Quimper Cathedral, (CC Tom DL)
The cobbles outside are slick from a chill September rain, and I’m a bit unsteady on my feet, even with the aid of the large staff of Alder I’d been carrying for several days through the streets of Quimper.
Also, I’m inebriated. Pour a libation to Dionysos at a Breton gay bar the night before you intend to climb a sacred mount known to be both a Druidic site as well as hosting likely shrines to Brighid and Maponus, and it’s near impossible not to get drunk.
I’m on my seventh beer, and my limit is normally two. I hadn’t bought a single one. The attractive bartender and several equally fascinating Breton patrons have decided to get l’Americaine utterly smashed.
I was awfully grateful for their generosity and for their attention. The Bretons fascinated me, and particularly this city with its ancient rivers, its dark alleyed warrens, and it’s almost skeletal cathedral to one of the Seven conquering saints of Bretagne, St. Corentin.
Mention of St. Corentin to the men in the bar yielded a surprising reaction. Most French gay men with whom I’d spoken about the Catholic saints become immediately dismissive, but there was a dark ferocity in the words from the men in this bar about him.
“He saved us, sure,” said one who’d bought me several drinks. “But he stole from us our joy and took away who we were.”
The Breton cultural identity is not necessarily “Pagan,” but it’s hardly Christian and most definitely not French. Bretagne is one of several culturally -and linguistically- distinct regions in France that suffered severely from the French government’s attempts to create a “French” identity throughout its state and colonies. Only 200 thousand people still speak Breton (more closely related to Welsh and Cornish than to Irish and Scottish Gaelic) and, though signs are printed both in French and in Breton, you hear no-one speaking it on the streets.
Breton nationalism, however, is soaked in Pagan thought and imagery. The Breton Druidic revival had a similar birth to that of the Welsh revival–both had illustrious and charismatic figures who were also nationalist. That is, the revival of Paganism in Bretagne was significantly influenced by political independence movements forged to build cultural and ethnic identity and autonomy against a hegemonic, democratic, and imperialist power (for the Welsh, England; for the Bretons, France.)
One can certainly draw a parallel between these independence movements and similar resistance movements within the Americas. In the United States, particularly, Black Nationalism and First Nations independence movements spoke heavily of cultural and ethnic identity against a colonial (and slave-taking) power which had sought to eradicate non-White identities and beliefs through economic and political violence.
Racialism and Pagan Identity
Street battle between Anarchists and Greek Fascists (Public Domain Photo)
Any discussion of ethnic and nationalist movements would be dishonest without addressing the parasitical spectre of Racism which sometimes attaches itself to such struggles. Readers of European news will certainly be aware of the recent resurgence of highly racialized nationalist parties in Europe (The Front National in France, UKIP in Britain, and the frustratingly named Golden Dawn in Greece among many others.) These far-right parties often evoke imagery of a pure and nostalgic notion of “the folk,” pure of ethnicity and oppressed by foreigners (be they international bankers, powerful states, or immigrant workers.)
Through political and cultural rhetoric, such parties create an ideal innocent “we” similar in symbolic structure to the Nazi Volk or the American “Moral Majority,” salt-of-the-earth innocents who wish only to live lives of peace and prosperity as their forefathers did.
The American political analysis of such movements is either to deny parallels between conservative rhetoric and other “extreme” ideologies elsewhere or, the equally disturbing liberal answer, which is to abolish all expressions of ethnic and political difference within society, sacrificing identity at the altar of Capitalist assimilation.
I’ve seen no polls on the political affiliations of self-identified Pagans in the United States, but I’ve met only a few who don’t admit to leaning more on the liberal side of most things. Such tendencies are unsurprising, seeing as conservatives in America are generally Christian and push political agendas which Pagans have had to fight against in order to be recognized as practicing legitimate religions. The strong feminist and environmentalist traditions within American Paganism also make such alliances more tenable.
That being said, Liberalism is also what restrains Paganism because of its insistence on a flattening of differences and its sublimation of subversive identities. One can be whatever one wishes to be, provided that identity does not challenge the Capitalist, Disenchanted order. Beliefs and practices which refer to narratives in conflict with the Disenchanted order become marginalized quickly. One can be Muslim provided one not believe it too authentically, be Queer as long as one not act upon such desires in the public sphere. Here, I’d refer also to recent backlash against polytheistic beliefs within Paganism–one can believe in gods, provided one does not really act as if they exist.
Liberalism claims, likewise, to stand as a bulwark against Racist ideologies such as those rising in Europe (and also existing in America, though without strong political presence) through this flattening of difference, but denies the very difference within itself. The banning of religious icons (veils, minarets) and practices (Halal and Kosher butchery) by Liberal governments in Europe serves as a great example of this process. In the name of secularism, spiritual and cultural practices become commodities to be regulated, while the actually-existing religious practices of Europeans are relegated to a place of invisibility even as they continue to exist and exert influence. That is, the West disenchants both the beliefs of others and itself, flattening or annihilating identity difference in order to maintain power.
And worse, Liberal, colonialist tendencies within Paganism actually continue violence against oppressed peoples through the commodification of belief and maintains Western disenchantment of itself.
Colonialism Within Paganism: The Monomyth and Sensuous Ants
Two writers, neither of them avowedly Pagan, have contributed significantly to modern Paganism’s adoption of colonialist stances regarding indigenous beliefs of oppressed people. And though both of them have opened to many a basic understanding of mythic and diverse ways of thinking, their methods unfortunately re-inscribe the very flattening of human spiritual experience which has been described by many as Disenchantment.
Neither Joseph Campbell nor David Abram have ever made claims that they themselves are Pagan; that being said, the influence of Campbell’s work on so-called Neopagan (particularly Archetypal conceptions of the gods, building upon some readings of Carl Jung) theology is profound, and David Abram has appeared in so many reading lists of Pagan sites and forums that one might begin to suspect him of a foundational influence. And though both have certainly enriched the spiritual understanding of many, both wield colonial tools against the diversity of (non-white, non-western) religious and cultural experiences so well that their mistakes appear almost invisible.
Joseph Campbell’s conception of the similarities and pattern of sacred stories and myths across cultures, the so-called Monomyth, appears on the surface to be a particularly useful way of promoting understanding between peoples. The Monomyth functions almost as a universal key with which the stories of others can be unlocked and comprehended. But inherent in his notion that the sacred myths of people can be reduced to a universally-recognized pattern is the statement that all other human people groups can be understood by modern (capitalist, disenchanted) Westerners because all other stories are based on the same pattern of the West. That is, Western society becomes the rule by which all other peoples (many of which the West has subjugated) can be measured.
David Abram makes a much more subtle mistake in his The Spell of the Sensuous. While a surface reading of his work engenders a general respect for the animistic beliefs of non-European peoples, from an anti-colonialist reading, his re-narration of the experiences of the people he encounters is terrifyingly imperialist. In an oft-quoted part of the introduction to his work, Abram explains an encounter with people in Bali leaving offerings of rice to their household spirits:
“What a waste! But then a strange thought dawned on me. What if the ants were the very “household spirits” to whom the offering were being made? (p.12)
He then re-inscribes Western materialist logic into the indigenous practices of his hosts by describing how the offerings to the household spirits actually functioned to create a boundary between the home and the ant colonies. And while giving tacit acknowledgement to the statement of his hosts, he then blames not his own Western, materialist narrative as the source of misunderstanding, but insists that the Balinese have a less complex understanding of what “spirits” actually consist. That is, while attempting to explain to a disenchanted audience the animist beliefs of non-Westerners, he disenchants those very beliefs.
Assimilation and Cultural Appropriation
Here we can see how the logic of Capitalist disenchantment then functions as a force of assimilation and cultural appropriation, as well. Written into the narrative of European/American culture is the insistence that the beliefs of our ancestors are so far removed from our current existence that they exist almost in a pre-historic past, unreachable from our current position as “modern” peoples except as reconstruction or a sort of utterly different, new system of beliefs borrowing only the imagery of the past (one of the reasons I generally reject the label “neopagan,” as it enforces a difference I do not suspect actually exists.)
More so, the religious experiences of similarly modern (but not-white) peoples become discounted as part of this narrative, so that European secular beliefs (which can better be described as Christianity reformed through the Enlightenment) posit themselves as more advanced than the beliefs of Arabic, Indian, Japanese or Chinese societies, despite those societies being of equal complexity.
This narrative not only excludes the experiences of other peoples, but it attempts to erase–by both omission and rewriting—its own so-called “primitive” practices. By such exclusion, European peoples whose practices, beliefs, and behaviors do not fit into the progressive march towards an enlightened future become either invisible or categorized as other—heretics, mentally-ill, criminals, etc.
Thus, Western society disenchants itself, erasing its own spiritual, cultural, and ethnic diversities towards a flattened identity in which any acceptable and acknowledged variations must be part of that universal narrative. Like Campbell’s hero in the Monomyth, each individual within Western society, in order to obtain an identity, must follow a universal formula which does not deviate from the grand narrative of modern Progress.
Capitalism continues its displacement of people from land (Whoville, photo by Alley Valkyrie)
The bizarre and brilliant trick of Capitalism, in every society it touches, is to sever its subjects from access to their own production, offer it back to them in a commodified form, and then present this severance and re-packaging of human activity as “progress.” Just as all the most basic aspects of human existence (food, housing, clothing) have become commodities restricted to the market, so, too, has the process of value-creation—that is, meaning itself.
Consider the explosion of “lifestylists” in the 90’s, or the proliferation of hipster culture currently. Meaning and identity, previously created through the tension of personal and community interactions, is now offered on the market. Almost every anti-hegemonic, radical subculture has become available through the market. The Hippies, Street Rap, Punk, Goth and a host of other initially anti-authoritarian and anti-bourgeois movements all very quickly became commodified lifestyles so that the radical potential in each group is easily forgotten (and sometimes untraceable).
This mechanism replicates itself repeatedly, and it isn’t just limited to American “countercultures.” Consider the question of Cultural Appropriation and the repeated losing battles that many indigenous peoples have waged to protect their religious and cultural practices from becoming commodified. It need not be mentioned that, unfortunately, we Pagans have been particularly guilty of this, voraciously purchasing books on native beliefs, adopting identities and practices as if every belief is merely something to be bought.
But this isn’t a screed against cultural appropriation. We all know it’s wrong, if we’ve even had the briefest of conversations with a person from a subjugated culture. Rather we should look at the very reasons why people in a politically powerful cultural group find themselves seeking “authentic” beliefs in the stolen relics of oppressed peoples, wearing their garb, practicing their rituals with equal longing and callousness.
Consider, again, our reliance upon “the market” for our most necessary means of survival: food. In the mind, food becomes not something merely to be grown, cooked, and eaten–it’s a commodity, something only to be obtained through exchange of money. Our modern distance from the production of food severs us from the reality that it is something we create.
If something so vital to human existence has become distant to our recognition, how much so also the cultural and spiritual rituals and practices interwoven into the history of all human societies?
Towards a Radical (and Non-Racist) Pagan Identity
Recovering, then, the spiritual and cultural heritage of Pagan peoples is not just a religious movement–it’s a political project. Restoring the practices of people who’ve long allowed themselves to be told that their gods and spirits are dead, their ancestors “primitive” and “unenlightened,” liberates space within the hegemonic, disenchanted order not just for themselves, but for those currently fighting the destruction of their beliefs and cultures.
Just as the Breton and Welsh Druid Revival movements were both Pagan and political, and the current independence movements among those same peoples are soaked in the imagery of Pagan identity, so, too, the general anti-authoritarian, anti-chauvinist, and ecological aspects of American Paganism are signs of its radical potential.
But there is a danger in this project. Consider again the rise of Racist Nationalist movements in Europe. While few have managed to capture the imagination of significant Pagan revival movements in Europe, it’s undeniable that the language of ethnic and cultural identity has great appeal to those wishing to restore their ancestral practices. As the Greek fascist party Golden Dawn established itself in New York City, warnings went out through many Polytheist channels about its racist proclivities in order to inoculate Hellenic reconstructionists against its influence. Heathen networks have done similar work, leaving certain influential writers in the precarious position of being attacked both by Pagans bent on turning spirituality into White Supremacist ideologies and by Pagans insisting that belief in really-existing gods is a primitive throwback or even a form of mental-illness.
Though Western Liberal Capitalism, with its logic of modernism and disenchantment, presents itself as a bulwark against the rise of Racialist ideologies, its history of subjugation of ethnic and cultural identities might actually be the very thing which breeds racial hatred and fuels the fascist appropriation of ethnic movements.
At the gay bar, drunk among the Bretons, I’d asked about a piece of news I’d heard earlier that day. The Front National (FN), France’s racist political party headed by Marine Le Pen, had announced plans to campaign heavily in Bretagne, hoping that the strong desire among a long-oppressed people for autonomy and cultural identity would bring many in line with their anti-immigrant, anti-Arab political ideologies.
No one in the bar thought the FN had a chance, but I thought I sensed a palpable fear in the air, an uncertainty which felt much like my own anxiety about my ascent of Menez-Hom the next day.
Elections in March of this year did not yield for the racists the hoped-for success, but they had significant success elsewhere. What I saw in visions the night atop that Druidic site seemed related to the same question I have for the future of Pagan identity. A figure dressed in sea-foam hurriedly showed me how to build a fortification around a Pagan temple, and seemed impatient that I hadn’t already learned to do this.
If Pagans are to claim their own identity outside of the commodification of culture created and sustained by Liberal Capitalism and its disenchantment of the world, and to do so without succumbing to the seething hatred of fascist ideologies, we all better learn to do so. And quickly. She was awfully impatient.