Don't Throw Out the Baby

Posted by Byron Pendason on May 3, 2024 CE, in , ,

Wes hāl!1 I think most of us have gotten good at judging how true something is based on our first impressions. If it sounds like something that could be true, we assume it’s true and move on with our day. If it’s something that sounds absurd, we likewise reject the proposition and move on. We’ve pretty much had to. With the internet being so pervasive in our modern lives, we come across more information than we could possibly ever have time to verify. And this system works decently well when it’s subjects that we are well acquainted with. We can run into problems though when it’s something that we know a lot about on one subject, but know very little about on other subjects the information deals with. This problem has become an issue in modern Paganism when it pertains to things that are supposedly Christian intventions.

I most recently encountered this issue when I stumbled upon a comment about Khernips being Catholicism. Khernips is the water used in traditional Hellenic rituals for the purpose of ritually purifying oneself. The idea that it comes from Catholicism is due to its similarity with holy water. (I find the link ironic, since the Greeks haven’t been Catholic since the Great Schism in 1054.) Ritual purity is something that seems to be almost universal not only in Proto-Indo-European spiritualities, but indeed almost universal across the globe.

There are certain spiritual concepts that seem to transcend religious boundaries. Similarities between Chritianity and other religions doesn’t necesarily mean it’s Christian influence. Prayer, for example, and kneeling in rituals seems to go beyond religious lines. They seem to be natural human responses to the divine. However, because Chrisitianity includes these elements, pagans tend to assume that any appaearance of these things in other religions are influences imported from Christianity. I will not go into detail on any of the following examples, as they deserve their own blog posts, but I think outlining the facts here should be sufficient to illustrate the point I am trying to make.

One example pertinent to Heathenry is Ragnarok. Many Heathens assume it was written into Norse lore by Snorri, and was based upon the Christian Armageddon. However, we find it mentioned in the Voluspa, a part of the Poetic Edda that is a collection of poetry that not only predates Snorri but many of these poems also predate the conversion to Chrisianity. We also have depictions of Ragnarok on Runestones from Danelaw England dating to the 900s2. To what degree it was influenced by Christianity can be discussed, but the fact that the idea of an end of the world battle in Norse religion originated in some form in Norse paganism cannot be denied3.

Another example is the ideas of good and evil. The number of times I’ve seen claims that any mention of good and evil is alien to Heathenry, or paganism, is astounding. Linguistic analysis of Germanic languages show that this idea goes all the way back to at least Proto-Germanic (which split off from the PIE langauge tree around 500 BC, well before the founding of Christianity). A good anlysis of this issue can be found in Wind in the Worldtree’s blog post Not Beyond Good and Evil. It may not have been used to describe the cosmic duality that it does in Chrisitanity, but the fact that these words predate Christianity shows that there was some concept of good and evil among the Germanic peoples before Christianity ever came along.

What’s the point I’m trying to make here? Just because something bears resemblance to Christianity doesn’t mean that it comes from Christianity. We shouldn’t be so quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. We need to be more diligent than that when reconstructing our religion. As a friend (the author of the blog Forþ-weard) put it, “It’s really funny to me how people get so uptight about not using Christian things when very little that Christians do is actually unique to them.”

Anyways, just food for thought. Beo gesund!1

  1. Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell.  2

  2. I’m not trying to imply that these depictions make for Anglo-Saxon attestations of Ragnarok. Being in Danelaw England almost certainly makes these depictions Norse rather than Anglo-Saxon, since the Anglo-Saxons had been Christian at this point for about 300 years. I am only pointing out that these depictions not only predate Snorri, but also predate the Norse conversion to Chrisitianity in the early eleventh century. 

  3. My personal theory is that the idea of Ragnarok originated with the volcanic winter of 536, where many of the climatic changes brought on by that event appear to match elements of Ragnrok. I think the idea was then refined by cultural exchange through trade with Christians in Europe, Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East, and Zoroastrians in present day Iran. So while I think Ragnarok predates the conversion to Christianity, I don’t think its inherrant in Germanic mythology as some have proposed.