No, the Blood of the Ancients Does Not Run Through Our Veins

There is something pleasantly romantic about nostalgia. Particularly nostalgia for what has never been experienced: imagined times, long ago.

I’m certainly prone to it. I love costuming and living history and reenactments and really good, period-accurate films and television series. Nemea and I enjoy throwing themed costume parties, and I go overboard in my efforts to make them like time travel, like going Somewhere or Somewhen Else for awhile.

I think there is also something characteristically American about this propensity. The entirety of the American conservative movement, in fact, is built around a rosy imagined 1950s when things were “normal”—meaning, of course, they were good for middle class straight white men, because after all, who else matters?

So both by personal predilection and cultural background, I get it. I understand the longing love for Good Old Days. For Golden Years.

But here’s the thing: even if those days were as great as they are dreamed as having been, they’re gone. We’re not then; we’re now. We’re not there; we’re here.

Which brings me to the Pagan obsession with connecting today’s practices, observances, and traditions to “ancient ways”, Olden Tymes, vanished civilizations and bygone cultures.

Reconstructionists, of course, are the most serious about this, but the bulk of the Pagan community, it seems, feels that having traditions that are old conducts a sort of legitimacy to our religions that they would otherwise lack. The ongoing controversies about whether or not there was a “golden age of matriarchy” in Asia Minor, or whether Gerald Gardner made something up or was a part of a lineage stretching back centuries are cases in point; wherever you fall on these questions, it seems there is broad agreement that if the feminine-positive witchcraft and paganism of today is a modern invention, that is a disappointment.

To which I say: don’t be silly.

“We’ve been doing this for thousands of years” is the self-credentialing argument of the monotheists of The Book, and it is inherently a fallacious one. We wouldn’t take someone seriously if she said, “My grandfather hit himself on the thumb with a hammer on his twelfth birthday, and my father hit himself on the thumb on his twelfth birthday, and so did I, and by the Powers, I’m raising my daughter to hit HERself when she turns twelve, and we’re having a ceremony to celebrate the occasion!”

Repetition does not conduct credibility. And much old belief, let’s face it, is simply without factual or moral basis, starting with the ideas of gods and supernatural powers but extending to the role of women, the general xenophobia towards the Other (including those of different sexuality and gender), and the exaltation of war as a noble societal enterprise.

Now let me say this: I have no beef with reconstructionists. If you feel truly called to try to recreate an ancient religious tradition, go right ahead. Not my thing, but who cares?

But to me, the past couple of thousands of years have brought a great deal of advance that is better celebrated than disrespected.

We don’t use cupping and bloodletting in medicine any more. That whole Ptolemaic model of the Universe thing seems to have some problems, as Copernicus pointed out. Human sacrifice is barbaric to our modern eyes. And we have arrived at a point where many of us, at least in the developed world, see diversity not as watering-down of precious cultural, racial, religious, sexual or gender “purity”, but as enriching of a cultural fabric.

We’ve learned a lot. And that learning can be applied to create new traditions every bit as powerful and “real” as whatever people were doing a thousand or two years ago.

Atheopaganism is new. It’s a new model for religious behavior, based in science not only in terms of cosmology, but also as an exploration of human neurophysiology and psychology. And while there are certainly older traditions we draw forward into our rites—Yule trees, jack o’lanterns, old songs and poems, even Paleolithic art (if you take a look at my Focus)—because they feel good, we don’t make the mistake of conflating the ancient with the valid.

It is the blood of the moderns which runs through our veins. We are the beneficiaries of thousands of years of cultural and scientific evolution which lead us to this moment. Just as we today reject the bigotries, superstitious ignorance and violence of many ancient cultures, we can reject the idea of Golden Days Past as well. We can stand up and say that we are humans of TODAY, creating upon the layered foundation of what has gone before something new and intended to transcend the limitations of the old, rather than to recreate it, and to work toward a future of greater human harmony with the natural systems of Planet Earth, and with one another.

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3 thoughts on “No, the Blood of the Ancients Does Not Run Through Our Veins

  1. Well, sweeping generalizations inevitably invite responses and exceptions (“Moderation in all things”, being a good example), and I have to take a slight, but important, issue with your statement that “repetition does not conduct credibility”: if we have done a thing for time out of mind, and it works, that conducts quite a bit of credibility. Use a keystone if you want to build an arch. That’s worked for a couple of thousand years, and should probably be taken into account next time you’re building a castle. Nit-picking, I know, and you are talking about things that do not, and have never really, worked for the general good. Hitting our thumbs with a hammer, indeed.
    THAT said, we seem to be hardwired to invest deep respect and validity in “ancient” customs, so much so that we will go to a great deal of trouble and discomfort to continue (as we imagine) them. My experience and belief, though, is that we should not kid ourselves about Neopaganism- by definition, “new”. I’ve been saying for years that we are simultaneously remembering and inventing a religion for ourselves, and I’m being very generous with the term “remembering”. Personally, I believe that we are genetically predisposed to respond to certain symbols and images. Jung made a living out of that, and I think he was on to something. Whether that qualifies as “ancient” or “repetition” is up for grabs. All I know is, most of us like to believe that we are connected to the past in some way, even if it be the proverbial “descended from the Kings of Ireland”, and that that longing can easily be transformed into a belief system. Makes us feel like we matter more, I guess; like we mean something. That’s not a bad thing.

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  2. I think you are confused. To be prosaic rather than poetic, it’s the DNA of the ancients’ that we still carry in our bodies and “the forms” can be taken to mean the forms of ritual or the forms our bodies have from life to life. If you refer to the former, than the song refers to exactly the point you are taking paragraphs to make. I don’t think anybody thinks that the “forms” of ritual we do now are what was done millennia ago. I don’t want to go back to animal or human sacrifice. Who would? (Well some do – see “Blood Lions”) And if the second, then the circle of life, death and rebirth does remain, which is what we are celebrating. So celebrate life, ancient, modern and the endless circle and try being a little less cynical will ya, and enjoy the time that you have here this time around.

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    • I’m not confused. We have no multiple lives: just one. And yes, there are plenty of reconstructionists out there whose intent is exactly to replicate the rituals of ancient times.

      But you have missed my point, which is that celebrating the “ancient” is a mistake. There is nothing inherently more wonderful about practices that are old than those that are new. As Tim Minchin has it, just because ideas are tenacious does not make them worthy.

      Cynical? Hardly. Unless you consider realism–engagement with reality–to be a cynical process, which is a rather sad perspective.

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