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From The Wild Hunt, a [neo-]pagan blog, comes the most bizarre piece of medievalist news I have heard all week. Arthur Uther Pendragon, modern druid and reincarnation of the famous king, is running to become an independent MP in Salisbury. I find myself speechless, and thus am reduced to blockquoting:
“One of the counts I will be most interested in following on election night will be the one down in Salisbury, where the ever-colourful King Arthur Pendragon is standing. You’ve got to love him: a man in a dress who rides a motorbike and carries a dirty big sword called Excalibur around … He’s a sort of wayward son of the Druid movement – the armed proletarian wing – with a taste in wild women and flashy silver jewellery and a kind of persistent stubbornness that is almost Churchillian in its scope. I think there may be other candidates, but I’ve already forgotten who they are.”
I must admit to being inclined to agreement with Rob Mayall on that one. For all that I am quite fond of my local MPs, I would probably vote for a chap wielding a sword and riding about on a motorbike. It adds a certain colour which is somewhat lacking in Australian -and most other- English elections.
Oh, certainly, I could write something about the immense influence the Arthurian mythology retains even in our modern age, wax lyrical about the lack of romance in current-day politics. I could write a post about barmy New Age types, or rattle on about religious influences in politics
But Mister Pendragon seems relatively harmless- he’s vowed never to unsheathe Excalibur in anger.
Once upon a time the Old Norse reading group decided to go out to a Scandinavian restaurant instead of doing any work. During the night one of our members commented on how many neo-pagans the study of this language attracts. There was much bemusement amongst the group; at least three of us are atheists, including myself. The remainder muttered something and looked away uncomfortably. Yet he was not entirely incorrect.
When I was younger, ill and curious, I started looking into the reconstruction of Norse paganism. I glanced at Wicca, at other elements of the New Age, and found them wanting. They are so clearly created out of whole cloth it was difficult to take them seriously. While I am sure that they are genuine religions, and Wiccan adherents experience religious phenomena, they were too new -too obviously human- for me to take realistically. I instead took inspiration from a good friend of mine who is a Hellenistic pagan and looked into ancient European religions. A long-time fan of Norse mythology, that seemed the best place to start.
[A moment: when I say Wiccan adherents experience religious phenomena, they do. I have, as a matter of fact. Picture a wild location, a magic circle drawn, my girlfriend at the time sky-clad and casting a spell- a friend of mine and I both felt something as the spell concluded. A chill up the spine, a shiver as reality adjusted. At the time, I was impressed. Now, of course, it is painfully obvious that it was a combination of expectation, cold, and the moving nature of moonlit nights in the Australian bush. Religious phenomena aren't caused by secret spirits, but that does not mean they are not genuine for believers and that is my point.]
The neo-pagan movements are a confusing morass of make belief, nonsense, polytheism, personal experience, henotheism, polygamy, drama, and racism to newcomers. The more I researched, the more there was to find. There were ‘pagans who constructed Jungian universal pantheons from every historical religion, henotheists worshipping Gaia as everything and nothing, home-crafted pantheons forged out of the splintered remnants of some dozen world mythologies, placing Artemis alongside Thor alongside Anansi. It is confusing and one could spend a life amongst these people, studying the thousands of beliefs. It is nearly impossible to speak of ‘Neo-Paganism’ with capital letters, individuality is so core to the religion[s].
Eventually I started to find groups of ‘pagans who followed the Norse deities. This immediately tripped alarm bells. There are quite a few, and each of them have different belief systems and structures, so this should not reflect upon all of them, yet…there is a significant element of racism in some of them. Clearly touched by Nazism, ‘Odinist’ movements believe that the respect and worship of the Norse deities is for white ‘folk’ [.i. race]. I encountered lines of thought such as the ‘white gods’ fought and defeated the ‘Mexican gods’ of the Mayan and Incan peoples, and therefore North America belonged to while people by right. At the tamest, the racialist doctrines involved bringing together ‘white races’ in ‘spiritual fellowship’. To put it mildly, this sort of nonsense turned me away from the whole idea.
Even among those re-constructionist heathens who avoided racism there were problems. Given the nature of the Norse texts, homosexuality is severely frowned upon. There is a focus upon the wisdom of elders. In the Old Norse, only those who die valiantly get to Valhalla- a claim that would be extremely problematic in the modern world, and yet was dismissed rather casually. Everyone gets to Valhalla! As long as you were pretty okay, I guess. Or something. It all seemed rather inconsistent.
[This is without going into the inherent problems of relying on texts which were compiled by Christians decades or centuries after their initial (certainly oral) transmission.]
My final problem was one anyone could have seen coming. For all that I admired the mythology of the Norse, for all my wandering about drawing Mjollnir on things, it is impossible to accept make-believe as reality. The creation of the world in northern mythology is absolutely incompatible with reality, even as a rather awkward and disturbing metaphor for natural events. A giant is murdered, and his brain becomes the clouds? It is very poetic, but clouds do not stem from the same processes that create the mountains (his bones). I felt very silly even trying.
My examination of Norse-inspired neo-paganism was fascinating, but ultimately futile at revealing anything save a demonstration of the endless energy of human imagination. Humans really are quite remarkable things, when you consider everything we create, for pleasure or for religion.