Historicising paganism, paganising history

Sami ‘troll drum’, Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

On a recent visit to Stockholm I was intrigued by a collection of Sami religious artefacts in the Nordiska Museet. Apart from the irony that these objects belonging to a non-Nordic people were being displayed in a museum originally dedicated to the Nordic history of Sweden, they stand apart from other ‘pagan’ artefacts we might find in museums because some Sami were still engaged in (or at least remembered) pagan practices at the time they were acquired by the museum. The display label for one artifact quotes a letter written by a local forest officer, Henning Nordlund, to the folklorist Artur Hazelius on 5 May 1891:

Another thing that I did not initially feel I could take was the ‘troll drum’ I am sending down now. When I first arrived, 100 crowns was asked for it in Qvikkjokk. An Englishman offered 50 crowns last summer, but the Lap did not deign to sell. I could not bargain the price down lower than 25 crowns, but felt it was by no means worth that sum … It was made by Anders Pirkit, who is believed to be a ‘seer’ (even by settlers), following an old model known to him, or so he claims.

Nordlund does not make clear in this letter why he did not initially feel he could take the drum, which is of a type used by Sami shamans – was it purely the price that concerned him, or did he have to overcome feelings of anxiety about the drum’s sacred significance? It is telling that Nordlund acknowledged that even ‘settlers’ (that is, Swedes who had moved to Sapmi) acknowledged the drum’s maker as a shaman. I was left wondering whether, in this case, Nordlund’s act of sending the drum to Hazelius in Stockholm was intended deliberately to de-sacralise it, so that a magical object made by a still-living shaman would become a comfortable museum exhibit.

Sami sieidi, Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Another object on display was a sieidi, a wooden Sami idol that was removed from its position at the side of a brook by the local Lutheran minister and later obtained by Axel Calleberg, an inspector of ‘nomadic schools’, in 1944. Calleberg sent the sieidi to the Curator of the Nordiska Museet, noting that ‘The sieidi is genuine, and it was not unusual for people in this remote valley to make sacrifices to the gods until very recently. There is much superstition, and I spoke with ladies at the old people’s home who knew of this god and were absolutely horrified to discover that their vicar had taken the sieidi away from the holy brook’.

The presence of the sieidi in the museum’s collection is now controversial – which the museum readily acknowledges – but such anxieties do not prevent the sieidi from being displayed. The sieidi reminded me of the handful of surviving Bronze Age and Iron Age wooden idols from the British Isles – except that whereas in the latter case we can only imagine the religious beliefs that may have inspired them, in the case of the Sami artefacts in the Nordiska Museet there seems to have been a deliberate effort to deprive the Sami of their beliefs by removing their material culture. In earlier centuries that removal would have taken the form of destructive iconoclasm; when, from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, the folklore movement made iconoclasm unthinkable, the ‘historicisation’ of actively used sacred objects acted almost as a modern version of iconoclasm. Artefacts like the troll drum and the sieidi were safely removed to museums and thereby de-sacralised.

There are parallels to Sweden’s de-sacralisation of Sami artefacts in the behaviour of early modern English antiquaries, who decried the popish superstition that led to the veneration of relics and images in the Middle Ages but were also critical of the iconoclasts as mindless wreckers of culture. Several antiquaries owned items such as reliquaries, but it was imperative that these objects be represented as curiosities retained for their historical interest rather than on account of any sacred value – indeed, the presence of objects such as a reliquary of St Thomas of Canterbury in Horace Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill, alongside a bizarre collection of profane curios, had the effect of de-sacralising it. The accumulation of objects like reliquaries by antiquaries served to make the veneration of relics by Catholics more rather than less superstitious – after all, why would anyone fetishise one particular object from a cabinet of curiosities? Putting something in a museum collection is the civilised version of religious iconoclasm.

Palaipaphos shrine
Ribbons in a sacred tree at the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, Palaipaphos-Kouklia, Cyprus

The flipside of the need felt by antiquaries and museums to historicise a pagan (or Catholic) past that may be very much alive is the urge that many people now feel to ‘re-sacralise’ a pagan past with which we have lost any meaningful connection, except in the imagination. The protest that accompanied the removal of ‘Seahenge’ from the beach of Holme-next-the-Sea in 1999 was one of the most dramatic examples of contemporary pagans defending the sacredness of a site whose original meaning and purpose they had no more chance of understanding than the archaeologists.

This is not to say that all pagan sites where religious activity takes place have lost contact with their original purpose. In April 2015 I visited the Shrine of Aphrodite at Palaipaphos, a Neolithic site that long pre-dates Greek adoption of the Cypriot fertility goddess. In his Guide to Palaipaphos (Kouklia) the archaeologist Franz Georg Maier observed that ‘amongst the inhabitants of Kouklia the memory of the old pagan cult never seems to have been lost completely. Until a few years ago, young mothers offered candles to the Panayia Galaktariotissa (‘the milk-giving Virgin’) at a conspicuous stone in the sanctuary area: a last trace of the age-old fertility cult once celebrated at this site’. The widespread Cypriot practice of decorating trees with ribbons and pieces of cloth (and even plastic) to represent prayers carries on at this site as elsewhere, in spite of the fact that there was never an authorised Christian shrine on the site of the sanctuary itself.

The ongoing veneration of Aphrodite under the guise of the Virgin Mary at Palaipaphos-Kouklia raises interesting questions concerning what should be classified as ‘pagan’ worship in the first place, but it is fair to say that such distinctions are more fluid in Orthodox Cyprus than they are in Protestant Britain, simply because the Reformation was obsessed with seeing traces of pagan idolatry everywhere and anywhere. It is ironic that contemporary paganism originated in Britain, a country where there are perhaps fewer genuine traces of pagan worship than anywhere else in Europe. Yet it seems likely that the idea of paganism has less meaning in cultures where there are real pagan survivals. Such survivals often endure precisely because the original pagan purpose of the practice has been forgotten, or its purpose has been redesignated within a Christian framework. ‘Paganism’ is, at least in part, the self-conscious construct of a culture in which all pagan practices have been extinguished.

It is likewise ironic that British people with an interest in the island’s pagan past are drawn to the most impressive pre-Christian monuments, such as Stonehenge, which are also the most enigmatic and the least comprehensible. When it comes to Viking, Old English or Romano-British paganism we at least know the names of the gods our ancestors worshipped: everything we know of Neolithic and Bronze Age British religion is mere conjecture. This vacuum of knowledge is no doubt part of the attraction of such monuments to people who define themselves as pagans: megalithic monuments are a blank canvas on which to paint one’s own spiritual interpretations.

Gynomorphic menhir in the churchyard of Castel Church, Guernsey

One place in the British Isles where I recently encountered the ‘paganising’ of historic sites was the island of Guernsey, which I visited in August 2014. In the churchyard of Castel Church, in the centre of the island, stands a menhir that seems to be an attempt to render the female form. I was surprised to see, at the foot of the menhir, flowers deliberately placed and held down by a stone, and apparently intended as some sort of offering.

‘Offering’ at the foot of menhir in Castel Churchyard, Guernsey, August 2014


Creux ès Fées passage tomb, Guernsey

This was not a unique discovery; inside a megalithic passage tomb on the west side of the island, Creux ès Fées (Cave of the Fairies) I noticed that someone had placed what appeared to be a small terracotta figurine of Mayan appearance.

Modern terracotta figurine inside Creux ès Fées, Guernsey, August 2014

I can only speculate on what might have motivated someone to leave the figurine, but on one interpretation the ‘offering’ seemed to go beyond the folklore associated with the passage tomb (which portrays it as a home of the fairies and an entrance to their kingdom) and spoke to someone’s need to turn the tomb into a place of worship, focussed on a cult image. I was reminded of the controversial ‘Grimes Graves Goddess‘, the apparent chalk figure of a Neolithic fertility goddess found during excavations of the prehistoric flint mines in Norfolk in the 1930s. Ever since its discovery there has been doubt as to whether the ‘goddess’ was a hoax intended to fool the excavator. The idea that a cult-image should be found at a prehistoric site – even when that site is a mine – certainly seems to reflect twentieth-century perceptions of prehistoric people (not to mention ideas about goddess-worship current in archaeology at the time). Like Grimes Graves, Creux ès Fées is unlikely to have been a place of worship in the sense of the location of a cult image. Contemporary pagans are just as likely as archaeologists to impose on ancient sites their own perceptions of what ‘pagan worship’ should look like, informed by cultural prejudices specific to their own time.

A large part of the ‘paganisation’ of historic sites is the development of a contemporary mythology of church authorities’ hostility to pagan monuments. In Guernsey, tourist literature routinely interprets damage to menhirs or their burial and incorporation into other structures as deliberate desecration by Christians. The deployment of Ockham’s Razor leads me to conclude that Christian hostility is by no means the simplest and most obvious explanation for destruction and removal. The sad historical fact is that sacred sites do lose their significance over time, however much Victorian folklorists were determined to believe in an ineradicable substratum of pagan belief amongst the English (or in this case Norman) peasantry. It is a fact of which scholars of the Reformation are only too aware, and instances of cultic survival (such as the Holy Well of St Winifred at Holywell or the ongoing cult of St Edmund at Hoxne) are remarkable exceptions. Who is to say that the Iron Age inhabitants of Guernsey venerated the Neolithic/Bronze Age menhirs, let alone that the island’s later Gallo-Roman and Norman inhabitants did so? A once venerated megalith, over the passage of centuries, can very easily become no more than an architecturally useful piece of stone. However, the myth of Christian hostility reinforces people’s desire to believe that pagan sites and monuments were places of sacred power in comparatively recent times.

Set alongside the desecration of functioning Sami religious sites and artefacts, which took place within living memory, the attempts of other Europeans to re-invent the ‘pagan’ spiritual significance of ancient sites in their own nations might seem rather absurd. However, such practices have been going on for long enough now to become an interesting cultural phenomenon in their own right. So few real traces of European pagan religion survive – and the real nature of pagan religions are so little understood – that the post facto ‘paganising’ of history is perhaps the best we can expect. This is not to suggest that ‘pagan’ interpretations of ancient sites are inauthentic – they are often no better or worse than any other interpretations – but they can historically mislead when they are accompanied by a modern mythos like the notion of Christian hostility to megalithic monuments.

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