Baggage and Reactionary Definitions

•August 16, 2016 • 6 Comments

Baggage is one of the major topics which I harp on as a cause of major issues with Paganism. In this context “baggage” can run a gamut of incidences: unidentified emotional hangers-on, obvious biases based off of previous interactions or disappointments, or even trauma which needs to be addressed, but nevertheless colors the topic. It largely is considered an emotional response (“emotional baggage”) and there is an implicit assumption that “baggage” is negative. Baggage of all kinds can have an impact on the types of discussions which are had.

Paganism is no exception.

After all, how could it be? Many people come to Paganism after a less-than-affectionate parting with Christianity, or otherwise have had some previous experiences which color them to the prevalence of Christian overculture. As a religious expression which spent a great deal of its life as a counter-cultural representation that defined itself by what it was not, it’s understandable that Paganism has in some way internalized a basic reaction towards what people view as fundamental concepts to Christianity.

For instance, it is popularly considered to be not dogmatic, focusing on ritual and not belief. It is often decried that there are no “Pagan Popes”, or other such authority figures when a greater accountability or organizational effort is made. It is not a religion which concerns itself with morality. It is not a religion with “Sin”. It is an inclusive religious understanding, and telling people they are not welcome or do not belong is seen as aberrant. There’s no place for hierarchy, and very little emphasis on the division of labor in terms of priestly duties.

All these, and many more, are hallmarks of popular Pagan attitudes towards their religion.

But they are not attitudes of Paganism-as-a-religion. They’re not reasoned arguments which benefit the religious understanding of Paganism, they’re not laying the foundations or furthering some of the discussion which can aid in building something new. They’re not unpacking these concepts in a useful way. They’re attitudes of reaction. Discussions about Sin (and I’m picking on “Sin” because it’s the current hot topic, and this actually came up in other social media circles in June) don’t gain traction because of the assumption that it is something that Christians do, and that Pagans do not do. There are mischaracterized beliefs that “Sin” is a Christian intrusion into a people who had no concept of the idea of violation of divine (or mortal) law.

And concepts like sin are not alone. Paganism is replete with attitudes which ultimately have no standing in light of evidence, yet nevertheless are perpetuated by popular opinion or emotional appeals. It took a concerted effort for the idea of genuflection in Heathenry to not be associated with a type of Christian subservience (“Heathens don’t kneel to our gods! We’re not Christians!”) and we still have to fight the misinformation that people spread about it. Some hardcore reconstructionists have problems with the idea of a “personal relationship” with deities because of the overabundance of “Jesus loves me” themes. Religious purity and personal pollution. Prescribed and proscribed religious ritual convention. These are just a few examples.

It happens. After all, these issues are built upon a foundation of previous experience. But they’re not constructive attitudes when they don’t lead to a greater discussion. They’re attitudes of Paganism-as-not-Christianity.

Pagans defining themselves by what they are not is absolutely not a new concept. Even here, in this blog space, I had a handful of years where I did it. And then I made a concerted effort to really take a look at what I was doing, be constructive, and approach my practice(s) positively. Which meant unpacking and working through any baggage I had from Christianity.

There’s an interesting phenomenon when Paganism is defined solely as a reaction to Christianity.

When one reacts to Christianity, they often end up with something that looks like Christianity

Looks familiar, doesn’t it?  Artist: Forvrin.

You end up with something that looks an awful lot like Christianity.

Certain constructs exist in religion that transcend any one particular paradigm. Yoking them to a singular religious expression does disservice to the tradition and gives rise to ignorant attitudes about them. We each, as Pagans, have the individual obligation to make a concerted effort to move beyond our preconceived notions towards these constructs. This is of paramount importance if we want to be able to approach these important concepts in a mature way.

Many Pagans have developed, adopted, or continued traditions which carry some kind of wider stigma or baggage when it is placed within the attitudes of the modern world. For instance, certain attitudes of Pagan women have taken to veiling themselves due to devotional or sacred reasons – a topic which caused some amount of controversy in the Pagan blogosphere four years ago. Divisive attitudes towards women purposely covering their head had less to do with the theological merits of the action and more to do with notions and interpretations of the apparent lack of agency found in perceptions from the Muslim world. These were applied broadly to the whole tradition of religious head-covering as a mandated aspect of some of these religious traditions.

It doesn’t end there, and does not remain within practical traditions. Christian and monotheistic baggage informs character critiques, as well. “One man cannot serve two masters” is a common refrain that I have personally heard from Heathens who have specific issues with the practice of multiple polytheistic traditions. As I have written at length on this blog, these attitudes simply do not hold water in light of traditional polytheistic mutability. I view them to be more likely post-Christian baggage, rather than any concrete view of a traditional religious identity.

Baggage and reactionary thought has been utilized in order to discredit another position. “Fundamentalism” is a word that is bandied around as a destabilizing scare word in order to undermine the credibility and attack the character of another, and relies entirely on Christian baggage and associations with wider monotheistic fundamentalist persecution to operate. In reality, Pagan “fundamentalism” is a pathetic scare word, but it still carries those connotations. True story: I have been accused of being a right wing fascist and fundamentalist strictly because I clearly define a line (using academics) between what polytheism is (worship of more than two gods) and what it is not (worship of two or less gods), and refuse to entertain the “soft/hard polytheism” frivolity all together.

Contemporary Paganism cannot properly flourish in the shadow of the Christian bogeyman, jumping at every turn where there’s a concept or theme which might have some comparative similarity to the other religious institution. Purposely neutering intellectualist debates because of baggage stunts the vibrancy and shoehorns Paganism and all the Pagan traditions into an inverse representation of Christendom. It limits the ability of people to think about what they are, and it tethers this non-Christian religious orientation in a very fundamental way to Christianity. What’s more, it constantly puts Contemporary Paganism on the defensive. If we have to establish ourselves by what we are not, in essence have to defend our choices of religious belief to ourselves, then how can we be expected to respectfully articulate our viewpoints to people that hold differing perspectives?

If a person encounters concepts like purity, miasma, or some other concept of spiritual pollution and finds oneself “emotionally thrown back into a place of shame”, that is on them to work through. It is not on the group to work through for them. These people do not have the right to direct the flow of conversation in order to mitigate their personal deficiencies and feelings of inadequacy, simply because they seemingly lack the capacity to address their emotional attachments to these terms or concepts.

Obviously, there are people who have suffered extreme emotional and mental trauma which they associate with wider pre-Christian religious experiences. I am not denigrating those experiences, victim blaming, or otherwise diminishing that experience.

However, there is a certain maturity expected when engaging in philosophical and theological discussion. If someone wants to be a Pagan, be a Pagan. Do not be a Pagan-chained-to-Christianity. Or monotheism. Or anything else that is not-Paganism. Entering the wider dialogue of theological debate means accepting that there are multiple worldviews, approaching them rationally, and not engaging in knee-jerkism.

If you’re going to join the discussion, you can’t hobble yourself with those attitudes.

Does Paganism have Sin? Yes, it does! …Well, SOME of it does.

•August 11, 2016 • 10 Comments

There are certain topics that arise in discussion within Paganism which have so thoroughly associated with cultural or religious baggage that there is a great difficulty in cultivating an ordered and reasoned critique of that topic. The concept of ‘Sin’ has recently been brought up over on Patheos in a post by John Beckett. Titled, “Are We Bringing Sin into Paganism?” [1], Beckett explores the connections between the increase of concern with displays and attitudes towards piety, the confluence of those ideas with what is considered “purity”, the necessity of piety and purity within a Pagan context, and other such themes. Beckett concludes that while “Sin” is not part of Paganism, it could be if the collective Pagan world did not tread lightly, leading to the potential for the intrusion of a Christian-style “sin” within a wider theological paradigm.

His commentators agree with him, continuing with the theme of Christo-centric baggage. In a comment on the piece, one “Woods Wizard” states that “Sin is definitely a Christian concept related to judgement [sic] after death. It also involves forgiveness by a Deity who seems insulted that we would break his rules. But Pagans have no commandments, only guidelines like the Rede or the Noble Virtues. Pagans have no one who sits in judgement [sic] of them at the end of their lives. We have concepts like karma, fate, or the Wyrd. So we have no need of the concept of sin.” [2]

Beckett and his commentators have fallen into the all-too-typical trap of speaking for the whole of “Paganism”, without understanding the implications of doing so, or the facets of the myriad religions which exist underneath the umbrella of Contemporary Paganism. They declaim, quite vociferously, that there is no sin in Paganism and, indeed, that it has no place within Paganism, because their attitudes towards what is, or is not, sinful are colored by their exposure to the all-prevalent concept of what embodies “Christian Sin”. In doing so they forget that there are traditions which do have deep, important, concepts of “sin”.

What is sin? Without going into the myriad iterations of what might be considered “sin” in a Christian, Mosaic, or Islamic context, we should take a quick look at the etymology of the word. Ultimately, the modern word “Sin” comes from Old English (sinn, senn, synn), and is defined as:

  • (theology) A violation of God’s will or religious law.
  • A misdeed.
  • A sin offering; a sacrifice for sin.
  • An embodiment of sin; a very wicked person. [3]

Important for this discussion is the exploration of the Old English antecedent, for it provides the foundation for the understanding that pre-Christian peoples might have had when approaching this terminology. Bosworth-Toller’s Online Dictionary accounts “Syn” (also: Synn) as:

  • With reference to human law or obligation, misdeed, fault, crime, wrong
  • With reference to divine law, sin [4]

We see the multifaceted concept of what, tongue-in-cheek, can be considered the “original sin”. It is both the violation of divine law as well as it is a misdeed or wrong as considered in the light of more mundane, human affairs. The phrase “synne stǽlan” literally means “to charge with a crime” [5]. While a seemingly pedantic counterpoint to John Beckett’s critique of the concept of “Sin”, it is an important one nonetheless, for in the whole of Contemporary Paganism it does come up with some frequency in reconstructionist Heathenry.

Heathenry is a religion established on the basis of law, over disorder. These laws, known as thews in some Heathen circles, form the basis of social understanding and govern interpersonal relationships and ritual practice alike. This is buttressed by the understanding of the Heathen worldview, which is one of concentric rings of duty and obligation which focus from the individual heorþ (hearth), to the sibb (kin), and finally to the folc (folk). This forms the basis of the innangeard – the inner yard – which is cultivated through a series of reciprocal relationships for the betterment of the unit as a whole. Everything outside of the innangeard is known as utangeard, the outer yard. The inhospitable wilderness is as much utangeard as a neighboring, yet unfamiliar, tribal body or people. [6]

“Sin” is an important concept in Heathenry, because it represents a violation of these laws and a fundamental imbalance in the nature of these relationships, leading to discord and disharmony among the people. It creates a debt between the offending parties, which must be righted with some form of recompense. Violating an oath to one’s folk is as much a sinful act as the violation of ritual mandate or religious precedent, both of which ultimately require restitution in order to correct the imbalance [7].

Beckett propagates the Pagan misunderstanding that sin is intimately connected to morality, and failure to abide by someone’s potentially strict codes of moral understanding is what causes sin. Further, he sounds an alarmist response that the overt emphasis on concepts like purity and piety only damage the relationships which are to be had between Pagans and the Gods, which devolves into fear mongering the rise of some form of eventual Pagan Ayatollah Khomeini.

Is it not in the best interest of Paganism to dispense with the persistent baggage and hanging on of Christian themes which otherwise pollute our conversation? Do these fearful conflations really have a place within the wider discourse of Paganism as anything more than a nuisance and distraction?

The reconstructionist wing of Paganism is, by large, is a group of religions which places a great deal of emphasis on reciprocity, proper ritual forms, and the nature of obligation. In a religious expression which places as much emphasis on these concepts, how can the misdeed of violation of law not be construed as sinful? What is the difference between religious impiety in this sense, and the violation of an ordered system, as Beckett seems to wish there to be?

John Beckett goes on to say that “avoiding sin requires perfection”, and that is perhaps true if we approach “sin” from something resembling a Baptist or otherwise Protestant perspective. However in a Heathen, and thus a form of Pagan, context avoiding sin requires “following the law”. It requires understanding the dynamic relationships between people and their peers, people and their gods, and the whole of the ordered cosmos. For failing to recognize the vagaries in debt and obligation can cause all measure of impiety, or impurity, or otherwise damage and harm the connection which is made between the mundane and the sacred.

Some Pagans, especially Heathens, understand that “sin” is not some state which can be conferred due to attitudes towards morality. Instead, it is recognized that the world is made up of a series of obligations and laws, webs of obligation and  of responsibility, of which the violation of such edifices can cause imbalance and lead to disharmony.  That is the nature of “sin”.  But to claim that “Paganism does not have sin” is objectively incorrect.


 

[1] John Beckett, “Are We Bringing Sin Into Paganism?.” Under the Ancient Oaks Blog, Patheos. August 11, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2016/08/are-we-bringing-sin-into-paganism.html

[2] John Beckett, “Are We Bringing Sin Into Paganism?.”

[3] “Sin,” Wiktionary, last modified August 8, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sin#English

[4] Joseph Bosworth, “Syn”, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. Accessed August 11, 2016 http://www.bosworthtoller.com/030025

[5] Joseph Bosworth, “Syn”.

[6] Wodgar Inguing, “Innangeard-Utangeard”, Larhus Fyrnsida Online Resource, Accessed August 11, 2016 https://larhusfyrnsida.com/fundamentals/inangeard-utangeard/

[7] Ashli, “Sin, Thew, and the Bones of Innangeard”, Real Heathenry, July 13, 2016, Accessed August 11, 2016. http://www.realheathenry.com/sin-thew-bones-innangeard/

To Be Wegfarende

•August 10, 2016 • 6 Comments

As I stated yesterday, when I made my anniversary post, I had something else I wanted to write up. It’s a bit of an announcement and an update for a potential interruption in service, here.

As of yesterday, I am officially a wegfarende. The word is Old English (weg-farende) for a “wayfarer”, or a traveler. Effectively, I have no permanent home over my head at the moment.

The property I’ve been living in was sold, and I have been thus far unsuccessful at attaining an apartment or more professional employment in order to support said space. One would think with a Master’s degree that decent (read: livable employment that is not simply subsistence-based) work would be more easily attainable. I’m in New England, where rents are outrageous, but there are higher wages and more opportunity. You’d think it’d be easier than this.

Well it is not.

I’m currently floating between a number of places, with the entirety of my life save my luggage and a few accoutrements in my car. I have some family that are offering me very temporary space. I’ve taken the opportunity to try to leave the region I had been inhabiting, but it’s difficult in devoting the time (and money) to the search.

So yeah, that’s basically what’s going on back here. I’ve been so stressed and busy with the sale of the property that I haven’t been able to give much thought to anything. Last night was the first time I forced myself to relax in a few weeks.

I have been praying and hoping that things will turn around, but as yet there is no such result in sight. I have some leads out, and some applications pending. We’ll see what comes.

Just wanted to let my readers know.

Also, I found it amusing that Helio posts about the Lares Viales yesterday, the day I became a wayfarer. Just one of those little things, I guess.

Probably My Most Consistent Anniversary

•August 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Today, I was informed by WordPress that seven years ago today I registered for their service.  By extension, this marks the seventh anniversary of the founding of Of Axe and Plough, which I launched immediately after registering here.

Truthfully, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been around that long, and my post-count certainly doesn’t scream to my successes of blogging for seven years.  I migrated, initially, off of LiveJournal because I wanted something a bit more professional looking.  And I had forgotten my password.  Ahem.  This blog sat fallow until about 2011 with only a smattering of posts, and almost all of those posts were not something I wanted to keep around.  So I purged this space at least twice and realigned it into something more productive.

I’d like to think that, by in large, my words have had a positive impact within the circles I travel.  I really do not have much in the way of drama here, and I am content with my little space.  It’s odd to see my posts being shared by people I do not know, to be recognized by people around the ‘net based on my words.  I am absolutely not a Big Name Pagan blogger, or even a second or third stringer.  But I do try to hold myself to a higher standard.  At least for blogging.  When it comes to social media I tend to still get rough and tumble.

However, this blog seems to be migrating in its orientation.  From the onset, I had always envisioned it as a way to really work through my religion.  I’ve been doing this for a long time (Pagan, 19 years or so) in theory, but very infrequent in practice.  But it always seemed to default to community critique, or speaking to wider themes that I have opinions on.  I’m trained in the Social Sciences (specifically History and Anthropology, and I won’t brook an argument about how History isn’t a social science.  It is in Europe.), so I tend to analyze cultural themes and social groupings.  I’ve always written from a perspective of a polytheist Pagan who interacted with the community, observed the community, and dealt with aspects of that community.  My actual practice writing is few and far between, although I still intend to do it.

But I’ve become convinced that we still need more visibly polytheistic bloggers out there, and I’d like to help fill that void.  The dust up that happened which spawned the Polytheist Movement and initiatives like Polytheist.Com is still relevant today, although I feel that a lot of what has been said is being lost in a political back-and-forth between a few bloggers associated with that site, and other groups like Gods & Radicals.  Misunderstandings and mischaracterizations abound, which tend to be applied to all the writers of a particular site.  Even Patheos has only a handful of dedicated polytheistic blogs, the rest of their polytheistic bloggers are wedged into two columns.  And if I ever end up writing for Polytheist.Com, or Patheos, then, whatever.  But for right now, I can be a more visible independent polytheist blogger.

I’m a Heathen, and I’m a Roman practitioner, and I’m a Pagan.  But I’m also a polytheist.  And perhaps that’s one of the core facets of my understanding, and I think at the moment that’s what I want to explore more.  How I express myself in society.  How I interact with society.  And how I can help other people through my lessons.

But it’s just a thought on the nature of this blog.  It probably will continue as business as usual.  Although I’d like to keep up posting.  I have an update to make tomorrow about that, however.

For now, hooray seven years!

[sad confetti]

A Thrill of Polytheistic Discovery and the Dissatisfaction of its Spread

•July 15, 2016 • 6 Comments

Helio recently wrote a piece about the discovery of a little-known indigenous Iberian canine god, Quangeio. I have provided a link to it, because I think it is really cool, and not at all because I’m going to disagree or speak to his points. Gods, especially local gods, can help tie people to the place more fundamentally and intimately than a wider pantheon, and there’s something noteworthy about being able to claim that one’s back yard is quite literally the old stomping grounds of a deity. Unfortunately, this is not something that many polytheists from the New World that do not follow indigenous tradition can speak to. So perhaps there is a little bit of jealousy coming from this, as well.

There are many Gods who are unknown to modern Pagans and polytheists. They are recorded in dusty tomes filed away in the collections of antiquities and folklore studies, in historic collections, and scholastic libraries. Their names are known only academically, from those scholars who study epigraphic, literary, or other forms of historic remnants, and who are not at all interested in the contemporary rehabilitation and recreation of their cults. In all actuality, Western polytheists barely scratch the surface of the sheer plethora of deities that the ancients would have recognized, worshiped, and interacted with on a frequent basis.

Collectively, we constrict ourselves to known deities, popular deities, or otherwise late-stage pantheon developments for a number of reasons, but mostly due to the accessibility of the knowledge of them. For those polytheists who generally have no form of “revealed” experiences or personal interaction other than the rites and rituals which we engage in, it is understandable that there is some reticence to explore deities which are not better attested in terms of cult and practice. Some of these deities are, quite literally, bare names or scant figures on a stone somewhere in the middle of Europe, and there is nothing informing practitioners as to the nature of their cultus. Otherwise, some practitioners do not have the academic inclinations required to sift through the material, so they content themselves with remaining within that which is familiar, and there is no shame at all in that.

But there are times when the individual is drawn to the worship of these deities, where the work in uncovering in-depth studies or developing contemporary practice in order to dig deeper into the nature of these little-known cults needs to be done. Just as Helio was pulled to explore Quangeio, just like River Devora was pulled to explore the Matres and Matronae and perpetuate their cultus, and just like a hundred other polytheists are pulled to the liminal, the less-than-accounted, and the rare expressions of divinity. There are more gods out there to be worshiped than there are modern worshipers, I feel.

Of course, the reasons for this is up to the individual enacting the study. Just as many people do it out of some primal connection and urge to worship as they do it for the prestige and notoriety of being the one to uncover and craft the foundation of a new cult. And, unfortunately, there are people who utilize the gods for their own personal, egotistical ends. To make a name for themselves as the authority in some facet of the wider Pagan community.

And please understand that I am most assuredly not accusing Helio of doing this. Nor River. Nor anyone else I might name in this piece. I respect them and their piety too much to accuse them of utilizing the Gods for selfish ends.

However, I cannot help but sometimes feel that Paganism, and all the religions that fall under the overarching Pagan identifier, has a problem with egoism, cults of personality, and selfish ends masked by false piety. Whether it is pervasive or not, I cannot say. But there is no doubt that our religious communities are so small that even new bloggers can appear and make a name for themselves as an authority figure within a relatively short amount of time. Our demographics are such that many Pagans, either by virtue of the blogging networks or the Pagan convention and festival circuit, do not have to try very hard to really become “household names”. This is even more likely if one publishes any kind of widely disseminated book. The ease of which one can become an authority at any measure is somewhat shocking, if we sit down and really think about it. We’re demographically scattered, to the point where even the in-person association we have is so fleeting that there’s few chances to vet an individual as a charlatan or otherwise disingenuous (at best) or dangerous (at worst) individual. We can be whoever we want to be on the internet.

The proliferation of ideas and the speed of which they can be spread is outstanding, and any information that gets published to a blog or on a forum post or in social media can be taken and spun by someone elsewhere. It sometimes feels like there is a very real threat of the gods being appropriated because they are less known, because there’s something unique and different and notorious . All too often we hear stories from sites like tumblr where individuals have heard of a deity, and immediately assume the mantle of some kind of high worshiper of that god, seemingly for the fact that it is an edgy, “new” thing. Gods whose memories and reconstructed cults get beaten into a mockery or what they should be, or wholly utilized for personal gain.

So then scholastic polytheists who are interested in rehabilitating and recreating the cults of these lesser known deities are placed in a position as to what they do with the information they’ve accrued and positioned. Very often, we have to decide whether or not we hoard our knowledge and our devotional practice, or publish it and risk it spiraling out of control as the newest “fad” within Paganism. This tendency within Paganism places some of us in the position of addressing some questions that very few people of other religions have to ask themselves. Some very uncomfortable ones, if I can be completely honest with you.

Questions such as: Is it better that the information gets published regardless of who can use it and what comes of it? Is it better for a god to be worshiped, even if they are not worshiped well? Do we trust that They will react appropriately to the people who are not as vested in the authentic reconstruction of their cultus?

Do we gatekeep these lesser known gods that we find? Do we have the right to protect their cultus, the memory, and take an active role in guiding the foundations of a modern iteration of their cultus? If it is not a right, is it an obligation that we take upon ourselves as being stewards of the memory of their cults? Obviously the people who have done the research have invested a great deal of energy in the uncovering and interaction with these gods. Is it a duty to cultivate the cultus after we put it in motion? If we are to consider ourselves ethical, that we do our practice out of veneration and respect and the giving of worth to the divine, can we ethically direct these initiatives? Is it even ethical to contemplate it?

Do I even have the right to open this particular can of worms?

It should be obvious that there is going to be no universal agreement to the proliferation of polytheistic identity. And, ultimately, very few of us are in a position to dictate the methods of religiosity to anyone but ourselves. We can all lead by example, of course, but much like my previous critiques about Paganism and pseudoscholarship, the appropriation and exploitation of these cults is something that can and will absolutely happen. In essence, it is something that has already happened, and numerous spheres of misinformation have threaded their way into the popular discourse of particular divinities.

I cannot speak for anyone else reading this, but I do know that contemplating my own questions makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to be put in the position where I feel like I have to shepherd the identity of these deities. I don’t want that responsibility. But, at the same time, I believe that as polytheists who decide to do ‘the work’, that is we put our words out there and do not stick to a wholly private practice, we have an obligation to do it honestly and, above all, well. I cringe every time I read or hear about an individual picking up the mantle as spokesperson, priest, or priestess of a deity that had only just been spoken of in wider dialogue. I weary of getting into fights with anti-intellectuals who cannot articulate why they want to do what they do, simply because they mistrust academic, educational, or cultural authority.

For the record, I do not believe in gatekeeping basic information. I believe in making things intelligently accessible and available for people to educate themselves with, which means I believe in accuracy. I believe in terminological and philosophical defense, which has unfortunately been often misconstrued as gatekeeping and protecting of identity to the point of exclusivity. I also believe in the right of individual traditions and cults to protect their mysteries, and reveal only what they wish to for mass consumption. I do not have a problem with organizations that do not share their inner workings for everyone to read with no consideration to it. I recognize that cults will change from region to region, and a natural dissemination of religious knowledge is unavoidable (even were we to want to avoid it, which I do not).

I hate the idea of having to consider the impact of my words, and whether or not someone can twist them to suit them and their agendas. But they can, and do, and I must. I have to make the decision to answer my questions each time I go to write or contemplate something little known. I do not think I am alone in these concerns. I have lesser known Gods I am investigating, and pulled to. And it will get to the point where I have to made the decision whether I have the right to protect this knowledge, or I have the duty to spread it to people who may be interested. Or neither, and then be really out of sorts.

But I do know that there is a certain thrill at being pulled to discover/rediscover lost and forgotten gods, and it is something that many people should be rightly proud of doing and recognized for. But, there is also dissatisfaction at seeing how some people take that discovery and utilize it for themselves, and that is something which we ultimately cannot control.

Welcome to the world of revitalizing polytheism, I guess?

A Tale from Rome

•July 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Allow me to regale you with a tale:

Three years ago, now, I was on a tour of one of the many ruined Roman temples in Italy. This particular temple was situated in the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, just off the northern shore of Lake Nemi. It rests within the Alban Hills outside Rome, one of the oldest regions of Latin settlements – the region finds representation in the Aeneid, and Aeneas is said to have married a Latin woman named Lavinia, after whom Lavinium was named. Just to put the age of this place into some context.

The site is for Diana of Nemi, and had a temple situated within a still-functioning olive grove and associated farm. At the time of my visit, tall grasses grew between the trees, and Italian wildflowers bloomed along the paths that hadn’t been beaten down by animal tracks.

The site itself was ancient. The sacred grove of Diana, which had preceded the temple’s construction, had been in use as early as the 6th century BCE and consisted of a cult image. The worship of the cult figure continued from that time until at least the time of Caesar. This local cult focused on Diana Nemorensis – Diana of the Wood – predating the period of Hellenization of the Italic peoples, and the later conflation of Italic Diana with Hellenic Artemis, in the later 4th century BCE.

My ‘tour group’, as it were, was being given a private showing of the efforts of the archaeological site. We weren’t tourists, however. We were doing archaeological excavations of our own at a nearby site located at Genzano di Roma. The sanctuary at Nemi was just one of the many local efforts by the communities in the Alban Hills to more thoroughly explore and showcase their own considerable local history.

It really is ancient, and heady stuff. Especially when one stops to consider that Italy is a country where there is more history in an 18 kilometer stretch of road than there is in the whole of the United States of America. That’s not an exaggeration.

The site was, of course, ruinous. Like so many which had been evacuated. The temple, which Vitruvius had called archaic and “Etruscan” in his On Architecture, consisted of foundations, trenches, and half-broken colonnades which form the basic layout of the temple site. These are supported by remnants of temple walls or modern retaining walls, as well as reconstructions and minor restorations. There are also “newer” buildings on the site, which had been constructed at some point between the fall of Rome and the 19th century. However, even these “modern” buildings were unsafe and dilapidated. There were no “whole” structures, just a bare facsimile of such, with semi-permanent modern protective coverings, most especially where the points of the remaining walls met.

In the intervening years, I have forgotten the name of the woman who ran the site, but she lead us alongside our own project leader. We came to this very location:

Temple of Diana Nemorensis, by Diana, of "BrowsingRome.Com", October 12, 2012

Temple of Diana Nemorensis, by Diana of “BrowsingRome.Com”, October 12, 2012

We took position against the back wall, nearest to the corner, and the site’s coordinator explained the area to us, in what I assume is a slightly more fundamentally “archaeological” way than a normal tour group. After all, we had been literally in the trenches ourselves, so we were not simple tourists. But during her discussion she spoke about the age of the site, the use of it, and derisively made a remark that there were “still some… stupid people.. who come here to leave offerings”. A glance towards the broken pedestal next to her revealed it was covered in a scattered amount of junk, but it was clear to me.

The broken stone had flowers strewn about it, placed there by other visitors. Local wildflowers, the same type as those in the olive groves and overgrown pathways of the farm, with bright pedals that offset the bleached and weary stones. Money was scattered about the top of it, too. Euro coins, and bills, and older Italian currency. Small bits of jewelry and personal baubles completed the leavings.

It was an impromptu, makeshift shrine, in the heart of the ancient and ruined sanctuary for Diana Nemorensis. Someone, many someones, out there had felt compelled for whatever reason to leave trinkets and mementos and goods behind.

They had left offerings.

The event, and the coordinator’s attitude towards it, stuck with me. There were, quite obviously, people in this very modern world, visiting this very Catholic country, that felt compelled to offer the gods items of worth and value. Despite the intervening years, despite the colonization of other religious paradigms, and despite the social outrage of others, the act was there and performed. Whether it was simply because these people felt the need to do so in light of historic provenance or actual belief is ultimately unnecessary. Something made these people do this, some part of them.

The entire event stuck with me, but most especially the attitude of the guide towards the idea of a pagan restoration of Roman worship. There were, quite obviously, people in this very modern world who viewed the Gods as deserving of offering and worship.

This act has stayed with me, throughout the past few years. And I doubt I’ll ever really forget it. Obviously, in 2013, there were people in this very modern world, in a very Roman Catholic country, who viewed for whatever reason, the Gods as deserving of offering and worship. Whether it is simply because they felt the need to due so in light of historic provenance, or through actual belief is unnecessary to determine. The act is there, performed.

Do ut Des in action.  Barring that, simple offering in recognition of worth and honor.

No matter the derision of the coordinator, which can be seen as an outgrowth of the traditional Western notions of religion and false-piety, there were people who felt it was worth their time and energy to leave tokens of appreciation, or supplication, or other purposes. There are people who do this, there are people who are called to this, these “stupid people” who leave their religious identity that they have grown up with to seemingly “regress” to a more “primitive”, or more “superstitious”, or more “false” religion.

It might be romanticizing of me to say, but I’d like to believe that there’s some part of us, collectively, that still feels the urge to do this because we remember. Because we yearn for something more than what we have, to connect with something different, but familiar. That we’re always going to be left wanting more when we take stock of our dominating religious paradigms, and that the myriad spirits and divinities which form the fundamental basis to worship for animists and polytheists fill that void which has left many of us empty and yearning. We, Pagans and polytheists both, are joined – innately and subconsciously – by many more people from the West than we realize.

I have seen it argued that the natural “default” programming for humanity is animism and polytheism. I’d really like to think so.

I know it feels the most natural, to me.

I Call It “Musashi Contemplates Caravaggio”

•July 12, 2016 • 2 Comments

A man cannot understand the art he is studying if he only looks for the end result without taking the time to delve deeply into the reasoning of the study.”

– Attributed to Miyamoto Musashi

Wodgar Inguing messaged me with that quote earlier today, saying that they are “words to live by” in studying the myriad polytheisms, with the implication that many practitioners approach devotional worship with a need for practice, an instantaneous gratification without fundamentally grasping the worldview which enables polytheism to exist and proliferate. I agree with this. But I think I would like to take it a different way, in a different direction, and in light of my most recent post where I had a New Age “Medium” tell me that I was wrong as well as intimating to my readers that a god was not “as described” with fundamental surety.

Westerners tend to approach the concept of divinity as a fixed end point. One interpretation. One unity and one Truth. Only one potential outcome. There is very little appreciation for variance. I have seen many people approach polytheism similarly, some less new than others. They approach the Gods with very little allowance for the conception of the multiplicity of the divine. It is a leading cause of fights between Pagans and polytheists online, because their individual views clash with each other, as they’ve all been raised in a paradigm where One Truth is supposed to be paramount over all others.

This was the fundamental cause of the “Savage Gods” controversy from 2013, when some bloggers overwhelmingly reacted against the Hallmark-esque commodification of the divine – the watering down of the dangers in dealing with Divinity and the misinterpretations which have proliferated because of it. This is a fundamental cause of the distinct polytheist reaction against Pan-Paganism and the idea of a single Pagan unity culture, because Paganism had largely replicated various social mores that invariably positions a dominant Truth above all others. And this is a fundamental reason why New Agers like Miss Medium feel entitled to come into a blog to tell their authors that they are wrong about their own interpretations of divinity.

The quote is attributed to Musashi and claims that a person cannot understand the art they are studying if they do not understand the reasons behind it. This is true. Whether it is swordsmanship or more formalized “fine art”, understanding the steps and theory behind it is paramount to coalescing and presenting the whole.

But “Art” does not have an “end result”. Art is subjective interpretation in the creation of a piece, the formation of a school, and the dissemination of a practice. Art has a beginning, but will never have an ending, save for the inevitability of entropic end. Subjective interpretation of one’s art which might differ from another collection does not inherently make either inferior or superior.

A technique is something which can be objectively measured – the stroke of a brush and a blade both. The drafting of a map. The lighting of a photographic project. If a technique is altered too much it is no longer the original technique, and has become something else, a new expression of skill.

But the beauty of the whole – of the art itself – will always be in the eye of the beholder. It will always be subjective. And while we can argue our reasons for it, explore our perspectives, and compare what moves with with a particular piece, it is still ultimately something which affects us individually and in ways which can not at all be reproduced in someone else in any verifiable, quantitative way.

In a sense, polytheism is like art. It is interpretation and expression, and absolutely does not and cannot place emphasis on any single Unity. There is no end point for polytheism, or for the multiplicity of the divine. It branches and twists, turns and splinters into a hundred iterations, a thousand views and infinitely more interpretations, all underneath the conception of what it means to be a “God”, many of which exist alongside each other under a wider religious umbrella. That which is conceptualized as a single divinity is ultimately – sometimes intimately – multifarious, producing a range of attributes, qualities, and experiences which can felt differently between people of the same household, let alone what would have constituted the differences between two regional traditions.

Just as the same figure could be painted in two different schools, two different palettes of color, utilizing two different styles of art, but ultimately be the same thing, so too can the same God be approached in a hundred, hundred, different ways. The ancient polytheists knew this. Contemporary non-Western polytheists know this. Western polytheists have to relearn this, or else they’ll never fully understand that their Truth isn’t One, but Many.

Woden is Oðinn is Wodan but they are not. Imagine Woden was a Caravaggio painting, because I like Caravaggio. Numerous people approach the painting, with different backgrounds, in order to base a project off the piece. A fine arts major who actively practiced in the style, an art historian who has researched the history of the piece, an artist who works in mixed media, a graphic designer, what have you. Each individual will have a different presentation of the piece, may from a different school of thought and theory. But their interpretations and representations of the piece will all express the same overall concept of that work – the divinity of the god.

They are essentially the same, and they are fundamentally not.

To claim that they are “the same on all other accounts except for mythology”, or some such, absolutely misinterprets the vagaries which polytheist understanding of divinity can manifest. A divine being might consist of several identified, overarching features which form a core conceptualization of the extent which we are capable of fathoming. These qualities and attributes, which are essential to our understanding of the deities may remain static, but ultimately they all allow a great variance in expression.

Conversely, religious ritual is technique. It is an end point, a framework. It guides the practice, and consists of prescribed and proscribed actions which lays the groundwork for divine interaction. Religion is a series of steps which provides the individual, or group, the tools to properly and efficiently engage with divinity. It is a thing that, if one changes too much, one is no longer practicing the same religious ritual and expression, but is practicing something different, and something else. In this way religious ritual consists of an objective quality to its fundamental nature, which can be viewed externally as either “correct” or “incorrect”.

Religious ritual is the education or experience which we can draw upon to interpret the subjectivity of the artwork. Swinging back to Caravaggio: a child may like and be familiar with the colors which constitute the Caravaggio painting. A high school student enrolled in an Art 101 course might be able to identify that same work. But it takes someone with the background in the technique, with the familiarity of the history and the nature of the presentation to fully articulate and discern that work. And even with that discernment, no two people trained the same way will feel the same about that painting, despite its quintessential features remaining static.

Polytheism would take both those experiences and give them a weight of Truth in its system, where monotheism would put them at odds until one or the other is triumphant and the inevitable universal perspective. Those Truths may not be equal, but they may not necessarily be unequal, either. They simply are.

A singular, universal, truth is not the end result of polytheism, nor should it be the goal by any stretch of the imagination. It is the multiplicity of those truths, the interpretation which hives off and is realized through schism, through syncretization, through revelation and experience. And the fights and assumptions over the nature of divinity, by in large, are the results of Western polytheists remaining shackled to a system of theological thought which is antithetical to the nature of their own professed theism.

 
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