Summer Solstice has drawn attention once more to the revival of Paganism, or what the media call "nature religion". Some revived Pagans raise an ancient dispute over the right to sacred sites, but only in theory.
This very morning, Heathens, Pagans, Witches, Druids and other assorted nature-worshippers awaited the sunrise in Stonehenge. And no doubt likewise in Wéris, Carnac and other sacred sites in Europe. A Druid who had freshly bathed his aura in the first sunrays of the new summer, was interviewed and said that people who have witnessed and saluted this unique sunrise would feel its glow all through the coming year, giving them strength and inspiration.
At noon, in De Zevende Dag, the political debating show on Flemish television, Michiel Hendryckx, a famous photographer, was interviewed about his best photographs currently on display in an exhibition in Antwerp. On one, a Christian cross on a hill is seen. He explained that this was a pre-Christian Celtic burial mound, which the first Christian missionaries had christianized by imposing a Christian symbol on it. He said he was opposed to the Islamization of Europe, but that Christians should admit they too only become the hegemonic religion of Europe through a process of conquest. Clever conquest in many instances, notably the policy of inculturation (nowadays tried out in Asian countries): incorporating rituals and festivals and indeed sacred sites of pre-Christian religion. If Pagans felt a sacredness about a particular site, they would come and spend time there even after a Christian symbol had been imposed on it. After a few generations the Christian symbol would be part of their experience of the site's sacrality.
One such ancient sacred site I often visited in my youth is Scherpenheuvel, within cycling distance (ca. 25 km) northeast from my hometown, Leuven. Or walking distance, for every year on the eve of the First of May we would walk all the way like proper pilgrims, to arrive there at sunrise. Long ago, it was just a forested hilltop, the natural Pagan sacred site par excellence. (So was the nearby site in Averbode where a famous abbey was built, but the adjoining "Mary Forest" there is a big hint at the original Pagan usage. Both places always stuck me as deeply wholesome.) The Christian claim on the site goes back to the Middle Ages, when an idol of the Virgin Mary was installed in a tree. In ca. 1580, it was removed, not by Pagan diehards but by Protestant iconoclasts. In 1587, after the Habsburg dynasty reasserted control and Protestantism started losing ground in what was to become Belgium, the Virgin was reinstalled in the tree and became a focus of popular devotion promoted by the Catholic Counter-reformation.
The events were woven into a pious story, as follows. The man who had tried to restore the tree to its natural simplicity and removed the idol, had suddenly found himself paralyzed. Only when a good Catholic restored the idol to its rightful place, could the man move again. Miracle!
Within a few years, the site's popularity rose spectacularly, and the Church intervened. In their attempt to outdo one another in Christian fervour, Catholics and Protestants in their respective countries managed to weed out large vestiges of not only each other' presence but also of the Pagan lore that, as they rightly suspected, had survived the nominally Christian Middle Ages. So in Scherpenheuvel in 1603, the tree was chopped down and the idol installed in a church newly built for the purpose at the site. It's a very pleasant building, octogonal and just the right size. In my childhood, the wall around the entrance door used to sport numerous crutches which handicapped people had supposedly left behind there in gratitude for successful cures.
However, the miraculous powers of the Holy Virgin of Scherpenheuvel were not unlimited. The most common pilgrims' souvenir of Scherpenheuvel shows the then-ruling archducal couple Albrecht and Isabella kneeling down in prayer in front of the Holy Virgin on the tree. Isabella was the daughter of the Spanish king Philip II, a determined enemy of the Protestant heresy. Her and her husband's rule (1598-1621) in what is now Belgium marked the Catholic restoration after decades of religious strife, the victory of the Counter-reformation. A story we were never told is that Albrecht and Isabella went there to pray because Isabella failed to get pregnant. Like millions of Pagans and Christians before and after them, they turned to Heaven for succour in their desperate attempt at begetting offspring. But this is a story without a happy ending: the longed-for heir was never born.
This particular Refusal of Miracle was different from all those other hoped-for miracles that never materialize. When the archdukes came to power, the agreement was that their fiefdom would become a sovereign kingdom if they had a heir to rule over it, otherwise sovereignty would return to the Habsburg dynasty. The latter is what happened: until the conquest by Revolutionary France, Belgium was ruled by the Spanish and then by the Austrian branch of the House of Habsburg. The country missed its chance at becoming a nation in its own right. The Blessed Virgin didn't favour the idea of a Kingdom of Belgium.
At any rate, the one couple whose devotions at Scherpenheuvel have remained famous, never received the heavenly blessing they had prayed for. Perhaps the Virgin doesn't appreciate devotions offered at sacred sites usurped from their legitimate users.
Barely a fortnight ago, a somewhat similar instance made headlines in our dear province of Limburg. For some years, a mighty oak at a lonely site in the village of Lummen has been a favourite meeting-place of a group of Wiccan neo-Pagans called Greencraft. They gather there on full-moon nights sky-clad (= naked) for rituals celebrating the Horned God and the Triple Goddess, or so. One day, to their dismay, they found that an idol of Our Lady had been fixed to the trunk. Pagans have nothing against idol-worship, of course. They will generously allow a hundred Virgin idols to flourish, but not in "their" tree.
Greencraft highpriest René Delaere explained the Pagan position in a TV interview: "This way, Catholics express a claim on this tree." Asked by the interviewer Evi to whom the tree belongs, his prompt answer was: "To the tree itself." He said that merely being a tree confers enough sacredness on the tree, no need for an overlay of cultural symbols. Then he reiterated how the Church had always used this procedure to induct Pagans into Christianity: allow them to worship at their traditional sacred sites, but give these a Christian veneer to accustom them to the new religion and make them identify their sacred sites with Christian themes.
He agreed that things would get out of hand if his community were to reclaim all the Pagan sites on which Christians had built churches. In India in 1986-2002, the (perfectly rightful) Hindu claim to a site in Ayodhya on which the Muslims had forcibly replaced a temple with a mosque led to massive riots killing several thousands, bomb attacks killing hundreds, controversial overhauls of the history textbooks, sweeping changes in the party-political landscape, overthrows of provincial governments and a change of government in Delhi. And that was all about a single disputed site among the thousands of Hindu temples destroyed by Islamic iconoclasm. So imagine what we could get in Europe if the Pagan ghosts rose from their graves to reclaim each one of their places of worship on which Christians imposed a Christian building or idol.
The moderate Pagan position, as per Mr. Delaere, seems to be this: to be generous and leave to the Christians all the churches they built, even if on stolen land and in forcible replacement of Pagan objects of worship. The least the Catholics can do in return, is to leave the hitherto untainted Pagan sites alone. But as a matter of principle, or just as a taunt, the Church may be reminded of the legal principle that a house (even a house of worship), no matter who built it, is strictly the lawful property of the owner of the soil it is built on. At least King David paid an honest price to the native Jebusite landlord when he acquired the property in conquered Jerusalem on which he intended to build a temple. The missionaries who Christianized our part of the world rarely showed this courtesy.
So much for the legal niceties. Of course numerous Christians have innocently felt genuine religious enthusiasm at such theoretically disputed sites and in front of such intruder idols. Nobody wants to deny it to them, least of all the Pagans. In their analysis, the name of the gods worshipped changed but the devotion remained more or less the same. A similar process is going on today in the opposite direction. While Christian polemicists are jubilant that their religion is doing just fine in Africa and Korea, what we witness in Europe is the continued trend of churches closing down and being sold off to serve as concert-halls, restaurants, school buildings (the case of the church where little me sang in the choir) or mosques. Pagan revivalism is one way of filling the vacuum left by a shrinking Christianity.