Some Notes on Indo-European Paleopaganism and its Clergy
(c) 1984 P. E. I. Bonewits
Reprinted from "The Druids' Progress" #1
The term "Pagan" comes from the Latin paganus, which appears to
have originally meant "country dweller," "villager," or "hick."
The members of the Roman army seem to have used it to mean
"civilian." When Christianity took over the Empire and continued
it under new management, the word took on the idea of "one who is
not a soldier of Christ." Today, the word means "atheist" or
"devil worshipper" to many devout monotheists. But those who call
themselves Pagan use it differently; as a general term for na-
tive, natural and polytheistic religions, and their members.
The following definitions have been coined in recent years in
order to keep the various polytheological and historical distinc-
tions clear: "Paleopaganism" refers to the original tribal faiths
of Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceania and Australia,
where and when they were (or are) still practiced as intact
belief systems. Of the so-called "Great Religions of the World,"
Hinduism, Taoism and Shinto fall under this category.
"Mesopaganism" is the word used for those religions founded as
attempts to recreate, revive or continue what their founders
thought of as the (usually European) Paleopagan ways of their
ancestors (or predecessors), but which were heavily influenced
(accidentally, deliberately or involuntarily) by the monotheistic
and/or dualistic worldviews of Judiasm, Christianity and/or Is-
lam. Examples of Mesopagan belief systems would include the
Masonic Druids, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism, Crowleyianity, and
the many Afro-American faiths (Voudoun, Macumba, etc.).
"Neopaganism" refers to those religions created since 1940 or
so that have attempted to blend what their founders perceived as
the best aspects of different types of Paleopaganism with modern
"Aquarian Age" ideals, while eliminating as much as possible of
the traditional western dualism. The title of this section should
now make a great deal more sense. So let's look at the state of
Paleopaganism in Europe prior to the arrival of Christianity.
It's important to remember that a lot of history happened in
Europe before anyone got around to writing it down. Around 4000
B.C.E. ("Before the Common Era") the tribes that spoke Proto-
Indo-European began to migrate away from their original homeland,
which was probably the territory around the northwest shores of
the Black Sea. Some went southeast and founded the Armenian,
Iranian and Indic cultures. Others went south to Anatolia and
Palestine, and became known as Hittites and Mitanni. Those who
went southwest to the Balkans became Thracians and Greeks. Others
who went west and north established the Celtic, Slavic, Germanic,
and Baltic cultures.
All this migrating around took many centuries and involved a
lot of bloodshed. Previous inhabitants of a given piece of terri-
tory had to be persuaded, usually at swordpoint, to let the
newcomers in -- and there went the neighborhood! The pre-Indo-
European cultures in Europe (which were not necessarily "peaceful
matriarchies") were all still in the late Neolithic ("New Stone
Age") cultural era, with only stone axes, spears and knives with
which to defend themselves. The invaders had bronze weapons and
armor with which to fight, plus bronze axes with which to clear
the great forests that covered the continent, bronze plows to
till the soil, etc.
The impact of this superior technology can be judged by the
fact that, by the time of the Roman Empire, nearly every language
spoken in Europe (except Basque, Lappish and Finnish) was a
member of the Western branch of Indo-European. Everything west of
the Urals was pretty much dominated by a loosely interlinked
conglomeration of related cultures, each of which was a mixture
of the PIE culture and that of the previous holders of its terri-
tory. The largest group of cultures north of the Roman borders
was that of the Celts, and the second largest that of the Germans
(some scholars consider the Germans to be so closely related
culturally to the Celts as to be practically a subset, at least
in archeological terms).
Thanks to the work of Georges Dumezil, James Duran and others,
we are beginning to have a clear idea of the social, political,
magical and religious functions of the priestly "class" in Indo-
European Paleopaganism. I use the word "class" deliberately, for
the Western Indo-European cultures seem to have been built on the
same fundamental social pattern as that with which we are famil-
iar in Vedic India: clergy, warriors, and providers (farmers,
craftspeople, traders, herders, etc.). In fact, it appears that a
close to exact correspondance can be made between the religious,
political and social functions originally performed by a Latin
flamen, a Celtic draoi, or a Vedic brahman.
The Indo-European clergy basically included the entire intelli-
gensia of their cultures: poets, musicians, historians, astrono-
mers, genealogists, judges, diviners, and of course, leaders and
supervisors of religious rituals. Officially, they ranked imme-
diately below the local tribal chieftains or "kings" and above
the warriors. However, since the kings were quasi-religious fig-
ures, usually inaugurated by the clergy, and often dominated by
them, it was frequently a tossup as to who was in charge in any
given tribe. The clergy were exempt from taxation and military
service, and in some cultures are said to have spent decades in
They seem to have been responsible for all public religious
rituals (private ones were run by the heads of each household).
Public ceremonies were most often held in fenced groves of sacred
trees. These were usually of birch, yew, and oak (or ash where
oaks were rare), depending upon the subset of deities or ances-
tors being addressed, as well as the specific occasion. Various
members of the priestly caste would be responsible for music,
recitation of prayers, sacrificing of animals (or occasionally
human criminals or prisoners of war), divination from the flames
of the ritual fire or the entrails of the sacrificial victim, and
other minor ritual duties. Senior members of the caste ("the"
Druids, "the" brahmans or "the" flamens as such) would be respon-
sible for making sure that the rites were done exactly according
to tradition. Without such supervision, public rituals were gen-
erally impossible; thus Caesar's comment that all public Gaulish
sacrifices required a Druid to be present.
There are definite indications that the Indo-European clergy
held certain polytheological and mystical opinions in common,
although only the vaguest outlines are known at this point. There
was a belief in reincarnation (with time spent between lives in
an Other World very similar to the Earthly one), in the sacred-
ness of particular trees, in the continuing relationship between
mortals, ancestors and deities, and naturally in the standard
laws of magic (see Real Magic). There was an ascetic tradition of
the sort that developed into the various types of yoga in India,
complete with the Pagan equivelent of monasteries and convents.
There was also, I believe, a European "tantric" tradition of sex
and drug magic, although it's possible that this was mostly the
native shamanic traditions being absorbed and transmuted.
Only the western Celtic clergy (the Druids) seem to have had
any sort of organized inter-tribal communications network. Most
of the rest of the IE clergy seem to have kept to their own local
tribes. Among the Germanic peoples, the priestly class had weak-
ened by the early centuries of the Common Era to the point where
the majority of ritual work was done by the heads of households.
We don't know whether or not any but the highest ranking clergy
were full-time priests and priestesses. At the height of the
Celtic cultures, training for the clergy was said to take twenty
years of hard work, which would not have left much time or energy
for developing other careers. Among the Scandinavians, there seem
to have been priests and priestesses (godar, gydjur) who lived in
small temples and occasionally toured the countryside with sta-
tues of their patron/matron deities, whom they were considered to
be "married" to. In the rest of the Germanic, Slavic and Baltic
cultures, however, many of the clergy may have worked part-time,
a common custom in many tribal societies.
It's also common for such cultures to have full- or part-time
healers, who may use herbs, hypnosis, psychology, massage, magic
and other techniques. Frequently they will also have diviners and
weather predictors (or controllers). Midwives, almost always
female, are also standard and, as mentioned above, there is
usually a priestess or priest working at least part-time. What
causes confusion, especially when dealing with extinct cultures,
is that different tribes combine these offices into different
At the opening of the Common Era, European Paleopaganism con-
sisted of three interwoven layers: firstly, the original pre-
Indo-European religions (which were of course also the results of
several millenia of religious evolution and cultural conquests);
secondly, the proto-Indo-European belief system held by the PIE
speakers before they began their migrations; and thirdly, the
full scale "high religions" of the developed Indo-European cul-
tures. Disentangling these various layers is going to take a very
long time, if indeed it will ever be actually possible.
The successful genocide campaigns waged against the Druids and
their colleagues are complex enough to warrent a separate discus-
sion. Suffice it to say that by the time of the seventh century
C.E., Druidism had been either destroyed or driven completely
underground throughout Europe. In parts of Wales and Ireland,
fragments of Druidism seem to have survived in disguise through
the institutions of the Celtic Church and of the Bards and Poets.
Some of these survivals, along with a great deal of speculation
and a few outright forgeries, combined to inspire the ("Meso-
pagan") Masonic/Rosicrucian Druid fraternities of the 1700's.
These groups have perpetuated these fragments (and speculations
and forgeries) to this very day, augmenting them with a great
deal of folkloric and other research.
These would seem to most Americans to be the only sources of
information about Paleopagan Druidism. However, research done by
Russian and Eastern European folklorists, anthropologists and
musicologists among the Baltic peoples of Latvia, Lithuania and
Estonia indicates that Paleopagan traditions may have survived in
small villages, hidden in the woods and swamps, even into the
current century! Some of these villages still had people dressing
up in long white robes and going out to sacred groves to do
ceremonies, as recently as World War One! Iron Curtin social
scientists interviewed the local clergy, recorded the ceremonies
and songs, and otherwise made a thorough study of their "quaint
traditions" preparatory to turning them all into good Marxists.
Ironically enough, some of the oldest "fossils" of preserved
Indo-European traditions (along with bits of vocabulary from
Proto-German and other early IE tongues) seem to have been kept
by Finno-Ugric peoples such as the Cheremis. Most of this re-
search has been published in a variety of Soviet academic books
and journals, and has never been translated into English. This
material, when combined with the Vedic and Old Irish sources, may
give us most of the missing links necessary to reconstruct Paleo-
pagan European Druidism.
The translation of this material, along with some of the writ-
ings of Dumezil (and others) that are not yet in English, is
going to be an important part of the research work of ADF for the
first few years. And we're going to see if we can get copies of
some of the films...
But there are some definite "nonfacts" about the ancient Druids
that need to be mentioned: There are no real indications that
they used stone altars (at Stonehenge or anywhere else); that
they were better philosophers than the classical Greeks or Egyp-
tians; that they had anything to do with the mythical continents
of Atlantis or Mu; or that they wore gold Masonic regalia or used
Rosicrucian passwords. They were not the architects of (a) Stone-
henge, (b) the megalithic circles and lines of Northwestern
Europe, (c) the Pyramids of Egypt, (d) the Pyramids of the Ameri-
cas, (e) the statues of Easter Island, or (f) anything other than
wooden barns and stone houses. There is no proof that any of them
were monotheists, or "Prechristian Christians," that they under-
stood or invented either Pythagorean or Gnostic or Cabalistic
mysticism; or that they all had long white beards and golden
Separating the sense from the nonsense, and the probabilities
from the absurdities, about the Paleopagan clergy of Europe is
going to take a great deal of work. But the results should be
worth it, since we will wind up with a much clearer image of the
real "Old Religions" than Neopagans have ever had available
before. This will have liturgical, philosophical and political
consequences, some of which we'll be discussing in future issues
of "The Druids' Progress".
This article has been reprinted from "The Druids' Progress",
issue #1, and is copyright 1984 by P. E. I. Bonewits. "DP" is the
irregular journal of a Neopagan Druid group called "Ar nDraiocht
Fein", founded by Bonewits (author of "Real Magic"). For more
data, send an S.A.S.E. to: Box 9398, Berkeley, CA, USA 94709.
Permission to distribute via BBS's is hereby granted, provided
that the entire article, including this notice, is kept intact.