The beast ran in the wood
that had lost the man’s mind;
on a path harder than death
spectral shapes stood
Charles Williams “Taliessin Through Logres”
At one time, I wondered whether there had been any unbroken tradition of cult or practice between the pre-Christian peoples of Europe and the burgeoning pagan/earth-based religion community that we see emerging today. European paganism persisted longer in the regions bordering the southeastern Baltic than in any other region of Europe, that is Pomerania, Prussia, Lithuania, and Latvia. Strangely,the languages spoken in these areas are very conservative linguistically as well, and are studied by linguists because of the archaic features they preserve that other related languages have long since dropped. In addition to this, I had heard that Lithuanians were never as fervent in their Catholicism as, say, the Poles.
For all these reasons, I thought perhaps, just perhaps, in Lithuania there may have existed a living community of pagans who had maintained their ancestral faith down to the present day. Checking through the Internet, though, I found a very familiar pattern; whatever pagan material had survived in Lithuania survived mostly as a constellation of folk practices or “superstitions” the content of which had been forgotten by the people practicing them. Even in Lithuania, which had maintained its traditional paganism into the time of John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer, Christianity had completely displaced traditional paganism.
However, in the 19th century, at the height of the Romantic movement, a literary and cultural movement called Romulva was initiated to restore traditional Lithuanian paganism. It has had a modicum of success, but the majority of Lithuanians remain Catholic. This movement coincided with a resurgence of interest in traditional paganism (Wagner, Swineburne, etc) in other Christian European countries.
How did Christianity displace paganism so completely? A lot of historians point to the pressure of belonging to the wider Mediterranean/Roman world. That makes sense for the early Germanic incursors into the western parts of the Roman world, but it makes very little sense for the pagan Saxons and Slavs, most of whom were evangelized by Irish and Anglo-Saxon monastics unaffiliated with any “Roman” power, even the Merovingians who often actively opposed them.
As an Orthodox Christian I want to say that paganism was displaced because it was replaced by a superior spiritual force. Paganism has a very pragmatic and empirical side. It worked for the pagans. Pre-schism Christianity had an equally pragmatic and empirical side. The hagiography of that era is full of what we could call “power encounters” between the old ways and the rising power of Christ, such as the battle between Saint Patrick and the pagan king Laoghaire on the hill of Slane. Bede is full of this sort of story, and I am more disposed to believe Bede as a journalist than as a propagandist.
If paganism was the veneration of the “elemental spirits” of the world, then the Church was right in replacing the cultus of the pagan gods with the veneration of Christian saints. Mankind was “coming into its own” under the tutelage of the Church, and the elemental spirits were being put out of a job. The saints were taking it over. In a way, secular scientism could be seen as an outgrowth of this development.
That leaves the explanation of the emergence of modern neo-paganism, even amidst the triumph of its successor secular materialism, as a rebuke to a denatured, splintered Christianity that has lost its spiritual mojo.