“Wherever you know of harm
regard that harm as your own;
give your enemies no peace.”
– Havamal 127
DISCLAIMER: The ideas on this blog do not represent all Paganism, just my own opinions.
First of all when I discuss paganism, I have to make clear that I am talking about the modern practice of Pre-Christian religions. This includes a wide-gamut of practices: Neopaganism, Wicca, Druidry, Asatru, etc. Everyone within these groups has different ideas on what makes a pagan, and some of these people don’t even like being called pagans.
But with that aside, I am going to attempt to tackle an important questions about warfare, pacifism, flower power and so on in the practice of modern day paganism.
Much of the interest in neopaganism got activated in the West a little before the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Wicca was introduced to the public by Gerald Garner in 1954. Other similar traditions started to also go public at that time. And as these traditions grew, they — like any other belief system — came to include many of the popular notions of the era.
Since the cultural revolution of the 1960s took place after the tail end of a massive era of war and violence in the twentieth century (after WWI and WWII), people were understandably sick of violence and embraced ideas of peace. And if peace can be achieved over war, it goes without saying that peace is a good solution.
But is pacifism always the answer? Does it represent some eternal truth? If one thinks of paganism as the ideals inspired by the Vikings, the Celts, the Greeks, the Romans, the Hindus — none of these civilizations were pacifistic by any means. The Bhagavad gita was told in the middle of a battlefield. (Not saying all pagans are inspired by Hinduism, but its concepts of Dharma and Karma are certainly key concepts for most). But I’ve heard Westerners try to rationalize this away by saying, “Oh but it was a metaphorical battlefield!” only for Indian Hindus to tell me…”Uh yeah, our Gods fought wars because sometimes war is necessary to defeat evil.”
If anything, some of the ideas of pacifism incorporated into the writings and teachings on modern day paganism may even be influenced by Christianity. And it’s impossible for anyone in a Western culture not to be influenced by Christianity, since that has been the predominant cultural lens for the past thousand or so years. (Not that the broad practice of Christianity has been pacifistic in any means in the West considering the history of genocide, witch hunts, colonialism, inquisition, and so on, but that there are many pacifistic teachings from Jesus in the Bible).
So this article is my response to certain voices in the pagan community who say that the pre-christian world was predominantly peaceful. Or that the ancient Gods value peace above all. Or the Californication of both pre-christian and Eastern religions. There is an attempt to make these views and practices non-threatening, so people will buy into them (literally and figuratively).
First of all, the pre-christian world was not predominantly peaceful. As stated above, the Celts, the Norse, the Romans, these were cultures that had wars, celebrated warriors, told tales of brave warriors, and even had entire gods and goddesses dedicate to war. Part of the reason why the Roman Empire collapsed is because they were having too many damn wars.
In Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization, a book written by a man who lived with modern tribal people, and studied ancient tribes, he discusses how ancient times may have actually been even more violent than today, stating that with tribal people, a greater percentage of their populations participated and died from violence than people do today. Certainly with what the news may show about terrorism and school shootings people may think, “Oh what violent times we live in.” But at least in Europe and the United States, less than 5% of male deaths are caused by warfare. Compare that number to the Jivaro tribe where the percentage is something like 60%.
Human sacrifice was also practiced in ancient times, as I detail in my article about that topic. There is plenty of proof for this. Written accounts. Human skeletons found with the bones of animal sacrifices. Tales of human sacrifice in ancient myths. Historical accounts. Sure, human sacrifice may have been used as a tool of the Christians to smear non-christian people. But the idea that this NEVER happened and is some evil lie propagated by the haters is laughable.
I have read in multiple neopagan sources that paganism is a peaceful religion, based on peaceful cultures in the ancient world where everyone apparently celebrated flower power. But this is a sweeping generalization that oversimplifies a group of people, deletes a large chunk of their history and ritualistic practice, and more than that — is a glaring misunderstanding of basic human nature.
Humans at our core are aggressive and territorial beings. Tell me you’re not territorial when you get a bug infestation in your house and decide to kill hundreds of living creatures for the mere crime of being in your space (even when they’re doing nothing harmful to you).
As a species, we also bare a strong genetic resemblance to chimpanzees, which are one of the most aggressive primates.
The idea that humans weren’t aggressive or territorial until Christianity came along is fallacious.
Like any truth, it is important to understand that aggression is a normal part of human behavior, and should be accepted as such.
Does that mean that it’s okay for people to go around and pick fights and kill each other for no reason? No. Of course, peace and diplomacy should always be the first course of action, with violence being the very last.
But in order to control aggression, the first step is to accept that we have it. In order to control our violence, we must accept that we are violent beings.
And any real spiritual practice that is worth its salt must encompass all aspects of humanity. Peace. Warfare. The Feminine. The Masculine. Earth. Air. Fire. Water. And so on and so forth.
Many ancient traditions had a cult of the warrior, religious practices for warriors, rites of manhood that emphasized learning how to fight, protecting oneself and enduring suffering (as well as rites for women too). Ignoring that violence exists doesn’t protect one from it. It just makes one weak when the time comes to defend oneself. Modern day practices like self-defense and martial arts actually give people discipline, and make them less violent overall because they learn to control themselves and their own aggression.
And some even say that metal-heads are actually less violent and more well-adjusted because they listen to music that explores themes of violence, aggression and warfare.
So I’ll try to post some articles and sources here that can better understand traditions of warriors in the ancient world.
ONLINE SACRED TEXTS
VIOLENCE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
“If like the Celtic people we revered the rivers we would prioritise this sacred knowledge and curtail the attempts of any that sought to pollute the rivers. If like the Nordic people we believed the souls of our ancestors lived in the trees, this connection would make mass deforestation anathema. If like the native people of America we believed God was in the soil what would our intuitive response be to the implementation of fracking?” ~ Russell Brand (Newstatesman)
I’m neither endorsing nor rejecting Russell Brand’s political views. I’m simply sharing a quote from a famous comedian and pop culture icon that discusses the world of the Pre-Christian man.
[Fun Note: One of the people in the slides is someone I’ve met in person at a local Druid Seed Group. Small world]
This article in the Examiner discusses the rise of Paganism in Britain.
However, as Pagans, we must be careful not to be sensationalists.
I did a previous article about the rapid rise of Paganism HERE.
The problem with the Examiner’s article is that they don’t actually link to a poll with real statistics and numbers. Their “poll” link just goes to a series of Examiner’s British articles.
They say that 38% of British people don’t believe in a Christian God, but that doesn’t automatically lump these British folk into Paganism. That’s like saying all people who don’t like Vanilla Ice Cream automatically love Chocolate – a gross over simplification of the facts. Many of these Non-Christians could be Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists or Muslims. As Pagans, we are definitely a rapidly growing demographic, but our numbers are still quite small for now.
Also, it is a well discussed fact that the number of Pagans has doubled in many polls since the 90’s. Yet part of this recorded growth simply be because more Pagans are coming out of the broom closet so to speak. The internet has also played a liberating factor here. Before the internet, many Pagans practiced alone and generally didn’t discuss their practice with those in their community – if they couldn’t find an appropriate coven/group. Yet the internet has drastically amped up Pagans’ abilities to meet those with similar beliefs in their area.
We can recognize that there have been gradual changes in society that reflect our growing numbers: such as the increase in workplace rights for British Pagans, a recognition that students and workers should be allowed to take off on Pagan Holidays and symbols like the Norse Hammer and the Wiccan Pentacle have been accepted as symbols of faith in the U.S Airforce. The growth of our numbers and acceptance in society makes my heart swell. But let’s be careful to depict the facts of the matter accurately please.
If you live in America like I do, you’ve probably heard a lot about the “Sanctity of Life.” You’ve seen the pro life protesters outside of Abortion Clinics with their posters of half alive fetuses. And who can forget the “big ta do” that was made about Terri Schiavo (The woman whose husband wanted to pull the plug on her because she was in a permanently vegetative state). If someone has suffered permanent brain damage and is hooked up to a machine that keeps them alive – their family will be forced to shell out astronomical amounts of money to keep a brainless body filled with air (unless the person made specifications in a living will before-hand).
Also, we have an insistence on keeping people alive for as long as possible: the elderly and cancer patients. Even if these people want to die, they are kept alive against their wishes.
What is this obsession we have with perpetuating life?
Okay, I’m not going to lie, I’m happy to be alive. I’m happy that out of the millions of sperms my father had, I was the one that landed in my mother’s ovum. I’m happy that our planet is just the right distance from the sun to harbor a rich and complex Eco System of life. And yes, life itself is endowed with much beauty and power.
But life is only one aspect of that beauty and power that defines the natural world. The other necessary stage is death.
Death is almost always thought of as a tragedy and a morbid affair in our culture. In the Disney movie Hercules, Hades (Lord of the Underworld) played the bad guy for example. Even though in the real Greek Legend of Hercules, Hera (Zeus’s wife) was more of an Antagonist than Hades.
Yet think of how horrible life on this planet would be if nothing died? We’d be overrun with rabid creatures, competing for the tiniest molecule of space.
There are many cultures in the world that actually celebrate and accept death as a natural process, a necessary stage of life if you will.
In the Hindu Religion life is seen as a type of suffering. The wheel of life and death is called Samsara. This is the wheel of constant reincarnation and death. When someone dies, their soul will have a short resting period, and then come back in a different body. The goal of existence is to be released from the wheel so that one can finally achieve the peace of non-existence.
With the Vikings, dying an honorable death in battle was important. Dying of old age was an embarrassment because it signified cowardice. Death wasn’t the end, but merely a new beginning. Those who died in battle got to go to Valhalla, a perpetual feast where they got to battle, hunt and drink forever. Those who died a boring, natural death went to a less spectacular and probably equally boring realm of existence. Some warriors would even wound themselves with spears before dying, in order to trick Hel (A Goddess who received a portion of the dead) into thinking they died heroic deaths in battle. (Norse Concepts of the Afterlife)
Many cultures in the world practice Ancestor Worship and keep the spirits of the dead around them as they go about their daily lives. Some keep the bodies of the dead near their homes in ancestral shrines. Others keep a token of the dead relative. Many even consult the spirit of that dead relative for wisdom.
Am I saying that we should go on a killing spree because death is good? No. Death is neither good nor bad. It is simply a natural phase that all life must transition through. It can be mourned, but it can also be celebrated. Death is the harbinger of new beginnings. He is the reaper that harvests the grain of life, so that new life may one day grow. This is why fire is often characterized as the element of creativity. Destruction is a necessary part of creativity. Kenaz itself is the rune of creativity, symbolizing the union of fire and wood. It is the congregation of destruction and life for the creation of heat. Brigid is the Celtic Goddess of inspiration, which is why the flame is one of her symbols.
When my grandmother died many told me how sorry they were. But I wasn’t sorry. Why should I be? She was an 86 year old woman who was in pain and having delusions. She even repeated that she wanted to die.
For all things have a time and a season. When the leaves begin to brown and the sunshine dims, we should anticipate and welcome the coming winter ahead.
We talk about “the right to life.” But shouldn’t there equally be a “right to death?” Each person’s life is their own. They should have the right to choose when and how they want it to end.
So let’s stop keeping people alive against their will. Let’s stop limiting condom use and abortion use. We don’t need to live on a planet where life has great quantity but little quality. Let’s stop tip toeing around the issue of death, but instead, celebrate death – the sanctity of death. For it is the reaper that keeps the field bountiful, it is the scythe of death that gives life its meaning.
Don’t fear the reaper.
Enjoy that cowbell!