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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'But Is Our Religion True?'



In Which the Anthropologist Screws Up


“But is our religion true?”

It was the final night of Chaumós, the extended Winter Solstice celebration of the Kalasha of NW Pakistan, the only Indo-European-speaking people who have held to their traditional religion continuously since antiquity. Around the huge bonfire, drums throbbed and wine flowed; the dancing was wild and passionate.

Italian anthropologist Augusto S. Cacopardo has made a lifelong study of the Kalasha and their ancient religion, characterized by its polytheism, animal sacrifices, and sacred dances.

Posing the question to him was local informant Bairam Shah, a young Kalasha man who had gone to Islamabad to study law so that, as a lawyer, he could fight for his people's rights in the Pakistani courts.

Of his commitment to his people and their 4000-year tradition, there can be no doubt. As they watch the dancing, the young Kalasha lawyer asks the Italian anthropologist his question, one modern to another.

“But is our religion true?”

Here Cacopardo screws up. Embarrassed, he tries to fob off Bairam Shah with some limp-dick generalization about the nature of truth.

(Although I don't know for certain, I'm guessing that—as an academic—Cacopardo is probably a-religious himself, and believes that no human religion is true, at least not in the sense that Bairam Shah meant. But of course, you can't say that to an informant, even—let us not forget—to a fellow modern, a professional with several degrees.)

But I'll tell you what he should have said.

The dastúr of the Kalasha—religion, but the word also means custom, tradition, practice—has held this people together through more than 4000 years of cultural upheaval, displacement and, latterly (until the 1920s!) virtual enslavement to the mehtar of Chitral. It is a religion of a particular people in a particular place: a religion of this valley, this mountain, this stream, this sacred grove. Of all the Indo-European peoples—the Celts, the Slavs, the Greeks—only the Kalasha have been true to the ways of their ancestors all along.

Is the Kalasha religion true?

Yes, Bairam Shah, it is. Kalasha religion is true. It's as true as any human religion.

In fact, it's truer than most.


Augusto S. Cacopardo (2010) Pagan Christmas: Winter Feasts of the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush, Gingko Library.


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Tagged in: Chaumos Kalasha
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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