European Pagan Memory Day

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The demonization of other people's gods begins in the bible: let's consider a passage from the old testament and another from the new testament. The psalm 95 on verses 4-5 says something like that:

"Great is the Lord and worth of every praise, he's more frightful than any other god. All gods are useless idols, but the lord created the skyes"

It's interesting to note that both Augustin, in its "Expositions on the Psalms", and Justin in its "Dialogue with Trypho", quote the same verse like "All the gods of the people, which are demons", so we should read the original source, to understand better whether Augustin invented the matter of demons or in the past a different translation from the original Hebraic was used. If you want to check this passage, please note that in some versions of the bible this is considered the Psalm 96.

In the New Testament, we find a more clear passage:

"simply that when pagans sacrifice, what is sacrificed by them is sacrificed to demons who are not God. I do not want you to share with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons as well; you cannot have a share at the Lord's table and the demons' table as well." 1 Corinthians, 10, 20-21

So the statement of monotheistic religion is clear: the gods of other people are actually demons that deceive men to bring them to perdition. The gods of other people don't really exist, but demons make human being believe in the opposite; Augustine explains that the comparison of god with other gods it's just a metaphor to explain to the ignorant the power of god, that can't be otherwise described.

But when the christian needed to depict devils he didn't choose by chance how to depict them: christianity deleted the memory about some deities, took some popular features of others and turned some of them into devils.

So, let's look to the classical depiction of the devil: a black being with horns and goat legs, and often a goat head too. Every pagan should recognize in this figure a satyr or the god Pan, who was related to Faunus or the Fauni of the Roman religious world. But why a satyr?

Jerome, who translated and commented the Bible, while commenting Isaiah put in relation the satyrs with the Incubi: he translated as "incubi or satyrs" the latin word pilosi found in Isaiah 13, 21 and in Latin is: sed requiescent ibi bestiae et replebuntur domus eorum draconibus et habitabunt ibi strutiones et pilosi saltabunt ibi. In English: there the beasts will have their dens and their houses will be full of snakes, there will live ostriches and there the pilosi will dance. In some versions of the Bible, the word pilosi has been translated with satyrs, but some more modern bibles prefer the word 'goats'. Literally, pilosi means simply ‘furry, haired'. Jerome links the satyrs to the Incubi, like Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) did in his Epodes (5, 94-96). These Incubi were minor deities (I don't want to use in this case the word demons, because I don't want to create misunderstandings) that used to sit on the sleeper's chest, causing nightmare, fevers, but also that dreams which helped the ill to heal during the practice of the incubation in the temple of Asclepius. So they had a negative side and a positive one, as usual for many pagan gods. Nothing to do with the pilosi, who maybe were wild men or apes, anyway a symptom of the decadence of Babylon, struck by the divine rage, as described by Isaiah.

From the 12th century the devil is usually depicted as a satyr or Pan and probably this is also because the Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival of fertility, survived very long, even though they have lost their deeper religious meaning and the aspect of purification. Since this meaning had gone lost, people celebrating a festival dedicated to a figure (in origin was Faunus), who was half human and half goat, were considered to follow the devil, so the devil became half human and half goat. We should talk about the survival of the Lupercalia and the struggle led by pope Gelasius I against them in another dedicated article.

In the 15th century the demonization is complete: in this century the witch hunt began. Some witches are still convinced to serve the goddess Diana, as the Canon Episcopi says, but the inquisitor is sure they serve the devil.

In the Canon Episcopi, written about in the 8-9th century, we read that some women affirmed to go to the gathering of the goddess Diana while dreaming, but the author of the Canon was sure that this wasn't a real thing but a deception by the devil. The devil, like an Incubus, send the fake dream to these women, but this was all. People believed that there were women using bad magic, but not these ones. The Canon Episcopi tried to fight against the last residual of paganism, probably the most unconscious ones, since this Diana is not the ancient one, but maybe just a name which was retained in these women's mind. According to Margaret Murray, who deals with the matter in The god of the witches, these women formed a real religious group, practicing a religion known since prehistoric times and worshipping a horned god who was lately confused with the devil in order to vindicate the persecution on the followers of this "Old Religion". If things had been truly in this way, why would we have met a goddess and then a god and why wouldn't Christianity immediately have charged this people of casting evil spells?

It's almost improbable that the followers of Diana turned into witches worshipping the devil; even witch hunters used to say they weren't persecuting Diana's gatherings, but they were also convinced that the women the Canon was talking about were at the presence of the devil, since the goddess didn't exist. From the 14th century on, more and more people began to talk about other people renouncing to Christ to worship the devil and cast evil spells, while less and less the name of Diana or of other ancient goddesses has been made.

Another god, this time a Celtic one, gave other ideas for depictions of devil: in fact, in some Irish sculptures and book illuminations, the devil has got deer horns. Like other Celtic deities of fertility, the deer horned god was sometimes depicted with three faces (number three was especially sacred to the Celt, so in their art and religion we find tangles of three colours, groups of three deities, tasks to be done three times and so on): in Dante's Divine Comedy, Lucifer has three faces too: a yellow one representing wrath, a black one representing ignorance, a red one representing impotence.

So when a god is turned into a devil, we can recognize some ever present features: the god who has been changed was a fertility god, and usually a male fertility god, and a god of sexuality. What they were really demonizing was the happy expression of sexuality, also the feminine one. Augustin, in his letter n. 91 so writes about Flora: "whose dramatic games are celebrated with a profligacy so utterly dissolute and shameless, that any one may infer from them what kind of demon that must be which cannot be appeased unless—not birds, nor quadrupeds, nor even human life—but (oh, greater villany!) human modesty and virtue, perish as sacrifices on her altars".

On the opposite, the gods related to the possession, the enthousiasmos, as the Greeks said, aren't involved, or not so deeply, in this process of demonization. Nor Dionysus, nor Apollo are usually named. On the contrary, Apollo is named as a metaphor of inspiring poetry:

O good Apollo, for this last labor
make me a vessel worthy
of the gift of your beloved laurel
Up to this point, one peak of Mount Parnassus
has been enough, but now I need them both
in order to confront the struggle that awaits.
Enter my breast and breathe in me
as when you drew out Marsyas,
out from the sheathing of his limbs.

Dante's Paradise, vs. 13-21 (from the Princeton Dante Project translation)

It's not the gods that make Christianity tremble, but human sexuality, like everything that can't be controlled from above. Like the deities Christians took inspiration from to create the images of their devil: gods of the woods, gods of the animals. Those gods and goddesses who lived in the forest, which Augustin opposes to the city of god. They are the divine embodiment of that nature from which neoplatonism and idealistic philosophy first had moved away the original paganism and to which today's paganism is coming back.

Reference works

Manuela Simeoni

Extract from the episode of Fontes, April 2009


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