Monday December 17, 2018

New pagan temple in Iceland marks the revival of European Paganism

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By Nithin Sridhar

“The old Gods are not dead; they have only withdrawn themselves. If there is sufficient aspiration, invoking, and soliciting, there is no doubt that even Gods apparently lost could come back again. They are there all the time. For nothing that has any truth in it can be destroyed. It merely goes out of manifestation; but it could reappear under propitious circumstances. So could the old Gods come to life again in response to new summons”- The Word as Revelation, Ram Swarup.

Iceland is about to get its first pagan temple dedicated to the Norse Gods Thor, Odin and Frigg in about 1000 years. The temple that is proposed to be built on a wooded hill overlooking the capital Reykjavik will serve as a place for Asatru pagans to perform marriage, name giving and funeral ceremonies and hold feasts called “blot”.

The Norse paganism flourished in Iceland until 1000 AD when it was overthrown and uprooted by the spread of Christianity. The last major temple dedicated to the Norse gods in Northern Europe was the Temple at Uppsala, in Sweden built by the Vikings in 1070 AD. It was also dedicated to the Gods Thor, Odin and Frigg. The Asatru temple in Iceland attains significance when it is understood from the perspective of wider Pagan revival movement in Europe.

Paganism and Christianity

Before the advent of Christianity, various Indigenous religious systems flourished in Europe. The Celtic polytheism was practiced by Celts in Western Europe and the Baltics and Slavs had their own native religious systems (Baltic Paganism and Slavic Paganism).

Norse Paganism was practiced by North Germanic and Scandinavian people and the people of Greece and Rome had their own philosophy and religious practices.

The rise of Christianity resulted in a decline and eventual death of various indigenous religious systems. The conversion into Christianity on his death bed of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great who ruled between 306-337 CE, gave a death blow to various Pagan religious practices.

Following this legalization of Christianity and its acceptance as the state religion, the persecution of Pagans began and their temples were razed down.

Constantine’s son Constantius II then brought the first anti-Pagan law that banned construction of new temples and banned all sacrifices. Between 381-391 CE, Theodosian I completely banned Paganism through what is now famous as “Theodosian decrees” and authorized the destruction of many temples, holy sites, images and objects of piety throughout the empire.

Apart from the use of force, Christianity also used the process of inculturation, by absorbing the symbols of pagan practices and giving them new Christian meanings (Example: The Sun festival of Mithraism was appropriated as Christmas).  Hence, through a combined effort of evangelism, inculturation, violence, politics and use of power the Pagan practices were destroyed.

Paganism and Monotheism

Paganism was rooted in a wide range of beliefs and practices ranging from polytheism and pantheism to animism and nature worship.

It had no definite set of rules and no dogmas that every follower had to adhere to. It was rooted in belief of multiple Gods who represented various aspects of nature and Universe.

Ram Swarup describes Pagan Gods as being “pretty fulfilling and they inspired the best of men and women to acts of greatness, love, nobility, sacrifice and heroism”.

On the other hand, he explains that the central piece of Monotheism is- “One True God of masculine gender who makes himself known to his believers through an equally favored individual.” Hence, Christianity which is deeply rooted in Monotheism, stands on the belief in One True God, One Book and One Savior.

This non-dogmatic and unorganized manner of the Paganism along with its religious tolerance proved as a weakness which was taken advantage by the Christianity that was well organized and well versed in theology.

In the words of Gilbert E. A. Grindle (in The Destruction of Paganism in Roman Empire)- “The Pagan had no definite dogmatic teaching, no sacred books whose  unquestionable authority might be appealed to. There was also a complete want of organization in the Pagan hierarchy (…) whereas Christianity while it was persecuted religion (i.e. before it was officially adopted)had the advantage of intense conviction in most of its members, which led to the spread their faith (…)enjoyed a well-organized and widely distributed body of ministers.”

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Revival of Paganism in Europe

Druids was the first pagan tradition to be restored in Britain when Irish theologian John Toland, became the first Chosen Chief of the Ancient Druid Order in 1717.

Only in 2010, the Druidry was officially recognized as a religion by the British Charity commission. Wicca was developed in England in the early half of the 20th century. Similarly, Germanic pagan groups like GermanischeGlaubens-Gemeinschaft were formed in Germany in early 20th century.

In Iceland, the Ásatrúarfélagið or the Astaru association was formed in 1972 and was recognized as a religious organization in 1973. The Romuva movement in Baltic was started in 1967. Later, they established the World Congress of Ethnic Religions (WCER) in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1998 with an agenda to help all ethnic religions groups survive and cooperate with each other.

According to the 2011 census conducted in United Kingdom, around 80,000 people in England and Wales described themselves as Pagans. Previously in 2001 census, only 42000 people had declared themselves as Pagans in England, Scotland and Wales combined.

But, Robert Hutton who published “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft” in 1999, estimates that around 2,50,000 people are pagan adherents in UK. In Lithuania, there are around 5000 people following Baltic faith (Romuva) according to 2011 census as against 1270 people reported in 2001 census. The Asatru association that started with only a handful of people currently has close to 3000 members.

This clearly shows that the Pagan movement in its various forms is increasingly growing in the recent decades and the construction of the Pagan temple dedicated to the Norse Gods that is being planned in Iceland sends a definite message that Paganism with its inherent “Unity in Diversity” is here to stay and will flourish further in the near future.

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Paganism and Hinduism

Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma is the only religion and civilization that though ancient in origins, is still surviving and flourishing.

Similar to Paganism, Hinduism is rooted in a reverence to all natural and universal forces and has deeply ingrained the concept of “Unity in Diversity”. The central tenet of Hinduism is “Ekam Sat ViprahaBahudahaVadanti”- One Truth that is called by various names.

Hence, Hinduism can act as a living tradition to which the modern pagan movement can look up to as a medium to connect with its own past, take inspiration and reclaim their own ancient heritage.

Christopher Gérard, the leader of European pagan renaissance who recognized the importance of Hinduism says (as quoted in Hinduism Today July 1999)- “India is a conservatory of traditions going back into our most ancient prehistory. The Paganism of our ancestors has miraculously survived there in spite of Muslim invasions, Christian missions and all the other agents of ethnocide (the systematic destruction of a culture) (….). Yes, India is the land of the Gods par excellence. The experience of the divine presence in India is within the reach of anyone who searches even a little bit. As true Pagans, they feel no need to convert anyone.”

A similar sentiment regarding the role of Hinduism, in the rise and revival of European Paganism is expressed by Ram Swarup as well- “I believe that Hinduism has a very important role in the religious self-recovery of humanity, particularly of Europe. The reason is simple. Hinduism represents the most ancient tradition which is still alive. It has preserved in its bosom the whole spiritual past of humanity.

For self-recovery, these countries have to revive their old gods. But this is a task which cannot be done mechanically. They have to recapture the consciousness which expressed itself in the language of many gods. Here, India can help them with its tradition of yoga. (….)

Hence, the construction of the Pagan temple in Iceland marks an important step in the revival of European paganism that will help Europeans to reconnect with their ancestral culture and traditions and reclaim their past heritage in the long run.

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Cats And The Goddess: Mapping Pagan Iconography Of The Divine Feminine

Polytheism favours the local over the global. Such religions have a disdain toward proselytization, preaching, and imposing their system of beliefs on natives outside of their geographical sphere. Localization and the awe with which Polytheism regards Nature, led to indigenous animals being co-opted into mythology, and assigned to the divinities as patron creatures.

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The Greeks and Romans may have had a special place for the owl, which they associated with their goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, but the Big Cats trumped the owls in popularity.
Hinduism Durga Mata, wikimedia commons

By Tania Bhattacharya

 

South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association.
Ms Tania Bhattacharya

The feline species have enjoyed a special place in the pantheons of global Paganism. Long before the advent of the three Abrahamic religions that came to dominate humanity, the world used to be pagan. It was in this Polytheistic atmosphere, that animals came to be represented, and associated with the divine beings.

 

Polytheism favours the local over the global. Such religions have a disdain toward proselytization, preaching, and imposing their system of beliefs on natives outside of their geographical sphere. Localization and the awe with which Polytheism regards Nature, led to indigenous animals being co-opted into mythology, and assigned to the divinities as patron creatures.

 

Among Native Americans, the bear, the eagle, and the wolf, hold a special status and are feted as powerful beings worthy of worship. Among the peninsular Arabs of Pre-Islamic times, the Camel and the Bat were similarly attributed magical powers. The sub-Saharan Africans have placed their wildlife on a pedestal in their oral mythologies. The Chinese have named their New Years after their own. Greco-Roman pantheons were thick with images of owls, and bulls, the most iconic being the Minotaur. The Fox, the snake, and the monkey, are regular fixtures in Japan’s homemade Shinto faith, while India’s Hinduism and its myriad aboriginal or Adivasi beliefs, incorporate many animals from the South Asian landscape, like monkeys, boars, elephants, bulls, peacocks, and mice.

 

Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.
Goddess Cybele’s chariot puled by a pair of lions

While the emphasis on the animal kingdom and Polytheism’s anxiety in elevating the association of humans with beasts is not only unique and worthy of emulation, there is one species of animals that stands out from the rest. It has the longest, and most robust history of being borrowed into myth, legend, and religious ditties. The reference is to the Felids of the earth. A community of creatures that humans have admired for thousands of years, for their stealthy hunting practices, intelligence, cleanliness, fearlessness, pride, reclusiveness, and rodent exterminating qualities.

 

Does the pan-Feline presence through the various Pagan folklores of human history, signal at a common thread that runs through us all? It would be safe to say so. This one species has ruled and dominated our imagination like no other.

 

Let us begin with the Egyptians, the grand old daddies of Polytheistic heritage. The ancient Kemites of Egypt, were quire impressed with the domestic cat. It featured in funerary rituals and worship, and was used as a totem to keep evil forces at bay. The Cat was the only animal, that Kemetic Egypt allowed inside its temples and other places of worship. Mummies of famous ancient Egyptian figures, have been found beside life size idols of gilded cats with septum rings, and pearl embellished collars.

This chance occurrence had forever immortalized the Feline species as being irrevocably intertwined with Goddess worship.
Idol of Goddess Durga

The Greeks and Romans may have had a special place for the owl, which they associated with their goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, but the Big Cats trumped the owls in popularity. With their majestic muscle composition, flexible vertebrae, spread eagle skills, playful nature, large, liquid eyes, and stealth hunting, the big cats came to be incorporated in imagery, most often being placed alongside, or below, figurines of Cybele, the divine goddess of war. Since Neolithic times, Cybele was venerated with much fanfare among the Mediterranean’s pagans. With the arrival of the proto-Indo European Hittites, who managed a sprawling empire in Anatolian Turkey, Cybele consolidated her position as the Lion Lady of West Asian iconography.

 

Not to be left behind, the neighbouring Babylonians, a Semitic civilization that occupied the landscape of ancient Iraq, began to correlate the Leopard with their Supreme Mother goddess, Asherah. She was portrayed as riding the big cat in all her glory, proud and defiant. The pre-Islamic Arabs, placed the Desert Lynx, a powerful feline hunter, next to the triplet of female divinities they called Al Uzza, Al Lat, and Al Manat. The three would be incorporated into Islam many centuries later, as the daughters of Allah, himself a local Polytheistic male deity of Pagan Arabia.

 

The Persians, products of the Asian continent’s most inspirational, and splendid culture, and the one that stood the ravages of time for millennia, immortalized their Mother Goddess Anahita or Nahid, as riding atop the Lion, as she communicated with successive Persian emperors. Meanwhile, in distant Scandinavia, the Vikings and the Nords, had proceeded to dovetail and make synonymous, the divinity of the Panther with their goddess of beauty, Freya, after whom Friday has been named. Freya’s chariot was depicted as being drawn by a pair of wild panthers, making them an extension of her latent powers, and her fierce, protective nature.

This sign was depicted by the Virgin goddess, an attribute commonly found in many Classical cultures, even though most myths woven around the personality of the Mother Goddess, address her as a mother and a wife and not necessarily a Virgin.
Pre-Islamic Arabian goddesses named Al Uzza, Al Lat and Al Manat. The three would be incorporated into Islam many centuries later, as the daughters of Allah, himself a local Polytheistic male deity of Pagan Arabia.

South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association. Religious iconography bloomed in paintings, murals, and sculptures, illustrating a symbiotic relationship between the Mother Goddess, and her ride, the Lion, and alternatively, the Tiger. As Durga, or Parvati, sat bestride her mount, she became symbolic of the animal’s power, its fierce energy, as also its nurturing qualities as a parent. Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.

 

Why was this particular animal singled out for veneration, over time and space, in the human imaginarium of our Polytheistic ancestors? Lions and other Big Cats were often used for symbolizing royalty. This is cogent with our perception of what royalty constitutes of and how it can be made to synergize with the admirable traits of the feline species. The Lion Capital of the Hittites at Anatolia’s Hattushah, centrally located in modern Turkey; the obsessively frequent appearance of Lions in portraiture, reliefs, and wall friezes during the fearsome rule of the Assyrian emperors like Ashurbanipal; and the minting of royal coins with cameos containing one or the other of the Felids has been commonplace. An animal that possesses so much energy, brute force, and intelligence would naturally be equated with seats of power. But this does not adequately explain why the Felids were sought out over cultures, for accompanying the Divine Feminine.

Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.
Goddess with their divine animals, The Cat was the only animal, that Kemetic Egypt allowed inside its temples and other places of worship.

All this would change in 1945. That year, an Egyptian farmer at the village of Nag Hammadi, had accidentally struck at a hidden library while tilling the land. The Egyptian Department of Archaeology was summoned and a Pandora’s Box was laid bare. The library was found to contain some fifty gospels, belonging to an Alexandrian spiritual community, which was active some two thousand years ago. Calling themselves the Theraputae, the oblates from this distinct order, drew upon Polytheistic creativity to weave fantastical tales that hid great truths about the Sciences, and Moral conduct. According to the Nag Hammadi literature, the Lion and by association, other members of the Big Cat family, were representative of the zodiac of Leo. At the tail end of Leo, was Virgo. This sign was depicted by the Virgin goddess, an attribute commonly found in many Classical cultures, even though most myths woven around the personality of the Mother Goddess, address her as a mother and a wife and not necessarily a Virgin. However, in some of her most evocative folklore, she dons the garb of the Divine Virgin, and thus transforms into the symbolism for the sign of Virgo. The reason the Lion and the remaining felids had been made parallel with her, was because Virgo immediately followed Leo, the zodiac sign represented by the Lion. This chance occurrence had forever immortalized the Feline species as being irrevocably intertwined with Goddess worship.

 

Of the many virtues of Polytheism, one of the greatest has been the visualizing of the feminine gender in the role of the divine, and placing as much emphasis on her being, as much as on her male counterparts. Goddesses were powerful in their own right. These were no shrinking violets hanging on the arms of their male consorts. Instead, they multitasked as warriors, mothers, avengers, and nurturers. Many later man-made religions would remove women from their lofty position of divinity and reduce them as sidekicks or even worse, as insignificant others, who played second fiddle to the male Almighty and his necessarily male adversary, Satan.

South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association. Religious iconography bloomed in paintings, murals, and sculptures, illustrating a symbiotic relationship between the Mother Goddess, and her ride, the Lion, and alternatively, the Tiger.
Goddess Durga Idol, As Durga, or Parvati, sat bestride her mount, she became symbolic of the animal’s power, its fierce energy, as also its nurturing qualities as a parent.

It is ironic, that in our present times, both the feminine and the feline, are endangered. Women, despite great strides in education and professional visibility, are walking a slippery slope that impacts their dignity and sense of self. Their self=assertiveness has been misconstrued by elements of society, as ‘rebellion’ which needs to be quelled with violent force, and many a times, without her consent. In a parallel universe, the felines have lost ground to the rapacious greed of the human species. Their territories have been taken over by property developers, they have watched their natural prey disappear or relocate, and some have been reduced to man-eating, to survive. This is a cruel conspiracy against the Laws of Mother Nature, who watches in despair.

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