Modern Pagans stand on top of twenty long centuries of Christian history. And by “Christian history” I mean not only the history of Christianity, but history of those twenty centuries as written by Christianity – more importantly, interpreted by Christianity.
Though they only gained absolute power in the fourth century, Christian discourse began in the first, with the writings of Paul of Tarsus.
This discourse took the form of both apologia – that is a defense of their beliefs – but also polemics - or attacks on paganism. The two were typically combined. While defending Christian beliefs and practices the apologists would concurrently attack Pagan beliefs and practices. A notable example of this tactic is Tertullian, the first great apologist of the second century CE.
This situation grew worse in the fourth century when Christianity became the official state religion and Paganism was banned. At this point, discourse became entirely one-sided and Pagans lost the ability to contribute to the writing of and interpretation of history.
For the next sixteen centuries until today, Christianity has written that history. It has developed, both about itself and about Paganism, a mythology.
Like Judaism before it, and however much its antecedents lay firmly rooted in Judaism and polytheism, Christianity was a rejection of everything outside itself. For this reason, to the extent that information about Paganism comes from Christian sources of the period, it is suspect, just as are the lies told about Canaanite religious practices by the Yahwists of the 7th century BCE and thereafter (and recorded in the Hebrew Bible).
For want of a better term, this propaganda campaign caused modern biblical archaeologists, including the founder of that movement, William F. Albright, to conclude that Canaanite religious practices were abominable. These were contrasted with the “pure” religious practices of the Jews.
Thus the “spin” put on Pagan practices by those 7th century BCE Jewish priests persisted until the late twentieth century, when Biblical Archaeology reached its nadir and was finally put to bed. For twenty-six centuries, the lies of those priestly authors were believed.
For sixteen centuries now the lies told of Paganism by Christian priestly authors have been believed. They are still widely believed today, and those ancient lies are repeated every Sunday from pulpits across the world.
Trying to understand ancient polytheism through a Christian lens will then render a distorted view of what Paganism was.
Obviously a modern Pagan will want to use caution when working towards a revival of any particular polytheistic religious tradition. They will want to be careful not to recreate Paganism as it looked to Christians; they will want instead to recreate Paganism as it looked to Pagans.
How do we do this?
It is no easy task sifting through twenty centuries of Christian mythology. Christian authors and editors were not careful with their own writings, and we cannot expect them to have been any more careful with the Pagan literature that was in their hands for all those centuries.
This, in a nutshell, is the Problem of Paganism.
Look at the diagram above. I call this the “Beaker of Misinformation.”
At the bottom you will find the original layers of Paganism as it existed in the ancient world. As you can see they are buried beneath a rather sizeable pile of Christian misinformation in the form of mythology. At the very top you will find a thin sliver that represents modern Paganism.
The problem for modern Paganism is this: to get from where we are to where our ancestors were – to original Paganism – a Paganism free of Christian exegesis.
As should be obvious we can only accomplish this task by going through the Christian layer. This search must necessarily include an examination of Christian misinformation with regards to Pagan practice. Christians and some Pagans object to this on the grounds that the equivalent of attacking Christianity and this is something Pagans just don’t do; we want to get along.
However, if we settle for getting along we resign ourselves to never knowing anything about Paganism from the Pagan perspective.
This is unacceptable.
Necessarily our examination will expose Christian lies about Paganism and as a result, because one hinges upon the other, lies told by Christianity about Christianity. Christianity was built up, as I noted earlier, as a rejection of Pagan practice.
We have to question the witnesses, and question them ruthlessly, if we are to get at the facts. In no court of law is a witnesses’ testimony simply allowed to stand without undergoing examination. Failure to do so now would be a miscarriage of justice. Our ancestors have been defamed, our religion slandered. We owe it to both to expose the facts.
And we owe it to our gods.
Some will object, again, that this is an attack on Christianity, but it is not. It is a search for Paganism.
Look at it this way: if someone tells a lie and you expose that lie, are you going to lose any sleep over the hurt feelings of the liar? Not likely.
In essence, Christianity has brought about this situation itself and is so responsible for it. By co-opting – no – by outright stealing Pagan customs and traditions, not to mention cultic practices, terms and titles, right down to the pope’s title (Pontifex Maximus or Supreme Pontiff) Christianity has made it impossible to accurately present the case for polytheism without exposing the lie of Christianity’s core myths.
In the vernacular, Christianity has made its bed, and now it must lie in it.
In a very real sense then, Paganism’s Problem is Christianity’s Problem.
The last twenty centuries of religious history have been written and interpreted by Christinity
To revive an ancient religion we must understand it as Pagans understood it, not how Christians represented it