Religion is a universal human phenomenon. Peoples and cultures the world over and throughout all time have developed religions which express their history, their heroes, their understanding of the universe, and their values. The religious impulse is innate.
For the last 1600 years, Europe has been a Christian continent, and though secularism has in recent times substantially eroded Christendom’s former influence in the West, much of Europe remains at least culturally Christian; and, according to Pew Research, about 76% of Europeans still self-identify as Christian.
But this was not always so. The ancient Greeks, while at the height of their world-changing genius, were worshipers of Zeus, not Christ. Likewise, during their most productive and prodigious years, the ancient Romans believed in a large pantheon of gods, goddesses, heroes, and spirits until their official conversion to Christianity towards the end of the Western Roman Empire. And it wasn’t just the Greeks and Romans. The Celtic and Germanic peoples in the north, as well as the Slavic peoples to the east, all had ancient, indigenous, non-Christian, polytheistic religions.
Though the religious beliefs of the various European tribes – Greeks, Romans, Celts, Germans, Slavs – were different, they were all branches of the same tree. Much like how most of the languages of Europe are quite similar and derive from a single ancient language, the indigenous religions of Europe share a parent religion known as the Proto-Indo-European religion. These ancient ancestors of Europe – that is, the Proto-Indo-Europeans – developed, over untold centuries, a complex, beautiful, and historically influential spiritual system. As they spread throughout Europe, the Near East, and South Asia, their religion spread as well, and that is why religions from Iceland to India share a broad similarity.
What, then, in general terms, characterizes the European religions?
They were all polytheistic religions featuring several gods and goddesses. The chief god of the Proto-Indo-Europeans was Dyeus Pater, whose name literally means “Shining Sky Father.” The Sky Father deity is found in all European religions, though sometimes his presence is more or less pronounced. The Greek Zeus, whose name is cognate with Dyeus, is one example. Though there were many differences between the tribal gods of Europe, there were about as many similarities.
Apart from gods, many myths were shared among our ancestors. For instance, European religions teach that the universe is structured like, or built upon, a large tree. Occasionally, in more mountainous areas, a mountain replaces the tree, but the basic mythology is common. Additionally, the creation myths share at least some common elements, and many of the particular myths and legends are strikingly similar. The world being created from the body of a slain giant, legends of a thunder god slaying a serpent or dragon, and so on.
But what really unites the divergent religions of Europe are the values expressed in their literature. Over and over again, we find examples of bravery, fierce determination, victory against all odds. The lone warrior facing down the dragon is a quintessential European story. At the same time, we find cautions against hubris, against drunkenness, and against selfishness. We are to honor our family and ancestors. We are to seek fame and glory by noble, exceptional deeds, fame and glory which our descendants will inherit and which will rightfully earn their remembrance as our ancestors earned our remembrance.
One of the clearest statements of ancient European ethics is a collection of proverbs called the Hávamál. We have used this ancient poem in conjunction with other pagan sources – such as the writings of Homer – to generate a useful and succinct list of five virtues; several values associated with each virtue; and vices opposite to the virtues.
The Five Pagan Virtues are:
Each of these four virtues can be thought of as boxes holding related values. Thus, the virtue of vitality consists of all values which promote strength and optimism, values such as courage, industriousness, bravery, and joy. Similarly, wisdom consists of mental skills which lead to success, like intelligence, knowledge, and self-awareness. The virtue of moderation reminds us to exercise self-control and to mind our physical health. And, finally, by sociability as a virtue, we mean that friendship, family, generosity, kindness, and similar values are essential for happiness and health. By considering the opposites of each of the five virtues, an instructive list of vices can be constructed. These vices are enervation, foolishness, intemperance, selfishness, and impiety. Though these virtues are drawn specifically from the Hávamál, we believe they are quite characteristic of ancient European values generally.
Concepts of fate or destiny are seemingly universal among Europeans, and ideas akin to, though not identical to, the Indian concept of karma are quite common. Essentially, our destiny consists of our genetics, of the socio-economic class we were born into, of our family, and of the accumulating force of our own decisions throughout life. Together, these create a river-like momentum which pull us down one path or another. However, most, if not all, of our ancestors believed that through noble action and heroic effort, we can change our destiny, we can create our own new destiny by the strength of our will. This is a powerful, encouraging, and realistic view of the world.