The Roots of the Pagan Tree


Over the last half-millennium the great European empires spread out to the New World, the Antipodes and the old kingdoms of South and South-East Asia.

Hernán Cortés led the Spanish into what is now modern-day Central America and sacked the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan where Mexico City now stands, and Francisco Pizarro conquered the ancient Incan civilisation to the South. Later, starting out essentially as privateers preying on Spanish and Portuguese shipping, the English became adept at ship design and Francis Drake circumnavigated the earth, returning with a King’s ransom-worth of Iberian gold. Gradually realising their potential they extended south into Africa along with the Dutch, also masters of seamanship, who plied their trade in ship building and commerce and banking in conquered territories across Asia. While all this expansion and conquest had obvious economic and territorial goals, the warrant was always the same: the extension of Christendom.

As the last empire (in the traditional sense) to fall, Britain is often the first port of call when criticising the crimes of imperialism and the folly of manifest destiny. It is worth remembering, however, that Britain, like the countries it eventually conquered and converted, was once a loose association of clan-based cultures practising spiritual traditions not unlike those that monotheism later conquered in Africa. Some of these we are knowledgeable about, but most are utterly remote to us. The seemingly ceremonial sites of the ancient Celts are fascinatingly mysterious. To go even further back the ruins of the settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands dates back to as early as 3,000 BC and almost nothing is known of its inhabitants.

The knowledge we do have of ancient cultures is often by virtue of the fact that we retain traces of them in modern religion and culture. It is from the Norse and Druidic spiritual cultures that Christmas trees and Easter eggs originate, which makes perfect sense when you consider the significance of trees and eggs to pagan beliefs about the cycles of life and seasons, and their relative irrelevance to Christian tradition (burning bushes notwithstanding). It is a pleasingly ironic historical side-note that Oliver Cromwell and his compatriots sought to ban Christmas on the basis of its associations with Roman Catholicism (as well as a dislike of its excess) without ever referring to its origin as a Norse solstice festival.

Cultural influence is not such a one-way street as we may think.

Indeed, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Britain was then re-conquered by Pagan cultures once more, in the form of the Germanic Saxons, leading to further melding of religious cultures. It is after the Saxon deities of Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frig that we still name four of the five days of our week. This juxtaposition is particularly striking when you consider contemporary Christian holidays that still bear these names (Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday).

The majority of Africa now subscribes to Abrahamic traditions (generally as a result of imperial export from either Europe or the Middle-East) and both Christianity and Islam have been particularly successful. This has had mixed results, while undoubtedly responsible for horrible crimes and the destruction of traditional cultures, it can be argued that these belief systems had a unifying effect as well in many cases. Some of the more unpleasant and superstitious elements of African traditions are perhaps best dispensed with – belief in the power of muti has some severely unpleasant results in its extreme form. But these elements are often exacerbated when incorporated into monotheism: such as the belief in witchcraft or the sinister pseudo-mystical nonsense promulgated by groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army. For the most part, however, the ancient African animist and ancestor-worship traditions have been marginalised, in some cases, to the point of extinction.

This is not an across-the-board story though and much of the amalgamation of European and African spiritual traditions have been more benign, even adding to the cultural vibrancy of the continent and it does make for interesting reading to see how Abrahamic traditions are adapted to different cultures. The Apostolic Church, for example, incorporates elements of ancestor worship and tribal ritual into a kind of evangelical Christianity. A particularly rich and vivid description of an Apostolic church ceremony can be found in Peter Godwin’s book, Mukiwa, wherein he is taken by one of his family’s domestic workers to her church, where he takes part in a trance-like session of ritualistic dance. Similarly, the tribal practice of Islam in rural Somalia and elsewhere, while still rigid and unflinching in its way, has incorporated aspects of animism and tribal lineage.

What is worth remembering is that, like Britain’s retention of its pagan roots, cultural influence is not such a one-way street as we may think. When slaves were brought en-masse to America they brought with them (insofar as they were able, given the terrible deprivation of their circumstances) the music of their homelands, which gave rise to  the invention of the banjo and the evolution of gospel, blues and country music. It is a worthwhile piece of historical happenstance to contemplate that, having been torn from their lands of their birth and forced to adopt a foreign belief system, African culture became a pivotal element in the music and traditions of the culture and religion that conquered it.

Robin has a background in the UK, South Africa, and the Middle-East. A keen follower of international current affairs, he holds a Masters degree in Global and Comparative Politics. He is a contributing editor to On Netflix Now. Follow him on Twitter @Robin_GJ