The Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy
I’d like to broaden my usual ranting this year and talk about a particular problem affecting not only modern paganism, but modern Christianity and modern atheism. In giving it a name, I hope to help others identify it and battle it wherever it occurs.
It’s the Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy, or if you prefer, the Pagan Homogeneity Error.
This concept may not seem familiar at first, but I’m sure that the more I go on about it, the more easily examples will occur to you.
Neil Gaiman once talked to us about adapting Neverwhere for BBC TV back in the day. He commented that the BBC in those days was like a sausage machine. Whatever you may feed into a sausage machine, you get sausages out the other end. Similarly, whatever you fed into the BBC came out as Doctor Who.
The Pagan Sausage Machine fallacy is similar. Whatever pre-Christian religion you feed into the sausage machine of the early Christian missionary worldview, whatever the regional specifics may have been, whatever deities were involved, the undifferentiated sausages of ‘PAGANISM ™’ come out of the other side.
The Pagan Homogeneity Error is thus the mistake of considering disparate pre-Christian or non-Christian religions to be alike, related, interchangeable and/or sympathetic with one another purely because the label ‘pagan’ is affixed to them.
The error lies in the origin of the term ‘pagan’, which was a disparaging term. It meant ‘civilian’, i.e. one who was not in the army of Christ. By lumping together all non-Christian faiths under one umbrella, the early Christians deemed them to be all equally valueless. ‘Paganism’ was not seen as a religion but a condition, akin to barbarism.
From a missionary perspective, the Gods of the people you’re trying to convert are not interesting or unique. They are merely ‘demons’ or ‘idols’. There is therefore no point in distinguishing between them. After all, if your worldview holds that only Christianity is right and everything else is wrong, it really doesn’t matter what local flavour of wrong it is. This attitude is actually characteristic of Old Testament Judaism: ‘For all the gods of the nations are idols’, reads Psalm 96.5.
So, if you see the pre-Christian world as covered with an essentially homogenous practice called ‘Paganism’ from one end to the other, it’s very easy to conflate elements from completely separate religions. It doesn’t help that there is a certain measure of overlap in some pantheistic religions, sometimes stemming from common ancestry, and sometimes born of the practice of adopting foreign deities into one’s own religion. The Romans were especially keen on the latter, identifying various Gods as local examples of their own: http://www.unrv.com/culture/adopted-roman-gods.php
A monotheistic religion can’t do that, of course. Since there’s only one God in that system, you can’t very well go about claiming other people’s Gods as examples of yours. So what we find is a tendency to adopt local deities either as saints – see Saint Bride – or as demons. For example, the Caananite Goddess Astarte becomes the demon Astaroth.
This throws open the gates for all sorts of bizarre cross-associations with no historical basis. If you hold that there is a literal demon behind every one of your neighbour’s ‘idols’, then it follows that since demons are independent of such trivial concerns as time and place, they can therefore show up all over the globe playing the same sorts of roles in different garb. Pagan deity A and pagan deity B can thus be lumped together based on nothing more than a perceived common ‘pagan’ identity plus a similarity of function.
This is a great problem when it comes to analysing the history of pre-Christian religion. Because of the Pagan Homogeneity Error, Christians tended to deal with local pre-Christian religion in terms of Paganism™ as they understood it. This is why we read in the Lanercost Chronicle of 1282:
"About this time, in Easter week, the parish priest of Inverkeithing, named John, revived the profane rites of Priapus, collecting young girls from the villages, and compelling them to dance in circles to [the honour of] Father Bacchus. When he had these females in a troop, out of sheer wantonness, he led the dance, carrying in front on a pole a representation of the human organs of reproduction, and singing and dancing himself like a mime, he viewed them all and stirred them to lust by filthy language. Those who held respectable matrimony in honour were scandalised by such a shameless performance, although they respected the parson because of the dignity of his rank. If anybody remonstrated kindly with him, he [the priest] became worse [than before], violently reviling him.”
We may raise an eyebrow at the idea of a Scottish priest worshipping ‘Father Bacchus’.
The Pagan Homogeneity Error still persists today, arguably more so than ever before. It provides a sort of deranged hyperspace by means of which any non-Christian concept can be bolted on to any other non-Christian concept in support of whatever argument the speaker is trying to make.
The most obvious sign that a writer is committing the Pagan Homogeneity Error is this: they are associating ‘pagan’ ideas because of a similarity of name or function and not because of a demonstrable historical or geographic connection.
For example, take the error of thinking that the ‘Wheel of the Year’ is historically authentic. (One might think that this was not an error that many modern Pagans are likely to make, but a depressing number of them do.)
The Wheel of the Year uses the Irish/Scots festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain and intersperses them with festivals from the Anglo-Saxon calendar, such as Litha. We can see at a glance that two entirely separate cultures have been cobbled together here; they have nothing in common but a shared ‘pagan’ identifier. But because people find it very easy to conceive of a winter ‘pagan festival’ leading on to a springtime ‘pagan festival’, they swallow the whole thing in one instead of discerning between the different cultural elements.
Similarly, a great kerfuffle is sometimes made at Easter about the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar, who is cludged together with the putative Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostre. It would be hard to find a better example of the Pagan Homogenity Error than this.
By Google Maps, Ishtar’s holy city of Uruk lies a phenomenal 3,500 miles from Jarrow, where Bede wrote down the name of the alleged Goddess Eostre. (For comparison, that’s about the same as the distance from London to New York.) To make that journey today, you would have to travel through Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Germany and Belgium before crossing the English Channel and making the final trip up to Tyne and Wear in the UK.
Many of the people wishing you ‘Happy Easter’ on that journey wouldn’t say Happy Easter, of course. They’d refer you to ‘Paskalya’ in Turkish, ‘Húsvét’ in Hungarian and Pâques in Belgium. In fact, for a long time it was only the English and the Germans who called the festival anything like ‘Easter’ at all. The vast majority of nations called it a variant on Pascha. However, nowadays we have a lot more English speakers, thanks to a wonderful country called America that’s doing rather well for itself since Bede’s time. This tends to exaggerate the perceived importance of the English name for the festival.
Oh – and Ishtar was not only 3,500 miles away from Eostre, she was about a thousand years earlier in time, too.
On top of that, the names Ishtar and Eostre belong to separate language families. Ishtar pertains to the Semitic language family, Eostre to the Indo-European. If you don’t know what language families are, for heaven’s sake go and look them up. It’s fascinating stuff, I promise you.
Also, Eostre was probably a dawn-goddess (if she existed); Ishtar was much more about love and war. Eostre’s festival was in the lunar month roughly corresponding to April; so far as I know, we have no record of when Ishtar’s festivals may have been.
So, how on earth can anyone possibly conflate the two?
Handily, the Pagan Sausage Machine is as efficient as a TARDIS when it comes to ignoring the mundane limitations of time and space. Never mind all that tedious history, archaeology, linguistics and research that stands between them: just bung it all into the sausage machine, mince it all up, and Eostre and Ishtar come out the other side as alike as two pagan peas in a pagan pod:
1. Their names sound a bit alike, especially if you neck a pint of vodka first.
2. They’re both pagan goddesses, which obviously means they’re about sex.
Now you too can create a Facebook meme. Have fun!