Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Honouring ancient pagans and paganism

[Paganism] is "just a collection of ethnic polytheism whatever was not Judaism or Christianity, but given a name by the lazy cunning of Christian apologists, who could then use their most salacious material to discredit all their opponents at one go." Fowden, review of Lane Fox 1986, JRS 78 (1988) : 176 quoted in Frankfurter : 75

“Pagan” and “Paganism” was early Christian slang, meaning “civilian” and not as some say, pejorative terms for “rustic” or “provincial”. Some of the most high profile “pagans” attacked by Christians in antiquity dwelt in sophisticated cities. For example the pagan martyr Hypatia, was from Alexandria, a city notorious to Christians, for its intellectual pagans.

Robin Lane Fox /Pagans & Christians/. Penguin 1986:

“In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, /pagani/. The word first appears in Christian inscriptions of the early fourth century and remained colloquial, never entering the Latin translation of the Bible. In everyday use, it meant either civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century, the origin of the early Christian’s usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. /Pagani/ were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believer, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christian’s view of life.

“Paganism” too, is a Christian coinage, a word like “Judaism”, which suggests a system of doctrine and orthodoxy, as Christian religion knows one. By modern historians pagan religion has been defined as essentially a matter of cult acts . . . pagans performed rites but professed no creed or doctrine. They did pay detailed acts of cult, especially by offering animal victims to their gods; but they were not committed to revealed beliefs in the strong Christian sense of the term. They were not exhorted to faith: “to anyone brought up on classical Greek philosophy, faith was the lowest form of cognition . . . the state of mind of the uneducated.” Although followers of Plato’s philosophy began to give the term more value in the later third century ad, no group of pagans ever called themselves “the faithful”; the term remains one of the few ways of distinguishing Jewish and Christian Epitaphs from those which are Pagan.”

Robin Lane Fox is always interesting, although he does share the tendency of many historians of his generation, who tend to view things either through the distorting filter of Greek philosophy/theology or from a Christian terminus. But we might ask, was everything in the ancient world just preparation for the coming of Christianity - or can it be examined as a set of ideas in its own right? We might therefore question some of his comments about "pagan" religion being all about "cult acts" and void of any notion of inner piety. As always this tends to avoid the "elephant in the room". Ancient Egypt is now widely acknowledged as being a special case. The ancient Egyptians were renowned for their piety. But why do modern scholars never see things from their point of view when writing about "pagan" religion?

"Pagan" and "Paganism" may be loaded terms but they are not pejorative. What is little known, and little studied, is the organised "pagan" resistance to Christianity, which was recognised at the time as a dangerous, anti-intellectual movement, akin to the "taliban" of modern times.

"Paganism" came into being principally in the writings of Iamblicus, who created an eucumenical tradition based on the Chaldean oracles, that valued all major theologies, especially Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek. These pagan "clans" called themselves - "Neo-platonists", "Hellenes", "Chaldeans" or "Hermeticists" - and they were persecuted by state and the mob for several centuries. When the Athenian academy was forcibly closed, they took refuge in Alexandria, Aphroditopolis and finally the open city of Haran in Persia. Here these ideas eventually flowed into the heterodox traditions of early Islam. When the fanatical christian emperor Justinian began to really turn the screws, he was stopped in his tracks by the Treaty of Haran, which stipulated that the local philosophical pagans (Chaldeans) be allowed to continue their studies. In fury Justinian lashed out at the sanctuary of Isis at Philai, in Upper Egypt. (see Polymnia Athanassiadi "Persecution and Response in Late Paganism - the evidence of Damascius", Journal of Hellenic Studies 113 1-29)

I feel a personal desire to remember the struggles,sacrifices and often martyrdom of those "intellectual pagans" of the late classical world. They, like the modern pagans, were euchemical and eclectic, hence we should be proud to number ourselves amongst their number.

Mogg Morgan
PO Box 250, Oxford, OX1 1AP
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