I thought I would talk today a bit about just how old this Pagan religion I follow might be.
The answer, is probably older than you think, but not quite as old as people keep saying it must be. In other words, we don’t know. Religions don’t spring fully formed from their founders’ heads. They begin as an idea that is shared among a few people, then a few more. And over time these ideas grow and change and take on an existence outside of one person’s mind. And from there, a religion is born.
While not quite so rampant, you do still occasionally come across people who spout nonsense about modern Paganism being thosands of years old. Some have been around the Pagan community long enough they should know better. And some of them get quite put out when it is pointed out they are incorrect in their assumptions.
But why is this? Where did we get the crazy idea that the modern Pagan religions are over 2000 years old?
I blame those pesky Victorians.
The Victorians as a whole loved traditions, and the upper classes especially loved the idea of quaint rural traditions that they could experience (meaning watch the quaintly poor, rural people doing) while on holiday. Hence the revived popularity of Morris Dancing, the formation of Scottish Highland Games, and most everything associated with modern Pagan religions. (Source: Professor Ronald Hutton, “The Triumph of the Moon”.)
Needless to say, Professon Hutton’s work was received with mixed emotions by the Pagan community when it was first published. Even when presented with compelling evidence that modern Paganism is at best between 100 – 200 years old, they still persist in claiming “Ah, but my tradition, this tradition, it dates back for many more hundreds of years and it even pre-dates all other modern religions.”
Part of the trouble is that things don’t just happen. They evolve and build upon what came before. Wicca, the modern Pagan religion that I have the most experience and knowledge of, is less than 100 years old. The oldest Wiccan traditions, Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and British Traditional Witchcraft, while having their origins in the late 19th/early 20th century secret societies (Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and such) and Theosophy Movements, were not actually formalised as a religion until just after the Second World War.
But what about Paganism as a whole?
Well, there are Pagan religions still to be found in Europe that really are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. One such is the Mari People living along the Volga and Kama Rivers in Russia. Another can be found in the followers of Kopala, from Pshavi in the Caucasus Mountain of Georgia. And of course, there are countless other indigenous religions still being followed around the world.
These are not, however, what most people think of when they say “I am Pagan.”
Modern Paganism, or neo-Paganism to use a term first coined by Church of All Worlds co-founder Oberon Zell, again may have roots going back in time, but the vast majority of neo-Pagan beliefs are based upon our modern thinking of what people in cultures long ago of the British Isles, or Ancient Greece, or Ancient Egypt, or … well, you get the idea…what they might have done, or how they might have worshipped. In some cases, scholarly studies and explorations of these ancient times can give people a pretty good educated guess, but that doesn’t make what they are doing today an exact replication. It’s still an educated guess.
So why is it so important for some people to claim longevity?
I don’t know for definite, but my best guess is that they make this claim for 2 reasons.
- Because their teacher, an author, or another person looked up to within their Pagan community made the claim. And they can, of course, never be wrong. These teachers meanwhile, are saying it because either their own teacher said it, or because they made it up.
- Longevity is felt to somehow bestow legitimacy. My religion is a real religion because it it actually older than yours.
But let’s look at these ideas closer.
“My teacher said so”.
These days, a misconception or idea (I won’t go so far as to call these lies) can spread around the globe in a matter of hours. In the earliest days, it was a matter of knowing someone who knew the right person who could introduce you. From there, you studied, and what you learned was what was taught to you by your teachers.
Some of those people went on to write books in the 1970s and 1980s. Sometimes, these authors would have actual blibiographies in their books. Looking more closely at some of these bibliographies revealed something a tad bit dodgy. (I am not naming any names here and not thinking of any particular author or publishing house here). Author A writes a book, citing Author B. Author B wrote a book citing Author C. Author C then goes on to write a book, citing Author A. Turns out, everyone is citing each other, and no one has offered up original data.
Longevity means legitimacy.
Utter nonsense. I am reminded in some ways of a child trying to get a seat at the big people’s table. “I am so a grown up! I’m older than you!”
All religions were at some point in time only a few years or a few decades old. And each was just as real, and just as legitimate, in their infancy as they are today.