Archives For Julian

Famed American author, essayist, public intellectual, and gleeful bomb-thrower Gore Vidal died on Tuesday from pneumonia at the age of 86. While Vidal’s mind often turned towards the conspiratorial later in life (causing some to dismiss his contributions entirely), his output as a whole has been widely praised for its wit, insight, willingness to cross boundaries, and fearlessness.  Right now obituaries, remembrances, and tributes are pouring out to this lion of letters, but I thought it would be appropriate to give a specifically Pagan appreciation of Vidal’s work.

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal

For many Pagans, Vidal’s most beloved work is his 1964 novel “Julian” which sought to reframe  the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus (aka “Julian the Apostate”) as a heroic, intelligent, humanistic leader, one who experienced first-hand the violence and ignorance of the (perhaps inevitably) rising Christian wave. As a Christian-turned-Pagan, Julian was perhaps the first “Neo-Pagan” of note, and was quickly adopted by many modern Pagans as a venerated ancestor to our own movement. Journalist and author Margot Adler, while writing what would become the seminal 1979 book “Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America,” was heavily influenced by Vidal’s “Julian.”

“I was totally obsessed with Julian at the time I was [writing] DDTM, so much so that I read all of the Emperor’s essays and even thought of including a chapter about him in the book, although realized it was sort of off topic, even if he tried to restore Paganism to Rome. Loved Vidal’s Messiah, Kalki, and interviewed him once for 45 minutes over his less successful book, Creation. And of course loved his ascerbic comments on the fate of American Democracy. All our best critics have died this summer.”

Vidal would return to the ancient world again in works like “Creation” (which dealt with religion in the axial age), and the satirical “Live from Golgotha,” but it is “Julian” that remains a touchstone for many of us. In addition to that novel, Vidal, as an essayist, was a recurring critic of Christianity, and monotheism as a whole. In 1992 he gave a lecture at Harvard that placed monotheism at the root of our modern world’s problems.

“The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved–Judaism, Christianity, Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal–God is the omnipotent father–hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates. The sky-god is a jealous god, of course. He requires total obedience from everyone on earth, as he is in place not for just one tribe but for all creation. Those who would reject him must be converted or killed for their own good. Ultimately, totalitarianism is the only sort of politics that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose. Any movement of a liberal nature endangers his authority and that of his delegates on earth. One God, one King, one Pope, one master in the factory, one father-leader in the family home.”

It’s a paragraph that could have come from the mouths of many prominent Pagans, but because it was Vidal saying it, the message was heard and reported in ways we could not have accomplished in 1992.  The “thoroughly pagan, materialistic, unforgiving eye” of Vidal served, in its time, to help shape our own responses to the dominant Abrahamic faiths. To remind us that we were reviving something worthwhile, even if the dominant religious lens thought our mission folly. Vidal was a complex and often controversial man, but his contributions to our revival should not go unsung or unheeded.

“[T]he Nazarene existed as flesh while the gods we worship were never men; rather they are qualities and powers become poetry for our instruction. With the worship of the dead Jew, the poetry ceased. The Christians wish to replace our beautiful legends with the police record of a reforming Jewish rabbi…. They now appropriate our feast days. They transform local deities into saints. Thy borrow from our mystery rites, particularly those of Mithras.” – Gore Vidal, “Julian.”

What is remembered, lives.

[The following is a guest post from Eric Scott. Eric Scott is a second-generation Wiccan, raised in the St. Louis-based coven Pleiades. He writes about paganism for Patheos in his Family Traditions column, and also serves as a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. His fiction and memoir have appeared in The Scribing IbisCaper Literary Journal, and Ashé! Journal. He used to sing in a Taoist glam rock band. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.]

Today marks 1,650 years since Julian the Apostate became Roman Emperor. The story still seems farfetched: when Julian was five, his family had been murdered on the orders of his relative, the emperor Constantius II. Yet that same Constantius would eventually name Julian his Caesar in 355 and his successor as Augustus in 361 – though admittedly, Julian had already been proclaimed Augustus by his army in 360 and he had been marching to Constantinople when Constantius died. He was the heir of the world’s first Christian dynasty, a man raised by bishops and monks to carry on the Arianism of his relatives. And he shocked the empire by revealing himself as a pagan, and then set about restoring the worship of the gods of Olympus to an empire that had abandoned them.

I first studied Julian while taking a course called “The History of Christian Thought.” It was the sort of course you had to be a hardcore theological nerd to enjoy; most of the material consisted of bishops arguing over minutia and excommunicating each other. Julian stood out, though, a figure cut from another sort of cloth: a philosopher, a general, a philanthropist, and a strangely humble ruler. He was a Renaissance man a thousand years before the Renaissance.

He was also, of course, a pagan, and moreover, the last pagan emperor, which makes him a romantic figure to pagans in the modern day. I remember reading his plans to restore paganism to Rome: he asserted that the reason Christianity had become so popular was because the Church spent so much time feeding the poor. Julian’s response was not to close down the churches or outlaw Christianity, but to make the pagan temples even more charitable than the churches. He refused the idea of persecution. “It is by reason that we ought to persuade and instruct men, not by blows or insults or physical violence,” he said in one of his letters.

But Julian was also a tragic figure. His reign lasted all of twenty months, from November 361 to June 363. Like too many others in the classical world, he died from a spear-wound in Persia, attempting to be Alexander the Great reborn. Conspiracy theorists claim that a rogue Christian in Julian’s ranks delivered the wound, but it’s impossible to know what happened for certain. 

When we reached that point in the course, I could see a little shiver of happiness run through some of my classmates, most of whom had identified themselves as evangelical Christians in some way or another. The professor, who also served as a pastor on the weekends, assured us in a gentle voice of the relief the bishops felt when Julian died: “that little cloud has quickly passed away,” as St. Athanasius said.

A quote that has stuck with me is the first paragraph of W.H.C. Frend’s chapter on Julian in his book The Rise of Christianity:

“The world has always warmed to its fallen heroes. Hector rather than Achilles, Robert E. Lee and not Ulysses S. Grant, stir the imagination of posterity, however lost or wrong headed the causes they championed. They fill the Valhalla of our fantasies. The emperor Julian is in a similar class… [He] bent every effort during a reign of twenty months in a hopeless effort to restore the old religion. His death in battle at the age of thirty-two in a grandiose scheme to conquer the Persian Empire and emulate Alexander the Great seems only to add stature to what objectively was a wasteful and futile endeavor.”

Nearly all scholars suggest that Julian’s attempt to revitalize paganism was doomed from the start, that the tide of history had swung in Christianity’s favor and it would have been impossible for him to swing it back. I have always thought that opinion put a lot of weight on a reign of less than two years. What if Julian had succeeded in his Persian campaign, or at least survived? What if he had lived to be an old man, an emperor with the three decades Constantine had? How differently would our histories read?

I suppose there isn’t any point in fantasizing about a world in which Julian had triumphed. He didn’t; further, even if he had, the paganism he espoused was very different from what modern pagans practice, even Hellenic reconstructionists. There is a danger of feeling too much affinity with a figure like Julian. But nonetheless, he embodied many of the virtues our communities admire. Of all Roman Emperors, he was perhaps the greatest champion of religious freedom. He was a great scholar and a notable writer. He was humble, and preferred simplicity over decadence.

And one more: he was a person who had been so educated in Christianity that he had even held a minor position in the church as a young man, who had seen first-hand the sort of power Christianity held in the empire – Constantius, the emperor who had murdered Julian’s family, was a zealous Arianist – and knew just how institutionalized it had become. And yet he turned away from it and embraced the gods of Olympus. Julian was the last pagan emperor, true, but more than that, he was the only emperor who had been born a Christian and died a pagan. Most pagans living today can empathize with his situation.

1,650 years away, Julian enters Constantinople as the sole emperor of the Roman Empire, about to try his best to change history. I am proud of him: proud of him as a pagan, and proud of him as a human being. And as we modern-day pagans continue our work of restoring the old gods, I like to think that Julian would feel proud of us, too.

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

The Aquarian Tabernacle Church (a Wiccan tradition/church) has sent out a press release concerning new developments regarding the Woolston-Steen Theological Seminary. The online school is getting a makeover, and gaining a new vice-president and administrator.

“The Woolston-Steen Theological Seminary, given degree granting authority by Washington state in 1999, is having a face lift this spring … In addition, WSTS proudly announces the appointment of Kirk White as interim Vice President and Administrator of the Woolston-Steen Theological Seminary. White, a well known Wiccan author and respected High Priest, is co-founder of the National Association of Pagan Schools and Seminaries, a past co-National First Officer of Covenant of the Goddess, North America’s oldest and largest association of Witches and Wiccans. White also founded and served for 10 years as President of Cherry Hill Seminary. In 2006, Wildhunt.org named him one of the “25 most influential modern living Pagans today”. Since 2007 he has served as a consultant to new and established Pagan seminaries across the United States and we are pleased to have him working with us.”

Bringing Kirk White onboard seems like a move for WSTS to gain some more credibility as a Pagan seminary, though that might be hampered by the fact that the school’s dean is Belladonna “Wife Swap” Thompson. It should also be noted that “degree granting authority” isn’t the same thing as accreditation. So always check to see who exactly your teachers are, and what qualifications they have to be teaching you the subject at hand. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am on the BOD of Cherry Hill Seminary, but I have no particular animus or rivalry with WSTS.

When is “witchcraft” our “Witchcraft”? By that I mean, what do journalists and authors like Bob Morgan mean when they say a young woman was kidnapped and initiated by a “a coven of witches”? A South Alabama paper reports on the e-publication of a book by one of their reporters concerning a young woman who claims to have been held hostage for years by a Californian “coven” called “The Brotherhood”.

“At the age of 15, Nikki Russo checked into a California hospital for treatment of an eating disorder. It was in this hospital that she was eventually abducted by a nurse, initiated into a coven of witches and thrown into a dark world filled with drugs, alcohol, abuse and intimidation. Nikki Russo hopes The Pomegranate Seed will be a warning to readers not to take anything for granted where cherished institutions are concerned. Today, Russo’s story and struggle to recovery is chronicled in the new book The Pomegranate Seed — Nikki Russo’s Sojourn Through Institutional Failure and the World of the Occult.”

Morgan is apparently sensitive to accusations of “Satanic Panic” since he first reported on Nikki Russo, and claims that the book is filled with legal documents and depositions. However, neither the initial 2007 report by Morgan, or the 2009 piece on his subsequent book, goes into any detail as to what exactly this “Brotherhood” was practicing, and how they are linked with California’s occult community. This lack of detail is all explained as a way to honor the victim, but it also denies us any clear notion as to what this group was. I have no doubt that Russo was abused if she says she was, I’m just skeptical concerning how “witchy” these “witches” were.

World of Wonder shares with us some “homo history” in the form of ancient examples of same-sex marriage.

As Africa was the birthplace of civilization it should come as no surprise to find that the earliest known reference to same-sex marriage in history can also be found there. Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were royal manicurists in the court of Pharaoh Niuserre during Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty. The artwork in their tomb leaves no doubt that they were viewed as a couple. The men are depicted in near constant embrace. They are shown with their noses touching (the most intimate embrace permitted in Egyptian art of the time, a form of kissing). Even their names speak to the intensity of their bond. When the names Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are put together, it translates into “joined in life and joined in death.”

Just goes to show you that there is nothing new under the sun, and that different cultures and times had different reactions to same-sex relations. To claim a singular constant for legal and social public bonds is myopic at best and revisionist at worst.

I understand that some people don’t like Barack Obama, but the intense white-hot loony anger he invokes in some people is just plain amusing (when it isn’t frightening). A recent letter published in a Virginia newspaper now compares our “Marxist” president with Pagan hero Julian the Apostate!

“God has given America her very own 21st century ‘Julian the Apostate’, better known as the Marxist, Barack Obama. Now before any of Obama’s supporters hastily come to his defense, consider the fact that his ideologies are blatantly Marxist, yet, he is not alone in his Marxist tendencies … If the reports of Obama’s Marxist passion were not enough to wake up the Christian community to the fearful danger of a ‘Julian Administration’, the issues of abortion and homosexuality should have made it crystal clear that professing Christians should not accept such an individual as the leader of America. The community of Christendom should have rejected such a blasphemer out of hand. Yet, for the sake of party, race, historical precedence or simply a hatred for the prior administration, those Christians professing allegiance to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe have grossly erred in their judgment, and along with hypocrites, heathens and traitors are responsible for destroying the roots of traditional American Christianity … At the outset of the Obama administration, a vicious war was declared against both Christ and all those that call themselves by His Name. Even now many of those Christians who supported him initially are finding themselves the target of his wrath. His goal is, and always was, the eradication of Christianity through government policies aimed at solidifying a Marxist, Totalitarian, immoral Statist order. This is nothing short of fascism.”

Ah! I love the smell of paranoid conspiracy theories in the morning, it smells like victory. Somehow I doubt Obama is going to “eradicate” Christianity, but if paranoid pastors keep invoking Flavius Claudius Julianus, they may not like what his spirit (once called) will do. This is the fellow who wrote “Against the Gallileans” after all.

In a final note, since yesterday was Earth Day plenty of reporters were out looking for a religious angle. These ranged from those who interviewed Pagans about their connection to the Earth, to snarky bloggers mocking right-wing hysteria that Earth Day was a conspiracy to get red-blooded Christian Americans to start worshipping Gaia.

“Earth Day, Green Week, Global Warming, Cap and Trade, Radical Environmentalism, Gaiaism. These and similar beliefs are rapidly becoming a state sponsored religion. This is a worldwide religion, not just an American movement. The end goal of this religion is to halt the industrial and economic advance of man, and to make man subserviant to Gaia, the earth as a living super-organism: Earth as God.”

I can’t believe our super-secret conspiracy to slowly re-paganize the Earth has been discovered! Curses! Foiled again! How will we ever spread our plans for a worldwide religion based on a living super-organism now!

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!