Last week I attended my first international conference. The conference was called ‘Paganism and Politics- Neo Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe’ and was held at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic from 3rd-4th June. It was the latest in a lecture series dealing with Pagan Studies in Central and Eastern Europe. The conference was ably organised by Matouš Vencálek, Mgr. of Masaryk University. I was delighted and honoured to be invited to give a paper at the conference but also a little nervous. Despite having reached the grand (and not quite so venerable as all that) age of 47, I have to make the shameful confession that I have never actually travelled outside the country on my own before. No, really! This involved not only flying (not my favourite activity at the best of times!) unaccompanied to Prague, into a country where I cannot even make an educated guess about the language, but also getting myself, by public transport, all the way across the country from Prague to Brno. Thankfully, due to the excellent ‘useful information’ provided by the conference team, this proved to be a great deal less difficult and stressful than I had feared and I was soon safely ensconced in the (highly recommended) Hotel Continental.
The next morning, I equalled my outstanding achievements of the previous day by navigating the 15 minute walk across Brno to the conference venue, the beautiful Open Gardens’ armed only with a map (trust me, this IS a big deal!) The venue that had been chosen was a light, airy conference room set in beautiful gardens extending up the hill behind the building and into woodland. There were sculptures, bee hives, insect hotels and beautifully tended herb gardens all of which provided a wonderful backdrop to coffee and lunch breaks. The temperatures were in the high 20s for most of the conference and with the exception of one or two heavy showers it was bright and sunny throughout.
The conference itself was both lively, good-natured and interesting with many fascinating and engaging papers. The first key note speaker was Michael Strmiska of SUNY-Orange, New York State. His lecture was entitled ‘Pagan Politics in the 21st Century: ‘Peace and Love’ or ‘Blood and Soil’. He spoke about two distinctive trends in European Paganism, one typified by an open, universalist and eclectic outlook, most typical of Western Europe and the other defined by a concern with the reconstruction or continuation of local or ethnic religion that tends to be quite conservative and traditionalist. This is more typical of Central and eastern Europe, although of course, both ‘types’ are to be found all over Europe and the distinctions between them are often fluid. His paper discussed the extent to which the second ‘type’ could be classified as ‘racist’, giving arguments on both sides and concluding, predictably, that the situation is too complex to be so neatly explained. He saw in the two Pagan ‘streams’ a parallel with the current struggle throughout Europe between left and right wing politics, and raised the question of whether ‘Nationalist’ forms of Paganism might ally themselves with a right wind agenda. Evidence suggests that the case is not so straightforward as it might appear, however, as many groups that are keen to preserve ‘folkish’ traditions and practices are quite liberal in other respects and, as Right Wing politicians have tended to court the support of traditionalist Christian groups the opportunities for Pagans to openly associate with them are limited. From my personal point of view, as fascinating component of the lecture was the reference made to data gathered from a survey undertaken in Lithuania, Denmark and the Czech Republic among Pagans about their afterlife beliefs, and specifically about belief in a ‘community of Ancestors’ that they would join after death The majority of respondents n all countries acknowledged this belief or were unsure about it. Significantly the majority of respondents thought that language and ethnicity were not dividing factors among this Ancestral Community but that either everyone would be together regardless of race and language or that people would be together with whoever they chose regardless of these factors. This led to the conclusion that ‘racism’ was not a significant issue…at least after death!
The second keynote speaker, the following day, was Agita Misãne of the University of Latvia. She continued with many of the same themes but emphasised the importance of ‘nominal Paganism’ in European society with Paganism behaving in the same way as other religions with people embracing the values and ideas of Paganism without being and active participant in ritual or Pagan gatherings. Particular attention was drawn to the newly elected President of Latvia who identifies as a Pagan and particularly with a ‘Green’ agenda although he is not active within the Pagan communities. Misãne argued that the possibility of people who are openly Pagan holding high public office means that the ‘religion’ is no longer invisible but is becoming visible, often in public space, and therefore institutionalised and commercialised leading to the rise in what she calls ‘nominal Paganism’. The image of politics as materialistic and corrupt does not sit easily with the ethics of many Pagans leading them to isolate themselves from political agendas. This means that while Paganism might have a significant influence on culture, literature and the arts it is not an easy bedfellow with party politics for most. Having said this, after decades of increasing ‘secularisation’ religion of all kinds is now entering public life and discourse in a much more visible way. Religion, including Pagan religions, do not exist in isolation but rather reflect the wider political and social discourse in the societies that surround them. Western Europeans in general, tend to be vocal on issues of social justice, human rights and environmentalism, while their Eastern counterparts are often most outspoken on public morality, reproductive health and education. Since Pagans of all affiliations, tend, on average, to hold more liberal views that the wider population, for example on the question of gender equality, Misãne argues that they may offer a more balanced voice on such issues than more traditionalist fundamentalist Christian and Muslim voices.
There were many other excellent and thought provoking talks over the course of the conference Of particular interest to me, particularly wereMatouš Vencálek’s talk presenting rare survey data on political, social and spiritual beliefs among Pagans in the Czech Republic; and Adam Anczyk’s (of Jagiellonian University) excellent paper on Margaret Murray which raised the question of the impact that academic research has on the development and growth of Pagan traditions. These two were of particular relevance to my own research interests but every paper was engaging and well presented.
I was delighted to discover that my own paper had been relocated from 4pm to 12 on the first day, meaning that I could relax and enjoy the rest of the conference. I was also very pleased to follow the paper given by Giuseppe Maiello of Palacky University. He spoke about an attempt in 2012 of the Native Faith movement in the Czech Republic to bring together Pagans of all kinds to form something like a Pagan ‘Burial Society’ to facilitate the possibility of a ‘Pagan funeral’. The attempt failed due to internal pressures and some advice from a former Pagan in the funeral industry that was not as helpful as it might have been, however, Maiello explained why the growth of the environmental movement and, in particular, the establishment of the first ‘natural burial ground’ near Prague meant that there was less need to try the experiment again. He also commented on the comparative freedom and choice that exists around funeral practice in the UK as opposed to the Czech Republic.
This set the scene beautifully for my own paper which looked at the relationship between Druidic funerary practises and new developments in wider funerary practices in the UK. Specifically I looked at the Natural Burial Movement, the campaign to legalise open air cremation pyres and the emergence of reconstructed ‘Neolithic’ passage and chamber tombs to hold cremated remains such as that at All Cannings. I also argued that the two founding ideologies of the ‘Neo-Pagan’ movement in general and Druidry in particular,are central to the emergent funerary tradition within Druidry. The first of these is the idea of the natural world as a source of wisdom and enlightenment and with ‘whom’ we have a reciprocal relationship. This idea, most visibly and memorably expressed in the Romantic Poets of the late 18th and early 19th century helped to set the mood in which Paganism began to develop as a modern religion. Secondly was the ‘Celtic Revival’ movement of a similar period, which sought to link the sense of personal identity with a re-imaginged past. This also continues to be visible in the popularity of All Cannings, the wish of many Pagans to have their ashes scattered around ancient monuments and the popularity of the idea of cremation on an open air pyre. The paper seemed to be well received and Giuseppe and I took questions together leading to some lively discussion.
The first day of the conference concluded with a barbecue dinner in the beautiful gardens followed by a concert by the Pagan band ‘Barbar Punk’ in a small club that was being reconstructed around us. It was a very unusual and highly enjoyable evening, although for some reason people kept apologising to me that the venue was not ready as they had expected. Possibly this was due to ‘British Middle Aged Woman Syndrome’ but, as I assured them all I was having a wonderful, surreal evening and even got to meet a ‘wolf dog’ who was very friendly and went to sleep on my feet. The second evening was marked by a visit to Brno’s conveniently timed wine festival It was a lovely event, although touched by sadness as people began to drift off to head home.
The following day I had arranged some free time in Brno to go and investigate the ossuary of St Joseph’s church and the crypt of the Friary. (yes, I know, morbid as ever!) The ossuary was fascinating, not least because of the questions it raised about the status of human remains as object and subject. Mention of ‘respect for the dead’ was made and the space was certainly respectful. The remains had been arranged during the last decade into columns of bones with skulls placed artistically at intervals or piles of skulls receding into a curved chamber. These were interspersed wth modern sculptures on religious themes and all the time music, especially composed for the venue, and definitely ‘spooky’ in nature was playing in the background All of this, along with the dim lighting and strategic placement of exhibits gave the place the feel of an art installation. This was compounded by the availability of plaster skulls with ‘Brno’ written across the forehead as souvenirs. Overall the feeling was very much of being in an exhibit rather than a burial place. The crypt however, had a very different feel. The lighting was not dimmed and a sign as you enter reminded you that you were not entering a museum but a burial ground. The unique geology of the crypt combined with the free flow of air through it led to the mummification of many who were interred there during the 17th and 18th centuries. The first room contained the remains of a famous veteran of the Austrian War of Succession, whose portrait also hangs on the wall. It is unusual with such remains to know who the person was, let alone be able to see a picture of them in life. This made the experience a very strange and thought provoking one, very much in contrast with the anonymised dead of the church ossuary. Also in this chamber is the wax covered and finely dressed skeleton of St Clementine. Whilst I have read many books on relics such as this, this was the first time I had seen one and it was a very moving experience. Another chamber in the crypt held the remains of some of the ‘great and the good’ of Brno society who had been benefactors of the friars in the 18th century. Filling most of the wall was a marble sculpture of an angel pointing to the inscription ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’. You can imagine the friars having a wry smile at the nobles’ expense. Finally I came to the chapel where 41 of the friars still lie, laid out onto the ground with their heads supported on bricks. I found this a particularly moving and, I have to say, lovely sight. The monk were laid out next to each other as they would be in the choir and while they were clearly ‘creeping out’ the other visitors (some things are understandable in any language!) I did not have this impression at all. I am glad that there were not very many others in the crypt at the same time and that I was able to spend some time alone with the brothers, keeping their vigil with eternity. When I left, I bowed my respect to them as I would with the deceased in our own chapel of rest. When I left the crypt I made a brief visit to a model of a 19th century Moravian village that was housed next door. It was made to demonstrate traditional crafts and featured many moving figures and ‘clucking’ chickens!
After this I caught the bus back to Prague (once again demonstrating my ‘adulating’ skills) and spent the night there before having a brief look around the Old Town Square and heading home again. Attending this conference has been an extremely valuable experience. Not only was it a huge boost to my self confidence (on several levels, being invited to present a paper, actually getting there, and delivering the paper successfully) but it was also a chance to meet some excellent people. The conference originally attracted my attention as a way to see my own field of study (or at least one of them) from a wider European perspective. It sometimes feels as if there is a wall around the UK and anything going on elsewhere is an unknown. Its possible that this is my own perspective, although the fact that I was totally unaware of a book on contemporary Druidry written by one of the delegates leads me to suspect not! This was a wonderful opportunity to see Pagan Studies in a wider European perspective and to meet and network with some excellent people. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and very much hope to be able to attend later conferences in this series.