Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

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From Those Who Have Much, Much Is Expected: A Kalasha Tale

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

The Kalasha are the last remaining pagans of the Hindu Kush. Numbering about 4000, in three adjoining valleys in northwest Pakistan, they are known for their proud polytheism, the freedom (and beauty) of their women, and their wine-drinking.

Among the Kalasha, November is the month of the ancestors, and it is customary to remember them—for “the spirits of the dead are pleased when their names are remembered”—by recounting tales of their deeds.

In Kalasha society, it is impingent upon the wealthy to throw elaborate feasts for as many people as possible; only by sharing their wealth with the rest of the community do they gain prestige. Their Muslim neighbors laugh at them for their lavish, spendthrift ways, but this is indeed the way of the pagan ancestors: from those who have much, much is expected.

In Brumburyak's time, a stubborn winter spoiled the spring. The snow lasted so long that the ploughing season passed and work in the fields could not be completed. The same disaster occurred the following year, and famine gripped the valley.

Brumburyak questioned his wife Kagayak and his grandson Khan: 'What can be done, how can the people's lives be saved? Can we share our grain among everyone?' Brumburyak was a very wealthy man, and his storehouses were still full of reserves. His grandson and his wife replied: 'No, it isn't possible. If we distribute everything at the same time, the people are so hungry that they will fall upon the bread and eat it all up. And they will be hungry again afterwards. It would be better to have them come here every day to prepare a daily ration for each.'

Brumburyak summoned the 140 hungriest, those who had nothing left at all, and gave them each a tatori, a big galette [loaf]. He fed them thus until the summer tilling, the mulberry season. In this way, he saved the lives of the inhabitants of the valley, and today, when the Multimire give a feast, the other lineages recall the goodness of Brumburyak, ancestor of the Multimire, in all their eulogies.

Jean-Yves Loude and Viviane Lievre, Kalash Solstice: Winter Feasts of the Kalash of North Pakistan (1985), tr. Grahame Romaine and Mira Intrator. Islamabad: Lok Virsa, pp. 178-9.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 12 November 2014

    According to Heide Goettner-Abendroth, gift giving as a method of ensuring social equality is characteristic of matriarchal egalitarian societies. Are the kalasha matrilineal? This is probably the only way for women to be truly free?

    These sorts of customs are still practiced in rural Crete.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 13 November 2014

    My understanding (I'm certainly no expert) is that the Kalasha reckon lineage bilaterally (i.e. through both the mother's and the father's side), but that the name is carried in the male line. I suppose that by some definitions that would make them patrilineal.

    That said, girls are sexually free before marriage. Women can own property in their own right, and can instigate both marriage, divorce, and re-marriage at will. Kalasha women know a degree of freedom unparalleled among their non-pagan neighbors, and this is a source of great cultural pride them, to both men and women alike. Recently a Kalasha woman became a licensed pilot and, interestingly, is spearheading the renewal and rebuilding of Jestak-hans, the carved wooden temples of Jestak, the major goddess in their pantheon.

    Let me not romanticize. Kalasha society is a deeply traditional society, and, as Danish ethnologist Mytte Fentz writes in her scintillating new book, The Kalasha: Mountain People of the Hindu Kush, "a defining aspect of Kalasha culture is a gender-based dichotomy, which pervades everyday life and is inextricably linked to the people's concept of their universe and religion." The women's sphere is the home, the valley, the fields, and agriculture. (Women own and operate the water-driven mills.) The men's sphere is the stable, the mountains, the pastures, and the herds. The bashali--the Moon house--is a central fact in women's lives.

    That said, Fentz emphasizes repeatedly through her book that this gender dichotomy operates collaboratively, not oppositionally, and that in daily life it is treated with humor, pragmatism, and a sense that "we're all in this together."

    Times are hard for the Kalasha. Their physical environment is harsh; they are a despised minority under immense pressure to convert to Islam. (One man was told recently at a hospital that he could receive the surgery he needed to save his life only if he would convert.) The proximity of the war and the impotence of the Pakistani government in recent years have only made matters worse. May the gods grant that they thrive and grow.

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