Culture  Present-tense Paganism

Ancient tradition campaigns for understanding

We have all heard of the terrors of the Second World War, when religious groups, particularly Jews, were among the minority identities persecuted, tortured, and mass-murdered under the Nazi regime. We know what happened when Europeans colonized new territory to the detriment of the indigenous populations. These are stories that we grow up with, that are printed again and again in textbooks and are meant to teach us about acceptance and the dangers that exist in discrimination.

There are stories of persecution, however, that do not attract such recognition. Nestled among hundreds of books on Judaism and Christianity in the McLennan library exist a handful of texts which document the historical struggle of one of the most ancient religions of our world – Paganism. The term Pagan, originally derived from the Latin word paganus – meaning “country folk” – has come to be one of perhaps the most commonly twisted words in the English language.

Paganism was once a mainstream respected belief coexisting with Christianity, which until 300 A.D. was the minority. It consisted of a number of different belief systems which shared a common thread – they were all characterized for their reverence of and connection with nature, their belief in multiple deities (both male and female), and their egalitarian views toward women.

The Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 A.D. set in motion centuries of persecution for all those religions that did not identify as Christian, generally placed under the umbrella term “pagan.” These non-Christians were labeled “heathens” who were said to practice devil worship, sexual deviance, and witchcraft. Their status as a legitimate religion diminished exponentially as Christianity gained a following. Ironically, many Christian traditions developed out of these dying Pagan beliefs. Constantine declared the official celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ to be on December 25, which coincidentally was also the birthday of the pagan sun god.

Such persecution and repression may seem like ancient history, but consider the fact that McGill had a Pagan Association until 1998 when the group was pressured to shut down for unclear reasons – both outcry from Christian Fellowships and managerial problems have been cited as catalysts. The group was revived in 2003 by U1 student Bruno Mastronardi, whose main goal, as he said in 2002 in an interview with the Tribune, was to “provide accurate information about Paganism to try to counteract the negative propaganda which has been associated with Paganism.”

This hesitant but steadfast return of Paganism has become a trend during the past century. A number of different religious groups, collectively known as the Contemporary Paganism movement, have seen a dramatic increase in following. These beliefs developed mainly in Great Britain and centre around a nature-based faith deriving from Eastern mysticism and folk shamanic practices.

The Montreal Pagan Resource Centre, the first of its kind in Canada, is a volunteer-based drop-in centre that was launched in August of 2000 by Scarlett Cougar. A Concordia graduate who identifies herself as a Wiccan, Cougar explained that Contemporary Paganism is a very young belief that has been steadily on the rise – in 2005, statistics showed a 400 per cent increase in the number of people who identified as Pagans, with 849 believers living in Montreal alone. “Paganism resonated very well with both [the feminist and ecological movements of the 1900’s] because it was very nature based, honoured a Goddess, and regarded women as equal religiously,” she said.

Although her beliefs have been met with ignorance and disdain in the past, Cougar said that outlooks seem to be changing. “Twenty years ago people thought that Satanism and Paganism [were] the same thing. If you were a Pagan, you worshipped the devil.” Today, she sees a much greater interest being taken by educators and the media regarding the history and understanding of her beliefs.

Although McGill University does not directly teach any courses on Paganism, Religious Studies professor Torrance Kirby explained that there are many seminars and courses that spin Paganism into their content.

For hundreds of years, alternative forms of belief have suffered from persecution – in particular due to the attempt to unite people under the one religion of Christianity. Paganism is a discreet yet long-standing victim of this. As a belief system targeted since the beginnings of Christianity’s spread almost 2,000 years ago, it has undergone such prolonged periods of discrimination and misunderstanding that it has been relegated to the realm of superstition and misconception. Its central beliefs and practices had a major influence on the traditions we stand by today. Only recently, however, has this been recognized and Paganism’s legitimacy begun to be restored.