Farewell, Old Pagan World

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I have a long-standing interest in the process by which societies both ancient and modern convert to Christianity, and how they handle the older underlying pagan or primal traditions. In recent times, people have been quite cynical about these early conversions, imagining that missionaries simply cast a light Christian cloak over older pagan ways, which continued more or less unaffected. In that case, it should be fairly easy to scrape off the Christian veneer to reconstruct those older pagan ways. That process is at the heart of the modern neo-pagan revival, and of movements like Wicca.

But it's not that easy. In Europe at least, our immersion in Christianity is so long-standing and so total as to make it very difficult indeed to determine what is authentically ancient or pagan. Often, what looks very primal and ancient is in fact a recent concoction.

Here is a case in point. Right up until very recent times, illustrations in books on ancient British and Celtic paganism commonly used the imposing figures carved into chalk hillsides across southern England, and variously depicting horses and human figures. Normally, these were thought to be associated with the Late Iron Age. A particular favorite was the Cerne Abbas giant, a sexually explicit male figure some 180 feet tall (image available here. Don't say you weren't warned). Much ink has been shed explicating the figure, who draws on Classical images of Hercules. In the context though, it is surely a Celtic fertility god.

Well, no. Scholar Ronald Hutton points out that the figure is not even referred to before the late 17th century, unlike other authentic monuments like Stonehenge, which had intrigued travelers through the Middle Ages. By far the most likely conclusion is that this impressive figure, with his giant phallus and club, is meant to depict not Hercules but... Oliver Cromwell. The local landowner in the 1650s was a Royalist Anglican who loathed Cromwell's Puritan regime. In internal exile on his estate, he whiled away his time ordering the construction of a savage chalk-cut cartoon of the dictator, with the large club indicating the regime's total lack of legitimacy.

Cerne Abbas isn't a pagan idol, it's a dirty joke.

But at least, surely, we can find the old pagan world in literature? Across Northern and Western Europe, many extant epics and tales seem to depict a pre-Christian barbarian world, an age of gods, monsters and magic. It was his deep familiarity with such real-life tales that allowed J.R.R. Tolkien to construct his imaginary worlds, which draw equally on Norse, Celtic, and Germanic literatures. Admittedly, the fact that these texts survive at all means that at some stage, they must have been preserved and copied by Christian monks, however little sympathy they might have had for the pagan wonders they were copying. If they did add any pious Christian touches, though, it should be easy enough to strip them away to find the pagan original.

Just look, for instance, at the primitive savagery of an epic like Beowulf. What could be more ancient and pagan? As you may recall, this great poem tells of a village besieged by a terrifying monster called Grendel. The mighty hero Beowulf defeats Grendel, only to find that he must then combat a still more alarming enemy in Grendel's mother.

Let's look at those names. "Grendel" makes some sense in terms of a thing that grinds, that crushes with its ferocious teeth, but logically the Anglo-Saxon name should be something like "Grendr." So where did the "-el" part come from? Forty years ago, medieval scholars offered a surprising answer. Whoever composed Beowulf drew heavily on the Hebrew Bible, and more specifically, on an influential apocryphal text called the Book of Enoch.

In the Biblical Book of Genesis, we hear of the sons of God mating with the daughters of men, and those monstrous hybrids fascinated later writers. In Enoch, they become cannibals and giants, who sound very much like Grendel's horrible family. Enoch also delights in listing those giants and angels, whose names usually end with the Hebrew "-el." So we have Ramiel, Danel, Asael... How natural then for a medieval writer to invent Grendel.

This is not a case of a medieval monk lightly editing an ancient poem by throwing in an extraneous reference to Christ or the Virgin. Grendel, under that name, must have been an integral part of the story from the beginning. The only conclusion, then, is that this whole poem was written by someone who had read Enoch, and in the context of the time, that must have been a Christian cleric. Once that is established, you begin to see the Christian and Biblical themes that run through the whole work.

In modern times, books by authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have inspired hugely successful popular culture treatments, although they are sometimes accused of imposing their Christian interpretations on the older mythologies. In reality, it is very hard indeed to excavate through those medieval Christian layers to find Europe's pagan roots. Never underestimate just how thoroughly and totally the Christian church penetrated the European mind.

Sorry, pagans.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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