Indo-European Paleopaganism and Its Clergy | ADF

Indo-European Paleopaganism and Its Clergy

© 1984 P. E. I. Bonewits
Originally published in Druid's Progress #1, 1984

The term "Pagan" comes from the Latin paganus, which appears to have originally meant "country dweller," "villager," or "hick." The members of the Roman army seem to have used it to mean "civilian." When Christianity took over the Empire and continued it under new management, the word took on the idea of "one who is not a soldier of Christ." Today, the word means "atheist" or "devil worshipper" to many devout monotheists. But those who call themselves Pagan use it differently; as a general term for native, natural and polytheistic religions, and their members.

The following definitions have been coined in recent years in order to keep the various polytheological and historical distinctions clear: "Paleopaganism" refers to the original tribal faiths of Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceania and Australia, where and when they were (or are) still practiced as intact belief systems. Of the so-called "Great Religions of the World," Hinduism, Taoism and Shinto fall under this category.

"Mesopaganism" is the word used for those religions founded as attempts to recreate, revive or continue what their founders thought of as the (usually European) Paleo- pagan ways of their ancestors (or predecessors), but which were heavily influenced (accidentally, deliberately or involuntarily) by the monotheistic and/or dualistic world views of Judaism, Christianity and/or Islam. Examples of Mesopagan belief systems would include the Masonic Druids, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism, Crowleyianity, and the many Afro-American faiths (Voudoun, Macumba, etc.)

"Neopaganism" refers to those religions created since 1940 or so that have attempted to blend what their founders perceived as the best aspects of different types of Paleo- paganism with modern "Aquarian Age" ideals, while eliminating as much as possible of the traditional western dualism. The title of this section should now make a great deal more sense. So let's look at the state of Paleo- paganism in Europe prior to the arrival of Christianity.

It's important to remember that a lot of history happened in Europe before anyone got around to writing it down. Around 4000 B.C.E. ("Before the Common Era") the tribes that spoke Proto-Indo-European began to migrate away from their original homeland, which was probably the territory around the northwest shores of the Black Sea. Some went southeast and founded the Armenian, Iranian and Indic cultures. Others went south to Anatolia and Palestine, and became known as Hittites and Mitanni. Those who went southwest to the Balkans became Thracians and Greeks. Others who went west and north established the Celtic, Slavic, Germanic, and Baltic cultures.

All this migrating around took many centuries and involved a lot of bloodshed. Previous inhabitants of a given piece of territory had to be persuaded, usually at swordpoint, to let the newcomers in -- and there went the neighborhood! The pre-Indo-European cultures in Europe (which were not necessarily "peaceful matriarchies") were all still in the late Neolithic ("New Stone Age") cultural era, with only stone axes, spears and knives with which to defend themselves. The invaders had bronze weapons and armor with which to fight, plus bronze axes with which to clear the great forests that covered the continent, bronze plows to till the soil, etc.

The impact of this superior technology can be judged by the fact that, by the time of the Roman Empire, nearly every language spoken in Europe (except Basque, Lappish and Finnish) was a member of the Western branch of Indo- European. Everything west of the Urals was pretty much dominated by a loosely interlinked conglomeration of related cultures, each of which was a mixture of the PIE culture and that of the previous holders of its territory. The largest group of cultures north of the Roman borders was that of the Celts, and the second largest that of the Germans (some scholars consider the Germans to be so closely related culturally to the Celts as to be practically a subset, at least in archeological terms).

Thanks to the work of Georges Dumezil, James Duran and others, we are beginning to have a clear idea of the social, political, magical and religious functions of the priestly "class" in Indo-European Paleopaganism. I use the word "class" deliberately, for the Western Indo- European cultures seem to have been built on the same fundamental social pattern as that with which we are familiar in Vedic India: clergy, warriors, and providers (farmers, craftspeople, traders, herders, etc.) In fact, it appears that a close to exact correspondence can be made between the religious, political and social functions originally performed by a Latin flamen, a Celtic draoi, or a Vedic brahman.

The Indo-European clergy basically included the entire intelligentsia of their cultures: poets, musicians, historians, astronomers, genealogists, judges, diviners, and of course, leaders and supervisors of religious rituals. Officially, they ranked immediately below the local tribal chieftains or "kings" and above the warriors. However, since the kings were quasi-religious figures, usually inaugurated by the clergy, and often dominated by them, it was frequently a tossup as to who was in charge in any given tribe. The clergy were exempt from taxation and military service, and in some cultures are said to have spent decades in specialized training.

They seem to have been responsible for all public religious rituals (private ones were run by the heads of each household). Public ceremonies were most often held in fenced groves of sacred trees. These were usually of birch, yew, and oak (or ash where oaks were rare), depending upon the subset of deities or ancestors being addressed, as well as the specific occasion. Various members of the priestly caste would be responsible for music, recitation of prayers, sacrificing of animals (or occasionally human criminals or prisoners of war), divination from the flames of the ritual fire or the entrails of the sacrificial victim, and other minor ritual duties. Senior members of the caste ("the" Druids, "the" brahmans or "the" flamens as such) would be responsible for making sure that the rites were done exactly according to tradition. Without such supervision, public rituals were generally impossible; thus Caesar's comment that all public Gaulish sacrifices required a Druid to be present.

There are definite indications that the Indo-European clergy held certain polytheological and mystical opinions in common, although only the vaguest outlines are known at this point. There was a belief in reincarnation (with time spent between lives in an Other World very similar to the Earthly one), in the sacredness of particular trees, in the continuing relationship between mortals, ancestors and deities, and naturally in the standard laws of magic (see Real Magic.) There was an ascetic tradition of the sort that developed into the various types of yoga in India, complete with the Pagan equivalent of monasteries and convents. There was also, I believe, a European "tantric" tradition of sex and drug magic, although it's possible that this was mostly the native shamanic traditions being absorbed and transmuted.

Only the western Celtic clergy (the Druids) seem to have had any sort of organized inter-tribal communications network. Most of the rest of the IE clergy seem to have kept to their own local tribes. Among the Germanic peoples, the priestly class had weakened by the early centuries of the Common Era to the point where the majority of ritual work was done by the heads of households.

We don't know whether or not any but the highest ranking clergy were full-time priests and priestesses. At the height of the Celtic cultures, training for the clergy was said to take twenty years of hard work, which would not have left much time or energy for developing other careers. Among the Scandinavians, there seem to have been priests and priestesses (godar, gydjur) who lived in small temples and occasionally toured the countryside with statues of their patron/matron deities, whom they were considered to be "married" to. In the rest of the Germanic, Slavic and Baltic cultures, however, many of the clergy may have worked part-time, a common custom in many tribal societies. It's also common for such cultures to have full- or part-time healers, who may use herbs, hypnosis, psychology, massage, magic and other techniques. Frequently they will also have diviners and weather predictors (or con- trollers). Midwives, almost always female, are also standard and, as mentioned above, there is usually a priestess or priest working at least part-time. What causes confusion, especially when dealing with extinct cultures, is that different tribes combine these offices into different people.

At the opening of the Common Era, European Paleo- paganism consisted of three interwoven layers: firstly, the original pre-Indo-European religions (which were of course also the results of several millennia of religious evolution and cultural conquests); secondly, the proto- Indo-European belief system held by the PIE speakers before they began their migrations; and thirdly, the full scale "high religions" of the developed Indo-European cultures. Disentangling these various layers is going to take a very long time, if indeed it will ever be actually possible.

The successful genocide campaigns waged against the Druids and their colleagues are complex enough to warrant a separate discussion. Suffice it to say that by the time of the seventh century C.E., Druidism had been either destroyed or driven completely underground throughout Europe. In parts of Wales and Ireland, fragments of Druidism seem to have survived in disguise through the institutions of the Celtic Church and of the Bards and Poets. Some of these survivals, along with a great deal of speculation and a few outright forgeries, combined to inspire the ("Mesopagan") Masonic/Rosicrucian Druid fraternities of the 1700's. These groups have perpetuated these fragments (and speculations and forgeries) to this very day, augmenting them with a great deal of folkloric and other research.

These would seem to most Americans to be the only sources of information about Paleopagan Druidism. However, research done by Russian and Eastern European folklorists, anthropologists and musicologists among the Baltic peoples of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia indicates that Paleopagan traditions may have survived in small villages, hidden in the woods and swamps, even into the current century! Some of these villages still had people dressing up in long white robes and going out to sacred groves to do ceremonies, as recently as World War One! Iron Curtain social scientists interviewed the local clergy, recorded the ceremonies and songs, and otherwise made a thorough study of their "quaint traditions" preparatory to turning them all into good Marxists. Ironically enough, some of the oldest "fossils" of preserved Indo-European traditions (along with bits of vocabulary from Proto-German and other early IE tongues) seem to have been kept by Finno-Ugric peoples such as the Cheremis. Most of this research has been published in a variety of Soviet academic books and journals, and has never been translated into English. This material, when combined with the Vedic and Old Irish sources, may give us most of the missing links necessary to reconstruct Paleo-pagan European Druidism.

The translation of this material, along with some of the writings of Dumezil (and others) that are not yet in English, is going to be an important part of the research work of ADF for the first few years. And we're going to see if we can get copies of some of the films...

But there are some definite "nonfacts" about the ancient Druids that need to be mentioned: there are no real indications that they used stone altars (at Stonehenge or anywhere else); that they were better philosophers than the classical Greeks or Egyptians; that they had anything to do with the mythical continents of Atlantis or Mu; or that they wore gold Masonic regalia or used Rosicrucian passwords. They were not the architects of (a) Stonehenge, (b) the megalithic circles and lines of Northwestern Europe, (c) the Pyramids of Egypt, (d) the Pyramids of the Americas, (e) the statues of Easter Island, or (f) anything other than wooden barns and stone houses. There is no proof that any of them were monotheists, or "Prechristian Christians," that they understood or invented either Pythagorean or Gnostic or Cabalistic mysticism; or that they all had long white beards and golden sickles.

Separating the sense from the nonsense, and the probabilities from the absurdities, about the Paleopagan clergy of Europe is going to take a great deal of work. But the results should be worth it, since we will wind up with a much clearer image of the real "Old Religions" than Neopagans have ever had available before. This will have liturgical, philosophical and political consequences, some of which we'll be discussing in future issues of "The Druids' Progress".

Author Information

Rev. Isaac Bonewits

Author's Bio:

Isaac Bonewits (10/1/1949 - 08/12/2010) was the founder of ADF and was our Archdruid for ten years, and a contributor to ADF until his death. He was very active and well-known in the Neopagan community at large.

Articles by Rev. Isaac Bonewits