The world isn’t set in stone. Religions change, tribes rise and fall, and cultures spread out and fade away. While over the period of a lifetime the world may appear stagnant and unchanging, the truth is that every single facet of human existence is fragile and only ever moments away from collapse.
The nature of this change is what fascinates most historians, and Tom Rowsell is no different. Known for his Youtube channel Survive the Jive, Rowsell’s interests range from the migrations and cultures of people, to ancient spirituality. These were the interests that brought Rowsell to Ireland late last year to make a documentary on the island’s ancient history, when I had the pleasure of talking with him:
“I’m here to make a film not only looking at the prehistoric heritage of Ireland and the roots of the Irish people, but also my personal connection through my ancestry to this land.”
Rowsell often uses his ancestral connections to a land to help explore its culture and religion. His documentaries on India and Sri Lanka both utilise Rowsell’s ancestral links to help bridge the gap between the ancient cultures and the more modern history of these places.
However, history is only a part of Rowsell’s work. Being a pagan, a significant part of his work focuses on the uncovering of the ancient practices and spiritual beliefs of the ancient Indo-Europeans. Rowsell’s own belief is that these ancient practices are fundamentally based on a truth common in most ancient religions:
“My views, in some ways, are very similar to what Yeats’ were. Yeats also believed in a perennial religion in a more literal sense which I think is ahistorical. He believed that there was one, primordial religion across the world that was destroyed by the integration of monotheistic religions. I don’t think that’s actually true, but I do believe that there is a real kernel of truth that is universal to all early religions and is only absent in some divergent, modern religions.”
This religious aspect of Rowsell’s work is a large part of why he came to Ireland. While ‘Indo-European’ might not be the first term that comes to mind when you think of Ireland, the island’s culture and ancestry are intimately linked with this ancient culture.
“I’m interested in the introduction of the Indo-European religion in Ireland between the end of the Neolithic period and beginning of the Bronze age. We can say with certainty that this was not a Celtic religion. Celtic languages came with a later invasion at the start of the Iron Age, but we can see from the archaeological record that there wasn’t a total shift culturally with the arrival of Celtic language. I don’t believe there was a total religious turnover like there was with Christianity.”
This may surprise some. It is common belief that the Irish are, in some way, a Celtic people. As such, it would seem reasonable to believe that the native religion of our ancestors would also have been Celtic in nature.
However, this is only part of the story. According to Rowsell, the ancestors of the modern, Indo-European Irish arrived much earlier in the Bronze Age, 1800 years before the Celtic characteristics of Irish society rose to prominence due to another, much smaller influx of people:
“It’s highly likely that aspects of the Bronze Age religion survived the arrival of the Celtic people.”
This misconception has rather serious political consequences. The Irish often define themselves as Celts, with Gaelic and Celtic often being used synonymously in ordinary language. With this being based on a complete misconception, the national identity of Ireland is in turn seemingly based on unsteady ground:
“Celtic I believe is a really problematic label for nationalists, partly because the Celts never constituted a nation.”
Considering this initial revelation, I asked Rowsell about the megalithic structures that dot the Irish landscape. Again, Rowsell says that the builders of these monuments were probably not as close to us as we like to think they are:
“They were not built by what we now think of as the Irish people. They were not built by druids, they were not built by Celts, they were not built by anyone like us. They were built by a Neolithic people more closely related to modern Iberians than to modern Irish, and they came, ultimately,from Anatolia.”
These people who, according to Rowsell, were similar genetically to many Neolithic populations in Europe at the time, lived until the early Bronze Age.
“This Neolithic population was destroyed and replaced by the Indo-European ancestors of the modern peoples of the British Isles.”
While we do not know whether it occurred through warfare or the spreading of infectious diseases, Rowsell made sure to emphasise how quickly this replacement occurred:
“Within two or three generations there was a very large turnover to this new population. What is interesting to me is what we can learn about these replacing people and how they appropriated the ancient Neolithic monuments for their own burials.”
This appropriation of the old Neolithic sites is something Rowsell said was particularly interesting. Places such as the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, while initially built by the pre-Indo-Europeans, was immediately integrated for use by our ancestors. Over time, these places became ingrained in our folklore and associated with supernatural creatures and events. However, Rowsell emphasised that we need to be skeptical of these associations:
“There’s a lot of folklore which is worth studying in its own right, separate from the archaeological reality of those monuments. However, the reality of why they were built however is elusive and will probably remain so.”
Having discussed all this, I asked Rowsell why we in Ireland often lay claim to the likes of Newgrange as our own creations. His response was that this kind of appropriation of the past is natural and simply part of human nature, but that we also need to be careful of the assumptions we make in trying to forge our own cultural identities:
“The kind of nationalist revisionism I find quite annoying and which is also prevalent in all cultures is what I call ‘mushroom nationalism’. This is the desire to believe that your people popped out of the ground like mushrooms.”
“In human psychology, there is a necessary and primal desire to connect the flesh to the soil. I am not against that. I am against people trying to oppose what are interesting developments in genetic science because they think if they accept these developments then the claim to their land is invalidated. This is wrong because they’re fighting against the truth, and that fight you’ll always lose in the long run. It’s better to just accept the reality of the history of your people and celebrate that, rather than celebrate a fake version.”
However, while this appreciation for historical fact is critically important, Rowsell does not think that means abandoning mythology:
“A problem we have is that we cannot separate what is myth from what is false. Myth is not false. Myth represents an essential truth that is beyond the modern historical method. As G. K. Chesterton said ― ‘Fairytales don’t tell children that dragons exist… Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed.’”
This understanding of mythology for Rowsell gets to the core of the purpose of history. Through both the real and mythological stories of our ancestors we come to understand our own place in the world:
“We should use history to help people understand their ancestors, and in turn their place in the world. That they are not just atomized detritus floating through the void of time for no reason. That they have a purpose, and are part of a chain that has meaning, and that they have a duty themselves to maintain and contribute to this chain of knowledge and these traditions.”
This sense of purpose is also for Rowsell why religion is so important. With its destruction of metaphysics, the modern world has stripped meaning and purpose from everyday life and replaced it with meaningless materialist pursuits:
“The modern West is founded on the state-enforced religion of Neoliberalism, which requires people to take certain views that can even be contradictory at times, and also promotes a version of history that jars with people’s natural inclinations and often causes a sense of malaise. This is, I believe, the cause of the high suicide rates and the general increase in depression.”
“In the American Declaration of Independence the pursuit of happiness is written as a right of man, as if it were some butterfly that someone could catch and hold on to and not a fleeting emotion. You don’t live for happiness, you live for causes. You have goals and responsibilities. You live for these things, not emotions.”
This sort of state of being is totally at odds with what came before. Rowsell raised the examples of Ancient Rome and Ancient India. Both of these societies used a state religion to help unify their populations, a social practice that is still in use on some level today in places like Japan and India. However, a number of elements prevent this from being a solution in parts of the world dominated by monotheism:
“In Rome, if you were of a different religion there was no problem. You could believe whatever you want as long as you honoured the state religion when the necessary public festival occurs. Likewise, in Japan, you don’t have to believe in Shinto and in India, you don’t have to believe in Hinduism.”
“However, the likes of Sharia Law does require you to. Sometimes they allow you to pay Jizya and be a second-class citizen, but a lot of the time you don’t even get that concession. There’s no concession to a pagan. I think it would be the same in a Christian state.”
With this considered, Rowsell told me that he currently does not see any solution for Western malaise at a societal level. However, he was adamant that on a personal level the meaninglessness of modernity could be fought off. For anyone who feels that the emptiness of the world is starting to get to them, Rowsell gave this sage advice:
“Any religion is better than no religion. The religion that would commonly link a Westerner to their heritage and their ancestry would be Christianity, but a number of people over the last few centuries have found Christianity to be inadequate in some ways, and Paganism is now an ascendant force. It’s something that isn’t going away, but doesn’t seem to be growing particularly quickly either.”
“Any type of engagement with the divine or the transcendent reality is an antidote to the problem that modernity poses.”