Cavalorn (cavalorn) wrote,

The Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy

I’d like to broaden my usual ranting this year and talk about a particular problem affecting not only modern paganism, but modern Christianity and modern atheism. In giving it a name, I hope to help others identify it and battle it wherever it occurs.

It’s the Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy, or if you prefer, the Pagan Homogeneity Error.

This concept may not seem familiar at first, but I’m sure that the more I go on about it, the more easily examples will occur to you.

Neil Gaiman once talked to us about adapting Neverwhere for BBC TV back in the day. He commented that the BBC in those days was like a sausage machine. Whatever you may feed into a sausage machine, you get sausages out the other end. Similarly, whatever you fed into the BBC came out as Doctor Who.

The Pagan Sausage Machine fallacy is similar. Whatever pre-Christian religion you feed into the sausage machine of the early Christian missionary worldview, whatever the regional specifics may have been, whatever deities were involved, the undifferentiated sausages of ‘PAGANISM ™’ come out of the other side.

The Pagan Homogeneity Error is thus the mistake of considering disparate pre-Christian or non-Christian religions to be alike, related, interchangeable and/or sympathetic with one another purely because the label ‘pagan’ is affixed to them.

The error lies in the origin of the term ‘pagan’, which was a disparaging term. It meant ‘civilian’, i.e. one who was not in the army of Christ. By lumping together all non-Christian faiths under one umbrella, the early Christians deemed them to be all equally valueless. ‘Paganism’ was not seen as a religion but a condition, akin to barbarism.

From a missionary perspective, the Gods of the people you’re trying to convert are not interesting or unique. They are merely ‘demons’ or ‘idols’. There is therefore no point in distinguishing between them. After all, if your worldview holds that only Christianity is right and everything else is wrong, it really doesn’t matter what local flavour of wrong it is. This attitude is actually characteristic of Old Testament Judaism: ‘For all the gods of the nations are idols’, reads Psalm 96.5.

So, if you see the pre-Christian world as covered with an essentially homogenous practice called ‘Paganism’ from one end to the other, it’s very easy to conflate elements from completely separate religions. It doesn’t help that there is a certain measure of overlap in some pantheistic religions, sometimes stemming from common ancestry, and sometimes born of the practice of adopting foreign deities into one’s own religion. The Romans were especially keen on the latter, identifying various Gods as local examples of their own:

A monotheistic religion can’t do that, of course. Since there’s only one God in that system, you can’t very well go about claiming other people’s Gods as examples of yours. So what we find is a tendency to adopt local deities either as saints – see Saint Bride – or as demons. For example, the Caananite Goddess Astarte becomes the demon Astaroth.

This throws open the gates for all sorts of bizarre cross-associations with no historical basis. If you hold that there is a literal demon behind every one of your neighbour’s ‘idols’, then it follows that since demons are independent of such trivial concerns as time and place, they can therefore show up all over the globe playing the same sorts of roles in different garb. Pagan deity A and pagan deity B can thus be lumped together based on nothing more than a perceived common ‘pagan’ identity plus a similarity of function.

This is a great problem when it comes to analysing the history of pre-Christian religion. Because of the Pagan Homogeneity Error, Christians tended to deal with local pre-Christian religion in terms of Paganism™ as they understood it. This is why we read in the Lanercost Chronicle of 1282:

"About this time, in Easter week, the parish priest of Inverkeithing, named John, revived the profane rites of Priapus, collecting young girls from the villages, and compelling them to dance in circles to [the honour of] Father Bacchus. When he had these females in a troop, out of sheer wantonness, he led the dance, carrying in front on a pole a representation of the human organs of reproduction, and singing and dancing himself like a mime, he viewed them all and stirred them to lust by filthy language. Those who held respectable matrimony in honour were scandalised by such a shameless performance, although they respected the parson because of the dignity of his rank. If anybody remonstrated kindly with him, he [the priest] became worse [than before], violently reviling him.”

We may raise an eyebrow at the idea of a Scottish priest worshipping ‘Father Bacchus’.

The Pagan Homogeneity Error still persists today, arguably more so than ever before. It provides a sort of deranged hyperspace by means of which any non-Christian concept can be bolted on to any other non-Christian concept in support of whatever argument the speaker is trying to make.

The most obvious sign that a writer is committing the Pagan Homogeneity Error is this: they are associating ‘pagan’ ideas because of a similarity of name or function and not because of a demonstrable historical or geographic connection.

For example, take the error of thinking that the ‘Wheel of the Year’ is historically authentic. (One might think that this was not an error that many modern Pagans are likely to make, but a depressing number of them do.)

The Wheel of the Year uses the Irish/Scots festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain and intersperses them with festivals from the Anglo-Saxon calendar, such as Litha. We can see at a glance that two entirely separate cultures have been cobbled together here; they have nothing in common but a shared ‘pagan’ identifier. But because people find it very easy to conceive of a winter ‘pagan festival’ leading on to a springtime ‘pagan festival’, they swallow the whole thing in one instead of discerning between the different cultural elements.

Similarly, a great kerfuffle is sometimes made at Easter about the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar, who is cludged together with the putative Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostre. It would be hard to find a better example of the Pagan Homogenity Error than this.

By Google Maps, Ishtar’s holy city of Uruk lies a phenomenal 3,500 miles from Jarrow, where Bede wrote down the name of the alleged Goddess Eostre. (For comparison, that’s about the same as the distance from London to New York.) To make that journey today, you would have to travel through Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Germany and Belgium before crossing the English Channel and making the final trip up to Tyne and Wear in the UK.

Many of the people wishing you ‘Happy Easter’ on that journey wouldn’t say Happy Easter, of course. They’d refer you to ‘Paskalya’ in Turkish, ‘Húsvét’ in Hungarian and Pâques in Belgium. In fact, for a long time it was only the English and the Germans who called the festival anything like ‘Easter’ at all. The vast majority of nations called it a variant on Pascha. However, nowadays we have a lot more English speakers, thanks to a wonderful country called America that’s doing rather well for itself since Bede’s time. This tends to exaggerate the perceived importance of the English name for the festival.

Oh – and Ishtar was not only 3,500 miles away from Eostre, she was about a thousand years earlier in time, too.

On top of that, the names Ishtar and Eostre belong to separate language families. Ishtar pertains to the Semitic language family, Eostre to the Indo-European. If you don’t know what language families are, for heaven’s sake go and look them up. It’s fascinating stuff, I promise you.

Also, Eostre was probably a dawn-goddess (if she existed); Ishtar was much more about love and war. Eostre’s festival was in the lunar month roughly corresponding to April; so far as I know, we have no record of when Ishtar’s festivals may have been.

So, how on earth can anyone possibly conflate the two?

Handily, the Pagan Sausage Machine is as efficient as a TARDIS when it comes to ignoring the mundane limitations of time and space. Never mind all that tedious history, archaeology, linguistics and research that stands between them: just bung it all into the sausage machine, mince it all up, and Eostre and Ishtar come out the other side as alike as two pagan peas in a pagan pod:

1. Their names sound a bit alike, especially if you neck a pint of vodka first.
2. They’re both pagan goddesses, which obviously means they’re about sex.
3. Erm.

Now you too can create a Facebook meme. Have fun!

Next Easter Rant: Eostre, Ostara and the Easter Fox
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Not sure if your posts are locked -- may I put a link to this on FB?
They aren't, and of course you may.
Wonderful post as always, but I think you mean homogeneity.
I think so too.

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Most excellent indeed ^___^

-- A, far closer to Ishtar than Eostre ;)
I came across another example of this recently, when someone one the internet insisted that the mediaeval Jewish legend of Lilith, the first wife of Adam, originated in the Sumerian goddess Ninlil, who has in common with Lilith a whole syllable (which actually comes from her husband Enlil's name). Rage ensured when I suggested that's a bit of a stretch given the three thousand year intermission and total lack of any other commonality.
I have in the past referred to things like this as "Zeitgeist thinking", given that film's execrable approach to religious history.

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It would help if you pointed out what you believe the right meaning to be, in this instance. Are you saying that this one is incorrect?

'late 14c., from Late Latin paganus "pagan," in classical Latin "villager, rustic; civilian, non-combatant" noun use of adjective meaning "of the country, of a village," from pagus "country people; province, rural district," originally "district limited by markers," thus related to pangere "to fix, fasten," from PIE root *pag- "to fix" (see pact). As an adjective from early 15c.

Religious sense is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for "civilian, incompetent soldier," which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (e.g. milites "soldier of Christ," etc.). Applied to modern pantheists and nature-worshippers from 1908.'


5 years ago

Referring people to your posts on this issue has become quite a pleasure. Thank you and well done.
I think you have the etymology right. Perhaps some misunderstanding is due to the fact that in the Latin bible pagan is used for Goyim. Pagan, heathen, gentile or goyim when used in the various bibles have a certain meaning in that context. That being "the nations" or the non jewish (or later christian) peoples.
I find something similar in poor folklore research. There was a fervent desire in Victorian times for dances like morris to go back to some hypothetical pagan past and to have remained unchanged (mostly) from some original ritual.

Even dances like the Helston furry dance were calmly stated to be thousands of years old.

Modern research has shown this to be total wishful thinking. Morris can manage 500 years at best and has no 'pagan' connections at all. (Getting condemned as 'pagan' during the Puritian period, does not actually make you pagan)

the 'sausage machine' said that any dance old enough to have an unknown origin had to be a surviving pagan ritual.

Actually, dances evolve remarkably fast and adapt to local conditions. The morris of 500 years ago cannot be accurately described, but we know enough to know that it was different in several ways from the morris of today.
Whilst I’m behind you all the way with all the Ishtar and Eostre and Easter shite. There are a couple of points in your blog that got me going.
First of all Barbarism means those who come from different lands, and a barbarian is one who is a stranger to our ways and customs. It does not mean, as it has come to mean, uncivilized, though many barbarians were also deemed uncivilized. (and with a name like Barbara, I should know) .
Secondly, although, I agree, with an awful lot of what you’re saying re, the rise of Christianity, and glib Modern Pagan reclaiming of everything Christian as their own, what I do not think you can do is state that there is an “error” in thinking the Wheel of the Year is “historically authentic”. I agree is it very hard to find *written* evidence, of the Wheel, but there is plenty of archaelogical evidence as to it having been a pre Christian concept, and there is also enough archaeological evidence available for us to assume that the the acknowledgement of the 4 solar occasions of Solstice and Equinox were marked concurrently,with what we like to call the 4 Fire festivals. I don’t think there is much written evidence of them being marked later, but most of the written evidence we have for anything is either Roman or early Christian. We believe that the Anglo Saxon celebrations of the solar festivals are very different to the Celtic celebration of the Fire festivals, and come from different sources, but where do we start and stop saying that the Wheel is no longer relevant? (On an aside, I am slightly surprised that someone who has done as much research as you have, would use the term “Litha” for Midsummer)
The Equinoxes and Solstices were and are clearly marked by our ancestors. These times of year obviously had some sort of significance, particularly for the migration of the dead as they are marked by the construction of passage tombs, and these tombs are 5,000 years old and took a significant amount of time and energy to construct. Therefore, I think we can confidently say that the the marking of the these periods of time was of importance to our neolithic “pagan ancestors”. As we do not have a more suitable word in our modern vocabulary and we don’t know what they called themselves, and I’m quite comfortable calling them pagan.
Evidence... Newgrange in the Boyne Valley is the best known of these tombs and marks sunrise over the 5 days of Winter Solstice (originally it probably was longer, but there has been a slight shifting in the earth around it. Cairn T in Lough Crew marks sunrise at the Equinoxes , Cairn L at Lough Crew marks both the Samhain and Imbolg sunrises, Cairn G in Carrowkeel in Sligo marks sunset at the Summer Solstice, Although, I recommend you have a good read of the entire website, as it is very interesting.
What is fascinating to me in all this, is this just the extant evidence we have. We know many of these passage tombs have been destroyed. We know that these times of the year were important for our ancestors, and we know that at least 6 of these 8 major points of the Wheel of the Year were marked concurrently from the 5,000 + year old evidence we have left. I think it is fair to assume, from the rock art left behind that it is likely the other 2 festivals of Bealtaine and Lughnasadh were also marked, considering how many of these passage graves have been destroyed and dismantled over the millennia.
I don't use the term Litha for Midsummer, personally. I'm pointing out that many modern Neopagans do. And let's not even get started on the amalgamation of lunar calendars with solar events.

In any case, I thought it was common knowledge that the Wheel of the Year as such was created, along with the rest of Wicca, in the first half of the 20th century. Certainly there are no known civilisations that celebrated all eight calendrical points as modern neopagans do:

“No known pre-Christian people celebrated all the eight festivals of the calendar adopted by Wicca. Around the four genuine Gaelic quarter days are now ranged the Midwinter and September feasts of the Anglo-Saxons, the Midsummer celebrations so prominent in folklore and (for symmetry) the vernal equinox, which does not seem to have been commemorated by any ancient northern Europeans.” - Ron Hutton

(Also, when you speak of our neolithic “pagan ancestors”, whose ancestors do you mean? Yours or mine? Whose cultural heritage are we discussing here?)

Moreover, there's a significant span of time between the construction Newgrange, which was built around 3200 BCE, and (for example) the first mention of Beltane, which is found in the Sanas Cormaic from the 10th century CE. I don't think we can ignore a whopping 4,000 years of intervening time quite so easily.

Barbara Lee

5 years ago


5 years ago

I think one should make a distinction between making tasty pagan syncretism sausage from icky pagan historical sausage. For example, many myths in various cultures feature a sacrificed and reborn god. Do they share a common historical root, or do they stem from innate human responses to the concept of spring or fear of death or whatever, or are they mere coincidence? Well, it doesn't really make a difference if the point is merely 'I will reflect this season on a sacrificed and reborn god which may or may not be the same as your sacrificed and reborn god.' The insistence on historical basis for religion comes from, IMO, modern culture's appealing to history as evidence for truth, which, again IMO, entirely misses the point. Saying 'Easter comes from Ishtar' is not just factually incorrect, it would be completely and ridiculously unnecessary if not for Christianity's obnoxious 'our religion is the only right one!' BS that makes for defensive modern pagans.

In a related vein, I see no reason a Scottish priest could not in fact worship Priapus and Bacchus - hell, I could go out tomorrow and worship Bacchus. I wouldn't have gotten it culturally through an unbroken heritage, which would make it seem inauthentic to many, but we are all the time inventing new customs and transforming old ones, and it's not like there are any still extant Greek-god worshipers with an unbroken cultural heritage to complain. (Then again, it is also remotely possible he *did* get it from unbroken cultural heritage: "Inverkeithing itself has very ancient origins, which some claim date back to Agricola's Roman adventure into Northern Scotland in AD83.") Whether worshiping Bacchus was what he was actually doing, of course, is another question.
Your statement about the four holidays of the Celtic calendar needs a fact tweak. You refer to one of the days as Lammas. That is a Christian-period word from Old English meaning "loaf mass." The Irish name for the day, since you used Irish for the other three, is Lúnasa (older spelling = Lughnasadh). Just so you have that straight. I enjoyed this article elsewise, especially since I had a dust-up with an acquaintance about the Ishtar matter and argued exactly what you did with no effect on their certainty there had to be a link. It's good to see more people saying what I said.
A couple of tangents . . .
Notoriously, "Satanists" are completely within the cosmology of the Christianity they are rejecting. You suggest that, in other ways, the "neo-pagans" are too. I can't disagree.

As for your passing reference to the Jews, it certainly is a jealous god, but actually much more tolerant of non-chosen people than the Christian version. Judaism is a burden for the Jews; others simply need to be decent people to meet with God's complete approval. And the last time Judaism was aggressively proselytizing, the result was Herod. lesson learned