The Survival of Paganism – Honoring Our Pagan Precursors

Much of my post yesterday dedicated to Thomas Taylor, “The English Pagan,” was inspired by an anonymous article I stumbled across, published in Fraser’s Magazine in November 1875.  The full text of the article can be found here.  While the article is rather lengthy, and at times condescending towards some of the figures it describes, I find it fascinating that an article published at the height of the Victorian era could contain so many interesting anecdotes about post-classical historical figures who defended paganism/polytheism and/or actively identified as pagans themselves.  Here are some further highlights that may be of interest to contemporary pagans (keep in mind this was published in 1875):

“Throughout the middle ages we meet with the most earnest sermons against idolatry; and indignant diatribes, like those of Eligius and Peter of Blois, show how much even of the ancient ritual still lingered in the popular observances which it was their object to destroy. In the darkest of the dark ages, the student of mediaevalism who penetrates beneath the crust of that singular literature of myth and legend which had gathered round the Christian story will find sufficient evidence that the divine fire of Hellas, although hidden and dim, was still alight, ready when the hour arrived to leap out, as leap out it did in that wonderful fifteenth century, to fill the world with a flood of light and beauty. From the Renaissance downwards the old creed has never been without hierophants or disciples.”

Gemistus Pletho [George Gemistus Plethon] (1355-1452)

“It was at Florence that we find the ancient learning brought face to face with the ideas of modern civilisation; and here amongst the distinguished scholars whom Cosimo [de’ Medici] gathered around him arose the first Academia Platonica of the revival. Of this institution, founded for the purpose of encouraging the study of Plato, the famous Gemisthus was for many years the great luminary. Only a few fragmentary remains of his works have come down to us, and we are indebted almost entirely to his enemies for what we know of his opinions; but it is evident that he was one of those enthusiasts who, like the Alexandrian eclectics, dreamed of a universal religion which should harmonise in one philosophical worship the varying religious instincts of all mankind. According to George of Trebizond, he entertained most of Plato’s opinions concerning the nature of the gods and the necessity of sacrifice.

‘I have heard him myself,’ said George, ‘when we were together at Florence, say that in a few years all men would embrace with one consent a single and simple religion. And when I asked him if it would be the religion of Jesus Christ or that of Mahomet, he answered: ‘Neither one nor the other; but a third, which will not greatly differ from Paganism.’ . . .

The principal work of Gemisthus was a treatise On Law, burnt after his death by Scolarius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who reports that it taught a plurality of gods, some eternal and others of late development, under the presidency of a supreme being whom he called Zeus.”

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) [and Luigi Pulci (1432-1484)]

“Ficinus, the next principal of Cosimo’s academy, was a worthy successor of Gemisthus. He is said to have cherished an almost idolatrous veneration for Plato, whose bust he kept in his chamber with a lamp burning constantly before it. In his writings we find that strange mixture of things, Pagan and Christian, which is so characteristic of the period of the Renaissance. . . . Although a priest, and holding valuable preferment, he proposed that preachers should expound the Parmenides and the Philebus [of Plato] alternately with the Epistles and the Apocrypha in the churches. It is the opinion of some of the best Italian critics that Ficinus assisted Pulci in the theological and metaphysical part of that very remarkable poem the Morgante, and that the bold arguments against Christianity which are put into the mouth of the fiend Aztaroth are especially his. Pulci’s conception of the Deity is essentially pantheistic, and in more than one place he ventures to predict the approaching extinction of the Christian religion. The publication of this book and the escape of Ficinus from any active persecution are striking instances of the freedom of thought which existed in Italy during the fifteenth century.”

Hemon de la Fosse (c. 1603) [and his companions]

“In the time of Louis XII, a young scholar of Abbéville, named Hemon de la Fosse, became so enamoured of the Olympian deities that he conceived the greatest hatred to Christianity. On the 25th of August, 1603, being at high mass in the cathedral of his native town, he suddenly snatched the host from the hands of the officiating priests, and dashed it to the ground, exclaiming, ‘What, always this folly!’ . . . The unfortunate Hemon was immediately cast into prison, but no persuasion or threats could induce him to abjure his opinions. He maintained before the priests who were sent to convert him that Jupiter was the sovereign Lord of the Universe . . . Language like this could have but one result. He was burnt alive in the market-place of Abbéville, after having both his hands cut off, and his tongue bored through with a hot iron. His last words were, ‘C’est ce que je ne puis faire; j’en suis bien fâché.’ [‘I am very angry and this is what I can do about it.’] Nor was this case a solitary one. We are expressly told that many of the Spanish students held similar opinions, and quitted Abbéville to avoid the fate of their companion.”

Voltaire (1694-1778)

“It is reported that when Voltaire first visited the ruins of the Coliseum, he was observed to make a profound obeisance before the great head of Jupiter, and being questioned as to his reason for this strange act of devotion by the scandalised ecclesiastics who accompanied him, is said to have replied, ‘I pay my court to him now in the day of his adversity, in the hope that he will remember me when his turn comes round again.’”

David Hume (1711-1776)

“He [David Hume] tells us in one of his essays that the Olympian system was too supremely beautiful, and too well adapted for the needs of man to have ever finally perished; and gives his opinion that even in these degenerate days it must still prevail in some part of the world.”

John Fransham (1730-1810)

“Another English Pagan of the last century was John Fransham, a poor scholar of Norwich, who had arrived at many of [Thomas] Taylor’s conclusions, while the latter was yet a child. In 1769 he wrote, but did not publish, a worked called The Oestrum of Orpheus, in which he openly avowed his belief in a plurality of gods. Bayle had said that a consistent Spinozist who carries out his principles to their logical conclusions must infallibly end in polytheism, and Fransham held himself to have proved the truth of the proposition. With Spinoza, he held that the first cause is uncreated and indestructible, but not intelligent–is no other indeed than the entire, eternal, and finite mass of matter composing the universe; but he refused to believe that this chaos was shapened and animated by a single co-eternal mind, but, on the contrary, held that nature through a thousand voices proclaimed the existence of innumerable, intelligent powers or forces, ‘plastic and designing,’ who ruled all sublunary affairs, and may most fitly be designated by the nomenclature of the Hellenic theology. He wrote a collection of hymns addressed to Jupiter, Minerva, Venus, and Hercules . . .”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the German Romantics

“In recent times the Pagan spirit has been greatly diffused. In Germany for a century past it has many years in a growing tendency to accept the beautiful creations of the Hellenic cult as a graceful symbolism of the conclusions of modern science. The philosophical side of the revival we find in Heyne and Schelling, the aesthetic in Wieland and Frederick Schlegel, and above all in Goethe, who of all moderns was perhaps the most thoroughly a Pagan. The most singular reports used to circulate throughout Europe about Goethe’s heathenism.

‘It is not surprising,’ said La Liberté de Penser in 1832, ‘that we find the bust of Jupiter placed before his bed, and turned towards the rising sun in order that he may address his morning prayers to him on waking.’”

John Sterling (1806-1844) [and also Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844)]

“In England, traces of the same feeling are to be found in Shelley, and more recently in Sterling, who looked with a loving and longing eye upon the poetical world of Olympus. In a letter printed in his Life by Archdeacon Hare, he expresses his belief that a time will come when, pedants having ceased to seek either true history or false religion in that beautiful creation, it will become known to all the earth, even to the now gross and suffering multitudes, as an inexhaustible treasure-house of noble joys. He relates also with great zest the story of Thorwaldsen, who one day dining with Bunsen at Rome, and becoming wearied of the theological conversation of his host, threw open the window, which commanded a noble prospect of the city over which the planet Jupiter was shining with great splendour, and filled his glass ‘to the honour of the ancient gods.’”

***

I find this Victorian-era article to be a healthy reminder that throughout history, there are countless “modern” (post-classical) pagan precursors for what we are all doing now.  This article highlights a few of those names, and just off the top of my head I can think of many more . . . Michael Marullus , Mark Akenside, John Keats, Richard Henry Horne, Albert Pike, and Louis Ménard (whose 1876 book, Rêveries d’un paien mystique [Reveries of a Mystic Pagan] was the inspiration for the title of this blog).  These are just a handful of our modern pagan precursors who lived and wrote long before the 20th-century pagan/occult revival. If you know of any others who you’d like to discuss, please feel free to share their names in the comments!

It may not be a single continuous tradition, but these heroes were out there, long before our time, defending the gods, honoring the gods, writing hymns to the gods, and even performing rituals to the gods, in times and places when it was extremely dangerous to be an avowed pagan.

And today, on the birthday of Thomas Taylor the English Pagan, I think we should all raise a glass (or pour a libation) to our modern pagan precursors and remind ourselves, that “[f]rom the Renaissance downwards the old creed has never been without hierophants or disciples.”

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3 Comments

  1. Brendan

     /  May 18, 2012

    Just delightful. As for others: Swinburne certainly comes to mind and, to a lesser extent, perhaps WS Landor. But I’m not uptodate on their vitae.

    Reply
    • Yes of course, Swinburne and Landor! Thanks for reminding me. I would definitely include them both on any list of pagan precursors. I know Landor self-identified as a pagan. Not sure exactly what Swinburne believed (if anything), but his “Hymn to Proserpine” alone should make him an honorary pagan at the very least. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath . . .”

      Reply
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