European Paganism and Christianization

The Christianization of Europe.png
The spread of Christianity throughout Europe.
Generalized Religious Classifications of Europe Circa 1 CE.png
Pre-Christian Religions of Europe Around the Time of Jesus

In contemporary conversations about decolonization, this is a point which is often overlooked – Europeans are indigenous too. Before the spread of Christianity, Europe was home to a profusion of  religious beliefs, most of which are pejoratively referred to as paganism. The word derives from the Latin paganus meaning ‘of the countryside,’ essentially calling them hicks or bumpkins. Some of these pre-Christian belief systems are listed below.

A note on the categorization – Indigenous religions are, by their nature, nebulous and dynamic. Unlike the relatively uniform Christian Church, indigenous religions have no codified dogmas and no universally ordained ways to worship. Celtic polytheism, for instance, was less of a religion in the modern sense and more of a spectrum of beliefs and practices. The Celtics tribes in Ireland, Gaul, and Galatia may have had some common rituals and an overlapping pantheon of gods, but they were also influenced by neighboring traditions and their local environments.

Balkan – Dacian (Zalmoxianism), Thracian, and Illyrian polytheism, and Albanian mythology.
Baltic – Latvian (Dievturi), Lithuania (Romuva), and Prussian (Druwi) polytheism.
Basque – Basque mythology.
Berber and Punic – Traditional Berber religion, and Punic religion.
Celtic – Celtic polytheism (the religion of the druids), and the syncretic Gallo-Roman polytheism.
Germanic – Old Norse (Forn Sed), Continental Germanic (Irminism), Anglo-Saxon (Fyrnsidu), and Gothic polytheism.
Hellenistic – The Roman religion (Religio Romana), the Roman Imperial Cult, the Ancient Greek religion (Hellenismos), the Luwian religion, the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Dionysian Mysteries, and Orphism.
Iranian – Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, the Sarmatian religion, the Scythian religion (Uatsdin), the Mesopotamian religion, and the syncretic Zoroastrian-Armenian polytheism.
Sami – Sami shamanism, animism and polytheism.
Semitic – Judaism, Semitic polytheism (including the Canaanite religion and the Nabataean religion).
Slavic – The Slavic religion (Rodnovery).
Uralic – Finnish (Suomenusko), Estonian (Maausk), and Hungarian (Ősmagyar Vallás) polytheism.

Christianity gained converts through the work of missionaries like Saint Patrick, through royal decree like Constantine’s Edict of Milan, and by force as in the Northern Crusades. By the Middle Ages, so entrenched was Christianity in Europe that the continent was commonly referred to simply as Christendom. But the Christianization of Europe was not as absolute as many now think. Pagan traditions survived independently for centuries in some places long after they had been officially Christianized. True to its etymology, pagans found refuge in rural areas. Some of the later attempts to extinguish the remnants of indigenous religion in Western Europe include The Spanish Inquisition and the witch hunts of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The traditional Sami religion in Northern Scandanavia and the Mari religion in the Russian Plain were never fully eradicated and their practice continues today. For other traditions whose lineages were broken, the new generations that have begun to revive them are collectively called neopagans.

The Christianization of Europe and Generalized Religious Classifications of Europe Circa 1 CE maps by Jordan Engel can be reused under the Decolonial Media License 0.1.

 

29 comments

  1. Christ was born in middle east. Then why the people of Europe are following Christianity rather they should follow their ancient religions.

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    • First, Europe and West Asia (“the Middle East”) are not so different: the historical and prehistorical entanglement is extreme, with Europe being colonized several times from West Asia (genetically very close and overlapping populations therefore, or rather a single population if we compare with the rest of Earth). Historically there was never any strict distinction, nor with North Africa either. Sure, if you dig you can find differences and ancients were aware of the continental geography but still the Mediterranean and the corridors around the Black Sea acted as strong link and not so much as divide, more so as the Mediterranean is probably one of the global regions where serious sailing was developed first.

      In any case, between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE, a very defining period, the whole Mediterranean region, all shores, was unified under the Roman Empire and it was under the late Roman Empire that a subsect of Judaism, which we know as Christianity, was made the official ideology of the state. First by Constantine (who still allowed some tolerance for the old religions) and then by Theodosius (who forbade any non-Jewish religion altogether). I read this as the formation of a “single party” with a totalitarian doctrine and thus as arguably the first ever fascism, at least in this part of the world.

      In the Eastern part of the Mediterranean region, the Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire) would keep that tricontinental union until the 7th century.

      Naturally such dogmatism and totalitarianism would eventually cause divisions, the most dramatic one being the rise of Islam, which is a peculiar, extremely militant and peripheral variant of Christianity, serving not anymore the Roman polities but a very successful new Arab one instead.

      However Arab/Muslim expansionism had its limits and was successfully stopped twice, first in Asia Minor by the Byzantine Empire and then in Western Europe by Basques (who had made a peasant revolution and were not willing to surrender their freedoms to some random conquereros) and Franks (who became the claimants to Western Roman legacy, not without contradictions, largely for being the most Romanized of all Germanic forces). The Frankish success consolidated the Western Roman and Catholic legacy in Western and Central Europe, from where it expanded northwards to the Pagan periphery, war after war, pact after pact.

      The acceptance of kings of the Catholic ideology (in Poland, Hungary, the Scandinavian realms, etc.) meant peace and alliances and the possibility of focusing on their own pagan frontiers, where there was much to be looted and conquered. The Catholic Church gave them a “political party” and “bureaucracy” (those realms were very feeble and even great kings like Charlemagne were often illiterate) but very especially a loudspeaker with Gestapo-style judiciary powers that legitimized kings and helped with keeping the social order.

      Massacres happened, for example Charlemagne was brutal in his repression of the Saxon aristocracy in order to secure their conquest. Some even claim that the Viking Era was a Pagan (Germanic) reaction to that brutality and the risk that the conquest of Saxony by the Franks. Once the royals were converted (typically out of convenience), they forced their subjects to follow their lead. Conversion by the sword was not the only way but it was very common. There was also some Orthodox expansion in the East, notably in Russia because of the extreme importance of Byzantium in terms cultural, technological and trade. Again brutality was not out of the question: (Saint) Olga of Kiev, the first Russian monarch to convert to Christianity, is best known for her revenge massacre of the Lendians, a powerful vassal who dared to kill her husband.

      The issue is that, once adopted as official doctrine by late Rome (capital Constantinople, modern Istanbul, Rome was only a name by then), and accepted by the oligarchies and many among the masses, by grade or force, it was nearly impossible to break the spell. Only something comparable (namely Islam) could keep the ideological and political cohesion to present a real challenge. Sure the Mongols were briefly a threat… but mostly to Muslims and they ended up converting to Islam, just as the Turks had done before them.

      In the psycho-social sphere Monotheism offered absolute answers, apt for those not making big questions but also to some extent for those making big questions before science began challenging the scriptures. Some claim it was the “atheist” Emperor Frederick II “stupor mundi” who kickstarted Renaissance, and that led to a series of historical episodes that weakened Christianity from inside out. Today most Europeans are actually agnostic or “Christian” only very vaguely: science is too overwhelming not to challenge any “holy book”, most Christians I know want to believe in Jesus, his message of love and a hope of ressurrection after death… but they don’t believe in the “holy” books nor respect what the priests say… unless it feels respectable. They tend to be rather old. Even in “New Europe” (the Americas), generally more religious than Europe, atheism and agnosticism is gaining strength as we speak.

      In any case it must be said that, other than Basque or Finno-Ugric religions, historical European Pagan religions were all Indoeuropean and had been imposed by conquest. Indoeuropean religion (which today is mostly Hinduism, although it has no doubt elements of IVC Dravidian religion too) is or was a religion celebrating victory or success, more apt for kings and warlords than for peasants. That was all fine and dandy (slaves were crucified, revolts quelled, no big deal) until the Roman Empire went into deep structural crisis and someone (Constantine) though that Christianity could be a tool (totalitarian party) to keep the state glued in spite of class inequality and incipient caste system (blessed by the ex-Manichean (Saint) Augustine of Hippo). This is the single totalitarian party I mentioned at the beginning of this “rant”, which would help the state to remain glued in times of crisis and the hierarchies intact while promsing everyone a hope after death that the Pagan religions did not offer (their “afterlife” was rather scary or confusingly meaningless). Christianity (and therefore also Islam) promised a perfectly opiate eternal afterlife IF you obeyed the party authority (and thus the oligarchs) in this life, else: the worst eternal tortures. The regime obtained compliance from nearly everyone that way.

      But I insist, today Europeans are rather Athenist (rationalist, agnostic) than Christian but that involved many revolutions since the 13th century, only consolidated recently, in the last two centuries or so. Maybe even more recently (it’s a gradual process even if revolutions are moments of accelerated change).

      Prometheus never spoke in spite of the torture imposed on him by Zeus but, in hindsight, it seems plausible that the prophesized child destinied to dethrone Zeus (God the Father, El-Allah-Deus, all the same patriarchal tyrant character) was always meant to be Athena, who refused to be devoured and gave Zeus’ the worst headache of all times. She still does.

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  2. In the Basque Country the ancestral beliefs were clearly still present in the Middle Ages and surely only eradicated after the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition and its French “civilian” counterpart, even more brutal (early Modern Age). Legends lingered all the way to the 20th century, when they were compiled. Of course double religion was surely quite common at times. Claiming the whole Basque Country as “Christian” c. 600 is nonsense.

    An important legend is that of Jaun Zuria (the White Lord, alleged first Lord of Biscay) being born from the affair of Sugar (the ancient Dragon God) and a Scottish princess. This can’t be before the 10th or 11h centuries, when Biscay was formed as political entity (county or lordship and is first mentioned in the chronicles).

    A related legend, also of Biscay, mentions unstable religious co-existance, with the Lord of Biscay being married to Goddess Mari (much as Irish monarchs married Morgan) and he being forbidden from bringing his Christian religion to home. At some point he instinctively makes the sign of the cross while indoors and she leaves with their children. The legend clearly indicates (as many others) growing tensions between Christianity and Basque Paganism but also that the Pagan faith was strong enough to make the, otherwise Christian, authorities also accept their conditions… for some time. It’s unclear which real events the legend reflects but it may refer to the dispute between Mary the Good (legitimate but female) and her relative Diego the Intruder (backed by Castile) around 1300.

    In Navarre, the most important legend is that of Teodosio de Goñi and the Dragon of Aralar, which clearly signals the establishment of Christianity in the Sakana Valley (Western Navarre, near Alaba/Araba/Álava). This petty lord is a historical character and the “miraculous” intervention of Archangel Michael (with God atop his head, no less) is absolutely foundational for Basque Christianity. Teodosio de Goñi is a historical character who lived around 700 CE and 707 is the date claimed for the legendary events, in which he was making penance, chained by the ankles in the Aralar wilderness, because he had murdered both his parents (which is clear symbolism of breaking with the old ways the hardest possible way) but (probably with the help of priests) he managed to go back to his mansion much earlier than supposed (not until his chains would break) by attributing it to a miraculous Christian divine intervention against “an evil dragon” (representing the Dragon God of old).

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  3. Rodnovery is not traditional slavic paganism. It claims to be reconstruction of the old ways, but is largely based on missinformation. They see slavs as one, sometimes superior, ethnicity (do i need to explain why is that wrong?) and completely erase western and southern practices. It’s neopaganism based on eastern (mostly russian) traditions at best

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  4. For the first map: Didn’t “Celtic” belief systems remain in parts of Wales such as Anglesey persist until the 12th century?

    For the second map: What does that large green area in what is now Turkey represent? Also Celtic beliefs, or is it a “let’s not leave any blank spaces” space? I’m also not quite convinced by the all the straight and parallel boundaries between religion regions (see the perfectly stacked Uralic, Baltic, Slavic, Balkan regions). It gives me the impression that someone thought “yeah, that makes sense in my head” and put it on a map. Also, 2000 years ago, the cultural and religious differences between Finns and the Sami (assuming they were ever homogeneous and discrete entities) certainly weren’t what they are today.

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    • The green in Turkey actually represents Celtic beliefs. There was a back migration of the Celts to Anatolia back then and they founded Galatia–related to the “Gauls” of Celtic Europe.

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      • The Galatians were nothing but a mercenary group (and by no way “back-migration”, Celts did not originate there but in Central Europe) settled by some Hellenistic monarch. They were massively Hellenized and Christianized (one of the earliest Christian communities was that of the Galatians).

        In fact overall Celtic beliefs were very diminished in the Roman Empire by means of both synchretism (Roman and Celtic pantheons are similar enough) and persecution of Druidism. There’s little to no evidence of Celtic beliefs remaining long after Roman conquest, except maybe in Britain?, because the Celts were conqueror elites (as Caesar attests) and the bulk of “Celtic” population had no particular reason to keep adhering to a defeated faith (the lords didn’t either if they wanted to prosper under the new rulers).

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  5. Reblogged this on K9ofChaos and commented:
    Ancient polytheistic religions have always fascinated me ever since my mind started to grasp the concept of this subject bit by bit. So here’s an article detailing the religious landscape of Europe before the continent got Christianized.

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    • Philipm02: it’s true that East Germany was Slavic (and so was Austria and even parts of Bavaria and Franconia at some point). But it must be said that, previous to Slavic expansion, the area was indeed Germanic and so was even Poland, from where the Eastern Germanic groups stem (probably original from Sweden but the Slavs originated also in what is now Ukraine anyhow).

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  6. Good idea, but the facts are not right for northern Scandinavia in the area you call Sami. To your first map dated 1 AD the situation in northern Scandinavia is not exactly as you state. People have been living in these areas since the last ice age (arounnd 12000 years back from now). The first people living there were Caucasians. The Sami people immigrated to this area sometime around 2000 years ago, so of course maybe there were Sami people there at 1 AD, but there were for sure not only Sami people there at that time.

    To your second map showing the spread of Christianity around Europe you say that Christianity came to northern Scandinavia 1800 CE. That’s very far from correct. I come from the coast of eastern Finnmark in that area and the first church in my hometown is from between 1100-1200 CE. So in fact not much later thanChristianity came to the southern part of Scandinavia (Norway and Sweden).

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    • John Riise: “Caucasians”? If you mean “Caucasoids”, people of West Eurasian stock, all populations of Europe modern and ancient, except the Nenets, fall in that category without doubt. Late Paleolithic peoples of Europe come in two main flavors: WHG (main group) and EHG (with some Siberian and/or East Asian admixture but otherwise identical toe WHG. EHG are IMO proto-Uralic peoples and in Scandinavia they were present in all Norway and in Sweden surely in the areas north of Stockholm.

      In Central Sweden, the continental Baltic Coast, Ukraine and the Don basin we see a third intermediate group: SHG, which was mostly WHG with minor EHG admixture. It’s unclear if the Sami are immigrants or just “bottlenecked” direct descendants from the earliest EHG/Uralics from the area but what is clear is that ancient Uralic (or Finno-Ugric) peoples were present in NE Europe in an arch from Norway to the Volga basin since the Epipaleolithic. Their language, a great deal of their patrilineal ancestors and a smaller one of the matrilineages, seem to come from East Asia (roughly Mongolia) after a long journey in the second half of the Ice Age. They brought with them the first European (and West Eurasian) pottery we know of. They were however since the very beginning massively admixed with aboriginal Europeans, as shows their autosomal genetics, which make EHGs very similar to WHGs (main group of aboriginal Europeans, now extinct as such, although contributing to European ancestry).

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  7. Cool idea! But the dates are not accurate for Ireland, Scotland and England at least. The Christianization of each place happened over centuries. Ireland and Scotland’s Christianizations began in the 5th century, and England’s began in the 6th (though this is complicated because there were already Brythonic Christians who had been displaced by the pagan English incomers). I think this map would have benefitted in general from breaking down the crucial period between 300 and 600 rather than lumping them all together.

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  8. Although it’s widely used, “Celtic” is a Victorian construct I think, lumping all non-Xian non-Anglo together. While OK for general use, a more detailed exposé lIle this one could highlight that… perhaps even be topic of a future post?

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    • Actually, Celtic comes from the Greek word “Kelticoi.” Most of the so-called Celtic tribes had only names for the tribes, and not for the overarching ethno-cultural group. Celtic is used nowadays because it provides a conveniant unifier for the interrelated groups, just as “Polynesian” and “First Nations” do. “Celtic” people will often use the word to refer to themselves, for example, my family often say that we are Celtic because we have ancestors in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany. Celtic is used as a basis of solidarity because there was no word beforehand for the group that we belong to, just as Romans named the Germanic tribes, the Berbers, and the Slavs. Really I don’t find offense in the term myself, and I’m certainly not speaking for all Celts, but I do believe the majority of us think Celtic is a perfectly acceptable word, as opposed to terms that are meant to be derogatory, such as “Paddy” or “Bog-trotter.”

      However, if it’s fronounced with a soft “C” as in the basketball team, that’s a different story.

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      • @Cormac: Celt comes from the Greek (Massilian, Phocaean) exonym, “Keltos” (pl. “Keltoi”) for a macro-ethnicity of closely related languages and religions with a common cultural and pre-historical roots in (Western) Urnfields, Hallstatt and La Tène cultures. Their likely most common endony was something in the line of Gael or Gaul, and this was initially the preferred one by their close relatives the Romans (only relevant Italics), who called them “Gallus” (pl. “Galli”) or related words like “Gallaecians”. Greeks occasionally also accepted this endonym, as we can see in the case of “Galatia”.

        My personal take is that originally “Keltos” is an Iberian, Ligurian or otherwise Vasconic exonym, probably a slur (Basque “keldo” = uncouth). This is supported by the archaeological fact of Iberian (re-)expansion against Celts in Catalonia and Languedoc (c. 590 BCE) being absolutely coincident with the foundation of Marseilles (c. 600 BCE) and its Iberian outposts. Although alliances surely varied a lot by polity and time, there seems to be a tendency for Iberians and Ligurians to favor the Greeks and vice versa, while the Phoenicians may have found easier alliances with the Celts instead, as many Iberian groups did not like their aggressive expansionism quite apparently, nor that of the Celts either, of course.

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