Indo-European Paleopaganism and its Clergy

(Version 1.6)

Copyright © 1984, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

Note: This essay should be read in conjunction with Indo-European Caste Systems and Cosmologies, elsewhere on this website.

It’s important to remember that a lot of history happened in Europe before anyone got around to writing it down. Around 4000 B.C.E. (“Before the Common Era”) the tribes that spoke a language that linguists refer to as “Proto-Indo-European” began to migrate away from their original homeland, which was probably the territory around the northwest shores of the Black Sea. Some went southeast and founded the Armenian, Iranian and Indic cultures (Indian archeologists, however, insist that everyone started in India and went west). Others went south to Anatolia and Palestine, and became known as Hittites and Mitanni. Those who went southwest to the Balkans became Thracians and Greeks. Others who went west and north established the Celtic, Slavic, Germanic, and Baltic cultures.

All this migrating around took many centuries and may have involved a lot of bloodshed. Previous inhabitants of a given piece of territory had to be persuaded, sometimes at swordpoint, to let the newcomers in — and there went the neighborhood! The pre-Indo-European cultures in Europe (which were not “peaceful matriarchies” or peace-love-and-granola “matrifocal” cultures, despite what current politically correct theories may hold) were all still in the late Neolithic or “New Stone Age” cultural stage of development. This means that they had only stone axes, arrowheads, spears and knives (lots of which have been found) with which to defend themselves. The Indo-European newcomers had bronze weapons and armor with which to fight or hunt, plus bronze axes with which to clear the great forests that covered the continent, bronze-edged plows to till the soil, etc.

Current archeological theory is that much of the transmission of Indo-European languages and their once-associated genepools may have been as much through the peaceful transfer of knowledge (and exchange of spouses) between neighboring tribes as through warfare. The popular image of the Indo-European barbarians raping, looting, and pillaging their way across a continent owes at least as much to the cultural outlook of late 19th century archeologists, all of whom were from imperialist cultures, as it does to either the available archeological evidence or the surviving Indo-European myths and sagas. Most of the latter were, we must remember, composed to entertain the warriors at their feasting, and thus may have placed far more emphasis on violence and bloodshed than was actually experienced by their predecessors. As every bard (or advertising mogul) knows, sex and violence are popular themes for entertainment. Bawdy humor and erotic tales were not approved of by the Christians who wrote down the Celtic, Slavic and Germanic stories for us, but stories of blood and thunder were (for that matter, stories which showed clergy and magicians in a positive light were also unlikely to be preserved by Christian scribes).

The impact of the Indo-Europeans’ superior bronze (and later iron) technology can be judged by the fact that, by the time of the Roman Empire, nearly every language spoken in “Europe” (except Basque, Lappish and Finnish) was a member of the Western branch of the Indo-European language family. Everything west of the Urals was pretty much dominated by a loosely interlinked conglomeration of related cultures, each of which was a mixture of one or more Indo-European cultures and those of the previous holders of its territory. The largest group of cultures north of the Roman borders was that of the Celts, and the second largest that of the Germans. Some scholars consider the Germans to be so closely related culturally to the Celts as to be practically a subset, at least in archeological terms (this annoys German archeologists terribly).

At the opening of the Common Era, European Paleopaganism consisted of at least four interwoven layers: firstly, the original pre-Indo-European religions (which were of course also the results of several millenia of religious evolution and cultural blending between multiple cultures); secondly, the proto-Indo-European belief system held by the PIE speakers before they began their migrations; thirdly, the bronze age variations of the PIE beliefs as adapted to different bioregions and already existing cultural complexes, and fourthly, the full scale “high religions” of the “fully developed” and more-or-less distinct Indo-European cultures. Disentangling these various layers is going to take scholars a very long time, if indeed it will ever be actually possible.

Thanks to the work of Georges Dumezil and others, we have a clear idea of the social, political, magical and religious functions of the priestly caste in Indo-European Paleopaganism. I use the word “caste” deliberately, for the Western Indo-European cultures seem to have been built on the same fundamental social pattern as that with which we are familiar in Vedic India: clergy, warriors, high class and low class providers (farmers, craftspeople, traders, herders, etc.), plus slaves/serfs, cultural “outsiders,” and some sort of “royalty” at the center of each tribe. In fact, a close correspondance can be made between the religious, political and social functions originally performed by a Latin “flamen,” a Celtic “draoi” (druid), or a Vedic “brahmin.”

The Indo-European clergy basically included the entire intelligensia of their cultures: poets, musicians, historians, astronomers, genealogists, judges, diviners, and of course, leaders and supervisors of religious rituals. Officially, they ranked immediately below the local tribal chieftains or “kings” and above the warriors. However, since the kings were quasi-religious figures, usually inaugurated by the clergy, and often dominated by them, it may have been a toss-up as to who was in charge in any given tribe. The Gaulish clergy were exempt from taxation and military service, and were said to have spent decades in specialized training.

The IE clergy seem to have been responsible for all public religious rituals (private ones were run by the heads of each household). Public ceremonies were most often held in fenced groves of sacred trees. In Europe, these were usually of birch, yew, and oak (or ash where oaks were rare), depending upon the spirits, ancestors, or deities being addressed, as well as the specific occasion. Various members of the priestly caste would be responsible for music, recitation of prayers, sacrificing of animals (or occasionally human criminals or prisoners of war), divination from the flames of the ritual fire or the entrails of the sacrificial victim, and other minor ritual duties. Senior members of the caste (“the” druids, “the” brahmans or “the” flamens as such) would be responsible for making sure that the rites were done exactly according to tradition. Without such supervision, public rituals were generally impossible, because their re-creation of the cosmos might be erroneous, which would bring enormous danger to the tribe. Hence perhaps Caesar’s comment that all public Gaulish sacrifices required a Druid to be present.

There are definite indications that the Indo-European clergy held certain polytheological and mystical opinions in common, although only the vaguest outlines are known at this point. There was a belief in reincarnation (with time spent between lives in an Otherworld very similar to the Earthly one), in the sacredness of particular trees, in the continuing relationship between mortals, ancestors and deities, and naturally in the standard laws of magic (see Real Magic). There was an ascetic tradition of the sort that developed into the various types of yoga in India, complete with the Pagan equivalent of monasteries and convents. There was also, I believe, a European “tantric” tradition of sex and drug magic, although it’s possible that this was mostly surviving pre-IE shamanic methods or borrowings from the Central Asian and Finnish territories (which were still in the hunter-gatherer style of culture necessary to shamanism) being absorbed and transmuted.

Only the western Celtic clergy (the Druids) seem to have had any sort of organized inter-tribal communications network, via traveling bards and brehons (judges/mediators). Most of the rest of the IE clergy seem to have kept to their own local tribes. Among the Germanic peoples, the priestly class had weakened by the early centuries of the Common Era to the point where the majority of ritual work was done by the heads of households.

We don’t know whether or not any but the highest ranking clergy were full-time priests and priestesses. At the height of the Celtic cultures, training for the clergy was said to take twenty years of hard work (although this may have simply reflected growing up in druidic families), which would not have left much time or energy for developing other careers. Among the Scandinavians, there seem to have been priests and priestesses (godar, gydjur) who lived in small temples and occasionally toured the countryside with statues of their patron/matron deities, to whom they were considered to be “married” (as happens with clergy in some African American Mesopaganisms such as Voudoun). In the rest of the Germanic, Slavic and Baltic cultures, however, many of the clergy may have worked part-time, a common custom in many tribal societies.

It’s also common for tribal cultures to have full- or part-time healers, who may use herbs, hypnosis, psychology, massage, magic and other techniques. Frequently they will also have diviners and weather predictors (or controllers). Midwives, almost always female, are also standard and, as mentioned above, there is usually a priestess or priest working at least part-time. What causes confusion, especially when dealing with extinct cultures, is that different tribes combine these offices into different people. An important point for Wiccans to be aware of, however, is that all the IE cultures had specific words for “priest,” “priestess,” “healer,” “midwife,” “diviner,” “matchmaker,” “advisor,” “wise one,” etc. — none of which appear to have been linguistically related, except in the most metaphorical sense, to the various words which became “wicce/wicca” in Anglo-Saxon, and eventually “witch” in Modern English. Despite the modern Wiccan belief that “wicca” meant “wise one,” it looks like it really meant “bender, changer, sorcerer or possibly invoker” with a neutral-to-negative connotation even among the Paleopagans. Whatever else they may have been, for good or ill, Paleopagan witches were not the “priests and priestesses of The Old Religion.”

The Romans discovered when conquering Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal) that the Druids were a major source of trouble, since their wandering members kept warning tribes who hadn’t been subjugated yet of what to expect. Julius Caesar knew this history well and made it a point in his conquest of Gaul to kill every Druid his troops could get their hands on (except for a few “native guides”). When the Roman Empire changed hands and continued under new management, the Church perpetuated this policy of killing every Druid (or other Paleopagan clergyperson in other cultures) who would not convert. Thus, by the time of the seventh century C.E., Paleopagan clergy had been either murdered, converted or driven completely underground throughout the Western Celtic lands. In parts of Wales and Ireland, and possibly in the Scottish Highlands, fragments of Druidism seem to have survived in heavy disguise through the institutions of the Celtic Church, of the bards and poets, and of the brehons, as well as in peasant folk customs (especially the seasonal celebrations). Some of these survivals of Druidic belief and practice, along with a great deal of speculation and a few outright forgeries, inspired the creation of the “Mesopagan Druid fraternities of the 1700’s. These groups have handed on these fragments (and speculations and forgeries) to this very day, augmenting them with a great deal of folkloric and other research.

These would seem to most Americans to be the only sources of information about Paleopagan Druidism. However, research done by Russian and Eastern European folklorists, anthropologists and musicologists among the Baltic peoples of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia indicates that Paleopagan traditions may have survived in small villages, hidden in the woods and swamps, even into the current century! Some of these villages still had people dressing up in long white robes and going out to sacred groves to do ceremonies, as recently as World War Two! Soviet social scientists interviewed the local clergy, recorded the ceremonies and songs, and otherwise made a thorough study of their “quaint traditions” preparatory to turning them all into good Marxists. Ironically enough, some of the oldest “fossils” of preserved Indo-European traditions (along with bits of vocabulary from Proto-German and other early IE tongues) seem to have been kept by Finno-Ugric peoples such as the Cheremis. Most of this research has been published in a variety of Soviet academic books and journals, and has never been translated into English. This material, when combined with the Vedic and Celtic sources, could give us most of the missing links necessary to reconstruct Paleopagan Druidism.

But there are some definite “nonfacts” about the ancient Druids that need to be mentioned: There are no real indications that they used stone altars (at Stonehenge or anywhere else); that they were better philosophers than the classical Greeks or Egyptians; that they had anything to do with the mythical continents of Atlantis or Mu; or that they wore gold Masonic regalia or used Rosicrucian passwords. They were not the architects of (a) Stonehenge, (b) the megalithic circles and lines of Northwestern Europe, (c) the Pyramids of Egypt, (d) the Pyramids of the Americas, (e) the statues of Easter Island, or (f) anything other than wooden barns, stone houses, and an occasional hill fort. There is no proof that any of them were monotheists, or “Pre-Christian Christians,” or that they understood or invented either Pythagorean or Gnostic or Cabalistic mysticism, although much of Pythagorean mysticism may have come from the same common IE roots as Druidic mysticism. They did not all have long white beards, which would have been difficult for the 50% of them who were women or the children in the caste. Golden sickles are also highly unlikely to have been used by the ancient Druids, despite what Pliny says, because their cutting edges would have been too soft for harvesting mistletoe, which is an exceptionally tough plant (although sickles make an excellent symbol for a Nature-based religion that stresses the importance of both sacrifice and harvesting the results of seeds planted).

Separating the sense from the nonsense, and the probabilities from the absurdities, about the Paleopagan clergy of Europe, including those who inspire modern Druids, is going to take a great deal of work. But the results should be worth it, since we will wind up with a much clearer image of the real “Old Religions” of Europe than Neopagans have ever had available before. This will have liturgical, philosophical and political consequences that will affect our future, and that of our planet, for many years to come.

Copyright © 1984, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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