Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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What Pagans Do

Do you know the punishment for cutting down a sacred tree?

Did you know that, at a sacrifice, it's proper at the moment of the killing for women present to cry out?

Do you know why one should always end a funeral with a ring-dance around the grave?

Neither did I.

But now I do, and you will too, once you've read Ken Dowden's European Paganism: The Realities of Cult from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.

As (chances are) I don't need to tell you, the paganisms define themselves (as they always have) not so much by what we believe as by what we do.

So Dowden articulates the very essence of the paganisms of Europe by means of what pagans do: where, what, and how we worship. The book is topically organized, with chapters on landscape, fields and groves; springs, rivers, and seas; statues, shrines, and temples; ritual; priests; sacrifice; and “pagan time.”

Dowden is a Classicist by profession (he teaches at the University of Birmingham), so things Greek and Roman are amply documented, but his purview includes all the paganisms of Europe and, indeed, of Indo-Europeandom at large.

Walk a while with Dowden, and I can promise you that you'll pick up all sorts of important lore along the way.

It's impious to piss into a spring or river.

The word nemeton doesn't actually mean “sacred grove.”

The proper time to name a newborn is on the ninth night after birth.

I've only begun here to enumerate the treasures that await you. Yes, I know that pagans (thank Goddess) aren't People of the Book. Nonetheless, I'm nominating Dowden as one of the Thirteen Indispensable Books to Bring With You to the Desert Island. By rights, a copy of European Paganism belongs on every pagan bookshelf, right next to M. L. West's Indo-European Poetry and Myth: West for theory, Dowden for practice.

One A***zon reviewer recommends against this book on the basis that Dowden is anti-pagan.


If unbelief in the gods, the conclusion that there's no direct continuity between the ancient paganisms and the modern ones, and occasional irreverence in the face of patent silliness, constitute evidence of anti-paganism, then the present writer finds himself equally culpable.

So you may wish to stop reading now.

The advantage here is that Dowden, as an outsider looking in, sees patterns that those of us on the inside are too immersed to notice.

Great state or tribal occasions may be happening three times a year or once every eight or nine years or whenever, but day in, day out, each family unit is a religious state in miniature, its chief of household the chief priest, worshiping incessantly, at every meal and on every occasion of importance. This relentless domestic worship, so taken for granted that we rarely see it [in the surviving sources], is the true basis of pagan religious sentiment (230).

Dowden is absolutely correct here. If you, dear reader, are serious about your paganism, and don't yet have a routine daily household observance in place, you need to get one started, stat.

Fortunately for us all, European Paganism can help you do just that.


Ken Dowden, European Paganism: The Realities of Cult from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (2000). Routledge.




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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