Evoking the season

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Culture” is difficult to define. Sometimes it is used to indicate a particular mix of preferences which have a strong correlation with the social elites, i.e., those who enjoy opera, live theater or classical music. In a more prosaic context it is usually thought of as socially transmitted behaviors and folkways that are particular to groups of humans. Some aspects of culture are universal, for instance, artistic expression. But the details of artistic expression allow us to demarcate various cultural units. Many pieces of cultural expression can be bundled together into a cultural unit, for example, the modes of behavior which are dictated by rabbincal Judaism and traditional Islam. But for each individual there are often multiple bundles of culture which coexist, axes of identification. For example, despite the common norms imposed by Rabbnical Judaism there are differences between Yemeni Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. Some of these differences might be the result of the broader cultural matrix in which these two Jewish cultures evolved, for example, Ashkenazi Jewish law forbade polygyny from the 10th century onward, while Yemeni Jewish law did not. It might not be coincidental that Yemeni Jews were embedded in an Islamic social matrix where polygyny was accepted while Ashkenazi Jews interacted with a larger Western Christian culture where monogamy was normative. In short, culture is a bugger.

This makes discussions about culture extremely slippery, and the potentional for miscommunication and misunderstanding are manifold. Discussions aboiut “Christian culture” or “Western culture” or “Islamic culture” are frought with difficulties in defining boundaries, or ascribing to a particular culture a fundamental diagnostic characteristic. I believe one flaw in most discussions is that the tendency to speak in terms of idealized types translates into a neglect of the reality that culture is a distribution of behaviors which ultimately exist in a flux within the minds of humans. Our discourse is often predicated on particular texts, or outward physical manifestations of cultural expression, but we neglect that much of what culture is can only be understood as a dynamic process which emerges out of the swarm of human social interaction, mediated by cognitive preferences.

With that in mind, I want to review a distinction I have made before between evoked and epidemiological culture. Evoked culture can be thought of as human universals which are naturally expressed when one develops within a conventional social and physical environment. Consider language, in the context of human socialization it seems to be an inevitable development. Though a particular language is not hard-wired, the consensus seems to be emerging that a powerful cognitive bias exists to generate complex and recursive syntactical structures buttressed by an enormous lexical memory. In a milder fashion, religious belief can also be thought of as an evoked cultural phenomenon, the existence of an agency detection bias in congress with various other cognitive processes might naturally result in the conception in one’s mind that supernatural agents must exist. But, though these general tendencies are universally evoked, how they express themselves in the details may differ greatly. Chinese or English are not hard-wired in the brains of people speaking those languages, and belief in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob must also be learned (I know some theists would disagree with this, but I would argue that the ‘innate’ god does not exhibit the details of particular religions but is a generic entity). These details must spread by person to person communication, and this is where epidemiological culture comes into play, as it defines the texture and diversity across the cultural landscape. Though the constraints defined by our mental architecture seem to limit language toward particular canals of development and expression, why a language spreads or does not spread is likely not due to cognitive variables.1 Why have English and Mandarin Chinese spread? For that matter why have Indo-European languages been so successful? There are several variables that likely influenced the success of these languages in spreading, but the key one is likely historical luck, the people who spoke English (British conquerors) and Mandarin Chinese (bureaucrats of the Chinese Empire) were of high and successful status and so emulation and imitation resulted in the spread of these languages. Additionally, the tendency to emulate majority preferences amongst individuals would likely result in a ‘tipping point’ effect so that the process of linguistic spread would be somewhat sigmoidal as the defection of local elites and peers would result in accelerated transition from the old language to the new. But in some cases innate cognitive factors can play a role even in epidemiological culture. Consider Calvinism. Jean Calvin elucidated a neo-Augustinian view that rejected Free Will in his Reformed theology. In response to this theology there arose a faction within Reformed Protestantism of Arminianism, which rejected the logical conclusions of Predestinary Calvinism. To make a long story short, Arminianism won out in the Church of England, and to a large extent in American Protestantism (despite the Calvinistic roots of many denominations). Operationally Arminianism is the dominant system which humans seem to be working under, even if they verbally espouse an Predestinary theology (as many Reformed denominations and Muslims do). The point here is that the relative success of many Christian denominations at the expense of strict Reformed sects might simply be due to the fact that the compromises with operational Free Will that the former have made is more cognitively optimal than strict Calvinist Predestinarian theology. Finally, another way that a cultural trait can spread is through typical functional benefits. For example, agriculture likely spread simply because the fitness of individuals who adhered to this style of subsistence was higher than that of those who did not (as defined by descendents). Many early theories in regards to religion were functional in that they held that common gods served as expressions of communal unity which served to cohere the group against outside threats. In this paradigm the details of culture are less relevant than that individuals within a group share common norms and trade in interchangeable cognitive currency (swearing oaths to the same god, or fighting under the protection of a tribal god).

Which brings me to Christmas. As an atheist from a non-Christian cultural background who was raised not celebrating the holiday within the family (but partook of the general cultural zeitgeist) I have a peculiar perspective. On the issue of whether to say “Merry Christmas” or not, I generally take it as a default setting unless there are other factors which suggest it should be more appropriate to say “Happy Holidays” (reader surveys suggest that most readers of this weblog are not religious, so I would probably say “Happy Holidays” since I suspect that they have as little attachment to the name Christmas as I do). A few weeks ago I was in an email correspondence with a friend of mine who is an evangelical Christian, and I wished him a “Merry Xmas.” He asked me if I celebrated Christmas, and how I felt about that if I did since he knew I was an atheist. The gist of my response was that I did celebrate Christmas, but, I did not think that Christmas was fundamentally a Christian holiday in any case, and I have no aversion to the name Christmas, just as he, a non-Catholic Christian, likely did not object to the historical relict of the Catholic mass that is still embedded within the term. I also explained that though I understand that most Christians assert that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” I believe that he became the reason for the season. That is, the pagan origins of many Christian traditions are well known, and the association with Yule, Saturnalia and Natalis Sol Invictus are also common knowledge.

Which brings back to some of the ideas I introduced earlier: the public discourse tends to fixate on Christmas as if it is an idealized unitary type that we all have a common understanding of. Pagans will assert that Christmas is a pagan holiday (they’ll change the name). Most Christians will assert it is a Christmas holiday. Some Christians will assert that it is a pagan holiday. Many will contend that it has been distorted and become a celebration of the God of the Market. And so on. The amusing reality that mostly Muslim African Senegal has taken up Christmas (as has Shinto-Buddhist Japan) should point us to the possibility that Christmas is a far messier and diffuse concept than the talking points that have erupted would let on. Going back to the idea of “evoked” cultural traits, I began to wonder if it was not inevitable that a prominent holiday would exist in the darkest days of winter amongst agricultural peoples in Europe. Saturnalia was a Mediterranean Latin affair. Yule was a northern European affair. The American Christmas seems to exhibit aspects of both. In a manner it might have been inevitable that the rise of Christianity as the dominant religious mode amongst Europeans would result in the transition of many non-Christian cultural elements into the Christian pantheon, that it would coopt cognitively optimal features of the native cultures. It is to me no surprise that the Christians who have been most prominent in rejecting Christmas as a pagan holiday are descendents of the Radical Reformation which explicitly attempted to revert back to “primitive” Christianity, shorn of cultural accretions and adhering to strictly scripturally approved norms and motifs.2 Some Christian thinkers have attempted to dismiss the pagan aspects of the Christmas holiday as minor trivialities, but the laundry list of holiday “traditions” which have pre-Christian roots is rather long (Christmas cookies, gift giving, the yule log, excessive celebration). I was surprised that even The Catholic Encyclopedia expressed a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the holiday.

Ultimately I suspect that pagans, Christians and non-theists who celebrate “Christmas” (whatever you call it) are evoking common cognitive states and recapitulating many of the cultural motifs which were in circulation across much of Europe prior to the rise of the Christian religion. The fact that Christmas trees can be perceived to be fundamentally Christian is an interesting commentary on the fluidity of cultural motifs. The debates over Christmas are not truly about Christmas, since the holiday itself is a melange of various cultural streams, and like a kaleidoscope can impart to the perceiver multiple conformations. It is an outgrowth of social anomie that results from disputes over who owns the meaning of particular cultural currencies. Though I have asserted multiple times that I believe that religious believers actually believe in the same cognitive God, that does not negate the reality that they will kill each other over disputes predicated on the particular abstract nature of that God, or the term they use for that God (in reality I suspect that the theological disputes are simply masks for a host of cleavages that make intergroup conflict inevitable). Though the general expression of Christmas is rather the same across various groups, what Christmas “means” has crucial significance as a group marker, just as whether the Son was inferior & created or coequal and eternal with the Father corresponded with barbarian-Roman divisions in late antiquity.

As a non-Christian who is part of the majority consensus in regards to the generality and details of the God hypothesis I am attuned to the dynamics of cultural ownership of symbols and ideas.3 But, I do not believe that Christmas is a particular prudent battle which should be waged by unbelievers simply because no matter what people might say, the practice of the holiday tends to exhibit cross-group similarities which bespeaks to the fact that is drawing upon universal evoked sentiments and cultural traits. Granted, non-Christians who adhere to alternative religions have a greater stake in the “meaning of Christmas,” whether they want to reappropriate it (as the pagans do) or deny it its central place (as Jews or Muslims or Hindus might), but to me as an unbeliever such debates seem to be lexical details, not substantive differences.

1 – In The Symbolic Species Terrence Deacon does suggest that languages have been reverse engineeringed by our cognitive architecture to “fit” them optimally. But, Deacon is not suggesting here that modern languages are variant in their cognitive optimality, rather, this is a contention that is only intelligible in the grand evolutionary context.

2 – I recommend Antonie Wessels’ Europe, was it ever really Christian?: The interaction between gospel and culture for the logical conclusion of Reformed examination of the fundamentals of Christianity. Wessels’ examination of the pagan antecedants of many cultural motifs in “Christendom” is enlightening.

3 – From what I can see the “War against Christmas” is in large part driven by corporate-capitalist concerns of minimizing the risk of any offense.


  1. Christmas is far and away the richest holiday in the world in terms of offering something for everybody. It’s precisely its obvious cultural supremacy that makes it so offensive to some people.

  2. I am generally mildly offended when Christmas and Hanukkah are equated (e.g. “Christians celebrate Christmas, Jews celebrate Hanukkah”) – in “substance”, Hanukkah has much more in common with American Independence Day – but I think it is not a coincidence that Hanukkah also is the “Festival of Lights” (Hag Urim).

  3. An important concept in understanding culture is identity. As you say, the cultural distance between Ashkenazi and Yemeni Jews is very large (though, probably not larger than between the Ashkenazi Rothschilds and an Ashkenazi Jewish cobbler) – it is extremely salient that they all identify themselves and each other as Jews.

  4. What strikes me most about Xmas, at least this year, is how satisfying a ritual many people find it. To me, the holidays are an oppressive drag. I like more or less any excuse for a party, but the enforced merriment, the sentiment, the expectations, the ultra-long buildup, the heavy food … Too much. I just do my best to shoulder through it, and feel like I’m humoring the rest of the world. But much of the rest of the world (at least that I bump into) seems to get a lot out of the whole over-heavy process. They’d be disappointed if the food weren’t too much, if there weren’t family strife and tears, if the tinsel weren’t on the tree. I find this completely bizarre. Why? I outgrew Xmas around the age of 11, and even then it mainly seemed to me like a big piece of theater you put on for the kiddies.  
    And I’m someone who likes rituals and celebrations … 
    As for “culture,” it is slippery, isn’t it? Yet something is still evoked when, say, the topic of “French culture” is raised. And most, or at least many, people could agree, more or less, or what’s being discussed. So maybe “culture” serves a purpose despite its fuzziness. Is there a better word for “the whole gestalt — history, art, thought patterns, pleasures, etc etc — of a people or a nation”? Seems to me to be one of those words that helps make certain things we like to discuss discussable.

  5. So maybe “culture” serves a purpose despite its fuzziness. 
    I think of culture as the genome of worldview. It is that which sustains and transmits it.

  6. I think of culture as the genome of worldview. 
    It is the memome of worldview.

  7. Woops bad link. Try: 

  8. It is not inevitable for northern agriculturalists to develop a prominent celebration around the darkest days. (*) Finns, AFAIK (or as far as we know), never celebrated anything at that time before Christianity brought the assimilated Yule here. In Europe, a major around-winter-solstice celebration seems to have been a pagan Indo-European thing. 
    (*) Or, it may be inevitable, but in the north the darkest days of the year are actually nowhere near Christmas. A decent snowcover lets even a little light illuminate everhything, so late fall before a decent snowcover feels MUCH darker than late December even if they day is longer then. The absolutely worst time of the year in southern Finland is usually early November – and the most prominent celebration of the year for pagan Finns was in the first days of November (but then, that seems to have been a common northern European thing). (In northern Finland, winter solstice is just the mid-point of a night that lasts up to 50 days – no one would want to celebrate that, even if agriculture were possible there.)

  9. I haven’t read the whole piece yet, but I want to jump in with my standard GNXP contribution on the topic. 
    1. Culture is what is learned and not genetically translated. 
    2. Any behavior will have both genetic and cultural aspects. For example, how does aggression (using that as a label for something innate) play out in various cultural contexts? 
    3. In pop use “culture” tends to mean voluntary pleasurable activities such as music, cuisine, costume, the arts,. etc. This is often connected to a spectator multiculturalism which sees beautiful things to enjoy in, for example,Islam. 
    4. But political and legal institutions, and technologies and sciences, are also cultural simply because they’re not genetic.  
    5. Thus, when you talk about Islamic culture you MUST also talk about Islamic political organization and law, Islamic family custom, etc. But once you do that multiculturalism become much more difficult. 
    6. At the level of individual appropriation or local practice, no overarching cultural complex (Hinduism, Christianity, Islam) is ever really completely accepted. Thus, it’s much easier for individuals to change cultures than it should be according to many theories. Once a culture is not actively enforced, it changes radically. Likewise, individual aspects of culture (“memes”: the computer is a meme, you know) also can cross boundaries easily. 
    7. I’ve also suggested the “inefficiency” criterion for the location of cultural traits. In evolution, one way we know that a trait is evolved rather than designed is that it’s not done well; the human shoulder and spine, for example, have been retrofittes for erect posture. Designed from scratch they’d be quite different. So one mark of cultural transmission would be inefficiency. 
    8. Panglossian theories of evolution or of culture (adaptationism in biology and functionalism in social science) make the discriminations in #7 impossible by telling just-so stories.

  10. “Europe: was it ever really Christian”: 
    I’ve argued for some time that the Christianity of either the nobility or the peasantry during the Middle Ages was very thin, mostly consisting of rote behaviors (fasts and prayers) and honoring the priesthood and the church (with obedience and gifts).  
    Like Buddhism, medieval Christianity was two-tier, with wildly different meanings for the clergy and the laity.

  11. I’ve always thought the advantage that agriculturists had was numbers – sort of quantity over quality. So I guess in the case of agriculture the society would be “fitter” while the individual agriculuralist would be on average less fit.

  12. Anonymous was me. I deleted my cookies recently. 
    Halloween is one of the most dubious of Christian holidays, but in Taiwan Christians have taken it up. (Chinses culture has its own ghost-festivals, which they still take more seriosuly than Christians do). 
    Chinese and English expanded starting with political/military control, followed by economic control of property and of the distribution of valued goods. Upward social/ economic mobility required English or Chinese. This process can be studied in detail for Chinese. Building a walled city controlling the countryside was the usual first step in Sinification, and bilingualism among the elite was always common at first.

  13. The Puritans banned Christmas, and New England anti-Christmas feeling lasted into the nineteenth century.

  14. I’ve always said Merry Christmas, except for recently, when I threw in a Season’s Greetings just to annoy the ‘war on Christmas’ types. Then I reverted to Merry Christmas, because it is silly to react to provocation. And this year, when I said, “Merry Christmas,” a LOT of Christians responded with a “Happy Holidays.” Go figure. 
    “What strikes me most about Xmas, at least this year, is how satisfying a ritual many people find it.”  
    I agree. I was wondering if it was only me but to me this year Christmas seemed especially cheerful and ecumenical. The war is over, and no one even fired a shot. This, not Brokeback Mountain (which appears to be fizzling at the box office) is the culture war that nobody came to.

  15. As you say, the cultural distance between Ashkenazi and Yemeni Jews is very large (though, probably not larger than between the Ashkenazi Rothschilds and an Ashkenazi Jewish cobbler) – it is extremely salient that they all identify themselves and each other as Jews. 
    the bene & beta israel would have been better examples. 
    It is not inevitable for northern agriculturalists to develop a prominent celebration around the darkest days. (*) Finns, AFAIK (or as far as we know), never celebrated anything at that time before Christianity brought the assimilated Yule here. In Europe, a major around-winter-solstice celebration seems to have been a pagan Indo-European thing. 
    first, i know i was a bit injudicious here. but, one point is that my impression is that the finns were transhumant and hunter-gatherers for longer than many other peoples. that might be an issue. but, i suspect my temporal assertion is stronger than the spatial one, that is, solstice holidays had a long history in europe. as for cross-cultural circumpolar comparisons, i was too lazy and in a hurry to do one! 
    I’ve argued for some time that the Christianity of either the nobility or the peasantry during the Middle Ages was very thin, mostly consisting of rote behaviors (fasts and prayers) and honoring the priesthood and the church (with obedience and gifts). 
    yes, but please note that before the reformation and counter-reformation the conception of the christian culture was different and a communal rather than an individual affair. that is, society was sanctified by the church, and the traditions and liturgies were the cement for that sanctification. 
    I’ve always thought the advantage that agriculturists had was numbers – sort of quantity over quality. So I guess in the case of agriculture the society would be “fitter” while the individual agriculuralist would be on average less fit. 
    if you defined fitness as the number of grandchildren and individual has, than farmers are probably fitter. farming cultures tend to be more pro-natal than hunter-gatherers so long as environmental carrying capacity is not attained. you don’t need to evaluate societies, though force mobilization might have been more efficient in farming communities as well.* 
    * i suspect that higher densities due to farming also resulted in a higher pathogenic load and farmers probably were often preceded by waves of plague which deciminated hunter gratherers. for example, the common cold can not remain endemic in a population at hunter gatherer densities.

  16. Farmers had a storable surplus which could be used to provision armies. Along with this went greater population density.  
    Sure, razib, but that just says that with communal Christianity the behavioral requirements for being a classificatorial Christian were very low, especially since pagan practices were adapted freely. At any given time there would be some specific heresy to denounce and eschew, and there were always Judaism and Islam to abhor.  
    In the analyses I’ve seen, church control of noble marriage and disputed noble inheritances was the most significant effect of Christianity, not any behavioral change or form of belief.

  17. As a Jew, I had my Christmas revelation when I was 22 years old (many years ago). At that time I had lost my faith in Hanukah (I found out that the winners-the Hasmonean dynasty-were actually pretty tyrannical when they got in power). I was living in Chicago then. Around the 1st of December I came into work out of a hail storm. I was cold, wet and depressed that we had at least 3 or 4 months until non-horrible weather would return. I ran into a co-worker of mine in the hall, who had a huge smile on her face and said “Gee, Larry it is only 25 more days to Christmas!” At that momemnt I realized that Christmas was developed to give us something to look forward to December for.

    In the analyses I’ve seen, church control of noble marriage and disputed nable inheritances was the most significant effect of Christianity, not any behavioral change or form of belief.
    i think your second point is spot on. christianity’s impact was, i believe, more cumulatively significant in how it reshaped the context of elite social and political dynamics before the reformation (e.g., the use of one christian cult prefigured the rise of centralized monarchs). 
    * of course, human sacrifice, as occurred in upsala, ceased with christianity’s arrival. but i am speaking of day to day changes in behavior.

  19. I read a book on the early Slavs and found it interesting that shortly after Slavs (or individual Slavic nations since their full conversion took place over centuries) were Christianized, their was somewhat immediate changes in the archeological record. Notably, Slavs stopped cremating their dead and started burying them. 
    On top of that Christianity whether from Rome or Byzantium helped the Slavs organize into states. 
    So, at least with these examples, I would have to disagree with John and Razib that Christianity didn’t bring behavioral changes.

  20. On top of that Christianity whether from Rome or Byzantium helped the Slavs organize into states. 
    So, at least with these examples, I would have to disagree with John and Razib that Christianity didn’t bring behavioral changes.
    1) well, we can argue whether cremation vs. inhumation is a fundamental behavioral change, since it happens once in your “life” :) 
    2) slavic “states” often existed prior to christianization from what i know (poland, rurikid kiev, bulgaria [semi-slavic at the time]). the argument is better for scandinavia in my opinion (as i suggested above). 
    3) the key is i think but would things have been different without christianity. in the case of cremation vs. inhumation, i think the answer is yes, an expanding non-christian european civilization would probably exhibit more regional variation in burial traditions (the greeks switched from burial to cremation from the bronze to the iron age). but in regards to state formation, though christianity hastened the process, i think one can make the argument that it was was not fundamentally necessary, rather, christianity was a passport toward membership in the commonwealth of european civilization at the time (pagan lithuania stayed pagan in part because it played catholic and orthodox enemies against each other and kept them guessing). 
    4) rod stark in his recent series of books argues that christianity (or monotheism) was a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for a host of utopian movements that arose during the modern era. though i am not convinced of this argument, it is also far downstream of the initial christianization event, and i was limiting this portion of the thread to the medieval period specifically because the ‘special’ aspects of the west did not i believe exhibit themselves noticeably until after 1500ish.

  21. I shouldn’t have said “behavioral changes”.  
    Most behavioral changes were in the area of symbolism, though. Funerals are one case. Prayers and fasts are another. Not eating horsemeat was another, among the Norse, but (as in Buddhism, Judaism, and early Christianity) this had a lot to do with avoiding sacrifices rather than just diet. 
    What I was trying to say was that in day-to-day life (home life, economics, war) people went on about the same as before, and some of the changes that did happen seem peripheral to the Christianity we have now, and more connected to establishing an organized state and joining the international state system. 
    The Christianity we have now is ethicalized and inward or subjective, and in that sense early Christians seem pretty thinly Christian. They didn’t become beatitudes-type people, or charitable and saintly.

  22. “They didn’t become beatitudes-type people, or charitable and saintly.” 
    We still haven’t… 
    I do think the biggest change that Christianity brought was organizational. For most Europeans, the church introduced literacy and an administrative heierarchy that, as Razib pointed out, sped the process of state formation thru out Northern and Eastern Europe. 
    Prince Vladimir, who’s conversion brought Eastern Christianity to the Eastern Slavs, first attempted to create a central pagan cult around the Slavic god Perun. This failed. From my reading, it seems that alot of rulers who adopted Christianity (and probably also Islam), then seemed to send out bids in something which seems akin to me as a purely practical business agreement.  
    It may be simplistic, but the basic calculus was what is the best way for a ruler to consolidate his rule, spread his influence while minimizing the amount of power he had to sacrifice. So perhaps, those embryonic states could have developed as pagan states, but Christianity brought so much to the bargaining table that any ruler who made a deal with it (the devil?) had an almost immediate advantage over his rivals. 
    It is also true that on an individual level Christianity may not have had much of an impact, but there is plenty of evidence of violent resistance to forced conversion. Passive resistance continues. 
    I’m sure many secular conservatives would argue that, on whole, Christianity had a positive influence on the morals of the common man.

  23. The Lithuanians remained pagan until the late 14th century for what seem to have been diplomatic reasons — they could play the Catholics off against the Orthodox. I don’t think devotion to paganism was the reason. Organized pagan resistance to Christianization seems to be rare, the Saxons vs. Charlemagne being the example I know of. In most cases the king converted and most of his people followed.

  24. John, since my familiarity is with Eastern Europe, I’m aware of quite a few instances of resistance to Christianization. There are examples of Pagan uprisings after formal conversions, where priests were killed and that old time paganism was revived.  
    In addition to Lithuanians, there were Slavic pagans into the twelveth century in Christian German lands and the Prussians were pagan until annihilated by the Teutonic Knights. The reason for the Lithuanian conversion was to form a political union with Poland to resist further expanision of the Teutonic Knights. That led to the defete of the TK at Tannenberg in 1410 and 200+ years of Polish/Lithuanian hegemony over the Germans of East Prussia.

  25. Razib, 
    Finns’ (pre)historical level of agriculturalism depends a lot on mere definitions. The archeological evidence of agriculture goes back to times when even the Finnic and the Saami languages were still the same. So, who’s a Finn then? (Also, in Western European countries Finns and Saami weren’t consistently seen as different peoples until about mid-20th century and the view of our history in other countries is usually still badly distorted that way. So, “impressions” are usually wrong. We certainly had agriculturalists’ pagan traditions and agriculture before there was Christianity.) The big difference to southern Europeans might be that hunting and gathering (*) have remained and still remain a much bigger part of most agriculturalists’ life here, so we’ve perhaps had “mixed” pagan traditions… but this is precisely what would be expected of any agriculturalists at the northern edge of agriculture (a smaller population leaves more game and forageable stuff and would give a better game/population ratio anyway even if it didn’t leave more game around; a long winter forces you to do something besides just farming). 
    However, that’s not the point I wanted to make. That point was that there’s some northern limit to likely winter solstice celebrations (like there’s a southern limit, as the closer you get to the equator, the less significant the solstice feels), because this far north, winter solstice just doesn’t coincide with any seasonal change of relevance to agriculturalists. I don’t think there is any special reason for northern agriculturalists to celebrate it, more reason than anyone else not on the equator has (for example, people into calculative astrology would be likely to find it special no matter the lifestyle). Their biggest celebration was the combined rough beginning of winter that was also the time when all the storing of food and preparations for winter were done, when for the first time in months nothing was urgent; winter solstice is about 2 months into the 6-month period when agriculturalists are going to be just twiddling their thumbs (or more likely going to the forest, the lakes or something else), not a natural place for a celebration at all. For northern agriculturalists, it’s likely an import from the more southern areas where it might actually coincide with some seasonal change. 
    (*) not transhumance, if it means the cyclical seasonal movement between low/high land (I think it means that): that’s not even possible in the first areas of Finland settled by Finns, as there are no highlands.

  26. i tend to agree with steve here. there was organized resistence to paganism, though the wendish case, and the most western province of lithuania stand out from what i recall for being particular focused (i think this was a reaction to the fact that christianity was closely identified in these cases with alien germanic elites, rather than native ones, as in the case of poland or to some extent russia [the rurikids were scandinavian in origin of course]). the important point though is that resistence to christianity was in the long run futile after the battle of frigidus in 395, when the non-christian senatorial elite of the western roman empire were defeated by theodosius. from that point on, ‘high civilization’ and christianity were simply not separable in the european context (until the rise of islam). an analogy can be made with korea, tibet and japan, who all accepted forms of buddhism just as their first ‘civilized’ literate states were arising. buddhism was a way to attain the reflected glory of high civilization, whether that be chinese or indian (tibetans vacillated between indian and chinese buddhism, just as the lithuanians did between orthodox and catholicism, until they chose a tantric indian variant).

  27. This is just armchair speculation — what else do I have to offer? As well as nothing to do with the Slavic nations. But I’d be very, very surprised if there weren’t some back-and-forth between culture and biology. There’s a utility in thinking of them as separate domains. But getting too rigid about doing so strikes me as a little weird. It would seem to imply that there’s really only one human nature, and that the variety of cultures is a result of nothing but the fact that this One Human Nature has had to deal with a variety of circumstances.  
    Maybe that’s really the case — what do I know? But if so, it’s also a bit disappointing. It would seem to imply that cultural matters don’t really go very deep. Yet people are amazingly attached to cultural things, and often over the span of many generations. Northern Euro-descended types tend to make one kind of music and African-descended-types tend to make another, for one example. Cultural creations make people laugh and cry and fight and feel sexy. The cuisines we eat enter into our physical systems and may even affect, say, the kind of music we like. (New Orleans music and spicey jambalayas seem to go together well, for instance, as do soul food and soul music.)  
    So, let’s see: simple daily experinece confirms that we eat culture, we dance culture, we sing it, we make love via culture, our most basic biological preferences seem to reflect it … And we’re gonna claim that there’s no back-and-forth between biology and culture?

  28. But I’d be very, very surprised if there weren’t some back-and-forth between culture and biology.  
    lactose tolerance anyone? there are other things, but that comes to mind immediately (look at the moyziz paper, high density clear has an effect….). 
    So, let’s see: simple daily experinece confirms that we eat culture, we dance culture, we sing it, we make love via culture, our most basic biological preferences seem to reflect it … And we’re gonna claim that there’s no back-and-forth between biology and culture? 
    the problem is that there are two types of people who misinterpret this. one type notes that the variation in cultural norms and forms are often very much greater than the possible change in gene frequencies (if they happen multiple times in one generation), ergo, no interaction between culture and genes can occur because directional selection never acts for a long enough period. then, there the types who simply ignore the reality that culture can vary a great deal in the amount it varies (i.e., lactose tolerance as an adult capacity was likely an ability that evolved in the context of long term persistent cultural habits and practices, dairy-herding), and they impute to all cultural products a genetic significance. for example michael, cuisine is i think a much better target for gene-culture interaction than music because (until recently) it was geographically constrained & often fixed over long periods of time (i.e., bread cultures & rice cultures persisting over thousands of years). music on the other hand does not, to my knowledge, exhibit these characteristics. a quick back of the evenlope consideration of the effects of selection might help…if you have two populations, and lactose tolerance confers a 10% fitness benefit, than it would take about 25 generations to move to fixation if it started out as coded by an allele which is existent in 10% frequency in generation 1 (assume constant population size, etc. etc. blah, blah). now, 25 generations of constant directional selection is plausible to me, it isn’t every generation we get a discovery of a ‘new world’ that introduces a host of new food stuffs into our diet (and even after the introduction of potatos, wheat remained a staple in most western european diets). but 500 years is a long time for selection for particular musical forms, as my impression is those changed more quickly. this is not to deny there might be correlated genetic biases which might allow the flowering of particular cultural motifs and styles, but that is not directional selection (our understanding of correlational selection is much sketchier from what i know). my overall point is that i think we can be certain there are culture-gene interactions on a host of traits, but we can be far more certain about certain things than others.

  29. On the other hand, Afro-American forms ultimately traceable to Africa caught on very quickly in places like Norway — given the choice, many people seem to prefer African music. 
    On Finland, I’ve seen a book from about 1900 by an British Colonel and Amateur anthropologist which treats the Finns as a primitive or tribal people, like the Mordvins or other Siberian peoples. As I understand, Finns played a role in Swedish culture very far back, but a literate Finnish culture only began in the XIXc. Subject to correction.  
    I think I was probably wrong about pagan resistance to Christianization. Perhaps my point was that resistance was usually ineffectual because the unified organizational forms making effective warfare possible came with Christianity and literacy. (Rome of course achieved these within a pagan context. The Mongols are an odd case because they adopted various literate religions sort of casually before becoming Buddhist or Muslim, but they developed literacy very early, about 1205.) 
    Among the Greeks and Romans philosophy seems to have played the role of religion. And Marcus Aurelius’s Stoicism is much more religion-like than I had expected.

  30. My impression is that montheism seems to have a greater hold on the human mind than polytheism. People maintain, maybe, their old cults in hidden form but the idea of a God behind it all, and a generally benevolent one ( if you follow the rules), is probably appealing. After all I am not aware of any conversions to polytheism by monotheistic peoples, and there are examples of polytheistic tribes adopting the montheistic ways of the people they vanquished ( which surely they would not have done for vanquished tribal Gods).  
    It is also, of course, a matter of what may seem to be the more sophisiticated religion, and culture, for a people who need to settle down after the conquering is over: but that wont do entirely; for the Arabs did not abandon Islam in North Africa.

  31. eoin, 
    re: My impression is that montheism seems to have a greater hold on the human mind than polytheism. you need to decompose the reflective and reflexive mind here. most ‘monotheists’ do not seem to cognitively be able to model the god they aver to believe in. so, it seems implausible that monotheism has a greater mental hold when it really has little mental hold in the first place! on the other hand, your observation is certainly correct nations did not usually turn from christian to pagan. but, you need to look at the big trendline to see this, as there is are a lot of corrections. to give you a few examples, mindaugas the duke of lithuania accepted christianity but later abandoned it, redbod duke of frisia refused christianity and in norway and sweden both had christian kings who were succeeded by pagans. in the roman empire until around 400 most of the senators in rome were pagan, 70 years after constantine. another important point is that the religion that spread in europe, as john suggests, and as documented in books like the germanization of early medieval christianity took over the forms and characteristics of pagan religions of the local area (pagan magic was transmuted to white magic, etc.). the stereotype is that local gods were christianized or turned into saints, while local demons became the helpers of satan, but this is not always far from the truth (some of this is overdone in the works of protestant demonizers of roman catholicism of course). it is also important to note that monotheism had little impact in the ancient world, akhenaton and the hebrews both promoted monotheistic religions, but other peoples did not find them particularly interesting, and the hebrew bible suggests that the israelites themselves found the gods of their neighbors very appealing. granted, philosophical paganism tended to converge upon a pantheistic monism as well, but please note, as above, there is a large gap between general human beliefs on the ground and the ideologies promoted by the elites (therevada buddhism officially rejects gods, remember). i think that a reduction in the number of gods seems inevitable with the spread of mass homogenized society, but, i think that this different than the contention by some monotheists that their religion is innately more appealing on the individual level (muslims and christians regularly have claimed this to me). if it was innately more appealing it is peculiar that the religions tended to gain traction at the commanding heights of society first before spreading (often very slowly). i think a relatively parsimonious number of gods is a function more of the spread of certain tribal gods (buddha, jehovah) with particularly successful cultures and the assimilation and obliteration of local tribal gods and cultures. 
    It is also, of course, a matter of what may seem to be the more sophisiticated religion, and culture, for a people who need to settle down after the conquering is over: but that wont do entirely; for the Arabs did not abandon Islam in North Africa. 
    please note that the stereotype of the arab as the bedouin is not strictly true. the mecca of muhammad’s time was an urban center, and there were arab kingdoms which were the vassals of both the byzantines and persians of some sophistication. there was even a roman emperor, philip the arabian, who was of partial arab extraction. 
    addendum: when i was in college i read some translations of a report by a lutheran minister in saxony of a village which had apparently buried a bull that had been killed in a field so as to ensure a good harvest in the 18th century. this village had been lacking in a pastor for the past 15 years, and the protestant church was concerned that the villagers had drifted into paganism. interrogation and interviews did not really conclude that the villagers were pagan, as they were able to express the general sentiments of lutheranism still, and they were not able to easily elucidate why they believed that a bull sacrifice would ensure fertility. now, i happen to know that bull sacrifices were common in lithuanian until the 17th century, so it might have been in the cultural substrate, but my overall point is that this incident suggested to me very far back that the ‘innate’ religiosity of human beings seems to exhibit some recurrent motifs which are invariant and once the constraints (disapproving ministers) are released they reemerge.

  32. In Catholicism and Islam the cults of saints and imams, etc., amount to polytheism. There’s something similiar in Buddhism. “Silk and religion” shows how certain practices connected veneration of saints spread from Buddhism to Islan and Christianity, without being orthodox in any of the three.  
    Here in the rural US I went to high school with a country guy who firmly and absolutely believed that his dog and his horse would go to heaven if they were good. He said this without irony and he wasn’t trying to be provocative. He absolutely believed this even though no Christian theologian has ever taught that, and no Bible verse supports it. He was a Baptist, ultimately of Southern origin I think.

  33. In Catholicism and Islam the cults of saints and imams, etc., amount to polytheism. 
    yes, i believe cognitively (i.e., in one’s mental model) and behavorially the veneration of saints in monotheistic religions (or, for that matter, reverence of great rebbes) can not be distinguished from polytheism. on the other hand, verbally/reflectively they are strongly distinguished from the almighty, as saints are ontologically of a different order than god. but who the hell really understands ontology? (except god)

  34. The people practice polytheism, the theologians explain that it isn’t really polytheism, and the reforming theologians explain that it really is polytheism and try to get rid of it.

  35. since this thread has already taken an esoteric turn, let me bring up an interesting point (to me) that i found out when i read diarmand mcculough’s the reformation…groups of theologians who took luther and calvin’s injunctions to look to scripture first and strip away paganised roman tradition began to demand that sacraments and ideas like the trinity should be discarded. the reaction of calvin was exactly the same as the roman catholic theologians he had been criticizing, he appealed to christian tradition and custom and the authority of his predecessors derived from the holy spirit to justify practices and beliefs which seemed to deviate from sola scriptura. my point is that the treks into theology are less about rationality than elite consensus and preference.

  36. Great minds etc etc. Steve Sailer has a blog posting up about mono and polytheism. (Three or four down from the top of his basic page.) And I’ve been noodling with one too — it’ll show up any day now!  
    A book on “the war between mono and polytheism” came out about a year ago. Haven’t read it, probably won’t. But god/gods know it’s a good topic, and it’s currently on sale cheap cheap cheap.  
    Google turns up a few interviews with the author, who I feel suspicious about. He seems to have some kind of agenda …

  37. michael, steve’s post deals with sri lanka. interestingly, sri lankan therevada buddhism on the elite level developed in explicit reaction to protestant christianity in the 19th century, and it is in many ways recasting budddhist thought in a protestant rationalistic form. also, the tamils are not all hindus, a large minority of them are roman catholic, as are a large number of the tamil tiger leadership and cadres (at least catholic by origin, my impression is that whether hindu or catholic in origin, the tigers are secular). this is one case where the muslims of sri lanka, mostly tamil speaking, are not participating in the religious faction and killing. 
    and yes, kirsch’s book is polemical, but one would have to deny reality to not acknowledge that abrahamic monotheism tends to be rather intolerant of other elite religions, just as one has to sleep through reality to deny that muslims today tend to be the apotheosis of that trend…. (this is not to say monotheism does not have good trends, once you become a believer than there is the official equality bit, but if you are part of the outgroup, beware….)

  38. Yeah, it’s just that Kirsch seems a little overbearing about being anti-overbearing, or maybe he’s monotheistically anti-monotheistic …He seems to yearn for an escape from all the monotheistic moralizing, yet to be incapable of really slipping out from it … Reminds me of the way so many intellectuals try to intellectualize their way out of their over-intellectual predicament … Because what else have they got to call on, I guess.  
    Mr. I’m-Down-With-Polytheism

  39. michael, 
    interestingly, some pagans suggested julian the apostate, who was raised a christian before converting to a pagan mystery cult, of bringing in ‘christian’ sensibilities when he began to attempt to construct a pagan counter-church and became involved in doctrinal disputes amongst christians as well as persecuting them on religious, as opposed to socio-political, grounds. i find kirsch’s other works more interesting, especially harlot by the side of the road.

  40. “e: My impression is that montheism seems to have a greater hold on the human mind than polytheism.” 
    Don’t you mean henotheism?  
    There seems to be a compulsion in the human mind to order things hierarchically, with the Daddy god at the top of things. Angels, the devil, and evil spirits are the surviving remnants of polytheistic systems. Monotheism never quite banished them. 
    Whatever…father still knows best. And he’s God, Jehovah, Allah.

  41. Agreeing with Razib, the American Christmas is a very “diverse” (a good use of the word, I think) festival. Undeniable Christian (including gifts derived from the three wise men, the stars on Christmas Eve, Renaissance, African, and Hispanic art) and Pagan attributes, trees, lights, wreaths, holly, mistletoe. English and German (carols, Handel, Bach) Mexican (Pinatas in many places), American (The Night Before Christmas), the Cowboys’ Christmas day game. 
    Then there are the parties, the food (egg nog), alcoholic punch, mince pies, fruit cake. 
    That’s why it is so Orwellian to have the word and symbols “Christmas” suppressed in favor of such second-tier “festivals in name only” such as Hannukah and Kwanzaa. 
    Here almost everyone is bursting with the Christmas spirit and is tightly repressed, especially the children in school. A scandal. Reminds me of Soviet Russia.

  42. John E, 
    if you trust upper class British “amateur anthropologists” from 1900 on the level of civilization of peoples, you *seriously* need to have your brain examined. Don’t even bother going back to 1900 – plenty of people in the old “civilized” places of Europe *still* have the impression that most Finns are “wild”, some after visiting. One Swede told me that a British man had asked him, before a tourist flight, if it’s really safe to take his wife with him or will us wild natives get too excited if we see a civilized white woman in person. Finns are one of the big favourite cases of crackpot “amateur anthropologists”, so being into “amateur anthropology” myself I’ve listened to proof by personal observation of looks, culture and language that Finns are Inuits, Turks, Koreans, a lost tribe of Israel, Amerindians… and, my favourite, “Finns are Dravidians”. Even Google groups finds one of those nutcases: 
    Oh why do we bring out all this nuttery?!? 
    On literacy, I would bet my balls that average Finns in 1900 were better readers than average folk of the great colonel’s British Isles, mainly for religious reasons, ie. having a population uniformly under a sect that strongly believed that people should be able to read to study the Bible by themselves and be educated with Luther’s Catechism. (One funny idea I sometimes wonder about is whether we actually tend to top literacy charts because we’ve bred out some of the worst illiteracy – since the 1600s to the 1900s, it was by law impossible to marry (and have legitimate children) without passing a literacy test unless excused for being blind etc, so there must’ve been some selection, even if the rule didn’t catch everyone, could be circumvented with rote learning and so on.) 
    On older things, the first books in Finnish were published somewhat less than 500 years ago and that was when the current literary tradition is considered to have started (although not much was written in Finnish after that, until national romanticism). Literacy existed before that, of course; the discovered fragments of Finnic writing (using borrowed alphabets) start from the 1200s, but no literary works survive (almost certainly none existed – what would such things be written on?) and no standardised literary language certainly existed then. 
    Neither Swedish or Finnish have been wide international languages of culture, so under Swedish rule big works were not written either in Finnish or Swedish but in Latin. We often have no idea whether a particular author from history spoke Swedish or Finnish as the native tongue, which of course leads to endless warring between Swedish and Finnish nationalists over who has the right to claim someone (while most people have no problems with it even if Finland and Sweden claim the same person). Between the Finnish majority and the strongly Swedish minority, there are still plenty of urban bilingual people who don’t have a clear opinion on whether they’re Finns or Swedes and might go either way depending on the mood or whichever brings them more benefits (yeah, the welfare state is also ethnically rigged). Exclusively Finnish traditions for fictional works (and turning exclusively Finnish traditions into literary works) started during the national romanticist period (which got *very* strong in Finland), like with many small languages in Europe, because generally the idea that such works *should* be part of a particular national culture expressed in a particular language instead of wider works simply wasn’t popular before that. A lot of people in that project were of the crowd who didn’t quite know whether to feel Swedish or Finnish and decided that now is the time to become Finnish again, heading to examine the remotest rural areas for models of Finnishness untainted by any Swedish rule. 
    PS. Why is it that every time I post something on GNXP – even something trivial like “winter solstice celebrations are not inevitable” – it turns into a long “Finns are not wild tribespeople, the Germanic authors are chauvinist idiots” rant?

  43. this website: 
    is written by an american jew married to an atheist muslim, living in iran. (!) 
    she describes how popular christmas is in iran now. from her post i infer that the holiday is being adopted by iranians as an ‘underground’ protest against the regime.

  44. PS. Why is it that every time I post something on GNXP – even something trivial like “winter solstice celebrations are not inevitable” – it turns into a long “Finns are not wild tribespeople, the Germanic authors are chauvinist idiots” rant? 
    if you want to guest post about finns, feel welcome. it is interesting. 
    is written by an american jew married to an atheist muslim, living in iran. (!)
    what exactly is an ‘atheist muslim’? sorry, i know what you mean, but i generally oppose the tendency to turn ‘islam’ into an ethnic religion like judaism or (to some extent) hinduism. it might be inevitable in europe where confessional religions like catholicism or lutheranism have gone ‘cultural,’ but it doesn’t have to happen in the USA where 1/3 of people switch religions in their lifetime so there isn’t an assumption that you are what you are born.

  45. Jaakkeli — believe me, I do NOT take those anthropologists seriously. To me it’s an example of “orientalism”, with the difference that Finns are very Caucasian. 
    Present-day Finns are, as far as I know, in most respects as advanced as any European people, and in some respects more so than most. To me this is a case when looking back to the past for the essence of Finnishness would be misleading. If I am wrong that Finns before 1800 or so were mostly illiterate peasants ruled by Swedes and Russians, then I’m wrong. But if it’s true, it’s nothing for present-day Finns to be ashamed of. 
    Changing the subject slightly, Scandinavia is an case when a rather extreme linguistic nationalism seems to have done no serious harm per se. Finnish is not linguistically Scandinavian, but among 30 or 40 million Scandinavians you have 5 official languages (Norway has two). If Scandinavia had other major problems, linguistic nationalism might make them worse, but that hasn’t happened. 
    And my guess is that in Finland there were those arguing to make Swedish the official language, but using Finnish didn’t seem to do any harm even though it’s only usable in-country.

  46. This commentary – while off-topic from the original article – is very interesting. Just want to take issue with something that John Emersion wrote: 
    “Halloween is one of the most dubious of Christian holidays, but in Taiwan Christians have taken it up. (Chinese culture has its own ghost-festivals, which they still take more seriously than Christians do).” 
    Halloween is not Christian. The next two days are Christian, with the 2nd of November being All Souls, or the Day of the Dead. Clearly they couldn’t christianize Halloween, or decided not to. 
    Guy Falwkes day is a secular appropriation of Halloween a few days later, with the bonfire tradition going strong.

  47. Sounds pretty dubious to me. But Halloween has been celebrated as a Christian festival: Halloween

  48. John even that link proved my point. 
    Quote: “Halloween (Allhallows Even) was observed by some churches with religious services. However, most persons regarded it as a secular festival. In its strictly religious aspect, it is known as the vigil of Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day, observed on November 1 by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.” 
    November the first, is of course, not Halloween but the day after, which was my point. Christianity took the two days after halloween, and left halloween as a secular or pagan festival.  
    It’s name does derive from the eve of All Hallows, but the traditional activities on halloween do not have anything to do with the church services the next day ( unlike Christmas eve). All saints say is a minor liturgical day. 
    It was the eve of the new year which was celebrated in the celtic tradition which is being celebrated here, Christianity has nothing to do with the festivities on the 31st of October,

  49. Razib, you *know* what i mean. He’s a cradle Muslim who doesn’t believe. I brought up the blog simply because it’s an example of how Christmas can be deployed as a weapon of passive resistance. I doubt that any of the Iranian Muslims who celebrate it believe in the story. But wait, what if the situation continues? Might not a cultural beachhead turn into a genuinely religious underground movement? Didnt’ exactly that happen in the teeming cities of Asia Minor in the beginning of the first milennium, and didn’t that result in the creation of the Church?  
    My major point anyway, was about henotheism, and how it expresses a deep-seated, perhaps genetic, need for hierarchy. But I’ve been reading about the Egyptian concept of ma’at, represented by a goddess, and I may have to revise my feeling that the top of the heap has to be a Daddy god. 
    And good for that, I say.

  50. Might not a cultural beachhead turn into a genuinely religious underground movement? Didnt’ exactly that happen in the teeming cities of Asia Minor in the beginning of the first milennium, and didn’t that result in the creation of the Church? 
    i don’t know what you mean in reference to asian minor. i yes, i knew what you meant, but, i think it is important to be careful in turning islam into an ethnic religion like judaism or hinduism in the way we define things, ergo, making ‘islamophobia’ something that is against a specific people as opposed to an ideology. an atheist jew or hindu makes sense, but an atheist baptist or episcopalian does not. whether islam will be judaism or hinduism or baptism or episcopalianism is up for grabs. muslims tend to ‘take the best of both worlds’ approach, you can join and you can never leave.

  51. “Why have English and Mandarin Chinese spread?” 
    Here is morden history in making.

  52. John E, 
    you’d be wrong to say that Finns were mostly *illiterate* peasants, because Finns were turned into mostly *literate* (or  
    at least semi-literate) peasants after it became a religious obligation to be able to read the Bible. That’s pretty good by the standards of Europe, as most Europeans of any ethnicity were indeed illiterate peasants until up to very recently. Only special cases like the Jews could be exceptions to that rule (at least in some places – some countries didn’t even allow them to be peasants). 
    I’m still not sure exactly what I’m arguing about here. If you’re going to argue that there were no Finnish people in “culture” – philosophers, scientists and so on – you’re simply wrong; all that’s true is up to the end of the Swedish rule, they were writing in Latin (actually, Latin was dominant in the university until the late 19th century) and were known as “Swedish” elsewhere in the world even if they didn’t know a word of Swedish (some authors didn’t). No, we don’t have any Newtons or Einsteins to boast of, but how many small peoples in similar conditions do? (Personally, of ethnicities with a history in Europe, I only find the Jews’ rate of production of prominent geniuses especially impressive, because it’s not explainable by conditions or chance.) Most foreigners would have usually failed to distinguish between Swedish and Finnish authors, like most distant non-Anglophones usually fail to distinguish between Scottish and English authors; most people even here (it’s not that distant) will simply call them “English”, not being aware that Scotland is more than just some “English” location within “England”. That was one of the major themes that sparked the strong romantic nationalism, the final realization that most foreigners will *always* see Finns as simply Swedes or Russians if we don’t appear on the map of the world. 
    Most places in Europe worked just the same way. Remember, pre-WWI Europe was mostly made up of multinational monarchies, with some massive empires; less than half of the people who might’ve been known as Russians around the world were Great Russians by ethnicity (I bet you still know some famous people of Finno-Ugric origins by name and see them as Russians), Kurds would’ve been regularily considered simply “Turks” (they still are often called “Turks” here and will likely always be, if they fail to break free) and so on. 
    As for being “ruled”, the elite was Swedish-speaking, but not all *Swedish* – entry to it was possible for Finns by learning Swedish, so it’s far from accurate to imagine that there were only “true” Swedes ruling Finland (of course, over time this meant conversion of Finns into Swedes). During the Russian rule, Finland was at first given extensive autonomy; the Tsar was to have a veto over anything and in military affairs Finland would have no say, but otherwise Finland was free to have its own domestic laws. At first, Finns generally loved “Russian rule”, because there was barely any “Russian rule” – Finland pretty much had everything an independent state has except its own head of state (who was the Tsar) and a military; we had our own constitution, parties, civil society, system of government, bureaucracy and so on. This was guaranteed only by the word of Alexander I and later Tsars didn’t honour it, which in retrospect was a good thing, because violations of what were considered Finland’s constitional freedoms were the big reason why Finland was so passionate to break away from Russia – and if we hadn’t been fully ready to do that in 1917… 
    PS. Your knowledge about today’s Northern Europe isn’t very accurate either. Norway does not have two official languages. *Finland* has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, although the Swedish-speakers are only about a 5 % minority (the position of Swedish in Finland is a major debate with nuttery from both sides that makes eg. Canadian language debates look like examples of impossibly cool-headed moderation and sanity). Sweden would not be the official language of any country if it weren’t for this – Sweden does not have an official language. 
    Norway does officially recognize Saami languages in some municipalities (today, being a notable break from a notable tradition of repression), but so do all countries that have Saami minorities. Even Sweden does, even though it doesn’t recognize Swedish; they also recognize Finnish and a dialect of Finnish which they wish to claim to be a separate language to undermine Finnish nationalists’ claims that certain parts of northern Sweden should be Finnish/are Finnish – the Russians also do this with some dialects of Finnish only spoken in Russia. (Sweden also recognizes Yiddish and perhaps some others that I can’t remember (although I’m sure that they don’t recognize Scanian, since that would be like officially recognising that the southern tip of Sweden is sort of a bit Danish).)

  53. i thought finns were people of few words? :)

  54. eoin: Frankly, I don’t know what your point is. Halloween is pagan in origin, but it’s celebrated by Christians who do not celebrate pagan festivals — a lot of Church feast days are like that. Some churches celebrate it as a church holiday, some tolerate it as a secular holiday. Catholics and Anglicans have their calendars, and other churches have theirs.  
    Norwegian has two standard languages, bokmal and nynorsk (english alphabet, sorry). I don’t know if Sweden has an official language, but there’s a standard Swedish different than Norwegian or Danish. Under other political circumstances there would be a single standard language and a lot of dialects, rather than five standardizations (including Icelandic).  
    As far as Finland goes, I’l grant everything you’ve said. I didn’t know about the literacy requirement for marriage, but the absence of recorded works actually written in Finnish before about 1800 gives me pause.

  55. “i don’t know what you mean in reference to asian minor” 
    how christianity grew from a persecuted resistance-to-power sect to a major religion (at least, there, in the rest of the middle east, where it was tolerated, christianity just piddled along…)

    how christianity grew from a persecuted resistance-to-power sect to a major religion (at least, there, in the rest of the middle east, where it was tolerated, christianity just piddled along…)
    but, how how did it grow? are you implying 
    a) that it coopted indigenous motifs to make it attractive 
    b) or it introduceed novel motifs to make it attractive 
    c) or something else?

  57. “Frankly, I don’t know what your point is. Halloween is pagan in origin, but it’s celebrated by Christians who do not celebrate pagan festivals — a lot of Church feast days are like that.” 
    However it is not a Christian feast day. It is no more Christian than celebrating a birthday – also celebrated by Christians – is Christian. Or celebrating Thanksgiving ( if you see that as secular) is Christian. Or celebrating independence day is Christian. Or celebrating memorial day. I could go on. Christians celebrate a lot of stuff which does not make the celebration Christian.  
    It is not even a universal Catholic feast: not celebrated by Hispanics or most of Southern Europe who celebrate the Day of the Dead more readily ( All Souls, the 2nd of November). It has not been celebrated in England since the reformation, and fitfully before that. It is not big in Germany or russia, or Italy, or anywhere outside the celtic periphery. It;s success in America is a relative fluke of migration. 
    Halloween is not universalist, it is a particularist celtic feast day. One of many where bonfires are lit and mendicants move from house to house, causing mischief. 
    ( this is a bugbear of mine :-) )

  58. What I said is that it is the most dubious of Christian holidays. That squares with the actuality.  
    At some times and places it’s been a chucrh holiday, and at others not, so it’s not a universal holiday. Whether or not it’s on the official calendar, it’s been affiliated with All Saint’s day, and it’s celebrated by Christians who wouldn’t celebrate a pagan holiday. I suspect that Thanksgiving is borderline-Christian the same way — it was initiated under a theocracy, after all. The Fourth of July is pretty obviously secular, like Memorial Day, etc.

  59. John E, 
    Bokmål and Nynorsk are not “different languages”, they are different ways of writing the same language (pretty much like American and British spelling of English, except that the difference is bigger); there’s only one official language of Norway, even if they can’t agree how to spell it. It’s a big deal for them because Bokmål (the “book language”, it’s the one that has the history of literature behind it) looks like Danish and the educated elite’s use of Bokmål reminds Real Norwegians of past Danish cultural dominance. Nynorsk is something they created to be closer to what they imagine Norwegian spelling would look like without the corrupting influences of Danish and German. 
    Finns, of course, write (near-)phonetically and consider anything differing from their language as little as Danish, Norwegian and Swedish differ from each other to be simply dialects of the same language; when we encounter people who speak a language that obviously related, we declare them Finns or at least brother people, while the Scandinavians divide themselves into different states and feel no ethnic ties to their language relatives in, say, Pakistan or India (we generally consider there to be a relation with peoples speaking even more distant languages). The Scandinavians don’t have strong linguistical nationalism: that’s what we have. The Scandinavians have the opposite: they promote dialects into these great divisions *because* they have those distinct nationalisms. 
    And again: no, Sweden does not have an official language. There is a very fresh decision on this by the parliament, from a few weeks ago (but they’ll likely establish it soon, following the tradition of holding votes until the right result comes out): 
    I still don’t understand what you mean by “the absence of recorded works actually written in Finnish before about 1800″. The first books in Finnish were printed in the 1540s, books meant for teaching reading and Bible translations and various religious works. Yes, not that early by European standards, but not very late by northern European standards and far from 1800. Not much non-religious literature was written in Finnish after that before the era of nationalism, which, again, is not unusual by northern European standards (eg. Swedish is about the same, the vast majority of works in it were for long religious texts and in “culture” Swedish-speakers generally used other languages). Being able to afford books was rare; the Bible was valued enough that most people with the money would be buying a family Bible that was kept until some later generation’s house burned down, but printing was capital-intensive and the likely return of selling poetry in small languages was just not enough. So sure, for long there were only random works that aren’t of much interest to non-historians today, but claiming “absence of recorded works” because there’s no Finnish Shakespeare is just ridiculous. (By the way, how the hell do you even think you know what was or wasn’t published in Finnish, if you don’t know Finnish?!? Should I conclude that Koreans can’t read, since I can’t name any books written in Korean?) 
    As for requirements for learning to read, reading certain religious texts was a part of the confirmation to the church (ie. that time’s equivalent of legal adulthood). (Don’t you know anything about Protestant sects?) Not that a lot of people didn’t slip by the radar, that people didn’t manage to fake it or that the church was very interested in teaching people to *write*. Oh, and of course, not that the whole Lutheranism business itself wasn’t shameless cultural imperialism imposed on Finns with steel.

  60. Jaakkeli, I said what I said because of this statement of yours: “On older things, the first books in Finnish were published somewhat less than 500 years ago and that was when the current literary tradition is considered to have started (although not much was written in Finnish after that, until national romanticism).”  
    I’ve also talked to others who said that there was not much of interest in Finnish before 1800 or so. That’s a different thing than widespread total illiteracy but it strikes me as the absence of much specifically Finnish culture, even though many Finns did participate in European culture in other languages.  
    I have nothing against the Finns. I personally think that the whole thing of giving priority to ancient cultures over newer ones is stupid. If I make clear what I mean by this I will certainly make someone else mad besides you, but the ancientness of Coptic culture, for example, while very interesting to a historian, does not tell us anything about the wonderfulness or otherwise of present-day Copts.

  61. John E, 
    yes, that does mean there was not much specifically Finnish “high culture”, but there was not much specifically “high culture” either, it’s just the typical situation. Finns had the dual problem of being both Finnish and “Swedish”, when there was not really either Finnish or Swedish “high culture” (in addition to the usual problems of being very distant, small and atrociously poor, of course). That’s what I wanted to say – Finns are just typical in this. Pointing out specifically that didn’t have when in fact practically all nationalities didn’t have thing Y at the time is one of those old favourite favourite methods of bigots; insisting on such a single statement is suspect, even if it’s true. 
    There was certainly specifically Finnish *culture*, because culture is not just what an elite making up 0.1 % of the population writes up in books. Eg. those pagan traditions that people have been writing in this thread can be *VERY* sticky, even if they’re not written up – pre-Stalinist oppression, we had lots of “relatives” who we diverged from a millenium ago, even ending up under different nominal branches of Christianity, and could go talk to them to notice that the extra-Christian beliefs of spirits and so on are very much the same, despite only Finland having had something on pagan beliefs sporadically written up pre-1800. This heritage may not offer any Homers for foreigners to admire, but it certainly turned out to be extremely important as a fundamental cornerstone in creating an exceptionally strong national identity from scratch (which, in turn, *was* admired and imitated by many peoples in states trying to create an identity in the 19th-early 20th century, from Turkey to America – much imitated, never replicated, because you really need the unifying pagan heritage for it to work so well).

  62. since the 1600s to the 1900s, it was by law impossible to marry (and have legitimate children) without passing a literacy test unless excused for being blind 
    That was very good idea. Should be continued. 
    BTW, how that idea of wild Finnish came to life?  
    I live in Czechia and in my life over 50 years I’ve never heard about  
    Finns as especially wild in the past. We haven’t learned much about Finns except their recent achievements in design and architecture and perhaps music.

  63. You are kinda right about Calvinism losing, but only kinda. The four delegates King James sent to the Synod of Dordt all voted with the majority, and you can see from things like article 17 in the Book of Common Prayer that the Church of England is at least theoretically Calvinistic. 
    Interesting article, though.

  64. jaakkeli, is this you
    The four delegates King James sent to the Synod of Dordt all voted with the majority, and you can see from things like article 17 in the Book of Common Prayer that the Church of England is at least theoretically Calvinistic. 
    yes. the disjunction between theory and practice the main point i was trying to get across in regards to gaps between optimum cognitive states and memes.

  65. Razib, 
    uh, no. I don’t have a blog (of course not, I would probably starve because all the writing would suck even the time I now use for eating). 
    as I said, other Europeans have had a tendency to confuse Finns and Saami, so there are often these impressions that Finns were non-agriculturalists a short time ago, or “wild” as nomads have usually been seen in Europe. (The traditional view of the prehistory is that Finnic and Saami peoples started splitting some time after primitive agriculture was brought into the area by immigrants around 4000 years ago, when one part of the population merged with the immigrants and became agriculturalists and the other didn’t.) Of course today we have Finns eager to promote the idea, too, since now “wildness” is again in fashion in Western countries, with all those hippies loving the indigenous peoples’ “closeness to nature”, “sustainable way of life” and so on. (And of course there are the usual clueless chauvinist Finns who’ve confused themselves with Saami and dress up to tell tourists stupid made-up stories about “their” wild ancient traditions.) 
    I doubt it’s common in Czechia, especially in the last 50 years if Soviet anthropology was influental there. I do not think it had any particularily nutty obsessions over Finns/Saami, since the USSR had umpteen zillion extremely different nationalities and had no reason develop special ideas over Finns (except perhaps over the question of whether there’s a significant assimilated Finno-Ugric element in Russians); it’s mainly the Germanic people who have been scratching their heads over the one non-Aryan gang within their traditional sphere of influence.

  66. I guess you’d have to count Hungarians as well. And until the Euro Estonia’s currency was pegged to the Mark, but I suppose one could say that Estonians are Finns using one of the above definitions. But still I haven’t seen much Germanic head scratching of that sort. 
    Great conversation.

  67. In the US, Finns are normally confused with Swedes and Norwegians, except sometimes by Swedeish-Americans and Norwegian-Americans. 
    Jaakkeli has educated considerably me about Finnish history, though I’m not sure that we’re in complete agreement yet.

  68. i second john’s comment about jaakkeli. unless the dude is lying, i’ve been had!!! (i.e., i read the same things about finnish illiteracy john has) that being said, it is important to keep in mind the squishyness of ethnic identifications prior to the 19th century in much of the world.

  69. Tim: 
    But still I haven’t seen much Germanic head scratching of that sort. 
    Of course they won’t ask YOU if you live in a teepee. Me, I’ve gotten asked that a lot of times, especially a lot of “average” Germans seem to have some very strange ideas and on the Internet where they can’t see me I sometimes (rarely, but sometimes) get racist abuse. 
    Not that I mind *that*. The problem just is that such ideas sometimes have very real consequences. The supposed racial and cultural inferiority of Finno-Ugric people has been written in official policy in many countries during the 20th century, in some only banning immigration, in Norway and Sweden resulting in various repressive policies; Norway explicitly stated destroying its Finnic and Saami minorities as the goal for the first half of the 20th century. (IMO northern Europe would likely not have avoided inter-state war over the minorities in each others’ countries during the last century, had Germany and Russia not been threatening enough to make war between small countries simply suicidal.)

  70. My original stereotype of the Finns was as an example of rather sudden development, but it has to be revised. My assumption was always that present-day Finns were fully modern, and in some respects perhaps more so since they didn’t have a lot of old traditions to accomodate, the way the British do.

  71. Razib, John E, 
    it all depends on how you define “literacy”. The main way (the only real way) we have of estimating the rate back is to look at the church records on how each person had passed their hearings (there has been a lot of work on this, but references would be pointless, since it’s likely all in Finnish). If passing the “reading a bit of the Bible aloud” test is considered “literacy”, then the point where the majority of Finns were literate would’ve surely been reached long before the 19th century and Finland would’ve had ridiculous rates of over 90 % for most of the 19th century… but that would of course be exaggerative of the real abilities, as the church would’ve missed some people, would not have required writing (at least beyond the person’s own Christian name) or the ability to read texts of any variety and rote memorization would’ve helped a lot in passing a test of Bible passages; much of the literacy would be superficial. If you use a definition from the other extreme, as a “literate” person being someone regularily reading, say, newspapers (and not just the Big Book of the religion), most people would not have fit the definition until the end of the 19th century, I’d guess (but this wasn’t language-specific, the big explosion of cheap written material available to the general public simply started around mid-19th century, most likely because of some industrial developments). 
    Compared to other countries of Europe, Finland would’ve likely been somewhat behind Sweden and most (but not all) of the other Lutheran places and maybe some parts of Britain; perhaps also much behind some parts of America (say, New England), but I don’t really know anything about this part of American history. But an impression of Finns as especially illiterate is profoundly inaccurate, because Finland for long has been one of the more *literate* places in the world thanks to the religion, even if Finns weren’t in the top of the Lutheran peoples (the Orthodox Finnic people caught in Russia – the part that wasn’t the autonomous part called Finland; there was a border and all – remained badly illiterate for very long, like Russians). 
    In any case, since I grew up rather close to the country’s main industrial city, those early-mid 1800s factories still represent the ideal urban landscape to me. Sure, those places were more likely to be owned by British capitalists than ethnic Finns, but the textile workers might’ve still been surprised to hear that they were “tribal people”. (Of course it’s not very representative of the country as a whole – most of it did not really start industrializing until much later.) Your colonel talking to people there in 1900 would’ve been much more disturbed by socialist rather than “tribalist” ideas… (A few years later he could’ve spotted some soon-to-be-famous activists staying there, starting from Lenin himself.)