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A Pagan Perspective on Violence

Robin Herne's picture

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The ancient polytheist world, just like the contemporary secular one, was awash with violence. The only major differences between the distant past and now were the scale of violence, which has greatly increased with technological innovations, and the motivation. Within the last two thousand years ideologically-driven violence has become commonplace, to the degree that many people have turned away from all religions in the naïve belief that religion somehow causes warfare and oppression. Atheists, it should be remembered, are as willing to slaughter in the name of political zealotry as deists are in the name of whichever deity they follow. Whether politics, religion, or any other kind of ideology, the true danger is the unyielding self-righteousness that cannot tolerate any kind of dissention or different outlook.

When the ancient polytheist nations went to war it was usually in the more prosaic name of greed ~ lust for wealth, land, status, slaves etc. Rome tried to stamp out certain religious groups (such as Druids and Christians), but this was more to do with perceived sedition than a wish to enforce a particular set of religious beliefs.

Whatever the motivation, violence can be horrifying to experience, witness, or inflict. I say can be, because clearly there are countless people in the world who enjoy a good punch-up ~ be that in the boxing ring, on the battlefield, or down the pub of a Friday night. Modern liberalism is inclined to over-analyse such people, looking to childhood abuse, or any of a myriad of other causes to explain their adult predilection to aggression. A far simpler truth is that we humans have evolved to be predators, and that these behaviours are intrinsic. One cannot hunt and kill food, or defend oneself or others from attack, without the capacity to enjoy the adrenalin surge brought on by a readiness to hurt and risk hurt in return. Human nature is violent, as our history reflects.

Had the Friday-night bar brawlers a more constructive outlet for their violence, possibly they might be less inclined to attack strangers over spilt beer. Or perhaps that is just wishful thinking.

Many religions seek to transcend human nature, regarding certain elements (commonly aggressive and sexual impulses) as “animalistic”. Whilst different forms of paganism have differing stances, perhaps a commonality is the inclination to accept human nature for what it is and learn to live with it, rather than subdue it.

A number of tribal cultures allowed young men (and sometimes young women) to join what anthropologists call männerbund. These warrior bands often live outside of society, and were often called upon to protect the tribe in times of war. From Ireland we have the well-known example of the Fianna warriors, who spent the summer months running wild in the woods and directing their aggression towards the service of wider society.

In modern Britain the prevalence of gang culture suggests an informal expression of this same urge and the immense popularity of contact sports (whether playing or watching) suggests a more pro-social way of embracing our aggressive natures.

Stereotypically, the British are perceived as a buttoned-down nation that has problems articulating emotions. Whether our problems with aggression are more pronounced than other countries is moot, but many people certainly seem to have difficulty expressing anger in a healthy way ~ if the statistics on domestic and drunken street violence are anything to go by. Not only do we have problems expressing, but also problems in listening to the anger of others. The authorities often direct the disgruntled into generating petitions and going on regulated protest marches. Given that the same authorities seldom seem to pay the slightest attention to petitions or protests, is it any wonder that so many either give up trying and tip into a state of sullen accidie, or eschew “civilised” disagreement for violence? I am not suggesting that every angry person must be pandered to, but highlighting that if anger if regularly ignored or internalised it festers and becomes dangerous.

A feature of Greek polytheism that often bemuses non-believers is the tendency to have a deity or spirit of practically everything conceivable, including many things that other religions might consider profane ~ Ares is the god of the battlefield, Lyssa the goddess of rage, Eris rules discord and conflict, Phobos is fear, and so forth. A common theme of Greek myth is the importance of acknowledging all the Gods and daimones (spirits), and the concurrent risks of ignoring them. Physical violence and the rage that fuels it need to be integrated into life, rather than sidelined as distasteful or demonised as unacceptably dangerous.