In a trip in March of this year to the Czech Republic, which also took me to Hungary, I had some very interesting and stimulating discussions with Czech Pagans in Brno and Prague. All of our meetings took place in pubs, as was quite fitting for a Czech religious discussion as the pub is the most sacred of Czech institutions. Many of those in attendance were familiar with this blog as well as the book Modern Paganism in World Cultures that I helped to put together some years back. In fact, I discovered that portions of the Modern Paganism book have been translated into Czech and circulated on the internet, which was surprising to me and also very flattering, especially since I have Czech ancestry on my father's side.
I was really amazed at the wide variety of forms of Paganism being developed and experimented with and pleased to see that Czech Pagans with quite different ideas and orientations were quite friendly with one another despite their differences. It is the magic of the Czech pub, I guess, or perhaps a secret ingredient in Czech beer that just can't be found in the American Budweiser.
Judging from the people I met in Brno and Prague, I would guess that the two most popular forms of Czech Paganism are Slavic reconstructionist Paganism and Norse-Germanic Paganism or Asatru (in several different varieties, I should emphasize.) I had expected most of the people to be Slavic-oriented, so the large number of Germanic-oriented Asatru followers was a surprise at first. On reflection, I realized that this makes sense in terms of Czech history. The Czech lands have always had a large German population, which is one reason that the Nazis invaded back in the 1930s. I would speculate that the modern Asatru-followers are perhaps inspired by this heritage, but I don't know their motivations deeply. It may also be that Norse-Germanic Paganism is attractive simply because it is well-developed and organized with a lot of sister organizations in other countries.
In my discussions, I raised my usual concerns about ethnic Paganism risking association with problematic political perspectives from racism to fascism. I felt that some Czech Pagans were annoyed with me for bringing up these issues. They see it as very simple, just a matter of standing up for one's land, heritage and traditions. I find this problematic in a region which has provided a home to many different peoples across the centuries: Celts, Jews and Roma (also known as Gypsies or Tsigane) along with Czechs and Germans. Some of the earliest settlers in the region were not "Czechs" in the sense of Slavs, but Central European Celts. The name "Bohemia," one of the major regions of the Czech lands which includes Prague, goes back to the Celtic tribe of the "Boii," noted by Roman writers around 50 BCE. The Slavs came some time later in about the mid-first millennium CE, circa 500 CE, arriving from the north and east. Germans probably established themselves in the region in about the same period, but could have come even earlier. Jews are first reported living in the Czech lands in the late tenth century, in a document dating from 995 CE, with Roma (Gypsies) arriving in about the 15th century or possibly some centuries earlier. There are other smaller groups that could be mentioned, in particular further sub-divisions of Slavs to include Polish, Ukrainian and Slovak Slavs, and also Magyars or Hungarians.
To my knowledge, there is no obvious lasting trace of the Celtic Boii as a distinctive cultural, linguistic or ethnic group in the Czech lands, which suggests that long ago they assimilated into other groups such as the Czech Slavs or Germans. As regards the other four main groups mentioned above (Czech Slavs, Germans, Jews, and Roma), three have been present in the Czech lands for more than a thousand years, while the last-noted Roma have been present for over five hundred. After that long a time in the country, should they not all be counted as Czechs, as part of the Czech culture, heritage and gene-pool?
Taking these different long-term inhabitants of the Czech lands into account, it seems to me important to acknowledge that such concepts as "Czech heritage," "Czech roots," and "Czech tradition" are far from simple matters. Where does Slavic influence end and German begin? What about the centuries-long interaction with Jewish and Roma minorities? That cannot simply be wished away. These diverse groups' presences and contributions are now part of the "blood and soil" and the memory and imagination of the Czech lands. One can apply a very narrow definition of Czech heritage as a Czech Slavic-only tradition, but that would actually leave out a lot of Czech history and culture. All of the above-mentioned groups can lay some claim to some share of Czech heritage, some kind of Czech roots, some piece of Czech tradition, some contribution to Czech culture. I know some of my Czech friends will shake their heads reading this, thinking "Oh, that stupid, arrogant 'multicultural' American! He has spent too much time in New York City eating sushi, shish kebab and Korean tacos with his mixed-race, multi-kulti friends! May all his tiresome preaching about diversity lead him to a good long bout of diarrhea!"
My point is that Czech Pagans as well as other Pagans need to be careful how they draw the boundaries of the identities and communities they want to construct and inhabit, and to keep in mind that cultural diversity and mixing of peoples and traditions is in itself a very old and powerful tradition. Though there are times and places that could be pointed to as exceptions--usually very temporary exceptions, I would point out--diversity and mixing have always been a stimulating force in human history, and in my opinion, we should avoid constructing versions of the past that romanticize it as a mono-ethnic paradise of racial and cultural purity, because it rarely was and if it ever was, it did not stay that way for long. Soon, new peoples will always arrive with new traditions and the contact between cultures stimulates new developments. It is inevitable.
It is one thing to enjoy particular ethnic traditions and seek to continue them, as in worshipping Slavic or Germanic gods and goddesses and finding inspiration in ancient songs, myths, and practices, but over-emphasis on ethnic exclusivity runs the risk of changing Paganism from a celebration of particular traditions into a rallying point for hatred, racism and oppression.
Let me concede that these issues of which traditions to preserve, how to go about preserving them, and who to include or exclude in a community focused on such traditions are all very important issues and not very easy ones to define or navigate. I personally tend to favor preservation of ethnic tradition as the core of any particular style of Paganism, while also allowing for modernization of such tradition, and openness to people of different ethnic backgrounds who are attracted to a particular tradition. I know that others have different ideas, and we should continue to discuss these matters. Until such time as my plans for a world dictatorship under my personal benevolent leadership fully materialize, I am happy to allow such discussions to continue and to contribute what I can.
As I have been researching Eastern European Jewish history for a book project, I have been struck by an intriguing possible parallel between the Eastern European Jews of the past and modern-day ethnic Pagans. If Pagans REALLY want to form separate, closed communities that preserve old customs, beliefs and traditions and resist modern cultural and social trends that seem to push toward diversity and mixing, might not the Jews of Eastern Europe serve as a model for what they seek to develop? You could have a Pagan shtetl right next to a Jewish one, or maybe one ghetto for the Slavic Pagans, another for the Germanic Pagans, and a third one for Jews, and so on. Is this what we want?
I think it is highly interesting that Norse-Germanic Paganism is so popular in the Czech region. It exploded my expectation that Czech Pagans would be strictly devoted to a Slavic-based Reconstructionist Paganism. It was also great to see the Slavic-oriented and Germanic-oriented Pagans getting along quite well.
I also was greatly impressed by some unusual forms of Paganism I had never heard of before. One was a group dedicated, as I understand it, to recreating the hunting lifestyle of the Paleolithic period with a focus on wolves as a sacred animal. A fellow at one of the pubs brought with him a hybrid wolf-dog puppy that quickly became the center of attention of our gathering. Another man spoke of a cult of Cthulu, the divine monster or monstrous divinity of H.P Lovecraft tales. Strictly speaking, this development of religious thought and practice derived from modern fantasy literature might not be considered a "Pagan" tradition per se, but insofar as it is dealing with issues of the sacredness of nature and the boundary-line between the natural and the supernatural, I see it as at least quasi-Pagan or Paganesque or perhaps post-Pagan.
Therefore, I will leave off for today wishing you all the Blessings of the Wolf-God and Cthulu; may they rule our universe in peace and not rip us all to pieces!