be either syncretic or reconstructionist is the revival of Germanic Paganism or “Heathenry.” Modern Germanic Pagans or Heathens, as they prefer to call themselves, worship the old Germanic gods, especially Thor and Odin as well as Germanic nature spirits such as Elves and Trolls. Germanic Heathens appear to have three different approaches to proselytizing and practicing their religion. Some Heathens emphasize simply the worship of the Germanic gods and believe that anyone regardless of their national, ethnic, or racial background can worship the Gods. These are the universalists.
Germanic Gods Wodan, Thor and Frijar
There are other Heathens, however, who believe that Germanic cultural and spiritual values also need to be adopted in order to be true worshipers of the Germanic gods. Most of the latter group of Heathens also believe that worship of the Germanic gods is not limited to any particular ethnic or racial background simply that those individuals interested in worshiping them should learn something about and agree with some aspects of the culture from which they originated. Germanic Paganism is after all technically an ethnic religion. There are some Heathens however who call themselves Folkists or Folkish Heathens who believe that only those who are of White Northern European descent have any right to worship the Gods. These are the ones that tend to promote White supremacism and other explicitly racist agendas. Other Heathens, as a result, try to distance themselves from the Folkists, even those who would otherwise agree that Heathens who worship the Germanic gods should adopt Germanic values.
Slavic Paganism or Heathenry is also enjoying a resurgence in Eastern Europe in countries with large Slavic populations. A movement known as Rodnovery or “Native Faith” is made up of communities which claim to continue the ancient Slavic religion which was mostly replaced by Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This movement is especially strong in Poland despite the nation’s dominant Catholic identity. Many Rodnovery are self-described reconstructionists but others claim direct continuity with the ancient traditions claiming that their families continued the old religion in secret or in cloaked form alongside Christianity.
Revival of the Greek Gods
In Greece, a couple of organizations have emerged promoting a revival of the ancient Greek religion under the name “Hellenism.” The Hellenists also call themselves Dodekatheists or believers in twelve gods, namely the Olympian deities. Religious practices in Hellenism include public worship at temples or in outdoor open spaces of the major Greek gods, Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, Hera, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Demeter, Hephaestus, Hermes, Hestia, Dionysus, Hades and Poseidon among others. There is also a large household worship component centered on domestic Greek deities such as Hestia, goddess of the hearth. Most Hellenists are politically inactive but some of them desire to create a national and ethnic identity for Greece not rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy. Some Hellenists have been vocally hostile towards the Greek Orthodox Church but many simply want to practice their religion amicably alongside Greek Christians.
The Council of Gods in Olympus ( greekgodsandgoddesses.net)
The Return of Celtic Paganism
In addition to the revival of Greek, Germanic, and Slavic forms of paganism, there is also an attempt to revive Celtic paganism. There are both reconstructionist Modern Celtic Pagans and syncretic Modern Celtic Pagans who also incorporate Wicca and other traditions into their religion. Modern Celtic Pagans use the Lunar calendar of the ancient Celts and celebrate the solstices and equinoxes as well as the cross-quarter days, days that are half-way between one of the solstices and one of the equinoxes, as religious festivals. These festivals include the well-known festivals of Samhain and Imbolc. There does not appear to have been any attempt to connect Contemporary Celtic Paganism to a political agenda or nationalist movement unlike the other forms of Contemporary Paganism.
Beltane Fire Festival Celebrations. Source: CC BY NC-SA 2.0
The Past Meets the Future
Religions tend to shape civilizations. When Europe became Christian and the Middle East and North Africa became Muslim, two different civilizations were formed which were quite different because of the religious traditions on which they were based. Europe most likely won’t become pagan again, but it is interesting to think of what sort of civilization would be birthed from the revival of one of these ancient religious traditions. What would a modern Pagan Greece look like culturally and politically, for example? One thing is for certain, it would go in a rather different direction than either a Christian or Secularist Greece.
Top image: Illustration of Celtic goddess (jozefklopacka / Adobe Stock)
By Caleb Strom
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