A few days ago was St Patrick’s Day. As well as struggling through crowds of young green-clad merry makers, most of whom I’d wager had not a drop of Irish blood, I also struggled a little with a few emails telling me not to celebrate the day. Why? Well, apparently St Patrick was actually a nasty Christian missionary who did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, as the myth suggests, but rather zealously oversaw a genocide of Irish Druids and Pagans, who are represented by the snakes in the story.
After a few of these, and a couple of Facebook posts, I started gently replying that the whole snake = Pagan thing was a modern myth. Rather than seek source material myself (I’ve been busy), I simply pointed people to this excellent post on the Wild Hunt and quoted just a snippet from it:
The simple fact is that paganism thrived in Ireland for generations after Patrick lived and died, and, as Lupus puts it, “ the ‘final’ Christianization of the culture didn’t take place until the fourteenth century CE.” There was no Irish pagan genocide, no proof of any great violent Druid purge in Ireland, it simply doesn’t exist outside hagiography. By the time hagiographers started speaking of snakes and Druids, Irish paganism was already a remnant, and Irish Christianity the dominant religious force on the island. They were more worried about establishing heroic Irish saints than eradicating traces of paganism.
My correspondents were aghast, and to the last one simply refused to believe it. No counter arguments, no citing of opposing research, just a simple denial. A couple used the same phrase, “Spirit tells me…” I am not sure what ‘Spirit’ means elsewhere, but in Perth it often means ‘that part of myself that refuses to input new data’. *sigh*
This was a concrete example of what the brilliant Caroline Tully discusses in her recent article ‘Researching the Past is a Foreign Country: Cognitive Dissonance as a Response by Practitioner Pagans to Academic Research on the History of Pagan Religions‘. The title says a lot, but to quote:
It is in an effort to reduce dissonance that these Pagans resort to denial, justification, accusations of anti-Pagan prejudice, and indulgence in confirmation bias: the favouring of information that confirms their preconceptions, regardless of whether it is true—or as archaeologist Brian Hayden describes it, “feel-good epistemology.”
We have seen some this on MOTO when discussing the work of Professor Ronald Hutton on Wicca and Paganism. Caroline’s article is well worth reading for anyone involved in these or other discussions.
Now of course, academic reality and spiritual reality are not congruent and myths should be allowed to work without recourse to peer reviewed articles. As described on MOTO previously, when I am in a Wiccan circle, the Goddess and God are not expressions of modern religious thought, they are eternal and real deities descending back in time. When I am receiving Communion, Christ was not a Master among Masters, He is the One made manifest and I am spiritually partaking of that Mystery through consumption of His body.
So, I am not against myth…just against it being applied where it is not appropriate and maintaining it as “real” in the same way as the election of Barrack Obama is real. The insistence that religious and spiritual myth is real, that is partakes of shared time and space, is a relatively recent phenomena. As Karen Armstrong and others have shown it stems from the Renaissance where the Churches reacted to the new sciences which were proving incredibly successful in understanding the material universe. Facts were soon established as being only true in the material-scientific realm. The scientific and material methods became valorised as progressive and modern. The Churches responded to this change by asserting that what was once only religiously true as being now also factually true. So Jesus really DID walk on water, Moses really DID walk through a miraculously parted Red Sea.
This approach has led not only to some absurdities such as Creationist museums but is, ultimately (and ironically) what lies behind Pagan insistence on myths being real. Gerald Gardner really DID contact a Coven with lineage back to the stone age. There really WAS an underground Witch cult throughout Europe. St Patrick really DID persecute Pagans in Ireland. If it REALLY DID happen in share space-time it is real, valid and true. This ignores and devalues mythic and spiritual truth which is equally important and equally as real since it informs our lives and transforms our beings as much, or more so, than factual physical truth.
So it becomes important to look at what function our myths serve. It is quite obvious that the myths of Wiccan foundations and secret Witch cults connects modern Witches with the past, with a sense of belonging and lineage. It serves a healthy and valid purpose (of course, as I relate in this post, the actual history of Wicca is equally as awesome and moving). I am not sure of the purpose of the St Patrick murdering Irish Pagans myth. What function does this serve? I am unsure if modern Pagans need a yearly-repeated myth of Christian persecution. While it is true a minority of modern pagans are religiously persecuted and so may draw spiritual comfort and solidarity from this myth, most simply are not, certainly not those Facebooking about it with their real names. In the past the adoption of ‘persecuted people’ by modern Neo-Pagans has irked me somewhat, and I think this myth simply ties in to that belief and positioning.
Applying all this to the Golden Dawn, I wonder about the myth of the Secret Chiefs. This myth combines a number of motifs into one glorious package: ancient wisdom handed down in secret; Adepts beyond normal powers; spiritual legitimacy; unseen guidance; and assistance to those who are worthy. The myth therefore serves a number of valuable functions, and when entered correctly it could be prove very beneficial.
However, I think the Secret Chiefs myth has run its day and is no longer needed. The spiritual appeal and function it once had relied upon what is essentially a Victorian mindset where authority, power and wisdom were invested in father figures. These days it is quite clear that magical and spiritual wisdom can be found on the net or local bookstore, and we have all we need to progress and unfold. We also are less in need of father figures and find our spiritual legitimacy by practice rather than dubiously signed warrants. Since the end of the classical Golden Dawn era the myth of Secret Chiefs has been slowly replaced by that of Inner Contacts which are democratically the right and resource of all within the magical community. All but a few die hard Secret Chief enthusiasts are very happy to wish them a fond goodbye.
Now, of course there are people and groups who claim contact and physical interaction with Secret Chiefs in the contemporary world. Good for them. However, until the whole thing can be verified as being really real in shared-space time, I would say they remain a myth and function in the same manner. In fact, I would go further and say partial revelations via blog posts and assertions of the physical reality of Secret Chiefs causes a dissonance of its own. It places the concept of Secret Chiefs in a quasi real-mythic state, neither myth or the real – presuming of course one trusts the veracity of the reports of their meetings and teachings.
Such a state of dissonance is comparable, I feel with that produced with the publication of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Such was the brilliance of Swift’s satire some folk took it all very seriously and the imagined and mythical became real, and expeditions were quickly created to search for the islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu. So too with the Secret Chiefs – if we promote them as real not mythic, but cannot or do not give access to them, we are like Swift describing Lilliput without a map. People will take it all seriously, and like Dr Felkin, will search the physical world for physical Secret Chiefs. Problems are sure then sure to arise. Serious problems in some cases. ‘Nuff said? 🙂