Europe is often thought of as the hub of western Christendom, with so much of our continent overwhelmingly belonging to one or another denomination of the Christian Church. However, in relative terms, this only represents a brief part of our history as a people, which spans upwards of 30,000 years.
Carolyn Emerick is an author who studies and writes about European folklore, with particular attention to Northern European paganism and tradition. The following is an article from her website carolynemerick.com, in which the myth of an organically Christian continent is laid bare.
Over several years of studying indigenous European belief (paganism, mythology), and then studying the folk tradition (folklore, folk customs, holiday traditions, witch trial records), I began to realise that the idea that paganism died out after conversion to Christianity was simply preposterous. Native European spirituality remained an incredibly powerful force in the consciousness of the European people well into the modern era.
The topic of what scholars call “popular religion” comes up a great deal in my work. I discussed it in more detail in this other blog article, but it bears some overview again for our purposes here.
Popular religion is a phenomenon that occurs when a religio-cultural change has occurred from the top down in a society. Most commonly in the case of “popular religion,” this change is due to a forced religious conversion. Our Western worldview tends to imagine that this is a strictly Christian occurrence. However, the very same things have occurred in places where Islam and even Buddhism spread and usurped the native religious practice.
What happens is that the authorities dictate that a new religion has been proclaimed, and typically the political rulers at the top as well as the religious leaders are responsible for enforcing the new code of spirituality.
Because these are also the same people who are usually responsible for writing, or at least sponsoring the writing, of the histories that become preserved for posterity, the view of historians has often been coloured most strongly by a very elitist presentation.
And that presentation tends to neatly present the story in the way that the political and religious leaders would like it to be seen, even when that differs from the reality of life on the ground.
What this means is that the lives and beliefs of the peasantry, who made up the vast proportion of population, have been largely left unknown, or misunderstood, in many instances.
Of course, advancements in archaeology, anthropology, and related disciplines have made great progress in the past 100 years in how we understand the lives of the common folk. But, one very important discipline that can shed light on the beliefs of the regular folk tends to be overlooked; folklore.
Through studying the folk tradition, the stories told by the people, superstitions believed by the people, holiday traditions, seasonal customs, folk songs, etc, we begin to peer behind the curtain to see what the people actually believed and practiced in their daily lives.
And, when we do that, the image that emerges is very much one of a hybrid religious practice. In other words, the people were nominally Christian.
They identified as Christians, to be sure. If you had asked a European peasant at any time from the Middle Ages well into the Modern Era if they were a pagan, they would likely give you a very horrified “absolutely not!”
However, the same person would likely be engaged in several practices and beliefs that were overtly pagan in nature, whether the individual understood that or not.
In other words, the Christianity endorsed by the pulpit was very different than the kind of spiritual beliefs actually lived out by the people. So, while it might be true that the people identified as Christians and claimed to reject paganism, they were very much steeped in pagan beliefs and practices.
Sometimes those beliefs and practices were Christianized, and sometimes their pagan origins remained blatantly obvious. Other times, these pagan elements became encoded, literally went undercover, so that they could live on in the folk tradition without facing persecution by the authorities.
This may sound like an awkward comparison to most people. The Bible has an image of a powerful and enduring canon, a monolith that has transcended the ages.
However, if you’ve studied the history of early Christianity, as I have, you would understand very well that the Gospels, quite literally, began as folklore.
The Gospels were not written down until several decades after the event and Biblical scholars are quite sure that they originated as accounts and stories that were passed around orally and then later collected and recorded.
And, of course we know that there were other texts that could have, and often once were, held to be sacred scriptures by the Judeo-Christian faithful but were left out of the Bible and its religious interpretation as we know it today.
Therefore, a loose collection of tales passed around orally in a community of people who all share a common spiritual worldview is an appropriate description of both the European folklore tradition as well as the Christian New Testament.
The Old Testament is a little different in its formation. This is a bit more complicated, but a quick summation is that it is a collection of both mythology and mytho-history.
So, a very apt analogy might be that the ancient myths of the Norse that were recorded in medieval Iceland, as well as other ancient mythic legends such as Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, the Kalevala, and the ancient Greco-Roman mythic texts, serve as a sort of European religious “Old Testament,” while the folklore and fairy tales that were transmitted orally among the peasantry into much more recent times are the “New Testament” of the indigenous European spiritual tradition.
The Spirituality Encoded within Myth, Folklore, & Fairy Tales
So, while we’ve established that the European mythic and folklore tradition was developed not too differently from the Biblical tradition, many people might still be shaking their heads at the notion that there is any comparison between the two on a spiritual level. Several years ago, before studying this deeply myself, I might have agreed with that assessment.
However, it has become quite clear that this perception has more to do with how the two traditions have been presented and portrayed than their inherent spiritual endowments.
There is a tendency to view the myths of the Old Testament as literal history among the Christian communities which make up the dominant religious group in Western society.
Biblical analysis is an entirely separate discipline in and of itself, and entire academic departments in world-class universities are devoted to it, so it doesn’t make sense to get into that here as we don’t have the space to do it justice.
Sufficed to say that my view, one which is informed by years worth of reading research published by leading Biblical scholars, is that both the Old and New Testaments are amalgams of history and myth. One might give the exact same description to the Old Norse Sagas.
The spirituality embedded within the European mythic-folk tradition is somewhat muted because in order to survive in a society where a new foreign religion was being superimposed onto the populous, the indigenous belief had to sort of go “under cover.”
Thank goodness that individuals like Irish monks and Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson recognized the value in their people’s ancient myths and wrote them down for posterity. If they had not, even more of Europe’s “Old Testament” would have been lost forever.
Circling back the spiritual elements within these traditions, there has been a tendency to present our folk tradition as simplistically quaint stories for children. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our ancient myths held creation stories, lessons about living in harmony with the world, about how to handle dangers, about the forces of good and evil, and so on, just as the better known great religions of the world do today.
They also depicted heroes to inspire us, role models to demonstrate good behavior and morality, and psychological-emotional motivation to overcome hardship – exactly the attributes and values that people search for and find in organized religions.
When the great myths of the ancient past had ceased to be told, the age old fairy tale tradition continued.
And, very often, elements from our ancient myths found their way into the fairy tale genre so that their lessons could continue to remain relevant to our culture throughout the generations.
We simply have failed to see it because we haven’t been looking, and didn’t know what to look for.
The Lost Spirituality in our Myth and Folklore
As mentioned above, spiritual lessons are embedded in our myths just as much as there are lessons, guidelines, inspiration, and so forth, to be found in any world religion.
When these tales are presented as just “children’s stories,” then their inherent value is greatly diminished. In fact, it is incredibly disrespectful and, frankly, offensive to elevate the ancient myths of one culture to “religion” while relegating the myths of our own indigenous culture as “just stories.”
When we dive in and dig deeper, we find there are complex layers of meaning within these tales, layers that speak to us on deep subconscious levels.
We discover native beliefs about life and death, about the cosmology of the world we live in, motivation to be strong in the face of danger, and a tangible understanding of the spiritual forces in the universe.
READ NEXT: “Germany 1918-19: The Judeo-Bolshevik Revolution”