(AUDIO AND TEXT): Presentation on Paganism, Witchcraft, and Climate Change for the Agora Citoyenne sur les écosystemes
Witches in a Crumbling Empire: Ardennes edition
On 11 September, 2021, I had the spectacular opportunity to present on paganism, animism, and climate change as part of the Citizen’s Agora on ecosystems in the medieval city of Esch-sur-Sûre.
It was given in the ruins of a castle just as the sun set and ravens began to call overhead.
You can listen to a live audio recording at the link below, and the text of the presentation follows underneath. A few photos of the event and the place appear at the end. It was a gorgeous place and a great, inspiring event.
Not very long ago—long as far as humans count time, but not so long as far a tree might reckon it—the thick forests surrounding this place were worshipped as a god.
Actually, a goddess.
Her name was Arduinna, which was also the name of the forests of which she was a goddess. Perhaps it might seem strange to think of a goddess and a forest having the same name, a name we now still remember when we call this land the Ardennes.
This wasn’t so strange to those who once lived here, though. Those people, the Treveri, from whom the city Trier takes its name, were, like all their neighbors, an animist people, people for whom the world was full of spirits, gods, and many other things we moderns now often call fairy tales or superstitions.
For the Treveri, the forests in which they lived belonged to a goddess and were in a manner of speaking her home. She lived in the forest, the forest was hers, and also—she was the forest.
Of course, her home was also full of many other things, which were also hers and part of her: wolves, lynx, bears, and aurochs, as well as trees so massive as to be the foundations of a living cathedral.
We have a tendency now in the present, in our modern, secular, capitalist world to look on the ancient past—and the beliefs of those who peopled that past—as backwards, unenlightened, and savage. To think of a goddess having a forest—and also a forest having a goddess—seems perhaps silly, incomprehensible, a useless myth.
Yet their forest, the forest of Arduinna, was once full of animals which have now also become mythic to us. It has been 150 years since a lynx last was seen in Luxembourg, a millennium since a bear was anywhere near the Ardennes, and the last aurochs on earth died almost 400 years ago. Of all those mythic creatures, only the wolf has returned, seen last year 3 kilometers away from where the “last wolf” was killed in 1893.
Of course, what happened to the animals of Arduinna’s forest has happened also to animals and plants across the world, whether they are in forests, in fields, or in the oceans. Last century, 500 species went extinct; just last year, another 15 disappeared forever.
These extinctions, which are accelerating and occur at roughly 1000 times the “natural extinction rate,” have occurred primarily through human activity. In many cases, this has been habitat loss, humans destroying or radically changing the places where those beings lived. In some cases, especially for large mammals, their disappearance is due to over-hunting. And in more and more cases, human-caused climate change has led to their irrevocable disappearance from the earth.
Now, I started by talking about a goddess, Arduinna. From what we know of her, she was associated with hunting and revered on high places. The Romans, as was their imperial habit, renamed her after their own huntress god, Diana. Later, the Franks who settled these lands and mixed with the Treveri saw in Arduinna a likeness to Freya. For all three peoples, though, the thick, nearly impenetrable forest—densely populated with animals no longer here—was sacred, as was the goddess who made the forest her home.
The Ardennes forest, deeply diminished from its former spread—a spread so thick and profound that early Christian missionaries wrote despairingly of it—was once part of a much larger forest, the Horcinian. The Schwartzwald in Germany and the Ardennes here were once connected to each other, were once part of the same forest. That forest stretched far west, past the Vosges into the Morvennes in central France, and east all the way to the largest remaining forest of Europe, the Białowieska.
Of course, now there are not many forests left, and none of them are connected to each other any longer.
A certain thing happens when you believe a forest is a god or goddess, that a god or goddess lives there, and that the forest belongs to them, rather than to humans. What happens is that you see the forest as sacred, meaning something set apart from the everyday human realm, and you treat the forest as such. Just as with other sacred things, you don’t use it to much, you don’t destroy it, you take care of it, and you don’t let others destroy it.
The river which runs through this beautiful town also belonged to a goddess, or more specifically was itself a goddess. The Treveri knew multiple such goddesses, and even a goddess of the crossing of rivers. Her name is Ritona, meaning “she of the fordings.”
Rivers are peculiar things. They are a source of life—both of food and of course water. They are also a source of protection, acting as a natural barrier for imperial armies who require bridges to cross them.
Like other sacred things, however, they have their own interests. Not long ago, this river, as well as all the other rivers throughout this land, flooded their banks during heavy rains.
Ancient animist, pagan peoples believed that unusual weather patterns and natural disasters were a sign of anger from the gods, a way of showing their displeasure at the actions of humans. We dismiss such ideas as superstitious and unscientific, yet those rains which swelled these rivers, flooding homes, sweeping away property, and ending lives are actually, scientifically, the fault of humans.
As you may know, the increased temperature of the earth on account of our industrial activity, our “modern” way of living, has caused the melting of large fields of ice in the Arctic. This melt has changed ocean currents that regulate the temperature here in Europe as well as along the eastern American seaboard. This had led to what climate scientists called ‘the polar vortex’ escaping the Arctic and freezing much of the American states last winter. This same disruption caused catastrophic droughts and heat waves which cooked shellfish on the beaches, while also causing the heavy rains we saw here in the Ardennes and along the Rhine.
In light of this, the ancient animist belief that natural disasters are linked to human actions suddenly sounds a lot more advanced than any other way of looking at this during that last 1000 years.
Droughts, famines, floods, and plagues were all seen as signs of divine displeasure at human actions, and we are currently living in a time when such things are all occurring at increasing rates. Because I make a habit of not speaking about a certain plague sweeping the world, I’ll mention a much smaller one from which I myself suffered.
Last year, wandering one of the many fragments of Arduinna’s forests, a part filled magnificent oaks--a tree particularly sacred to the Celtic and Germanic peoples who populated this land—three caterpillars happened to land on my neck. Being new to this land, I thought nothing of them until later that night when my body was so covered with red welts that I could not move.
That caterpillar, as you probably know, is the Oak Processionary Spinner. Native to the remnants of Turkish forests, it was brought here through modern trade to feed our industrial hunger for Oak wood. Having felled the vast majority of oaks in the Ardennes, merchants paid for the felling and importation of Turkish oaks. Along with those oaks came the caterpillars.
Again as with other disasters, this is something we humans did, a consequence of our actions. The ancestors of this land understood this perhaps better than we do: what humans do to nature has consequences.
When people ask me what it means to be a pagan now, I point to this. I point to the floodings, to the droughts, to the melting icecaps, to the extinctions, to the plagues. And then I point to what was once believed in these lands—and in fact every land on earth: nature is sacred, it is full of gods and goddesses, and treating it otherwise results in sorrow, pain, and misery for humans.
It took a very long time for humans to lose these beliefs. Sometimes I read the accounts of Christian missionaries and laugh at their frustration. St. Hubertus, for example, the patron saint of hunters and called “the apostle of the Ardennes,” is said to have sat on a tall pole for months or perhaps years in protest of the locals’ belief in Arduinna (whom the Catholic writers mistook for the Roman Diana). St. Boniface railed against the backwardness of Frankish peoples treating Oaks as gods, whining repeatedly to multiple popes about how difficult it was to convince them they were just trees.
When did pagan beliefs fully die here? It’s unclear, and it’s not fully certain they really died despite the witch-hunts that swept through here and every other country in Europe.
While many write off the hysteria over witches as a mere superstitious moment in our progress to modern enlightenment, the Marxist Feminist writer, Silvia Federici, has shown they were actually a crucial step in the creation of industrial capitalism. Witches, who were primarily but not entirely women, were often people whose work and knowledge were continuations of that older way of seeing the world. To convince us all that nature was not sacred, we had to first become convinced that people who believed those things were evil and should be murdered.
Put another way, the so-called Enlightenment—which is better described as the mechanistic worldview—was born from the witch’s stake.
It was also born on the factory floor, those “satanic mills” where humans suddenly found that not only was nature no longer sacred, but neither was human life. Humans became cogs in a machine, a machine which constantly vomited out into the air black coal smoke and something blacker yet invisible: carbon dioxide.
That’s the stuff, of course, which has caused all the divine retribution we call “catastrophic climate change” or “global warming.”
While belief in the power of invisible things is usually associated with superstition, a kind of magical thinking which the witch hunts, the age of reason, and the industrial disenchantment of the world supposedly eradicated forever, we all now find ourselves true believers again.
Like the renaissance alchemists, we now trace the effects of aetheric substances produced in the alembics of our motors, our engines, our power plants. We call this science now, and shake our heads in shame at those who believed spirits populated the air, the rivers, the forests, and all those other parts of nature suffering from this invisible force.
The witches were killed to silence such beliefs and the truths they knew. Yet here, now, in the year 2021, our world—including the human world—is drowning and burning, just as the witches did.
These are dark words, no easier to hear than they are for me to speak. We are killing ourselves by killing nature, which is to say the same thing.
What our supposedly superstitious, backwards, and primitive ancestors knew was that you cannot speak of what lives in the world and the world itself as separate things. Just as a goddess Arduinna lived in these forests around us and was also these forests, just as these rivers had goddesses but were also goddesses themselves, we humans live in nature and we are also nature.
Now, of course, we see ourselves as separate from all that and call ourselves modern. We have smartphones yet have become dumb to the wisdom calling us from the earth. We have a global network of orbital satellites transmitting cute cat photos and vapid opinion directly into our pockets, yet we no longer can hear the songs from the stars or the guidance from the moon.
Silvia Federici has shown us that to get to this point of separation, the witches needed to be burned. They were burned because they refused to be modern, just as indigenous people were colonized, re-educated, converted, and often slaughtered because they held to their old ways. In both cases, it was the beliefs that needed to be destroyed, beliefs embodied in the flesh of peoples for whom the older way of relating to the world merely made more sense.
We stopped believing in goddesses of forests so the forests could become just wood to us. We stopped believing in rivers as goddesses so they could be dammed, rechanneled, and polluted according to our will. And most of all, we stopped believing in humans as part of nature so that we could turn them into machines, mere workers as interchangeable cogs in the mills and the mines that create all that we embrace as modern.
And of course, that modern is what is killing us. Whether you believe in gods or not, the retribution of the earth—which our pagan, animist ancestors believed would result from abuse of engodded nature—is happening regardless.
These are dark words, so I will tell you of something else, something less dark, something which for me has meant relentless hope and the goal of all my work.
There are still witches, and there are still gods. Those ancient beliefs we discarded and thought extinct are still around, often in plain sight.
Every year in Luxembourg and throughout the Ardennes, an ancient ritual is enacted. It is a ritual the Treveri ancestors of this land knew and enacted, as did many other Celtic peoples to the north, the east, and the south of here. It is a ritual the Frankish peoples who came later to these lands recognized immediately, because it was also a ritual practiced by Germanic peoples as well.
That ritual is called the Buergbrennen. Celebrated now as a village festival connected to the catholic church, people gather together wood and straw and set it alight to burn away the winter.
The Christian missionaries who brought with them a new belief about the world faced an impossible task: how do you convince people to change their ways, to stop doing the things they’ve done for thousands of years? One might as well try to convince a forest to stop being a forest, or a river to stop being a river.
Eventually they learned a trick, one the Roman Empire had been quite good at. Rather than destroying every ancient thing, you can just rename them. That is how the Romans renamed shrines to Arduinna as shrines to Diana, and how the missionaries renamed these ancient pagan fires, the Buergbrennen, as Christian ones.
Just as a forest doesn’t stop being a forest if you call it something else, nor does a river stop being a river just because you call it a lake, neither did these pagan rituals stop being rituals just because they were now called catholic.
Enter any catholic church in Europe and you’ll see quite a lot of pagan gods still hanging around. Of course, they’ve all got new names now; Cernunnos is now called St. Hubertus, Hermes is now called St. Expedite. Odin and Gwyn ap Nudd still ride their wild hunt across the winter skies, but they’re now called St. Nicholas and bring presents rather than leading the souls of the dead to their homes. Ancient hilltop shrines to goddesses still have statues upon them, though they are now named Mary and dressed in imperial garb.
It’s not so easy to kill a belief in a god. It’s much simpler to hide them in plain sight, to re-brand them just as we’ve re-branded alchemy as chemistry and the vengeance of nature gods as climate change.
But again, the gods never went away, nor did the witches.
Witches were not what the judges and inquisitors claimed them to be. They were not women stealing children for sacrifice to infernal spirits, but rather women still living as we once did. Healing themselves and others with gifts from the forests, ending pregnancies with those same gifts. Whispering prayers and incantations perhaps, but to spirits and gods who were woven into the land itself, rather than sitting upon a distant throne judging the acts of men. Timing their lives according to the moon and the seasons, rather than the imposed discipline of factory and machine time.
People have always done such things throughout all the world, and still do. Often we look to indigenous societies to find the wisdom we have lost, yet that same wisdom speaks from the very trees which surround this place.
There are people still in the Ardennes whispering Arduinna’s name, just as there are people elsewhere whispering the names of others. I know of many such people, many of them women, many of them practicing witchcraft as the ancients once did.
The last decade especially has seen an explosion of interest in witchcraft, but also of other older kinds of relationship to the earth. Permaculture, for example, which is a new name for an indigenous way of raising plants, has become a large movement alongside interest in homesteading, traditional crafting, and other more stable ways of living in the world.
So too has artistic exploration of this kind of relationship to land grown significantly. I know of more and more artists and musicians each year weaving songs and stories from the land, channeling a wisdom that we thought was lost. I think of one such woman, born in this land and now living in Norway, practicing the animist witchcraft known as Seidr while tapping birch trees for sugar, raising food as we once did, and channeling the wisdom of that land into song for the rest of us to here.
That such interest in animism, in paganism, in witchcraft, and in traditional ways of living has increased at the same time that climate disruptions have accelerated is no mere coincidence. I suspect we will see more of this, more of a desire to return to what we thought was lost. More will see the forests and rivers as sacred again, as beings to be venerated and respected rather than trashed and exploited.
Whether it is too late or not, I do not know. I only know—as I am sure you all know as well—that our world is dying and the modern will soon go away. Whether this all ends the way empires end, with violence, famine and despair; or whether it will end as rituals often end, with new wisdom and insight, I also do not know.
I know one other thing, though. Neither the gods, nor the witches, ever really went away.