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A Winter Solstice celebration is to be held at which  The Ancestor will be receiving his new winter crown and decorations for the festive period….  Could it be the start of something significant?

Few would disagree that when he was set up at Stonehenge for the summer solstice The Ancestor was a marvelously apt symbol, a powerful expression of everyone’s feelings towards sunrise, particularly at the solstices. But clearly he can’t be shipped to Stonehenge twice a year so is there not an opportunity here? 

Everyone knows that vast gatherings at Stonehenge, particularly at summer solstices, pose major logistical, conservation and financial problems for English Heritage, ones that they will be finding increasingly difficult to cope with in the face of the cuts. The pagan community are acutely aware of this and also that the difficulties aren’t caused by them but by others attracted to the event without adequate appreciation of the need to respect the monument.

 So here’s a possible solution:

Suppose the main summer solstice celebration centred not on Stonehenge but elsewhere, around The Ancestor? Could this not take much of the pressure off Stonehenge and perhaps allow a smaller-scale, more seemly gathering at the stones, to the advantage of both pagans and the authorities?

Not that the alternative celebration need be any less valid. As well as The Ancestor there might be the opportunity to erect heel stones at the venue so more people could see the symbolism of the sunrise more accurately – after all, modern pagans are Neo Pagans are they not? Why shouldn’t they (and all of us) have a way to celebrate modern sunrises properly, not long-gone ones inaccurately? 

Who would pay? Well, presumably no-one would mind paying a pound or two at the gate since it wouldn’t be at Stonehenge and would be easily approached without a long cold hike. And the start-up costs? How about asking English Heritage if they’d mind paying that out of the savings they’d make out of not having to run the event at Stonehenge!? Seems like it would be a very good deal for them, the taxpayer, Stonehenge and all pagans.

So there’s the suggestion. Discuss! Could the Solstice be better celebrated by everyone? And could The Ancestor be made into the permanent and universally admired face of modern paganism?

by Nigel Swift

It’s surprising this issue is back so soon as earlier this year there was a public consultation following which EH and NT said it was a no-no and that the vast majority of the adult population “support museums that wish to display and keep human bones for research purposes”.

And once again the idea has arisen that it’s something to be resolved mainly between druids and archaeologists. But if that was true, what was the public consultation about? No, surely druids and archaeologists are junior stakeholders and the general public are the main owners of both the ancient bones and the ancient sites from whence they came – and the public, it seems, are very clear they don’t want their two assets re-united.  In fact, they don’t want them removed from another of their assets, the museums!

Perhaps the recent awarding of charitable status to the Druid Network as part of a recognised religion has caused confusion? It will soon in our local Tax Office when they get my request for the cost of the Twix I gave to a tiny  person at my door on the holy day of Halloween to be treated as a charitable religious donation. But apart from that there’s been no real confusion caused: it has been pretty much conceded that druids can’t claim any more ancestral connection to these bones than the rest of the population and the other claim to a special hearing,  “shared belief and practices  with the ancient people” is actually also no more demonstrable by druids than the rest of us. How can that be said? What about all those rites and ceremonies? Well, the only consistent thing that is really known about the burial practices of the ancients is that they probably buried the departed with reverence and (maybe) hoped the interments would remain undisturbed – which is broadly what everyone believes nowadays. All that has happened is that wider society has shifted its views somewhat and now thinks the inviolability of graves and bones doesn’t necessarily have to last “forever”.

The fact that a minority of people (indeed a minority of pagans!) now disagree with our majority thinking, including the majority of pagans’ thinking, has morphed over time is neither here nor there. They have every right to put the opposite case and try to convince everyone of it (it’s a basic right called Democracy, invented by early pagans to their eternal credit!) but they don’t have any rights beyond that.

This is not to say those who think reburial is right are not “right”. Who can say what is right in this issue? It is simply to say they have no more rights in this than the rest of the community, just a vote or a right to be heard. I might well think (to take the argument to extremes) that all those bits of Catholic saints in cathedrals ought to be re-buried  or that Napoleon’s (alleged) penis ought to be shipped from New Jersey and back to Boney, but still I would have only a one sixty millionth of a share in the British “view” on the matter, not a speck more and certainly not a half share! The only way I could claim extra clout is by showing I had a lifestyle uniquely close to that of the saints or else family ties uniquely close to the Emperor of France,  – both of which would be a tad hard in my case but no more difficult than for a modern person to establish equivalent links of either sort with respect to prehistoric Bronze Age bones.  Having no DEC (demonstrable extra connection) – to invent a term that needs inventing – surely truncates our rights to a say in what actually happens simply at a level commensurate with our numbers and no more, even though we have an absolute, nay inviolable or even sacred right to say what we think ought to happen. This is basic political and moral philosophy, something that is a lot older than Archaeology and which outranks it in the affairs of men as it is our only bulwark against minority rule!    (IMO….!)

I think these issues need to be addressed better for two reasons:

First, in a new book by Tiffany Jenkins, “Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections” it is suggested that Museums are increasingly getting cold feet about exhibiting human bodies and body parts – despite surveys showing the public is fascinated and quite untroubled by such displays.  

Second, according to Mike Pitts and others the Ministry of Justice’s 2008 legislation insisting that bones must be reburied after two years is putting archaeological research in Britain at risk: “Suppose one of our palaeontologists found the remains of a million-year-old human,” said archaeologist Mike Pitts of the Stonehenge Riverside Project.  It would be a truly wonderful discovery and would transform our knowledge of our predecessors. But, according to the Ministry of Justice ruling, we would have to take that fossil – when we had only just begun to study it – and put it back in the soil. It is utterly absurd  

Indeed, if I’m right that the minority has no right to special pleadings and English Heritage is right that the vast majority of people support retention of ancient bones and if further surveys show the public is untroubled by their display in museums it is indeed “utterly absurd”. Should not the Ministry of Justice and the Museums listen to “The People” rather than to “those with a minority view and a commensurately minor right to influence the decision, not an inordinate one”? English Heritage and the National Trust have both grasped the nettle and said (effectively) giving a sympathetic hearing to a minority is all very well but bones in the Avebury Museum won’t be re-buried, for very good and democratic reasons. Isn’t it time their lead was followed by others?

As the sun, so shy, speeds on to hide behind the western hills
I stand within this
Ancient circle with its rugged stones
Pointing to the sky
Like the digits on the clock of time –
The time that has refused to move,
As if the keeper of this heather hearth has gone to bed
Remembering not to lift
The fallen weights of Time and Space.

The first verse of one of Iolo Morgannwg’s poem, some would call him a fantasist who created an idea or vision of a Celtic Druidic order in the 18th century.  

His first meeting of the bards was on Primrose Hill in London, where he had erected twelve stones called the Great Circle and a central altar stone known as the Maen Llog, this was in 1792. It is said of Iolo that he constructed an “elaborate mystical philosophy which he claimed represented a direct continuation of ancient Druidic practice.  His use of laudanum may have contributed to this fabrication, though many of his writings  fall between a small truth and a large imaginative myth that he wrote!

In 1795, a gorsedd meeting took place at the Pontypridd Rocking Stone, near Eglwysilam in Glamorgan.  This was a huge slab of natural slate stone (the Maen Chwyf), and this stone became a meeting place, though the circles were yet to be put up.

The word gorsedd, which in Welsh means throne, but is also loosely used as a coming together of bards.  Julian Cope in his book The Modern Antiquarian says of this rocking stone ‘that it stands high on the ground overlooking the confluence of the two great sacred rivers Rhodda and Taff,’ and that this gorsedd stone must have had great significance in prehistoric times. The stone is surrounded by two circles   plus an avenue but the circles are   not prehistoric, and it now sits in a pleasant landscape next to a small cottage hospital.  Photographs can be seen here on the TMA site…

Article by Moss

In an impressively clear and no-nonsense statement English Heritage and the National Trust appear to have kicked the debate into touch for at least a generation.

Request refused.

The vast majority of the England adult population support museums that wish to display and keep human bones for research purposes”

This interesting blog – Pagan Claims on Human Remains, though it was written at an earlier date by Dr. Tiffany Jenkins came up as a Google alert on the issue of reburial and the role of the museums in displaying  ancient remains.  She gives a secular viewpoint, and some might argue with her interpretation of the multi-faceted Pagan religions that now exist, but the question asked ‘did English Heritage and the National Trust’ spend too much time and money on the consultation of  the reburial of the skeleton at Avebury Museum is a valid one, given the minority viewpoint of the Druid organisation who petitioned for reburial.

Two years ago a question arose as to the reburial of ancient remains, specifically the small skeleton of ‘Charlie’ exhibited in a glass case in the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury. A petition was launched by CoBDO (Council of British Druid Orders) to have the bones reburied and a response by the government to a similar reburial of bones at Stonehenge can be seen below. 

There is no clear agreement in the Pagan community as to whether prehistoric bones should be reburied with a ceremony, but the question of reburial of human bones  excavated by archaeologists sparked a much wider controversy about respect for the ancient dead. 

HAD (Honouring the Ancient Dead) set down their thoughts on the subject, and came to the conclusion that though there was no overall mandate for the reburial of ‘Charlie’ the DCMS guidance on the subject of reburial was only really applicable to indigenous remains from abroad that should be returned to their rightful culture. A summary of their conclusions and recommendations is quoted below…

1) HAD fully supports the appropriateness of CoBDO making its Request for reburial of these ancient human remains on religious and spiritual grounds, fully acknowledging CoBDO’s position as a valid Pagan perspective based upon genuine, experiential, spiritual connection and the profound duty of care which such a deep connection evokes.

2) HAD fully supports CoBDO making this Request, because the DCMS Guidance and heritage organisations should take into account spiritual (and not only scientific) interests in their decision-making. From that point of view, the DCMS Guidance should include practical guidelines and criteria for how this could be achieved. 

 3) However, because CoBDO is not fully representative of the Druid or Pagan community, and indeed has no valid right to claim authority over these remains, HAD cannot support its call for reburial. Further, HAD’s more broadly reaching representation of Paganism informs that there is not a unanimous call for reburial of iconic remains such as Charlie.

4) HAD queries the language of the DCMS Guidance, proposing that the language of ‘claims’ is inappropriate and has put CoBDO in a no-win situation. If a British organisation such as CoBDO had been given the option to use the language of ‘expressions of interest’, the relevance and value of their input would have been immediately heard, supported, understood and of value. It is essential that an inclusive language be offered that is more appropriate for the British situation.

5) Emphatically then, HAD asserts that use of the current DCMS Guidance is inapplicable for human remains of British provenance.

An earlier article by Heritage Action on the CoBDO petition

The government’s response to a similar Stonehenge petition

Guest article by Albert Resonox

Defaced Buncton sheela-na-gig

Just off the A283, east of Washington, Sussex is the tiny village of Buncton, hidden behind a wooded glade across a wooden bridge, and just off Hole Street, is the charming little All Saints Chapel. It is said to date from the 11th century but records show that the church had land there long before any mention of the chapel.

Situated on a hillock just slightly out of a true north alignment with both the Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings, the chapel itself is cobbled together out of several building materials, including Roman, Saxon and Norman  (possibly even older material) easily seen by just walking around the building, all of which adds to its rather quaint hotch-potch appeal.

Inside renovations revealed 12/13th century paintwork on the northern wall, an example of which has been left uncovered, also on the north wall there was a very rare example of a horizontal Sheela-na-gig; newly-weds were encouraged to climb a small step ladder to rub the carved stone as some sort of homage to a fertility rite, whose origins are long forgotten. So worn through years of rubbing, the feminine attributes associated with a Sheela-na-gig have become smooth she became known as the old man.

Sheela-na-gig before being defaced (note what appears to be a second sheela on the left)

Sheela-na-gigs are extremely rare in Sussex, and even rarer now, because in December 2004 someone not only defaced the carving but pulverised it and proceeded to carry on the destruction on the floor until nothing more than dust remained. The perpetrator would have been carrying a ladder, a club (hammer presumably) and chisel and know exactly when the church would be empty. You don’t have to be Holmes or Poirot to deduce that it was the work of more than one person, as a look-out would have been essential as well as someone to steady the ladder when the hammer was being wielded.

The Times Online even carried the story under the heading “Pagan Whodunnit Grips Village!” and one parishioner was quoted as saying that “whilst not condoning vandalism, the destruction was a good thing as there was no room for pagan activity in a Christian place of worship”.

If so, a petition to have it carefully removed and displayed in Worthing Museum would have been more appropriate although why anyone would wish to reject a valid part of their heritage is beyond me.  Blatant destruction and defacing of artefacts for whatever reasons, reeks of sinister motives to my sensibilities.

Buncton Chapel

Further reading. Sheela-na-Gigs: Unravelling an enigma by Barbara Freitag. pp. 3, 9, 148, 161. ISBN 0-415-34553-7.

Crossing boundaries: a guest feature by Littlestone

Heritage Action has featured the question of votive offerings left at places like the Swallowhead Spring and West Kennet Long Barrow (Avebury) before

Offerings at the Swallowhead Spring. Image credit Moss

The leaving of ribbons, dolls, articles of clothing, crystals, t-lights, even food and drink, at such places is now generally frowned on and regarded by many as an unwelcome blot on the environment, or at the site of historic interest where they are left. There are, however, countries where the leaving of offerings in the form of ribbons, prayers written on paper which are then tied to the branches of trees or left at the base of stones, is commonplace and forms part of that country’s religion or cultural tradition. In Japan, massive ceremonial straw ropes (shimenawa) are often seen tied round the trunks of old or large trees and these form an intrinsic and deeply embedded aspect of the cultural makeup of the country. Often these trees are not on some secluded mountainside but are found in parks or city centres. Such is the reverence shown by the public towards the spirits that are thought to be, or to dwell within trees, rocks rivers and waterfalls, that it is not uncommon to see passers-by stop, put their hands together and bow respectfully to a tree or stone.


Sacred Japanese oak with shimenawa at the Imagumano Shinto Shrine, Kyoto

In modern Western societies there is a (perhaps) understandable reaction against the neo-pagan tradition of leaving offerings at springs and trees, but we should not look too unkindly on these practices as they seem to be tapping into a pre-Christian tradition and a deeply felt need to revere nature in its more ‘approachable’ manifestations such as trees, springs and stones. What is lacking in the West is a follow-up ceremony for such offerings. In other words there are few who bother to clean up after an offering has been left at a site. In Japan this problem does not generally arise because, when visiting the grave of a loved one for example, where it is not only customary to take along flowers and burn incense but also to take rice cakes, and perhaps a bottle of sake for the deceased, those offerings are not left behind but taken away after one’s respects to the deceased have been paid. In Japanese this concept is embodied in the wider concept known as kimochi dake itadakimasu. Roughly translated this means ‘I will take only the spirit of your kindness’ and is used for example when thanking (but politely refusing) an offer of help. In practice, no bottles of sake or parcels of rice cakes are left at the family grave; instead they are placed there for a short time while respects to the departed are paid and then they are packed up and taken home to be consumed by members of the deceased family. In other words, only the spirit of the offering is left behind.

The sentiments behind the nature-based Shinto practices of Japan, and the neo-pagan ceremonies of the West do seem to be broadly similar. What is different between the two cultures is the absence in the West of a ‘Rite of Disposal’ for offerings left at special or sacred places. In Japan there is a ceremony called Dondo Yaki. This is the annual and ritual burning of offerings left at sites throughout the year. To quote from the Let it Burn! blog –

“If you don’t burn the New Year’s decorations, it’s like holding on to the past. Moreover, holding on to the past is an act that doesn’t help you grow and mature as an individual. It’s a time to say good-bye to the old year and to any old, emotional attachments that might have held you back on a personal or professional level.”

Perhaps this is what the West needs for its ever-growing pagan tradition of leaving offerings at sacred sites – an annual burning celebration of the offerings, and worn out dreams, of one year and a clear statement heralding in the next.

Ysbyty Cynfyn

Used or Abused? Part of Ysbyty Stone Circle, incorporated in the churchyard wall

“If those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God” [Letter from Pope Gregory to Augustine on conversion of the heathens 601 AD]

This week, fourteen centuries after Pope Gregory wrote those words, the current Pope has taken some less than fraternal swipes at Paganism in his latest encyclical CARITAS IN VERITATE.

This comes as no surprise. Benedict is well known to have a special dislike of “paganism”. In a previous encyclical letter, SPE SALVI, On Christian Hope (1997) he asserts that Catholicism offers more hope for the future than polytheism with its “contradictory myths” –

“Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future …”

And back in 2005 in an address to a Jewish audience in Cologne Synagogue he depicted the Nazis as a “Neo-Pagan” invention – “an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism”… but did not discuss the centuries of Christian persecution of Jewry, the fact that the Nazi party seized on elements of both Christianity and romantic pre-Christian belief to create a twisted and perverse hybrid of both, that members of occult orders who didn’t toe the Nazi line were imprisoned just as defiant Christians were and that Hitler believed himself to be a Catholic until the day he died.

In the new encyclical he returns to his criticism of paganism, this time citing its particular reverence for Nature –

“…it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism — human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense…”

and …

“There are certain religious cultures in the world today that do not oblige men and women to live in communion but rather cut them off from one other in a search for individual well-being, limited to the gratification of psychological desires. Furthermore, a certain proliferation of different religious “paths”, attracting small groups or even single individuals, together with religious syncretism, can give rise to separation and disengagement. One possible negative effect of the process of globalization is the tendency to favour this kind of syncretism by encouraging forms of “religion” that, instead of bringing people together, alienate them from one another and distance them from reality. At the same time, some religious and cultural traditions persist which ossify society in rigid social groupings, in magical beliefs that fail to respect the dignity of the person, and in attitudes of subjugation to occult powers. In these contexts, love and truth have difficulty asserting themselves, and authentic development is impeded.”

Heritage Action has the same religious affiliation as a jam butty and we certainly aren’t as qualified to pontificate as the Pontiff and we are genuinely in awe of the intellectual level the encyclical displays but on the other hand we do like old stones just like pagans do, so we feel moved to say, begging the Vatican’s pardon, that we have difficulty with the idea that some religions are better than others, that being in communion with Nature is less beneficial than attending communion, that paganism endangers the dignity of the person more or offers less hope for the future or contains a greater degree of magical belief or contradictory myths or indeed myths than Catholicism.

Perhaps a couple of cardinals will come to our next Avebury Megameet on 1st August – there’ll be some pagans there including a few that are our members. They may find they are self-contained, cheerful and a threat to neither themselves nor the world – in fact not at all as they might expect. On the contrary, we’d say in general the one’s we’ve met aren’t treading a dangerous path at all and would probably subscribe to the very words the Pope quotes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom 12:9-10) :

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection.”


February 2023

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