Paganism versus Populism?

Despite isolated good news stories like the new Finnish government, all in all the politics of the last few years have been not only depressing, but downright worrying. Here in the UK, this week’s election saw confirmed in leadership another strong male authority: someone who can “get things done,” who will embody “the will of the people” — no matter that only 43.6% of the electorate voted Conservative, since the ridiculous first-past-the-post system translates that into 56% of the parliamentary seats. The new PM has always borrowed moves from the populist nationalist playbook, and this appears to be continuing. The status quo is crumbling, and that’s no bad thing, but what’s emerging? It can feel like concerning ourselves with old religions amounts to fiddling while Rome burns.

Do ancient and modern paganisms offer us any resources for these despairing times?

The Old King (a veteran oak)

Let’s get one thing out of the way: no religion must aspire to establish the goals of a political community. If you claim your political decisions are authorized by divine will, either you personally or the culture that underpins your claim is deluded. We can see all over the world that nationalist populism often incorporates a national religion. This kind of politicized tribal religiosity is almost always extremely damaging. Modern paganism has often fallen into the same pitfall — a problem we’ll have to visit in some later post.

If paganism isn’t just escapism and avoids trying to shape political goals, what good could it do? Actually there are lots of answers out there, so this will take a few posts. I’ll just start very briefly with a Lammas ritual I attended way back in high summer. One major element in the fundamental mythical cycle underpinning the modern pagan “wheel of the year” concerns the life and death of the “year king.” He’s born at the winter equinox, flourishes in the spring, and is supposed to die at high summer. Then it all starts over the following year. If he refuses to pass on, he becomes a bitter tyrant, and the land becomes sick. You see where I’m going with this?

The Lammas ritual involved one practitioner becoming possessed with the spirit of the Old King (actually a woman, as the lots fell out) surrounded by adoring members of the community, while the other key ritualist was possessed by a shamanic spirit. The shaman  (in full mask) had to seduce the citizens away from the Old King, then call his spirit out of the person it was inhabiting. This was a pretty high-intensity confrontation, with high-intensity music, a brass rattle, screaming, and so on. There followed a mournful “laying” of the spirit over the body of the person it had inhabited, which was accompanied by a song of grief.  It’s important to say that this ritual did not approach the Old King as a human to be killed (gods forbid), but as a spirit to be laid. Moreover, the acts of calling and mourning presuppose that this spirit is only accidentally our opponent: we’re profoundly connected to this spirit, and mourn its sacrifice.

So, did this do some good? To the contrary, I’m afraid to say that for six months I’ve been thinking of it as an illustration of futility. The “old king” of Brazil was in the news at the time as the rain forests burned. They’re still burning. Misogynistic, climate destroying, would-be despotic masculine leaders are in power everywhere. But maybe there is another perspective on this. I’m re-listening to the mourning song from the ritual as I write this, “Amdy Baryp Hongan Cheri…” by Yat-Kha. I’ll return to this in the next post.


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