Anyone who has read Joseph Campbell knows of the commonalities amongst ancient myths. Archangel Michael slaying a seven-headed dragon in the West is echoed in Japan by Susanoo slaying the eight-headed monster. The hero’s journey involves facing your inner demon, whatever the culture.
There are only two countries in the world with dragons on their flags: Bhutan and Wales. Why should a mystical fantasy creature appear on such far-flung flags? And why should the West favour a fire-eating monster whereas the East sees a benevolent emissary from on high? I can’t help thinking Christianity plays a role here, by demonising the snake and other serpent-like creatures which played an important role in pagan religions.
I once read an academic paper about the similarities between King Arthur and Yamato Takeru, a hero of the Nihon shoki. Rather than synchronicity, the suggestion was that the similarities arose from a common point of origin north-west of India, with migration routes spreading the story in different directions. Perhaps something similar happened with the dragon.
Here in Glastonbury one can find two opposite uses of dragon imagery. On the top of Glastonbury Tor stand the remains of a church destroyed in an earthquake, dedicated to St Michael. As the commander of the Army of God, says the book of Revelations, archangel Michael will lead the other angels in a fight against evil, represented by a dragon.
By contrast, in the heart of the town’s lively neo-pagan community stands a statue of a Japanese-style dragon. It’s a conscious reclamation of its role as a pre-Christian symbol of wisdom and renewal. In this way the split between Western monotheism and Eastern thinking is being bridged by the spirituality of a New Age.
You only have to think of the Nazis to realise that paganism can be misused for nationalistic and ultra-nationalistic reasons. Apparently something very similar is happening in contemporary Ukraine, where paganism is being utilised by those who are anti-Russian. So far neo-paganism in Britain has thankfully avoided this, being apolitical albeit firmly allied with environmental concerns.
One of the myths of primal religions is the notion of being a chosen people, and in this respect Japanese have sometimes been compared with Jews. The idea of gods favouring one particular race is obviously comforting, and as we know from State Shinto it can easily be turned into a nationalist ideology in times of war.
The idea that kami are only associated with Japan, and that only Japanese can be Shinto remains deeply embedded in the minds of some. Similar notions have been expressed about the shamanism of indigenous people, such as Native Americans, and charges of ‘appropriation’ made by Westerners who adapt the practice. However, the consequences of living in ‘a global village’ in a postmodern age mean that the argument cannot withstand the force of history. What will be, will be.
Both Shinto and modern paganism have claims to be ancient religions with a continuous history. The idea of a link with an ancient age of lost wisdom when mankind lived in accord with nature is a seductive one. So is the notion of following age-old traditions.
However, both modern Shinto and paganism are more properly described as invented traditions. Following the restoration of the imperial system in 1868, the government artificially divided Shinto from Buddhism, setting up a new organisation designed to bolster the spiritual authority of the emperor. Folk customs like shamanism and shugendo (mountain asceticism) were outlawed; imperial ancestors were forced on local shrines as the primary kami; and ritual was prescribed to boost central control.
As for modern paganism, it has often sought to position itself as the continuation of ancient traditions. Witchcraft was said to have survived secretly into modern times, despite the ruthless persecution of the seventeenth century and later. However, studies by Ronald Hutton and others have shown that the roots lay elsewhere, such as in Theosophy, the Golden Dawn and borrowings from different traditions. It’s now generally accepted that Wicca in particular, which was the driving force of the pagan revival, is more a creation rather than a revival.
Because of a concern with patriarchy in Christianity, neo-paganism has looked to reclaim the feminine. Here in Glastonbury at this very moment a Goddess Festival is taking place, centred around the first Goddess Temple to have been established in the British Isles for some 1500 years.
Shinto too has a primal female deity, Amaterasu, but she is associated with the sun rather than the earth. How did the sun come to be female in Japan, whereas it’s decidedly male in the West? It’s an intriguing and complex question which I’d like to take up in a separate post. Suffice it to say here that Amaterasu serves as the great ancestral Mother of the imperial line, and as such is worshipped at Japan’s premier shrine of Ise.
For Joseph Campbell, the urgent need of our times was to find a modern myth, one that would fill the spiritual void of our postmodern society. Here in Glastonbury a contender can be seen in the many depictions of Gaia, a concept which derives from the personification of the earth in ancient Greece,
In 1979 the scientist James Lovelock gave the idea new impetus by suggesting the earth was in fact a living organism with a self-regulatory mechanism. By interfering with it, humans are destroying it. His hypothesis has been hailed by some as a breakthrough akin to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Here was scientific underpinning for an ancient idea and one eagerly taken up by the neo-pagans. It represents just what is needed for our times – an idea to cure us of the madness that allows the West to spend billions on war and greed while turning a blind eye to the destruction of the environment that entails. Instead of invading the Middle East, why not spend the billions on declaring war on pollution and the devastation of the Amazon rainforest?
For an absorbing 4-part interview with James Lovelock, see here.