Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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When the Wights Are Angry, Everyone Suffers: Mythologizing Climate Change

Imagine that we were to discover an ancient Keltic tribe living in three isolated valleys up in the Alps.

Imagine that, through all the intervening centuries of the Great Interruption, they had, nonetheless, somehow managed to hold on to their Old Religion.

Amazingly enough—specifics aside—this not an imaginary scenario.

As the Indo-European-speaking peoples first entered the Indian subcontinent, groups broke off the main migration and settled along the way.

That's how the Kalasha, the last surviving pagans of the Hindu Kush, came to live in three isolated mountain valleys in what is now NW Pakistan.

Their religion, practiced continuously since antiquity, strongly resembles the religion of the Rig Veda, modern Hinduism's oldest scripture; some of the gods are even the same.

Alone among the Indo-European peoples, the religion of the Kalasha has never been subsumed by one of the Big Name religions. This small tribe of 4000-some people is as close as we will ever come to touching the old paganisms of the European ancestors.

As such, they have much to teach us.

As in most paganisms, the wights figure prominently in Kalasha religion. (Wights are the Other Peoples with whom we humans share the Land, also called “land-spirits,” elves, hulderfolk, “fairies,” sidhe, etc.)

The Kalasha call them peri (usually translated as “fairies”) or suchi (literally, “the pure”). The peri dwell in the high, pure mountains, but during the summer they graciously permit the men and boys of the Kalasha to drive their flocks to the high mountain pastures there. (The Kalasha worldview divides most places into male and female space. Pastures are male, fields female.)

But (as with every agreement of this sort), there are rules to be followed. One of these is that during their stay, the herders must maintain a high degree of physical and ritual purity.

Another is that, come autumn, the men and their herds must leave, so that the mountains' inherent purity can regenerate itself.

The Kalasha's environment has always been a harsh and unforgiving one, but the last years have seen increasingly severe and frequent storms, followed by devastating floods. (During last autumn's record flooding, houses, fields, and water-mills were washed away.) Kalasha economy, already marginal, is now becoming imperiled.

We would call this “climate change.” The Kalasha elders say: “The peri are angry.”

Why are the wights angry?

Because, say the elders, people are breaking the rules.

Not the Kalasha, of course. Keeping the rules is what holds Kalasha society together.

But Muslims, who are, by definition, impure. Tourists. Foreigners. These wander wherever and whenever they will; some Muslims take great delight in deliberately flouting Kalasha cultural norms.

These people violate the laws of the wights, and so the wights are angry.

The wights are angry. Climate change from a mythological perspective.

It may seem deeply unfair that the trangressions of others should be taken out on the Kalasha. But that's how these things work.

Those of the Land operate on their own terms, not ours.

And when the wights are angry, everyone suffers.

 

Above: The installation of two gandau (ancestor images)

Bumboret Valley, 2014

 

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Tagged in: fairies Kalasha wights
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.

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