Interview by Janae Jean and Spencer Schluter –
This month Spencer and I spoke with Max Dashu, noted historian, artist, speaker and author. She founded the Suppressed Histories Archives in 1970 to research and document women’s history from around the globe. We discussed her life’s work, the history of Halloween, and her book, Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion 700-1100. — J.J.
JJ: Welcome Max to the Conscious Community Podcast.
Hello. Thank you.
JJ: Did any particular person or event inspire you to study women’s history?
Well not any person for sure. An event, when I was in college there was no Women’s Studies. That was literally a joke, the idea of women’s history. This was 1969, and I really wanted to know where the women were, and whether there were any free women on the planet because the way it looked from where I sat it didn’t look good. So that was my starting point was to research that.
I had an anthropology professor, so you could say a person, I don’t even remember his name; he was talking about matrilineal societies only in order to basically say that it didn’t matter if societies were matrilineal or not because all societies have always been male dominated. All human societies that didn’t sound right to me that he knows much as him so I was kinda like, “Hmm…what is this,” but I really perked up when he said matrilineal societies because this was something I had never heard of. Immediately from the phrase, I could see what it meant and so what difference would that make if you were tracing descent in the female line. That was a starting point that I had, of looking for matri-cultures. In order to do that I had to cast a much broader net because there are of course all these other kinds of societies. That got me started and it kind of ballooned from there.
SS: In your initial research, what drew you to European Pagan culture?
I did research all over the world, and that’s what I’m still doing. I am really looking on a global scale at women’s heritages, history the status of all those things, but I am of European descent. I was really interested in understanding what it was that happened in Europe to bring us to the pass that we’re at now.
SS: I didn’t really feel that on an aboriginal level that my ancestors were Christians.
SS: I wanted to understand what my actual ancestors believed and that’s what got me into it.
This’s for me as well. I really knew that there was something more than Christianity and yet we were given nothing but Christianity. I mean anything we are given this European history, unless it was Greco-Roman, was Christian. I found that to be a very sterile set of archetypes, very limiting for women certainly with the all-male priesthood and the all-male godhead. I was always interested in Pagan mythology, even as a child, and course at that time it was only given to us in the Greco-Roman form. Then as I became aware of what more was out there that was something that I really wanted to document. It’s part of a larger story to for the world at large because of the fact that Europe conquered all the rest of the world, essentially. The dominant ideology in Europe, in turn, imposed itself on other places as it had imposed itself in Europe in the early middle ages.
SS: The quote from one of my favorite authors is that “the Roman Empire never ended.” They kind of set up the prototype, and it’s just been duplicated over and over.
That’s true in so many ways because the church ran by Roman law. The church had a tremendous influence even on just the feudal rulers in the early Middle Ages. A lot of the words that we know like dioceses, a lot of the terminology, that is now church terminology originated from the Roman imperial administration.
SS: My background is actually in public policy, education wise. They taught us at the beginning of our program that the public sector, in general, is completely modeled on the Roman legion. The Roman legions would go out and conquer and then when they were in garrison, and they didn’t have any Gauls to kill, they would build roads. So entire the backbone of the civil service was what the Roman legions did when they weren’t in combat.
Right, and the road building also had military purposes as well.
SS: So we’re really still operating on that paramilitary model when it comes to the public sector. It’s still basically an army.
That’s true on multiple levels too because another arena is law. Roman law has massively influenced the way all of the European law codes. We look at the witches; Roman law was pretty tough. Both the Greeks and the Romans had judicial torture. That’s something it was very hard to discover a lot of detail about except that it’s in the sources. This is something that is important when we study the history of witch persecution and the use of torture trials than that comes in because that is the model there.
JJ: Was any persecution of women done in Roman society as witches?
Yes, but again some things are hard to document. What we find more is stray mentions, some old women being chased down the street, things like that. There were persecutions of foreign religions that’s the thing that’s the best documented. There were a lot of witch-hunt tropes already active in Roman society because we have to remember is that the Greeks and Romans were Pagan, but they were also patriarchal. There’s this complexity there because certainly, the move to Christianity had a lot of negative aspects in terms of the totalitarian aspects but when you look at the Roman Empire was pretty totalitarian in its own right.
SS: So it was a society that was accustomed to unilateral mandates?
The way that Christianity developed as an extension, as it became an institutional and imperial religion, it became an extension of Roman patriarchy. The patriarchal aspect of this authoritarianism is not to be lost because we have our patricians running Rome and all of all of that stuff is already in place. The way that Christianity developed to the extent he had this religious ideology of one true way only that became a platform for an extension of rulership and authority over all aspects of people live people’s lives. Not only that you could be enslaved by military forces, but there were all these other ways that they began policing people, around sexuality, around religion certainly. There is a beautiful appeal that Symmachus made to the Senate in the early 400s when the Senate was in the process of Christianizing everything, and outlawing everything and closing the temples. He pled that truth cannot be reached by one way alone and he was pleading for tolerance of the Pagan traditions. The authoritarianism that had developed in Rome by that time was something, with the emperors and this military state behind them, had become so intense that this just extended itself. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Christianity practiced by first the earliest followers of the Yeshua of Nazareth and second various other Christian sects that were really ethnic Christianities scattered around ancient Arabia, Bulgaria. You’ve got the Collyridians who they’re not holding mass they’re having ceremonies with bread offerings to Mary. There were a lot of tendencies within Christianity. What happened is that the religion as it got defined by the Roman state, you have these elite Roman citizen men saying these are the books that are the Canon and only these can be considered valid Christian texts. By one stroke they wiped out the entire Gnostic literature. As it happened some of that survived in jars and by other means. The authoritarian aspect of this is really important. That’s like the formative phases, you could call it the pre-history of the Christian right. There’s a lot of these developments, there’s this template. Then Rome falls and this template gets carried forward into feudal Europe with Rome as the model. So here you’ve got a bunch of Franks and then Germans founding Holy Roman Empire. They were looking back fondly at this lost imperial glory, and they wanted some of it.
SS: That’s one thing people miss, is that the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazi Germany was supposed to be a reincarnation of the Roman Empire.
The Third Reich, the first Reich was the Empire of Otto the Great, so-called…I don’t like to call any of these guys greats. You have these genocidal wars that are being fought, first by Charlemagne and later by Otto and his successors, against the Saxons, and then against the Wends, and the Czechs and various other peoples who in the 800s and 900s were still Pagan. So you have these imperial wars, and this is an aspect of Christianization in Europe that most people don’t even realize, that there were crusades against the Pagans. Starting with especially the Franks, the Saxons and then the Wends. These are Slavic people that lived in what is mostly now East Germany and parts of Poland.
SS: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dan Carlin, the podcaster that does Hardcore History. His most recent episode is about the Celtic genocide, and the numbers he cites is that when the Romans came through Gaul they annihilated a third of the population, and then enslaved another third time. At that time it would have been something like four million people. This was before industrialization, before machine guns and gas chambers and everything the Nazis came up with, they managed to wipe out four million people.
I would be very interested in seeing his documentation for that. There is no question that the Roman conquest of Gaul was brutal. Just like everywhere else, part of the Roman model of war, because Rome was a slave state we can’t forget that part, the war captives were enslaved. There was a special official that went around and held auctions of the captives to slave dealers. This is why you had not only Gauls but Syrians, lots of Syrians, taken captive. In fact in Sicily, basically, the majority of people there were enslaved Syrians, and also from other places, North Africans and so forth. What’s interesting about that story is that there was there were shamanic goddess movements that led the slave insurrections in Sicily; there were two of them. I don’t have the names at the tip of my tongue but I’m to be talking about that in volume five of my series Secret History of the Witches.
JJ: Are there similarities between European folk religions and Hinduism? Do you feel that they’re both from an Indo-European origin?Max: In many cases, yes. I mean you can see that most clearly with the Baltic traditions, the Lithuanians and the Latvians, whose languages are also very much closer to Sanskrit than say Celtic or Germanic. There are some themes, some through lines through there.
In many cases, yes. I mean you can see that most clearly with the Baltic traditions, the Lithuanians and the Latvians, whose languages are also very much closer to Sanskrit than say Celtic or Germanic. There are some themes, some through lines through there.
SS: I’ve always heard that ancient Norse and Sanskrit have a common root language.
They do, these are all Indo-European languages. The Indo-European family, and that’s where the name is taken from India and Europe. We have everything in that family from Irish, Latin, Greek, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Norse, Armenian, to Iranian and Taharian, which is in central Asia, and Sanskrit. Sanskrit, of course, is a literary language but you have all the other languages. There are some amazing parallels. It’s really interesting because at the two extremes of that expanse of land across Eurasia you have the Irish and the Sanskrit literature, the Vedic literature. There are certain parallels there that are quite striking. There’s been some scholarship about this in terms of topics like the indestructibility of spirit. There is like a three-line quote for each of them has that are very close. There are these very deep substrates, and I think that if the Gauls had not been so thoroughly Romanized we would have a lot more information about that from that side. The Druidic traditions we know about mainly from Britain and Ireland. Very little survives from Gaul, there’s very little written in Gaulish, even to the point they don’t really know the language very well. They had a calendar called the Coligny calendar, found in France. It shows this very elaborate year system and you can see there some parallels, for example, the word “Samhain.” There’s a Samonios in the Coligny calendar so you can see that some of the same holidays were used by the Gauls as were used by the Irish and Scots.
JJ: Do you feel that the various “Day of the Dead” type festivals around the world stems from one original festival?
I think they arose independently, I mean there are cases like the ones I’ve just been describing where there are clearly historical lines of transmission or diffusion, but an in a lot of cases I think it has much to more to do with human experience and things arising independently in vastly different places. Especially given the fact that some people are living equatorial tropics, and some people are living in the far north which has a whole lot to do not just with weather and economy, whether you’re farming or not and hunting gathering, but also with calendrical things. If you’re around the equator, then the solstice and equinox are not a big deal because there’s not a lot of pitch to the notice; the length of the day and night is not so different dramatically different.
JJ: Can you walk us through some American Halloween traditions? What are some of their historical origins?
Okay, so I grew up in West Chicago, Illinois.
SS: We’re in St. Charles!
Are you really? Well, then we’re very close! Then you know that in the Midwest, Halloween is a serious holiday. It’s lost the religious dimension, and it’s got a lot of media ties, the addition of really ghoulish things. It’s kind of changed in some ways but the pumpkins were based on the fact that people used to carve lanterns out of turnips in Ireland. They didn’t have pumpkins; squash is a North American plant family. They had those lanterns, and it was this idea of a festival of lights because we’re going to the dark of the year. That part, the idea of having a jack-o’-lanterns burning, that’s definitely there.
The trick-or-treating does have European origins; I think it’s shifted a lot. It’s for one thing being much more commercialized. There were a lot of divinatory customs in places like Scotland on Samhain, this whole idea of this holiday of All-Hallows’ Eve being the time when the veils between the worlds became thin. Spirits are in movement; you can have an interchange with the spirit world. So that idea carried over one-way or the other, the idea there is spooks abroad. The association of witches has become more problematic because usually they’re very demonized versions of witches and based mostly on witch-hunt period symbolism. The kinds of hats that you see the witches wearing are like from the 1600-1700s in English society; flying on broomsticks, and even older than that, flying on the backs of animals is something that I document a lot in my book Witches and Pagans, talking about spirit flight in European traditions going back as far as we can reach. Basically, to some of the oldest earliest recorded oral traditions the idea of spirit flight gives us this shamanic take on Halloween there’s a possibility to travel the worlds. Not only spirits come to visit you and that the ancestral dead could have a visitation at the home, which is another theme that’s older, but also that you can visit the spirit world and go on these journeys. This is why we have the idea of the witches flying across the skies.
We’re living in North American settler society and so there was an attenuation and a thinning of some of the ancestral traditions because were not were not doing culture full bore anymore, it is very much a melting pot in a lot of ways. If you go on the ground in Ireland there are specific places that have folklore connected with Samhain. There are things that were written down a thousand years ago that talked about particular megalithic sites that were said to become gateways or portals to the other world. Samhain was one of the prime times for people to visit them.
There is an Irish saga called Echtra Nerai, the journey of Nera, and Nera goes into the fairy mound in the dead of winter, that time of year when things are really growing in Ireland and brings out fruits that would only be summer fruits. There’s this idea that by entering into this old megalithic chamber, funerary chamber but also the home of the ancestral beings, he’s going outside of time and space and is able therefore to transcend those divisions and bring back fruits. This is a very common theme in the fairy traditions of Europe generally. A traveler who winds up getting caught up in the fairy dance in the fairy ring around a megalithic circle and is having the time of their life dancing away. The night ends finally after much carousing and feasting and all of this in the most enchanting music that anyone ever heard and they come back and several hundred years have passed and nobody recognized the traveler. They don’t see anybody that they know either and someone says, “Oh yes, you know my grandfather used to say that there was a person by that name who disappeared many years ago.” There are all these fantasies of people visiting the other world.
SS: One thing that I’ve often wondered about is that you look at Central America, Mexico and the Day of the Dead and how tribal practices were folded into the church. I was watching a lecture of your that how the locals didn’t want to give up their traditions, and the Catholic church begrudgingly rebranded them as Catholic traditions. It’s very clear the same was done to European Pagan traditions. It was much more recent that they did it in Central America, and you definitely have the traditional tribal religion being kept alive underground and it’s kind of reemerged. I know people who are from Mexico who claim they have never stopped practicing their traditions in secret and disguised. Now that they’re less persecuted they can bring it back into the open. Do you think that all this time in both former Roman places and other parts of Europe that there were any surviving Pagan practices in secret? I’ve often wondered maybe within even the church if there were surviving enclaves of Roman Paganism or Celtic Paganism that hid underground. Look at the witch-hunts in Salem, my imagination goes to well…there could have been a lineage of witches that made it over to the new word. Do you think those witches in Salem could have been real witches, or was that just a Christian hysteria witch-hunt?
It was a Christian hysteria it was also in large measure also misogynist hysteria. These dynamics of persecution had gotten it certainly formed by the persecution of Pagan religion. In the early Middle Ages, and even some pockets in the later Middle Ages, you still do have the survival of Pagan ways. A lot of times people want to think about it as an intact religion that was an entire system completely distinct from Christianity, and I think that given the political situation of the peasantry at those times that would be a hard ask to actually see that happen. What you do see is aspects of Paganism surviving. There are folk practices, maybe the same people are going to mass, but they also believe Frau Holle if they’re in northern Germany or Frau Perchta in Austria. In different regions have their witch goddesses. Especially around the winter nights, there were ceremonial practices in the dark of the year that they held. Some of them still survive today, the Perchtenlaufen, the races of the Perchtas are still celebrated in Austria. To a large extent they’ve been emptied out of a lot of the spiritual significance, some of it is still there certainly. It’s all had to deal with the fact that Christianity was the dominant religion. It could not be allowed to exist as a competing religion per se, it could be something that people did and maybe didn’t talk about. So this is where you hear a lot about the fam trads, family traditions, in the Neo-Pagan movement. That there were specific practices, beliefs spells, customs that people followed even though you could not really say that there was an entire culture that was practicing a religion completely distinct from Christianity, but a lot of this survives.
SS: Some of this Irish and Scottish clan heritage type gave me that impression. We went to the Bristol Renaissance Faire last week, and I was looking at through that lens because we were coming up on this interview. I was like, “Why would all these heraldric coats of arms have all these Celtic knots and dragons, that’s all pre-Christian stuff. The style of that artwork is all pre-Christian.
Right, but I gotta say that that the Ren Faire is very much populated by a lot of Pagans; so that they’re also selecting for Pagan content in their heraldry. As opposed to the lions and the Hawks and the various patterns that were more general in Christian heraldry. Which still nevertheless has elements in it that are much older than Christianity.
JJ: Church art and architecture in Europe often depicts Pagan themes. Do you believe they did this on purpose in order to sneak in the old tales? Were they meant to be cautionary tales, “Oh don’t go this way”?
Both actually, it happens in different ways. Certainly, there were there were very explicit instructions from the Pope himself. Gregory the Great is writing to the English missionaries and saying, “Well destroy the idols, but don’t destroy the temple; make it into a chapel.” There was like this very deliberate attempt to supplant the old ways with Christian models. This happened in a lot of sacred sites. So that they were taking over the area near the spring that had been, for who knows how many generations or centuries or even millennia, there had been a sacred spot among the people of that place; but now it’s being renamed after the Blessed Virgin or some bishop. Put a Christian label on it.
A lot of times there was there was alchemy that happens here because it wasn’t only that the clergy was superimposing a Christian template, which they were, but also people would mythologize the Saint that they picked out. Like somebody would say, “Okay, rename this after saint so-and-so…St. Catherine or whoever…but then the people would wind up working through centuries and through stories and so forth they would start working their own legends about the bear woman or the woman with the geese or whatever it was. Eventually, you have no St. Ursula or whoever it is no combining some of those archaic symbols in her own her own stories, in her own statues of her and so forth. It was altered by a Romanizing and a Christianizing lens, but there was also a way where an illiterate person walking into the church could still see the woman with the bear or whatever animal was or whatever other kind of a mythical context there was.
There are a lot of stories about female saints who had caused springs to spurt forth out of the earth and some of the stories they’re taking their distaff or their spindle and striking the earth. In some of the stories, they’re taking their distaff or their spindle. The distaff is a really important wand of power, shamanic wand, in European tradition, particularly around the women shamans themes. This turns up in these sort of creative stories because it’s a symbol that transcends goddesses, priestesses, witches and saints…the whole the whole spectrum. The process of Christianization is very complex it goes on over a long period of time. It’s not all one time there are areas in France and Switzerland that were being Christianized in the 400-600s. Then you get over into Eastern Europe and Lithuania did not officially Christianize until close to 1400.
SS: What about Romania go through that process, would it have been that same period of time?
Well Romania had officially been Christianized earlier; they were under the Byzantine rule for a long time. The Balkans are special case because one of the differences that we see even among Christians is that the Catholic Church was able to be far more repressive toward the old culture, toward the old religions we could call them, than the Orthodox Church and this was partly because Eastern Europe was much more vulnerable to invasions from Asia. You had the Mongols, and you had the Turks, and you had the Ottomans in the Balkans. They were fighting on several fronts and they didn’t have the same ability, as they did in France or Germany for example, to get really military around this repression.
SS: Their police/state resources were being used to fight off external threats.
Yeah. One of the ways that this is reflected is that Orthodox Balkan countries, Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and to some extent also Romania that they did not have witch-hunts at near the same degree. There may be occasional persecutions, it’s hard to document, but not this not at the same level as happened in the Catholic world. There are a couple dynamics going on there that help to explain why that is. As a result, the Balkans retained a very vivid Pagan practice. In some of the backcountry areas of Bulgaria you have female shamanic healers, you have a lot of trance ceremonies and sacred dance and things like that going on; although this is something that it was very difficult to wipe out also in Scotland and some of the other Celtic countries. So you have fairy healers being arrested as witches in the persecutions of the 1500s and 1600s in Scotland and we have some other trial records. One was a midwife who had been said to have relations with the fairies, and another one is a healer that was using certain kinds of basically animistic medicines. You can see that these folk practices were still around.
If you had gone there and with a microphone and been able to interview those people they would have necessarily said they were Pagan because that was now a term that was pejorative and it could also get you in a lot of trouble. If they got to know you and trust in you, then you would see that they were carrying out these practices that worked a lot with the land spirits, with the herbs, with curings that involved gathering water from the crest of nine waves, as we see described in one of the witch trials of an old woman in the Orkney Islands. All of this persisted, that’s what’s really been stunning to me, is the degree to which folk culture is conservational. I don’t mean conservative although it can be that too. They really don’t want to let go of their beloved customs, beliefs, stories, and symbols. They often find a way to get those to survive.
SS: I had a thought the other day that Gypsy culture in Europe has become kind of like a battery for pre-Christian culture. You see fortune telling, tarot cards and crystal balls in gypsy culture. There’s got to be some kind of connection, you see those Pagan elements. You’ve got itinerates, travelers, circus folk, peddlers, people that moved around maybe were able to escape the scrutiny that somebody who lived in one spot would’ve had by their neighbors, as far as converting to Christianity, and maybe that’s the reason some of it has survived.
Well that’s certainly true. They are basically marginal people to the society and so all kinds of subcultures can exist inside those mobile groups that are not tied to the land. With the case of the Romany and the other Gypsy peoples, you have also this dynamic of the fact they were actually of Indian origin. The fact that they do palmistry, before they were doing cards tarot cards are relatively late, they were doing palmistry and that’s very much an Indian practice. They were bringing their own culture with them out of the northwest of India they were refugees from conquests that happened there about a thousand years ago. They wind up wandering across Persia, the story says that they went to Egypt, but they wound up in Eastern Europe, and they were all over Europe.
They certainly were not originally Christian culture, although they’ve sort of assimilated now. The Sara la Kali, the Black Sara of southeastern France at Camargue is an example of the way that Romany culture has fused with sort of a Catholic, not very Orthodox Catholic, tradition. A lot of the people who studied tarot cards talk about West Asian origins for some of these customs, the used of divinatory cards. It’s all kind of very murky, but by the 1300s you have tarot cards being created and exchanged. The tradition grows from there and even playing cards falling out after that were used, and still are, as divinatory tools even without all the drawings and symbols. Just, “Okay this is the eight of hearts…that’s what this means.” You’ll see pictures from the time of the French Revolution of old women telling fortunes using decks of cards. There are a lot of other kinds of divination that are more original to indigenous Europe. We have descriptions from the Romans of women who used to gaze into the editing waters of a river in order to foresee things. There’s a whole chapter in Witches and Pagans that talks about the further the völur, the staff women as that name indicates, shamanic seeresses in Scandinavia, the Norse world. These were oracular women; they had not just divination, but prophetic traditions. The prophets were women. Not all women were prophets, but the great majority of prophets were female. I’ve tried to reconstruct a lot of what that tradition looked like, and one of the things that they engaged in was ceremonies where there would be entrancing songs with special melodies that would be sung in order to assist their entry into trance, just like shamans in northern Asia do. Also, individual people could go on a kind of vision quest sitting out on the land. That was literally what they called, utiseta, which means “sitting out.” There was a practice that involved going out into nature and sitting with attentive mind, releasing away all of your own preoccupations and that all of that attached energy of your life, letting that flow way, letting the what’s happening in nature enter you. The life force that’s present sitting out on a rock, or beside a spring, or in the forest, or whatever the place was. Basically meditating, could be chanting could be in silence, could be sacred dance, a lot of things in that practice. There was that seeking practice and this was considered to be a way of opening to the greater source of wisdom.
JJ: It’s really amazing how we’re finally coming back after 2,000 years or more of rationalization, over-rationalizing everything, to mindfulness, being more in the moment.
Yeah. There’s this interesting concept, this process called disenchantment of the world. In many ways the age of reason was a good thing in that it brought a critique of the witch-hunts, for one thing, a critique of church doctrine which was very much needed but it also involved the move away from the magical consciousness or a sense of the numinousness of reality so that now everything was being framed in the mechanistic construct. That we’re all machines, the universe is a machine, physics is all mechanical, and it was very linear. So along with letting go of the church, they were also letting go of soul. There’s a way that human beings can be very polarized in their thinking. So for these Europeans, it seemed like a necessary process for them to let go of the authoritarian dogmas of the church, but they didn’t realize that by doing so they were also repudiating what they called “the superstition of the peasantry”. Some of that so-called superstition was folk wisdom, was invaluable oral tradition, was a ceremonial practice that had a lot of value and a lot of time behind, a lot of time depth to it.
Only really around the turn of the last century as physicists began to discover that the mechanistic model breaks down when you get to the subatomic level. There are all these other levels just on the level of physics where things are indeterminate; we’re talking about probability curves instead. The Greeks said the smallest possible piece of matter was the atom. Then the atom got broken up into its sub-particles. So we had electrons and neutrons and all that. The scientists were thinking, “We’re very wise because now we really have finally broken down the ultimate constituents of matter.” Then they started finding all these, gamma particles and quarks and different things and it all kind of came apart until finally, you have the physicists saying things that are starting to sound very much like Taoist or Hindu mysticism. So it went full-circle in a way.
SS: That’s something that I’ve often repeated. I think you’re doing 20,000 years of human history a great disservice if you think these people were stupid. That modern man is just the “first to ever…” It’s is very Eurocentric, “everyone who came before us was ignorant, stupid and superstitious.” Actually, when I look Paganism I see all these metaphorical ways of describing reality. If you talk about something having an animal spirit, or a person having the nature of something from nature, it’s a very accurate way to describe the dynamics between things that are happening. Maybe your two brothers, they fight like a cat and dog. You can describe the interrelationships between really abstract concepts using these. Western culture in the 19th century was fetishizing all the stuff from the east. We made it so mysterious, arcane and magical when it’s really describing very real phenomena. These people weren’t stupid. They were out in nature, they were observing, seeing how things worked. Just because they didn’t use the language of post 18th-century science doesn’t mean that they were wrong.
It’s interesting, I always think of the story of the chemist, I can’t remember who was, who was trying to figure out the structure of hexane, and he couldn’t get it. He couldn’t how the molecules fit together and finally, he had a dream where a snake was eating its own tail and then he realized, “It goes in a circle!” There are things like that that even for a scientist their dreaming nature can reveal to them truths about the nature of reality that are helpful in the science.
SS: That symbol you mentioned, the snake eating, the Ouroboros, that’s repeated all over the world. I was own research one night, I was thinking about my dad, who’s passed away, he had always reminded me about that symbol. He taught me about it when I was little. That symbol is all over the world, and you start looking at some of the models like multi-dimensional space, the torus, these modern-day physics models of how more than three-dimensional space is shaped, a way to visualize it…it looks like an Ouroboros. It’s this twisting around Mobius strip kind of thing.
Or the spirals, all the Galactic science and black holes, it’s all spirals. There are ways in which you there’s meaning to everything; there’s consciousness to everything is well. I think that was the big losses of the rationalist revolution was that they were insisting on mind only, a particular kind of linear mind, and not an awareness that integrates the full capacities and faculties we have as humans. Because we have two sides of our brain, not only the rational but that other dreaming side. So you lose out if you’re trying to restricted only to the one. I think authoritarian systems, they insist on that; they insist on a completely monochrome view or a polarized view. It’s either black or it’s white, yet reality has all these layers of complexity too. It. The truth of the mythos, what all the mystics have done, is they use metaphor. Even Yeshua of Nazareth was using parables all the time. It’s easier to show people and teach them with an example then to give them a bunch of abstractions, and then everybody winds up arguing because they’re all lost in the abstraction.
SS: When I was reading the bible as a kid I was like, “Oh it’s very obvious the lesson he’s trying to impart through this parable.” Then I hear people describing it, and they’re maybe not quite on the level being able to think metaphorically, the way you handle the interactions of metaphors, and they’re arguing about whether or not this is telling us that we should give bread to people or whatever. You’re arguing over the literal details of the story and that’s just a symbol of this concept.
Or what is the actual intent of the story.
JJ: Now your book as part of a series, would you like to tell us about this series?
It’s called The Secret History the Witches. Originally the book was going to be just this one volume that I just published, which is called Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion. This volume focuses in specific on about 700 to 1100; it’s the early Middle Ages. The whole series is basically trying to describe what you asked about earlier, what’s the whole scope of the evolutionary, you could call it the devolution, of Europe? The cultural shift that went on, and how women’s status changed. Witch persecutions are a pretty severe example, not that there were no men victimized, but it really was predominantly a persecution of women. How did that come to happen? What were the forces that led up to it? The current volume I’m working on is about the Greek reality, the Greek world. It’s about goddess traditions and things like that, but I also do talk in there about witch persecutions and some of the patriarchy that was already present in that period in European culture.
Then I move forward in time to the Italians and the Romans, and then, of course, the whole the whole story of Christianity in all its complexity and the way that became the Imperial religion, the way institutional Christianity became the Imperial religion. The persecutions then of Jews and heretics and Pagans. This is this is been something that really was not known up until then in the world, the idea that you somebody would try to prevent you from practicing your religion, was going to try to dictate what you believed. You could have people being enslaved, and things like that, but no one ever really thought that they could control your mind at that level. This was a new development.
Then we go into the early feudal period, the wars against contraception. This was part of the Christian repression, the priesthood believing that for women to drink contraceptive potions was literally homicide. This is something that continued to be a theme in later church doctrine. This current volume really has the most concentrated documentation of what the ethnic folk religions looked like in Europe. In a way, it’s kind of an ethnohistory because this is all very difficult information to dig up. You have incantations from herbal manuals, you have this shamanic wands of the Norse women, and you have stories about women who went to sit by the waters, and gaze into the spring and listen to the spirit of the fountain transmit wisdom to them. There are a lot of things here which really are not available to people in most sources that you find on European culture, medieval or otherwise. They are in specialized studies. So what I’ve done it translated a lot of it, I’ve brought it into one place with pictures. There are a lot of illustrations there to show you what the culture looked like. What did the Norse practice look like? What were the Frankish and the German traditions? What is all this about the earth mother sitting under a tree with the serpent at her breast? How did that symbolism change in church sculpture over couple hundred years to the figure of Luxuria, where it now becomes the symbol of lust. So she’s demonized, that process of demonizing and especially the whole construct of devil worship. Goddesses in the period of Witches and Pagans are being described as goddesses. Eventually, when you get to the later volumes of my book, looking at the 1300s, they’re not talking about goddesses very often anymore they’re talking about the devil. This template of diabolism being lowered over European culture, and that had very negative impacts on people who practiced the folk tradition, it did also on women and also winds up creating a ready-made template for conquest. If the religions of non-Christian peoples are devil worship, and they first they impose that in Europe, then Europe goes out and conquers the rest of the world. They’re seeing Native Americans, Africans, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders all within the same framework, with this concept of devil worship. The conquerors are saying we have to destroy these religions; we have to convert these people, just as they had done in Europe. There’s a cultural repression aspect that gets folded into the European conquests.
SS: That’s actually an aspect that occurred to me when I started discovering European Paganism, researching and thinking about my ancestry. My ancestors are from Ireland, Romania, Germany, England, Scotland, Sweden and Norway. My ancestors were aboriginal peoples who were oppressed too. It kind of flipped the script, instead of thinking of myself as a European who came here and oppressed the Native Americans. If you wind it back far enough my ancestors were going through the exact same process a couple hundred years earlier.
There are definitely some very strong parallels there. For example, and I talk about a lot about this a lot in this book and also in volume six which is not out yet, you will see examples of the penitential books being used as a way to suppress the folk religion of the common people. Basically, they’re interrogating people and saying, “Do you perform the ceremony? If so you have to do penance.” Or, “Is there any woman who does the ceremony in honor of the fates?” So it was kind of like a church-run cultural revolution. What ends up happening is that in California, when the Spanish came in and were colonizing the Chumash people in the Spanish mission system in Southern California, they used penitential books for the same purpose. Which was to wipe out the indigenous tradition. So you can see very direct parallels, that’s a really dramatic one, but there are others as well. Certainly, the concept of devil worshipers is one that functions very much along those ways. When you talk about the conquest of the plains and the religious persecution that followed that; under the reservations, with the missionaries and the federal rule of the reservations they were confiscating medicine objects. They were destroying them, burning them, collectors were carrying them away from impoverished people who sold them for food because they were being systematically starved. Or they were just outright taken and stuck in the Smithsonian or wherever. It’s a religious persecution; it’s a cultural repression that that has gone on here, and it has its roots in what was done in Europe.
SS: Thank you for very much your time. Before we let you go, where can our readers and listeners find out about future talks, courses and books.
For further the talks, especially for my webcast, you can look at www.suppressedhistories.net, that’s my main website. If you would like to get a copy of Witches and Pagans, which is available from the Veleda Press go to www.veleda.net. The other thing I’ll mention is I’m coming out with a goddess coloring book, and that will be out in the next month. You can always look at my Suppressed Histories Archive page on Facebook or get on the mailing list, which there’s a sign up for on my website, so you can be notified about webcasts. We’re going to be doing one this month on goddesses of Mexico, and in October we’re going to be doing treasures ancient treasures of African women. There are a lot of visual talks that I’m starting to offer digitally, so you get to see the images and hear about them all at once on your own computer.
JJ: For anyone who’s not familiar with Max’s presentations, she has a lot of great images, historical images, and drawings to illustrate the history. Thank you very much.
SS: Thanks so much for your time; we appreciate you coming on here. We had a great conversation.
Janae Jean is the editor and social media manager for Conscious Community Magazine. She has a master’s degree in computer music composition from Johns Hopkins University, and is actively researching using electronically generated sounds for healing.
Spencer Schluter is the advertising account manager and social media manager for Conscious Community Magazine. His experience includes visual communications, advertising, social media, marketing, public relations, and business development. He is also a master level Reiki and traditional Chinese Qigong practitioner.