We live in frightening times. On June 12th, 49 people were shot dead in a gay club in Orlando. On June 16th, Labour politician Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death by a man influenced by the far-right. Since Brexit a multitude of hate-crimes have been committed against immigrants in Britain by nationalists who ‘want their country back.’
I witnessed racist bullying when I was at school but during my adult life have only been aware of rare instances locally and nationally. Up until the last month I was convinced we were moving forward into an increasingly tolerant society. Now I’m not so sure.
Encouragingly the pagan community have stepped up to address discrimination. The Pagan Federation London have written an open letter on bigotry which states:
‘I want to say right here and right now that everyone is welcome in PF-London. It doesn’t matter where you are from, your gender identity, your sexual orientation, your age, if you are able bodied or disabled, the colour of your skin, your mental health, and of course what spiritual path you follow. As long as you show this same respect, you are welcome… we will not allow that bigotry to infiltrate our Pagan Federation and PF-London will do all we can to make sure that our events, groups and activities are free from such intolerance and the people who perpetrate it.’
Yvonne Aburrow has done some sterling work promoting inclusivity within paganism. ‘What does an inclusive coven look like?’ provides guidelines for an inclusive coven which are relevant to other pagan groups. ‘A Tale of Two Britains’ provides a call for an inclusive Albion and lists ways pagans can stand against hatred and racism and create more inclusive groups.
Over the past couple of years I have been involved with Dun Brython. Because Brythonic polytheism involves the veneration of the deities of a specific culture, it possesses the potential for insularity and exclusivity. Thus it seems doubly important to make it clear that Brythonic polytheism is not grounded on nationalism or discrimination.
Dun Brython defines Brythonic polytheism as ‘a religious tradition based on a devotional relationship with one or more of the gods worshipped by the Brythonic peoples inhabiting Britain and Gaul in the Ancient World.’
Prior to the Roman-Gallic wars, Gaul covered modern France, Holland, Belgium and the Rhine/Moselle valleys. The Brythonic and Gaulish peoples lived in a tribal society with a hierarchical structure of Druid and warrior elites, craftsmen, commoners and slaves (we don’t seek to replicate this today!). Goods were traded with people from northern Europe and Phoenicia. The markets of Britain and Gaul were open and multicultural places.
The Britons and Gauls worshipped local, tribal, and pan-Celtic deities. We only know their names because the Romans wrote them down and created statues, altars and inscriptions. The fact the Romans and their soldiers (who were recruited not only from Italy but Africa, France, Germany, the Balkans, Spain and the Middle East) venerated the Brythonic deities demonstrates their openness to people of all races and countries of origin. For several hundred years they were venerated alongside gods and goddesses from an array of other cultures and the Christian God.
After Roman rule broke down the Britons divided into sub-kingdoms and many of the pagan rulers converted to Christianity. Between the 4th and 7thC modern England was invaded/settled by the Anglo-Saxons. This period birthed one of Britain’s best-known nationalistic myths: King Arthur defending the Christian Britons from the pagan Anglo-Saxons.
The truth behind these conflicts is far more complex. The Brythonic rulers fought just as fiercely against each other as against the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons and Anglo-Saxons frequently allied. Race and religion were far less important than power.
During this period the stories of the Brythonic deities became subsumed by those of Arthur and his court. It’s notable Arthur was a slayer of giants and ancestral animals and was even seen to have power over the gods. Rachel Bromwich writes of Arthur as a ‘luminary into whose orbit were drawn the heroes of a number of independent cycles of Welsh narrative: characters both of mythology… and of heroic tradition.’
The myth of Arthur has remained pervasive ever since. It fuelled the crusades and the rise of the British Empire was founded on the principles of ‘One King, One God, One Law.’ After 1,500 years and two world-shaking wars Arthur’s rule has been put into question. Pagan and polytheistic spiritualities and religions have developed hand-in-hand with decolonisation and rights for women, LGBT, and disabled people within an increasingly tolerant society.
Brythonic polytheism itself is a little-known minority religion. Dun Brython has only a handful of active members and I don’t know of any other Brythonic polytheist groups. However, other individual Brythonic polytheists exist and numerous Druids, Wiccans, witches, and eclectic pagans venerate and work with the Brythonic deities.