Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Slavery, Vikings, and Charlemagne

Here is a little bit of synchronicity in my historical reading. I am not sure if it "proves" anything, other than the fact that it is difficult to sort people into "good guys" and "bad guys."

1. At the library, I recently picked up The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Early Medieval Studies, ed. Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick.

I wanted to look for some material on agriculture—the adoption of the three-field system, wheeled plows, etc.—but I was sucked into a chapter entitled, "Strong Rulers—Weak Economy? Rome, the Carolingians and the Archaeology of Slavery in the First Millennium AD" by a German scholar, Joachim Henning.

Here are two figures that I have lifted from his work:

As I used to tell my students when we talked about American religion and slavery, the Roman empire back in Jesus' time ran on slavery the way that our civilization runs on petroleum. (And Jesus had nothing to say about it.)

Slavery requires chains and shackles, lest the slaves wander away. Figure 2.1 is a map of archaeological sites (farms, villas, plantations) containing shackles.

The second figure graphs shackle finds over time in Gaul (France, roughly). They rise during the Roman times, then plunge during the Merovingian dynasty, during the so-called Dark Ages.

But then shackle finds—and hence presumably slavery—rise during the Carologian dynasty. Its founder, Charles Martel (ca. 688-741), stopped the Islamic expansion into Europe. His grandson Charlemagne (Charles the Great) is a huge figure in medieval western European history, but his actions included the slaughter of more than 4,000 Saxons who resisted conversion to Christianity.

There was a European slave trade in Pagan, polytheistic Roman times—and it continued into Christian times, up through the 1400s, at least—and then it was time for Columbus!

2. Meanwhile, a British historian suggests that Viking raids on Europe might have been payback for Charlemagne's forced-conversion program. (Via the Covenant of the Goddess NPIO blog.)

But before you annoint the Vikings as the pro-Pagan "good guys," remember that they were in the slave trade too, particularly in what is now Ireland and Russia.

As some people say about their relationships on Facebook, "It's complicated."

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Are Epiphany Dreams Found only in the Past?

The Bryn Mawr Classical Review's book-review feed recently served up a review of William V. Harris's Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity
The reviewer writes,

Some combination of [cultural expectations, generic demands, and the imperatives of performance and publication.], Harris argues ...  accounts for the relative frequency in antiquity of the epiphany dream, in which an authoritative figure visits the dreamer and makes a significant statement, and for its rarity in the post-Enlightenment West.
He goes on to argue that if readers say that they too have epiphany dreams, it don't prove nuthin':

No doubt some reader of this review is now saying, "But I had an epiphany dream just the other night!"  That is the problem with studying dreams:  one must work hard to free oneself from dependence on anecdote and from the powerful attraction that dreams have for those who dream them.  Appealing to concepts of "selfhood" or "personality" will only reinforce these tendencies by compelling the question, "What does this dream tell us about you?"  Harris chooses instead to concentrate on ancient descriptions of dreams and reports of actions based on them.  This is a book about dreaming, not about dreams; that is, about behavior and experience in antiquity, not about the ancient self.

If I tell it, it's only an "anecdote," but if someone back then wrote it, it's a "description" and thus useful? But if you act upon the advice of the dream, does that count?

"Epiphany dreams" are not common, but when you have one, you know it.

My example (oops, an ancedote!) was a dream that--at a time when I was not consciously thinking about it--told me to quit my job and go to graduate school in religious studies.

When I awoke with the dream-voice echoing in my ears, I knew that "some god or daemon" had spoken. I immediately started researching university programs, thinking without irony that now I knew what was meant in those biblical accounts of "the Lord spake unto Abraham" or whomever.

Someone or something sure enough spake unto me, and I knew I had to follow the instructions. Or else.

Anyone else had a real epiphany dream? Show of hands? Yes, I thought so.

As to the academic study, there is, I have learned, an almost-complete disconnect between the academic study of ancient Paganism and the study of contemporary polytheism, Paganism, etc.

The former people are mostly in Classics and history, they have an academic heritage a couple of centuries old, and they publish in their own journals, attend their own conferences, and so on.

The latter field only began to take shape in the 1990s.

Some study of ancient Pagan religion does sneak into the Society of Biblical Literature, and when the SBL goes back to having its annual meeting together with the American Academy of Religion's meeting in 2011, maybe, just maybe, there might some crossover.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

For Any Roman Reconstructionists Reading This

Make sure that you get the night-time garments (or lack of) right.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

After 2,000 Years, Hermann is Followed by Ghosts

This autumn is the 2,000th anniversary of the battle when German tribes decisively defeated 20,000 Roman soldiers in the Teutoburg Forest.

But the anniversary--particularly the memory of the leader of the German commander, Hermann (Arminius)--is a complicated thing in Germany.

The events surrounding Hermann, though, are a weird mix of the two, presenting a revised, sanitised, consumer-friendly warrior, a national hero recast as neither “national” nor a hero. “To me, he is just a garden gnome,” Schafmeister said during an interview in his office, his desk piled with Hermann chocolate bars and other paraphernalia. The exhibits and plays organised for the anniversary no longer depict Hermann as the founding father of the German peoples: instead he appears as a minor warlord who got lucky, an interesting figure with no relevance to the present. 

“He is really history,” says Herfried Münkler, a historian at Berlin’s Humboldt University and the author of The Germans and their Myths. “He is no longer relevant to the question of German identity.” 

"It’s a thin line to walk – a year of festivities for a man no one thinks is worth celebrating. “We don’t even call it an anniversary, because that implies a celebration,” said Schafmeister. “It is just a recognition of something that happened from 2,000 years ago.”

The religion journalists at Get Religion often talk about "ghosts" in news stories--a religious element or motivation that the journalist fails to see or explain. (The news media, in other words, do not "get" religion.)

Do you see a religion ghost or two here also?

A few years ago, I was talking with a German student of mine at the university and her boyfriend. The boyfriend had wanted to read a diary kept by some of my own German ancestors about their immigration from Lower Saxony to Missouri in 1843.

I mentioned how Germans who came to Missouri had established vineyards, and how a center of wine-making was the town of Hermann.

"Hermann, of course!" said my student, rolling her eyes.

Had she been one of the schoolchildren who "learnt what a shame it was that the erstwhile hero had prevented Latin culture from reaching northern Germany"?

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Gallimaufry with Confusion

• The latest weird search query to bring a visitor to this blog: "Is New Mexico a polytheistic, monotheistic, or animistic religion?" Hello? New Mexico is a state. No wonder that for years New Mexico Magazine has had a standing column on geographical confusion called "One of Our 50 is Missing."

• A
TheoFantastique [Morehead] : Cinema has also changed in its depiction of the witch. Are fairytale depictions as in Harry Potter, as well as those which depict the empowerment of the feminine perhaps the most common modes of expression in contemporary film?

Carrol Fry: Yes, the empowerment of the feminine is the most popular adaptation, whether the film is supportive of critical. I’m sure this has to do with attracting an audience for the film. But Pagans might well feel that Hollywood slights their spiritual paths by concentrating nearly exclusively on feminist Wicca, and then just on the most sensational elements. By the way, there’s a strong subtext of feminist Wicca in
that no one much notices, most obviously in Sophie’s (named for Sophia from the Gnostic tradition) blunders into a Wiccan ceremony in which her grandfather is “drawing down the moon” as a coven ceremony. There are a few other witch films that are not part of the culture wars, romantic films such as I Married a Witch
and Bell, Book and Candle that are neither the silly version of witches (that have nothing to do with Neo-Paganism[sic]) such as the Harry Potter novels and films nor adaptations of Wicca.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Romae Dies Natalis

Happy birthday to Rome. Lots of great photos.


Friday, August 31, 2007

The Further Adventures of Lucius Vorenus & Titus Pullo

Netflix has at last delivered the first disk of Rome's second season. I will admit it: I go into happy fanboy mode at the receipt of new episodes.

It's like The Sopranos for Pagans. There are no really sympathetic characters, but you can't take your eyes off them.

Especially Lindsay Duncan's Servilia--perhaps because she resembles the former provost of my university, whom we used to refer to as the Dark Queen.

I asked my rhetoric class yesterday if any had seen it, and only one hand went up. (Just as well, perhaps. Our textbook talks about Cicero, but he doesn't come off all that well in the series.)

Likewise, when I used a clip from The Sopranos to illustrate Machiavelli's maxim for rulers that it is better to be feared than loved for a class of freshmen, many had never seen the show. Kids these days! I thought everyone but us got HBO. But getting it does not mean watching it, I realize.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Reading Augustine on Polytheism

As a Reed College student in my freshman humanities class, I read St. Augustine's Confessions, often considered to be the first autobiography in the Western world.

Augustine did more to shape institutional Christianity in the West (Roman Catholics, Protestants) than anyone except the apostle Paul. The eastern Orthodox churches were not so impressed by him.

I re-read The Confessions when I was working on The Encyclopedia of Heresy and Heretics, because of Augustine's former involvement with the followers of Mani.

Being older and a little wiser--and also Pagan--I was somewhat less impressed by how piously he ditches his Pagan girlfriend, the mother of his son, because his Christian mother (St. Monica) does not like her and wants him to marry a Christian virgin. Monica herself advised Christian women to be sweet to husbands who beat them. You can find her spiritual heirs on the shelves of Christian bookstores today.

Augustine's big book, however, is The City of God, which established him as a theologian. I never had read it, but I have decided to attempt at least the first half, which is his attack on Roman polytheism.

He wrote it around 410, roughly 50 years after Julian, the last Pagan emperor, and a century after the imperial house (except Julian) became officially Christian. Paganism lingered, more in the Western empire than in the East, I think, but no longer enjoyed such government subsidies as formerly.

Its historical context was the Visigoths' attack on Rome. The Visigoths, who had lived in present-day Bulgaria, were tribes allied to Rome, and the attack was part of an attempt by their leader, Alaric, to become supreme Army commander--or maybe more--it was a complicated time of military-political contests for rulership. But the idea of barbarians breaking into Rome was a big shock for the empire, and some people claimed it happened because Rome had abandoned the old gods.

Here is were Augustine seems to "spin" his story, however, in a manner worthy of a Sunday-morning political TV talk show. He did teach rhetoric, after all.

Right off, in Book I, he makes much how the "the barbarians" spared residents of Rome who fled to Christian churches, even Pagans. He writes, "For of those who you see insolently and shamelessly insulting the servants of Christ, there are numbers who would not have escaped that destruction and slaughter had they not pretended that they themselves were Christ's servants."

He was not an eyewitness, but let's assume he was right. But what he does not mention is that "the barbarians" themselves--at least some of them, including Alaric--were Christians.

The only problem is that from Augustine's point of view, they were the wrong flavor of Christians. They were Arian Christians, who believed Jesus was created by God the Father instead of having existed eternally as part of the Trinity. Arianism was big among the Germanic tribes, possibly because it made Jesus more of a "culture hero."

The controversy was long and bitter, so Augustine prefers to write about "barbarians" instead of admitting that they were largely Christian barbarians looting a Christian/Pagan city.

That's Book (in other words, "chapter") One. I might have more to say about his take on polytheism later.

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