Written by Dyami Millarson
When the indigenous faith of the Germanic peoples was displaced by an alien faith, the old faith did not suddenly disappear; people neither stopped believing in a diversity of spirits, nor suddenly forgot their old beliefs. Especially considering the fact that almost everyone was illiterate in the Middle Ages and oral tradition was still very strong at the time, it is preposterous to suppose that medieval people would suddenly have forgotten their ancient ways. Germanic polytheism took the new form of a more “hidden” animism that became embedded in the new faith; the old beliefs became indistinguishable from the new faith. Germanic polytheism thus underwent a metamorphosis that made it adopt a form that was acceptable to pious Christian authorities and thus managed to survive; Germanic polytheism survived in the subtle forms that slipped under the radar of Christian authorities, it became what would later be known as folklore, the knowledge or wisdom of the common folk.
The Middle Ages were not as Christian as we suppose; implicit polytheism syncretised with explicit monotheism. Even though Christianity was the official ideology of Medieval Europe, medieval people in Europe were polytheist; they had strong beliefs in a multiplicity of spirits, they did not doubt that there were multiple spirits. They may not have explicitly called them Gods, but they were implicitly Gods. There can be no doubt that medieval people were very animistic; only a very thin layer of monotheism was covering a thick and hard core of polytheism. To summarise, people were monotheist in theory only, they were expressing explicit allegiance to monotheist ideals, but they were polytheist in practice. This situation was perpetuated by a combination of widespread illiteracy and oral tradition. As people became more literate and started forgetting the old tales that had been passed on orally for generations, they became less folk religious; they began to stop believing in what they had come to regard as “old superstitions.” Literacy started increasing with the advent of the printing press. The Middle Ages may be characterised as highly folk religious, yet the ages that followed may be characterised as decreasingly so.
Why is the metamorphosis of polytheism such a relevant topic for our analysis? The shape-shifting nature of polytheism is what makes it adaptable. We should analyse polytheism as a system that changes and responds to threats that endanger its survival. When Christianity became the dominant and official ideology of Europe, polytheism did not magically disappear with disavowals of the old gods, but what happened is that Christianity moved to the foreground and polytheism moved to the background; Europe had acquired a Christian mask, yet it still had a polytheist body. As a result, we may say Christianity was a foreground religion in Medieval Europe, yet polytheism was an ever present background religion. What had truly changed is that polytheism was no longer in any position of power, the elite was no longer openly polytheist and thus it was no longer longer in the foreground where it once had been. Christianity had became the central figure on the theatre stage, whereas polytheism had became a character hiding behind the stage. As the elite no longer thought in a polytheist manner, explicit polytheist philosophy and theology had ceased to develop in elite circles; but the elite was still deeply inspired by the great polytheist thinkers of yore.
What was the effect of the elite being no longer polytheist? This created a huge rift between the elite and common folk; the elite had to be constantly focused on rooting out “superstition” in order to stay in power, they constantly felt their power being under threat, and they always dreaded the possibility that polytheism might return. This concern was very real, in my view, because it was impossible for them, with the low literacy rate and strong oral tradition, to ever extinguish polytheism. While the Christian elite was completely paranoid about any “relapse into polytheism,” it was definitely the elite’s mission to extinguish polytheism, but they had to make peace with the reality that was never going to be possible. The Christian elite had to accept the status quo, yet they had to resort to oppression of the people in order to maintain their power. While the gap between the elite and common folk ever only widened, this type of government was under the constant threat of peasant uprisings. The disconnect was very real and dangerous to the ruling elite.
The polytheist leaders of Europe had been representatives of the people’s popular beliefs, but the Christian leaders had constantly been trying to change the people’s beliefs and stop them from “reverting to polytheism.” This was impossible, however, because the people were inevitably animistic, yet due to their Christian ideology they were not able to allow humans to revert to their natural state of openly worshipping a multitude of spirits/deities. The inflexibility of Christian ideology was the biggest threat to the ruling elite’s power; it was a war on inborn human nature that weakened the Christian governments of the Middle Ages. Polytheism is able to adapt to any situation because it answers to an inborn desire of humanity; for religious humans, believing in a host of spirits is inescapable, and so there is no way to stop being polytheist. However, one can be in denial of this fact and wreak havoc on humanity with a war on human nature, which will result in severe forms of oppression and other violations of human dignity. The other option is to accept human nature and to let humans explore their spirituality; this will naturally lead them to develop polytheist belief systems that are in harmony with their needs. Humans have lost this harmony due to the denial of human spirituality.
Basic human nature cannot be changed; trying to change what it means to be human will result in disaster. Social engineering is absolutely not in tune with polytheism; for polytheism is about the acceptance of human nature, and by extension, it is the acceptance of nature, the world as it is. Similarly to the failed centuries-long Christian project of extinguishing polytheism, the now century-old communist project of imposing atheism was no less unsuccessful; contrary to the intolerant atheist’s beliefs, humans are theistic, and contrary to the intolerant monotheist’s beliefs, humans are polytheistic. Unlike those who wish to change human nature, a polytheist is content with being human, and with the world being natural; we cannot stop being human and the world can’t stop being natural, we can achieve greatness by accepting what is and only through acceptance of what is inevitable, we can achieve our full potential. In essence, the point of polytheism is achieving our full potential. We cannot rise to our potential if we deny ourselves the possibility to be who we truly are; medieval people could not explicitly acknowledge human nature, and so they had to live under the yoke of oppression. The Germanic polytheists were free and they loved freedom; they were free to be human, and that is what it means to experience true freedom. Nothing human was forbidden to them, they could achieve their potential. Had Europe remained polytheist, rapid progress would have continued; the denial of human nature leads to philosophical stagnation, and the creativity of philosophy is what man needs for great innovation.