At the ECER congress, Bologna 26-29th August 2010 c.e.
Warning: In these pages I make a wide use of the words “Pagan” and “Paganism”, even though I know that these words aren’t adopted or approved by every group here. But since I’m going to talk about some general principles that should be common to several ancient non-monotheistic traditions and since here in Italy we are used to hear many people saying that Italian tradition is only catholic tradition, I’ve decided to use the word “pagan” only to mean a tradition coming from these ancient non-monotheistic religions.
The theme of this congress is “Traditional Ethics” and many of the delegations here will talk about their own ethics and their way to follow their tradition. But since here there are many traditions and the Federazione Pagana itself gathers people from different traditions without choosing one in particular, I would like to propose to this meeting three of what we consider cardinal points, three bases for a Pagan traditional ethic in the present world.
The first is the consideration of what we call tradition: we usually mean something that comes to us from the past, that has been handed down to us. Sometimes, this is also considered someway unchangeable. But we should ask ourselves what do we take from the past. We must be aware that there has been a gap between Europe’s pagan past and our present days: this gap is due obviously to the arrival of monotheism and can be wider or narrower according to what country or culture we are considering, but certainly there is one. Baltic religions probably suffered less of this gap because they really preserved part of their culture, but for what concerns Pagan cultures of Southern Europe we must admit that this wound has been considerable. Even though I know there are people who prefer to believe that Paganism always continued, we must understand that many of the sources and interpretations of ancient religions have a Christian point of view. Many tales about Celtic and German gods and goddesses, for example, but also some descriptions of ancient gods come from Christian writers, who had a so different view about the world and the deity that we can’t fully trust on their tales. The presence of monotheism also forces us to often define our worldview and so our ethics in opposition to monotheistic worldview and ethics.
Sometimes only the shape of ancient religions remained: if you’re going to visit Venice, you’ll find that there are many statues depicting ancient gods, statues that have been cast or sculpted during the Christian history of Venice, but this doesn’t mean that Venice remained a secretly pagan city. Venice’s rulers used ancient gods as symbols and we can admire the statues, but can’t assume their meaning as a pagan one.
This looks like a dead end: how can we take a tradition from ancient religions if we risk to assume monotheistic features? Well, first of all studying our ancient religions and traditions, but we aren’t here to make simply historical reconstruction, we are here because we are religious people, so we have to apply a concept well expressed by Cicero, the Roman orator, while explaining the meaning of the word religio. Religio is the Latin word from which the word Religion comes; in particular, Cicero insisted on the opposition between religio, the committed practice of religious acts, and superstitio, superstition, the mere repetition of the act without paying attention to it. This means that we have to put ourselves, with our sensibility and ideas, all ourselves in the religion and so in the tradition and in the ethics we practice. We must experience it. Our religio is the attention we put in our practices towards the gods and the world and it’s the presence of this attention that makes those practices religious.
So the first basis is: personal commitment in the relation with the traditional past and in religion itself. Values must be felt, not coming from above us.
Why should we pay so much attention to the world? To answer, let’s begin talking about the second basis for a traditional ethics: the ancient idea of gods and goddesses and the relation they have with us.
As Pagans, when we say “the goddess of the Earth” whatever her name is, we don’t mean that there is a goddess somewhere in the sky playing cards with so-called “powers of the earth”; we mean the earth herself, or at least her divine part. When we say “the city of Bologna”, we simply mean Bologna, and not something else that rules over Bologna. The same is when we say “the goddess of the Earth, the god of the sky” and so on. The acknowledgement of this fact leads Pagan people to a respectful relation with the world, other Human Beings included. This respect was called by the Romans pietas, and from this behavior other institution of Pagan religions have originated. This respect has more to do with harmony with the surrounding world than with awe of the world, because it’s due to the acknowledgement of the gods’ presence inside the world. Since the gods are inside the world, we can’t be outside it and this is why we pay a “religious” attention towards the world and must respect and be in harmony with it, because we are part of it and in it we are linked to the Gods.
So the second basis for a pagan ethic is: respect and harmony with the world, since it’s in the world that we experience the presence of the gods and towards the world, towards gods and men (erga deos and erga homines, as the Romans used to say to define the pietas) our ethics is directed.
And here is the third point: starting from the world, our traditional ethics starts from the present, not only from the past, as we said before. But the word “tradition” has another important aspect, that is our third basis for a Pagan ethics. The word comes from the Latin traditio, that in turn comes from the verb tradere, to deliver. Not only what is delivered to us, but also what we are going to deliver, to hand down to future generations. From this point of view we “adapt” the tradition: considering what we get from the past and what we want to live in the present and pass on to the future. The tradition we get is certainly worthy of honour and respect, but even more important is what we choose to pass on: even towards the future generations we have to apply the respect, the pietas, with the due personal commitment, the religio. This attitude also prevents us from giving too much importance to the formal aspects of the tradition, to the detriment of its inner values.
So the third basis is this: to think to tradition and therefore to traditional ethics as to something to pass on, more than something we receive, so that to assume an active role towards the past. Like the Roman god Janus who had two faces, one towards the past and one towards the future and was the guardian of the doors, so everyone of us should find a balance between past and future in the construction of a pagan traditional ethics in the present world.