Column: The Migration Crisis

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The world is currently witnessing human migration on a massive scale, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Europe. According to The New York Times, the population of asylum seekers in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan will rise to an estimated 4.7 million by the end of 2015. 1.3 million asylum applications are expected by the end of the year for the following six European countries alone: Germany, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland. And so far this year, some 549,000 asylum seekers have already traveled to Hungary, Greece, and Italy. Hungary has closed its border with Serbia, using water cannons, tear gas, pepper spray and batons against migrants seeking to travel through to the country to Northern and Western Europe.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, recently described migrants as a threat to European Christianity: “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims […] This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity.” Orban’s rhetoric raises the specter of such past events as the 1529 Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks, the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, or perhaps the meeting of Pope Leo I and Attila the Hun in 452.

Pope Leo I and Attila the Hun [Photo Credit: Public Domain]

Pope Leo I and Attila the Hun [Public Domain]

Speaking of Attila and the Huns, the name “Hungary” came into usage in the 1300s, “probably literally meaning ‘land of the Huns.’ ” Modern-day Hungarians speak an Uralic language called Magyar. The Magyars were a people from the Ural Mountains of Central Asia who conquered the Carpathian Basin many centuries after the Huns: “Middle English uses the same words for both Attila’s people and the Magyars, who appeared in Europe in 9c. and established a kingdom in 1000” ( In a further irony, after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising of workers’ councils was crushed by the Soviets, thousands of Hungarian refugees fled to Austria and other neighboring countries.

I was originally planning on a straightforward comparison between the migration crisis in Europe and the fall of the Roman Empire, but the more I read on the topic, the more complicated that comparison reveals itself to be. Others have made the same connection recently, suggesting that “one of the key lessons” of Roman history “is that mass migration – motivated by war, societal collapse, and/or extreme poverty – is capable of destroying even the most powerful of empires.” On the other hand, Walter Goffart’s Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire, published in 2006, challenges the narrative that foreigners—particularly the peoples often anachronistically called “Germanic”—were responsible for toppling the Roman Empire.

Goffart argues that what is often portrayed as a monolithic Völkerwanderung or “Wandering of the Peoples” during the Late Roman Empire was actually a much more gradual and incremental process:

There was a multiplicity of barbarians. Those who moved did so from positions of rest, having lived near the Roman borders for so long as to lose any memory of living elsewhere. They moved at the prompting of distinct leaders, for definite reasons, and, in general, over short distances. (Goffart, p. 7)

In other words, the movements of “barbarians” during the Late Roman Empire was a very different phenomenon than the refugee crisis we see today, where people have been forced to uproot rapidly and travel long distances to seek asylum. We live in different times, of course, where rapid long-distance transportation is possible, though the routes of entry into the E.U. are largely controlled by professional smugglers.

Goffart also criticizes the tendency to speak of “the barbarians” as a unified whole, especially when they are anachronistically referred to as “Germanic” in any sense beyond the linguistic or the limited Roman usage of the term: “namely, the two Roman provinces of ‘Germania,’ on the middle and lower course of the Rhine river.” (Goffart, p. 187) He points out that, for the peoples being described, the linguistic connection was “(as far as we may tell) unknown to themselves until the eighth century,” and that they would have called themselves by names such as “Goths, Franks, Herules, Gepids, and Marcommanni,” and that they co-existed with non-Germanic-speaking peoples such as the Sarmatians. (Goffart, p.5,19)

In her article “The Matronae and Matres: Breating New Life into an Old Religion,” River Devora makes a similar point that the concept of pan-Germanic religion did not exist in antiquity:

It is important to understand that “pan-European” universal paganism never existed – there was never a single unifying set of religious beliefs nor pantheon that spanned all of Europe. There wasn’t even necessarily a “pan-Germanic” or a “pan-Celtic/Gaulish” paganism.

Every individual tribe had their own pantheons, with their own stories, rituals and worship styles, and their own individual deities that may not have been found in the next tribe over.

Even the more popular or larger, better known deities who may have been found in a number of different tribes may have had different divine relationships, different attributes, or different roles in the pantheon from tribe to tribe (which is why in some Germanic tribes, Odin was the head deity in the pantheon, in other tribes it was Freyr, in others Tyr, and in others Thor).

The implications of these parallels are two-fold. First, “the migrants” of today are not an amorphous mass either. They are, most commonly, Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Somalians, Sudanese, Gambians, and Bangladeshis. Moreover, they are families and individuals: mothers, fathers, children. Second, the idea of a homogeneous “European identity,” despite the various attempts at political unification over the centuries, has forever been and still is a fiction.

Maelstrom, a Pagan professor from New York currently living and teaching in the Czech Republic for the fall, has similarly argued that European cultures have been heavily influenced by outsiders: “(1) European traditions were often formed by foreign intrusions, leading to this seemingly paradoxical, but historically supportable conclusion that (2) foreign intrusion is itself a very old European tradition.”

Of course, over the past five hundred years Europeans have carried out some “foreign intrusions” of their own, displacing, enslaving and decimating other populations around the world. Colonization, however, is not the same thing as migration, especially when accompanied by the establishment of missions and the deliberate destruction of traditional cultures. One example of this disconnect can bee seen in Pope Francis’s plans to canonize Junipero Serra, the founder of the California mission system, which was responsible for approximately 100,000 native deaths and the suppression of native cultures. According to ABC7 News, “Santa Clara University professor Robert Senkewicz […] is among a number of experts who believe the pope is trying to send a message to Americans about immigration.” If so, it’s a strange message, because Serra wasn’t an “immigrant:” he was accompanied by Spanish troops as part of a military occupation. And furthermore, those referred to as “immigrants” in the United States are largely of indigenous descent.

Europe’s own history of colonialism in recent centuries has led to a conflation of the concept of “migration” with those of “colonization” and “invasion,” which has contributed to the fearful language used around immigration in the United States and in Europe. The terms “heathen Chinese” and “Yellow Peril” or even “Yellow Terror,” for example, arose out of American and European anti-Chinese sentiment in the late nineteenth century. Currently,”the leading GOP candidate is talking about ferreting out, arresting, and forcibly removing a population of men, women and children roughly the size of the state of Ohio” or around 11 million human beings.

In his essay “But They’re There,” Wild Hunt columnist Rhyd Wildermuth writes that “Post-Colonialism […] seeks to liberate modern peoples from the lie that we are better than others in order to liberate those we conquer, be it through war or economic policy and consumption.” An examination of the historical complexities and nuances of human migration on the European subcontinent can challenge the idea that modern day Europeans or North Americans are better than those currently seeking refuge and sanctuary in those geographic areas. If, as Walter Goffart argues, even the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the subsequent settlement of various peoples in its former territories does not really constitute a unified “invasion,” then neither does the movement of asylum seekers and refugees from regions of the world devastated by warfare and capitalism.

Migrants in Hungary, 2015. Credit: Gémes Sándor

Migrants in Hungary, 2015. Credit: Gémes Sándor

It is also important to consider the words and stories of “the migrants” themselves. Naaf, a Syrian from Kobani at the Calais migrant camp in France, told a journalist from The Guardian, “Fences? But people can always squeeze under a fence. I can show you five holes under fences over there. That won’t put anyone off.”

The same point was made by Alain, a charity worker at Calais: “For 12 years, authorities been building barriers and putting barbed wire here. It’s a waste of money. Do you think fences will have any effect? Someone who has travelled so far to get here, for months on end, who had seen terrible things and overcome huge obstacles, do you think they would stop at a fence?”

Hail to the Migrant Dead! Hail to the Migrant Ancestors, without whom no one would be where or who they are today! Hail to the gods and spirits who guide and protect migrants!