Is paganism a living tradition with roots deep in prehistory or just a collection of superstitions, magic tricks and witches’ spells? Pagans explores the origins, history and beliefs of Europe’s ancient religions.
Sexy Beasts – The first episode looks back to a time before sex was taboo, when humans saw themselves as an integral part of the natural world. Through history and prehistory, the representations of the ancient gods and traditions followed by pagans have been marred by propaganda from other religious groups eager to rein in those they defined as ‘wild barbarians’.
In truth, the word pagan is a Roman term meaning ‘country folk’, and the general concept of paganism is of oneness with nature and a quest to fully understand the world around us. Though historical accounts lead us to images of stone dildo-wielding women flashing their genitals at cattle, chieftains having sex with horses before slaughtering them and whipping sessions in mixed saunas, the underlying theme is of human similarity with animals and nature.
Magic Moments – Today magic is used as a form of entertainment. It still thrills us to see an apparently impossible phenomenon happen before our eyes. Reaching back through to prehistoric times, the pagan magicians, who could conjure material from nothing or predict the future, would almost certainly have been held in the highest regard. They would not have been tricksters like the conjurers of today. In historic and prehistoric times, it would have taken great knowledge to understand the seasons, through their relationship to solstice.
Predicting this yearly cycle would have been crucial to the agricultural societies of the time – a science to those who understood, but magic to those who didn’t. The fine art of producing the first bronze artefacts would also have been greatly respected. The ability to produce a knife from an ore is still magical, even though we now understand the chemistry. As for drug-induced shamans talking to the spirits, they must have appeared exceptionally powerful.
Band of Brothers – According to Roman records, the Iron Age Celtic peoples of Britain consisted of war-like tribes – but this could well be propaganda of the age. In 43 AD, as now, invaders found ways of justifying their subjugation of the native people whose country they colonised and whose land they took.
Whatever the reality, the image of rough, heavy-drinking hooligans and evil barbarians is what we have been left with. Pagan society in the Iron Age was certainly based on a strong system of tribal groups controlling different parts of the country, each with its own warrior class. However the accusations of barbarism could equally be a stereotyped reaction against these ‘uncivilised’ cultures. The truth is that, though bands of fighting men may well have dominated much of society, the basis of a proto-democracy was also in action.
Sacred Landscape – A strong pagan belief is that the natural world is embedded in all of us. One method of defining the landscape is by building monuments. The construction of tombs at the boundaries of territory illustrates to outsiders that the area is rightfully yours, since it belonged to your ancestors.
A succession of ritual monuments known throughout prehistoric Europe, from wooden trackways to henges (stone or wooden circles), suggest the strong influence of altering the landscape as a way of defining territory within the pagan belief system. So what happens when people cannot lay claim to their territory by marking it with the graves or other signs that their ancestors lived there?