History Lessons

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 15, 2006 — 1 Comment

Wiccans and other modern Pagans often get criticized by academics and journalists for having a shoddy grasp of history. Whether its the controversy over whether ancient matriarchies existed, or the assertions about the “Burning Times” that were ever so popular not too long ago. But generally speaking, since our faiths aren’t dependent on these historical ideas to survive, individual practitioners and groups are free to adjust their views as new scholarship surfaces. But modern Pagans aren’t the only ones who hold onto questionable history. Even high-ranking Christians can fall for romanticized notions of their past.

Mary Beard, professor in classics at the University of Cambridge, recently took the Archbishop of Canterbury to task for some flawed ideas about the early Christian Church. The Archbishop was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 by John Humphrys when he said this about Christian attitudes towards pagans during the early days of the Christian Church.

“It’s what happened at the very beginning of the church’s life. The church didn’t simply blaze out into the Greco-Roman world saying “Here’s the truth. You must believe it”. They said, ‘Look – this is what you say, and that’s very interesting as it echoes with what we say; and, if we talk this through, you might find that what you’re saying has a much fuller expression in what we’re saying.'”

Beard, something of an expert on the subject of relations between Christians and Pagans, takes issue with his view of history.

“If this is Williams’s view of relations between Christians and pagans (or, should we less prejudicially say “polytheists”?), then he’s been reading a different selection of early Christians texts from me. There may be some parts of high-minded Christian philosophy that see things in these terms. And St Augustine certainly had a soft spot from classical Roman learning (especially Cicero). But most of the surviving tracts purvey a mixture of horrified outrage (at such ideas of animal sacrifice to the Roman emperor) and knockabout ridicule (of, for example, the goings-on of the various immoral gods and goddesses)…The touchy-feely view of Greco-Roman ecumenism has, I am afraid, more to do with the generous, academic tolerance of the Archbishop himself, than with anything thought or practiced by the motley crew of fundamentalist early Christians and what some Romans saw as an ancient Jihad.”

If the following exchange should be seen for anything, it is that every religious group holds onto historically questionable myths about their past. Early Christians weren’t ancient pacifist hippies throwing flowers at Roman Swords and asking everyone to just get along, any more than the unfortunate victims of the witch-hunts were secret pagan survivals. Real history is always more complex (and less flattering) than we would perhaps like. While embracing our pasts (warts and all) doesn’t always fit into our sometimes romantic ideas, it can only create a more stable foundation for the future. This doesn’t mean abandoning our poetic myths, it merely means acknowledging them as such.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Inanna

    Brilliant post, Jason! Very nicely done. We can be empirically-minded (social) scientists, responsible historical interpreters, and lovers of myth all at once. Imagine that.