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“The old Gods are not dead; they have only withdrawn themselves.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.”
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.
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.