Naming Tradition: The Word and World of Pagandom

Naming Tradition: The Word and World of Pagandom

By Evgeny Nechkasov (Askr Svarte) and Jafe Arnold

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“Language is the house of Being” – these words of the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger not only indicate how in everyday speech as well as in philosophy Being pronounces itself, its moods and attunements (Stimmungen) and care (Sorge), but also refer to an important notion in the thinking of this “Black Forest shaman”: dwelling in the world. Dasein is thrown into the world in which it dwells (Wohnen), like in a raised wooden house. To dwell means to experience, to come to know and to make known a surrounding place, to make it one’s own, to become local to and with it, to become “native” and “original.” Dwelling in the world therefore means, among other things, “selecting”[1] the right words for naming things. Words themselves grow forth to meet the meanings and things which are called by them. Authentic existence in the world, according to Heidegger, can thus be found named in a fragment of Hölderlin’s verse: “poetically man dwells.” 

In the world of Tradition, to which much in Heidegger’s thought leads us back in new light, and in which such dwelling was the archetypal norm, naming is always and everywhere a sacred matter. Like the magical word, a name encompasses and touches the essence of an entity, manifests and affects it, and connects it amidst the so many dimensions of correspondences, manifestations, and phenomena that make up the beingful world of the cosmos. Cosmos itself is a name – κόσμος – which the ancient Greeks called the world ordered out of the Gods’ victory over the Titans in the beginnings of time. 

In the ordered, named world, all that is namable is named and as such is thus recognized in its being, its place, and its relation to all else. Naming a human introduced them into the world, making them a part of it, and identified and connected them with a tradition, a lineage, a position, an event, etc. In the event of initiation, a person gained a new name or learned the true names of things. The Gods are addressed and summoned by their proper names, by which are also revealed and concealed various aspects of their mysterious essence and message. Alternatively, in view of such power and mysteries, their names could be kept secret or become subject to euphemization. Every stone, river, forest, mountain, and settlement which bore a name did so by virtue of its special identity and associations among the constellation of beings, things, and forces. Naming represented sacred worlding and mapping.

The center and axis of the existence and naming of archaic, authentically dwelling man was myth; his thinking is mytho-poetic. Mythos (μῦθος) literally means “telling”, “story”, the oral exposition of tradition and legend on how and why the world is as it is and as the Divinities made it (ποίησις, poiesis). In the word “mythopoiesis” we encounter language-as-storying, “telling-being”, i.e., bringing into being through telling (mytho-poetic), or telling how things were brought into being (mytho-poetic). The power and authority of such speech – and hence also the danger of its perversion – was a particular concern of the first Greek philosophers. In Plato, the naming of certain types of speech as mythos or not emerged as a crucial controversy, one whose interpretations and consequences can be felt all the way down to the modern world and its philosophy and language. 

In general, by invoking a name in myth (or as mythos), like in ritual and magic, a person recognized, activated, and called upon the being of a thing in its power and meaning. “In Tradition, language creates, destroys, enchants, liberates, and shows the fundamental laws of the Divine cosmos, and in many ways the knowledge of language, knowledge of the names of the Gods, and of incantations and formula is initiatic knowledge, knowledge of the Divine itself.” [2] The enigma of the origin, meaning, or absence of names constituted some of the great initiatic myths and mysteries of the metaphysical order of the cosmos, its powers, dimensions, and fates. 

At the same time, the world of Tradition knew and appreciated the nameless. By this could be understood the apophatic, the ineffable, the mysterious which could not be wholly worded. Such could also concern that which in the world of Tradition was so all-encompassing, so omnipresent, and so obvious as given reality that naming such would be a strange delineation. The latter happens to be the case with countless traditions, whose names become a need only once displaced from being “reality as such.” 

In the eras of Modernity and Postmodernity, in the “age of disenchantment” in which language, words, and names have suffered drastic decline, distortion, perversion, and oblivion, naming represents an especially acute problem. Ancient, essential names are forgotten; so many of the names of places, phenomena, and things we still hear today are left over as stale and seemingly “arbitrary”, cut off from the mode in which they were still magically alive and said their essence. New names no longer implicate their bearers as existing in a multi-dimensional, beingful world of dwellings. In such a “world”, language and names are banal and subject to markets and fashions, dwelling is a challenge to which no aspects of urban life are conducive, and “myth” popularly means anything false, mistaken, or “superstitious”. All of the latter are based in a loss and rejection of the mode and paradigm in which language, dwelling, and myth are possible and connected: tradition. Myth as “telling”, as “story”, dwelling as belonging, and the word as sacred and “connected” confront us with what is called “tradition.” Hence another name for human dwelling and being: being-in-tradition. The word “tradition” derives from the Latin tradere, meaning handing down, transmission, such as retelling myths which set forth cosmogony, anthropology, ethics, and everything altogether. One of the later synonyms for tradition is “religion”, from religare, i.e., “re-binding”, “re-establishing” connection with the higher world.

In the seemingly darkest depths of the anti-traditional world of Modernity in the 20th century, a school of thinkers since appropriately named the “Traditionalists” identified precisely “Tradition” as the name of the essence of that whole paradigm of the sacred, beingful world of dwelling against which the modern world represents a hardening disenchantment, a Sprachnot (“absence”, “lack”, “distress”, “poverty”, “privation” of language). This naming of Tradition represented an essential, primordial, perennial “reconnection” (religare) and, to once again draw on Heidegger, an “event of Being” (Ereignis des Seins). At the same time, beyond a meta-philosophical concept and framework, Traditionalism put forth an imperative: not only to reconstruct and “re-reveal” Tradition intellectually, but to re-enliven it, to re-live it, to “re-tradere” it. To re-enchant, re-speak, and re-dwell the world.

It is a metaphysical premise of the paradigm of Tradition that the One is manifest in the Many, the Divine is manifest in Divinities, Tradition is manifest in traditions. The One and the Many, the Divine and the Divinities, Tradition and traditions therefore have paradigmatically consonant but different names in different dwellings in which they are manifest. Yet, one of the main developments of events that marked the passage between the predominance of the dwelled world of Tradition and the installation of the modern world was a rift whereby several traditions denounced all others and claimed universality. The Abrahamic monotheistic religions denounced all of the traditions of the world’s diverse peoples and dwellings as “pagan” or  “heathen”, as “paganism” or “heathenism.” Thus, the religions that emerged in the Kali-Yuga, the Iron Age, gave a polemical, categorical “non-name” to all the diverse traditions which come down to us from the incalculable depths of prehistory, in the wake of whose destruction and supplantation many names have been lost. In the contemporary age, Traditionalist attempts at conceptualizing this rift and its meaning in metaphysics and sacred history have arrived not only at the question of retrieving essential names, but also the recognition that the significance of names becomes most acute when they are absent. The question of naming this constellation of traditions and their common matrix, which veritably constitutes Tradition in its greater part from prehistory to late Western antiquity and the Middle Ages (and in some regions much later), is an essential problem, one which is neither “philological” and “historiographical” nor merely “voluntaristic.” It is a question of retrieving and naming the essence of Tradition in its manifestations among peoples throughout all of our known cosmos and its cycles in an authentic, inspiriting way. It is a question of naming ourselves and our essential aspiration toward authentically traditional dwelling today. This question has recently been constructively raised among Russian-language Traditionalists, in the current which has named itself Pagan Traditionalism. 

In the Russian language, for designating the traditions known in English as “pagan” or “heathen” there is the wonderful and multifaceted word “iazychestvo” (язычество). This word derives from the Old Church Slavonic word iazytsy (я҆зы́цы), meaning “peoples”, which was modeled after the Greek word ethnos (ἔθνος). The word iazychestvo is formed by way of the suffix -stvo, which in Russian means an intrinsic property. Thus, iazychestvo rings like “form of religiosity intrinsic to a people”, as an adjectival name and characteristic. Paganism as iazychestvo can be interpreted and translated with reference to Russian as “narodnichestvo”, “peopleness”, “folkness”, or “narodnaia vera“, “popular/folk belief/faith.” After the adoption of Christianity by the Russian nobility, paganism was preserved for many centuries among the agricultural folk, hence its semantics refer us to rural communities and their nature-oriented ritual practices. 

Another aspect of the word iazychestvo is connected with that fact that it contains the root iazyk, “language”, i.e., the language of a people, language as the spoken word, and iazyk as also the word for the bodily organ of the tongue. Bearing in mind the important connection with defining and associating a people along the linguistic principle, we can enclose this series of resonances and summate that in the Russian term iazychestvo three fundamental facets and notions are revealed, unfold, and are at play: (1) iazytsy as the people and peoples, cf. “inoiazychnye” (“other peoples”), (2) language as that which a people speaks, and (3) paganism, iazychestvo, as the tradition expressed in a people in their native, ancestral, original language. 

If we depart from the Slavic-Russian lingual space and turn to the European languages, then we find ourselves faced with the fact that the term iazychestvo is either untranslatable or demands constant, voluminous explanations of the nuances which are otherwise easily understood by native Russian speakers. Hence the need to “select” a fitting, approaching term to designate mythopoetic traditions in the Indo-European space (and beyond) and to drop the substantive suffix “-ism”, which turns the religious phenomenon into a form of religious dogma in an anachronistic Abrahamic sense or with the connotation of a modern ideology. At the same time, it bears recognizing that the term which we put forth for contemplation, while originating from the (Indo-)European languages, might in some ways coincide with iazychestvo and in others express other facets of this spiritual-religious phenomenon. 

The optimal point of departure is the original Roman-cum-Christian naming of “the pagan”: the Latin word paganus, meaning “rural”, “of the village”, from the lexeme pagus, that is the rural district, countryside, or outskirts of a settlement. The city, urbs, was the place of the aristocracy, trade, and the future bourgeoisie, the location of the church and bishop. Consequently, the city and the urbanus associated with it were contrasted to the “rural darkness of ignorance” in which the religae paganorum continued to exist for an extremely long, even uninterrupted time. This is precisely why, for instance, the phrase “pre-Christian religions” is completely compromised, for it implicitly contains the progressive moral judgement scale of “pagan=village=backwards” vs. “Christian=urban=better.” We see this ubiquitous in the works of the Christian apologists and critics of folk traditions, who accused villagers of adhering to old customs and obscurantism. Closely adjacent to this semantic range is the English term “heathen” (German Heiden, Old Norse Heiðr) from the Proto-Germanic *haiduz, meaning empty, uncultivated land, which came to refer to the lands of the “barbarians” and their “barbarian religions”, as in “Heathendom.”

The Latin paganus/paganismus was inherited by the European languages down to the modern English “pagans” and “paganism” and is ubiquitously used both in everyday and academic language. Understood through the Traditionalist account of history, “paganism” and “heathenism” or “heathenry” can thus potentially be restored to their etymologically positive, dwelling-oriented meanings. However, Tradition is not the preservation of ashes, but nourishing and lighting anew fire. Therefore, in order to give it free range and to leave behind “-ism” with its de facto Abrahamic-polemical as well as modern “hedonistic”, “atheistic”, “ideological” associations, it is necessary to form another, self-sufficient form of the word. Suitable to this is the suffix “-dom”, by which are formed nouns reflecting qualities, fundamental states, as well as belonging to some higher “jurisdiction” (“dominion”) and power. In the linguistic dimension of suffix meaning, “Pagan-dom” intersects with the Russian term iazyche-stvo. In the Germanic languages, this suffix derives from the Proto-Germanic root *-dōmaz, meaning a judgement or decision made in authoritative, judicial respects. Across the Indo-European languages, the root *dem- is attested as forming words for “home”, “household”, or “homestead”, i.e., the basic unit and place of the “judgment”, “decision”, and “dwelling” of the family, clan, tribe, genus, etc. 

Pagandom is iazychestvo, “paganism” as a whole, as a general, common term for peoples under its spiritual, natural predominance and jurisdiction (order, disposition). The -dom suffix restores the sense of order, hierarchy, and due intrinsic to the manifestationist metaphysics of the ordered, named world (cosmos) and the organization of the ancient, thoroughly sacralized world in which paganism was predominant. At the same time, the notion of a larger realm, a broader world order, allows for the diversity of spiritualities and practices that make up the constellation of pagan traditions, estates, cults, etc., more so than the fixedness of an “-ism.” Like the whole world of Tradition, Pagandom is the space and mode of Being and paradigm of the sacred, the primordial and indestructible mythopoetic episteme, language, and power. The term “Pagandom” also reflects paganism’s intrinsic draw towards the archaic, to agriculture, herding, hunting, etc., in contrast to the urban bourgeoisie and its aspirations for “Enlightenment” and progress.

The term Pagandom is productive, pro-visional, and originally reflective of the essence of paganism in yet another, in our times perhaps key vein: like a kingdom or zone of hegemony, the historical boundaries of paganism have shifted (first and foremost in the West) – from the whole palette of reigning traditions of peoples to the peripheries of the Abrahamic faiths, to the folklore of the countrysides of the European Middle Ages and early modern period, to the secret whispers and idiosyncratic aspirations of esoteric, occult, and so-called “neo-pagan” groups in the modern era, to the dispersed diaspora of the Postmodern world. This speaks not only to the general trajectory of the cosmos into the Kali-Yuga, but to the peculiar situation of Traditionalists and pagans today who find themselves, as in the pagan-inspired legends of the Middle Ages, amidst the withdrawal and concealment of their lords and kingdoms, of their zones of judgment, sayings, and dwelling. Pagandom touches upon the theme of the movement and concealment of sacred centers over the course of the cosmic cycles, as well as to the sacred reality still operative beyond the present domains which will return. In this sense, Pagandom emerges as both “diagnostically” and “imperatively” naming the sacred geography of pagan traditions on the way down to and within the modern world, with the imperative that we make the decision (judgment) in its favor today.

Finally (or rather for beginning), following further this path of considerations in a circle, we can note how “Pagandom” is in its suffix in archaic orthography one letter “e” away from “dome”, such as that of a temple (and in Russian the similarly pronounced “dom” means home). “Pagandome” is the pagan home, our home, our “circle” in which myths are told in their native language and natural cycle. We dwell in and by Pagandom and it is passed along through us – at once open and enveloping, in our homeland and in circumstances of seeming homelessness. In seeking to name it, we return to it and to our essence.

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[1] In the Russian version of this essay, we used the term “podbor” from the verb “podbirat’”, i.e., to pick up from the ground, from the field, to gather, related to “sobor” (“gathering”, “assembly”). Despite its modern arbitrary connotations, the Latin ancestor of the English “select” is based on the root lego, which identically means to “gather.” In both cases, and etymologically directly in the English case, we hear the echoes of Logos

[2] Askr Svarte, Polemos: The Dawn of Pagan Traditionalism (PRAV Publishing, 2020), 357.