Making Sacred Land

Just the other day I was writing about American pagans tying themselves to ancestral European ethnic paganisms. I expressed skepticism. Surely cultural heritage belongs (mostly?) to the people whose own national heritage it is. More, anyway, than to the people whose ancestral heritage it is. (If you’re not following that summary, this is not the topic for you.)

After making this argument for many years now, as soon as I took the time to write about it, even so superficially, I came across an obvious counter-argument. Here’s a link to Tom Rowsell, talking about how replacement populations appropriate and re-name local features.

Anglo-Saxon pagans appropriated the Celtic burial mounds and Bronze age burial mounds in a new religious context, using them to bury their own dead and also for meeting places. The Christians later adapted these burial places for yet another context, as an execution ground and a designated haunt of devils and demons. Pagans today often worship at Neolithic monuments in an anachronistic way quite incongruous with their original purpose, but this does not make it less authentic paganism when we consider how historic pagans themselves appropriated monuments of other peoples for their own purposes.

The example is not perfect, though. Rowsell’s discussion centers on appropriating and renaming barrows, without distinguishing between cases where the place is appropriated because the invaders have buried their own dead there, and other cases.

As I write about this subject I’m trying to avoid making a direct connection to old Nazi blood and soil arguments. Very difficult because these ideas are the same at base. I often hear objections from modern pagans that they’re different, and that’s what I’m exploring. Are they really?

Before I started studying any of this, my framework was the story in 2 Kings 17. This is how I expected paganism would work when transplanted to a new land. (Yes, I had a Christian education.)

24 The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. 25 When they first lived there, they did not worship the Lord; so he sent lions among them and they killed some of the people. 26 It was reported to the king of Assyria: “The people you deported and resettled in the towns of Samaria do not know what the god of that country requires. He has sent lions among them, which are killing them off, because the people do not know what he requires.” 27 Then the king of Assyria gave this order: “Have one of the priests you took captive from Samaria go back to live there and teach the people what the god of the land requires.” 28 So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria came to live in Bethel and taught them how to worship the Lord. 29 Nevertheless, each national group made its own gods in the several towns where they settled, and set them up in the shrines the people of Samaria had made at the high places.

“Teach the people what the god of the land requires.” That’s how it seemed like it should work, and I wonder if perhaps Rowsell’s discourse on barrows just doesn’t range far enough.

My thought is that every pagan nomadic people faces this same dilemma. You have your own ethnic gods, who are your ancestral gods as well as your own deified ancestors. Then you also have the gods of the land, who unknown unless you can learn something about them from neighboring people.

This, by the way, is why there are always two tribes of gods. The Olympians and the Titans. The Aesir and the Vanir. It’s not that there has been some sort of conquest. It’s that by definition there have to be two types of gods. As far as I know this idea is unique to me. I haven’t convinced anyone else yet that generations of scholarship on this issue is pure bunk.

%d bloggers like this: