Mar 31, 2013 - World Religions    3 Comments

Faith and Fiction

Religion is a tricky thing. I should know–on a variety of levels, I’ve been studying the features and interactions of religion since I was a little girl. In fact, I made a profession of it, quite by accident, as I’ve recounted before.

I love the history, the stories, the mythology, and the characters that philosophies and teachings accrete, like a snowball ends up a huge, mysterious matrix by the time it finishes rolling downhill. I love to explore the cracks where logic and theology don’t quite line up, and those places where history intrudes to point out the complicated horse race most multi-religious societies are. The Buddha ends up with saints and instant salvation; Mary ends up with blue robes and lions in her portraits. What a glorious, fascinating mess!

When it comes to my history, I’m a rigorous scholar. I insist on primary sources, whenever possible in their original language–that’s why I’ve learned to read in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Irish, Old French, Provencal, Middle English, and a smattering of Welsh, on top of the modern German, Italian, Spanish and French which I can manage from basic source wrangling to full fluency.

I also insist on impeccably sourcing for those valuable secondary syntheses that integrate analysis with reporting. That’s the job of the historian: to report what they find and put together the patterns. If what you find doesn’t fit the pattern, it’s not a sign to throw it out–it’s a sign that your pattern needs some work.

But, as I’ve also written before, I’m a neo-pagan: specifically, I’m a Celtic-pantheon Wiccan (all Wiccans are pagans, but not all pagans are Wiccans, not by a long shot–take Hinduism, just for contrast). I started as a self-taught Solitaire, thanks to the seminal work of Scott Cunningham, who made Wicca accessible to those without covens from which to learn. In college, I went in for formal training with a trusted teacher and work group, earning my consecration as a priestess so I’d feel worthy of requests to facilitate rituals in the future.

The trick with neo-paganism is the “neo-” part. While many early writers and teachers claimed a single, unbroken heritage with the “Old Ways,” the facts lead us to a different conclusion. Much of what Wicca’s founder Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) and Raymond Buckland (1934-), his disciple who brought Wicca to the US, was created whole-cloth based on their romanticized interpretations of ancient sources and a nature-based outlook on spirituality. All you have to do is look at a definitive archeological source, like Anne Ross’ Pagan Celtic Britain, to see how thin and open to interpretation the actual evidence is, compared with the richly embroidered tapestry of belief and ritual that early neo-pagans created.

They weren’t the only ones doing this: W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory had started the ball rolling with their Celtic Twilight movement. Later, historians like Eoin MacNeill who was as much a revolutionary as a professor in early 20th-century Ireland did valuable work bringing together the disparate primary sources from ancient and medieval Ireland, but they processed the evidence through a strongly nationalistic lens so it fit their other efforts.

The facts for neo-pagans are these: There is no way to recreate a continuous tradition from ancient days to the present. We must be content to have fashioned a new, rich tradition of our own, and acknowledge the great deal of wishful historicity we’ve given it. We must also recognize what historians of early Europe already know: that even a single mention in a single source may have to suffice for evidence in societies where what scant written archives may have existed were burned in one invasion or another (thanks a lot, Vikings), leaving spans of 50-200 years without any written documentation.

The facts of my faith, on the other hand, are these: I feel a deep, ineffable connection to ancient generations through the rituals and beliefs I hold dear. I am part of an endless continuum of women and men who have marveled at the beauty of the waxing moon, or tasted the similarity between sea water and tears, or celebrated the first point at which the days become perceptibly longer. Nature is my religion, the forests my cathedrals, the fields and shores my pilgrim paths. That biology and astronomy and physics and geology all mingle to create the singular experience of life on this planet is all the mystery and wonder my soul needs.

These truths don’t rely on primary sources for validation. I can manage to be a good historian and a good person of faith at the same time, even though they should contradict one another. I’m content living in this paradox. For what I know, I want more sources than a single reference in a Christian chronology. For what I believe, I have everything I want.



  • What do you think of the work of Marija Gimbutas and the subsequent interpretations of archaeological evidence as proof of matrifocal societies?

    • I think she’s got some very good points, and brings a spotlight to evidence long ignored by the patriarchal academic establishment, but she carries her conclusions a few steps further than I would as a historian. I understand why she wants to, though.

      • I want to, also. I remember, at seventeen, being so moved by The Goddess Remembered and everything I heard and read in books like When God Was a Woman. I felt somewhat betrayed when I realized the conclusions that were jumped to. It has, since then, been more interesting to me to think of my Pagan beliefs as biology at an intersection with poetry. A part of me would still like to think that there were societies of peace where the goddess was central to the understanding of people’s lives. I guess we are all vulnerable to fictions. 🙂

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