BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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On Pagan Martyrs

I had originally intended for this post to continue the Elements series (books about Earth, Air, Fire, and Water). However, after an uncomfortable experience this morning, I changed that focus.

In deference to devoutly Catholic family who are visiting this week, I opted to attend Easter Mass with them. For the most part, it was fine. The church was lovely, filled with incense and spring flowers, the stained glass windows glowing in the sunlight. Then it came time for the homily, in which the priest spoke on the meaning of the gospel. I was a bit startled -- and quite dismayed -- when he stated that Christianity must be right and true because people were willing to die for it, that even the first generation of Apostles must have seen and experienced something real (not a myth or a made-up story) if they were willing to lay down their lives for it.

"After all," he said, "you never hear about martyrs for Zeus or Jupiter or Thor."

My eyes bugged out. I clasped my hands tightly in my lap, bit my tongue, and spent the rest of the service silently fuming.

I'm still at a loss as to how I should have responded. Stood up and yelled? Stomped out? Pulled the priest aside after the service and corrected him? Should I write him a letter?

Because he is, quite simply, wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There were people who died for their native beliefs during the expansion of Christianity. Lots of them. People are still being harassed and oppressed and mistreated today for their refusal to embrace Christianity (or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism, or a particular sect of one tradition or another). People who honored and served and experienced and are devoted to Thor and Gabija and The Dagda and Spider Woman and Pele and Isis/Au Set and Tlaloc, and so many thousands upon thousands of other Gods and spirits and ancestors and heroes.*

Just consider, for example, the Baltic Crusades. Or the actions of Olvir of Egg and Radbod of Frisia. The Saxon Martyrs slaughtered by Charlemagne. Raud the Strong. Iyazabal (better known as Jezebel**). Yana. The people of Goa. Or those who died doing their duty to the Gods, such as Mbah Maridjan. (Wikipedia has a fairly good article on forced conversion, but there are plenty of books that go into much greater depth on the subject; a few are recommended below. Please post other recommendations in the comment box.) 

People don't just believe in the Gods. People know the Gods. And serving those Gods unto death is not unique to Christianity, or to Islam, or Hinduism, or to any single tradition. And no practitioner of any tradition has the right to claim as such. Do not claim that your tradition must be right and true and the one and only way because only your tradition has martyrs, because only your tradition inspires that level of devotion. Do not dare to demean the memory of so many who loved and worshipped and prayed and served and even died.

Do not


Recommended Reading:

A Chronicle of the Last Pagans by Pierre Chuvin

Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth by Graham Harvey

The Death of Classical Paganism by John Holland Smith

The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology by Jordan Paper

The Earth, the Gods, and the Soul: A History of Pagan Philosophy From the Iron Age to the 21st Century by Brendan Myers 

Faith and Magick in the Armed Forces: A Handbook for Pagans in the Military by Stefani E Barner

God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch

Her Share of the Blessings: Women's Religions Among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World by Ross Shepherd Kraemer

The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World by Adrian Murdoch

One True God: The Historical Consequences of Monotheism by Rodney Stark

On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians by Celsus

A Pagan Testament: The Literary Heritage of the World's Oldest New Religion by Brendan Myers

People of the Earth: The New Pagans Speak Out by Ellen Evert Hopman

Sigdrifa's Prayer: An Exploration and Exegesis by Galina Krasskova

A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism by John Michael Greer


* A good place to start is Galina Krasskova's Our Pagan and Heathen Heroes and Martyrs. If you would like to see any names added to the page, please email her. 

**Tess Dawson has an excellent post on Iyazabal here.     

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson Sunday, 20 April 2014

    Let's not leave out Hypatia!

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Sunday, 20 April 2014

    Very true, Freeman. Can one have a favorite martyr? If so, than Hypatia of Alexandria is one of mine.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Monday, 21 April 2014

    Maybe the difference is that we do not celebrate martyrdom. Why? Because we celebrate life, not death. Siggghhh....

  • nolongerhere
    nolongerhere Monday, 21 April 2014

    Thank you for this, Rebecca.

  • Lana
    Lana Monday, 21 April 2014

    Thank you so much for this.

  • Jolene
    Jolene Wednesday, 23 April 2014

    Ugh. The only time I venture to church services these days are for funerals -- I find there is a heck of a lot less of that sort of stuff going on during funerals. At my grandfather's service a few years back, the priest actually used the term "Our God," and "his God", which I found quite nice. Did he intend for it to be so inclusive sounding, that there are gods and gods, and this god was their god? I doubt it, but it was still very nice.

    Look, I can get behind the needing to feel that ones' path is valid despite how absurd it looks from the outside (really, *really* I understand that) and I get how Easter, above all other times in the liturgical calendar could be a time when one feels especially vulnerable about that . . . but get your history right. Is that so hard?

    I think you handled it well, for what it's worth. At most, I'd send a letter, but likely I wouldn't even do that much, because deaf ears and all that. Just because they're in a position of power doesn't mean they'll be interested in discussing history objectively, more's the pity.

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Monday, 28 April 2014

    @Carol P. Christ: agreed. There is a definite tendency in Christian martyrologies (and some Buddhism and Muslim martyrologies, too) to focus on the death, rather than the life, of the individual; and the more gory details, the better.

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Monday, 28 April 2014

    @Jolene Dawe: no, getting the history right is *not* that hard. That is what I found so frustrating. If the priest at that service had wanted to discuss Christian martyrs and how they were willing to die for their faith -- well, fine. That is an historical fact. But to then blatantly ignore that same historical record and present your own martyrs as the *only* martyrs? Ugh.

    On a related note, I heard an interview with Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer several months ago in which they discussed their new translation of the Haggadah. They chose to translate one divine title as "The God of Us" rather than "Our God." I like that. :) The term is simultaneously more inclusive and more tolerant (allowing for the existence of other Deities), and more specialized (this is the God of the Hebrews), and less self-centered (He doesn't belong to us, we belong to Him).

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