Pop Culture is Finally Getting Olde Religion Right
By SUSAN HURRELL
Would you bathe in the blood of a freshly sacrificed bull? Kneel before a man wearing a deer-skin and antlers, who is possessed by an ancient Forest God? Scatter handfuls of clotting blood onto your newly ploughed field? Welcome to historical Paganism as presented in three popular television shows – Rome, Robin of Sherwood, and Vikings.
Hollywood is not a Pagan’s Best Friend
Ancient or new/alternative religions often receive a disrespectful presentation in contemporary media, being sanitized or sensationalized. Paganism and its subsets are too often confused or conflated with other indigenous traditional religions, such as Voudon (Voodoo in “Hollywood-speak”) or new religious movements such as the Temple of Set and the Church of Satan (both often lumped together as Satanism, aka “Devil-worship”).
Contemporary Pagans are often referred to as Neo-Pagans to separate ourselves from historical pre-Christian religious practitioners like the Romans and Vikings. We are, generally speaking, reconstructions of ancient traditional religions (the Druids, Heathens, and Hellenics), or syncretic creators of new Paths made from the carefully laid stones of other cultural, religious and occult practices (Wiccans, British Traditional Witches, and some contemporary Western Shamanic paths that derive their rituals from Indigenous practices, but that are largely practiced by non-Indigenous people).
Whether shown as the midnight movie creature feature (Rosemary’s Baby), or passed off as light comedy (Bewitched), as semi-accurate sensationalized traditions (The Wicker Man), or reducing the gods to cartoon characters (Hercules), popular media has truly not been a friend to those walking any of the Pagan paths.
This Pagan was thrilled to see how the culture and religious practice of a pre-Christian society was depicted in the television series Rome (2005–2007). The series, in the words of its creators, strove for authenticity rather than historical accuracy. It conflated historical events into a more compressed time frame with some admitted taking of historical liberties, but not inaccuracies.
The portrayal of Roman religion “not as a doomed prologue to Christianity, but as a vibrant and meaningful part of everyday life,” as Beliefnet described the series, was decidedly non-apologetic. The Divine Pantheon that guided every aspect of Roman life were many and varied, each with their own devotées and requirements for propitiation to ensure that daily events unfolded according to the pluralistic and possibly contradictory Divine Will.
Rome showed a world as yet uncontaminated by Christian morals and ideals. Sexual desire was an appetite to be sated. Gluttony was the precursor to indigestion, not moral condemnation. Choose any of the Seven Deadly Sins – they were celebrated as natural parts of life in Roman Culture, as part of the human condition. Human nature apparently has not changed greatly in 2000 years.
There have often been comparisons of the “decadence” of the Roman Empire to that of the glory days of the Disco Era – those years of sexual liberation, increased reproductive freedom, heightened recreational drug use, and some really bad music that occurred in the late 1970s to the early 1980s – the “post hippie era.” This bacchanal and orgy continued until AIDS swept in as the Christian God’s supposed wrath at a hedonistic and immoral generation of straight and gay partygoers and drug users. Repentance in the form of corporate greed and rampant consumerism, the rise of Christian fundamentalism, and the witch hunts of the Satanic Panic soon followed. Rome fell, again.
But let’s go back to the original Rome, where superstition, signs and omens were ever-present – and communication with the gods was ongoing – usually in the form of rituals (making offerings), and prayer and worship (begging and bargaining). Magic as an active principle was a way to curse an enemy or snare a lover; such as inscribing charmed lead sheets to set a curse in motion against a rival. Blood rituals included the sacrifice of a bull to the goddess Cybele, where a ritual that includes frenetic music and priestly self-flagellation culminated in the slitting of a bull’s throat. A cascade of warm blood flowed over the ritual’s sponsor as an offering to the Magna Mater, the Great Mother, to ensure the favourable outcome of their petition.
For me, the sweetest moments of Pagan practice in Rome were the family honourings of the household gods, the Lares. Every Roman home had a lararium, the shrine containing small statues that received the family’s offerings and petitions for fertility, prosperity, victory and good health. One character, a soldier, carried his Lares statues with him, and I was moved to see this rough and rugged man make humble offering of honey and wine on a makeshift altar to the gods of his long-lost hearth and home. Many Neo-Pagans have shrines and altars in our homes and carry amulets and talismans with us to represent an aspect of our gods. We all seek ways to keep our personal gods close, and to honour them as best we can, where we are, as we are able.
Robin of Sherwood
Many centuries later, another group of rough and tumble men and one lone woman would kneel in humble devotion to their own genius loci – “the god of the place” – Herne the Hunter. The place was Sherwood Forest, and the legend of Robin of Sherwood was reborn and newly envisioned by TV series creator Richard Carpenter from 1984 to 1986. His production was the first to introduce two new ideas: the Moor and the pre-Christian faith of the people of rural Britain.
Practising Pagan actor Mark Ryan originated the character of Nasir, who enters the story as the sword arm of the evil sorcerer, the Baron de Belleme. The Baron is not the only practitioner of dark magic. Robin has to vanquish the Evil Witch, in the form of the Abbess Morgwyn of Ravenscar, and the wolf cult, The Sons of Fenris, led by another sorcerer, Guilnar, and save the heath witch, Mad Mab, who is apparently capable of much more than preparing herbal potions and simple remedies. These “devil-worshippers” are, of course enemies of the Medieval Church, which controls every aspect of village life, especially given that the Abbot is the brother and partner-in-corruption of the Sheriff of Nottingham. What the Sheriff does not take, the Church is happy to claim as their tithe.
Culturally good Catholics all, by virtue of their time in history, Robin and his band also celebrate Beltane, the spring fertility festival, and hold a Midsummer Feast. At these times, and many others, the forest grows silent, and an ancient forest god, Herne the Hunter, appears in the fog to shape Robin’s destiny. This ancient Spirit possesses a local cave-dwelling shaman who wears a stag’s skin and head, complete with antlers. His commission transforms Robin from being a simple outlaw into being a vessel for the powers of Light and Darkness, Herne’s Son, keeper of Albion, one of the sacred Seven Swords of Wayland. When Robin asks who he is to serve, Herne answers him:
“They are all waiting. The blinded, the maimed, the men locked in the stinking dark all wait for you. Children with swollen bellies hiding in ditches wait. The poor, the dispossessed, they all wait. You are their hope. You cannot escape. So must it be. Robin in the Hood!”
“So Must It Be” – the modernizing of the Wiccan ritual pronouncement “So Mote It Be” and the presence of an ancient God that was hunter and hunted, wild and free, spoke to many Pagan hearts who were seeking a balancing masculine force to complement their understanding of the Great Goddess. The growth of Wicca, the publishing of The Spiral Dance (by Starhawk) and the works of Z Budapest and other classics of Women’s Goddess Spirituality had brought the Great Mother to the fore, but some Pagans wanted to understand the Mystery of the Divine Masculine as more than the Sacrificial King. Wiccans have a sacrificed god as well, the God of the Corn and Grain, who dies at Lammas to be reborn again.
Pagans who are fans of Robin of Sherwood often use the phrase “Herne Protect Us” as a valediction at parting, and images of the Horned God are rampant throughout contemporary Pagan art, perhaps more than any other face of the Masculine Divine. Another phrase that has entered some of our Pagan circles is also from this show, where we remind one another, in good times and bad, that “Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.” This, like Albion, and the Athame of Wiccan ritual, is a double-edged blade.
The people that inhabit Sherwood Forest seem to die bloodlessly from the slightest thrust of a sword blade. Not so in the world of Vikings (2013–present). These men and women fight with berserker bloodlust, bleed copiously and wear scars proudly, losing limbs, teeth, and frequently their lives. This show is also executed with great historic accuracy; the time of the Vikings is several hundred years before Robin of Sherwood, but nearly a full millennium after the time of Rome. I am not surprised at its popularity, given that our nation’s participation in foreign wars is an ever-present fixture once again in the nightly news.
Viking culture, at this time, was barely touched by Christianity – it was the religion of those they raided. Vikings, the TV series, is based on 13th century sagas and other writings telling the history of Ragnar Lothbrok and his family. Some Viking history comes to us from their own writing, some from the writing of their victims, and some from the culture that ultimately conquered them and separated them from their ancient gods – Odin, Thor, Freya and the rest of the Norse Pantheon. The Viking religion was as bloody as their lives in battle, with their gods demanding blood sacrifice. Christian chroniclers were horrified by the sacrifice of twenty-seven lives (including men, horses, dogs and other animals) at the Temple at Uppsala, which was a vital part of Viking religious observance. These chroniclers were also scandalized by the earthy sensuality and hearty appetites of a people who faced death with joy. No sin, no guilt, no fear, no penance; Vikings lived fully and hoped for a glorious death in battle, worthy to enter Valhalla.
While contemporary Pagans do not make blood sacrifices, as a general principle, there has been a resurgence of the Viking religion in recent years, and I am seeing even more of it within the greater Pagan community since the advent of Vikings, with Heathen kindreds, study groups and Blots springing up. The Heathen community is often called Asatru, Odinism, or Germanic Neo-Paganism, which is, unfortunately, confused with the more racist Aryan groups that use some of the symbols and practices of this religion within their own hate-promoting agenda.
Like Herne the Hunter of Sherwood, the Heathen gods make an appearance in Vikings. Odin, the All-Father, appears in the disguise of a wanderer who is revealed as a god only after his departure. The Shaman is a blind old man who consults the Norn and other spirits. Gods are invoked, libation poured, sacrifices made. Newly ploughed fields are dotted with clotting blood from the sacrifice to ensure their fertility, blessed through the principle of sympathetic magic. Like the Romans, the Vikings had a daily and visceral relationship with their gods. There was no intercessor required – the gods were present. Contemporary Neo-Pagans believe that all the old gods, being gods, are present.
What do our Pagan gods ask of us?
So when I think of these three depictions of historical Paganism and try to learn something from them for my own Pagan spiritual journey, I come back to my original questions and ask “What do our gods require of us?” How do we honour our gods who no longer require blood sacrifice? If not by blood, then perhaps sweat, toil and tears – to make this world a better place for the generations to come – to accept Herne’s Charge? How do we demonstrate humble worship before the Spirits of the Place, the Gods of Hearth and Home? How do I celebrate, honour and protect the Wild Places – both inside my heart and in the world around me? I shall continue to consult the Runes, and continue to explore the Mystery.
Susan Hurrell sees the Sacred in strange and wonderful places in popular culture. Fascinated by new spiritual movements, she is a contributing editor to The Aquarian.