Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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Pagans, paganism, paganisms or pre-conversion?

The modern words 'pagan' and 'paganism' are curious creatures. Their origin is a word the Romans used, pagus, which has the literal meaning of 'the people of the place'. Mostly it is translated as 'the dwellers in the countryside'.

The term 'pagan' took off among the more evangelical and proselytising early Christian missionaries. Or, more accurately, the word paganismus was frequently used as a term of opprobrium. Paganismus is a hybrid word which combines the Latin pagus ('villagers') with the Greek -ism ('system of belief') so means the 'system of belief of the villagers'.

Paganismus became the word used by followers of predominately urban-based mystery cults such as Christianity and its more thriving competitors, such as Mythraism, to refer to the more traditional religious practices of the generally-despised 'country bumpkins' who lived outside the cities. Those rural dwellers certainly never thought of their religion as 'pagan'.

All the evidence is that the people deemed to be pagans had no formal system of belief. So in a very real sense there was no paganismus – no 'system of belief'. Indeed, early written sources reveal that Christian missionaries were unable to comprehend variety and chaos of paganism (Dowden 2000: 149). This is discussed in more detail in the article Local distinctiveness in Anglo-Saxon England.

The concept of 'paganism' is a purely Christian invention, a convenient label to stand alongside Judaism and Christianity – both of which terms then embraced, and continue to embrace, a wide variety of different ways of being Jewish or Christian. Over a millennium later Jesuit missionaries in India invented the word 'Hinduism' for exactly the same reasons, to give a label to the disparate practices of the people of the Indus. Only later, with the advent of Indian nationalism in the nineteenth century, did Indians begin to use the term 'Hindusim' to refer to their own customary practices.

The 'religion of the place'

Once invented the word 'paganism' took on a life of its own. Most writers explicitly or implicitly used it with the derogatory sense of the 'religion of the country bumpkins', in contrast to Christianity which was, for many centuries, essentially an urban cult. However Ken Dowden has suggested that, initially at least, paganismus was less derogatory and had the sense of the 'religion of the villages' rather than 'villagers'. In other words it was the 'religion of the place', a more accurate description of the diversity of local practices ( Dowden 2000: 3). As such it is remarkably close to the sense of 'the religion of the Indus people', or Hinduism.

The demonic progeny of Aristotelian logic

Perhaps the worst way in which the term 'pagan' has been used is to denote a simple dualistic contrast with Christianity. Too many people – including previous generations of scholars – tried to think in terms of clear-cut distinctions between This and That, whether the comparison is between good and evil, magic and religion, or any number of more secular comparisons. However such crude distinctions into This versus That tell us little about the ever-shifting processes whereby meaning and significance continually evolve. Opposed dualisms are merely the demonic progeny of Aristotelian logic.

Thinking in terms of a more dialectical model of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, adds a modicum of reality by recognising that ideas are always in a state of flux. But even this does not do justice to the way there are, and always have been, many ways of being Christian, Jewish, Hindu or whatever at any one time. And, as I argue in Micro-pagandoms, there were also a great many ever-shifting ways of being 'pagan' at any given time. Using the word 'pagan' to infer – intentionally or otherwise – some sort of unified precedent to some sort of unitary Christianity distorts the past beyond all possible recognition. And the safest way to avoid accidentally resurrecting this simplistic pagan:Christian dualism is to avoid using the word 'pagan'.

Modern pagans

The same sense of local diversity is shared by modern pagans, with any number of different formal and informal groups, not to mention unaffiliated individuals. There are an number of overlaps of belief and practices, some underlying worldviews, but no one attribute which every modern pagan would agree to.

Some of those modern pagans think of themselves as witches, or as shamans, or as Druids, or Scandinavian heathens, or 'none of the above'. Some will have been several of these in succession or simultaneously. Indeed, a fairly rapid rate of personal 'evolution' of spiritual ideas is perhaps one of the most notable traits of modern pagans.

In Twilight I have avoided using the words 'pagan' and 'paganism'. In part this is because these words are essentially a Christian inventions which 'demonise' pre-conversion beliefs and practices. In part it is because modern pagans, in all their variety, are surprisingly different from the beliefs and practices I am attempting to identify. If that surprises you, then take a peek at some of my conclusions, then delve into the articles which make up Anglo-Saxon Twilight to find out more!

Modern Heathens

Perhaps even more surprising is that the Anglo-Saxon worldviews explored in Twilight have almost nothing to do with the form of modern paganism often known as Heathenry. This is because modern Heathens are influenced by Scandinavian sagas and, for Anglo-Saxon of the fifth to ninth centuries – the scope of Twilight – these ideas were still in the future.

Furthermore, anyone who is aware of some of the key ideas in modern Heathenry will find many of their assumptions about historical 'facts' challenged by the more recent scholarship which underpins the approach in Twilight. The article on Modern scholarship versus popular understanding explains more.

If not pagans or heathens, then what?

So if neither the words 'pagans' or 'heathens' are suitable to describe beliefs and worldviews of the Anglo-Saxons before the conversion to Christianity is completed, then what term should be used? I have opted simply for 'pre-conversion' as this makes no attempt to imply there was any overall homogeneity. It allows for both local diversity at any one moment in time and for local practices to steadily change over time (yes, those textbook terms 'synchronic' and 'diachronic' variation).

And the pre-conversion Anglo-Saxons would have certainly changed over time. There would have been numerous influences from other pre-Christian local practices – people did move from place to place, especially the women who went to live among their husband's extended family, so would have shared different ways of doing almost the same sort of rites. And of course the conversion to Christianity did not happen overnight – there was a steady influence ranging from seemingly isolated survivors of churches founded under Roman occupation, to successive waves of missionaries from Ireland, Wales and then Rome. The practices of the people yet to be converted would have been influenced by the bling, razzmatazz, exoticism and zealotry of the 'new kids on the block', the missionaries.

Even when people were baptised in the new faith they may still find it hard to think of Christ as not just 'another god' to be worshipped alongside all the traditional ones. And it would take many generations – indeed many centuries – before the pre-conversion worldviews, the underlying assumptions about the nature of reality, to shift to those of the Roman church. Those changes in worldview had barely begun by the tenth century and took until the twelfth century to be more-or-less completed.

So, in all this complexity, across the whole fifth to ninth century period which Twilight mostly discusses, the term 'pre-conversion' will be used to refer to practices, beliefs and underlying worldviews which originate from before Christian missionaries and clergy began to influence the way people thought about deities, saints, souls, elves and their ilk, and themselves as human beings.

See also There is no paganism. There is only what we do here.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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