Pop Paganism

Church bashing, pagan priestesses, and religious pluralism – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1982) has it all. Offering yet another take on the Arthurian legend, Bradley’s fantasy has been praised for its feminist narrative and honored with its own miniseries on basic cable (2001).

The strongest women of Avalon – all devotees of the mother goddess – hold the destiny of the High King in their hands while fending off the dual threats of Saxon invasion and Christian conversion. The “official” version of the new religion gaining ground in Arthur’s world is cold, misogynistic, hypocritical, and meddlesome. Not all is gloom and doom, however. Bradley, in the voice of Morgaine, offers hope by uniting the two religions under one Gnostic banner. If Morgaine has her way, the most enlightened heirs of Camelot will understand that the Christian God and the Celtic goddess are male and female aspects of a single, nameless Divine. The good old days are behind us, she laments, but the goddess survives in the guise of Mary, mother of Jesus.

Mist of Avalon

Mists of Avalon - Morgaine, now in a convent, realizes that Mary is the Mother Goddess in a new guise

Avalon is a work of fiction, of course, but it captures the prevailing hunger for alternative spiritualities. Bradley is firmly committed to the premise that a woman-hating religion usurped a female-affirming religion in post-Roman Britain.[1] But this is not merely a change of guard. For Bradley, true Christianity is hidden from any follower of “organized” religion in much the same way that the Holy Isle of Avalon was hidden from the deluded Christians of her novel.

While she bemoans the way in which religion has become “the slave of politics and the state,” Bradley joins a growing list of authors exploiting Celtic spirituality for their own ends. In the typical pick ’n’ mix approach to postmodern beliefs, Bradley has no intention of embracing the whole religion. From her Gnostic perspective, all the gods are one god and all the goddesses are one goddess. The druids, I am sure, would have had a different opinion.[2]

Now fast forward three hundred years from the time of Arthur. Somewhere, perhaps on the remote island of Iona, a group of Celtic monks create a visually stunning edition of the Gospels. After one-too-many Viking raids, they flee with their precious manuscript to Kells in Ireland.

A version of this story is told in the recent animated movie, The Secret of Kells (2009). I say “version” because the monks of Ireland would have looked on in fascinated horror at what is otherwise a stylistically impressive work of art.

Keep in mind that the real Book of Kells was created in a heavily Christianized context. The monks and missionaries of Ireland had a long history of opposing paganism, first from the local druids and then from the Viking invaders. The version of Christianity circulating in the Irish sphere of influence at this time was, at least in principle, committed to “the holy scriptures alone.”[3] Unlike their peers on the Continent, the Celtic clergy had little use for councils or institutions exerting authority alongside, or above, the explicit teaching of Scripture. If an Arthur-like figure ever existed in 6th century Britain, this is the kind of church he might have encountered, not the caricature of Roman Catholicism envisioned by Bradley.

And yet Tomm Moore, the director and writer of Secret, manages to avoid any reference to the Christian content of this ancient manuscript. The Book of Kells is magical and mystical, but the viewer will never know that it had anything to do with the mission of Christ. Borrowing a page from Bradley’s Avalon, Moore pitches an authoritarian abbot against a sage old monk who is still in touch with the “deeper” pagan mysteries. The movie falls off the edge completely by enlisting a shape-shifting girl from the Celtic Otherworld.

The Secret of Kells

Secret of Kells - Aisling the forest spirit educates Brendan

Again, I doubt that Moore is personally interested in adopting full-blown Celtic paganism. He was simply looking, as he admits himself, for universal themes.[4] If so, then it is sobering to think that neo-Gnosticism, neo-paganism and New Age sensibilities are now universal.

Celtic scholars are acutely aware of these trends. In the opening pages of her work on the early medieval world, Caitlin Corning warns her readers that these popular views of Celtic spirituality say a lot more about us and what we want than “the reality of the early medieval Church in the Celtic lands.”[5] It is downright bizarre, adds Thomas O’Loughlin, to “strip early medieval people of their ethnic identity and Christianity by presenting them as models for modern neo-pagan rituals.”[6]

Bizarre, perhaps, but deliberate nonetheless. For all its faults, the pre-modern world was a time in which God took center stage in everyday life. Avalon and Secret try to create a version of history in which spirituality was only ever vague, and religion (especially the Christian religion) never really existed.

[A version of this article appeared originally in the November 2010 issue of Think, p. 7.]


[1] Marion Zimmer Bradley, “Thoughts on Avalon,” 1986. http://www.mzbworks.com/thoughts.htm

[2] Proinsias Mac Cana, “Celtic Religion: An Overview,” in Encyclopedia of Religion. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005, 3:1478-1497.

[3] Michael W. Herren and Shirley Ann Brown, Christ in Celtic Christianity. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2002, p. 8.

[4] Peter van der Lugt, “An Interview with Director Tomm Moore,” Twitch, October 7, 2009. http://twitchfilm.net/interviews/2009/10/an-interview-with-director-tomm-moore.php

[5] Caitlin Corning, The Celtic and Roman traditions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 3.

[6] Thomas O’Loughlin, Celtic Theology. London: Continuum, 2000, p. 203.

© 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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