The Short: Why do we pagans always seem to talk about things that were “stolen” from us/our spiritual ancestors?
So this is something I’ve noticed all over the place, but seems to crop up most often when we are talking about the relationship of Paganism with Christianity. As one post here goes into great detail about, we always seem to think that Christianity “stole” a good deal of ideas, symbology, festivals, dates, etc. from earlier pre-Christian/Pagan religious practices. Now, as it has been pointed out in beautiful detail by one FraterBenedict here, there is good evidence and often times clear understandings that while it may look like something was stolen, it was in fact not.
I was spurred to wright this post, (Dua Djehuty) after seeing a headline on Pantheos for an article asking if Valentines day was stolen from the pagans. While I will not claim to have read the article, the first thing that popped into my mind after reading the title was ‘So what if it was?’ What real world effect does it have on the celebration of the modern Valentines Day in regards to its either Pagan or Christian origin?
Now Valentines Day isn’t what usually pops to mind when we think of holidays “stolen” by Christians, usually its Christmas and Halloween that we think of. But again I ask, what difference does it make in the celebration of these holidays en mass? To me it seems that it could be argued that both of these holidays, as well as St. Valentines day, have again been “stolen” by, if not candy companies, consumer cultures writ large. Why do we seem to worry about the origins of holidays that are at least two steps removed (in the most general terms) from their originals and also not usually celebrated in their popular forms by many who call them selves Pagans?, (in my experience, granted.)
The other part of this discussion that doesn’t sit right with me is the use of the word “stolen.” The use of this word implies, at least to me, that a) there is a malicious, conscious intent behind the act (i.e. they are doing it on purpose and to be mean), that b) the act is perpetrated by someone on the “outside” (i.e. no a part of the group that is being robed), and C) that something like a day, a shape, etc. can only have one meaning and that meaning belongs to whoever came up with it first.
In the vastness of human religious and cultural experience, probably innumerable times things have overlapped, borrowed, appropriated, reinterpreted, evolved from, and been used for the sake of convenience. To say that “the church” “stole” the date of Christmas implies a lot more planning and malice then I think was actually involved; for all we know it could have just been an easy date to pick. It seems odd and silly to split hairs, spill ink, and rap keyboards over these things. I have heard that it’s a matter of acknowledging things, the making aware of true history of an event, often it seems to be in regards to making a group (usually the Christians) aware that they aren’t the only ones celebrating on a given date.
But this comes back to my above question: What’s the point? Weather or not the run of the mill Christian acknowledges what their religion has incorporated from other sources, does that affect the way we, the practitioners, actually celebrate and practice? Is the way we associate with our gods, their symbols, the holy days, and all the rest dependent upon how other people think of and related to a different version of them? And if so, why should we let outsiders influence the way we worship?
Now, as I write this, I can see the awareness reply coming forwards. By educating people about our traditions and the who/what/why/when/how of things, it will help foster understanding, acceptance, and interfaith dialogue. These things I can see as being very beneficial and should be undertaken. But, I ask my self, at what point does the discussion become excessive? Like with the example of St. Valentine’s above, at what point does this discussion of origins become completely irrelevant in the practical world beyond interesting trivia? If its not helping to generate understanding that moves us towards openness then why do we do it?
In my experience these topics usually pop up in majority pagan discussions, where they are least likely to have any educational effect. I worry that we may treat the discussion of things “stolen” from us in a way that allows us to feel that we, the modern pagans, are the victims of real or imagined acts of violence against our spiritual/literal ancestors in the past. This is not to down play the importance of any historical incidents, if they happened they happened, but it I wonder at what point do we let go and move forwards?