While this book might cause a stir in some circles, we pagans are likely to react in two ways. Some of us will look at the first word of the title and immediately fling the book away in horror. Others will say, “Duh! Everyone doesn’t know that Christianity has pagan roots?” Don’t put this book down. There’s good stuff in it.
Walter, a professor of medieval French literature in Grenoble, France, has scoured the Middle Ages for evidence of paganism and found much more than we already know about identities of pagan figures with Christian saints, pagan customs carried over into Christianity, and echoes of our myths in their hagiography. “There is,” he writes, “an archaic memory of traditions, superstitions, and legends that forms an authentic mythology”—which he later defines as “the language of a civilization”—and possesses “no biblical justification. During the Middle Ages, these [pagan] rites and beliefs constituted the natural language of a people who did not read the Bible…. The essential portion of this mythic material comes out of the ‘wild’ memory of European peoples…” (pp. 1-3). He thus finds wild men and fairies disguised as saints, sees the Christmas Eve midnight Mass as having “supplanted the pagan rite of a communion meal with beings from the Otherworld,” and even relates the lighted and decorated Christmas tree (a custom that may date back to the early 1400s) as a reproduction of “rites of May 1 that consist of planting trees in front of certain houses.” But wait. There’s more.
Because Walter finds that major Christian feasts, festivals, and saints’ days mysteriously occur forty days apart, the book is organized by the major sabbats. He begins with an overview of Carnival, the season of chaos and celebration that may be a celebration of Carna, “the goddess of pork and beans.” (He’s not making this up. She’s listed in Monaghan’s Goddesses and Heroines.) He further finds words that suggest her name in Ovid, Macrobius, Roman legends of Romulus and Remus, Celtic legend, and medieval fairy tales. He also finds the Wild Hunt at Christmas. Then it’s on to Samhain, the Twelve Days of Christmas, Imbolc, the “transitional period of Easter,” Beltane, St. John’s Day (which is near the summer solstice), Lughnasa, and Saint Michael on Mount Gargan.
Appendix 3 is a ten-page list of medieval Christian saints. “It is…likely that the saints are the successors to pre-Christian pagan deities connected to certain times of the year,” Walter writes, “and that each preserves a part of a deity’s aura and mythical functions” (pp. 77-78). To prove it, he finds a val connection between the first syllable of the name of the five St. Valentines and the last syllable of “carnival.” The book is full of such fascinating insights.
~review by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Author: Philippe Walter, trans. from the French by Jon E. Graham
Inner Traditions, 2006
pp. 218, $16.95