“Spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a man is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it.”
The question might be simple, but the answer can hardly be. In fact we’re obliged to answer numerous questions: Why religion? a polytheist religion? those of the ancients? and the ancients of Gaul?
First of all, we want some sort of spiritual system because we’re spiritual animals. Human beings have never ceased to wonder what the meaning is of this curious universe we find ourselves in. The answer ‘Nothing’ doesn’t exactly capture the imagination, and it’s not convincing either. Yet any other answer must necessarily be, in some sense, a spiritual one. Even if you answer ‘Nothing, but...’, you’ll be appealing to some higher values. ‘Nothing, but as long as we’re here, we need to stay true to ourselves.’ ‘Nothing, but in any case we’ve got each other, so we might as well be nice.’ ‘Nothing, but as long as I’m here, I’m not going to let anybody mess with me.’ Where do such values come from? The desire for authenticity, for mutual courtesy, or for personal pride: these all are predicated on some idea of the good life that transcends the immediate material facts of our existence. And there we are, squarely within the domain of philosophy and religion.
Now, those of us who live in the West are perfectly familiar with the conceptions of the transcendental offered by Christianity and Judaism and Islam. More and more of us find their prescriptions too naïve, and their analyses too superficial. God created man solely to submit him to temptation, make him suffer, and finally take his life. What’s worse, God created woman only to serve man—poor wretch! To all the afflictions that man is heir to, she compounds that of being his property. What god can have been the author of such torments? In the character of the god of Abraham we find nothing divine, but rather the perversity of a spoiled, childish soul.
Worse still, there is no recourse, for this delinquent deity is decreed to be the only one to exist—the only one to respond to all the appeals of all people at all times. At the same time that the pious King Henry VI prays to God to lead the English to victory in France, Joan of Arc does the same thing on behalf of the French. What a dilemma for the Almighty! If he listens to the prayers of the first, he must crush the second; but both cry out to him in the same way and with the same piety. The only solution, evidently, is to listen to both of them, and to visit destruction on both of them without mercy.
The monotheistic religions pile up still more follies: the juvenile fantasy of a paradise brimming with virgin brides ... the insane dread of an eternity of damnation ... the pharisaical pleasure of hoping for the damnation of others. Abrahamic religions claim to preach charity while sowing the seeds of homophobia, sexism and holy war. They insist that every soul is guilty of sin, is mired in it, hateful to its Creator—even the soul of a new-born babe against whom no one could have a thing to reproach. And all this in order to make sin into a kind of commodity; mercy can be bought and sold with a few repetitions of the rosary or a journey to Mecca. It’s a way of thinking maintained by constant fear, by the exploitation of people’s insecurities, and by the most absurd of promises.
We must, however, hasten to point out our total condemnation of prejudice or phobia against any religion—including Islam, Christianity, or Judaism—or against their adherents. Ancient pagans sometimes persecuted Christians and Jews, and they were absolutely wrong to do so. Our contemporary experience is founded squarely on a humanistic pluralism that recognizes freedom of thought and worship for everyone.
At the same time, we can’t be afraid to exercise this same freedom in declaring that, in our considered opinion, the Abrahamic religions offer little that can answer to the needs of a modern, thinking person. Agnosticism, on the other hand, is too insipid to offer us anything at all. We’re human; we yearn for rituals and paradigms and symbols that can affirm our lives’ meanings. This is entirely natural, and as long as we stay on guard against any kind of fanaticism, it’s perfectly harmless. Better yet, religion leads us to live better lives—or at least live them with better grace. We get the sense of having some path to follow; religious symbols become the road-markers along that path. Putting trust in our gods, we can fulfill our duties with confidence.
What religion, then, can answer to the needs of modern people? One of the dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism)? Or some new religion? Well, the former suffer from many of the same faults as the Abrahamic religions, and the latter all too often just don’t have enough depth. Of the so-called ‘organized’ religions, Hinduism might be the most attractive, but it too is based on caste differences and social and sexual exploitation; it preaches, as Buddhism does, that life is hateful, that the senses are evil, and that all we can feel is an illusion. Yet our spirits naturally rebel against all these ideas. We were not endowed with sense just so that we could refuse to use it. Just like the Abrahamic fantasies of paradise, concepts like maya, the four ‘noble’ truths or moksha promise to let people escape from the problems of the real world. But what we really have to do is face them.
My Neopagan fellows should be reproached for their tendency to take refuge in outdated intellectual theories that hark back to 19th century Romanticism more often than to genuine ancient paganism. Too often they cobble together any old mix of psychoanalysis, New Age meditations and paraphernalia, alleged ‘matriarchal’ tradition, and a romanticized ecology that hardly stands scrutiny. Simple peasants are invariably championed rather than city dwellers, tribal societies rather than States, nature rather than culture. All this has a certain appeal ... up till the point when any of its claims are rationally examined. Claiming to offer a principled opposition to all the ills of our society, this ideology instead requires us to turn away from the real world’s complexities and take refuge in a utopian fantasy-land. Little by little, the noble savage must fall away till we recognize that it was a mirage all along. Patriarchy, the State, and industrialization exist; a drum circle is just not enough to confront them.
What we need today is a pluralistic, flexible religion that can feel at home in the real world. At the same time, it’s got to be sophisticated enough to respond convincingly to our deepest questions. And it’s got to be adapted to urban lives in State societies.
The first choice is naturally to revisit the religion that we followed before falling under the influence of Christianity or Islam. Insofar as this is actually based on the complexities and contradictions of a real society, it can be used and adapted for ours. We need to fight the tendency to substitute our own preconceptions for what the ancients actually did and thought. Otherwise, like too many Neopagans, we shall make polytheism into a blank canvas on which to paint the image of fears and preoccupations inculcated by the Abrahamic religions. As it happens, classical religion—emanating basically from Greece, but eventually encompassing most of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East—is exactly that in which our culture grew up. It’s the religion of Homer and Ovid, of Cicero and Pericles, of Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius. The undeniable sophistication of this tradition has given rise to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and ultimately today’s modernity. Its myths are at the centre of our art and literature; the architecture of its temples has given rise to those of our public buildings. In rediscovering Antiquity, one rediscovers oneself. And this holds true for religion and philosophy above all.
We must nevertheless recognize the special characteristics of the various parts of the Roman Empire or of the Hellentistic world. The large, originally Celtic region of Gaul has its own roots and its own identity within the so-called civilized world, as do Spain, North Africa, Syria, and so forth. Gaul’s uniqueness stems from the fruitful encounter between classical Græco-Roman civilization and longstanding local traditions (Celtic or other). Some may also attempt—though for technical reasons this will be more difficult—to reconstruct pre-Roman Gaulish religion, before Gaul came under the influence of Latin civilization (at a time when the Celts were, however, closely linked to the Greeks and Etruscans both commercially and intellectually). This is also, of course, a legitimate undertaking.
In both cases, we find ourselves in a polytheistic worldview that can comfortably accommodate all sorts of beliefs and temperaments. Can one not readily believe that the confused mêlée of our world is directed by a variety of divine influences? that a young unemployed woman with a baby at her breast, has reason to pray to a different power than would an elderly judge about to pass sentence? Life is varied; religion should be too. What an impoverishment, this new faith that has only the myth of Jesus Christ and the prophets! What absurdity to believe that for a myriad of spiritual problems there is never more than one possible solution!
I imagine that most of the time, people will prefer to honour the gods belonging to their own ancestry or else to the place where they live. But the ancients readily welcomed foreign cults—those of Isis, Cybele or Mithras, for example. Why should the gods of Gaul not permit themselves to be adored by those far away? Many today feel they have heard the call of the Celtic gods. So much the worse if they let themselves be seduced by New Age folly, too often for lack of real information on ancient religion. In any case, the gods of Gaul are not silent. Whether the affinity is ancestral, regional or purely spiritual, a great many are already inclining towards them.
The task of these pages is to make it easier to know them. May the Muses guide us, and make known through us the glory of the immortals.