Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pagan Posthumous Repatriation.

I have worked for the museum (The Natural History Museum) for six months now. I joined a while after the media hype surrounding a Pagan campaign to have many of the (human) palaeontological specimens re-buried. Those of you who know me are reasonably aware that for the majority of the last twenty years I have been a practising Pagan. You may be surprised to find that I am somewhat at odds with these proceedings.
As I understand a group of well meaning but vocal Pagans took the museum to court over its possession of certain ancient Human remains. Their argument being (and backed by certain UN and EU bills and treaties of human rights on the protection of religious practice), the individuals were buried with religious reverence, and just because we (or our predecessors), being more enlightened (read christian), educated (read scientific agnosticism, or atheist) did not share that religious (read ignorant) point of view, we were allowed (read obligated by scientific need) to dig them up, dissect them, then file them away (by correct taxonomy) never to be returned to where they had been (reverently) placed by their family and loved ones. This was not a pleasing situation, and the bodies should have been returned to their resting places, to be allowed the dignity any other (modern, christian) person would be given. The court action was an attempt to achieve this. 
This point of view I whole heartedly agree with. If I (as a Pagan), dared to suggest such a procedure to be taken in a christian cemetery all hell would be let loose. Witness the vast problems even such high profile archaeological groups as “Time Team” have when they are excavating a known christian burial site, or even a christian church, or they accidentally come across one such location. The vast amounts of permission, documentation, and protocol, that is applied to the “dig”. Observe the care and reverence, the respect, the site and it's participants (be they living or dead) receive. Then, in opposition, compare the almost obscene contempt (from certain leading “media” archaeologists in the team) that, for instance, the objectors to the team digging up a Pagan “wood henge” on the coast received. Also please delight in Tony “fascist” Robinson's palatable anger, when a reasonably wealthy and organised Pagan individual has a court order placed upon the dig to stop them just destroying the site. It has to be one of my favourite episodes of the program. But is entirely indicative of the academic attitude. If you are a practising christian, and a scientist, then you may be somewhat eccentric but your point of view is accepted and respected as intelligently misinformed. If you are a Pagan, on the other hand, you are instantly perceived as some woolly headed tree hugging hippy who should have spent more time getting a job instead of getting stoned and destroying their intellectual faculties.
I have previously outlined my own path to Paganism. Very similar to the one trod by many individuals with whom I have had the opportunity to discuss such things with. Basically, as a teenager I sought some line of spirituality. So I went forth and studied. At the age of thirteen I was reading texts by Christmas Humphries, Alan Watts, Richard Hittleman (to name but a few), and many others on such diverse subjects as Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Yoga, Hinduism, even christian mysticism (Brother Lawrence for instance). I even embraced christianity for a brief period (I got better though). Actually I rejected it as being spiritually biased, unbalanced to the male dominant, misogynist side of religious practice (blame the Romans with their misogynistic, skewed society, and need to dominate everything they met, capitalism, it's all their fault. Perhaps a rant another time). I found that I was spending more and more of my time acquiring the cultural symbolism, and paraphernalia, of more and more ancient and distant cultures. Until one day it hit me that there had to be a closer solution based on my own culture and heritage, thus Paganism.
As an aside my family (bless them) having lived through this period of my development, and much as families tend to not forget (i.e. treat you as though you're still sixteen not forty three), or not realise you live a full and interesting life away from them. My younger brother at his wedding a few months back still asked me “What religion are you claiming to practice at the moment?” I have been a clear and practising pagan for about twenty years now, I have lead Pagan groups (with a good friend of mine) whilst at university (fourteen to fifteen years ago), I have publicly given blessings, but still members of my own family are completely unable to comprehend and accept it as a valid religious point of view. Much like society at large.
Microcosm and macrocosm each reflecting the other. Society reflects family that reflects society.
So where are my objections? I hear you cry (or more likely “get on with it!”).
It is in the proliferation of the tree hugging myth. I have hugged trees. When you live in Stockton-on-Tees, where one of the local councils measures of ecological sustainability is a tree count, and you previously lived in a small village nestling in the shadow of the south downs, you will understand how pleased one can be to actually find trees occasionally.
The objection I hold is with the ceremony that the group committed over the bodies as they returned them to their previous resting places. I am a Neo-Realist an obscure branch of cynicism developed by myself and a couple of friends in opposition to a small group of Neo-Trotskyites who opposed us during my college years. My own branch of Neo-Realism follows the path that life is never quiet as pretty an wonderful as one would wish it was. To this end I am completely happy to practice Paganism knowing that I have no connection what so ever to pre-christian practitioners of the same faith. I am perfectly happy to accept that the branch of the faith I follow is a Victorian supposition based on little historical fact. In fact I am perfectly happy to accept that my version of Paganism is in fact Neo-Paganism. I do not accept that, just because this makes it a “new” faith it is any less valid than any other. Paganism for me is about re-balancing religion against the ultra doctrinal Roman catholic faith, the organised religion of many other faiths as well, and the general unbalanced misogynist line the Abrahamic faiths follow generally, and in some cases very specifically. I choose for my religious iconography the symbolism (that that we have, or can infer from eye witness accounts, or later documentation from oral tradition) of those pre-christian faiths that were endemic to the regions my ancestors inhabited thousands of years ago.
I have no quarrel with any tree hugging, dancing with the fairies, crystal waving (I am a crystal carrying Pagan myself) branch of Paganism that you may wish to partake in. The problem I have is that the more dancing around with fairies we do in public the less credible we appear to other none Pagans, and the more open to ridicule and derision we become by the hard line christians
So accepting that we don't have a provable connection to pre-christians who used the same set of symbols we have subsumed, and that we may only be tolerated as a slightly less harmless sub group of society than many (newly perceived) fanatical branches of other more “accepted”faiths. i personally think the instance of the group who won the moral victory to re-bury the “specimens” was completely undermined by their insistence to perform some crystal waving, poncing around, hippy drawing down the moon, ceremony, over the bodies as they were re-interred.
I have stood for my rights to practice my religion as I see fit, when i see fit, where i see fit, for the majority of my adult life now. I have ridicule based on ignorance from both society a large and from close family for most of that period. I just think it a shame that with a little fore thought our point of view could have been very firmly, intelligently, and coherently placed in the public eye.
I must admit trying to get any group of Pagans to agree is much like herding cats with a stick, but that is also part of the joy I find in practising Paganism. This piece can only ever state my own point of view. I just think an opportunity was sorely undermined by the bad organisation of the participants who let the media undermine their credibility in an endeavour that was very well meant.

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Ps it takes quiet a bit of work to “paganise” your spell checker to let you write christian with a small “c”.  :-)

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