Friday, December 12, 2008

Estonia, Witches, Pagans.

From an early age I recall resisting Catholic demolition of paganism. In eighth grade, I dimly remember hearing about Europe's secularism and leftism leading in France or Germany to a revival of what we'd call New Age and ecologically-centered beliefs, and these being denigrated-- as was the peace sign as a Satanic hexagram-- by my teachers. This I resented, if vaguely, recalling from my reading how Our Lady of Guadalupe superimposed herself as Coalitcue or Tonantzín, local goddess chatting with Juan Diego at Tepeyac in his Nahautl tongue; how Bede or Boniface favored building the church on top of the ruined grove or rubbled temple; how Christmas trees or Irish wakes preserved the fossilization of folk practices.

At least syncretism, as cannily promoted by Catholic missionaries, appeared more sensitive than the pummelling of polytheistic pomps preached by Protestants. (I admit my inborn Irish Catholic prejudice lingers decades later.) Good P.R., smart marketing, less likely to anger the few neophytes and their woad-daubed neighbors. Not that I venerated Patrick either; my sympathies were with Pelagius at best, and even more with those oft-damned keepers of grove and copse bested again and again.

I know, I was but thirteen, but autodidactically skeptical despite my wish that my Church could solve all my youthful dilemmas of conscience and intellect. Maybe that's what lured me towards the medieval and medievalism: the attraction of this remote era in ideological suspension, between rigor and taletelling, observation and speculation. The Scotist, the Eriugenian, the Pelagian all beckon me faintly.

You don't always get the message, in a daily newspaper, that Christian or Cartesian or Communist cosmologies wiped out so much we should value. It underlies, of course, our reductionist, commonsensical, hard-hearted outlook. Instead, we're all tilted, even if products of parochial schools, towards the assumption that the ascension of logic solves what perplexed our bucolic, illiterate ancestors. Practicality rules. Science, progress, and reason dominate, we're lectured, and in this Whig version of our historical inevitability we rise to greatness by planetary dominance.

This first sentence's main verb, therefore, caught my attention in "A Hole in the Ground Erupts, to Estonia's Delight" New York Times, December 9, 2008, by Ellen Barry. I excerpt its tumultous core:
Estonia has been bullied into a series of belief systems over the centuries, from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy and Soviet atheism. Seventeen years after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia is one of the world’s most secular nations; in the 2000 census, only 29 percent of its citizens declared themselves followers of a particular faith.

That does not mean they are atheists. Craving an authentic national faith, Estonians have been drawn to the animistic religions that preceded Christianity: Taarausk, whose god was worshiped in forest groves, and Maausk, which translates as “faith of the earth.”

Ancient beliefs have survived in the form of folk tales. In stories, the sins of humans reverberate in nature — lakes fly away to punish greedy villagers, or forests wander off in the night, never to return. Trees demand the respect of a tipped hat, and holes in the ground must be fed with coins.

In the case of Tuhala, the physical world begs for such explanations. The settlement, believed to be 3,000 years old, sits on Estonia’s largest field of porous karst, where 15 underground rivers flow through a maze of caverns, audible but unseen by human inhabitants.

The pampered but sensible folks of this Baltic land may be some of our globe's most advanced-- compare Iceland's blend of affluence and animism-- with a gentle gloss of Luther (if such can be dusted lightly!) with a high rate of cellphone adoption, agnostic philosophy, and a love of the stinging birch, perhaps like their linguistic cousins across the sea in Finland. Still, I was tickled to find their faith returns, or regresses, back to atavistic patterns that I'd have assumed-- as we understand neo-paganism in a British context having been a construction rather than a revival over the past century or so-- were obliterated by church, commissar, and consumer. This article cheered me up.

I know that "Bo" over at "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" & "The Cantos of Mvtablitie" savages with erudite wit and a dash of compassion the excesses of Druidry he's endured first-hand in his own kingdom. I delight in his posts. So, I figured sharing this might serve as a counterweight to his insular subjects' ill-informed incantations. Synge's suppositions, the invention of kilts, the concoction of the Burning Times, or the industry around Glastonbury aside-- perhaps the more frigid shores of Northern Europe have preserved a link back to the folk tradition that the British Isles more successfully severed, having been bullied earlier by Bedes and Bonifaces, into cutting these umbilical cords and sealing these maternal wells to the forces that bubble and squeak beneath concrete or cleric?

Photo: NYT, Hannu Oittinen. Caption: "The Witch’s Well in Tuhala can be explained scientifically, but that is not how Estonians prefer to discuss the phenomenon."

1 comment:

Bo said...

I loved this, and thank you for it. Most of the Baltics were Christianised late (early 15th c. for Lithuania) and thus it's much easier for them to get back to something fresh, and, though the word makes me hesistate, authentic. But my feelings (Scotus, Eriugena and Pelagius etc) resonate with yours.

One thing I find very depressing is the inability of lots of neo-pagans in Britain, at least, to grasp anything of the extent, range, and historical depth of Christian culture in Britain in the Middle Ages. Many persist - insanely - in seeing Christianity as a thin, aristocratic layer atop an unchanged and unrepentant paganism. This is only possible if you've never looked inside a medieval church or read a medieval text. I would love to introduce friends who deny that the non-aristocracy of medieval England was Christian to Margery Kempe.

I'm not against people being neo-paganas (how could I be?); I'm against people being daft.