The Camino de Santiago (Photo by Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Our pagan forebears deserve more respect

At least they had a grip on human nature

Pagans tend to get a bad rap these days. It’s not helped by stereotypical associations with messy animal sacrifice and people dancing around altars in dark woods wearing goat horns on their heads.

Finisterre was the end of the known world in ancient times

Our pagan forebears were in fact a bit more varied — and they had a grasp on vital aspects of human nature. This is more than you can say for much of what is coming from some of the political class, media pundits, academia and activists these days regarding mind-bending theories around gender identity and transhumanism. You’d expect we might know better given a fair amount of hindsight, not to mention our incomparable comfort and ease from which to make such judgement calls, compared to what our pagan forebears had to deal with when trying to process the human condition and all the challenges that come with it.

I was reminded of all this recently after leading a motley crew of modern-day Canterbury Tales pilgrims to the city of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. Afterwards, I continued walking to the town of Finisterre and its surrounding peninsula on the far western Galician coast. Finisterre is the mysterious pagan-influenced sibling that lurks in the shadows of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, based on the purported remains of Saint James lying in the basement of Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral. 

Finisterre was viewed as the end of the known world in ancient times. The name Finisterre is a conflation of the Latin Finis Terrae, which means “End of the Earth”. The route to this remote headland was walked by pagan pilgrims for centuries before the dawn of Christianity, when church leaders appropriated the pagan route — along with many pagan festivals — for their own ends, including subsuming it into the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

At the highest point on the Finisterre peninsula is Ara Solis — the Altar to the Sun — with its crop of Piedras Santas sacred stones. Back in the time of Celtic druids, Ara Solis was a popular spot for pagan fertility rites. From atop Ara Solis you can see to the north another headland jutting into the Atlantic Ocean that is known as Cablo Da Nave. The name means “Ship’s Headland” and alludes to the boat meant to carry the souls of the dead to the Underworld ruled by Hades. Cablo Da Nave’s furthermost rocky protrusion into the waves is said to look like a Roman centurion laid to rest with his helmeted head facing west to the Land of Eternal Youth.

There is much we can learn from those pagan pilgrims who came before us. For one, we can only marvel at the tenacity and faith of those who risked life and limb to travel all those centuries ago when travel was incomparably more dangerous and difficult. Today we seem to have lost the capacity for the type of resolution and faith that motivated those pagans to head to Finisterre.

Many today are also losing their belief in and respect for the power of ritual. Our pagan forebears understood that ritual was a way to connect to a deeper wisdom that transcends time and place, says John Brierley in Camino Finisterre: A Practical & Mystical Manuel for the Modern-day Pilgrim — to access that mysterious spiritual realm which increasingly seems sidelined by our obsession today with science.

Our pagan forebears at least recognised a sacred order

“Literalism can be a hindrance to a deeper understanding of our lives and our place in the Cosmos,” Brierley says. “Collectively devoid of inner-connectedness and a sense of the sacred, we live in a spiritual vacuum of our own making.” 

Grasping what is the meaning of our temporal and brief lives has been a fundamental human challenge throughout the centuries whether pagan, Christian or neither. We may be better at processing empirical data these days, but many appear unwilling to address the essential and more metaphysical elements of life. Our pagan forebears at least attempted to engage with and recognise a sacred order. This is in stark contrast to many of the current cultural elites who do not “recognise gods, God or any kind of sacred purpose for creation”, as Imogen Sinclair notes in “Among the deathworks”.

“In our century, a deified reason and megalomaniac technology are the repressive structures to which the religious feeling is sacrificed,” the famous Austrian psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl, best known for his book Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote in The Unconscious God.

Frankl’s experiences in Auschwitz, during which he noted that those whose faith was deepened by the terrible experience, outnumbered those who lost their religious belief, led him to stipulate that the spiritual dimension is fundamentally important for humans: 

Body and psyche may form a unity — a psychophysical unity — but this unity does not yet represent the wholeness of man. Without the spiritual as its essential ground, the wholeness cannot exist. 

Religiosity is in our natures, is Frankl’s point — even in the nature of tight-lipped Brits, it would seem. The reaction to the Queen’s death and funeral clearly demonstrated that religion still runs more strongly in “secular Britain” than many of us realised.

This hasn’t stopped the tables being turned on the Church, which is experiencing a touch of what it did with all those pagan traditions. Today we increasingly see Christian notions being appropriated by secularism. There’s the Cult of Kindness: all those signs popping up everywhere about “being kind” and treating people with respect and compassion, along with the mantra of “self-love”. All of which is used to justify a moral relativism, as well as a push to defy the limits of the human body in a quest for the sort of Homo Deus utopia propagated by the writer Yuval Noah Harari. 

The sinister machinations and cannibalistic tendencies of postmodern secularism is leading to another ironic role reversal. In the past it was religion that could be oppressive of human nature. John Buchan dealt with this in his novel Witch Wood, in which a group of Scottish villagers turn to paganism in the face of the rigid strictures of 17th century Scottish Calvinism. A major theme in the book is that if you try to stamp out crucial aspects of human nature, they will ultimately reassert themselves. 

The liberal world order is increasingly untethered from Christian fundamentals

Naturam expelle furca, tamen usque recurret,” as Horace put it: “You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will always return.”

On top of this there are extremes of health and safety, such as the latest puritanical push against meat, alcohol and other pleasures, and the Cult of Net Zero applied to an increasingly wide spectrum. Let us not forget that Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine. As the youngest brother Alyosha notes in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “It was not men’s grief, but their joy Christ visited. He worked his first miracle to help man’s gladness.”

“Non-belief in God has enabled corrosive cynicism and unmoored idealists,” Mario Laghos writes in Losing faith in atheism. “Valuable aspects of religion have been stripped out — the community spirit, the shared ideals and the belief in something beyond the self — leaving behind a skeletal carcass on which progressives feast.” 

In a recent Spectator podcast “Has conservatism been misunderstood”, political theorist Yoram Hazony discusses how a major political challenge for the current liberal world order is that the latter is increasingly untethered from Christian fundamentals. He cites the work of Irving Kristol, one of the most influential political thinkers during the Reagan years, who argued that the free market is the best engine for the creation of wealth — but only if it went hand in hand with religion and nationalism. 

Without those “guiderails”, Hazony explains, the free market and its “constant talk about consent and contracts and individual freedoms without reference to religion or to the nation acts as a solvent”, which risks destroying everything around it. This is especially true of those “unchosen communities” that we are born into and don’t “consent” to being made part of, such as family and nation. That may go some way to explaining why increasing numbers appear to be behaving in ways not that dissimilar to pagans dancing around wearing goat horns. 

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