heavenly new pagans with a long history
Saturday 23 November 1996
I think the Church is being too modest in playing down its own role in perpetuating these very elements. The pagan magic it now deplores was in on Christianity from the beginning. The emperor Constantine, who started the whole thing rolling in the 3rd century, owed his conversion to a heavenly portent - a vision of a flaming cross in the sky.
Similarly, the Christian conquest of these islands, radiating out from the Roman pattern of occupation and conversion, made paganism central to its mission. When St Augustine was busy colonising Canterbury and its surrounds for the new Christian movement, he specifically queried Pope Gregory the Great on how to treat the many quaint practices he found. No matter how eagerly they embraced the new revealed religion, Britons remained reluctant to abandon native beliefs. What was he to do?
In a response which makes Machiavelli look like a narrow-minded ideologue, the Pope urged tolerance. After "deliberating long about the English people", he exhorted Augustine to convert idol temples into Christian shrines. The people, he reasoned, would be more ready to come to places they were familiar with, and besides, "it is doubtless impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds". Now there was a natural-born politician.
The resultant hybrid, as pagan sites were turned into Christian ones and given their own saints, persisted for centuries in church architecture and interiors. Many other wonderful things followed from this religio- cultural splice. The plough was dragged into the church for blessing on Plough Monday to ensure the growth of corn; church bells were baptised with holy water to render them powerful enough to dispel thunder; soil from the churchyard was endowed with magical powers; and for a peck of oats St Wilgerfort would dispose of unwanted husbands for disaffected wives. St Brigid's Well in Oxford is still considered to bestow fertility.
Some enchanting customs, such as Morris dancing and maypoles, survived even the Protestant reformers, who used their destruction as stalking- horses to target the biggest magic of all - transubstantiation. But the Puritans went too far in the eyes of many when they banned Christmas and chopped down the Glastonbury Thorn. In many cases, Protestant magic was merely substituted for the old ways, as in New England, where the Bible was used to divine one's fate by opening it at random.
I remember the surprise I felt upon first encountering multiple deities in the house of an American Indian family in New Mexico. Lined up along their window sill was a sequence of gods: two Indian carvings, statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ - and a picture of John F Kennedy, the only one of the pantheon to merit a lighted candle. At the time, it blew my mind; now it seems the height of wisdom. After all, if the magic works why not co-opt it?
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