|Gather 'round the campfire|
|I'd rather be a|
|Suckled in a creed outworn|
“”Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.
|—Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), in The Wicker Man, 1973.|
A belief that local customs and folklore concealed Pagan survivals was a favorite hypothesis of 19th- and early 20th-century folklorists, and lasted far longer among amateur enthusiasts. The basic idea was that local customs and stories could be interpreted as vestiges of Pagan rituals that have either been repurposed or continued under invented rationales. The term describes a broad interpretive framework under which folklore was 'paganized', interpreted by fancy and analogy as being a survival from a primordial ritual, usually involving fertility, and with a heavy dose of borrowed ideas from The Golden Bough and similar documents from comparative religion and late 19th century speculative anthropology. The 'paganism' perceived in them was typically based on the speculations of the early anthropologists, and usually without any evidence that actual polytheists began the tradition in question. Any traditional custom, especially if fire or vegetation were involved, or if it was observed on a fixed time yearly, was likely to be given an imaginative explanation as the survival of an ancient fertility rite.
This belief started to fall out of fashion among professional folklorists during the 1930s, but had a vocal following in the field until around 1980. It is a stirring yarn that entices its audience with claims of secret knowledge that allows them to perceive hidden meanings in cultural artifacts. It captured literary and popular imagination during its heyday, and became a stock literary trope, and under that guise continues to this day. It is essentially an aspect of literary Romanticism; Britons and others in the grip of the Industrial Revolution came to idealize rural communities as the receptacles of an ancient and true ethnic character. They dismissed the folk and popular culture of city-dwellers as corrupted and commercialized. On the other hand, they viewed these rural paragons as inarticulate innocents, mindlessly preserving ancient customs without having a clue as to their "true" meaning. Those meanings must be traced back by academic experts into an immemorial past.
It had a number of effects on contemporary culture:
- The persistent belief among certain Protestant fundamentalists and reconstructionists that popular festivals originally based on the Christian liturgical calendar, such as Easter, Christmas, and Halloween, were of Pagan origin, and as such true Christians should avoid observing them. While only Easter predates late antiquity as a Christian observance, the other holy days have not been observed by all Christians, and some Christmas customs may continue Pagan antecedents, this specific objection to them does not predate the 20th century and draws on the speculations of the early folklorists.
- Neo-Paganism, as a movement, and Wicca specifically, originate in these beliefs, and began as an attempt to reconstruct the earth religion first posited by these academic and literary sources. Smarter Neo-Pagans acknowledge that the religion is a 20th century synthesis, and that reading ancient fertility rites into contemporary folklore is eisegesis in the service of wish-fulfilment. Others, particularly among Dianic Wicca and some feminist varieties, continue to insist on the historicity of the founding Wiccan legends, including the Burning Times and the ancient matriarchy.
Evaluation of these beliefs, and part of the appeal of the argument, comes from two chief sources:
- One, there were genuine Pagan survivals, or rather, deliberate co-options and appropriations of Pagan customs by Christians, often with the church's blessing. It's fairly clear that the Christian celebration of Christmas has something to do with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, for instance. Some saints, like Apollinaris of Ravenna and Brigid of Kildare may in fact continue the worship of Pagan deities under suspiciously similar names. The tooth fairy also continues a custom from a Norse belief that children's items brought luck in battle, and children who lost their teeth were paid a tand-fé (tooth fee), for which the teeth were then made into talisman necklaces.
- Second, these 19th-century writers often relied on the hostile accounts of 17th-century Puritans to describe the details of long-dead customs. Many of these customs were suppressed by the Puritans themselves. (More were suppressed when the Industrial Revolution turned many folk gatherings frequented by the lower classes into objects of apprehension to the bourgeoisie.) For these hostile writers, Paganism and Roman Catholicism were indistinguishable. Many customs tarred as 'Pagan' were merely Catholic, such as Halloween (see All Saints' Day, the actual source of its association with the dead). Anyone literate back in those days would have gotten an earful of Greco-Roman mythology as a part of their elementary education as well, which was likelier to be in Latin than the vernacular at any rate. These comparisons were taken literally by their latter-day readers, and often are the only witness to the former customs they condemn.
So it came to pass that:
- The folk-song collector Cecil Sharp concluded that English sword dancing, attested first in the 15th century, at a time when Christianity was established in England for 800 years, was a pagan survival. The mock-execution of the leader occasionally performed in some variants was a memory of The Golden Bough's dying and reviving god.
- The folk song John Barleycorn, an anthropomorphic tale of the travails of barley as it is malted and turned into beer, and which appears first in the 15th century, was claimed by Sir James Frazer himself to represent a version of his dying and reviving fertility god.
- The Easter Bunny, first appearing in the 17th century in Alsace, is occasionally said to be a relic of the worship of the scarcely attested Easter goddess "Ostara".
- The Tarot cards, full of medieval Christian stock images such as the Pope, The Last Judgment, the Wheel of Fortune, the House of God, the Grim Reaper, and the Devil, is the "Book of Thoth" and contains the ancient wisdom of the Celtic Feminist Royal Egyptian Gypsy Cat People from Atlantis.
- Father Christmas, a British traditional Christmas figure and one of the sources of Santa Claus, appears first in the 16th century. To Alice, Lady Gomme, writing in 1929, he was obviously a pagan god.
- In 1937, S. H. Hooke addressed the Folk-Lore Society and announced that Shrove Tuesday pancake tosses were a fertility rite to make crops grow, and that football games associated with the carnival holiday were ritual struggles between the forces of light and darkness.
- The Padstow 'Obby 'Oss festival represents an amalgam of Cornish May Day celebrations from the late medieval period. But to Mary Macleod Banks, writing in 1938, it represented a sacred ritual marriage between the earth and the sky.
- Rhys Carpenter, writing in 1946, proposed that the Groundhog Day ritual of Punxsutawney Phil forecasting the weather on February 2, apparently brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants around 1840 (in Germany it was badgers), is in fact the remnant of a bear cult practised by Neanderthals.
- Northern English sword dances enter history in the 18th century. To Violet Alford, writing in 1962, it was a Stone Age rite in which matriarchal priestesses sought to rouse the sleeping sun of winter, coupled with a Bronze Age rite to encourage virility.
- Wicca, invented in the 1940s by Gerald Gardner, at first claimed to be a surviving Pagan witchcraft cult along lines described by Margaret Murray. Since Murray also saw 'evidence' of her witch-cult in Neolithic cave paintings, witchcraft had a claim to being humanity's original religion.
- The Scottish Halloween custom of "guising", going door to door in costumes asking for money, was common by the 18th or 19th century and has been dated as far back as the 16th century, but some sources (mainly for tourists) claim it reflects pagan Samhain rites.
“”Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But—we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
And we bring you news by word of mouth—
Good news for cattle and corn—
Now is the Sun come up from the South,
With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
|—Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill|
Belief in Pagan survivals, though it ultimately took forms that in retrospect seem absurdly overstated, arose in a culture that was well primed to perceive them.
Protestant polemics meet Romantic nostalgia
The Rev. Henry Bourne of Newcastle published Antiquitates Vulgares ("Popular Antiquities", 1725), a text which was "kindled with Reformation ire and zeal, berating papist and heathen ideas insinuated into Christian rituals." This text was republished at the dawn of literary Romanticism when John Brand reprinted it under the title Observations on Popular Antiquities, while claiming it as his own work. Under that title, expanded versions of the text culminated in a two-volume set, edited by Sir Henry Ellis in 1813. A work of similar inspiration as Bourne's was Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons (1858), in which the author, a Free Kirk of Scotland minister, endeavors to prove that Roman Catholicism, and all of the world's non-Christian religions, have their secret origins in the machinations of Semiramis and Nimrod in ancient Babylon. Hislop's fanciful theory continued to be plugged by Jack Chick in his anti-Catholic tracts and is even today peddled by Protestant fundamentalists despite it having been debunked long ago.
Ellis's revision of Bourne's original text tended to muffle the portions intended as Protestant sermonizing while keeping the core assumption that all sorts of local and former customs were relics of ancient religious rites. It seeded Romantic interest in ancient customs and antiquities, and what came to be called folklore. In doing so, it gave the nascent discipline the assumption that ancient customs often preserved some pre-Christian ritual or myth; contemporary interpreters, armed with etymology, classical precedents, and comparative religion, could tease out the real meaning of the customs. All they had to do was ignore the explanations given by the people who actually lived them.
Cultural evolution meets Social Darwinism
Anthropologist Edward Tylor was one of many 19th century British social scientists to get evolution wrong. His particular misapplication of Darwinism to anthropology imagined that social change operated like evolutionary change, leaving behind various 'survivals', vestigial remnants of social customs and practices that once were useful or meaningful, and whose persistence was evidence of past conditions. These were "processes, customs, and opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved."
The example Tylor provided was bloodletting, which he argued persisted as a part of medical practice well after the theory of humours upon which it was founded had been abandoned. (In fact, it persisted because paying clients demanded treatments, and… it was what they had.) By identifying these vestiges, he believed anthropologists could reconstruct previous stages of social evolution. Tylor considered all religion to be such a vestige in a scientific age, and animism, a word he coined, was the origin of all religions. The general idea was that of an inevitable historical March of Progress, characterized by stages in which animism surely evolves into polytheism, and polytheism becomes monotheism, the "highest" and most "advanced" sort of religion: evolution Pokémon style, not biology style.
Elsewhere in the British Isles, the Romantic fashion for Celtic twilight was fed by the literary forgers "Iolo Morganwg", born Edward Williams, forger of Welsh medieval texts and founder of revived druidism, and James Macpherson, whose Ossian claimed to be the work of a 3rd century bard. Jessie Weston first formulated the idea that Celtic myths and deities were preserved in disguise in the story of King Arthur and his knights.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the philologist Jakob Grimm published his Deutsche Mythologie ("Teutonic Mythology", 1835 - 78), which used etymologies and word histories to link local customs gathered throughout Germany to Pagan antecedents. The German counterpart to the British Pagan survivalists eventually turned into the völkisch movement, the "folk" or "folklore movement", which sought to re-create a Teutonic and Aryan past, and new esoteric movements such as Ariosophy. Völkisch writers such as Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl argued that the Germanic Volk was an organic society, tied to the land. Against this organic and rooted Volk, he opposed the rootless and displaced proletariat of the cities, the only place where unnatural and un-Völkisch professions such as the journalist and the ideologue could survive. And, of course, chief among these enemies of the Volk were the 'cosmopolitan' Jews.
These movements had some influence on the development of early Nazism, and suggested the swastika as its symbol; though there was less influence than some would claim.[note 1] In Germany, völkisch beliefs fell rapidly out of political favor after the end of World War II. But no such catastrophe befell these beliefs in the English-speaking world.
Another problem confronts English speaking pagan revivalists and reconstructionists. If you live on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Romance Europe, Greece, Egypt, or the Levant; or in Scandinavia, or in Baltic and Slavic Europe - indeed, just about anywhere other than Britain - you have a fairly clear picture of what the paganisms practiced by your forebears looked like. You have detailed accounts of god names, mythologies, and public rituals. In the best case, this rich trove of information about paganism was transmitted through literature and historiography that has been read uninterruptedly since it was written by the actual pagans. If not, you have a treasury of material unearthed by archaeologists and deciphered by philologists.
The English speaking world gives nothing remotely comparable. You have ancient earth-works and megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge, which seem obviously built for some sort of ritual purpose, but which stand mute as to the content of the beliefs that motivated their building. You have a handful of inscriptions, mostly made by Roman soldiers, that give the names and little else of various local, possibly Celtic gods. You have Irish and Welsh mythography, set down hundreds of years after the advent of Christianity. You have precious little from the Anglo-Saxons themselves, and pagans tend to borrow heavily from Scandinavian sources in interpreting their beliefs, which may not have been all that similar. There is no grounds to speak of 'pagan Britain' as a single entity. Rather, you get a sequence of widely different traditions, all unrelated as far as we can tell: megalith builders, several strains of Celts, Romans and the soldiers they brought there from all over the empire, Anglo-Saxons, Norsemen, and Normans. This scant literary and archaeological record gives a wide scope for imaginative reconstruction, and for the same reason it's hard to find fault with imagination filling in the gaps where it does not contradict what little we do know. But imagination won't be given boundaries, and hasn't been since the days that Stonehenge was claimed by modern Druids.
The Golden Bough and its progeny
Bourne, Tylor, Ellis, and Grimm's work was the foundation upon which Sir James Frazer built The Golden Bough starting in 1890. This wandered even further afield from European folklore, and proposed a universal monomyth of a dying and reviving god. Mithras, Osiris, and, though Frazer shied away from saying so plainly, Jesus were by Frazer's lights all copies of this original. No human group, religion, or example preserved the myth in its entirety. Still, Frazer confidently asserted that the tale of a spirit of vegetation and agriculture that was born with the spring, died with the harvest, and was reborn the following spring was a human universal, and that its details could be pieced together from the fragments it left in later faiths and customs. The myth was broad enough that any seasonal custom involving fire or vegetation could be pressed into its service; this tends to include quite a few folk festivals. All it took was academic confidence and a willingness to ignore the locals; Bob Trubshaw, in his article on "The paganisation of folklore", called Frazer "the undisputed all time maestro of mix and match."
Frazer's imaginative hypothesis never had that much appeal to serious scholars even in his day. Frazer did find some academic disciples; as noted above, Margaret Murray thought she had discovered that the witches persecuted in the early modern era represented a surviving Pagan religion practising Frazer-style fertility rites. In less scholarly texts, Frazer's dying and reviving god turns into a supporting actor in Robert Graves's invented mythology of The White Goddess.
In addition to Neo-Paganism, Frazer's monomyth struck deep literary roots, and influenced works as disparate as Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Together with Carl Jung's "archetypes", Frazer's monomyth strongly influenced Joseph Campbell's similar New Age monomyth of the Hero's Journey. The idea of an older, often persecuted religion persisting in the face of a newer and more publicly prominent faith has become a stock trope of fantasy fiction. It would, in fact, be difficult to overstate the literary influence of Frazer's text, especially in its abridged version that appeared in the early 1920s. It's one of the books on Kurtz's desk in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. Camille Paglia remains a fan: "in his startling juxtapositions, we pass in the blink of an eye from primitive tribal rites to Egyptian cult to Greek myth to rural British folklore. The familiar becomes strange, and the grotesque becomes normal."
The past continues to influence the present. In one sense, there are plenty of "Pagan" survivals in religion and culture. All religions, including Christianity, share features with earlier faiths such as the use of altars, hymns, processions, and devotional images. When some Christian denominations use such things as incense or consecrated water, the people who Christianized these practices knew that they were used by other faiths. Folk customs can survive for thousands of years; the handshake continues an ancient Mesopotamian greeting. But it takes more than this to turn these practices into "Pagan survivals" with secret meanings to discover.
One obvious problem with the hypothesis of Pagan survivals is the passage of time, and lack of explicit or acknowledged pagan survivals. Paganism was dead or dying in England and most of Scandinavia by the year 1000 CE at earliest. When Karen Jolly researched the practice of Christianity in late Anglo-Saxon England, she found nothing that suggested a survival of any Pagan belief or practice in it. Some evidence of the practice of magic outside the Church was all she found. Said magic was sharply distinguished from religion by all her sources, and the people who practiced this magic considered themselves still Christians.
Another issue is that we have little or no information about pagan customs in many countries and regions. In many, such as Ireland, writing only arrived with the Christian church, and what records we do have of pagan customs were written by Christians (often much later than the first missionaries), who cannot be trusted to be accurate in describing their rivals. Even areas (such as the former Roman Empire) where there was a literate pre-Christian ruling class haven't necessarily got many records of folk beliefs, and Roman writers aren't necessarily any more trustworthy than early Christians.
The popular belief that folk customs conceal Pagan survivals has altered the content of folklore. It is a part of the folk process that canny buskers will seek to give their audiences what they want. If a vocal segment is intensely interested in archaic evocations of Pagan fertility rites, they will alter their repertoire and the material itself to please them.
There appears to be something of a class dynamic in the theory; the assumption is that academic experts know better than the locals what their customs really mean. British literature acquired a minor stock character: a usually female scholar obsessed with ferreting out vestiges of Paganism, such as Anna Bünz in Ngaio Marsh's Off With His Head (1957) or Rose Lorimer in Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1967). The stereotype has some basis in experience; when Violet Alford sought to revive the Marshfield mummer's play, she quarrelled with the elderly residents who still remembered the original, while she wanted to revise the performance to make it seem more "authentically" Pagan. Mary Macleod Banks recorded a Morris dance in which one performer dressed in drag, and concocted a theory relating the costume to fertility rites. The next year, the same performer dressed as a clown. Banks complained that he was "spoiling the rite", but the performer explained that the role had no set costume. This bit of information was actual folklore that Banks was discarding because it contradicted her received ideas. As these incidents show, belief in the pagan survival hypothesis tempts even professional collectors to revise and distort the material they are studying.
The British custom of Morris dancing, with actual origins in court dances of the 16th century, has become increasingly influenced by neopaganism in its repertoire and imagery, as contemporary Pagans flock to the tradition under the impression that it represents an immemorial survival of a pagan fertility rite. Traditionalists need not be alarmed. This is what the folk process is for. It continues, chooses, and transforms traditions from the past to keep them relevant to people in the present. To be preserved, folklore has to find a place in people's lives. Traditions that are no longer relevant to the living don't continue to the next generation. It doesn't matter that the theory that attracted Neo-Pagans to Morris dancing was a product of the romantic imagination; in folklore, literal historical truth is not a requirement.[note 2] It continues to appeal to people, who keep it alive, and that is what matters. The same need for contemporary relevance suggests reasons why evidence of long-dead gods and forgotten rites is unlikely to be found in folklore.
Paleolithic cultural survival
Given that the Paleolithic ended far back in the mists of prehistory, one would be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing cultural one can say for certain has Paleolithic roots. They would be wrong. For example, the association of the Pleiades star cluster with the myth of the Seven Sisters is a global mytheme, one now thought to have roots deep in prehistory. The reason this is suspected is because it occurs globally, meaning that it is very unlikely to be the result of cultural borrowing. We can even put a rough date to when this story started being told. One hundred thousand years ago the Pleiades were visible as seven stars in the night sky, but now they are visible as six. Ergo, it's very likely that this story has been told since the seven sisters were visible in the sky 100kya. This makes the mytheme of the Seven Sisters possibly the strongest candidate for the title of "world's oldest story still being continuously told."
Many cultures tell a tale of the lost seventh sister, which is quite likely to be an explanation for the disappearance of the seventh star from the Pleiades cluster in the night sky.
- Celtic religion
- Goddess movement
- Margaret Murray
- National mysticism
- Nationalist pseudohistory
- Daniel, Craig B. Pagan Survival Hypotheses
- Ellis, Henry (ed.) Observations on Popular Antiquities
- Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough (Abridged edition, 1922)
- Trubshaw, Bob. Mawming and Mooning: Towards an understanding of medieval carvings and their carvers (Heart of Albion Press, 2014)
- Tully, Caroline. Interview with Professor Ronald Hutton (Necropolis Now, 2011)
- The Nazis, once in power, were no fonder of secret esoteric organizations than other totalitarian governments tend to be.
- In one way, the Neo-Pagan use of the pagan survival hypothesis makes more sense than the original. The folklorist version requires no more than ancient rituals being customarily re-enacted by people who had no idea why they were doing them. The Neo-Pagan believes that many of their number were secretly Pagan, and that the rites were performed by people who were fully aware of the hidden meaning.
- Trubshaw, Bob. Mawming and Mooning: Towards an understanding of medieval carvings and their carvers (Heart of Albion Press, 2014); Appendix A, "The paganisation of folklore".
- See the Wikipedia article on Merry England.
- Cf. Moorcock, Michael. Epic Pooh (Revolution Science Fiction, 1989)
- Hutton, Ronald, The Triumph of the Moon: A history of modern pagan witchcraft (Oxford, 1999); see generally Ch. 7, "Finding a Folklore".
- See, e.g., Jack Chick, Boo!
- See, e.g., Barbara Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (Harper Collins, 1983).
- Franck von Franckenau, Georg. "Satyrae Medicae, Continuatio Franck von Franckenau, Georg". Europeana. http://www.europeana.eu/resolve/record/09428/urn_nbn_de_bsz_24_digibib_bsz3355896347.
- See, e.g., Papus, The Tarot of the Bohemians (1892), crediting Hermes Trismegistus with their invention, and the Roma for their preservation in the present.
- Carpenter, Rhys. Folk Tale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics; (Berkeley, 1946).
- Yoder, Don. Groundhog Day. (Stackpole, 2003)
- See the Wikipedia article on Halloween.
- Halloween in Scotland, Rampant Scotland
- Halloween’s Scottish connections, The Scotsman, 27 Oct 2015
- Dorson, Richard M., 1968, The British Folklorists: A History, RKP.
- Hislop, Alexander, The Two Babylons, or, The papal worship proved to be the worship of Nimrod and his wife.
- Tylor, Edward. Primitive Culture : researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art, and custom. (2 vol., 2d ed. 1920) ch. 1
- Hodgen, Margaret T. "The doctrine of survivals: the history of an idea". American Anthropologist, 1931; vol 33. pp. 307–324.
- Weston, Jessie, From Ritual to Romance (1920)
- Grimm, Jacob (Stallybrass, James, translator) Teutonic Mythology (4 vols.)
- Robert Ellwood: The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. (SUNY 1999; ISBN 0-7914-4306-X). pp 21-22.
- See generally "Conclusion", in Hutton, Ronald. Pagan Britain (Oxford, 2013. ISBN 978-0300197716)
- Hutton, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, (Blackwell , 1991) p. 326
- See, e.g., the TV Tropes page on The Old Gods.
- See, e.g., Vickery, John. The Literary Impact of the Golden Bough. (Princeton, 1973).
- Paglia, Camille. "In defense of The Golden Bough". (Salon, 1999)
- Jolly, Karen, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England, (University of North Carolina Press, 1996)
- Patronage & Devotion in Ancient Irish Religion, History Ireland, Issue 4 (Winter 2000)
- Primary Sources of Celtic Mythology, Ancient Treasures, November 28, 2018
- Violet Alford, French Wikipedia
- Moreton, Cole (11 May 2008). "Hey nonny no, no, no: Goths and pagans are reinventing morris dancing". London: The Independent.
- Norris, Ray (December 21, 2020 11.23pm CET). "The world’s oldest story? Astronomers say global myths about ‘seven sisters’ stars may reach back 100,000 years". The Conversation.