On Localism and Paganism

Folks who know me know that I am obsessed with the idea of “the local,” or the application of local historical and cultural knowledge to foster regionally centered communities and economies and therefore, in the words of James Howard Kunstler, make the world big again. The following thoughts are part of that stream of ideas, an attempt to bring together disparate tidbits of knowledge from a variety of disciplines to this project, though these particular thoughts are rather inspired by recent readings in Scandinavian history. Because anything and everything is useful, right?

A while back, I was in a bookstore killing some time and found myself in the New Age/Neopagan section. As I skimmed the various titles, it suddenly occurred to me that, for all the attention at reconstruction of pre-Christian religions, there is one thing adherents to various forms of neopaganism cannot yet achieve—the “taken for granted” quality of belief and praxis. As Albert Furtwangler noted in Bringing Indians to the Book, the simple presence of Christian missionaries in the Pacific Northwest fundamentally changed local religious practices, whether those missionaries were successful or not, for in competition with Christianity, indigenous religions had to make the case for themselves, whereas previously they were simply the ways and practices of the people—universal, in a local sense, if you will. In fact, today, modern paganism spreads itself a lot like Christianity, through a culture of literacy within a marketplace of religions.

I don’t think I quite appreciated the fundamental change that took place wherever “religions of the book” landed until I read Preben Meulengracht Sørensen’s essay on Scandinavian religion in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. The word for the religious shift that occurred with the spread of Christianity in the northern lands of Europe actually translates as “culture change,” and Sørensen does an excellent job of illustrating exactly how the broader culture changed fundamentally with the advent of this new religion:

  1. A shift from variations to uniformity. Previously, variations of Norse mythology had existed across the land, just as in ancient Greece, where local cults emphasized certain gods or had their own “canon” of stories about the gods. With Christianity, local variation was replaced by a religious tradition broadly standardized across national and cultural boundaries.
  2. Shift in perspectives of time. Events once calculated relative to each other, and in terms of generations, were now calculated relative to ancient events in an established chronology based upon the birth of Christ. Too, the future was extended outward, with the goal of life being to prepare for Doomsday, rather than for the next harvest, etc.
  3. Shift in perspective of space. Previously, events at the center of one’s belief system occurred nearby (those mountains being the remains of giants, etc.), but now the events at the center of the dominant belief system occurred far away in distant lands that would be beyond the reach of most believers. Belief was disconnected from the region.
  4. Shift from orality to literacy. Formerly, myths recounted over time could experience subtle changes to accommodate the evolution of society or the current needs of the people. Now, myths remained uniform not just across space but also across time, with the written word allowing for a continuous preservation of the original story, free from change (and full of admonitions not to change anything, too). In addition, the source and summit of wisdom became not the local elders but a standardized text.
  5. Shifts in morality. Paganism lacked complex laws for the regulation of every facet of life but was based upon navigating personal relationships instead of placating a distant but imminent deity. In fact, gods were perceived as beings in ever-evolving relationships with people: they might be abandoned if a bad harvest occurred, or they might be embraced if a prayer was answered. What regulated personal behavior were ideas of shame and honor. However, in the new dispensation, people were not responsible to each other but instead to God, and thus some were (and continue to be) willing to break personal relationships in order to follow what they believe to be God’s will for their lives. (This ties into point one, too, for there are no local variations on morality allowed.)

(This isn’t to say that all these changes have been for the worse; indeed, we hold in high esteem those who break from dominant evil social structures in order to follow higher callings of justice—draft dodgers always being personal favorites of mine. However, at the same time, a locality, compared to a nation, cannot quite produce the same scale of evil. Very few villages, after all, could support their own bomb-making facilities, no matter how much the citizens were taxed.)

From my perspective, it seems that some of our cultural insecurities as Americans (and as Arkansans) can be traced back to some of these developments in Western culture. After all, growing up in Arkansas, it seemed that the “sacred events” of our national history always occurred elsewhere, and this has, until fairly recently, even been reinforced by academic writings, with a famous, Pulitzer Prize–winning volume touting itself as the most authoritative history of the Civil War not even mentioning Arkansas once. As Eddy Izzard jokes, Europe is “where the history comes from,” and, consciously or unconsciously, we tend to agree, our current perceptions of time rendering the longer existence of “civilization” in Europe as significant. Our traditions of literacy (and demands for temporal and spatial uniformity) leave us arguing over what the Founding Fathers meant rather than asking whether their system works for us here and now.

Of course, there is no going “back to the Garden,” as it were, for any way forward must be based upon what we have now, rather than trying to eliminate alleged cultural “impurities” to return to a prelapsarian paradise. But if we want to rebuild local communities and local economies, what shape will the path forward, the path to a larger world, take?

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